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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

SPOOR OF THE BAT

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ILLUSTRATED BY ELLIOT DOLD



First published in Astounding Stories, July 1934

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version date: 2018-01-04
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Astounding Stories, July 1934, with "Spoor of the Bat"



A story of piracy and interplanetary intrigue which involves three worlds.



TABLE OF CONTENTS



Illustration

Again the ray shoots out from the black tiger-shark—and
catches the "Luna" square. The dance of death is ended.



CHAPTER I

I CAN shut my eyes and see my brother Darl again as he was on that flaring, riotous night at Nick's when we celebrated his first command. I can see the wide-shouldered, thick bulk of him, a strand of yellow hair across his brow, his broad-planed face flushed with the potent greenwine of Jupiter, square jaw outthrust, and gray eyes meeting mine in level challenge. His voice was a bit thick, but so was mine.

"I'll beat you to Calinoor, old socks, or split a rocket tube trying."

My head went back, and I roared with laughter, jeering laughter in which all the crowded, roistering room joined. Those bronzed young master rocketeers knew the absurdity of that defiance. At dawn we should blast-off for Mars, I in the Terra, he in the Luna, sister ships as like as two peas. Only superior spacemanship could give one an advantage over the other, and I had captained space ships for five years, while the ink was not yet dry on his master's ticket.

They laughed, yet I could see grudging admiration in their eyes. The gall of him, the consummate nerve of the bantling, they were thinking, and their hearts warmed to the cockerel.

I taunted him, baited him till his eyes slitted, and there were two white spots either side his nostrils. "You weanling!" I roared. "You squalling infant! I'll be rolling down the Sloora before you've shut off the refrigeration tubes in the Luna's skin. You beat me!"

Darl's hand clenched, and the glass that was in it shattered, tinkling to the floor. His neck, where he had ripped open his tunic collar, corded so that he had to squeeze utterance through his anger-white lips. "By Gemini!" he husked. "I'll make you eat that, Brad Hamlin. If the Luna is not first on Calinoor tarmac I shall never fly again. I dare you to say the same!"

That hushed the grinning listeners knotting close around us. It was life itself Darl proposed as the stake of the gamble, they knew, for to him who has known the exaltation of interstellar flight to be Earthbound is no better than to be dead. I slammed my fist down on the table. "It's a bet, Darl! The one of us who checks in last at Calinoor, grounds himself for good!"

A great shout went up, and they pledged our healths in greenwine, and Martian slota, and palate-searing lanrid smuggled from Venus, crushing round us with mazed babble of hour lines, ether eddies, meteor swirls, and all the manifold jargon terms of our craft. Then suddenly they were thundering the sky song of the rocketeers:


"Blast old Earth from under keel,
Shape our course for Mars.
Spurn apace Sol's burning face.
We're off for the farthest stars.

"The comets set our cosmic pace
As through the void we soar.
We've said good-by to the human race,
For we'll never come back any more.
We'll never come back any more!"


A roly-poly chap in cits leaned maundering on my table. "There's lots of 'em never come back, eh, captain?" He chuckled. "The best of 'em, too." His little round belly shook with laughter. "'Specially if the Black Bat gets on their tail."

I stared at him, slow anger mounting. What the devil was funny in that? But before I could say anything some one yelled, "Hey, Toom, come give us a song!" and he was weaving off, trolling some doggerel in a not-unpleasing voice.


"The piebald pony and the gaunt gray cat
Sliding down to Venus on a comet's tail—"


IT wasn't till almost time to leave for the blast-off that I could find chance for a whispered word with Darl: "Well played, lad! They're nicely fooled."

There was an instant's gravity in his look. "I'm not so sure, Brad. That bird in the corner—I've been watching him. There was an odd cast to his eye when we put on our act. Who is he, anyway?"

I reeled as if I could scarcely hold my feet and got a glimpse of the man he meant. A squat fellow, black-haired and swarthy, with an old blast burn across the right side of his face that had seared the eye from its socket. There was a sardonic twist to what was left of his mouth.

"Don't know," I answered. "First time here, came with Jack Nevis, I think. But he's got the rocket, with three stars—an old-timer."

"There's more than one old-timer gone wrong. And the leaks must be coming from somewhere——No; I'm not crayfishing! If either of us is yellow it's you."

I took the cue. "You unlicked brat! Say that again, and I'll turn you over on my knee and spank you."

He pawed at me drunkenly. "Can that big-brother stuff or I'll sock you. I'm a better man'n you in space or on er groun'."

Roisterers swirled between us, forced us apart. And that was the last I saw of Darl until——

Except for one more glimpse across the tarmac of New York space-ship terminus. The Luna was mountainous above him in the dim pre-dawn light. But somehow his tiny figure dominated her. First voyage or not, he'd take her through, I thought. He had been the aptest apprentice a space pilot ever had, had conned the Terra from Venus to Earth our last trip together with never a word of help from me, had made as pretty a spiral landing as ever I'd seen. No need to worry.

Unless the "Black Bat" swooped across his course.

The Black Bat was the only pirate the spaceways had ever known, his loot the concentrated wealth in solar dollars that once an Earth-month is sent winging from planet to planet to adjust the trade balances of the system's commerce. For two years now he had spotted, with uncanny prescience, the very ships secretly convoying the treasure, had appeared suddenly from the depths of the interstellar void, had made his raid and disappeared, leaving no witnesses!

Leaving no witnesses. For the Bat, having won his booty, pithed his victim from end to end and left it a gigantic coffin floating forever in the empyrean with its freight of frozen, changeless bodies.

That was the reason for the drama Darl and I had staged at Nick's. The I. B. C.'s fastest ships had succumbed to his unheard-of speed. He had darted in among a convoy of five Triplanetary Union patrol ships, smashed his prey, and was gone before they could bring their heat cannon to bear. Now the Interplanetary Board of Control was attempting guile to get the shipment through. And we had been chosen to work the trick.

Speed was needed, of course. And there must be excuse for it. So Darl had feigned himself a drunken braggart and flung the challenge at me, and I had accepted it, and all the system knew, or thought they knew, why our craft would be pushed to the uttermost getting across space to Calinoor.

Secrecy was needed, too. So neither Darl, nor I, nor any save one gray-haired man knew which chest it was of the twins in the Luna's chart room and mine contained the currency and which was an empty fraud. One of us should get through, one of us at least. There was a fifty-fifty chance of the plan's succeeding. A fifty-fifty chance for each of us that he live to reach Mars' treaty port.


CHAPTER II.

THE second Earth-day out, while Earth was still a shining sphere against the black of space, I was writing up the log in my control room when suddenly there was a click in the intra-ship communication disk. I raised my head, expecting some report from Jed Morse, my first, who was checking manifests below, or Grendon Elliot in the tube room. But it was neither of these who spoke. Rather it was a lugubrious voice that came from the disk, singing:


"The piebald pony and the gaunt gray cat
Sliding down to Venus on a comet's tail——"


I stared at the thing, unbelieving. Did ever such balderdash come over a ship's talk-wires before? Was I really hearing it, or was this a delayed hangover from the stuff I had swilled at Nick's? But the doggerel continued:


"Met the bull in a round red hat.
Took 'em by the neck and hauled 'em off to jail."


I looked at the indicator. E hold! But that was empty, locked. Couldn't be any one in there.

"Hey, there, anybody listening? How in the name of Merope and the seven other Pleiades does a fellow get out of here? It's dark as the coal sack."

What in space——I punched the call button for Jed, rasped orders. In minutes he was coming through the hatch, dragging after him the roly-poly singer from Nick's.

The fellow drew himself up to the full height of his five feet, brought a hamlike hand to an awkward salute. "Toom Gwyllis, sir, reporting for duty." His clothes looked as if they had been slept in for a week, and there was a black smudge across his button nose that somehow emphasized the good-humored glitter in his tiny eyes. "Unavoidably detained, sir, by circumstances beyond my control."

I was hard put to it to repress a smile, but I managed a stern countenance. "How the devil did you get aboard?"

He grinned ingratiatingly. "Well, to tell the truth, sir, that is exactly the question I was going to ask the captain."

"Look here, my man, I'll not stand for any insolence. Answer me."

The corners of his mouth drooped. "No offense meant, sir, and I hope none will be taken. The answer is, I don't know, sir."

"Poppycock! You had better be careful. The penalty for stowing away aboard an I.B.C. space ship is two years on the Moon."

The fellow looked as if he were about to cry. "I'm sure the captain won't be too hard on an old rocket hand. Two years aboard the Arcturus, sir, as steward."

"How did you get on board?"

"To my sorrow, sir, and with the utmost willingness to furnish the captain with the information he requests, it is impossible. I remember speaking to the captain at Nick's and singing for the boys, and that's all I do remember till I woke up in the pitch dark below. I must have had one glass of slota too many by the furry taste in my mouth."

