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MUTINEERS OF SPACE

THRILLING LONG NOVELETTE OF INTERPLANETARY RACKETEERS

By LLOYD ARTHUR ESHBACH

Behind those frail Terrestrials roared a volcano from the sulphur pits, and ruthless slave masters of Jupiter—while 550,000,000 miles ahead was Max Brodeur, head of Interplanetary Transport Lines, and the vicious racketeer of Uranian slave traffic who had sentenced them to this living hell! 

FURTIVELY Alan Sarett peered through the heavy murk of the Jovian prison pit. A cloud of yellow steam writhed upward from the boiling spring at his feet, obscuring everything with a choking, sulphurous veil. He caught a hazy glimpse of Jon Cory, lank and raw-boned, stripped to the waist, toiling steadily on the opposite bank of the pool. Then a shrill, peremptory note came from the throat of the Jovian guard, and a wire-thin tentacle lashed viciously across his naked back, cutting deep. Alan's face wrinkled like the snout of a snarling dog; and he bent over the bubbling spring, tearing savagely with a long, claw-tipped instrument at the crust of sulphur forming continuously on the lip of the caldron. A heap of the lemon yellow fragments lay behind him.

Through slitted lids he glared up at the mighty figure of the Jovian, hatred burning in his eyes. Damned sluur—he'd pay for that—and soon! They'd planned everything—he and Cory and Parker, and the Uranian, Tull—and before many minutes passed, they'd hear the signal. . . . The signal, the roar of the supply ship from Io—and this sluur would boil in the sulphur pool, and they'd be heading for freedom! Freedom—and Max Brodeur!

His ears strained for the first sound of the supply ship's rockets, a tenseness creeping through him. And even as he labored, he watched the yellow-skinned guard, to be ready when the signal came. Formidable antagonists, these giant brutes with their tremendous muscles. It was no joke for two Terrestrials—or even a half dozen—to attack one of them. Ten feet above the obsidian surface of the Pit this sluur towered, his great, bulbous body supported by three mighty, multi-jointed limbs terminating in immense sucker-discs. His head, if it could be called a head, was merely an elongation of his body; and the bare expanse of flesh was broken only by a single huge eye, faceted like an insect's, and an enormous, toothless mouth. From the top of his head projected six long, wiry tentacles—and it was these that Alan feared most, for in them lay the strength of spring steel.

Suddenly Sarett stiffened, his fingers fiercely gripping the handle of his sulphur-hook. Far above a faint, penetrating whine cleft the heavy Jovian atmosphere, cutting down through the haze in a steadily mounting roar. The signal! He spun toward his guard—lashed out and up mightily with his hook, aiming at the gaping mouth like a crimson gash in the smooth, yellow face. And the blow landed! Blood, dark and viscous, spurted from a long, ragged wound.

A scream like the wail of a siren burst from the sluur, losing itself in the space ship's roar, and his tentacles, quivering with pain and wrath, swept toward Sarett. Alan tried to leap back out of reach, but in the terrific gravitational pull of the giant planet he could barely raise his feet from the ground. Coiling cinctures of crushing sinew seized legs, waist, throat, and he was whipped high into the air!

"Cory! Cory!" he gasped, and with a final desperate lunge he buried his sulphur-hook in the top of the Jovian's head. The clutch of the tentacles tightened convulsively; and Alan felt them star into quivering flesh, felt the one about his throat grind deeper and deeper, obscuring his sight with a creeping blackness.

Consciousness was only a ghostly thread when he heard a shout rise above the dying roar of the supply ship, and the life-draining grip of the tentacles relaxed! The sluur shook under a hail of thudding blows—and abruptly Alan was hurled to the floor of the Pit. Agony crawled through every nerve; he wrenched the sulphur-laden air into his burning lungs with great, rasping gulps. He knew his mind was spinning toward the black, empty chasms of unconsciousness. and he struggled furiously to keep his senses.

Somehow, he found himself swaying on legs as weak as woven straw. A dozen feet away he saw the Jovian, a horrible monstrosity blotched with slow-flowing blood, crouching on widespread limbs, striving to ward off the gouging slashes of Cory's weapon. Abruptly he fell forward on the crimson ruin of his face—and a twitching tentacle wound itself around the Terrestrial! A single note of triumph shrilled from the dying monster-and he began to creep toward the boiling pool!

In wide-eyed honor Alan shuffled toward the struggling pair. Though the weakened sluur moved slowly, his own pace seemed slower. Retrieving his fallen sulphur-hook without pausing, he pushed steadily ahead. They were fighting on the very brink of the spring now, Cory desperately striving to free himself. Then Alan reached them—and with a single mighty swing he drove his weapon through the bulging eye deep into the Jovian's brain!

AS Cory wrenched free, the sluur sagged in death. He teetered on the sulphur-crust for an instant, then slid over the edge—vanished in the depths of the churning expanse.

Panting heavily, the two men faced each other. Cory, angular, homely, six feet tall; Sarett, shorter by six inches, black haired, rather swarthy, a figure of stocky power. Both streaked and splashed with blood, their own and the Jovian's, from head to sandaled feet. As one their hands shot out, meeting in a strong, wordless clasp.

Cory broke the awkward silence. "A swell push—while it lasted," he said, grinning broadly. "And now I think we'd better blast off."

