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´╗┐Title: Alcatraz of the Starways
Author: Hasse, Henry, dePina, Albert
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 "Alcatraz of the Starways" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                       ALCATRAZ OF THE STARWAYS

                   By ALBERT dePINA and HENRY HASSE

              Venus was a world enslaved. And then, like
               an avenging angel, fanning the flames of
               raging revolt, came a warrior-princess in
             whose mind lay dread knowledge--the knowledge
               of a weapon so terrible it had been used
               but once in the history of the universe.

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                       Planet Stories May 1943.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


"Purple!" Mark Denning almost sobbed. "A purple Josmian!" Forgetting
the sweat in his eyes and the insufferable heat about him, his
clutching hand held up the mud-dripping globe the size of a baseball,
iridescent in the Venusian night.

The phosphorescent glow that bathed the endless swamp in ghastly
green, struck myriad shimmering rainbows from the dark sphere.

"Two more of those and you're free, lower species!" It was an ironic
voice, with the resonant sweetness of a cello in its depths, that
issued from the haze nearby.

Frantically Mark reached down into the tepid mud, where he had felt the
swaying stems of Josmian lilies whip about his knees. Another globe met
his hand. He tugged and twisted until it tore from the stem, but when
he raised it to the surface, it was white.

Immediately it began to shrink. It would continue until it became the
size of a small marble, when it would either rot, as the majority did,
or begin to crystallize into a priceless Venusian pearl. But that
happened only with one in ten thousand. It was different with the
purple ones, they never failed to crystallize into a violet globe of
unearthly beauty and incalculable value. Less than a hundred of the
purple had ever been found. They were so rare that any prisoner who
harvested three, was granted freedom.

"Pretty!" the cello voice taunted, behind Mark. "In a few hours it will
be rotting and stinking to high heaven!"

"Cut it, Aladdo!" Mark growled. He tossed the white Josmian into
the basket he pushed before him across the mud; the purple one he
placed carefully in his trouser pocket. He pushed on, searching the
pungent-smelling mud that came up to his thighs.

Suddenly the warm ooze rose to his waist and crept inexorably higher.
For an instant, Mark clawed at the mud. It was surging up to his
armpits now, as he floundered in the tenacious sink hole. He shook his
head to get the sweat out of his eyes and the numbness from his brain.
He stopped thrashing about, for he knew that was futile. He threw back
his head and gave a shout in which was more than a note of sheer terror.

[Illustration: _Mark clawed at the mud surging up to his armpits._]

At least a dozen men were moving near him, waist deep in the Venusian
mud. At his cry, they stopped and stared at him dully, fatalistically.
They could easily have formed a chain and pulled him out, but none
moved. They'd seen too many repetitions of this tragedy to care
anymore. It happened every day; a new man, a little careless, caught in
one of the deadly sink holes ... it happened even to the veterans of
this Venusian prison camp, sometimes deliberately, as they became weary
of a hopeless existence.

The mud was almost to Mark's chin now; only his forearms and his blond
head were visible. Hatred came into his eyes as he glared at the men
about him, most of them Earthmen like himself, who would not help him.
Again he struggled, tried to hoist himself upward.

"Don't struggle, you fool!" came the resonant voice from behind him.
"Be still; every movement helps to sink you!" Then, in an undertone,
"No human was ever able to think clearly, anyway."

Mark smiled despite his predicament, then he urged: "Hurry
Aladdo--hurry!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Over the expanse of hellish, green-lit muck, a tiny figure inched
toward Mark. Scarcely five feet in height, Aladdo's arms and legs were
now outspread, to distribute his weight over as much area as possible.
The rescuing figure was like an imp from hades, clad as it was in a
tight-fitting garment of metallic blue, which even the clinging mud
failed to dull; while membraneous wings of a lighter hue began at its
wrists, joined to the entire under-arm and the sides of its body all
the way to its feet, much as the wings of a bat.

Swiftly it crawled and wriggled toward the Earthman, and without a word
grasped him with both tiny hands by the arms. It braced itself on its
wings, and heaved. A few inches of Mark Denning emerged from the mud
with a sucking sound. Again Aladdo made a prodigious effort, and again
the Earthman came up from the mud a few more inches.

The winged figure held him there, while it gasped for breath. "Now,
spread your arms on the mud and stiffen your neck, sub-species!" The
winged one laughed.

Swiftly it cupped its seemingly fragile hands under Mark's chin, and
slowly but surely began to pull him back and out. Most of an hour went
by before the Earthman's superb torso had emerged and was able to help
the rescuer. At last he was out of the sink hole, panting, almost
exhausted and half nude.

He still found strength to feel at his trouser pocket, and was
gratified to find his purple Josmian still there. It was now about half
its original size, and soon would cease its shrinkage and begin to
crystallize.

Mark gazed into the oval face, panting next to his. The heavily fringed
eyes were closed as it breathed in labored gasps, and the slender,
fragile form shook now and then with nervous spasms. Mark never ceased
to wonder at the beauty of the Venusians, nor at their absolute and
maddening conviction that theirs was the only true intelligence in
the Universe. Now to these qualities Mark added that of indomitable
courage, as he gazed at Aladdo and marvelled.

"Well, Aladdo, thanks seems sort of a stupid word in a case like this;
I owe you my life. I don't know how I'll ever repay the debt...."
Mark's eyes roved over the weird scene, taking in the soulless,
hopeless hulks that had once been men. And it suddenly occurred to him
that he'd had enough of this hellish corner of Venus; he had been here
two months and already he was unable to think clearly, he was becoming
identified with the living death of the Venusian Prison Swamp. His
mission apparently had failed. What he had come to learn, remained a
secret, and he was slowly becoming like these shells of men who prowled
the ocean of mud, eventually to disappear beneath it.

"No need to thank me, middle order, I would have missed our discussions
had you gone." The Venusian grinned impishly.

"What? I've been promoted! You must be ill, to call me anything above
a 'lower order' or a 'sub-species'!" Mark smiled too, but seriously
wondered what crime had condemned Aladdo to a prison reserved only for
the most hardened and hopeless criminals, or for political prisoners
whose existence was a threat to the Tri-Planetary League.

"At times, you're almost intelligent," the Venusian replied placidly.
"Any one of these other men would have struggled had they been in your
place, and I would have been helpless."

"Why didn't you use _your_ brain," Mark couldn't resist prodding the
other, "and by flying above me, get to me quicker, instead of crawling
all that distance?"

The winged figure laughed mirthlessly, and for an answer held up its
arms. The azure membranes that were its wings, hung in limp folds.

"Useless, you see," he said quietly. "The tendons have been cut.
Otherwise I could fly up and out of this swamp, despite its five
hundred mile width."

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark could find no words to say. Since being assigned at his own
request to this last grim haven of the damned, by the Tri-Planetary
Prison Bureau, on a special mission, there had been moments when the
horror of it all had made him doubt the wisdom of maintaining such a
ghastly place. He knew, of course, the tremendous deterrent influence
its existence exerted, besides the important revenue derived from
Venusian pearls; still it all seemed too inhuman.

"You don't seem criminal, Earthman!" the cello-like voice introduced on
Mark's thoughts. "I fail to catch the typical vibrations of the killers
and ravagers. Your crime ... was it political?"

"Why, yes!" Mark assented hurriedly. It wouldn't do for this Venusian
to suspect he was an operative. "To put it briefly, I am classified as
too individualistic for the new order of 'controlled endeavor'. Also
typed as irreconcilable--and you know what _that_ means!"

"Perfectly!" The enigmatic smile hovering on the Venusian's lips faded
slowly. "I, too, am a 'political'. My father was Bedrim, the Liberator.
All we of Venus asked was real independence instead of the mock freedom
your Earth grants us; in reality we are a vassal state with no voice
but Earth's."

"Bedrim!" Mark exclaimed, aghast. For more than a decade that name had
made history, engulfing three planets in a suicidal struggle that had
ended in a stalemate. Bedrim was dead now, Mark knew; but in Venus and
even on Mars, the name was a glorious legend. It was only with the
greatest effort and vigilance that Earth was able to enforce the peace.

"So _this_ is what became of you!" Mark said slowly, softly. "The three
worlds do not know, they still wonder--" Then he caught himself and bit
his lip.

"Yes," Aladdo murmured bitterly. "The worlds do not know. I was to be
given amnesty, I was so young; but your inner Council decided that as
long as I lived I would be a rallying point for irreconcilables of
Venus, and so I was hunted from planet to planet until ... well, here
I am on my own world, but as far away from my people as if I were on
Betelgeuse. Here I do not live."

"But surely there must be some way of convincing the Council that
you're harmless! And if that fails, well ... of getting you out of
here!"

"Out of Paradim?" Aladdo's smile had all the despairing bitterness of
a soul damned for all eternity; all the tears and the anguish and the
wracking sorrow of the condemned since the world began seemed to be
frozen for an instant in that smile. "Look about you, Earthman!"

It was true. Mark had to acknowledge the psychological genius who
had devised the Venusian Prison System. For five hundred miles the
swamp Paradim extended in either direction, impassable, pitted with
sink holes into which a man would disappear without trace. And beyond
were the impenetrable jungles, alive with lurking carnivora, lurking
monsters of the night, red in tooth and claw. Only on the opposite
hemisphere were the two larger and hospital continents of Venus.

Here, on this tiny continent, the prison ship came once a month, to
hover over the tiny islet in the middle of the swamp, the only spot of
firm ground for untold miles. Here it dropped supplies and food, and
occasionally picked up the little heaps of fabulous Venusian pearls.
There were no guards and none were needed, for at night when the
awful humidity increased, the men worked or died. With night came the
dreaded fog, lurid in the ghostly illumination of the _igniis fatui_,
the phosphorescent radiance of this vast graveyard. And the idle died.
Decomposition of the blood set in; essential salts within their bodies
were dissolved, cellular activity ceased, and their bodies bloated.
Not many, however, were idle.

Escape? For years it had been thought a virtual impossibility. The very
thought would have brought smiles to the grim faces of that august
body, the Tri-Planetary Bureau of Prisons. And yet--a notorious killer
who had been sent to this swamp only a year ago, had recently been
found dead--out in space!

       *       *       *       *       *

A patrol ship had found the body floating a few thousand miles off
Callisto, an atom-blast hole drilled neatly through the forehead. There
was not the slightest doubt that this was the same man. How had this
criminal been able to escape the swamp and travel to Callisto, millions
of miles away? It was a mystery and above all, a challenge. Apparently
the Venus Prison had ceased to be impregnable. And that was why Mark
Denning, the Prison Bureau's leading investigator, was here.

"Guard your pearl, middle species," Aladdo's voice was ironic once
more. "Escape, and with it you may buy a pardon!" Without a backward
glance, the Venusian moved on with nightmare slowness through the
swirling mists, pushing his basket into which the Josmian globes were
loaded.

Escape, Mark thought, following the Venusian. He did not need to
escape, he could signal the prison ship to pick him up the next time
it arrived. He wondered if he should. He had been here two months, and
they were an eternity that dwarfed any concept of hell. But he hadn't
any clue to the mystery of the escaping convicts, and he could hardly
return with a confession of failure.

He looked ahead through the mists, at the slender body of Aladdo in its
tight-fitting sheath of metallic blue. "I _would_ miss Aladdo," Mark
whispered to himself; "and if he can stand it here, I should be able
to!"

"What are you mumbling about to yourself?" Aladdo's mocking voice
came back to him. "That lowers you from the middle species to the sub
species again." He held up a Josmian globe against the greenish swamp
glow. "White," he said contemptuously and threw it into the basket.

Pushing through the muck with his tremendous strength, Mark cut the
distance that separated them. "You may have my purple one, Aladdo. I
will not need it, and perhaps you ... with it you might...."

"If I were to gather a hundred purple ones, I could not buy my
release." The Venusian was staring at Mark peculiarly, as if wondering
why he should have made that offer. "Do you suppose, Earthman, any of
the other men saw you find it? They would kill you for it--cheerfully."

"No, I think not; no one saw me bring it up but you."

"Then guard it." Aladdo eyed Mark's powerful frame critically. "Guard
it with your life, for you may have to fight for it soon."

"Telepathy! You've caught someone's thought vibrations?" Mark asked in
a whisper. He well knew that telepathy, although not commonly used, was
an established fact among the Venusians.

But Aladdo's long lashes rested against pallid cheeks, veiling eyes
that were abrim with something Mark could not understand. "No," the
winged one said at last, "it wasn't a thought vibration--not that
clear--perhaps a vibration of evil! Be alert, Earthman. I can say no
more."

"All right, thanks, Aladdo." But inwardly Mark cursed the inherent
Venusian mania for ultra-reserve, for making a mystery of even the most
commonplace affairs. "Let's head for the island, it's almost dawn."

Above, the cloud-cap was prismatic with color as the sun tried feebly
to penetrate the grayness and then gave up the attempt, as if it had
tried many times before and failed. Slowly the vast swamp's contours
came into view, with their small island a faint green line against the
horizon's rim. And as the grayish dawn light increased, suffusing the
grim morass, Mark and Aladdo made their slow way toward it.


                                  II

"Up you go!" Mark's long muscles corded as he heaved and Aladdo's body
left the mud with a sucking sound, to sprawl on the solid ground of the
island. Presently the Earthman joined him, and for a few seconds they
rested silently.

All around them the vegetation surged, lush and matted, inextricably
tangled with parasitic vines. Whereas the expanse of swamp was bare
of the myriad growths of Venus, for some unknown chemical reason,
the island itself was riotous with them. It was as if every inch of
_terra firma_ were precious. The humid air was hot and stagnant, heavy
with the overpowering fragrance of flowers. Even after two months of
conditioning, Mark had difficulty in breathing, as the odors of this
alien world increased as the temperature rose.

"Arrgh, what a world!" Mark said disgustedly, as he rose to his feet.
"I'm going to bathe, before the gang arrives. You'd better come too."
Together they went up the vine-entangled path toward the barracks, and,
rounding a corner of the building, followed another path to where a
small spring gushed from an elevation; it fell in a sparkling shower
and then meandered a few feet to lose itself in the swamp.

Aladdo, as usual, merely let the water flow over the metallic suit
that sheathed the slender body. By the time they had finished bathing,
the rest of the convicts began to emerge from radiating paths, to dump
their swamp pearls onto the growing heap by the side of their barracks.
Some of the men threw themselves on the ground, exhausted in minds
and bodies, and were almost instantly asleep. A few sat against the
barracks wall and chewed the deadly _tsith_ stems, their eyes vacant,
their faces gray. _Tsith_ was awful stuff, even if it did banish pain.
Mark knew that these men wouldn't last long, but he wondered if perhaps
they weren't the wiser ones after all!

Returning from his bath to the barracks, Mark found that Aladdo had
disappeared. He entered, and donned a thin rubberoid garment from
among his meager store of personal belongings. It resembled one of
the ancient woolen suits that Earthmen had used against the cold many
centuries before; but there was a great difference. Mark's garment was
impervious to cold or heat, highly flexible, yet the interlining of
allurium mesh could intercept anything short of a ray blast.