"I ought to put you in irons till we get to Calinoor and turn you over for trial. They'll get the truth out of you quickly enough."

The red burn faded a little from his cheeks. "As the captain wishes," he said abjectly. "But have I the captain's permission to make a suggestion?"

"What is it?"

"I cannot escape from the ship, sir, and I should like a chance to work my passage. I am a very good cook, sir. May I take charge of the galley? In my spare time I could do some swabbing up, sir. Begging the captain's pardon, I might remark that the ship could do with some cleaning."

I caught Jed's pleading eyes over Gwyllis' shoulder. The I. B. C. had been cutting down expenses to make up for the losses the Black Bat had caused them and had cut their crews to the barest essentials. On the freighters this meant only the three officers, since lading could be done by the port ground staffs. As a result, care of the mess had devolved on the third mate, who was emphatically not a cook. And cleaning went altogether by the board.

"Very well!" I snapped. "As long as you show a willingness to work I shall permit you to do so. Remember, this does not commit me to shielding you in any way at the end of the voyage."

"Oh, no, sir! I couldn't expect that. And thank you, sir."

Which is how Toom Gwyllis became a member of the Terra's crew. Nor had I cause to regret my leniency. His unfailing good humor, his unlimited repertoire of ditties, his sly jests, went a great way to ease a tension that otherwise might have flared into some regrettable occurrence.


WE neared the end of the fourth Earth-week, and Mars was already a tiny but veritable disk. Almost I thought I could see her two moons, and I was beginning to nourish a real hope that our stratagem was succeeding.

With Jed Morse on watch, I went into the chart room to plot the Terra's landing spiral, always a ticklish job with Phobos racing around its mother planet three times an Earth-day. I was startled to find Toom there. He was polishing some bright work, but it seemed to me that he had begun just the moment before I opened the hatch.

"What are you doing in here?" I snapped. "I thought my orders were that no one was to enter this room."

He gave his usual ludicrous imitation of a salute. "Begging the captain's pardon, sir, I have heard no such order."

"Nonsense! I issued it right after we left the stratosphere."

His small eyes met mine guilelessly. "The captain forgets that just then I was asleep in hold E, not knowing even that I was aboard the Terra."

The man was right. He could not possibly have known of the ban I had set against this space where was hidden the precious chest that might contain a hundred million solar dollars. I was uneasy, but in common justice I could say nothing more than:

"Well, you've heard it now. Be sure I don't find you in here again or it will go hard with you."

"Yes, sir." He saluted again and departed as fast as his short legs would carry him. From behind the door I could hear his voice piping his eternal:


"The piebald pony and the gaunt gray cat
Sliding down to Venus on a comet's tail——"


It faded out till the "jail" was barely audible.

I turned to get down a copy of Mulvihall's "Phases of Phobos and Deimos." But my hand never reached it.

From the speaker disk overhead, Jed Morse's voice crackled: "Sighting a strange body, sir, astern." Routine, this. Any object unaccounted for was a potential danger to a space ship. But I whirled to the hatch, rasping: "Coming!"

In seconds I was at Jed's side, peering into the rear-view periscope. "I can't see anything. You must have imagined it."

"No, sir. I'm positive. I caught it first against Sirius, then it transited Procyon. If it keeps on that course it will be crossing the Sun's disk, and we'll get it plain."

I waited, my eye on the Sun's lower limb, pondering. It might be a meteor, it must be a meteor. To have come thirty million miles safely and now to be caught! It wouldn't be just.


CHAPTER III.

"THERE it is!" Just a black dot against Sol's white. Invisible were it not for the Askinson ray filter, tempering the solar blaze. Just a flyspeck, but it was moving, slow-appearing at that great distance, but moving nevertheless. Slow moving?

"It's two diameters larger than at first!" Jed exclaimed.

The thing was growing visibly as we watched, was overtaking us at terrific speed.

I switched in the electelscope. The moving object leaped out on the positive screen.

"I'll be pithed," Jed exploded. "What in space is it?"

A man-made thing, no doubt of that. A space craft. But none such as I had ever seen. Black, dull-black, and oddly shaped. Blunt bow, curving to pointed stern. No visible rocket blast such as had streamed out behind the Luna our first days out, while she was still accelerating. But an odd shimmer flowed along the ship's black sides, blurring its outline. And it was moving across the screen's distance lines at an unbelievable pace. It was coming toward us as if we were standing still.

"You'll be pithed all right, mister," I said grimly. "That's the Black Bat."

A chuckle behind me. "The Black Bat!"

I twisted to Toom. For his weight he had an amazing capacity for moving soundlessly. "Get out of here, you jelly bowl, get below," I roared. "Get down on your knees and pray. You'll be sliding to hell on a comet's tail in about ten minutes or I miss my guess."

"Yes, sir. As the captain pleases." He saluted and vanished— from the control room and from my mind.

The pirate would overhaul us in an hour, that was certain. And there was nothing to do. I'd used nearly all my fuel reserve in building up the tremendous speed at which we were now flying, had left little more than I'd need for landing. Nor even if I used it all for acceleration now could I hope to outdistance the pirate. Darl, I knew, was in like case. One of us was doomed. The other had a chance, a slim chance.


I JUMPED for the space-radio key, thrust the earphones over my skull. "Q-M-S," I staccatoed: "Q-M-S—Q-M-S. All Mars stations. Attacked—by—Black Bat. Dispatch—all— patrol—ships—to—help. Attacked—by—Black Bat. Position— Alpha-2—Beta-359—Gamma-27. E-H-ll E-H-ll E-H-ll." The last was the Terra's signature.

I grabbed the voice transmitter. I could talk to Darl now, no further need for concealment. "Hello, the Luna!" I called. "Hello, the Luna!"

Darl's voice in the earphones, metallic, but his voice. "Luna. O.K. What do you want, Terra?"

"Darl! Brad talking. The Bat's got us spotted."

No excitement in his tones: "Yes. I've seen him."

"Listen! I've radioed Mars for patrol ships, but we both can't get away. I'll check speed, veer toward him. You shoot ahead. I think I can hold him in play till the patrol meets you."

"Guess again. I'm the one to drop behind."

"As senior I'm in command, Darl. I order you to go ahead."

"You know what you can do with your orders. I'm sticking."

No use arguing with him. No time to argue if there was any use. But there was still a chance.

"Listen, you nut. I'll choose you." Childish, but he was a youngster, a sport. "I'll think of a number and you say odd or even. If you're right I stay."

"I'll do the thinking and you the guessing," he checkmated me. Quickwitted, that lad. I couldn't fool him.

No time, no time to argue. The Bat was closer, closer. "It's a bet!" Still a chance. Darl would play fair.

"Go ahead!"

For an infinitesimal time that was infinitely long I wavered. Odd or even? Even or odd? Life for my brother, or death? Then I cast the die. "Odd."

A thrill in his voice, relief. "The number was four, old top. I stay." Relief and exaltation. Death comes easy to the young when it comes with flying banners. "So long! Give my regards to the boys at Nick's." And before he shut off I could hear him start the sky song:


"Blast old Earth from under keel.
Shape our course for——"


And the last lines echoed like a dirge in my brain:


"We've said good-by to the human race,
For we'll never come back any more.
We'll never come back any more."


Mercifully I had no time to think—the gap between us and the Bat was closing—the black ship's image was flitting the screen's thousand-mile distance lines one to the minute. If Darl's sacrifice was to avail I must get away.

"Elliot," I snapped into the intra-ship disk. "Elliot! All stern tubes. Full power ten seconds."

"Aye, aye, sir!" The response was crisp, steady. The boy knew something was wrong, all right. Full power in space was no usual thing. And he knew the state of our tanks. But you couldn't tell it by his tone.

Jed's tone was steady, too, as acceleration weighed us down and the Terra leaped like a live thing. His charge was the shifting-colored light in the spectrum speed gauge, focused on Aldebaran. "Nineteen, sir," he intoned. "Nineteen two, nineteen seven, nineteen nine, twenty." His voice lifted to that. Fastest man had ever gone! Fastest save for that killer in the black hell ship. He was doing nearly twice that.

I glanced through the port. The Luna was small now, tiny, dropping astern; blue flame spurting from her silver nose, checking her speed; checking to wait for the pirate that I might escape.

The earphones again. Faint whine of the I. B. C. station on Mars.

"E-H-ll E-H-ll Twenty—patrol-ships—on—way. Accelerating—to—twelve. Hold—out. M-S-I-B M-S-I-B M-S-I-B E-H-ll E-H-ll E- H-ll——Twenty—patrol-ships——" I switched them off.

Twelve per second. Slow. But twelve added to my twenty. Thirty-two. Will it be fast enough? How long can Darl hold the Black Bat?


THE Luna is too far back now to be seen through the lookout. Get her on the periscope, switch in the electelscope. There she is, a silver fish in the void. And the black tiger shark leaping on her. Close! An orange beam flashes out from the pirate's bow.

