The girl dropped her dark lashes in a sidelong glance at the stiletto on the floor. There was a little smile on her lips.
"My usual weapon. Don't you know most of us Martians go armed all the time?"
"Yeh?" Sime grinned skeptically. "And is it a habit of yours to hide in the bedroom of visiting policemen? Come on, kid. I'm going to turn you over to the guard."
For a second it looked as if she would make a dash for the blade glistening there on the floor. But she straightened up, and with a look of infinite scorn said: "So the mighty policeman of the Sun calls a hotel guard, does he? Please! Believe me, I am myself working for the same object as yourself--the prevention of a horrible war!"
She was pleading now.
"Believe me, you are against forces that you don't understand! I can help you, if you will listen. Let me tell you, the Martian government is itself corrupted. The planetary president, Wilcox, is in alliance with the war party. You will have to fight the police. You will have to fear poison. You will be set upon and killed in the first dark passage. Yet if you help me you may accomplish your object. You must help me!"
"What do you want of me?"
"Help me change our government!"
Sime laughed shortly. He began to suspect that this amazing girl was demented. He thought of the powerfully entrenched rulers of this theoretically republican government. For more than two hundred years, if he remembered rightly, the Martians had been ruled by a small group of rich politicians.
"You propose a revolution?" he asked curiously.
"I propose the return of Princess Sira to the throne!" she declared vehemently. "But enough! Are you going to betray me--I, who have risked much to warn you? Or are you going to let me go?"
Sime looked into her warm, earnest little face. Her lips were parted softly, showing perfect little teeth, and she was breathing quickly, anxiously. Sime was woman hungry, as men of the service often are on the long, lonely trail. He seized her quickly, pressed her little figure to him and kissed her.
For a thrilling instant it seemed that she relaxed. But she tore away, furious, her eyes cold with anger.
"For that," she panted, raging, "you must die!"
She reached the door before he could stop her, and in a trice she was out in the gallery. He raced after her, staring stupidly. Surprisingly, when her escape was assured, she turned back. Her look was still hurt, angry, as she called to him in low tones: "Look out for Scar Balta, you brute!"
"Who is Scar Balta?" Sime asked himself after locking the door again. The name was not unusual and did not bring any familiar associations to his mind. The given name, Scar, once a nickname, had been in general use for centuries. As for Balta--oh, well-- His mind reverted to the girl again. Her warm, palpitant presence disturbed him.
He composed himself to sleep, strapping his dispatch belt around his waist before crawling into bed. He did not believe that the girl had hidden in his room with murderous intent; rather that she had hoped to inspect and perhaps to steal any papers that he carried. But his last conscious thought of her had nothing to do with her connection with this planet of intrigue, but the soft curve of her throat.
Scar Balta Sime breakfasted on one of the juicy Martian tropical pears, and as he dug into the luscious fruit with his spoon he looked about the spacious dining hall, filled with wide-eyed tourists on their first trip to Mars, blissful and oblivious honeymooners, and a sprinkling of local residents and officials.
Through broad windows of thick glass (for on Mars many buildings maintain an atmospheric pressure somewhat higher than the normal outside pressure) could be seen the north banks of the canal, teeming with swift pleasure boats and heavily loaded work barges. Down the long terraces strolled hundreds of people, dressed in garments of vivid colors and sheer materials suitable to the hot and cloudless days. Brilliant insects floated on wide diaphanous wings, waiting to pounce on the opening blossoms.
But the terrestrial agent felt that in this scene of luxury there was a menace. Out of sight, but instantly available, were frightful engines of destruction, waiting to be mobilized against the Earth branch of the human race. And on that distant green planet were people much like these, unconscious still of the butchery into which they were being deftly maneuvered by calculating psychologists, expert war-makers.
His meal completed, Sime sauntered out into the wide, clean streets of North Tarog. He purchased a desert unionall suit, proof against the heat of day and cold of night, and a wide-brimmed Martian pith helmet. Hailing a taxi, he relaxed comfortably in the cushions.
"Nabar mine," he told the driver.
The driver nosed the vehicle up, over the domed roofs of the city and over the harsh desert landscape. The rounded prow cut through the thin air with a faint whistling, and the fair cultivated area along the canal was soon lost to sight.
After half an hour the metal mine sheds grew out of the horizon. But even from a distance of several miles Sime could see that everything was not as it should be. There were no moving white specks of the laborers' white fatigue uniforms against the brown rocks, and no clouds of dust from the borium refuse pile.
The levitator screws of the taxi sank from their high whine to a groan, and the wheels came to the ground before the company office. A man in the Martian army uniform came out. His beetle-browed face was truculent, and his hand rested on the hilt of his neuro-pistol.
