The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 72

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Grant stretched luxuriously before he began.

"Certainly. There's nothing for us now to do but wait until we get pulled down to Jupiter, and that'll take some time. I hope we look like Ganymedans."

"Will you get on with your story!" she cried.

He obeyed. He started from the beginning and went right up to the time when he had so rudely thrust her out into s.p.a.ce.

"You see," he explained. "I had put the puzzle together a bit, but there were still pieces missing. For instance, those chaps down there know that every s.p.a.ce-liner is equipped with emergency s.p.a.ce-suits. Why pull the s.h.i.+p down with live men on board? That would naturally mean a fight, and we have no mean weapons, what with disintegrator ray-projectors and explosive electro-bullets." Then, again, for some reason, there were Ganymedans on board. They would very likely be whiffed out in the melee. The s.h.i.+p might be destroyed also, and they evidently are very careful about getting the s.h.i.+p down intact. The little meteor holes can easily be plugged up, and the liner made as good as new. At least that was my guess.



"I was trying to puzzle it out, rather hopelessly," he continued, "when I saw the ray out in s.p.a.ce pick up those floating figures. That was the last little piece in the jigsaw.

"The Ganymedans evidently had to leave the s.h.i.+p because, as it approaches the planet, something will be done to kill off any unfortunates who are still alive, waiting their chance to fight the invisible enemy. Possibly a penetrating lethal gas that will be forced into the interior. So they evolved the ray to carry the Ganymedan pa.s.sengers down gently, safely. And we are stowaways," he concluded grimly.

Nona had listened intently to the long recital.

"But why," she expostulated, "was it necessary to have their own people on board? The meteors that riddled the s.h.i.+p were projectiles shot from their station on Jupiter. So was the attraction-ray that pulls the s.h.i.+p down."

"Because they required a sufficient force to disable the radio apparatus. All radio waves used on interplanetary liners are s.h.i.+elded from interference. It is impossible to blank them out. And with the radio intact, every battle flier in s.p.a.ce would be on their trail in a hurry."

Several hours pa.s.sed, and still they fell endlessly through s.p.a.ce, unaware of their motion except that Jupiter was now a huge orb blotting out the universe. The grim face of the giant planet was enswathed in endless billowing clouds. No one had ever penetrated to the real core. But what held their eager, straining attention was a vast blood red disk, cyclonic in character, directly beneath them. The Great Red Spot! And immediately in the center of it was the tiny, blindingly brilliant yellow orange oval, winking up at them with quick, steady pulsations.

"What can it be?" Nona wondered.

"The source of their power, evidently. But what interests me more just now is where the Ganymedans have their hangout in those clouds, and what they're doing with the s.h.i.+ps they capture."

Jupiter was now a flat level stretch that reached on all sides as far as the eye could see. Grant felt a sudden sensation of weight again, as though something was pressing with crus.h.i.+ng force against his chest.

"h.e.l.lo," he said, "our fall is being checked. They're making sure their friends come to no harm." And he laughed bitterly, thinking of the men and women lying with lungs ruptured, cold and stiff, in the interior of the Althea; of the possible few wretches who had managed to huddle into s.p.a.ce-suits, ignorant of the deadly gas that was soon to search out their seemingly impenetrable habiliments.

Slowly, ever more slowly, they fell. Thin wisps of reddish vapor rushed upward toward them, and then they were enveloped in vast swirls of cloud ma.s.ses. They were within the Great Spot!

Then the lurid clouds parted suddenly, revealing a deep hole, at the bottom of which flamed and flared the mysterious yellow-orange brilliance. Down the long shaft they fell, while all around its invisible walls dark red cyclones stirred and beat in vain.

Just as it seemed as if they were doomed to fall headlong into the blaze, they were swerved violently into an opening that angled off from the main shaft. Down this branching shaft they continued to fall--interminably--when suddenly it widened, and they were dropping through the interior of a great dome of which the arched roof was the swirling clouds they had just penetrated. Directly beneath floated a flat island of smooth rock, supported and upheld by a s.h.i.+ning sea of vapors.

The girl exclaimed sharply, but Grant only nodded to himself with grim satisfaction. He had expected something like this. For, cl.u.s.tered in serried rows at the end of the island directly beneath them were sleek, stream-lined grayhounds of the interplanetary traffic lanes, now resting immovably on the smooth gray stone--the missing s.p.a.ce-liners!

The island was bisected by a huge forbidding wall, over which, at their angle, Grant was unable to see.

The ground was enc.u.mbered too with clumps of intricate machinery, all of the same polished gray stone; Ganymedan stone, Ganymedan machinery, Pemberton recognized at once. Hundreds of figures were scurrying awkwardly around, clad in the inevitable s.p.a.ce-suit. Several were working desperately at a huge concave gla.s.s reflector. Others were pointing a stone nozzle, extending out of a pit, directly upward.

