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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN
(WRITING AS DUNCAN FARNSWORTH)

FLIGHT FROM FARISHA

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RGL e-Book Cover 2017©

First published in Amazing Stories, November 1942
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-12-13
Produced by Matthias Kather and Roy Glashan

The text of this book is in the public domain in Australia.
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Amazing Stories, November 1942, with "Flight from Farisha"



TABLE OF CONTENTS



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS



Illustration

In two seconds a battle was raging...



CHAPTER I

THE savage onslaught against the heavily fortified Federation interplanetary base on Farisha began on the morning of May second, at ten o'clock, in the year 2130 A.D., when the special radios announced excitedly that the Venusians had established their first footholds on six small asteroids surrounding the base.

To the breathlessly waiting universe, and especially to the Federation G.H.Q. on Earth, the news of this attack on the far flung and supposedly impregnable interplanetary outpost came as a shock. For even though the Venusians, since the outbreak of the Fourth Inter planetary War six weeks previously, had already succeeded in swarming over more than three-fourths of the interplanetary belt against which their first treacherous attack was launched, Farisha had been considered by all as the one vital garrison which would check the aggressors until a counteroffensive could be launched.

None could believe that it stood in danger of falling.

Farisha was an unconquerable bulwark; everyone knew it was. And none was more certain of this fact than the military garrison and civilian population on Farisha itself. None save Space General Roger J. Selwin, who had arrived on Farisha to take command of the garrison less than two days after the outbreak of the war, realized the sickening truth of the matter.

"God knows how long we can hold out," General Selwin said on the morning after the Venusians had established their preliminary footholds.

However, he didn't say this publicly, for it would have been giving assurance and comfort to the enemy. He said it in the privacy of his headquarters office on Farisha, and said it to one man.

That man was First Mate Harlan Dawson, of the luxury space liner, Astera, which was then moored in Farisha's space harbor.

Dawson was a big man, in his early thirties, with massive shoulders and ebon black hair. His eyes were so brown as to be almost black, and had the hard glitter of coal to them. His crooked, cynical grin and brutal handsomeness masked one of the shrewdest spacefaring minds in the eastern interplanetary belt.

Harlan Dawson listened to this statement from the Space General in command of the outpost, and lighted a thin, small, junovian cigar.

"Your predecessor was certainly asleep at the switch," Dawson remarked, the cigar bobbing between his even, white teeth. "Hell, your own round-up of Venusians on the base itself showed that more than a thousand were in our midst when the war broke out."


Illustration

Space General Selwin sighed. "Asleep is no word for it, Dawson. It was negligence, criminal negligence. But, I suppose he was hampered as badly as I've been. The moment I arrived and looked the situation over, I space-radioed for at least another ten squadrons of space combat fighters and heavy space bombers. My space-radiogram has yet to be answered. We could use those bombers and fighters now, God knows."

"Can't shake 'em loose, eh?" Dawson said, referring to the Venusian invaders who'd established footholds on the six surrounding asteroids.


GENERAL SELWIN'S jaw was grim. "We can't even try. We have but two space combat squadrons on Farisha, here. We don't have a single space bomber less than ten years old. Do you realize what that means, Dawson? Do you realize the hideous implications of it?"

Harlan Dawson nodded soberly. "I've realized it for some time, General. But hell, I'm just a civilian. I'd never have had a chance of rousing any of the military bigwigs here to action. I saw the first glimmerings of Venusian interplanetary ambitions over eight years ago. Hell, I was Master of a space freighter running between Earth and Venus when I was twenty-three. I quit when Venusian capital bought controlling interest in the company I worked under."

"I know your record exceptionally well, Dawson," Space General Selwin said. "Undoubtedly I know phases of it which you yourself have forgotten, or would like to forget. When you quit that berth you just mentioned, you went out on your own, running electraguns and munitions through the blockade to beleaguered little Stevensa.[*] You risked the wrath of the Federation to do so, even though the Federation was remaining completely neutral while Venus overran and seized their neighboring little independent asteroid."

[*Stevensa—A small asteroid lying at the edge of the interplanetary belt dominated by Venus. From its discovery in 2094, it had been an independent democracy. In 2123, however, Venus—in line with its long range plan of aggression—seized and sacked this little asteroid, setting it up as a puppet unit of the Venusian State. The universe at that time, weary of the recent carnage of the Third Interplanetary War, although in sympathy with the struggle of the little state, held a hands-off policy, permitting it to be swallowed by Venus.—Ed.]


Dawson looked silently down at the knuckles of his big hand. He shifted the thin little cigar in his teeth, then looked up at the Space General.

"How did you know that?" he asked.

"I've checked your record, completely," Space General Selwin replied. "I had to, before I was certain that you'd do for the job I have."

Dawson removed his cigar and leaned back, his big frame relaxed in his chair. He exhaled a cloud of blue smoke through his nostrils.

"I'm glad you're satisfied," he said. "Now tell me more about this job you're assigning to me. How do you know I'll take it?"

"You'll take it," Space General Selwin declared positively, "because the fate of the Federation, of Earth itself, might well hang on the success or failure of the task."

"That's a good enough reason," Dawson admitted softly. "Go on."

"Your vessel, the Astera," the Space General began, "is the fastest craft of its size harbored at Farisha. It's the fourth fastest vessel in the eastern interplanetary belt. Surrounded as we are by a Venusian space battle fleet of God knows how many craft, it becomes increasingly evident that any effort to run their hostile blockade will be extremely hazardous, even dubious. Our own space battle strength here in the harbor couldn't hope to meet the Venusians on anything but tragically unequal terms. And although they're well gunned, they aren't fast enough to make a run for it."

Dawson's heavy black brows went up a notch. "You're planning an evacuation?" he asked.

General Selwin shook his head. "Not in a military sense. You also realize that most of our civilian population disregarded my warning to leave a few weeks back. They are all still too complacent to avail themselves of any such chance, even if it still remained. And expect in this instance, thee chance no longer remains. You see, I have ordered certain valuable men in the Federation's diplomatic and state corps here on Farisha to leave immediately with you on the Astera. It is in my power to order them to do so, though I doubt if they would realize the danger strongly enough to leave unless I forced them to."


DAWSON nodded. "You're right on that," he admitted. "But I'm a little bit behind your line of planning. I'm not the Master of the Astera. I'm merely the First Officer. Have you confided in my Skipper, Benson?"

Space General Selwin shook his head again. "I've ordered your line to transfer Benson to inactive duty. When the Astera leaves, you'll be Master."

Dawson whistled. "You ordered that?"

The General nodded. "Benson is a good man, but he doesn't know this interplanetary belt half as well as you do. I don't have the confidence in him that I have in you. He's fine as the Master of an interplanetary luxury liner, which the Astera certainly is. And during times of peace he knows his job well. But this isn't a peaceful task I have in mind. It's a dangerous assignment, as I've said before. Benson is over sixty. You're young, and you're a fighter. You're the only man in the Merchant Space Service in this interplanetary belt whom I consider capable of getting the Astera through."

Dawson considered this soberly. Then he asked:

"And aside from members of the state and diplomatic staff, who else will be aboard the Astera?"

"There'll be a scattering of interplanetary merchants and their wives. Most of the wives and children of the Federation space soldiers stationed here—I ordered them to leave. And any other civilian residents who wish to take advantage of my last offer for their escape."

Dawson nodded. "There won't be many of the latter," he predicted. "Everyone on this damned base is far too smug and sure of its utter invulnerability."

"I know," Space General Selwin agreed gravely. "But there's little I can do about it."

"Supposing," Dawson said, "that Farisha doesn't fall? Supposing by some miracle it can stave off the Venusians until relief can arrive? Supposing still further that I fail to bring the Astera through the Venusian gauntlet, and that my vessel and all aboard are lost to the enemy? Do you realize what a spot that would put your neck in? Do you realize that people all over the universe will say that you should have known the human beings you ordered from the base here would have been far safer in remaining?"

"I know that," Selwin said quietly. "And I might add that my daughter will be aboard the Astera when you leave port. I am taking the same risk with her safety as I am with the others. And so help me God, it's the only thing to do. Farisha is doomed!"


THE door of the room on the fourth floor of the Royal Hotel in Farisha was slightly ajar, and the thin, middle-sized, beady-eyed man in the light linen tunic, knocked once on it briefly, then pushed into the room without waiting for an answer.

The slim, raven-haired girl standing before the traveling bag opened on the bed, whirled swiftly to face the intruder. She was wearing merely brief undergarments, and the linen smock tunic spread on the bed gave further evidence that she was in the process of dressing.


Illustration

"Oh," she said briefly. "It's you."

The beady-eyed man coughed slightly into a handkerchief, then mopped the perspiration from his bald head. His sharp features were horizontally marked by a small black moustache waxed at the tips.

"It's like I thought," he said. His voice was tenor, with a slight whine to it. "The Astera is gonna make a run for it."


THE girl struggled into her fresh linen tunic smock. Then she was smoothing it out, and adjusting her raven locks before a duralloy mirror on the wall. She answered him over her shoulder, fluffing her hair as she spoke.

"Then you've booked our passage?" she asked.

The sharp featured chap sat down on the bed, coughing again into his handkerchief. He glanced down idly into the open traveling case, then answered in a weary half whine.

"Yeah. Of course. What didja think I'd do?"

"Any trouble?" the girl asked.

"I'm a small interplanetary merchant," the man said smirkingly. "Don't you remember? What you think I been running that stinking little shop here on Farisha for the last six months for?" He laughed. "For the same reason you been dancing in that cheap joint for the same length of time."

"They certainly plan in advance," the girl remarked.

"They're smart, that's all. That's why the Federation'll never lick 'em in a million years," the man answered. "We're on the winning team this time, baby."

The girl turned to face him, her features troubled. "You think they'll take Farisha?" she asked.

The beady-eyed man smirked. "What do you think?" he asked. The signs of worried indecision increased on the girl's features.

"But what about the civilian population here on Farisha?" she asked. "What sort of treatment will they receive from the Venusian invaders?"

The man shrugged indifferently. "They didn't leave when old Selwin gave them the hint. What they'll get now will be their own fault."

The girl seemed to shudder slightly, and she turned back to the mirror.

"You're not going soft, are you baby?" the man asked.

The girl whirled to face him, brown eyes blazing. "Who said I was?"

The beady-eyed man grinned, mopping his bald head again with his handkerchief.

"No one. No one said you was," he declared. "Only—"

The girl broke in suspiciously. "Only what?" she demanded.

"Only I just wanta make sure you don't go soft on this job. Especially when I tell you that your old chum," the bald headed man paused to give the last word a leering implication, "Harlan Dawson is gonna be aboard the Astera as Master."

"Dawson!" The girl gasped the name.

