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Pirates Of Space







From: Triplanetary

Apparently motionless to her passengers and crew, the Interplanetary
liner Hyperion bored serenely onward through space at normal
acceleration. In the railed-off sanctum in one corner of the control
room a bell tinkled, a smothered whirr was heard, and Captain Bradley
frowned as he studied the brief message upon the tape of the recorder--a
message flashed to his desk from the operator's panel. He beckoned, and
the second officer, whose watch it now was, read aloud:

"Reports of scout patrols still negative."

"Still negative." The officer scowled in thought. "They've already
searched beyond the widest possible location of the wreckage, too. Two
unexplained disappearances inside a month--first the Dione, then the
Rhea--and not a plate nor a lifeboat recovered. Looks bad, sir. One
might be an accident; two might possibly be a coincidence...." His voice
died away. What might that coincidence mean?

"But at three it would get to be a habit," the captain finished the
thought. "And whatever happened, happened quick. Neither of them had
time to say a word--their location recorders simply went dead. But of
course they didn't have our detector screens nor our armament. According
to the observatories we're in clear ether, but I wouldn't trust them
from Tellus to Luna. You have given the new orders, of course?"

"Yes, sir. Detectors full out, all three courses of defensive screen on
the trips, projectors manned, suits on the hooks. Every object detected
in the outer space to be investigated immediately--if vessels, they are
to be warned to stay beyond extreme range. Anything entering the fourth
zone is to be rayed."

"Right--we are going through!"

"But no known type of vessel could have made away with them without
detection," the second officer argued. "I wonder if there isn't
something in those wild rumors we've been hearing lately?"



Now, systematically and precisely, the great Cone of
Battle was coming into being; a formation developed during
the Jovian Wars while the forces of the Three Planets were
fighting in space.]

"Bah! Of course not!" snorted the captain. "Pirates in ships faster than
light--fifth order rays--nullification of gravity--mass without
inertia--ridiculous! Proved impossible, over and over again. No, sir, if
pirates are operating in space--and it looks very much like it--they
won't get far against a good big battery full of kilowatt-hours behind
three courses of heavy screen, and a good solid set of multiplex rays.
Properly used, they're good enough for anybody. Pirates, Neptunians,
angels, or devils--in ships or on sunbeams--if they tackle the
Hyperion we'll burn them out of the ether!"

Leaving the captain's desk, the watch officer resumed his tour of duty.
The six great lookout plates into which the alert observers peered were
blank, their far-flung ultra-sensitive detector screens encountering no
obstacle--the ether was empty for thousands upon thousands of
kilometers. The signal lamps upon the pilot's panel were dark, its
warning bells were silent. A brilliant point of white in the center of
the pilot's closely ruled micrometer grating, exactly upon the
cross-hairs of his directors, showed that the immense vessel was
precisely upon the calculated course, as laid down by the automatic
integrating course-plotters. Everything was quiet and in order.

"All's well, sir," he reported briefly to Captain Bradley--but all was
not well.

* * * * *

Danger--more serious far in that it was not external--was even then, all
unsuspected, gnawing at the great ship's vitals. In a locked and
shielded compartment, deep down in the interior of the liner, was the
great air purifier. Now a man leaned against the primary duct--the aorta
through which flowed the stream of pure air supplying the entire vessel.
This man, grotesque in full panoply of space armor, leaned against the
duct, and as he leaned a drill bit deeper and deeper into the steel wall
of the pipe. Soon it broke through, and the slight rush of air was
stopped by the insertion of a tightly fitting rubber tube. The tube
terminated in a heavy rubber balloon, which surrounded a frail glass
bulb. The man stood tense, one hand holding before his silica-and-steel
helmeted head a large pocket chronometer, the other lightly grasping the
balloon. A sneering grin was upon his face as he awaited the exact
second of action--the carefully pre-determined instant when his right
hand, closing, would shatter the fragile flask and force its contents
into the primary air stream of the Hyperion!