When Mark emerged, he found Aladdo talking in very low tones, with a
tall, Martian-Venusian half-breed. This man was fantastic. He had the
slenderness of the Venusians, and the finely chiseled features, but his
eyes were Martian--deep purple and immense, far too large for the face.
The breadth of shoulder and barrel chest was Martian too, ludicrous in
comparison with the wasp waist and slender thighs.

Mark had seen this half-breed about the swamp before, and wondered who
he was. Now Aladdo, glancing up, called to him. Mark walked over to
them.

"This is Luhor, Earthman," the Venusian crossed both hands at the
wrists in the immemorial Venusian gesture indicating that a friend was
being introduced. "Luhor, the Earthman's name is Mark. He is the one I
told you about. Note the muscular power of the body, the intelligence
of the face, no less than middle-order. I think you shall find him most
useful."

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark felt as if he were on the auction block, as Aladdo calmly pointed
out his physical attributes. He was mystified. At the back of his mind
a vague memory strove to emerge; it was barely a sense of having seen
this man Luhor before, moving among the torpid convicts and whispering
to them briefly. Perhaps it had been an allusion of the swamp's night
glow, and yet, the feeling persisted. Mark extended his hand to the
Martian-Venusian, who eyed him silently, expressionless, without
grasping the proffered hand. Around them, the atmosphere was electric.

At last Luhor spoke. "Only fifteen can go. They have been picked out!"
His was a rumbling voice, emotionless--cold.

"Eliminate one then," Aladdo said imperiously.

"How? They'll fight like Ocelandians; they already know they've been
picked, O Aladdian!"

Then Mark Denning understood. Escape was being planned. Aladdo was one
of those to go, and was trying to induce Luhor to include him! Mark's
heart was pounding, he knew that it was now or never; he must be among
those who escaped. He would never again be so close to the solution of
the mysteries he had been sent here to solve.

"I'm new here," Mark spoke hurriedly. "Look at my arms, my chest.
I have tremendous strength and endurance. My vitality has not been
sapped by the swamp as yet. Take me also, Luhor, I'll repay you beyond
anything you can dream of!"

The half-breed's mouth twisted slowly into a cold sneer as he gazed
at the Earthman, then he shrugged his shoulders. It might have meant
anything, but Mark thought it meant denial. In silence Luhor bowed to
Aladdo and strode off toward a group of several men. It was odd, Mark
thought--a half-breed convict showing such a mark of respect to another
convict. But perhaps it was because Luhor was half Venusian, and Bedrim
had been Aladdo's father. Mark turned questioningly to Aladdo.

He was amazed to see sudden alarm leap into the Venusian's eyes,
together with a warning cry.

Mark stepped lithely aside, but not in time to avoid a terrific blow
between his shoulder-blades that left a burning point of fire in his
flesh. He half fell to his knees, but whirled around to confront a
bestial face, maddened now by blood-lust. In the attacker's hand was
the haft and a piece of broken blade from what had evidently been a
smuggled knife. It was useless now, shattered against the allurium mesh
interlining of Mark's suit.

With a cry of baffled rage the attacking Earthman hurled the broken
weapon into Mark's face, and launched himself close behind it. Mark
rolled slightly aside, then gained his feet and whirled to face his
attacker. Mark was icy calm now. He awaited the convict's next rush,
then sent a straight left unerringly to the man's head, driving him
off-balance. Mark kept facing him, balanced lightly on his toes as the
man came boring back in tenaciously. Mark's right arm was a peg upon
which he hung the convict's blow, while he used the boxer's left, long
and weaving, throwing it swiftly three times like a cat sparring with a
mouse.

The killer rushed, aggressive and eager. Mark let his heels touch the
ground this time, refused to give way. He took a murderous hook to the
stomach without flinching, countered with a quick left to the face and
then a vicious right-cross. The convict's face seemed to lose contour,
its features blurred as the face went gory; his feet crossed and his
knees went suddenly rubbery, he fell with a crash and didn't get up.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark towered above him, breathing heavily, only now aware of the little
group of interested men who had watched.

"You fight like a Venusian Ocelandian--as ruthless, and as methodical."
It was Luhor who stepped forward and spoke; he was grinning twistedly
as he surveyed Mark's handiwork.

"Now I wonder why he wanted to eliminate me?" Mark gestured puzzledly.

For an answer Aladdo, standing close by him, tapped the spot where
in a hidden, inner pocket reposed the purple pearl. The gesture went
unnoticed by Luhor, but Mark suddenly understood.

"What do you care?" Luhor waved a hand as if dismissing the fallen foe.
"He was one of the chosen. You may take his place, Earthman, since
you have so neatly disabled him." His large weird eyes took in Mark's
physique with a new interest.

To Aladdo he said, "You have your wish." Again there was that odd note
of deference in his voice. He bowed slightly and turned away again to
the gathered little group of men.

"When do we start?" Mark whispered eagerly to Aladdo.

But the Venusian's eyes were preternaturally bright. A frail hand was
held up for silence. Mark stood tense, listening. The brightness of
Aladdo's eyes seemed to increase.

And then Mark heard it. They all heard it. It was unbelievable.

The low, powerful hum of a repulsion beam rent the stillness. It was
faint and far away at first, but became steadily louder. This, Mark
knew, was not the hornet's hum of the tiny craft the Prison Bureau sent
with supplies; this was the unmistakable vibration of a Spacer hovering
above them!

Soon the immense bulk of the spaceship dropped slowly from the cloud
banks above, like a silvery ghost descending. It hovered fifty feet
above the islet, the powerful repulsion beam humming its deafening
drone. An under-hull lock opened. A long flexible ladder rushed
uncoiling through the murky atmosphere until it struck the ground a
dozen paces from the barracks.

"Back!" Luhor's voice crackled like an icy javelin as an avalanche of
humanity scrambled toward the ladder, clawing, tearing and screaming.
In his hand he held an atom-blast capable of annihilating that entire
snarling group. They saw it and halted uncertainly. Luhor strode calmly
toward the ladder and again shouted, "Back, you vermin!" He brought
the weapon up as if to fire, and the tattered dregs who had been human
beings still prized life enough to retreat sullenly.

In a cold voice Luhor called names from a list in his hand. His huge
purple orbs inspected each man to step forward, then he waved them
toward the ladder. Aladdo was first, and Mark's heart leaped as the
Venusian scrambled up the weaving ladder, grasping the metal rungs with
fragile hands. One by one, fifteen convicts were called. Mark was among
the last, and he heard Luhor ordering the remaining convicts into the
swamp. Two disobeyed and leaped forward desperately. Luhor's atom-blast
spat, one man dropped in his tracks and the other went scrambling back.
Cries, imprecations, curses and pleadings dwindled as the men retreated
to the mud.

It was then that Luhor himself began to ascend the rungs, as the ladder
was slowly pulled up. A rush of maddened convicts clawed at empty
air as the stairway to freedom rose above their heads. Luhor laughed
mockingly down at them. Mark, just above, suddenly hated Luhor for that.

       *       *       *       *       *

Inside the Spacer, with the air-lock closed, Luhor turned to the
waiting men. His rumbling voice rose commandingly. "Anyone with
weapons, whatever they are, throw them on the floor before you; if
you refuse, or we have to search you and find them, you'll be dropped
through the air-lock into the swamp. Choose!"

The absolute cold finality of his tone left no doubt. A veritable
arsenal of sharpened rocks, crude metal knives, and bent wires coated
with deadly poison from Venusian plants, showered down.

"All through?" The half-breed's purple eyes ranged down the line
of men, as if he could see into their minds. There was a moment of
silence, then one of the men hesitantly dropped an outmoded heat-gun,
old-fashioned but deadly. Luhor's eyebrows went up, and he smiled
thinly. "All right," he told a member of the crew, "gather up this junk
and toss it out. You new men follow me. First you'll sluice off the mud
and put on some decent clothes. Afterwards you'll see the _Commander_;
and," he added, "the _Commander_ will see you!" A fleeting smile
hovered on his lips as if he had a little joke all his own.

Mark was amazed at the spaciousness of the ship, and at the luxury of
its appointments. It was apparent at once that this was no ordinary
Spacer, for it was a fighting craft as well--a long, slim torpedo of
death modern beyond anything he'd ever seen. He only obtained a glimpse
of a few of the craft's weapons, but they looked formidable enough to
tackle anything the Tri-Planetary ships could muster. He tried not to
appear too curious, however; he knew that just now his best bet was to
look dazed and docile.

He glanced around for Aladdo, but the little Venusian had disappeared.
Mark wasn't too surprised. He was satisfied to know that Aladdo was on
the ship, and that eventually he would appear.

The men scrubbed themselves with soap under needles of warm water, and
achieved cleanliness for the first time in many months. Dressed in
clean trousers and tunics, they were ready at last to go before the
Commander. The men moved restlessly and whispered among themselves.
None knew where they were going, or why. They only knew that a miracle
had happened and they had been delivered from the great swamp. It
didn't occur to any of them as yet that there could be a situation even
remotely as bad as their living death in the swamp.

One by one, they were called, as they waited in the ship's comfortable
leisure-room. At its far end was an automatic beryllium door, and as
each man's name was called through an amplifier, the door would open
to permit a man to go through. Already nine men had passed through, and
none had emerged.

Mark could hardly restrain his impatience. Behind that door was the
solution of a great mystery--a mystery which had grown in importance
beyond anything the Prison Bureau officials had dreamed of, Mark
realized, considering the perilous super-efficiency of this spaceship,
now speeding away from Venus!

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark's name was called last, and he tried to achieve a careless
nonchalance as he walked toward the door that opened silently for
him. He would not have been too surprised to find that Aladdo was the
Commander of this ship; that thought had occurred to him. As he entered
the huge compartment, however, he had only a confused impression of
brilliant lighting and indiscriminate luxury. Magnificent, ceiling-high
tapestries covered the metal walls; beneath his feet, the resilient
pile of an imperial Martian rug was a splash of varicolored splendour.
Ornaments from three planets were everywhere, some of them museum
pieces, like the desk of extinct Martian _Majagua_ wood, inlaid with
miniature mosaics of semi-precious stones.

"Loot from the spacelanes!" Mark exclaimed inwardly. And then he was
beyond all amazement as his gaze went across the bright room, and he
saw the two people present.

One was Luhor, dressed resplendently now, the shadow of a smile
upturning the corners of his mouth. He was standing. Seated at a desk
beside him was a girl. She was clad in a close-fitting uniform of a
white, gleaming material like watered silk.

Mark slowly let out his breath, and then he crossed the room. He
wondered if she were really that beautiful, or if it was just the
garish lights and surroundings.

She spoke first. "If you must be amazed, please do it quickly. I am
weary of these interviews."

Mark looked at her eyes that were blue but unsmiling, and lips that
smiled thinly but didn't mean it. Her slightly turned-up nose would
have been amusing ordinarily but wasn't now. Coppery brown hair was
brushed smoothly back from her forehead, to fall in waves to her
shoulders. Mark wished she would smile with her eyes as well as her
lips.

His own smile faded, he took a deep breath and said, "I am sufficiently
amazed."

"Good. Then we can proceed. Luhor, is this the last one?"

"Yes. He's the one I was telling you about."

She turned her cold blue eyes upon Mark again. Her voice was
emotionless, almost a monotone. "Luhor tells me you were exceedingly
anxious to leave the Venus swamp. Why?"

"Why!" Mark repeated in amazement. "Why does any man want to leave
there? It's a living death--and I was slowly going crazy."

"You had only been there a few months?"

"That's right."

"Why were you sent there?"

Mark hesitated for a split second, and decided he had better stick to
the same story he'd told Aladdo. "I'm a 'political'," he said.

She nodded, as though satisfied. "I have never been actually in the
swamp. I understand that you worked hard there?"

"Yes, very hard. We had to, to stay alive."

"You will work very hard for me--for the same reason. Perhaps you will
wish you had stayed in the swamp. What can you do?"

Mark brightened. "Around a spaceship? I can handle rocket-tubes, or
controls. Also probably any weapon you care to mention. Calculations
and differential equations are pretty easy. I could almost quote you
the entire _Advanced Principles of Space Navigation_...." With a rush
of nostalgia Mark was remembering all the mechanics and mathematics
of his four years in Government Spacer School. He went on with cool
confidence, "I could take one of your atomomotors apart, jumble the
pieces and put it together again. I'm really a mechanic rather than a
spaceman. Spacery's only a hobby of mine...."

She swung her eyes over to the half-breed. Luhor nodded, grinning with
huge amusement. She said to Mark:

"You will work at the mines, where you are going. You can make _that_ a
hobby of yours. I do not like men with me in space who know more about
a ship than I do."

Mark slowly seethed, but said nothing. She waved a slim hand in
dismissal. Luhor, still grinning, showed Mark the door by which to go
out.


                                  III

Mark awakened suddenly, aware that someone was shaking him. Intense
light almost blinded him as he opened his eyes, and he shut them
hurriedly. He lay for a few seconds enjoying the luxury of the berth
on which he had slept. It had been long since he'd felt the yielding
comfort of a coil-pad beneath his body, or cool Lynon sheets against
his flesh.

"Rouse yourself, sluggard!" The voice was mocking, familiar, rich with
golden overtones. "Get that deficient brain of yours to working, lower
order!"

"Aladdo! You Venusian demon--where have you been?" In his delight
Mark grabbed Aladdo's slender hands and almost crushed them. "I was
beginning to think I'd have to tear this ship apart to find you!"

"My hands!" Aladdo exclaimed in alarm and withdrew them. But there
was shining joy in his smile. Perched on the edge of the berth, the
tiny Venusian regarded the giant Earthman with laughing eyes, bluer
even than the azure wings that hung like a cloak. But it was a subtly
different Aladdo; glowing and clean until the exquisitely chiseled
face was like alabaster, the curling close-cropped hair blue-black and
gleaming.

Dressed in a soft gray tunic and tight white trousers, the wings were
vivid in contrast, almost iridescent. The tiny feet were encased in
bootlets of red Ocelandian fur, and a belt of platinum links circled
the narrow waist, holding a holster with a small short-range atom-blast.

Surprised, Mark flicked a forefinger at the weapon and looked
inquiringly at Aladdo. "They let you have this?"

"Yes," the Venusian nodded. "Remember, Bedrim was my father; I can
be most useful to them. Although my father's dead, there are still
followers on three planets, ready at a moment's notice to rally behind
a leader. I could be that leader--or at least appear to be. I am a
guest of honor on this cruiser--a prisoner, of course," Aladdo smiled
ironically, "but shown every courtesy. I even have my own private
quarters instead of sleeping here with the crew."

"But what is it all about, Aladdo?" Mark was exasperated as the
mystery grew. "What's the purpose behind all this? Ruthless criminals
salvaged from a Venusian Prison swamp, and now this super-cruiser built
to withstand anything! And who is that girl? I--" But the Venusian
interrupted him.

"No time now. You'll learn everything presently. Dress quickly and come
with me."

"I'm dressed," Mark answered, springing up. He zipped on light,
insulated shoes and followed Aladdo to the main cabin. The rest of
the men were already there, clustered about the starboard ports in an
excited group. The light in this room was blazing. Mark could feel the
gentle vibration of the atomomotors somewhere deep in the spaceship,
and again the question overwhelmed him: where were they going?

