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´╗┐Title: You Can't Buy Eternity!
Author: Swain, Dwight V.
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 "You Can't Buy Eternity!" ***

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                Wherever he turned men hunted him; this
             was not surprising since he held the key to a
            secret men would kill for. Yet some believed--

                        YOU CAN'T BUY ETERNITY!

                          By Dwight V. Swain

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                             October 1957
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



                               CHAPTER I

                          HUNT THE MAN DOWN!


The carrier came first--a flimsy two-passenger craft, unsuited for
even the shortest of interplanetary jumps.

Swooping down too fast out of the eternal dust-clouds that shrouded the
Venusian sky, it crested a hillock by such a narrow margin as to spray
sand high into the never-ending wind, then veered right in a crazy arc.

Another hillock. The carrier struck it a glancing blow that churned
up new clouds of sand and dust as it skated diagonally down the slope
beyond.

Ahead, jutting from the endless waste of powdery grit that stretched as
far as eye could see, loomed low outcroppings of fantastically-eroded
rock.

The carrier plowed into them with a rending crash. Claw-like crags
gouged at the craft's thin metal skin. A hiss of escaping air played
sudden gusty counterpoint to the whistle of the wind. Line-welds
popped. Seams split. Bucking and shuddering, the carrier jolted to a
halt.

Before the echoes could even die, then, the cowling-seal flipped loose
from its seat. The warped entrance-bubble lifted jerkily, wrenched up
an inch or two at a time.

Barely half open, it halted. A man wearing a plastron breather-mask
squirmed through the slot and, falling, sprawled prostrate in the
shifting sands beside the tiny vessel.

But now a new sound echoed overhead--the heavy vibrance of a
spaceship's ramping-drone.

Sobbing for breath, the man beside the carrier moved convulsively,
then lurched to his knees. His chrysolite-green tunic was ripped wide
where it had caught on the cowling. A long gash above his left temple
stained dun-drab hair scarlet. His nose was bleeding, too, so that the
transparent breather-mask bubbled spreading ruby streaks every time he
sucked in air.

Now, clutching at the carrier's shattered hull, he dragged himself to
his feet, stood swaying there.

Simultaneously, the vibrance overhead echoed louder. A sleek-lined,
compact Grade IV short-range cruiser plummeted into view through the
dust-clouds and hovered momentarily in ramping position--base down,
tail fins parallel to the surface of the ground below.

The face of the man from the carrier contorted behind the
breather-mask. Turning sharply, he lurched away from the wrecked craft,
wading calf-deep through the powdery Venusian dust towards another,
larger outcropping of eroded rock.

But as he did so, the cruiser dropped with swift precision. The
balancing fins bit in atop a level dune near where the crippled carrier
lay. Gears ground. A hatch spun swiftly outward on its screw-locks.

The man on the ground broke into a stumbling run.

From the cruiser, an amplifier blared harsh male syllables: "Halt, you
chitza!" And then: "Pull up, rack you! Freeze! You know you can't get
away!"

The runner scrambled over a low ledge, then on again. He gave no sign
he'd even heard.

"You want a blast, huh, Thigpen? You want to go back with your legs
knotted up like old Pike Mawson's!"

The runner's stride broke. Flinging himself sidewise, he rolled bodily
down a short, sandy slope, then came up fast and plunged headlong into
the shelter of a grotesquely-shaped rock pillar.

Aboard the cruiser, someone cursed: the amplifier picked up the echo.
Voices rose angrily, only to cut off again as sharply as if slashed
with a knife.

And now, a new voice. A woman's voice, ragged and not quite steady:
"Don't worry, Thigpen. No one's going to hurt you. You've my word for
that."

       *       *       *       *       *

A little eddy of dust drifted out from behind the rock pillar; that was
all.

Again, the woman's voice: "This is Veta Hall, Thigpen. You don't know
me, but you've probably heard of the man I'm speaking for: Pike Mawson,
the adjudicator on Japetus. He wants to make a deal with you."

From the rock pillar, silence only.

"You needn't play coy, Thigpen. Mawson knows all about that 'life
catalyst' you helped Tornelescu work out. That's why he sent us for
you. He's old and crippled; he needs that catalyst himself, so he can
find youth again. He'll give anything for it--anything you name. And he
doesn't care how many human guinea pigs you killed developing it, or
that you cut old Tornelescu's throat. He'll even help hide you from the
FedGov men, if that's worrying you."

The last eddy of dust from behind the rock faded away.

"Please, Thigpen!" the woman begged. "Please surrender! It's suicide if
you don't." A pause. "Look: you've heard of Igor Cheng, haven't you?
The slaver from the Belt? Well, that's who Mawson sent with me to help
bring you in--Cheng and three of his pet Belt killers. Only now that
the FedGov's put a price on your head...."

The woman's voice trailed off. Then, after a moment, it rose again,
with such violence the amplifier screamed protest.

"Don't you understand, you fool?" she cried hysterically. "If you come
in now, Igor's willing to live up to his bargain with Mawson. But if
you give him trouble, he'll kill you for the FedGov bounty. Only if
he does that, then he'll have to murder me too, so I can't give him
away to Mawson when he claims pushing you off was an accident, or
self-defense, or whatever other story he decides on!"

Again, silence, broken only by the whish of blowing sand and the
ululations of the wind.

The woman sighed audibly. "All right, Thigpen. Don't say I didn't try
to give you a chance." Emptiness, defeat, had replaced the desperation
in her voice.

The amplifier clicked off. A moment later a landing ladder
ratcheted into view below the cruiser's cylindrical hull. A man
with radiation-pocked skin and an ugly, livid scar down his right
cheek appeared in the open hatchway and, locking his legs about the
ladder's uprights, slid swiftly to the ground. Another man of the same
hard-faced cut followed, and then another.

For a moment, the cold-eyed trio paused beneath the ship, adjusting
breather-masks and checking short-barreled blasters. Then, spreading
out, they moved warily towards the rock pillar behind which their
quarry had disappeared.

Still there was no visible move from the man addressed as Thigpen.
Swinging wide down the slope in a crouch, the scar-faced member of the
searching party circled so as to approach the pillar from the rear.

A moment later his voice rasped through a hand-amp: "Rack the dirty
starbo! He isn't here!"

Instantly, the cruiser's speaker clicked on again. "What do you mean,
he's not there?" A note of repressed excitement echoed in Veta Hall's
words. "He's got to be there, Igor! There's no way he could have broken
clear!"

The scar-faced man laughed harshly. "That's right, lover-girl. There's
no way. So don't waste energy hoping we'll miss him."

Now the landing party's two other members came abreast the pillar. A
second hand-amp cut in: "There's a little cover over this way, Cheng.
Maybe our boy snaked on over to the next outcrop."

"How could he? We were watching!"

The third man: "Well, you can't find him, can you?"

And the second again: "If he played it right, he could have made it,
Cheng. After all, he had that column between him and us."

"All right, we'll go on to the next rocks, then. And when we find that
chitza--!"

The trio spread out once more--wading through swirling sand, clambering
over jagged ledges. Chill menace showed in their stance and movements.
They held their blasters at the ready.

Then, reaching the maze-like cluster of monoliths that was their goal,
they advanced warily between its towering, weird-etched columns till,
one by one, they disappeared from view.

Behind them, sand heaved at the base of the rock pillar that had been
their first goal. A figure pushed up out of the drifted grit.

It was the man from the carrier. Shooting quick glances to right and
left, he rose cat-like, then paused momentarily while he tapped sand
from his breather-mask's filter. He looked better now than he had
before his brief respite, and both his nose and the head-gash had
stopped bleeding. Close-knit, of medium height, and obviously under
thirty, he moved with lithe coordination. Cool intelligence glinted
in the grey eyes. His face, though hardly handsome, combined an
intriguingly paradoxical mixture of recklessness and control.

Now, as he tapped the filter, light flashed from his wrist. Stopping
short, he fumbled off a standard doloid identification bracelet.

But though the picture was his, the name engraved beneath it was
_Stewart Ross_, not Thigpen.

For the fraction of a second, the man hesitated, then dropped the
bracelet into the sand and scraped it under with his foot.

       *       *       *       *       *

Next, pivoting, he struck out in the same general direction his
pursuers had taken, but at such an angle as would let the pillar screen
him from the cruiser.

A dozen yards farther on, a low, crumbling ledge crossed his path
slaunchwise. Dropping down into its shelter, the man wormed swiftly
along it till it played out in a wind-furrowed, trough-like hollow.

The hollow gave him cover to a dune, and the dune hid him till he
reached the first spur of the strata that formed the outcrop his
pursuers now were searching.

Staying low, out of view, Ross followed the spur till he reached the
upthrust columns and ledges themselves. Then, a fist-sized rock in each
hand, he rose and moved cautiously on into the maze.

Ahead, scar-faced Cheng came into view around a towering escarpment.

Instantly, Ross drew back. Tight-lipped, cold-eyed, he hefted the two
rocks.

Scowling under black, bushy brows as he peered this way and that,
blaster at the ready, Cheng shuffled closer ... closer....

Ross drew back a step. Then, through a slot between two great stone
slabs, he lobbed one of his rocks high into the air above Cheng's
head. Sailing in a swift arc, it struck the face of the escarpment and
rattled noisily down the steep slope behind the slaver.

Like lightning, Cheng whirled, finger already rigid on his weapon's
trigger.

It put his back to his stalker. Stepping clear of his sheltering slab,
Ross hurled the second rock.

It struck the base of Cheng's skull with a meaty _thunk_. The slaver
spilled forward.

Ross came in with a rush. Snatching up his downed foe's fallen blaster,
he whipped it round just in time to cover the other two members of the
landing party as they waded into view through the thick-drifted sand at
the cliff's base.

The pair stopped in their tracks, jaws dropping.

Ross' lips peeled back in the caricature of a grin. He didn't speak.

The two men from the cruiser hesitated, then exchanged quick,
raw-nerved glances.

Still not speaking, Ross flicked his blaster's muzzle ever so slightly;
triggered a bolt.

Sand spewed in a geyser bare inches from the feet of the man at the
left.

Like magic, the pair dropped their weapons.

Ross stripped off his torn, chrysolite-green tunic and tossed it down
beside black-browed, scar-faced Cheng, still lying limp and unconscious
in the sand. "Put this on him. And give me his outfit."

The slaver's two aides didn't even argue about it.

The switch finished and a cap donned to hide his gashed scalp, Ross
eyed his captives coldly. "How many aboard the cruiser?"

A moment of sullen hesitation. Then: "Just two--the girl, and one of us
to keep track of her."

"For your sake, I hope you're not lying." Ross' words held a flat,
deadly ring. "Now get this straight: you've finally captured me. But
you had to knock me out to do it, so you're carrying me back to the
ship." And then, to the nearest of the prisoners: "You! Put that on
your hand-amp. Tell the woman about it, strong enough for her to
believe it."

Eyes still on Ross' blaster, the man obeyed.

Ross smiled thinly. "Let's go."

Sullenly, his two prisoners heaved up their green-tunicked,
still-unconscious chief between them and, shuffling and stumbling,
carried him out of the outcrop's rocky maze to the dusty, windswept
spread of sandy waste beyond. Ross moved with them, but with face
averted. He maneuvered, too, to keep the others between him and the
cruiser.

Then, at last, they were climbing the dune on which the ship stood
ramped ... angling up the final slope and pausing beneath the shining
metal hull, out of view of the open hatchway above.

Ross said, "Lie down, you two!"

"Lie down--?" Panic flared in the eyes of the man nearest him. "So you
can blast us, you mean? No--"

He lunged as he spoke. But Ross was already moving, swinging up the
blaster's butt in a hard, fast blow to the other's head.

The man dropped. Hastily, his companion stretched out as ordered.

"Stay there," Ross clipped. Then, incredibly cool, he turned to the
ladder and, head tilted forward to hide his face, climbed swiftly
towards the hatchway.

Above him, Veta Hall spoke, her voice no longer marred by the
amplifier's distortion: "You really did get him, Igor? Alive, not
dead--?" But her tone told nothing of how she felt about it.

Ross mumbled incoherently, not slowing his climb.

"Will you need a sling to lift him, Igor?"--A male voice, this one.

Another guttural mumble. Ross' chin scraped his chest, he was holding
his head so far forward.

A hand touched his shoulder. "Speak up, Igor! I can't understand--"

Ross gripped the sill of the hatchway. His head came up--teeth bared,
eyes blazing. In one lunge, he slammed through the open port, bowling
Veta Hall aside.

The next instant he ricocheted into a gaping, goggle-eyed rowdy who
held a spanner in one hand, a vortane-tube in the other.

The man swung the spanner in a wild arc.

Ross ducked under it. Savagely, he drove an elbow into the other's
side, in the soft-fleshed belt between hip and ribs.

Goggle-eyes gave an anguished shallow-breathed gasp. Rising almost on
tiptoe, he tottered forward three or four uncertain steps, then slumped
in a heap on the floor.

When the woman tried to snatch up the fallen spanner, Ross kicked it
out of her hand with such violence that she cowered back against the
wall, moaning and clutching her bruised fingers.

Paying her no heed, Ross doubled back to the hatch and spun the
control-wheel. The vault-like door sang on its screw-locks. In seconds,
all entry was barred.

Bleakly, now, Ross glanced at his new prisoners--first the woman, then
the man, then back to the woman again.

"So Pike Mawson wants to make a deal with me, does he?" His curt laugh
held no mirth. "All right, I'll let him. Only the terms are going to be
mine, not his--and by the time I'm through, Stera help him, he'll wish
he'd never heard of me, or the catalyst, or old Tornelescu either!"



