He turned to Hawk Carse. "I have thought that an inspection of this, my home in space, would intrigue you more than anything else my poor hospitality affords. May I do you the honor, my friend?"
"You are too good to me," the Hawk replied frostily. "I will duplicate your kindness some day."
The Eurasian bowed. "After you," he said, and waited until Friday and the Hawk passed first through the door. Close after them came the three automatons of yellow men.
The passageway was square, plain and bare, and spaced at intervals by other closed doors. "Storerooms in this wing," the Eurasian explained as they progressed. He stopped in front of one of the doors and pressed a button beside it. It slid noiselessly open, revealing, not another room, but a short metal spider ladder. Up this they climbed, one of the guards going first in the half darkness; then a trap-door above opened to douse them with warm ruddy light. They stepped out.
And the scene that met them took them completely off guard. Friday gasped, and Carse so far lost his habitual poise as to stare in wonder.
Soil! And a great glassy dome!
Not a space-ship, this realm of Ku Sui. Soil--soil with a whole settlement built upon it! Hard, grayish soil, and on it several buildings of the familiar burnished metal. And overhead, cupping the entire outlay, arched a great hemisphere of what resembled glass, ribbed with silvery supporting beams and struts: an enormous bowl, turned down, and on its other side the glorious vista of space.
Straight above hung the red-belted disk of Jupiter, with the pale globes of Satellites II and III wheeling close, and all of them were of the same relative size they had appeared when last seen from the Scorpion!
Dr. Ku smiled unctuously at the puzzlement that showed on the faces of his captives.
"Have you noticed," he asked, "that you are still in the neighborhood of the spot in space where we had our rendezvous? But this isn't another of Jupiter's satellites. Ah, no. This is my own world--my own personally controlled little world!"
"Snakes of the Santo!" Friday gasped, the whites of his eyes showing all around. "Then we must be on an asteroid!"
They were. From the far side of the dome ahead of them the asteroid stretched back hard and sharp in Jupiter's ruddy light against the backdrop of black space. It was a craggy, uneven body, seemingly about twenty miles in length, pinched in the middle and thus shaped roughly like a peanut shell. One end had been leveled off to accommodate the dome with its cradled buildings; outside the dome all was untouched. The landscape was a gargantuan jumble of coarse, hard, sharp rocks which had crystallized into a maze of hollows, crevices, long crazy splits and jagged out-thrusting lumps of boulders. Without an atmosphere, with but the feeblest of gravities and utterly without any form of life--save for that within the dome built upon it--it was simply a typical small asteroid, of which race only the largest are globe-shaped.
"Once," the Eurasian went on softly as they took all this in, "this world of mine circled with its thousands of fellows between Mars and Jupiter. I picked it from the rest because of certain mineral qualities, and had this air-containing dome constructed on it, and these buildings inside the dome. Then, with batteries of gravity-plates inserted precisely in the asteroid's center of gravity, I nullified the gravital pull of Mars and Jupiter, wrenched it from its age-old orbit and swung it free into space. An achievement that would command the respect even of Eliot Leithgow, I think. So now you see, Carse; now you know. This is my secret base, this my hidden laboratory. I take it always with me, and I travel where I will."
The Hawk nodded coldly his acceptance of the astounding fact; he was too busy to make comment. He was observing the buildings, the nature of them, the exits from the dome, how they could best be reached.
They stood on the roof of the largest and central building, a low metal structure with four wings, crossing at right angles to make the figure of a great plus mark. The hub was probably Dr. Ku's chief laboratory, Carse conjectured. On each side stood other buildings, low, long, like barracks, with figures of coolies moving in and out. Workshops, living quarters, power-rooms, he supposed: power-rooms certainly, for a soft hum filled the air.
There were two great port-locks at ground level in the dome, one on each side, each sizable enough to admit the largest space-ship and each flanked by a smaller, man-sized lock. To reach them....
