Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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"IT can't be true!" I muttered. "It just can't."
He was squatting on the edge of his duralloy sleeping cot, a planerium mirror propped up in front of him while he carefully plucked his bushy blond eyebrows with a tweezers.
I looked at him for almost a minute, fighting back a sudden impulse to konk him on the back of that shaggy tow head of his. It was obvious that he hadn't heard me come in, for now he broke forth in an off-key, saw-toothed basso.
"It is looooooove, it is looooooove, that I feeeeeel," he vocalized. "It is looooooove, it is loooooooove, that is reeeeeeeeal!"
This was more than I could stand, so I said, making my voice a high treble.
"All right, dearie, I'll buy you that precious gingham tunic!"
Sergeant Shane wheeled, his big Adam's apple bobbing in his leathery throat like an egg in a hose. He made a frantic effort to hide the tweezers under his coat. His face, beneath that shock of tow hair, was as red as a Saturn sunset.
"What goes, Sarge?" I demanded.
"Are you practicing to go into Grand Opera, or," and I looked significantly at the spot where he'd concealed the tweezers, "are you just studying to be a female impersonator?"
"Heh," said Sergeant Shane, still crimson, "quit your kiddin', Corporal Cork. I aaa, ahh, er—"
"Okay, Lochinvar," I sighed. "Who is it this time?"
Shane is as ugly as a Venusian mud-fence. But his big pan wrinkled into an expression resembling a cross between sheer ecstasy and stomach pains.
"Varda," he said, sighing deeply.
"Varda?" I sat down on the edge of his bunk. "Who's this Varda? Never heard you mention her."
Shane sighed again like a sick calf.
"I just met her, this very afternoon."
I blinked. We'd only been moored here on Venus since morning. Our big battle wagon, the F.S.S. Western Hemisphere, had put in as part of the Fleet's much vaunted Good Will Tour of the Interplanetary belt. Shane had already been ashore, carrying a message from the Admiral to our consulate. And evidently he must have run into this Varda wench somewhere along the line before coming back to the ship.
"Don't tell me," I said. "You met her this morning, after you'd taken the papers to the consulate for old Ironpants. You probably got thirsty and dropped into a joint for a quick nip on the way back to the ship."
"Howdja know?" Shane grinned guiltily.
"My priceless intuition," I said. Then, catching him off guard, I thrust, "What were you doing with those tweezers?"
He flushed. "Aw, cut it. Okay, so I was plucking my eyebrows. Is that a crime?"
"It is for a Space Marine," I said.
"Varda," Sergeant Shane said valiantly, "thinks my big bushy eyebrows mar my naturally handsome appearance."
I choked, then managed to say, "So itsy-bitsy Shanesy had to tweak 'em out to please itty-bitty Varda, huh?"
Sergeant Shane stood up. He has a build like a weight-lifter. Long arms with big red paws. Shoulders wide enough to hold a battle wagon on either side of his cauliflowered ears—but only reaches a total of five feet four inches from the floor.
"So you'd like to make something of it?" he asked.
"And lose my liberty ticket?" I answered. "Not on your life. I've seen too much of that damned brig in the past year. Go pick a scrap with someone who doesn't care about shore leave."
Sergeant Shane scratched his thatch of tow hair, then relaxed.
"Okay," he said. "But no more cracks. If you're a good guy I'll even let you meet Varda."
"Is it true love this time?" I asked.
Shane put a big paw on my shoulder.
"Corky, so help me, this is it. There's not another wen—I mean girl, in the universe to compare with Varda." His square jaw thrust forth to add an honest emphasis to his statement.
It was always true love with Shane. Every time. Every port.
"I can hardly wait," I told him.
VARDA was a Venusian cutie, a fact which my chum Sergeant Shane hadn't mentioned. She had hair that was blacker than black and hung all the way to her pale white—and very lovely—shoulders. Her eyes had the typical almond Venusian slant to them, and were also ebon. She was a looker. There was no doubt about it. And this fact surprised me not a little. Shane generally wound up with something pretty much on the dreadful side.
We were in the same Venusian joint in which Shane had met Varda that afternoon. It seemed that she was a singer there, and had been sitting around, just about to go to work, when Shane began shooting her a line and buying drinks.
Varda was just finishing her number as we came into the place. Her voice was pretty mediocre. But to Shane—who has the melody sense of an alarm siren—her voice was magnificent. We took a table near the bar and ordered a couple while watching her do the last chorus.