* * * * *

Far above, in the main saloon, the regular evening dance was in full
swing. The ship's orchestra crashed into silence, there was a patter of
applause and Clio Marsden, radiant belle of the voyage, led her partner
out into the promenade and up to one of the observation plates.

"Oh, we can't see the earth any more!" she exclaimed. "Which way do you
turn this, Mr. Costigan?"

"Like this," and Conway Costigan, burly young first officer of the
liner, turned the dials. "There--this plate is looking back, or down, at
Tellus; this other one is looking ahead."

Earth was a brilliantly shining crescent far beneath the flying vessel.
Above her, ruddy Mars and silvery Jupiter blazed in splendor ineffable
against a background of utterly indescribable blackness--a background
thickly besprinkled with dimensionless points of dazzling brilliance
which were the stars.

"Oh, isn't it wonderful!" breathed the girl, awed. "Of course, I suppose
that it's old stuff to you, but I--a ground-gripper, you know, and I
could look at it forever, I think. That's why I want to come out here
after every dance. You know, I ..."

Her voice broke off suddenly, with a queer, rasping catch, as she seized
his arm in a frantic clutch and as quickly went limp. He stared at her
sharply, and understood instantly the message written in her eyes--eyes
now enlarged, staring hard, brilliant, and full of soul-searing terror
as she slumped down, helpless but for his support. In the act of
exhaling as he was, lungs almost entirely empty, yet he held his breath
until he had seized the microscope from his belt and had snapped the
lever to "emergency."

"Control room!" he gasped then, and every speaker throughout the great
cruiser of the void blared out the warning as he forced his already
evacuated lungs to absolute emptiness. "Vee-Two Gas! Get tight!"

Writhing and twisting in his fierce struggle to keep his lungs from
gulping in a draft of that noxious atmosphere, and with the unconscious
form of the girl draped limply over his left arm, Costigan leaped toward
the portal of the rearest lifeboat. Orchestra instruments crashed to the
floor and dancing couples fell and sprawled inertly while the tortured
First Officer swung the door of the lifeboat open and dashed across the
tiny room to the air-valves. Throwing them wide open, he put his mouth
to the orifice and let his laboring lungs gasp their eager fill of the
cold blast roaring from the tanks. Then, air-hunger partially assuaged,
he again held his breath, broke open the emergency locker, donned one of
the space-suits always kept there, and opened its valves wide in order
to flush out of his uniform any lingering trace of the lethal gas.

He then leaped back to his companion. Shutting off the air, he released
a stream of pure oxygen, held her face in it, and made shift to force
some of it into her lungs by compressing and releasing her chest against
his own body. Soon she drew a spasmodic breath, choking and coughing,
and he again changed the gaseous stream to one of pure air, speaking
urgently as she showed signs of returning consciousness. Now, it was
Clio Marsden's life.

"Stand up!" he snapped. "Hang onto this brace and keep your face in this
air-stream until I get a suit around you! Got me?"

She nodded weakly, and, assured that she could now hold herself at the
valve, it was the work of only a minute to encase her in one of the
protective coverings. Then, as she sat upon a bench, recovering her
strength, he flipped on the lifeboat's visiphone projector and shot its
invisible beam up into the control room, where he saw space-armored
figures furiously busy at the panels.

"Dirty work at the cross-roads!" he blazed to his captain, man to
man--formality disregarded, as it so often was in the Triplanetary
service. "There's skulduggery afoot somewhere in our primary air! Maybe
that's the way they got those other two ships--pirates! Might have been
a timed bomb--don't see how anybody could have stowed away down there
through the inspections, and nobody but Franklin can neutralize the
shield of the air-room--but I'm going to look around, anyway. Then I'll
join you fellows up there."

"What was it?" the shaken girl asked. "I think that I remember your
saying 'Vee-Two gas.' That's forbidden! Anyway, I owe you my life,
Conway, and I'll never forget it--never. Thanks--but the others--how
about all the rest of us?"