"And over there," Dr. Ku's voice broke in, "you see your borrowed ship, the Scorpion. But please don't let it tempt you to cut short your visit with me, my friend. It would avail you nothing even if you reached her, for it requires a secret combination to open the port-locks, and my servants' brains have been so altered that they are physically incapable of divulging it to you. And of course I have offensive rays and other devices hidden about--just in case. All rather hopeless, isn't it? But surely interesting.
"Let us go: I have more. Below, in my main laboratory in the center of this building, there's something far more interesting, and it concerns you, Carse, and me, and also Master Scientist Eliot Leithgow." He let the words sink in. "Will you follow me?"
And so they went below again, down the spider ladder into the corridor. There was nothing else to do: the guards, ever watchful, pressed close behind. But a tattoo of alarm was beating in Hawk Carse's brain. Eliot Leithgow again--the hint of something ominous to be aimed at him, Carse, for the extraction of information he alone possessed: the whereabouts of his elderly friend the Master Scientist.
The Color-Storm The corridor was stopped by a heavy metal door. As the small party approached, it swung inward in two halves, and a figure clad in a white surgeon's smock emerged. He was a white man, tall, with highly intelligent face but eyes strangely dull and lifeless, like those of the coolie-guards. His gaze rested on Ku Sui, and the Eurasian asked him: "Is it ready?"
"Through here, then, my friends." The door opened and closed behind them as they stepped inside. "This is my main laboratory. And there, friend Carse, is the object which is to concern us."
With one glance the adventurer took in the laboratory. It was a great room, a perfect circle in shape, with doors opening into the four wings of the building. The walls were lined with strange, complicated machines, whose purpose he could not even guess at; in one place there was a table strewn with tangled shapes of wire, rows of odd-bulging tubes and other apparatus; and conspicuous by one door was an ordinary operating table, with light dome overhead. A tall wide screen placed a few feet out from the wall hid something bulky from view. Carse noted all these things; then his gaze went back to the object in the middle of the floor which Ku Sui had indicated.
It was, primarily, a chair, within a suspended framework of steely bars, themselves the foundation for a network of fine-drawn colored wires. Shimmering, like the gossamer threads of a spider's spinning, they wove upward, around and over the chair, so that he who sat there would be completely surrounded by the gleaming mesh.
Within the whole hung a plain square boxlike device, attached to the chair and so placed that it would be directly in front of the eyes of anyone sitting there. Ropes were reeved through pulleys in the ceiling, for raising the wire-ball device to permit entrance. And standing ready around it, were four men in surgeons' smocks--white men with intelligent faces and dull, lifeless eyes.
The Hawk knew the answer to the question he curtly asked. "Its purpose, Dr. Ku?"
"That," came the suave reply, "it will be your pleasure to discover for yourself. I can promise you some novel sensations. Nothing harmful, though, however much they may tire you. Now!" He gave a sign; one of his assistants touched a switch. The wire ball rose, leaving the central seat free for entrance. "All is ready. May I ask you to enter?"
Hawk Carse faced his old foe. There was stillness in the laboratory then as his bleak gray eyes met and held for long seconds Ku Sui's enigmatic green-black ones.
"If I don't?"
For answer the Eurasian gestured apologetically to his guards.
"I see," Carse whispered. There was nothing to be done. Three coolies, each with ray-guns at the ready; four white assistants.... No hope. No chance for anything. He looked at the negro. "Don't move, Friday," he warned him. "They'll only shoot; it can do no good. Eight to two are big odds when the two are unarmed."
He turned and faced the Eurasian, holding him with his eyes. "Ku Sui," he said, clipping the words, "you have said that this would not permanently harm me, and, although I know you for the most deadly, vicious egomaniac in the solar system, I am believing you. I do not know you for a liar.... I will enter."
The faint smile on the Oriental's face did not alter one bit at this. Carse stepped to the metal seat and sat down.