       *       *       *       *       *

He was soon to learn. Recklessly he gazed out into space. Instantly he
pivoted away, as if a gigantic hand had spun him. He had looked almost
directly into the sun!

It was a sun vast beyond imagining, tongues of flame flickering slowly
out for thousands of miles. He knew it was only the thickness of the
Crystyte ports that saved the men's eyes. Slowly Mark's eyes became
accustomed to the fierce glare and by shading them obliquely he could
discern the object of the men's excitement--a dark little speck of a
planet sweeping in its orbit just beyond the sun's rim. It rapidly grew
larger as the spaceship moved inward on a long tangent.

"Mercury!" Mark exclaimed, staring.

"No, we crossed the orbit of Mercury two hours ago." It was Aladdo who
spoke beside him.

"Then, that must be ... but it's impossible!" Mark laughed a little
wildly. "How long since we left Venus?"

"Ten hours, Earthman. It is possible. That is the planet Vulcan."

"Unbelievable," Mark almost whispered. "Why, it takes the fastest
Patrol cruiser forty-eight hours to reach Mercury's orbit from Venus.
Lord! What sort of speed has this Spacer?"

But Aladdo didn't answer. A door had opened and Luhor stepped in.

"Vulcan," he said tonelessly. "As we approach, even the thickness of
these ports won't be enough. Put on these."

He handed the men pairs of Crystyte goggles, the lenses specially
processed.

"Does this mean we're actually going to attempt a landing on Vulcan?"
Mark asked the half-breed. "It's madness! It has never been done!"

"But it has been done." Luhor gazed at Mark frigidly. "You merely have
never heard of it."

"Who's at the controls?" Mark struggled to subdue the excitement in his
voice.

"Why, the Commander, naturally--assisted by myself." Luhor's vast chest
arched with pride. "Observe closely, Earthman, and you will be treated
to as masterly a feat of navigation as you're likely ever to see
again!" His purple orbs roved over the men, clean-dressed, and rested,
the haunted look beginning to fade from their eyes. He nodded approval,
as he turned and left.

"A base at Vulcan!" Mark was repeating inwardly. And a cold fear at
this growing mystery grew apace within him.

It was not only a masterly feat of navigation--it was incredible as the
hurtling spaceship continued along its tangent, until Vulcan, slightly
smaller than Mercury, came swinging around to bisect their trajectory.

Very neatly, their speed was manipulated to allow the planet to come
between them and the sun; then the great Spacer began to pursue a
direct course. Mark noticed that Vulcan kept one side eternally
sunwards. Swiftly the spaceship approached the dark, outward side.
Actually it was not "dark" but it could be called so in comparison with
the molten sunward side.

Mark realized the almost insurmountable difficulty of keeping the
Spacer on a trajectory, with the sun's tremendous gravitational pull so
dangerously near; the slightest deviation now would send them hurtling
past Vulcan and into that naming hecotomb. He knew, as well, that there
could be no atmosphere on Vulcan to help them brake.

       *       *       *       *       *

But even as these thoughts were racing through his mind, Vulcan came
rushing up at them with the fury of a miniature hell running rampant.
Its surface was lividly aglow, with the flaming curve of the sun as a
backdrop blotting out the horizon. Suddenly they were leveling over its
surface, at a speed that to Mark spelled disaster. He saw the fore-jets
flaming over a wide terrain of what might have been lava or pumice, but
that didn't seem to check their reckless speed at all. Directly ahead
black mountain ranges sheered upward as if to disembowel the ship on
jagged summits. Mark merely closed his eyes, awaiting the crash that
seemed inevitable. No ship he knew could ever brake in time at that
suicidal speed.

A terrific force jarred him to the floor. A profound nausea made him
retch. Then Luhor was touching his shoulder, and Mark opened his eyes.

"All out, we're home!" the half-breed grinned. "You're lucky that the
synchronized magnetic fields minimize deceleration, Earthman." Doors
were opening, voices were drifting into the ship. The vibration of the
atomomotors had ceased.

White-faced and shaken, the men debarked into a wide corridor hewn out
of solid rock, into which the ship had berthed. Glancing back, Mark saw
metal doors of titanic proportions now hermetically closed; ahead were
similar doors. Then he heard the deep, far-away throbbing of generators
and he knew that he was in an air-lock built on a gigantic scale. A few
seconds later the inner doors slid open.

As they walked forward Luhor turned to Mark with a proud smile. "You
won't find _that_ type of navigation in the 'Advanced Principles,' eh,
Earthman?"

"No, indeed not," Mark admitted. "But I still don't understand that
braking process!"

Luhor pointed to colossal sets of coils, in niches along each side of
the vast corridor. "Synchronized magnetic degravitation fields; they
arrest mass and speed synchronously, finally stopping the spacer in a
graduating net of force. Similar coils to these exist for a mile along
the gorge back there, through which we came. Even so it is a very
delicate and precise process."

They stepped into a grotto so vast as to dwarf anything Mark had ever
imagined. It extended for miles, sheltering an entire little city! Mark
saw rows of stone dwellings, stream-lined, ultra-modern. From larger
buildings came the sounds of blast furnaces and an occasional flash of
ruddy glow. Groups of workmen hurried past, glanced curiously at the
new arrivals but didn't stop to fraternize. And then Mark saw Carston.

Ernest Carston! One of the very highest men among the Tri-Planetary
Prison Bureau officials! The surprise stopped Mark Denning in his
tracks, but fortunately, thanks to his training, he managed to keep his
face impassive as they recognized each other simultaneously. Carston
flashed him a quick look that seemed to say, "Later!"

Then the newcomers were marching in silence to a spacious building,
where they were assigned rooms. The furnishings were simple, but
comfortable, and Luhor led them to the rear of the building where the
dining-room was located.

They ate with the famished eagerness of men who had long subsisted on
compressed synthetic rations. Then they were issued cigarettes. To the
men who had been doomed on Venus only a few hours previously, it was
like awakening in heaven from a nightmare in hell.

Through Mark's mind ran an ancient saying: "Eat, drink and be merry,
for tomorrow...."


                                  IV

Standing in the doorway, the girl of the unsmiling blue eyes surveyed
the new men silently. Her trim, aloof figure instantly commanded their
attention, and their respect as well.

"I cannot waste words on you," she said abruptly, "for my time is
limited. I know all of your names, so you shall know mine as well,
although it will mean nothing to you. I am Cynthia Marnik, but you will
address me always as Commander. You will obey me implicitly in all
things here. Second to me, you will obey Luhor.

"All of you volunteered to come. Now that you're here, you are part of
our scheme of things and you will work as hard as you did in the swamp.
It is dangerous work, but you will have ample remuneration. Idlers
and grumblers will be done away with, I promise you. Your lives were
forfeit in the swamp, and that is not altered by your being on Vulcan."
She paused as if waiting for objections, but every man was silent.

"Very well; Luhor will explain later what you're here for. Meanwhile
you are free to go anywhere you like within the city, but be ready to
work about eight earth-hours from now." As abruptly as she had come,
Commander Cynthia Marnik turned and was gone.

The men smoked and talked among themselves, speculating what their
tasks might be. The memory of the Prison Swamp was too recent for them
to care much.

Mark rose quietly and stepped out of the dining-room. He'd noticed that
Aladdo was absent from the meal, and he wondered if his Venusian friend
was still an 'honored guest.' Deciding to inspect the city, Mark tried
to retrace his steps to those buildings where he had heard the blast
furnaces; but at the first cross-corridor Ernest Carston stepped out
and walked beside him. He smiled at Mark Denning, but held a warning
finger to his lips.

They walked in silence, while the corridors became rockier and more
dimly lighted. At last, far away from the city, Carston stopped under
an immense jutting rock and quietly gripped Mark's hand. There was a
world of feeling in his voice as he said barely whispering:

"I'd lost hope of ever seeing any of you again!"

"How did you get here?" Mark asked the question that had been burning
in his mind. "Did they pick you up at the swamp, too?"

"Yes. We're both on the same trail--and here the trail ends."

"But I had no idea you'd preceded me," Mark told him. "It must have
been considered a far more important assignment than I was told, to
send _you_ to the Swamp!"

"We didn't know, we weren't certain," Carston said thoughtfully. "But
we received a bit of information which, if true, was of the greatest
importance. It seemed impossible, fantastic, but the hazard was so
great, that even what amounted to a vague rumor warranted my going. You
were to follow in a few months, without knowing I had gone ahead. Well,
you already know most of the rest; but Earth's government doesn't even
suspect the deadly peril it will soon have to face!"

"I'm afraid," Mark stated frankly, "that there are a lot of gaps in
what I do know. I can tell, of course, that something mighty big is
going on here. But what was that bit of information you received?"

"It goes back nearly a quarter of a century," Carston replied slowly,
"and concerns a man named George Marnik. He, and his young wife, were
among the first pioneers to venture out to Callisto. Those were the
ruthless years, when the great Earth Monopolies stopped at nothing,
were very often lawless, and usually got what they wanted." Carston
paused to light a cigarette.

       *       *       *       *       *

"George Marnik," he went on, "discovered one of the richest palladium
veins on Callisto, and was developing it slowly. But--one of the
Monopolies decided that it wanted Marnik's rich vein. In an ensuing
struggle with some of the Monopoly's hired hoodlums, Marnik's wife was
burned down brutally with an electro-gun. She left a daughter, about
five years old, whom they had named Cynthia ... do you follow me?"

"Go on," Mark said in a cold, dry voice.

"Well, after the tragedy, George Marnik disappeared. He was never heard
of again--except by the Earth Monopolies. They heard of him plenty. He
terrorized the spacelanes for years, and more than one Monopoly went
under, bankrupt by the incessant attacks on their ships by an enemy who
had achieved a ruthlessness greater even than theirs. It was rumored
that Marnik had vowed never to set foot on Earth again, and that his
life was dedicated to the destruction of the Monopolies. He almost
achieved his task, except that the Earth's government finally stepped
in and dissolved the Monopolies." Carston paused and drew in a long
breath.

"And then?" Mark urged, as if fascinated by this saga of another day.

"Why, then as you know, Emperor Bedrim of Venus achieved his famous
alliance with Dar Vaajo of Mars, and together they sought to end
Earth's domination and exploitation of their planets. You know about
the bitter ten years' war--that's history. But when the Tri-Planetary
Patrol was formed, during the truce that followed at the death of
Bedrim, half the Solar System was searched for George Marnik's base and
the rich plunder he was reputed to have there. It was all in vain. You
can now see why! The Patrol has never been able to land on Vulcan."

"But if I remember correctly," Mark Denning said reminiscently, "George
Marnik was certified as dead, as the years went by and piracy ceased.
The records gave no information as to his daughter Cynthia, she was
merely marked 'Missing.'"

"Precisely!" Carston assented.

"Then that vital bit of information you received must have concerned
this base on Vulcan!"

"No. Worse! It concerned that George Marnik _was alive and planning to
end the Inter-Planetary Truce, to loose bitter war upon three worlds
again_!"

"Good Lord!" Mark was stunned. "But how? Venus and Mars were disarmed
under Earth's dictated peace!"

"Yes, true. Mars is a small and dying race and not to be greatly
feared. But Venus has never become reconciled. You know their unholy
pride and their utter conviction that theirs are the greatest minds
in our universe. Underneath the apparently peaceful surface, revolt's
smoldering."

"Revolt fanned by Marnik?"

"Yes," Carston went on. "If George Marnik did have some fantastic plan
in mind, Venus would be the likeliest place for him to find backing
and followers. On the face of it, it seemed absurd, of course. But
when the supply of Venusian Pearls dwindled to a mere trickle, and a
criminal from the swamp was found dead millions of miles away, in the
vicinity of Callisto, we knew then that there was a definite tie-up.
It was time to investigate. George Marnik, the last space pirate, _is
alive_--an ancient, embittered wreck living on hate!" Carston fell
silent.

       *       *       *       *       *

"And Commander Cynthia, his daughter," Mark whispered musingly, "is the
one in charge now!"

"Yes. You wouldn't have believed it possible, eh? But remember, during
those reckless years when her father was the most hunted man in the
universe, Cynthia grew up with him, constantly at his side, learning
all the tricks of a master at piracy. She must share her father's
hatred for a world that only brought them tragedy and sorrow. Marnik's
psychopathic, of course, his mind's warped; she must share his views,
although at times I wonder ... sometimes when I look at her...." His
voice dwindled.

"So it all boils down to one thing," Mark's analytical mind had already
absorbed all the facts. "That Spacer that brought us here is a menace
to civilization. Its speed alone is beyond anything we have at present;
a fleet of them could wreak havoc on Earth's forces. Earth must be
warned at all costs, Carston!"

Ernest Carston looked at Mark pityingly, lines of weariness and anxiety
creasing his face. "Do you think," he said slowly, "if there were any
way out, I would be here? Vulcan and the Venus Swamp both have a thing
in common: there's no escape, except through Marnik. Commander Cynthia
only carries out his orders."

"But she's a woman, Carston. If she could be made to realize
what another Inter-Planetary war means--the awful carnage, the
destruction--perhaps she could somehow be reached!"

"I wish that were possible!" Carston exclaimed fervently. "But she's
like a being that's hypnotized. George Marnik must dominate her
completely, old and decrepit as he must be. Remember, it's the only
life she's ever known. He must be the only being she's ever loved."

"Have you any concrete knowledge of their plans?"

"No. Only deductions. Dar Vaajo, ruler of Mars, was here three weeks
ago. Cynthia brought him. For hours he was with Marnik in the latter's
palace. That can only mean one thing, of course. And then there's the
new metal. That is the real problem and the real menace!"

"Metal? A new alloy?" Mark Denning was all interest.

"Nothing so simple as that," Carston explained with tragic calm. "A
metal unique in the universe! A new, _allotropic_ form of beryllium
which _beyond a certain temperature reacts by hardening in direct
ratio to pressure and heat_! Once cast, it is literally heat and blast
proof, and so light that it triples efficiency in relation to fuel
consumption. And George Marnik's building, has been building, a fleet
of these Super-Spacers!"

"I suppose they're mining that metal here?" Mark's face was white.

"Yes, on the _sunward_ side of Vulcan! That's what swamp convicts are
brought here for."

"And I suppose either the ore, or the smelted metal's being shipped to
secret bases on Mars and Venus?" Mark's voice was strained and opaque.

"Not yet, Earthman!" The alien voice was at once like a whiplash and
like a fragment of music. Both men whirled about.

       *       *       *       *       *

Out of the shadows, as if emerging from the bizarre scene of tortured
rocks and twisted cavern-walls, stepped a slender figure with pendant
wings.

"Aladdo!" Mark felt a curious tingling at sight of his Venusian friend,
as he went forward with hands outstretched.

It was nothing compared to the shock mirrored on Carston's face.
"Aladdian!" he too exclaimed, a mixture of despair and impotent rage in
his voice.

"Peace, lower order!" Aladdo laughed, but hiding his hands behind his
back as he addressed Mark. "I shall not trust my hands to you again.
_It is enough to have crippled wings!_" The Venusian stared full into
Carston's eyes as he uttered the last words significantly, and the
latter's face turned deep red.

