"Bear up!" I heard the doctor's voice begin, "one minute more and we----" Then there was a violent coughing, a door slammed, and the voice was barely heard--afar off--as through a wall. Had they escaped, then, to another room? I had no further time to puzzle what it meant, for another slab of my floor rose, wavered and fell over with a crash, and up through the purplish gas I could see a great round black thing rising, stretching high up into the room until its top almost touched the roof.
My God! It was the projectile!
When the breach in the floor was cleared, all the gas rushed down into the lower chamber. The projectile eased over on its side, and out of the rear port-hole came Hotep with a revolver and a sword. He soon had me cut loose, and then he told me how it all had happened.
He had been chamberlain but a single day when he discovered the existence of a secret subterranean chamber under the ante-room of the banquet hall. His curiosity led him to explore this, and in its darkest recess, unseen at first entrance, he found our projectile. It had been there ever since the day of its disappearance. During our interview before Zaphnath and the wise men, they had learned from us that others could not come from Earth without the projectile, and that we had left no third person in charge of it. It must have been with an order to make away with the projectile, and to secrete it in this chamber, that the third messenger had been dispatched that day. Also on my first evening in this very ante-room, I had heard Two-spot barking in the chamber below, and the servant, on hearing him too, had him hastily released, lest he should betray the hiding-place.
As soon as Hotep had found the projectile, he had sent for us, but it was the doctor alone who joined him. They two had been busy all that day and night repairing the projectile and storing it anew. In this manner the doctor had escaped the soldiers who came at daybreak to capture us both. Beyond the projectile, Hotep had discovered a secret passage leading outside the palace walls, which they could use on their errands of repairs without being observed.
All night they worked without disturbance, but early in the morning something happened to alarm them. They heard footsteps outside and a noise at the door which led to the palace. It probably meant death to be discovered there, but they extinguished their lights, entered the projectile, and closed the port-holes and lay there quite still. The door was opened, and soldiers bearing lights entered. But they made no search; they carried with them our swords, fire-arms, and the two belts of cartridges, which they deposited here, it being the natural place for their safe keeping. When they were gone, the doctor emerged and examined the revolvers and rifles, and finding that five cartridges had been discharged, he knew there had been a struggle with me in which I had been worsted. This caused them to hasten their efforts and make an escape with the projectile as soon as possible. All the supplies necessary to the batteries had been found intact in their places, and the compressing of air with the repaired pump and the further storing of food could be postponed till they were more free to do it.
At last the projectile lifted and worked; slowly it loosened the stones of my floor above them; but when one stone was pushed aside they noticed that the daylight did not come through the breach as it ought. They had heard my cries, and as the gas came down on them, the doctor had slammed the front port-hole, which was never wide open, and had thus saved himself. Hotep was safely shut into the other compartment with the fire-arms and ammunition.
The doctor now came down to the rear port-hole to speak to me.
"My plan is to escape now to the Gnomons, where we will leave Hotep in possession with most of our fire-arms. You can give him some instructions how to use them, so that he may defend himself. There we can finish our stores of air and food." To this I assented, and said to Hotep,-- "The Gnomons I give to thee, and all the land round about them, as a reward for thy most valuable assistance. Also I put into thy charge all my stores of wheat, to be distributed among the needy. Thou must husband them to last yet four years more, and for thine own thou mayest keep one measure in twenty. Take thou also a sword, a rifle, a revolver, and a belt of cartridges. Mayhap, to thy right to rule they may add the power to be a Pharaoh!"
I was interrupted by a noise below, as of some one opening the door of the secret chamber. All the deadly gas lurked in that room now, and it was certain death to whoever opened and entered! Yet if an alarm had been raised it was there they would immediately go for the fire-arms. I listened and heard faintly a voice of command, like that of Zaphnath, saying, "Haste, get me the thunderers!" Then, as the door below creaked open, I heard it louder: "The thunderers!" Next I heard many men in violent fits of coughing; I heard some groan and fall; but who or how many died by the purplish poison intended for me, I never knew.
It was but a moment later that hurried footsteps in the banquet-hall were heard approaching the veiled doorway. I took the revolver from Hotep, and motioned him inside the projectile. How cautiously they opened the door I could not see, for it was behind the great curtain. Presently, however, the captain who had bound me and bade me wait, drew aside the curtain, and the Pharaoh stood in the door, and behind him were a crowd of soldiers armed with cross-bows. In all the number I did not see the face of Zaphnath. They beheld me alone, and had no reason to suspect the presence of the others inside the projectile.
