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The last great empire of Mars, a series of fertile islands in the heart of a shallow marshlike sea near the equator, came abruptly to an end sometime in the Dark Ages of Earth. Less than a thousand Martian years have passed since the led sands swallowed the Sea of Raba and its several score doomed cities and towns. . . .

It was in the last years of the empire that science reached its peak. During the reign of Raba Dagan, the Wise, scientists shook o? the shackles of gravitation and voyaged in huge metal ships to the moons, and to Venus and Earth. The trading ships of Raba exploited the savage tribes existing at either pole, and her miners reopened long-abandoned mines rimming the dead sea bottoms.

Then, with the death of Reba Dagan, came the first of a series of plundering Voldurians, better known as Toads, gray-fleshed, lumpy, four-foot entities from outer space. And almost overnight the Sea of Raba vanished. The hungry red sands, unchecked now, swallowed the ravaged islands and buried the domes.

To the north and to the south fled the survivors, there to battle and mingle their blood with the dwindling savage descendants of earlier civilizations. Yet the memory of their vanished fertile homeland persisted in their legends and was woven into the intricate structure of their theism.

The dune-buried islands and dead cities became a lost paradise that was to he eventually restored to its pristine culture and fertility. . . .

From "Ancient Cultures ol Mars"
by Redford Blys, published by
Red Planet Pubs., Inc., 2041 A.D

JUD LEE ran stubby brown fingers through his snowy hair before he let the pressure helmet drop back in place. Despite the laboring pressure pumps the air in the leaky cabin of the prospecting helicopter was uncomfortably thin. For the last three days he had lived, eaten, and slept almost exclusively in his pressure suit.

"Lopez!" he called as he snapped on the ship-to-ship audiophone.

The receivers in his helmet rattled in response. Have to check for loose connections or use the spare helmet, he decided. He bumped the transparent faee-plate with a hooded wrist and the voice cleared.

". . . speaking."

"Almost in the heart of Raba Depression," he said, his eyes continuing their endless sweep of the desolate dunes and ridged hollows. "No sign of water or desert growth. Two ruined cities off to the north. One just ahead."

"No luck here either." Vincent Lopez's voice was unsteady. "We have but a week remaining, my friend."

"If we could only blast the Toads out of the northern canals, we'd have water in plenty. Ten cruisers from Earth would do the trick. But we do nothing. Let them force us off Mars or use all our profits buying water!"

"Si," agreed Lopez bitterly, "but the Rhett Peace Pact says no. For no longer raiding Venus and Earth, we give the northland of Mars to the invaders."

"South Mars Limited maybe had a finger in the pie. Their polar waterways are free of grafting Voldurians."

Lopez grunted assent. "Reminds me—seen anything of that SML passenger liner reported missing yesterday?"

"Nope. Uh, wait a minute. Something down here. Outcrop of rock maybe, or a building. . . .

"Dropping down to a hundred feet. . . . Uh, oh! It's the ship all right. Half buried in a dune and shattered. Must have exploded."

"What's your position, Jud?" Lee snapped back the readings, easing the heli down toward the base of the marching dune.

"Stepping out to look her over, Lopez. Stand by."

"Heading for you. Visibility almost zero. Sandstorm kicking up." Lopez snapped out something in disgusted Spanish.

"Not bad. here. Better climb above it. So long."

Lee took his featherweight sand spade and left the heli's cabin on the side opposite the stiff southern breeze. He swung to the left, around the swirling turtle-paced toe of the marching hillock of ruddy sand. Here it was more sheltered and in a dozen paces he had reached the twisted debris of the half-covered wreck.

He cleared away the sand swiftly. In two minutes he had wriggled through the burst-open cabin's wall. He gulped at what he saw.

A minute later he was calling Lopez. "Five passengers and three crew members. All dead."

"Emergency call made it six passengers, one female."

"All men." Lee frowned at the slowly advancing wall of sand particles. The breeze was growing in power. "She may have been thrown free. Cabin split open like a nut."

"We'll radio from the base." Lopez's voice was strained. "Getting really knotty here, Jud. Better take off before it gets you."

The transmitter of the little Mexican partner of Jud Lee clicked off. The water prospectors and mineralogists of Northern Mars Incorporated always worked in pairs. And never at greater distances than forty" miles from one another. So the desert storm would soon be upon Lee.

He took off, the sudden blast of thin air as he topped the dunes almost smashing him downward again. He climbed as fast as the sky prop's blades permitted. And his hands froze on the controls.

A pinpoint of light blossomed in the growing dusk of swirling dust clouds and endured for brief seconds—an emergency flare. Less than a quarter mile to the north it was. He headed toward it and finally spotted a pressure-suited shape kneeling in the shelter of a minor dune.

Somehow he landed less than a dozen feet beyond the woman. She came crawling through the blast of the sky prop and he yanked her into the cabin. He sent the ship lurching skyward, and, once clear of the sand, locked its controls for 500 feet.

The helmet slid from the woman's dusty head. He saw a tear-stained face and long reddish-brown hair. Her eyes were big, blue and staring with the terror she had known. Lee took in the flabby cheeks and the pouting lips and did not like what he saw.