"Yeah," said the man, watching her carefully. "Yeah, that's what I said, Dawson."

"I hate his guts," the girl said softly.

"Thought you kinda went for him once."

"Maybe I did," she said quickly. "Maybe I was space-dazed."

"A lot of dames have been spaced-dazed by Dawson," the man said. The girl didn't answer.

"And you say you hate his guts," the man declared.

The girl's face went suddenly hard. "You bet I do," she said.

"That's all I wanted to make sure about," the beady-eyed chap told her. "Because you're gonna have to play up to him. He'll have papers that we're getting plenty good Venusian dough to grab. We gotta see to it that he doesn't burn them when the vessel is brought to a halt."

"The vessel will be stopped?" the girl asked.

Her companion nodded. "That's my job. I've men placed in the crew. Your job'll be to keep an eye on the papers, and Dawson."

"Don't worry about my end of it," the girl told him ...


CHAPTER II

IN the Master's stateroom aboard the luxury liner Astera, Harlan Dawson, still clad in the wrinkled linen tunic that he had worn that morning during his conversation with Space General Selwin, was at work.

A bottle of junovian brandy was at his elbow, and a space chart was stretched before him on the table where he sat. Spread out on the fresh surface of his space bunk at the other side of the room was his officer's tunic, whitely immaculate and gleaming with gold braid.

Dawson's even white teeth were clamped, as usual, over a thin, small, junovian cigar which he rolled from one corner of his mouth to the other as he frowned intently at' the chart before him.

A knock sounded on the bulkhead door of his stateroom.

Dawson looked up.

"Come in!" he shouted. His voice was deep, rich.

A young, blond, Second Officer entered, his cheeks pink, his eyes eager. He was perfectly turned out in his white uniform tunic. He seemed slightly surprised by his skipper's appearance.

"I'm Keller, sir. Your new Second," he explained self-consciously.

Dawson grinned amiably.

"Pull ulna chair, Mister. I'd like you to look over this course I've just prepared."

Second Officer Keller awkwardly pulled a chair over to the table and perched himself, uneasily on the edge of its seat. He craned his neck toward the chart before Dawson, trying to see its details.

"I had you shifted from your old berth to this liner because I had reason to believe you're a good man, Keller," Dawson said casually. "Just in case you wondered what promoted you to service on the Astera so suddenly."

Second Officer Keller flushed in genuine modesty. "Thank you, sir. I needn't say how pleased I was to learn that you wanted me as Second aboard the Astera. I was on packet duty, as a First, when I got my orders to report here at noon today."

Dawson nodded briefly. "Yes. I know. And as you are probably aware, this is my first voyage as Master on the Astera. We're running a dangerous gauntlet. The Second Officer whose place you took has a wife and six kids. I wouldn't let him come along, even though he wanted to do so."

He pushed the chart around under the nose of the young Second, who stared thoughtfully at it in silence for several minutes. Dawson sat back, watching the youth. Pink-cheeked, all right, he reflected. Plenty callow in some respects, perhaps. But a damned efficient record for coolness and brains under the toughest conditions of convoy packet duty.

Young Keller looked up. His glance was admiring. "This is most cleverly charted, sir. I see you have taken in every possibility of change that might become necessary."


Illustration

"Have to," Dawson said. "We'll have to keep 'em guessing. For it's certain that we won't leave port without their being notified of it by fifth column work here on Farisha."

Second Officer Keller's youthful features went grim. And there was a sudden remarkable transition in his appearance. He looked quite hard and thoroughly competent.

Dawson rose, pushing the chart across to Keller.

"Take this up to the bridge with you," he said. "Place it under lock in the chart cabinets. Warn First Officer Reynolds not to let anyone but the three of us within reach of it. That's all. We're getting under way when darkness falls."

Young Keller snapped a salute, and Dawson returned it, smiling.


WHEN Keller had gone, Dawson poured himself a hooker of junovian brandy, downed it in a gulp, and smacked his lips appreciatively. He walked over to his bunk where his uniform lay spread for him. Casually, he ran his fingers over the gold braid on the sleeves, indicating his Master's rating. He grinned, then, and began to peel his wrinkled linen tunic top from his massively muscular torso.

Dawson had just removed the tunic top and tossed it casually to the corner of his bunk when another knock sounded on his stateroom door. He sighed.

"Come in," he called.

A Space Marine, one of the members of two divisions of them stationed at Farisha, entered the stateroom. He held a portfolio in his left hand, and snapped a salute with the other.

"From General Selwin, sir," he said.

Dawson, frowning, took the portfolio, and the Marine left. Moving back to the big table in the center of his stateroom, Dawson placed the portfolio on it, and opened a small, sealed envelope which had been attached to the front of the case. There was a note.


Dear Captain Dawson:

Place these papers in the safest place conceivable. They are exceedingly valuable and must not fall into enemy hands should you fail in your mission. In such event, I feel confident that I can count on you to destroy them whatever the risk.

Best of good luck,

S. Gen. R. J. Selwin, F.S.A.


Dawson re-read the note gravely, then tore it meticulously into tiny fragments. He dropped these into the basket by his chart desk and picked up the portfolio. He looked around the room for a moment, then stepped over to the bulkhead of his stateroom where a picture hung innocently.

Pushing the picture away, Dawson revealed a small, square, reinforced duralloy compartment which was slotted with numbers in a one line sequence. He ran his fingers along the numbers, pressing six of them several times in this operation. The duralloy door slid automatically open, revealing the interior of a tiny safe. Dawson placed the papers in there, closed the door, and slid the picture back in place after making certain that the panel was fast.

He was frowning as he moved back to his bunk to resume his dressing. Frowning still, as he tried to imagine what invaluable information that portfolio contained....


THE waiting room in Farisha's space port was crowded with women, children, soldiers, and a few serious faced, intent gentlemen from the state and diplomacy corps of the interplanetary base.

At one end of the room was a wide ramp, fronted by a wharf from which small space launches picked up passengers to carry them out across the harbor to the waiting bulk of the luxury liner Astera.

The scenes of parting were for the most part grimly restrained as soldiers bade farewell to wives and children. Occasionally, however, over the intense hum of strained conversation throughout the depot, there came the sound of a woman's sobs, or a child's crying.


PERHAPS fifty yards from the embarkation ramp, Space General Roger J. Selwin stood quietly talking to a tall, slim, gray-eyed girl, who was wearing a red tunic smock that contrasted attractively with her long, ash-blonde hair.

"This is the best thing, Dana," the Space General was saying gravely. "I hate to see you go, and I'd never have brought you along when I took this command, had I imagined the situation would turn out as it did."

Dana Selwin's clear gray eyes were understanding, her piquant features lovely and sympathetic. Her voice, when she answered her father, was low and coolly liquid.

"That's all right, Dad. I understand perfectly. I—I'd like to stick by—no matter what happens. And I do feel somehow as if I'm running out on you. But since this is the only way you'll have it, the only way that will please you, I'll carry out your orders like a space trooper. I ought to have enough family heritage from the fighting Selwin clan to do that." She made an effort at a smile.

General Selwin put his arm fondly around the girl's shoulder.

"You're as grand a little trooper as your mother was, Dana," the General said huskily.

Through the address system from the ramp, a voice boomed with mechanical monotony.

"Group Seven! Group Seven! Group Seven! Aboard!"

Dana looked up quickly. An empty space launch, manned by its nattily-clad crew, was sliding up to the ramp on its return from its last load to the Astera.


Illustration

Her father saw it.

"Your traveling gear all checked with the stewards, Dana?" he asked.

The gray-eyed, ash-blonde beauty nodded. Then, suddenly, she threw her arms warmly around the General, brushing a kiss across his cheek and burying her head against his military tunic to keep her tears from him.

"Good luck, Dad. Give 'em the very hottest hell!" she said muffledly.

The General's eyes were moist, and he was thankful that his daughter couldn't see it. He patted her fondly on the back.

"You bet we will, Dana darling. We'll give 'em every last bit of hell at our disposal. Goodbye, now, darling. You'd better hurry, or you'll miss a seat in your launch group."

Dana Selwin looked up swiftly, forcing a smile through her tears, and kissed her father resoundingly on the cheek. Then she was moving swiftly away from him toward the ramp, looking back over her shoulder to wave every other step.

Space General Selwin choked back the lump in his throat as he waved back at his daughter when she paused before entering the space launch. He was still waving as the launch left the ramp. His eyes were moist....


ON the glassicade-enclosed promenade deck of the luxury space liner Astera a man and a woman stood side by side, looking out over the railing at the small space launches darting up to the reception ramp.


Illustration

They were the two who had conversed earlier that day in the girl's room in Farisha's Royal Hotel.

"There's more of them than I imagined," the girl said in an oddly soft voice. "And I didn't think there'd be so many children."

The thin, beady-eyed man with the sharp features and the black, waxed moustache, glanced worriedly at the girl.

"Don't let it throw you," he advised scornfully.

"You're sure that nothing will happen to these wives and children?" the girl asked, disregarding his comment. "You're sure that the ship'll just be stopped, searched, the papers taken and that's all?"

The beady-eyed chap glared at her. "Of course. I told you that a dozen times already. Stop going gray over it."

"I'm not. It's just that, well— I'd die if I thought those poor little tykes would be—"

Her companion cut in. "That's a laugh. Sally Lester gone soft and motherly alluva sudden!" He chuckled harshly.

The girl's dark eyes blazed at him. "What we're doing, I have reasons for doing. Or at least my conscience isn't bothered much by it. But if I thought that what we were doing would put the lives of those kids in—"

The sharp faced chap cut in again. "Can it, Sally. I told you straight about it, so forget it."

The girl's eyes were still wrathful. "By God, Jed Tolber, if you've lied to me, you'll not live long to regret it!"

The man she'd called Tolber forced a smile. His pale eyes went slate yellow. He touched the waxed tips of his black moustache.

"Calm down, baby. I gave you the straight dope."

This seemed to reassure Sally Lester. She stared silently out through the glassicade enclosure.

Jed Tolber cleared his throat after a moment.

"How about Dawson?" he asked. "Doncha think you oughtta get to work on him as soon as possible?"

"Don't worry about that," the girl said evenly.

"It'll take a little time,"

Tolber protested. "Why doncha get started now?"

"It won't take much time."

"But I thought you hated his guts," Tolber said. "I thought the last time you and him were together you both had a blowup!"

"I didn't say that," Sally said quietly. "I just said I hated his guts. We never had a blowup. I was the one who blew up, not Dawson."

"You gave him the air?"

Sally Lester shook her head. "It wasn't that. I wish to God it had been, though. I wish he'd been mine so that I could have given him the air, the louse!"

"Ahhh," Tolber smirked. His silence was a leer.

