Winford seized a telescope speed calculator. The sphere was coming up far too rapidly to permit the Golden Fleece to pick up speed soon enough to escape--although he was confident the freighter could do it now, since Agar had changed its propulsion machinery.
Perhaps the commander of the battle sphere was merely curious about the Golden Fleece since it appeared to be an ordinary tramp freighter with no distinguishing emblems or other identification, and was coming close to give her a better look. Or perhaps he was hurrying to some destination and his nearness to the Golden Fleece was merely accidental.
Whatever the cause, there remained but one thing to do, and that was to keep the freighter on its course as though nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. Winford turned to the communication board and cut in the universal radio wave. The instrument was silent. He sighed. At least the commander of the battle sphere was not trying to communicate with him.
Winford turned back to the window again. The sphere was quite close now, and its speed was dropping rapidly. Suddenly the radio loud-speaker hummed to life.
"Ahoy there, aboard the freighter," sounded a stern, determined voice. "This is the Interplanetary Council battle sphere, Eagle, nearing you. We are coming aboard you to investigate. Make ready your air-lock to receive us. Attempt nothing hostile. Hundred-kilowatt ray guns are trained on you."
Winford cut in the microphone and answered with the customary "O. K." reply; then he turned to the two white-faced navigators.
"Carry on as usual," he said grimly. "Perhaps we can fool them once they are aboard."
Then he turned to the phone connecting with the crew's quarters. He hurriedly explained the situation to Jarl and instructed him to receive the boarding party at the air-lock.
The big battle sphere was drawing close alongside. Magnet grapnels shot across the narrow space between the two craft and gripped the side of the freighter, followed by the cable bridge along which the boarding party presently came wavering their way to the air-lock of the freighter.
Winford counted fifty men, then turned away dejectedly. This was no ordinary inspection party, but a prize crew coming aboard. He sat down wearily. Just as victory seemed almost within his grasp--had been actually in his hand when he had started to Ganymede--this battle sphere popped up out of nowhere like an inescapable doom to strike him and his companions down. He gritted his teeth. Some way, somehow he would still win out. He and his fellows had come too far to be cheated of liberty now.
The door of the control room opened, and a smart young officer in gold and gray of the Interplanetary Council Marine service entered, accompanied by three privates with drawn pistols who took their positions near the door. Winford noted the clean-cut lines and fresh features of the officer and felt that under different circumstances he would like to know him.
"I am Lieutenant Commander 6666-A," the officer introduced himself, using the designation the Interplanetary Council required of all their fighting men. "You are Evan Winford, are you not?"
"You nearly got away with it, Winford," complimented the officer with a boyish grin. "I almost admire you for it. But you made at least one fatal error."
"What was that?" asked Winford curiously.
"When you put Captain Robers and his men off this ship they smuggled out with them a hand-operated helio set. Each man carried a part. Within an hour after you left they had it assembled and were cranking out S O S signals. We happened to be but a million miles off Callisto and picked up their message. At once our commander decided to start out and rope in the Golden Fleece before you did any further damage. And here we are."
Winford cursed himself under his breath. Fool that he had been not to have had the men and their baggage searched more carefully before he allowed them to leave the freighter. Nizzo was responsible for that. He should be--but it was too late now. No use crying over spilled milk. He forced a grin and shrugged.
"'The best laid plans of mice and men--'" he quoted philosophically. "I hope the entire blame for this wild venture is put on my shoulders where it belongs when we are brought to trial. These two navigators here and the rest of the men are in no way responsible. I forced every man of them under pain of death to join me."
The young officer shook his head and smiled.
"Not a chance of that, Winford. You'll all stand trial alike, and you know it. You are rather a strange sort of pirate, it seems to me, to offer yourself as a sacrifice for your men. I'd say you are too tender-hearted for buccaneering in the Void."
"If I had succeeded in reaching New Chicago, you might have gained a different impression of me," retorted Winford, his lambent eyes flaming at the thought. "I have sworn to kill Silas Teutoberg, the new governor of Ganymede, because he sent me to die in the mines of Mercury for a crime I never committed."
The young officer laughed.
"You can set your mind at rest about him, Winford. He was due at New Chicago five days ago in his specially chartered space liner from New York. Nothing was heard from his ship ten days after he left New York with his guests aboard. His last reported position was near the Mars orbit and since then nothing has come out of the Void. They'll just chalk him under the 'Lost in Space' column on the admiralty boards of the Universe and give the credit for his disappearance to some hurtling meteor. We were on our way to search for the remains of his liner when we intercepted the messages from Captain Robers and his men on Callisto."
