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Title: The Weapon From 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 "The Weapon From Eternity" ***

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                       THE WEAPON FROM ETERNITY

                          By Dwight V. Swain

               Legends spoke of a weapon too dreadful to
            use hidden somewhere among the stars--a weapon
            that was its own master--choosing its victims!

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                            September 1952
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



                               CHAPTER I


Jarl Corvett selected the group--himself, Ungo, and five crewmen.

They left their great ship on the far side of Vesta; came down with the
night in a fast raider carrier.

A hollow offered shelter. Like dust settling, they landed. Abandoning
the craft, they pressed on towards their target. The hills fell behind.
The final cordon was bypassed.

Then, at last, bleakly, they stared down at the sprawling building that
had been Wassreck's workshop.

But lights beat on the white walls. Guards paced the parapets. The
commissioner's own carrier thrust up in the courtyard.

Frowning, Jarl Corvett crouched deep in the shadows. Tension crawled
his spine like a leather-footed _palau_. His own black thoughts pressed
relentlessly in upon him: _Is this where it ends, warrior? Is this the
place, here under the Federation's dazzling Forspark lights on a tiny
astroidal speck that men call Vesta?_

Beside him, the darkness rustled. Scales brushed his arm. One-armed
Jovian Ungo's hoarse whisper echoed over-loud in his ear: "Give it up,
Jarl! Wassreck's gone, and they're ready. It's hopeless!"

"It was hopeless before," Jarl Corvett said tightly. "It was hopeless
at Horla. But Wassreck came for me."

The Jovian's scaly hand gripped his shoulder in the darkness. "I know,
Jarl. You're loyal. But this time--"

"Could you face Sais without trying? Could you tell her you'd left him?"

Ungo grunted, half-sullen. "Will it help if you're killed, too? Will it
make her feel better?" He cursed in his own tongue. "Me, I still like
living. I'm not ready to die yet."

Jarl threw off the Jovian's arm. His words slashed, raw and savage, in
spite of his efforts: "You can leave if you want to! I ask no man to
risk his neck against his will!"

Dimly, against the sky, he could see Ungo's head sink down between the
great, horny shoulders. "Don't gall me, you _chitza_! I go where you
go! I always will!"

Jarl clenched his fists. He thought: _Yes, Ungo will always go where
you go, Jarl Corvett. He proved that when he left one arm on Pluto for
you. That's what's wrong with loyalty. It traps you, tears you two
ways. Because whichever road you take, good men, good friends, must
die._

And Sais would be waiting....

       *       *       *       *       *

He cursed aloud and crawled forward, away from big Ungo, digging in
knees and elbows with savage force, taking out his fury on the rocky
ground.

Ahead, just outside the blazing lake of light around the building, the
air-vent loomed. Wriggling to it, he jerked out his knife and pried at
the grilled lid's seal.

But then, once again, Ungo was beside him. "Here, let me at it, Jarl!"
Heedless of danger, the Jovian surged to full height. His talon fingers
splayed through the grill. The broad back, the mighty shoulders,
strained and heaved.

There was a thin _spang!_ of metal parting. The lid tore free.

Jarl gripped his comrade's arm. "Ungo...."

"Forget it, Jarl. I understand. Our job is down below."

A tightness came to Jarl Corvett's throat. Wordless, he swung his legs
over the edge of the vent, lowered himself to full arm's length, and
let go.

It was a six-foot drop into blackness so ebon that it made the outer
night almost seem bright. Twisting, he crawled a few feet along the
horizontal conduit that ran from shaft to building.

Ungo's gruntings drifted down as he wedged his great body through the
hole. Then, with a thud, the Jovian, too, had landed. The other five
followed, one by one.

"This way!" Jarl whispered. "The tube leads straight to the blower
room."

Ghost-silent, they crept through the murk for what seemed miles. Fine
dust rose about them in a choking haze, and there was an acrid stink of
tanaline and _jeol_. Tiny _bulaks_ chattered their fright, scampering
from the raiders' path. The suction of the Banx unit at the tunnel's
other end tugged at hair and tunics in a gusty, whistling gale.

Then, feeling ahead, Jarl touched a screen. He halted; half-turned.
"We've made it. We're inside." Twisting, he ran his hand over the
tube's side wall till he found the cleaning hatch. His searching
fingers touched the bolt. He worked it round.

The hatch swung open on creaking hinges. Knife in hand, Jarl slid out
into the blower room, with its looming bulk of Banx unit transmuters
and converters and compressors.

A dim rectangle on the right marked the ramp to the floor above.

Cat-footed, flat to the wall, Jarl moved up the incline, the raiders at
his heels.

A faint scuff of sound whispered in the stillness. Ahead, out of a
cross-corridor, a Martian _fala_ in the blue tunic of a Federation
guard moved into view.

Jarl froze, not daring to breathe.

The guard crossed the ramp, not pausing, and went on down the corridor
out of sight. The shuffle of his steps faded and died.

Jarl slid forward again till he reached the passage, then halted.
Taut-nerved, he waited, listening.

Voices came dimly. Jarl lowered himself to the floor. Ever so
cautiously, he peered around the corner.

       *       *       *       *       *

Far down the hall, the guard stood chatting with one of his fellows. A
moment later, breaking off, he turned and started back towards the ramp
again.

Jarl drew back. Rising, he wiped the sweat from the palm of his knife
hand, then crouched waiting.

The sound of the _fala's_ footsteps drifted to him, closer and closer.

Jarl sucked in air.

The scuffing echoed through the silence. The guard stepped out onto the
ramp.

Jarl leaped forward--catching the _fala's_ chin from behind, jerking
back the ugly head, slashing at the throat.

The guard's cry died in bubbling purple blood. He wrenched
spasmodically, hands and feet threshing; then went limp.

Jarl dragged him backward--out of the corridor, down the ramp.
Breathing hard, he lowered the sagging corpse to the floor.

Ungo touched his arm, gestured questioningly.

Jarl whispered: "The living quarters are upstairs. They'll have her
there."

The Jovian nodded, not speaking.

Again Jarl dropped flat and wormed forward, searching the corridor.

No one was in sight.

Surging to his feet, he swung right down the hall to the next ramp, his
crewmen behind him. Swift, silent, he raced to the second floor.

There were no guards here--only echoing stillness and blank, closed
doors.

The first room was empty. In the second snored a sleeping _dau_ captain
from the Federation fleet.

Big Ungo whispered hoarsely, "This one's locked!"

It was the door at the end ... the door to the room that had once been
Sais'.

Jarl pressed against it. Sheathing his knife, he brought out a
light-gun and pressing its muzzle against the lock, squeezed the
trigger.

The silent beam blazed forth. The lock's bolt fused and fell away.

The raiders pushed into the room.

A girl lay in the bed, asleep. Quick, tight-lipped, Jarl crossed to her
side.

She was a vision of slim blonde loveliness, this woman. A golden vision
from a far-off world. As he looked at her, the thought flickered
through Jarl Corvett's mind: _She's almost as beautiful as Sais._

Dark Sais, _Ktar_ Wassreck's daughter....

Yet even while the girl slept, a deeper, darker mood seemed to shadow
her loveliness, as if she held some brooding secret locked within her.
Or perhaps it was only that a strain of clouded alien blood ran in her
veins, from her mother--blood of Titan, or Io, or Venus.

"Is this her, Jarl?" big Ungo whispered. "Is she Ylana? Time's running
short...."

Jarl shook off his mood. "Yes. She's the one, the commissioner's
daughter." He caught the girl's shoulder and jerked at it roughly, one
hand to her mouth, in case she should scream.

       *       *       *       *       *

She came awake with a start, grey eyes flaring wide in sudden panic.
Her whole body convulsed as she saw the raiders.

Jarl threw himself on her, bearing her down. Fiercely, he whispered,
"Quiet, if you wish to live!"

Her struggles ceased. Lips pale, breasts heaving, she lay stiff and
unyielding.

He said: "Relax, woman! We're not going to hurt you."

Her lips moved on his palm. He raised his hand a fraction.

"Who are you?" Her voice shook. "What do you want here?"

"They call me Jarl Corvett."

The girl clutched her throat. "Jarl Corvett, the raider? The ally of
Wassreck--?"

Jarl smiled at her thinly. "Ally, friend, comrade, brother. That's why
I've come here. I needed a hostage."

"A hostage--?"

"For Wassreck. He's a prisoner. You'll buy his freedom."

The grey eyes distended. The girl breathed fast and shallow, ripe lips
half-parted. "You madman--!" she whispered.

Jarl Corvett laughed harshly, and there was ice and fire in it. "Some
say so. But Wassreck saved me at Horla. Tonight I've come here to pay
back what I owe him."

"Jarl!" Ungo broke in, raw-voiced and urgent. "Quick! Hurry! They will
find that dead guard any minute!"

"Yes." Jarl raised up. He spoke again to the girl--bleak, cold,
rock-steady: "You're coming, Ylana. As to how--you do the choosing. But
even if we have to tie you and gag you and carry you, you're coming!"

The girl's grey eyes probed his. Color came to her lips; they no
longer trembled. "You mean--you really believe you can storm in here
and take me? That your handful of raiders can fight through the
cordon--?"

"Freemen have done more."

"Freemen--?" Ylana's laugh was tight, bitter. "What do you and your
outlaws know about freedom? To you, it means nothing but freedom to
murder, to plunder!"

Her words stung like gas-hail slashing down upon Pluto. Jarl felt his
breath quicken. "Who are you, to talk of the outlaw worlds and their
plunder?" he lashed back at her fiercely. "What of your father's own
fleet; your thrice-cursed Federation?"

The girl blazed. "The Federation brings order!"

"And what is your order but another name for plunder--the great
planets' power to take what they choose from the lesser?" Jarl choked
on his anger. "To you, I'm a pirate, because men like me sweep the void
in our own raider ships to keep our people from starving. What else
can we do, living on these barren rocks in the Belt, charred fragments
of worlds that should never have been colonized? But your father--with
no right on his side but the Federation fleet's might, he's named high
commissioner--sent out to tear even our bleak asteroids from us by
conquest--"

"Jarl--!" burst out Ungo.

"I'm coming!" Jarl towered over Ylana. "Get ready!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The girl sat up in her bed. Her fists gripped the covers. "I warn you,
Jarl Corvett: You'll curse the day that you took me--"

"Because of your father?" Jarl laughed, short and curt. "I'll still
chance it."

"No." The girl's grey eyes seethed, dark and dangerous. "Because of me,
Ylana _rey_ Gundre! Because I'll see you and your men die in torment, a
thousand times worse than the flame-death at Horla--"

"I'll chance that, too." Jarl jerked back the covers.

Wordless, disdainful, the girl tossed her head. The golden hair
rippled. Rising, she took a gown from a chair and pulled it about her
slim, perfect figure.

"That's better." Jarl turned to Ungo. "We'll go down through the
workshop. There's less chance there to trap us."

In hair-triggered silence, they moved back through the hallway, the
girl boxed among them. A different ramp yawned. The door at its foot
let them into the workshop, the place of the robots.

Wassreck's robots.

A name to conjure with, _Ktar_ Wassreck. Master of robots, master of
raiders. The brain of a genius in a pain-shriveled body. A mind that
had fathomed the key to the star-stones; courage to strike even through
Oyo's flame-death, staking his soul for Jarl Corvett at Horla.

And here were his robots--towering metal monsters, set shoulder to
shoulder. He dreamed of them, lived for them. More even than dark Sais,
they were his children.

_Children of a nightmare_, Jarl thought as he led the way past them.
Bleakly, he wondered why Wassreck had made them--what dark, twisted
drive had spurred their creation.

They came to a door. Jarl faced his raiders. "The hallway's outside.
The third ramp to the left leads down to the blowers."

He turned to the girl, the commissioner's slim daughter. "Stay with me,
Ylana. And forget about running or screaming."

She moved closer, not speaking. The grey eyes were unfathomable.

He stepped into the passage, the girl close behind him. The crewmen
followed.

Then, as they came abreast the second ramp, he heard voices--a harsh,
angry crackle that rose louder each second.

Jarl stopped in his tracks and spun round to the crewmen. "Quick! up
the ramp--!"

Gripping Ylana's wrist, he half-dragged her with him.

Barely in time, they crowded into the entry. Down the hall, by the
blowers, someone cursed loudly. More footsteps pounded. Metal banged
metal.

Big Ungo burst out, "It's that guard, Jarl. They've found him--!" He
clutched at his blaster--head down, geared for battle.

Now new steps hurried towards them, from the way they had come.

Jarl whipped out his light-gun. "We're not done! The commissioner's
carrier is out in the courtyard. We'll blast our way to it!"

"Which way--?"

"Back up this ramp! We'll drop from a window!"

       *       *       *       *       *

They sped up the incline to the second level, then down the corridor.
But before they could reach a room that opened on the inner court,
tumult broke out on this upper floor also. Guards shouted. There was a
beat of feet; the clamor of men rushing towards them.

Jarl leaped for a doorway. "In here--on the double!"

His men crowded past him. Shoving Ylana before him, Jarl followed.
Inside, he half-closed the door.

Like statues, they waited. The hurrying guard squad came closer.

Jarl gripped Ylana tight, her slim body hard against him. He cupped his
hand over her mouth. The golden hair brushed his cheek. He could feel
her heart pounding.

The first of the blue-uniformed Federation fighters ran past the
half-open door.

Jarl poised his light-gun.

In the same instant, lance-sharp pain stabbed through the hand he held
over Ylana's mouth.

He jerked back by instinct--and knew of a sudden even as he did it that
the girl had bitten him.

But his flinching left Ylana's mouth clear for an instant. She
screamed, shrill and piercing.

Jarl cursed. He tried to throw her aside.

But she clutched his belt, clinging. Snatching his razor-edged knife
from its sheath, she slashed at him.

He rocked backward, off balance.

The girl twisted. He glimpsed her face--teeth bared, features
strain-straut. Back-handed, she lashed at his temple with the
knife-haft, her full strength behind it.

It struck home as the first guards burst through the doorway....



                              CHAPTER II


Twin blue-and-silver Federation banners marked the place of the high
commissioner of all the asteroids.

His table stood at the far end of the vast room that had been _Ktar_
Wassreck's workshop. Other tables radiated out in a great arc from
it--tables crowded with officers of the Federation fleet. Heavy-thewed
Uranian _daus_ sat side by side with slim reptilian _Pervods_.
Transmi of Venus, all ear-stalks and sucking tubes, faced rubbery,
flat-featured Europans. Creatures of half-a-hundred divergent races,
hybrids and mutants, they gathered here from all the far-flung planets
of the Federation. Their rising voices clashed in strange cacophony
through the tinkle of cutlery and crystal, thrown back in a din of
ringing echoes from the giant metal robots that still lined the walls.

Straightening in spite of the weight of his shackles, shrugging off
the hands of the guards who flanked him, Jarl Corvett met the seething
hostility of their glances with stiff-necked defiance. But underneath,
questions nagged him: _Why am I here? Who ordered me brought to this
banquet?_

But here he stood. That was what counted. Boldly, he surveyed the
room ... stared unflinching across at the commissioner.

A handsome man, Commissioner _rey_ Gundre. Heavy-bodied and aging, in
these later days. But still personable, still a figure to catch the
eye, even slack-faced and slouched in his seat as now.

He was a man of Earth, plainly, with all the strengths and weaknesses
and surging conflicts that went with that heritage. The sunburst
insignia of his rank stood out against the deep blue of his impeccably
tailored uniform. The white blaze that accented the darkness of his
hair only made him the more striking.

His aide sat at his left hand, Ylana at his right.

Ylana the golden, daughter of the high commissioner himself.

And Jarl Corvett's nemesis.

Even looking at her here, Jarl could feel the muscles at the hinges of
his jaws draw tight.

Tonight she sat slim and graceful at the banquet table in a scarlet
stylon gown. Her blonde hair swept up in a soft golden nimbus like that
of Tal Neeni, sea goddess of Callisto. The red lips were smiling, the
grey eyes asparkle.

Yet even when she laughed, some dark inner mood seemed to shadow her
beauty, even as it had last night while she lay asleep.

That shadow.... Was it alien blood, or a secret? Again Jarl caught
himself wondering. He thought: _I should hate her!_ And in the same
moment: _Even Sais is no lovelier_....

Cursing himself for a fool and a weakling, he tore his eyes from her
and studied the aide.

He was _Malya_, this officer; _Malya_ and warrior. His dark rough-hewn
face stayed emotionless, immobile. But the black _Malya_ eyes ranged
ceaselessly--bleak and watchful, never still. Ruthlessness was in them,
and recklessness ... a spirit that seemed to mock Jarl Corvett and deny
the blue Federation tunic that the dark aide wore.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bitterly, Jarl looked down at his shackles. He thought of the _Malyas_
among his own crewmen; the wild, free-born raiders.

How long would it be before they, too, wore the blue of the Federation?

Or before they died....

Now the commissioner stirred. Chin sunk on chest, he mumbled something
to his rock-faced lieutenant.

The lean aide nodded briefly. Twisting in his seat, he pounded on
the banquet table--first with his fist; then the butt of his heavy
Talistan ray-gun.

The sound rose even above the tumult and raucous voices, echoing and
re-echoing through the great room that till short days before had been
Wassreck's clandestine robotics laboratory.

Slowly, the noise and voices died away. Chairs scraped. Heads turned.
Eyes of _Fantay_ and of _fala_, Mercurian and Martian, _Chonya_,
Thorian, _Pervod_, searched out the table where the aide and the high
commissioner sat.

Not quite steadily, then, the commissioner rose, a brimming _kabat_
goblet in his hand. His eyes had the glassy shine of bright new
mirrors, and his tunic was rumpled, twisted awry.

Swaying a little, the commissioner slapped loose-fingered at the
blouse, as if to brush away the wrinkles. _Kabat_ slopped from the
goblet and spilled over his hand. Blinking, he looked down at the
spreading green stain. A foolish grin flickered fleetingly on his face.

Ylana leaned towards him; spoke sharply.

The commissioner's head twitched. He straightened, and his shoulders
snapped back to a too-stiff 'attention'. Jerkily, he raised his glass.

"A toast to our host, officers!" he cried in a drink-thickened voice.
"A toast to _Ktar_ Wassreck--may he rot in hell!"

Leaden silence came down on the room like a curtain. Furtive glances
flicked out to the towering robots, shoulder to shoulder, that lined
the walls.

It made Jarl Corvett smile a little, the way the officers hung back.
Did some recall H'sana? Were others on Pallas? Free or captive, _Ktar_
Wassreck still put cold fear in them!

_Ktar_ Wassreck: Outlaw, scientist, scholar. Wassreck at Horla--gnome
head tilted, eyes burning, laughing in the face of death. Wassreck ...
and Sais....

Spasmodically, Jarl's fists clenched. His bruised head throbbed dully.

"To our host!" the commissioner cried again, lurching forward. "To
Wassreck--"

The spell broke. The officers surged to their feet. Their shouts rang
through the clamor: "To Wassreck--"

"--May he rot in hell!"

They drank it down.

Fury swirled up in Jarl Corvett, hot and all consuming.

Swaying, face flushed, the commissioner clutched a decanter. He spilled
more _kabat_ into his goblet. "Now--one for Corvett! A toast to Jarl
Corvett--"

       *       *       *       *       *

He broke off as Ylana tugged at his tunic. Lines of angry tension
slashed the smooth loveliness of her face. Her lips moved, wrapping
round curt syllables.

Her father laughed drunkenly. He turned towards the doorway where
guards and raider stood, and his hand swept up in a clumsy broadside
gesture. "Drag him out!" he shouted. "Flush the _chitza_ out of his
hole!"

The two Mercurians who flanked Jarl closed in. One clutched his arm.

Jarl's fury seethed higher. In spite of his shackles, he jerked free of
the Mercurian's taloned hand. He felt cold arrogance ring in his voice:
"No one drags Jarl Corvett! I'll walk alone!"

For the fraction of a second the guards stood hesitant, lobed eyes
clouded beneath their nictitating lids.

Jarl swung his arms back sharply. The chains of his shackles whispered,
link on link, like a flexing metal knout.

The Mercurians' eyes fell. Contemptuous, ignoring them, Jarl turned
away. Head high, back unbending, he strode towards the table of the
high commissioner.

The Earthman smirked at him, still swaying.

Recklessness sang a death-song in Jarl Corvett's veins.

"Hail, coward!" he cried fiercely, and swept the crowd with a scathing
glance. "Is this the best your Federation fleet can offer--scum so low
that they draw their sport from taunting prisoners? _Huroks_ so green
with fear that you must bring me here in bonds?"

An angry babble rose from the tables, and the commissioner's
_kabat_-heavy lids drooped lower. But his lips twisted in the mirthless
semblance of a smile.

"Do you rate yourself so high that you think I'd waste time on you,
_starbo_?" He laughed, deep in his throat. "No, brigand! You're here
against my will!"

"Against your will--?"

"Yes. You're here to face another--one whom even I cannot deny, after
what you've done."

Wordless, narrow-eyed, Jarl studied him for a moment. "Then who--?"

"Who would it be?" This time the commissioner's laugh was sour and
savage. "Can you not guess, _yanat_?" And then: "My daughter, Ylana."

"Your daughter--!" Jarl pivoted to Ylana.

"Yes!" The girl came to her feet as he turned, grey eyes blazing. Her
words burst forth in a scalding flood. "Did you think I spoke empty
words when I swore last night that you'd live to curse the day you
tried to seize me? Did you take my promise for a hollow threat--?"

She broke off; swept round the table, a furious vision in gold and
scarlet. Her hand flicked up in a tight, peremptory gesture. "Atak!
Seize him--!"

The commissioner's rock-faced _Malya_ aide closed in on Jarl, moving
round behind him.

Ylana raised a shaking fist. "On your knees, _stabat_!"

       *       *       *       *       *

A numb incredulousness crept through Jarl Corvett. But he stood the
straighter. "I kneel for no man--nor for woman!"

A savage kick in the back of the knees caught him from behind in the
same instant. His legs buckled. He spilled forward, asprawl on the
floor.

"A whip--!" cried Ylana, face white with passion. "A whip for this
raider dog they call Jarl Corvett!"

One of the Mercurian guards sprang forward, jerking off his heavy,
_stanal_-buckled belt. "Here, _Shi_ Ylana! The plate will cut deep!"

The girl snatched it from him. Her face contorted.

"No, Ylana--!" It was her father, the _kabat_-haze fading from his
eyes. "Would you drag yourself down to the level of this _chitza_, here
before officers of the fleet--?"