"That's right," the girl said softly. "I was wild about him, and got the idea he felt the same. He didn't. I've hated him ever since."

Tolber's expression changed. "Then how'll you get to first base with him now?" he demanded.

"He likes me a lot," Sally Lester's voice emphasized the verb with acute distaste. "He'll be glad to see me. I know that much. I'll take care of the rest."

Jed Tolber considered this thoughtfully. His voice was definitely menacing when he finally spoke.

"You better, baby. You better take care of the rest."

Sally Lester, staring moodily out over the railing, didn't reply.

Jed Tolber coughed harshly, choking it off with his handkerchief. He turned to leave.

"See you at dinner, baby," he said. Sally Lester didn't turn to watch him leave....


CHAPTER III

THE main dining salon on the luxury liner, Astera, was devoid of its old grandeur and sparkling glitter on the evening of the giant space ship's departure from Farisha.

Where once had been exquisite Martian silver service and immaculate linen napery, there was now but row upon row of bare wooden tables flanked by benches of the same grim nakedness. Where before there had been scraping and bowing stewards and waiters, turned out in splendid tunics of crimson and silver braid, there were now only grim, khaki-tunicked mess attendants who served rations to all in the vast salon in impartial portions.

This large dining place had once been reserved exclusively for the first class passengers of the Astera, and there had been other and less elaborate eating salons for second and third class voyagers. But the latter had been converted into sleeping quarters for those unfortunate enough to have made reservations on the vessel too late, and this huge salon was now serving as a community mess hall.

There was one resemblance to former custom, however, and that was in the five "ship's" tables that were presided over, in descending rank, by the Captain, his First Officer, Second Officer, Third Officer, and Chief Steward.

These tables were near the front of the hall, fronting a podium which had once borne a dance orchestra. The Captain's table, the smallest and foremost of this group, was, at the moment, devoid of its presiding spirit, Harlan Dawson. But even though he had not yet arrived, the dozen or so who had been selected to dine there were already engaged in pleasantly casual conversation.

There were several members of the state and diplomatic service at this table, three or four merchants who had previously been prominent residents of Farisha; and four women, three of whom were middle aged and dowdy, and the fourth of whom was the lovely, ash-blonde daughter of General Selwin.

Dana Selwin, of course, was the center of masculine attention. For not only was she young and beautiful, but also, as the daughter of the commander of Farisha, a source of highly authentic opinion on the state of Farisha in general, and the attitude of its defenders in particular.

"I really couldn't see any reason for undue anxiety about the situation," a pale young man, a member of the diplomacy staff, was saying intensely to the girl. "We overestimate the Venusian mind."

"The Venusian mind," said Dana quietly and a little wearily, "is cunning, swift to seize advantage of a situation, and schooled to treachery. It is not a good mind, in the moral sense of the word, but it is most certainly a dangerous mind to have against one as an enemy."

"I can't agree with that, Miss Selwin," one of the merchants, red-faced, sixtyish, and pot-bellied, declared in a bull-like voice. "There were many Venusians on Farisha engaged in business there. Time after time I found my contemporaries and I were far quicker and more mentally agile than the Venusians in the business dealings we had with them. They are a stupid lot. We overestimate them."


DANA SELWIN was about to reply to this when a voice broke in behind her.

"You're quite definitely full of wind, my friend," said the voice. It was deep, rich, powerful. "You and countless other smug asses on Farisha were victims of the most subtle form of Venusian propaganda. For years, while you made money from the Venusians on the base in business dealings, and developed a friendly, warm tolerance toward them because you could gain from them in commerce, they were laughing up the sleeves of their tunics, gathering countless thousands of bits of information about you, the Federation, and Farisha itself. They were spies. The money you made from their business bungling was deliberately lost by them to lure you into false complacency and a smug contempt for their ability. It was worth it to them to lose that money to spread their propaganda and gain precious information."

The speaker behind Dana had moved around to the front of the table as he talked. And he delivered his last sentences facing them all, smiling affably, before pulling back his chair and seating himself at their head. He was Harlan Dawson, Master of the Astera, resplendent, now, in his fresh white linen tunic and glittering gold braid.

There was a moment of silence from all. The merchant who'd been contradicted by the Captain was gaping in stunned, flushed confusion. His eyes appraised Dawson with embarrassment and a grudging admiration at the unquestionably impressive mien of the man who had so humbled him verbally. Dawson broke the silence by flashing a white grin at Dana Selwin.

"Don't you agree with me, Miss Selwin? I feel that was what you might have replied if you hadn't been restricted by the fact that you're a lady."

Dana Selwin suddenly smiled back. She liked this big shouldered man with the ebon black hair and the crooked grin. There was something very genuine about him. Something very clean.

"Yes, Captain," she agreed. "I'm afraid I'd have had to answer a little less explicitly."

"Just as I thought," Dawson smiled. He turned to the red faced merchant. "Miss Selwin is an unusually reliable source of information concerning Farisha, you see. And, incidentally, if you hold the Venusian mind and ability in such contempt, my friend, why are you now aboard a vessel that is fleeing the base?"

The pale young man from the diplomacy staff spoke up.

"As for me, I'd still be on Farisha this moment if I hadn't received orders to the contrary." His tone was indignant.

Dawson's dark eyes flashed, lanced with the pale young man's, as he stared the speaker down.

"Some people invariably have to be told what to do," Dawson declared matter-of-factly. "And it's a good thing for them, at times, that they must respond to orders."

The pale young man flushed and returned to his food. A middle-aged woman tittered. There was a low hum of conversation, in the middle of which the merchant Dawson had censured, rose and pushed back his plate.

"In the future, Captain Dawson," he said angrily, glaring around the table, "I'd appreciate it if I were seated at some other table."

Dawson grinned. "Sure," he said. "Why not?"

The merchant strode angrily off. The pale young man from the diplomacy corps looked as if he were about to say something, then he seemed to change his mind and returned to his food.


DAWSON looked around the table, the crooked grin still on his face. His eyes returned to Dana Selwin.

"I've served aboard the Astera for only six voyages," he explained. "Somehow I don't seem to fit into the social pattern necessary for an officer on a luxury space liner." His statement was one of amused self-analysis, not apology.

Dana Selwin smiled. "I always thought it was so unfortunate that so many first rate space officers never rose to the posts they deserved because they weren't grooved to pink tea patterns."

Dawson nodded agreement. "Always one of my pet peeves," he said. "They get their officer/ material from the hardest, toughest sort of background. Men who learn their trade from the bottom up. They're scarred and seamy by the time they're ready for big commands, but find themselves passed over for lack of dancing ability." He looked around the huge salon. "But this situation," he waved his hand to indicate the bare, grim aspect of the room, "is different. Hence you find yours truly, a packet and tramp ship skipper if there ever was one, in command."

Dana Selwin laughed. "You aren't so terribly seamy, Captain. And I rather have a hunch that you can be very well aware of the social niceties whenever it pleases you."

Dawson's eyes twinkled.

"I'll take that as a compliment, even though I'm not at all certain that it is one."

He rose suddenly, bowed an apology. "I'm afraid that you'll have to excuse me. We're about ready to get under way." He addressed his words to the group at his table, but his eyes were on Dana. "I'll see you all later," he concluded.

Dawson turned and made his way out of the salon, and as he moved through the rows of tables filled with passengers, he was conscious of the stares that followed his progress.

"I don't blame them," Dawson told himself. "They're trying to figure out what sort of a guy holds their life in his hands."

When he stepped out onto the deck, Dawson could already feel the vibration of the huge atomic motors in the bowels of the ship. He moved quickly along the dimly lighted promenade deck until he came to the companionway leading to the bridge.

A sailor was stationed at the foot of the companionway, an atomic pistol strapped to his side, and he saluted as Dawson passed him and started up the steps to the bridge.


Illustration

Dawson realized that young Keller had probably placed the guard before the bridge companionway, and made a mental note in favor of the young Second Officer's competence.

Keller was waiting for him when Dawson stepped onto the bridge. The young Second was bending over a chart table, checking course bearings against the maze of instruments on the teleflash panels before which sat three space guidesmen.

"Ready to get under way, sir," Keller said, turning.

"Good," Dawson told Mm. "Are your checks made?"

Keller nodded. "Yes, sir. All but our infra-blue running lights have been extinguished. The Chief Atomic Engineer is standing by for signal."

Dawson moved behind the three separate sets of directional controls behind which the three space guidesmen sat. He glanced over the shoulder of each, briefly checking the instruments before them. Then he turned back to Keller.

"Signal," he ordered.

Keller's hand found the communication signal switch, and an instant later the tremendous power of forward atomic speed hummed to life.


DAWSON stepped before a luminous, level course board. On its surface was shown a radio-reflection of the space harbor and the vessels in it. The Astera, largest of the ships in the harbor, moved blackly forward on the course board toward the harbor exit. Dawson studied the progress of his craft.

"Up speed," Dawson commanded quietly an instant later.

Keller touched a second signal switch, and the response from the Atomic Engine Room was instantaneous. The black radio-reflection on the course board moved more swiftly through the harbor.

"Check with First Officer Reynolds on the forward station," Dawson commanded. "Get his harbor clearing readings. We're moving out."

Swiftly, competently, young Keller stepped across to a communico-board. An instant later he was talking with the First Officer from the forward station, relaying the clearing readings to the space guidesmen at their stations.

Dawson smiled quietly to himself as the black outline that represented the Astera moved easily through the space harbor lock. He had a good crew, he reflected. Practically hand picked. And beneath him was one of the fastest ships in this interplanetary belt. He turned to Keller.

"Up full speed," he commanded.

Young Second Officer Keller touched the last signal switch, and the Astera woke into furious life as it screamed out through the harbor locks and into the blackness of the void...


CHAPTER IV

IN Sally Lester's quarters, several hours after mess had been served to the Astera's passengers in the main dining salon, Jed Tolber paced nervously back and forth before the lounge on which the raven haired girl sat.


Illustration

"Dawson will be coming off the bridge pretty soon," Tolber declared in his nasal tenor. "He'll probably go right to his quarters. That'll be your chance."

"You're certain he has the papers there?" Sally Lester asked.

Tolber nodded. "Of course. It's the most likely place of all. I know they were delivered to him there before the Astera left port. He's not the kind to trust their safekeeping to the ship's safe, and I'll give odds that he's taken personal charge of 'em."

"And how am I supposed to crack his safe?" the girl demanded.

Tolber gave her a scornful glance. "How're you supposed to?" He snorted. "Listen, baby, that's your job. You'll have a necklace you want him to keep personally for you until the trip is over. Get it? You tell him you never trusted ship's safes, and besides you'd like it if he'd do you the favor of tucking it away in his own quarters."