The web of shimmering wires descended, cupping him completely. Through them he saw Ku Sui go to a switchboard adjoining and study the indicators, finally placing one hand on a black-knobbed switch and with the other drawing from some recess a little cone, trailing a wire, like a microphone. A breathless silence hung over the laboratory. The white-clad figures stood like statues, dumb, unfeeling, emotionless. The watching negro trembled, his mouth half open, his brow already bedewed with perspiration. But the only sign of strain or tension that showed in the slender flaxen-haired man sitting in the wire ball in the center of the laboratory, came when he licked his dry lips.
Then Dr. Ku Sui pulled the switch down, and there surged out a low-throated murmur of power. And immediately the ball of wire came to life. The fine, crisscrossing wires disappeared, and in their stead was color, every color in the spectrum. Like waves rhythmically rising and falling, the tinted brilliances dissolved back and forth through each other; and the reflected light, caroming off the surfaces of the instruments and tables and walls, so filled the laboratory that the group of men surrounding the fire-ball were like resplendent figures out of another universe.
Ku Sui pressed a button, and the side of the boxlike device nearest Hawk Carse's eyes assumed transparency and started to glow. Beautiful colors began to float over its face, colors never still but constantly weaving and clouding into an infinity of combinations and designs. Eyes staring wide, as if unable to close them to the brilliant kaleidoscopic procession, the adventurer looked on.
Friday knew that his master at that moment was impotent to move, even to shut his eyes, and, with a wild notion that he was being electrocuted, he made a rash rush to destroy the device and free him. He learned discretion when two ray-streaks pronged before him and forced him back; and thereafter he was given the undivided attention of two guards.
From the outside, through the ball of color, Carse was a ghostlike figure. Rigid and quivering, he sat in the chair and watched the color-maelstrom. His face was contorted; his cheek muscles stood out weltlike in his sweat-glistening skin; his eyes, which he could not close, throbbed with agony. But yet he was conscious; yet he still could will.
He defended his secret as best he could. Obviously this machine was being used to force from his mind the knowledge of Eliot Leithgow's whereabouts, and therefore he attempted to seal his mind. He fastened it on something definite--on Iapetus, satellite of Saturn, and his ranch there--and barred every other thought from his head. Mechanically he repeated to himself: "Iapetus, Iapetus--my ranch on Iapetus--Iapetus, Iapetus." Hundreds of times.... Hours.... Days....
The blinding waves of color rioted about him, submerged him, fatigued him. He had a strong impulse to sleep, but he resisted it.
Days seemed to pass.... Years.... Eons. All this.... Continued without change.... To the end of the world....
Dimly he knew that the color-storm was working on him; sensed danger when a great drowsiness stole over him; but he fought it off, his brain beating out hundreds of times more: "Iapetus, Iapetus--I have a ranch there--Iapetus, Iapetus...."
Then came excruciating pain!
An electric shock suddenly speared him. His nerves seemed to curl up, and for a second his mind was thoroughly disorganized before it again took up the drone about Iapetus. Recovery ... dullness ... a kind of peace--and again the shock leaped through him. It was followed by a question from afar off: "Where is Eliot Leithgow?"
Somehow the question meant a great deal and should not be answered....
Again the stab of agony. Again the voice: "Where is Eliot Leithgow?"
Again the shock, and again the voice. Alternating, over and over. He could brace himself against the shock, but the voice could in no way be avoided. It was everywhere about him, over, around, under him; he began to see it. Desperately he forced his brain on the path it must not leave. He had forgotten years ago why, but knew there must be some good reason.
"Iapetus, Iapetus--I have a ranch there--Iapetus, Iapetus--Where is Eliot Leithgow?--Iapetus, Iapetus--I have a ranch there--Where is Eliot Leithgow--I have a ranch there--a ranch there--Iapetus, a ranch--Where is Eliot Leithgow?--Where is Eliot Leithgow?--Where is Eliot Leithgow?" ...
After two hours and ten minutes the Hawk crumpled.
He was quite delirious at the time. The combined effect of the pain, the physical and nervous exhaustion of the shocks and light, the endlessly repeated question, his own close concentration on his Iapetus ranch--these were too much for any human body to stand against. He lost his grip on his mind, lost the fine control that had never been lost before, the control about which he was so vain. And the lump of flesh that was Hawk Carse gave the information that was tearing wildly at its prison.