"It was Vee-Two, and it is forbidden," Costigan replied grimly, eyes
fast upon the flashing plate, whose point of projection was now deep in
the bowels of the vessel. "The penalty for using it or having it is
death on sight. Gangsters and pirates use it, since they have nothing to
lose, being on the death list already. As for your life, I haven't saved
it yet--you may wish I'd let it ride before we get done. The others are
too far gone for oxygen--couldn't have brought even you around a few
seconds later, quick as I got to you. But there's a sure antidote--we
all carry it in a lock-box in our armor--and we all know how to use it,
because crooks all use Vee-Two and so we're always expecting it. But
since the air will be pure again in half an hour we'll be able to revive
the others easily enough if we can get by with whatever is going to
happen next. There's the bird that did it, right in the air-room! It's
the chief engineer's suit, but that isn't Franklin that's in it. Some
passenger--disguised--slugged the chief--took his suit and
projectors--hole in duct--p-s-s-t! All washed out! Maybe that's all he
was scheduled to do to us in this performance, but he'll do nothing else
in this life!"

"Don't go down there!" protested the girl. "His armor is so much
better than that emergency suit you are wearing, and he's got Mr.
Franklin's Lewiston, besides!"

"Don't be an idiot!" he snapped. "We can't have a live pirate
aboard--we're going to be altogether too busy with outsiders directly.
Don't worry, I'm not going to give him a break. I'm taking a Standish
and I'll rub him out like a blot. Stay right here until I come back
after you," he commanded, and the heavy, vacuum insulated door of the
lifeboat clanged shut behind him as he leaped out into the promenade.

Straight across the saloon he made his way, paying no attention to the
inert forms scattered here and there. Going up to a blank wall, he
manipulated an almost invisible dial set flush with its surface, swung a
heavy door aside, and lifted out the Standish--a fearsome weapon. Squat,
huge, and heavy, it resembled somewhat an overgrown machine rifle, but
one possessing a thick, short telescope, with several opaque condensing
lenses and parabolic reflectors. Laboring under the weight of the thing,
he strode along corridors and clambered heavily down short stairways.
Finally he came to the purifier room, and grinned savagely as he saw the
greenish haze of light obscuring the door and walls--the shield was
still in place; the pirate was still inside, still flooding with the
terrible Vee-Two the Hyperion's primary air.

He set his peculiar weapon down, unfolded its three massive legs,
crouched down behind it and threw in a switch. Dull red beams of
frightful intensity shot from the reflectors and sparks, almost of
lightning proportions, leaped from the shielding screen under their
impact. Roaring and snapping, the conflict went on for seconds; then,
under the superior force of the Standish, the greenish radiance gave
way. Behind it the metal of the door ran the gamut of color--red,
yellow, blinding whiter--then literally exploded; molten, vaporized,
burned away. Through the aperture thus made Costigan could plainly see
the pirate in the space-armor of the chief engineer--an armor which was
proof against rifle fire and which could reflect and neutralize for some
little time even the terrific beam Costigan was employing. Nor was the
pirate unarmed--a vicious flare of incandescence leaped from his
Lewiston, to spend its force in spitting, crackling pyrotechnics against
the ether-wall of the squat and monstrous Standish. But Costigan's
infernal machine did not rely only upon vibratory destruction. At almost
the first flash of the pirate's weapon the officer touched a trigger;
there was a double report, ear-shattering in that narrowly confined
space; and the pirate's body literally flew into mist as a half-kilogram
shell tore through his armor and exploded. Costigan shut off his beam,
and, with not the slightest softening of one hard lineament, stared
around the air-room; making sure that no serious damage had been done to
the vital machinery of the air-purifier--the very lungs of the great
space-ship.