The girl turned on him as a _quirst_ turns on its pursuers. "Who talks
of dragging down, and of the fleet?" she lashed fiercely. "Do you dare
to speak--you, with your plots and schemes, your secret meetings--?"

The high commissioner flushed to the hair. "Ylana! Silence!"

"Was it you this _starbo_ and his scum dragged out of bed last night?
Was it you who screamed and called the guard when they sought to flee
in your own carrier?"

Her father's jaws went stiff and set. His clenched fists bore down upon
the table. But he broke before Ylana's eyes; said nothing more.

The girl turned her back on him. Furiously, she challenged Jarl: "You
were brave enough last night, when you dealt only with a helpless
woman! But how is your courage now, bold raider? How does force taste,
when another hand holds the lash?"

Her shoulders twisted. Gripping the Mercurian's belt by the tongue, she
slashed out with the heavy _stanal_ clasp.

Jarl rocked back. The buckle sang past his face, so close he could feel
its breath.

But now, again, the _Malya's_ foot caught him from behind. It knocked
him forward on his shackled hands, off balance.

Before he could recover, the belt whipped down again. The buckle tore
at his cheek. He rocked with pain.

"Is it different, this time, raider?" Ylana shrieked. "Are you ready to
sing another song?"

Tight-jawed, stiff-backed, Jarl met her gaze. He did not speak.

The girl's red lips peeled back. "I asked you a question, dog!" she
cried. "I want an answer!"

She slashed out with the belt again. The buckle seared his jaw and neck.

"Answer me!"

Wordless, Jarl swayed.

The buckle ripped at his forehead. Blood gushed down into his eyes.

"Answer me--!"

Jarl lurched forward, clutching for her. But she darted back, out of
his reach. The stylon gown rustled. The buckle tore a path along his
scalp. The room blurred and swam before his eyes. Desperately, he tried
to cover his face with his shackled hands. But the tangled chains were
too short. He could only double forward, face to the floor.

       *       *       *       *       *

The buckle struck behind his right ear with stunning force, a fiery
knife stabbing through a red haze of pain.

"Wait, Ylana--!" It was Atak the _Malya's_ voice, drifting dimly to
Jarl as from afar. "Those blows to the head--he cannot last--"

"Then drag him up! Tear off his tunic! Bear his back, so that I can see
the red blood run!"

Hands clawed at Jarl's clothes. He felt his tunic rip away. The aide
dragged him up; twisted him about.

"Hold him there, Atak! Hold him tight!" came Ylana's cry.

The buckle seared Jarl's back--once, twice, a dozen times.

"Speak, _starbo_! Beg for mercy as you made me beg--!"

[Illustration: Jarl fought against showing pain as the girl brought the
belt down on his back.]

Jarl cursed her with a raw, pain-surging hate; cursed her with all the
black epithets of a raider and the warrior worlds.

"Still stubborn, _chitza_--?" Wild hysteria was in Ylana's voice. The
buckle bit in again.

Atak's hoarse whisper rasped in his ear: "You fool, give up! The
woman's mad! Even a raider should know that there's a time to crawl!"

Jarl clenched his teeth.

The girl cried, "You see, Atak? He loves the lash--!"

She struck again.

The commissioner's voice slashed harshly, the fog of drink long gone:
"Ylana! You'll kill him--!"

"You--!" The girl's contempt was a writhing, burning thing. "Where were
you last night, you _kabat_-soaked sot? You, with your talk of duty,
your fat-puffed pomp--"

Her father's voice went clipped and tight. "Enough, woman! Raider or
not, this man's my prisoner. Tomorrow I'll ship him on to the Venus
headquarters. He'll die in the _slan_-chambers there; not by your
hand." The room echoed with the flat slap of his palm cracking down on
the banquet table. "Atak! Get his tunic! Send him to his cell."

"Yes, Excellency...." The _Malya_ let go Jarl Corvett's arms.

Blinking the blood from his eyes, the raider stood swaying. Still numb,
still not quite believing, he stared at golden Ylana, in her scarlet
stylon gown.

Now, her hair hung down, no longer nimbus. Her lips were pale, and her
breasts rose and fell too fast. Madness gleamed in her dark-circled
eyes.

She snatched the tunic from Atak. "Here! Let me...." Whirling, she ran
to Jarl and thrust the wadded garment into his shackled hands. "Brave
raider--!"

She spat full in his face.

The _Malya_ aide caught her arm and jerked her back. "If you were not
_rey_ Gundre's daughter--" He cursed under his breath. "Get out! You
disgrace us!"

Gripping Jarl's arm, he led him from the hall. "I cannot expect your
pardon, Jarl Corvett. It would be too much to ask from any raider, any
man. But in their day, my ancestors roved the void...."

His voice trailed off. Turning to the guards, he said, "Take him to
his cell. I'll see that one of the fleet _ktars_ comes on down."

       *       *       *       *       *

Weak, tottering, Jarl let them lead him back to the old, thick-walled
wing they had given over to the prisoners. He had not even the strength
to curse when the guard, a Martian _fala_ with all his race's fiendish
love of cruelty, tripped him skillfully, so that he sprawled on his
face as he crossed the threshold to the room that was his cell.

The door clanged shut on the Martian's ghoulish laugh. Sick with pain,
Jarl dragged himself up and crawled to the bunk. Belly-down, he sagged
onto the springless frame.

How long he lay there he never knew. It was all he could do to breathe,
to be. The room about him was a reeling, distorted world of mists and
feverish dreams.

Then, at last, that, too, passed. Wearily, he pulled himself upright
and shook out his wadded tunic.

Metal clanged on the floor.

Jarl stiffened in spite of his wounds. Swiftly, he bent and felt
beneath the bunk.

His hand touched metal. It was a knife ... a keen, long-bladed telonium
fighting _skrii_.

For a long, long moment he sat in silence, gripping its heavy haft.
Then, in the darkness, he slowly smiled.

A _Malya_ was still a _Malya_, whether he wore the Federation's
uniform or not.

Tomorrow they'd ship him to the Venus headquarters, the
_slan_-chambers, death.

But this was tonight, the darkest hour, and he had a knife, and the
high commissioner's carrier still stood in the court outside....



                              CHAPTER III


The fleet-bell was tolling the nineteenth hour before the _ktar_ came
down.

Lying in the darkness, waiting for him, Jarl battled in stubborn
silence against the pain. He found himself giving heed to a thousand
little things--the roughness of the pollard-weave against his lacerated
cheek ... a prowling _peffok's_ distant cry. Faint, pervasive scents of
doloid dust, of must and _jeol_, pressed in upon him. He savored the
raw taste of blood in his mouth ... the saltiness of sweat when he ran
his tongue along his lips. Once, dimly, he caught the harsh rasp of
Ungo's voice, drifting to him from some other room.

Ungo of Jupiter, Big Ungo the loyal. He'd come here, protesting, on a
fool's mad mission. And now....

A flood of black doubt welled up in Jarl Corvett--doubt of himself, his
world, his cause. Would his dreams end here, in this dreary cell? Would
morning find him lancing out through space on his way to Venus and the
_slan_-chambers?

And ... would Wassreck die?

Writhing, fists clenched, he tried to drive the vision of the burning
eyes, the pain-racked body, from his brain.

But the image, the dark thoughts, would not go away.

Because Wassreck was on Venus already. Wassreck had no hope, save in
him, Jarl Corvett....

An incoherent, protestful sound rose in his throat. Spasmodically, he
gripped the bunk's chill metal frame; twisted as if to rend it, tear it
apart.

The effort made his tortured muscles shriek with pain. His ears
rang. The room rocked wildly. He gasped and sagged forward, plunging
down through green-and-purple depths of icy fire into a bottomless,
slowly-eddying pool.

Then the pool resolved. Of a sudden he was looking into Sais' dark
eyes. She was smiling at him, a tender smile, and her fingers were cool
against his cheek, her soft lips welcoming his.

But a misty barrier rose between them ... a barrier of heart and mind
that seared like a white-hot iron: _How can I face her? What can I say,
if her father dies?_

He cried aloud, a hoarse, choked cry, and Sais' face vanished. Once
more, the room closed in upon him. Again he lay straining on the
bunk--tasting the blood, drinking in the stink of doloid dust and
_jeol_.

Sais, and Wassreck. Wassreck, and Sais.

He wondered if he'd ever see either of them again.

Somewhere outside, a vague new stir of movement broke the stillness.

Jarl stiffened. For a moment he grasped the knife. Then, relaxing,
after a moment's hesitation, he slid the sleek blade out of sight
beneath his leg.

The sounds drew nearer; finally paused outside his cell. A blur of
muffled, grumbling words seeped through the door. The bolt clicked back.

It was the _ktar_, a dead-white, four-armed _kroy_ of Ganymede.
Flicking on the light, adjusting the vocodor translator, the creature
brushed smoothly into the room. Behind him, the _fala_ guard lounged
idly back against the jamb, thumbs hooked in belt.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl shifted, then lay still again, not speaking. He was thankful to
Atak--thankful the _Malya_ had sent a Ganymedan _ktar_. Few were more
talented or highly skilled or kind.

The _ktar_ crossed to him and set down the globe that held the
impedimenta of the healing craft. "How is it, raider?"

Jarl grunted and lifted his shoulders a fraction in a shrug.

The _ktar_ probed the cuts that gashed Jarl's back with deft, sure,
pseudopodal fingers. "Nasty. That thrice-cursed _stanal_ buckle bit
deep." Swiftly, he cleaned the wounds and applied the healing gel.

Jarl winced and clenched his teeth.

"Up, now," the _ktar_ commanded. "Let me at your face."

Stiffly, Jarl twisted. Keeping the precious knife covered with his
buttocks, he swung his legs to the floor and sat up.

The _ktar_ worked on in silence for a time. Then, at last, he
straightened. "That does it." He laughed--wry, almost bitter. "By the
time you get to Venus, you'll be in the best shape to die."

Picking up the globe, he pivoted and, with the peculiar floating motion
of his kind, moved towards the door.

Jarl gripped the haft of the telonium _skrii_. Tension came alive in
him, hot and quivering. Rising from the bunk, he followed the _kroy_,
holding the knife out of sight behind him. "I thank you, _ktar_...." He
dared say no more for fear his voice might betray him.

The Ganymedan muttered something incoherent and passed out into the
hall. The _fala_ guard, in turn, planted a many-jointed arm appendage
hard against Jarl's chest and roughly shoved him back. His mottled
throat-sac quivered. "No farther, _chitza_!"

Wordless, Jarl swayed. He made a show of cringing.

The _fala_ laughed harshly. His bulging eyes flicked to the hall
outside. Turning, he gripped the door-handle and started to pull the
portal shut.

Jarl leaped at him like a pouncing _zanth_, stabbing for the
throat-sac with the keen-edged _skrii_ blade.

The point bit in, even as the Martian tried to throw up a warding arm.
What might have been a shout came out as a rush of blood and bubbling
air.

The _fala_ tottered, coughing out his life. Down the corridor, the
Ganymedan whirled.

Jarl snatched the ray-gun from the toppling guard's holster. His voice
rasped, low-keyed and tense: "Don't make me kill you, _ktar_! I want
only freedom, not your life!"

The _kroy's_ eyes flicked down to the leveled gun. He stopped
short--stiff, silent.

"Back here!" Jarl clipped. "Back in my cell...."

Wordless, dead-white face a chalky mask, the _kroy_ slithered past him.

"Take him with you!" Jarl gestured to the fallen _fala_ guard.

The _ktar_ bent. His pseudopods locked onto the dead Martian's
shoulders. He dragged the corpse out of the corridor, into the cell.

Jarl swept up the wave-pencil key from where it had fallen as the
_fala_ died. Tight-drawn as a Uranian _tal_-string, gun still lined on
the Ganymedan's neuro-plexus, he jerked the cell door shut and slid the
wave-pencil into its slot beside the lock.

       *       *       *       *       *

The bolt clicked home. A fierce excitement flared within Jarl. Heart
pounding, heedless of the fatigue and pain that racked him, he spun
about and ran, half-reeling, down the hall.

He wondered how much time he had.

Or if he had any.

Wassreck and Sais.... He gripped the ray-gun tighter.

The first three doors he passed stood open.

The fourth was closed and locked.

Jarl slid the wave-pencil into the slot.

The bolt snapped back. Shoving open the door, he strained his eyes,
searching the darkness of the room.

A thick, familiar voice snarled sleepily from a bunk.

"Ungo--!"

The great, horny shoulders heaved up. The misshapen head lurched into
view. "Jarl--!" It was a half gasp, half sob. "Jarl, I thought they'd
done for you--that you'd gone under--!"

Jarl reeled against the Jovian, clutching the mighty arm. "Quiet!
They'll be after us any second!"

He could feel Ungo's muscles swell. "Let them--!"

Jarl laughed in spite of his tension, his pain. "Not yet, Ungo. Not
till the job is done!" He pivoted. "Come on!"

The Jovian's head sank down between the bulging shoulders. His eyes
gleamed. "The tube again--the way we came--?"

Jarl paused at the door. "No." He peered up and down the corridor.

"Then what--?"

"The commissioner's carrier. It's still in the court outside. We'll
grab it as soon as I get back." Jarl started forward.

Ungo caught his wrist. "Jarl...."

"What--?"

"There may be something you don't know...."

Jarl came around sharply. "Speak up! Time's short!" Once more, the
tension was climbing in him.

Ungo fumbled: "The guards--they talked a little. They say the reason
_rey_ Gundre went all-out on this raid was for a weapon, more than
Wassreck."

Jarl felt the cords along his neck draw tighter. "A weapon--?"

"Some new thing Wassreck worked out. A beam that focuses energy drawn
from cosmic dust." The Jovian's voice sank lower. His head thrust
forward. "Jarl, they claim it'll blast a ship right out of space, at
almost any range. They've got it geared and mounted now."

Jarl braced himself against the door. It dawned on him that his palm
was slick with sweat against the ray-gun's butt. The little things came
back to him--the tastes, the smells, the sounds. Again he peered up and
down the empty hall.

A weapon that focussed the power that lay in cosmic dust--? Even to
talk of it was sheer madness!

Yet Wassreck had made madness come to life so many times....

Involuntarily, Jarl Corvett shivered.

"If it's true, they'll blast us down before we even get the carrier
to our ship," said Ungo. He scrubbed his scaly hand along his hip. "We
wouldn't have a chance...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl bit down hard. With savage effort, he forced himself to think; to
shake off the bleak despair that kept rising in him, ever higher. "What
chance could we have if we went back through the tube, the air-vent?"

"We could maybe hide...."

"On Vesta--?" Jarl laughed aloud. "They'd find us as easily as in our
cells!" He broke off. The laughter went out of him, replaced by an
urgency even more feverish than that which had gone before. "No, Ungo!
It means we've got to run! We'd have to even if we could find a place
to hide!"

"But why, Jarl--?" The big Jovian scowled and fumbled.

"A weapon like that, and you ask why?" Jarl cursed in harsh, bitter
syllables. "What about the others--the outlaw worlds? What will it mean
when the Federation fleet sweeps down on H'sana?--on Ceresta?"

It was Ungo's turn to curse. Jarl shoved the wave-pencil into his hand.
"Here! Break out the men! And hurry!"

"But you--"

Jarl laughed. Of a sudden, once again, recklessness was boiling in him.
"We came here on a mission!"

"Not the woman--!"

"She'll still make _rey_ Gundre hold his fire! She'll still buy
Wassreck free!"

Ungo twisted. His bulk loomed rock-rigid, bigger than ever. "You can't.
Jarl! I won't let you! You are sick--crazy--"

The fire of recklessness in Jarl glowed brighter. "Tell me that
tomorrow, Ungo!" he clipped through clenched teeth. "You may convince
me--after the commissioner's ordered his men to shoot us down with that
hell-cat aboard!"

Ungo's breath came faster. "Then let me go, Jarl! Let me get her--!"

Jarl brought the ray-gun up, stone-steady. "We may both die on Vesta,
Ungo. That's enough for me to have resting on my conscience."

"But Jarl--"

"I'll shoot if I have to, Ungo."

Their eyes locked, and for a long moment they stood statue-like,
unmoving. Then, half-sullenly, the Jovian stepped aside. "I'll be
waiting, Jarl. Whatever happens, I'll be waiting."

Jarl did not answer. Of a sudden there were no words for him to say to
Ungo. Ray-gun in hand, he ran down the hall, picking his way through
the maze of ramps and corridors.

He thought: _It would have been better if Wassreck had let me die on
Horla._

Then, at last, he reached Ylana's room. It came to him as a shock when
there was no guard.

Silently, he opened the door; stepped swiftly in, gun up and ready.

The bed, the room, were empty.

       *       *       *       *       *

In a sort of frenzy, he ran through the rest of the suite; jerked open
the neutron-bath and closets.

But the girl was gone.

He spun about, for a wild moment ready to race on through the rambling
building, searching further.

But that was madness, and in his heart he knew it. Not even a clue as
to Ylana's whereabouts had been left behind. He might hunt for hours to
no avail.

And time was running short ... the seconds ticking by.

Jarl sagged back numbly. The fire went out of him. A dinning echo
drummed within his brain. _I've failed ... I've failed ... I've
failed...._

Wassreck had gone through Horla's holocaust for nothing. Sais would
weep and turn away.

As for Ceresta.

But there was still Ungo to think of ... Ungo, and the five dauntless,
swaggering raider crewmen who'd come here with him. He owed it to them
at least to try to get away.

Leaden-footed, he stumbled back through the maze of halls and ramps
again.

Then he was back in the corridor of the cells. Ungo lumbered up beside
him, eyes alight with a lust for battle. "Jarl! We knocked us off a
guard station--!"

The five crewmen crowded around--grinning wolfishly, displaying
weapons.

Jarl said dully, "Ungo, she was gone."

The Jovian shrugged his massive shoulders. "It goes that way
sometimes." And then: "We can't wait, Jarl. The far sky's getting grey
already."

"All right."

"We've found a gate to the court...."

"Let's go, then." Woodenly, Jarl walked with them to the heavy door and
peered through a crevice into the courtyard.

The personal carrier of _rey_ Gundre, high commissioner of all the
asteroids, rose stark and sleek, a shining silver lance against the
darkness of the sky. Blue-uniformed Federation guards patrolled in
pairs or stood their posts around it, weapons dully gleaming.

The sight of the ship, the fighters, somehow lifted Jarl. Of a sudden
he knew that now, of all times, he needed a foe that he could see and
strike.

He clipped curt orders: "We'll come out fast and trust to shock to get
us through. The first man aboard grabs the controls. The last racks
shut the hatch. Blast as soon as the bell rings!"

The raiders drew close, weapons ready. Jarl cut through the bolt on the
door.

"Now?" whispered Ungo.

"Now!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Ungo's bulk struck the gate with a splintering crash. The raiders
charged for the ship like ravening _zanths_ that race to reach their
prey.

Knife ready, ray-gun ablaze, Jarl Corvett leaped forward in his
crewmen's van.

Guards spun about. Desperately, the nearest tried to form to meet the
rush.

Jarl drove the knife deep into a _Pervod's_ breast; blasted a _dau_
back with his ray-gun's full charge. The fierce joy of conflict leaped
in him. As from afar, he heard the shouts of his men as they lunged
into the fray.

The guards' ranks wavered.

But now those from beyond the carrier were rushing to their aid. Steel
clashed on steel. A great bulbous-bodied Thorian hurtled down on Jarl.
Its tentacles wrapped round him, crushing him.

Savagely, he slashed at the leathery body; blasted with the ray-gun,
straight into the repulsive face.

The Thorian's tentacles fell away. Jarl glimpsed Big Ungo, smashed down
a _dau_ with a blow of his one mighty arm. There was a smell of blood
and burnt flesh; wild screams of rage and fear and anguish.

"To the ship--!" Jarl shouted. He hacked his way up the blood-slippery
ramp; clutched Ungo's belt and half-dragged the Jovian aboard.

The last of the raiders scrambled in behind them. The hatch clanged
shut. The ready bell leaped to jangling life.

There was a sudden roar of auxiliary gravicomps. The gyro-indicators
jiggled and swayed in their mountings. Men lurched awkwardly, caught
momentarily off balance in the crushing force of too-fast acceleration.

Then stability returned. The carrier speared upward, out from Vesta,
into the spark-spangled, glittering murk of the boundless astroidal
night.

Jarl turned, seeking out the crewmen, and a sudden sickness gripped
him. There were only three now: three and Big Ungo.

But the dead were dead, and they had gone as raiders go. Bleakly, he
made his way to the viziscreen and turned it on. Spinning the dials,
he drew a cross on the specific black emptiness where his ship had
been scheduled to pick them up. His fingers shook a little, and his
earlier, darker mood came back to nag him. _We're overdue, a day behind
already. What if they've given us up and gone? What if a fleet patrol
has flushed them out?_

Grimly, he calculated the carrier's chances of making Ceres on her
own ... such slim, slim chances....

Only then, as he manipulated the dials, a great, shark-like bulk loomed
on the viziscreen. At his elbow, Ungo thrust out a quivering talon and
cried, "It's her, Jarl! The _Ghost_! She's still waiting!"

Stiff-fingered, Jarl adjusted the focus. The familiar outlines of the
raider ship sharpened. Silent, space-drive off, she drifted shadow-like
through the asteroids like some strange, cylindrical metal world.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl let out his breath, all at once acutely conscious of the strain
that frayed at him. He was suddenly tottering weak, his belly sick and
twisting.

Still beside him, Ungo studied him with worried eyes. "Look, Jarl:
You're done. Lay down before you fall down."

Jarl braced his arm against the cabinet of the viziscreen. "How can I
rest?" he mumbled, and knew himself that he was mumbling. "Even if we
make it, what happens to the raider fleet--and to Ceresta? This new
weapon...."

"Can you help more if you're dead?" the Jovian badgered. "Will things
be better if you fall over?" He gripped Jarl's arm. "Come on! I'm
putting you to bed, whether you want to go or not!"

Numbly, Jarl let himself be led into the commissioner's own tiny
private cabin. Wordless, he sagged onto the bunk.

Ungo backed out again and closed the door.

Flat on his back in the pulsing stillness, Jarl closed his eyes.

But sleep would not come. His brain was a screen, alive with a vivid,
ever-shifting kaleidoscope of form and color. Again and again, his
mind flicked back to Sais and Wassreck ... to the raider fleet, the
wild rovers and fighting men he knew so well ... to Ceresta's teeming
streets, and the cold, bleak beauty of the hills and plains of Pallas.

And to Ylana.