"I'm thirsty," she said. "Give me some water."

Lee held a water flask for her and pushed her hands away after the first swallows. "Uh, uh," he said.

"Give me that water, Grandpa," she snarled weakly at him. "My father'll put you back at mining if you don't."

"Your father will?" Lee laughed. "And who's he?"

"Commander Banton, you fool! Now give me that drink."

Lee stuffed the flask into his pressure suit's zippered belly pouch. He snapped on the transmitter, calling Lopez again. Between calls for his comrade he studied his unwelcome passenger.

"So you're 'Louse' Banton," he mused. "Worst spoiled brat on Mars. And from South Mars, too!"

"My name is Lois!" the girl fairly screamed, "and I am not a brat!"

"Shut up," ordered Lee abruptly. "Yeah, this's Lee. You okay, Lopez? Great. . . .

"Got the girl. Jet-happy little dame left the wreck and started off on foot! Honest. . . . Banton's daughter. . . ."

Lois slapped at Lee's tough pressure mask and he held her off with one hand, grinning sourly at her gasping rage.

"Meet you at base," he concluded, "in an hour or so."

HALF AN HOUR later he was not so sure he'd make the base. He was making no headway against the raging torrent of sand-laden atmosphere; in fact he guessed he was losing the battle, and the battered heli's cabin was slowly wrenching apart at its welded seams.

Once he'd climbed to four thousand feet, to find the wind yet more turbulent there. Cross currents of air had tossed the little mapping ship about and forced him groundward. And the power of the hurricane had kept growing.

Both he and the Banton girl were strapped into their seats as the heli slammed about crazily. Abruptly the controls went lifeless in his hands. Something had given way. Helplessly, they were carried before the storm. The instruments were crazy, here in the Raba Depression they were far below the arbitrary sea level as it was, and now they could not be read correctly.

"May crash any minute, Lopez!" Lee shouted through his throat mike.

Uselessly, Lopez's faint voice was requesting his position, but before Lee could answer, the crash came. A freakish swirl of the sand-laden air slowed the ship momentarily, and it dropped like a rock. There was a brutal snapping impact, and then a blackness the storm could not equal.

After a time Lee was conscious of the cutting blast of air that probed through a great split in the top of the cabin. Only now the roof was in front of him. There was the taste of salty blood in his mouth. And he was no longer strapped in the control chair.

Clumsily he groped to the locker where the protective sand masks were stored and took out two of them. One he slipped over his pressure helmet and the other he took to the girl's sprawled body.

"Keep your filthy paws off me," she snarled savagely. His audiophones rattled. Her breath gurgled unevenly.

She clawed at his hands, but he persisted in his task of strapping on the mask, and an extra belt of water flasks and oxygen cylinders. She was only semi-conscious, and he was forced to carry her toward the gaping rent. Only then did complete understanding return to her.

"What—where are we going?" she demanded pettishly.

"Have to start off on foot, look for a deserted city or other shelter."

Lois Banton laughed nastily. "Hah! You laughed at my ignorance in leaving the wrecked flyer. And now you do the same."

Lee shrugged. "Sure. You crashed in comparatively decent weather. The wreckage remained exposed. But in five minutes, ten feet of sand may bury the heli. The dunes build swiftly in such a hurricane."

The girl gazed fearfully at the rising level of sifting sand over what had been the control panels. She fairly flung herself at the opening. Lee caught her sand boots just in time and pulled her back. Calmly he snapped a ringed ten-foot line of tough nylon into her belt and into his own. Then he checked his sand spade, pouched solar torch, and pressure-proof zippered holster where his compact machine-gun lay.

"We could anchor ourselves to the ship by a hundred-foot line," he told her calmly as he set the transmitter for thirty-second intervals of automatic signals, "but we'd soon be buried too. Only chance is drifting before the wind."

Lois's eyes were streaming tears.

"But there's no water out there," she quavered, "and our oxygen will run out."

"Then we'll use the hand pumps on our suits." Lee was angry, suddenly. "As for water there is little loss, perhaps a pint escapes in a day from these suits."

He pushed her out the opening and followed swiftly, the blast of the storm hurrying them along. He caught a glimpse of the heli and a building ridge of red dust behind it.

THEY stumbled through a ruddy darkness that rustled and chewed at their tough pressure envelopes. They leaned back against the wind, their sand boots slogging mechanically along. The surge of the storm currents threatened to send them hurtling skyward, chiplike. Even the shifting ridges of the dunes offered little protection, and a moment's halt buried them to the knees.

The curved solidity of a wall jarred Lee back into realization of his surroundings. Time had lost all meaning and weariness had dulled his senses. He was astonished to discover Lois yet on her feet, her body flattened against the obstruction.

"Domed city!" he croaked, his throat thick.

The girl's teeth showed whitely through the begrimed faceplates of her sand mask and helmet. She was trying to speak but he heard nothing, the communication cables linking them had broken or his audiophone receiver had finally quit.