Dismounting the Standish, he lugged it back up to the main saloon,
replaced it in its safe and again set the combination lock. Thence to
the lifeboat, where Clio cried out in relief as she saw that he was
unhurt.

"Oh, Conway, I've been so afraid something would happen to you!" she
exclaimed, as he led her rapidly upward toward the control room. "Of
course you...." she paused.

"Sure," he replied, laconically. "Nothing to it. How do you feel--about
back to normal?"

"All right, I think, except for being scared to death and just about out
of control. I don't suppose that I'll be good for anything, but whatever
I can do, count me in on."

"Fine--you may be needed, at that. Everybody's out, apparently, except
those who, like me, had a warning and could hold their breath until they
got to their suits."

"But how did you know what it was? You can't see it, nor smell it, nor
anything."

"You inhaled a second before I did, and I saw your eyes. I've been in it
before--and when you see a man get a jolt of that stuff just once, you
never forget it. The engineers down below got it first, of course--it
must have wiped them out. Then we got it in the saloon. Your passing out
warned me, and luckily I had enough breath left to give the word. Quite
a few of the fellows up above should have had time to get away--we'll
see 'em all in the control room."

"I suppose that was why you revived me--in payment for so kindly warning
you of the gas attack?" The girl laughed; shaky, but game.

"Something like that, probably," he answered, lightly. "Here we are--now
we'll soon find out what's going to happen next."

In the control room they saw at least a dozen armored figures; not now
rushing about, but seated at their instruments, tense and ready.
Fortunate it was that Costigan--veteran of space as he was, though young
in years--had been down in the saloon; fortunate that he had been
familiar with that horrible outlawed gas; fortunate that he had had the
presence of mind enough and sheer physical stamina enough to send his
warning without allowing one paralyzing trace to enter his own lungs.
Captain Bradley, the men on watch, and several other officers in their
quarters or in the wardrooms--space-hardened veterans all--had obeyed
instantly and without question the amplifiers' gasped command to "get
tight." Exhaling or inhaling, their air-passages had snapped as that
dread "Vee-Two" was heard, and they had literally jumped into their
armored suits of space--flushing them out with volume after volume of
unquestionable air; holding their breath to the last possible second,
until their straining lungs could endure no more.

Costigan waved the girl to a vacant bench, cautiously changed into his
own armor from the emergency suit he had been wearing, and approached
the captain.

"Anything in sight, sir?" he asked, saluting. "They should have started
something before this."

"They've started, but we can't locate them. We tried to send out a
general sector alarm, but that had hardly started when they blanketed
our wave. Look at that!"

Following the captain's eyes, Costigan stared at the high powered set of
the ship's operator. Upon the plate, instead of a moving, living,
three-dimensional picture, there was a flashing glare of blinding white
light; from the speaker, instead of intelligible speech, was issuing a
roaring, crackling stream of noise.

"It's impossible!" Bradley burst out, violently. "There's not a gram of
metal inside the fourth zone--within a hundred thousand kilometers--and
yet they must be close to send such a wave as that. But the Second
thinks not--what do you think, Costigan?" The bluff commander,
reactionary and of the old school as was his breed, was
furious--baffled, raging inwardly to come to grips with the invisible
and undetectable foe. Face to face with the inexplicable, however, he
listened to the younger men with unusual tolerance.

"It's not only possible; it's quite evident that they've got something
we haven't." Costigan's voice was bitter. "But why shouldn't they have?
Service ships never get anything until it's been experimented with for
years, but pirates and such always get the new stuff as soon as it's
discovered. The only good thing I can see is that we got part of a
message away, and the scouts can trace that interference out there. But
the pirates know that, too--it won't be long now," he concluded, grimly.

He spoke truly. Before another word was spoken the outer screen flared
white under a beam of terrific power, and simultaneously there appeared
upon one of the lookout plates a vivid picture of the pirate vessel--a
huge, black globe of steel, now emitting flaring offensive beams of
force. Her invisibility lost, now that she had gone into action, she lay
revealed in the middle of the first zone--at point-blank range.