Shifting, he opened his eyes and stared up at the dully gleaming
ceiling.

Where had the girl gone? Why had she not been in her room?

Above all, what strange lust had led her to flay him as she had, before
the highest officers of her father's fleet?

Jarl frowned and rubbed his aching forehead. The girl's willingness to
bring down upon herself the shame of beating a shackled prisoner was a
hard thing to explain.

Could it be that she indeed had alien blood--a strain from some
sadistic barbarian breed? Narrow-eyed, he tried to recall her face
more clearly ... the shadow that hung over her slim blonde loveliness.
Or--he frowned again--perhaps that shadow truly hid a secret--the
secret of a twisted mind set in beauty's body, irrevocably warping over
into madness.

He moved to a more comfortable position, still staring up at the blank
inscrutability of the metal ceiling. A play of light and shadow caught
his eye. Idly, he followed its shiftings--first slow, then suddenly
abrupt, then slow again.

Little by little, an uneasiness crept over him. New tension began to
crawl in his midriff.

He loosened his belt and pulled the wrinkles from his tunic; moved
from side to side.

But the uneasiness grew. He could not make it go away.

Biting his lip, he lay back, still searching for the cause.

Overhead, the shadows on the ceiling slowly began to shift again.

It came to him, then: He was lying motionless, allegedly alone in this
cramped room--_yet the shadows were moving_!

There could be only one answer: Someone else shared these quarters with
him.

       *       *       *       *       *

The hair on the back of his neck crawled. Grimly, he wondered what the
odds on his life would be if it turned out that some _Pervod_ guard had
been trapped here when the carrier took off.

Twisting in the bed, he let his hand fall across the haft of his knife.

The shadows overhead flexed a fraction.

Ever so slowly, ever so carefully, he turned his head, looking sidewise
down at the floor.

A heel was drawing out of sight beneath the bunk.

Jarl gripped the knife. Silently, he twisted still further, till he was
in position to strike.

Only then did he speak--coldly, with all the menace he could muster:
"Come out--or I'll kill you!"

The whisper of a quick-drawn breath broke through the stillness, then
died again in utter silence.

Jarl poised; drew back his knife. "All right, then, curse you--!"

Clothing rustled. A voice choked, "Wait, Jarl Corvett--! I'm coming...."

A strangely familiar voice....

Again there was the rustling. A head moved into view from beneath the
bunk, already turning ... a woman's head, crowned with a nimbus of
golden hair.

It was Ylana.



                              CHAPTER IV


A dragging eternity of silence echoed in the tiny cabin. Jarl's
knife-hand fell. He groped for words that would not come.

Coolly, the girl slid out from under the bunk and, supplely graceful,
rose to her feet. Ignoring Jarl, she straightened the sleekly-styled
blue Federation tunic that accented rather than concealed the smooth
curves of her slim young body. When she looked up, her grey eyes were
mocking, half-disdainful. "What, raider? Have you never seen a woman,
that you must stare so at me?"

"You--? A woman?" Jarl spat. "Your own sex would disown you! You're
more mad _ban_ than human!" He clenched his fist. "By H'sana's virgins.
I should kill you!"

Ylana tossed her head--uncringing, defiant. The golden hair rippled.
"Is that your raider's way, then? To kill the one who gives you life?"

"Who gives me life--?" Jarl cursed. He touched his lacerated face.
"You've given me scars only!"

"Is your beauty such that wounds will mar it?" The girl's lips twisted
scornfully. "I thought you'd find my _skrii_ worth a few cuts, a little
pain, if it would buy you back your freedom."

"The _skrii_--? The knife?" Jarl choked. "You mean--it was you who gave
it, not the _Malya_--?"

"Who else?" she shrugged, and her contempt bit like the telonium
blade's own razor edge. "Did you think I'd shame myself, beating a
prisoner before my father's men, without reason?"

Jarl rocked. "But why--?"

Once more, Ylana's slim shoulders lifted. She smoothed her hair, with
elaborate deliberation. "You were too closely guarded for me to reach
you in your cell. But it came to me that if I made a show of hate, I
could trick my father into bringing you to the great hall so I could
confront you before all, at the banquet. The beating--it was the only
way I could devise to pass the _skrii_ on to you."

Jarl studied her. But her eyes were clear, her smooth face guileless.
The shadow of a smile played about her mouth.

He frowned and gestured helplessly. "Does not even a woman need some
reason....?"

"I had a reason," she said, and of a sudden she was no longer smiling.
"I had so great a reason...."

Abruptly, half-turning, she broke off. Her eyes left Jarl's, and he
saw that her hands had tightened to white-knuckled fists. Her breasts
rose and fell too fast beneath the tunic.

He waited, not speaking.

Still looking away, her voice the barest whisper, she said, "I learned
the truth at last, Jarl Corvett...."

"The truth--?"

"About freedom, and the Federation as a partnership of plunder. About
my father, and that renegade _chitza_ Wassreck." Her voice broke. Her
eyes came back; met Jarl's. "Raider, how can I tell you? Wassreck has
betrayed you!"

"Betrayed me--?" Jarl went rigid. In two quick steps he was beside
her--gripping her chin; staring down into her eyes. "Not Wassreck--!"

"Yes, Wassreck!" Her words came tumbling forth in a rush, raw and
defiant. "He was not captured, Jarl Corvett! He surrendered!"

"You lie!"

"No! Of his own free will, he sent a secret message to my father! He
had a new weapon, he said--a projector that would break your raiders'
power forever. He offered to give it to the Federation, if in exchange
they'd lift the brand of outlaw from him and award him a post of proper
honor."

       *       *       *       *       *

New fury gripped Jarl Corvett. "You lie!" he lashed again. "You lie in
your teeth, you she-_quirst_! This is some sneaking scheme, a filthy
trick to match the one you played back there in the banquet hall--"

"No, no...." The girl's voice choked with pain. Tears spilled down her
cheeks. "My jaw--you'll break it--"

Jarl let go her chin.

White patches from his gripping fingers marked her face. For an
instant, shame flooded through him. Yet, somehow, in the tension of the
moment, it only added to his fury. Savagely, he turned away and paced
the cabin. "Curse you, Ylana!"

She looked away. The grey eyes were dull, her face deep-shadowed. "I
know, Jarl Corvett. You still hate me. You wonder why I should do this
thing--give you my _skrii_, tell you all I've told, hide here on my
father's carrier so that you would take me with you...." Her voice
broke. The tears coursed faster. "All my life, my father's talked of
duty. But now, with this new weapon in his grasp, he would keep it
secret till he can sweep the asteroids clean for the wealth that's
waiting to be seized. He talks of perquisites of office, claims it as
his due for his years of service...."

Chill, narrow-eyed, Jarl weighed her words. "So, now, you'd turn
against him?"

She hid her face. Her voice came muffled. "It was more than I could
stand, Jarl Corvett--that you should die for loyalty, while my father
loots the Belt, and Wassreck basks in honor. Now,"--she raised her
head, red lips aquiver--"now, at least, I've warned you. You can flee
somewhere--perhaps to the dark worlds beyond Pluto...."

"Perhaps."

"Perhaps--? What else is there for you to do?"

Tight-jawed, Jarl slapped his hands against his hips. "I can still go
on to the outlaw worlds. My ship can still ramp at Ceresta."

"Ceresta--?" The eager light faded from her face. She drew back,
staring. "But why, Jarl Corvett? Don't you understand what I've just
told you? The raider worlds are doomed!"

"So you claim," Jarl nodded. "But Wassreck proved himself to me at
Horla. Do you think I'd forsake him now, on your word only?" Grimly,
again, he paced the tiny cabin. "No, golden Ylana! You--you're still
_rey_ Gundre's daughter!"

Her hand came to her throat. "You mean--?"

Rock-faced, he towered over her, fighting down all impulses to
gentleness, to mercy. "I mean that whether you tell the truth or not,
your father's still the high commissioner. How can I trust you?"

He could see the pulse beat in her temple. "Then ... it means nothing
to you that I hid aboard the carrier, here, to warn you? I pledged my
life--"

He nodded curtly. "Yes. You pledged your life. And now it's forfeit."
Turning on his heel, he strode to the door and flung it open. "Ungo!"

The Jovian turned from the viziscreen. "What, Jarl?"

"Come here! We've got our hostage!"

"Our hostage--?" Big Ungo lumbered to the cabin's door, then stopped
short, gaping. "Jarl--! The woman--!"

"Yes, the woman! Ylana, the commissioner's own daughter!" Even as he
said it, there was a sickness in Jarl Corvett. But he put false triumph
into his voice to cover the things he felt. "She came of her own free
will, old comrade, with a fool's wild tale that Wassreck had betrayed
us!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The girl stood rigid. Her mouth, her throat, were working. Then
furiously, she stumbled forward and ran to him. Her fists beat a
drum-roll against his chest. "You _chitza_--!" Sobbing, she broke off;
turned to face Ungo and the staring crewmen. "A fool's tale, he calls
it! He'd go on to Ceresta!" She choked. "Must all of us die for this
one madman? I tell you, your sainted Wassreck has surrendered and given
the Federation his newest, most deadly weapon! I came to warn you, so
that you could flee to outer space--"

Jarl caught her arm. Sharply, he twisted. "Enough, you she-_quirst_!
Even if you believe you tell the truth, you're more the fool to think
so!"

Wincing, doubled with pain, she twisted. "What do you mean?"

Jarl laughed, and the sound came out less mirth than anguish. "Did you
forget that Wassreck's own daughter, Sais, is at Ceresta? Would he cut
loose your father's Federation fleet, arm his deadliest foe with a new
weapon, knowing that Sais and the raiders would die together?"

The girl's face paled. "No--! No, it can't be--"

"It can't be, but it is. Sais came to me there, to beg me to try to
save her father!"

Ylana swayed. Her lovely face was a mirror of shock. Helpless,
grey eyes tear-brimming, she twisted in mute appeal to the other
raiders.

Ungo said: "It's true, woman. I was there with him."

"But it can't be...." The words came out almost a whimper.

Across the room, the viziscreen's communicator bell rang shrilly.

Jarl let the girl's arm fall. Muscles stiff, belly tight with tension,
he strode to the screen and spun the dials swiftly to the cross shown
on the communicator unit.

A room took form upon the screen, a bleak, bare, metal room where
blue-uniformed Federation crewmen moved to and fro.

Ungo clipped: "The screen-room--! The screen-room of Gundre's own fleet
flagship, down on Vesta!"

Mute, Jarl Corvett nodded; focussed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now a new figure appeared before the screen ... the iron-backed,
handsome figure of High Commissioner _rey_ Gundre. Deep lines etched
his lean face. His hair was mussed, his tunic-collar open. But he stood
erect, and his eyes were cold as Pluto's ice-things.

His voice came, harsh and savage: "You _starbos_! If you've laid one
finger on my daughter, I swear by every god from here to Arcturus that
you'll die by inches!"

A spark of quick admiration touched Jarl Corvett; and with it came
flooding a feeling that was almost pity.

But he held his face cold, and twisted his lips in a mocking, mirthless
smile. "Brave talk, Commissioner!" And then: "You can have her back,
you know ... in exchange for _Ktar_ Wassreck!"

_rey_ Gundre's mouth twisted. "You _chitza_! You know he's gone!"

"Then get him back."

"From the _slan_-chambers, the Venus headquarters?" _rey_ Gundre cursed.

"From hell, if need be!" Jarl took a quick half-step forward; stood
with hands on hips, feet wide apart, in fierce, cold-eyed defiance. He
let his voice ring: "The choice is yours, Commissioner! How much do you
love her? Take your pick now! It's her, or _Ktar_ Wassreck!"

The older man brought up a fist that shook with fury. His face worked
in a twitching spasm. "I'll blast you, Corvett! By the gods, I'll blast
you--!"

"Blast, then," Jarl shrugged. "Blast, and be damned! But
remember--your daughter's with us!"

Things happened to the other's face, then ... things that were not good
to see. The cheeks sagged, and the mouth went limp, and the eyes' fire
dulled to coals of pain. Of a sudden _rey_ Gundre was no longer the
high commissioner, but only a shriveled husk of a man all at once grown
old beyond his years.

He swayed, then turned, as if he had forgotten Jarl and the raiders.
"Atak, what can I do--?" It was a plea, a supplication.

His _Malya_ aide moved into view beside him on the screen. The dark,
rough-hewn face had the set of granite. "Corvett...."

Jarl forgot his pity. Sudden needles of tension pricked at his neck.
"Yes."

"Tell me, raider--have you heard of _Ktar_ Wassreck's new projector?"

"Yes."

"And that we've already set it up--that this moment it's geared for
action?"

Woodenly, Jarl nodded.

The _Malya's_ eyes grew black as the void. "Then know another thing.
Jarl Corvett! Know that we've plotted your course as you ranged off
from Vesta."

Chill tendrils brushed Jarl's spine. But he held his face blank,
without emotion. "And so--?"

"So you, too, have a choice to make, raider--the choice between coming
back, or trying to cross the void in a short-flight carrier."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl shrugged and forced the thin vestige of a smile. "A good threat,
_Malya_. It might break me--if I believed it."

"But you do not?"

"No projector has the range to reach my ship from Vesta."

"More power lies in cosmic dust than you can dream of, raider." Atak's
eyes were bleak, his dark face set in a mask of menace. "You've made
your choice, Corvett! Now set your cross for your own ship--and live
with the decision!"

The viziscreen went blank.

"Jarl ..." whispered Big Ungo. "Quick, Jarl, get a cross on the ship!"

The crewmen's voices were muttered echoes.

With an effort, Jarl kept his movements casual. Wordless, he spun the
dials.

The _Ghost's_ looming bulk took form, drifting through the emptiness of
space.

In the stillness, Atak's voice blared through the audio unit. "Are you
ready, raider? Are you watching?"

Jarl cursed him.

The _Malya_ laughed harshly. "I press a button...."

Numb, stiff with tension, Jarl stared at the screen, hardly conscious
of the crewmen crowding round him.

For a long moment, nothing happened.

Then, before his very eyes, the _Ghost_ began to glow.

It came slowly, at first--the faintest touch of pale phosphorescence.

But with every heartbeat, it shone brighter. In seconds the hull was
weirdly agleam as with some strange, penetrating light.

Then the ship rocked wildly. He could see the plates begin to buckle.

"No--!" screamed a crewman. "No! My brother--!"

Wallowing, the _Ghost_ flamed bright as a _thes_-wood torch. Proton
cannon streamed blazing, aimless death. The hull began to cave, then
burst asunder. Like an _eidel_-bomb exploding, it tore apart in
great, flaring sections that blasted out through space, beyond the
viziscreen's frame edges.

Slowly, the weird light faded; died. The blackness of the void closed
in.

Like men paralyzed, the raiders stared unspeaking into the awful
emptiness where short moments before the _Ghost_ had drifted.

It came to Jarl Corvett that he was trembling. Numb-fingered, he
reached out and snapped off the viziscreen.

The sound of the switch triggered loose the tension. At his elbow,
Ylana burst into hysterical, wildly-triumphant laughter. "You see--?
Will you believe me now, when I tell you what fate awaits you?"

Pivoting, Jarl slapped her across the mouth with all his might.

She crashed to the floor against the carrier's farthest wall; lay there
in a crumpled, moaning heap.

The crewmen fell back a step, all eyes on Jarl. He could not read their
stony faces.

"Jarl...." Ungo's voice was shaking. "Jarl, you saw it--?"

The others' words were sullen echoes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl moved away from them a fraction, till his back was against the
viziscreen. He let his hand hang close to his ray-gun.

He said: "We're wasting time. Even in this carrier, we still can make
Ceresta."

They stared at him, all of them--Ungo, Ylana, the three hard-eyed
crewmen. Then, suddenly, a _Chonya_ blurted, "You're mad, Jarl! What
chance would we have against that projector?"

"You can forget the projector." Jarl jerked his head in the direction
of Ylana. "As long as she's aboard, they won't dare use it."

"But across the void...." The raiders exchanged fearful glances.

"Would you rather die on Venus?"

Big Ungo shifted. "But Ceresta, Jarl--it's too far to go. There are
other places nearer, safer."

"And the raider fleet--?" In spite of himself, Jarl's voice was bitter.

"The fleet--?"

"How long do you think the Federation will wait to strike, now that
they've got this new projector?" Jarl laughed, harsh and curt. "By now,
the armorers will be fitting them into every ship. Tomorrow they'll be
blasting down on Ceres."

He could see new fear come alive in the others' eyes. It put iron in
him.

He lashed out: "Are your own necks all that you can think of? Does it
mean nothing to you that good friends will die and, with them, all
freedom?--That the outlaw worlds at last will be forced to bow their
necks to the yoke of the Federation?"

The others' eyes fell. The raiders looked away and shifted.

Jarl said: "That's one of the reasons why we're going to Ceresta. With
_rey_ Gundre's daughter there, the Federation fleet will hold off
striking."

Big Ungo looked up, still half-sullen. "You said that was one reason.
What others are there?"

A knot drew tight in Jarl Corvett's belly. "We came to Vesta to save
_Ktar_ Wassreck. Now they claim he has betrayed us."

"But what--?"

"Sais is at Ceresta." The knot drew tighter. "If it's true, if Wassreck
has gone over, then we'll need her for a hostage."

Again the silence echoed.

Then, suddenly, the _Chonya_ crewman cried, "To hell with that! You
don't give a _filan_ for Ceresta!" His voice went raw with angry
passion. "We know what you want! It's Sais you're after--not as a
hostage, but a woman!"

Face contorted, he clawed for his blaster.

Jarl whipped up his ray-gun--twisting, firing.

The _Chonya_ crashed back, dead.

Hate seethed in Jarl Corvett, a boiling, red-hazed murder-fury. He
shook in a spasm of unbridled passion.

"You _chitzas_!" he shouted. "I'll kill you all--even you, Ungo--"

The great Jovian's face twitched. But there was no fear in it. Bleakly,
he lumbered forward, towering. His deep voice rasped: "Kill ahead,
Jarl. Any time you want to." His massive shoulders seemed to draw
together. "I'm with you now, Jarl. I've always been. But I'll speak my
mind when I think I need to--to you, or the devil!"

Jarl's tide of fury ebbed and died. The ray-gun dropped to his side,
and of a sudden he was shaking. "Ungo...."

"I know, Jarl. It doesn't matter." Ungo's taloned hand was like a
steadying pillar. "Go ahead. Give your orders."

Numb, sick, Jarl Corvett slowly straightened, and breathed deep.

He said, "Our course is still Ceresta!"



                               CHAPTER V


Ceresta: Port Royal of the void; sprawling, anarchical capitol city of
the outlaw worlds.

Here were burrows of Rhea's spider men, and _Pervod_ cones, and
_Fantay_ spires. Hive-like Mercurian domes rose amid the flat-roofed
dwellings of the _llorin_. Throbbing _Transmi_ drums beat out
their savage rhythm, echoing over voices that spoke in Pluto's
clacking accents and the reptilian sibilances of creatures from the
ammonia-and-methyl swamplands of Saturn and the Rings. There was the
acrid smell of Rogek gas and rocket fuel--and the stink of the bulbous,
grub-like _Mah'ham_ that fed on their own dead. Here a rover could
dine on t'krai of Callisto, or haggle over the price of one of
Neptune's fire-jewels ... or have his brains beaten out with a genuine
Torod mace.

For this was a warrior's city, haven of the wild, blood-lusting raiders
who made the asteroid belt their home. Fighting men from half-a-hundred
satellites and planetoids and planets, they gathered here by their own
choice, drawn together in one vast cutthroat brotherhood of booty. Old
names, old fames, were left unmentioned. The hulls of the battered
ships that ramped in the vastness of the sprawling port bore no
Federation registration symbols.

Now, in the shadowy dusk that characterized this strange, warped world
of Ceres, the carrier of High Commissioner _rey_ Gundre came limping
down.

Jarl Corvett brought the craft in himself.

He waited till the shadows verged on darkness, enough to hide the
carrier's insignia; then picked a spot far off from the tower, out
where the port bordered on the old native quarter, and let the ship
drop down her gravicomps dead like another, blacker shadow.

The carrier rocked in to a silent landing. Rising from the control
seat, he strode to the hatch.

But Big Ungo was already there before him--blaster on hip, massive
shoulders straining at the fabric of an appropriated Federation tunic.
"Jarl, you can't go alone...."

Jarl Corvett smiled thinly. "I've got to, Ungo."

"But there may be trouble...." The Jovian brought up his one hand in an
angry gesture.

"I know. That's why you can't go. I need you here on board more than I
do with me." Jarl dropped his voice; jerked his head towards the cabin
where Ylana lay. "Stay with her, Ungo. We can't afford to lose her."

"The men--"

"Would you chance it? Would you trust that much to them?"

For a moment their eyes clashed. But the questions held their own bleak
answers. Muttering, half-sullen, the big Jovian moved aside.

Jarl said: "I'll be back, Ungo." Silently, he dropped out the hatch to
the ground and strode towards the dim lights that marked the ancient,
scabrous buildings which fringed the port.

But every step was a coal for the dull fire of tension that burned
within him. Would he really be back? Would he ever see the carrier
again, or Ungo?

Or Ylana....

He wondered.

       *       *       *       *       *

The native quarter closed in about him, heavy with the stench of age
and rotting garbage. _Vocorn_ pipes wailed, thin and minor, and strange
eyes stared at him, luminous in the descending night. Once he stepped
shuddering into the protoplasmic slime of some primitive life-form
as it writhed its way across the mud-choked cobbles; once, through a
doorway, he glimpsed a snake-woman's sinuous dancing in the light of
flaring _thes_-wood torches.

But he hurried on, still wrapped and trapped in his own dark thoughts.

Again and again, in spite of him, his mind flashed back to Wassreck ...
_Ktar_ Wassreck, tortured genius, who'd come for him at Horla.

Could betrayal find a haven in such a man?

Jarl Corvett cursed aloud. It was beyond the believing.

Yet if it were true....

A chill shook Jarl. Where did loyalty lie, in man or duty?

Especially if that duty were only to a dream, the way of the raider....

He could find no answer. Savagely, he kicked a whimpering _bok_ from
his path and pushed on through the darkness.

And Sais ... what of her? Would he find her waiting, or vanished? What
would she say? How could he tell her?

Tight-jawed, head down, he hurried on the faster.

Then, at last, he was striding out into the Place of the Raiders ...
crossing the open court to his own quarters.

He tried the door.

It was locked. Angrily, he beat on it with a heavy fist.

A rustle of sound came from within. The door opened a crack.

Belligerently, Jarl shoved inside.