"Are you still a guest? Where are they keeping you? I've missed
you...." Mark turned to Carston, his face alight. "Aladdo saved my life
in the swamp!"

"I'm staying with the Commander and her father. It is a small universe
after all," he added, turning to Carston, "eh, Colonel?"

"You know each other?" Mark asked, surprised.

Carston's face reddened and then paled. "I'm a servant of my
Government," he answered the Venusian stiffly. "My duty is to obey, not
to question orders, Princess!"

"What is all this? What do you mean, 'Princess'? Will someone explain?"
Mark was exasperated.

"Aladdian's the daughter of the late Emperor Bedrim of Venus," Carston
said, then fell silent.

A look at the Venusian's smiling face told Mark it was true. His own
face was ludicrous, his mouth partly open, for the moment speechless.
Then a dark flush of anger swept up like a tide to the roots of his
hair.

"A girl ... a defenseless girl that's never committed a crime in her
life, condemned to that Venus Swamp! To the most ghastly, the most
cruel living-death in the universe...." Words failed him as he shook
with rage. "What was Earth's Government thinking of? The Council must
have been mad!" Mark Denning choked.

"Careful!" Ernest Carston warned. "Remember you're an Earthman,
Denning. To question the Council is treason!"

"Treason be damned, and the Council too!" Mark raged. "There are
limits! There's no reason for that Prison Swamp except greed. Better
atom-blast habitual criminals than to condemn them there; _that_ is
worse than any crime!" He towered above Carston, a formidable engine of
destruction, his face a mask of fury.

Then a tiny, fragile hand was on his arm and the Venusian's calm voice
rose in the brief silence, "It is too late to remould the past. But we
can refashion the immediate future, Mark Denning."

"Can we? How? It seems that Marnik and Commander Cynthia hold all the
cards!"

"Not all," Aladdian shook her exquisite head. "They have perfected
their plans for the immediate future--but we can be _the element of the
unpredictable_!"

"You mean ... you're not in sympathy with their plans? That you won't
serve as a rallying point to sway the masses of Venus?" Carston looked
bewildered. "I thought when I saw you, that was the reason they'd
brought you here! We know that your people would revolt at a word from
you, Princess! That's what our Government feared."

"I know. And I will not lead my people to an hecatomb in space. But
neither will the Earth continue to exploit my planet and debauch my
people. This time, there will be a peace and it will be equitable."
Aladdian had drawn herself to a full four feet eleven inches, and there
was an imperious note in her voice. Carston stood silent and grim.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark, looking at his Venusian friend anew, thought irrelevantly that,
with the spike-heeled sandals of Earth, Aladdian would be only slightly
under the average height of an Earth girl. He shook his head irritably.
This was no time to ponder inconsequential things.

"Aladdian," he said, "do you know much of their plans and what is being
done with this new metal?"

"Partly. We have discussed ways and means since my arrival here.
George Marnik is very impatient; I think he fears he may die before
he can see his plans carried through. First he will equip a fleet
equal or superior to Earth's forces. Then he will take over Callisto,
the new Gibraltar, between the inner and outer planets, after which
he will complete an alliance with Venus and Mars. He does not plan
to conquer Earth, he knows it would take years; but his scheme would
bottle your planet, relegate it to the status of a minor power, without
inter-planetary colonies, without outer revenues. Venus and Mars alone
would expand in the Solar System."

"For a while," Mark said laconically. "Mars would never be content with
anything short of complete rule, as long as Dar Vaajo lives! And the
metal?..."

"It is smelted here under a secret process, and parts for the space
cruisers and special rockets manufactured. Then they are stored in one
of the asteroids where they will be assembled later into a fleet. That
is all the data I have now."

"But this Luhor," Mark asked, "what is his real status? Commander
Cynthia seems to trust him implicitly."

"She does," Aladdian replied. "He's an old friend of George Marnik,
one of his trusted lieutenants from the pirate days. But he's a cold
devil--combines the worst from both Venusian and Martian. Don't
under-estimate him ... he can be deadly!"

"I've had occasion to see that," Mark said dryly.

"They're all deadly in this deadly little planet!" Carston said
vehemently. He looked far older than his scant thirty years, his face
was bleak and haggard.

"But this is heaven in comparison with the Prison Swamp," Aladdian
told him coldly. She seemed to have a determined animosity toward the
high-ranking Earth official.

"It wasn't I who sent you there!"

"No. It was only your relentless pursuit that eventually resulted in
my capture," the Venusian answered, "and it was only you who cut the
tendons of my wings. Oh, I know--you were only acting under orders."

Aladdian was smiling again as she turned back to Mark. "We had better
all go back to our quarters now, but it would be best if we did not
return together." She moved away, then added: "Watch Luhor, Mark; I am
not sure, but I think he too is part of the 'unpredictable.'"

Mark watched her slim figure, with the azure wings and tight-curling,
blue-black hair, melt away into the shadows.

"I will see you tomorrow," her voice floated back like a golden molten
stream.


                                   V

"Only twenty-two men, Luhor?" Commander Cynthia Marnik stood very
straight and very slim in the center of the air-lock, surveying the new
men plus a sprinkling of others, preparatory to the trip outside. "Even
less than the last trip!" Annoyance creased a frown between her blue
eyes.

"All we can spare, Commander. Every available man's at the furnaces;
your father has ordered it so." Turning to the waiting men, Luhor began
to instruct them in the operation of their metal surface suits.

"As you can see, they're two suits in one," he explained tersely,
"operating on the vacuum principle. Here's the cooling device between
each metal sheathing. You'll have to bear more heat than you've ever
endured, but don't get panicky. Here's where you regulate the oxygen
flow into the helmet." He indicated a little dial.

Each man was assigned to a wide, flat-bottomed sled which he was to
pull behind him. They were also equipped with curious, spur-like picks.
Mark failed to understand the reason for such primitive methods, but
remained discreetly silent.

"You men who have made the trip before, help the new arrivals,"
Luhor ordered curtly. Mark noted that Luhor himself was not going to
accompany them, but Cynthia Marnik was already encased in her suit.
Ernest Carston went over to help her adjust the helmet.

"I can manage quite all right, thank you," she said. But it did not
escape Mark that her voice was soft and that she smiled at Carston.
Carston came over to give Mark a hand. He smiled reassuringly through
his helmet's visiplate, then flicking on Mark's radio-phone, said
briefly:

"Stay close to me! I'm one of the veterans."

"Bring Vulc, we're about ready," the Commander's voice sounded
startlingly inside Mark's headpiece.

"Who's Vulc?" Mark asked Carston in a whisper.

Before the latter could answer, there was a sudden unearthly rumbling
behind them. Mark turned, stared, then froze in his tracks. A huge,
awesome apparition was lumbering in a straight line for the Commander.
It was vaguely human in that it possessed a head, torso, four limbs
of elephantine proportions, and it waddled upright. But the human
resemblance went no further.

The creature's skin, if skin it was, gleamed silvery metallic and gave
the impression of being fluid! It reminded Mark of nothing so much as
an immense blob of mercury that might at any moment collapse into a
puddle and spread over the floor.

But Vulc didn't collapse. He approached the Commander and stood
docilely waiting. She patted the creature's arm and then handed him
a package of something. Vulc rumbled his appreciation and poured
the contents into a gash that appeared in his face. Then he waddled
contentedly to a large sled and took up the reins.

"Wow! Where did you ever dig up _that_?" Mark turned white-faced to
Carston.

"Vulc? He's a native of this planet, but more than that, he's our
ambassador of peace!"

The Commander's crisp voice made further conversation impossible.
"Single file, you men. Stay as close to each other as the sleds will
permit. Carston, you stay in the middle, as usual, and watch out for
the Blitzees. If you men work hard, we should be back within ten hours."

Silently the outer door of the lock slid open and the men began to file
out, with the gigantic Vulc at the head. The brightness was intense,
although they were on the planet's "dark side." Shimmering waves of
heat danced before them over the flat terrain.

At the very end of the line Commander Cynthia kept pace with them.

       *       *       *       *       *

"What did you mean by 'ambassador of peace,' Carston?" Mark had
purposefully fallen into line next to him.

"Adjust your radio-phone to its shortest distance communication,"
Carston directed him, "so it will be inaudible to anyone else." As Mark
did so, Carston continued, "We couldn't get out the metal we're after,
without Vulc. His home is on the Neutral strip where we're going--that
part of the planet where the outward and sunward side meet. All of
Vulc's kin are there, and they resent us. They have attacked us before.
We bring Vulc as an evidence of friendly intentions; they have a speech
of sorts, and Vulc's supposed to pacify them."

"What was it the Commander gave him before we left?"

"Powdered metal, filings, and tiny scraps from the factories. That's
what's in those big sacks up there on Vulc's sled--a peace offering for
his people."

"They subsist on metal!" Mark Denning was aghast.

"Everything on this planet does--that is, everything native to it. And
they're impervious to heat, of course. If Vulc had not been captured by
George Marnik almost immediately after it was born, it would never have
been conditioned to the comparatively cool atmosphere of the Base."

In silence they trudged mile after mile, following the same line of
black hills that housed their Base. Mark marvelled at how comfortable
the vacuum suits were, but he knew the real heat hadn't started yet.

It came presently, as they veered further outward from the hills. The
heat increased steadily and became more intense than anything Mark had
ever experienced. Perspiration dripped stickily within his suit. He
wanted to wipe his face but couldn't; he could only shake his head to
keep the sweat from his eyes.

But there was no keeping the mirages from his eyes. In every direction
the terrain rocked and rolled under huge undulating hazes of heat.
Horizons leaped at him in wave after wave, and fled away again. The men
ahead seemed to do fantastic dances.

They no longer trod on rock. The ground beneath was soft, white and
leprous looking, powdery almost as dust. Mark felt it hot around his
metal-clad ankles. Now he realized the reason for the flat-bottomed
sleds. He knew, too, that a spaceship could never venture over here and
get back safely; compasses and magniplates and everything else would go
haywire. Peering ahead, he discerned Vulc's fantastic bulk which now
had turned a glowing cherry red! He shuddered at the thought of what
would happen to a man suddenly bereft of the protecting vacuum suit.

Out of the silence, a vast rumbling sound rose like magnified thunder.
Mark saw Carston fumble with his radio-phone then peer all about into
the haze.

"Blitzees coming!" he yelled into his instrument.

Everyone stopped. Mark followed Carston's line of sight, but he
couldn't see a thing.

"Swarm coming from the left!" Carston yelled again.

The Commander moved hurriedly along the line. "Lie down everyone, face
to the left! Upend your sleds and if you value your lives, stay behind
them!"

For a second all was confusion as the men flung themselves to the
powdery soil; then a metal barrier sprang up as the sleds came end to
end. Still nothing could be seen.

       *       *       *       *       *

Suddenly then they came. The air was blue from crackling sparks as
dozens of the Blitzees struck the sleds with the impact of bullets. A
sound like the humming of millions of hornets was in their ears, as the
greater part of the swarm passed overhead. Mark had a confused vision
of electric blue streaks that writhed and zig-zagged, landed and leaped
again, propelling themselves blindly. As suddenly as it had come, the
danger was over.

The men arose somewhat shakily. The ground about them was strewn
with the snake-like Blitzees. Mark picked one up and found it to be
metallic, about five inches in length, transparent blue in color. The
head was triangular, eyeless; along its back Mark felt a thin, wiry
sort of filament!

"They're like living bolts of electricity," Carston told him. "They
seem to short-circuit themselves when they strike the sleds." The
caravan continued.

Hours later they arrived at their destination, a small rise in the
terrain before them, covered with glittering crystals in huge,
boulder-like lumps. The sides of the little hill was composed of the
same ore, apparently in limitless amount.

But as if guarding it against them, rows of redly-glowing Vulcs stood
motionless, elephantine, facing them. Mark couldn't tell whether they
were friendly or hostile. To him there was no expression to be seen
on those fluid heads. But Commander Cynthia's Vulc went over to his
henchmen and jabbered in rumbling noises, pointing to the huge sacks on
his own sled. Presently three of the Vulcs came over and snatched at
the sacks, opened them and grabbed handfuls of the metallic filings.
Seemingly satisfied, the trio lumbered off followed by the rest,
bearing the sacks.

The men began to work then, loading the ore on the sleds and breaking
it with their small hand-picks. Even to have come here was bad
enough, and to breathe was an agony--but to work, in this inferno of
unimaginable heat and blinding glare, was a nightmare. More than once
Mark felt himself sway, and stood quite still until the dizziness
passed. One of the men pitched forward and lay still.

Commander Cynthia examined the fallen man. She gestured to Vulc who
grasped him and stretched him over the ore in his own sled. The
Commander's face was drawn and white through the visiplate, and her
eyes were tragic. Mark was seeing evidences today that she was not
entirely cold and heartless, as he had at first thought.

It seemed an eternity before they were through with their task. At
last the sleds were loaded to capacity, and they rested a while before
starting the return journey.

They could only pull the heavy sleds slowly now, and only the knowledge
that every mile brought them nearer to the Base, away from this
suffocating hell, spurred them on.

After a while the Commander called a halt, and the men sank down
against their sleds like puppets whose strings have been cut. There
was a strange absence of curses and rebellion against the appalling
experience they were undergoing; there was not enough strength left for
that.

Then Mark saw Commander Cynthia suddenly stand up. Through the
visiplate her eyes were wide, and they mirrored horror!


                                  VI

"Up on your feet, every man of you! Test your oxygen tanks--quickly!"
Her voice was tense with suppressed emotion.

Something in her tone seemed to cut a path through the heat-ridden
lethargy of their minds, for the men staggered to their feet, hands
fumbling for the testing buttons.

Mark found his, and his eyes darted to the tiny dial inside his helmet.
The pointer swung and registered _one hour_. Frantically he pressed
the button again; once more the pointer inexorably indicated the same
period of time.

"One hour!" he breathed, stunned. That was barely a third of the
time it would take to return to the Base! Out of the dancing mirage
before him the alabaster face of Aladdian seemed to float and smile.
With infinite, pain-laden regret Mark realized that unless a miracle
happened he would never see her again, and now for the first time it
dawned on him how much he wanted to.

Around him the men were milling in confusion, panic-stricken. Their few
hours' stay at the Base had been like a brief taste of heaven, and life
had become precious once more.

"All of us can't get back," the Commander was saying. "But there's
enough oxygen among us to permit seven, at most eight, to do so. I'm
willing to draw lots with the rest of you. But decide quickly! Every
instant is precious!"

"No!" a man screamed hysterically, near the breaking point. "I'd rather
take my chances...." His voice ended in a hoarse sob.

Then a strange thing happened. Ernest Carston, white-faced and
unsteady, stepped forward.

"You can take my supply, Commander Cynthia," he offered. "You need not
draw lots; let the men do that."

She waved him aside and shook her head, but her eyes softened
gratefully. She glanced at the teletimer at her wrist. "I will give
you men just thirty seconds to make your decision; otherwise I will be
forced to make it."