Instantly the powerful weapons of the Hyperion were brought to bear,
and in the blast of full-driven beams the stranger's screens flamed
incandescent. Heavy guns, under the recoil of whose fierce salvos, the
frame of the giant globe trembled and shuddered, shot out their tons of
high-explosive shell. But the pirate commander had known accurately the
strength of the liner, and knew that her armament was impotent against
the forces at his command. His screens were invulnerable, the giant
shells were exploded harmlessly in mid-space, miles from their
objective. And suddenly a frightened pencil of flame stabbed brilliantly
from the black hulk of the enemy. Through the empty ether it tore,
through the mighty defensive screens, through the tough metal of the
outer and inner walls. Every ether-defence of the Hyperion vanished,
and her acceleration dropped to a quarter of its normal value.

"Right through the battery room!" Bradley groaned. "We're on the
emergency drive now. Our rays are done for, and we can't seem to put a
shell anywhere near her with our guns!"

But ineffective as the guns were, they were silenced forever as a
frightful beam of destruction stabbed relentlessly through the control
room, whiffing out of existence the pilot, gunnery, and lookout panels
and the men before them. The air rushed into space, and the suits of the
three survivors bulged out into drumhead tightness as the pressure in
the room decreased.

Costigan pushed the captain lightly toward a wall, then seized the girl
and leaped in the same direction.

"Let's get out of here, quick!" he cried, the miniature radio
instruments of the helmets automatically taking up the duty of
transmitting speech as the sound disks refused to function. "They can't
see us--our ether wall is still up and their spy-sprays can't get
through it from the outside, you know. They're working from blue-prints,
and they'll probably take your desk next," and even as they bounded
toward the door, now become the outer seal of an airlock, the
annihilating ray tore through the space which they had just quitted in
their flight.

Through the airlock, down through several levels of passengers' quarters
they hurried, and into a lifeboat, whose one doorway commanded the full
length of the third lounge--an ideal spot, either for defense or for
escape outward by means of the miniature cruiser. As they entered their
retreat they felt their weight begin to increase. More and more force
was applied to the helpless liner, until it was moving at normal
acceleration.

"What do you make of that, Costigan?" asked the captain. "Tractor
beams?"

"Apparently. They've got something, all right. They're taking us
somewhere, fast. I'll go get a couple of Standishes, and another suit of
armor--we'd better dig in," and soon the small room became a veritable
fortress, housing as it did, those two formidable engines of
destruction. Then the first officer made another and longer trip,
returning with a complete suit of triplanetary space armor, exactly like
those worn by the two men, but considerably smaller.

"Just as an added factor of safety, you'd better put this on,
Clio--those emergency suits aren't good for much in a battle. I don't
suppose that you ever fired a Standish, did you?"

"No, but I can soon learn how to do it," she replied, pluckily.

"Two is all that can work here at once, but you should know how to take
hold in case one of us goes out. And while you're changing suits you'd
better put on some stuff I've got here--Service special phones and
detectors. Stick this little disk onto your chest with this bit of tape;
low down, out of sight. Just under your wishbone is the best place. Take
off your wrist-watch and wear this one continuously--never take it off
for a second. Put on these pearls, and wear them all the time, too. Take
this capsule and hide it against your skin, some place where it can't be
found except by the most rigid search. Swallow it in an emergency--it
goes down easily and works just as well inside as outside. It is the
most important thing of all--you can get along with it alone if you lose
everything else, but without that capsule the whole system's shot to
pieces. With that outfit, if we should get separated, you can talk to
us--we're both wearing 'em, although somewhat different forms. You don't
need to talk loud--just a mutter will be enough. They're handy little
outfits, almost impossible to find, and capable of a lot of things."

"Thanks, Conway--I'll remember that, too," Clio replied, as she turned
toward the tiny locker to follow his instructions. "But won't the scouts
and patrols be catching us pretty quick? The operator sent a warning."