"Dawson isn't stupid," the girl said. Tolber's expression grew angry. "But you ain't either, baby," he said. "Or at least you're not supposed to be. Remember that. It's going to be strictly up to you to get those papers." "How about the Venusian interception of the Astera?" the girl asked. Tolber looked cunning. "That's all arranged. Matter of hours. I've taken care of it. Dawson'll be plenty surprised to find out that in spite of his clever course plotting and super-fast ship his hand has already been tipped." "How?" Sally Lester asked.

Tolber grinned. "That ain't your end of the deal, baby. How I arranged it was my job. Now you do yours." "Why don't the Venusians who'll intercept the Astera crack Dawson's stateroom safe, if you're certain that the papers are there?"

Tolber touched the waxed tips of his black mustache in impatient annoyance.

"Any attempt to crack that safe would mean that the papers inside would be destroyed by chemicals before you could get to 'em. That's why we gotta do it this way."

"And when I get the papers?" the girl asked.

Tolber stopped pacing. He faced the girl, his eyes cold.

"How many times do you have to bring up that theme?" he demanded. "If I told you once I told you a hundred times that nothing's gonna happen. The Astera's passengers and crew won't get hurt none if they behave themselves. All that matters is the papers."

"Dawson won't take the interception lying down," the girl said.

Tolber nodded, smirking. "Supposing he doesn't?" he demanded. "That's his worry. And besides, his hide shouldn't be no concern of yours, baby. Don't forget, you hate his guts."

The girl rose. Her eyes were suddenly hard.

"You aren't fooling," she said grimly. Tolber seemed pleased. He eyed the girl speculatively.

"That's the way I like to hear you talk," he told her.

Tolber turned and moved to the door, then. He stood there a moment, smiling as if at some secret joke.

"I'll leave now," he said. "You wait here a little longer, then take a stroll up to Dawson's quarters. He should be off the bridge by then. Good luck, baby."

He paused an instant to put a small paper packet on the table by the door.

"You'll need these," he said, "for Dawson's drink."

Tolber left.

Sally Lester moved slowly over to the table. She picked up the small paper packet. There were three tiny, round pills in it. She stared at it speculatively a moment, turning it over in her hand. Then she broke it open and slipped two of the pills into her tunic blouse pocket. She walked over to the mirror above the lounge and began to arrange her raven hair. Her hands were a trifle unsteady.

"It's been a long time, Harlan Dawson, you lousy lug," she muttered between set, white teeth. "A very long time."

She picked up a package of cigarettes and lighted one none too steadily. The first few draughts composed her somewhat...


HARLAN DAWSON entered his cabin stateroom tiredly, closing the door behind him and moving over to the small, duralloy bar cabinet in the corner.

He brought forth a glass and a bottle of junovian brandy, taking them over to the table in the center of the room. Stripping off his white tunic coat, Dawson threw it carelessly on his bunk, pulled up a chair before the table, then moved over to the picture on the stateroom bulkhead where his personal safe was concealed.

He moved the picture back, revealing the safe. He ran his fingers along the number sequence slots, pressing the combination digits, and the duralloy door of the reinforced compartment swung automatically and noiselessly open.

Dawson stepped to his bunk and picked up his tunic coat, bringing it back with him to the safe. There he took several envelopes of small portfolio size from the pockets, removed several more from the interior of the safe, sorted them a moment, transferred several, and then threw his tunic coat back onto the bunk.

He was in the process of shutting the safe panel when a knock sounded on his stateroom door.


Illustration

Dawson had barely framed the words, "Just a moment," when the stateroom door opened without further hesitation.

A girl stood there. A raven haired girl, with a slim lovely figure and attractive features that were a trifle too hard.

"Sally!" Dawson exclaimed. "Sally Lester—well I'll be damned!"

Sally Lester smiled.

"Hello Har," she said. "It's been a long time, eh?"

Dawson suddenly remembered the safe. He grinned from it to the girl.

"Just a moment, kid. Take a seat. You caught me in the act of being very secretive. I was closing this thing."

"I won't peek," Sally Lester smiled. "If you think you can't trust me. But can't you drop your big responsibilities long enough to buy a girl a drink?" Her tone was taunting.

Dawson slid the picture back over the still open safe.

The girl moved to meet him, one hand outstretched.

"Shake hands," she said, "like friends. Remember? You said that's what we were going to be to one another. Just friends."

Dawson took her outstretched hand and drew her toward him.

"I can still kiss you like a sister, Sally," he laughed. "Especially since it's been so long."

He planted a kiss on the girl's temple and released her, waving to the table. "Sit down, kid. Sit down and tell me all about yourself. What've you been doing since I saw you last? Hell, I hadn't any idea you were aboard. Why didn't you let me know sooner?" He picked up a chair and swung it over to the other side of the table, went to the bar and brought forth another glass. Apparently not aware that the girl hadn't answered him yet, Dawson took a seat across from her.

"Still dancing, kid?" he asked.

Sally nodded. "I still have my act, Har. But now I'm like everyone else aboard, getting out of Farisha while the getting's good."

Dawson filled two glasses and chuckled.

"Here's to you, kid," he told her. "Remember that sweet parting we had in Kruzar, two years ago?"

Sally Lester smiled. "I caught you on the shoulder with a bottle of this stuff," she said, raising her glass. "I told you I never wanted to see your big grinning mug again in all my life." She laughed.

Dawson rubbed his shoulder ruefully. "Kid, you were at a boiling pitch. What was it about?"

Sally Lester's eyebrows raised faintly, but she forced a smile. "Don't you remember?"

Dawson laughed. "Oh, sure. That's right. Now I recall. You'd gotten a sudden complex for wedding bells, wasn't that it? You got some damned idea that you were nuts about Har Dawson." He laughed again. "I'll bet that was like the rest of your moods, kid. It probably didn't last any longer than the next day."

"It lasted a little longer than that, Har," Sally said quietly.

But Dawson hadn't noticed the expression in her eyes that accompanied the words. He was still reminiscing.

"I remember I decided that I'd save you from yourself. I got a berth as a Second on the Ventura the next morning and shipped out of Kruzar the next noon. Hell, kid, that was funny, wasn't it?"

Sally Lester nodded, her laugh imperceptibly brittle.

"I was awfully sore that night, you lug."

"When I hit Kruzar again," Dawson continued, "you'd left. I couldn't find out for where to save my life. Checked everywhere. They all said they didn't know where you'd gone. I was afraid then that you might have still been in your wedding bell mood and picked another mug about like me to get emotional over."

Sally shook her head, taking a long drink from her glass.

"No, Har." she told him. "There wasn't another mug."

Dawson refilled their glasses. "That's swell, kid. I'm glad to hear it. Here's to the fact that you're still eligible to make some lucky guy a helluva fine wife."

"You mean that, Har?" Sally asked, raising her glass and her gaze to meet Dawson's.

Harlan Dawson nodded soberly. "I mean it, Sally. You're a peach of a kid. You know I've always thought that. Nothing would make me happier than to know that you found a man good enough to deserve you. And, honey," he concluded, "when that day comes, I'll be space burned and void crazy if you don't have me there as best man."

Something that had flickered into Sally Lester's eyes for that brief instant now faded.

"Thanks, Har," she said thinly. Her smile was forced. "I'll issue a special invitation to you."

"No one in mind as yet?" Dawson asked, downing his second drink. Sally Lester shook her head. "No one as yet, Har." She drained her drink, coughing slightly.

"Whatever made you come to Farisha in  the first place, kid?" Dawson asked.

Sally continued to cough.

"Can't you get me a wash for this, Har?" she asked suddenly. "You ought to know that I was never as good at downing this stuff as you were."

Dawson rose, grinning apologetically. "Sure, Sally. Sorry I didn't think of it. Hold on a minute and I'll soothe that throat of yours." He turned away, starting for the cabinet bar in the corner of the stateroom.

Sally Lester's hand suddenly went to her tunic blouse pocket, bringing forth two tiny white pills. Swiftly, her glance on Dawson's back as he bent to bring a bottle from the cabinet, she dropped the round pills into his glass.


Illustration

Dawson returned with the bottle, and Sally Lester was lighting a cigarette, her eyes purposely avoiding his.

He sat down again, opening the bottle and pouring some of it into the girl's glass.

"This is smooth carbonate, kid," he said. "Makes the lousiest liquor go down like nectar. A swell mix. I picked up a couple of cases of it in Neprokla a few months back."

Sally lifted her glass, tasted her drink. She smiled at Dawson.

"That's swell, Har. Thanks. More like it." She no longer coughed.


DAWSON found a small, thin junovian cigar and lighted it, sitting back, smiling crookedly.

"You don't know how swell it is to see you again, kid," he said. "I've thought about you a lot. We had a lot of good times together, eh?" His hand went to his glass, and he turned it around on the table several times, looking at the girl.

"You haven't changed a lot," Dawson decided. "A little thinner, perhaps. A trace of strain on your face that wasn't there before. Everything been going all right?"

"It's been fine, Har," the girl said quickly. "Everything's been swell. Honestly. The—the war, and everything gets everyone these days, I guess." She was making an effort to keep her eyes from Dawson's glass.

"It's a helluva mess," Dawson agreed. "Misery for the innocent and the helpless. Always has to be that way. But, by God, those little Venusian swine will pay through their flat noses this time."

Sally Lester raised her glass.

"Here's to victory," she said. Dawson raised his glass to hers. "To the Federation," he said.

Holding her own glass to her lips, the girl watched Dawson down his drink in a swift gulp. Then Dawson had brought his empty glass back hard upon the table and was looking at her in surprise.

"Toasts ought to be simultaneous, kid," he said in mock rebuke.

Sally Lester flushed, and in a gesture almost comparable to Dawson's threw her head back and drained her drink in a long, steady gulp.

"Atta girl," Dawson grinned. "A trifle late, but all there."

He reached for the brandy bottle and refilled both glasses, spilling a little when he came to his own. His hand shook slightly as he put the bottle back on the table, and even more so as he reached for the carbonate bottle to complete the girl's drink.

Sally Lester watched him breathlessly now.

Dawson's face had gone flushed, and now was paling rapidly. He put his hand to his tunic shirt collar.

"It's hot in here," he said. "Hot as hell. Notice it?"

Sally Lester shook her head.

"What's wrong?" Dawson said. His words were getting thick now. "What's wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?"

He pushed back the table suddenly and rose lurchingly to his feet.

Sally Lester rose with him, standing back, watching Dawson teeter uncertainly, his big hands fast to the table for support.

"What's wrong?" Dawson grunted, his words now almost unintelligible. He released his grip on the table and swayed toward Sally, both hands outstretched, trying to place them on her shoulders.