"Guard both the doors!" the captain commanded, and a detachment of soldiers barred the other door, as if thus to prevent me from escaping with the projectile; for of course they had not seen it rise through the floor.
"Seize and bind yon traitor!" cried the Pharaoh; "and he who hesitates shall be flayed!"
"And he who attempts it, shall die ere his first step be taken!" I replied, levelling the revolver. The captain started for me and I shot him down.
"If a man of you moves till I have entered this thing, I will kill the Pharaoh, as I have killed this dog! Ye serve him best who stand still as ye are!" So saying, I covered the trembling monarch with the revolver, and with my other hand I opened the rear port-hole; then stooping, I sprang inside with a quick motion. When the Pharaoh had recovered from his fright, I heard him cry out,-- "Cast that black thing, and the traitor inside it, into yon poisonous hole again!"
The soldiers did not fear to act this time, and the whole company seized the projectile and carried it toward the breach in the floor. As they lifted it on end to thrust into the hole, I called out to the doctor, who turned in two batteries, and gently we lifted out of their dumb hands and rose steadily till we touched the roof. There the vaulted stonework stopped us, and an exultant shout went up from below. Suddenly a score of arrows twanged against my window, but the doctor turned in two more batteries and then gradually we lifted the key of the great stone arch, broke through the roof, and the whole universe was an open sea before us!
Crouching by me at the port-hole, Hotep watched the roof collapse and tumble in. "For thy sake," I said to him, "I hope a falling stone may have crushed him!"
Thus ended our other-world life. In a time of activity it would never have occurred to me to write down these events. It was to relieve the uneventful quiet of our trip back to Earth that I undertook to set down all our Martian experiences in their proper order. No doubt it was the changeless monotony of that return journey which made the record appear to me novel, unusual, and at times exciting. But now, six little months again on Earth have made the more than three Martian years (equalling six years of Earth) seem slow, tame, and profitless. If they were pregnant with adventure, they lacked the real experiences of life which have been crowded into the half-year since our return.
The very day I reached my old home I found another wheat corner more wide-spread, if less complete and impregnable, and I set to work to break it down. Thus the maelstrom of modern commercial life dragged me into its dizzy whirl before I slept the first night on Earth, and I am already surfeited with it. I seem to take the Earthly life in too large and rapid doses. Into the half-year she has put a flattering success and a dismaying failure. She has given me a month of her sweetest experiences and another of her bitterest disappointments. As if she knew I would not remain long at her feast, she has served to me in quick succession a measure of renown, a taste of fortune, the rapture of wooing, the bliss of marriage, and the rare delight of loving a soul created to love me. Then one little drop from the cup of Death embittered the whole feast and turned me against it all.
In the rush and turmoil of it all I should never have thought of my crudely written narrative again had not my cousin Ruth, who never tired of the story, fished it out and sent it to a literary friend in Boston. It was probably the instant success in the scientific world of Dr. Anderwelt's scholarly books on Mars and His Life, and the new direction given to modern thought by his Theory of Parallel Planetary Life, which led my literary sponsor to think the world would be interested in a plain, unscientific narrative of our trip Marsward and our doings there. In agreeing to look it over and cause it to be a "good delivery" in the literary world, he exacted a promise from me to make my recent Earthly experiences and our adventures on Venus join in producing another story. For before the eyes of the first reader have reached these words, Dr. Anderwelt and I will have departed sunwards, on the visit to our brilliant sister planet, where, according to his theory, life will have run through some 31,000 years more than Earth toward the perfect existence. By the first return of the projectile I have promised to send back a thorough account of the evolution of life and the advancement of civilization on Venus, so far as Earthly eyes and wits can see and know it.
THE MAN WHO STAKED THE STARS.
By Charles Dye
Bryce Carter could afford a smug smile. For hadn't he risen gloriously from Thieves Row to director of famed U.T.? Was not Earth, Moon, and all the Belt, at this very moment awaiting his command for the grand coup? And wasn't his cousin-from-Montehedo a star-sent help?
"What do I do for a living?" repeated the slim dark-skinned young man in the next seat of the Earth-Moon liner. "I'm a witch doctor," he answered with complete sincerity.
"What do you do? I mean, what do they hire you for?" asked Donahue with understandable confusion and a touch of nervousness.
[Illustration: Bracing themselves, Bryce and Pierce gave the body a combined strong shove toward Earth. Two gone.]
"I'm registered as a psychotherapist," said the dark-skinned young man. He looked too young to be practicing a profession, barely nineteen, but that could be merely a sign of talent, Donahue reflected. The new teaching and testing methods graduated them young.