"Afraid the ether's empty, as far as we're concerned. They could
neutralize our detector screens, and the scouts' detectors are the same
as ours."

Captain Bradley had stood by in silent astonishment during this
conversation. His eyes had bulged slightly at Costigan's "we're both
wearing 'em," but he had held his peace and as the girl disappeared a
look of dawning comprehension came over his face.

"Oh, I see, sir," he said, respectfully--far more respectfully than he
had ever before addressed a mere first officer. "Meaning that we both
will be wearing them shortly, I assume. 'Service Specials'--but you
didn't specify exactly what Service, did you?"

"Now that you mention it, I don't believe that I did," Costigan grinned.

"That explains several things about you--particularly your recognition
of Vee-Two and your uncanny control and speed of reaction. But aren't
you...."

"No," Costigan interrupted, positively. "This situation is apt to get
altogether too serious to overlook any bets. If we get away, I'll take
them away from her and she'll never know that they aren't routine
equipment in the Triplanetary Service. As for you, I know that you can
and do keep your mouth shut. That's why I'm hanging this junk on you--I
had a lot of stuff in my kit, but I flashed it all with the Standish,
except what I brought in here for us three. Whether you think so or not,
we're in a real jam--our chance of getting away is mightly close to
zero. Now that I've gone this far, I might as well tell you that I don't
believe these birds are pirates at all, in the ordinary sense of the
word. And it may be possible that they're after me, but I don't think
so--we've covered up too...."

He broke off as the girl came back, now to all appearances a small
Triplanetary officer, and the three settled down to a long and eventless
wait. Hour after hour they flew through the ether, but finally there was
a lurching swing and an abrupt increase in their acceleration. After a
short consultation Captain Bradley turned on the visiray set and, with
the beam at its minimum power, peered cautiously downward, in the
direction opposite to that in which he knew the pirate vessel must be.
All three stared into the plate, seeing only an infinity of emptiness,
marked only by the infinitely remote and coldly brilliant stars. While
they stared into space a vast area of the heavens was blotted out and
they saw, faintly illuminated by a peculiar blue luminescence, a vast
ball--a sphere so large and so close that they seemed to be dropping
downward toward it as though it were a world! They came to a
stop--paused, weightless--a vast door slid smoothly aside--they were
drawn upward through an airlock and floated quietly in the air above a
small, but brightly-lighted and orderly city of metallic buildings!
Gently the Hyperion was lowered, to come to rest in the embracing arms
of a regulation landing cradle.

"Well, wherever it is, we're here," remarked Captain Bradley, grimly.

"And now the fireworks start," assented Costigan, with a questioning
glance at the girl.

"Don't mind me," she answered his unspoken question. "I don't believe in
surrendering, either."

"Right," and both men squatted down behind the ether-walls of their
terrific weapons; the girl prone behind them.

They had not long to wait. A group of human beings--men and to all
appearance Americans--appeared unarmed in the little lounge. As soon as
they were well inside the room, Bradley and Costigan released upon them
without compunction the full power of their frightful projectors. From
the reflectors, through the doorway, there tore a concentrated double
beam of pure destruction--but that beam did not reach its goal. Yards
from the men it met a screen of impenetrable density. Instantly the
gunners pressed their triggers and a stream of high-explosive shells
issued from the roaring weapons. But shells, also, were futile. They
struck the shield and vanished--vanished without exploding and without
leaving a trace to show that they had ever existed.

Costigan sprang to his feet, but before he could launch his intended
attack a vast tunnel appeared beside him--an annihilating ray had swept
through the entire width of the liner, cutting instantly a smooth
cylinder of emptiness. Air rushed in to fill the vacuum, and the three
visitors felt themselves seized by invisible forces and drawn into the
tunnel. Through it they floated, up to and over the buildings, finally
slanting downward toward the door of a great high-powered structure.
Doors opened before them and closed behind them, until at last they
stood upright in a room which was evidently the office of a busy
executive. They faced a desk which, in addition to the usual equipment
of the business man, carried a bewilderingly complete switchboard and
instrument panel.

