by Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts
Sheer efficiency and good management can make a monopoly grow into being. And once it grows, someone with a tyrant mind is going to try to use it as a weapon if he can—
"That all, chief? Gonna quit now?"
Brian Hanson looked disgustedly at Pete Brent, his lanky assistant. That was the first sign of animation he had displayed all day.
"I am, but you're not," Hanson told him grimly. "Get your notes straightened up. Run those centrifuge tests and set up the still so we can get at that vitamin count early in the morning."
"Tomorrow morning? Aw, for gosh sakes, chief, why don't you take a day off sometime, or better yet, a night off. It'd do you good to relax. Boy, I know a swell blonde you could go for. Wait a minute, I've got her radiophone number somewhere—just ask for Myrtle."
Hanson shrugged himself out of his smock.
"Never mind Myrtle, just have that equipment set up for the morning. Good night." He strode out of the huge laboratory, but his mind was still on the vitamin research they had been conducting, he barely heard the remarks that followed him.
"One of these days the chief is going to have his glands catch up with him."
"Not a chance," Pete Brent grunted.
Brian Hanson wondered dispassionately for a moment how his assistants could fail to be as absorbed as he was by the work they were doing, then he let it go as he stepped outside the research building.
He paused and let his eyes lift to the buildings that surrounded the compound. This was the administrative heart of Venus City. Out here, alone, he let his only known emotion sweep through him, pride. He had an important role in the building of this great new city. As head of the Venus Consolidated Research Organization, he was in large part responsible for the prosperity of this vigorous, young world. Venus Consolidated had built up this city and practically everything else that amounted to anything on this planet. True, there had been others, pioneers, before the company came, who objected to the expansion of the monopolistic control. But, if they could not realize that the company's regime served the best interests of the planet, they would just have to suffer the consequences of their own ignorance. There had been rumors of revolution among the disgruntled older families.
He heard there had been killings, but that was nonsense. Venus Consolidated police had only powers of arrest. Anything involving executions had to be referred to the Interplanetary Council on Earth. He dismissed the whole business as he did everything else that did not directly influence his own department.
He ignored the surface transport system and walked to his own apartment. This walk was part of a regular routine of physical exercise that kept his body hard and resilient in spite of long hours spent in the laboratory. As he opened the door of his apartment he heard the water running into his bath. Perfect timing. He was making that walk in precisely seven minutes, four and four-fifths seconds. He undressed and climbed into the tub, relaxing luxuriously in the exhilaration of irradiated water.
He let all the problems of his work drift away, his mind was a peaceful blank. Then someone was hammering on his head. He struggled reluctantly awake. It was the door that was being attacked, not his head. The battering thunder continued persistently. He swore and sat up.
"What do you want?"
There was no answer; the hammering continued.
"All right! All right! I'm coming!" He yelled, crawled out of the tub and reached for his bathrobe. It wasn't there. He swore some more and grabbed a towel, wrapping it inadequately around him; it didn't quite meet astern. He paddled wetly across the floor sounding like a flock of ducks on parade.
Retaining the towel with one hand he inched the door cautiously open.
"What the devil—" He stopped abruptly at the sight of a policeman's uniform.
"Sorry, sir, but one of those rebels is loose in the Administration Center somewhere. We're making a check-up of all the apartments."
"Well, you can check out; I haven't got any blasted rebels in here." The policeman's face hardened, then relaxed knowingly.
"Oh, I see, sir. No rebels, of course. Sorry to have disturbed you. Have a good—Good night, sir," he saluted and left.
Brian closed the door in puzzlement. What the devil had that flat-foot been smirking about? Well, maybe he could get his bath now.
Hanson turned away from the door and froze in amazement. Through the open door of his bedroom he could see his bed neatly turned down as it should be, but the outline under the counterpane and the luxuriant mass of platinum-blond hair on the pillow was certainly no part of his regular routine.
"Hello." The voice matched the calm alertness of a pair of deep-blue eyes. Brian just stared at her in numbed fascination. That was what the policeman had meant with his insinuating smirk.
"Just ask for Myrtle." Pete Brent's joking words flashed back to him. Now he got it. This was probably the young fool's idea of a joke. He'd soon fix that.
"All right, joke's over, you can beat it now."
"Joke? I don't see anything funny, unless it's you and that suggestive towel. You should either abandon it or get one that goes all the way round."
Brian slowly acquired a complexion suitable for painting fire plugs.
"Shut up and throw me my dressing gown." He gritted.
The girl swung her legs out of bed and Brian blinked; she was fully dressed. The snug, zippered overall suit she wore did nothing to conceal the fact that she was a female. He wrapped his bathrobe austerely around him.
"Well, now what?" she asked and looked at him questioningly.
"Well, what do you think?" he burst out angrily. "I'm going to finish my bath and I'd suggest you go down to the laboratory and hold hands with Pete. He'd appreciate it." He got the impression that the girl was struggling heroically to refrain from laughing and that didn't help his dignity any. He strode into the bathroom, slammed the door and climbed back into the bath.
The door opened a little.
"Well, good-by now." The girl said sweetly. "Remember me to the police force."
"Get out of here!" he yelled and the door shut abruptly on a rippling burst of laughter. Damn women! It was getting so a man had to pack a gun with him or something. And Pete Brent. He thought with grim satisfaction of the unending extra work that was going to occur around the laboratory from now on. He sank back into the soothing liquid embrace of the bath and deliberately set his mind loose to wander in complete relaxation.
A hammering thunder burst on the outer door. He sat up with a groan.
"Lay off, you crazy apes!" he yelled furiously, but the pounding continued steadily. He struggled out of the bath, wrapped his damp bathrobe clammily around him and marched to the door with a seething fury of righteous anger burning within him. He flung the door wide, his mouth all set for a withering barrage, but he didn't get a chance. Four police constables and a sergeant swarmed into the room, shoving him away from the door.
"Say! What the—"
"Where is she?" the sergeant demanded.