                              CHAPTER II

                          TROUBLE ON JAPETUS


Time passed slowly, hovering there high above tiny Japetus, waiting for
Saturn's shadow and a chance to slip in.

Ross yawned and stretched. Then, taking out his writer, he doodled
briefly on an astrogation pad.

Only somehow, the doodles all seemed to end up resembling Veta Hall.

Ross sighed and put away the writer. Sinking deeper into his seat, he
stretched his legs at full length before him. His shoulders, his head,
sagged forward just a fraction. But he still kept the blaster across
his lap; and though his lids tended to droop, his grey eyes still
followed the woman's every move.

Incongruously, she wore a quilted space-suit liner. But even such
failed to hide the youthfulness of her body and her movements. Her
dark, curly hair--worn short--only accented the regularity of her
features, the unblemished smoothness of her skin, the absence of all
lines and wrinkles.

Now, suddenly, she flushed under Ross' scrutiny. Turning away abruptly,
she fumbled in her shoulder-bag and, after a moment, brought forth a
Pallastan vocorn pipe.

Ross' eyes widened. But he said nothing.

Adjusting the pipe's mouthpiece, still ignoring Ross, the girl began to
play. Weird minor melodies, developed in the unique contrapuntal manner
of the pipe's fourteen-note polyphonic scale, welled and echoed through
the cramped space of the cruiser's cabin.

Wincing, Ross held his peace till the girl paused.

"You're from Pallas, Veta?" he asked then, quickly.

Wordless, she shook her head; began to play again.

Another fragmentary pause.

"Somewhere else in the Belt, maybe?" Ross persisted. "Vesta? Ceresta?
H'sana?"

Again, silent denial.

Ross frowned. "I didn't know they played vocorn pipes anywhere outside
the Belt."

Veta Hall broke off her music for an instant. "They don't," she
retorted succinctly, and plunged back into a Chonya dirge.

Ross laughed. "All right, I'll put the question straight, then: where
_are_ you from?"

"Ganymede. Porforio."

"And the pipe--?"

"I had a Pallastan teacher, an enthusiast. He convinced me that all the
inner and outer planets, and the satellites between, were holding their
breath waiting for someone to come along and play a vocorn pipe for
them."

"You sound bitter."

"I'm not, though. Not really." For the first time, the girl smiled and
fully faced Ross. "You see, I like piping, just for its own sake. And
now that it's past, it doesn't matter too much about the other, the
disappointment."

"The disappointment--?" Ross encouraged.

"Of finding I couldn't make a career of piping." Veta laughed wryly.
"First I tried in Porforio, then Idacta, then even Brenskaala, on
Callisto. Only there still weren't enough people who wanted to hear me
play, so when my money ran out--I didn't have too much to start with;
just what I'd inherited when my father was killed in a thermal--why,
when it was gone, I took a job in a traveling show, charming gulfers."

Ross stared. "Charming gulfers--?"

"That's right." Veta laughed. "I don't know what the right name for
them is, but they have them on some of the asteroids and they call them
engulfers--gulfers for short. They look like worn-out rubber rugs, but
if they get the chance they'll wrap themselves round you and digest you
alive with their juices."

"Go on."

Veta shivered. "They're awfully dangerous, really. They kill lots of
people in the Belt. But they happen to like vocorn music too; they'll
even move in rhythm to it. So in this show, I played my pipe to charm
them."

"It sounds fascinating," Ross observed dryly.

"Believe me, it wasn't." The girl shivered again. "But it was the best
I could do till I met Mr. Mawson."

"How did that happen?"

"The show went broke on Japetus. As adjudicator, Mr. Mawson checked on
it. He liked me, and the next thing I knew, he was giving me little
jobs to do. Then they got bigger, till finally he even sent me along on
this trip with Cheng to pick you up."

"I see," Ross nodded slowly. "He trusts you a lot, apparently."

"Yes, of course." Veta nodded also. But a nervousness suddenly seemed
to have seized her. Shifting, she fingered her pipe, eyes dodging Ross'.

For an instant he studied her; then rose, crossed the cabin, and once
more checked the visiscreen. "It won't be too long now. We're beginning
to move into shadow."

Veta's head came up. "And then--you're going down there, to Japetus,
and ... try to do something to Mr. Mawson--?"

"I'm going down, anyhow."

"But why?" Now Veta, too, rose from her seat. Half-hesitantly, she
came to him. "Wouldn't it maybe be better if you just--well, forgot
about it?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Ross' face darkened. "That kind of thing takes a lot of forgetting.
When somebody forces my carrier off course, so that I crash on Venus,
and then tries to blast me--" He broke off, thin-lipped.

"But still--"

Ross turned on the girl. "What do you care about it, whether I do or
whether I don't? Are you afraid Mawson might get hurt?"

His companion's face flamed. She started to turn away.

But before she could move, Ross caught her by the shoulders. His
fingers gouged into the soft flesh. "Don't try that! I'm not in the
mood for it, and I've heard better stories than the one you've been
telling. To listen to you talk, you're not even too bright.

"Only I don't believe that--not for a minute, because Pike Mawson's
not the kind of man to send a giggling girl out to take care of his
business. So throw out the act: you've got brains and judgment; admit
it!"

The color drained from the girl's face as Ross spoke. Twisting, she
cringed from his fingers.

He shook her. "Tell me the truth, rack you! Why did Mawson send you out
here with Cheng? What makes him so sure he can trust you?"

No answer.

Savagely, Ross flung the girl into a seat and turned his back on her.
"You're a fool!" he lashed bitterly. "A fool, and a liar, and the kind
of trollop who'll run a murderer's errands!"

"Shut up!" This from Veta. Eyes flashing, she jumped from the chair,
caught Ross by the elbow, and whirled him. Her hand whipped up and in,
slapping--once, twice, three times....

Ross reeled back, clutching for her wrists. "Stop it!" he roared.

"Why should I?" Veta tore free and twice more dealt stinging slaps
before he could pinion her arms. "You call me names--you, Lewis
Thigpen, the man who helped Tornelescu murder all those hundreds of
innocent people, testing that catalyst!" She was panting and sobbing at
once. Tears streaked her cheeks.

Ross said tightly, "I'm sorry I lost my temper. I apologize. But when
you wouldn't tell me why you were trying to keep me off Japetus--when
you wouldn't even answer my questions--"

"When I wouldn't tell you--?" The girl's tears streamed faster. "How do
you want me to say it? Like this?"

Once again, she tore free--and then, flinging her arms about Ross'
neck, buried her streaked face against his shoulder.

For an instant he stiffened. A tremor ran through him. Drawing the girl
even closer, he held her to him.

Her voice came muffled: "Don't you see? If you go down, they'll kill
you! You're all alone. You won't have a chance."

"That may be," Ross agreed quietly. "Or then again, it may not." A
pause. "Have you ever heard of a man named Zoltan Prenzz?"

"Prenzz--?" Veta lifted her face. "No, I haven't. Who is he?"

Ross smiled faintly. "Just a name; a man I knew once." Gently, he
tilted Veta's head back and kissed her. "First installment. You'll get
the second after we land."

He stepped back as he spoke and, turning, began checking instruments.

"Then--you're going down?" Veta's voice sounded very tired.

"Yes."

"To see this man you mentioned--Zoltan Prenzz?"

"Yes."

Wordless, the girl moved to a position in front of a second panel. With
cool efficiency, she adjusted dials; threw switches.

A hush fell over the cabin. The floor rocked slightly as gyroscopes
compensated for gravitational imbalance.

Then, abruptly, there was the slight jar of an almost-perfect ramping.
Spinning open an inspection hatch, Ross peered out.

Black night; nothing more.

Ross said, "The calculations must have come out on the target. Let's
go."

He spun open the screw-locks; ratcheted down the ladder.

More night. Silently, Ross slid to the ground.

Another moment, and Veta was beside him. Ross turned.

Simultaneously, light pinned him tight against the ladder. A smooth
voice said, "My dear sir! Surely you wouldn't deny us the privilege of
giving you a proper welcome!"

Ross could only blink and squint against the glare.

The voice from the darkness kept on talking: "You understand, of
course, that Japetus has few visitors. At best, it's small and
isolated. So, as adjudicator, I take it as my duty to show our little
world's appreciation...."

Talk and more talk, mellow and meaningless.

Yet somehow, now, a strange note of uncertainty had crept into the
speaker's voice. It was as if, suddenly, an initial planned strategy
had been shattered, with the result that for the moment he must feel
his way and play by ear.

Then, abruptly, that too changed.

"You men there!" the speaker cried, "where are your manners? Get those
lights out of the gentleman's eyes! Or at least spread them so we all
can see each other."

Instantly, the beam that pinned Ross broadened. With a faint _whish_,
a grav-seat dropped from the night to a landing close beside him.
Flipping a switch, its occupant held out a hand. "I'm Pike Mawson,
sir. Adjudicator for this satellite. Forgive me for not rising, but a
blaster-bolt some years ago made that a painful and rather involved
process for me."

Ross ignored the extended hand. "I'm Lewis Thigpen."

"Thigpen!" Pike Mawson appeared almost to choke on the name. "No wonder
you're glaring holes in me! I only hope you can find it in your heart
to forgive an old man's folly!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Ross' jaw sagged. He stared helplessly at the pale cripple in the
grav-seat.

Mawson said, "This is a long story, Mr. Thigpen, and it does me a deal
of discredit. But under the circumstances I have no choice but to tell
it." A pause, while he shifted position in the flying chair. "You see,
I've already heard from Cheng via your carrier com-set, even though
I didn't expect you to land here quite this soon. He's told me what
happened, there on Venus."

Ross said nothing.

"Believe me, Mr. Thigpen, piracy was the last thing in my mind when I
sent Cheng out to try to find you. But some over-direct individuals
misconstrue orders to their own tastes ever so easily."

"Apparently." Ross bit the word off.

But here, it seemed, all sarcasm was wasted. The adjudicator went on as
if no word had been spoken:

"The root fault's mine, Mr. Thigpen. I acknowledge it freely. When I
heard of Doctor Tornelescu's life catalyst, and that there was a chance
you knew its secret, my sense of values went out of balance. I could
think of nothing but the possibility that my own brief remaining span
could be prolonged. The fact that you faced--certain difficulties--as
a result of Tornelescu's untimely death; the detail that you had no
desire to come here--I pushed all such to the back of my mind. All
I could think of was the one burgeoning reality that Tornelescu had
finally isolated the chemical that controlled human aging; and that
when this chemical was injected into an older person, it combined with
the amino acids of the body to turn back the clock and give a man new
youth.

"It was a foolish thing for me to send for you, Mr. Thigpen. I realized
that almost as soon as Cheng's ship was out of sight. But by then, it
was too late to try to stop him, so all I have left to fall back on now
are apologies."

"Apologies?" Ross clipped. "It seems to me there's a small matter of
damages, also."

"Of course, Mr. Thigpen!" Mawson was almost too eager. "Would fifty
thousand satisfy you?"

"Fifty thousand--!"

"It's done, then. That is, if you have a writer you can lend me."

Wordless, Ross handed the adjudicator the slim tube; received it back
again with a signed form.

"Now we'll take you on into the city and find you quarters," Mawson
chortled. "Come. There's a transor over on the edge of the ramping
area."

A woman's voice from the outer darkness said, "Surely you'll not let
him go before you introduce us, Pike." Her tone was syrupy, with
shadings of coy reproach.

"No, of course not." Mawson's pale face grew unhappy. "Mr. Thigpen,
allow me to present the most famous woman of our time: the one and only
Astrell."

Already the woman was coming from the shadows, an auburn-haired vision
of utter loveliness.

Only then the full force of the light struck her, and the illusion
died beneath the bitter onslaught of too many years.

Astrell seemed to sense it. Hastily, she drew back into the fringe of
friendly shadows. "I won't hold you now, Mr. Thigpen; I know you must
be tired. But I promise, I'll see you another time."

"The transor, Mr. Thigpen--" Mawson began.

Ross said, "First, I'd like to speak for a moment to Miss Hall."

"Miss Hall? Miss Hall--?"

"The girl you sent with Cheng."

"Oh. Veta." The adjudicator's face grew even more unhappy. But he
raised his voice: "Sanford! Sanford, where are you?"

A shadow detached itself from the others ... a tall, gaunt shadow, this
time. "Here, Pike."

"Where's your sister, Sanford? Mr. Thigpen wants to see her."

"My sister? Veta?" Sanford Hall sounded vague about it. "How would I
know, Pike? I guess she must have slipped away."

Without another word, he turned to go. But as he did so, the blazing
lights focussed on the cruiser fell full into his eyes.

Ross breathed in sharply: the glaze, the distortion of iris and of
pupil--they could belong to no one save a starak addict in the last
stages of his vice.

"The transor, Mr. Thigpen--"

Ross said, "Thanks, Adjudicator. This takes care of me nicely. I'll
find my own quarters."

Without waiting for response, he pressed the first button that came
beneath his finger on the selector.

The transor surged forward. Leaning back, Ross checked his pocket for
the form Mawson had given him.

_Two_ pieces of paper rattled in his fingers. Frowning, he drew them
out.

The first was Mawson's form.

The second, a note-sheet, bore only a name and address: _Veta Hall,
417D Esrach Unit_.

Ross' frown furrowed deeper. Refolding both papers, he thrust them back
into his tunic.

       *       *       *       *       *

It took him an hour to find satisfactory two-room quarters.