But from the group came no decision, only sullen argument and frantic
babbling. Some of them measured the distance between them and the girl,
eying hungrily the atom-blast guns at either side of her wrist.

"What a woman!" Carston murmured to himself, lost in admiration. But
Mark heard him.

"Yes, she is magnificent," he agreed in a dry croak. "A pity all that
courage and...." He checked himself and fell dully silent again.

It was then that Mark saw something or thought he did, far away,
shimmering through the dancing heat. He wiped the sparkling dust from
his visiplate and strained his eyes desperately, praying that it was
not a mirage. He clutched at Carston and pointed.

"The hills ... are those the hills? _Our hills?_"

Carston nodded dumbly. At last he managed to croak, "Yes, but the
entrance is miles away ... at the other end."

"But there may be a chance! Remember Aladdian, the corridors--a
honeycomb of caverns? Commander!" Mark turned up his radio-phone, his
voice drowning out the babble of the men. "How far is that range of
hills, Commander?"

She followed his pointing arm. "A little less than an hour, at its
closest point."

"And the system of caverns--how far does it extend? Aren't those hills
practically honeycombed their entire length? We might find--"

"Wait!" The word came explosively, as her mind darted into the past,
down the corridor of years. "Yes, I remember ... some of the caverns
did lead out to this side, and father sealed them to make the Base
airtight...." She gazed at the distant hills as if trying to recapture
a forgotten scene. And a bulky shape hurtled forward, clawing for the
weapons at her waist.

But Carston had been watching. He thrust out a metal-shod foot and the
convict went sprawling ludicrously into the swirling white dust.

"Thank you, again!" the Commander said in a whisper. "This trip has
been a revelation--in so many ways." Her face was as white as the
powdery soil underfoot, and she was near collapse; but from some
unknown source she still drew from enough strength reserve to maintain
her authority. Hands on her atom-blast guns, she faced the men.

"Into line as before. We've got to make the hills in less than one
hour. Leave the sleds. It's the hills or your lives!"

The effect was miraculous. Suddenly they were docile, grasping at the
slender hope she offered them and content to have her bear the burden.
Quickly they fell into line, with Vulc leading the way again. The men
needed no urging; the knowledge that they only had one more hour of
oxygen was enough.

       *       *       *       *       *

If their trek up to now had been a nightmare, this latter
stage surpassed even the most secret refinements of a Martian
torture-chamber. In an agony of slowness the minutes lengthened and
seemed to stand still. The low range of hills seemed to dance mockingly
and recede into the distance beyond the horizon's endless rim. In
addition now to the heat in their brains and the glare in their eyes,
their lungs were tortured as they regulated the oxygen intake-valves to
the barest minimum.

After an eternity in which even memory seemed to have fled, they were
walking on rock and the heat began imperceptibly to abate. Directly
before them, the hills rose out of the torturing blaze. Cries that were
little more than miserable croakings echoed through the radio-phones
as the men broke ranks; they staggered on, holding to each other for
support.

Mark looked around for the Commander, and saw her clutching at
Carston's shoulder for support, while his arm was about her waist,
half-holding her up. The girl disengaged herself and by sheer
will-power drove toward the base of the low-lying cliffs before them.

"Wait!" she ordered.

She stopped, and the men halted behind her, weaving on their feet. She
stared around us as if desperately trying to recall something deeply
imbedded in the matrix of the past; then she veered to the right,
waving for Vulc and the men to follow.

Mark tested his oxygen tank and glanced at the dial again. It read "ten
minutes." It was a race with time which now, perversely, seemed to be
rushing by on flying feet.

Thirty yards further, the cliffs curved in sharply. Rounding it, the
Commander gave a glad cry. In the center was a gigantic metal door,
hermetically sealing what had once been the entrance to a cave. The men
staggered forward, some of them clawing feebly at the barrier. Others
sank wordlessly to the rocky ground. They weren't even sure that
beyond that metal wall they would find life-giving air.

The Commander had drawn both atom-pistols, and stood there surveying
the barrier as if paralyzed.

"What are you waiting for?" Mark pressed forward. "In minutes, the men
will be dying! Blast an opening!"

For the very first time, Mark saw her hesitant, indecisive, as if
unable to think. "But the air ..." she managed to gasp. "It will escape
from the caves, clear back to the Base! All those men there ... and
father ... their lives are more important than ours!"

       *       *       *       *       *

In those brief seconds Mark admired her. Despite the deadly threat to
the Earth she embodied, he admired her for her humanity and loyalty
to the men at the Base. But there was no time to lose. He made her
decision superfluous.

"We've got to chance it!" With a swift, darting movement he wrested an
atom-blast gun from her hand and discharged it steadily at the metal
door, at a point just above the ground. A second later she was helping
him with the other gun. Instantly the metal turned fiery red, then
white, and finally a circular section fell outward with a hissing rush
of air.

"Dive in, men!" With the dregs of a strength he didn't know he still
possessed, Mark grasped the men and pushed them toward the aperture,
helped shove them through. "Throw your helmets back!" he shouted. "In
you go," he told the Commander, and despite her protests he lifted her
off her feet, almost handing her through the blasted entrance.

Only Vulc and Mark were left. As the Earthman crawled through, he
motioned for Vulc to follow. The metallic being dropped to all fours
and pushed in his arms, his head, his massive shoulders. His sides
scraped the still hot edges of the aperture. And there he stuck.
The men inside grasped his arms and pulled, but in vain. Vulc gazed
ludicrously from side to side and heaved prodigiously, but in vain. The
Vulcanian seemed molded to the hole.

"Wait! Tell him not to struggle, not to move!" Mark was exultant as he
turned to the girl. "The air's no longer rushing away; if he'll only
remain there until we can get back with equipment to seal that hole,
the danger's over!"

Vulc seemed to be pondering; his limbs sprawled like a distorted
swastika, and on his usually blank, fluid face was something like
surprise. In the dim recesses of his alien mind he could find no
parallel to this.

The Commander spoke to him slowly, with desperate emphasis; reaching
into a pocket of her suit, she brought out another package of powdered
metal which Vulc promptly stuffed into his mouth. "He understands," she
said at last. "But I'll leave one of you here with him, to be certain
he does."

For a while they rested, lying prone, helmets thrown back, luxuriating
in the comparative coolness and the draughts of pure air. All were
thirsty, their throats parched and aching. But the nightmare was over.
Presently the Commander rose to her feet and gave the order to march.
She was almost her usual self again, detached, impersonal. But she was
white to the lips and her eyes were electric as she said:

"Luhor will pay for this!"

She barely breathed it, but Mark heard her. And he knew what she meant.
It was Luhor who had prepared the units of oxygen for the suits.


                                  VII

Under the dim illumination maintained even as far as these outlying
caves, the group went grimly on. Their passage through the tortuous
corridors was dotted by discarded vacuum suits. But no echoes drifted
back to them from the activity of the Base.

Twice they lost their way, ending up against blank rock walls and
retracing their steps. But at last the inter-connecting tunnel chain
became familiar to the Commander.

"She blames Luhor for the oxygen business!" Mark murmured to Carston
walking beside him.

"Should!" Carston exclaimed laconically, grimly. "Aladdian warned us
against Luhor, remember? There'll be hell to pay when we get back!
Any monkey-wrench thrown into the machinery of their plans, helps the
Earth. I hope...."

He broke off, staring moodily ahead.

"She's far more human than you think," Mark Denning said softly.

"Yes, I noticed that today." Carston's voice sounded glad. "It's only
the Spartan training she learned while cruising the spacelanes with
her piratical father that keeps her up--that, and the old man's insane
will, driving her on through a sense of loyalty to him."

They were so near to the Base now that Mark expected momentarily to
hear the clang of metal in the factories, the voices of workmen. His
heart quickened at the thought of seeing Aladdian, and he forgot his
weariness in embroidering upon that thought.

But the ominous stillness remained unbroken.

They entered the final corridor leading to the vast central chamber.
The Commander ran forward, with the anxious men close behind her. They
entered the grotto. The subterranean Base extended into the distance
before their startled, unbelieving eyes.

"What--" Cynthia began bewilderedly.

It was a dead city, soundless and inert. Under the distant cavern roof
it had the air of a ghost town drained of all life.

Mark's heart leaped into his mouth. "Aladdian!" he cried involuntarily,
and his hands clenched in an agony of anxiety of helpless rage.

Commander Cynthia was already running toward the palace, a deathly fear
mirrored in her eyes.

The men had stopped uncertainly, too weary and exhausted to understand.
Then driven by a single thought, they staggered off to their building
in search of water and food.

Scarcely had the echoes of Mark's cry stopped reverberating, when from
the shadows of a transverse corridor emerged the elfin figure of the
Venusian.

Aladdian gazed at Mark as if he had returned from the dead. She closed
her eyes, swayed a little. Mark caught her in his arms. He too was
silent. No words would serve.

"To the palace!" she finally breathed, gently disengaging herself.
Followed by Carston, they hurried to the imposing building where old
George Marnik reigned. Aladdian led them swiftly through the panelled
outer hall, through the magnificent salon where the loot from many
years was a fabulous welter of wealth. Mark had no eyes for it now.
They did not stop until they reached the inner chambers and finally
came to George Marnik's room, where no one but Cynthia was ever
permitted.

       *       *       *       *       *

Lying grotesquely twisted on the priceless Martian tapestry that
covered the bed, the ancient pirate was dead. Cynthia Marnik was
kneeling beside him, weeping softly. There was no doubt as to the
manner of his death. The pencil-thin opening through his temple could
only have been done by an atom-blast.

"Luhor," Aladdian said, indicating the wound with a gesture.

They withdrew, leaving Cynthia alone with her grief. The two men
followed the Venusian girl to the immense palace dining-room. With her
own hands she served them food and drink, asking no questions, uttering
no words until their vast hunger and thirst were appeased. Then she sat
down.

"And so," she began without preamble, "the unpredictable has entered."
At their rush of questions she held up a hand. "Let me explain," she
begged. "I can do it briefly if you are silent. After you left, Luhor
ordered every man here to go aboard the Spacer. He blasted down two
or three who refused; you will find them in the air-lock. Previous
to that, I heard him arguing with George Marnik. He atom-blasted
Marnik from behind. I know, because I deliberately contacted his mind,
although the effort nearly drove me mad; it is not easy for us to tune
to an alien intellect, but Luhor being partly Venusian helped."

"The miracle is that he didn't take you with him," Carston ventured.
"You were too valuable to leave behind!"

"When we came here yesterday," she said simply, "I studied the plans
of these caverns. When I learned what was in Luhor's mind, I hid in a
maze of abandoned corridors. They searched for me a while, but since
he plans to return, he gave up the search for the present. He had no
time to waste! The Patrol has been to the Prison Swamp; failing to find
either of you, and learning of my disappearance, _Earth has mobilized
its fleet_!"

"How--how do you know this?" Both men leaned tensely forward.

"Through the ethero-magnum George Marnik has in his laboratory
here--the most powerful receiving and transmission instrument I've ever
seen, greater even than the ethero-magnum we have on Venus!"

"So _that's_ how he kept always a step ahead of the Patrol," Carston
mused. "The scientists he used to kidnap from space-liners--he must
have forced them to perfect scientific inventions here!"

"Yes," the Venusian girl nodded, "but I haven't told you the most
important part, Luhor's plan. If he succeeds, there will be no peace.
He has taken the men to the asteroid where Marnik's new fleet of space
vessels are to be assembled. But worse than that--_they are also to
fit gigantic rockets to the asteroid itself_! It is very dense, and
greatly pitted, which simplifies things. With the rockets of this new
metal he can guide the asteroid's course! It will be the terror of
space, literally invulnerable, with banks of immense electro-cannon and
atom-blasts, and cradling a swarm of the new Spacers!"

Ernest Carston could only hold his head in his hands. Earth's greatest
enemy had died in Marnik, but a greater, more ruthless one had arisen
in Luhor!

"Go on, Aladdian, please," Mark's tones were reassuring.

"Luhor does not suspect that I contacted his mind. He believes all of
you have died in the wastes--I got that from his mind, too. Since he
will return, because Vulcan's to be the seat of his empire, and he
wants me, we have time to plan how we are going to receive him. He's
persuaded that the only living being on Vulcan now is a defenseless
girl." She smiled enigmatically.

"But that asteroid! That hellish threat to Earth!" Carston was beside
himself.

"And to Venus, and Mars," Aladdian reminded him gently. "It will take
months for those rockets to be installed, Earthman. He will be here
long before that, I am certain of it--as only a woman can be certain."
She raised her eyes and gazed at the doorway.

       *       *       *       *       *

Framed at the entrance to the dining-room, Cynthia Marnik stood looking
somberly and dry-eyed. Aladdian rose swiftly and went over to her.

"My dear ..." the Venusian said softly, a world of compassion in
her voice. Cynthia smiled wanly and took the tumbler of water that
Carston extended to her. She drank dazedly and then sat down with the
inexpressible weariness of one whose world has come tumbling down
about her head. Aladdian darted to the kitchen and upon returning made
the Earth girl drink a cup of concentrate, then led her away, to her
bedroom. "You must sleep," Aladdian was saying softly, monotonously,
with a hypnotic cadence in her voice.

"I wonder if it will be safe to arm the men?" Carston questioned
thoughtfully, his mind grappling with the problem.

"That's a chance we'll have to take," Mark Denning replied. "A few
among them are not really hardened criminals, but are _politicals_, as
you know. I think they will all fight for us, provided we can offer
them freedom when, and if, we win."

"I can make them no promises not sanctioned by the Earth Council,"
Carston said stiffly. "Remember, their lives are forfeit!"

"And so will ours be, if you don't snap out of that single-track rut in
which you've grooved your brain!" Mark exclaimed acidly. "Council or no
Council, the Earth, Venus, Mars and the colonies must be saved! This is
no time to quibble about ethics. A hell of a lot will be left of your
Council if we don't stop Luhor!"

"You startle me sometimes, Mark Denning. You do not sound as a true
servant of the Earth State!"

"Because to you," Mark said slowly, "the State is the few decrepit
members calling themselves the Council, and the top-heavy Government of
Earth. But to me, the 'State' are the millions and billions of human
beings whose destinies are ruled by a self-appointed few, and who are
now facing even a worse slavery if we don't succeed in being what
Aladdian calls 'the unpredictable!'"

Carston's face flushed with anger. He drew himself to his full height
as he said, "I represent the Government of Earth, which rules the
Planets--and I am your superior officer!"

"You're wrong!" Mark Denning countered, rising too. "I'm a free agent
as of this moment, and recognize no superior. I'll not be hamstrung by
rules and regulations which can't serve us now, Carston!"

"No need to quarrel," Aladdian spoke placidly from the doorway where,
unnoticed, she had been listening. "Because only I and Cynthia can make
terms with Earth, if we survive."

"You and Commander Cynthia?" Carston exclaimed. "Both of your lives
have been forfeit. I doubt if the Council will be willing to listen to
any terms coming from _you_."

Mark Denning's face was stained by a dull flush, and he took a step
forward; but Aladdian laid her hand lightly on his arm and stopped him.