A hard object gouged his back.

By sheer reflex, he tried to leap aside, to whirl.

But rough hands seized him. A powerful arm jerked back his head, the
wrist-bone jammed so hard against his throat that he choked and gasped
for breath, his struggles unavailing. Close to his ear, a rough voice
rasped, "Give up, you zanat, or I'll break your neck!"

Already the blackness was swimming with sparks and stars. Reeling, Jarl
called a halt to battle.

"That's better!" the voice rasped. And then: "All right! We've got him!
Let's have some light!"

The inner door opened. A yellow glare flooded the entryway. Staggering,
arms locked behind him, Jarl was dragged into the room beyond.

Blinking, he stared into familiar faces ... the cold, hard-bitten
faces of the chieftains of the raider fleet--Toran the _Malya_ ... the
mongrel, Tas Karrel ... Bor Legat of Mercury ... half-a-dozen others.

And there was another with them, not a warrior ... one whose dark,
proud, lovely face was pale beneath its color.

Jarl choked, "Sais--! What have they done to you--?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The woman who was _Ktar_ Wassreck's daughter pulled together the torn
bodice of her kirtle. A sudden flush replaced her pallor. "Ask them,
Jarl." The fine, dark eyes with which she swept the raider chiefs were
bitter, scornful.

Jarl stood very still. Cold-eyed, seething, he looked from one captain
to another.

He said tightly: "You know this woman. You know she's under my
protection. Who among you saw fit to lay hands on her, in my own
quarters?" And then, with special, deadly emphasis: "Who _dared_ to do
it?"

But the chieftains' eyes threw back his fury. Their faces stayed hard,
bleak, impassive.

"You _starbos_!" Jarl lashed. "Are you afraid to talk? Have you left
your tongues on Pluto?"

The chiefs exchanged glances. Then, almost idly, Bor Legat moved
forward--Bor Legat of Mercury, Bor Legat the ruthless. His lean body's
shell-plates clacked in the stillness like tiny castinets. The basilisk
eyes were like diamonds.

"Corvett," he said gently, "we're not afraid. Maybe this will convince
you."

One arm appendage whipped up. The splayed, tentacular digits stung
Jarl's face like flicking lashes.

Jarl rocked in a red haze of fury. "Bor Legat--"

"I know. You'll kill me." Chill, casual, the Mercurian crossed to the
chart table and slouched down on one radial hip. The tentacular digits
wrapped around the proton grenade that served as a chart-weight and
swung it idly to and fro.

To Jarl, the ticking seconds were like eons. The tension rising in the
room was almost a living thing. He waited, not speaking.

At last Bor Legat raised the basilisk eyes to him. "Word travels fast,
Corvett. We know you've got _rey_ Gundre's daughter."

Jarl stared. "That's why you're here--?"

The Mercurian shrugged. "What else? And what better place to trap you
than your own quarters?"

The other raiders nodded.

"And Sais--?" Jarl queried tightly.

"We needed her, to force your hand."

Jarl shot a quick glance at the woman. She stood as before, straight
and proud, one hand to her bodice. Her dark eyes spoke unreadable
volumes.

Bor Legat laughed softly. "She wants your help, Corvett. I hope that
she'll get it."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl turned on him, voice raw and scalding. "Quit talking in riddles!
What is it you're after?"

"You're not that stupid, Corvett." The Mercurian swung the proton
grenade a fraction faster. "We want the girl, of course; Gundre's
daughter, Ylana."

"Why?"

"To drive a bargain." The faintest hint of urgency crept into Legat's
tone. "We know why you stole her. You're out to save Wassreck."

"And you--?" Jarl put scorn into his voice.

"Death comes to all raiders. Why should a traitor's tale be different?"
The Mercurian lowered the grenade and leaned forward. "You can have it
straight, Corvett: _rey_ Gundre's made us an offer. If we give him you
and Ylana, he'll spare Ceresta."

"And you believe him--?" Jarl laughed harshly. "No wonder you came
here! You're mad as a _ban_, Legat! How long do you think he'd hold to
his promise?"

"Long enough," the Mercurian clipped curtly. He sat back once more.
Again, idly, he swung the grenade like a deadly oval pendulum.

Jarl said: "Maybe there are some things you don't know--about Wassreck;
about his new projector--"

"Yes; we've heard about it." A veil of craft and malice drew over the
basilisk eyes. "You see, we've got it, too, Corvett."

Jarl started. "You've got it--?"

"You heard me." Bor Legat's smile grew to a ghoulish grin, leering and
macabre. "Sais gave it to us."

"Sais--!" Jarl swung sharply.

The woman's ripe lips quivered. Once more her color deepened. "Yes,
Jarl. I knew the secret. I gave it to them."

For a long, taut moment, Jarl studied her. But as before, the dark eyes
were unfathomable.

He turned back to Bor Legat. "So what are your plans?"

"You can guess them, can't you?" the Mercurian chuckled. "All we need
is time. You'll buy that for us--you, and the girl, Ylana. Then, when
the Federation fleet strikes through the Belt to blast us, we'll have a
surprise of our own all ready and waiting for them."

"I see." Jarl nodded slowly, but his mind was racing. Then, pouring
savage scorn into his voice, he lashed out at the raiders: "Are you
utter fools, you _chitzas_? Do you rate _rey_ Gundre as a moonstruck
idiot?" He laughed, harsh and curt. "He'll strike, all right; but not
the way you expect, nor by the path you hope for! He'll know from the
start that you plan to trap him! His ships will break through before
you have the chance to trap them--"

       *       *       *       *       *

He slashed on, in that vein; and as he talked he could see doubt flare
in the chieftains' eyes. Tas Karrel's glance wavered. Toran the _Malya_
frowned and shifted.

But Bor Legat the ruthless did not shift or waver.

"We'll chance that," he clipped; and in spite of their doubts, the
others nodded.

Jarl's jaw set hard. "Play it that way, then, if you can." He jerked
free of the hands that held him; hooked his thumbs in his belt in a
gesture of cold defiance. "_If_ you can...."

Bor Legat's arm came down. The proton bomb swung loose at his side as
he leaned forward. "If--?" he queried, too gently.

Jarl said: "You need two prisoners to keep your traitor bargain. You've
only got one."

"You mean, you won't give up the girl." The Mercurian was almost
purring. "We counted on your being stubborn, Corvett. That's why we
held your lovely Sais a prisoner. With her to help, I think we can
convince you."

With an effort, Jarl held his face immobile. He did not speak.

Bor Legat said: "Torture means little to a man like you, Jarl Corvett.
I doubt that it would break you. But if you knew your silence would
doom this woman...."

Sais cried: "No, Jarl--!" Before they could stop her, she was running
to him. She threw her arms around him. "Jarl, they're mad with fear of
my father's weapon! If you give _rey_ Gundre's daughter to them, they
will gamble the fate of the outlaw worlds on their bargain with him--!"

For a moment Jarl held her to him. Her warmth, the softness of her
body, brought new strain, new tension. The fragrance of her dark hair
stabbed like a knife-blade.

Slouched on the chart table, Bor Legat smiled and swung the proton
grenade. "Well, Corvett?"

Again Jarl looked from one raider to another. But their hard faces
showed no trace of mercy, no hint of indecision.

Bleakly, he turned back to Bor Legat.

The Mercurian set the proton bomb down on the table with a thud. A grim
finality was in the gesture.

"We've got three Earth days, Corvett," he said in a flat, hard voice.
"Three days to turn you over to _rey_ Gundre." And then: "It could seem
three thousand years to your lovely Sais, if you stay stubborn."

       *       *       *       *       *

Once more, the seconds dragged like eons. Again Jarl looked to the
raider chiefs, the burly crewmen.

A thought moiled in the far reaches of his brain: _If I could only
snatch a weapon...._

But even as it came, it died again. What good could any weapon do
against so many? Even if he killed Bor Legat, there'd be the others.

The Mercurian said: "We're wasting time, Corvett. Give us Ylana--or
we'll get to work on your own woman."

Sais choked, "Jarl, stand firm--! Let them have me; it doesn't
matter...."

Her voice broke. Jarl held her tighter. Bitterly, he thought of
Wassreck, her father, and of Horla.

What was loyalty now, when it made a man try to choose between Sais
and the thin-drawn chance that he might somehow save Ceresta?

Of a sudden he felt as if he were being pulled apart by the conflicting
claims of love and loyalty, torn asunder under the impact of a dozen
different kinds of duty.

The proton bomb on the table would rend a man less.

The proton bomb....

Bor Legat straightened. He snapped to the crewmen, "Take the woman!"

Never had the basilisk eyes held more deadly malice.

"Jarl ..." whispered Sais. But her voice held only proud farewell; no
tears nor fears, no piteous entreaty.

A raider gripped her shoulder.

Jarl said, "Wait...."

He spoke to Bor Legat, but his eyes were on the grenade that stood
beside the Mercurian on the table. A tremor of chill fascination
touched him as he stared at the safety pin, the firing lever.

"A change of heart--?" Legat smiled his ghoulish smile. "For a moment,
there, I thought you'd let us have the woman."

"No, Bor," Jarl Corvett said tightly, and in that moment a raider's
own wild recklessness was singing in him. "I've other plans for Sais
and you. If they work, she'll live, and so will I--and you, you scum,
there'll come a day when you'll have your chance to die by inches!"

"What--?" Bor Legat came erect, as if he could not believe the words
he heard.

Sais' eyes went wide. She tried to push back from Jarl.

A raider crewman reached for his arm.

"You heard me right," Jarl Corvett said. He let his shoulders slump and
made as if to turn away. Of a sudden his muscles were tense to aching.

The crewman stretched to clutch him.

But Jarl moved faster. Catching Sais about the waist, he flung her
bodily against the raider. Then, whirling, he lunged for the proton
bomb on the table.

Bor Legat snatched for his pistol.

But Jarl smashed an elbow into his middle.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Mercurian retched and reeled. Before he could recover, Jarl drove
past him--clawing the grenade up from the table, jerking out the pin.

"Corvett, no--!" shrieked a raider. Another whipped up a ray-gun.

Jarl spun about. His hand ached with the strain of holding down the
spring of the bomb's curved firing lever.

But fierce exhilaration surged within him. With a shout he swung the
grenade high above his head, where all could see. "Look, _chitzas_!"

One and all, they froze in their tracks, eyes suddenly aglisten with
the glassy sheen of fear. Even Sais' dark, lovely face was all at once
a mirror of panic.

"Shoot, curse you!" Jarl cried, and his voice rang with fierce triumph,
with exultation. "Shoot and be damned! Because if I die, I'll take you
with me!"

Bor Legat choked, "Corvett--!"

Jarl whirled upon him. "Yes, you _starbo_! Take me! But remember--if I
let go this firing lever, the spring completes the contact for me!"

"No--!" croaked Legat, and his shell-like body plates were clacking.
"No, Corvett! That thing would blast us all to atoms!"

Jarl said, "That's better." Coolly, he lowered the bomb and held it
cradled between his hands. "Sais...."

"Yes, Jarl...." Quickly, supplely, she moved forward.

"We're leaving now," Jarl clipped. And then, to the chieftains: "If you
want to live, don't try to follow."

Hate hammered at him, a living thing--the hate of the wolf-pack that
sees its prey escaping. Fists clenched, and gun-hands quivered, and
eyes drew to murderous, icy diamonds.

Jarl laughed aloud--scornful, contemptuous. The woman at his side,
looking neither to right nor left, he strode to and through the door;
closed it behind him.

Sais' taut whisper cut through the darkness: "Jarl, they'll come after
us! They'll shoot at a distance--"

Wordless, heart racing, he pushed her forward faster. She stumbled
across the final threshold, out into the night and the Place of the
Raiders.

Jarl threw a quick glance back. Already, behind them, the door to the
inner room was opening.

Cursing, he lobbed the proton grenade back over his shoulder; then
bolted after Sais.

The night exploded into crashing chaos. A wall of force smashed Jarl
to the cobbles. Screams and shrieks slashed through dust and smoke and
falling debris.

But he was outside, the wall between him and the blast. Scrambling to
his feet, he dragged Sais up.

Together, they raced for the blackness of the native quarter....



                              CHAPTER VI


They ran through the murk of Ceres' night till their lungs caught fire,
and their eyes rolled up, and their quaking legs could no longer hold
them.

Then, at last, sobbing and panting, they fell in a heap in a
rubble-strewn alley, heedless of time or place or peril.

But that passed, too. Slowly, the pain and weariness ebbed. Jarl's
strength flowed back. Once more, he was acutely conscious of the filth,
the smells, the slithering vermin. Somewhere afar, the _vocorn_ pipes
still were wailing.

Sais twisted against him, her ripe body smooth as rippling velvet.
When he rested his palm on her hip, she gripped it fiercely in the
darkness. Her hand was hot; he could feel the movement of her quickened
breathing.

The muscles in Jarl's belly drew tight. All at once--even here, even
now--he could think of nothing save this woman. His fingers trembled as
he smoothed her dark hair; touched her eyes, her lips.

She moved closer, till the curve of her cheek lay against his shoulder.
The pressure of her body was a silent pledge, an invitation.

Sais.... She was all passion, all woman.

And all his.

Or was she?

The question came without his bidding. In spite of it. Yet once it had
come, it would not go away.

He shifted. But it did no good. The spell of her was upon him, melded
of her woman's flesh and fragrance.

She pressed closer.

Rigid, he fought a silent battle ... and prayed that he would lose it.

Why did he hang back? How could he doubt her?

But in his heart he knew the answer to all his questions.

This woman whose touch made his heart beat faster was more than merely
woman. She was Sais herself, _Ktar_ Wassreck's daughter.

Once, that had been a bond between them.

Now it rose like a cold stone wall, setting them apart. Because
now, in spite of himself, in spite of loyalty or duty, he doubted
Wassreck....

A _Pervod's_ drunken laugh drifted to Jarl, dull and muffled. The
faint, alluring scent of _mafrak_ reached his nostrils.

Sais' fingers brushed his throat.

He could stand the strain no longer. Twisting, he pushed her back.
"Sais...." Even in a whisper, his voice was raw and rasping.

He could feel her body stiffen. "Yes, Jarl...?"

How could he say it? What words could he find?

He blurted: "They said on Vesta that your father had ... surrendered."

For an instant her shoulders stayed tight and straining. Then,
incredibly, the tension left them.

"Yes, Jarl." Her voice was the barest murmur. "They told it true. He
sent a secret message to _rey_ Gundre...."

       *       *       *       *       *

A numbness crept through Jarl Corvett. He could hear his own heart
pounding in the stillness. "But why, Sais? Why? How could he do it--?"

And her whisper came back: "You mean--you thought he had betrayed you?"

The hurt in her voice twisted at Jarl Corvett. But he threw it off;
forced himself to press her further: "You ask--when for his own gain he
left you here, to die with the rest of us on Ceres?"

He felt her body quiver, and it was like a knife-stab in his belly.

But when she spoke, scorn edged her words: "You'd believe that, after
Horla?"

"What can I believe--?" He broke off; lashed out: "If he didn't, tell
me! Why did he go? Why did he use you to bait me into a trap that
almost snared me?"

A new tremor ran through Sais' smooth, perfect body. Of a sudden she
reached out and once more gripped his clenched fist in the darkness.
"Jarl, believe me...."

"Believe you--?"

"The trap was my fault, not his. He sent me a message that came too
late. You'd gone before I found it...." She choked. "Now I must tell
you all--"

"All--?"

"Yes, no matter what I promised." Sais broke off, still trembling; then
hurried on. "The projector ... it was a gamble...."

Again she fumbled, halted. Jarl waited in taut silence.

She said: "It draws its power from cosmic dust."

"I know."

"But that was only half my father's secret!" Sais' voice took on a
new raw edge. "Did you ever ask yourself how my father learned to
utilize that power, Jarl Corvett? Did you ever wonder why it was he who
mastered its principle, after the finest scientists of every planet had
striven for a thousand years and failed?"

Jarl frowned in the darkness. "You mean--?"

"I mean that it was not he who solved the problem!" Sais' nails bit
into his hand. Her voice lost its edge in an eager rush of words.
"Jarl, the secret came from another race--from a people who voyaged
across the void ... perhaps from even beyond the stars! Eons ago, they
lived and died. But one of their ships had crashed on Vesta. That was
why my father built his workshop there--so that he could better study
what little they'd left behind them. There was a book with metal pages;
he found it deep in the buried wreckage. From it, he worked out the
plans for this new projector."

       *       *       *       *       *

It made Jarl's breath quicken, that picture--the picture of Wassreck,
twisted genius, digging through dead ruins in spite of a torture,
pain-racked body. The endless hours, the weary years, the lightning
mind and infinite patience--all were part of an old, familiar pattern.

Wassreck's pattern.

But it still was not enough to still the doubts that plagued him. With
an effort, he held his voice flat and clipped, emotionless. "So ... he
gave this master secret to _rey_ Gundre....

"He doomed the outlaw worlds. He left us to die here, at Ceresta."

"No! He did not!" Bitter vehemence rang in her denial. "You fool, the
projector itself was nothing! He had to break through the Federation
fleet's blockade in order to reach Venus' orbit, and then Womar--"

"Womar--!" Jarl went rigid. He strained his eyes to see the woman in
the darkness.

"Yes, Womar, the satellite that hides behind the mother planet!" Sais
writhed upright. Again her words came fast and eager. "There was
another ship, Jarl Corvett--another craft built by that same ancient
master race somewhere across the void! If my father can find it, it
will mean the end of the Federation! It will buy the outlaw worlds
their freedom!"

"But Womar..." Choking, Jarl came up beside her. His thin-stretched
mask of bleakness fell away. "Sais, it's madness!"

"Because of the primitives, you mean? Because of the Federation ban,
the deserts--?" Sais laughed aloud, and there was scorn and fury in it.
"Yes, Jarl Corvett, it's utter madness! That's why my father went in
secret, leaving you behind to call him traitor! He wanted no other to
die with him on such a hopeless quest. So he sent his message to _rey_
Gundre, wagered his own life on the one slim, desperate chance that he
could bring destruction to the Federation!"

The fears, the doubts ... they all were dying. And as they died, a
gnawing sickness grew in Jarl Corvett. Of a sudden he was himself
traitor, betrayer, for his very doubting.

"But why--?" he whispered. "Why did he go, Sais? What secret could be
greater than the one he gave to Gundre?"

Sais laughed again, more softly. Once more, she came close to him, as
if unwilling, even here, to speak of this thing above a breathless
murmur. "The robots, Jarl; the robots!"

He stared. "The robots--?"

"Yes!" Now her voice shook with excitement. "Jarl, they were no idle
fancy, no toys brought to being out of an old man's dreams. They were
models of warriors--the great, inanimate metal warriors of that alien
race from beyond the stars. He built them from plans in the books he
found in the wrecked ship."

       *       *       *       *       *

For Jarl, it was as if a curtain had suddenly been pulled aside. His
mind flashed back to Vesta, to Wassreck's workshop ... back to the
great hall's echoing vastness, and the towering metal monsters that,
shoulder to shoulder, lined its walls.

Sais still was speaking: "He knew that the outlaw worlds were doomed,
Jarl. The Federation was too strong. The projector--it was only another
weapon. For victory, the raider fleet needed something more."

Jarl did not speak.

She said: "The metal warriors were to be that 'something more'. Not
models, such as he constructed, but giants, monsters--huge creatures,
indestructible, so mighty that they could break space-ships in their
hands." The woman's voice rose; took on a richer timbre. "Think of it,
Jarl Corvett! Think of an army of those awful warriors, each alone
strong enough to desolate a planet! What would power like that mean to
the outlaw worlds--?"

She broke off, shaking. With an oath, Jarl pulled her to him; held her.

"But he failed, Jarl...." Sais' words came dull and muffled. "He could
not give them life."

"You mean--?"

"The control was a mystery he could not master. The books told nothing
of its workings."

"So now he would go to Womar...."

"Yes. There was a chance, he thought, that he might find the secret
there, where the other alien ship had fallen. He had a theory that the
primitives themselves were decadent descendants of the master race."

"But Womar...." Jarl's voice trailed off. He thought of the tales
he'd heard, the things he'd seen. Of Venus' hidden satellite and its
deserts. Of the Federation ban that made it death to land there. Of the
beings behind that ban, the primitives, still unconquered, with their
savagery and lust for blood and darkly rumored rites.

Tremulous, close to him, Sais whispered, "He gambled his life, Jarl
Corvett. In secret, in order that he would not risk yours nor mine."

In the distance, Jarl still could hear the wailing _vocorn_ pipes; the
shouts, the shrieks, the drunken laughter. A _thes_-wood torch was a
flaring pin-point in the blackness. He rolled the acrid taste of Rogek
gas about his tongue ... drank in the _Mah'ham's_ stench.

Yes, this was Ceres, a Cerestan night, and he was here, with the warmth
and softness of dark Sais pressed against him.

Yet another part of him was far away ... far, far away in time and
space and circumstance, armoring his quivering belly in a surface
plate of boldness as he strode out on Horla to face the agony of the
flame-death.

And there was Wassreck, too, _Ktar_ Wassreck, with his burning eyes and
pain-racked body, blasting down through the holocaust to save him.

Loyalty ... it was such a feeble, tenuous thing.

Yet the bonds it forged were stronger than telonium or steel.

Again he cursed, and pushed Sais back. Catching her hand, he turned and
led her, stumbling, through the darkness.

"Jarl...."

He clipped: "We're going to the space-port, _rey_ Gundre's carrier
waits for us there."

"And then--?"

"We blast for Womar."

"Jarl--!"

He strode on faster--hurrying, giving her no answer. There were too
many things to say ... too many words he could not utter.

       *       *       *       *       *

They left the alley for another, broader. A _dau_ brushed past them
in the murk. Two bulbous Thorians parted, moving out of their way.
Curious, glowing eyes of _llorin_ watched them from an entryway.

Then, around another turn, the buildings thinned. The odor of Rogek gas
and rocket fuel grew stronger.

And, ahead, a shadowy group moved from one looming bulk of structure to
another.

Jarl jerked Sais back into the blackness that rimmed a cone-like
_Pervod_ dwelling.

"Jarl--"

He clapped a hand across Sais' mouth. "Quiet! Bor Legat's men may still
be here before us!"

Jarl felt a tremor run through her. Ghost-silent, he led the way along
the building; then, after a moment's pause, ran on swiftly to an
ancient _Fantay_ structure.

The shadow-group ahead was breaking up spreading out in a thin black
line of menace.