He inched along the slow curve of the vast dome toward the left, and perhaps a hundred feet further along found a ragged crevice in the semi-opaque shell roofing the dead city's dust-choked ruins. He squeezed through to a catwalk of spidery looking, but enduring, metal, and drew Lois in beside him.

Only five feet below them, the highest of the ancient towers and flat-roofed dwellings sprouted from the sand. Lee knew that their bases might be a hundred feet further down, perhaps more. Eventually the outer level of sand and the inner level would coincide. That this dome must have been less badly shattered by the raiding invaders of a thousand years before, he could well believe. Most of the dead towns were completely buried.

They moved to the right until the spurting spray of sand through the wide slit in the dome could no longer reach them. Lee discovered the phone cable was unlinked and reclipped the contacts.

"I'm going outside again," he told the girl, taking out his solar torch, "to mark our entrance. Then we'll hunt for shelter in the ruins."

He lengthened the nylon cord with another ten foot length, before battling outward again, and then, above his head, he burned a sooty broad arrow into the dome's crystalline surface. To the left of this he burned: LEE, in two-foot letters. And on the opposite side of the crevice he put another, longer, arrow.

This done he reentered the huge dome and lay, exhausted, upon the hard metallic ribs of the catwalk. Lois was sprawled there too, mouth slack, sleeping. The effort to stand again was too great. He closed his eyes.

LEE WAS smothering, his lungs gasping for air. He struggled to an elbow and opened his eyes to a dust-swirling twilight. The storm had not eased while he slept.

The oxygen cylinder was exhausted. Stale air sickened him, and his temples w e re throbbing as he switched over to the spare tank. When that was gone they'd have to rely on the emergency hand pumps to fill them again with compressed air.

He breathed deeply and switched on the girl's extra tank. She stirred and sat up too. He grinned wryly at her, contorted features.

"Hard bed," he said. "Even sand is better."

Lois squirmed uncomfortably, stretching her cramped legs and arms. She stood up, looking out over the mile-wide extent of the dome's foggy disc. "Now what?" She yawned. "Any chance of rescue soon?"

Lee shook his head. "Not until the storm's over. May be a day, may be a week. Our exit's blown shut too, I see."

The crevice by which they had entered was sealed again, and a rounded ramp of sand led down to the dome's uneven floor. Lee led the way to this and slid and stumbled down it, the girl trailing.

"Might as well hole up in the ruins," he advised. "Maybe we can seal out some of the dust so our hand pumps will not clog so fast."

Lois did not reply. She had withdrawn an arm from her suit's inflated right sleeve and was munching at an oval bar that looked like candy. Lee jerked at her other arm, making her drop the remaining fragment.

"That's emergency ration," he said sternly, "food for a week. You're going to be sorry."

"Yah!" spat out the girl, grimacing angrily at him.

Suddenly she doubled over, her face paling and yellowing to a hideous green hue. For several minutes she was violently sick, the cramped confines of her helmet and pressure suit but multiplying the discomforts of a cramping disgorging stomach.

After a time she was better, and Lee smothered a smile as she glared at him. He headed again toward the oval doorway of a rounded tower of seamless yellowed plastic, the same material of which the enormously thick skin of the dome was constructed.

Inside, a vast, high-ceilinged chamber opened. And here the light seemed to have brightened, perhaps because the dust cloud was thinned. Lee uncapped his solar torch, cutting its radiance to less than normal noontime illumination.

Vast murals, their colors bright and fresh and the glistening protective coating of diamond-hard transparency unmarred by the centuries, covered the inner walls. Lee blinked his eyes, startled, as he saw familiar animals and vegetation, not of Mars, but of Earth! And then he recalled the legends of the savage natives of the polar waterways, stories of great ships crossing to Earth and Venus.

One wall depicted scenes of Earth; jungles, seas, and cultivated countrysides with hilltop castles and thatched huts of stone. One figure was that of a mailclad warrior astride a masked and hooded horse. Here was that proof that Martians had visited Earth during the Middle Ages, this and the relief maps just below the murals.

The other wall represented scenes on Venus, recognizable to Lee, although he had never been there. Froglike natives, Butrads, he saw, and the ever-present aquatic growth of thidin vines. The paintings were as lifelike and colorful as three-dimensional photographs.

"This must have been old Raba Dagan's headquarters, Lois," he said, turning to the pale-faced girl.

They were now near the further end of the lofty hall, where twin oval ports stood invitingly open. The right hand door opened into a smaller room, its walls also decorated with pictures. Lois stepped inside and Lee followed.

Sudden emptiness opened in the pit of Lee's stomach; it was like a long-continued drop into a mine-shaft. The oval opening into the outer chamber gave way to a blurring succession of rock strata and black galleries.

Lois so far forgot her dislike for Lee that she clung to his arm in terror. "We're falling!" she screamed. "Stop us! Stop us!"

"Don't worry," he told her, "this is probably an automatic elevator of some sort."

As though to confirm his words the "room" slowed and stopped opposite another oval doorway. They stepped out into a dreary cavern of a room that was lightless save for Lee's solar torch. For another ten seconds or so the platform remained opposite and then it sank away smoothly into the depths.