Sarett nodded. "Right. It'll take Parker and Tull longer to get to the wall, but they'll probably get rid of their sluur quicker than we did."

Like men on snow shoes they started across the Pit, sliding their feet over the glass-smooth surface. The muscles of their thighs were corded and rigid as they struggled ahead with laborious haste. Neither spoke; breath was too valuable to be expended in speech. And each was busy with his own thoughts—thoughts awakened by the freedom which seemed almost within reach.

Two months ago they had been brought to Jupiter on the convict ship, Sarett and Cory and Parker. Spacemasters all, in charge of three of the largest ITL cruisers, they had been convicted without trial on a charge of mutiny—convicted by order of Max Brodeur, President of the Interplanetary Transport Lines... Mutiny! Sarat's lip curled bitterly. That was a joke—a damned rotten joke. They had learned too much about the Uranian slave traffic, too much about those thousands of docile yet powerful Elgae being torn from their parent world to slave and die in the Mercutian radium mines. A racket operated by Brodeur himself!

And they'd get Brodeur! He was a big man in interplanetary affairs, a mythical figure of power none of them had ever seen, but they'd find him—and burn him!

"Almost there," Cory grunted, gesturing through the murk toward a high, gleaming wall directly ahead. It towered almost thirty feet above them, its polished surface sloping inward at a sharp angle, a barrier that no convict had surmounted since the Pit had been created. In moments they stood beneath it, looking back over the way they had come.

They could see nothing—only the eternal fog like a vaporous monster writhing in its lair. A mist that concealed thousands of convict laborers, beings from every inhabited planet in the System. They were toiling beside those seething pools, seeking Jovian sulphur crystals, more valuable than gold since Dr. Martin Quigley's discovery of their marvelous ability to rejuvenate human life.

Alan glanced at Cory. He was squinting intently into the gloom, waiting. Sarett frowned. He hoped Parker and Tull would make it. They should be here soon—unless they had failed! And if they had failed—either of them—it meant death for the rest, death in a sulphur caldron. For only with the four was escape possible.

Cory spoke without turning his head. "Wonder what it is that Tull plans to spring. You remember—he mentioned it last sleep period. Something to keep the Jovians occupied."

Sarett shrugged. "I don't know any more than you do. But it's bound to be something good, for that Uranian knows things—like every other highborn member of his race. And he's in this to win." If anything, Tull's grievance was greater than their own, for Brodeur's emissaries had tried to capture him with some of the Elgae; and because he had killed a dozen of his would-be captors, and had escaped, they had sent him here on a faked charge.

Abruptly Cory gripped Alan's arm, and he held his breath. There was a faint, slithering sound out there in the murk. If it were a Jovian—but it wasn't. The huge frame of Lief Parker bulked large before them, bloody, unsightly, sliding slowly forward like a swimmer struggling against a powerful undercurrent. He was alone.

A hoarse whisper reached them. "Sarett—Cory—is that you?"

"Yeah," Cory answered. "Where's Tull?"

Parker didn't reply till he joined them at the base of the wall. "He'll be comin'," he said. "We had a little trouble. The sluurs must've suspected somethin', 'cause two of 'em jumped us. They're cookin' now—but it means we'll have to rush things. Tull is plantin' his little diversion; and I came ahead since he can travel a lot faster."

"What is this plan of Tull's?" Sarett demanded. "Cory and I've been wondering."

PARKER grinned with one side of his face, his eye closing in an habitual squint. "Oh, it's pretty! Pretty! Y'see, back home on Uranus, Tull is a chemist—an' a damn' good one. Since he's been here he's been workin' durin' sleep periods, usin' some of the dishes they feed us with—an' he's finally made an explosive out of the liquid in the pool. Don't ask me how—but he's done it. An' when I left, he was settin' the charge. It'll blow the floor all around there into bits, an' let hell come boilin' through. An' while they feed aspirin to that headache, we'll blast off!"

"Blow up the floor of the Pit!" Incredulously Cory repeated the words. "That'll be—hell—for the other men around here!"

"It will be hell," Sarett exclaimed, his dark face hard and grim. He could imagine the shattered shell of obsidian floating in a churning mass of boiling sulphur—Jovians and convicts alike sinking into the scalding flood—could almost hear the curses, the screams. . . . Then he spoke again, his voice brittle as the sound of breaking glass. "It's tough, but we're not doing it just to escape. We're going to get Brodeur—if it takes the life of every damned convict in this stinking hole! What's the difference—a year in this air finishes a man anyway! A quick death is more merciful."

Cory nodded. "You're right," he said stonily.

There was a moment's silence, broken only by the faint wailing of a distant sluur; then Sarett spoke in brusque, businesslike tones. "Do I have it straight? Tull takes the bottom, since he's heaviest, biggest and strongest. You, Parker, get on Tull's shoulders; and Cory crawls up on you. Cory braces himself against the wall—and he catches me when Tull throws me up. I reach the top and crawl out. Right?"

"Okay!" Parker snapped. "An' then you get that supply boat—quick—an' drop it in here to pick us up."