"Quit stallin', bud. You know who. That female rebel who was in here."
"Rebel? You're crazy! That was just ... Pete said ... rebel? Did you say rebel?"
"Yeah, I said rebel, an' where is she?"
"She ... why ... why ... she left, of course. You don't think I was going to have women running around in here, do you?"
"She wuz in his bed when I seen her, sarge," one of the guards contributed. "But she ain't there now."
"You don't think that I—"
"Listen, bud, we don't do the thinkin' around here. You come on along and see the chief."
Brian had had about enough. "I'm not going anywhere to see anybody. Maybe you don't know who I am. You can't arrest me."
Brian Hanson, Chief of Research for Venus Consolidated, as dignified as possible in a damp bathrobe, glared out through the bars at a slightly bewildered Pete Brent.
"What the devil do you want? Haven't you caused enough blasted trouble already?"
"Me? For gosh sakes, chief—"
"Yes, you! If sending that damn blonde to my apartment and getting me arrested is your idea of a joke—"
"But, my gosh, I didn't send anybody, chief. And this is no joke. That wasn't Myrtle, that was Crystal James, old man James' daughter. They're about the oldest family on Venus. Police have been after her for months; she's a rebel and she's sure been raising plenty of hell around here. She got in and blew out the main communications control panel last night. Communications been tied up all day." Pete lowered his voice to an appreciative whisper, "Gosh, chief, I didn't know you had it in you. How long have you been in with that bunch? Is that girl as good-looking as they say she is?"
"Now listen here, Brent. I don't know—"
"Oh, it's all right, chief. You can trust me. I won't give you away."
"There's nothing to give away, you fool!" Brian bellowed. "I don't know anything about any damn rebels. All I want is to get out of here—"
"Gotcha, chief," Brent whispered understandingly. "I'll see if I can pass the word along."
"Come here, you idiot!" Brian screamed after his erstwhile assistant.
"Pipe down there, bud," a guard's voice cut in chillingly.
Brian retired to his cell bunk and clutched his aching head in frustrated fury.
For the nineteenth time Brian Hanson strode to the door of his cell and rattled the bars.
"Listen here, guard, you've got to take a message to McHague. You can't hold me here indefinitely."
"Shut up. Nobody ain't takin' no message to McHague. I don't care if you are—"
Brian's eyes almost popped out as he saw a gloved hand reach around the guard's neck and jam a rag over his nose and mouth. Swift shadows moved expertly before his astonished gaze. Another guard was caught and silenced as he came around the end of the corridor. Someone was outside his cell door, a hooded figure which seemed, somehow, familiar.
"Hello, pantless!" a voice breathed.
He knew that voice!
"What the devil are you doing here?"
"Somebody by the name of Pete Brent tipped us off that you were in trouble because of me. But don't worry, we're going to get you out."
"Damn that fool kid! Leave me alone. I don't want to get out of here that way!" he yelled wildly. "Guards! Help!"
"Shut up! Do you want to get us shot?"
"Sure I do. Guards! Guards!"
Someone came running.
"Guards are coming," a voice warned.
He could hear the girl struggling with the lock.
"Damn," she swore viciously. "This is the wrong key! Your goose is sure cooked now. Whether you like it or not, you'll hang with us when they find us trying to get you out of here."
Brian felt as though something had kicked him in the stomach. She was right! He had to get out now. He wouldn't be able to explain this away.
"Give me that key," he hissed and grabbed for it.
He snapped two of the coigns off in the lock and went to work with the rest of the key. He had designed these escape-proof locks himself. In a few seconds the door swung open and they were fleeing silently down the jail corridor.
The girl paused doubtfully at a crossing passage.
"This way," he snarled and took the lead. He knew the ground plan of this jail perfectly. He had a moment of wonder at the crazy spectacle of himself, the fair-haired boy of Venus Consolidated, in his flapping bathrobe, leading a band of escaping rebels out of the company's best jail.
They burst around a corner onto a startled guard.
"They're just ahead of us," Brian yelled. "Come on!"
"Right with you," the guard snapped and ran a few steps with them before a blackjack caught up with him and he folded into a corner.
"Down this way, it's a short cut." Brian led the way to a heavily barred side door.
The electric eye tripped a screaming alarm, but the broken key in Brian's hands opened the complicated lock in a matter of seconds. They were outside the jail on a side street, the door closed and the lock jammed immovably behind them.
Sirens wailed. The alarm was out! The street suddenly burst into brilliance as the floodlights snapped on. Brian faltered to a stop and Crystal James pushed past him.
"We've got reinforcements down here," she said, then skidded to a halt. Two guards barred the street ahead of them.
Brian felt as though his stomach had fallen down around his ankles and was tying his feet up. He couldn't move. The door was jammed shut behind them, they'd have to surrender and there'd be no explaining this break. He started mentally cursing Pete Brent, when a projector beam slashed viciously by him. These guards weren't fooling! He heard a gasping grunt of pain as one of the rebels went down. They were shooting to kill.
He saw a sudden, convulsive movement from the girl. A black object curved out against the lights. The sharp, ripping blast of an atomite bomb thundered along the street and slammed them to the ground. The glare left them blinded. He struggled to his feet. The guards had vanished, a shallow crater yawned in the road where they had been.
"We've got to run!" the girl shouted.
He started after her. Two surface transport vehicles waited around the corner. Brian and the rebels bundled into them and took away with a roar. The chase wasn't organized yet, and they soon lost themselves in the orderly rush of Venus City traffic.
The two carloads of rebels cruised nonchalantly past the Administration Center and pulled into a private garage a little beyond.
"What are we stopping here for?" Brian demanded. "We've got to get away."
"That's just what we're doing," Crystal snapped. "Everybody out."
The rebels piled out and the cars pulled away to become innocuous parts of the traffic stream. The rebels seemed to know where they were going and that gave them the edge on Brian. They followed Crystal down into the garage's repair pit.