Only a faintly luminous mistiness, smokily brown and falling steadily, was to be seen in the square shaft.

"Now what, vac brain?" demanded the girl. "We're stuck here maybe a mile below the surface."

"The other shaft should have a current of this same inert gas rising upward," Lee suggested. "Let's see."

They took the four steps necessary to reach the other opening, looking down into a vacancy like that they had just quitted. Lois laughed leeringly. Apparently her stomach was returning to normal, and she was again her usual disagreeable self.

"Disappointed, Grandpa?" she asked.

Lois was possibly nineteen or twenty and Lee was twenty-five. It was his prematurely snow-white hair that earned this nickname, a freakish result of a glancing bullet in one of the unending affrays between miners of SML and his own company. He grinned. After all he'd called her Louse, first.

"Nup. Be another platform along soon."

A minute passed. Lois sniffed triumphantly. And then a bulky something came sliding softly up from below and came to rest in the shaft. Its oblong entrance almost exactly matched that of the mysterious barren chamber.

"Going up, Miss Banton?" asked Lee. "No charge."

Lois shook her head violently. "No! Let's keep going down and see what's there. We might find a treasure or mines."

There was new respect in Lee's voice as he agreed. It took a certain amount of courage, or bravado, to go downward into the unknown when a way to the surface was waiting. Despite her words her voice had quavered a trifle at the end.

A moment later they were aboard a platform in the other shaft and dropping steadily downward.

THE PLATFORM cage glided to a stop again, its seventh, and a well-lighted corridor-lay beyond the oval port. Lois went swiftly out of the unmoving compartment with Lee at her side. And for the first time he noticed how their pressure suits wrinkled and flapped about their bodies.

He tested the outer pressure by cracking the helmet valve. There was no escape of oxygen. Gingerly he sniffed, sniffed again more deeply— and tugged at his helmet until it loosened and hung back on his shoulder hinges.

"Clean air," he cried. "Air with the smell of flowers and green growing things in it! Moist air!"

Lois followed suit. For several long sobbing breaths they were content to stand there and suck in the heady fragrance of the thick air. It made them dizzy after a time, forced them to breathe more shallowly as they peeled off their cumbersome pressure gear.

"How deep would we be," demanded Lois, "before air pressure equaled Earth Normal?"

"Plenty deep. Lois. And the air is moist!"

"So what? Our domes in South Mars are the same."

Lee muttered something uncomplimentary about "Toad Lovers" and started down the corridor. For several hundred feet it extended straight as an arrow, a softly glowing tube of perhaps twenty feet in diameter. The girl hurried after Lee.

Their now useless pressure suits and helmets, as well as the useless sand gear, they left behind. Finally Lee spoke:

"Moisture means water, possibly an underground lake or sea. North Mars Incorporated wouldn't have to close its mines. We've been in the red for the past two years buying all our water from the Toads!"

"I'm glad they're not in our hemisphere," agreed Lois.

"Yeah." Cynicism dripped from the word. His lips uncurled. "Sorry. Forget you're just a brat. Shouldn't be taking out my dislike for SML on you."

"I'm nineteen," the girl cried, "and no brat! But most of us do feel sorry for your people in the north—the women and children, that is."

"Thought you'd qualify it."

Suddenly Lee halted and his right hand went down to the gas-powered pocket gun holstered at his hip. It contained a clip of a thousand biaton-tipped needles—each needle an explosive miniature grenade. Because the needles were expelled, rather than fired, the common term of expoder was given them.

A forty-foot section of corridor had lost its glowing coating, it lay jumbled and dull on the floor, and the slimy darkness of water puddled there as well. On the left a branching corridor, also in darkness, opened. And there Lee thought he had detected movement.

His hand fell away. He laughed at himself. How could there be life here in this long-deserted necropolis? Of course the weird elevator shafts yet functioned and there was the mysterious light, but in other abandoned cities, Earthmen had discovered vast atom-powered machines purring untended after thousands of years. At Port Bemis, his homedome, all the power they needed for lights and heat came from a single Martian power plant.

Carefully he picked his way over the debris by the dim light from beyond. He passed the intersecting emptiness, a smaller unlighted way, and then a scrabbling sound came to him. Probably Lois. He started to turn.

"Jud, behind you!" the girl's voice screamed.

His leisurely movements changed. He flung himself forward and spun about, dropping to his knees with the expoder jutting from his fist. He saw three dwarfish squatty shapes, heavy clubs upraised, almost upon him. They must have come from the unlighted passage.

And then the hand gun sewed its needles across their torsos, those missing the targets exploding against the corridor's wall. A miniature series of thunderclaps boomed along the way. But even as the echoes died away the last of his attackers fell.

Lee came forward warily, his solar torch at plus sunlight searching into the other tunnel for other foes. It was empty to a depth of perhaps a hundred feet, but it curved to the right and therefore he could see no further.

He turned again to the fallen men, discovering them to be dwarfed humanoid creatures, thick-shouldered and hairy, their teeth yellowed fangs, and with foreheads little higher than their bulging frontal sinuses. Two of the naked beast-men were dark-haired, and the other covered with matted, straw-colored hair. Yet among the native Martians of the polar regions, black hair was almost unknown; reddish-blond hair, coarse and thick as fur, being their natural covering.

