Then he heard a faint click inside the laboratory--in a place where no one should be. Instinctively he whirled and crouched--and an orange ray streaked over his head with its wicked spit of death. At once his own ray-gun was up and answering to the spot where the other bolt had started, and then he was flat on the floor and ceiling toward the wall opposite.
A high wide panel in the wall had slid open, with only the faint noise Carse had heard to mark its movement. For just a few seconds it stayed open. The Hawk covered the last few feet in a desperate rush, but he reached it too late. It clicked shut in his face, and there was no hold for his hands when he tried to force it back.
Only a voice showed that someone was on the other side. In familiar, suave tones it said: "Carse, I still will take you and Leithgow--alive. It would of course be idle to ask you to surrender, but that's not necessary, for you're trapped and can't possibly last another five minutes. I intrude only to warn you away from my synchronized brains. I will destroy without compunction anyone who meddles with them."
Dr. Ku's voice dropped away; the last words seemed to have come from below. Apparently he was descending by a stairway or hidden elevator.
"Without compunction!" Leithgow echoed with a bitter smile.
Carse ordered Friday curtly to watch the panel, then returned to Leithgow.
"Eliot," he said, "we've got to be quick."
And with his words the delicate, overstrained filament in the tiny instrument bulb gave out, and the laboratory was plunged into ultimate blackness....
Out Under the Dome Within the well of darkness rang the metallic reverberations from the battering on the four doors all around. The fluid nothingness was a place of fear. Its nerve-shattering, mind-confusing bedlam might have come from the fantastic anvils of some giant, malevolent blacksmith.
The Hawk's curt voice cut through imperatively: "Keep your heads. We'll have a light in a second. Light of a sort."
He threw the switch by the side of the chamber of brains.
Seconds passed, and where was darkness grew a faint glow. The switch had operated; the current, probably from the device's own batteries, was there! Quickly and steadily the liquid within the case took on its self-originating glow, until the midnight laboratory was faintly washed with the delicate rosy light. The wires emerged in their complexity as before, and then the brains, all gruesome and naked in their cradles of unnatural life.
Around the internally-lit case were the three besieged Earthlings, half in blackness, the light from the front making ghastly shadows on their faces. Acolites at some sorcerer's rite they looked, with the long inky patches that left them to dissolve formlessly against the far walls of the room.
Grotesque in the operating garments he wore, his bald head shining in the eery light, Eliot Leithgow approached the microphone Dr. Ku had used to communicate with his pathetic subjects. He looked down at the brains, at the wires which threaded the pans they lay in, at the narrow gray tubes that pulsed with blood--or whatever might be the fluid used in its stead. All mechanical was the apparatus--all of metal and other cunningly fashioned man-made materials--all but the brains....
To the old Master Scientist there came a vision of five human figures, rising specterlike from the case they were entombed in; straight, proud young figures, two of them; two others old, like himself, and the fifth a gnarled hunchback. Very different were they, each from each other, but each face had its mark of genius; and each face, to Eliot Leithgow, was warm and smiling, for these five men were friends....
So he saw them in vision....
"Another switch has to be thrown to talk with them, Carse," he said. The Hawk indicated one inquiringly. Leithgow nodded. "Yes. That was it." The switch went over.
He steadied himself and said into the speaking grille: "I am Eliot Leithgow--Master Scientist Eliot Leithgow. Once you knew me. Professors Geinst, Estapp and Norman, Dr. Swanson and Master Scientist Cram--do you remember me? Do you remember how once we worked together; how, long ago on our Earth, we were friends? Do you remember your old colleague, Leithgow?"
He stopped, deeply shaken. In seconds his mind sped back through the years to those five men as he had last seen them--and to two women he had met, calm-faced as their husband-scientists.... God forbid those women should ever learn of this!
Carse watched his old comrade closely, fearful of the strain this was on him.
Then came a cold, thin, mechanical voice.
"Yes, Master Scientist Eliot Leithgow. I remember you well."
The scientist strove to keep level his voice as he continued: "Two friends and I are trapped here. Dr. Ku Sui desires my brain. He wishes to add it to----" He stammered, halted; then burst out: "If it would help you in any way, I'd give it gladly! But it couldn't, I know; it would only aid his power-mad schemes. So my friends and I must escape. And we can see now no way!
"You can hear that noise? It's very loud; men are outside each door, battering at them, and soon they must break through. How can we escape? Do you know of a way, out of your knowledge of conditions here? Will you tell me, old colleagues?"
Fifty feet away from this scene, and missing almost all of it, was Friday. From his post at the panel he kept throwing fearful looks at the nearest door, which was shuddering and clanging and threatening any moment to be wrenched off its hinges. A good thing--he was thinking--that the doors were of stout metal. When one did go he would get five or six of the soulless devils before they brought him down.