Seated impassively at the desk there was a gray man. Not only was he
dressed entirely in gray, but his heavy hair was gray, his eyes were
gray, and even his tanned skin seemed to give the impression of grayness
in disguise. His overwhelming personality radiated an aura of
grayness--not the gentle gray of the dove, but the resistless, driving
gray of the super-dreadnaught; the hard, inflexible, brittle gray of the
fracture of high-carbon steel.

"Captain Bradley, First Officer Costigan, Miss Marsden," the man spoke
quietly, but crisply. "I had not intended you two men to live so long.
That is a detail, however, which we will pass by for the moment. You may
remove your suits."

Neither officer moved, but both stared back at the speaker
unflinchingly.

"I am not accustomed to repeating instructions," the man at the desk
continued; voice still low and level, but instinct with deadly menace.
"You may choose between removing those suits and dying in them, here and
now."

Costigan moved over to Clio and slowly took off her armor. Then, after a
flashing exchange of glances and a muttered word, the two officers threw
off their suits simultaneously and fired at the same instant; Bradley
with his Lewiston, Costigan with a heavy automatic pistol whose bullets
were explosive shells of tremendous power. But the man in gray,
surrounded by an impenetrable wall of force, only smiled at the
fusillade, tolerantly and maddeningly. Costigan leaped fiercely, only to
be hurled backward as he struck that unyielding, invisible wall. A
vicious beam snapped him back into place, the weapons were snatched
away, and all three captives were held in their former positions.

"I permitted that, as a demonstration of futility," the gray man said,
his hard voice becoming harder, "but I will permit no more foolishness.
Now I will introduce myself. I am known as Roger. You probably have
heard nothing of me yet but you will--if you live. Whether or not you
two live depends solely upon yourselves. Being something of a student of
men, I fear that you will both die shortly. Able and resourceful as you
have just shown yourselves to be, you could be valuable to me, but you
probably will not--in which case you shall, of course, cease to exist.
That, however, in its proper time--you shall be of some slight service
to me in the process of being eliminated. In your case, Miss Marsden, I
find myself undecided between two courses of action; each highly
desirable, but unfortunately mutually exclusive. Your father will be
glad to ransom you at an exceedingly high figure, but, in spite of that
fact, I may decide to keep you for--well, let us say for certain
purposes."

"Yes?" Clio rose magnificently to the occasion. Fear forgotten, her
courageous spirit flashed from her clear, young eyes and emanated from
her slender, rounded young body, erect in defiance. "Since I am a
captive, you can of course do anything you please with me up to a

certain point--but no further, believe me!"

With no sign of having heard her outburst Roger pressed a button and a
tall, comely woman, appeared--a woman of indefinite age and of uncertain
nationality.

"Show Miss Marsden to her apartment," he directed, and as the two women
went out a man came in.

"The cargo is unloaded, sir," the newcomer reported. "The two men and
the five women indicated have been taken to the hospital," was the
report of the man.

"Very well, dispose of the others in the usual fashion." The minion went
out, and Roger continued, emotionlessly:

"Collectively, the other passengers may be worth a million or so, but it
would not be worth while to waste time upon them."

"What are you, anyway?" blazed Costigan, helpless but enraged beyond
caution. "I have heard of mad scientists who tried to destroy the earth,
and of equally mad geniuses who thought themselves Napoleons capable of
conquering even the Solar System. Whichever you are, you should know
that you can't get away with it."

"I am neither. I am, however, a scientist, and I direct many other
scientists. I am not mad. You have undoubtedly noticed several peculiar
features of this place?"

