He took away his hands and raised his eyes.
The screen was blank!
Friday looked up with a grin from where he was kneeling before the knob on the door of the cell. Carse saw that the knob was of metal, centered in an inset square of some dull fibrous composition.
"This door has an electric lock, suh," the negro explained rapidly. "And things worked by electricity can often be short-circuited!"
Quickly and silently he had disconnected from the television projector the wire which led back through the ventilating slit in the wall, and now was holding its end with one hand while with the other he twisted out the screw which held in the knob. "Anyway, won't hurt to try," he said, removing the screw and laying it on the floor. In another second the knob lay beside it, and he was squinting into the hole where it had fitted.
"Be quick!" Carse whispered.
Friday did not answer. He was guessing at the location of the mechanism within, and trying to summon up all the knowledge he had of such things. After a moment he bent one of the live ends of the wire he was holding into a gentle curve and felt his way down within the lock with it, carefully keeping the other end clear of all contacts.
Seconds went by as his fingers delicately worked--seconds that told terribly on Hawk Carse. For the screen was blank and lifeless, and there was no way of knowing how far the work in the laboratory had meanwhile progressed. In his mind remained each detail of the scene as he had viewed it last: the strapped-down figure, the approaching anesthetic cylinder, the knives lying in readiness.... How was he to know if one of those instruments were not already tinged with scarlet?
"Oh, be quick!" he cried again.
"If I can touch a live part of the lock's circuit," grunted Friday, absorbed, "there ought--to--be--trouble."
Suddenly currents clashed with a sputtering hiss, and a shower of sparks shot out of the knob-hole and were instantly gone. Short-circuited! It remained to be seen whether it had destroyed the mechanism of the lock. Friday dropped the hot, burned-through wire he was holding and reached for the knob, but the Hawk had leaped into life and was ahead of him.
In a moment the knob was in the door and its holding screw part-way in. Gently the Hawk tried the knob. It turned!
But they did not leave the cell--then. Ku Sui's voice was echoing through the room, more than a trace of irritation in its tone: "Hawk Carse, you are beginning to annoy me--you and your too-clever black satellite."
Carse's eyes flashed to the ceiling. A small disklike object, almost unnoticeable, lay flat against it in one place.
"Yes," continued Ku Sui, "I can talk to you, hear you and see you. I believe you have succeeded in destroying the lock. So open it and glance into the corridor--and escape, if you still want to. I rather wish you'd try, for I'm extremely busy and must not be disturbed again."
Graven-faced, without comment Carse turned the knob and opened the door an inch. He peeped through, Friday doing so also over his head--peeped right into the muzzles of four ray-guns, held by an equal number of coolie-guards waiting there.
"So that's it," Friday said, dejectedly. "He saw me workin' on the lock an' sent those guards here at once. Or else had them there all the time."
The Hawk closed the door and considered what to do. Ku Sui's voice returned.
"Yes," it sounded metallically, "I've an assistant posted here who's watching every move you make. Don't, therefore, hope to surprise me by anything you may do.
"Now I am going to resume work. Reconnect the screen: I've had the burned-out fuse replaced. If you won't, I'll have it done for you--and have you so bound that you'll be forced to look at it.
"Don't tamper with any of my hearing and seeing mechanisms again, please. If you do, I will be forced to have you destroyed within five minutes.
"But--if you'd like to leave your cell, you have my full permission. You should find it easy, now that the lock is broken."
The voice said no more. Carse ordered Friday harshly: "Reconnect the screen."
The negro hastened to obey. His master's gray eyes again fastened on the screen. Fiercely, for a moment, he smoothed his bangs.
The laboratory flashed into clear outline again. There was the shaft of white light; the operating table, full under it; the anesthetic cylinder, the banks of instruments, the sterilizers with their wisps of steam curling ceaselessly up. There were the efficient white-clad assistant-surgeons, their dull eyes showing through the holes in their masks. And there was the black figure of Ku Sui, an ironic smile on his lips, and before him the resigned and helpless form of Eliot Leithgow.
The Eurasian gestured. An assistant found the pulse in Leithgow's wrist, and another bent over him in such fashion that the prisoners could not see what he was doing. Ku Sui too bent over, something in his hands. The prelude to living death had begun....
At that moment Hawk Carse was a different man, recovered from the weakness that had made him cry out at his friend's imminent destruction a short time before. The old characteristic fierceness and recklessness had come back to him; he had decided on action--on probable death. "I've been too cautious!" he exclaimed violently in his thoughts.
"Friday!" he whispered sharply to the negro, going close.
"Four men outside--a sudden charge through that door when I nod. We'll die, too, by God! Willing?"
Friday was held by the man's iron will to succeed or die. Without hesitation he whispered back: "Yes, suh!"
Their whispers had been low. Dr. Ku Sui had not been warned, for the screen still showed him bending over his victim.
"You'll open the door; you're nearest. I'll go through first," the Hawk murmured, and smiled at the loyalty behind the promptness of his man's grin of understanding.