"I know I am a witch doctor because my grandfather and his father and his father's father were witch doctors and I learned a special technique from my uncles who are registered therapists with medical degrees like mine. But the technique is not the one you find in the books, it is ... unusual. They don't say where they learned it but it's not hard to guess." The dark youth shrugged cheerfully. "So--I'm a witch doctor."
"That's an interesting thought," said Donahue. It would be a long three day trip to the Moon and he had expected to be bored, but this conversation was not boring. "What do you do?" he again asked. "Specifically." Donahue had rugged features, a dark tan and attractively sun-bleached hair worn a little too long. He exuded a sort of rough charm which branded him one of the class of politicians, and he knew how to draw people out, so now he settled himself more comfortably for an extended spell of listening. "Tell me more and join me in a drink." He signalled the hostess and continued with the right mixture of admiring interest and condescending scepticism. "You don't chant spells and hire ghosts, do you?"
"Not exactly." The dark innocent looking young face smiled with a cheerful flash of white teeth. "I'll tell you what I did to a man, a man named Bryce Carter."
A group of men sat in a skyscraper at Cape Hatteras, with their table running parallel to a huge floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the clouded sky and gray waves of the Atlantic. They were the respected directors of Union Transport, and, like most men of high position, they had a keen sense of self-preservation and a knowledge of ways and means that included little in the way of scruples.
The chairman rapped lightly. "Gentlemen, your attention please. I have an announcement to make."
The buzz of talk at the long table stopped and the fourteen men turned their faces. The meeting had been called a full week early, and they expected some emergency as an explanation. "A disturbing announcement, I am afraid. Someone is using this corporation for illegal purposes." The chairman's voice was mild and apologetic.
Bryce Carter, second from the opposite end, was brought to a shock of tense balanced alertness. How much did he know? He gave no sign of emotion, but reached for a cigarette to cover any change in his breathing, fumbling perhaps more than usual.
The men at the long table waited, showing a variety of bored expressions that never had any connection with their true reactions. The chairman was a small, inconspicuous, sandy-haired man whose ability they respected so deeply that they had elected him the chairman to have him where they could watch him. They knew he was not one to mention trifles, and there was a moment of silence. "All right, John," said one, letting out his held breath and leaning back, "I'll bite. What kind of illegal purposes?"
"I don't know much," the small man apologized, "Only that the crime rate has risen forty percent in the average of the cities served by UT, and in Callastro City, Callastro, and Panama City, where we just put in a spaceport, it more than doubled."
"Funny coincidence," someone grunted.
"Very funny," said another. "If the police notice it, and the public hears of it--"
There was no man there who would willingly have parted with his place at that table, no one who was unaware that in fighting his way to a place at that table he had seized some part of control of the destiny of the solar system.
UT--Union Transport, spread the meshes of its transportation service through almost every city of Earth and the hamlets and roads and bus and railroad and airlines between--and even to the few far ports where mankind had found a toehold in space. But its existence was precariously balanced on public trust.
UT's unity from city to city and country to country, its spreading growth had saved the public much discomfort and expense of overlapping costs and transfers and confusion, and so the public, on the advice of economists, grudgingly allowed UT to grow ever bigger. There was a conservative movement to put all such outsize businesses under government ownership as had been the trend in the last generation but the economy was mushrooming too fast for the necessary neatness, and the public rightly would not trust politicos in any operation too confusing for them to be watched, and preferred to leave such businesses to private operation, accepting the danger for the profit of efficient and penurious operation, dividends and falling costs.
But all these advantages were barely enough to buy UT's life from year to year. It had grown too big.
Its directors held power to make or break any city and the prosperity of its inhabitants by mere small shifts in shipping fees, a decision to put in a line, or a terminal, or a crossroad. The power was indirectly recognized in the honors and higher offices, the free entertainment and lavish privileges available to them from any chamber of commerce and any political representative, lobbying discreetly for a slight bias of choice that would place an airport or spaceport in their district rather than another.
Perhaps some of the directors used their position for personal pleasure and advantage, but power used for the sake of controlling the direction of growth of races and nations, power for its own sake was the game which was played at that table, its members playing the game of control against each other and the world for high stakes of greater control, nursing behind their untelling faces who knows what megalomaniac dreams of dominion.
Yet they used their control discreetly, serving the public welfare and keeping the public good-will. When it was possible.
As always Bryce Carter sat relaxed, lazily smiling, his expression not changing to his thoughts.
"Who knows of this besides us?" someone asked.