"Yeah—and—" Cory's words were lost abruptly in a crackling roar that reverberated thunderously through the Pit. Tull's explosion. A dull red flash, then silence. Another instant—and the veil of murk before them was ripped to shreds by a lurid flare which lashed up and up endlessly into the sky, like a mighty arm of flame reaching into space. In its wake came a second detonation, father of the flare—an indescribable b-r-oooommm like nothing the three had ever heard. The floor of the Pit rocked drunkenly, and a wave of vertigo swept over the crouching men.

"It set off a volcano!" Cory cried, his words a thin whisper in the tumult—words left hanging in midair as a cyclonic blast of sulphur-laden smoke flung him and his companions bodily against the wall. The perilous rocking of the floor continued, in tempo with the belching of the new-born volcano. And now a shower of glowing sparks began to fall in a stinging hail.

Alan Sarett struggled painfully to his feet, his battered body numbed with shock. A few feet away Cory and Parker crawled erect, neither seriously injured.

Parker's mouth twisted in his one-sided grin. "Plenty to interest the Jovians," he shouted above the noise. "More than we figured on. Now if Tull—" He stopped short.

"Yeah," Cory concluded, "if Tull pulled through and we could get out of here in a hurry, there wouldn't be much chance of pursuit. But it's a miracle if he escaped."

"Then miracles still happen!" Alan cried. "Here he comes!"

Outlined against a background of crimson flame, a massive figure strode ponderously toward them. Almost as tall as the Jovians, he looked like a crudely drawn caricature of a man with a paper-white skin. Powerful arms, dangling from a tremendous chest, swung pendulously at his sides. Physically he suggested the brute—but his mighty cranium with its high, jutting forehead belied the testimony of his body.

"Not good—this 'ruption," he said jerkily in a cavernous bass. "It break plans. We get out—quick! This place not last long."

Instantly Parker sprang to his side. "Yeah—so let's pyramid."

Easily Tull swung the comparatively puny form of the six-foot-three Terrestrial to his shoulders. As he straightened, a particularly violent upheaval almost hurled him from his perch, but Tull's fingers about his ankles saved him.

During a brief lull in the volcanic disturbance, the Uranian rumbled, "Now you, Cory." And the lanky Space-master joined Parker on Tull's broad shoulders. Giant fingers closed rigidly on Parker's ankles while Jon Cory stepped into the other's cupped hands—and in an instant he was teetering dizzily six feet below freedom. Reaching out, he steadied himself against the sloping wall. Now he was faced with the difficult task of turning about, in order to catch Alan Sarett. Somehow he managed it, and stood with shoulders braced against the smooth expanse.

"Hurry!" he snapped. "I can't hold this forever!"

Alan Sarett stood before the Uranian with set face. His part in this little gymnastic exhibition was the most dangerous. He looked upward through the mist. Cory's shoulders seemed perilously small, and he was rocking back and forth. Alan's teeth clenched as he felt fingers of steel grasp his arms. A breathless upward rush—and Cory's long arms wrapped themselves about him in a desperate embrace. An instant they tottered on the brink of collapse while Jon Cory strove mightily to hold a weight that, in Jupiter's gravity, was tremendous. And all grips held!

"One more step," Cory grunted into Sarett's ear, "and you're out!"

ALAN nodded jerkily, carefully mounting to Cory's shoulders. Directly above him was the lip of this damned Pit—almost within arm's reach—and he could reach it if he could stand up. Cory gripped his ankles now, and he straightened. He balanced himself, pressing against the wall. His hands curved eagerly around the edge.

He could reach it! But it was smooth! How could he expect to pull himself out with so little to support him! The ghost of a doubt floated in his mind—then Parker's deep voice came up to him: "Make it, boy! Remember— Brodeur!" And with a mighty surge of strength through muscles that cracked with effort, Sarett pulled himself up—and over—out of the Pit!

With legs spread wide he peered about him. He saw no one. A half mile away where the Jovians entered and left the Pit, there would be a handful of guards and a few ITL men—but they wouldn't molest him. He started toward the landing field.

Thick underbrush—the pale yellow, fleshy growth that covered all of temperate Jupiter—blocked his path. Alan moved through it with a slow, sliding shuffle. And even that dragging pace required tremendous effort, for the great gravity strove mightily to draw him flat against the surface, like a needle on the tip of a magnet. Volubly he cursed the entire planet. It would take an age to reach the supply ship at this rate—and down there in the Pit Cory and Parker and Tull might even now be sinking into a pool of lava. For the intermittent roar of the eruption ind not abated in the slightest degree.

On be plodded, heart pounding, legs aching under a strain that was almost beyond endurance. Breathing was as difficult here as in the sulphurous air of the Pit; scoria and ashes from the volcano formed a cloud that cloaked everything with hot, stinging dust. But Sarett moved steadily onward, his shoulders hunched forward, his hands clenched hard at his sides.

The ship had landed little more than a quarter mile away, but the distance seemed endless to Alan. Yet he made it. Almost exhausted, he halted at last at the edge of the rocket-blasted clearing; leaned against an outcropping rock, resting, searching for a sign of life. He knew there were always men stationed about the ITL building on the opposite edge of the field, but he hoped they would he inside. He saw no one.

Abruptly he sank to his knees and hands and left the shelter of the leathery underbrush. In that position there was less chance of his being seen. Slowly he crept across the blackened clearing toward the spherical supply ship.