Winford's face was bleak.
"Fate has prevented me from achieving my greatest desire," he said harshly. "To rid the Universe of that scourge to humanity would have been one of the sweetest moments of my life. I've dreamed of it for years."
The officer lighted a cigarette.
"Perhaps you are right, but I'd say the chance is gone in more ways than one. Teutoberg is undoubtedly dead, and you are on your way to the gas execution cage on Mars. Incidentally, you are now my prisoner. I'll not lock you in the hold with the rest of your crew, but will confine you to your stateroom."
Winford surveyed him curiously.
"I warn you that I'll take advantage of any opportunity to escape," he said.
The officer grinned.
"That's to be expected. So would any other man doomed to die. But the coronium doors, locks and walls of the Golden Fleece's staterooms are practically escape proof, and with two of my marines on guard outside your door, with orders to kill if you break out, I feel reasonably safe."
Imprisoned in his stateroom, Winford threw himself on his bunk. Too early to attempt anything yet, he considered. It would be better to wait a few days--at least until Eagle had departed. Besides, he would have to work out a plan for escape.
He glanced up at the port-hole. The sunlight was shifting. He arose and peered out. Twenty-five miles away he could see the battle sphere standing out across the Void on a sunward course. The Golden Fleece was turning her nose toward distant Mars, a long journey, since the Red Planet was on the opposite side of the sun, seven hundred million miles away.
Winford knew what was taking place. The commander of the battle sphere was again resuming his mission of searching for the missing liner, while the young officer and his crew were taking the Golden Fleece with its iridium cargo and pirate crew directly to Mars.
Meantime the radio and audio-vision announcers on all the planets were broadcasting the sensational news of the capture of the escaped convict-pirates and their forthcoming trial and certain execution on Mars. Winford turned bitterly away from the port-hole.
One week had passed. Winford started up out of a sound sleep. He listened tensely. There was a murmur through the big freighter. He recognized it as the clanging of the great alarm gongs through the hull of the big ship, muffled by the walls of his stateroom. Something was afoot!
He threw off the covers, sprang out on the deck and pulled on his clothes. This might be a break! Those gongs never sounded without plenty of cause.
He pulled a chair to the door, mounted it, and cautiously opening the transom which he had previously loosened, thrust his head out into the passage.
A marine was running down the passage. The guards before Winford's door tried to stop him, but the man ran on. Presently another came along. The guard was more successful.
"Say, Buddie, what's all the excitement?" he demanded.
"We've found Teutoberg's liner, or rather, it has found us!" exclaimed the marine. "They say old Teutoberg has trained his heaviest guns on us and is demanding that we surrender. Our skipper doesn't know just what to make of it. He's arguing with Teutoberg by radio that this old tub is in the hands of the law already and that he is taking it to Mars for the piracy court. Teutoberg says he won't be fooled by any such bunk as that; he knows we are all pirates and he is going to have this ship regardless of anything, since it belongs to his line. I've got to be hurrying along. We're getting the big guns ready, the few that we have."
Winford cautiously withdrew his head. His eyes were glowing. The whole scheme was as plain as day now. Teutoberg knew as well as every informed person in the Universe did that the Golden Fleece was in the hands of the Interplanetary Council marines. That talk about being entitled to the freighter because it was owned by his shipping line was so much rubbish. He was protected by insurance. What he wanted was the insurance and the ten million dollars' worth of iridium in the hold as well.
Furthermore, he had intended to have it all along. It was part of his diabolical scheme to put the shipment on an unprotected freighter. Then he had chartered a liner privately for his venture in piracy. When the liner was "lost" he was out searching for the Golden Fleece along the lanes where it should have been had not he, Winford, and his companions captured the craft and sent it hurtling out toward Ganymede. And now Teutoberg had succeeded in trailing it down.
Winford surveyed the transom pessimistically. Impossible to get through it. If only he had a ray pistol to dissolve the door lock.... The air ventilator! He dropped down on hands and knees and peered under the bunk. The opening seemed large enough to let his shoulders through. If he should become fast in one of the turns of the tunnel it would be all up with him. They'd probably find his body when the ship went into dock for repairs. But this was no time to think of that.