"I'm afraid." Nona shuddered and pressed closer to Grant.

"Don't be," he a.s.sured her. "Just say nothing when we land. Let me do the talking."

All this while they had been floating gently downward toward what they now saw to be a miniature replica of the vaster orange brightness at the bottom of the main shaft from which they had been diverted. It was a pool of liquid fire, so intense in its brilliance that their eyes were dazzled staring at it. It rose and fell in regular pulsations. They were not far above it now, and still no one on the strange island seemed to be aware of their coming.

Nona cried out, "Grant, we're going to fall right into it!"

Pemberton looked down at the small fiery pool with anxious eyes. Unless something happened, and that quickly, they would be seared to a crisp. Already the heat was uncomfortable, even through their suits. He tried to kick himself aside, but the pull of the liquid was too powerful for him. Then he resolved on a desperate expedient.

"Say, you fellows down there," he cried in the smooth, slurred Ganymedan speech. "What are you trying to do, fry us? Hurry up and prepare our landing."

For a moment they were tense with the tenseness of imminent death. Were the Ganymedans equipped with communication disks; would they sense the strangeness of the accent? Nona was gripping his hand with a pressure that penetrated the fabric. And every second brought them down closer and closer to the dread lake.

"Ah!" Nona's breath came in a shuddering sigh. For one of the figures glanced upward and saw them dropping. He shouted something to his fellows, and darted for a lever set in the stone next to the pool. He threw it over swiftly. Immediately what seemed to be a smooth slab of transparent gla.s.site shot into position over the pulsating flame, not an instant too soon, either, for it had barely covered the flaming death when the Earthlings' feet were already touching it.

"It would have served you two fools right if I had let you drop in," their savior grumbled disgustedly. "What in Jupiter took you so long? Everyone else arrived hours ago. Didn't know there were any more."

"Sorry, but we couldn't help it," Grant responded carefully. "You see, we got mixed up in a sc.r.a.p with some Earthmen who evidently suspected us, just as we were diving out of the air-lock. We had the devil's own job of beating them off."

"You too! The Chief came down foaming at the mouth. Some dumb Earthman almost throttled him before he got away. He swears he'll blast Earth out of s.p.a.ce. He's that mad. But here, I've got no time to be talking to your fellows. I've got work to do. Better report to the Chief at once, and heaven help you. He's sure in a black rage at this minute."

With that he moved away, over to the gang of Ganymedans holding the stone nozzle and looking expectantly up at the large, round hole in the cloud ceiling.

Nona stood close to Grant. "What are they doing with the queer affair?" She indicated the nozzle.

"I'm afraid we'll find out only too soon," he answered grimly. "Look--" he broke off.

Far overhead, through the great round orifice, darted a tremendous shape, pointed, glittering.

"Why, that's the Althea," Nona exclaimed.

"Yes. Now watch. d.a.m.n--all we can do is watch," Grant gritted between his teeth.

Down sped the gleaming liner, pride of the fleet. The men at the mirror were swerving it on gimbals until a ray from it flashed on the burnished nose. As though it were a physical impact, the vessel slackened its tremendous speed and hung suspended midway between the cloud concavity and the island.

The men with the nozzle spurred into activity. A thin stream of fluid shot out of the orifice straight up for the captive liner. The tip of the expanding spray impinged on the hull--and Nona gasped her astonishment. For the liquid pa.s.sed clean through the hull as though it were a porous network instead of four-inch thick beryllium-steel.

"Just as I thought," Grant groaned. "Lethal gas that penetrates everything. Those poor people on board--for their own sakes I hope none remained alive to hit this."

"Can't we do anything?" Nona asked desperately.

"Nothing for the Althea. But plenty to prevent any more disasters like it." There was a hard ring to his voice. "Come on." He stepped off the transparent slab onto the stone floor of the island.

"Where to?" asked Nona, following.

"We're going to locate that orange oval we saw from the Althea. That's the secret of all this. The pool of liquid fire here is unimportant, secondary."

They were at one edge of the floating island. The other side was hidden from them by the solid wall that stretched across its full diameter.

"We'll scout beyond there," Grant pointed out. "I'll miss my guess if what we're looking for is not on the other side."

As they started for the wall, they saw the Althea brought slowly down to the rock, another captive to swell the motionless fleet. It did not take them long to reach the barrier. Some fifty feet high it was, of smooth polished Ganymedan stone, and no door or opening in its straight unbroken surface.

"How shall we get through?" Nona asked.

Grant surveyed it thoughtfully.

"There must be a hidden spring somewhere," he said.