Then both smiles faded. The muscles of the negro's huge body bunched in readiness for the signal as tensely he watched the flaxen-haired head close to him.
Suddenly it nodded.
The door swung wide and white man and black went charging out.
And immediately there burst in their ears the furious clanging of a general alarm bell, sounding throughout the whole building!
Trapped in the Laboratory In his carefully welded plot-chain, Ku Sui left one weak link, though he was not aware of it at the time. For it would not appear save by the testing of it, and he had not expected it to be tested. Carse acted recklessly; perhaps, if cold reason be applied to his move, senselessly. Dr. Ku had not thought he would dare make the break he did. But the adventurer did dare, and the loophole, the weak link, was exposed.
The Eurasian had a paranoic's vanity, and with it a lust accumulated over years to exact the most terrible vengeance he could from the adventurer who had frustrated his schemes time and time again. His arrangement for subtly forcing Carse to watch the operation was part of his vengeance; but he planned more. He wanted his old foe, broken by the living death of Eliot Leithgow, to die slowly later; wanted to crumple that will of steel utterly; wanted to watch and pleasantly mock him during the slow death agonies he had contrived for him. Therefore--and here lay the weak link--Dr. Ku left orders for Carse to be kept alive.
If he had not instructed his coolie-guards to wound, and not kill, in case of a break for freedom, Carse and Friday could never possibly have gained the corridor alive. The four waiting ray-guns would have burned out their lives within three seconds. But, as it was, the barrage of shots from the ray-guns was directed at their legs, with the intention of bringing them down--and their legs were moving very rapidly. And so, reckoning up the caliber of the two comrades, their wild fighting start, their fatalistic resolve to get as many as possible of the enemy before they died, the result of that first hectic scramble in the corridor was more or less inevitable.
With a savage war-whoop that rose, ear-shattering, above the clanging of the alarm bell, Friday flung his two hundred and twenty pounds of brawn and muscle after Carse into the thick of the guards, taking no more notice of the spitting streaks of orange light that laced past his legs than if they had been squirts from a water-pistol. The guards had been bunched well together, but they scattered like ten-pins when Carse, followed by the living thunderbolt of fighting negro, crashed into them. In that first charge three of them were knocked flat, their guns either dropping or twisting loose from their hands.
Immediately recovering, the Hawk darted at the fourth with the speed of a striking cobra; his wiry hands closed around the yellow throat: and two seconds later that coolie was no longer connected with the proceedings, a whacking head-thump being his passport into insensibility. Again Friday's exultant war-whoop bellowed out over the scene.
Carse pushed to his feet, his deadly fighting smile on his face, a ray-gun in his hand. He stooped and picked up another.
"Get to the Master!" roared Friday, an ebon god of war between two futilely attacking bodies. "I'm--followin'!"
In those red seconds, ultimate success was still too impossible a thing to even hope for. But they would at least try, then die like the men they were.
Hawk Carse sped on down the corridor, a deadly, smoothly-functioning fighting machine. And after him a few seconds later came leaping the negro, a whooping giant with a ray-gun in each hand and the light of battle flashing in his eyes. As his personal contribution to the fight he was leaving in the rear three sprawled bodies, two knocked cold and the third with a broken neck.
Their triumph had so far been a matter of but sixty seconds. The jangle of the alarm bell continued ominously. It summoned resistance, well-trained resistance; the defenses of the asteroid awoke to action. Doors spacing the corridor behind now began to open, releasing dozens of Orientals. Nor had these men heard Ku Sui's orders. They would shoot to kill!
Three peering faces suddenly were in Hawk Carse's line of vision ahead: three ray-guns were settling on him. His famous left hand, the gun-hand that was known and dreaded throughout space, moved with the eye-blinding speed that was necessary; his trigger finger bent only three times, but each of the pencil-thin streaks of orange that spat forth brought down a man, and he had struck without slackening his stride for an instant.
Twice more his ray-gun spoke, and then the goal, the entrance to the central laboratory, was just ahead. Carse glanced back.
"Yes, suh!" a fierce voice yelled out to him. "Coming!"
Friday was bringing up the rear as fast as he could. He came sideways in a zigzag course ducking and whirling constantly, and in between firing promptly at any portions of enemy anatomies that dared project into the line of the corridor. The Hawk covered the last few yards of his retreat, and then they were together at the laboratory.
"The knob!" Carse ordered, spraying the corridor in general warning.
Friday tried it, but the door was locked. He hurled himself against it, but it did not budge.
How to get through? On the other side of the door was Leithgow, and probably Ku Sui; on this side they were trapped in a blind end. They could never make it back down that gauntlet and live, and anything like concerted action on the part of the yellows would do for them where they were.
That concerted action came at once. Seventy feet behind, a heavy shot-projector was pushed out on its little rollers from one of the doors. A hand reached out and whirled it so that its muzzle bore straight down the corridor at them. Carse shot at the hand, but the target was too small even for his fine eye, and he missed; Friday silenced an emboldened orange spot of light that was spitting streaks at them.