But Darl leaps aside. Good boy! The first stab of whatever devil's weapon is the Bat's sting misses by a hundred miles. The lad's handling his huge ship like a gyrocopter, whirling her away from the attacker in swift, veering darts. Whirling her away from my course, too, so that when the inevitable end comes the Terra will be all the safer. Blue flame spurting, now left, now right, from nose, from stern, as his rocket blasts answer his commands. No reason for him to conserve fuel now. He'll not need it for landing.

The Bat swoops after him, the orange ray stabbing. Avid, implacable, venomous. A dull-black streak in space. Death incarnate pursuing the victim marked down. Baffled for the moment, but inescapable. What is the beam's secret, what the secret of his incredible speed?

Ah-h-h-h! Almost had him! Just missed! Again the ray shoots out—and catches the Luna square! The dance of death is ended. A sob rips through my tightened throat, and I feel Jed Morse's arm around my shoulder, rank forgotten. "Steady, Brad!"

"Thanks, Jed. I'm all right."

"He put up a splendid fight."

"Everything he ever did was splendid."

"Aye, sir!"

They hung together, motionless in the immensity of the space between the stars. The black ship clung to its victim like some loathly leech. And I switched the view-screen blank. I had rather not see the final act of the tragedy, the pithing of the Luna, the killer drawing away from the gutted slain.

I hardly cared whether the Bat came after me or not. I was empty of emotion. But I was comparatively safe.

The scarlet flotilla met me and escorted the Terra back to Calinoor, detaching a ship to inspect the Luna. Jed Morse gave the commands as we landed. I was locked in my cabin, remembering.


"CAPTAIN HAMLIN reporting, gentlemen." I saluted. The Mars section of the I.B.C. was seated at my chart-room table. Ransoor, the Martian, was in the center, huge. Earth's representative, Lewis, gray-haired, stern-faced, seemed a midget beside him despite his six feet. He sat to Ransoor's right, at the Martian's left was the Venusian, Atna, lath-thin, sardonic, his breathing gills pulsing slowly, his green, webbed hands outspread on the table top.

Ransoor acknowledged my salute and his boom filled the little room. "You are ready to deliver the chest, captain?"

"I am, sir."

"Please do so."

I worked the combination of the safe in the bulkhead, got the heavy box onto the table. The three I. B. C. men bent forward to inspect the seals. I stood stiffly, my face devoid of expression. But within me something stirred. After all Darl had thrown away his life that this chest might reach Mars.


CHAPTER IV.

"OPEN it," Atna squealed. "Open it." I wondered at his impatience. "Let's see which one it is." This was a matter between Earth and Mars. Venus could have no interest.

Lewis got a small heat gun from the pocket of his jacket. Its red beam stabbed out, impinged on the lead-soldered jointure of the chest. The metal bubbled, dripped down the box's sides in molten rivulets. The sealing wires glowed and snapped. He got an asbestos glove on one hand and threw back the lid. It blocked my view of the interior, but I could see his face and Ransoor's. Shock, dismay, blackened them. I looked at Atna, forgetting that the denizens of our inner neighbor are as expressionless as the fish they resemble. I thought his eyes gloated.

It was he that broke the stunned silence: "Well, Ransoor, what is Mars going to do about the payment to us?"

The Martian turned slowly to face him. "That is a matter for the council. But undoubtedly you will have to give us more time."

"Time!" the Venusian shrilled. "Time! We've given you time enough. This looks very queer. You keep saying that you cannot pay us till you receive Earth's payment, and Earth can't seem to get a remittance across to you. I assure you Venus will insist on a rigid investigation. Good day, gentlemen. I go to make my report to the Trina." He stalked from the chamber trailing an atmosphere of righteous indignation.

"I'm afraid they mean trouble," Ransoor said heavily. "Lewis, how would Earth stand if it came to a break between Mars and Venus?"

The Earthman's face was a stony mask. "Really, Ransoor, I am hardly authorized to——"

"Oh, unofficially, man, unofficially and strictly between ourselves."

"Well—if you put it that way—we should probably throw in with you. We could hardly remain neutral for long with the spaceways ablaze with war, and we are much closer to you in every essential than to the fishmen. But Earth does not want war."

They rose. Lewis started as he saw me still standing there. "Oh, Hamlin—er—I had forgotten you were here." He exchanged a worried glance with Ransoor. "You understand that what you have just heard is confidential."

"I realize that, sir. I shall repeat it to no one."

"I am sure of that. May I say that we in no way blame you for the failure of your mission."

I bowed. "Thank you, sir. May I make a request?"

He looked at me keenly. "Of course! Anything within reason."

"I should like to be permitted to resign from the fleet."

"My boy!" he protested. "We can't spare men like you."

"Nevertheless, sir, I desire to be relieved. I wish never again to enter a control room."

"I understand. You have just passed through a trying experience. But you will change. Suppose you lay off for three months."

I had to be content with that.

Jed Morse stepped up to me at the main hatch, as I turned from escorting Lewis and Ransoor off. "We have our receipts, sir, and the unlading gangs will be aboard shortly. What shall I do about the stowaway?"

I had forgotten Toom. "I suppose I shall have to turn him over to the provost, though I hate to do it. He's a likable chap. Where is he?"

"I had Elliot lock him in E hold before we landed. Thought I'd make sure he'd be on hand when we wanted him."

"Get him up. No, wait!" as Jed started away. "I'll go down myself."

E Hold was in the very stern of the Terra, just forward of the tube room. I reached the hold, unlocked the steel hatch. The tube light was burning inside, sending its beams into every corner of the small compartment. But there was no one there!

I got to the hatch in the outer skin. No; it was tightly locked. "Gren!" I called. "Gren!"

Elliot came running. "What is it, sir?"

"Where did you put Gwyllis?"

"In here."

"He isn't here now."

"Impossible! He must be. He couldn't get out."

"May be impossible, but it's so. Get Morse and search the ship."

The search was unavailing. Toom was gone. I looked at my two officers. "This is nice. How am I going to explain that?"

Jed answered: "Don't know, sir. But is it necessary?"

"Is what necessary?"

"To explain it at all. Seems to me to be lots simpler to say nothing about his ever being aboard. After all the fellow's gone. I—well—I mean to say——"

"That you're damn well glad he's got away. I might as well confess that I am, too. All right, boys; it's between ourselves."


THEY left my cabin, and I started to pack. Nothing much. My master's ticket was on the wall, framed. I left it there. I laid out a suit of cits and sat down to unlace my leggings. Knuckles thudded at the door.

"Come in!"

It was Jed. His sharp face looked worried. "Messenger just came from Mr. Lewis, sir. You are to report to his office at once."

Two of the giant Martian police stood at the door of Lewis' office. I thought they looked at me queerly as I entered. Ransoor was there with the Earthman, and Atna. The Venusian's eyes were excited. But Lewis was very grave, and his lips were a tight line under his clipped mustache. His voice was cold.

"Captain Hamlin," he began. "The patrol ship S14, which was detached to inspect the wreck of the Luna has returned. Its captain reports he found the bodies of the mates aboard, but your brother's was not there."

The words blurred in my head. "What was that, sir?" I stammered. "I don't understand."

"Your brother's body is not aboard what remains of the Luna."

Darl's body not there! Then he might be alive. He must be alive. Darl was the Black Bat's prisoner, but he was alive! I swayed, pulled myself erect.

The Terrestrian was saying something. I caught only the last word, "—suspicious." Again I was forced to ask for a repetition.

"You seem to be having a great deal of difficulty with your hearing. I said that this circumstance seems to us suspicious."

"Suspicious, sir, of what?"

"Of some understanding between you, your brother, and the pirate."

"What!" I shouted. "What put such an idea into your head?"

Lewis froze. "Captain Hamlin," he grated. "Remember to whom you are speaking and comport yourself accordingly."

Years of discipline asserted themselves. "I am sorry, sir. I was so astounded that for the moment I forgot myself. May I ask how you arrive at such an accusation?"

"The Bat attacked the craft that carried the real treasure, permitting you to escape unscathed. That might have been mere chance. But when, contrary to his invariable custom, he removes the captain of the other ship as well as his loot the affair takes a different aspect."

"And from this you conclude——"

"We conclude nothing, but we suspect that the Bat was informed which ship carried the actual money, that there was a rendezvous, and that your brother, having betrayed his trust, has joined the pirate crew."

"No! Never! Darl would have died rather than——"

"Mr. Lewis," Ransoor interrupted my cry of protest. "Did not Captain Brad Hamlin request permission to resign from your fleet?"

"That is so."

"It appears to me that also is suspicious. He may be planning to join his brother and the buccaneer."

I felt as if a net were closing around me. "But, gentlemen," I burst out. "We didn't know which ship carried the money. We were not told."