He walked carelessly along the wall, tapping it idly here and there. His quick probing fingers were searching.

With a sharp "Ah!" he stopped short. He bent over a moment; his fingers moved deftly. Then he straightened with a grunt of satisfaction. A section of the seemingly solid, immovable stone was sliding silently open. He looked through.

Nona saw him jerk his head back, heard his involuntary cry of horror. Then she heard another cry: an excited warning shout. She whirled around in time to see a Ganymedan running toward them from behind. A deadly pencil-ray pointed straight at her companion. Without a moment's hesitation she sprang at Grant, pushed him violently so that he staggered and fell through the opening to the other side. In so doing, she tripped over his body, and fell p.r.o.ne. That saved her life, for a blue flame sheared clean through the stone, inches above her head.

Grant squirmed around underneath. The electro-gun was somehow out of the side flap and now it spat its explosive hail. The tiny bullets flared into little puff b.a.l.l.s of flame against the s.p.a.ce-suit of the Ganymedan. A long howl of anguish came to them as he threw up his hands and fell into a shapeless heap. But a moment later there were other cries, angry shouts. Pemberton was on his feet again with the quickness of a cat. He pulled Nona up after him, thrust her to one side, behind the protection of the wall. His eyes were blazing now, aflame with the ardor of battle. Very carefully he leaned out and pressed the trigger. The surging mob was caught in full flight. The electro-bullets spread fanwise, exploded into flaming deaths. The Ganymedans went down as though a huge scythe had swept through their ranks. The survivors scattered hastily, throwing themselves headlong to the surface of the rock to escape further execution.

"That'll hold them for a while," Grant laughed grimly.

"Drop your gun, and turn around--both of you." A cold, smooth voice spoke in deadly menace directly behind them--a voice that came from the mysterious inner side of the wall.

Grant spun around, his gun ready to fire. A ray snapped out at him, a ray with a greenish tinge. The fingers of his gun hand grew suddenly nerveless; the weapon dropped unresistingly from his paralyzed hand.

A tall Ganymedan towered before him, unhidden by a s.p.a.ce-suit. Evidently there was a layer of air in here. The red lidless eyes were filled with a cold fury. Spatulate fingers tensed on the b.u.t.ton of a pencil ray.

"Miro," Grant breathed to himself unbelievingly. A great light burst upon him.

The Inspector of the Service for Ganymede did not recognize him, swathed as Grant was in the depths of his s.p.a.ce-suit, nor did he notice the little movement of surprise. He was too furiously angry. His words came tumbling out in a tremble of rage.

"You d.a.m.ned scoundrels; have you gone mad? What do you mean by coming in here through the secret way? Don't you know it is death for anyone to pa.s.s the barrier? And what do you mean by shooting down your fellows with an Earth weapon? Answer, d.a.m.n you, before I thrust you into the Gorm."

Both were silent; Nona because she did not know what to say, and Grant because he knew his voice would be recognized by Miro's keen ears. He kept his eyes fixed on the Ganymedan, waiting hawk-like for one false move, for the tiniest wavering of attention. But the pencil-ray was pointed squarely at his breast.

"You won't talk?" Miro's voice was choked with pa.s.sion. "Well, there are ways to make you." With one foot he kicked at the open slab, while his weapon commanded them unwaveringly. There was a smooth soundless rush. Grant knew that the wall was an unbroken surface again. They were cut off on the secret side of the island, alone with Miro.

Yet that was the horror of it. They were not alone. For Grant's first darting look inside when he had first opened the panel had shown him the others. Hundreds of them there were, men of all races and planets, a motley crew. And each man walked stiffly, unnaturally, looking neither to the right nor to the left. Their eyes were fixed and gla.s.sy; the skin of their faces, no matter what their origin, was uniformly parched and gray. A cold sweat broke out on Grant's forehead. They looked like automatons: beings from whom life had been drained. He heard a little choked cry from Nona; she had seen them, too.

Miro plucked out with his free hand a little pear-shaped mechanism punctured with innumerable holes. He blew into it, once--twice. It gave forth a high whining note. Instantly two of the strange lifeless men wheeled angularly, and with queer mechanical movements headed straight for them. A bloodless hand stretched out, grasped Nona. Grant heard her scream and saw her struggling in a loathsome grip.

Forgetting everything, forgetting the deadly ray in Miro's hands, he sprang to her rescue. The next instant he was in the grip of a similar hand, a frail, dead-white naked arm, yet endowed with the strength of steel. Struggle as he might, dash his fist as hard as he could against the unresisting blank face, he could not loose that grip. Miro watched his futile strugglings mockingly.

"Take these traitors over to the Gorm and let me look at their faces," he ordered.