He was less than twenty feet from the craft when he heard a heavy hollow rumble like the pounding of many giant feet. He straightened up, glanced in the direction of the Pit—and saw a horde of sluurs sweeping over the undergrowth, fleeing from the horrors of the eruption. Their many-jointed legs carried them over the ground with amazing speed despite their vast bulk. They had almost reached the clearing. Now they saw the Terrestrial and a discordant chorus burst from their slits of mouths.

Dread swept over Alan Sarett. If they reached the space ship before he did, they'd stamp him into the ground! And the three in the Pit—they'd burn in a lake of Lava! The blood drained from his face. His lips drew taut over clenched teeth.

Quickly he rose. . . and with greater strength than he knew he possessed, with a sudden, superhuman effort that centered all his power in his whitely corded legs, he ran to the supply ship, leaped inside, and slid shut the ponderous airlock! Then he sank into an exhausted, sweating, inert heap just inside the door.

Moments later he staggered erect. There might be men of the ITL within this craft. He listened. There-was no sound save his own harsh breathing and the muffled roar from the Pit. He crossed the vacuum chamber to the inner wall of the ship. He closed the second door behind him. Stealthily he slid along the metal corridor to where he knew the control room must be. The door was closed; it slid slowly aside as he pressed against lt. He peered through the crack—then flung the door wide. There was no one in the room. The ship was probably deserted; he knew from experience that space-men usually left their crafts for an hour or two immediately after landing, in order to stretch their legs on solid ground.

Eagerly Alan's fingers gripped a control lever, his eyes glancing automatically over the familiar array of knobs and dials and pointers. As he pressed a button that started an air purifier to clearing the atmosphere of its sulphur stench, and closed a switch that set in motion a gyro-gravitator, imparting to the craft an artificial gravity, elation surged through him at the feeling of power that was his with the controls of a space ship again in his hands.

THE lever moved down a single notch, and into the rocket chambers flowed vaporized fuel; a second notch, and the craft trembled with the slow release of power; a third, and she rose gently into the air. Sarett switched on the bank of screens which curved before him, each of its five facets presenting a different view of his surroundings. Below him he saw the Jovian horde scattering wildly to escape the deluge of fire from the rocket vents; he saw another sluur rushing from the ITL building, carrying a Terrestrial official in its tentacles, the latter waving frantic objections. Alan grinned and sent the ship darting upward with another notch of power—upward and northward where the light of the Pit crimsoned the smoky yellow sky.

In an instant he was high above the great abyss, skillful manipulation of the controls holding the sphere almost stationary in midair. Anxiety gripped him at what he saw, and he began sinking rapidly. The prison pit was a wide, wide hollow brimming with smoke and flame. Liquid lava, an angry, lurid red, bubbled and surged and swept about everywhere like whirlpools of hell, spouting coiling clouds of yellow-white smoke. Here and there a darker spot was silhouetted against the crimson, an island of solidity in a flaming sea—but they were pitifully few. A sudden qualm of conscience stabbed him when he thought that in part he was responsible for this—but memory of Max Brodeur and of the tortures he had experienced down there froze his face into stern implacability.

Heading toward a vaguely familiar strip of land under the southern wall, he sank lower and lower. And suddenly he saw a group of human figures frantically waving, among them the giant Tull.

With all his skill he lowered the ship to a surface that bucked and swayed like the liquid mass beneath it. As he switched off power, he pulled back a lever which opened both portals of the airlock. His eyes turned mechanically toward the screens for a final glance about, and he gasped. Not only were Cory, Parker, and Tull pushing toward the ship; behind them came a score of other convicts!

Furiously Sarett rushed from the room. Those maddened creatures— many of them the scum of the System—if they took possession of the space ship, it would mean disaster! He reached the entrance; Tull was already there.

The Uranian stood with his back to the airlock, crouching like a boxer. Now Cory and Parker joined him. The oncoming horde hesitated before the menacing three, and came to a straggling halt.

"No pass," Tull rumbled ominously. "Ship too small. You stay here!"

A howl rose from terror-parched throats, and a burly brute with the thick body and bestial face of a Venerian halfcaste roared a foul curse.

"C'mon, yuh crimps," he snarled. "They can't stop us!"

At that instant a great slab of the obsidian floor broke away with a sickening lurch and vanished into the boiling lava almost at their feet. The mob swept forward in a wild surge of animal terror.

Tull met them with a sweeping, crushing attack of his incredibly long arms, hurling the leaders backward upon those behind them.

"Inside, Cory, Parker!" the giant roared. "Quick!" He sent them reeling toward the supply ship, and they dragged themselves hastily into the airlock.

"Come on, Tull!" Sarett shouted. "We've got to go!"

Tull, holding the convicts back like the frothing beasts they resembled, roared over his shoulder:

"You go! Me hold these. Go-get Brodeur!"

Even as the three Terrestrials shouted frantic protest, a single athletic figure darted suddenly from the mass, straining like a sprinter, and leaped, as Sarett had done, into the airlock!

Tull took a step after him, then as a triumphant howl rose from the mob, he swung furiously about. Parker struck viciously at the intruder; then their bodies crashed together and they clinched in a mighty struggle. Cory and Sarett, seeing a churning wall of redly glowing magma rolling toward them, hastened to the control room. Seconds counted now!