"Sally!" Dawson mumbled. "Good God, kid, what've—"

The words trailed off meaninglessly and he half stumbled toward the girl, his arms suddenly around her, his head buried on her shoulder.

Neither the girl nor Dawson heard the knocking on the stateroom door. And it was repeated several times before the door opened inward.


THEN Dawson, the room whirling and a thick fog enveloping his last fragments of consciousness, saw the blurred outline of the girl standing in the doorway. The blurred outline focused, then, just long enough for Dawson to see Dana Selwin's shocked, slightly disgusted features.

Sally Lester had half turned as she heard the door open.

And now she, too, was aware of the lovely blonde girl looking at them in amazed disgust. Sally's arms were around Dawson now, and she was making every effort to keep him on his feet.

In the door, Dana Selwin regarded the spectacle, the table, the bottles and glasses, Dawson and the raven haired girl.

"I'm very sorry," she said tightly. "I had no idea I would interrupt."

Then she was gone, the stateroom door slamming behind her.

Dawson mumbled thickly, "Sally.... Dana..."

And then he slipped sidewards from the girl's exhausted arms and crashed unconscious to the floor.

Sally. Lester stood looking down at him, her body trembling, her eyes moist and frightened.

"Oh, Har, Har," she murmured. "You big fool. You big unsuspecting fool!"

Then she stepped quickly to the wall safe, moving the. picture back to reveal the open safe compartment. Quickly she withdrew all its contents, some three or four portfolio envelopes.

She glanced at these hurriedly, frightenedly, face white in growing panic. Then she opened her tunic blouse slightly, concealed them there, and buttoned it again.

Sally Lester paused once at the door of the stateroom to gaze down at the unconscious figure of Harlan Dawson sprawled there on the floor.

Then she opened the door, stepping out onto the enclosed deck section, adjusted the catch lock mechanism, and closed it hard behind her.

She turned, then, and hurried off down the deck ...


CHAPTER V

JED TOLBER, in his stateroom quarters, nervously crushed out his sixth cigarette in less than an hour and looked up sharply as he heard footsteps once again sounding on the deck outside.

He crossed to the door, waiting tensely there as the steps grew louder. The footsteps stopped, and two sharp knocks sounded on the door.

"Yes?" Tolber demanded.

A girl's voice, faint but recognizable, answered in obviously strained agitation.

"Hurry. Let me in."

Tolber opened the door a crack, and Sally Lester pushed it wider, striding quickly past him into the room.

Tolber slammed the door shut and wheeled to face the girl.

"You have them?" he demanded. Sally Lester nodded, white-faced, turning her back a moment.

When she turned back again, she had four portfolio envelopes in her hand. She gave them to Tolber who glanced at them in swift satisfaction.

"They were all in the safe," she said. "I took them all, rather than run the risk of getting the wrong ones."

"Good," Tolber nodded in satisfaction. He shoved them into his tunic pocket.

The girl lighted a cigarette with swift, jerky unsteadiness. She began to pace the floor agitatedly.

Tolber watched her a moment, a smirk touching the corners of his thin mouth.

"What about Dawson?" he asked.

"Out cold," the girl said. "He's on the floor of his cabin."

Tolber nodded a second time in satisfaction. Then, smirking more obviously, he said: "You don't seem too happy about it all, baby."

Sally Lester stopped pacing to glare at him.

"What the hell do you think I'd be?" she demanded. "I was in love with him—once. This will ruin him. This will break him. He'll never get another command after this."

Tolber shrugged, still smirking. "So what? What could be better from your viewpoint?"

The girl looked at him levelly for an instant, her eyes mirroring smouldering anguish.

"I don't know," she said quietly. "I don't know."

Tolber stepped to the door, opening it and peering out up and down the enclosed decks. Then he stepped back in and spoke to the girl.

"Get back to your own quarters," he said. "Stay there until I come to get you. Don't come out onto the decks no matter what seems to be breaking. Get me?"

Sally Lester nodded.

"There's gonna be plenty breaking inside of another hour," Tolber promised her. "One of the men aboard has been in touch with the Venusian ship on secret band for the last two hours."

The girl stopped. "The Venusians are near us?" she asked.

Tolber smiled unpleasantly.

"Very near. Much nearer than your friend Dawson has any idea. It's a Venusian patrol cruiser. Fast enough to cut us off by slicing in on the Astera's course. Heavily enough armed to make the crew of the Astera give up any ideas about using their small cannon power to make a fight of it."

The girl went faintly pale. "There—there won't be any bloodshed, Jed?" she asked.

Tolber shrugged. "For the last time, I'll tell you. No one'll get hurt who behaves."

The girl hesitated a moment before stepping out the door. The glance she gave Tolber was determined.

"By God, Jed," she said, "you'd better be telling the truth!"

When the girl had gone, Tolber closed the door behind her and removed the portfolio envelopes from his pocket to glance again at them briefly. His cold pale eyes glittered triumphantly as he placed them back in his pocket. Stepping over to his bunk, Tolber took an atomic pistol out from under the matting and, opening his tunic coat briefly, shoved it into a shoulder holster. Then he mopped his bald head with a handkerchief, coughed hackingly into it an instant later, and started in the direction of his stateroom door...


YOUNG Second Officer Keller knocked once on the door of Captain Dawson's stateroom and waited patiently for an answer. There was none.

Keller knocked again, this time more loudly.

Still there was no answer from inside.

Frowning, the young Second Officer tried the knob, pressing in with his shoulder. The door refused to yield.

Keller stood there a moment, undecided, then stepped back a pace and lunged hard against the door. The tough duralloy plating was, of course, practically impregnable. And the lock mechanism almost equally so.

The young Second opened his uniform tunic coat and drew an atomic pistol from the holster at his waist.

He held the muzzle of the gun level with the lock mechanism and fired three times. Nothing remained, then, but a smouldering orange gap in the duralloy metal.

Keller pushed the door swiftly open and stepped into his Captain's stateroom, almost stumbling over Dawson's inert figure sprawled there by the door.

The young Second choked off a startled cry of amazement and turned swiftly to shut the door behind him. Then he was on one knee beside the unconscious figure of his skipper, turning Dawson's big frame over so that he lay on his back.

The odor of brandy, and a sweetish smell of something more than that, came immediately to the young officer's nostrils. Lips tight, Keller looked up at the table on which the bottles and the two glasses still remained.

He rose then, stepping over to the table.

Keller held the open brandy bottle to his nose, put it down, repeated the process on the carbonate bottle, then went on to the glasses.

After smelling Dawson's glass, the young Second put it back on the table moved swiftly to the cabinet bar, secured a fresh glass, and returned to the table with it. He filled this to the brim with brandy, then, and moved back to his skipper's side.

Kneeling beside Dawson once again, Keller raised the captain's head until it was almost upright, forcing the brandy glass against the unconscious lips until the slack jaw fell open limply and the liquid in the glass literally poured down Dawson's throat.

Half the liquor spilled over Dawson's shirtfront, but the other half gagged down his throat, bringing back consciousness with gasping, choking effect. Spluttering and shaking his head sickly from side to side, Harlan Dawson opened his eyes.

For a moment he stared uncomprehendingly around the room, and then up into his young Second Officer's face. "Are you all right, sir?" Keller pleaded anxiously.

Suddenly Dawson cursed, struggling to get to his feet.

"Easy, sir," Keller implored. "You'll pass out again if you try to rise too quickly. You've been drugged, sir." Dawson, face white with sickness and rage, permitted Keller to assist him in rising.

"I know I have, Keller," he said thickly. "Damn, I've been a fool!" He shook his head, driving the cobwebs of stupor from it, clinging to the table for support while his Second watched anxiously.

"Cold towels, Keller, and ammonia. You'll find them both in that cabinet," Dawson said.

"Damn her," Dawson muttered through set teeth while Keller stepped away to get the towels and ammonia.

"Damn her conniving little hide. She can't get away with this. There isn't a chance in the world for her to slip off the Astera. Did she think I was crazy? Or was she?"


KELLER returned, and Dawson pressed the iced towels to his face and forehead, inhaling freely from the ammonia valve as he did so.

Then, still a trifle unsteadily, Dawson made his way over to the wall safe. He slid back the picture to reveal the narrow little safe compartment. It was quite empty.

Keller, who had been watching his commanding officer tautly, cleared his throat.

"Shall I sound an immediate search alarm, sir?" he asked.

Dawson shook his head and staggered weakly over to his bunk. There he picked up his uniform tunic from the place where he'd carelessly thrown it. Quickly, he searched through the inner pockets.

He brought forth a small portfolio envelope, looked at it carefully, and grinned grimly.

"Try again, baby," he muttered. "You didn't look in the right place."

"What was that, sir?" Dawson demanded.

"Someone," Dawson answered tightly, "didn't get what she made so much trouble over."

"Do you want me to send out an arrest order, Captain?" young Keller asked.

Dawson shook his head. "Not yet," he told the puzzled junior officer. "I have to get any additional angles there might be on this thing first."

"Is there anything can do, sir?" Keller asked bewideredly.

Dawson nodded. "Get me some paper. Over there, atop the cabinet." Keller brought him the sheaf of pa per he'd indicated, and a pen.

Dawson sat down before the table and began to write swiftly.


My Dear Miss Selwin:

I am entrusting this envelope to your possession in the knowledge that you will have some fairly certain idea of what it contains. No one, save my Second Officer, will have any idea that it is in your possession. I am sure I can trust you to remember that any disclosure of its whereabouts, under any circumstance whatsoever, will seriously endanger the Federation.

Destroy this letter, and conceal the envelope somewhere in your stateroom, or on your person.

Sincerely,

Harlan Dawson, Captain, F.S.L. Astera"


Dawson folded the note, sealed it in an envelope, and handed it, with the small portfolio envelope, to his Second.

"Take this to Dana Selwin immediately," Dawson said. "You know her stateroom location, don't you?"

Second Officer Keller nodded. "Yes, sir."

"No one is to know of this matter, Keller," Dawson warned him. "Under any and all circumstances. Is that clear?"

Young Keller nodded, saluting. "Yes, sir. It is perfectly clear, sir."

"Report to me the moment you deliver it," Dawson concluded. "I'll be on the bridge."

His expression was grim as he watched Keller leave.


DAWSON waited a moment after the door closed behind Keller. He rose, then and moved to his bunk, picking up his uniform tunic coat. Before donning it, he stepped to a desk table beside the bunk, opened a drawer and brought forth an atomic pistol and holster belt.

He strapped the belt and holstered weapon to his waist, then, and slipped into his coat. At the door of his stateroom, Dawson paused a moment, remembering the wall safe. He stepped over to it, moved the picture back, touched the number sequence slots and watched it close automatically. Then he dropped the picture back in place and let the stateroom.