Grant and Nona were picked up in those emaciated, powerful arms as easily as though they were children, and the unhuman creatures proceeded at a slow, awkward pace away from the hall, toward the outer edge of the island. From his uncomfortable vantage point, Pemberton noticed that they were pa.s.sing clumps of intricate stone machinery. Dead-faced automatons, similar to their captors, were tending the whirring machinery with ordered, stiff-legged movements.

Then, straight ahead, Grant saw the edge of the island, against which beat and billowed in furious, gigantic heaves, the reddish overarching clouds of the Great Spot. Strangely enough, though they whirled and eddied, they could not seem to break through the invisible barrier. And then the lake of fire sprang into view--the mysterious place of flame they had seen from afar, that had pulled the hapless Althea out of its course down to destruction on Jupiter. This then was the Gorm!

A wide circular pool it was, of an unearthly yellow-orange brilliance. The midday sun was no more dazzling to the eye. Out it stretched from the island into the vapors of the Great Red Spot, only touching the stone rim of the island at one thin point. Its liquid fires were waveless now, oily, yet there was something horrible, too, about its smooth quiescence.

Miro whistled. The rigid guards dropped their burdens roughly and stood at attention. One was an Earthman, the other a fish-faced Venusian. Yet the queer dead look of their eyes was exactly the same.

"Will you remove your helmets, or shall I ask the Doora to a.s.sist you?" Miro's voice was silky.

Because there was nothing else to do, Grant unscrewed his helmet and let it fall back on its hinge. Then he looked very calmly and steadily at the Inspector of the Service for Ganymede.

A dull flame leaped into Miro's eyes at the sight of his captive.

"You!" Then he smiled, a peculiarly horrible smile. "You are cleverer than I thought, my Earth friend. You should have been strangled to death on the Althea, or made into one of--"

He stopped short, and the smile widened cruelly. "But it is not too late. No, it is not too late."

Grant disregarded his cryptic phrases. He smiled, too, a contemptuous smile that cut like a lash.

"You, Miro, an Inspector of the Service, are only a lying, treacherous, butchering Ganymedan. Filthy sc.u.m of the Universe."

Miro started forward with a roar, a dark flush of rage suffusing his green-tinged countenance. His blunt-edged finger trembled on the b.u.t.ton of the pencil-ray. Grant knew he was perilously on the verge of sudden death, yet his scornful glance did not waver.

It was Nona, hitherto unnoticed, her helmet removed, who darted upon the giant Ganymedan with small beating fists. Miro saw her coming and swung her sprawling away with one sweep of his free hand, while he covered Grant with the other.

He had recovered his composure. Some secret merriment seemed to convulse him.

"Ho! ho!" he shouted. "Who is this little spitfire? By Jupiter, she is a tempting morsel." And his red eyes took in the flushed beauty of the panting girl speculatively.

Grant tensed for a quick spring.

"Stand where you are," Miro barked. "One move and it will be your last." Gone was the smooth unctuous speech of former times. His tone now was cutting, deadly.

"You d.a.m.ned Earthmen have been crowing long enough," he said. "When Miro and Ganymede get through with you, the very memory of your filthy planet will have been erased from the solar system." His voice rose higher. "You thought you had us beaten down with your s.p.a.ce-battles.h.i.+ps and your embargoes on metals. And we were meekly repentant. Oh yes, we were! We took you in nicely. Why, they even made me, Miro, Inspector of your rotten Service.

"But we have been preparing against the day for years. Here on this island that we built we worked, hidden from interference. We are ready now. Our fleets will sail out, in your own s.h.i.+ps, to smash the combined s.p.a.ce navies of the solar system."

In spite of himself Grant could not hide a sudden grin of relief. The man was mad, to think of pitting a few liners against armored battle craft. Miro saw that grin.

"You think I'm mad, don't you?" he gloated. "Just listen to this, then. We have found a substance that no ray, no electro-bullet can penetrate. Every s.h.i.+p will be coated with it. And the Gorm here"--he pointed to the oily lake--"will draw your proud cruisers down to destruction, or thrust them far out into the uncharted s.p.a.ces, helpless, just as it pleases us. You wonder how it works? Look! Now it attracts, and powerfully. But when I reverse the current pa.s.sing through it like this"--he leaned over and pulled a switch set in the rock right by the edge--"it repels everything. We'll just stand off in s.p.a.ce and pick off your proud wars.h.i.+ps one by one, without a scratch to ourselves. See?" He fairly hissed the last word.

Grant saw, and the cold sweat burst out on his forehead. His brain raced desperately in a vain effort to find some way out, some method of foiling this beast.

"You sure talk big, Miro," he said in bored fas.h.i.+on, feigning indifference; "but it means nothing to me. The point is, what do you intend doing with us?"

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 72

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