The deciding factor in his choice, it finally turned out, was that one
place offered bars on the bedroom window.

Then that was done. Once again, Ross moved out into the streets ...
checked a com-call reel in the nearest store.

Zoltan Prenzz' address was less than ten minutes' walk away.

Two doors from Prenzz' number, Ross paused in the shadows. Warily, he
searched the street.

Now a man appeared, moving too casually down the other side.

Ross watched him till he was out of sight. Then, pivoting, he
proceeded to Prenzz' address.

No light showed. After a moment's hesitation, Ross knocked.

No response.

Ross rapped again, more sharply.

Still no answer.

Another moment's hesitation. Then, quickly, Ross slid a paper-thin
variable tab into the lock-slot.

There was a click of contacts made and contacts broken. Noiselessly,
the door swung back.

Swiftly, Ross stepped to one side and stood there, poised and waiting.

Nothing.

Or almost nothing.

Ross sniffed. His forehead furrowed. He stepped across the threshold;
sniffed again.

Two more steps, and his foot struck something in the darkness.
Stiff-fingered, he drew out his flamer; flicked it.

Its light fell full on the face of Zoltan Prenzz.



                              CHAPTER III

                             SQUEEZE PLAY


Prenzz was very dead.

That was self-evident, without examination. No stench such as permeated
this room ever could have come from living tissue.

The odor grew worse by the moment. While Ross stared, his face a mask
of numb, horrified disbelief, the corpse took on a strangely oozy
look. Inside its clothes, the body began to lose its contours. Flesh
sloughed from one cheek, then the other, as if putrefaction were
somehow here motivated to race to destroy the evidence of crime.

Shuddering, Ross flicked his light off, stumbled back to the door, and
retched. He was still shaking his head as if to clear his nostrils of
the cramped room's stench as he plunged into the shadows of the nearest
alley.

For a moment, there, he paused and stood frowning. Then, narrow-eyed,
he fumbled through his tunic's pocket and came out with a now-familiar
note-sheet ... unfolded it ... stared down at the name and address it
bore: _Veta Hall, 417D Esrach Unit_.

Folding the note-sheet again, Ross strode on through the alley to the
next street, climbed into the first vacant transor, and punched the
Esrach Unit button on the selector panel.

The transor surged forward, gears whining as it picked up speed. Three
minutes and a bewildering series of turns later, it ground to a halt
once more, automatic door already lifting.

Ross got out. But instead of going on into the unit, he left-faced,
walked briskly down the street to the first corner, turned right, and
so continued until, after another right turn, he stood directly behind
the Esrach building.

In front, the structure had made some show of keeping up appearances,
for all its obvious age and deterioration. The entrance was neat if not
new, and imitation veldrene drapes and occasional lengths of doloid
stripping had been added to put a bold front to drabness.

Back here, in the rear, all such was recognized as sham. Thick grime
and even streaks of rust took the place of decoration. Litter cluttered
the base-line, and the nearest door sagged half-open on its hinges.

Inside, old odors of grease and filth added to the air of decay.

There was a stairway of sorts beside an ancient fire-tube. Climbing to
the fourth level, Ross moved silently down the dank central corridor.

Veta Hall's number, 417D, was located close to the middle of the first
wing. Instead of a tab-lock, the door had a primitive chain affair,
anchored on the inside.

Getting out his writer, Ross maneuvered for a moment. The chain
clinked, then fell away.

Easing the door open the rest of the way, Ross stepped inside.

Small noises drifted from a room beyond the one in which he stood.
Crossing to it, he reached for the doorknob.

Before he could touch it, the door whipped open. Veta crossed the
threshold, her eyes not even focussing on him.

Ross caught her wrists as she looked up. When she started to cry out,
he twisted sharply, so that the sound died on an indrawn breath.

Now she stared at him, face pain-strained. "Thigpen, what's the
matter--?" It was the faintest of whispers.

"Nothing. Nothing but a corpse, that's all." Ross said it through
clenched teeth. "Not that you'd know anything about that, would you,
Veta?--About a man they called Zoltan Prenzz, the man I told you I was
going to see on Japetus first chance I got--"

He broke off; twisted the girl's wrists again.

It brought her forward on tiptoe, tiny anguished sounds bubbling in her
throat.

Ross' face stayed a cold, relentless mask. He said tightly, "It's my
own fault, Veta. All mine, for trusting you even a little--you, working
for Pike Mawson, and with a brother on starak. Only now you're going
to make it up by telling me the things I need to know. And this time
there'll be no holding out or stalling."

"Please, Thigpen...." The effort of speaking brought a small cluster
of saliva bubbles to one corner of Veta's mouth. "I don't know what
you're talking about. There must be some mistake--"

"Your mistake," Ross corrected harshly. He backed Veta into the room
from which she'd come. "We'll have some answers now: who killed Zoltan
Prenzz?"

"I don't know!"

"Who'd you tell about him?"

"I didn't--"

"Who, I said! Mawson? Your brother?"

"Thigpen, I didn't tell anyone! I couldn't! You only mentioned the man
once. I didn't even remember his name till just now, when you reminded
me."

"We'll try it again, then--"

A knock sounded on the outer door.

Veta opened her mouth to scream.

       *       *       *       *       *

Like lightning, Ross hammered a blow to her jaw, then caught her limp
body before she could spill to the floor.

The knock sounded again. A man's voice called, "All right, you, in
there! Open up."

Ross' eyes fanned the room, then fixed on the old-fashioned fire-tube
hatch set into the wall in one corner. Dragging Veta across to it
bodily, he wrenched it open, stuffed her in, and let her drop, then
hastily followed suit himself as the voice in the hall rose even more
belligerently.

The tube discharged them into a narrow, litter-choked court between the
building's wings. Veta slung over his shoulder like a sack of meal,
Ross ducked into the nearest entryway.

The niche sheltered the doors to two apartments. The sound of a man and
woman arguing violently pulsed from one; from the other, silence.

Now a shout rose on one of the building's upper levels: a man's angry
bellow, echoing and reechoing as it bounced back and forth across the
narrow court. Veta moaned and moved her head groggily.

A trickle of sweat rilled from Ross' hairline. Stepping close to the
door of the silent apartment, he tried the knob.

The door was locked.

Overhead, another shout. Then, from the court's ground level, a harsh
rattle of answer.

Ross stepped back fast, eyes distending. Lifting a foot, he smashed a
battering-ram kick at the door's lock.

The door burst open. Dodging past it as it swung back, Ross heeled it
shut behind him. He was breathing hard, and another rill of sweat had
joined the first.

Prowling through the empty apartment now, Veta still slung limp over
his shoulder, Ross jerked back storage area sealers until, after
half-a-dozen tries, he came upon and dragged out a heavy, shapeless
space-sack of the type used by cruiser crewmen.

Another moan from Veta. She shifted, clutching at Ross' tunic.

Unceremoniously, he dumped her on a bed, then returned to the
space-sack. Spreading its mouth wide, he lifted the girl's legs and set
her feet down inside the bag.

Veta's eyes flicked open, panic-shadowed. "What are you doing?"

"Getting you ready for a little trip." He heaved her up from the bed
and lowered her into the sack, pulling the heavy synthetic casing up to
cover her. "If you know what's good for you, you'll keep quiet."

He pulled the sealer-tab shut as he spoke, disregarding her sudden
frantic flurry of movement. Then, turning, he stepped back to the
storage shelves, selected and donned one of several spaceman's leave
caps, swung the bag to his shoulder, and boldly strode out of the
apartment and the court to the nearest transor-rank.

The trip across the city was uneventful. Hardly a hint of movement
showed through the stiffness of the space-sack's heavy casing.

Ross left the transor two streets from his own quarters, walking the
rest of the way through two linked alleys. He was half-panting by the
time he reached the entrance; and his fingers shook as he shoved the
card into the tab-lock.

Then, at last, he stepped into the dim, silent living room and dumped
the space-sack to the floor. Tossing the leave cap into a corner, he
swabbed the sweat from his forehead, shoved shut the door and bolted
it, and slid a lamp-switch to the first notch.

The room brightened.

A voice came through the silence also: "You frightened me, Thigpen. I
was beginning to be afraid you weren't coming."

A woman's voice, low and husky and seductive.

Ross spun round, eyes distending.

Astrell reclined on the divan across the room in studied grace. The
soft light smoothed her features so that when her lips curved in a slow
smile she might have been younger by twenty years.

"Didn't you expect me, Thigpen?" she murmured. "I told you I'd come,
you know."

Ross shrugged, not speaking. His face now had taken on a wooden look.
Picking up the space-sack, he carried it to the bedroom, closing the
door after him as he returned.

Still smiling, Astrell patted the seat beside her with a somewhat pudgy
hand. "Come sit down, Thigpen."

Ross met her gaze coldly. "I don't think that's necessary, Astrell."

"Oh, but it is!" The woman rose from the couch as she spoke, and came
to him. "It's not just the catalyst, my dear. I want to get to know you
better."

"Do you?"

"Of course I do!" Astrell traced fluttery designs on the front of Ross'
tunic with a long-nailed forefinger. Close up, her knuckles showed deep
wrinkles. The skin along the backs of her hands was creping, too, and
the flesh along her throat, beneath her eyes, and at the corners of her
mouth was sagging visibly.

But still she preened, and fluffed her halo of determinedly auburn
hair, and threw Ross the coy, flirtatious, low-lashed glances of a
woman two decades younger. "You know, darling, you'll be glad, too."

"Oh?" Ross stood unbending. "Just what is it I'll be glad of?"

"Why, that you helped me, of course." Astrell laughed, just a bit too
shrilly. "It's not as if I were asking you to give it to me, you know.
I'm more than willing to pay for it, and I've the money, too--more
money than you can even dream of, all my savings from those years when
no one from here to the Belt even thought of giving a social affair top
rating, if Astrell didn't attend."

       *       *       *       *       *

The woman seemed to grow taller as she spoke. Head high, she moved
to and fro with slow, graceful steps--a queen in bearing, however
caricatured, living for the moment in her dreams of glory-radiant days
gone by.

Then, once more, she paused close to Ross. "Besides, my dear, once I've
the catalyst, I'll be young again--and very, very grateful to you." An
insinuating laugh. "Darling, have you any idea how delightful it can be
to hold the gratitude of a girl whose talents were such that she was
able to marry the seven richest men in all the outer planets, one after
the other?"

Again, the woman reached out a pudgy hand to caress Ross. His teeth
clicked together, as if with a sudden involuntary shiver. Catching the
hand in his own, not too gently, he pushed it away.

"There's something you need to understand, Astrell," he said in a
tight, controlled voice. "I can't think of anything I'd rather do than
milk you of all that money you've piled up. But I haven't got the
catalyst, or the formula either. So you're wasting your time, mooning
around me."

"Don't worry, Thigpen. I understand." Astrell gave vent to a
knowing, conspiratorial giggle. "You've got to be careful. Killing
Tornelescu--that was dangerous; you can't afford to admit it, even to
me. The same way with the catalyst: you've no intention of confessing
you've so much as heard of it. But if a case of it were to turn up in
my rooms, somehow, and a money-case were to vanish--"

Ross said, "Get out."

"'Get out'--?" The woman's head jerked back. She searched his eyes for
a long, unsteady moment.

Then a pallor came to her withered cheeks, for all their show of
artificial color. Her breathing speeded. "Thigpen, you mean it! The
catalyst--you're not going to sell it to me--"

And then, in a rush, face thrust close: "Don't say it, Thigpen! Don't
say it if you want to live! I can give you beauty. I can give you
money. But if you won't take them, then I'll get the catalyst without
you! They'll find you in an alley with your throat cut, Thigpen--the
same way you left Tornelescu! And Thigpen--you'll call it a favor when
they finish you, because first they'll make you tell the secret--"

The woman's voice rose higher with every sentence, till she was
half-screaming. Her face contorted into a wrinkled mask of hate. Her
back bent, too, and her body seemed to pull together, till when she
shook her fist at Ross she was hag, incarnate; the embodiment of every
creaking crone.

"Out!" Ross clipped. "Out!" Grimly, he pressed her back towards the
door.

For an instant it seemed she was going to resist, force him to back his
commands with violence. Then, abruptly, she whirled and without another
word fled the apartment.

Gustily, Ross let out pent-up breath and, pivoting, turned once more to
the other room.

But now, on the threshold, he stopped short. For where the space-sack
had lain brief minutes before, now there was only crumpled bedding.

Momentarily, Ross stood as if paralyzed. Then, with a curse, he sprang
forward--flinging aside furniture; clawing open the storage areas.

No Veta.

Ross whirled to the barred window.

The bars weren't there any more.

Stiff-faced, stumbling, Ross sank down onto the bed.

Only then, seemingly out of nowhere, Cheng spoke to him: Cheng, the
smuggler; Cheng, the slaver; Cheng, the black-browed, scar-faced killer
from the Belt:

"All right, Thigpen. Listen to me. This is the way we're going to play,
and I don't mean to tell you more than once."

Ross came up from his seat as if on springs. Wildly, he looked this way
and that.

To no avail. There was no sign of anyone in either room.

"Get this, now, Thigpen. Get it the first time."

Slowly, Ross turned, searching.

The thing lay on a table close at hand--one of those silvery spheres
known as memory balls, a tiny, self-contained speaker unit only
slightly larger than a marble yet still capable of repeating once any
brief statement made in its immediate vicinity.

Cheng's voice again: "A man runs a woman into his place in a
space-sack, he likes her some, Thigpen. That's the way I see it."

Ross dug his nails into the table.