Carse waited tensely for the response--if one there was to be. His ears were throbbing in unison with the regular crash of rams on metal, but his eyes never left the convoluted mounds of intelligent matter so fantastically featured by the internal radiance of the life-giving liquid. Impossible, it seemed, that thoughts were stirring inside those gruesome things....
"Please hurry!" he said in a low voice; and Leithgow repeated desperately: "How can we escape? Please be quick!"
Then the miracle of mechanism and matter functioned and again gave forth the cold voice of the living dead.
"It is my disposition to help you, Eliot Leithgow. On a shelf under one of the tables in this room you will find a portable heat-ray. Melt a hole in the ceiling and go out through the roof."
"Then what can we do?"
"In lockers behind the table there are space-suits, hanging ready for emergencies. Don them and leave through one of the asteroid's port-locks."
"Ask if the ports are sealed," Carse interjected instantly.
Leithgow asked the question.
"Yes," replied the unhuman voice. "But twice four to the right will open any of them."
The Master Scientist wiped his brow. Though trembling under the strain of conversing with this machine on which his life depended, he did not overlook a single point.
"But the asteroid's gravital pull would hold us close to it," he said. "Is there a way of breaking free from it?"
"You'll find the space-suits are equipped with small generators and gravity-plates which I helped Ku Sui develop. The switch and main control are in the left-hand glove."
"Thank you! Oh, thank you! You give us a chance!" exclaimed old Leithgow.
He turned and looked for the Hawk, and found him already in the lockers and pulling out three space-suits. The clumsy, heavy cone of a portable heat-ray lay on the table ready to hand.
They had little time to waste. The torrid temperature of a new smell of burned metal around the door they had just entered told them as well as words that the large projector in the corridor was at last being used to bore a way in.
With surprising strength in one so slender, Carse lifted the ray and pointed it at an angle toward the middle of the ceiling. He pressed the control button, and a blinding stream of violet radiance splashed against the metal above. It hissed and sputtered where it touched; molten drops fell sizzling and splattering to the floor; then suddenly there was a flood of ruddy illumination, and the Hawk dropped the heat-ray, stepped forward and looked up.
Up through a neatly melted round hole, up at the great glasslike dome which arched over the whole settlement--up, past it, into the vast face of Jupiter, hanging out there oppressively near!
Friday, champing for action, left his post by the panel and dragged a long low cabinet to position under the hole. On top of it he placed the operating table, and, after he had tripped the table's small wheels, another table on top of that.
"You first, Eclipse!" his master rapped out as he finished. "I'll pass the suits to you; then swing Leithgow up."
The negro answered by acting. Swiftly he climbed the rude pile, and reached for the edge of the hole. It was still searingly hot, and he gasped with hurt as his palms and fingers clenched over it, but he did not let go. Levering himself rapidly up, he got a leg through and then his body. A second later he peered back in and lowered his hands down.
"No one up here yet!" he reported. "All right for the suits!"
Carse passed the three bulky suits to him, and also two extra ray-guns he had found in the locker.
With the Hawk's help, Leithgow clambered onto the cabinet. He was just mounting the operating table when, from behind, came a thin, metallic voice: "Master Leithgow--Eliot Leithgow--please, a favor?"
Leithgow turned and stared, then understood. It was the coordinated brains. They had forgotten to return the switches. And now the cold voice was speaking of its own accord; and somehow--though it might have been imagination entirely--there seemed to be a tinge of loneliness to the words that sounded from its speaker.
Instantly Leithgow got down and hurried over to the grille. Seconds were precious, but Carse and he were heavily obligated to the brains, and any request in reason had to be fulfilled.
"Yes. What can I possibly do?"
The lower hinge of one side of the barricaded door gave, burned out, and the door wrenched inward at a resumption of the battering. The other hinge still held, but it was bending with each mighty blow. Outwardly calm, Hawk Carse watched the weakening door, a gun in each hand.
"This," said the toneless voice: "Destroy me. Leave no slightest trace. I live in hell, and have no way to move.... There are old memories ... things that once were dear ... Earth ... my homes ... my lives there.... Eliot Leithgow, destroy me. But promise, on your honor as a Master Scientist, never to let a single word regarding my fate reach those on Earth who knew me, loved me...."
Leithgow looked at the Hawk. The adventurer nodded.
"I'll use the heat-ray," he said, with pity.
He ran and picked it up. But he had taken only one step in return when the second hinge of the yielding door wrenched free. An ear-piercing screech rent the bedlam--and the door fell, half twisting, to lie in the doorway.
As if by a signal the crashing at the other doors stopped. In an extraordinary silence a mob of gray-smocked bodies pressed forward.