For an endless moment everything seemed to pause in stunned paralysis—then with an awful roar the entire strip of obsidian broke away from the wall! The space ship reeled sickeningly, rolling Parker and his combatant back into the corridor—and at that instant the airlock clanged shut, and the craft leaped toward the safety of the sky!

In the control room Alan thought he heard a chorus of screams blend into one spine-chilling sound that swiftly faded into silence. "God!" he said—and it was not a curse.

Cory spoke softly. "It's tough to leave Tull like that, Sarett, but it'd be a damn sight worse to let him kick in for nothing!"

ALAN SARETT stood motionless at the control bank of the supplyship Minerva, staring into the telescreens. His eyes followed the green disc of Jupiter, watching it shrink into a blur of light, till it joined the stars as a point of radiance in the black mosaic of space. At last he faced the center of the room.

Lief Parker, grinning his one-sided grin, gestured toward a motionless figure on the floor, then slowly caressed his knuckles. "Well," he demanded, "what'll we do with this egg? Smash his shell, or put 'im in cold storage?" He eyed a metal-screened porthole thoughtfully. "He'll be—safe—out there!"

Cory shook his head. "Why do anything with him? At least, let's give him a chance to talk. Hell—you can't blame him for trying to blast out of that damned Pit! We'd 've done the same thing."

Sarett nodded. "You're right, Cory. The four of us were in the same tight spot—and he took the only way out. If he's the right kind, and plays a square game, I say he should have his chance."

Parker grunted morosely. "Majority rules, o' course—though I still think I'm right. But, since you insist, let's wake him up an' let 'im broadcast."

Minutes later the stranger opened his eyes. The three Space-masters stood over him, motionless, silent, faces expressionless. He arose slowly, his keen gaze shifting from one to the other. He surveyed them narrowly, a hint of hostility creeping into the set of his mouth to be banished instantly. Then he smiled, a smile that went no deeper than his lips. And his voice as he spoke bore a hint of arrogance.

"I certainly appreciate your reception," he said. "Nice of you to pull me out of that mess back there. If you had come a minute later, I would he a cinder." He paused, inspecting the three with an air that bordered on insolence.

"Switch off the funny stuff," Parker growled, "or you'll be breathin' some damned thin air outside that porthole! C'mon—let's have some dope about yourself!"

The other met Parker's truculent glare with a look of unperturbed calm, then shrugged. "Very well," he agreed. "My name is Jones—Walter Jones. Second-class space pilot just out of training school. Got caught doing a little private smuggling—and Max Brodeur had me sent to the Pit! And who are you?"

Sarett answered. "We were ITL Space-masters, each in command of a cruiser." He introduced himself, Cory, Parker. "Each of us, working alone, discovered that Max Brodeur, big boss of the ITL, crusader against unfair exploitation of the System's weaker races—that Max Brodeur, the damned racketeer, is the power behind the Uranian slave traffic, and the contraband working of the Mercutian radium mines!" He smiled grimly. "We made the mistake of trying to do something about it—and we wound up in—hell!"

The other's eyes widened. "Brodour—behind that! Why that seems impossible—"

"But it isn't!" Parker snapped. "And now we're out to get him! An' we'll be gettin' him, see? An' he'll pay plenty!"

Cory eyed Jones quizzically. "You said Brodeur had you sent to the Pit. Maybe you'd want to join us—"

"No maybe about it!" Jones exclaimed. "Brodeur was responsible for my spell in that sulphur-hole—and I'd like nothing better than to see him get what he deserves. If I may join you, I think I can be of some help, for I know Venus. I received my pilot training in the school in Terra City where Brodeur has his headquarters."

After a few minutes further discussion, Walter Jones became the fourth member of the little party. Big Lief Parker, distrustful to the last, made one final statement:

"Get this, Jones, an' get it good! If we catch you in anythin' shady—it'll be the last thing you'll ever do—anywhere!"

Jones smiled thinly. "You won't catch me in anything shady, Parker. Of that you may be certain."

An hour later, minus the grime and gore of their fight in the Pit, and clad in ITL uniforms found in the ship's supplies, Sarett, Cory, and Parker leaned over the space-chart, studying their position in the heavens. Jones was at the controls a few feet away.

"Doesn't look promising, does it?" Cory remarked.

Parker scowled and pointed toward the space chart. "Promising? There's Jupiter—about four hundred and eighty million miles from the sun. And over here's Venus, sixty-seven million miles from the other side of the sun. That means we have to cover close to five hundred an' fifty million miles of space! An' there's not enough fuel in this little tank to take us a quarter the distance!"

"And we can't stop at any supply base for more fuel," Cory added.

PARKER grunted disdainfully. "An' even if we had enough fuel, it would take a crazy amount of time to make it at the rate we're goin'. There's only one thing to do—we'll have to get a bigger, faster boat."

"And I can tell you how we can do it," Sarett said slowly. He paused thoughtfully while Cory and Parker waited. Jones looked up from the controls.

"It's simple," Alan continued, "and it's feasible, too. Look." His finger traced a line across the space chart. "Here's the course of the Mars-Ganymede passenger-cruiser, Vulcan. I used to have that run-I know her schedule." His finger paused in its movement. "She's due to pass this point in another six hours. We're just about here—and we can easily be there before them, right in their course. Once there, we set off an automatic radio SOS. They'll have to stop and investigate—interplanetary law. And when they do, we'll take over the ship."