"The Colonel belongs to the old order," she said very softly, "it is
difficult for him to adjust himself to a changing universe. But this
time it is beyond his control."

"Why?" Carston uttered the word grimly.

"Because through the ethero-magnum I have already warned Venus and
Mars. My planet is being mobilized. Mars will soon take the necessary
steps. But the most important reason of all, is that Earth has no
means of landing a fleet on Vulcan, does not know the location of
Luhor's asteroid, and _does not even suspect the existence of the new
allotropic metal_."

Carston looked baffled as the Venusian girl spoke, then turned to Mark
Denning with the expression of a man who for once felt hopelessly lost.

"I can promise the men who aid us a fortune to each," Aladdian
continued, "and the leisure to spend it--on Venus. As for the Earth,"
she said thoughtfully--"only Commander Cynthia and I know the formula
for the new metal, and the location of the asteroid!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"I will talk to the men!" Mark said with a finality that left no doubt.
"Let them rest for a few hours, then I'll see to it that they're on
our side. I know how to rouse them. Wait until they learn that Luhor
short-changed them on oxygen! How much backing can you expect from
Venus, Aladdian?"

"To the last man," she said quietly. "They have already seen me through
the ethero-magnum, and heard my story. I intercepted the Tri-Planetary
Beam as the Earth broadcast, and transmitted our beam along their
channel. By the time Earth's Government set out their interceptor to
neutralize my beam, it was already too late; the three planets are
seething!"

"And Luhor? Wouldn't he have picked up your beam on the Spacer and
heard you?"

Aladdian shrugged. "He knows I'm here. The confusion created by my
broadcast only served to aid his plans for the moment. He has nothing
to fear, as far as he knows. A war between the planets would only make
his conquest simpler."

"And knowing that," Carston spoke bitterly, "you still broadcast your
story and let your image be seen! Do you suppose Venus will ever be
content now with anything short of war?"

"Yes, I do. We are intelligent beings, not Martian atavisms, nor do we
have your Earth's insane will to _Power_. We only want peace and with
it freedom. But the game is ruthless, Carston, the universe is the
stake!" Aladdian turned to leave.

"Mark," she said gently from the doorway, "Cynthia can show you where
the arsenal is located; you'll find every imaginable weapon. Also, you
had better study the combination that opens the air-locks, and the
synchronized degravitators. I suspect that Luhor will be back here
soon--_very soon_."

Suddenly the terrific reaction of that day hit Mark with sickening
impact. He was hardly able to rise to his feet. Carston was slumped
over the table; Mark went over and shook him gently, and somehow aided
the older man to his feet. Together they went into the fabulously
furnished salon, and unable to go any further, threw themselves on
couches piled with priceless rugs and embroidered scarves from the
various planets. Carston instantly was asleep.

Despite his utter weariness, Mark slept fitfully, awakening and
dropping back to sleep as the hours passed in their eternal caravan.
Something clamored at the back of his brain, something he had forgotten
because of the major crisis they'd had to confront on their return to
the Base.

And suddenly he sat upright. The overhead lights had automatically
dimmed, no one was stirring. With a shock, Mark had remembered Vulc and
the man they had left to watch him! He leaped to his feet, aching in
every bone, and ran to the building where the men were quartered.

"If Vulc gets tired of waiting and wriggles through that hole!..." He
tried not to think of the rest.

He burst into the building and roused the men. "Up, on your feet,
there's no time to waste!" His terrible urgency instilled them with a
nameless fear, prodding them as nothing else would have done.

"Your lives are at stake," he told them bluntly, and reminded them of
Vulc. "At any moment he might decide he's waited long enough. Who among
you knows how to repair that breach?"

Three of the men came forward. "All right," Mark told them, "hurry to
the shops and get what instruments and materials you need--but hurry!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The men could not return to sleep now, knowing that at any moment the
Base's life-giving air might go rushing away. This emergency, following
so close upon the other hardships of the day, seemed too much. Mark
saw that they were all very near the breaking point. Now was the
psychological moment to speak to them, and by giving them the entire
picture, lift them above the present crisis as well as inspire them
with hope for the future.

Calmly he told of Luhor's treachery in giving them a short oxygen
supply, with the intention of murdering them all. Deliberately, with
calculated phrases, he aroused their hatred and thirst for revenge.

Mark paused, letting it sink in, giving time for their dark passions
to reach a peak. Then he told of Luhor's asteroid, and the threat to
the planets. He dangled before their eyes the promise of untold wealth,
and freedom on Venus for the rest of their lives. To give his promises
authority and weight, he made no bones about the fact that he was a
high operative of the Tri-Planetary Bureau of Prisons--but he climaxed
it with the guarantee of a blanket pardon from the Earth Council itself.

"You will see and hear the Council on the ethero-magnum, but we shall
be making the terms," Mark Denning said forcefully. "There's no trick
in this, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose! In the
Swamp, your lives were forfeit; they were forfeit here on Vulcan too.
I promise you wealth on Venus, and the freedom you'll never have any
other way! Who's with me?"

He need not have asked, for the clamor that answered him was
affirmative and unanimous. Gone for the moment was their fatigue, as
they embroidered upon the possibilities of the days to come.

Not until the trio returned from repairing the breach, bringing Vulc
with them, did the men return to their sleep with the first and only
hope they had had in years. Only Mark Denning realized the trials to
come. These few men had been won over easily. Not so easy would be
the negotiated terms with Earth. The Earth Government had won its
dominance over the System the hard way, only after a bitter ten-years'
inter-planetary war, and it would not easily relinquish its position.


                                 VIII

The days that followed were eternities to the little group left
stranded on Vulcan Base. Nerves were taut and tempers were short. Every
man there, as well as the two women, realized that their very lives as
well as the fate of the System depended on the day of Luhor's return
from the asteroid.

Mark had aroused the men too well. They were impatient and restless.
They didn't want their freedom handed to them on a silver platter,
they wanted to fight for it. Aladdian had said Luhor would be back
soon--very soon. Mark questioned her about it.

"Even with that fast Spacer," Aladdian replied, "it will take him
several days to get out to that asteroid and back again. Cynthia tells
me her father sent a crew of men there a month ago, to assemble the
new Spacers. Luhor will undoubtedly win them all to his side, and bring
half of them back to continue the work here. Cynthia says--"

"Cynthia seems to have confided a lot in you!" Mark exclaimed with a
sudden, unexplainable suspicion.

Aladdian smiled wearily, and slowly shook her head. "You are demoted
back to the lower order, Mark Denning," she said with a hint of the
same mockery Mark had known in the Swamp. "Cynthia Marnik needs our
help now. She only carried out her father's orders, but now that the
dynasty is crumbling about her ears, she's bewildered and a little
frightened. Something else has happened to her too, for the first time
in her life."

"What's that?"

"Never mind," Aladdian said enigmatically. "Ernest Carston knows.
It will turn out all right. Meanwhile you had better put the men
here to work, it will help pass the time. Goodbye ... Mark." Like an
azure-winged elf she hurried back to the laboratory where she spent
most of her time.

That was the first instance Mark could remember when Aladdian had
called him by his first name, and he liked it.

He called the men together and assigned them to posts at the furnaces,
where they continued to turn out the metal that would be fashioned
into the super rocket-tubes. Earth was massing its fleet and Venus was
mobilizing. Mark realized that if a truce could not be called, they
would need every one of the outlaw Spacers on the asteroid, and others
as well. He took a few of the men with him to the arsenal, where they
began to get every available weapon in readiness for the Tri-Planetary
showdown that was sure to come.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Tell the men to stop work," Aladdian said to Mark two days later,
"then bring them to the laboratory. They have as much right as we
to know what is happening. I have been working on the ethero-magnum
sender, and I shall try to contact both Venus and Earth."

They gathered in the magnificent laboratory George Marnik had erected.
Here, various machines were arranged in preponderant array, but all
were dwarfed by the imposing ethero-magnum in the center of the room.
Hidden atomomotors hummed a smooth and powerful threnody. The control
panel, as tall as Aladdian herself, connected to huge coils of radical
design which themselves led to the televise, a huge sensitized sheet of
metal reaching clear up to the ceiling.

Carston, an Earth patriot to the end, watched these activities with
misgivings. But he was silent, curiously so, and Mark wondered at it.

Mark was soon to know the reason for Carston's silence, and to realize
that the Earth official did not give up so easily....

"I want you all to stand back against the walls," Aladdian said, "out
of range of the televise. Luhor may pick this up, and he must not know
there is anyone here but me."

She operated the dials quickly, surely, with tendril-like fingers. A
faint, far away voice was heard droning monotonously. "Earth is sending
to Venus now," Aladdian said, never once removing her gaze from the
dancing dials before her. "If I can intercept the Earth beam, I can get
my message to Venus through that channel, by drowning them out. I did
it once before."

The sound of the voice increased, and words became distinguishable.
They were haranguing, dictatorial--undoubtedly one of the Earth Council
speaking to Venus. At the same time the huge metallic sheet above
Aladdian's head took on a silvery glow, and a wavering scene began to
appear. The scene was a crowded city square, with thousands of faces
upturned to a televise screen atop one of the buildings.

"That is N'Vaarl, Capitol City of Venus," Aladdian murmured. "They
are listening to the Earth broadcast. Now I will let them see me."
Automatically her hand reached out, and grasped a lever which she threw
downward. The atomomotors shrieked as they absorbed the increased
power, and soon the sound rose above the audible. At the same time the
Earth voice was drowned out, and the scene at N'Vaarl became very clear
to the watchers in the room.

On the huge public televise screen at N'Vaarl, the image of Aladdian,
Princess of Venus and daughter of Bedrim the Liberator, became
visible. The crowd did not cheer, but awaited her message, knowing that
at any moment the Earth would throw off the beam when it realized what
was happening.

"Greetings, my people!" Aladdian spoke quickly. "As I told you before,
Earth is mobilizing its fleet and I know that you are preparing for any
contingency. That is well, but I entreat you not to act in any manner
until you have heard further from me! There is a greater danger than
that of Earth! I am safe and well, I cannot come to you now, but soon--"

       *       *       *       *       *

In that moment the Earth beam ceased, and the scene on the televise
blanked out. Aladdian turned with a satisfied smile to Mark and Cynthia
and the others. "It is enough that they saw me. My people will not act
now without word from me. I hope I shall never have to give that word."

"Aladdian," Mark spoke worriedly, "isn't it a risk for you to broadcast
at all? The Earth Government doesn't know your present whereabouts, but
if they were to send out tracer beams and learn you were operating from
Vulcan ... well, it's true that no Patrol ship is equipped to land on
Vulcan, but they could bottle us up here--"

Ernest Carston, who had been silent but eternally watchful, became
suddenly tense at Mark's words.

"They _have_ sent out tracer beams," Aladdian replied, "but with
this instrument I can neutralize them all." Fondly she touched the
ethero-magnum by her side. "Anyway, the immediate danger is not from
Earth, but from Luhor. Let us not forget that! And I must warn Earth,
must make them understand."

She turned to the dialed panel again, and even as her fingers made
swift connections, she continued to speak. "It may not be easy to
establish a direct channel from here to Earth, but I think I have
completed a new trans-telector beam on which George Marnik was working.
It should do away with the magnetic disturbance caused by our close
proximity to the sun. We shall see."

Again the atomomotors whined and ascended the scale. This time, there
was a new exultant note. Minutes passed, then the overhead screen
began to take on a hazy, shifting blur. Aladdian's fingers moved
unerringly on the dials. The blur came suddenly, sharply into focus.

Carston, standing against the far wall next to Mark Denning, leaned
tensely forward, his eyes aglow. The scene on the televise was the
Earth Council. Carston almost leaped forward in his excitement, but
Mark gripped his arm tightly.

Aladdian was speaking to the Council. In slow, matter-of-fact tones she
told of George Marnik, of the new metal, of Luhor and Luhor's plans.
She told of the asteroid and the fleet being assembled there, without
revealing the asteroid's position. She described the properties of the
new metal but was careful not to hint of its source.

"I seek to warn you," Aladdian's voice came fervent and clear. "You are
plunging into disaster. It is not my people I think of now, but the
Tri-Planet Federation! If you continue to mobilize your fleet I am not
sure I can control the Irreconcilables among my people--I certainly
cannot control Dar Vaajo of Mars, who is headstrong beyond reason. It
will mean an hecatomb in space, with Luhor holding his asteroid in
readiness for the final blow!"

"This Luhor and the formidable asteroid of which you speak," came the
cold, sneering voice of the Earth Coordinator. "Tell us more of them.
Give us the location of the asteroid."

Aladdian hesitated for an instant. "No. That I cannot do."

"You cannot, because no such asteroid and no such metal exists! You
would try to frighten us with this story of a demon asteroid and a
super space fleet! It would not be that you seek to gain time for your
people to rally to you, now that they know you have escaped the Prison
Swamp? Or perhaps you need time in which to coordinate your resources
with those of Dar Vaajo of Mars! Let us advise you, Aladdian, that
within a week the main body of our fleet will be at Venus, and it will
not go well with your Irreconcilables. We shall know how to handle them
this time, we shall not be so lenient as before! Perhaps, in order
to spare them, you will wish to give yourself up to us, daughter of
Bedrim!"

Aladdian's slender body grew taut as though struck by a whip lash. With
a single sweep of the control lever she cut off the beam. Dazedly she
crossed the room, oblivious to the murmurs of the others; her usually
alabaster face was now chalk white beneath her curling blue-black hair,
her lips were pressed tight but they trembled nevertheless.

At the laboratory door Mark caught her arm, walked beside her.
"Aladdian," he choked. "I--"

She became aware of him then, smiled up at him through her bitterness.

"Aladdian, I am--I just wanted to say--I'm sorry I'm an Earthman!"

She stopped suddenly, faced him, took one of his hands in both of hers.
"No, Mark! Do not say that, do not ever say it. For you are more than
that ... much more...."


                                  IX

It was night, and the overhead lights in the corridors were dimmed.
Ernest Carston tossed restlessly in his bed. He could not sleep, he had
been unable to sleep since seeing and hearing the Earth Council on the
ethero-magnum.

Carston arose, and dressed quickly. Silently he crossed the room to
the outer door, and stepped out into the corridor. He paced slowly,
aimlessly, his brow knit in deep thought. Finally he made a decision,
and turned his footsteps in the direction of the palace and the
laboratory. He was still an Earth official; he had known all the time
that he would have to take matters here into his own hands.

Before he reached the corridor leading to the laboratory, however,
he heard the soft shuffle of footsteps. Carston leaped back into the
shadows just as a lone figure emerged from one of the transverse
corridors. It passed very close to him, and he saw that it was Cynthia
Marnik; her face seemed very white, and her steps were hurried.

Carston's heart quickened a pace, as he followed her at a safe
distance, keeping to the shadows. She continued along the main
corridor, past the men's quarters and past the furnaces. With a shock,
Carston realized she was heading for the outer air-lock.

He reached there in time to see the huge door slide open, then Cynthia
stepped through, and the door closed. Carston waited, giving her time
to leave the tunnel, before he followed. Finally he entered the tunnel
himself, having long since learned how to operate the mechanism of
these doors. Cynthia was gone; the outer doors were closed.