Orange streaks laced the dim laboratory. The Hawk shouted, "Up, Eliot! For God's sake, up!" as, with deadly effect, he poured his two ray-guns at the advancing men.
For a second, shaken by the terrible barrage, they fell back, leaving several sprawled bodies on the floor; but they came right back again.
Leithgow got safely to the top of the pile and was snatched out to temporary safety. Frantically Friday called down to his master; he seemed on the point of jumping down into the fight himself. But Hawk Carse had been party to a promise.
He was behind the structure of furniture under the hole he had made in the ceiling. With one gun he spat death at the coolies, while the other he emptied at the case of brains. Two stabbing streams of orange angled from him, one telling with awful effect on the men only two score feet away, and the other absolutely useless. All over the still-glowing case it spat its hits, but the glasslike substance resisted it completely, and remained unscathed.
Carse swore harshly. He hurled one empty gun at the case, turned with a last salvo of shots at the coolies, and then was up on the pile and leaping for Friday's hands.
They caught and gripped his, swung him once--twice--and hauled him swiftly out. But as the Hawk disappeared he shouted down the case: "I'll be back!"
The Final Mystery On the roof, Carse quickly scanned their situation. They were standing on the hub of the four-winged building. Far to the left was one set of the dome's great and small port-locks; exactly opposite was the other. Near the left hand ports; a little "north," lay the Scorpion. The whole area enclosed was a flat plain of gray soil.
Looming over the great transparent dome hung the flaming disk of Jupiter, so oppressively near that it seemed about to crash onto the asteroid. Its rays poured in a ruddy flood over the settlement, clearly illuminating each detail; and comparatively close against the face of the mighty planet they could see the whitish globe of Satellite III. It offered the nearest haven. They might arrive famished, but in the power-equipped space-suits which Friday was lugging they should be able to span the gap.
The Hawk nodded to the port-locks on the left.
"That one," he snapped. "We'll have two chances, the Scorpion and the port, but the port's safest; we could never get the whole ship underway and through the lock in time. To prevent pursuit, all we have to do is leave the lock open after us."
They hastened along the roof of the wing that ran that way. As yet there was no outside pursuit; most of the settlement's guards seemed to have been concentrated in the attack on the laboratory. But Carse knew it would only be a matter of seconds before coolies would emerge from half a dozen different points. He was trying to figure out which points they were likely to be when there passed, perilously close, the spit of an orange ray. He glanced back, to see the first of the crowd which had broken into the laboratory come clambering up through the roof. Then, as a second shot sizzled by, they arrived at the end of the wing.
Friday took the fifteen-foot drop without hesitation. Carse lowered Leithgow to him and then swung down himself. They panted forward again, over grayish, glittering soil.
Some three hundred yards of open space lay between them and the port-locks. Friday now led the way, weighted down under the heavy suits; the scientist came next and then the Hawk, his sole remaining gun replying at intervals to the ever-thickening barrage from behind. They had covered perhaps a half of that distance when the negro's steps suddenly faltered and he halted.
"Look there!" he groaned. "Cuttin' us off! We'll never make it, suh!"
Carse looked where he pointed, and saw a squad of half a dozen men emerging from a building well to their left. They were running at full speed for the lock, and, as Friday had said, it was obvious that they would get there first. He glanced quickly around. Pursuit from the laboratory in the rear was hot--and moreover three coolies were angling sharply out on each side, to outflank them! In a minute they would be surrounded! Unable to reach either the port or the ship!
And then came the crowning piece of ill-luck. Suddenly the Hawk winced; staggered; clapped a hand to his shoulder. A lucky shot from an enemy gun had caught him.
"You're hit!" cried Leithgow.
The slender adventurer stood very still, thinking. He was trapped. But he was never more dangerous than when he was trapped.
Leithgow timidly ventured a suggestion.
"Why can't we put on our space-suits and rise up in the dome?"
Crisply the answer came back: "Hard to maneuver laterally. Never get out ports. Sure death.... I have it!" he ended.
Tersely he gave the two men orders: "We've a bare chance--if I'm lucky. Now listen, and obey me exactly. Put on your space-suits. Shut them tight. Lie flat. You, Friday, use your ray-guns and keep the guards from coming close. Wait here. Do absolutely nothing save keep them off. And keep your suits intact or you're dead!"
He grabbed one of the suits from Friday and crept toward the Scorpion on hands and knees. The three coolies from the pursuit at the rear had already cut him off from the ship. Friday could not control his alarm at this apparently crazy act. He called after: "But you can't get to the ship through those guards! And if you did, you couldn't run it yourself--and pick us up!"
Carse turned, his face white with cold passion. "When will you learn to obey me implicitly?" he said harshly--and crept on.