Parker laughed derisively. "Yeah—we'd threaten to chastise 'em severely if they didn't surrender! We're so well equipped to make 'em behave—armed to the gills an' all that."

"I mean it," Sarett insisted. "We can take the ship—and it shouldn't be very difficult. When they make a transfer from one boat to another—ITL boats, that is—they swing toward each other till their airlocks touch, and the openings are sealed together with the rubber collars that rim the 'locks. Isn't that right?" They nodded. "And after the transfer is made, both 'locks are sealed, the connection is broken, and the deserted ship is pulled along on a trailer cable. Right?"

"Sure," Cory grunted, "that's elementary. So what?"

"Simply this. First we get as close as possible to the Vulcan's orbit. Then we get into space suits, check them for leaks, and stop the air purifiers; after that we tap out about a quart of rocket fuel from the tanks, mix it with a little Martian garra oil, and set it afire. I needn't tell you what'll happen to anyone breathing the fumes. One whiff will paralyze them for an hour or two. . . . Well, when everything's set, we start the SOS signal. Then when they pick us up, and our airlock opens, and their airlock opens—tell me, will it work?"

Parker began pacing the floor excitedly. "Damned if it doesn't look feasible!" he exclaimed. "Crew, passengers, everybody knocked out. We'd only have to tie 'em up an' carry 'em into this tub. We could set 'em adrift or drag 'em after us, droppin' 'em some place where they'd be picked up. Or even better, we could stow 'em down below somewhere, 'cause they can't breathe hydro-garra fumes too long an' live." He stopped short. "Yeah-but what if the Vulcan doesn't stop?"

Sarett shrugged. "Then we'd be exactly where we are now. But they will stop. Space law demands it."

The cool voice of Jones came to them from the controls. "Why all the objections? The plan has a chance of succeeding—I don't think any of us have a better suggestion—so let's go!"

And so it was decided. After computing the probable position of the Vulcan with the utmost care, they sent the little supply ship roaring through space at top speed. Cory was at the controls. Several hours would elapse before they reached the passenger lane; while they waited, Parker prepared a hurried meal; Jones broke out the spacesuits, and Sarett made ready the mixture of rocket fuel and garra oil. After they had eaten they ranged themselves before the tele-screens. . . waiting.

On and on the little craft sped. An hour passed—another—and suddenly Cory exclaimed:

"Almost there!"

With forward rocket vents he checked their pace and carefully jockeyed the Minerva into position. Behind him the others got busy. In less than ten minutes the stage was set. All four were clad in the clumsy balloon-like suits used for exposure in airless space, a dome of glass forming their head-gear. Individual radio transmitters and receivers in each suit made communication possible. The purifiers had been checked, and from a small-mouthed vessel in the middle of the control room rose barely visible clouds of lethal vapor. The televisor was sending an automatic SOS into the void.

Anxiously the four watched the screens, waiting for the sensitive instrument to pick up sight of the passenger cruiser. And it came—a speck of moving light against the silver-splashed backdrop of space.

Instantly Sarett sprang to the televisor. Plugging a wire into his speaker, he connected it with the instrument, switched off the automatic distress signal, and sent his own voice through the ether.

"First Lieutenant Freeman of supply ship Minerva. We're out of fuel; we've drifted far off our course. Our air purifiers are out of order and our supply of oxygen is exhausted. Can you take us aboard?" He waited—and a reply came.

"Pilot Turner of the Vulcan. We hear you, Minerva. By order of Space-master Stuart we are swinging alongside. Be ready to transfer."

"Check, Vulcan. We are ready." Alan broke contact, switched off the televisor, and turned to the others.

"Take it fast," he snapped grimly. "Speed is what we'll need."

TENSELY they watched the approaching cruiser, her sunward side gleaming like the head of a comet. Rocket blasts shot alternately from forward, rear, and lateral vents as the pilot eased the Vulcan closer to the smaller craft. In moments both spheres were flashing along at equal velocity, side by side.

Cory flung over the lever that opened the inner door of the airlock; it filled rapidly with the almost invisible vapor. Voiceless, the four crouched in the doorway. There was a brittle tension in the air, as though something tremendous were gathering its forces to shatter itself.

Now they heard the clash of metal against metal as giant cables flung out huge magnetized hooks which seized metal rings set in the Minerva's surface. There were other scraping sounds, the clamping of airlock to airlock. Then silence. And in another instant a sharp tapping on the metal door. At Sarett's nod, Parker thrust back a lever—and they were gazing along a wide passageway into the Vulcan!

Nine men crouched there, three of them officers, the other six men of the crew. And each gripped a grimly pointing rocket pistol!

For half a breath the four mutineers stood as though stunned. Their escape had been reported, Sarett thought swiftly-then too much happened too quickly for thought. The Space-master gesturing with his pistol, his lips moving in curt, unheard words; a hand leaping to his throat in sudden surprise and annoyance; his knees buckling! Even as he sagged forward, Alan saw his eyes strike the glass encased face of Jones, saw those eyes widen with incredulous recognition—then he sank limply on his face.