She fumbled in the darkness a moment, then a darker patch showed as a door swung open in the side of the pit. They filed into the solid blackness after her and the door thudded shut. The beam of a torch stabbed through the darkness and they clambered precariously down a steep, steel stairway.
"Where the dickens are we?" Brian whispered hoarsely.
"Oh, you don't have to whisper, we're safe enough here. This is one of the air shafts leading down to the old mines."
"Old mines? What old mines?"
"That's something you newcomers don't know anything about. This whole area was worked out long before Venus Consolidated came to the planet. These old tunnels run all under the city."
They went five hundred feet down the air shaft before they reached a level tunnel.
"What do we do? Hide here?"
"I should say not. Serono Zeburzac, head of McHague's secret police will be after us now. We won't be safe anywhere near Venus City."
"Don't be crazy. That Serono Zeburzac stuff is just a legend McHague keeps up to scare people with."
"That's what you think," Crystal snapped. "McHague's legend got my father and he'll get all of us unless we run the whole company right off the planet."
"Well, what the dickens does he look like?" Brian asked doubtfully.
"I don't know, but his left hand is missing. Dad did some good shooting before he died," she said grimly.
Brian was startled at the icy hardness of her voice.
Two of the rebels pulled a screening tarpaulin aside and revealed one of the old-type ore cars that must have been used in the ancient mines. A brand-new atomic motor gleamed incongruously at one end. The rebels crowded into it and they went rumbling swiftly down the echoing passage. The lights of the car showed the old working, rotten and crumbling, fallen in in some places and signs of new work where the rebels had cleared away the debris of years.
Brian struggled into a zippered overall suit as they followed a twisting, tortuous course for half an hour, switching from one tunnel to another repeatedly until he had lost all conception of direction. Crystal James, at the controls, seemed to know exactly where they were going.
The tunnel emerged in a huge cavern that gloomed darkly away in every direction. The towering, massive remains of old machinery, eroded and rotten with age crouched like ancient, watching skeletons.
"These were the old stamp mills," the girl said, and her voice seemed to be swallowed to a whisper in the vast, echoing darkness.
Between two rows of sentinel ruins they came suddenly on two slim Venusian atmospheric ships. Dim light spilled over them from a ragged gash in the wall of the cavern. Brian followed Crystal into the smaller of the two ships and the rest of the rebels manned the other.
"Wait a minute, how do we get out of here?" Brian demanded.
"Through that hole up there," the girl said matter-of-factly.
"You're crazy, you can't get through there."
"Oh, yeah? Just watch this." The ship thundered to life beneath them and leaped off in a full-throttled take-off.
"We're going to crash! That gap isn't wide enough!"
The sides of the gap rushed in on the tips of the stubby wings. Brian braced himself for the crash, but it didn't come. At the last possible second, the ship rolled smoothly over. At the moment it flashed through the opening it was stood vertically on edge.
Crystal held the ship in its roll and completed the maneuver outside the mountain while Brian struggled to get his internal economy back into some semblance of order.
"That's some flying," he said as soon as he could speak.
Crystal looked at him in surprise. "That's nothing. We Venusians fly almost as soon as we can walk."
"Oh—I see," Brian said weakly and a few moments later he really did see. Two big, fast, green ships, carrying the insignia of the Venus Consolidated police, cruised suddenly out from a mountain air station.
An a๋rial torpedo exploded in front of the rebel ship. Crystal's face set in grim lines as she pulled the ship up in a screaming climb. Brian got up off the floor.
"You don't have to get excited like that," he complained. "They weren't trying to hit us."
"That's what you think," Crystal muttered. "Those children don't play for peanuts."
"But, girl, they're just Venus Consolidated police. They haven't got any authority to shoot anyone."
"Authority doesn't make much difference to them," Crystal snapped bitterly. "They've been killing people all over the planet. What do you think this revolution is about?"
"You must be mistak—" He slumped to the floor as Crystal threw the ship into a mad, rolling spin. A tremendous crash thundered close astern.
"I guess that was a mistake!" Crystal yelled as she fought the controls.
Brian almost got to his feet when another wild maneuver hurled him back to the floor. The police ship was right on their tail. The girl gunned her craft into a snap Immelmann and swept back on their pursuers, slicing in close over the ship. Brian's eyes bulged as he saw a long streak of paint and metal ripped off the wing of the police ship. He saw the crew battling their controls in startled terror. The ship slipped frantically away and fell into a spin.
"That's them," Crystal said with satisfaction. "How are the others doing?"
"Look! They're hit!" Brian felt sick.
The slower rebel freight ship staggered drunkenly as a torpedo caught it and ripped away half a wing. It plunged down in flames with the white flowers of half a dozen parachutes blossoming around it. Brian watched in horror as the police ship came deliberately about. They heard its forward guns go into action. The bodies of the parachutists jerked and jumped like crazy marionettes as the bullets smashed into them. It was over in a few moments. The dead rebels drifted down into the mist-shrouded depths of the valley.
"The dirty, murdering rats!" Brian's voice ripped out in a fury of outrage. "They didn't have a chance!"
"Don't get excited," Crystal told him in a dead, flat voice. "That's just normal practice. If you'd stuck your nose out of your laboratory once in a while, you'd have heard of these things."
"But why—" He ducked away instinctively as a flight of bullets spanged through the fuselage. "They're after us now!"
Crystal's answer was to yank the ship into a rocketing climb. The police were watching for that. The big ship roared up after them.
"Just follow along, suckers," Crystal invited grimly.
She snapped the ship into a whip stall. For one nauseating moment they hung on nothing, then the ship fell over on its back and they screamed down in a terminal velocity dive, heading for the safety of the lower valley mists. The heavier police ship, with its higher wing-loading, could not match the maneuver. The rebel craft plunged down through the blinding fog. Half-seen, ghostly fingers of stone clutched up at them, talons of gray rock missed and fell away again as Crystal nursed the ship out of its dive.