In the dim light of the glassicade enclosed deck outside, Dawson, hesitated a moment, looking up and down the promenade. He turned to the right, then, moving up the deck toward the bridge companionway.

At the foot of the companionway Dawson halted, frowning. The man Keller had had stationed on guard there before was now nowhere in evidence.

Quickly, Dawson started up the companionway, his mind suddenly filled with a hundred ominous suspicions.

At the bridge entrance he stopped sharply, drawing in his breath in sudden horror at the scene before him.

Reynolds, the First Officer, lay dead at his feet, a blue hole burned through his forehead by an atomic pistol. Reynolds lay dead, and at the three directional controls, three space guidesmen slumped lifelessly forward in their seats!

Dawson didn't hesitate, he leaped toward the general alarm signal siren.

And it was at that instant that he heard the noise behind him. Heard the noise but was unable to turn swiftly enough to avoid the descending barrel of an atomic pistol which crashed down hard on the side of his skull.

Dawson felt a moment of blinding, flashing pain, and then a nausea of blackness curtained off consciousness. He fell heavily to the floor of the bridge....


CHAPTER VI

JED TOLBER, standing at the bridge entrance, smiled thinly.

"Good work," he told the burly spaceman standing over the inert figure of the Astera's captain.

There were two other spacemen behind Tolber, and now on a signal from him, they stepped around Dawson's body and moved the space-radio control board at the corner of the bridge. Tolber stepped over to the luminous course board, glancing down at it briefly.

There on its surface was reflected a moving black tube which represented the Asters. In the upper corner of the board was a slightly smaller tube-like silhouette. It was moving rapidly toward a point at which it would meet the big luxury liner.

Tolber smiled.

"All on course," he declared. "We should meet the Venusian cruiser in another fifteen minutes. Send out the proper space-radio signals."

Tolber drew a small, thin code book from his inner pocket and handed it to the spaceman at the radio controls. He turned back to the burly spacemen who had felled Dawson from behind.

"Get down there and see that the round-up of passengers moves along all right," he told him.

"Everyone?" the burly spaceman demanded.

"Of course," Tolber snapped. "Gather them together in the dining salon. Take the diplomatic staff representatives, the General's daughter, and any of the ship's officers still alive into the captain's quarters. They'll be held apart from the rest, of course. They'll be in for some heavy questioning."

The burly spaceman nodded and


WHEN young Second Officer Keller left Dana Selwin's stateroom, he stopped at his own quarters for several minutes before going to meet Captain Dawson on the bridge.

It was this delay, perhaps, which saved him from the fate of First Officer Reynolds.

On emerging from his stateroom, Keller saw the trio of oilers from the atomic engine room mustering the frightened women passengers from the cabins out onto the deck.

The young Second didn't hesitate.

His atomic pistol was in his hand instantly, and he took only the precaution of calling out to the oilers and making certain of their hostile intent when their first shots blasted at him.

Then Keller was on one knee, half concealed by a passageway turn, atomic pistol flashing through the semi-darkness as he picked off the nearest of the oilers.

Above the screams of the women and the startled curses of the remaining oilers, Keller could hear the beginning of similar confusion everywhere on the vessel.

The oilers had taken concealment behind a lifecraft after Keller's first shots had picked off their companion. And the women had taken refuge in the cabin from which they'd been driven.

Keller held fire, then, waiting for the first flash from the atomic pistols of the oilers.

Half a minute passed, and the young Second warily exposed a shoulder around the passageway turn. Both oilers fired, revealing their position, and Keller, deliberately taking aim, answered with four blasts.

One sharp scream indicated a hit, and the young Second Officer's lips went tight in satisfaction. There was another thirty seconds of silence. Then another series of shots from the remaining oiler. Keller screamed shrilly with the third.

Silence. Keller held his breath.

A minute passed. Cautiously, then, the oiler appeared around the edge of the lifecraft, moving toward Keller. The young Second waited until the oiler was less than ten feet away.

His shot caught the oiler squarely in the face, and the latter pitched forward to the deck.

Keller rose, then, stepping out from the passageway to the deck, gun still in hand. He moved around the body of the oiler.

He heard steps behind him. Heard the steps and wheeled too late. The butt of an electrorifle in the hands of the huge spaceman who had slipped out from an alcove to come up silently behind crashed brutally down on the young Second Officer's skull.


Illustration

He slumped limply to the deck...


DANA SELWIN re-read Dawson's note for the second time after young Second Officer Keller, had left her stateroom. An anxious frown was on her lovely features, and her gray eyes were troubled.

Then she turned again to the portfolio envelope the young Second had also delivered and regarded it appraisingly.

After a moment's hesitation, Dana picked up the small portfolio envelope and took it over to a small handbag lying on her stateroom writing desk.

She placed the envelope in the bag and snapped it firmly shut.


DANA spent the next several minutes pacing restlessly back and forth in the narrow confines of her stateroom, her frown even deeper and the worry in her lovely eyes more pronounced.

Suddenly, as if on a split second resolve, she turned and stepped to the door. Her hand was on the knob when she paused, seemingly remembering the handbag still on the table desk.

She crossed the room swiftly, picked it up, and started toward the door a second time.

Then it was that she heard the shots. They were unmistakable—definitely the sound of atomic pistol fire.

Shrill cries then, feminine and terrified, came faintly to her.

There was a sudden silence, while the girl, wide-eyed and frozen, stood indecisively there at the door.

Silence, still. Then two shots, answered by four more.

A sharp, masculine scream followed the fourth shot. Then there was silence once again. Seconds passed, and another series of shots blasted forth.

This time another shrill cry of a man in anguish.

Again silence. A minute passed, still half a minute more. Whitely, Dana waited.

A single shot roared out. Faintly, Dana heard the thud of-a falling body. Then footsteps.

She hesitated no longer. She threw open the door and stepped out onto the deck. Looking to the right, the girl saw a sudden, frightful tableau. A huge, burly spaceman, his back to her, was raising an electrorifle butt high above his head before bringing it down on the skull of an unsuspecting Space Officer.

Dana had barely time to see the officer's white young face as he wheeled—it happened so sickeningly fast. And then the gun butt crashed down on his skull and he slipped sidewards to the deck.

Dana had half formed her instinctive scream of alarm when burly arms wrapped tightly around her from behind, and a thick, accented voice said grimly:

"Easy, sister, you're coming along with me."

Dana Selwin tried to struggle, but it was futile.


SALLY LESTER crushed out another cigarette nervously on the stand by her lounge. Her features were pale, drawn, tightly tensed. Her hands worked agitated patterns on the handkerchief she carried.

The sounds of confusion, struggle, sporadic firing had been going on now for more than ten minutes. And it was obvious that they were rapidly making the girl more than distraught.

Several times she stepped toward the door of her cabin, only to turn away again, biting her full, ripe underlip in an anxiety of denial.

Once, when she heard the sharp cry of a small child, her body had tensed, then trembled uncontrollably while she fought to regain possession of her nerves.

At length the sounds of confusion and conflict died down, or faded away —she wasn't certain which—to be replaced by another and more ominous sound.

Somewhere in the blackness of the void surrounding the luxury liner Astera, another space craft was approaching. And Sally didn't need the peculiar rocket vibration of that alien craft to identify it for her.

"They're coming," she told herself again and again. "They're coming. Oh, God, and I'm responsible for part of this hell that's loose!"

A knock sounded on her door, finally, and when she answered, Jed Tolber swaggered into the stateroom. His thin lips were smirking, and in his pale eyes there was a savagery the girl had never seen there till now.

"The Astera is ours, baby," he announced in his nasal whine. "It was as easy as shooting sparrows."

The girl put her hand to her mouth. "How many?" she demanded hoarsely.

Tolber shrugged indifferently.

"Ten, twenty," he said.

The girl shuddered. "Women, or kids?"

Tolber's grin was slyly suggestive. "They weren't all crew members who acted up."

There was loathing and bitter self-accusation in Sally's voice as she answered.

"You didn't have to kill them," she said huskily. "Oh, God, your swine didn't have to shoot down helpless kids."

Tolber's face flushed with sudden anger.

"Listen, baby," he said harshly, "there were only sixteen of us, counting you. We were placed at the right spot and at the right moment. We weren't yellow. We took our chances. Six of us were killed in taking over this ship."

"You had the nerve centers of the ship sabotaged," the girl cried. "They didn't have a chance to resist. There was nothing but sneaking cowardice in your attack. There was no need to kill!"

Tolber's face was still flushed with anger. His pale eyes flashed cruelly, and he stepped swiftly up to the girl, catching her across the face with an open-palmed slap that rocked her back. "Shut up!" he snarled. "Shut up before I decide I don't need you no more."

The girl backed away, eyes fixed in horror on the gun Tolber had suddenly drawn. There was a red splotch where his slap had marked her pale features.

"You wouldn't dare!" she choked. Tolber laughed harshly, waving the barrel of the atomic pistol in his hand. "The hell I wouldn't!" he told her. "I'm no punk agent any more. I'm a big shot. I engineered this thing, and don't think I won't be the little white-haired boy in Venus for it. There'll be plenty of pay-back coming to me for this little feat, baby. Plenty."

"You're crazy," the girl said softly. "You're out of your mind. You can't play around with rattlesnakes for long before they'll decide to bite you."

Tolber laughed chokingly, and suddenly began to cough. He reached for his handkerchief, spit into it, and put it back into his tunic pocket.

"You'd better change that tune, baby," he said menacingly. "I'm getting sick of it. And if I tell our chums certain things about you when we're boarded, they won't let you hang around alive long."

"You're a renegade louse," the girl spat. "A traitorous scum. Do you think that the Venusians will give a damn for you now that you've served your purpose?"

Tolber stepped in swiftly and slapped her hard across the mouth.

"Shut up!" he shrilled. "Who the hell do you think you are? A Federation Girl Scout? Do you think you're any less traitor than me? Do you think you aren't a renegade?"

The girl began to sob chokingly. Tolber gave her a contemptuous glance and stepped over to a liquor cabinet. He poured a stiff hooker of brandy into a fat tumbler, downed it in a gulp, and began to cough raspingly again.

He pulled out his handkerchief, spat into it once more and placed it back in his tunic pocket. Then he poured himself another large hooker of brandy. He drank this a little more cautiously, wiping his mouth on his linen tunic sleeve after he had finished.

Tolber shoved the atomic pistol into his holster, then, and turned back to the girl.


Illustration

"Pull yourself together, baby," he said harshly. "I'm willing to forget that little outburst if it don't happen no more."

Sally Lester stood there unhearing, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders shaking with sobs.

A knock sounded on the stateroom door. Tolber stepped to it and opened it several feet. A burly spaceman, armed to the teeth, stood grinning in the semi-darkness of the deck.