She spotted Shane almost instantly, and gave him a come-hither smile through the last notes of her tune. It was the same ditty that Shane had been ripping apart that afternoon.
"Whatdyuh think of her, Corky?" Shane asked, pleased as punch.
"She's a looker," I said noncommittally.
Then the girl was over at our table, and Shane was on his feet—something that amazed me—while he said,
"Varda, I'd like you to meet my best pal, Corporal Cork."
I noticed that Shane emphasized the Corporal part of it, while thrusting his tunic sleeve with its Sergeant's markings conspicuously before her eyes.
"How do you do, Corporal," Varda said, taking the chair Shane pulled out for her.
"Pleased to meetcha," I grunted and sat down.
"It must be simply wonderful to be soldiers," Varda cooed. I glared at her, and she hastily corrected, "I mean sailors."
"We're marines," I said caustically.
"But of course," Varda giggled prettily. "Marines."
There was a somewhat uncomfortable silence in which Shane glared at me as though I'd deliberately insulted the wench. Then Varda opened up again.
"Sergeant Shane was telling me this afternoon what important work his Admiral sends him on," she said.
Shane just about gagged on his drink. His little trip to the consulate was hot supposed to have been for publication.
"Is that right?" I asked, looking over at my red-faced chum. "Do tell me more."
Shane broke in hastily.
"That was a pretty sweet number you just warbled, Varda," he said. "I was trying to remember it this afternoon."
Maybe it was because Shane had picked a beauty, and I was just the friend of the happy couple. Or maybe it was because I've never liked the slop they pass off for Venusian liquor. At any rate, I was feeling a little spiteful.
"Do you notice anything different about Sergeant Shane?" I asked her.
Varda looked puzzled.
"I mean, different from this afternoon. Around the head, for instance," I persisted.
Shane was redder than a fire-belt asteroid.
Varda suddenly squealed in delight.
"Shaaaaaneeeey," she cried. "You've plucked your eyebrows!"
My chum looked both pleased and embarrassed. Varda's voice had carrying power, and people at the other tables were looking over at us.
"I'll buy a drink," Shane blurted. Which shows how shaken he was.
WELL, a minute or so later Varda had to go back and do another number. That left us with a few things to talk about. Shane was first to clear his chest.
"Look," he snarled, waving a stubby finger at me. "I don't want no more cracks about me, y'unnerstand?"
"You're certainly a blazer," I countered. "Telling the little daisy where you'd been, and what you'd done. If the Admiral ever got wise to the fact that you're a one-man information bureau, he'd break you so fast you wouldn't hear the crack!"
"It didn't make any difference," Shane said.
"No. But it's just the idea that regulations forbid it," I answered. "You'll get in hot water someday, with your bag of wind."
Shane lapsed into a sullen silence. Then Varda was singing again, and a silly expression crept into his eyes, and I knew there would be no sense arguing with him any longer while she was making noise. I ordered a few more for the table. Varda kept coming to the table and going back to sing for the next four or five hours, and we were both getting pretty plushed in the pan.
"Look," I remember saying to Shane, some time later, "we only got a ten-hour liberty. We'd better shove outta here."
"You go ahead," Shane said, pleased with the suggestion. "I'll see to it that Varda gets home safely."
"You will not," I snapped. "You'll never make it in time. Do you want to get slapped in the brig?"
"I'll take Varda home," Shane said. And I'd heard that stolid, stubborn tone in his voice before.
"You'll—" I began. And then Varda was back at the table. She seemed flushed, which was strange considering she hadn't been drinking. She grabbed Shane by the arm.
"Please," the girl said, and her lips were half parted in fear. "Do not look now. But there are two dangerous men here who will probably try to follow me when I leave. I am through after the next number. These men have followed me before, and I am afraid."
This was all Shane needed. He glared triumphantly at me.
"I will see Varda home safely," he repeated. "Especially now."
I was sore.
"Where are these muggs?" I demanded.
"Look over my shoulder," Varda answered breathlessly. "At that table near the wall. The two hard-looking men sitting there."
Dubiously, I took a peek. There were two extremely rough- looking gents precisely where Varda had said they would be. This was unexpected. I'd figured it as a gag.
And—it gave me a slight, unaccountable chill—they were looking fixedly in our direction.