Carston hurried down the long tunnel. The magnetic degravitizing coils
along each side were silent now, would remain so until the Spacer's
return. Carston reached the racks of vacuum suits near the outer door,
quickly donned one and was soon outside the Base.

Against the sun-swept horizon, a hundred yards away, he could easily
discern Cynthia's metal-encased figure. She kept close to the shadows
at the foot of the low lying cliffs. Not once did she look back. A
quarter of a mile further, she turned sharply, entered a narrow,
steep-walled canyon.

Puzzled, Carston hurried forward. He reached the canyon and entered it,
realizing that this must be one of the few places on Vulcan's surface
where there was anything simulating night; it wasn't really dark, but
sort of a twilight gloom between the rock cliffs sheering upward.

And he saw Cynthia. She hadn't gone far. Her vacuum-suited figure stood
very still, and she seemed to be staring up at the immensity of space.
Carston crept closer, came very near indeed, until he could see the
profiled whiteness of her face beneath the helmet.

Carston stared too, following her gaze. At first he didn't see a thing.
Then, high on the horizon, out of the sun's glare, right between the
canyon walls ... he caught the bright blue glint of a star. He suddenly
realized what it was, and with a sharp intake of breath he whispered:
"Earth!"

       *       *       *       *       *

She must have had her helmet phones on. She turned slowly to face him,
and Carston was startled at the clear-cut radiance of her face.

"It's the Earth, yes ... it's beautiful. There's no other place on this
planet where you can see it like that, and then only when the position
is right. Sometimes not for months...."

Carston stepped quickly to her side. Cynthia averted her face, but
not before he saw the glint of tears in her eyes, and the lengthening
glimmer of one that rolled down her cheek beneath the transparent
helmet.

For an instant, Carston was dumbfounded. Then a vast exultation surged
within him. "I knew it!" he whispered fiercely. "Almost from the first
moment I saw you, I sensed there was something artificial beneath your
mask of hardness. This is it! You don't hate Earth at all, Cynthia,
you've never hated it!"

"Yes," she spoke softly, her voice deepening. "I've never hated Earth.
It was only father--" Abruptly she stopped, and her gaze strayed to
where the blue star shone like an aquamarine ablaze. "I can't remember
clearly; it's like a vague dream--but I have a dim vision of green
fields and golden light, and clouds in an unreal blue sky; and trees
beside a wide lake, with a crisp tang of air, different from the air
here. To me, that's Earth. I was born there." Her voice faded, and as
if from a great distance Carston heard her say, "Oh perhaps it's just a
dream."

"No, it's not a dream," Carston whispered, standing very close to her
now. "It's part of you, it belongs to you! All Earthians feel that out
here, a yearning to get back. Cynthia, I've loved you from the very
first ... didn't you know? Let me take you back with me, out of this
madness that can only mean death for us all!" He stopped, at the sight
of her upturned face, white and wan.

"I guessed. Yes, I know. I've been waiting a long time to hear you say
this. And I'd go with you, Carston, but how is it possible now? My
life's forfeit, you yourself said so!"

Now Carston was very sure of himself. "No, my dear," he said softly,
trying to filter the triumph from his voice. "Your life's not forfeit
if you help prevent the carnage and destruction that Aladdian's mad
dream will bring about. She doesn't know, she _can't_ know the awful
power of Earth's fleet. Luhor's vaunted super-cruisers will be so many
leaves scattered in the void. This allotropic metal on which his hope
of invincibility is based, can be neutralized and destroyed!"

"But how? What can we do?" Cynthia's voice held a note of despair, as
her hand unconsciously went out to his.

"We can give Earth the location of Luhor's asteroid, and the secret of
Vulcan!" He said it so softly, so insinuatingly that it was little more
than a thought. "I can promise you an absolute pardon, my dear--more!
I can promise you honor for aiding Earth. The Council knows how to
reward, as it knows how to punish."

"But Aladdian and Mark? Would it not mean death, or worse, for them
both?" She shuddered, as a vision of the Swamp came before her eyes. "I
could never condemn them to that," she thought aloud.

"With my influence, I can get amnesty for them--leniency at least,"
Carston said with the glibness of one to whom nothing mattered but the
ultimate task that must be accomplished at all costs. "All Earth wants
is to avoid another war. If we make it possible for Earth's fleet to
capture Luhor and neutralize the asteroid, I'm certain the Council will
pardon Aladdian and Mark." He pressed her hand confidently in both of
his.

She seemed to hesitate, but Carston knew she had already made up
her mind. "If you're sure you can obtain the pardon--and stop this
senseless war--yes--yes, my dear, I'll give the Earth Council any
information you wish--"

Her voice dwindled and stopped as Carston took her into his arms.
He, himself, was white and trembling with the reaction of having
accomplished his task. Over her shoulder he could see the twinkling
blue dot of Earth. He smiled, and it was a very smug smile. His breath
was long and trembling, but his intense emotion at the moment was _not_
akin to love.


                                   X

"Soon, now."

Carston's murmur echoed eerily against the shrill hum of the
atomomotors in the upper scales. The phantasmal glow of the selector
screens suffused the chamber. Selenic cells poured additional power
into the trans-telector beam as Cynthia's fingers trembled over the
shining dials. Carston, standing beside her, was white-faced and tense.

Slowly a shifting blur materialized on the huge televise of the
ethero-magnum. It focused, and the thin-lipped, ascetic features of the
Earth Coordinator materialized in the immense Council room of Earth.
The Council in full session surrounded him. All were intent on their
receiving screens, on which Carston and Cynthia were reflected.

Cynthia stepped nervously aside, and Carston came forward. He bowed
low. Then his voice, hoarse with uncontrollable elation, rose in
greeting.

"Your Beneficence, and Elders of the Council! I am speaking from
_Vulcan_, the long-sought base of Captain George Marnik, where I have
been a prisoner for many months! But no longer. This," he gestured
hesitantly, "is Cynthia, George Marnik's daughter, for whom I beseech
the Coordinator's and the Council's clemency for the service she is
about to do."

Then in slow and measured words Carston told in detail all that had
happened, beginning with his own release from the Swamp by Cynthia,
relating Luhor's murder of Marnik, and finally telling of the asteroid
where Luhor's space cruisers were being assembled, and of the new
allotropic metal being mined on Vulcan. Then he motioned for Cynthia to
come forward.

The Coordinator had listened in silence, his grim face impassive. Every
eye in the Council room was unwaveringly on the screen, and the silence
lay heavy between two distant worlds. Slowly, Cynthia walked toward the
ethero-magnum sender, a sheaf of note paper in her hand. She smiled
wanly, but confidently at Carston. Then in a colorless voice she read
her mathematical figures giving the position of the asteroid in space,
and the formula for the shortest approach from Vulcan, as the key for
computation of the trajectory from Earth. Without animation, she gave
the formula for the allotropic metal process, and the secret of the
entrance to Vulcan.

Then she fell silent. As if she didn't know what to do, she turned to
Carston and caught for a fleeting instant the smug smile of triumph on
his lips; but before she could comprehend its meaning, it was gone.

"Will ... will I be pardoned?" Cynthia questioned aloud, more to
Carston than to the Coordinator on the screen.

But the silence in the Council room of Earth persisted, as busy
mathematicians already were furiously computing the mathematical
formulae. A thin, contemptuous smile had parted the Coordinator's lips.
It was the first time Carston had ever seen him smile, and the room
where he and Cynthia stood, although millions of miles distant, seemed
colder suddenly as that glacial glimmer came through the screen.

Carston opened his lips to speak. "Your Beneficence," he began--

       *       *       *       *       *

But suddenly, catapulted from the deepening darkness of the corridors,
an azure-winged figure with curved hands outstretched fell like an
avenging fury upon Carston's back! Dainty hands, suddenly transformed
into claws, dug like spikes of steel; a supple body too ethereal for
strength, now seemed made of metal as the Venusian girl attacked him
with a savagery that brought every man of Earth's distant Council room
to his feet!

Close on her heels Mark Denning had barely time to separate the tangled
figures. Carston's face dripped blood where Aladdian's fingernails had
furrowed deep. Cynthia seemed rooted to the spot. So incredibly swift
had it been, that the battle was over in seconds. Aladdian's eyes were
pools of fire as she faced the Council. Her streaming hair seemed to
shimmer as she spat her venom into the screen.

"Very well, send your space fleet, you clumsy fools! Let your madness
condemn the planets to a bath of blood! Yes, you have the formula for
the allotropic metal--but what good is it to you without a source of
supply? You have the location of the asteroid--but do you suppose your
fleet can stand against such a mobile fortress as Luhor will make it?
But it's a waste of words, I know I can never convince you. Only death
and destruction can. But this I do tell you! Never, _never again_ will
you enslave Venus! Never again will you imprison me in that inhuman
Swamp, and never will you land on Vulcan! For I have one weapon left,
one which only we of Venus possess. We have used it once on Mars, once
in our history only, for we are not warlike. But before Luhor and the
Martian hordes overrun my planet and _yours_ as he certainly can, I
will use this weapon, Earthian!"

On the screen, the Coordinator's face was livid. "Arrest her," he said
across the immense distance to Carston. "In the name of the Supreme
Council of the Tri-Planetary Federation, arrest her! Her life's
forfeit!"

But Carston stood motionless, pale as death, suddenly confronted by the
grim figure of Mark who gripped an electro-pistol in his hand.

At this veritable moment, out of the void, cutting in on the beam like
the disembodied cachination of some strange creature, wave upon wave of
gigantic mirth poured on two worlds! And as every participant of this
drama stood tense, watching their screens, there slowly emerged the
half-breed figure of Luhor, his gargantuan laughter still roaring in
uncontrollable paroxysms.

"So that's it!" Luhor managed to choke between spasms. "What
entertainment you have provided me with--and what information! And
to think, Aladdian, that I'd planned to make you my empress. Why, my
little dove has claws!" he exclaimed admiringly. His immense, ugly bulk
dominated the entire screen, as his bellowing laughter began again.

The Earth Coordinator, almost beside himself, threw a master switch;
the televise screens of two worlds flickered and went blank, the
pulsing whine of the atomomotors was like a dirge.

Cynthia passed a trembling hand across her eyes, and her gaze wavered
before Aladdian's accusing stare. She glanced briefly at Carston with a
slowly dawning wonderment, as if an awareness of his aims had begun to
awaken within her.

"I--I'm afraid I've made a mess of things," she said in a slow, deep
voice. "Ever since father's death, I seem to have lost my grip. I'm so
sorry, Aladdian, I thought it was for the best; Carston assured me we'd
be pardoned...." Her voice trailed off as she turned her face away from
them all.

"I should burn you!" Mark Denning said to Carston in a cold, tight
voice, and Carston went white. "You've managed to wreck our plans
about as completely as possible. If the Earth blasts Luhor out of
space, we face surrender or slow starvation. If Luhor wins, he can
starve us out or blast his way in here with his allotropic cruisers,
now that he's forewarned by you. Either way we lose--but I guarantee
you, Carston, _you_ won't come out of this easily!" Each word was like
ice, and Aladdian nodded slowly at Mark's words, a strange light in her
brilliant eyes.

       *       *       *       *       *

"We haven't lost yet, Mark." With a swift motion she crossed to the
ethero-magnum again, and turned it on. "Remember, I have still a
weapon. My people are behind me."

"But Venus doesn't have a fleet! Earth has seen to that."

"Wait." Her unerring precision brought the screen to life in a burst
of light. A scene took place, alien, exotic--the imperial palace on
Venus. A great crowd stood before it in silence, extending into the
distance, as if the park-like expanse had become a place of pilgrimage.
In eternal vigil all faced the televise screen that rose from the floor
level to the top of the palace. Fantastic blue-green mountains filled
the background, dwarfing the small fragile figure that materialized on
the receiving screen.

"My people, I speak to you for the third, perhaps for the last time--"
There was a world of yearning in the cello-like voice as Aladdian
opened her arms toward them. A cyclonic roar burst forth in tribute and
greeting, but quickly died down as they awaited her message.

"When I last spoke, I told you not to act without word from me. I
hoped I would never have to give that word, but now I fear I must. The
hour is almost here. What I will ask of you, is the supreme sacrifice.
You know what that means. I, too, am prepared to make it. There is no
other way. Many will die, but only that the others may avoid an even
worse slavery than they now endure, and that we may attain our rightful
inheritance, an equal place in the Planetary Federation." The voice
rose like a stream of music, and tears were in Aladdian's eyes. "The
choice is yours, my people!"

When the thunderous response had died down in waves of overpowering
sound, Aladdian stood in silence for several moments; in silence, too,
the Venusian multitude remained with upturned faces. Mark had an eerie
feeling that a _Planet_ was in tune with the fragile, winged figure.

When the connection had been broken, and once more the laboratory had
reverted to semi-gloom, Mark turned to Carston and removed his weapons
from him. "I can't take any chances with you now," he said coldly,
"after what you've done. You wanted to become a hero in the eyes of the
Earth Council. Well, from now on you'll dance to my tune."

"But not for long!" Carston sneered openly, recovering his poise and
confidence. "The game's up, Denning; you're a renegade to Earth and
shall be treated as such. It'll be child's play for Earth's fleet to
burn Luhor and his asteroid to a crisp. After that--" He stopped and
grinned contemptuously.

"After that, we'll be taken care of?" It was Aladdian who spoke,
and her voice was soft like dark molten gold. "Careful, Mark," she
interposed quickly, placing her hand on Mark's arm as his grip
tightened on the electro.

"_I_ don't deserve any lenience," Cynthia said dully. "I've been a
fool."

Aladdian gazed at the Earth-girl with a universe of pity in her eyes,
and a great understanding. "No, my dear," she said softly, "not a fool.
Only a girl in love."

"But you!" she lashed at Carston. "You shall reap the whirlwind; and I
assure you, a Venusian whirlwind is beyond your ken!"


                                  XI

"No sign of the asteroid!" Mark Denning's voice was harsh as he
addressed the restless group of men milling in front of the laboratory.
"We've picked up Earth's fleet, that is all; it's now proceeding beyond
the orbit of Mars. Come in and watch if you wish, but it may be hours
yet."

The clang and clamor of the furnaces had long ago ceased, as Vulcan
awaited the outcome of the space struggle that would mean so much to
them all. Since Carston's betrayal had become known, the men had
discussed the situation from every angle. Paradoxically they hoped for
Luhor's victory, so that _they_ could deal with the Martian half-breed.
At the very worst, death was better than Paradim, which surely awaited
them again if Earth won in this crisis.

As Earth's fleet in awesome array, advanced toward the asteroid's
position which Cynthia had given, Aladdian kept a ceaseless vigil
at the televise. In far off N'Vaarl, the palace grounds were a sea
of upturned Venusian faces intent upon their screen. Dar Vaajo sat
brooding on his barbaric throne on Mars, his craggy face dark with
passion, thinking of the upstart Luhor who had wrecked his plans.
Within the austere Council chamber of Earth, the Coordinator paced
to and fro before the screen, while the awed Council didn't dare to
stir. It hadn't been hard for the ethero-screens of each world to pick
out the flaming majesty of Earth's fleet, and they had followed its
progress for hours. The meteoric speed seemed a snail's pace, across
the respective televise panels.