Tight-nerved, Jarl drew Sais to the right, parallel to the skirmish
line, along the crumbling _Fantay_ spire ... then on through the
burrow-like workings of spider men of Rhea, past flat-roofed habitat of
the _llorin_.

They came out into another alley.

But ahead, here, too, he caught a glimpse of motion, the hint of a
far-flung raider cordon.

They tried again, by another alley--the one down which Jarl had come
when he left the carrier. He almost imagined he could make out the
ship's slim silver form far off in the vastness of the port, in spite
of the obscuring night.

But again, between them and the sprawling ramping-place, stood sinister
figures.

Jarl rested his shoulders against the wall of a rambling _fala_ hostel.
He felt old beyond belief; incredibly weary. His muscles ached with
tension.

Sais touched his arm. "Jarl...." Her voice was a ragged whisper.

He sucked in air. "Wait here a moment."

Once more, in dead silence, he moved forward, skirting the pool of
greenish glow that marked the hostel's entry. Cat-footed, taut, he made
his way along the wall towards the port, the shadow-figures.

Only then, without warning, a spear of light lanced through the
darkness. An energy-bolt splintered stone bare inches from his shoulder.

He dived back by instinct; landed running.

In the same instant a cry went up--the wild hunting-cry of Bor Legat's
raiders.

Jarl caught Sais' hand and dashed for the corner of the building.

From behind them came a pelting rush of feet, a babble of fierce,
life-thirsting voices. The night blazed with the fire of raider
weapons.

Barely in time, they made the corner. Panting, they lunged on into the
maze of alleys.

But then, ahead of them, rose other voices. New figures loomed; new
weapons flamed and echoed.

Jarl catapulted Sais into an entryway. Savagely, he kicked at the
door's lock.

       *       *       *       *       *

The door burst open. Beyond lay the blackness of an ebon sack, thick
enough to cut. The air that puffed out was stale and dead, heavy with a
musty smell of age, abandonment, disintegration.

Jarl pushed inside and heeled the door shut. The clamor of the alley
faded.

Breathing hard he groped through the room. Thick dust scuffed up
beneath his feet. Sais clung to his hand, fingers slick with icy sweat.
"Which way--?" She was half-sobbing.

"Up!" Jarl clenched his teeth. "There's got to be a stair, a ladder!"

They felt their way through another room. Another, and another.

Then: "Jarl--! I've found it!"

Jarl wheeled, moving to her. He touched the edge of worn stone steps.
"Come on!"

They climbed through the murk, and Jarl thought of _quirsts_ and
_hwins_--a thousand deadly, crawling, nameless horrors. But there was
no other way, no faintest chance. Tight-jawed, he shoved his thoughts
back and stumbled higher.

Three levels they climbed. Then the stone steps ended. Numb, rigid,
Jarl felt his way to an outer room.

Stars shone faintly through a window. Sais still at his heels, he
crossed to the casement and looked out.

Far below, the shouts and curses of Bor Legat's men still echoed.

But Jarl paid them no heed. He had eyes only for the flat-topped
_llorin_ dwelling that crowded next to this structure in which he had
found temporary haven.

The _llorin_-pile's roof rose to within short feet of the window.
Beyond it lay another; then a _Fantay_ spire....

Again he said, "Come on!" and levered open the window.

New agitation gleamed in Sais' eyes, but she moved forward, wordless.

Cat-like, Jarl dropped to the _llorin_ roof. After a moment's
hesitation, Sais followed.

Silent, nerves raw with tension, they picked a path along the beams to
the next building and crossed to it.

Here even the beams were rotten, sagging. Testing with his foot at each
step, Jarl led the way around the outer wall to the spire beyond.

Even at its lowest point, the edge of the _Fantay_ peak was feet above
Jarl's head, across a yawning two-foot gap that plunged chasm-like to
the ground so far below.

Bleakly, Jarl studied it; measured the distance with his eye. "Up,
Sais...." He lifted her; tottered precariously against the rim of
coping while, whole body atremble, she balanced on his broad shoulders.

She whispered, "Jarl, I'll never make it...." Her words died in a
quavering sound of pure hysteria.

       *       *       *       *       *

A trickle of sweat dripped from Jarl's chin. He dug his fingers into
her ankles till her blood spurted and ran down his nails. "You'll make
it...."

"No, Jarl--! No! I can't--!"

The sweat dripped faster. Jarl could feel Sais' terror. It crawled in
her voice and breath and body, quaked and quivered in the very air.

But behind there was only the tender mercy of Bor Legat's raiders.

Ahead, at least they had a faint, slim chance to reach the carrier.

The carrier ... so near, and yet so far.

Through clenched teeth, he said, "You'll make it--or I'll drop you down
the crack!"

He tilted her forward.

For an instant she hung there. He could hear a scream rising in her
throat.

Jarl Corvett died a thousand deaths.

Then out she swung, high over the chasm. Instinctively, her hands shot
out ... caught the _Fantay_ spire's low-dipping edge ... clung there....

He said tightly: "Pull yourself up! I'll help you!" Bracing himself,
straining every muscle, he lifted her higher ... higher ... till her
feet were at arm's length above his head.

Panting, crying, she pulled herself half onto the spire.

He let go her feet.

She gasped in new panic. But her grip held firm. Twisting,
spasmodically, she swung her feet up and lay there, sobbing.

Jarl's muscles went weak as water.

But he did not dare to hesitate. Stiffly, he swung onto the knee-high
coping; crouched there.

The chasm below drew his eyes like a magnet. He tore them away; forced
himself to look up, instead, to the spire. Sucking in air, he poised
himself, tensing.

Sais stared down at him. Something close akin to horror was in her eyes.

With all his might, Jarl leaped upward, outward, straining to reach the
other wall.

One hand touched--and slipped.

The other hooked round the edge of the stone ledge above.

Sais clutched his free hand and tried to lift him. With a desperate
effort, he twisted and lunged again, hanging there in space.

This time he got a grip on the ledge's inner edge. Sais tugged at his
tunic's collar. Gasping for breath, he levered himself higher, up onto
his elbows. A final surge carried him out of the chasm.

Sais sank down beside him. For a long moment they lay there--both
panting, both shaking.

But there was no time for weakness. Lurching to his feet, Jarl began
working his way around the rim.

       *       *       *       *       *

They moved on to new buildings--one, two, half-a-dozen ... always
striving in the direction of the port.

Then, at last, they reached a final, ramshackle structure only one
level high.

Beyond it, the ramping-place stretched off through the flare-sparked
blackness of the night.

Jarl peered down into the flanking alleys. But this time he could find
no shadow-cordon, no trace of Legat's raiders.

Sais brushed against him. Once more, he caught the half-forgotten
fragrance of her hair.

He pressed her hand. "It looks good, Sais. Legat never thought about
the roofs. His men are farther back in the quarter."

"Then--?"

"We'll chance it."

Her lips touched his cheek. It was her only answer.

Together, hand in hand, they slipped down a rickety outside ramp to the
ground. In silence, they made their way across the sprawling port's
scorched cinders.

As they walked, Jarl felt the surface tension leave him. The heavy,
mixed smells of Rogek gas and rocket fuel were perfume in his nostrils.
His job was done, here at Ceresta. He'd rescued Sais and learned the
truth about _Ktar_ Wassreck.

Now, he could almost laugh when he thought of Legat.

But underneath, a stronger conflict plagued him. Because, again, it was
his destiny to go forth to battle ... to lead good men, good friends,
to die for the cause of the raider worlds, and loyalty.

Frowning, he thought of Wassreck and of Womar ... the giant robots. Of
Ungo and Ylana.

As for himself, how long could his luck hold? When, at long last, would
fate decide to down him?

Shrugging, he veered his course in the direction of a massive marker
pylon. What did it matter, when he fell? As Legat had said, death came
to all raiders.

For now, it was enough that he should carve his way and do his duty.

Beside him, Sais asked, "How far is it, Jarl? I--I'm so tired."

"Only a little way. Just beyond the pylon." He put his arm about her.

"I'm glad...." She leaned upon him.

Jarl veered again. They rounded the corner of the marker.

"Where is it, Jarl?" Sais asked in a weary voice. And then: "Jarl!
What's the matter?"

But Jarl hardly heard her. He stood stock-still, staring--unable to
move, unable to speak.

"Jarl--!"

He jerked free of the spell of shock; peered this way and that in a
frenzy of desperation. Once again, his heart was pounding.

But the cindered ramping-place stayed bare and echoing and empty.

Carrier and crew alike had vanished!



                              CHAPTER VII


Jarl picked Tas Karrel's ship, the _Knife_. Unswerving, Sais at his
side, he stalked up her ramp.

A grim, slim, deadly craft, the _Knife_, black as the heart of her
mutant master. The fastest ship in all the raider fleet, with a killer
crew drawn from the scum of the whole wide solar system.

The guard at the hatch was such a one--an Earthman, long fled from his
own home planet. Slouched at his post below the scarlet signal light,
thumb hooked in belt, he stared bleakly off across Ceresta's port and
puffed at a _chang_ cigarette of Venus.

Jarl's footsteps echoed. The guard swung round.

The next instant he was whipping up his blaster. The cigarette fell
from his lips, forgotten. "Jarl Corvett--!"

Jarl laughed, a cold and mirthless laugh, and raised his empty hands.
"Put your blaster down. I've come to see Tas Karrel."

"He's not aboard." The Earthman's blaster did not waver.

"I know it. I'll wait."

The guard's brow furrowed. For a moment he stood hesitating, wordless.

Heedless of the menace in the cold blue eyes, Jarl brushed on past him.
Chill arrogance in his stance, he strode down the echoing corridor to
the crewmen's day-room.

A knot of lounging raiders looked up as he entered, then snatched for
weapons. Again his name rang: "Jarl Corvett--!" "It's Corvett!"

And again Jarl laughed his reckless laugh. "That's right. It's Corvett."

A _Pervod_ pushed forward. Jarl recognized him as one of Tas Karrel's
chief lieutenants.

The creature's chill reptilian eyes flicked from Jarl to Sais, then on
to the Earthman guard who had followed them in. "What brings these two
here? Where did they come from?"

"How should I know?" the Earthman shrugged. "They say they want
Karrel--and I know he wants them."

"Yes. They find it easier to come than to leave us." The _Pervod_
laughed harshly and swung back to Jarl. "You, Corvett! We know you!
What do you want here?"

Bleakly, Jarl met the reptilian's glare. Feet wide apart, hands on
hips, he stood straight and steady, surveying the crewmen who crowded
around him.

"I want you!" he slashed harshly.

"Me--?" He could see the lean _Pervod_ stiffen.

Jarl let his voice ring. "Yes, you--and all of these others. The
_Knife_, too...."

He grinned as he said it, and looked from one hard-bitten face to
another--measuring each raider, timing his pause to their grim, deadly
potential. He knew them so well, these outlaw crewmen. _Chonya_ and
_Malya_; _Pervod_ and Earthman; _dau_, _fala_, _Fantay_--they were one
with him. When his eyes met theirs, it was almost as if he could see
their restless minds working.

       *       *       *       *       *

A silence built up in the echoing day-room. Before it could break, he
spoke again to them:

"I need a ship!" he said boldly. "A fighting ship, fast enough to break
through the Federation's own cordon. And"--he paused--"that ship must
have a crew that fears neither man nor devil."

The silence echoed louder.

He said: "The _Knife_ is the fastest ship in the raider fleet--and a
crew that will raid with Tas Karrel would spit in _rey_ Gundre's own
eye!"

Still, for a moment, the silence hung upon them. Then, slowly at first,
but rising, a ripple of wry, bleak laughter ran through the crowd.

He knew that he had them, then. He leaned forward ... let his voice
drop to a confidential note. "What does a raider want most, my
comrades? Loot? _Kabat?_ Women--?"

He grinned again, as he said 'women', and lifted a hand to dark Sais'
velvet shoulder.

She twisted. The laughter rippled louder.

Jarl planted his foot on a chair; rested elbow on knee. "Yes, we all
want them, my comrades. But"--he dropped his voice still lower--"so do
other men."

The raiders crowded closer, craning and straining to hear him.

"Then where's the difference, between us and those others--?" Abruptly,
he straightened and brought up his fist. He threw his words at them,
in a fierce, ringing challenge: "The difference--? I'll tell you,
comrades! It's not loot that we raid for, nor _kabat_, nor women; not
really! It's freedom we are after--the freedom to roam the void as
free men should, and to hell with the thrice-cursed tyrants of the
Federation!"

Now the crewmen, too, shouted, in wild exultation. The din echoed and
deafened.

"Are you with me--?" Jarl roared.

But the _Pervod_ leaped forward. "You dogs! What of Karrel?"

The shouting died down. Again all eyes came to Jarl Corvett.

He held the smile on his face. "Yes. What of Tas Karrel?"

The _Pervod's_ claws crept towards his gun-butt. The bony wings
whispered in the sudden stillness.

Very softly, Jarl said, "There's the law of the raiders. A chieftain
must meet any man who dares challenge." And then: "You, _Pervod_! Will
you fight hand-to-hand for Tas Karrel?"

The reptilian's eyes glinted. His claws touched the ray-gun.

Scorn rang in Jarl's laugh. "I said hand-to-hand, by the law of the
raiders! I came here unarmed, to fight Karrel to the death for his
chiefship!"

A low mutter rose from the crewmen. The _Pervod's_ eyes wavered.

Jarl said: "Know my pledge, comrades! Not booty, but freedom! If you
blast with me, we may all die on Womar. If that doesn't suit you, kill
me now, before I meet Karrel!"

The _Pervod_ lieutenant's eyes sought out the crewmen. They shifted,
not speaking.

Jarl laughed without mirth. "You see, _chitza_--? They want
blood--mine, or Tas Karrel's!"

The reptilian looked away--past Jarl, to the doorway. His claws were
atremble.

Then, visibly, he stiffened.

Jarl spun around.

       *       *       *       *       *

Tas Karrel himself stood framed in the entry. His tiny, round, lidless
eyes flamed green murder. "You _starbo_--!"

Tas Karrel, the mutant. Broad, tall, heavy-bodied. Hairy as a _dau_,
and with a _dau's_ bulging muscles. But his face was the blank,
hairless face of the _Fantay_ ... without nose, without cheekbones.

"Welcome, Karrel!" Jarl laughed again, loud and reckless. "I'm claiming
the _Knife_ and your chiefship, by the law of the raiders!"

"A fight to the death--?" The other's lipless gash-mouth twisted awry.
The green eyes were smouldering. "A pleasure, Jarl Corvett!"

The huge mutant stripped off his tunic, his gun-belt.

His _Pervod_ lieutenant cried, "Raiders! A death-ring!"

The crewmen fell back, and linked arms, formed a circle.

Knee-long arms swaying, their chief shambled forward.

Jarl pushed Sais back. The circle parted to pass her.

Karrel's mouth worked. "Jarl Corvett...."

"Yes."

"If you die, I claim the woman!"

Jarl's heart pounded. "If I die, you can have her!" He did not dare
look at Sais.

The mutant moved into the circle. His prehensile fingers flexed and
worked. His blank, grey-white face was a bleak mask of menace, the more
fearsome for its very lack of expression.

Slowly, they moved around, ever facing--each searching for an opening,
seeking some hint of weakness. The tension climbed higher, in a
throbbing crescendo.

Jarl could feel the sweat come to his palms. His pulses hammered.

Then, suddenly, arms flailing, Tas Karrel sprang forward.

Jarl leaped back; jarred against the _Pervod_ lieutenant.

Karrel lunged again. Again, Jarl tried to leap aside.

But a clawed _Pervod_ foot hooked out and tripped him. He sprawled on
the floor.

In a flash, Tas Karrel was upon him. A bulging _dau_ arm bore down on
his windpipe.

Writhing, Jarl tried to tear free. But the arm would not let him. The
prehensile fingers gouged at his eye-balls.

He twisted; rocked back. Bit down on a finger.

Karrel jerked. Jarl bit harder. Lunging, he bucked the mutant
forward ... hooked a hammering heel up and around, into the blank
_Fantay_ face.

It was Karrel's turn to rock back. The hairy arm lifted.

Jarl brought his chin forward, sucking air in great, choking gulps. He
drove a savage blow home below the other's rib-casing.

Karrel tottered. Jarl broke clear; staggered upright.

The mutant threw himself round; started to lunge up.

Jarl kicked him in the face with all his might.

Karrel's head snapped back. His hand clutched for Jarl's ankle.

       *       *       *       *       *

Savagely, Jarl stomped down on the fingers. He smashed rights and lefts
to the grey-white mask face. A cut opened. Grey-green ooze spurted.

Jarl kicked for the belly.

An incoherent cry burst from the gash-mouth. The mutant threw himself
over, tumbling towards the edge of the circle.

A hoarse murmur rose from the crewmen. Wolf-like, arms still linked,
they hunched forward.

Jarl's arms dragged like anchors. His ears rang; his lungs burned.
Dimly, he glimpsed Sais' panic-straught face at the edge of the circle.
The sour stink of his own sweat rolled up in his nostrils.

But he dared not hold back. If Karrel rose, he was finished.

He dived in for the kill.

But the mutant was twisting. His feet smashed at Jarl's breast-bone.

Jarl crashed back, clear to the other side of the circle.

Tas Karrel surged upright. "A knife--!" he roared harshly.

The _Pervod_ flipped him a dagger. Swaying, he caught it ... lunged for
Jarl.

It was over. Jarl knew it. There was nothing he could do now.

Nothing but die.

The frenzy of death alone brought him to his feet. He hurled himself at
the mutant.

Tas Karrel swayed aside, green eyes burning. Jarl hurtled past him;
landed sobbing against the _Pervod_.

The reptilian laughed shrilly. Letting go of the arms of the raiders
who flanked him, he caught Jarl ... shoved him back at Tas Karrel.

Blindly, Jarl clutched the _Pervod's_ belt. His weight carried them
both to the circle's center.

Cursing, Karrel slashed for him.

Jarl wrenched to one side. The knife laid open the _Pervod's_ side.

The reptilian screamed. His bony vestigial wings flailed.

In the same instant, Jarl caught Karrel's knife-hand. With his last
ounce of strength, he wrenched it till the bones cracked.

The knife fell.

Jarl scooped it up. The _Pervod_ scrambled from his path.

Tas Karrel stumbled backward. Fear flared in the green eyes.

Teeth bared now, Jarl followed.

The mutant sagged. Then, with a wild cry, hairy body shaking, he
whirled and threw himself over the linked arms of his crewmen, out of
the circle. In a mad dash, he lunged for the exit.

"No--!" A raider whipped up his blaster. "Death to you, coward!"

He fired. Tas Karrel sprawled on his face in the doorway.

The circle broke into chaos.

Jarl spun about, seeking the _Pervod_.

The reptilian was backing away, slinking towards another door.

"You _chitza_--!"

The _Pervod_ stopped short.

"Take your knife with you!" Jarl shouted. He drew back the blade.

Face contorted, the Venusian clawed for his ray-gun.

       *       *       *       *       *

Like lightning, Jarl hurled the dagger. It sank to the hilt in the
_Pervod's_ throat. Threshing in his death-throes, the creature spilled
forward.

Jarl gripped a stanchion. "To your stations!" he shouted. "We're
blasting for Womar!"

Order came from the chaos. Sub-chiefs bellowed commands. Crewmen boiled
out of the doorways.

Sais ran to Jarl's side. Her white cheeks were tear-smudged, but she
smiled through her tears.

There was a ringing of bells, a clanging of hatches. A _fala_ cried,
"All's ready!"

"For Womar--!" Jarl echoed.

A muffled roar cut him short. The room rocked with the shock of the
takeoff as the _Knife_ slashed its way up from the port, out from Ceres.

Jarl threw one arm around Sais--more for support than from feeling. It
was all he could do to stand upright.

She braced him. "You mean it--? We're going to Womar...?" All at once
her voice trembled.

Shrugging, Jarl rested against her. "You heard my orders."

"But ... what of Bor Legat ... _rey_ Gundre...?"

"We'll face that when we meet it." With an effort, Jarl straightened.
"Now, I've got to rest."

"Of course, Jarl...." She moved close beside him, helping him as he
limped to Tas Karrel's quarters.

Then they came to the cabin, and she, too, would have entered. But he
barred her way. "No, Sais."

"Jarl...."

"No." He shook his head, closed the door. Heavily, he stumbled to a
couch and dropped down.

But though Sais stayed behind, his own dark thoughts would not.

It was madness, this venture; what other name could a man find for a
wild dash for Womar?

Yet what else could he do, with time running out on him? At best, he
had three slim Earth days to save Ceres.

Three slim days, less the travel....

And Womar.... What might he find when at last he ramped there? Suppose
Wassreck was wrong, and there were no robots? Or if the metal monsters
still lay hidden there, how much chance had he to find them?

As for fitting them for battle, mastering the controls that sent them
forth....

       *       *       *       *       *

He shuddered, and his brow seemed suddenly burning hot, as with a
fever. Then he chilled. Shaking, drawing covers close about him, he
wondered if his wounds had drained him, sapped his strength too low.

But what chance did he have, unless he went on to Womar?

What chance indeed, when even his own kind turned against him!

His own kind, the raiders. He knew them so well--how they felt, the
twist of their reckless, ice-edged thinking. And because he knew, it
was not in him to hate them or betray them. No; at worst, he could only
strive and fail.

And if he failed--? He cursed and twisted. _rey_ Gundre would surely
blast the raider fleet. The outlaw worlds would die.

Freedom would die with them.

Wassreck, too.

Three days only ... for freedom, and for Wassreck....

Perhaps he slept, then. Or perhaps it was only delirium's distorted
screen that drew the twisting patterns across his mind.

Whatever it was, it lifted brain from body ... moved him up from
Tas Karrel's couch--out of the room, the ship itself ... across the
void, through space and time. The hideous, shining masks of Womar's
primitives hurtled down upon him out of swirling mists. Madly, he
battled strange life-forms in a world he'd never seen.

But he was not alone, for now other faces revolved past him slowly,
crying fearful words he could not hear ... Ungo's face; Ylana's....

Ylana--! The red lips smiled and mocked him as she beckoned, and her
hair was a rippling pool of purest gold. There was the softness of her
body pressed against him; the grey eyes, shadowy as silver pools.

Ungo. Ylana. Where were they? Why had they left him to die back there
on Ceres? What could have taken them away?

Now Bor Legat's face came sweeping towards him, basilisk orbs twin
mirrors of craft and malice. His body plates were rattling with his
laughter--the merciless, cacophonic laughter of the Mercurian who sees
his enemy fall and die.

Then another voice was calling, close beside him, and this time he
could hear the words, even if he could not understand. They pulled him
back across the void, up from the death and tumult of the unknown alien
world.

Straining, struggling, he sought to place the tones, the timbre, and
as he fought, it dawned upon him that it was Sais' voice, and that his
eyes were closed.

His lids were leaden weights, but he dragged them up. Numbly, he forced
Tas Karrel's room back into focus.

Sais stood beside him, face strained and drawn. Her words took on
meaning: "Jarl--! Quick! Wake up--!"

He lurched from the couch. "What's the matter? What is it--?"

"Quiet--!" Panic was in her raw whisper. "You slept so long, Jarl!
We're coming down now, ramping on Womar...."

He pushed back his hair; shook the haze from his eyes. "Then what--?"

"It's the crewmen." He could feel a tremor pass through her. Her eyes
would not meet his. "I--I told them too much, Jarl. About Womar ... the
robots. Now they have sent for Bor Legat--"

"Bor Legat--!"

"Yes. They don't trust you. They plan to seize you and hold you...."

Jarl cursed. "No! It can't be--"

"What can I say, Jarl?" Her mouth quivered. "Beat me, if you want to--"

"No." His hands shook, but he fought down his fury ... even forced a
thin smile. "Maybe this way is better, Sais...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Spinning round, he snatched up a belt heavy with dead Tas Karrel's
weapons and girded it about him.

The woman clutched his arm, eyes wide with new fear. "Jarl! What are
you doing--?"

"What can I do?" He laughed harshly. "I'll drop down when we ramp and
go on alone."

"No, Jarl--!"

"Yes! Stay in here. Lock the door, so they'll still think they've got
me."

"No! You can't leave me!" Her voice rose. She was sobbing. "Please,
Jarl! Take me with you--"

Jarl gripped her smooth shoulders fiercely; shook her. "Sais! Listen!"
And then, as she quieted: "Sais, once before, I came down on Womar.
I've seen the primitives." Involuntarily, he shuddered. "Believe me,
Sais, no matter what the crew does to you, it can't match the work of
those creatures."

"No, Jarl--"

A dim roar filled the room--the roar of a ramping. Walls and floor
vibrated.

"Jarl, I'm going with you!"

The vibration stopped. The cabin echoed with sudden stillness as the
great ship came to rest.

"Jarl...."

For the fraction of a second, Jarl hesitated. From afar, he could hear
orders shouted. Once again, a knot drew tight in his belly.

"Please, Jarl...."

Pivoting, he stared down into Sais' tense, strained face.

Even now, she was lovely....

But he'd made his decision. There could be no other.

"Sais, I'm sorry...." He drove his clenched fist to the point of her
jaw--a short, jarring blow.

He could see the shock glaze her eyes as her head snapped back. Her
knees buckled.

"I'm sorry, Sais," he said again, even though he knew she could not
hear. Ever so gently, he lowered her limp body to the couch.

He wondered if he'd ever see her again.

But it was no time for wondering, or thinking. He had a job to do, out
there in the stretching, scorching, windswept deserts.

Silently, he eased open the cabin door.

The passageway outside was echoing, deserted.

Quick, quiet, he pulled the portal closed behind him and ran cat-footed
for the nearest exit hatch.

A Callistan paced to and fro close by it, on guard.

Jarl waited till the creature turned, then leaped and clubbed it down
with the barrel of his ray-gun. In seconds, he was spinning back the
hatch-bolts.

The hatch swung wide, and night poured in ... the blistering,
dust-choked desert night, pale with the light reflected by looming
Venus' unbroken mists and billowing cloud-banks.

Somewhere, out there, were primitives in hideous metal masks, so fierce
that even the almighty Federation at last had forbidden this satellite
to all men.

Perhaps, too, here were robots ... towering metal monsters from beyond
the stars, brought down by destiny in its strange workings to save the
outlaw worlds.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps this seared and storm-swept ball held only the
end of Wassreck's dreams ... and death.

Jarl Corvett smiled a thin, wry smile. At least, he'd know the answer
soon.

Breathing deep, he swung out through the hatch and dropped down on
Womar....



                             CHAPTER VIII


Morning on Womar.

The hot winds were flames whipping at Jarl's face, and the driven
sand slashed and burned like pelting needles. Slowly, the night died
and, off to his right, the sun rose--fiery, incandescent. Venus, to
his left, stretched in a great, shining arc as far as the eye could
see. Dust swirled about him in smothering clouds. He wallowed through
a sea of powdery, ankle-deep grit where rocks shoved up in hidden
reefs to trap him. Hollows loomed in his bloodshot eyes like chasms,
and hillocks grew to mountains up which he toiled on hands and knees,
choking and gasping. His cheeks were rasped raw now, his lips all
parched and cracking.

Still he lurched onward--lost and disoriented, without destination.

But not without goal.

A goal--? He laughed aloud--the muddled, drunken laughter of a
heat-twisted brain. Yes, he had a goal; but it was the goal of utter
madness.

For somewhere in this blazing waste, Womar's primitives lay waiting. He
knew; he'd seen them charge before. How they sensed an alien's coming
was a secret no stranger had ever fathomed. But sense it they did; so
they'd hide and wait, till at last the sun and dust and slashing wind
had done their work and the invader fell and could not rise.

Then, and then only, they would come, from whatever dark, hidden maze
they came from. Their blood-thirsting screams would rise above the
howling wind, and their hideous metal masks would flash like mirrors of
madness in the white flame of the sunlight.

And after that ... Jarl choked on his parched, swelling tongue. After
that, there would come other things ... things no alien being had
survived, rites so awful as to make this blazing wilderness seem a
cool Elysium.

What was left, they'd spread out in neat display as their own black
warning to other straying strangers.

That was his goal: that the primitives should seize him.

Yet now, as the moment neared when he would fall to rise no more, he
knew of a sudden how mad it was. Not even Ceresta and the raider fleet
were worth it; not even freedom. Nothing could be worth it.

But now, there was no turning back. He'd come too far; he'd pressed his
luck one time too many.

Swaying and staggering, he came to another, deeper hollow, where bare
rock showed through the dust and sand along the slopes in serrate
ledges. At the bottom, the drifting grit lay in smooth-swept whorls
like a hill-bounded cove where ripples had somehow been trapped in
motion, frozen into the surface of the water.

He laughed once, wildly, and lurched ahead; then slipped and pitched
forward, tumbling headlong. Rocks gashed at him as he fell--tearing,
clutching, as if even they shared the primitives' hatred for all aliens.

Stunned, choked, half blinded, he came to rest at last at the edge
of the pool of rippled sand. Here, away from the sweep of the wind,
the heat bore down like a smothering blanket. Jarl's brain reeled. He
could draw no strength from the air that scorched his lungs. He knew
instinctively that no being of his race could long survive the drain
and pressure.

Frantically, he dragged himself up and wallowed forward, out onto the
sand.

Even as his feet sank into the sifting dust, he knew he should have
gone the other way, back up the slope. But by then it was too late.
Deeper he sank, and deeper, till the loose sand was thigh-high about
his legs.

       *       *       *       *       *

Desperately, he threw himself flat, trying to spread the weight of his
body. But the grit gave way beneath him, sliding and swirling, hungrily
sucking him deeper. Dust clogged his nostrils. When he tried to open
his mouth to suck air, sand flooded in.

He floundered wildly, and the thought flashed through his mind, _Do
I die here--here, in this whirlpool of shifting grit, swallowed up,
buried alive, before I even find the primitives...?_

He struggled again to rise, and could not. The choking dust swirled
higher. His senses dimmed. The blazing sun began to darken.

And then they came.

They came with a rush, across the crest, their metal masks blurred to
blinding flashes. Out of the clefts of the rocks they came, and up from
the sand-pool's edges, howling like the screamings in a nightmare, the
wailings of banshees.

Their bodies were brown as the sun-blistered rocks, their
shoulder-plumes scarlet as heart-blood. Their girdles were scarlet,
too, and the plumed bands that circled wrists and ankles. Monstrous
footgear, broad as their lean, hard bodies, sprayed sand as they
charged. Light flared in iridescent splendor from strange, outré
weapons.

Desperately, Jarl tried again to rise. But again, the eddying grit gave
way beneath him.

Then they were upon him--seizing him, dragging him up and out of the
powder-dry morass that held him. The great webbed shoes they wore did
not sink in, but, rather, skimmed the surface.

Vainly, Jarl struck out and sought to struggle. But he was as a child
in the grip of giants. The primitives' hands were like shackling bands
of steel upon him.

He let himself go limp. After all, was this not the very thing he'd
come for?

Unless they killed him here and now....

But they carried him back bodily to the sand-pool's edge, to a place
where the serrate rocks rose in lowering, brooding ledges. A crevice
yawned. Swiftly, they shoved him between the saw-toothed boulders, down
into it.

Now other hands reached up from the depths of an inner cavern to
receive him. He found himself lifted into the black emptiness of a
narrow tunnel.

Then he was on his own feet once more. But the hands still gripped
his arms, pushing him along as he stumbled through the ebon passage.
Dimly, he became aware of a strange odor in his nostrils--a sweet yet
musty scent he'd never smelled before.

       *       *       *       *       *

The passage led on, ever downward. Steadily it grew cooler. Jarl began
to lose the sense of draining pressure. His captors jabbered in the
darkness. But their speech was like no tongue he'd ever heard before,
all consonants and gutturals.

It seemed they hurried on for miles. Then, at last, a dim light showed
ahead.

The party halted. Someone clamped a heavy metal mask upon Jarl's
head--a mask with neither eye- nor ear-holes. It shut him off in a
throbbing private night, through which the guttural voices drifted only
as dim whispers.

Once more, the primitives shoved Jarl ahead, and as they moved forward,
he had a sudden feeling that they had left the tunnel and come out into
a larger room.

Then they were lifting him again; laying him down flat on some smooth
surface; holding him there, rigid.

He clenched his teeth, bracing himself for the torture that he knew
would sooner or later be his lot.

But no pain came. Instead, of a sudden, the surface on which he lay was
vibrating, moving. Air whipped at him. With a shock, he realized that
he and the others were hurtling through Womar's heart at jarring speed
on some strange transport unit.

It made his spine crawl, just a little. How primitive were these
primitives? Had all the worlds been wrong about them? What dark secrets
did they hold hidden, here in these black caves that honeycombed the
rock beneath this satellite's blazing deserts?

And what of the robots? Where were they hidden?

Or did they exist at all--?

But he had no time to ponder, for as suddenly as the motion had
begun, it ended. The rush of air slowed, then halted. Once more, the
primitives' hands were lifting him, dragging him forward.

But this time the passageway through which they moved led upward.

The heat rose as they climbed, till Jarl was sweating and choking
inside the helmet. Then the slope leveled off again, and he sensed that
they had come out into another, larger room. New voices joined the dim
whisperings of his escort, till their volume swelled to a tremendous,
throbbing chorus. Bodies buffeted against Jarl, milling about him.
Hands clawed at him--clubbing, tugging, scratching. He could feel the
crowd's hot hate crushing in upon him. The musty, cloying, sweetish
odor he'd smelled before grew even stronger till he was sick and dizzy,
ready to vomit.

His captors pressed on, not hesitating. Roughly, they led Jarl
stumbling up a flight of steps.

At the top, there was a brief halt. Then the faint squeal of massive
hinges.

A blast of heat struck Jarl a hammer blow. He reeled under its impact.

From behind, someone gave him a savage shove. He lurched forward.

A new burst of sound smashed at him, even through the metal helmet--a
wild shout, torn from a thousand throats, fierce and welling in its
hatred. The heat and smell were great sledges, pounding at him.

       *       *       *       *       *

In spite of all of his control, Jarl felt a sudden rush of panic.
Stumbling, staggering, he came upright--fists clenched, braced to meet
the fury of those about him even in his helplessness, his blindness.

But again hands seized him before he could strike a blow. Someone
fumbled at the catches of the shrouding helmet.

The metal mask came away. Sound, light, heat, stench, smashed in on
Jarl.

He jerked back and threw his hands up across his eyes, trying to shut
out the blinding blaze of Womar's sun.

But other hands jerked down his own. Blinking, half blinded, stiff with
shock, he stared out incredulously upon a sight such as he had never
seen before.

For he stood in the prow of a great space-ship--a ship vast beyond the
belief of mortal man.

It was old, this ship--old with an age that staggered Jarl Corvett's
mind. Eons were in the sagging plates and splitting arches. The
crystals that glinted in the dull, warped metal spoke of untold ages
here on Womar. The hull was smashed and shattered, too, and the blazing
sun poured in through a thousand great jagged holes and rifts. One
whole end of the craft was crumpled, buckled, where it had plowed deep
into the rocks and sand as it crashed here.

And it was alien. A thousand differences stood out in line and
structure and material. The size alone would have been enough to
mark it as having come from outside this solar system. Yet without
bulkheads, without bracing, the mass of it loomed as one incredibly
vast and far-spreading room--an engineering feat to stagger man's
imagination.

And here, too, were the primitives, heirs to Womar's scorched,
windswept deserts. A thousand strong--ten thousand--they packed the
huge hold in a screaming, seething mass, metal masks hideously aglint
in the streaming sunlight.

But for Jarl Corvett, ship and primitives alike were mere incidentals.
Swaying, staring, he could find eyes only for one thing: the robots.

The robots--! He rocked--incredulous, unbelieving.

But here they were--metal monsters that towered rank on rank in
this great hold, like monstrous originals of the figures in _Ktar_
Wassreck's workshop. Like a forest they rose ... a forest of utter,
malign menace.

Their feet alone stood higher than a tall man's head; and the glinting
orientation-slots of the great head-units towered so far above the
crowd as to have been beacon lights on distant mountains.

Chill, unmoving, they stood here in the hull of this shattered ship as
they had stood for ages. But where ship and fittings were decaying,
these mighty warriors still shone resplendent, fabricated of some
different, finer metal. Strength gleamed in every line of their
orange-gold figures. The screaming primitives were only ants that
crawled and danced and raged upon them.

       *       *       *       *       *

Staring at them, Jarl Corvett could only choke and tremble. There
was room for but one thought within his reeling brain: _Wassreck was
right--! He was right! He was right...!_

It made this whole mad gamble worth the while. Even if he died here,
all his efforts unavailing, it would still be worth it.

And what could not an army of these giant automatons accomplish? What
chance would even the mighty Federation stand against them?

It was destiny. More surely even than he knew his name, Jarl knew that
destiny had brought him here ... the strange, dark destiny of courage
and fighting men that ever seemed to ride on the side of the outlaw
worlds, and freedom.

But now that he was here, destiny would need a strong right arm to
implement it.

His arm.

He swung round, then, with his old, bold coat of arrogance upon
him--surveying his captors, searching for some faintest hint of hidden
weakness.

But the primitives did not waver. Their eyes stayed cold, leering out
at him from their metal masks, grim as the day of judgment.

Those masks.... With a sudden rush of recognition, it came to Jarl
that their stylized patterns were modeled after the head-units of the
towering robots.

Such a little thing, that recognition. Yet again, Jarl felt his tension
lift a fraction. He smiled a thin, wry smile and waited.

But now, to one side of the stage-like platform on which he and his
escort party stood, there was a sudden stir of motion. A new door
opened in what had been a bulkhead barring the way to another part of
the ancient, fallen ship.

A cry went up from the seething multitude. The mass of primitives
surged forward, close against the platform.

Slowly, creaking and groaning, a great stone slab was wheeled forth.
Its sides were deep-graven with carved figures ... strange, hideous
figures that writhed in ecstasy and anguish. Stains smudged its upper
surface. Heavy metal clamps, long age-corroded, were set into each
corner.

With a sickening jolt, it came to Jarl that it was an altar.

Straining and grunting, a crew of primitives tugged it into position in
the platform's center.

Jarl's captors gripped his arms.

The panting group by the altar straightened and hurried back through
the door in the bulkhead. Rattling sounds came forth. A moment later,
the primitives reappeared, rolling out a monstrous, shining metal tub
on wheels, big as one of the kettledrums of the spider men of Rhea. Its
sides were graven with the same contorted figures as the altar.

The din of the crowd swelled louder. Masked primitives leaped and
screamed in impassioned frenzy.

Tight-jawed, Jarl waited.

The wheeled tub was set in place beside the altar. It moved easily and
smoothly. Then, again, the altar-crew retreated through the bulkhead.

This time, when they returned, they bore a living, struggling creature.

       *       *       *       *       *

Man-sized, the thing was like no animal Jarl had ever seen before, with
brown, bead-like skin and tiny brain-case. Off-hand, he judged it to
belong to some desert species native to this grit-drifted hell-hole,
Womar.

The primitives carried it to the altar; clamped its spradled body face
up atop the stone with the ancient shackles. The din of the crowd was
deafening.

Somewhere on high, a great gong sounded. The shouts and screaming died
away.

In the same instant, a new door opened in the bulkhead. Another
primitive stepped forth; paused, posing.

This creature's garb was different from the others! His metal mask was
ebon. So were his plumes, his girdle. A great scarlet jewel was set in
the forehead of the dead-black helmet. His hands were gloved in sleek
jet gauntlets.

Now, while Jarl watched, the posing primitive's arms came up, till the
gloved hands were high above his head, displayed, as if they were a
symbol.

The throng below stood frozen, rigid.

The black-masked primitive strode forward, to a spot between the altar
and the shining metal tub. Swiftly, he lifted the lid that capped the
drum-like vat.

Two of the altar-crew rushed forward and held it open for him. Another
held out a strange implement that, to Jarl, looked like some crude sort
of grease-gun.

The black-masked figure dipped the nozzle of the thing into the tub and
worked a plunger, then turned to the struggling life-form shackled to
the altar. Deftly, he stabbed the snout of the tool into a spot below
the creature's breast-bone.

The captive tried to jerk away, to no avail. With smooth precision, the
primitive in black pressed home the plunger.

A gusty sigh ran through the throng about the platform. It came to Jarl
that he was cold as ice despite the heat and blazing sun. The musty,
sweetish smell he'd caught before swirled about him, even stronger.

The black-masked figure straightened. With quick, sure movements, he
twisted at a fitting, then lifted away the tool. The nozzle he left
sticking in the creature on the altar. It thrust up from the hollow
below the breast-bone like the hilt of a deep-plunged dagger.

The two primitives by the wheeled tub let the lid fall back. Turning,
one darted to the bulkhead door. When he came out, he bore a flaring
torch.

New silence fell upon the crowd, so complete that the altar-crewman's
footsteps rang and echoed in the stillness.

He passed the torch to his black-masked fellow.

Black-Mask swung the flaming brand on high and, turning, faced Jarl
Corvett. His voice thundered, harsh and guttural.

Jarl stood rock-rigid. The words he could not understand. But the
threat, the menace--they needed no translator.

       *       *       *       *       *

Pivoting, the primitive stepped back from the altar; thrust out the
torch till its flame touched the tip of the nozzle protruding out of
the shackled prisoner's chest.

Of a sudden Jarl's whole body was drenched with icy sweat. He could
not move; he could not breathe. The tales of horror he'd heard so many
times swirled through his brain.

For an instant, nothing happened.

Then, all at once, there was a puff of sound, a flash of flame above
the captive. A great black jet of smoke shot high into the air, out of
the nozzle.

The life-form on the altar gave one shrill cry that was agony,
incarnate. Its body jerked and twisted, lashing against the shackles in
a frenzy.

The primitives went mad. The huge room rocked with their howls and
screamings.

But Jarl Corvett hardly heard them.

He'd seen cruel death before, on a dozen far-flung planets.

But this....

For while he watched, thin lines of fire were racing along the doomed
sacrifice's writhing body. In a spreading network, the flesh itself was
bursting open, flames leaping up in a thousand places.

In a searing flash, the truth came to Jarl: _The creature's blood was
burning!_

He sagged in his escort's grip, and retched--shock-stunned, sick with
horror.

But the primitives who flanked him jerked him upright. An open hand
stung his face with brutal slaps.

The spell that gripped Jarl broke. Numb, tight-jawed, he forced himself
to look again upon the altar.

The shackled creature lay there still, a charred, contorted horror.

While Jarl watched, the monster in the ebon mask stepped back and
passed the torch to the altar-crewman who had brought it. Other
primitives unclamped the gyves and dragged the corpse away.

Again Black-Mask brought up his hands. Again the crowd's tumultuous
hubbub faded.

Black-Mask's hands came down. He swung about till he faced Jarl.
Imperiously, he gestured.

Jarl's captors dragged him forward. The torch-bearer stepped quickly
back, out of their path.

Fear was in Jarl Corvett, then--a fear that verged on shrieking terror.
His body seemed like a thing apart--a statue carved from living ice,
with no relation to his being.

But hate came with the terror, a flaming hate that grew at every step,
till its white-hot fire ate up the fear and burned away his sickness
and his trembling. Of a sudden he was himself again. He sucked in air.
Without volition, his muscles stiffened against the digging fingers of
his savage escort.

They jerked him up short before the altar. The black-masked figure
shook a jet-gloved fist and shouted guttural imprecations.

       *       *       *       *       *

The last shreds of Jarl's terror vanished, washed away in the flood of
his tormentor's fury. Out of nowhere, a thing that Wassreck once had
said came flashing to him: _Hate is the face of fear, not courage._

That hate which showed in the primitive's every line and gesture--it,
too, was born of terror ... a welling fear of all and any beings who
came down from the skies to Womar.

Jarl laughed aloud, it was so funny--that he and this other should face
each other so, in deadly menace, when within they were only quivering
twins of terror.

And as he laughed, his own hate died the same swift death to which
his fear had fallen. A grim, bleak poise replaced them both. For if
the primitives, in their hearts, felt the self-same fear that he had,
there was still a chance for recklessness to blaze a path through this
wilderness of desperation.

His laugh cut short the black-masked figure's shouting. The primitive
stared at him, as if unbelieving.

Cold-eyed, cold-nerved, Jarl drew himself to his full height. Rigid, he
probed for some--for any--last wild gambit.

But Black-Mask, too, was straightening. He cried out fiercely to his
helpers.

They shoved Jarl forward.

As they did so, the primitive beside the huge, wheeled tank lifted up
the lid.

Jarl glanced down into it.

The vat was full. The awful broth almost lapped the brim. From it, in
sickening waves, rose the sweetish, cloying fumes Jarl had come to
associate with the primitives.

Black-Mask leaned forward. Shouting again, he lashed out. His
jet-gloved fist raked at Jarl's face.

Instinctively, Jarl rocked back. New tides of black despair washed
through him. What could he do, locked in his captor's grasp, hemmed
between tank and torch-bearer, black-masked fiend and blood-drenched
altar?

Tank--and torch-bearer--!

That link ... in an instant it grew to a searing, surging flame, hotter
even than these creatures' own hell-fire brew.

Spasmodically, Jarl twisted round.

The primitive with the blazing brand still stood statue-like at the
corner of the great stone slab.

Black-Mask snarled another order. His henchmen jerked Jarl
back--lifting him, swinging him upward, till he hung suspended above
the altar.

By instinct, Jarl wrenched against them; felt them, too, stiffen in the
face of his resistance.

But if he could not fight them, perhaps there was another way....

Before they could lower him to the slab, he let himself go limp,
loose-limbed and unresisting as any corpse.

It broke their balance. He hit the stone with a sodden thud ... lay
there unmoving, head lolled back.

For the fraction of a second their grip relaxed.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was Jarl's moment.... Savagely, then, he lashed out with all his
might, in a violent spasm of arms and legs and torso. His feet smashed
the metal mask into one primitive's face. His elbow sank fist-deep in
another's midriff.

The restraining hands fell from him.

Desperately, he threw himself across the altar, toward the
torch-bearer. Before the creature could recoil, Jarl was upon
him--smashing him down with fists and knees and shoulders; snatching
the flaming brand out of his hands.

Falling over each other in their haste, the others lunged to seize Jarl.

But instead of fleeing, he leaped back onto the altar. There was a
prayer in his heart--his heart in his mouth. With a wild curse, he
hurled the torch straight for the vat of hell-broth.

It struck the open lid, then plunged on down into the liquid.

But even as it fell, the fumes were flaring. Flame and smoke leaped up
in a roaring column. A cloudburst of liquid fire sprayed out in all
directions.

The cries of the primitives exploded into one great scream of pain
and terror. As Jarl threw himself flat, with the altar-stone between
him and the tank, he glimpsed the reeling, flame-cased figure of his
jet-masked tormentor--stumbling, falling.

Then the black smoke billowed out in nauseous, all-obscuring murk that
swallowed even the thundering holocaust that still roared around what
had been the tank of liquid.

Jarl rolled from the wheeled platform on which the altar rested. Bent
double, he raced through the choking haze for the bulkhead. In seconds,
he was fumbling his way along it to the nearest doorway ... slipping
through and ramming the heavy bolt home behind him.

Ahead, a shaft and spiral stairway loomed. Panting, he sprinted upward,
past level after level.

The stairway ended against another metal door.

The outlined figure of one of the mighty warrior robots was blazoned on
it.

Jarl's heart pounded harder.

Shoving open the hatch, he half-fell inside and locked it, too, behind
him.

He found himself now in a control room. Panels thick with dust lined
three of its walls. The fourth was a single massive, transparent,
plastic plate through which occupants could look out across the great
hold where the robots were massed ... where brief moments before Jarl
Corvett had stood face to face with hideous death.

Stumbling to it, Jarl stared down upon the smoke-smirched scene below.
Flames still were leaping about the platform. Here and there, he could
catch dim glimpses of primitives' hurrying figures as they ran among
the metal monsters.

       *       *       *       *       *

Overhead, the dense black smoke almost hid the roof. Eddying, slowly
rising, it swirled out through the cracks and rifts in the ancient
hull, up into the blazing, sunlit heat of Womar's desert sky.

Of a sudden Jarl was weak to the point of sickness. Numbly, he turned
and surveyed the rest of the control room with a closer scrutiny.

Bank after bank of dials and indicators marked with strange symbols
leered down at him like a host of huge blank eyes. Against the far
wall, units with focussing plates like the viziscreens of his own solar
system were ranged in a precise row.

And everywhere--on every panel, every instrument--were stamped neat,
stylized images of the warrior robots.

The numbness in Jarl grew. He knew instinctively, without question,
that this was the place sought by _Ktar_ Wassreck--the brain, the nerve
center, for the shining metal monsters that were to have saved the
warrior worlds.

But now that he was here, what could he do? His own ignorance was a
tight-drawn, all-concealing blindfold.

With time enough, and skill and patience, he might perhaps have worked
his way through to an understanding of how the robots were controlled.
But time was the one thing he did not have. Second by second, the
precious hours were ticking by. As far as he was concerned--lacking
knowledge, training, understanding--he might as well have been on Venus.

And so the warrior worlds would die. The Federation fleet would sweep
down on Ceresta.

Already, the three days given by _rey_ Gundre were running out....

Jarl shook in the grip of helpless, frustrating fury. He had come so
far; yet now that he was here, he could do nothing.

He cursed aloud; and as he did so, a new sound drifted to him.

A familiar sound ... the sound of a space-ship's blasting rockets.

He whirled; leaped back to the broad expanse of transparent plastic
panel.

He reached it just in time to see a great section in the top of the
hull above the hold suddenly buckle and crash down. Sunlight streamed
through smoke and dust.

The roar of the blasting rockets echoed louder. A moment later, another
huge chunk of hull tore loose and fell. Then another, and another, till
the hole showed like a spreading canopy of sky above the robots.

Below, the last of the primitives were fleeing. Breathing hard, pressed
tight to the observation panel, Jarl watched and waited.

The rocket-roar took on the peculiar whistling sound that went with
ramping. Before Jarl's eyes, a ship dropped down stern-first into the
hold and rocked to a landing amid the debris and towering robots.

Now the ship, as well as the sound, was suddenly familiar.

Too familiar.

It was the flagship of High Commissioner _rey_ Gundre's mighty
Federation fleet!



                              CHAPTER IX


Jarl Corvett lay flat on his belly on the floor of the room that housed
the brain of the warrior robots, staring bleakly down into the hold
below.

Then, again, he twisted, shifted. This endless waiting--it was enough
to drive a saint to murder.

How long had it been--two hours--or two eons?

It was a time for thinking--because there was nothing else to do but
think. Escape was not even a thing to dream about by daylight, with
primitives still roving through these warrens. Tonight, perhaps, a man
might find a way; but for now there was only ... thinking.

So Jarl lay there on the floor, sweating and shifting. Narrow-eyed, he
studied the motionless bulk that was the flagship, and asked himself a
thousand questions.

Questions he could not answer.

Why would _rey_ Gundre, of all the players in this mad drama, come
roaring down on Womar? What did he seek? How had he found his way here?

Above all, what was he waiting for this way--jets dead and hatches
still unopened?

And for him to pick the robot-hold of this ancient ship to land in....

Unless, by some wild chance, _Ktar_ Wassreck had escaped--

Even the thought made Jarl's heart leap.

But then it quieted down again, drained by the dark, dull hopelessness
within him.

The time for dreams was dead and gone. For all his bravado and boasting
he, Jarl Corvett, had failed the man who'd come for him on Horla. By
now, at best, _Ktar_ Wassreck lay a corpse in the chill horror of
Venus' _slan_-chambers.

Pain welled up in Jarl, and with it came new sickness. Choking, he
buried his face against his arms and cursed the day his mother bore him.

But his mind would not stay still. Drearily, he thought about the
others.

About Ungo and Ylana, Bor Legat, Sais....

It only brought new anguish. For he'd failed them, too; failed them
one and all ... Ungo, friend of friends, who'd trusted him beyond all
others ... Ylana, vision of golden loveliness--betraying her world and
her own father just to save him ... Bor Legat of Mercury, murderous and
merciless, yet loyal in his twisted way to the raider cause.

And Sais.

Dark Sais, _Ktar_ Wassreck's daughter. Even in this place, Jarl could
recapture the fragrance of her hair, the pulsing pressure of her
perfect body. She was all woman....

And all Jarl Corvett's.

So he'd brought her down to this wild world and left her to the mercies
of Tas Karrel's raider rabble.

Cursing again, he writhed about and once more stared up at the banks of
panels.

But that was all that he could do. He did not even dare to rise and
experiment with the controls spread out before him, for fear someone
below would glimpse the movement.

Then, from the hold, there rose a sudden clatter.

Jarl swung back to the plastic window, craning and peering.

       *       *       *       *       *

Below, the main hatch of _rey_ Gundre's ship was opening.
Blue-uniformed Federation crewmen poured out, weapons glinting, and
took up positions amid the debris.

In the same instant, the high whine of a light, fast-traveling carrier
cut through the hold.

A moment later, a slim, swift craft dropped through the gaping hole in
the ancient hull and set down for a landing.

Its prow was marked with Bor Legat's black lightning-flash insignia.

Incredulously, Jarl dug his nails into the plastic.

The carrier came to rest. Its hatch swung open. A burly _dau_ leaped
out.

Instantly, the Federation crewmen came to their feet and crowded round.

But the _dau_ ignored them. Turning, he gestured to someone still
inside the carrier.

Another figure dropped down ... a figure with shimmering golden hair
and a scarlet tunic that emphasized the slim, ripening womanhood of the
one who wore it.

Ylana--!

Jarl caught his breath. His palms were suddenly slick with sweat, the
muscles of his chest constricted.

While he watched, the girl moved calmly to the Federation flagship.

The _dau_ swung back aboard the carrier. The hatch clanged shut. A
moment later, the craft was in the air again, lancing out of the
ancient hull and away.

Ylana disappeared into the flagship.

Jarl sank back, trembling. Brow furrowed, lips dry, he tried to make
sense of this new maneuver.

It was plain now what had happened to the girl, and Ungo. Bor Legat had
captured them that night, back on Ceresta. Now he was carrying out his
plan to trade her life for time, and the desperate chance that somehow
Ceresta might be defended.

But why should he meet _rey_ Gundre here? What had led the two of them
to choose this shattered hulk for their rendezvous?

Jarl looked down once more.

More crewmen were hurrying from the flagship--clearing the debris from
around the ramping-spot; setting up a perimeter studded with heavy
weapons.

They planned to stay a while; that much was plain.

But why? Why, why, _why_--?

The question rang in Jarl's brain like a tolling bell. But he still
could find no answer.

Another hour dragged by. Slowly, the shadows of ship and robots
lengthened. Hunger gnawed at Jarl's belly. He moved this way and that,
trying to work the ache from his weary muscles.

       *       *       *       *       *

Down in the hold, the crewmen moved more slowly. Yet even up here, high
above them, Jarl could sense a rising tension. It showed in the way
they kept looking towards the burrows into which the primitives had
fled ... their sudden starts, their readiness with their weapons.

He hunched forward, narrow-eyed, resting his weight upon his elbows.

Then there was a flurry about the hatch as a Thorian officer barked
orders. The crewmen snapped to smart 'attention'.

A moment later _rey_ Gundre himself strode down the ramp, a lean,
imposing figure. Ylana followed, close behind him.

Together, they moved about the perimeter's defenses, then started back
towards the great ship's hatchway.

But now Ylana hesitated, and there was a brief moment of discussion.
The golden hair rippled as she shook her head and gestured.

Her father's shoulders lifted in a shrug. Pivoting, he went on up the
ramp without her.

Ylana turned. Almost aimlessly, she wandered out among the robots;
paused and leaned back against a gigantic metal foot, watching the
blue-uniformed crewmen as they toiled and sweated.

The shadows grew longer. The crewmen ceased to heed her presence.

She moved, then, swiftly, silent as the deepening dusk--sliding around
the foot in one quick motion; darting past an unmanned post of the
perimeter defenses to a spot out of view amid the tangled debris.

Jarl went rigid. Twisting, he worked his way along the observation
plate to a place where he again could see her.

But already she was on the move again, creeping on hands and knees,
farther and farther from the flagship.

Where was she going? Why had she broken out of the circle?

And what if the primitives should catch her?

The thought brought Jarl to his feet, shuddering.

Besides, with the thickening gloom down in the hold, perhaps this time
he could get an answer to his questions.

With one last glance to chart the course that the girl might follow, he
ran to the door and threw back the bolt; then slid out and felt his way
down the black well that was the spiral stairway.

In seconds he was at the bulkhead door. Opening it a crack, he weighed
his chances.

The crewmen still were busy with their tasks inside the network of
defenses. The pools of shadow hung all-enshrouding. Flat on his belly,
he wriggled forth and crept along the wall in the same direction he'd
seen Ylana take.

Out here, once more he caught the cloying, sweetish scent of the
hell-broth, mixed with smoke, and the knot in his belly tightened. The
shadows loomed like grim reminders of the primitives' dark fury.

He moved faster.

       *       *       *       *       *

Back around the ship, a ring of blinding lights came on as if to
emphasize the death that lurked in the outer darkness. Jarl surged to
his feet. Stiff with tension, he searched the gloom for some hint of
Ylana.

Off to the right, close by the bulkhead, a dull sound rang, as of some
object striking metal.

Groping, Jarl found a broken brace-bar to serve him as a weapon. Wary,
taut-nerved, he worked his way towards the spot from which the noise
had come.

But he found nothing. Grim recognition of the hopelessness of his task
crept through him.

He fought it down. Swinging round, deliberately, he kicked a
crystalizing metal plate fallen from the great hull's roof.

The sound echoed, loud and startling in the silence. Jarl stood
stock-still, straining his ears for some reaction.

So close at hand it made him jerk, there was a sudden rasp of movement.

Heedless now of noise, Jarl sprinted towards it. In a mighty leap, he
cleared a heap of black-scorched litter.

Ylana crouched beyond it. Face a white blotch in the murk, she started
up as he made the hurdle. Her mouth came open. He could hear the first
whisper of a scream rising in her throat.

Savagely, he jammed his open palm across her mouth and swept her to
him, smothering her kicks and blows and struggles. Lips close to her
ear, he rasped, "Ylana! It's me--Jarl...."

He could feel her muscles contract, her body stiffen. Then, suddenly,
she was limp in his arms--clinging to him, half-sobbing.

"Quick! We've got to move!" He dragged her with him, on along the
bulkhead, then off amid the black mass of the debris.

Halting, finally, once more he strained his ears, listening for any
hint that they'd been heard and followed.

But none came. At last, relaxing, he let go of her and slumped down
into the drifted sand and litter.

He could feel the girl's eyes on him. But he held his silence.

"Jarl Corvett ..." she choked. And then, in a rush: "Thank the Gods you
came, Jarl; so glad...."

She dropped down close beside him, her shoulder pressing against him,
her hand on his.

Turning, he studied her.

The grey eyes were black-shadowed, her lovely face deep-lined.

Of a sudden he wanted nothing so much as to embrace her.

But there were so many questions to be answered....

He flung them at her bluntly: "Why did they come here, Ylana--your
father; Bor Legat? What brought them down to Womar--to this ship?"

He could see her soft lips quiver. For an instant the grey eyes wavered.

       *       *       *       *       *

But then they raised again and met his gaze. She said: "My father is
a traitor, Jarl Corvett--a traitor to himself and all the things he
believes in, and to the Federation."

Jarl stared, unspeaking.

The girl's mouth worked. Her fingers gouged his hand.

"Jarl--oh Jarl...." Agony was in her voice. "Before, I told you how
he'd loot Ceresta. Now--now he's gone the whole way. He dreams of still
more power--of carving out an empire, destroying the Federation with
its own fleet. His orders--I learned today they were to arrange a truce
and spare Ceresta, give the asteroids their freedom and bring them into
the Federation on even terms. But he's beyond that. All he can think
of is loot and power, destruction. He's mad--mad, Jarl; stark, raving
mad...."

The girl's voice broke. Sobbing, she buried her face against Jarl's
shoulder.

Hard-jawed, tight-lipped, he held her close. But he did not dare let
feeling touch him. Not now, with time so short; so much at stake.

If the asteroids could hold their freedom, even in the Federation; if
Ceresta and the raider fleet were only spared....

"And you--?" he clipped. "Where were you going? Why did you try to run
away?"

Ylana lifted a tear-smudged face. All at once her chin was firm, and
her lips no longer trembled.

She said: "Once I would have betrayed him for you alone, Jarl Corvett.
This time, I came to do it for the Federation--and for freedom."

"You mean--?"

Her laugh held bitterness and pain. "The fleet commanders do not know
my father's orders. I thought to reach Bor Legat's ship and warn them."

"Then Legat--"

"He came here only to bring me to my father, in hopes that he could
save Ceresta. He'd channel a message through his viziscreen."

Jarl's breath came faster. There was a pricking and tingling along his
spine.

He let go of Ylana; surged to his feet.

The girl rose, slim and straight beside him. "Yes, Jarl--?"

Jarl laughed, deep in his throat. Suddenly hunger and fatigue and pain
were nothing. He saw only his dreams, his goal. "I'll get to Legat,
Ylana! By all the gods of the void, I swear it!"

Her words came, swift and eager: "And I'll go with you--"

"No, Ylana--"

"Yes!" Fists clenched, face tight with strain again, she stepped back
from him. "I've earned the right, Jarl! You can't leave me!"

For a long, long moment, he looked deep into her eyes. There were
so many things to see there--courage, and anguish; fierce loyalty,
determination, pain.

She hurled words at him--commanding and entreating: "You'll need me,
Jarl! You can't find Legat's ship without me. It's close--it and the
_Knife_. We can reach them by the time it dawns, if we go together--"

Still Jarl stared into her eyes, unspeaking.

She broke off. Her hand came up, swept back the rippling golden hair.
Her throat was a smooth-carved ivory column, her face a lovely mirror
of the things that shone deep in her eyes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly, Jarl smiled. He knew there was no need for other answer. And
words could be such futile, empty things.

Her hand in his, together they crept on through the debris; up through
a broken port set high in the side of the ancient hull.

Then they were out at last, into the windswept wastes of Womar's
deserts ... stumbling on through the sand and rocks, mile after mile.
They had no breath for talk, no time for resting. A pause might bring
the primitives down upon them.

Jarl gripped his brace-bar club and prayed.

Then light came dimly, herald to another blazing desert day. But with
it, too, rose the lance-sharp outlines of the prows of two great raider
ships, ramped amid a wilderness of jutting crags.

Jarl's heart leaped. Quick jubilation surged within him. "Ylana--!"

The girl screamed.

Jarl whirled--club up, fists clenching. "What--?"

But again, there was no need for words, for the girl was pointing back
across the endless, dust-deep waste through which they'd come to an
ominous moving figure.

The figure of a mighty warrior robot, a metal giant that loomed like a
monstrous, man-made nightmare against the clear blue of the morning sky.

Jarl rocked--incredulous, unbelieving. His club-arm sagged down to his
side.

With every fleeting second, the metal monster towered still larger,
closer. Its massive legs swung out in wallowing, league-long strides,
closing the gap between them.

Ylana cried out again. She darted to Jarl; clung close against him,
shaking like a slim reed in a wind.

He tore free from his shell of shock and frozen-fascination. Sweeping
the girl up, he raced for the nearest outcropping of jagged rock.

The giant from beyond the void stalked nearer. The clanking of the
great joints rolled down on them like distant thunder.

Ylana sobbed, "My father--he must have found that I was gone--"

Jarl did not answer. Drawing her down behind the rocks, he waited, as
for the Juggernaut of fate itself.

The monster thundered closer, great feet grinding stones to powder with
every stride. The rising sun's rays transformed the mighty, gleaming
torso to a living statue carved in orange-gold fire.

Ylana shook with a new wave of paroxysmal panic. It took every ounce of
Jarl's control to hold himself from leaping up and running--tearing his
heart apart in one last frantic, desperate flight.

But what good would it do to run, when this monstrous menace could
overtake and pass him in a single stride?

Heart in his throat, he pulled Ylana close against him and waited in
rigid, aching tension for his doom.

Another clanking step ... another; and the robot towered above them,
mountain-high.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl's straining muscles cramped with pain. In awful fascination, he
felt the robot's shadow fall across them; watched as a gigantic foot
came down. The very ground shook. Dust spurted in a smothering cloud.

It was as if death, personified, looked down upon them.

And then, incredibly, the ponderous leg swung out again--swept over
them, past them, and crashed to earth again beyond.

Another step. The shadow lifted.

Jarl raised his head; stared, still not believing.

But the robot was still moving on--on, through the bleak crags and the
wastelands.

On, towards the place where the prows of the space-ships stood out
against the sky.

Straining his eyes, Jarl could see tiny figures running, the headlong
rush of panic in their stride.

But the robot was striding faster.

A roar of rockets echoed dimly. As one, the _Knife_ and Bor Legat's
_Lightning_ blasted up into the sky.

But already the robot was leaping, pivoting, with hideous, awkward
grace that spoke of awful strength beyond man's feeble understanding.
Great, gleaming metal hands shot out and seized the _Lightning_ in
mid-air. A lance of light blazed from the force-spot in the forehead
and blasted the _Knife_ to shattered fragments before it cleared the
rocks.

And even as the light-beam struck, the mighty arms were levering. The
_Lightning's_ hull-beam cracked and splintered. The body parted in a
spray of shattered shards and clawing, falling crewmen.

Then it was over. With savage force, the robot hurled the broken ship
to the ground ... trompled the shattered hull-sections into the dust.

Ylana clung to Jarl--choking, crying, whole body shaking. Tight-lipped,
holding her close, he pressed back against the rocks, so hard the
ridges gouged his flesh like blunt-edged bayonets.

The metal giant was turning, now. Again its great feet clanged and
thundered. Back it came once more, along the same road that had brought
it to its terrible festival of carnage and destruction. Again, its
shadow swept past Jarl and Ylana, not even pausing. Slowly, the
thunder of its footsteps faded. The massive hulk grew smaller, smaller,
in the distance.

Then it was gone. Heavily, Jarl Corvett struggled to his feet. Slowly,
grimly, he turned.

Ylana's reddened eyes met his. "Jarl--! Where are you going?"

He shrugged; made himself ignore the new panic in her voice. "You can
guess that, can't you?"

"No, Jarl! No--!" Eyes wide, lips quivering and parted, she came up,
clutching at his tunic.

He pushed her hands away, not daring to let the tenderness he felt show
in face or action. His words came raw and harsh, in a voice he could
hardly recognize as his own: "What else is there to do? The ships are
gone. There's no other way that we can get in touch with Venus, fleet
headquarters."

"No, Jarl...."

"But your father's got a ship." He bit his words off, clipped and hard.
"He's got the robots, too, it seems--may the gods of the void protect
us all! But if he should die...."

He let his voice trail off; stared out across the crags and desert
wastes.

"Then I'll go, too--"

"No." He pushed her back again--grim, unrelenting. "A few of Bor
Legat's men didn't get aboard the ship. Some may still live. Go stay
with them till I come." And then, bleakly: "_If_ I come...."

Turning without a backward glance, he plodded off through the scorching
sand, following the course of the giant robot--

The course to _rey_ Gundre and his flagship.