A stammering voice came from the heart of the color-sphere: "Port o' Porno, Satellite III--Port o' Porno, Satellite III--Port o' Porno Sat----"
Dr. Ku Sui interrupted him; leaned forward.
"The house is number----?"
"Ah!" breathed the Eurasian. "Port o' Porno! So near!"
Ku Sui returned the switch and pressed one of the buttons. The pool of colors faded; the laboratory returned to comparative dimness. The machine in its center seemed but a great web of wire.
Slumped in the seat within it was a slender figure, his flaxen head bowed over on his chest, his eyes closed, and sweat still trickling down his unconscious brow.
And lying on the floor was another unconscious figure.
Friday had fainted.
Port o' Porno The pirate port of Porno is of course dead now, replaced by the clean lawfulness of Port Midway, but a hundred years ago, in the days before the patrol-ships came, she roared her bawdy song through the farthest reaches of the solar system. For crack merchant ships and dingy space trading tramps alike, she was haven; drink and drugs, women and diversions unspeakable lured to her space ports the cream and scum, adventures and riffraff of half a dozen worlds. Sailors and pirates paid off at her and stayed as long as their wages lasted in the Street of the Sailors; not a few remained permanently, their bodies flung to the beasts of the savage jungle that rimmed the port. There only the cunning and strong could live. Ray-guns were the surest law. Modern scientific progress stood side by side with murderous lawlessness as old as man himself.
The hell town had grown with the strides of a giant, rising rapidly from a muddy street of tio shacks to a small cosmetropolis. She was essentially a place of contrasts. Two of the big Earth companies had modern space-ship hangars there, well-lighted, well-equipped, but under their very noses was a festering welter of dark, rutted byways extending all the way to the comparative orderliness of the short, narrow Street of the Merchants, itself flanked by the drunken bedlam of the Street of the Sailors. It can be understood why these men who flew, who needed a whole solar system for elbow room, disdained setting to order the measly few acres of dirt they stopped at, but it is a mystery why, when used to living through vast leagues of space, they endured such narrow streets and cluttered houses. Probably, tired from their long cramped cruises, impatient for their fling, they just didn't care a whoop.
The whole jumble that was this famous space port rested in the heart of Satellite III's primeval jungle.
Tall electric-wired fences girdled Port o' Porno to keep the jungle back. It was equivalent to a death sentence to pass unarmed outside them; the monstrous shapes that lived and fought in the jungle's swampy gloom saw to that. Hideous nightmare shapes they were, some reptilian and comparable only to the giants that roamed Earth in her prehistoric ages. Eating, fighting, breeding in the humid gloominess of the vegetation shrouded swamps, their bellows and roars sometimes at night thundered right through Porno, a reminder of Nature yet untamed. Occasionally, in the berserk ecstasy of the mating season, they hurled their house-high bodies at the guarding fences; and then there was panic in the town, and many lives ripped out before a barrage of rays drove the monsters back.
They were not the only inhabitants native to Satellite III. Deep underground, seldom seen by men, lived a race of man-mole creatures, half human in intelligence, blind from their unlit habitat, but larger than a man and stronger; fiercer, too, when cornered. Their numbers no one knew, but their bored tunnels, it had been found, constituted a lower layer of life over the whole satellite.
Probably more vicious than these native "Three's" of Porno were the visiting bipeds, man himself, who thronged the kantrans--which may be defined as dives for the purveying of all entertainments. In them were a score of snares for the buccaneer with money in his pocket and dope in his blood. The open doors on the Street of the Sailors were all loud-speakers of drunken oaths and laughter, pierced now and then by a scream or cry as someone in the sweating press of bodies inside knew rage or fear.
One interplanetarily notorious kantran made a feature of swinging its attractions aloft in gilded cages, where all of them, young and old, pale and painted, giant and dwarf, ogled the arrested passers-by and invited sampling of their wares.