"Where are they?" Shane demanded, his face creasing in anger. He twisted around in his chair. The two toughs were now looking the other way. Shane started to rise. "I'll take care of them—"
"Cut the moon man melodramatics," I snapped, "and sit down!"
Surprisingly enough, Shane gave me a funny look and resumed his seat. I don't know why, but I suddenly felt like a Great Mother, a Big Protector. I wanted to take care of chum Shane and see to it that he didn't get brigged; and in addition, I wanted to make sure that the Varda wench wasn't roughed by those space bums.
"Look," I said. "Shane and I'll leave as soon as you start your next number. You'll be through here, when you get done with it, and we'll be waiting for you just outside."
Varda gave me a grateful glance.
"Thank you," she whispered, bending close to me. A whiff of the perfume she wore began to make me realize what Sergeant Shane found in her.
Shane stood up as Varda left the table.
"Not a bad idea, Corky," he said to me when she had gone. We plunked our uniform toppers on, left some credits on the table for the bill, and sauntered casually out of the place.
"Are you sure you don't want to head back to the ship?" I asked my Sergeant Lochinvar, when we stood outside the tiny dive in the dim light of a narrow, dirty street.
"With Varda in danger?"
I sighed. But even so, this was looking up. If it hadn't been for the two space lugs inside, I'd have been pulling Shane away from the place, even if I had to pop him on the chin when he wasn't looking. But the prospects of a little trouble—well, that made it different.
"Okay," I said. "I'll stick around, just to see that you keep your ugly snoot out of trouble."
"I'd thank you," Shane muttered ungratefully, "if I didn't think it might be because you're going off in a void over Varda." He eyed me suspiciously.
"Stop squinting," I said. "She doesn't mean a thing to me."
"She'd better not," Shane began, knotting his plucked eyebrows in a frown.
And then Varda, wearing a rich blue cape over her long flowing red tunic, bustled out the door and over to us.
"Let us move quickly," she pleaded. "They've gotten up from their table and are following."
Shane grabbed her arm and pointed down the dim, dirty little street.
"Come on!" he said.
We walked swiftly, all three of us, until we reached the corner at the end of the street. Then, simultaneously, we stopped and faced the direction we'd come from.
The two thugs were out on the sidewalk, following after us.
They stopped, suddenly, and stepped into a doorway. I grunted in satisfaction.
"That's all we want to know. They'll play hide and seek at a distance until they get us where they want us."
Shane, catching my incipient idea, asked,
"Where's the nearest alley?"
Varda pointed a lovely finger across the street.
"There's one right over there," she said.
We crossed the street. "Now we'll pretend to dart down here," I said. We were hidden from sight by now, and had halted. If you've ever been in a Venusian alley, you'll know what I mean when I say we were standing ankle deep in mud slime.
Of course, off duty, we weren't carrying side arms. We had no idea of what the gents following us carried in the way of lethal armaments. But—we'd been like this before.
Shane, standing protectively before the girl, reached into his tunic pocket and pulled out his set of duralloy knuckles. I did the same. We were never totally unprepared when these knucks were at hand.
There was a small areaway behind the place we waited. I grabbed Varda's arm and shoved her back in there.
"Keep you out of trouble," I explained.
WE heard cautious footsteps on the metallic parbulium* sidewalk, less than three yards away. Then, two gray forms stepped into the alley, as Shane and I instantly went into action.
[* Parbulium is a metal common to Venus, something like copper. It is found in a raw, spongy state, and when spread on a roadway or walk, and rolled down, forms a satisfactory and durable pavement. —Ed.]
Both space slugs were big. And both were plenty tough. At least mine was. I didn't have any time to see how Shane was doing. I was far too busy with my own scrap.
If they had atomic blasters on their persons, they hadn't been bright enough to have them ready as they stepped into the alley. The big rascal with whom I was tussling had a pair of fists on him like atom drivers, and I was catching plenty from every direction.
The slime in which we wallowed was an advantage I was playing for. I had a handful of the stuff, and as my hulking opponent lurched in at me again, I let him have the sticky ooze right in the eyes.
It was like hitting a blind man—but much more enjoyable. While he staggered around, groping at the goo in his eyes, I gave him my Sunday punch and he went out cold.
I turned, breathing heavily and triumphantly, ready to sail in and give Shane any help that might be needed.