"The Venusian cruiser is coming up to close quarters," he declared. "We better get our reception party ready for 'em."

Tolber nodded.

"You've taken those I told you about down to Dawson's stateroom?" he asked.

The spaceman nodded.

"No more resistance aboard?" Tolber asked.

"We've got the rest, crew and passengers, under guard in the main dining salon," the spaceman said.

Tolber smirked. "Good. I'll be out on deck in a minute.

He closed the door and turned back to the girl. He grabbed her by the hair and lifted her head from her hands.

He slapped her for the third time.

"Get under control," he snarled. "This is just starting."


CHAPTER VII

THE black gulf of pain that seared around Dawson's brain was growing grayish, and the fog was lifting. There was a splitting sensation of sudden nausea that passed swiftly to be followed by showering sparks of light which danced into a whirling pattern that grew larger and larger until at last Dawson blinked into consciousness.

He was aware that he lay on the bridge deck, and that a guard was standing over him. And then he raised his aching head.

The guard was a thick shouldered, blue jowled fellow. He held an electrorifle in his hands and it was pointed at Dawson's midriff. Dawson realized, then, that the Astera's atomic motors had stopped, and that the vessel was motionless, held only by the turbines of its degravitation mechanism.

The bodies of the space guidesmen had been removed from the seats behind the directional controls, and save for the guard and Dawson, the bridge was deserted.

Dawson tried weakly to rise, supporting himself with one hand as he managed to get to one knee.

The burly guard acted viciously and without warning, bringing the butt of his electrorifle smashing down on Dawson's shoulder, knocking him to the deck once more.

"Stay there," the guard snarled. "You're less likely to make trouble that way!"

Footsteps sounded, coming up the bridge ladder.

Another hulking spaceman appeared at the bridge entrance. He was armed with two atomic pistols, strapped to either side of his waist.

"Orders are to bring this one down to his stateroom," the new arrival told Dawson's guard.

The man with the electrorifle stepped back, grinning at Dawson mockingly. "Now get up," he told him.

Dawson rose painfully, swaying slightly, one hand pressed to the angry gash on his head.

The guard with the rifle gestured, stepping aside.

"Move ahead of me," he commanded. "And don't try no tricks."

Still swaying somewhat, Dawson lurched forward and the man with the electrorifle stepped behind him, prodding the muzzle of the weapon into  his back.

The spaceman with the twin atomic pistols stepped aside as Dawson neared the bridge entrance.

"You go ahead with this one," he said. "I'll follow and make double certain there isn't no funny stuff."

At the bridge ladder, Dawson hesitated an instant, holding to the duralloy side rails while he tried to summon strength enough to fight off the dizziness assailing him.

And then he caught his first sight of the Venusian cruiser.

It was lying half a mile abeam of the Astera, sleek, black, ominous. Even from where Dawson stood at the bridge entrance, he could make out the grim silhouettes of the heavy guns aboard the enemy craft. They were guns which could decimate the huge but unprotected Astera inside of five minutes, and undoubtedly they were at that moment trained on the big luxury space liner. Dawson cursed bitterly.

His guard prodded him viciously with the point of the electrorifle and laughed harshly.

"You got visitors, Captain," he chortled. There was mockery in the title he used.

Dawson steeled himself, lips tight, and started down the bridge ladder. His guard followed close behind.


WHEN Dawson stepped from the ladder to the deck there was another armed spaceman waiting, and he joined his two comrades as they escorted Dawson along the dimly lighted promenade to his stateroom.

Dawson's stateroom door was ajar when they arrived there. Light poured forth from the room, and the sound of voices could be heard. His guard prodded Dawson through the doorway, and he stood there in the room an instant blinking, trying to focus his eyes to the sudden glare.

"Well, well, Captain Dawson," a nasal voice greeted him smirkingly. "So nice of you to join us."

Dawson saw the speaker, then. He was a thin, waspish man, with sharp, rat-like features and a black, waxed moustache. His head was bald, and he mopped it with a handkerchief as he spoke.

There were others in the room, most of them cowed, badly frightened. Some six of them Dawson recognized as members of Farisha's diplomatic staff. There were two women, one standing near the thin, waspish moustached chap, and the other in the group of diplomatic officials. The first, looking at him wide-eyed and uncertainly, was Sally Lester; the second, coolly composed and apparently less frightened than the men around her, was Dana Selwin.

Dawson saw young Keller, then. The Second Officer was seated alone on the bunk side. His eyes and whitely tensed expression showed the anguish and rage he felt.

"I'm Jed Tolber, Captain Dawson," the sharp-featured, moustached fellow smirked.

"What the hell is this all about?" Dawson said evenly.

Tolber laughed. "I thought it would be so obvious you wouldn't havta ask," he said. "I—me and the boys—have taken over the Astera to welcome a few visitors."

Dawson stared past Tolber at Sally Lester.

"You're keeping lovely company, aren't you, kid?" he asked softly.

The girl turned away, her white teeth biting deep into her red underlip.

Dawson's eyes flicked briefly to those of Dana Selwin, and the glance they exchanged was studiously noncommittal. Then he looked back at Tolber.

"The party," Tolber said nasally, "is about to begin. I hear them coming."

He stepped to the stateroom door, pushing it open, and there was the sudden sound of footsteps coming along the deck to the cabin. Tolber was out side, now, and those in the room heard the footsteps halt and a voice, thick in Venusian accent.

"You are Tolber?"

The renegade murmured a respectful answer almost inaudibly, and the footsteps started again. Suddenly a purple tunicked delegation of Venusian Officers entered the stateroom. At their fore, beside Tolber, was a squat, thick-moustached, swarthy Venusian Vice Commander.

The group, three under officers, the Vice Commander, and Tolber, halted suddenly as the Vice Commander's eyes swept the room.

"You are Captain Dawson?" he asked, addressing Dawson.

Dawson didn't answer, but he met the swarthy Venusian's stare with cold contempt.

"Please," the Venusian Vice Commander declared silkenly, "do not be discourteous. It will make matters difficult."

He turned to Tolber.

"Give me the papers."

Eyes bright in triumph, Tolber reached into his inner tunic pocket and brought forth several small portfolio envelopes.

"The information is in one of these envelopes," he whined eagerly.


THE Vice Commander snatched the envelopes from his grasp. The silence in the room was electric while the squat Venusian Officer opened the first envelope. He looked up at Tolber, after glancing over the papers, and made a small grimace of impatience, tossing them carelessly to the floor. Then he opened the second envelope. The process was repeated, and the glance Tolber received this time was one of definite annoyance.

The Vice Commander opened the third envelope. His face went rigid in controlled rage as he threw it aside and whirled on the ashen faced Tolber.

"Fool! None of those is what I want. Give me the correct papers instantly. I want no more of this stupid suspense!"

Tolber's mouth opened and closed in horrified amazement. His voice was a croak.


Illustration

"Th— there ain't any others. Those're the papers we got. They have to be the right ones!"

The Vice Commander's gesture was lightning swift. He reached out, grabbing the renegade by the tunic collar with one hand, and smashing him with an open-palmed blow across the mouth with the other.

"Bungling dolt!" he raged.

He released his grasp on Tolber's collar and swung to face Dawson.

"Since he did not obtain the papers we desire, it is evident that they are in your possession," he told him.

Dawson shrugged. "Perhaps."

The Vice Commander's face was livid. "Give them to me," he snapped, "at once."

Dawson regarded him contemptuously. "Go to hell, space flea."

The Venusian trembled with wrathful indignation. He turned to one of his three under officers, giving a swift, angry command in his own tongue. The under officer saluted and left the stateroom. The Vice Commander turned back to Dawson.

"I think you should change your mind, Captain, at once," he said. "Otherwise I will be forced to secure the information concerning those papers in a most unpleasant fashion."

"Keep talking, space flea," Dawson told him. "You're really amusing." The Venusian's features went rigid in rage. His small eyes glinted.

"Very well," he rasped. "You like to be amused. We will try to please you."

The Venusian under officer returned to the stateroom, then. In his arms was a space helmet and an oxygen compression tank to which it was attached. He placed it on the floor beside the feet of the Vice Commander.

The Vice Commander turned to the two spacemen who had brought Dawson from the bridge.

"Place him in that chair, and hold him fast," he commanded, indicating Dawson.

The burly spacemen placed their weapons aside and advanced on Dawson. Had they expected resistance, they were disappointed. Dawson watched them a moment, shrugged, stepped to the chair the Venusian had indicated and sat down.

"I could prolong this," he said, "but a few shots might go astray around this room. It's less complicated this way."


THE spacemen stepped behind the chair on which he sat and seized his arms, holding them back tightly.

"Now the helmet," the Vice Commander directed. The under officer who had brought it into the stateroom picked it up and moved over to Dawson. He slipped the reinforced glassicade turret down over Dawson's head, fastening the learubber collar tightly around his massive shoulders so that no air could escape. Then he placed the oxygen compression tank on the floor beside the chair. In another moment, he had connected the pressure hoses leading from the tank to the space helmet. He stepped back, then, his glance on his Vice Commander, who moved over beside Dawson.

The Venusian paused, his arm on Dawson's shoulder, his eyes moving around the room at the white-faced captives.

"Too much pressure in a space helmet is a nightmare of cerebral pain," he said. "We are going to apply just such pressure, in increasing doses, on Captain Dawson. If any of you should have any information which the so foolish Captain refuses to disclose, now would be an excellent time to come forth with it."

There was a silence. Then Keller's voice, hoarse, anguished, broke forth. "You damned swine!"

The Venusian Vice Commander smiled contemptuously at the young Second Officer. Keller had risen to his feet.

"Perhaps you have such information?" he asked.

"You won't get anything from him," Keller shouted. "You'd never understand why. He's got guts. He won't talk if he dies in that damned torture!"

The Vice Commander raised his eyebrows. "We shall see," he declared. "And for the benefit of the rest of you, I must add that, should I fail to get the desired information from Captain Dawson, you will all have your turns in the helmet."

At a signal from the Venusian, then, an under officer stepped forward and picked up the compression tank. Swiftly, he adjusted the valve outlet until a steady pressure was pouring into the space helmet over Dawson.

There was silence, unbroken save for the hiss of the valve pressure as it entered the helmet. All eyes in the room were fastened on Dawson as he sat there helplessly, his expression still a crooked grin of defiance.

The tension mounted with the pressure of the oxygen entering the torture helmet. Dawson's brow was beaded with sweat now, and the crooked, defiant grin was fixed. Only his eyes betrayed the mounting pain, and they were beginning to glaze.