"Phew!" Brian gasped. "Well, we got away that time. How in thunder can you do it?"
"Well, you don't do it on faith. Take a look at that fuel gauge! We may get as far as our headquarters—or we may not."
For twenty long minutes they groped blindly through the fog, flying solely by instruments and dead reckoning. The needle of the fuel gauge flickered closer and closer to the danger point. They tore loose from the clinging fog as it swung firmly to "Empty." The drive sputtered and coughed and died.
"That's figuring it nice and close," Crystal said in satisfaction. "We can glide in from here."
"Into where?" Brian demanded. All he could see immediately ahead was the huge bulk of a mountain which blocked the entire width of the valley and soared sheer up to the high-cloud level. His eyes followed it up and up—
"Look! Police ships. They've seen us!"
"Maybe they haven't. Anyway, there's only one place we can land."
The ship lunged straight for the mountain wall!
"Are you crazy? Watch out—we'll crash!"
"You leave the flying to me," Crystal snapped.
She held the ship in its glide, aiming directly for the tangled foliage of the mountain face. Brian yelped and cowered instinctively back. The lush green of the mountainside swirled up to meet them. They ripped through the foliage—there was no crash. They burst through into a huge, brilliantly lighted cavern and settled to a perfect landing. Men came running. Crystal tumbled out of her ship.
"Douse those lights," she shouted. "The police are outside."
A tall, lean man with bulbous eyes and a face like a startled horse, rushed up to Crystal.
"What do you mean by leading them here?" he yelled, waving his hands.
"They jumped us when we had no fuel, and quit acting like an idiot."
The man was shaking, his eyes looked wild. "They'll kill us. We've got to get out of here."
"Wait, you fool. They may not even have seen us." But he was gone, running toward a group of ships lined up at the end of the cavern.
"Who was that crazy coot and what is this place?" Brian demanded.
"That was Gort Sterling, our leader," the girl said bitterly. "And this is our headquarters." One of the ships at the back of the cavern thundered to life, streaked across the floor and burst out through the opening Crystal's ship had left. "He hasn't got a chance! We'll be spotted for sure, now."
The other rebels waited uncertainly, but not for long. There was the crescendoing roar of ships in a dive followed by the terrific crash of an explosion.
"They got him!" Crystal's voice was a moan. "Oh, the fool, the fool!"
"Sounded like more than one ship. They'll be after us, now. Is there any other way of getting out of this place?"
"Not for ships. We'll have to walk and they'll follow us."
"We've got to slow them down some way, then. I wonder how the devil they traced us? I thought we lost them in that fog."
"It's that Serono Zeburzac, the traitor. He knows these mountains as well as we do."
"The Zeburzacs are one of the old families, but he sold out to McHague."
"Well, what do we do now? Just stand here? It looks like everybody's leaving."
"We might as well just wait," Crystal said hopelessly. "It won't do us any good to run out into the hills. Zeburzac and his men will follow."
"We could slow them down some by swinging a couple of those ships around so their rocket exhausts sweep the entrance to the cavern," Brian suggested doubtfully. She looked at him steadily.
"You sound like the only good rebel left. We can try it, anyway."
They ran two ships out into the middle of the cavern, gunned them around and jockeyed them into position—not a moment too soon.
Half a dozen police showed in brief silhouette as they slipped cautiously into the cavern, guns ready, expecting resistance. They met a dead silence. A score or more followed them without any attempt at concealment. Then Brian and Crystal cut loose with the drives of the two ships.
Startled screams of agony burst from the crowded group of police as they were caught in the annihilating cross fire of roaring flame. They crisped and twisted, cooked to scorched horrors before they fell. A burst of thick, greasy smoke rushed out of the cavern. Two of the police, their clothes and flesh scorched and flaming, plunged as shrieking, living torches down the mountainside.
Crystal was white and shaking, her face set in a mask of horror, as she climbed blindly from her ship.
"Let's get away! I can smell them burning," she shuddered and covered her face with her hands.
Brian grabbed her and shook her.
"Snap out of it," he barked. "That's no worse than shooting helpless men in parachutes. We can't go, yet; we're not finished here."
"Oh, let them shoot us! I can't go through that again!"
"You don't have to. Wait here."
He climbed back into one of the ships and cut the richness of the fuel mixture down till the exhaust was a lambent, shuddering stutter, verging on extinction. He dashed to the other ship and repeated the maneuver, fussing with the throttle till he had the fuel mixture adjusted to critical fineness. The beat of the stuttering exhaust seemed to catch up to the other and built to an aching pulsation. In a moment the whole mass of air in the cavern hit the frequency with a subtle, intangible thunder of vibration.
Crystal screamed. "Brian! There's more police cutting in around the entrance."
Brian clambered out of the ship and glanced at the glowing points in the rock where the police were cutting their way through outside the line of the exhaust flames. The pulsating thunder in the cavern crescendoed to an intolerable pitch. A huge mass of stalactites crashed to the floor.
"It's time to check out," Brian shouted.
Crystal led the way as they fled down the escape tunnel. The roaring crash of falling rock was a continuous, increasing avalanche of sound in the cavern behind them.
They emerged from the tunnel on the face of the mountain, several hundred yards to the east of the cavern entrance. The ground shook and heaved beneath them.
"The whole side of the mountain's sliding," Crystal screamed.
"Run!" Brian shoved her and they plunged madly through the thick tangle of jungle away from the slide.
Huge boulders leaped and smashed through the matted bush around them. Crystal went down as the ground slipped from under her. Brian grabbed her and a tree at the same time. The tree leaned and crashed down the slope, the whole jungle muttered and groaned and came to life as it joined the roaring rush of the slide. They were tumbled irresistibly downward, riding the edge of the slide for terrifying minutes till it stilled and left them bruised and shaken in a tangle of torn vegetation.