But Shane, arms folded across his chest, was calmly watching the end of my battle. From the inert lump of human anatomy at his feet, I realized that he'd wound up his battle before I'd even started mine.
"A dirty way to win a fight, Corporal Cork," Shane observed disapprovingly.
"You're a chum, all right," I snapped. "How long were you standing by there, watching me tussle with this toughie?"
"Time," said Shane, annoyingly smug, "Is a relative thing."
Varda had come from her refuge.
"We must hurry, now," she said. "There may be others!"
I was still annoyed. I could feel the slime Of the alley slogging around in my space boots. An unpleasant sensation.
"Before we go any farther," I said with sudden inspiration, "don't you think we deserve to know what this is all about?"
Varda said hurriedly,
"Please, there will be time enough to tell you later. Now we must hurry."
"But I want to know," I said doggedly.
"Corporal Cork," Shane said, taking my arm and pushing me back to the street sidewalk, "you heard what the young lady said. We have to wait until we're safely away from any other dangers. She'll tell us then, and that should be time enough."
"Time," I snapped, "is a relative thing."
"Where do we go from here?" Shane asked Varda, ignoring my insistence.
"Follow me," the girl said. "It is not so very far."
I grunted disgustedly, and stepped in beside Shane and the girl.
"Let's get this thing over with pretty quickly," I told my chum. "Our liberty will be running out any time now."
VENUSIAN streets are just about the most impossibly twisting, annoyingly complicated avenues of travel I've ever encountered. You can't go more than a mile before you get hopelessly snarled up in a sudden Hurry of small canals. Then you have to trace your steps back along the firma you've traveled, and seek another way out of the puzzle.
Varda didn't know her Venus very well. And if the place to which she was taking us was really rather near, she was going by way of Saturn and Jupiter. We must have walked for nearly half an hour.
"When do we arrive?" I complained.
"Don't criticize the girl," Shane said protectively. "She's probably trying to throw other pursuers off the track."
"I'd rather turn and face them than plod around any longer," I declared. "I'm a space ship stroller, not a mud marcher."
The girl had halted before a squat, long, dirty building on the edge of one of the innumerable reeking canals. It looked a great deal like any of the countless parbulium-pavement mills that pock marked the Venusian scenery—except that this was grim and deserted, as if it hadn't seen service in at least ten years.
Now Varda looked cautiously up and down the canal edge. Then she stepped into the shadows of the building, and in another instant had opened a door. She stood there in the light that streamed from the open door.
"Quick, please come inside," she ordered.
"What in the name of all that's interplanetary is this?" I blurted. "It certainly doesn't look like a working girl's home."
But chum Shane had already stepped over the threshold, and from the inside he said,
"Come on, Corporal Cork. Do you want to stand out there all night?"
I shrugged. There was no reasoning with Sergeant Shane when women were present. I stepped into the building, and Varda slammed and bolted the door after me. For a moment I blinked in the bright lights of the huge room. Shane was doing the same.
"All right, you two, don't move!"
The voice, utterly alien, rang out like a shot, and I found something hard and round—the business-end of an atomic pistol—pressed hard against my spine. Turning my head slightly, I saw that a dapper, mustached little fellow in a gray tunic had taken chum Shane in hand, and was keeping the nose of another atomic weapon firm against that worthy's back!
"All right, now. Move ahead, slowly, and don't get ideas," the same voice that issued the first command—belonging to the invisible gent prodding me from behind—spoke up again.
"What in the hell is this all about?" I demanded. And now Varda, smiling sweetly, had stepped in front of Shane and me.
"Do as you are told," Varda ordered. "You are both such sweet boys that I'd hate to see you killed. Besides, when we're done with you, the Marine Corps might want you again."
THIS was the last straw to a perfect "hay ride"—to mix a few expressions. We'd walked, no, run, head on into the slickest sort of a trap. But what was it all about? These people, including Varda, were certainly not operating a stick-up racket. If they were, they'd picked pretty poor clients in Shane and myself. Both of us were almost broke by now, and Varda knew it.
Shane was fuming furiously.
"You shing shang, jib jang lot of jeck jicks," he stormed. He was always careful to watch his language in front of ladies. Though by now I scarcely thought it necessary. "What's the meaning of this?"
The mustached captor behind him—he had the dark skin of a Saturnite—pushed the nose of his atomic pistol none too gently into Shane's back.