Atna cackled shrilly at that. "Impossible for you to open the chests in your chart room, eh?" he sneered "Of course you Earthmen are too stupid to think of that."

I dropped hands to my side, palms out. "If your minds are made up, nothing I can say will change them. But I feel that I am entitled to present a defense."

"That is your right." Lewis' tones were expressionless. "This is merely an informal investigation. You will be brought before the Mixed Court to-morrow. In the meantime you are under arrest." He pressed a button and the two policemen entered. They appeared to have been already instructed, for they stepped to each side of me and grasped my wrists. Ransoor nodded, and I was led away.


CHAPTER V.

I SCARCELY noticed the clang of the durasteel door that shut me into a cell. It was as if Darl had been restored to me from the dead. The Black Bat would have left him on the Luna, to die horribly when the doomed craft was pithed, if he had killed him at all. Darl was alive, a prisoner! I must go find him, rescue him. I started up from the hard palette on which I had thrown myself.

And the blank, immovable cell door confronted me! Only then did my own position become real. I, too, was a prisoner, accused of treason. To-morrow I would be brought to trial before the Mixed Court that sits in judgment on outworlders in Calinoor treaty port. The penalty for the crime with which I was charged is death, but even death was nothing to the black disgrace a guilty verdict would smear across my name. Mine and Darl's! My fists clenched, and I bit my lips as the crowding walls whirled about me.

Steady! I wasn't condemned yet. Nor, I tried to assure myself, would I be. The evidence against me was of the flimsiest, of the most circumstantial. The Venusian judge would be against me, of course. And the Martian might be swayed by the other's prejudice. But a death decision by the Mixed Court requires a unanimous vote, and the Earthman would be open to reason, would give me the benefit of the doubt. The worst that could happen would be a verdict of "not proved." Not vindication, of course, but it would leave me free to hunt down the Black Bat, rescue Darl, and prove our innocence.

The lock grated and the door swung open. "Your attorney, prisoner," he rumbled. "You have ten minutes for consultation."

"I don't want any lawyer," I growled. "I'll conduct my own defense."

"The regulations provide that you must be represented by counsel of your own race," was the reply.

The official stepped aside and a figure came into the cell. A Terrestrian by his size, but he was wrapped closely in the fur parka Earthmen wear against the Martian cold, and his face was hidden within its hood. Behind him the door clanged shut.

"I don't need any——" I began, cut off when the man's hood dropped back. Lewis! Haldon Lewis, Earth's representative on the Martian section of the I. B. C. What did this mean?

"Sit down, my boy." His voice was kindly again, but muted with weariness. "We have only a very short time, and I don't want to be discovered here."

I sank to the bed and Lewis took the one chair. He leaned forward, keeping his tone very low.

"I'm playing with Trinite coming here at all. If Atna learns of it there will be hell to pay."

"It is good of you."

"No. My duty." He paused, seemed at a loss as to how to proceed. "I want to assure you that I know you are guiltless of the crime for which you are here."

"Thank you, sir. I didn't think any Earthman would believe it. I am positive Judge Reynolds will not vote against me."

For a moment he didn't reply but looked at me pityingly. Then:

"Yes, Hamlin. I am sorry to say that Reynolds will vote against you. And Tarool, too, the Martian. In fact my purpose in coming here is to ask you to plead guilty, to confess."

"To confess what? I am guilty of
nothing. I——"

"I have already told you I am convinced of your innocence. But you must be convicted whether you confess or not. We have no other recourse."

"I don't understand."

"Naturally! I'll explain. Hamlin, on what happens to-morrow depends the peace of the system. Venus is spoiling for a fight, is using this question of interplanetary settlements as an excuse. Earth and Mars are trying to avoid war, not because we are afraid of Venus, but to avoid the destruction of milliards in property, millions of lives.

"We had almost prevailed upon the Trina, Venus' ruling body, to extend Mars' time for payment when the patrol ship's report came in. Atna seized upon it as a new provocation, hinted and more than hinted that the Black Bat is an agent of Mars and Earth, that his depredations are fictitious and merely a subterfuge to defraud Venus. He has sneeringly suggested that there was no more money on the Luna than there was on the Terra.

"The skunk!"

"Skunk he may be, but he is dangerous. There appears to be a peace party in the Trina still powerful enough to force the jingoists to move cautiously. But if Atna's theory gains credence in his world they will be overthrown and war is inevitable. Do you see now how important it is that this incident be proved the result of traitorous machinations by you and your brother? If you should be released by the vote of Earth, or Earth and Mars——" A gesture of his hand completed the picture.

"So I'm to be the goat," I summed up bitterly.

"Exactly! Earth, the whole system, will execrate you and your brother. Only a few of us will know what you have done and revere your memory. But your confession will draw Atna's teeth."

I seized at a straw. "Suppose I escape."

Lewis shrugged. "That would be taken as a confession and possibly serve the same purpose. But it is impossible without outside aid that I dare not give you; well-nigh impossible with it. There has never been an escape from this prison, and the Venusians have placed their own men around the jail to make assurance doubly sure."

"Then I have no choice. I shall do as you ask."

Lewis sighed. "Thank you. You have made the most difficult task of my life a little easier." He rose, gathered his parka, pulled its hood down over his face. The jailer's key grated. The I. B. C. man's hand came out from his furs, gripped mine. He followed the keeper out.


I THREW myself on the thin mattress of my palette, face down. While Lewis was still here I had been buoyed up by his conception of me as a hero. But that was gone, now. What a way to go out! Reviled, despised, death-rayed as a criminal, a traitor. My fists beat against the straw in an agony of revolt. At last, exhausted, I lay quietly, listening to the sounds coming through the barred window.

The prison was just at the edge of the landing field and familiar noises added to my black mood. I heard the roar of tubes being tested against to-morrow's flight. That might be the Terra, refueled, turning around fast. Nearer at hand were the high piping of Venusians, the boom of Martian voices, a Terrestrian singing in the distance. There was something familiar about the tune. The singer neared, and I could make out the words:


"—pony and the gaunt gray cat,
Sliding down to Venus on a comet's tail,
Met the bull in a round red hat.
Took 'em by the neck and hauled 'em off to jail."


Toom! Toom Gwyllis by all that was holy! It couldn't be any one else. The fat little rascal was still in Calinoor, then. Probably full of slota. If he kept on making that infernal noise he'd be picked up by the police. He'd be in trouble then, sure enough, without a departure stamp on his system passport.

I got to my feet, crossed to the window, intending to shout a warning down to him. There he was, rolling along the crowded plaza, more like an animated ball than ever in a dirty brown parka. He was right opposite my window and his song was very clear now. He was trolling forth a new verse, apparently extemporized, for the rhythm limped, and he had to slur the words to fit the music:


"The pony cried, but pussy called, 'Little Dog
Rising from bed, will you help us get out?'
'Sure I will with the aid of the fat frog.
We don't like the bull and we'll get you out.'"


I clung to the bars, my shout never given. Was he trying to get a message to me? Impossible! What could he do against that impregnable prison, against the extra guard of Venusians whom I could see, thin even within their piled furs, patrolling the jail front with heat guns conspicuous in their membraned hands?

Toom kept on going, kept on singing, too, repeating the new verse. When he got to the "frog" he hopped, ludicrously like that amphibian. And on the "bull" he lurched against a passing Martian. Could he mean that he himself was the frog, the bull the Martian giants, my jailers? But who was the "little dog?" I repeated the gibberish to myself:


"The pony cried, but pussy called 'Little Dog
Rising from bed——'"


Wait a minute! Little Dog, Canis Minor, was a star constellation. Could he be referring to that? I racked my brain. What was the date in the Martian year. The third week in Landoor. Yes. Canis Minor would be visible in Calinoor's sky, rising at about midnight. Rising—that was it—"Rising from bed——" It was the time he was trying to tell me. When Canis Minor rose, midnight. He would get me out at midnight. That was the message.


CHAPTER VI.

GWYLLIS rounded a corner, tripping over his own feet, and disappeared. Drunk as a Mercurian! I laughed mirthlessly. I was kidding myself, that pudgy sot could never help me to escape! Even sober he was G-5 mentally, a space-ship steward, classified for menial service. And an A-1 would find the job too hard a nut to crack.

Calinoor prison is known throughout the system for its strength. Two-foot walls of molecular concentrate, impregnable even to the infra-red torch of a heat gun, to which all other known materials must yield. Windows barred with duralsteel, the system's toughest metal. Cell doors of the same alloy, individually locked. A central lobby the height of the building, teeming with Martian keepers, every cubicle in full view along the circling balconies. And outside were the prowling Venusians, Heaven knew how many of them, determined to keep me in the toils if all else failed. It were sheer madness to think of escape. Gwyllis' doggerel meant nothing; it would take an army to get me out.

Yet obstinately, unreasonably, I clung to hope as the red planet's swift night fell and Phobos' huge globe rose, paradoxically, in the west.