And the size of their chests, when compared with the vast lung cavities of the polar natives, was pitifully inadequate. They were warped, bowlegged, and gnarled, with the filthy skin under their coarse-haired covering whiter than that of Lois.

He returned to the girl.

"Better go back, hadn't we?" he asked.

She bit her sagging lip and her damp eyes grew hot. Her body straightened defiantly. Stooping over a dead savage she found his club, a knotted cudgel longer than a man's forearm, and lifted it. She moved past Lee. "Come on, Grandpa," she challenged, leading the way.

Lee moved up beside her, his hand gun in his fingers, and his eyes alert. Together they strode down the seemingly unending length of the huge tube. Foolhardy it was, perhaps, but the water-hunger that only a native-born Martian knows, burned hot in both their hearts.

Something of the man's excitement and flaming hope had touched the girl. In her eyes was the same overpowering lust for water, and more water, that rivaled mankind's earlier madness for gold.

LESS THAN HALF a mile the gallery extended into the misty glow of its inner walls. Then they came out on a wide ledge of stone, its outer wall of living granite waist-high, and realized that they perched near the roof of a vast subterranean abyss. On either side the ledge extended unbroken, an observation platform for the long-vanished citizens of the Raba Depression.

"This must have been a zoological garden, a living museum of Earth," whispered Lois softly.

The cavern floor, a thousand feet below, was almost five miles in length and half as wide. And three-fourths of its area was island-rimmed water!

Directly beneath them a grassy miniature tableland sprouted oddly familiar structures of stone-castles and crazily constructed little huddles of thatched huts. The castles, four in all, were in ruins, but about the last of them to the right, two-legged figures were moving. There, too, were a few patches of tilled ground with rowed dottings of cultivated green.

And rimming the lake, basking in the all-pervading glow of light similar to that of the corridor, lifted a mighty tangled forest of familiar, and unfamiliar, trees.

"Those wild men were Earthmen!" Lee moved slightly away from the girl's too-obvious nearness. "I thought their structure was decidedly unMartian, too-slight lung capacity."

"Must be old King Raha Dagan had quite a zoo." Lois lolled on the rocky parapet's flat top and studied the scene below. "Suppose there's another cave like this for Venusian fauna and stuff?"

Lee massaged a knuckle thoughtfully. He nodded. "Uh huh. Those murals, those paintings, were advertising the wonders of the strange life imprisoned here.

"This is a paradise, though. All this water. Means NMI won't have to close down after all."

Lois's laugh was nasty. "If we can get topside, yes. Don't forget the sand has covered the opening and your signal is buried. We may be trapped here forever."

"I hope not. Probably by now Lopez is starting to hunt for us. Or soon will be. And the crack in the dome may be uncovered again."

"Isn't it thrilling, though, Gramp?" giggled Lois. "We're like castaways Adam and Eve in a garden—Harveth and Elise on Luna."

"Martian hill-dog and a desert cat in a bag more likely," said Lee dryly. "And we're not alone, either. Look, coming."

She turned to look in the direction his hand gun indicated, to the left. They saw a tall, broad-shouldered man, his thick black beard like a mane down across his hairy chest, and an ancient explosive-type rifle in his hand. His only garment was a rough, but effective, swathing of animal hide about his hips. He was less than twenty feet from them and the small black eye of the rifle was upon them.

Behind the savage-appearing creature clustered a dozen of the twisted dwarfs, more beasts than men, that they had already encountered.

FOR A LONG moment they fronted one another, unmoving, before the stranger's weapon dropped away and his beard split to reveal uneven white teeth. His voice was deep and unsteady, the words blurred by alien pronunciation.

"Good day, sirs," he said, apparently mistaking Lois's golden slacks and brown jacket for a masculine outfit.

"Greetings, Thug," chirped Lois. She grinned at Lee's warning frown. In an undertone she demanded, "Isn't that a perfectly good caveman title?"

Lee grunted something about fools and their heads ending in two separate sectors of space.

"Hello," he said quietly. "Earth-man?"

"Indeed I am," said the bearded giant, advancing. "We are all Earthmen." His arm indicated the motley knot of little monsters at his heels.

"But you are more recently arrived, eh?"

The big man grimaced his understanding. "Thirty years ago my father found this horrible place. He came from the desert after his ship was crushed in landing."

Lee's eyes were shining. "The first spacers landed about then. What is your father's name?"

"Grant Ashley. He is dead now." He pulled an ancient pocket-watch of worn soft gold from a pouch beneath his great beard. "One hundred twenty days and—almost an hour from now—ago."

Lois bowed her head over it. "I see," she laughed, "how you knew thirty years have passed. You couldn't miss seeing this.

"But you don't look to be that old."

The big man's eyes were fixed on the girl. He took a step toward her, hands clawed in a horrible, hungry sort of way, and then another. A ghastly bubbling cry of misery and unbelieving joy wrung from his lips.