"Shut up," he ordered. "And keep going."
A possible meaning for all this suddenly hit me. And it didn't cool my rancor against my love-sick Sergeant any. I said what I thought.
"Well, Sarge. It looks as if your conversation of this afternoon has made us both pretty popular." I was sure that he'd spilled some diplomatic beans to Varda in his afternoon's blowing, and that—for want of further information—we'd been tricked into this spot by the girl and her henchmen.
Shane spluttered in my direction.
"You're crazy. I didn't tell her a thing that'd be worth knowing to spies, if that's what you're thinking!"
Another pleasant thought hit me.
"If it makes any difference to you," I told Shane, "I have just remembered that it is past the time when our liberty tickets expire. And—in case you don't realize it—we are not back in our comfy berths as per the Admiral's instructions. We are, to speak facts, Absent Without Leave!"
Shane groaned aloud.
"It was nice being a Corporal," I added. "I hope you had just as much fun from your Sergeant's job. And I trust we will both enjoy the solitary comfort of the brig for the next three months."
Shane groaned dismally again. His stripes meant more to him than his life. So did mine, as a matter of fact.
They halted us, now, at the foot of a winding staircase. What was up there I hadn't any idea, until Varda clarified the situation by saying,
"Up on the roof is our space craft. We know you boys will enjoy the ride we've planned for you."
FROM the looks of the sleek space ship on the roof, we weren't going to take just a casual taxi jaunt to another part of the planet. This baby was built for high speed and lightning travel. And when they pushed us into the cabin, my suspicions of a long journey were further confirmed by a quick glance at the Chart Televizor.*
[* The Chart Televizors are used to map out an interplanetary tour in advance. The screen reproduces the course charted on the Televizor. It stays there as an automatic guide for the duration of the trip, lighting orange every time the ship leaves the course. At the end of the journey its markings are erased by pressing a button. Then another course can be charted. —Ed.]
The chartings on it were for a long trek across the void to an isolated section of tiny asteroids. It was marked for one of these asteroids—obviously our destination.
We stood helpless in the cabin, while I got my first look at the guy who'd been pushing the atomic pistol into my ribs. He was fat, greasy, and sloppy. He wore a tunic of the same gray material as the little guy watching after Shane.
All five of us were in the cabin of the space ship now. And Varda rummaged around in the craft's store locker finally bringing out two long sections of thick Venusian hemp cord.
Then, while the other two held the pistols on us, Varda trussed our hands behind our backs, and securely bound our feet. During the process I looked at Shane with all the scorn I could register and said,
"Is this the little cutie you plucked your eyebrows for?"
The string of interplanetary cussing that followed from Shane's tongue was enough to make a Martian's stringy hair curl.
The big, greasy slob slipped in behind the controls of the ship, and the little mustached fellow sat down near us—we'd been dropped like Christmas packages on the floor—holding both atomic pistols menacingly over our bodies. Varda sat beside the fat slob at the controls.
Then, while the rockets splatted deafeningly as the ship juiced up atomic power, I lay there with my skull on the metal flooring, thinking of the court martial that would greet us if we would ever return from this scrape. I'm sure Shane was thinking of the same thing. Minutes later, we felt full rockets shake the floor, and we zoomed up off into space.
WE must have been an hour or so out in space before I finally felt like talking. I did my speechmaking to the wench, Varda.
"Now that it doesn't make any difference any longer," I coaxed, "why don't you let us in on all this?"
"For a Marine," Varda said tauntingly over her shoulder, "you are terribly curious."
"This is some sort of a spy racket, isn't it?" I persisted.
"It isn't a kidnaping service," Shane put in sarcastically.
"Corporal Cork is correct in his first assumption," Varda said cheerfully. "This is a spy racket."
I turned my eyes as best I could to Shane.
"Hello, loudmouth," I reminded him. "Any old plans of the Admiral's today?"
"As a matter of fact," Varda put in conversationally, "you are all wrong in assuming that Sergeant Shane told me anything of value this afternoon. However, we will be able to get plenty of valuable information from the two of you concerning other topics of your work."
"You think," I snarled, forgetting my role of pumper.
"We know," Varda corrected us cheerfully. "We are not above a little scientific torture."
"That's no surprise," Shane snapped.
"Would it interest you two bold, brave Space Marines to know that you materially aided us, and hindered your Federation when you beat up those two men who followed me this evening?"