"Yes, particularly the artificial gravity, which has always been
considered impossible, and those screens. An ordinary ether-wall is
opaque in one direction, and doesn't bar matter--yours are transparent
both ways and something more than impenetrable to matter. How do you do
it?"

"You could not understand them if I explained them to you, and they are
merely two of our smaller developments. I have no serious designs upon
the earth nor upon the Solar System, nor have I any desire to rule over,
or to control the destinies of masses of futile and brainless men. I
have, however, certain ends of my own in view. To accomplish my plans I
require hundreds of millions in gold, other hundreds of millions in
platinum and noble metal, and some five kilograms of the bromide of
radium--all of which I shall take from the planets of this Solar System
before I leave it. I shall take them in spite of the puerile efforts of
the fleets of your Triplanetary League.

"This structure, floating in a planetary orbit, was designed by me and
built under my direction. It is protected from meteorites by certain
forces of my devising. It is undetectable and invisible--your detectors
do not touch it and light-waves are bent around it without loss or
distortion. I am discussing these points at such length so that you may
realize exactly your position. As I have intimated, you can be of
assistance to me if you will."

"Now just what could you offer any man to make him join your outfit?"
demanded Costigan, venomously.

"Many things." Roger's cold tone betrayed no emotion, no recognition of
Costigan's open and bitter contempt. "I have under me many men, bound to
me by many ties. Needs, wants, longings and desires differ from man to
man, and I can satisfy practically any of them. Personally, I take
delight in the society of young and beautiful women, and many men have
that same taste; but there are other urges which I have found quite
efficient. Greed, thirst for fame, longing for power, and so on,
including many qualities usually regarded as 'noble.' And what I
promise, I deliver. I demand only loyalty to me, and that only in
certain things and for a relatively short period. In all else, my men do
as they please. In conclusion, I can use you two conveniently, but I do
not need you. Therefore you may choose now between my service and--the
alternative."

"Exactly what is the alternative?"

"We will not go into that. Suffice it to say that it has to do with a
minor research, which is not progressing satisfactorily. It will result
in your extinction, and perhaps I should mention that that extinction
will not be particularly pleasant."

"I say NO, you...." Bradley roared. He intended to give an unexpurgated
classification, but was rudely interrupted.

"Hold on a minute!" snapped Costigan. "How about Miss Marsden?"

"She has nothing to do with this discussion," returned Roger, icily. "I
do not bargain--in fact, I believe that I shall keep her for a time. She
has it in mind to destroy herself, if I do not allow her to be ransomed,
but she will find that door closed to her until I permit it to open."

"In that case, I string along with the Chief--take what he started to
say about you and run it clear across the board for me!" barked
Costigan.

"Very well. That decision was to be expected from men of your type." The
gray man touched two buttons and two of his creatures entered the room.
"Put these men into separate cells on the second level," he ordered.
"Search them to the skin: all their weapons may not have been in their
armor. Seal the doors and mount special guards, tuned to me here."

Imprisoned they were, and carefully searched; but they bore no arms, and
nothing had been said or thought of communicators. Even if such
instruments could be concealed, Roger would detect their use instantly.
At least, so would have run his thought had the subject entered his
mind. But even Roger had no inkling of the possibility of Costigan's
"Service Special" phones, detectors and spy-ray--instruments of minute
size and of infinitesimal power, but yet instruments which, working as
they were, below the level of the ether, were effective at great
distances and caused no vibrations in the ether by which their use could
be detected. And what could be more innocent than the regulation,
personal equipment of every officer of space? The heavy goggles, the
wrist-watch and its supplementary pocket chronometer, the flash-lamp,
the automatic lighter, the sender, the money-belt?

All these items of equipment were examined with due care; but the
cleverest minds of Triplanetary's Secret Service had designated those
communicators to pass any ordinary search, however careful, and when
Costigan and Bradley were finally locked into the designated cells, they
still possessed their ultra-instruments.





Next: In Roger's Planetoid

Previous: The Extra-galactic Duel



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