It hung low in the east before the tail of Canis Minor peered over the horizon beneath it. My eyes strained to see the stars. If there was anything in my interpretation of Toom's apparent gibberish, something was due to happen at any moment. The plaza below was deserted, except for the Venusians skulking close below, their odd-shaped shadows pools of black on a pavement otherwise a glaring white under the tube lights. In my temple a pulse throbbed, and I was taut with expectancy.

What was that murmur of sound in the north? A low growl, barely discernible. Off there spread the Sloora, the pleasure district, brawling, sordid resort of spacemen on leave. The noise grew louder, nearer, was distinguishable as the roaring of many voices. I could make out the booming of the big-chested Martians, the high screaming of the fishmen, the shouting of Terrestrians, merging in a crowd-noise that could be heard nowhere but in the system's space ports.

Unmistakably a zanting was on, a mass battle among the spacemen, such as every so often flared in the dives of the Sloora for flimsy reasons or none at all. Martian against Earthman, Earthman against Venusian, Venusian against both. Flying fists, belt buckles rising and falling, trampling of shod feet on prostrate bodies. Here and there the gleam of a knife or the flash of a heat gun.

Then would come the charge of the scarlet police, and bruised, bleeding fugitives would scatter into the dark passages of the space port. A half hour later they would be drinking elbow to elbow in the slota halls again, wrangling amicably over the merits of their respective fleets.

But there was something more venomous, more viperish than usual, about the tumult of this zanting. And it was very close now. Never before had they ventured so far from the Sloora. Suddenly dark masses jetted out from the defiles of the circumscribing buildings, dark masses that merged, that filled the plaza with a tossing, writhing sea of maddened fighting. Their shouting came clearly to me, clinging to the bars: The Terrestrians; "Kill the Venusians, smear the fishmen! Kill them! Kill them!" And the screams of the green ones, shriller than ever with fear. The huge Martians were struggling out of the rout.

This was a scrap between Earth-men and the scaly ones of Venus; the men of the red planet were glad to get out of it. A fight to the death, no mistake about that. A fight to the death, and the Earth-men were winning, were harrying the others, were stamping them into the ground.

Beneath me the Venusian guards shrilled encouragement to their co-planetarians, waved pipestem arms hysterically. Their officers gave orders, holding them back, leashing them to their duty. Trying to hold them! But suddenly the line broke, surged forward irresistibly, and instantly was swallowed up in the tossing melee.

The battle swung away from the prison toward the other end of the plaza. I crushed against the bars, trying to keep it in view, my own predicament forgotten. But I whirled to the scraping of bolts behind me. In the open doorway was framed a short, round figure, furred, the face covered by some sort of mask, goggle-eyed, but unmistakable. Toom! Miraculously, Toom Gwyllis!

He was holding another mask in his hand, thrust it at me. "If the captain will put this on, quickly."

There was a taint in the air, something gripped my throat. I was choking. I snatched the thing, got it over my face, got the rubber bit between my teeth. My lungs cleared.

"Follow me as fast as the captain can. The gas will last only a few minutes." Muffled as it was, his voice had a new authority. I obeyed unhesitatingly. We hurried along the gallery on which my cell gave, down a narrow spiral stairs, past giant guards sprawled in all sorts of ungainly postures, the rotunda floor piled thick with them. The great entrance door at last!

Toom opened it a crack, glanced out. Then back to me. "Quickly, sir!" He stooped to a bundle on the floor. "If the captain will—a parka."

I got it around me. Aping Gwyllis, I pulled the mask off, tossed it behind. He jerked the hood over my head, hiding my face, adjusted his own.

"Come, sir!"

We slid out between the leaves of the portal, were in the open. I got air into my lungs, tenuous, chilled, but wine to me. Free air, unfiltered through prison bars!


FAR across the plaza the riot was slackening. A wedge of tall figures in scarlet uniforms was slowly forging into the still scrapping mass. Thin, furred shapes were breaking away, were running toward us. Toom broke into a run, and I joined him. We skidded around the prison corner, keeping close to its wall, made for a dark alley straight ahead. We got there.

Gwyllis slowed, put a hand on my arm. "We're safe now, sir, if we stroll as if we had nothing to worry about."

"Nothing to worry about!" I exclaimed. "As soon as my escape is discovered I'll have plenty to worry about. They'll close all exits from Calinoor, start a house-to-house search. It may take time, but they're sure to find me at last. And even if I get out of the town, where will I go? You know damn well an Earthman can't live long on the Martian tundras. There's water only along the canals, which are closely guarded, and not a living thing on the desert, not an edible plant."

"If the captain will trust me," Toom murmured.

"Trust you! I'll say I will. You've done the impossible already."

Gwyllis chuckled. "Not impossible, sir."

"No; you've proved that. You're a wonder!"

"Merely fortunate, sir. Just happened to pass the prison when them Venusians decided to get into the scrap. The Martian keeper on the door was foolish enough to open it to see what was going on, so it was only a matter of tossing in a couple of gas bombs, finding the key to your cell, and getting you out. Just accident, sir."

"I suppose it was just accident that you happened to have gas bombs with you, eh, and masks and a parka for me?"

"Yes, sir."

"And it was just accident that the riot started right at the time you mentioned in your song."

"What song, sir?"

"All right; I dreamed it. How did the scrap begin, anyway?"

"Why, as to that, sir, it was very peculiar. It kind of got spread around the Sloora that an Earth-woman had been attacked by a couple of Venusians. No one knew who started the story, but, as the captain will understand, it got the boys a bit riled, and the natural result was a very satisfactory zanting."

"Of course you had nothing to do with starting that rumor or spreading it. Toom, I think you are a faker."

"Yes, sir. As the captain says."

All this time we had been twisting through the devious passageways of the old part of Calinoor. In perhaps ten minutes more the houses fell away, and I saw that we had reached an open space. Shapes towered above us in a long line, mountainous against a graying sky. Before each a tiny dark figure paced, silent but alert. I caught the glint of a stray light ray on the blued barrel of a heat gun. We had come a full circle, were on the space-ship landing field. Those were rocket craft in their webbed cradles, guarded by armed marines.

The edge of the field was in shadow, and Gwyllis kept to it. With a start, I realized we were coming to Earth's section of the tarmac. I'd know the Terra's lines anywhere.

"Wait here," Toom muttered in my ear. The gun he held in his hand brushed against mine.

"Toom!" I whispered. "That's an Earthman out there. I won't have you burn him down."

"Don't worry, sir. Worst he'll have is a headache."

He was out in the open, reeling, muttering to himself, a spaceman seeking his ship, after a hard night in the Sloora. I could hear its sodden, half-intelligible phrases: "Shiriush, thash m'ship. Where at'sh Shiriush?"

The sentry at the Terra came toward him, but he staggered away, back into the shadow.

The guard came faster, calling: "Hey, you! What're you up to?" His voice was thick with drowsiness.

Gwyllis reappeared, halted, swaying. "Where'sh Shiriush?"

"The Sirius blasted-off hours ago. You're A.W.O.L. Come here!"

"Comencash me." The apparent drunk was playful now, stumbled into the darkness.

The sentry followed. "Come here, damn you! I've got to take you in to the provost." He thrust a heat gun into his belt, freeing his hands, plunged into the pool of dark.

A faint thud came to me, nothing more. But in seconds Toom was at my side.

"He's out for ten minutes or so, sir."

He peered out at the field. The guards at the other ships were turning away. Their fellow was marching the drunk to the disciplinary officer, no doubt. "Come on, sir! Now's our chance."


CHAPTER VII.

WE shot across to the Terra, were hidden under her keel. Toom turned toward her stern. I kept pace with him, wondering. None of this made sense; we couldn't hide here.

He halted and climbed on some empty tanks, piled there when the Terra had been refueled. I could discern that his hands were over his head, that he was fumbling at the vessel's skin. We must be under E hold, I thought. What the devil, he couldn't get that hatch open! Only the port captains had keys to the auxiliary entrances. Metal scraped and a black hole gaped above me.

"Up with you, sir!"

I got my hands on the coaming, hauled myself up and in. Gwyllis was right after me. He pulled the hatch cover up.

"That's that," he grunted.

"So you passed out at Nick's and woke up in here! Had no idea how it happened. And I believed you!"

He chuckled. "Is the captain sorry he brought me to Mars?"

"Of course not, you pot-bellied fraud! Who the devil are you, anyway?"

"Toom Gwyllis, sir, at your service." I swear he was laughing at me.

"Where did you get an auxiliary hatch key?"

"Found it in here, sir, when I was locked in before we landed. Must have been dropped by whomever brought me aboard."

"Very likely!" But I had to let it go, there was no getting anything out of the man. "What do we do now?"

"May I offer the suggestion that we blast-off before trouble starts, sir?"