"Call her a hostage if you want to, Thigpen. Because she don't come
back till I get the formula for that life catalyst stuff you took off
old Tornelescu."

Ross' eyes seemed to draw deeper into his skull, his head to sink
farther down between his shoulders.

"Of course, if you're the kind of chitza don't give a filan how long it
takes the wench to die, that won't mean nothing to you."

Ross stood as if carved in granite.

"Maybe you _do_ like her, though." Cheng chuckled maliciously. "Well,
then, that makes it simple: you just hang around awhile at a place they
call Naraki's. It's down in the old port quarter." A fragmentary pause.
"You got that, Thigpen? You just stick at Naraki's kabat-dive till
somebody comes and gets you.

"Otherwise--no more Veta Hall!"

The memory ball clicked off.



                              CHAPTER IV

                              THE GULFERS


Ross carried it clear to Commandant Padora, at FedGov Security
headquarters.

At that level, the conversation didn't last long.

"And just what is your mission, Mr. Ross?" The commandant's voice rang
chill, even through the com-set.

Ross ran his tongue along dry lips. "To recover Doctor Tornelescu's
notes and formulae pertaining to the life catalyst at the earliest
possible moment, sir."

"To the best of your knowledge and belief, does Cheng hold those
papers?"

"No, sir."

"Does the Hall girl?"

"No, sir."

"Do either of them know what's become of the batch of prepared catalyst
allegedly taken from Tornelescu's laboratory?"

"Not so far as I know, sir."

"The situation seems clear enough to me, then." Commandant Padora's
tongue bore a scalpel edge. "You hold the rank of special agent in
this organization, Mr. Ross. That entails a certain obligation. Among
other things, it means that when you're assigned a mission, you carry
it out, without quixotic sidetrips to rescue maidens in distress."

Ross flushed even in the darkness of the com-booth. "Yes, sir."

"To save time for both of us, then, I suggest that from now on you
remember you're masquerading under the name and in the garb of Lewis
Thigpen for one purpose only: to decoy Tornelescu's killer out of
hiding."

"Yes, sir."

"Then get on with it! That's an order!"

Ross swore beneath his breath as the line went dead. Savagely, he
dialed another number.

A brisk male voice: "FedGov Building Seven."

"Get me Pike Mawson's office."

"That's Department of Litigation, sir. One moment."

A female voice: "Department of Litigation, Adjudicator Mawson's office."

"Let me talk to Mr. Mawson."

More time out. Then: "Adjudicator Mawson speaking."

"Thigpen here."

"Thigpen, Lewis Thigpen?" The adjudicator's voice grew brusque and
chill. "I'm afraid you have the wrong party, sir. I don't know anyone
named Thigpen."

"Listen, Mawson--"

"Murderers are hardly to my taste, sir. Even if I did know Thigpen,
it would be my greatest pleasure to turn him over to Security for
immediate prosecution."

Angrily, Ross slammed up the com-set and stalked forth from the booth.

Outside, the street was empty, without even a transor in sight. Turning
right, Ross strode grimly towards the nearest avenue. His face was set
in bitter, deep-hewn lines, but no hesitation showed in his carriage or
his manner. Rather, an air of hard, aggressive recklessness now marked
him. Tension was in his stance, his movements--the sort of surging
drive that calls for quick release in action.

Only then, of a sudden, close behind him, a power-unit crescendoed from
hum to thunder. Wheels screamed as they scraped a curb.

Ross dived sidewise by reflex, not even glancing backward.

Careening, a vanster hurtled across the spot where he'd stood, then
rocked back into the street and raced out of sight.

The man in the control-seat was the same one who'd appeared close by
Zoltan Prenzz' apartment.

Tight-lipped, Ross picked himself up and brushed the dust from his
clothes, then continued warily on to the avenue.

Here there were transors. In seconds, Ross was on his way to the old
port quarter and Naraki's.

The place was a kabat-dive, as Cheng had said; the clientele cold-eyed,
hard-faced, seclusive.

Ross started drinking.

Three kabats later, a lounger with the dark, lethal look of Malya blood
about him passed Ross' elbow. "Ramp 9-D, Thigpen."

It was deftly done, with unmoving lips. To all outward appearances, the
man hadn't even spoken.

       *       *       *       *       *

The ramp held a freighter with a space-pocked, time-battered hull
that hid a high-capacity neutron drive capable of powering a Grade IX
cruiser.

Ross boarded the ship in bleak silence, with questions neither asked
nor answered on either side. Pausing at the galley, he gulped food till
he could hold no more, then slumped down in a bunk to sleep out the
trip in a state of something close to complete exhaustion.

And then, seemingly in seconds or minutes rather than hours, the craft
was ramping again, dropping down amid the cliffs and crags and craters
of a bleak asteroidal landscape.

Still blinking the sleep from his eyes, Ross stumbled through a
cargo-shaft, into a vast, cave-concealed shelter.

There were corridors, after that, and shaft-lifts; and, finally, a
long, narrow, cell-like room with a barred door.

The two men who'd guided Ross shoved him in; slammed shut the
self-locking door behind him.

Grim-faced, Ross turned.

"Thigpen!" Veta Hall ran towards him, out of the shadows at the far
end of the room. Gladness rang in her voice; shone from her face. "You
came! You came!"

"Did I have a choice?" Ross' smile held little mirth. "I got you into
this, Veta; trussed you up in a sack like a pigeon for Cheng to grab.
The least I can do is try to get you out."

"Don't worry, Thigpen. You can get her out."

Igor Cheng speaking, this time.

Ross turned sharply.

The scar-faced, black-browed smuggler-slaver-outlaw stood just beyond
the barred door, lips peeled back in a death's head grin. His thumbs
were hooked in his broad belt, and his expression was that of a man
well-satisfied with his world.

Ross' face went wooden.

"You ready to talk?" Cheng prodded.

"Would I be here if I wasn't?"

"Well, where's that formula? Let's see it!" Cheng thrust a hairy hand
between the bars.

Ross shrugged. "Did you think I'd be fool enough to bring it with me?"

"Then what--?"

"You'll have to take us to it."

"Where?"

"Venus. That place you crashed me."

Cheng leaned on the bars--brutal face darkening; scar livid. His voice
came out a snarl: "Don't try it, you starbo! Don't try it!"

Ross met the slaver's glare coldly. "What shouldn't I try?"

"That yodor Venus business!" Cheng gripped one of the doorbars with
thick fingers. "My pickup crew brought in a gorvide detector. We went
over every inch of your carrier; that whole section we traveled. And
all we came up with was this!"

Reaching into a pocket, he brought out Ross' doloid identification band
and tossed it down on the floor of the cell.

Momentarily, Ross' eyes narrowed a fraction; that was all.

"You take that too good, you zanat!" the slaver observed. "You held too
tight on it. So maybe you better start off this party by saying who
Stewart Ross is, and how you got your picture on his bracelet."

Ross shook his head, a fraction too swiftly. "I've never seen it
before."

"Don't waste your breath, starbo!" Cheng leaned on the bars. "I call
the turn here, and I say you talk--about Tornelescu's formula; that
band, there; anything at all. You can do it quick, or you can hurt
awhile first. Make up your mind."

"In that case--"

"You're still stalling. You came here to stall." The slaver's scar
twitched. "You thought you'd send me off on some ban-crazy run, while
you sneaked away with the girl. Only it won't work." A fragmentary
pause. "Where's that formula?"

"I don't know--"

"I said, it won't work!" Cheng gestured to his men. "Strip the lousy
chitza. See if it's in his stuff."

A brief flurry of struggle; then a search--the thorough kind of search
that took account of every seam, every stain; coins, flamer, writer,
pad.

It netted nothing.

Cheng said, "Good enough, Thigpen. I'm glad you're this stubborn. It
gives me a chance to loosen you up."

He turned to his men. "Bring 'em in."

Wordless, Ross pulled on his clothes. A light sheen of sweat glistened
on his forehead.

Cheng said to Veta, "This zanat was good on the one end. He got all
those people for old Tornelescu--the ones the doc tested the catalyst
on. They say he even did the work, too; squirted the stuff in with an
aeroderm. By the reports on the show-screen, he must have killed over
two thousand."

Cheng's helpers came back, rolling a wheeled case so broad it
completely blocked the barred doorway.

"Like I said," the smuggler smirked, "this boy's good on the one end.
Now we'll see how he fits on the other."

He stepped back, out of the way. His men rolled the case up tight to
the door, then lifted a sliding hatch at the end.

Slithering sounds came from the case. Then, quickly, a strange,
grey-black form slid through the open hatch, between the door's bars,
and down onto the floor of the cell.

Veta drew a swift, noisy breath. Her voice cracked. "_Gulfers--!_"

The sweat on Ross' forehead began to bead. A greyness came to the
corners of his mouth.

Now a second of the creatures slithered down onto the floor. Then a
third, and a fourth.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a horror in the creatures' very shapelessness. Flat,
sprawling, like six- or seven-foot patches of dampness, they undulated
over the floor in an erratic, wave-like pattern, closer and closer to
Ross and the girl.

Tight-lipped, a step at a time, his arm about Veta, he drew back to
the far end of the narrow room.

Fumbling in her shoulder-bag, the girl brought forth her vocorn pipe.
Without a word, she began to play a strange, wailing tune.

As if by magic, the gulfers' wave-patterns lost their erratic touches.
Now they moved smoothly, in a sort of hideously-rhythmic dance.

Beyond the barred door and the wheeled cage, Cheng laughed harshly.
"That's it!" he jeered. "See who lasts longer, the girl or the gulfers!
There's plenty of time!"

Veta's face paled. The smooth flow of her music grew ragged.

Instantly, the gulfers once again moved forward.

Ross drew back yet another step; threw the girl a quick look.

Her fingers, her hands, her whole body was shaking. Horror crawled in
her eyes--but not for an instant did she lift them from the advancing
gulfers, even though she swayed as if on the verge of fainting.

Ross held her close; braced her. But she only shook harder. Her piping
had lost all traces of pattern, of rhythm. Far from halting the
gulfers, it now seemed to draw them, incite them.

Beyond the barred door, Cheng laughed again in fierce, sadistic triumph.

Ross gripped Veta tighter. "Stop it, girl! Stop the piping!"

She gave no sign that she'd heard him. After a moment, he reached
down ... pulled the pipe from her lips.

Now, for the first time, she tore her eyes from the hideous things on
the floor. "No, no! Let me pipe! They'll come--they'll engulf us!"

Ross said gently, "They'll come anyhow. You can't stop them. So now
it's time I tried."

"Time--you tried--?"

"Yes. Just as soon as I tell you something."

Some of the blank horror left Veta's eyes. "Tell me--? What?"

Low-voiced, Ross said, "I don't want us to die with you thinking I'm
Lewis Thigpen. That bracelet Cheng found was mine. My name's Stewart
Ross, and I'm a Security Agent. Actually, Thigpen died of a heart
attack before Tornelescu was killed. But whoever murdered Tornelescu
doesn't know that. He's geared to go after Thigpen, because the
catalyst formulas and notes use a code for ingredients, and Thigpen's
the only one who knew it. So we figured a fake Thigpen would draw the
killer out of hiding."

He stopped abruptly. "I wanted you to know." And then, staring down at
the gulfers as moment by moment they closed in: "Here. Give me your
pipe."

But Veta's fingers tightened about it. "No. Not till I've told you
something too, Stewart. You see, I had to help Mawson. It was the only
way I could keep my brother Sanford out of Venus Barracks. But I didn't
dare tell you. Mawson--he could have had Tornelescu murdered. And he
sent Cheng after you, too, thinking you were Thigpen. Only I think
he'd seen Thigpen someplace or other, so when he saw you, he knew you
weren't the right man--"

Ross broke in, "I'm sorry, Veta. There's no more time for talk. For
real, we either do or die right now."

A gulfer brushed his foot as he spoke. Shuddering, Ross' jerked back
hard against the room's rear wall, twisting the vocorn pipe from Veta's
hand.

Then, like lightning, his arm whipped back, and forward, hurling the
instrument the length of the narrow room, straight at the barred door
and Igor Cheng.

It was close, a near miss. But Cheng ducked as it hit.

Simultaneously, Ross dived bodily across the encroaching gulfers.

He didn't clear the last, but he was rolling when he landed. Before the
creature could get a grip and wrap itself about him, he was on his feet
and lunging for the barred door. Arms extended, thrusting between the
heavy rods, he threw his whole weight on the wheeled cage just beyond.

The cage rolled back, away, gaining momentum with every turn of the
wheels.

Something brushed Ross' leg. He whirled as a gulfer started to surge up
about his ankle.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bending double, Ross caught the monster by one edge and, with a mighty
heave, sent it flapping and slithering between the door's bars, out
into the anteroom beyond.

The thing almost hit Cheng. With an oath, the slaver leaped away.

"The cage!" he roared. "Bring back that cage!"

His aides leaped to obey.

Ross snatched up a second gulfer; hurled it after the first.

Cursing and dodging, Cheng's men raced the cage back, striving to block
the door.

Kicking through the bars, Ross knocked it out of alignment. Then,
grappling with another gulfer, he swung it so it fell on the far side
of the closest man.

A hoarse yell. The burly, bullet-headed outlaw leaped back against the
bars in his effort to escape contact with the monster.

Fast as a striking vrong, Ross caught the man by the throat with one
hand and clawed out his victim's light-pistol with the other.

The first beam he fired scorched the corridor wall less than a foot
from Igor Cheng's head. The second dropped Cheng's other helper in his
tracks.

The slaver sprinted away like a scared ban.