"Look!" Aladdian cried, spilling the cup of hot concentrate Cynthia had
brought to her.

With electrifying suddenness, the scene in the panel had leaped to
vivid life. Concentric whorls of green, disintegrating light flashed
from all units of Earth's fleet simultaneously, merging into a single
appalling cloud that preceded the fleet itself. To the watchers, the
spread of the light seemed slow, but it must have encompassed thousands
of miles.

"But why?" Aladdian breathed, even as she twisted the dials trying
to center the scene more perfectly. "They're not within hours of the
asteroid belt, and they will only give their position away to Luhor!"

Carston, Mark and the others had come crowding into the room to
watch the scene. Carston whispered, exultantly, "That green light is
radio-active disintegrating energy! It merges with whatever it touches,
unbalancing the atomic structure of metal. Wait'll they envelop Luhor's
asteroid in that!"

"Yes, I know it well," Aladdian murmured. "They used it in the long war
against Venus. But there is a neutralizing force now, which even Earth
does not know. George Marnik developed it, right here on Vulcan Base."

Carston's lips curled, but he said nothing. The sight of Earth's
mighty armada sweeping forward on its mission had instilled him with a
swaggering confidence. They continued to watch the scene in silence,
even as the Earth Council and the people of Venus and Dar Vaajo on Mars
were watching.

Still the Fleet swept forward. Minutes passed. The greenish half-circle
of light preceded it, beating back the darkness, expanding unimaginable
distances as though reaching out greedy hands.

Then suddenly Aladdian's words came true.

       *       *       *       *       *

From a point in space far in advance of the Fleet, a tiny white beam
of light became visible. It reached out like a slashing saber, swiftly
expanding and closing the gap of darkness. It came from the asteroid
itself, now revealed to the watchers for the first time--merely a tiny
dark mass that seemed to move forward with infinite caution against the
Fleet.

"There it is!" Mark breathed. "Luhor's carried his plan through! He's
made a rogue asteroid of it, moved it clear out of the belt--"

Words ceased, as they watched the preliminary maneuvers. The asteroid's
slashing saber of white touched the disintegrating power of the green.
But it was the green that disintegrated! Slowly, almost carressingly,
the pale beam moved across the advancing blanket of light. Where it
touched, the green dissolved magically as though it had never been.

"That's what I meant. The etheric inertia ray!" Aladdian's murmur was
tinged with exultation, as she sensed Carston standing beside her taut
with surprise.

Still the Earth Fleet moved forward in battle formation, in staggered
horizontal tiers. Impelled by the terrific momentum, it depended upon
maneuverability to escape the impending danger. But, inexorably, the
asteroid moved forward also, as if hungry to meet its enemy. Limned
behind its own ghastly light, it was revealed as a leisurely rotating
mass of rock and mineral, with jagged pinnacles reaching out and deep
black gullies agape.

A blinding lance of electric blue lashed from Earth's Flagship, like
a probing finger searching for a weak point. It stabbed Luhor's white
ray and ended in a corruscating upheaval of incandescent light. The
asteroid was very close now; it seemed as if nothing could prevent that
sidereal mass, some ten miles in diameter, from plowing through the
tiers of Earth Spacers.

But in that veritable moment when disaster seemed certain, Earth's
massed fleet executed one of the most spectacular feats of navigation
the Universe had ever witnessed. The units literally _broke apart_ and
moved outward into a perfect cone-like formation, with the base, or
open end, toward the asteroid. Again the green radiance, from all sides
now, went out to envelop the asteroid in a glaucous sheath, as the dark
mass drifted into the trap.

"This is it!" Carston gloated hoarsely. "Now watch your asteroid
crumble!" The others said nothing. All were tense, as the tiny
ten-mile world entered the open end of the cone to what seemed certain
destruction. Now the white etheric inertia ray lashed out savagely
again, sweeping in swift arcs, but failed to dispel the concentrated
waves of green fire.

Then from the surface of the dark world, Luhor's own space fleet
arose--six cruisers only, dwarfed in size by some of Earth's larger
ships. With blinding speed, the six allotropic cruisers headed for the
closing jaws of the trap.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Earth Commander was not prepared for such acceleration. It was
unbelievable. He had little time to think, as Luhor's cruisers blasted
with the raking fire of electro-cannon at close range. Three Earth
ships went hurtling end over end through the void, ripped from stern
to bow. Impervious to the wild fire of Earth's Fleet, the allotropic
cruisers plowed on. Two Earth cruisers at the jaws of the trap were
unable to maneuver in time. Luhor's ships in a straight line hit them
head-on, plowed through them and out again, leaving behind a tangled
wreck of twisted girders and scattered debris.

Luhor's six ships were out of the trap now, and they wheeled in a
mighty arc, hung chain-poised as though to watch.

Behind, the now glowing asteroid erupted the real destruction. This had
been Luhor's plan from the first. The balance of men taken from Paradim
Swamp, left on the bleak little world to fight for their lives, now
released hidden rocket tubes that blasted in perfectly spaced rotation.
The rocky world began to spin, as it plunged ponderously forward. Bank
upon bank of electro-cannon lashed out like uncurled blue lightning.
Atomite bombs burst among Earth's fleet which surrounded this deadly
pinwheel. In less than a minute Earth's vast armada was completely
disorganized, space became a shambles of ripped metal plates, twisted
rocket tubes and blasted hulls.

Like a livid, craggy corner of hell running rampant, the rogue
asteroid spun faster and faster, spewing annihilation. But this was
its death throes. The concentrated disintegrating glow had taken
effect, and could not now be stopped. The craggy world began to
crumble in great masses of rock and metal like a leprous organism.
The few remaining units of the Earthian fleet tried desperately to
escape the disintegrating lethal mass--but behind them now, at a safe
distance from it all, Luhor's ships barred the way. Pitilessly his
electro-cannon raked them, impervious to their erratic salvos. His
Flagship with its impossible speed darted among them like a cosmic
scimitar, until barely half a dozen of Earth's former armada were able
to flee in scattered disarray.

Half a dozen, out of more than a hundred. Contemptuously, Luhor did not
even deign to pursue.

Where an immense battle fleet and a dwarf world had battled for
supremacy in space, now only shattered metal fragments and a
disintegrated rain of mineral and rock remained veiled by cosmic
darkness.


                                  XII

It had been too much and too sudden for speech. Aladdian was on her
feet now, even she was still gripped by the awe of the vast debacle.
Mark watched Ernest Carston stumble dazedly from the Laboratory room,
the appalling horror in his eyes betraying how intimately Earth's
tragedy was his. He'd sent them out there to conquer, and they had
remained to die. No one spoke. The crowding men who'd hoped for a
victory by Luhor, even turned away before the magnitude of his power.

The laboratory on Vulcan reflected in miniature the shocked silence of
four worlds. They'd seen the mightiest armada of all time reduced to
nothing in a space of minutes.

Aladdian was the first to act. With the same beam, through which they'd
watched the holocaust, she contacted Earth. She tuned the Council
chamber where gray faces looked to the Coordinator in bewilderment and
fear. But the Coordinator, stricken to the depths of his narrow soul,
was incapable of speech. In the oppressive silence Aladdian's winged
figure materialized on the screen.

"I greet you, Earthians, for the last time." Her molten voice had
overtones of sadness. "You have seen your mighty fleet destroyed. Earth
is defenseless. Luhor is on his way to Earth."

"How--how do you know?" The Coordinator was moved to speech now,
galvanized into life by a more immediate fear!

"How? Because I am right now in telepathic contact with Luhor's mind."

"We shall fight to the end!"

"Yes, I expected that of you. You would condemn Earth to the same fate
as your Fleet. Awaken, Earthmen! No weapon that you have can destroy
allotropic metal. You have seen Luhor's ships slice through your
vessels as if they were paper. You're at his mercy now."

Aladdian allowed her words to sink while she widened the beam to
include Mars and Venus as well as Earth, that her voice might carry to
the entire Federation.

"I am not speaking to you only, now, but to three worlds whose fate
depends on your decision. Agree to what I ask, and the danger from
Luhor will be eliminated."

"What do you ask?" The Coordinator's voice came through as a mere
whisper.

"Three things only. Absolute liberation of Venus and Mars, which means
equal representation at the Tri-Planetary Federation Council. Complete
abolishment of the inhuman Swamp of Paradim. And Venus to retain
Vulcan with its allotropic metal as a measure of final safety. Agree to
these points before the assembled peoples of the inhabited planets who
are listening now, and Luhor shall never reach Earth."

On Mars and Earth and Venus her winged figures were reflected, while
her voice cadenced in the ears of untold millions.

"First," came the Coordinator's voice, "how are _you_ to prevent that
fiend Luhor from pursuing his course? And second, what guarantees will
we have that Venus will not build more of the allotropic cruisers to
attack?" Although white and shaken, the Coordinator could still snarl.

"I will answer your second question first. As you well know, Venus
has never in all her history resorted to war. Rather than kill," her
voice became bitter, "we submitted to Earth's cruel domination. We saw
the inhuman Prison Swamp spring into being, for greed of the Josmian
pearls; death and persecution for the sake of power. I even personally
suffered this!" She held up her wings whose tendons had been cut. "Yet
despite it all, history does not record murder by Venusians. _That_,
Earthian, is your guarantee that we shall keep the peace. As to Luhor,
I and I alone can stop him now. This is an offered chance you may take
or leave. Remember, Luhor's fleet has ten times the speed of Earth's
fastest vessel, and will be there sooner than you suppose. Think fast,
Earthian!"

"Think also," Mark interposed in a voice of steel, "that here on Vulcan
we have the allotropic metal, the means to work it, and the men to
build our own cruisers if we so desire!"

"I accept," the Coordinator said sullenly. Despite his fear and
helpless rage, he could only envisage defeat and destruction should
Luhor arrive at Earth. As for Aladdian on Vulcan stopping the mad
half-breed, he did not see how it was possible; but he had nothing
further to lose by agreeing. With a gesture, he ordered the Council to
draw up a pact.

Four worlds watched the signatures grow one by one. Then, and not until
then, did Aladdian play her last card as she brought Venus into focus.

"_NOW!_"

       *       *       *       *       *

The single word was the last she uttered as she opened her arms. Her
people were ready. They knew the sacrifice.

Millions of miles away an entire _Planet_, as if it had been a single
cosmic mind, concentrated on Luhor's fleet. A mighty stream of thought
flowed out, vast but intangible. Wave upon wave, directed by Aladdian,
the accumulated thought-vibrations beat ceaselessly upon the minds
of Luhor and his men. And on Venus, slowly, here and there a winged
figure fell and lay still, its mind sapped by the prodigious effort
that knew no bounds. But the knowledge that Aladdian, their Princess,
who directed the combined flow, was under an infinitely greater mental
strain than any of them individually, gave them added inspiration.

Aladdian had long since made all the others, even Mark, leave the
Laboratory. She maintained her vigil and efforts alone. On her magnum
screen, which had shifted to cosmic space, the six invulnerable vessels
continued their purposeful route toward Earth. Serenely they sped.

But suddenly, with an odd twist, one of the Spacers plunged headlong
without warning into a sister ship. Both exploded into a cataract of
flame. Another wavered, wheeled, then plunged toward outer space at
vertiginous speed, to disappear in a dwindling dot of silver. Of the
remaining three, one began to fire broadsides against the others,
then rotated over and over out of control, while air-locks opened and
figures leaped out to instantaneous death in the frigidity of space. It
was a scene of silent horror.

But while scores died in space, hundreds died on Venus at the magnitude
of the effort. Still the Venusian populace of millions concentrated in
purposeful silence.

A sense of madness unleashed stole into the laboratory room where
Aladdian stood alone, motionless and white-faced. She scarcely
breathed. Her blue eyes were dilated. On the screen now only one
cruiser remained. Not until then did Aladdian move, her hand reaching
out automatically to the dials. A second later the interior of Luhor's
cruiser lay revealed.

The huge half-breed had held out to the last. He'd realized what was
happening, knew that the thought-power of an entire telepathic nation
was reaching out across vast distances of space, the ghastly vibration
of madness battering against the brains of his men. Now even Luhor
began to succumb, his brutal face contorted by spasms of demoniac
evil. His crew of men around him were already insane. A few sobbed
monotonously on their knees, rocking from side to side. Others were
already dead. One crewman was absorbed in daintily flaying another with
a bright, keen penknife, while the rest were systematically destroying
the ship and each other.

In the midst of the scene, Luhor's face went suddenly grey and
blank. He drew his electro-pistol and like a man possessed, used it
methodically about him until only he remained alive. It was then that
Aladdian used her last remaining strength, directing Luhor like an
automaton to the controls, where he remained frozen. The vessel heeled
in space and changed course, heading away from Earth now, speeding
directly sunward toward Vulcan Base.

Within the laboratory room, Aladdian swayed, her face whiter than
death; she grasped at the instrument panel for support, but her fingers
closed on air, as she crumpled to the floor.


                                 XIII

She was barely conscious of Mark and Cynthia and Carston seconds later,
bursting into the room. And of Mark's face mirroring his anxiety as he
hurried to her.

In the same instant she knew that her people's accumulative vibration
had reached an apex of power, and like an avenging fury was turning
_their way--centering on one person in that laboratory room_!
Desperately Aladdian tried to stop it, but she was too near exhaustion
and too late.

Like a concentrated, cosmic javelin of death, that stream of madness
reached Carston alone. He shrieked but once, and leaped wildly, hands
clutching at his temples; then he crumpled to the floor. He had been
blasted to death as suddenly as if a gigantic atom-blast had drilled
him between the eyes.

Not until then, could Aladdian rise wearily to her feet, assisted by
Mark. Sorrowfully she looked at the figure of Carston. Already on
Venus, she knew, thousands lay dead, and perhaps hundreds more had died
in this final vengeful effort.

"They could not forget," she said sadly, "that it was Carston who
hounded me throughout the System to result in my imprisonment at
Paradim; and that it was he who cut the tendons of my wings."

She still clung to Mark's arm, half-supported by him. But despite her
utter weariness and all she had gone through, Aladdian still had eyes
for Cynthia, who stood there, a forlorn, shattered figure, staring down
at the body of Carston.

"Do not mind too much, my dear." Aladdian's voice and heart went out in
pity to the Earth girl. "In a short time you will forget all that has
happened here. Come with us to Venus, I know you will find happiness
there."

"With us?" It was Mark who spoke, his voice a bare whisper of hope.

"Yes, Mark." Aladdian smiled at him, the impish smile he had known in
Paradim. Then from the recesses of her tunic she drew forth a gleaming,
iridescent pearl.

"The purple Josmian!" Mark gasped. "The one I found in the Swamp. I'd
forgotten about it!"

"I kept it for you, Mark, knowing I would need it for this moment. From
lower species to middle order," her smile was impish again, "is not bad
for an Earthman. Take the Josmian now, it's yours; with it I elevate
you to the highest order and--"

But she said no more, for within Mark's arms she was deciding he wasn't
much taller than the average Venusian; no, not a great deal taller, at
all.





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