"We'll never get away with it. Morse and Grendon——"

"Are ashore. Just before the zanting started they received orders for a special conference at the I. B. C. building. They're cooling their heels now, I hope, waiting for some one to show up."

I grunted. "Another accident, I suppose. But the patrol ships, man—they'll be after us like a shot."

"There's not a patrol ship on Mars, sir. A call came from space, apparently, that the Bat was in the offing, and every ship was dispatched in an attempt to catch him. If the captain will set a course two points off the ecliptic, due west, they won't spot us. But, sir, every moment is precious, and we are wasting time."

"I have no tubeman."

"The captain may rely on me."

"I seem to be getting into that habit."

The Terra kicked off perfectly, and I was never more glad to see any planet drop under my keel. I set her on the course Gwyllis had suggested and let her ride. The tenseness that had sustained me vanished, and it was all I could do to get back to the couch. Oblivion swallowed me the moment I hit it.

I woke instantly at a touch on my shoulder, but knew I had slept long and well. Instinctively I glanced at the gauges. We were in free flight, still on the course I had set. The gravity coils were on, everything was functioning perfectly. I sniffed an appetizing odor of coffee and grilling bacon and grinned at Toom.

"You're a man of parts, Gwyllis, as good a rocketman as you are a cook."

In the mess room he stood behind my chair.

I squirmed. "Pull up a chair, Toom."

"As the captain wishes, but it is hardly fitting for a steward to——"

"That will be just about enough of that," I rasped. "Hereafter you will have the title and rank of first officer. Please log that, mister."

Gwyllis accepted that with his everlasting chuckle. "Very well, sir. Thank you, sir. I shall try to do my duty."

"As you know," I continued, "there is very little formality among officers of these freighters except in line of duty. Pull up a chair and start eating."


A LITTLE later I pushed back my empty coffee cup. "You'll start your new duties with a wardroom conference, Toom. We can't go rocketing through space forever."

"No, sir. Nor can we land at any space port in the system; they're all on the watch for us by now."

"I don't want to land at a space port. I want to find the Black Bat, to get my brother Darl out of his clutches."

"I want to find the Black Bat, too, to find him and smash him!"

I had been toying with a spoon, but I looked up quickly at the sudden change in Toom's voice. The humor was gone from his eyes. His nostrils flared; his jaw seemed to be thrust forward and his face to lose its roundness. I'd hate to have this bulldog on my trail, I thought.

Then the old Toom was back, in outward seeming at least. "I have a little bone to pick with the fellow myself." He grinned. "We can't find him soon enough to suit me, sir."

"But how, man, how?" I voiced my puzzlement. "In all the infinity of space how are we going to run down a ship that outspeeds our best two to one, that pounces from nowhere, strikes, and vanishes into the unknown? How can you and I, alone in an unarmed freighter, hope to find it, or having found it to cope with that mysterious orange beam that seems to render any rocket craft it touches helpless?"

"We must find his base."

"That seems as hopeless as finding the ship itself."

Toom leaned across the table in his earnestness. "Captain, they were saying in the Sloora that Venus is using the Black Bat's forays as an excuse to force war on Mars."

"I have bitter reason to know that to be true. But the Trina is mad. If hostilities break out, Earth will join Mars, and the combined fleets will wipe the Venusians out of space."

"I wonder, sir. No one has ever accused the fishmen of stupidity. They always have been recognized as the shrewdest, the most cunning, of the people in the Triplanetary Union. Has it ever occurred to the captain that there must be some reason for their closing all but their ports to outworlders? Two years ago they did that, sir, just when the Black Bat's depredations began."

My scalp prickled. "By gosh, Toom, that gives me an idea! Suppose Venus has developed a new type of space ship that has twice or three times the speed of any the rest of the system possesses——"

"Like the Black Bat's craft, sir?"

"Exactly! Like the Bat's hell-ship. And a weapon, too, before which the fleets of Mars and Earth would be helpless."

"Like the Black Bat's orange beam, captain?"

"Like the Black Bat's orange beam! And suppose that under the clouds veiling her from the rest of the system she has been building a fleet of war craft like the Bat's, wouldn't that explain a lot of things?"

Town's eyes were shining. "Then the captain thinks——"

"That the Black Bat is a Venusian! That his putative piracy has been accomplishing two things—testing the new ship and the new weapon, and furnishing the Trina with an excuse to precipitate the war they desire. That under the cloud curtain of Venus a fleet of space ships lies lurking, waiting for the word that will send it forth to destroy, to murder, half the people of Earth and Mars and enslave the rest!"

"You think we can find the Black Bat then——"

"On Venus! Let's go!"


CHAPTER VIII.

I CAME into the control room yawning. Gwyllis glanced around at me with red-rimmed eyes, turned back to the screen. Not for a moment would he relax the scrutiny on which so much depended.

"What luck, Toom?"

"None, sir."

It seemed he had made that reply to me, and I to him, countless times, in the days we had circled the vapor-shrouded orb of Venus, keeping her ceaselessly on the electelscope screen. Our portholes were blinded so that no betraying light gleam might escape. Our tubes were silent. I had thrown the ship into an orbit around the Ashmen's world, made the Terra her satellite, and unremittingly we had watched every foot of her cloud sphere for some sign of what we sought. Unavailingly!

I looked at the quarter orb filling the screen. The night side of Venus showed a rolling, featureless expanse of faintly luminescent vapor. Featureless save for the glowing red circle of the cloud-piercing searchlights that marked Ratna, in the north, the treaty port on this hemisphere. And there was that one faint spot of white light down near the equator. We hadn't been able to make out what that was. I noticed that Gwyllis was watching it.

"Still worrying about that white spot, Toom?"

"Yes, sir. I have a hunch——Look at it!" His fingers seized my arm, dug into it.

The light had blinked out, come on again instantly. As we watched, it shone steadily while one might count five, then it blinked again—four times. Another fairly long period of steadiness. Then the cycle was repeated.

"It's a signal!" My voice was hoarse. "No doubt about that."

Toom was calmer. "A signal all right. One dot, then four dots. Captain, isn't that E-H in the old Continental Morse code?"

"Yes—E-H. The beginning of all Earth call letters. But it can't be that. It's just a coincidence."

"Maybe; maybe not." Gwyllis seemed to be talking to himself; I could scarcely hear him. Then, more loudly: "Look! It's changing."

"Yes; it's different now." I reached for pad and pencil, jotted down: one dot, four dots, one dot, four dashes, three dots, two dashes. I was pounding on Toom's back, was shrieking like one possessed: "E-H 13, Toom, E-H 13! It's the Luna's call! It's Darl, Toom, It's Darl!"

"It's the captain's brother all right." There was a vibrant thrill in his voice, but his eyes never left the screen. "Must have escaped somehow, sir, got to that light, blinked it on the wild chance that an Earthship was somewhere in the offing—— Look!"

The signal beam was now flickering wildly, its staccato rhythm gone. Then it was steady again, a dim white spot on the chaotic, tumbling sea of clouds, inscrutable.

"What—what do you think's happened?" I gasped.

"Simple enough, sir. They caught him at it, were struggling over the light. He couldn't fight them off."

Toom sensed my agony. "They haven't killed him, sir. There wouldn't have been any struggle, the signaling would have stopped suddenly. For some reason they're keeping him alive, for the same reason that they fetched him from the Luna."

"Thanks, Toom." His logic was perhaps faulty, but I wanted to believe he was right. "Listen. We're going down there to get him away from those scaly devils."

"Of course, sir. It's what we have been looking for—the break that had to come. For better reasons, if I may say so, than the mere rescue of the captain's brother."

I flashed round at him, my blood boiling. But his blue eyes caught mine in a steady, meaningful gaze. And I remembered that far greater issues depended on us two than Darl's liberation. It was certain, now, that those clouds hid a deadly menace to our native Earth. My fist unclenched.

"You're right, Gwyllis, as usual. If you'll get to the tuberoom we'll start."


IN the sixty Earth-days since our escape from Mars I had learned to rely on Toom as I had on Elliot or Morse. Where the man had been trained he never told me, but he was as efficient a rocketman as any in the fleet.

And I had need of efficiency for the task ahead. This was no question of landing on a charted field, with a trained ground force and a waiting cradle to take the shock of the final plunge. I had to set the seventy thousand tons of the Terra down on an unknown terrain, a tarmac I could not see until it would be too late to cope with any threatened disaster. Three quarters of Venus' surface is water, that is known; the rest, save for the city clearings, a steaming, miasmic swamp. The cloud ceiling is never more than five thousand feet above the gigantic, tangled vegetation of that swamp, and the rain is eternal.

There must be solid land near that light. I had only that to guide me. I made my calculations.

The intra-ship talk disk clicked and Toom reported: "All set, captain."

"Two tenths power on the nose, steady."