The remains of two police ships, caught without warning in the rush as they attempted to land, stuck up grotesquely out of the foot of the slide. The dust was settling away. A flock of brilliant blue, gliding lizards barking in raucous terror, fled down the valley. Then they were gone and the primeval silence settled back into place.
Brian and Crystal struggled painfully to solid ground. Crystal gazed with a feeling of awe at the devastated mountainside.
"How did you do it?"
"It's a matter of harmonics," Brian explained. "If you hit the right vibratory combination, you can shake anything down. But now that we've made a mess of the old homestead, what do we do?"
"Walk," Crystal said laconically. She led the way as they started scrambling through the jungle up the mountainside.
"Where are we heading for?" Brian grunted as he struggled along.
"The headquarters of the Carlton family. They're the closest people we can depend on. They've kept out of the rebellion, but they're on our side. They've helped us before."
Two days later, Crystal and Brian, weary, bedraggled and bushworn, stumbled on a rocky trail that twisted up through a narrow valley toward the Carlton place. Trails were scarce in the terrific Venusian mountain country where nearly all communication was by air.
Crystal knew this path.
"We're almost there," she said, and they pushed along faster.
"Listen! What's that?" Brian stopped and they both heard the sound of aircraft taking off. The pulsing roar of the rocket drives approached and a V formation of five ships swept by overhead.
Crystal looked at Brian with dawning horror behind her eyes. "Police!"
"Good. They're just leaving; they were probably just checking up on the Carltons."
Crystal shivered. "When Serono Zeburzac checks up on someone, there usually isn't much left. Come on." She started at a run down the trail.
They slowed at the sight of a clearing ahead. A faint sound reached them, a sobbing, inarticulate moan of unexpressible agony that froze them in their tracks.
"What's that?" Brian gasped.
Crystal's face was dead-white as they moved cautiously forward. They stared out into the clearing in dumb horror. The huge, rambling Carlton mansion was a smoking heap of ruins. A giant Venus thorn bush in front of the house was scorched and charred by the flames. One of its murderous, yard-long spikes carried a terribly gruesome burden. Crystal whimpered and stumbled forward before Brian could stop her. She collapsed in a sobbing heap in front of the gray-haired man impaled on the giant thorn. The figure stirred feebly.
"He's alive," Brian muttered. "Crystal! Snap out of it. Get up and give me a hand. We'll cut him down."
With Crystal's help Brian hacked off the thorn and gently eased the frail, old man to the ground. His breath fluttered out between lips flecked with pink-tinged froth. His eyes tried to smile his thanks through their haze of pain.
Crystal held the weakly gripping hands. "Who did this to you?"
The gray lips moved and worked, struggling painfully to form words. The whisper was almost inaudible:
"Serono ... Zeburzac."
Crystal's face hardened to a mask of vicious cruelty as she fought her emotions down.
"We'll get him."
"No." The elder Carlton seemed to gather strength. "Get away—escape."
Crystal gripped his hands and seemed to hold him back from the edge of Eternity by sheer strength of will.
"Where? Where can we go?"
The eyes fluttered open again, the shadow of death lurked in their depths. "Go ... the place where the Five Valleys meet ... beware ... Zeburzac."
His breath drifted out in an effortless sigh. The tortured body was still. Crystal rose unsteadily to her feet. She turned blindly and Brian took her in his arms, trying to comfort her as her wild sobbing got out of control. He patted her shoulder awkwardly.
"Take it easy, kid," he muttered helplessly. His laboratory experience hadn't covered any such contingency as this.
"Brian, take me away. I can't stand this. Hide me somewhere before that fiend comes back."
"I thought we were part of a revolution that was going to clean them off the planet," Brian reminded her grimly.
"We can't fight this. We haven't got a chance. Zeburzac has everything."
"He hasn't got us yet. Where's this Five Valleys place? Can we get there?"
"Yes, but it will be no use. I want to quit now."
Brian's arms tightened around her. His voice was bleak and cold. "I'm not quitting. I'm going to get Serono Zeburzac."
The girl in his arms was still for a moment. Then she let go a long, trembling sigh of weary resignation.
"All right, I'm with you. Let's start traveling."
"The place where Five Valleys meet." Crystal waved her arm out toward the tremendous green bowl of emptiness that curved away all round them.
The sides of the gigantic cup had been cracked and split by some cataclysmic upheaval in the turbulent youth of the young planet. They stood at the mouth of one of the sheer, ragged slashes that had given the place its name. The other four were streaks of darker green against the distant walls. Beneath the eternal-night cloud level the air was clear.
Directly across from them a tremendous, sharp-prowed promontory sheered up from the depths. Capping it, against the somber green of the valley walls, the snow-white structure of a dream palace rose in airy splendor. In the dark setting, the walls were radiant with breath-taking beauty, so perfect in balance and line that it concealed the huge massiveness of the buildings, postponed for a moment the realization that the great structure was a glorious ruin.
Brian let his breath go. "I didn't know there was anything like that on Venus," he said in open admiration. "Who built it?"
"The Martins. They used to operate the mines in this district, but they were worked out years ago and the family scattered. They still own this place. Nobody lives in it officially, but there must be some help here or Grenville Carlton wouldn't have told us to come. Maybe the rebels are using the old hangars."
"Well, there's only one way to find out. We gotta climb."
"There's somebody here, all right," Brian said as they entered the great courtyard through a ruined gateway. "Look, there's a couple of ships over there."
"And they're our people, too." There was a lilt in Crystal's voice. "That far ship is Jimmy Thornton's—I'd know it anywhere." They approached the huge main doors of the great, white mansion.
One door swung partly open and a swarthy, powerful man stepped hastily out. He carried an atomic projector.
"Halt!" he commanded. "Who are you?"
"Oh, you don't need to get excited, we're rebels, too," Crystal told him. "Who's here?"
"Who is it, Max?" a pleasant voice inquired from the dim hallway.
"Two more of the rebels, sir," the guard replied woodenly.