"A woman—an Earth woman," he mumbled. "Always they told me I must mate with the ugly little shes. But now G'Ash has a woman."

Lois backed away uncertainly, getting behind Lee. Lee grimaced with distaste, but held his ground.

"My woman," he said. "Sorry."

"Then I must fight you for her." The big savage dropped his rifle and bared his teeth. Then, in imitation of Lee, "sorry."

Lee shook his head. "The little hes may fight so over their women. Not so real Earthmen. They let the "woman choose."

The bearded man scratched his shaggy head. His beard again covered his teeth. He grunted grudging assent, but he continued to regard Lois hungrily. Lee knew the truce would not last.

"My father married a little she," he told Lee and the girl. He pointed down into the cavern valley toward the castle with the cultivated fields. "Mine," he added proudly, "you come there, please?"

"How many of the dwarf-men are there?" Lee wanted to know as they studied the valley.

G'Ash fiddled with his huge splayed fingers, his lips moving as he counted laboriously and silently.

"Maybe sixty-one, sixty-two or three, perhaps. Some have rebelled and hide in the forests or in the valley of the Frog People."

Lee nodded. "The Venusians. Where does it open off this valley?"

G'Ash indicated the dark opening at the left-hand end of the valley. "There," he said savagely. "Some day I will lead my people into it again."

"Are there other valleys, more lakes?"

The bearded man grunted. "At other end of the cavern. But all is water there, and the light is bad, almost gone. Also huge swimming things fill the water."

Lee looked at Lois, and then, meaningly, down into the cavern. She shook her head slightly. He turned to G'Ash.

"We must return to our friends," he said, extending his hand, "but we will return again soon."

The big man scowled, but he took Lee's hand. Suddenly he jerked the flyer toward him and his other fist crunched into Lee's jaw. A second blow landed on his temple and he felt his legs crumpling under him. Feebly he struggled to strike back, to reach his expoder.

He heard Lois screaming, and he saw the pipestem crooked legs of the degenerate warriors about him, with the last fading senses. Then cool stone was crushing his lips and nose and he knew no more.

HE WAS PENNED in a time-weathered dungeon, light seeping through yard-thick walls of masonry, and silvering the cobwebs festooning the falls and ceilings. His bed was a heap of mildewed weeds and reeds on a low stone platform, and in the cell's center a tiny spring bubbled up. From this a tiny rill crossed the rocky floor and vanished into a gaping cavity wider than a man's skull.

Lee went to the narrow slit of the single window, standing on a heap of debris to do so. He looked out over the weedy patches of cultivated ground, and saw the willow-grown border of the lake. In the garden plots misshapen little women worked, their naked flesh a hideous, fish-belly white. And grotesque little dogs played with unsmiling tiny children upon the uncut grass between the gardens.

The inbred, simpleminded inhabitants of this hidden Eden beneath the ruddy desert, never laughed, and Lee, only once, heard their unintelligible speech raised in a broken sort of song. The proud knights and their humble serfs, brought here from Earth, had fallen far from their early estate.

Lee tested the walls, searching for loose masonry that could be removed. He tried the warped metal door, and found it to be strengthened by a second sturdy gate of interlocked logs and branches. Last of all he examined the ceiling, a dozen feet overhead, and found it had suffered least of all in the passing years.

His only hope of escape seemed to be through the opening cut into the walls by the spring's overflow, and toward this he started to move. But a sound of shuffling feet in the corridor beyond arrested his steps and he faced the doorway. The overlooked clip of needles was worthless as a weapon.

G'Ash stood in the doorway, a fire-blackened lump of flesh, its white-jointed bone protruding, in his left hand. In his other fist was Lee's needle-expelling hand gun. He tossed the hunk of meat at Lee.

"Your woman fled from me," he complained, his forehead wrinkled. "She hides in the forest beside the lake with the rebellious people."

"Good for her," said Lee. "I told you we Earthlings allow the women to choose."

"You must summon her," ordered G'Ash. "Then when she is close I can capture her."

"Go in a vacuum," Lee told him. He gnawed at a huge mouthful of the underdone meat.

"You refuse?" G'Ash took a threatening step forward.

Lee gave the bone and most of the meat back to the bearded giant—in the teeth! He followed the hurled missile with his fists and the weight of his tough sand boots. But the big man weathered the storm easily. One big hand seized Lee and hurled him, stunned, against the further wall of the dungeon.

He paused only to pick up the misused joint of meat.

"When you grow hungry," he roared, "you will be glad to call your woman for me."

Lee felt the numbness leaving his battered flesh. He made no sign he knew G'Ash was about. Instead he began masticating the mouthful of meat he had retained.

The bearded savage growled and lunged off along the corridor beyond. And as his footsteps grew inaudible Lee came to his hands and knees and crawled over to the spring to drink. Then, despite the pain that every movement brought, he lowered himself into the water-slimed cavity where the little rill disappeared.

His feet found a footing on a narrow ledge; then his elbows locked him in the narrowness of the crooked channel as he slowly descended. Once he stuck fast and for perhaps twenty minutes hung there with the falling water saturating and chilling his coveralls and the garments beneath.

Then cloth ripped along his back and he was precipitated suddenly downward about eight feet into a thigh-deep pool with a slimy mud bottom. He groped about in the icy depths, his solar torch gone along with his hand gun, and came up a gradual slope of possibly twenty feet in all, to a waterless expanse of rock.

The echoes, hollow and booming, of his boots on the rocky floor, informed him that he was inside a lower cavity of considerable area. He groped along the edge of the pool, found where it overflowed, and followed the escaping thread of water.

He squeezed through narrow slits in the rocky walls and traversed vast chambers where a faint rippling play of electricity revealed inky pools and lakes. He heard splashings that only living things could make, and he armed himself as best he could with a keen-edged splinter of rock twice as large as his palm. In the depths, darting trails of pale light marked the passage of the watery denizens.

Three times he slept, his cramped limbs and aching muscles awakening him before he was rested. He was hungry, his stomach crying out for the food that successfully evaded his attempts to scoop it from the growing bitterness of the cavern pools.

Then came the moment when he wriggled upward through a narrowing slot of dank rock above the gurgling rush of piled-up water. And saw light ahead!

Once beyond the narrowing of the walla he hobbled along a widening ledge for a hundred yards—and emerged through a trailing curtain of Venusian thidin vines, and lacy, crimson-hued swamp air, into a watery valley yet larger than that of the Earthmen.

Floating islands of thidin dotted the foggy surface of the steaming lake, and along the narrow shoreline the fruit-heavy bushes of the nik-nik clustered. Their orange-hued husks were specked scarlet.

Lee ate the ripe fruit, the faded globes of brown with the enlarged splotches of red, as slowly as his hunger permitted. Nor did he have his fill of the crisp salmon-hued pulp and its thumb-sized black seeds when he reluctantly pushed off into the pale jungle.

HE SLEPT once before he discovered the linking passageway with the Earth cavern. It was near the mile-high arch of the cavern's roof and led upward. A well-worn trail had grooved the stubborn surface of rock to a depth of an inch.

In the Venusian cavern he had only once seen a noseless, gray-hued Frog. And that lop-eared aborigine had been paddling a living raft of thidin out in the lake. Of the Earthmen reputed to have taken refuge in the lower valley he saw not a sign.

He emerged, hours later, into a tree-roofed tunnel piercing the forest. He had taken but a dozen steps along this narrow way, when a tangle of vines and braided ropes of hide and grass, fell about him.

He struggled despairingly, his keen-edged stone slashing madly. Yet for every strand he severed, two or three more nooses fell about him. At last he lay helpless.

Three of the crooked beast-men of the lost cavern gathered about him, prancing proudly, and thumbing the points of their rusty dagger-like knives suggestively. And then a pleased gurgle of laughter made him turn his head in the other direction.

Lois Banton bent over him and began loosing the cocoon of ropes. She had changed greatly in the short time they had been apart, and Lee wondered if perhaps more than four or five days by Martian reckoning, had passed. For under her flapping ragged garments the muscles moved lithely, and the superfluous flesh had melted from her face.

"Have you loose in a minute," she said. "O'Lar, you and K'Tton help me. B'Ron can keep watch."

"Glad you're still free," grunted Lee. And was amazed to discover that he really meant it.

"We've been trying to locate you," said Lois. "But this eternal dayshine is bad. Only at the sleeping hour did we dare venture from the forests."

The last of the ropes fell away and Lee stood up. He saw now that Lois had an ancient-looking, cross-hilted sword in a clumsy scabbard of dried black leather, and that two of the squatty, club-armed hunters wore floppy sleeveless jerkins of battered chain mail.

"Found the armory of one castle," explained Lois, noting his curious gaze. "Never did get to rescue you, though. Our friend with the beard kept a guard posted." She cocked an eyebrow. "How'd you do it?"

Lee explained his escape. She nodded.

"I've been in the other cavern once. Frogs aren't friendly any more since O'Lar"—she indicated the largest of the three renegade dwarfs—"refused to let them eat his woman."

"They understand English then and speak it!"

Lois grinned in a superior fashion. "Naturally. Ashley tried to teach them modern English among other things. He was horribly crippled, often lay helpless for weeks. Result of spacer's crash. So his brief attempts at schooling th em accomplished little."

Lee dug into his inner pockets, his hand emerging at last with the useless clip of biaton needles for his captured hand gun. He showed them to the girl.

"If you'll let me have that dagger," he said, pointing to the blade she carried thrust through her sword-belt, "I'll try manufacturing a bomb."

Lois handed it over reluctantly. "Needles are dangerous to tinker with, aren't they?" she demanded.

"Uh huh. But we can't cut our way through to the dome-lifts with just clubs and a sword. Not against an expoder and a high-powered rifle."

Lee seated himself beside the trail, and, motioning the others away, set to work on the delicate task of exposing the metal-encased pinpoint of explosive biaton at the tip of three needles. In his hand gun the razor-edged trimmer key armed the needles only as they were expelled, to explode upon contact with anything more substantial than air. But this way he was holding in his hands a death more susceptible than nitroglycerin to sudden jolts.