My first move was to check speed sufficiently to get the ship falling in a long, flat spiral, so that her final dive would be almost tangent to the ground. Then I must continue to decelerate so that contact would be at exactly the point I wished to reach and at a rate that would not destroy the vessel. A delicate maneuver, even with clear vision. And I should be blinded by clouds until almost the last instant.

We flashed around the vapory sphere, ever slower, ever nearer. Now we were in its atmosphere, and I switched on the refrigeration system against the friction heat of our still terrific speed. We plunged into the clouds. Grim gray masses ripped by the portholes, and the periscope screens were useless. It was possible to tell whether we were above one hemisphere or the other only by the Sun's flood in the impenetrable mass of thick haze or its absence.

This alternation of day and night grew less frequent. Now for an hour we traveled in black murk, lightless fog like none ever seen on Earth. The inclinometer showed the angle of our course to be very near that of Venus' surface curvature. And suddenly we were through the clouds.

Torrential rain lashed at the portholes, continuous lightning crackled all about, and thunder crashed till the universe seemed ripped apart. In the under-keel periscope nothing showed but an illimitable expanse of black, tossing ocean. We were dropping fast, dropping toward the hungry waters. No good! Still a chance to blast away and try again. I snatched up the talk disk.

"Stern and keel tubes, full power!" I snapped.

"Aye, sir!" Toom's voice. But there was no blast roar, no lift of the Terra away from the waiting sea. A click and Toom's voice again: "I can't get a spark, sir. Lightning's burned out the coils."

"It's good-by, then." I was surprised at the steadiness of my own accents. "We're dropping into the water."

Nor was Gwyllis' reply any the less steady: "As the captain says. Good-by, sir." And he actually chuckled.

I gazed lacklusterly at the periscope screen. We were only twenty-five hundred feet up and falling as we shot onward. Ten seconds more to live!

There was a black mass ahead, more solid than the heaving sea.

Land! A pillar of light boring up from the horizon! I had miscalculated by seconds only! As well have been hours. The Terra hurtled into the waves, water pounded against the ports. A tremendous crash flung me across the room—head-first for the wall. The universe exploded in a flare of light!


CHAPTER IX.

I STRUGGLED up to consciousness. Toom was shaking my shoulder. Lightning flickered, and water streamed from the little man's face.

"Wake up, sir!" he yelled. "Wake up!"

I was lying in water, but there was mud under it, soft to my aching body. There was some sort of canopy above that kept most of the rain from us. It was hot, and the top of my head felt as if it were caved in. I pushed myself to a sitting posture, tried to stop the squirrels running around inside my skull. The air was thick with moisture, respiration was agony.

"There were Venus suits in the Terra's lockers. Too bad we can't get them."

"Is the captain certain we cannot? Look out there, sir."

Toom waved a hand to the left and chuckled. The heavens split open. There she was, a glistening behemoth, waves foaming along her keel, but the rest of her steady and unshaken. I gaped, bewildered.

"She plunged into the sea where it was still deep enough to prevent damage. She kept right on going, just like a submarine. Being airtight there was no chance of water leakage, sir, and she had way enough to bring her to shore. What knocked you out was the jar when she hit the shelving beach."

"She's smashed, of course. Done for."

"I was afraid she was and got you to shore. But I've been back, and she is sound as a whistle, hasn't sprung a single plate. Has the captain any plan for locating the place of the white light?" He changed the subject, avoiding the thanks that rose to my lips.

By now I was completely recovered, except for a throbbing pain in my skull. I recalled what I had seen just before we crashed. "Don't need a plan, Toom. We're there."

"If the captain will just lie down
again——"

"I'm not delirious, you fat chump! It's off there." I pointed. "Not twenty miles. I saw it."

"Great jumping constellations! And the fishmen couldn't possibly have seen us!"

I scrambled to my feet, my hair brushing against two great banta leaves Toom had drawn together with thorns to make a flimsy shelter. "Let's go!"

"May I suggest that we make haste slowly, sir?"

"Slowly! Darl's there, man! Hurt. Dying perhaps."

"The Bat's there, too, I hope," Toom returned grimly. "But I am sure the captain will agree that we should attend to the Terra first, get her in shape to fly. If we succeed——

"You're right, Toom, as usual. Come on!"


SWIMMING out to the ship was no joke, although the sea had moderated and the downpour had dwindled to a mere drizzle. C hold port was open, well above the water line. A stream of water trailed after me as I hurried down the catwalk to the tuberoom.

The spark coils were a welded mass of copper, but there were spares neatly shelved, and it was a matter of minutes only to substitute them. I checked the rest of the set-up carefully and found everything shipshape.

"Lunch is served, sir." Toom's cheery call rang out of the disk. Coffee was steaming on the grill in the mess room and steaks were broiling. "It is my opinion, sir, that a man as well as a space ship functions better with full fuel tanks." He grinned.

"One second," I grunted, "while I get into dry clothes."

"All laid out in your cabin, sir. And I've found the Venus suits, too."

For all his assumed calmness, Gwyllis gobbled his meal as fast as I. At last we were through. We got into our Venus suits. These are made of a water-shedding fabric, simulating the scaly skin of the natives, but so light and ingeniously contrived that they do not impede movement. And the breathing filters, tiny contrivances clamping within one's nostrils, are shrewdly devised to keep moisture from one's lungs while they admit air. A perfect match for the Venusians' gills. We thrust heat guns into capacious pockets. Toom put something else in his, I could not see what and I forbore to ask.

"All set!"

For hours we struggled through the nightmare of that swamp, that steaming, miasmic jungle. We climbed over the gnarled root knees of gigantic banta trees, swam through green-scummed, stinking pools, forced our way between the fronds of towering ferns, almost impaled ourselves on the man-long thorns of the xitipus. A warm, penetrating drizzle sifted through the tangle overhead—fine weather for Venus—and the loathsome fauna of the place was out full force. Fifty-foot long-legged snakes slithered away from our approach, and leprous tree toads, big as horses, deafened us with their croak. We reeled on, drunk with fatigue, half drowned despite our Venus suits, peering through the blackness ahead for some sign of our goal.

We got to the top of a slight rise. A clump of giant ferns covered its summit. But light filtered through the thicket ahead—white light that could come only from the signal beam that had called us here. We pushed aside a final curtain of low, vine-hung bushes, and stared out at a great level clearing from the center of which leaped the searchlight beam to impinge on the low-hung clouds. And we knew that in our speculations sixty million miles away we had hit upon the terrible truth.

Long lines of monstrous space ships hulked out there on the jungle-hidden tarmac, distinct in the soft glow of clustered tube lights. Space ships like the Black Bat's, blunt-fronted, curving to pointed sterns—a hundred of them at least. A black wasp swarm, brooding, waiting to leap into space, to swoop on unsuspecting Mars, unprepared Earth. An irresistible armada of death!

I groaned. "If they're like the one we saw in action our navies haven't a chance!"

"Careful, sir, they'll hear us!"

Gwyllis wasn't chuckling now. The field swarmed with Venusians, their scale skins iridescent. Some composed screeching galleries, cheering players at telon or stama— those queer games of the fishmen. Others strolled in groups or alone. But far across the clearing there were silent, pacing figures, heat rifles on their shoulders—sentries, evidently, guarding the light beam and the two buildings just beyond it.


ONE of these was low and long, and from this came the thud of machinery. It seemed to me that over its surface there played the same odd shimmer I had noted rippling the skin of the Black Bat's vessel. From beneath its farther end, that reached the extremity of the vast field, a turbulent stream issued and rushed away to our left. And behind, blotting out the drear sky, a tremendous wall rose. No question as to what that was. A dam, supplying hydraulic power to whatever device was lodged in the long structure.

My gaze shifted to the other building, to the right, and suddenly I was trembling. It was much smaller, mushroom-roofed to shed water in the Venusian fashion. Blinded windows were lighted ovals in its dark wall. And outlined on one of these, sharply silhouetted and unmistakable, was a tall Earthman's figure— Darl's figure! The broad-shouldered, stalwart form I had thought never to see again.

"The dam's the vulnerable point, sir," Toom whispered.

"We've got to get Darl out."

"We can't do anything from this side, captain. We must get around under the dam."

"Let's go!"

Interminable crawling again, through labyrinthine jungle, casting a great half circle around the clearing. At last we were squirming along under the dam, were in the shadow of the small building that was Darl's prison. There was a cleared space of some fifty feet intervening, and only one fishman paced between. No windows faced this way, in either building. Evidently the guard was merely routine; no real danger was apprehended. We crouched, watching the sentry.

"What now?" I breathed, trying to plan.

Gwyllis chuckled. "I've got a trinite time bomb in my pocket, sir; thought it would be useful and brought it along." An ounce of trinite, combining classic explosive power with atomic disintegration, would destroy a hundred thousand tons of any solid matter. "I'll warrant there's water enough behind the wall to sweep all this to hell."

"But Darl's there, Toom!"