"Oh—rebels? Oh, yes, of course. Show them in, Max." The guard stood respectfully aside as Crystal and Brian entered the huge, echoing chamber.
"To your right," the guard directed and they entered a small, exquisite room. The man behind the desk seemed to fit perfectly into this cultured setting, he was small and neat, silver hair frosted his temples, framing gentle, delicate features. He smiled with pleasant, disarming frankness as he rose to greet them.
"You'll have to excuse Max, we didn't know you were coming, of course. Just make yourselves at home. Young Jim Thornton arrived a short while ago. You'll be able to see him presently. You'll be hungry, of course. Max, bring some refreshment."
"Have many of us arrived?" Crystal asked anxiously.
"I'm sorry to say, very few. Just Jim Thornton and his party and you and Mr. Hanson."
Brian started. "How do you now know my name?" he asked in surprise.
"Oh, we've all heard of you, Mr. Hanson, and how you got Miss James out of Venus City. Brilliant work, I must say, and the way you routed the police in the caverns was truly a remarkable accomplishment. But—what made you come to this place? We've not been established here long."
"Grenville Carlton told us about it," Crystal said briefly.
"Carlton? Old Grenville. How is he?"
"He's dead." Crystal's face hardened to a white mask of hatred at the memory. "We found him impaled on a thorn bush in front of the ruins of his own house." Her words were brutally blunt with the tremendous surge of emotion behind them.
"Impaled ... tut tut tut ... my goodness, how terrible! Do you know who could have done it?"
"Yes. We found Carlton before he died. It was that rat Serono Zeburzac who killed him."
"Oh—do you know what this Serono Zeburzac looks like?"
"We've never seen him," Crystal cut in grimly, "but my father did, over the sights of an atomic flame projector. Serono Zeburzac has no left hand."
"Oh—" The gray-haired man behind the desk was interrupted by a terrible scream of human agony.
"No ... NO—" The words rose in a tortured frenzy. "Oh, God!... Not that again.... AAAAaaaaa—"
Crystal leaped to her feet.
"Jim—that was Jim Thornton! What's happened—" Her eyes turned in startled question to the slight, calm figure behind the desk. His benign expression of quiet peace had not been disturbed in the slightest by the soul-rending cry. He placed his fingertips precisely together.
"Are you sure Zeburzac was missing his left hand?"—he flexed the fingers of his own left hand for emphasis—"and not—his right?" There was a sickening click in the sudden, dead stillness of the room as he twisted at his right hand. It came away at the wrist, the thumb dropped lifelessly down. The fingers of his left hand curled around it. The wrist of the severed member was pointed toward them. In fascinated horror they stared down the muzzle of a tiny, short-range, atomic projector concealed in the artificial hand.
Crystal recoiled, one faltering step.
"Serono—Grenville was trying to warn us!"
Brian caught her before she fell.
"There is no cause for excitement. Sit down, please." The quiet courtesy of Serono's voice did not alter, but the steel thread of command was subtly woven into his words. "You have been very clever, Hanson, too clever. I thought, almost, you had escaped me, but no one ever does. My enemies are delivered into my hands; soon there will be none on Venus."
The moment of shock passed. Brian's superlatively keen faculties keyed acutely to the emergency. They needed time first.
"How do we rate as your enemies?" he stalled.
"Mr. Hanson, we are not children. You know why you are my enemy. I recognized you years ago, you are far too brilliant a man to have against me, and you would never be with me. Your loyalty to Venus Consolidated made you dangerous."
"My loyalty? What about yours? I thought you were working with McHague and the company."
"Oh, of course, as long as it suits my purpose."
"Suppose someone got word to the Earth Council. You wouldn't last long, then."
"Perhaps not, but Venus Consolidated controls all communication with Earth and soon I will control Venus Consolidated. But I'm sure you must be tired. Max will show you to your quarters." The guard ushered them out with the muzzle of a projector.
They started across the huge, ruined hall. Crystal stumbled blindly over a fragment of broken masonry. She sagged to her knees. The guard stopped abruptly.
"Don't try nothin', you guys," he snarled warningly.
"Quit being a fool, you idiot," Brian barked to cover Crystal's quick whisper of instructions. "This girl's sick. Give me a hand. You take her feet," he directed, as he lifted her shoulders. The guard hesitated doubtfully; his instructions didn't cover this.
"O. K., but just don't try nothin'." He hung the projector on his belt and bent down. One startled yelp gurgled and died in his throat as Crystal's feet slammed into his jaw and Brian's clenched hands rabbit-punched down on the back of his neck.
"That ought to hold him," Crystal muttered as she struggled to her feet.
Brian picked up the projector. He recognized it; it was a new model, two of this type had been sent to his laboratory for testing before the company invested in them.
"Well, what are we waiting for? C'mon, we'll go shoot Serono's other hand off," Crystal suggested grimly.
"D'you think that'd stop them? Us with one projector against what they've got?"
"Well, it would make it interesting for a while. You don't think we have a chance of getting away from here, do you?"
"I don't know," Brian said thoughtfully. "But when we were testing this model projector one of them kind of blew up in our face. I think it developed a short that converted it into the old-type regenerative circuit. We never were sure about it; there wasn't enough left to find out. Those old regeneratives are always dangerous, they were liable to heat up and explode at any time if you didn't watch them. If we'd been testing the model with a full charge of fuel, I wouldn't be here in this mess now." He slid back the inspection cover of the projector's compactly complicated ignition circuit and started poking experimentally at the system of tiny coils and delicate wires.
"Damn!" He swore briefly as a white-hot spark jabbed at his fingers, but he held on and the wires fused together. "That should do it. Now we're all set. Where's a hole to get out through?"
"How do you like that one?" Crystal suggested, indicating a ragged gap in the broken, ancient wall of the hall. "That's big enough to fly through and there's two guards out there in the courtyard with nice, shiny, new projectors ready to make smoke out of us. Want to go and interview them?"