Ross' voice crackled. "All right, you! Do you live or die?"

But now, equilibrium recovered, his prisoner only sneered. "Go ahead.
Shoot. A fat lot of good it'll do you, locked up there in that room."

Ross' nostrils flared. He dug the pistol deep into the other's broad
back.

But Veta caught his arm. "No, Stewart! No! That's not the way!"

And then, to the guard: "Look, Burrage: this is your chance as well as
ours."

"My chance--?" The man's eyes rolled as he tried to look far enough
round to see her.

"Yes, of course." Veta moved closer. "Did Cheng tell you a batch of
Tornelescu's life catalyst was stolen, along with the formulas?"

"It was--?"

"Yes, and it's worth millions--more money than you can even count."

"Where is it?"

"Porforio, on Ganymede."

"Millions, you say--?" The man called Burrage was almost drooling. "I
could get you out of here and down to Ganymede for that."

"Then do it," Veta said. And, to Ross: "Here, let me have that." She
levered the light-pistol from his hand.

"Hurry! Blast the lock!" Burrage grated. "Another minute, and Cheng may
be back!"

"Of course," Veta nodded. "It's just that there's one other detail I
want clear before we break out. About Stewart, here."

Ross stared. "What--?"

Coolly, Veta leveled the pistol at his belly. "I'm sorry, Stewart," she
said, "but you're coming as a prisoner.

"You see, the man who has that batch of catalyst is my brother, Sanford
Hall!"



                               CHAPTER V

                            SMELL OF DEATH


Porforio. Queen city of Ganymede, gem of the outer planets. Bright
lights and broad avenues and the graceful architecture of a superior
culture, all sealed beneath a gigantic plastic bubble.

Cold-eyed, Ross followed Veta and the man called Burrage as they
stepped from the transit belt and approached a low, smooth-lined row of
buildings.

Veta said, "The last place is my brother's."

Ross nodded, not speaking, and lengthened his stride.

They reached the entrance. Veta started to step into the warning-beam.

But now Burrage caught her arm. "Oh, no, you don't! We're not about to
let him know we're coming!" Then, pulling the girl back, he brought a
long, hand-broad, wire-and-plastic tube, a beam-bridge, from beneath
his tunic. Deftly, for all his lumbering-ape appearance, he slapped the
ends of it over both door-casing outlet tubes at the same instant, so
swift and smooth that the umbrian waves' flow was broken by only the
faintest of _click-clicks_.

"See? Simple!" Burrage bared stained yellow fangs in an anthropoid
grin. "This way, we'll just surprise him." He shoved the door open;
gestured. "Stay ahead of me from here on, you two. It's like I say: I
really trust you."

Wordless, Ross passed through the doorway, Veta close on his heels.

Sanford Hall's unit was on the second level.

Again, Burrage pushed Ross ahead, then drew his blaster and turned its
dial from penetrosion to the impact level. "I'll hit the bolt," he
grunted. "The second it shatters, you dive in."

A muffled crash, like that of a gigantic hammer striking. The door
burst open. Ross lunged in.

The room was empty.

Now Burrage and Veta joined him. The girl's face was a study in blank
disbelief as she stared this way and that. For his part, Burrage walked
in ever-widening circles like a caged animal--head thrust forward, long
arms dangling.

Ross' lips twisted wryly. He leaned back against the wall.

Abruptly, Burrage halted; turned on Veta. "All right, where is he?" he
slashed savagely. "Me, I risk my neck with Cheng an' the FedGov too to
come here--an' now your stinkin' brother's not even here--"

He broke off. His brows drew together a fraction, and he sniffed. "This
place stinks, even!" he announced vehemently.

Now, Ross, too, was sniffing, straightening. His eyes flicked over the
empty room, then fixed on the door of an old-fashioned closet of the
pre-sealer period over in one corner.

Crossing to it with quick strides, he jerked the door open.

A stench rolled out into the room. Hastily, Ross shoved the portal
almost closed again. "Burrage! Come here!"

The other was beside him in one ape-like bound.

Ungently, Ross shoved him a step to one side. "Get over that way a
little. I don't want to open this any farther than I have to." And
then. "Ready?"

The other's bullet head bobbed.

"Here goes, then--"

Burrage leaned forward.

Ross jerked the door open once more, swinging it with savage, driving
violence. The edge smashed at Burrage's forehead like a poleaxe.

Simultaneously, Ross leaped sidewise, kicking for the back of the
other's knees.

The kicked leg went out from under Burrage. Before the man could hit
the floor, Ross kicked again--to the temple, this time, short and
brutal.

Yet still the man caught Ross' foot ... held it ... jerked him down.

Ross kicked with the other foot--a heel-smash to the teeth.

A guttural, animalistic sound burst from Burrage's throat. Letting go
Ross' foot, he clawed forward, grappling.

Rolling across him, Ross clutched for the fallen blaster.

In the same instant, Burrage seized Ross by the hips in a bear-hug.
The muscles along his back and shoulders writhed as he drew the grip
tighter and tighter.

Ross sucked in air in an anguished gasp. Fumbling, he stabbed at his
antagonist with the blaster.

But always the quarters were too close, the danger of killing them both
too great.

Burrage tightened his grip. A sound of bone scraping bone came dimly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now Veta flung herself into the fray, beating vainly at Burrage's back
and shoulders.

She might as well have been a moth on the far side of the room.

Groaning, Ross smashed the blaster down atop Burrage's bullet head.

But the weapon was for shooting, not striking. At the second blow, the
light metalloplast alloy shattered.

Veta cried, "Back, Stewart! Roll him back!"

Back bowing, Ross heaved. Together, he and Burrage toppled over.

And now, Burrage's bullet head was close beside the closet door again.
Panting and sobbing, Veta swung the portal at the close-cropped skull,
slamming it home again and again.

More animal sounds from Burrage. He let go of Ross' hips and,
spasmodically, tried to twist away.

Without avail. Ross held him tight.

Another blow from the door-edge ... then another....

Of a sudden, Burrage went limp.

Ross sagged back also, sucking in air in great, lung-deep gulps while
Veta cradled his head, sobbing hysterically.

Then, at last, Ross dragged himself up from her lap, and finally from
the floor. Unsteadily, he lurched to the closet door, half-opened it,
and once again stared into the space beyond.

Veta started to join him. But he shoved her back. "No. You wouldn't
want to."

She stared at him blankly. "I wouldn't want to what?"

"You wouldn't want to see what's in there." Ross shuddered. "Smelling
it's bad enough."

The girl turned pale.

For now, the stench in the room was well-nigh unbearable.

A hideous stench. The same appalling odor that had permeated the room
in which Zoltan Prenzz died.

Ross said, "Go over by the hall door, Veta. And stay there."

Lips trembling, the girl obeyed.

Stiff-faced, Ross opened the closet, then dropped to one knee and
peered this way and that.

The thing inside had been a man once. Now, there remained only an
oozing heap of protoplasmic horror.

From the far end of the room, Veta said faintly, "Is--is it Sanford?"

"The clothes are his." Ross answered in a toneless voice. "Beyond that,
I doubt that anyone could say."

He straightened; turned to go.

And there it was, written in slime, chest high on the door's inner
side. 3/111 and the outline of a triangle squared.

Standing so he blocked the closet, Ross swung the door all the way back
against the wall. "Veta!"

"Yes, Stewart--?" Quickly, she came to him.

He pointed to the symbols on the door. "Do these mean anything to you?"

"Three one-hundred-elevenths of a triangle squared--?" Brow furrowed,
she stared at the inscription for a long moment. "No, I'm afraid it
doesn't."

"It does to me," Ross said.

Veta's head came round. "It does--? What?"

"It means we're getting closer." Ross smiled thinly. "And just in case
you wonder what we're getting closer to, the answer is; closer and
closer to Tornelescu's life catalyst, closer to the formula ... maybe
even closer to Adjudicator Pike Mawson."

Veta's eyes suddenly were shadowed. She looked away and bit her lip.

Ross said, "You don't seem very happy."

"Stewart--Please, Stewart...." Veta broke off, lips aquiver. And then,
in a shaky, uneven voice: "Can't we forget about them, Stewart--all of
them--the catalyst, the formula, Mawson?"

"Oh?"

"Don't you understand? There's death in that catalyst, Stewart--death
in it, and everything about it. It's cursed. Anyone who even comes
close to it goes.--Like Sanford--"

"I know," Ross said. But the words held no sympathy, no understanding.
"Now that your brother's dead, the catalyst's cursed. We should forget
about it."

Veta's face came up. She stared at Ross. "Stewart, please--"

Ross kept on as if she hadn't spoken. "The only question is," he
clipped, "will some other people forget about it just as easily?"

"Other people--?"

"Yes. People like Commandant Padora of Security, for instance; he's
hunting for me, you know. And Cheng--when do you suppose he'll quit?
Mawson, too. That man who followed me on Japetus. Astrell. All the
others who've got a finger in this pie--" Ross broke off; laughed
harshly. "I don't think quitting's going to be as easy as you think,
Veta; not by half-a-million light-years."

"But we could run for it, Stewart!" Of a sudden Veta's words came quick
and eager. "Even Security doesn't reach everywhere, nor Cheng either.
The satellites off the beaten track--even an asteroid with an out-size
orbit like Hidalgo's--we could go there. It might be years before they
found us, if they ever did."

"True enough," Ross nodded. There was a faint edge of contempt in his
voice. "Only I'm not going."

       *       *       *       *       *

The light in Veta's eyes died. She stared at him in numb silence.

Ross said, "Your brother's dead, Veta. That seems to be all you care
about.

"The trouble with me, though, is that I keep thinking about all the
other brothers, and the mothers and fathers and sisters and wives and
husbands and children too--all the people in this solar system who
don't want to die, but who will, just so long as Tornelescu's life
catalyst formula stays in the wrong hands."

"Stewart--"

"Whoever's got that catalyst isn't thinking about life, Veta, or people
either. He's thinking about power, the same way Cheng and Burrage think
about it. He knows that as long as people love life, that catalyst
formula can buy the universe for him.

"That's why I'm not going to run, Veta. And that's why I'm going to
finish this job, bring in that formula, even if it turns out you're
the one who stole it and I have to cut your throat in order to make
recovery."

A visible tremor ran through Veta Hall. Stumbling, face averted, she
cowered against Ross. "Stewart ..." she whispered. "Please, Stewart,
forgive me. Let me go with you. That's all I ask--" And then: "Hold me,
Stewart. Just hold me."

Slowly, Ross brought his arms about her. His face was lined, his eyes
somber.

After a moment, he said, "We've got to go, Veta. Now. Every minute's
precious."

Instantly, the girl straightened. "Of course, Stewart." A smile,
tremulous and uncertain. "Where--where are we going--?"

"We'll find out in a minute." Ross stepped over to the wall com-set and
dialed a number. A moment later he said, "Mr. Lindgren, please." And
then, after another pause: "Peter?--This is Stewart."

A longer pause, replete with sputtering sounds. When the sounds had
died, Ross said, "I know I'm wanted, Peter. That's why I'm calling on
you: I need help, badly. Otherwise I may not be able to wind up this
business, get back that formula. And without the formula I'm in for a
sure short-court."

More sputtering. More waiting.

Finally Ross said, "Either you want to help me or you don't, Peter.
What I need is any information you can give me on an address: number
III of side three, Triangle Square, Calor City, Mars."

Silence. Echoing eternities of silence.

At last Veta Hall whispered, "What makes you think those symbols
represent that address?"

"Tornelescu's laboratory was located at number 121, side two. I found
that out at the briefing when I took on this assignment."

"Oh."

The com-set again, but with swift, clipped words instead of sputtering.

A thin smile came to Ross' lips. "Thanks, Peter." He flipped off the
switch.

Veta's eyes locked with his, her face a wordless question.

Ross' smile grew. A grim smile, without mirth.

"Come on," he rapped. "We're back in business." And then, as he
steered the girl towards the door: "Number III's a warehouse owned
by the Japetan Trading Coadunate, and Adjudicator Pike Mawson is the
coadunate's director!"



                              CHAPTER VI

                                ASTRELL


The warehouse at III(3) Triangle Square was sealed up tighter than
any tomb. The only windows were those in front, flanking the heavy
turn-plate door that opened on the street side.

Narrow-eyed, Ross drew Veta back into a patch of shadow, while overhead
Phobos raced Deimos across the sky, the two tiny moons like bright
coins against the black backdrop of the Martian night.

For the third time, Veta said, "Stewart, it's impossible. There's
simply no way to get in. And even if you found one, what good would it
do? No one's there. The place is dark as the Coalsack."

"Maybe." Ross' jaw took on a stubborn set. "Then again, maybe not. But
one thing's certain: I didn't lay myself open to charges of everything
from grand theft to piracy in forcing that cruiser to set us down here
just in order to give up now, without even checking."

Turning, he scanned the deserted square for a moment, then walked
briskly across to the warehouse again, following its left wall until--a
good hundred yards farther on--he reached the rear end.

Breathing hard, Veta came up beside him. "Stewart, where are you going?"

Not answering, Ross sidestepped the friendly sniffing of a six-legged
Martian bak and strode to a box that protruded from the warehouse wall,
opened it, and flicked his flamer. Light flared, illumining a neat row
of dials.

"What--?" Veta began again.

"Power drain," Ross explained succinctly. "If equipment's running in
there, we'll see it on these meters." A pause, while he checked dial
after dial. Then sudden excitement sprang into his voice: "I was right,
see? Something's going!"

Dubiously, Veta eyed the indicator. "Maybe it's an air-wash. Or a
heater."

"Those take more power. This is a light or two; a show-screen, maybe."
Ross snapped shut the cover of the flamer. "No, Veta. Somebody's in
there. So now we'll smoke 'em out!"

Pivoting as he spoke, he stepped to the bak and picked it up, then
paused briefly while he manipulated the ugly, six-legged creature's
ventral plates.

The bak gave a sigh of vast pleasure and settled deeper into the haven
of Ross' arms.

Veta stared. "Stewart Ross, have you lost your mind completely?"

"Probably." Ross chuckled. "Hand me that rock, will you?"

The girl's expression showed her reaction plainly. But, following Ross'
gesture, she obeyed.

"Thanks." Ross hefted the boulder thoughtfully. "For the rest of it,
all you have to do is stay here."

"Stay here--?"

"Till I get back."

Veta's head came up. Her lips firmed. "And why should I do that?"

"Because I'm asking you to." Ross came closer; slipped his free arm
about her waist. "If you want me to, I can even put logic behind it:
even though you probably wonder why, I--well, I wouldn't say I hate
you. I'd like you to live long enough to give me a chance to prove it.

"On the other side of it, I'm not sure I can trust you. You held out
on me about your brother, and his stealing the catalyst. Then, when
I found his body, you hardly shed a tear. Maybe that was nervous
exhaustion. Or relief that finally, for good, he was off starak. Or,
maybe, you just hated me so much there wasn't any room left for tears.

"Anyhow, regardless of the angle, I want you here, not with me."

Veta's shoulders began to shake, harder and harder. Tears welled and
overflowed her eyes; coursed down her face. She brought up a hand and
bit at it, as if only thus she could hold back her fury!

"Rack you, Stewart Ross!" she choked. "Rack you! Rack you for a
chitza--"

Again, the shaking. The bak under Ross' arm stuck out its thick,
prickly tongue to catch the falling tears.

Ross said, "Now you won't feel so bad if I don't come back. And just to
make sure you stay here and obey orders--"

He stepped back quickly. The hand that had been about Veta's waist
knotted into a club-fist. For the second time in the brief hours that
he'd known her, he brought up a short, hard blow that snapped the
girl's head back.

Then, catching her before she could fall, he brushed her lips gently
with his own and laid her gently in the shadows along the base of the
next building.

That done, Ross straightened. Almost casually, he strolled to the front
of the warehouse, tugging at the bak's ventral plates as he walked,
so that the creature gave out a steady stream of contented sighs and
hisses.

Ahead, Triangle Square spread out before Ross. With seeming unconcern,
he glanced right and left.

Still no one in sight.

       *       *       *       *       *

Shifting the rock Veta had picked up for him to his right hand, Ross
paused long enough to work the bak into a comfortable position.

With cool deliberation, then, he stepped back and hurled the rock with
full force at the nearest of the two warehouse windows.

A crash. The window shattered.

Ducking close, Ross kicked away the shards along the sill. A quick,
wary step, and he was over it and inside the warehouse office ...
fading back into the nearest corner.

Somewhere close at hand, a latch clicked. A black oblong opened in the
wall across the room.

Ross went down on his haunches. Deftly, he slid the bak out away from
him, along the floor.

Six-plate-rimmed feet made small, slithering sounds as the creature
darted through the darkness.

Like lightning, over by the black oblong, a paragun whished faintly as
the purple beam leaped from its muzzle.

Swift, silent, Ross crept along the wall in a flanking movement.

Simultaneously, off to one side, the bak ran wide in sudden panic.

Again, the paragun spoke.

But the marksman was shooting at his visualization of a man, not an
underslung, six-legged, alley bak. As before, the shot went far high.

This time, though, Ross was closer. Coming up fast to full height, he
leaped in, grappling for the weapon. The edge of his right hand came
down on the other's gun-wrist with smashing force.

The blow tore a choked cry from his opponent's throat. The paragun
clattered to the floor.

Before Ross could leap in, the other whirled and fled. Snatching up the
paragun, Ross followed.

Down a broad corridor and past a brightly-lighted room they ran; then
on into utter darkness. When a crash of jangling metal echoed ahead,
Ross fired at it.

A body fell with a sodden thud. Cat-silent, paragun at the ready, Ross
ran toward the sound.

He tripped and almost fell across his adversary in the darkness ... a
dead adversary, now.

Not quite steadily, Ross flicked on his flamer ... stared down into the
other's face.

It was the man who'd been at Zoltan Prenzz' place; the man who'd later
tried to run him down as he headed for Naraki's.

A check of the man's pockets revealed nothing whatever of importance.
Bleakly, Ross turned him over.

The move threw the flamer's light onto the stacked cases beside which
the dead man lay.

Ross took one look. His hand jerked back by sheer reflex. Hastily, he
snapped shut the flamer's lid.

His victim had died resting against row after row of fifty-gallon
plastidrums of deadly, hair-trigger steron auxiliary flare-fuel,
designed for use in atmospheres where nothing else would burn!

Unsteadily, Ross rose and made his way back to the area close to the
lighted room.

A switch-box loomed in the dimness. Ross threw the whole bank.

Like magic, light came to the warehouse. Cases appeared, piled high on
either side of long, echoing aisles. Overhead, two catwalks--accessible
by ladders--ran the length of the building, one above the other.

For a moment Ross stood brooding. Then, quickly, he disconnected the
lines that served the warehouse lights, leaving only the set that
supplied the office area.

Moving into the lighted room, next, he looked about.

A case stood on the central table ... a neat black plastic cube perhaps
six inches high.

Ross suddenly had trouble with his breathing. Not too steadily, he
crossed to the table and opened the black cube.

A bracket in the top held a shiny aeroderm injector. Beyond that, the
contents resembled a honeycomb--a honeycomb whose each cell was a
glistening, hermetically-sealed plastic ampule.

       *       *       *       *       *

Stiff-fingered, Ross closed and sealed the cube again and, gripping it
tightly beneath his arm, hurried back to the office next to the street,
the one through which he'd entered via the broken window.

In the darkness, something slithered. Ross jumped, then halted,
grinning wryly. Going to the outer door, he unbolted and opened it.

Plates rattling, all six feet slithering, the bak scurried out into the
night.

Warily, Ross once again surveyed the square outside.

It still seemed deserted. He started forward.

Only then, before he could so much as cross the threshold, something
gouged into his back. A familiar, too-dulcet voice said, "No, Thigpen."

Ross stopped short. "Astrell--!"

"Of course." The woman laughed gaily. "You see, Thigpen, I get what I
want. I have that kind of perseverance."

Ross said nothing.

"Back, now. Close the door and lock it," Astrell continued. And then:
"Aren't you wondering how I got here, dearest? Just this once, haven't
I surprised you?"

Ross shrugged.

But apparently no answer was needed or expected. Astrell went on
talking anyhow:

"Let's go back where the lights are, Thigpen. I'm dreadfully tired of
standing in the dark. And--oh, yes, I found that address on Sanford
Hall's closet door too. I must have been right behind you. I'd arranged
in advance to meet Sanford, you know--that's why he'd stolen the
catalyst, so I'd give him money to buy all the starak he needed for the
rest of his life. So I figured out the message, of course, since I'd
been to Calor City often years ago, and knew all about Triangle Square.
My cruiser put me down here even before you. In fact, I was watching
when you broke in--"

Abruptly, Astrell stopped talking long enough to push Ross into the
lighted office. She gestured to the black cube with one puffy hand. "Is
that it? Is that the catalyst?"

Ross drew a quick breath. "No, it isn't."

"Don't lie to me! Of course it is!" Astrell's beady eyes grew bright
above their pouches. "I'm going to have it right now! I'm going to be
young again. You'll see!"

"Will I?" Ross set the cube down on the table. "Or will I just see you
drop dead in your tracks?"

"Drop dead--?" The woman's eyes widened. Her wrinkles cut deeper.
"You're trying to scare me, aren't you?--To frighten me into giving up
the catalyst after all that I've gone through to get it!"

"You think so?" Ross asked tightly. "Let me tell you a few things about
this stuff. At the end Tornelescu perfected it, yes. But no one knows
whether this batch was made before or after that. At the very best,
it's tricky. Not because of the catalyst itself, but because everybody
wants fast action. So, Tornelescu made it fast: he tied it in with a
metabolic speeder, so that the whole cell structure of your body would
change in hours or minutes, instead of weeks or months or years. If it
worked, you'd be young in a hurry.

"The only trouble was, if it didn't work, it killed you. That's how
Tornelescu got on Security's 'wanted' list. He was too eager. He tested
new batches on living human beings; he didn't care how many died while
he was working out the proper balance."

Astrell's voice rose. "You lie! You lie!" Her pudgy hands were shaking
also. Her face looked as if it were going to crack and fall apart.

"It's up to you," Ross shrugged. "If you think it's worth the gamble,
go right ahead and take your chances."

Eyes haunted, Astrell stared at him. "You ... you really think it ...
might kill me--?"

Wordless, Ross shrugged again.

Only then, sudden in the stillness, a new voice sang out.

Or, rather, in terms of other than this time and place, an old,
familiar voice.

The ugly, snarling voice of Cheng the slaver.

"I'm coming in, you--Thigpen, or whatever your name is!" he shouted
fiercely. "Don't try to stop me. I've got your girl in front of me:
she'll take the first blast!"

Ross went rigid.

"You! You hear me?"

"Yes. I hear you."

"Stand back, then!"

Ross swept the room with one desperate glance.

It gave him no answers. It didn't even provide shelter. For now,
looking up, he saw that the offices actually were part of the storage
area, chopped up and cut off with eight-foot, unceilinged partitions.

Cheng again: "You better have that catalyst this time, you chitza!
That's what I'm here for. If I don't get it, you won't live to tell it."

Now Astrell looked up, her face a study in unnatural pallor. "The
catalyst--he means to take it!"

Ross didn't bother to answer.

Astrell cried, "I won't let him! He can't do it!"

Cheng: "Your woman dies if you try to shoot, Thigpen! Just remember
that!"

Astrell: "I'll take it! That's it, I'll take it now! They say even one
injection makes you young!"

       *       *       *       *       *

She stumbled forward. Claw-like, her fingers tore at the black cube
with the catalyst, the injector.

"Stop it, you old fool!" Ross clipped. He reached out to tear the black
box from her.

Without warning, Astrell let go the case. It left Ross hanging
momentarily off-balance.

Then, before he could recover, she struck out at him with the paragun
she'd held on him earlier. The barrel hit him in the jaw, just below
the ear.

Stunned, he lurched back.

Astrell ripped the cover from the black case. Snatching out the
injector, she forced an ampule into it and with trembling fingers
triggered the spray through the skin of her blue-veined arm.

As if it were a signal, Cheng appeared in the doorway, Veta Hall held
in front of him as a shield.

Astrell laughed wildly. "Come ahead!" she cried, arms spread in a
caricature of welcome. "You wanted the catalyst. Here it is. Take it. I
don't care. I've had mine--enough to take care of me for years...."

Her voice trailed off. An expression of vast surprise spread across her
face. Her pudgy hands sagged to her sides.

And then, incredibly, she was changing, changing. Before the others'
very eyes, wrinkles began to fade, the slackened skin to firm and fill.

Her body, too--a youth, a slim litheness, came to replace the sagging
rolls of flesh not even corsetry could successfully conceal. The auburn
hair lost its dull, artificial glitter and, rippling, took on a glow, a
natural sheen.

Ross sagged back against the table. The livid scar on Cheng's cheek
twitched and quivered.

Astrell laughed aloud; and now, for the first time in the hearing of
those present, the sound held warmth and vibrance ... the laugh of
a woman, not a crone. Rising on tiptoe, she lifted her hands high
above her head, stretching. Her face, her lips, her eyes, her whole
body--they were suffused with a stunning, dazzling beauty.

"Do you wonder now that they married me?" she cried triumphantly,
pirouetting. "Seven of them, the richest men in all the outer planets!
And lovers--how many lovers did I take? Now I'll have more--more
husbands, more lovers! Because I'm young again; I'm beautiful...."

Without warning, her voice trailed off. Her lovely face mirrored sudden
shock.

Disregarding Cheng's leveled gun, Ross stepped in quickly; caught the
woman's arm. "Astrell! What's wrong?"

She didn't answer. As swiftly as they had come, the gayness, the
buoyancy, seemed to have gone out of her. Flat-footed, she stumbled
towards the table.

Only then her knees hinged. She started to fall.

Ross levered her arm up, bracing her.

His hands seemed to slip, to slide away. The woman sprawled on the
floor. Her breath came in hoarse, labored gasps.

Blankly, Ross looked from her to his hands.

Where his fingers had touched Astrell, slime now dripped from them ...
the same hideous, stinking ooze that had marked the corpse of Zoltan
Prenzz, the death of Sanford Hall....

Ross' eyes lifted to stare momentarily at Cheng and Veta in numb, dumb
horror, then flicked back to Astrell once more.

Astrell, a beauty no longer. The features of her face sagged loose and
shapeless. Her body seemed to dissolve into the floor.

And everywhere, the ooze, the ooze....

A final, sighing breath. Life left her.

Choking, Ross stumbled to a corner and tried to scrub the slime from
his hands with a ragged jacket that hung there.

Behind him, still poised in the doorway with Veta, Cheng said grimly,
"Don't try anything, Thigpen. You're worth money to me. I don't want to
kill you."

"That's right, Ross. Oh, absolutely right!"

It was a voice out of nowhere, coolly mocking, familiar yet distorted.
Ross, Cheng, Veta--they all turned, startled.

The voice again: "As a matter of fact, Ross, you're even more valuable
to me than to Cheng. That's why I'm taking over."

Ross looked up sharply--really up, into the echoing, empty,
catwalk-spanned reaches of the warehouse that stretched above the
ceilingless partitions of the office rooms.

Adjudicator Pike Mawson's grav-seat hovered there, high above them.
Smiling, sociable, he nodded to Ross.

But there was nothing pleasant or sociable about the paragun in his
hand. It stayed steady and unwavering.

"As I said, my dear Ross," Mawson murmured, gesturing with the weapon,
"I'm taking over."

He pressed a button in the flying chair's control-arm as he spoke.

The seat plummeted down into the room.



                              CHAPTER VII

                            THIEVES' HONOR


It was one of those moments when everything happens at once. For as the
grav-seat dropped, Cheng whipped up his gun, firing at Mawson.

Veta Hall screamed.

Ross lunged across the room towards girl and slaver.

Somewhere outside, a blaster sang its twanging, metallic song of death.

Ross crashed into Veta and her captor. Driving his shoulder between
them, he jerked the girl from Cheng's grip, even while he smashed a
blow to the outlaw's midriff.

Cheng stared straight ahead--eyes bulged out, jaw hanging. His hands
stayed at his sides.

Ross drew back a quick step, uncertainty written on his face.

Cheng swayed for a moment, first forward and then back.

The next instant a violent shudder, plainly visible, ran through him.
His paragun clattered to the floor.

Another second and the smuggler himself half-turned and spilled forward
on his face.

There was a hole in the small of his back where his spine had been--a
hole well-nigh the size of a man's head, the sort of hole torn by a
blaster-bolt.

Veta covered her face. Ross clenched his teeth.

Simultaneously, two men stepped into the doorway. One carried a
short-barreled blaster, the other a paragun. Both wore grins of
sadistic satisfaction.

Now, off to one side, Pike Mawson spoke again: "Good work, gentlemen,
though a trifle close. If that beam Cheng triggered had sliced three
inches lower, you'd have had to find a new employer."

Mawson moved a dial on his chair's control-plate. The grav-seat swept
round in a smooth spiral and set down on the floor in front of Ross.

"Mr. Ross, I believe?" he murmured, eyes asparkle. His face was set in
a peculiar way that made him appear on the verge of smiling.

Ross' features stayed wooden. "My name's Thigpen."

"It is?" The adjudicator chuckled, gestured. "Corrack, is this our old
friend Tornelescu's helper, Lewis Thigpen?"

A snort from the man with the blaster. "Not even in the dark, he ain't
Thigpen."

"You see, Ross?" Mawson spread his hands in a helpless gesture.
"Corrack grew up in the same colony with Thigpen. He knows him
intimately--drank kabat with him less than an Earth week ago, as a
matter of fact. So there's really no point to your trying to continue
the imposture."

Ross shrugged, not speaking.

Mawson said, "On the other side of it, I've succeeded in learning your
real identity, though it cost me no small expense: you're Stewart
Ross, and you hold the rank of special agent with Security. You're
twenty-eight years old. You came from Earth, originally. Your most
recent assignment was breaking up a theol ring on Titan. You've
also dealt with the starak traffic, and with kabatol derivatives in
the Uranian satellite system. Your luck has been so spectacular as
to indicate real ability, and in consequence your superiors--even
including the famous Commandant Padora--have marked you for special
attention and advancement."

A pause. Mawson's fingers drummed on his chair-arm. "That's why I'm
here, Ross: because I've learned your identity; because I know the kind
of man you are."

"Oh?" Ross' tone was flat and noncommittal.

"Yes." The adjudicator gave strong positive emphasis to the word. He
leaned forward. "You see, Ross, I overstepped myself on this life
catalyst venture. Badly."

Ross' eyes narrowed, just a fraction.

"In any case," Mawson went on coolly, "I finally find myself in a
position where I have no choice but to make a deal with you ... a very
special sort of deal, one I wouldn't chance with anyone less reliable
and trustworthy."

Ross frowned. "I don't follow you, Mawson."

It was the other's turn to shrug. "It's very simple really, Mr.
Ross. My own age, the sense of years creeping upon me, prejudiced my
judgment. So, thinking you were Thigpen, I sent Cheng to Venus to run
you down." The adjudicator shook his head sadly. "It was an error, Mr.
Ross--a grievous error. Guile's my forte; I never should have turned
to violence."

"I'll agree with you there," Ross nodded, "but I still don't see how
this concerns me."

"Don't bait me, Mr. Ross!" the other snapped back. "That first episode
tipped my hand to Cheng, and to Veta Hall, and to Veta's brother,
Sanford. The next thing I knew, even Zoltan Prenzz, Security's resident
undercover agent on Japetus, was aware of what was going on.

"That meant I had to kill him. So, I sent one of my men to inject him
with a dose of the catalyst--a dose from a bad batch my people found in
Tornelescu's laboratory when they cut his throat and made off with the
formula to begin with.

"But violence breeds violence. Veta Hall's starak-crazy brother stole
the bad batch, thinking it was good, proposing to sell it to Astrell.

"I sent my man to get it back. Also, I ordered him to kill Hall,
because Hall would have talked in order to get starak.

"Unfortunately, though, Hall managed to pass on my address here before
he died. At which point, you came and killed my man, and Astrell died
of acute catabolic poisoning, and my people attended to that cutthroat
Cheng." Once more, Mawson spread his hands in the familiar gesture.
"Well, Mr. Ross, I believe that brings us up to date."

"Does it?" Ross clipped. "It seems to me you've left out the most
important part: the place where I come in."

"For my part, I thought I was being almost too obvious," the
adjudicator came back. "My difficulty is that as a result of all this
bloodletting, my own tracks have been uncovered. I'm told on reliable
authority that Security's already closing in on me. I'll be fortunate
if they don't arrest me before dawn."

Ross frowned. "So--?"

"So, as I said before, I need your help."

       *       *       *       *       *

Ross shook his head. "I still don't see it."

"Then you're a bigger fool than I thought!" Mawson beat his grav-seat's
arm in sudden fury. "Don't you understand? When my people brought
me Tornelescu's notes, his formulae, I'd have sworn I had the whole
universe in my grasp.

"Only then it turned out that all Tornelescu's data was in an
arbitrary code: one figure, one symbol, was substituted for another.
Consequently, I might as well not have had the papers.

"That's why I sent Cheng after you, when I thought that you were
Thigpen: Tornelescu's notes mentioned that Thigpen had the code. It
was a precaution they took, so that neither of them could betray the
other."

"So?" Ross repeated.

"There's still a way out. That is, if you'll just help me." Mawson
squirmed in his seat. Of a sudden his eyes were bright and feverish.
"Look, Ross, here's how we'll work it: in your role of Security agent,
you arrest me. I'll even go so far as to confess to murdering old
Tornelescu.

"However, I'll also claim that Sanford Hall stole the papers from me.
Consequently, I've no idea whatever where they are or what they say.

"I'll be convicted of killing. They'll send me off to Venus Barracks.
In a Martian month the case will be past history.

"That's where you come in, Ross: right then. My conviction will be
another feather in your cap. No one would think of suspecting you of
anything, let alone denying you full access to Security's files on the
case.

"So, you go into those files and dig through them till you find the
code. For all I know, it may even be in your property rooms here in
Calor City. Because if Lewis Thigpen's dead--and he must be, or you
wouldn't have dared to use his name--then all his things will likely be
there.

"Then, when you find the code, contact me. I'll tell you where I've
hidden the formula: that's how much I trust you.

"You make up a batch of the catalyst. You put it out to the old men,
the men of power."

"I'll be free of Venus Barracks in a week. After that--who knows?
What limit can there be, when we've eternal life ourselves, plus the
privilege of peddling it to others in hundred-year doses?"

The adjudicator was shaking by the time he finished. Twin spots of
color marked his cheek bones. His hands moved ceaselessly, without
respite.

The silence echoed.

Mawson's hands stopped moving. He straightened in his seat.

"Mr. Ross," he said softly, "I'm afraid I judged you too well. You're
indeed a man of honor--so much so that even a lie to save your life
sticks in your craw. So I'll put our business on a different level." A
pause, heavy with tension. "Mr. Ross, count on it: if you don't carry
through to the letter the plan I've outlined, both you and Veta Hall
will die, by the most unpleasant mode a fine creative imagination can
devise."

Ross seemed to stand a trifle straighter. "I thought that was coming,"
he nodded slowly. And then: "Fair enough. I'll do all I can to locate
Thigpen's things."

"I thought you'd see it my way," Adjudicator Mawson murmured smoothly.
He gestured to the two men who still stood in the doorway. "Now that
I'm a prisoner, gentlemen, you'd best get out of here. Take the girl
with you. You know where to keep her."

The man with the paragun stepped back. But the other, the one called
Corrack, didn't move.

Sharply, Mawson said, "Corrack! You heard me!"

"Sure, I heard you," the blaster-man agreed. He grinned, the same
sadistic grin that had marked him when he first stepped into the
doorway. "Only maybe there's something you don't know."

"Something I don't know--?" Mawson frowned. "Speak up, Corrack! What is
it?"

The other's grin broadened. "It's this starbo," he explained, gesturing
to Ross. "It's his clothes."

"His clothes--?" Mawson stared. "Well, what about them?"

"Nothing," smirked Corrack. "Nothing at all--_except they're the outfit
Thigpen was wearing when I had that drink with him last week_!"

Mawson's head snapped round as if on veloid bearings. "Rack you,
Ross--!"

But his tone belied his words, for there was wild jubilation in it.
Pounding the air of his flying chair, he cried, "Search him, Corrack!
Search him! See if he's got a writer!"

Wordless, the blaster-man obeyed ... delivered the instrument to Mawson.

       *       *       *       *       *

Fingers shaking, the adjudicator manipulated the upper end of the
carved shaft.

The cap lifted off. A glistening ampule dropped into his hand.

Mawson threw back his head and laughed--peal after peal, hysterical
with sheer delight.

Then, sobering, he snatched the aeroderm injector from the table where
Astrell had dropped it. Fitting in the ampule, he held the jet against
his arm-vein.

"There were some interesting details in Tornelescu's notes, Ross,"
he announced in a voice that rang with exaltation. "One of them was
that Thigpen always carried an ampule of the perfected catalyst in his
writer."

He pressed the injector's plunger. The ampule's contents sprayed into
his arm.

After that, it was like the time with Astrell, except that Mawson was
male, not female.

And, that the process stopped at the proper point, instead of going on
into catabolic disaster.

Young now, in the prime of life, glowing with health except for his
crippled legs, the adjudicator leaned back in his grav-seat. A slow
smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"You understand, don't you, that this changes our situation somewhat,
Mr. Ross?" he inquired.

"I understand," Ross answered curtly.

"Good." The other rubbed his hands and chuckled. "As a matter of fact,
as I see it, I no longer have any need for your services. Changed as
I am, young again, I'll have no trouble hiding till I myself can find
or buy Thigpen's code." A pause. "That transforms you, Mr. Ross. It
transforms you from an asset to a liability, by my bookkeeping."

Ross didn't answer.

"The same holds for Miss Hall," the adjudicator went on. "Before, she
constituted an excellent pawn. Now, she's only a dangerous witness."

Abruptly, he turned to the man with the paragun. "You, my friend! Take
this injector"--he touched the aeroderm unit--"and two ampules from the
black case. Spray one into each of our friends, here."

Ross went rigid. A horrified cry burst from Veta's throat.

Tightly, Ross said, "Look, Mawson, it's all right to kill me if you
want to; I signed on with Security because I had a taste for trouble.

"With Veta, it's different. She's done nothing, hurt no one. She'll
keep quiet--"

"Hurry it up, gentlemen," Mawson ordered his aides. "I want no
accidents to halt us now."

"Back, you!" snarled Corrack, covering Ross with his blaster.

His companion advanced on Veta.

Wild-eyed with panic, she retreated before him ... clear to the
wall ... on around the room ... almost to the door now; almost to
Corrack.

Whirling, then, she leaped at the blaster-man from behind--clutching at
his arm, knocking up his weapon.

"Stewart--" she screamed. "Run Stewart; run! Get away! Call Security--"

Ross lunged. But it was towards her, struggling with Corrack; not the
door.

Only then purple light pulsed past his head, so close that his eyes
went out of focus. He staggered, tripped, pitched to his knees.

... And there, off to one side, grav-seat already rising, sat Mawson.
His teeth were bared, and he held his paragun poised and ready.

Ross started to rise.

Mawson triggered another ray.

Whirling, Ross plunged through the doorway and ran for his life.



                             CHAPTER VIII

                          WRITE IT IN BLOOD!


Feet pounded behind Ross in the darkness of the warehouse. Dropping
flat, he rolled till he bumped against stacked transit cases.

Now, from the office area, a hand torch flicked this way and that, its
hard, bright cone of light lancing through the murk.

Ross held his breath. When the beam passed over him and moved on, he
wormed his way swiftly along the cases and into the first cross-aisle.

More lights. More wary shuffling. Hastily, Ross made his way to the
next longitudinal aisle, then doubled back in the direction of the
offices once more.

Almost in the same instant, Pike Mawson's voice cut through the
stillness: "Stop! Both of you!" His words were clipped, incisive.

Ross froze in his tracks. His palms were slick with sweat as they
pressed flat against the transit cases.

Mawson again: "Get back here, you fools! Don't you understand? That
chitza's trying to feint us away from the entrance so he can blast out!"