Suddenly deference was gone from the man's voice. It was flinty. "Earth's safety is more important than Captain Darl Hamlin's life, or ours."

He was right. But Darl was my brother. I found myself pleading. "Listen, Toom! We can wipe this out, but the Venusians will build more ships like these. We'd only be delaying the inevitable. Maybe Darl has found out the Black Bat's secret so that Earth and Mars can duplicate these craft and meet the fishmen on their own terms by the time they have rebuilt their fleet."

"There is something in what the captain says," he responded. "But we may lose our chance, sir, in trying to rescue him."

I got an inspiration. "Listen, Toom; you stay here and plant the bomb. Give me twenty minutes. Then, whether I'm back or not, crash the dam. If there appears to be a chance of failure, crash it anyway. You'll have time to get away, and I'd rather stay here than leave without Darl."

Even in the dark I could see his hand come up to salute. "Aye, aye, sir! Twenty minutes it is, sir."

Then his voice broke. "May I—may I shake the captain's hand?"

"Of course, Toom!"

Our hands met in the dark.

"God be with you, sir!"


CHAPTER X.

I CROUCHED, heat gun in hand, my eyes on the solitary sentry. He reached the end of his beat, turned, and came slowly back. I got him on the sights. The spat of my weapon was inaudible even to me against the roar of the power-fall to the right. But the Venusian crumpled to the ground, twitched, and lay still.

I was across the open space in a flash, was pressed close to the hut wall. It was of corrugated metal, chill to my touch. I knelt, put the heat gun's muzzle close against the wall, held the trigger down. A red spot glowed at the barrel end, blazed white. Metal dripped slowly down, hissing on wetness. I released the trigger and pulled the gun away. A neat hole was burned through the thin plate. Light gleamed through it.

I got my eye to the aperture. The hole was near the floor, as I had hoped, but I had a good view of the room within. I could see Darl, seated now at a small, light table. His left hand was bandaged, but otherwise he appeared unharmed. He was listening to some one.

I shifted the angle of my gaze to see the other. And gasped! No Venusian this! Another Terrestrian! The squat, dark fellow who had watched our little act at Nick's, smiling sardonically! He wasn't smiling now; the scar across his face was livid, and his one good eye glared balefully. There was no one else in the room, and the door was shut, bolted.

"—last chance, Hamlin," the other Earthman was saying. "I'm tired of waiting for your decision."

"I should like a little more time to think it over, Dias," Darl replied.

The other was implacable. "No. You've stalled me long enough. I admit I want you with me, badly, but I can get along without you if I have to. There is nothing to justify your hesitation except silly sentimentality. Thank God the way the I. B. C. treated me after I got this," his hand touched his seared cheek, "cured me of that."

"It's damned hard to turn against my own people. Give me twenty-four hours more."

"I cannot give you another second." Dias paused, spoke again. The words dripped slowly from his twisted mouth: "I've just received word that the Trina has sent its ultimatum to Mars. In an hour the fleet takes wing, to strike without warning."

Darl leaped from his chair. "Not if I can help it, you filthy, murdering renegade!"

His big hands snatched for Dias' throat, but the other thrust the table against Darl's knees, and I saw a heat gun flash into his hand. My brother lifted and crashed the little table into the turncoat's face, Dias smashed to the floor, Darl after him.

I was frantically running my own weapon in a circle around the wall, desperately trying to burn an entrance before Dias got his gun to bear and blasted Darl. The line I drew was white-hot, but I could not wait. I snapped off the heat, plunged a shoulder at the center of the circle. It gave. I drew off, dived at it, and was through!

The combatants were apart, Darl sprawling from some thrust of Dias' trunklike arms, and the renegade was snatching up his gun for the coup de grāce! I plugged him, saw flame burst from the cloth over his heart, twisted to my brother. He lay, exhausted, and stared up at me. "Brad!" ripped from his throat.

I thought of Toom and his time bomb. How much of the twenty minutes was gone? There was a shrill piping outside the window, a pattering of many feet.

"Snap into it, Darl!" Something crashed against the door. "We've got to get out of here."

We found Toom in the shadow. "Hurry, the bomb's set for five minutes more!"

We were running along the dam wall, running with bursting lungs, careless of discovery. But the Venusians were scurrying toward the hut where their dead leader lay, had eyes for nothing else. We got past the dam, scrambled up the abutting height. Just as we reached the top all hell broke loose!


VENUS' Earth-month-long night was ending, and a fitful light struggled through the muddy, rolling clouds. Darl and Toom and I got painfully to our feet. Our clothing hung in tatters, and there wasn't a square inch of our bodies that was not bruised. But we didn't feel any of that as we gazed down into the whirlpool in the valley below. Scaly bodies tossed in the receding flood, and the smashed, shattered remnants of a hundred black space ships that never now would menace the space-ways were everywhere.

Darl sighed. "Well, that's the end of all that."

Gwyllis turned to him. "Sir, were you able to get any idea of how those ships worked? Something our engineers can base research on to duplicate them."

Darl's mouth twisted. "No need for that—they won't build any more."

Toom's voice was respectful, but insistent: "Why not, captain?"

"Because the only man who knew the secret lies somewhere down there." He jerked a thumb at the shambles below.

"Dias?" I asked.

"Yes. The Black Bat."

"What I heard sounded as if you knew a lot about him."

"He talked plenty. He was fed up with the fishmen and spilled over to me. He was a master pilot, years ago, when space flight was just beginning, and the ships weren't as safe as they are now. Was burned in a tube burst, but brought his ship safely down. In the hospital he got a hunch, went to the I. B. C. for backing to work it out. Was laughed at for his pains and swore revenge. Peddled his idea to the Trina, and they snapped it up. But he made it an absolute condition that the basic principle was to be his secret, and they had to give in."

"What was his reason?" I asked.

"He had big notions, that boy. After Mars and Earth were licked, he was going to turn on the Venusians, make himself absolute ruler of the three planets. A super-emperor. That was the prize he dangled before me, to be his prime minister, and then his heir. With all his bitterness, blood told at the last. He loathed the green-scaled fishmen, he told me, wanted an Earthman to follow him. The spies he had bought with the money he stole were anathema to him. Took a liking to me at Nick's and picked me for the job. Which proves he was insane!"

"And you kidded him along?"

"Playing for a chance to kill him, or smash the works, or something. He was always after me to commit myself, the alternative being death. I did my best to get out of him the secret of his black ships; they weren't rockets, that I knew. But all I was able to find out was that they worked on a new principle, space-warping of all things, controlled from power stations based on some planet, like the one down there. And the orange beam doused molecular activity, made rocket tubes and heat guns useless. Would kill, too, stepped up a little."

For a few minutes longer we stood on that hilltop, silent, thinking. Then we started back to the Terra.


IN due time we reached Earth's atmosphere, made our signal, and landed at the New York terminus. A file of marines in O.D. surrounded the Terra's cradle. Their officer stepped up to me as we came out of the main hatch.

"Captain Brad Hamlin?"

"That's my name."

"Captain Darl Hamlin?"

"Right here," Darl drawled.

"I have orders to place you gentlemen under arrest. You are under indictment for treason and theft of an interplanetary money shipment. There is a further charge against Captain Brad Hamlin of escaping from jail and stealing an I.B.C. space ship. Anything you may say will be used against you."

I threw back my head and laughed. After all I had gone through, all we had accomplished, this was really funny. Wonderful are the twisted ramifications of red tape. It would be easy to get out of this with Toom's evidence. I looked about for the little fellow. He was nowhere to be seen.

The lieutenant barked an order, and we were marching across the tarmac in the center of a hollow square. I began to worry a little. Had Toom some reason for avoiding notice here? After all, I knew nothing about him. Perhaps he, too, was under some charge, certainly he was not the space-ship steward he had posed as. Without his corroboration would our wild tale be believed?

We neared the administration building. A tall, bald-headed figure was coming out of the entrance, in the gold lace of a general. I recognized him—Major General Lance Thomas, Chief of Staff of Earth's military forces! And arm in arm with him, his round face beaming, his little blue eyes twinkling, was none other than Toom Gwyllis.

The general answered our leader's salute, made a sign with his hand. "Halt! Ground—arms!"

The flustered lieutenant stood at attention as the oddly assorted couple reached him.

"Lieutenant," the general snapped, "release your prisoners. My adjutant will furnish you with a written order for their parole as soon as he has had time to prepare it."

Our erstwhile guards marched away, leaving us a sadly bewildered pair of brothers.

The general was saying: "The charges against you will be quashed, gentlemen, as soon as the I.B.C. can meet."

But I ignored him, whirled to the grinning little civilian. "Who are you, Toom?"

He chuckled. "Lathrop Gresham, if the captain pleases. Lathrop Gresham of the Terrestrial Secret Service."

"And the best man," the general put in, "the service ever had."


Illustration


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
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