"No. If we make enough noise here, they'll come and see us," Brian muttered as he closed the firing switch of the projector. There was no stab of flame from the muzzle. He heaved the weapon back into the middle of the hall. "As soon as that warms up there should be considerable distraction taking place in here."
"Why? What's going to happen?" Crystal asked.
"C'mon. Get over by the wall and be ready to run."
They started for the gap in the wall. A dull, heavy rumble got under way behind them. It built to a terrific, thundering crash as the universe split in a sheet of roaring flame. They were lifted and hurled bodily outward. They sprawled in a tangled heap on the pavement. Brian struggled to his feet in a choking swirl of dust and yanked Crystal with him. The progressive explosion of the projector's fuel battered the ancient structure, the wall bulged and cracked. The startled guards gawped stupidly at the two figures that had erupted so violently.
Masonry crashed to the pavement. The guards climbed over each other in a mad scramble to escape. Crystal and Brian staggered groggily after them, heading for Jim Thornton's ship. Brian boosted Crystal in, scrambled after her and slammed the hatch shut. The drive spluttered and roared to life, the ship ripped crazily into the air.
Arnold McHague, Director in Chief of Venus Consolidated, swung his heavy body around in fearful expectancy. Just a faint snick as though a lock had sprung, but there was no door on that wall. A panel slipped noiselessly aside.
"Serono—" The half-voiced question hung on a note of fear.
"No, it's not Serono, McHague." A tall, ragged figure, followed by a smaller one, stepped from the opening.
"Hanson!" A surge of relief sounded in McHague's voice, then died out. Brian Hanson was a rebel. He fumbled vaguely for the panel of call buttons on his desk, but his hand froze as he saw the projector trained on his expansive middle.
"I couldn't miss your stomach from here," Brian told him softly.
"What do you want?"
"I want to get to Earth and I want your private getaway ship."
"I don't know anything about any ship."
"It's no good, McHague. The drive tests for that ship were run in my laboratory."
"There's no fuel on board. It's in no condition to fly," McHague said hopelessly.
"It had better be ready to take off. Serono doesn't trust you any more than you trust him. About your only chance of living is for me to get to Earth and bring enough of the Planetary Patrol to head Serono off."
"I can't help you. I'm in this with Zeburzac. If the police get him, they've got me."
"You can be on our side. The way I'll tell it on Earth you were just stringing Serono along till I could get clear."
McHague shook his head. "I wouldn't live for a day if I helped you. You don't know Zeburzac. His family ran Venus in the old days. He means to restore that rule with himself as absolute dictator. I wouldn't be safe even on Earth."
"You'll just have to take that chance."
"We're wasting time," Crystal cut in sharply anxious. "Come on."
Her words brought McHague reluctantly to his feet. "I'll do it," he muttered thickly. "Come with me."
The misty gloom of a Venusian night shrouded the jungle as three figures forced their way along an almost completely overgrown trail. The lights of Venus City gleamed dimly through the night murk behind them. McHague stumbled and swore in the lead as the trail twisted down the steepness of the ridge. He came to a halt on a long, level bench.
"This is the place."
"I don't see anything," Crystal said doubtfully.
"You didn't think I was going to leave the ship where Zeburzac could find it, did you?"
McHague scrabbled around in the roots of a bush, found what he wanted, a metal lever hardly distinguishable in the tangle, and yanked it up. His action was followed by a slight vibration underfoot, a heavy, dull ripping of roots sounded in front of them as the ground parted before their eyes. Two balanced sections tilted upward, away from each other, revealing the Stygian blackness of a pit.
"It's a ventilating shaft of one of the old mines. The ship's down there about two hundred feet. It's got a Nordenfeldt control panel. Can you handle it?"
"Sure, but how can I get down?"
"There's a ladder—but wait a minute, Hanson." McHague's heavy-jowled face was ghastly in the dim light. "You've got to play this straight, see. I'm giving you a chance and you've got to stand by me. If Serono knew I was doing this—You've got to get those police here—"
"Don't worry," Brian told him grimly. "Serono is no friend of mine, either. Where's this ladder?"
"Just over the edge on this side."
Crystal laid her hand on Brian's arm.
"Good luck." She started to smile encouragingly, but she couldn't quite make it. "Brian—" Her voice choked up. "Oh, Brian, be careful—" It was almost a sob. Then she was in his arms. He held her for a moment and buried his face in the soft, silver glory of her hair.
"I'll be all right. You take care of yourself till I get back. I won't be long, then we'll get this mess cleaned up."
He disengaged himself gently. Crystal watched in silence as Brian clambered over the edge and disappeared into the blackness of the shaft. Minutes dragged slowly by.
"Oh, I hope he makes it," Crystal murmured.
"He probably will. Mr. Hanson is a very resourceful man."
The soft, quiet voice was just behind her. Crystal turned in slow, hopeless terror.
McHague's breath sucked in in a startled gasp of horror.
"But, of course. I wanted to be here to wish Mr. Hanson bon voyage. I hope he has a pleasant flight—although it will be a short one."
"What do you mean?" McHague whispered.
"Why, McHague, my dear friend, you didn't think I would overlook a simple thing like this?"
"Oh, yes. I visited this place several times. I supposed you might be leaving me some time, so, of course, I made arrangements." The silky softness of Serono's voice, changed to a sinister rasp, "That ship will be blown apart fifty seconds after it takes off!"
"No—" Crystal screamed, "Brian!" She turned and stumbled toward the shaft, then staggered back as a tremendous, roaring rush of flame fountained madly upward behind the screaming flight of the escaping ship. The exhaust trail towered magnificently into the night, arching gracefully over as the ship swung smoothly into its first acceleration orbit.
"Brian ... Brian—" Crystal sobbed hopelessly.
The burning streak of fire traced steadily across the sky—then abruptly it ended in a bursting nova of flaming incandescence. The light faded slowly into the twilight darkness.
"He's gone," McHague whimpered.