"No visitors allowed!" snapped the guard.
"I'm not exactly a visitor," Sime objected, but making no move to get out of the taxi. "I'm an engineer sent here by the board of directors to see why the output of this mine has dropped. Where's Mr. Murray?"
"All settled!" the guard retorted. "Murray's in jail for mismanagement of planetary resources, and the mine's been expropriated to the government. Now, you--off!"
The driver needed no further order from his fare. The taxi leaped into the air and tore back toward the city. It was clear that the military rules of Mars brooked no nonsense from the civilian population, and that the latter were well aware of it.
"Fast work!" Sime said to himself with grudging admiration. Murray was a trusted agent of the terrestrial government. It was he who had first uncovered the war cabal. Sime knew his face well from the stereoscopic service record--a bald, placid man of about forty, a bonafide engineer, a spy with an unbroken record of success, until now. And a fighter who asked no odds, who could manage very well on less than an even break. Well, he was up against something now.
They passed the line of shield-ray projectors, North Tarog's first line of defense against an attack of space, hovered over the teeming streets and parks, and settled on the pavement at the Hotel of the Republic. Sime wanted to go to his room and think things over.
From the concealment of a doorway an officer with a squad of soldiers came up quickly.
"You are under arrest!" said the officer, placing, his hand on Sime's shoulder, while the soldiers rested their hands on their neuro-pistols.
"Would it be asking too much to inquire on what charge?" Sime asked politely.
"Military arrests do not require the filing of charges," the officer explained stiffly. "Come out of there now, Mr. Hemingway."
"I demand to see the terrestrial consul," Sime said, getting out.
"How about my fare?" asked the taxi-driver.
Sime put his hand into his pocket, where he kept a roll of interplanetary script; but the officer restrained him.
"Never mind now," he said ironically. "You are a guest of the government." Then to the driver he added: "Get on, now! Get on! File your claim at the divisional office."
The driver departed, outwardly meek before the power of the military, and Sime was hustled into an official car. He had little hope that his demand to see the terrestrial consul would be complied with, and this opinion was verified when the car rose into the air and sped over the waters of the canal to South Tarog. It did not pause when it came over the military camps there--the massive ordnance depots in which were stored new and improved killing tools that had long been idle in that irksome interplanetary peace.
They flew on, over the desert, until the Gray Mountains loomed on the horizon. On, over the tumbled rocks, interspersed with the strange red thorny vegetation common in the Martian desert.
Far below them, in a ravine, a cylindrical building was now visible, and toward this the car began to drop. It landed on a level space before the structure. A sliding gate opened, and the car wheeled into a sort of courtyard, protected from the cold of night by an arching roof of glass.
Sime was hustled out and led into an office located on the lower floor of the fortification, or whatever the structure was.
As he saw the man who sat at the desk he gave a startled explanation.
The elderly, white-haired man smiled. He brushed back his hair with a characteristic gesture, and his twinkling blue eyes bored into those of the I. F. P. special officer. The colonel wore the regular uniform of the service; his little skullcap, with the conventionalized sun symbol denoting his rank, was on the table before him. He put out his lean, strong hand.
"Surprised to see me, eh, Hemingway?" he inquired pleasantly.
Sime managed an awkward salute. "I don't quite understand, sir. You gave me my instructions at the Philadelphia space port just before I made the Pleadisia. She's the fastest passenger liner in the solar system: I've barely landed here, and it seems you got here before me. It don't seem right!"
Sime watched the colonel narrowly, a vague suspicion in his mind, and he thought he saw a slight flicker in the man's eye when Sime spoke.
But the colonel answered smoothly, with a hint of reproof.
"Never mind questioning me now, Hemingway. The mission is important. I want to know if you remember every detail of what I told you." He nodded to the men, and they filed out of the room. "Repeat your orders."
"Nothing doing, Colonel!" Sime replied promptly and respectfully. "In fact, Colonel, you can go to hell! This is the first time that a man of the I. F. P. has turned traitor, and if your men hadn't so thoughtfully taken my neuro I'd be pleased to finish you right now!"
"But you observe I have a neuro in my hand," remarked the colonel pleasantly, "and so you will remain standing where you are."
So saying, he slipped off the white wig he was wearing, wiped his face so that the brown powder came off, and sat, obviously pleased with the success of his masquerade, useless though it was. He was a typical Martian, dark, sleek-haired, coral-skinned.
"I hate to send a man to his death mystified," said the Martian after a moment, "so I'll explain that I am Scar Balta!"
"You've heard of me?"