The chairman answered mildly. "It was a company statistician in the publicity department who noticed it. He was looking for favorable correlations, I believe." His pale blue eyes ranged across their faces, touching Bryce Carter's face expressionlessly in passing. "I requested that he tell no one else until I had investigated." He added apologetically, "Commitments for drug addiction correlate too."
That was worse news. "Narcotics investigators are no fools," someone said thoughtfully.
Neiswanger, a thin orderly man near the head of the table, pressed his fingertips together, frowning slightly. "I take it then that our corporation is being used as a criminal means of large scale smuggling of drugs, transport of criminals on false identification and transport for resale of the goods resulting from their thefts. Is that correct?" Neiswanger always liked to have things neatly listed.
"I think so," said the chairman.
"And you would say that the organization responsible is centered in this corporation?"
"It would seem likely, yes."
The members of the board stirred uneasily, seeing a blast of sensational headlines, investigations which would spread to their private lives, themselves giving repetitive testimony to inquisitive politicians in a glare of television lights while the Federated Nations anti-cartel commission vivisected the UT giant into puny, separate squabbling midgets.
It was not an appealing prospect.
"We'll have to stop it, of course," said a lean, blond man whose name was Stout. He could be relied on to say the obvious and keep a discussion driving to the point. "I understand we have a good detective agency. If we put them on this with payment for speed and silence--"
"And when we know who is responsible," asked Neiswanger, "Then what do we do?"
There was silence as they came to another full stop in thinking. Turning culprits over to the police was out of the question, an admission that such crimes had happened, and could happen again. Firing the few detected could not impress the undetected and unfired ones enough to discourage them from their profitable criminality.
"Hire some killings," said the round faced Mr. Beldman, with simplicity.
The chairman laughed. "You are joking of course, Mr. Beldman."
"Of course," said Mr. Beldman, and laughed barkingly, being well aware of the permanent film record taken of all meetings. But he was not joking. Nobody there was joking.
The detective agency and the hired killers would be arranged for.
Bryce Carter leaned back with the slight cynical smile on his lean face that was his habitual expression. "Suppose the top man is high in the company?" he suggested softly. "What then?" He did not need to point out that the disappearance of such a man would be enough to start a police and stock-holders investigation of the company in itself. The implication was clear. Such a man could not be touched.
"A hypnotist," suggested Raal. "Someone to make our top man back track and clean up his own mess."
"Illegal, dangerous and difficult, Mr. Raal," Irving said sourly. "There are extremely severe penalties against any complicity in the unsupervised use of hypnotism or hypnotic drugs, and their use against the will of the subject is a major crime."
"A circulating company psychologist would be legal," suggested the lean blond man whose name was Stout.
"We have over seventy-five of those on the company payrolls already and I fail to see what use--"
"One of the special high priced boys who iron out kinks in groups by joining them and working with them for a while, like that Conference Manager we had with us last year. Every member of the group that hires one has to sign an application for treatment, and a legal release. They are very quiet and don't broadcast what they do or who they talked with, but they have a good record of results. The groups who hire them report better work and easier work. We could use one as a trouble shooter."
"Are they a special organization?" someone asked. "I think I've heard of them."
"Yes, some sort of a union. I can't remember the name."
"What would you expect them to do for us?" asked Irving.
"I hear--" Stout said vaguely, his eyes wandering from face to face, "that they have a special tough technique for hard case trouble makers." For those who knew him, the vague look was a veil over some thought which pleased him. Presumably he was thinking the thing which had occurred to them all.
The culprit might be a member of the Board. There was a sudden cheerful interest visible among them as they wondered who was quarry for the "tough treatment."
"I've heard of that," said Wan Lun, remembering. "It has been said that they not only do not inform others of the fact of treatment but frequently do not inform the man under treatment but seem to be only a new friend until--poof." He smiled. "I think the guild name is Manoba. The Manoba Group."
Stout said, "They'll probably charge enough for the skill."
Wan said, smiling, "I also heard some idle rumor that in a few such cases discord within a group was alleviated by sudden suicide. Presumably a psychologist can grow impatient and push a certain button in the mind--"
"Sounds like a good idea," Beldman said. "Do you think if we offered this Manoba the right kind of money--"
"You don't mean that, Mister Beldman," cut in the chairman reprovingly. "You're joking again."
"We're all great jokers," said Beldman, and laughed.
"I move we vote a sum for the hiring of a Manoba psychologist."
"Seconded, how about five hundred thousand?"
"I don't know their fees," the chairman objected cautiously.
"You can turn back any surplus. We stand to lose more than that by several orders of magnitude. Spend it at your discretion."
"Make it seven hundred thousand. Give him a little more room."
"I so move."