Serono laughed softly.
"Oh, don't sound so disappointed, McHague. You'll soon be with him." The dry click of Serono's artificial hand crisped in McHague's ears.
"No... no... Serono... wait... wait a minute—" McHague babbled. Half paralyzed with terror, he sidled desperately away from the hideous weapon in Serono's hand. "He held a gun on me.... I had to—" McHague's stumbling words trailed off as he read "Death" in Serono's eyes. His terrified scream ripped out as he turned blindly and plunged down the yawning blackness of the shaft.
Serono's dry chuckle stirred like the rustling wings of a bat.
"And now, Crystal James—" He turned. There was nothing but the impassive stillness of the jungle; the girl was not in sight.
"—and that, gentlemen, completes my report on the present status of Venus. This folder contains the vital statistics for the period since your last inspection. You will find there the reason for me presenting this report instead of Governor McHague. He was killed, together with Mr. Hanson, Chief of Research for Venus Consolidated, in an explosion during an experiment in rocketry which Mr. Hanson was conducting."
"Ah, thank you, Zeburzac." Chief Inspector Nathan accepted the final folio of the voluminous annual report on Venus. He sat with the other members of the Board of Inspection in the governor's offices as they carefully sorted through the stacks of report form and record sheets. "Hm-m-m—I see you have a Crystal James listed here as killed in an aircraft accident. Was she one of the old Venusian family of James?"
Serono nodded regretfully. "Yes, I believe she was the last of them. I knew them well."
"That is too bad," Inspector Nathan said softly. "They were a fine, old family. Well, that cleans up the report, Zeburzac; everything seems to be perfectly in order."
"Thank you, inspector." Of course, it was. He had spent three months on those reports and everything had run smoothly on schedule. In a few more hours this inquisitive crew of inspectors would be gone and Venus would be his.
The mild gentleness of Serono's face revealed nothing of his dictatorial intentions as he listened to Inspector Nathan's closing remarks. In a moment they would be offering him the governorship, legalizing the power he already possessed. With Venus in his hands to be forged into a weapon, the easy-going democracy of Earth would be no serious obstacle. What one clever man could do—Nathan was speaking.
"There is one item here, however, that seriously affects several of these reports. This Mr. Hanson—"
"Hanson? Yes, I think I mentioned, he died. A very violent explosion."
Chief Inspector Nathan's formal politeness melted abruptly in the sudden fire of his rage.
"Explosion? I know all about that explosion, you blundering murderer. Come in here, Hanson!"
"Hanson!" Serono stared in shocked unbelief at the grim figure of a man who should have died, but only for a moment. Then he leaned back and relaxed, his fingertips met and tapped rhythmically.
"Mr. Hanson—hm-m-m—this is almost unbelievable."
"Next time you plant a time bomb in a ship, don't connect it through the lighting circuit, it shows on the ammeter," Brian told him grimly. "And if you want to keep people on Venus, you should watch your freight ships more closely."
"Oh, I wasn't as careless as you might think. That trap was set for McHague. I would have made other arrangements if I had known you were to be present. As it was I thought I had got you. However, I can remedy that slight omission almost immediately."
Serono twisted abruptly to his feet. His right hand snatched at his left. The spluttering crackle of a projector flame lashed out. Serono screamed as he dropped the red-hot wreckage of his artificial hand.
"We'd been told about that, too, and I can still shoot," Inspector Nathan growled.
Serono stared stupidly at the empty socket on his left arm. His face grayed lividly. He staggered against the desk, threw out his hand for support and vanished. There was a moment of stunned silence in the room.
"It's a trapdoor!" Brian yelled and leaped for the opening. He caught a glimpse of a descending chute as the section of floor swung solidly back into place.
"Where does that lead to?" Nathan barked.
Brian didn't answer; he was already on his way. Nathan and the rest of the Board of Inspectors pounded along behind him. They thudded down two flights of stairs.
"There he goes!" The pack of inspectors let out a howl and raced down the corridor behind Brian.
Zeburzac, racing for his life, started to draw away from them. They saw him stop. There were men in the corridor ahead of him, half a dozen of them. They were on him!
Serono screamed terribly, once, as a swinging knife ripped him open. He was slammed to the floor, his head beaten in by the vicious blows of his assailants. One of them lunged viciously at the prostrate form. Brian felt sick as he saw the crushed and bloody form of Zeburzac stabbed through the middle with the yard-long spike of a giant Venusian thorn bush.
Having finished their business the killers calmly faced the projectors in the hands of Inspector Nathan and his crew.
"Who are you?" Nathan demanded.
"My name's Carlton. We're rebels. You better hurry up and shoot, it'll save you trouble."
"These men are all right," Brian defended hastily. "Serono murdered some of the Carltons."
Nathan grunted. "Well, thanks, boys. You saved us a job." He slipped his atomic projector back into its holster. "We're inspectors from Earth. We'll have to arrest you for murder, but I guess it's up to Governor Hanson here to decide what to do with you."
"Yeah. That was decided before we left Earth. Where was Zeburzac heading? Where does this corridor lead to?"
"To his apartments. Maybe he had something there. I'll go and see." Brian started down the corridor.
Governor! Governor of this young, green frontier planet. There should have been a thrill in it somewhere but he felt as though he had come to the end of a pointless journey. He opened the door of Serono's apartment and stepped inside.
There was no one in the luxurious room. Brian's scalp tingled; he felt that he was not alone. He shuddered as he remembered Serono's ghastly death, then stepped quickly to the bedroom door. He opened it cautiously, then moved in and shut it noiselessly behind him. He stiffened as something prodded him in the middle of his spine.
"Don't move!" The voice was thin and vicious with hate. It stopped incredulously—"Brian!"
He swung around in amazement, and in synchronism as perfect as a trained chorus, he and Crystal James cried: "You! I thought you were dead!"
Their next moves were in perfect synchronism, too.
End of Monopoly by Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts