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CHAPTER I

The Scarlet Festival

THE MOMENTOUS and terrifying series of incidents began near the midnight climax of the Scarlet Festival. It was about eleven P. M. when I stopped to get Dianne. In Venta the festival is annually held in the blue-water grove at the edge of the city, and from Dianne's nearby home we went there on foot.

My name is Jac Hart. Nothing much of me is important to this narrative. I was born in Great-New York, the Earth; and with legal status at twenty, I gained the assignment as Junior Secretary to Earth's representative in Venus of the Triplanetary Union. I had always liked Venus, its way of life, its people, artistic, naturally gay, pleasure-loving. Descended from the earliest Latin settlers from Earth upon this then uninhabited planet, they were softened and yet enriched through five hundred years here in the lush climate and beauty that is Venus. And it was here in Venta that I met Dianne Donaldson, youngest daughter of Earth's present Ambassador. Love had ripened between us; we hoped to be married soon.

It was only a short walk from Earth-Embassy to the blue-water grove. A gay, holiday spirit was upon everything. The air of Venus is always warmly redolent with the perfume of the tropic blossoms, but tonight there was a spice in it, exotic incense to stir the senses Wafting here from the festival as it drifted on the softly stirring breeze. Overhead, once we get beyond the thickly flowered Embassy gardens, the Venus mist-sky gleamed with the glorious mingled tints of the lights down in the festival grove. The colored search-beams were rainbow fingers moving and twining above us in the sky.

As we walked, the night breeze stirred Dianne's long black cloak so that her transparent festival robe was suffused with the blue and red and orange of the sky.

"You're very beautiful, Dianne."

She laughed gaily, squeezing my arm. "It's the spirit of the night, Jac. But it's nice to have you say so."

Now, as the descending thicket paths were converging upon the grove, other arrivals were visible ahead of us and to the sides—young men and laughing girls, their gay voices mingling in a babble of anticipation.

"Let's take a punt-boat, Jac," Dianne suggested. "Just the two of us."

It was our first festival since we became engaged—the comparative isolation of a small craft would let us be spectators rather than participants.

"Yes," I agreed. "Good idea-the boathouse, I think it's off here to the left."

We turned that way. The winding canals with tiny thicket-islands in their loops, from here were like tangled colored threads. Beyond the nearer patch of them, the big central lagoon was blood-red under the changing lights now—with little dark moving dots which were the boats upon it. To the right, from one of the big white pavilions where the crowds were eating, drinking and dancing, the soft music of an orchestra was audible—the plaintive strings of the native Venus instruments rising and falling with sensuous melody.

AT THE BOATHOUSE there seemed still to he some small boats available. I clung to the flushed and laughing Dianne, trying to fend off the plucking youths who were pelting her with blossoms as we pressed forward. Now, as the midnight hour was approaching, the festival was at its height....

From an island pavilion just across from us a group of young girls came running. Their cloaks fell from them; with long hair flying and white limbs flashing in the colored dimness, they ran for the water and plunged in.... Showers of flowers, tossed by the admiring fringe of youths, came hurtling out from the mossy banks at them as they swam....

Every island thicket now held lovemaking couples.... We stood watching for a moment. Occasionally some of the swimming girls would land at the dotted islands, only to be rushed upon so that with squeals of laughter and simulated terror they would turn and plunge back again....

"I have a punt-boat for you and the young lady here." The boathouse attendant stood obsequiously beside us. "Of what size would you wish?"

We turned to follow him down the jammed boathouse length. The rest-tables here were crowded with merrymakers, everyone gazing at Dianne, few at me, save to note me as her protecting escort.

Then as we stood at an interior corner of the boathouse, where the clothes racks made a fairly secluded recess, Dianne handed me her cloak and hood. She stood revealed, her dark hair bound on her head, the filmy pale-blue robe draped in folds about her slim white figure, with golden ropes crossing the breast and tasseled belt-ends dangling from her waist. She stood brushing the flower-petals from her hair and neck while I turned away to rack her cloak and hood in the small row of public locks near at hand.

"You are more beautiful than them all, Dianne. And don't tell me it's just because I see you through the rose glasses of a lover's illusion! That's nonsense. It's because—"

The words died on my lips. Dianne wasn't here! For that instant I stood more puzzled than startled.

"Dianne—" Had she darted behind some of these garments, with the impish spirit of the Scarlet Night merrymaking upon her so that she was hi-ding, waiting for me to find her and drag her forth, like the maidens hiding in the bosks of the islands of the lagoon?

"Dianne—I see you—come out of there!" But I didn't see her, and there was no answer to my calls.

The boatman came back from the slanting apron at the water's edge. "Your boat is ready, Sirrat."

"Oh—thank you. My companion—she was here just a moment ago—I can't imagine—"

His swarthy Venus face carried a faint smile. Respectfully he suppressed it, but his dark eyes under the heavy black browns were twinkling. "Could it be the little Sirrata found more attraction in someone who seized her? There is lightness of heart tonight. It means not too much, Sirrat. I will hold the boat. She will be back."

But we were fairly secluded here in the recess, nor would any of the gay and laughing youths have trespassed upon us. Or if one had, surely Dianne would not voluntarily have fled with him. And resisting him, I would have heard her least outcry since I had been only a few feet away.

THE BOATMAN and I searched the recess. A little dagger of fear now was stabbing into me. I sent the boatman away. Hurriedly, with growing puzzlement and apprehension, I moved among the crowd out in the open boathouse. There was no sign of her. Then I searched outside. There was a small open door oval near where Dianne had been standing in the recess. I went out through it. There was shrouded dimness here, with a little path and the blue thickets crowding close and the pale blue-white sand of the ground gleaming beneath them.

"Dianne—"

My call, unanswered, floated away. Then I stood startled, gazing down at a small oblong object lying here on the ground. It was Dianne's purse.

The sight of it as I picked it up, identified it, with her familiar flowing signature embossed upon it, brought a flood of conjectures. Puzzling. I knew she carried her purse strapped under her cloak. I would have assumed it was there in the lock-rack. Why had she removed it to carry with her in the boat? Because there was something in it too important to be trusted in the lock-rack?

When I opened the purse, there at once I seemed to find the answer. Among the litter of cosmetics there was a sealed envelope; but what caught my attention was a small square of stiff paper. I took it out of the unsealed envelope. A flight ticket! I stared at it in the dim sheen of the colored eave lights of the boathouse. It was a Class One ticket for tonight's flight of the Eq-2. Encircling the planet in 24 Venus hours, this passenger plane traveled in a perpetual midnight zone, with each of its stops exactly at the Zero Hour. It would depart from the Veuta air-run at midnight, half an hour or less from now!

Why had Dianne planned to take the flyer on tonight's flight? Why hadn't she mentioned it to me? Surely it was so unlike Dianne! I stood stricken. Yet all I could think of was to get to the air-run and seize her, stop her if need be.

There was no time now to stand pondering it, and across the background of my consciousness there was the frightening realization that all my wild thoughts were implausible. Of her own volition, going to the flyer with her ticket in the purse, would she have dropped the purse so carelessly and not even missed it? Under what stress—or duress—she might have been I could only shudderingly imagine.

Within a minute now I was rushing from the blue grove. Out by the entrance I found a small taxi-flyer station.

"I've got to get the Eq-2 at midnight," I told the attendant. "I hadn't realized it was so late. Hurry now— don't argue about it." I showed him my identifying papers. "You will put the charge to me through the Triplanetary Union. I'll leave your car at the air-run. You can send and get it, Hurry now."

"Of course, Sirrat." He hastily wheeled out the little single seater. I jumped in, and in a moment the 'copters were drawing me upward.

I had risen hardly half a thousand feet, with the upper radiance of the festival grove painting me with its lurid sheen, when suddenly from down on the ground a pencil-beam of stabbing vibration darted up at me! A pistol-ray, trying to beam me down! I caught the source of it—a clump of thickets off to one side of the taxi station from which I had risen!

The first shot missed me. I swooped with a drop, and now a second one went wild, stabbing up through the night to where only an instant before my little taxi-flyer had been. Then I leveled 03 again, and with full power slid circling out over the festival grove.

There was no third shot; I was alone up here in the redolent airdrift of the languorous Venus night. But now my wondering perturbation over Dianne had mounted into the reality of terror. She and I surely had been watched and followed there in the festival—trailed by such desperate antagonists that openly they would fire on me to 'bring me down, probably kill me. I had escaped them. But what of Dianne?


CHAPTER II

Diabolic Plot

IN A MOMENT the dwindling splash of rainbow which was the blue-water grove was behind me. Beyond it the lights of Venta City were a diffused patch in the haze of darkness. Already I was dropping down upon the air-run field. The Eq-2, in Venta, takes off from its own private departure port, off to one side of the official and public field. I could see that I was still in time; the great cylinder of gleaming silver, with its spreading banks of disc wings, its 'copters, jet ports and propellers, and the glistening convex upper surface of the glassite deck-dome, stood like an eager but quiescent monster in its rack, ready for flight.

But I had only a minute or two to spare as I dropped the single-seater into a public landing cubby, leaped from it and ran. I ignored the check-in portal and reached the foot of the small ascending run at the side of the flyer. A Venus fellow, slim, swarthy and a head shorter than myself, with a stiff uniform and a peaked cap of gold denoting that he was the Eq-2 booking purser, barred my way.

"No bookings now. It is too late."

He tried to shove me back, but I resisted. "I...

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