Seconds, it took; and others were falling, too startled to remember their weapons. The four charged swiftly toward the crumbling mass. One of the crew, still alert, whipped back a lever with lightning speed—the door shot shut—but Cory was quicker! His long body, darting ahead, leaped fully into the opening! And the ponderous metal disc crashed against him!

There was a horrible crunching sound, a raglike sagging of Cory's body—then a strange cessation of all motion. A stunned instant—and Sarett led the others in a leap toward the door. They flung their weight against it, thrusting it along its grooved track, its catch clicking into place. Cory slumped forward, and Sarett caught him. Gently he lowered him to the floor, ignoring everything else.

"Cory—is it—are you badly hurt?" He shook him gently, his face grim, his words only' audible to himself. "Cory—did—did they get you?"

Wearily the other's eyes opened. He smiled faintly, struggling to speak. Then Sarett saw his lips form the words:

"Get Brodeur!" And he died.

White with fury, a dull ache in his chest, Alan Sarett leaped erect and glared about. The floor was strewn with unconscious space-men. Parker and Jones were not in sight. Warily he moved along the hallway, stepping over the still bodies. He entered the main corridor. Here a man lay, his feet twisted awkwardly beneath him. There another—then a woman. He passed them with only a casual glance, his eyes searching for his two companions. Then he saw them, approaching rapidly.

When they were close enough, Parker spoke, his half-grin expressing great satisfaction. "They're all under—couldn't find a single one conscious." Then he saw Sarett's solemn face, and his own sobered. "Is it bad?"

"Cory's dead." Sarett's nostrils dilated, and his eyes narrowed. "By damn—Brodeur will pay—for him and Tull!"

Solemnly Parker nodded. "We can't help Cory!—but we won't let 'im down. Two of us now—but we'll show that crimp that two's plenty!"

"Three, you mean," Jones said. "Don't forget me. We're all out to get Brodeur, you know."

Sarett and Parker snapped hard, suspicious glances at the other. There seemed to be a sneer in his voice, but he met their scrutiny with a stare of bland innocence.

"Don't you think we'd better get those sleepers down below in the hold?" he asked. "I'd like to get out of this suit, and we've got to clear the air first."

"Yeah," Sarett growled. Parker only nodded. There were bitter words on his tongue, eager for expression, but he swallowed them.

In grim silence they set to work.

Morosely Alan Sarett and Lief Parker stared into the Vulcan's tele-screens. On all facets save one was the blackness of space, the hard twinkle of distant suns, and the softer gleam of scattered planets—in all but one and in that lay the blinding Solar disc rimmed by its awesome corona. A spectacular sight, sharp against the blackness. Not far away floated Mercury, like a polished copper coin, tiny world of unbearable heat and wealth beyond reckoning.

BUT the two Space-masters barely saw either body; their thoughts were of other things.

"The more I see of this Jones," Parker was saying, "the less I want to see of him."

Sarett frowned. "I know. He seems to be carrying a crooked cargo. Yet we can't condemn a man just because we don't like him."

"The hell we can't!" Parker grunted. "I can!" He paused. "Ever since we put him in charge of the prisoners down below, he's been walkin' around with that damned smirk on his loud speaker —an' I don't like it! I've watched him, an' everythin' seems okay, but I don't believe it is!" His lips set in sudden determination. "Hell—Why talk about it? I'm goin' to lay him out where he can't do any damage."

"You'll do what, Mr. Parker?"

Parker and Sarett whirled at a suave voice behind them; stared into the steady muzzles of two rocket pistols! In the doorway stood the man who called himself Walter Jones, still smiling his shallow smile! A single curse escaped Parker; then he was silent.

"The little farce is over, gentlemen," Jones said amiably. "You've served your purpose quite well, and your freedom is now at an end. I've decided against killing you, however-unless you compel me to do so." He half turned, though his eyes and pistols did not waver.

"Come in, boys!"

In from the corridor strode two men in the garb of Officers—Spacemaster Stuart and one of his Lieutenants. Each held a weapon in one hand and a coil of rope in the other!

"Meet two of my assistants," Jones said. "Both are men of integrity and discretion, not to mention—"

"Hell!" Parker roared through his teeth, his throat corded with rage, "cut the comedy! If you want to say somethin', spill it! If you don't, shut up, an' do somethin'!"

Sarett remained silent, his narrowed eyes watching every move of the three before him.

The smile froze on Jones' face. "Very well," he said slowly. "Would it interest you to know that I am Max Brodeur?"

"Brodeur!" As one Sarett and Parker gasped the name. Alan's thoughts reeled. Brodeur—here! And these two space-men were his aides!

"Yes, Brodeur!" All suavity was gone from his voice now; it sounded a harsh monotone through the control room. "Max Brodeur in that hell-pit—because of your talking! Yes; your meddling caused an investigation and they condemned me to the Pit for life! I should kill you—but I have a better idea. You were so kind as to bring us this close to Mercury—and that's where you'll spend the next six or eight months—if you live that long! Slaves in the radium mines! Perhaps you've heard how those mines affect the workers—radium bums—terrible sores—blindness—insanity. . . . I'm sure it will be far more satisfactory than merely killing you!

"Tie them up, boys!"