From beyond Mawson, a second voice mumbled unclear syllables.

"Let him hide!" Mawson cut in sharply. "He'll soon tire of it. The
thing to remember is that there's no way out of this place except
through the office area; I made sure of that before we took it over.
So as long as we stay at this end, our fine friend can't escape."

A burst of guttural elation. Ross' pursuers drew back into the
brightly-lighted offices.

For a long moment Ross stood unmoving. Then, as the last echo of the
others' clumping footsteps died and the darkness closed in on taut,
vibrant silence, he turned. His face was pale and drawn, his breathing
shallow, his mouth a thin, grim line.

Moving down the aisle cat-silent, he groped his way to the place his
earlier foe had died beside the stacked plastidrums of steron.

Steron, with its deadly methane fumes, and high combustibility, and
flaring, 4000-degree heat.

Ross' lips twisted. Dragging out one of the drums, he jerked savagely
at the opener tab.

The cap tore away. With a momentary faint hiss of gas escaping, steron
fumes spurted forth in a choking, all-enveloping rush.

Ross grinned mirthlessly. With swift efficiency, he dragged out a
second drum and opened it also. Then a third ... a fourth....

Turning this last tank on its side, he rolled it full-tilt down the
aisle towards the offices, a trail of fumes and liquid spilling out in
its wake.

Now, drawing back into a cross-aisle, Ross flicked his flamer and
tossed it out onto the snake-like steron trail.

The fumes caught even before the flamer struck the floor. With a roar
like the gush of a power hose, fire leaped back to the three open drums.

The explosion as they ignited sprayed flame in a mad starburst that
illumined the whole central section of the warehouse. In seconds a
thunderous holocaust swirled roof-high.

Ross sprinted for the office area. Scrambling up a ladder to the first
catwalk, he peered down into the rooms below.

Already Mawson's men were running for the door to the street. But of
Mawson himself, and of Veta Hall, there was no sign.

Breathing hard, Ross moved on along the catwalk.

Now, abruptly, Mawson came into view, racing his grav-seat out away
from a spot where two partitions intersected, and into the open area in
the center of one of the larger rooms. His movements were jerky, and he
sat hunched forward in the seat, an air of tension heavy upon him.

The next instant Veta appeared, darting after the adjudicator. An ugly
bruise showed on her forehead. Panting, stumbling, she snatched at
Mawson's tunic.

But he dodged and flipped up an elbow sharply, so that it struck the
girl in the mouth. Then, as she sagged back momentarily, he swung the
chair in, and slammed a palmed paragun flat to the side of her head.

Veta crumpled to the floor ... lay there in a limp, still heap.

Instantly, Mawson whirled the grav-seat away again, racing it up over
the room's partitions in a swift, spiraling arc.

Ross held his position on the catwalk like a statue. Only his eyes
moved--first flicking down to Veta's motionless form, then away from
her and up to Mawson.

Still the grav-seat climbed. Mawson gave hardly a glance to the
roaring sea of flame that now enveloped the whole central area of the
warehouse. His face was lined and set, his eyes riveted on some spot in
the building's upper reaches.

Ross stared after him. Then, turning, once again he looked down at the
office area.

Veta Hall still lay unmoving where she'd fallen.

Ross started along the catwalk towards her.

Only then, as if his eyes somehow were drawn by some psychic magnet, he
paused in mid-stride and yet another time looked around for Mawson.

Simultaneously, the other's grav-seat came to rest on the second,
higher catwalk, close under the roof. Unfastening the seat's safety
belt, Mawson thrust his twisted legs down onto the walk, dragged
himself to his feet, hobbled clumsily to a nearby switch-box and pulled
a lever.

       *       *       *       *       *

A faint grinding of gears rose above the noise of the fire. Twin
roof-plates slid back to reveal a skylight.

For the fraction of a second Ross hesitated. Then, pivoting, he ran for
the nearest ladder that stretched upward from his catwalk to Mawson's.

Above him, the adjudicator slapped shut the switch-box and began a
slow-shuffling return to the grav-seat.

Ross reached the ladder. Cat-agile, he swung up it, hand over hand, two
rungs at a time.

Mawson reached the grav-seat as Ross topped the ladder and scrambled up
onto the catwalk.

Now, pausing for a moment as he adjusted the seat's safety belt, the
older man--young now--gazed out across the holocaust, a sardonic smile
twisting his thin lips. Sweat streamed down his pale face and dripped
from his chin. Puffing a little, he swabbed his forehead with his
sleeve.

Behind him, Ross silently crept forward through the well-nigh
unendurable heat in a half-crouch. His lips were parted, the skin taut
and shiny across his cheek bones.

Mawson glanced up at the open skylight. His hand dropped to the seat's
arm. His fingers moved over the controls.

The chair lifted just a fraction, till it hovered clear of the catwalk.

Ross' eyes distended. Nostrils flaring, he broke into a headlong run.

But the catwalk vibrated under the impact of his weight. As if
by reflex, his quarry's shoulders stiffened. The fingers on the
control-arm spun a dial. The seat whipped round like a pointer on a
pivot.

For an instant, then, the eyes of the two men met.

Mawson expelled a sudden breath. His lips peeled back in a death's-head
grin. His free hand whipped up the paragun.

Eight feet, possibly, separated the two of them now. Not even breaking
stride, Ross dived for Mawson.

Nimble-fingered, the adjudicator flipped switches. The grav-seat rocked
back out of reach like a swing, then forward again in a short arc that
smashed the chair's base against Ross' shoulder with numbing force as
he sprawled off-balance on the catwalk.

Rolling with the blow, Ross went half off the narrow footway. Before
he could recover, Mawson spun the seat again. It swished down like a
powered sledge.

Spasmodically, Ross threw himself clear off the walk, dangling in
mid-air, suspended by the fingers of one hand only.

Above him, Pike Mawson's face contorted in a leer. The seat ground on
the edge of the catwalk, searching for his fingers.

Jaws clenched, Ross swung sidewise violently, letting go of the footway
with his one hand as he hooked on with the other.

It was like hanging from a spit above a literal inferno. Flames roared
below him. The draft that swept from the building's entrance up to the
open skylight carried heat like a chimney.

Again, Mawson tried to grind the grav-seat down on Ross' fingers.

Again, Ross swung clear.

Mawson cursed aloud, then leaned far forward over the front of the seat
and leveled his paragun at Ross' head.

Free arm flailing, Ross let go his precarious grip on the catwalk
and lunged upward towards Mawson, paragun and grav-seat. His clawing
fingers locked around the weapon's barrel.

For frantic seconds they hung there thus, struggling for the paragun.
Twice, Mawson triggered charges. Both times, they went wide.

But now Ross had a grip on seat as well as weapon. With a sudden jerk,
he wrenched the gun from the other's hand. It spun away in a long,
catapulting arc that ended in the flames below.

Like lightning, Mawson thumbed a button set in the grav-seat's
control-arm.

The chair came down on the catwalk with a crash, then bounced high into
the air, almost to the roof. Ross' nails gouged long tracks in the
seat's plastox upholstery as his fingers slipped under the shock.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mawson spun a dial. The grav-seat whipped round in a tight circle that
all but hurled Ross clear across the warehouse by sheer centrifugal
force.

White to the lips, Ross clutched at Mawson's safety belt.

The adjudicator spun the dial the other way. Simultaneously, he caught
the hand on his belt by a forefinger and levered the member back so
violently as to make the snap of its fracture audible even through the
din of the fire.

Ross gave a low, hoarse cry. He smashed a fist down on the fingers with
which Mawson gripped the grav-seat's controls.

It was Mawson's turn to jerk back; cry out. Gripping the control-arm
with cable-taut fingers, corded muscles standing out along his
forearms, Ross twisted.

Metal screeched a protest. The seat rocked violently.

Ross wrenched again.

A contact-point snapped. Connections tore loose. Sideslipping, out of
control, the seat careened down to a precarious landing athwart the
catwalk.

Convulsively, Mawson beat at Ross' face--raking the cheeks, stabbing
for the eyes.

Ducking his head, Ross levered the control-arm still farther out of
place.

A sound close to that of a sob echoed in Mawson's throat. He pounded
Ross' back. "Stop it, you fool! Stop it, before you kill us both!"

Panting with strain, Ross paused for an instant.

Mawson, babbling: "Don't you see? There's no way left for us to get
out of here except that skylight--and it's too high to do us any good
without the grav-seat."

A small, spasmodic ripple of movement, like the passing of a chill,
crossed Ross' shoulders. He still didn't speak.

"Turn me in to FedGov Security if you want to, rack you!" raged Mawson.
"Do you think I care about that? Just get us out of this hell-hole
alive; that's all I ask!"

Ross raised his head a fraction; stared down at the sea of flame below.

Mawson again--a cunning, crafty Mawson this time: "Think of the girl,
Ross! Think of her, even if you don't give a filan for your own neck!
She'll roast, down there in that office! But you still may be able to
save her, if we get around to the street entrance fast enough."

Ross breathed in sharply. He started to straighten.

Twisting in his seat, Mawson peered back and down over his own
shoulder. Then, suddenly, he leveled a shaking finger. "Ross! Look--!"

Ross craned forward, staring.

Like lightning, Mawson whipped back his elbow ... smashed it to the
bridge of Ross' nose with the same savage force that had stunned Veta
Hall.

Ross lurched backwards.

Mawson spun the chair's control-dial. Wobbling, unsteady, the grav-seat
started upward.

Only then Ross, reeling, caught the seat's base. His upflung hand
slapped the control-plate. His fingers hooked around its edges. Again,
muscles stood out along his forearm as he brought sudden pressure.

The plate tore loose. The grav-seat dropped back onto the catwalk with
a crash.

Tight-lipped, with no sign that he so much as heard Pike Mawson's
shriek of anguish, Ross hurled the control unit down into the roaring
fire below....

       *       *       *       *       *

It was quiet in this place ... so very, very quiet.

Only then, ever so faintly, a door-hinge creaked. Shoes whispered
across synthoflooring.

For a long moment, Ross still lay unmoving.

The whispering shoes drew closer--enough shoes for several pairs of
feet.

Slowly, Ross opened his eyes.

A tall, slim man stood beside the bed--a man whose dark blue uniform
bore silver comets on its shoulder-straps.

Ross straightened just a trifle. Voice faint, he whispered, "Commandant
Padora...."

The tall man inclined his head in a small, precise nod. "My
congratulations, Mr. Ross."

A muscle in Ross' cheek twitched. "Congratulations--?" And then, more
definitely, more firmly: "Congratulations for what?"

"For successfully completing your mission."

Ross said, "I didn't complete it. The formula--"

"The formula has been recovered," the Security commandant interrupted
smoothly. "Adjudicator Mawson told us precisely where to find it. Also,
he confessed to murdering Doctor Tornelescu."

Ross stared. "He _confessed_?"

Commandant Padora glanced to one of the blue-uniformed men who stood
behind him. "He did, didn't he, Mr. Galacorri?"

"He seemed quite eager to," the other answered dryly. "He had some
strange notion our rescue party might leave him on that catwalk if he
didn't."

The shadow of a smile played round the corners of the commandant's
mouth. "In any event, Mr. Ross, Doctor Tornelescu's life catalyst
now is in our hands, available for properly-controlled research,
development and use. And I'm told that Mr. Mawson undoubtedly will
spend the added years of life the injection gave him in a cell."

"I see."

"There's another matter also, Mr. Ross: the matter of your own
disobedience of orders." Commandant Padora's grey eyes seemed to study
the blank wall before him. "To set your mind at rest, I plead guilty to
using you uncomfortably like a cat's-paw. By so restricting you as to
precipitate insubordination, I temporarily convinced Cheng and Mawson
that you were a free agent. As a result, they acted rashly, without
covering their tracks properly. That's how we came to close in when we
did; to have men and lines at hand to drop down through that skylight
and take you off the catwalk after you'd collapsed from shock and
heat."

"I see," Ross said again.

"In consequence of all this," the other went on with clipped precision,
"the Federated Governments feel you've earned a certain recompense in
terms of honor." He held out a hand to one of the men behind him. "Mr.
Livingston...."

"Here, sir." The man laid a flat leather case on the commandant's palm.

"Stewart Ross"--Commandant Padora stood very erect now--"it is my
privilege as commandant of the Federated Governments' integrated
security agencies to present you at this time with our highest honor,
the Starburst Medal First Class for service to humanity above and
beyond the call of duty."

He leaned forward as he finished; took the silver decoration from its
case and pinned it to the breast of Ross' sleeper jacket.

"Thank you, sir," Ross said. "I do appreciate it."

The other eyed him keenly. "Your face doesn't match your words,
Mr. Ross," he observed. "Perhaps it's because you feel you've lost
something more important to you than all the FedGov's medals."

And then, pivoting: "Miss Hall!"

For the first time, Ross' head lifted from its pillow. The hand that
clutched his coverlet suddenly was shaking.

In the same moment, the blue-uniformed group behind Commandant Padora
parted.

And there was Veta Hall.

Pressing between the men, she darted to Ross; fell on her knees beside
his bed. And though her dark eyes streamed tears and her forehead still
showed its ugly bruised streak, never had her face been lovelier or
more radiant.

"Stewart--!" she choked. "Oh, Stewart, my darling...."

Ross' lips cut off her words.

"As I said," Commandant Padora announced to no one in particular, "Mr.
Ross' efforts gave us both the time and opportunity to take care of all
aspects of the situation at Mawson's warehouse."

It was doubtful if Ross and Veta even heard him....



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