I had almost forgotten the incident, in the ensuing trouble. But something in Varda's tone gave me an awful premonition that all was not too bad to be worse.
"Say that again," I gulped. "And then go on to explain."
"The 'thugs' to whom you administered such a thorough threshing tonight were your Federation's own Secret Service Officers," Varda giggled.
"Federation Secret Service Officers?" Shane and I screamed the words almost simultaneously.
Varda was choking with laughter now.
"Yes. You beat up two of your own Federation's officers!"
Things, in the cold sickness that followed, were not bad any longer. They were quite definitely worse!
"It should be interesting," Varda was giggling, "to see the esteem in which you two masterful Marines will be held, when your Admiral learns what you have done."
I had a mental vision of the Admiral, Old Ironpants, pointing a bony finger at Shane and me and saying,
"Three hundred years in the brig for you boobs!"
"Oooohhh," Shane moaned. "And to think that just a minute ago my only worry was a mere de-ranking and brig sentence for prolonged A.W.O.L.!"
Both the fat slob and the mustached snake were laughing uproariously with Varda at our mental agony—which didn't add to the pleasantness of the journey.
SHANE and I lapsed into a gloomy silence. We didn't want to know any more. We knew too much already. Another half hour passed, and the mustached snake was paying less and less attention to us. It wasn't really necessary to watch us closely anyway, for there was nothing we could do in the way of heroics to aid our situation. Varda had tied us neatly and completely.
During this interval Shane had been twisting uncomfortably every now and then, and I wondered what in the hell this not so Spartan display was getting him when I suddenly noticed a tiny metallic gleam beneath the ropes that tied his hands behind his back.
I choked back a gasp as I saw what the tow headed mutt was doing. He had the tweezers he'd hid that afternoon, and was using them to cut through his bonds!
It was slow work, and I found it hard to keep my eyes away from Shane as he painstakingly accomplished it. The mustached snake was too stupid to notice what was going on, or Shane was too clever going about it. At any rate, a wink from my buddy told me at last that he was free, insofar as his arms were concerned.
I edged over close to Shane and somehow managed to take the tweezers from him. Then, sweating star drops, I went to work on my own bonds. After what seemed to be centuries, I had them severed to the point where they'd break with a twist of my wrists.
Working on our leg wrappings was more difficult. And only when the mustached snake's attention strayed away from us, were we able to proceed in loosening them. Fortunately, our legs had been tied in a fashion that pulled them up behind our back. We were able to use our free paws in unknotting them.
We waited our chance, and when the mustached snake stepped up to the pilot's instrument panel, we jumped to our feet with a whoop and a holler. I'd picked out something to grab. A duralloy fire extinguisher. It worked beautifully as I caught the surprised fat slob over the head with it.
Shane had grabbed a planerium grappling iron, and the work he did on the mustached little snake was swift and unpleasant. It was a wonder that the guy was still alive as he lay in a bloody heap on the floor. It had been the little guy who held their guns, and I got the satisfaction of stamping a foot down on Varda's hand when she grabbed for the guns as they hit the floor.
She fought like a wildcat, and by the time I'd subdued her and trussed her up—you can't shoot a wench, at least I can't—Shane had slipped in behind the pilot wheel vacated by the fat slob. I felt like yelling for joy. The tables were now thoroughly turned!
Shane, at the controls, echoed what I was exultantly thinking at that instant.
"Corporal Cork," he shouted happily, "we have not only taken the situation well in hand, but we have vindicated ourselves to boot by the capture of two enemy spies of some sort, plus this wench accomplice of theirs!"
And with this he swung the nose of the space ship around in an arc that almost threw my heart through my boots.
"We're heading back, Corporal. Heading back like the heroes we really are!"
SOME very unladylike language from Varda interrupted him. "Stuff a gag in her mouth, Corporal Cork," he ordered. "I can't stand such a disillusioning picture of fair womanhood."
"Very well, Sergeant Shane," I answered, happy to oblige. In another minute Varda was thoroughly silenced.
"We will land, in the best Marine tradition, on the runways of the F.S.S. Western Hemisphere," Shane announced. "There we can turn our prisoners over to Old Ironpants personally."