With sticky gum from a bruised tree he gingerly sealed all the needles into their clip, leaving the three armed needles projecting further. Then he looped a slender strip of hide about the deadly thing and ran the thong up and over a low limb, securing the other end with a loosely driven peg.

Directly beneath the clip of explosive needles lay a barely exposed reef of greenish-gray rock where only lichens and moss could root. Last of all he knotted another thin strand of hide about the peg and ran it, knee-high, across the trail where he quickly and properly secured it to another limb.

His death trap, clumsy though it was, was complete. Now he must lure the childish bearded giant into it.

Even as he plotted the man's destruction he could not but feel pity for the poor brute. Had the man been unarmed or alone he would have risked capturing him with snares, or even attempted to escape from the cavern without further conflict.

But he could take no chances on the bearded giant recapturing or killing them. News of this plentiful supply of the fluid life-blood of Mars must be carried outside whatever the cost.

G'Ash must die.

Lee started down the trail toward the castles and then retraced his steps. He tore the cord from the limb and knotted other lengths to it. The blank-faced beast-men and the girl regarded him curiously.

At a distance of a hundred yards, well inside the tunnel toward the Venusian cavern, he posted Lois with the looped end of the cord in her grip.

"We must be sure it is their leader," he said. "A wandering animal or dwarf might set off the bomb. Can you do it?"

The girl's lips tightened, but her grave eyes were steady on Lee's.

"Certainly," she said simply.

TWICE Jud Lee showed himself briefly, he could not be too obvious, before G'Ash and ten of his brute-men came charging out of the ruined castle after him.

At first he ran easily, allowing G'Ash to gain on him, and then he was sprinting desperately to keep safely in advance. The prodigious bounds of G'Ash put him far in advance of his hairy followers.

He passed the ledge of exposed stone but a dozen paces in advance of the bearded savage, a lead that was swiftly being whittled down, and then flung himself to the left behind a sheltering inky black boulder.

There was a terrible explosion.

He stood up at last, ears ringing, and looked back toward the shallow pit in the trail. He saw G'Ash weaponless and broken, his eyes and forehead a bloody mass of ripped flesh, crawling sightlessly toward him!

Lois had given the rope too late a tug, probably waiting for him to reach shelter, and G'Ash was beyond its full fury.

He ran around the blinded man to where the satiny metal of his hand gun shone and sent a burst of explosive needles over the cowering heads of the hairy men. They broke before this new menace, raced back along the way they had come.

Then he turned back toward the crawling bloody mass of flesh that was G'Ash, reluctant to destroy him, yet knowing that the man was better dead. In all the Earth cavern only G'Ash might lead an attack against them.

But the bearded savage had disappeared. Nor did a half hour of searching uncover his trail.

"I'm glad he escaped," said Lois. as they climbed the winding ramps to the upper gallery and the lifts. "We have the guns now. In a few minutes we'll be in the dome."

"I feel the same," admitted Lee. "He couldn't stop us now."

They hurried along the shining corridor, the three rebellious beast men accompanying them, and Lee had time to consider the future. The storm would be long over now. He could tunnel out through the sand and burn outsized symbols on the dome. Then they could return to the depths until help arrived.

They passed the unlighted strip of tunnel, where the clean-stripped bones of the two beast men lay, and came to the lift.

Lee halted, his throat constricting, and the girl squeezed his arm sympathetically.

The huddle of equipment, pressure suits, helmets, sand spade, and spare belts, was gone! The dusty floor of the passage was empty. Where it had lain, the imprint of splayed naked feet was yet visible. G'Ash and his warriors had carried them off and they might never be found again.

In fact the curiosity of G'Ash might impel him to tear the suits and pumps apart, to ruin them hopelessly.

He looked at Lois, and her eyes were steady and calm. Like him she must have been digesting the knowledge that they were trapped here now for a long time. For he doubted his ability to contrive a workable pressure suit and pumps out of the crude materials at hand.

The thought of enduring her constant companionship was not unpleasant, now that privation and danger had revealed the real character that years of self-indulgence had failed to destroy. They'd quarrel, and she would insult him and bully him unmercifully at times, he knew.

She must have sensed what he was thinking. Wordlessly she came closer and lifted her face toward his.

"Break it up," a muffled voice sounded behind them. They turned.

"Lopez!" cried Lee. "How'd you find us?" p

Lopez finished removing his helmet, revealing a trim moustache and handsome features. His smile was dazzling and all for the girl.

"This fortune-hunter making trouble?" he inquired maliciously.

Lee shook his partner's shoulders. "How?" he demanded.

Lopez waved an airy hand. "That? Nothing! Plotted direction of storm's path and your last position. Discovered dome, explored same, and here I am."

He turned again to the amused girl.

"Now," he said warmly, "you are safe at last, Miss Banton. I, Vincent Lopez, will see that no harm befalls you. There is nothing to fear. . . ."

"Except you," supplied Lee, grinning. "Come along, Lois. Let's show our friend what paradise looks like." Lois came to him, her eyes smiling, and they led the way again to the stone balcony overlooking the valley.