"Uh--yes and no," Sime suddenly remembered the girl of the evening before--the imperious little Martian. She had warned him of Scar Balta.
"If I do say it," said the Martian, "I am the best impersonator in the service of the interests I represent. I did not expect to get information of great value from you, but we do not neglect even the most unpromising leads."
He pressed a button; two Martian soldiers answered promptly.
"Take this man to the cell," Balta ordered. "Provide him with writing materials so that he can write a last message to his family. In the morning take him to the end of the ravine and finish him with your short sword."
"The fellow's a colonel, anyway," Sime thought as they led him away.
They led him downward, along a straight corridor that evidently went far beyond the boundaries of the ravine fortress. In places the walls, adequately lit by the glow-wands the guards carried, were plainly cut out of the solid rock; in others they were masonry, as though the channel were passing through pockets of earth; or--the thought electrified him--through faults or natural caverns.
At last they came to the end. One of the guards unlocked a metal door, motioned his prisoner into the prison cell. A light-wand, badly run down and feeble, with only a few active cells left, gave the only light. As the door slammed behind him, Sime took in the depressing scene.
The stone walls were mildewed, leprous. The only ventilation was through small holes in the door. Chains, fastened to huge staples in the uneven stone floor, with smooth metal wrist and ankle cuffs, were spaced at regular intervals, and musty piles of canal rushes showed where some forgotten prisoner had dragged out his melancholy last days. Sime was glad they had not chained him down. Probably didn't consider it necessary unless there were many prisoners, who might rush the guards.
"Ho, there, sojer!"
The voice was startling, so hearty and natural in this sad place. Sime saw something coming out of a far corner. It was a man in the blouse and trousers of civilian wear; a bald and good-natured man, with a shocking growth of beard.
"Murray's the name," said this apparition with mock ceremony. "And you?"
"I'm Hemingway, Sime Hemingway. Sergeant Sime Hemingway, to be exact. Suppose you'd like to hear my orders?"
"I don't get you," said Murray, shaking hands.
"I mean," Sime explained elaborately, "that I'd like to know if you're Scar Balta, or really Murray, as you say you are."
The other laughed.
"I'm Murray, all right. Feel this scalp. Natural, ain't it? That's one thing Balta won't do--shave off his hair. Too vain. He'd hate to have the Princess Sira see him that way. Ever hear of her? Say, she's a raving beauty. This Balta'd like to be elected planetary president, see--to succeed Wilcox, who has bigger plans. There's always been a strong sentiment for the old monarchy, anyway. The oligarchy never did go big. Follow me?"
"Yeh; go on."
"Well, this Princess Sira has ideas. She wouldn't mind sitting on the throne again. Her great-great-grandpa was jobbed and murdered, and the nobles who did it formed a closed corporation and called it a republican government. So Sira started holding audiences, and gained a lot of power. Among the people--even among some of the nobles.
"Get the idea? Scar Balta is one of the electors. If he married Sira he'd have the backing of the monarchists, and of course he's done a lot for the bosses. They'd elect him to head off the monarchists, anyway. Then heigh-ho for a war with the Earth, to kill off a lot of the kickers--and soft pickins in a lot of ways. Neat, huh?"
"Very neat!" Sime assented drily. "But we won't live to see it. Anyway, I won't. They're going to bump me off in the morning."
"As they have a lot of our men," Murray agreed. "But they won't do it in the morning. Or for several days. Look here!"
He held up his hand. On the back of it was what appeared to be a boil.
"But it isn't a boil," Murray explained. "That was done by a stream of water, fine as a needle, under a thousand pounds pressure. They held it there for a minute at a time--I don't know how many times, because I keeled over. Any time I was willing to give them the information they wanted they'd turn it off. Wasn't important info, either. But what is it to them, how much they make me suffer for a trifle?"
Sime couldn't help the lump that rose in his throat. Men like Murray certainly justified the world's faith in the service.
"Listen, old man," Sime said in a low voice, "out in the corridor--"
But Murray squeezed his hand warningly, pulled him to the floor.
"Might as well get some sleep," the old man said in ordinary tones. "Plenty cool here. Let's lie together."
He kept his hold on Sime's wrist, and, by alternately squeezing and releasing, began to talk in a silent telegraphic code.
"Don't say anything of importance," he spelled out. "They have mikes in here to pick up all we say. Probably infra-red telenses too, so they can see what we do."
So Sime told him, as they huddled together in simulated sleep, about the walled passages, and they speculated on the possibility of felling the guards and breaking their way to freedom through some underground cavern. But at last they slept soundly to await the tortures of the next morning.