As the space-men approached, Sarat's thoughts raced wildly. To hurl himself at those ready pistols would be suicide, but to let them tie him would be just as certain, if slower, death. There was one chance—a desperate one—

He heard Brodeur's voice: "Turn around with your hands behind you!"

As he turned, a space-man grasped his wrists; he felt the rope circle them—and he leaped toward the controls he knew so well!

His body struck the master switch, wrenching it open. A rocket blast roared past him knifing into the control panel—and utter darkness fell upon the cruiser! The room roared into a bedlam. With alarmed cries the spacemen fell back toward Brodeur; and a hail of fire poured over the spot where Sarett and Parker had been standing. But neither was there; with the darkness they had dropped; were rolling toward their three assailants.

The light of the pistols might have revealed their position, but everything happened too rapidly. One moment they were standing passively; the next, in darkness, they were rolling across the floor; the third, they had seized the three and had hurled them from their feet! Brodeur crashed upon Sarett; Parker had tackled the other two.

Flaming rocket pistols whirled and clattered into blackness—and it was man to man in the dark!

With wild, fierce exultation Sarett flung his hands upward about the body, seeking a throat. The words flamed through his brain—get Brodeur! They were on their feet—reeled apart to close again instantly. The shock of their meeting was like the clap of hands.

Get Brodeur! Alan's lips curled wolfishly. This was the man who had ordered him to that Jovian hell! This, the Uranian slaver. This, the man responsible for the death of Cory, of Tull! Crimson battle-flame flared within him, tempered with a cold, cold fury. One hand ground into a thick shoulder; the other lashed heavily against a lean jaw.

GROWLING a curse, Brodeur grasped Alan's throat with both hands; and as Sarett wrenched free he felt a foot land heavily against his shin. Pain burned fiery hot through the outraged bone, and he wrapped his arms about Brodeur in red rage. A short arm jab glanced from his chin and he rocked back on his heels-then lunged forward again, into a clinch. Their legs coiled about each other, and they dropped to the floor. Over and over they rolled, striking blow after blow, gouging, kicking like two beasts, all reason gone from their struggle.

Suddenly they were on their feet again, striking blows through the darkness. Brodeur stumbled—and Alan caught him in a deadly grip that came unsought. One arm gripped him vise-like beneath the shoulders; the other hand thrust upward against his chin. Alan's fingers ground his lips against his teeth, and the leverage forced his head steadily backward. Dimly he heard Brodeur suck in a tortured breath; and an awful scream tore through the darkness. He eased the pressure for an instant—then he remembered Cory gasping out his life—and his muscles tightened grimly.

Brodeur wrapped his legs about Alan's body in a last desperate grip, fear of death pouring strength into his thighs. As the pressure grew, straining about him painfully, Sarett suddenly flung himself face downward upon the floor, his full weight striking the head and bent neck of Max Brodeur. There was a dull, nauseating snap, and he lay still.

Slowly Alan rose, panting hoarsely, reaction trembling in his limbs. He listened for sounds of Lief Parker and his two combatants; heard:

"C'mon—c'mon! Can't a guy get a decent fight in this corner o' space? Two of you—an' you break like eggs! . . . Hey, Alan, how you doin'?"

"It's—over," Alan answered. "Let's have a light." He groped toward the control panel; fumbled till he found the master switch; closed it.

Light flickered on in the chamber, uncertain light that wavered with the vibration of loose connections. It revealed three men lying awkwardly on the rocket blasted floor. One would never move again. Life still clung to the other two. . . . It revealed a control panel hopelessly etched and burned by a barrage of rocket blasts. Miraculously, two facets of the tele-screen had survived the holocaust; in one flamed an image of the sun. And it was spreading out, filling the screen—leaping up at them with frightful speed!

They were falling into the sun!

Instantly Sarett leaped to the controls, flung on checking rocket blasts—but there was no response. He tried again—futilely. He shrugged. No sense in attempting to repair this ruin before him. He looked at Parker in silence.

Lief Parker's lips twisted in his one-sided grin, his eye half closing. "Looks bad, eh? Well—we'll be goin' the way Tull an' Cory went—an' we're takin' that crimp with us!" He gestured toward the floor. "I'm satisfied."

Sarett scowled. "But those passengers and Space-men down below—" He stopped short, a slow smile appearing on his face. "Say—we must be slipping! The Minerva! What's to prevent our clearing her atmosphere, refueling her from the Vulcan's tank, and blasting in under her power? It'll take a good while for us to fall forty-odd million miles—we'll have plenty of time to make the change."

Parker's grin spread itself to the other side of his mouth. "So that's what brains are for!" he exclaimed.

"We'll land on the moon," Alan continued, "and radio the ITL headquarters on Earth about the Vulcan. And after that—well, we'll be outlawed, I suppose—"

Parker interrupted excitedly, "Say—I know what we'll do after that! We'll grab us one of those new interstellar ships from the shops on the moon, an' we'll roam the sky as we damn' please! We'll—hell, we'll see an' do plenty! Is it a go?"

Alan Sarett looked at the other panel of the tele-screen which had escaped the barrage of pistol fire. There were a million worlds out there, gleaming like eyes, glaring at him with a cold, challenging light. Worlds—with adventures enough for a million lifetimes. A warmth appeared on his face reflecting an inner glow. His hand shot out and gripped Parker's—hard.

"It's a go," he said.