Hopeless! It looked like the end. Hawk Carse's face was in its old, emotionless mold as he waited, his gun sharp on the spot where the hand must reappear if they would fire the deadly projector. He had to get that hand--and any others that took its place. An almost impossible shot. He couldn't rush it and get it too. Not in time.
A moment passed. The hand flashed out; Carse shot and again missed. Then a narrow cone was along the corridor, a blinding orange streak. Instantly, with a rasp of thunder, it was gone, and the air was stifling.
The Hawk was untouched; Friday, too, he saw. The bolt had been taken by the door--and one of the door's two halves was ajar!
At once Hawk Carse acted. "Inside!" he yelled, then was through, the negro right behind. Carse's eyes swept the laboratory. It was a place of shadows, the sole light being a faint gleam from a tiny bulb-tipped surgical tool which glimmered weirdly from the bank of instruments waiting by the operating table. Carse saw no one.
"Hold the door!" he ordered. "I don't think it'll lock!"
Friday obeyed. He found the inner bolt melted and the lock inoperative; and, placing his forearms on either side of the middle crack of the door, he stood bracing it.
A furious pounding shook the door. A heavy pressure bent it inward.
"Quick!" the big black gasped. "Somethin' to wedge it!"
"A minute, Friday," the Hawk answered. "Hold it!"
He was already dragging a metal table there; and, upended under the knob, making an angle with the floor, it held stoutly closed the door, now thumping and quivering with blows given it from outside. The panting negro fell back from the door exhausted, but rose to help his master at the need for placing additional barricades.
That finished, the Hawk wheeled, and at once, pantherlike, ray-guns at the ready, stalked the room. There was no sign of the enemy. He approached the operating table.
A great relief flooded his grim face as he sighted Eliot Leithgow lying there, apparently untouched and still conscious. The elderly scientist was strapped down tight, but he was smiling.
"I knew you'd come, Carse, if you could," he said simply.
There was no time for visiting. "Where's Ku Sui?" the adventurer asked.
"Gone," Leithgow answered. "I heard a door open and close--which one I couldn't see. He went as soon as that bell began to ring. The assistants, too."
Through the shouts and batterings at the barricaded door came a new sound--from another direction. Like a streak the Hawk was at one of the three other doors, throwing its inside hand bolt; and by the time he had shot over the second, Friday had taken the cue and secured the remaining one.
The negro let out a vast breath. "Umph!" he said. "I'll tell the universe that was close!"
Hawk Carse said nothing. With eyes ever-watchful for sign of a trick or a trap in the apparently deserted laboratory, he quickly unbuckled the bands that held Leithgow to the operating table. Friday lifted the scientist to the floor, where he stretched weakly.
The adventurer smiled faintly, then his eyes went cold and serious. Crisply he said: "We came, yes--but now I think we're trapped. There'll be men outside each of these four doors. The bolts may hold them a while, but eventually they'll get through. We must look for further weapons. If only there were better light! Friday," he ordered, "look for a switch. Ah!"
With a thud and a booming reverberation a systematic battering had begun on the metal door through which they had entered. It quivered visibly and rang as the powerful blows from the other side bludgeoned into it, and evenly spaced, shrewdly delivered at the vital middle point. Whrang, whrang--even strokes, ringing throughout the barred laboratory--whrang ... whrang....
And then a similar piece settled into clanging routine on another door; then on the remaining two. The bolts holding them jumped with each deafening thud. Friday scowled, forgot to search farther for the switch, took a few short, indecisive steps, and then stood still again, looking questioningly at his master. The Hawk stood silent also, smoothing the bangs of flaxen hair above one temple, his face knit in concentration.
He had been afraid they would use the great projector on the door, and had been somewhat cheered by the reflection that they dared not, for fear of destroying the contents of the laboratory, especially the irreplaceable brains. But this was worse; Ku Sui was without question directing their efforts now. And that being the case, he could expect to see one door after another battered down--and then a concerted, four-point rush which would end everything....
Eliot Leithgow said the extraordinary thing that pointed a way out. "May I suggest," he said mildly, "that we try to get Dr. Ku Sui's brains to help us?"
"What do you mean?"
The older man smiled, a little sadly. "Those brains--they once were friends of mine. It's possible they'll answer our questions. It won't hurt to try. We'll ask them how it might be possible to get out."
Hawk Carse cried: "Eliot, you've got it! There is a chance!"
But the negro shivered. The brains stood for magic, for ghosts--for awful, unknown things he wanted nothing to do with.
Carse shoved back the screen concealing the infamous device.
"We know where this switch is, at least. If only the current's not been turned off!"
"Probably not," the Master Scientist said, out of his own technical thought-train.
Friday hung back, loath to be concerned. He looked askance at the thing, his open mouth a small round circle.
The Hawk was at the switch, but his hand hesitated. In spite of the emergency at the doors, in spite of his innate promptness of action, he hesitated. This thing he was about to do--this awful human mechanism before him--they were so weird and unnatural....