He crawled under the bunk, took out the grating and set it beside the opening. Then he wormed his way into the tunnel. It was a tight fit, but he could move. The first turn should bring him to the branch that opened out on the passage not far from his stateroom door.
Never would he forget that struggle when he forced his cramped, tortured body round the bend in the blackness a fraction of an inch at a time and crawled up the branch. If he was mistaken--but he wasn't. Presently he was looking out of the grating into the passage.
Members of the crew raced back and forth like disturbed ants. From the snatches of conversation that reached him, Winford learned that Teutoberg had succeeded in getting the range of the freighter and was holding her helpless under the imposing muzzles of his heavy disintegrator-ray guns.
The door of the control opened and the boyish commander, his face pale and drawn, thrust out his head.
"They're coming aboard, men," he shouted to the group in the passage below. "I can't stop them. Our only chance may come after they are aboard."
"Why don't you free the pirates and let them help us?" cried one of the men.
"Never," returned the young commander firmly. "They are in our care, and by the gods, we are going to bring them and this ship through safe and sound!"
A moment later he descended the stairs and led his men aft.
Teutoberg displayed a flash of generalship, for his first ten men who came in through the air-lock were pistol experts. They rayed the marines in their tracks and cleared the passage leading to the lock, before the defenders could get organized. A few minutes later the invaders were spreading through the ship, hunting down and ruthlessly slaying the marines whom they outnumbered three to one. Scattered fights to the death took place on all the decks. Winford, snugly ensconced in his air tunnel, raged inwardly as the crackling of the rays and the agonized screams of the wounded and dying came to his ears.
The fighting seemed to be drawing nearer. He risked peeping out. The young commander and half a dozen of his men covering themselves as best they might with the inadequate protector shields of the service, retreated to the foot of the stairs leading up to the control room. As the invaders prepared to mow them down a sudden hush fell on the men and the invaders parted. A huge man stepped out before them. Winford sucked in his breath sharply as he recognized Teutoberg and saw him take a step forward in the direction of the marines.
Teutoberg raised his hand toward Commander 6666-A and spoke.
"Will you surrender, or must my men obliterate you? I would say that you pirates have your backs to the wall. Surely life is sweet. Why not surrender while you still have it?"
"We're not pirates!" declared the young commander hotly.
"It will take more than a gold and gray uniform of the Interplanetary Council military forces to convince me," he retorted. "Uniforms of any kind can be obtained anywhere in the Universe where there happens to be a competent tailor."
"The only pirates, excepting yourselves, aboard this ship are under lock and key," said the commander. "That's where you will be before this matter is settled."
Teutoberg laughed. His manner changed suddenly.
"What a line of talk for a pirate," he commented affably. "Come, youngster, there is no need to sacrifice lives uselessly. Surrender, since you're outnumbered anyway, and let's discuss this thing on a sane basis."
Commander 6666-A hesitated. Winford could scarcely refrain from shouting treachery. Then the marines lowered their shields and rays. Next instant they went down under the charge of the invaders.
The young commander was chalky white when they dragged him bound and helpless to his feet. A trickle of blood made a crimson line from the corner of his mouth, and his eyes sparkled with helpless rage.
"You dirty snake!" he gasped. "You'll sniff gas for this!"
Teutoberg laughed scornfully.
"Take them back to the air-lock and shove them out naked one at a time," he ordered curtly. "That's the way they would have treated us. Save the young bantam for the last. Now, where is this Evan Winford? I have an old score to settle with him."
Up in his air tunnel Winford nodded grimly to himself. Teutoberg's words only added to the proof that he knew all along that the Golden Fleece was in the hands of the Interplanetary marines, for his request for Winford revealed that he had been following the helio reports of the capture of the ship by the marines and the stories being broadcast throughout the Universe of how Winford and Jarl and their pirate companions were being taken with the ship to Mars for piracy and execution.
Neither Commander 6666-A nor his men deigned to answer Teutoberg, but one of his own men had already discovered that Winford was locked in his own stateroom, and he promptly indicated the door.
Teutoberg scowled, drew a pistol in either hand, and strode to the door. One of the men unlocked it, and he kicked it open. He waited expectantly, then advanced cautiously into the room. The sound of his baffled curses filled the passage. Winford grinned mirthlessly.