Of all kinds and conditions of men were these passers-by. Earthling sailors, white, negro, Chinese and Eurasian, most of them in the drab blue of space-ship crews, but each with a ray-gun strapped to his waist; short, thin-faced Venusians, shifty-eyed, cunning, with the planet's universal weapon, the skewer-blade, sheathed at their sides; tall, sweaty Martians, powerful brutes, wearing the air-rarifying mask that was necessary for them in Satellite III's Earthlike atmosphere. Business men and sight-seers, except the most bold, were apt to stay in their houses after their first visit to the Street of the Sailors. Each face on the street or in the kantrans that lined it bore the mark of drink, or the contemptuous, insolent expression bred by Porno's favorite drug, isuan.
Around Porno was the constant threat of savage life; below it were half-human savagery and mystery; above, in the very shadow of their mighty engines of space, were the most vicious animals of all--degraded men.
This was the Port o' Porno of a hundred years ago.
This was the Port o' Porno where Master Scientist Eliot Leithgow for very good reasons had told Hawk Carse he would meet him. 574. The house of his friend.
Night descended suddenly on the outlaw space-port that day the elderly exile waited in vain for his comrade in arms Hawk Carse to show up.
There were six hours when the blasting heat received by Satellite III from near-lying Jupiter would be gone, and in its place a warm, cloying tropical darkness, heavy with the odors of town and exotic products and the damp, lush vegetation of the impinging jungle. The night would be given over to carousing; for these six hours the Street of the Sailors came to life. It was a time to keep strictly in hiding.
In the middle of that night, when the pleasures of Porno were in full stride, there emerged suddenly, from one of the dark, crooked byways that angled off the Street of the Sailors, a squad of five men whose disciplined pace and regular formation were in marked contrast to the confusion around them. They were slant-eyed men, with smooth saffron faces, and strongly built, and they were armed, each one, with both a ray-gun and a two-foot black, pointed tube. But it was not their numbers, formation or weapons that caused the carousing crowd to fall silent and hastily get out of their path. It was, rather, the insignia embroidered on the breasts of the gray smocks they wore. The insignia represented an asteroid in a circle of the ten planets, and the Street of Sailors knew that sign and dreaded it.
The squad pressed along rapidly. A still-comely woman, new to Porno, plucked smirking at the leader's sleeve; but his pace did not slacken, and she fell back, puzzled and afraid because of her feeling of something lifeless, dumb, machinelike in the man. Ahead, an isuan-maddened Earthling fell foul of a Venusian; a circle cleared in the mob, a ray-gun spat and missed, and the Venusian closed, the gleam of a skewer-blade playing around him. This was combat; this was interesting; but none of the squad's five men gave the fight a glance, or even turned his head when, as they passed, the butchered Earthling coughed out his life.
So they passed, and soon they were gone down another black-throated byway.
They padded noiselessly along in the darkness to turn again presently, pausing finally before a low, steel-walled house, typical of the strongholds of prudent merchants of the port. No lights were visible within it; all seemed asleep.
Silence filled the narrow street, and unrelieved darkness. Occasionally a desultory breeze brought sounds of a burst of revelry from the Street of the Sailors; once the ports of an outbound space-ship flashed overhead for an instant. But there was mainly silence and darkness, and in it the five men, parleying close together in toneless whispers.
After a little they separated. On cat's feet four of them stole around the sides of the house. The fifth, drawing the black, pointed tube from his slash, crept up to the front entrance-port and held the tip to it. Blue light sparkled fantastically, revealing his impassive face, outlining his crouching body. Then, quite suddenly, the port appeared to melt inward, and he disappeared into the blackness of the interior.
Presently there came a stir of movement, a whisper, a rustle from inside. A challenge, shouts volleying forth, a scream, another, and the peculiar rattling sound that comes from a dying man's throat. Then again silence.
Five shadows melted from the front entrance-port. They were carrying something black and still and heavy between them.
The errand was done....