"An excellent idea," I said. And Shane throttled into a full blasting rocket speed. It was well over an hour and a half, but it seemed only seconds later that we were easing down on Venus, while Shane unerringly headed for the runway decks of the F.S.S. Western Hemisphere. We had a full turn out on the main deck of the battle wagon when we climbed out of the space ship dragging our prisoners some ten minutes later.
Old Ironpants, the Admiral himself, resplendent in crimson and gold tunic, met us at the center of the deck. Marines flanked him on either side.
"Throw these men into the brig," were the Admiral's first words. He had a space-weathered hatchet-face which was now wrathful.
I couldn't help grinning at Shane, who grinned back at me, then pointed to the fat slob and the mustached snake whom we'd dropped on the deck.
"These men, Sir," Shane said, making a snappy salute, "are enemy spies. We captured them and an accomplice—a girl who's tied up in the ship—after a tremendous battle and a desperate chase."
This was roughly true. Anyway it sounded fine. I grinned at the Admiral, and imitated Shane's salute. I expected to see Old Ironpants' expression thaw. But I was disappointed.
"I am very well aware, Sergeant Shane," he said testily, "that these men are spies. Our Federation Secret Service has been tailing them for months. They could have apprehended them at any time, had they wanted to."
My stomach started to freeze again, and a stricken expression slipped over Shane's face.
"However," and now the Admiral's voice dripped sarcasm, "we realized they were but pawns working for far more important game than themselves. We wanted to reach their leaders, and so we let them steal some useless papers concerning our battle fleet. In order to frighten the girl—who carried the papers—into going to the main spy base on an undisclosed asteroid, we sent two of our best Secret Service Officers to pretend to harry her."
I gulped dismally. Shane merely stood there, jaw stupidly a- slack.
The Admiral went venomously on.
"We know of the hideout in the old mill, and of the fact that the girl and the two men had a space ship there. We stationed some of our fastest small space craft in the vicinity. Our purpose in this was to follow their ship the moment that they started to flee to their main base."
If there'd been a pin hole in the deck, I'd have slipped through it.
"This," Old Ironpants continued, "would have led us to the very door of the secret base they have on some asteroid. Which was primarily what we wanted."
I looked sheepishly at Shane, who looked sheepishly at the deck.
"However," the Admiral grated sarcastically, "in spite of the fact that you two almost succeeded in murdering our Secret Service Officers in an alley, our ruse was successful. The girl became frightened enough to decide to head back to the asteroid base with the two men."
There was acid in Old Ironpants' voice as he went on.
"Our ships immediately followed at a distance which would permit them to make the journey unobserved. And then, at precisely the most inopportune moment, you two blasted lunatics escape, bash up the spies, and turn the ship around in the opposite direction— completely and quite utterly ruining our one chance of learning the location of that base!"
Old Ironpants turned to the Marines.
"Throw these men in the brig," he demanded for the second time.
"But, Sir!" Shane suddenly snapped to excited action.
"Well?" Old Ironpants glared frostily at him.
"You have the directions to their secret base," Shane almost shouted in his feverish excitement. "Right on the chart of the Televizor map screen of their ship!"
I felt a wild, vast, sweeping sense of relief. Then the Admiral's testy reply threw me into a slough again.
"You talk like an ass, Sergeant," he snapped. "When you turned the ship back in this direction, you charted a new course—which would completely erase their map charts!"
I felt sick at my stomach. The old man was undeniably right. I tried to vision the rest of my life in the brig. It wasn't pleasant.
"Charted a new course." It was Shane speaking again. "Bah! I learned to pilot a space ship before I could walk. I don't need those new fangled gadgets. I fly by the seat of my pants. You'll find that map on the Televizor Chart still intact!"
"Sergeant," Old Ironpants said, "if you're right, you're a lucky Marine. And you're still Sergeant. But if not—" the implication was ominous.
But of course I remembered Shane was right. And if I hadn't been standing on the deck of a battle wagon, I'd have indulged in the luxury of fainting.
IT was while we were writing our reports of the entire affair—the following day—that Sergeant Shane looked up from his laborious notations and said,
"About our escape, Corky," he coughed discreetly, "I don't think we have to mention those tweezers that did the trick."
I looked at the lug for a minute.
"No, dearie, there's no sense in mentioning them. I'll carry your shameful secret with me to the grave."
Shane stood up, face red.
"And no cracks, y'unnerstand?" he said, waving a finger under my nose. "No cracks!"