                               CHAPTER X


Womar's blazing day--barely half as long as that of Earth--had waned
again before Jarl reached his destination.

Then, at last, he was crawling through the dusk on hands and knees, up
to the shattered hull of the ship from beyond the void. The sun had
burned his face to a tortured mask, and his feet were raw, leaden lumps
of flesh that left a trail of blood behind him.

Breathing hard, staggering weak from hunger and fatigue, he dragged
himself up out of the dirt to the broken port. He did not even wonder
what he would find within. He didn't care. He only knew that whatever
he was to do, he must do quickly, before the last remnants of his
draining strength were spent and he fell, to rise no more.

And what was he to do?

Drunkenly, he laughed. Who was he to say? His world was a blur of
star-splotched black, and sometimes--too often--he saw stars that he
knew weren't there. The time was past for schemes and planning.

At best, below, he'd die tonight.

But perhaps he might take _rey_ Gundre with him.

_rey_ Gundre, Ylana's father.

Her father--! No wonder her golden loveliness was shadowed. The real
wonder was that madness hadn't claimed her.

But at least, this way, her sire's death would not be on her
conscience. No one could claim that hers had been the hand to slay him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Down in the hold, the Forspark lights were blazing. With a tremendous
effort, Jarl pulled himself through the port. Half-sliding,
half-falling, he skidded down into the dirt and debris; lay there for a
moment, resting, dizzy and straining for breath to fill his lungs.

Then, lurching to his feet, he stared across at the ring of light; the
flagship, ramped amid the forest of towering robots.

What turned a man like _rey_ Gundre from the call of duty? Where did it
start, that insatiate lust for power and booty?

And how, so quickly, had the high commissioner learned the secret of
controlling the metal giants?

Had _Ktar_ Wassreck talked before he died? Could he have sought to buy
his life, at the last, with this final, priceless treasure?

But now, to think took too much effort. Now--Jarl swayed--he only knew
that he must kill ... that such power as this was too great to be
trusted to any man, be he of the Federation or the raiders.

Yet how to reach him, there in the ship, while armed crewmen paced to
and fro in the ring of light, on guard against the primitives?

The primitives....

Jarl leaned against the hull, and laughed his drunken laugh again.

The primitives: they held the answer.

Shuffling and stumbling, he worked his way through the piles of debris
to the charred ruins of the altar platform. On hands and knees, he
searched the trompled sand, probing amid the stinking litter.

Then, at last, his fingers touched the scorched, stiff corpse of a dead
primitive, still sprawled in the dirt where the creature had fallen.
Fumbling, he stripped off his own garments; replaced them with the
corpse's shoulder-plumes and girdle, ankle- and wrist-bands, sandals.
Unclamping the hideous metal mask, he clamped it on his own head ...
smeared his body thick with sand and ashes.

Then it was done and he was ready, save for a weapon.

A weapon.... He frowned. What weapon was there that he could carry past
the guards who paced their posts about _rey_ Gundre's ship?

Wearily, he sagged back on his haunches and let sand trickle through
his fingers while he tried to prod his aching brain to action.

The grit piled up in a little heap between his knees, a dusty cone
symbolic of this whole thrice-cursed desert world of Womar. It was
everywhere, that grit and dust, underfoot and in the air alike. It
rasped and smothered, choked and blinded.

And--it came to him in a sudden flash--it was the weapon he was seeking!

Scooping up the sand, he stuffed it between the girdle and his belly in
sifting handfuls, till he could pack in no more.

And as he did so, his weariness fell away a little. A tiny spark of his
old fire came alive again. A thread of the strength he'd thought was
gone flowed slowly through him.

He found that he could even stand straight without staggering.

Bleakly, he laughed.

Then, breathing deep, throwing back his head, he howled the wild, harsh
howl the charging primitives had uttered--pushed it out with all the
volume he could muster.

He could see the guards jerk, in the light-ring round the ship. A
ray-gun blazed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jarl crouched behind a pile of debris. After a moment, when the guards'
first excitement had subsided, he moved in closer; howled again.

This time, the crewmen showed less tension. Grim, purposeful, they
crouched by their weapons, watching and waiting.

Jarl moved still closer. He shouted--a guttural, clacking diatribe that
went on for half a minute.

Two officers came to the nearest point of the defense perimeter.
Uncertainly, they peered out into the echoing sea of darkness.

Again Jarl shouted; kept up the stream of clacking sound still longer.

One of the officers stepped back; gestured. A Forspark light swung
round and focussed on the area where Jarl lay hidden.

Jarl scraped his palms against his legs. Drum-like, his heart pounded.
His belly writhed as he weighed the odds against this madman's gamble.

But there was no other way.

Once more he shouted; kept the clatter running.

And as he did so--slowly; open hands upthrust and empty--he rose to
full height. Still shouting, he moved step by step into the beam of
searching light.

He was close to the perimeter, now--close enough to hear the guards'
excited babble.

Still no shot came; no ray-beam lanced out to burn him down.

Boldly, he strode forward, straight towards the defenses.

Crewmen moved up to meet him--cold-eyed, weapons leveled.

He reached the edge of the perimeter; stood there, waiting.

A _Fantay_ officer came out. Ray-gun in hand, throat-sac aquiver, he
circled Jarl, uncertainty and puzzlement written on his ugly face.

Jarl threw out more of the meaningless, clacking syllables. The mask
distorted them even further. They came out a guttural rattle like
nothing ever heard on any planet.

A _Pervod_ said, "Better take him in to the commissioner. Maybe the
vocodor can make something of his gabble."

The _Fantay_ nodded briefly. His pad-like hands moved over Jarl,
probing the plumes, the wrist-bands, the girdle.

A trickle of sand spilled to the ground.

The _Fantay_ brushed it off, unheeding. He reached up; started to
fumble at the catches of the metal mask.

Jarl's heart leaped. He knocked away the officer's hand and hurled an
angry cascade of gutturals at the creature.

The _Fantay_ fell back a step, startled and even more uncertain; and
an Earthman clipped, "Leave that tin hat alone, Beyno! This thing's a
primitive. Maybe he thinks it's bad luck or something to take off his
mask in front of strangers."

"Yes; that could be it." The officer swung around. "Gundre will be up
in the control section. Let's take this _chitza_ there."

       *       *       *       *       *

Taking Jarl's arm, he led him forward, centered amid the little knot
of crewmen. Across the spreading ring of light they moved, and up the
ramp into _rey_ Gundre's mighty flagship ... through echoing
corridors ... in and out of a lift that whisked them a dozen levels
higher in as many seconds ... down still another gleaming metal
passage, till at last they faced the door of the craft's control
section.

The officer let go of Jarl and stepped forward; touched the signal
button.

The intercom plate glowed. _rey_ Gundre's voice blared: "Yes! What is
it?" He sounded tense and angry.

The _Fantay_ clipped, "Sir, we've got one of the primitives. He came in
of his own free will, but we can't understand what he's trying to say.
We thought maybe you'd want to put him on the vocodor."

"A primitive--!" There was a moment's hesitation. Then: "All right.
Just a minute."

The intercom plate went blank.

Jarl's knees were suddenly weak again. He swayed a little. Already, so
soon, he was here. It had been incredibly simple.

But the next step--

Abruptly, the door to the control section opened part way. The high
commissioner himself looked out. His lean, handsome face was haggard,
the dark hair so rumpled that the white blaze was almost lost.

His deep-set eyes flicked to Jarl Corvett. Then he snapped, "Two guards
will be enough," and drew back a fraction to let them enter.

They filed in--first the _Fantay_ officer, then Jarl. The guards
brought up the rear.

Behind them, _rey_ Gundre closed and locked the door.

It was a bare, bleak room--the navigation unit, with its globes and
astrocharts and viziscreens. Through a half-open door to the right,
Jarl could see the switches and dial-studded panels of the operating
cubicle; the empty pilot-chair.

Tight-drawn as a _llorin's_ bow-string, he shifted, seeking the spot
best suited to his purpose. Wry, mocking words _Ktar_ Wassreck once had
spoken rang in his brain: "_You'll live longer if you pick a place to
run to before you have to run._"

Even now, as he faced certain death, it was good advice. Disregarding
the others, he moved almost to the cubicle's doorway.

For the first time, then, as he swung round to face his captors, he saw
the plate of the long-range viziscreen.

Saw it ... rocked ... almost cried out.

For there, in stark detail, were the familiar outlines of tiny Ceres:
the bare expanse that was Ceresta's sprawling port ... the geometric
patterns of the town.

And there, too, in the upper scanner, shone clusters of tiny, crawling
pinpoints--the mighty Federation fleet hurtling through the void,
poising in this moment to lance down upon their distant prey.

       *       *       *       *       *

It dragged through a thousand years, that awful instant; an instant so
terrible that it made the navigation room swim and dissolve before
Jarl Corvett's eyes.

Why had his fate brought him here at this final moment? Why must he
take his stand just in time to see the Federation fleet blast his one
last dream?

Desperately, fists clenched and sweating, he tried to calculate how
long it would take the racing ships to reach a range where they could
use Wassreck's deadly force projectors. Five minutes--? Three?

But what did it matter? Whatever the time, it still would be too short.

Unless fate had brought him here now for a purpose; unless the gods of
the void themselves were riding at his side....

His stomach writhed. With a will born of utter frenzy, he tore his eyes
from the screen.

The guards and the _Fantay_ officer still stood waiting. _rey_ Gundre
was studying him with narrowed eyes.

Cold as death, Jarl made himself stride forward. Thrusting stiff hands
between the girdle and his belly, once again he spat a stream of
crackling gutturals at his foes.

But then, the high commissioner was suddenly tensing, backing. "What is
this?" he cried sharply. "You're no primitive!" His voice went high and
raw. "Guards! Seize him--!"

The _Fantay_ lunged. The guards clawed for their ray-guns.

But already Jarl was pivoting, whipping a fistful of sand into the
officer's eyes. He leaped back as he threw it, so that one guard was
between him and the other. Savagely, he hammered home a blow; crowded
close and caught the ray-gun's barrel as it cleared the holster,
levering it up till it tore free from the creature's tortured grasp.

Then the other guard was upon him, smashing him to his knees.

But the metal mask broke the force of the blow. Jarl triggered the
ray-gun. The beam lanced out, struck home at the base of the bulging
jaw.

The guard fell backward.

Jarl fired again. The _Fantay_ died.

But now _rey_ Gundre's own weapon was out. The remaining guard came
charging in.

Jarl dropped flat as the high commissioner fired. The beam passed over
him; blasted the lunging guard.

Jarl shot for _rey_ Gundre's weapon.

The ray-gun flew out of the high commissioner's hand.

Panting, Jarl lurched to his feet. His whole body trembled. For an
instant he thought he was going to faint.

Then, out of the depths of his will, new strength came. He leveled the
ray-gun; held it steady.

_rey_ Gundre went white to the lips. Unsteadily, he moved backward,
till his body, the palms of his hands, were pressed flat against the
wall. He could not seem to tear his eyes from the hideous metal mask
Jarl wore.

"Is the high commissioner afraid, then--?" Jarl laughed harshly.
"Forget it, Gundre, I've things for you to do before you die."

"Jarl Corvett--!" The commissioner's eyes went wide with shock,
mirror-bright with fear.

Jarl laughed again, a bleak and mirthless sound. With his free hand, he
unclamped the mask; dropped it to the floor.

Tightly, he said: "Get a cross on your fleet, Commissioner. Give them
their true orders--that Ceres is to be spared."

       *       *       *       *       *

The panic that flared in _rey_ Gundre's eyes was a frightful thing
to see. His face sagged, grey as lead. "No, Corvett--! Not that! I
can't--!"

"Then you can die," Jarl said.

He raised the ray-gun.

The high commissioner's mouth worked. "No, no...." Tottering, he
stumbled towards the viziscreen.

Jarl followed him, grim as death.

The clustered pinpoints were closer to Ceres now, slashing through the
void like streaks of light.

With trembling fingers, _rey_ Gundre fumbled at the dials.

"Faster!" Jarl clipped. "Your life depends on it, Gundre! If they
strike, you die!"

A new voice, behind them, said, "No, Jarl."

By sheer reflex, Jarl whirled.

A man stood in operation unit's doorway ... a tall man with a gaunt,
pain-twisted body, and high-domed head, and burning eyes.

A man Jarl Corvett knew so well--

"_Wassreck--!_"

"Yes, Jarl. Wassreck." The other's voice was almost gentle. The wry
mouth twisted with the thin ghost of a smile.

Jarl's knees went weak as water. His gun-hand sagged. He clutched a
chair to keep from falling.

Still smiling, _Ktar_ Wassreck moved forward, into the navigation room.
"Did I surprise you, Jarl?"

"I--thought you dead."

"And Sais, too--?" The other chuckled softly, and half-turned. "Come,
my dear...."

And of a sudden, there was dark Sais, framed in the open
doorway--radiant, lips half-parted, eyes aglow.

_Ktar_ Wassreck said, "I know how much she means to you, my comrade. I
brought her here, from Karrel's ship, to wait till you should come."
His pain-warped shoulders twisted. "Because I knew you'd come, Jarl,
sometime. Loyalty is a thing you understand."

"I called him on the _Knife's_ screen, Jarl," Sais broke in. Her voice
was warm and eager. "The crew didn't think to guard me. After that, I
ran away, into the desert, and waited till the flagship came."

Jarl swayed. His brain was reeling, and everything had a queer,
distorted look. He wondered if perhaps he'd finally fainted ... if this
were all a dream, somehow, or death.

But he made himself speak, because he had to learn the truth ... find
answers to the questions that kept tumbling and jumbling....

"You ... were aboard the flagship--?"

"Of course, Jarl," Wassreck nodded. "I wasn't captured, nor yet did I
surrender. All this has been a careful plan, worked out between the
high commissioner and me."

"A--plan--?"

"Yes!" _Ktar_ Wassreck's voice rang. With sudden eagerness, he leaned
forward, and his eyes burned with a strange new light. "Jarl, with the
power that's in these robots, the universe is ours to rule! What force
is there that can stand against them? What planet could defy their
might?"

"But the high commissioner...." Jarl gestured, stumbled. "Why would
he aid the outlaw worlds--?" And then, in sudden panic, whirling:
"Quick--! The Federation fleet--it's headed down for Ceres! We've got
to stop them! It may already be too late!"

But Wassreck's voice said, "No, Jarl."

It was flat this time, no longer gentle.

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly, slowly Jarl turned from the scanner, with its clustered,
crawling pinpoints. A seeping emptiness was rising in him--an ugly,
hollow feeling he'd never felt before.

Wassreck still stood in the same spot as before. But now, his right
hand was at waist-level.

It held a blaster.

In a voice not even remotely resembling his own, Jarl asked, "What do
you mean?"

Wassreck's eyes were burning coals. His gaunt face seemed even thinner
than before.

He said: "I mean the outlaw worlds must die!"

Jarl nodded slowly. "I guessed that would be it."

"Don't you see, Jarl--?" Sais cried, coming to him. "The raiders will
never lose their idiot dreams of freedom! Always, everywhere, they'll
make trouble! It would be madness to leave them with Ceresta and their
fleet. The Federation planets know what it means to bow before a
ruler--"

Wordless, Jarl looked down at her.

Hand on his arm, she rushed on--glowing, eager: "At first my father
thought of you as dangerous. But always, I've loved you. That's why
I came to you on Ceres, saying he was captured--so that you would
prove your loyalty to him. Now, he knows; and the two of you can rule
together. You and I--we'll have each other...."

She pressed against Jarl--body warm, hair soft and fragrant.

Wassreck broke in: "Jarl, you saw what happened today when I tried out
that robot on Bor Legat's ships! And once the raider fleet is smashed,
there'll be no opposition."

The numb emptiness filled Jarl to overflowing. "And if I say no--?"

He could see the other stiffen.

"Is there a choice?" Wassreck's laugh was suddenly savage. "Your
ray-gun's down, and my blaster's on you. Even if you could kill me, the
crew knows you're here; they'd be waiting for you."

And Sais whispered, "Jarl, why should you die for nothing? What can
it gain you, or anyone else?" Her cool fingers caressed him. "Jarl,
don't you understand? I love you! I want us to be together, now and
forever...."

Jarl stood very still.

       *       *       *       *       *

How many nights had he lain in a chill, lonely bunk far out in space,
and dreamed of Sais beside him? How many times had he cursed the raider
way, the blood and iron, and longed instead for power and booty?

Now he could have those things. What made him hang back? Why did he
hesitate?

Why indeed, when refusal meant death without gain, without meaning?

Only then he thought of other things, and pain came in a rush to fill
the emptiness.

For he thought of those who lived, and those who'd died, whether they
lived or died for good or evil. Of Bor Legat and Ungo, Tas Karrel and
Ylana, a thousand fallen crewmen.

Of Ceresta's teeming hives, and Pallas, and of the raider fleet.

Of freedom.

Perhaps there was still a place in this mad universe for a man who did
not fear to die.

Again, he looked down into Sais' dark, lovely face. Again, her hair's
fragrance rose like perfume in his nostrils.

But as he stared, somehow, the lines and contours kept shifting,
changing, till it was as if he were gazing at one of the primitives'
hideous, leering masks.

Bleakly, he pushed her away.

Her face sagged, incredulous. But it was _Ktar_ Wassreck himself who
spoke: "You know what this means, Jarl--?"

"I know."

"Then it doesn't count that I came for you on Horla? Loyalty means
nothing...?"

"Loyalty--?" Jarl laughed a bitter laugh. "And what are you loyal to,
then, Wassreck? Your friends who'll die down on Ceresta?"

The gaunt man's face grew cold and bleak. He did not answer.

Jarl turned his head; slashed out at _rey_ Gundre, still standing
by the viziscreen: "You, Commissioner! What are you loyal to? The
Federation, that you betray? Ylana, your own daughter, who'd rather
die in the desert than live here with you?"

A trace of color came to the high commissioner's grey, sagging face.
Unspeaking, he looked away.

"Loyalty--!" Jarl spat. "How can any of you even pretend to know what
it means? Because a man's first loyalty is to his own conscience--and
conscience is a thing you neither have nor understand!"

Wassreck's gaunt face contorted. "A pretty speech--to die with."

His finger went white on the blaster's trigger.

Jarl Corvett whipped up his ray-gun.

       *       *       *       *       *

Yet even in that moment, Jarl knew the truth: that his strength had
gone; that he was too slow. Before he could even fire himself, Wassreck
would kill him.

But he didn't dare to die--not while _Ktar_ Wassreck still lived and
held the secret of the mighty warrior robots. Too much was at stake.
Too many could suffer.

Only now, there was nothing he could do. At last, the gods of the void
had ridden on their way without him.

But then, incredibly, another figure hurtled across his field of vision.

The figure of High Commissioner _rey_ Gundre.

For a split second, Wassreck's eyes wavered.

Jarl dived to one side as the blaster roared. The bolt seared a
flaming path diagonally along his ribs.

But now, Jarl, too, was firing--lancing a ray-beam into Wassreck's
midriff.

The gaunt body stiffened ... straightened ... fell.

Jarl threw himself round, searching for Sais and _rey_ Gundre.

They lay in a tumbled heap near the farthest wall. The commissioner was
twitching, moaning faintly.

Jarl stumbled across to where he lay, tried to help him to turn over.

A blaster bolt had taken the man high in the chest. Blood already was
trickling from his mouth. "Ylana--!" he gasped, then choked on the
blood.

A moment later, he died.

Jarl turned to Sais.

She, too, was dead. She held a blaster in her hand--and her neck was
broken.

Dully, head throbbing, Jarl remembered _rey_ Gundre's mad, unexplained
rush.

Now it needed no explanation.

Outside, someone was pounding on the door. Dim sounds of tumult sifted
through the portal.

So the guards had come already....

Struggling to his feet again, Jarl made his way to the viziscreen. He
had lost all track of time. He half expected to find Ceres already
blasted, broken.

It still was there. But the clustered pinpoints that were the
Federation fleet had begun converging high above, readying for the
final plunge.

With trembling fingers, Jarl set a cross for the lead ship; switched on
the communicator unit. Harshly, in _rey_ Gundre's name, he rasped out
orders.

The wheeling ships veered; peeled off on a different course.

Ceres was saved.

Jarl sagged against the screen. He felt incredibly old, incredibly
weary.

The pounding on the door grew louder.

Jarl thought: _Another minute and they'll break in_....

And he would die.

       *       *       *       *       *

Only all at once, he didn't care. His job was done. What difference did
it make, what happened now?

His only regret was that Ylana would never know that at the last, when
the crisis came, her father had broken clean and died to save him.

And Sais.... What things had been in her mind when she raised that
blaster to try to kill the man she claimed to love?

It was strange, though: he felt no hatred towards her.

But, neither did he feel love, or sorrow, or pity. It was as if she
were an utter stranger, some passer-by he'd never known.

So different from Ylana....

Ylana the golden. He spoke her name aloud, and liked its sound.

Ylana the golden. Red lips, grey eyes, and rippling hair.

Such queer things to be thinking about at a time like this. But then,
his whole state of mind just now was somewhat queer.

Out in the hall, some heavy object smashed against the door. Soon, he
knew the panel would crash down.

Why wait for it? Why not go out and meet death as a raider should?

Jarl laughed drunkenly. Reeling, he stumbled to the door; with a clumsy
jerk threw back the bolt and braced himself to take the blasts.

Then the door burst open. Beings of half-a-dozen planets charged in
upon him--and Big Ungo of Jupiter was in their van.

Jarl knew then that this was a nightmare--the delirium of a fevered,
over-weary brain. He closed his eyes and let himself go limp; slumped
to the floor.

But when he looked up again, Ungo was still there, and now Ylana, too,
knelt beside him, whispering, "Jarl--! Jarl Corvett...." while the red
lips quivered and tears spilled from the cool grey eyes.

Ungo said: "She made us come, Jarl--all of us that were left from Bor
Legat's ships. With her to talk for us, we didn't even have to fight to
get in here."

"You're lying!" Jarl accused him, twisting as pain stabbed along his
wounded side. "You're not here. I'm just dreaming. When I wake up, if
I'm not dead, you'll all be gone."

"No, Jarl. This isn't dreaming. This is real." All at once Ylana was
smiling through her tears. "Sleep, now, Jarl. I'll still be here when
you waken--or forever, if you want me...."

As she spoke, she reached out and gently closed his eyes.

He didn't mind. As a matter of fact, of a sudden he wanted to let sleep
come, and quickly.

For now he knew that waking would be better than any dream.



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