"Someone dies for this!" shouted Teutoberg, storming out into the passage. "Where is he, I say? Bring me that Martian, Jarl! He'll know, if anyone does. Bring him, I say, and I'll torture the truth out of his big carcass!"
Winford's grin vanished. His eyes grew anxious as he waited, tense and breathless, until Jarl, with his big hands lashed together behind his back, was brought up from the hold.
"So we meet again, Jarl?" jeered Teutoberg, scowling blackly at him. "Where is this master of yours, this Winford?"
Jarl's eyes met Teutoberg's impassively. All too well he knew the innate cruelty of this Earthman. Some explanation would have to be made to satisfy him. Never a flicker of an eye-lash revealed what that explanation would be, but Jarl glanced stoically at the empty stateroom.
"He did it," he said calmly.
"Did what, you clod?" Teutoberg flung at him savagely.
"Ended his life as he swore he would."
"Suicide? Impossible! Where is the body?"
"He destroyed it together with his life by drinking disintegrator concentrate. He carried a capsule of it when we escaped from Mercury, and I've heard him swear time and again that he would die before he would permit himself to be taken back."
Teutoberg swallowed the story. There was nothing else to do, apparently. He raved and cursed. Once he raised his pistol to Jarl's heart and lowered it again.
"You'll take his place, Martian dog!" he snarled. "By proxy I shall treat him as he deserves, and you shall be the proxy. Back to the hold with you for the present!"
With that Teutoberg whirled about, strode up the stairs and vanished in the control room.
Commander 6666-A and his men were dragged aft to the air-lock, leaving the passage near Winford temporarily empty. He broke out the grating and wormed his way out of the air tunnel, dropping on the floor hands first. He sprang to his feet, and started grimly up the steps to the control room. Inside that room was Teutoberg, a bigger man than himself, and armed, yet Winford, barehanded, cautiously opened the door and stepped inside.
Teutoberg was standing at one side of the room gazing in rapt attention at the slaughter of the helpless marines. One by one he watched them emerge from the air-lock bloated and white in their nakedness with their convulsed limbs already growing rigid in the icy cold of space. Out in the open space between the two ships they hung motionless a few minutes, then swiftly dissolved and vanished under the ray of a small disintegrator gun on the liner.
Teutoberg smiled crookedly.
The door clicked behind him. Teutoberg turned with a startled oath. Winford, foul with grime and his clothing torn to rags, stood there. Teutoberg's eyes widened. Both hands leaped downward for the holstered pistols in his belt. At that instant Winford lunged for him.
One of Teutoberg's hands was now gripping a pistol. Winford struck frenziedly, knocking it from Teutoberg's grasp. The weapon slid under the chart table out of reach. Winford clutched Teutoberg's left hand which held the still holstered pistol.
Suddenly he saw an advantage, and his heart leaped in exultation. Round behind Teutoberg he pivoted--a wrestling trick he had learned as a boy. For an instant they stood back to back. Then with a mighty effort Winford heaved upward relentlessly on his opponent's forearm.
Teutoberg screamed in pain as something snapped in his wrist. The pistol dropped from his nerveless fingers. Winford flicked it out of reach under the table with his toe, but had no chance to reach for it, because Teutoberg had managed to work himself free.
With a bellow of animal rage and with arms flailing like wind-mills he charged at Winford again. Winford met his rush with a rapid series of blows and Teutoberg went down. But up he came, a wild light in his eyes. Again he went down, only to struggle gamely to his feet once more.
Winford was gasping for breath. It amazed him that Teutoberg could endure so much punishment. His arm must be broken and he was terribly battered, yet here he came staggering back for more. Winford now hunched down and, like a crouching animal, advanced slowly toward his enemy. Suddenly he started a right almost from the deck straight for Teutoberg's chin. It connected. Teutoberg was lifted clear of the deck and hurled unconscious against the side of the control room six feet away.
Winford staggered to the communication board and his trembling fingers clutched the air-lock phone.
"Hello, hello!" he gasped. "Teutoberg speaking. Send no more marines out through the lock just now.... Yes, of course this is Teutoberg."
He hung the instrument back on its hook and clung dizzily to the edge of the table. At least the slaughter was halted for the time being.
He would have to act fast. He caught up the big water pitcher from the holder on the wall where it had miraculously escaped the fight, gulped deeply from it, and splattered water down his face and chest. Then he picked up the two pistols from the deck, placed one in his belt and gripped the other firmly as he approached the unconscious Teutoberg.