Suddenly the Venusian Vice Commander signaled the under officer to cut the pressure. The hissing of the valve stopped abruptly. The Vice Commander tapped on the glassicade turret of Dawson's helmet. His gestures asked his question.

Slowly, painfully, Dawson shook his head negatively.

The Vice Commander barked another order to his under officer and the hissing of the valve began again.

The grin was fading from Dawson's face now, slowly, as if the very pressure itself were forcing the corners of his mouth into a twisted pattern of pain.

A girl's voice knifed the air then in sharp anguish.

"Stop it, for God's sake. Stop it. I'll tell you what you want to know!" The Venusian Vice Commander barked an order to his under officer. The hissing ceased. He turned to face the girl, who now stood forward, her lovely features etched in sharp lines of anguish, her eyes welling the torment of her heart.

"So?" the Venusian asked. "Please say more."

Dana Selwin bit deep into her under-lip before she spoke.

"I have the papers," she choked. "Here. In my handbag!"


CHAPTER VIII

THE Venusian Vice Commander smiled triumphantly. He turned to his under officer.

"Remove the helmet," he directed. Then he stepped toward Dana Selwin, who was fumbling in her handbag and bringing forth a small portfolio envelope.

The under officer swiftly took the torture helmet from Dawson's head, and the spacemen holding his arms released them as he slumped forward only half-conscious.

"This is more sensible," the Venusian said. He extended his hand toward Dana. "Give them to me."

Dana had the envelope out of the bag now, and she held it in a strangely awkward fashion toward the Vice Commander. He stepped forward to take it.

At that instant the girl let the envelope flutter to the floor, and in the next instant, almost before anyone saw the small, snub-nosed atomic pistol in her hand, she had fired twice, straight into the chest of the Venusian.

He crumpled forward to the floor as the girl turned almost simultaneously and sent a third burst of flame at the under officer who stood by Dawson's chair. He hadn't time to drop the helmet which he still held in his arms and his mouth opened in a scream that never reached voice as he pitched face forward, dead.

It was Keller who leaped toward the abandoned electrorifle which had been set aside by one of the spacemen who'd held Dawson. And it was Keller who, in the space of split-seconds, turned it, club-fashion, on the totally off-guard Venusian officers. He caught the first squarely on the skull with the butt of the weapon, and, even as the fellow s slumped back against the wall, turned and brought the barrel of the rifle smashing in a vicious sideswipe against the remaining under officer's temple. The room was a bedlam of shouts and curses, then, as the diplomatic officials leaped into the melee to grapple with the burly spacemen.

Dawson was on his feet, swaying weakly and hanging to the chair for support as his head began to clear. Through the dazed blur of pain that still befogged him, he could see Jed Tolber, unnoticed in the confusion, slipping around the side of the room toward the door.

Dawson cursed thickly and staggered after him. Tolber glanced over his shoulder momentarily, and saw Dawson. The atomic pistol in his hand centered on his pursuer.

Dawson saw the weapon and lurched toward Tolber heedless of it.

There was a flash of white, an anguished female scream buried in the blast of the gun, and Sally Lester, clinging weakly to Tolber's pistol arm, slumped slowly to the floor. Her white tunic was splashed red with her own blood. The shot she'd stopped, the shot meant for Dawson, had torn gruesomely through her right side.

Tolber, his weapon held fiercely in the girl's death grip, cursed wildly, trying to free his arm from her grasp. He released the pistol an instant later, realizing it was the only way he could free himself, turned and dashed toward the door.


DAWSON stared shakenly down at the crumpled body of the girl.

And then he was on his knees beside her, lifting her head to his arms, staring sickly into her white, pain-twisted features. Her eyes fluttered open briefly and she recognized him. She tried to speak, but her words were sporadic, broken.

"Tolber... the code book ... Venusian ... has it ... message... get him, Har."

Her eyes closed and she went limp in his arms. Dawson knew that she was dead. Gently, he released her. Then he rose. Young Keller, electrorifle still in his hands, came up to him.

"Are you all right, sir?"

Dawson looked dully around the room. The Venusians lay dead or unconscious. The renegade spacemen were subdued. The diplomats now carried the arms they'd seized from their captors. Eyes bright, tunics torn, they looked almost ridiculously out of place in their unfamiliar roles.

Dawson turned back to Keller.

"I've an idea that we've still a chance to get clear of this mess, in spite of the fact that the Venusian cruiser still lies out there with all guns trained on the Astera. There are still a few renegade spacemen loose who'll have to be mopped up. I'm counting on you to take care of that quickly, and without any action that will arouse the suspicions of the Venusians aboard that cruiser. Meet me on the bridge the instant you have the ship under our control again."

Dawson moved to the door. He paused there an instant, his eyes meeting those of Dana Selwin.

"Thanks," he said briefly. "Even for a General's daughter, you're one hell of a cool customer in a pinch. But don't take any more chances. Please stay here in the stateroom until we have this thing under control."

Then Dawson stepped from the stateroom and was moving swiftly down the promenade deck toward the bridge ladder. Tolber would be on the bridge, he knew. Tolber frantically trying to establish a space-radio communication band that would enable him to summon help from the Venusian cruiser. Tolber unaware that the highly complicated space-radio apparatus of the Astera was impossible to operate without two-man control.

Reaching the bridge ladder, Dawson began its ascent with silent swiftness. And even as he neared the top, he could hear the sounds of the renegade Tolber's hysterical efforts to set the space-radio in operation.

Tolber didn't see Dawson as the latter stepped through the bridge entrance. He was too frantically en, grossed in his futile efforts to set the space-radio apparatus into operation.

Dawson stood there an instant, regarding the other grimly.

"Tolber!" he spat suddenly.

The thin, rat-faced renegade wheeled. His fear twisted features went ashen at the sight of Dawson. His pale eyes were wide with terror.

Dawson advanced slowly toward him. "Damn you," Tolber croaked. "They've all their guns trained on this ship, and if you think you'll escape being blown to fragments you're crazy." Dawson continued his approach, his big hands working in convulsive rage.

"How do you want to die, To1ber?" Dawson asked evenly. "I can break your neck or beat your brains out against a bulkhead. Take your choice."

"Don't come any nearer!" Tolber suddenly screeched. He was back hard against the space-radio panel, his hands pressed flat against its surface.


DAWSON was less than three feet from him when Tolber's lightning gesture caught him unprepared. In a split second the renegade's hand had flashed to his right pocket, and suddenly it came forth holding a razor-sharp, long bladed junovian brush knife.

Dawson hadn't time to step aside, and he had a swift sensation of burning pain as the knife hurled by Tolber sank deep into his right shoulder.

Then the renegade had leaped swiftly, savagely in at Dawson to follow up his momentary advantage. His claw-like hand was grasping frantically for the knife handle as Dawson staggered back.

Dawson had just time enough to bring a sweeping left squarely into Tolber's face. But the blow, delivered off balance, stayed the lunge of the renegade for only an instant. Then Tolber's hand found the knife handle, and in a twisting movement he ripped it free from Dawson's shoulder.

He stood back, then, breathing heavily, eyes flashing insanely, the bloody blade in his hand.

Tolber's next lunge at Dawson came immediately. But Dawson met it with a perfectly timed kick which caught the renegade's knife hand squarely at the wrist. His howl of pain was simultaneous with the clatter of the knife to the duralloy deck.

Then Dawson, able to use only his left hand, closed in on Tolber, catching him flush on the mouth with a vicious hook. Tolber slumped to his knees, his mouth a crimson blot from which he spat fragments of his teeth. He pawed out wildly for the knife, which lay several feet from him on the floor. Pawed out wildly and tried to rise, only to be caught in the face again by a sledge hammer left uppercut from Dawson.

Tolber slumped forward on his face, unconscious.

Breathing heavily, his shoulder a widening stain of red, Dawson bent swiftly over Tolber and searched through the renegade's tunic coat. He found the small Venusian code book he sought and rose to his feet.

Footsteps sounded coming up the bridge ladder, and Dawson turned to see Keller enter. With him were several members of the crew, heavily armed and grinning.

"Mopped up, sir," Keller said. "The Astera is under our control again." Dawson touched Tolber's inert form with his foot.

"Remove this," he told the crew members. Then he turned to Keller. "Get with me on the space-radio controls here. We're sending a message to the Venusians on the cruiser, in their own code. Here," he handed the code book to Keller, "you translate it. I've only one good arm to handle my end of the controls."

Keller took the book, frowning. "But, sir, a message to their cruiser—" he began bewilderedly.

"Tell them," Dawson said, moving to the nearest dual seat before the space-radio control board, "that everything has proceeded satisfactorily. Tell them that the Vice Commander and under officers are remaining on board the Astera to supervise the renegades who will act as a prize crew to bring the ship into the nearest Venusian port. Tell them to move at once to space lanes forty-three-nine seven."

Keller looked up, a grin breaking forth.

"But that is a Federation mine field," he said.

"Precisely," Dawson answered. "They'll blow their damned cruiser to bits trying to enter it." He paused to reflect a moment. "Tell them to proceed to that space lane designation immediately, and that we will follow them and meet them there. From that point on, they can convoy the Astera into one of their ports."

Grinning broadly now. Keller took his place at the space-radio dual controls, and with Dawson working in conjunction with him, the apparatus was crackling forth on a communication band in the next few minutes.

Working from the code book, Keller rapidly transmitted the message.

Moments of anxious silence passed, then, while they waited for reply. It came crackling back to them in the same code some two minutes later.

"Orders received. We are proceeding to designated lanes immediately. Congratulations."

"Thank God for the unquestioning obedience of the Venusian forces," Dawson grinned. Keller joined his laughter....


HOURS later, after the Astera resumed the originally charted course, somewhere off in the void there came the faint thunder of what quite conceivably could have been the explosion of a Venusian cruiser barging unwittingly into the death trap of a Federation mine field.

And hours after that, a scant two clays before the Astera arrived safely at Earth Port, Harlan Dawson, Captain of the vessel, and Dana Selwin stood quietly together in the semi-darkness of a deserted after deck.

"Keller told me that you insisted on taking part in the mopping up," Dawson told the girl. "For a General's daughter, you ought also to have been able to obey orders. I told you to stay in the stateroom."

Dana Selwin smiled. "But even a General's daughter is a woman. Women are very undisciplined." She paused. "And I've a further confession to make. I peeked into those papers."

Dawson grinned. "And you found out that they informed Earth Federation authorities that there was a fortune in gold bullion hidden in the Astera's hold, eh? The bullion carted out of Farisha before the Venusians could get it."

Dana Selwin nodded. "That's a precious cargo to carry."

Dawson shrugged. "The Astera's carrying an even greater treasure than that."

"Where?" the girl asked wide-eyed. "What?"

"Here," Dawson explained, taking her in his arms. "You."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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