The man's white teeth flashed brilliantly when he spoke.
"Feeling better? Man, you can feel good to be here at all! Time and again have I seen Scar Balta drop 'em into that lake, but you're the first one ever to break the surface again. He gave you a break, though. First time he ever gave anybody as much as a pocket handkerchief to ease his fall. That lake is useful to Scar. It keeps the bodies he gives it, and none ever turn up for evidence."
Murray was still struggling with nausea. "Want to thank you," he managed. "I got it bad enough. Ow! I feel sick!"
The Martian bestirred himself. He scraped up the ancient shingle, making a little pillow of sand for Murray's head. The Sun was already nearing the western horizon, and its heat was no longer excessive. Murray watched through half-closed lids as the big man descended a short distance, returning with an armful of short, greasy shrubs. He broke the shrub into bits, made a neat stack; stacked a larger ring of fuel around this, until he had a flat conical pile about eight inches high and two feet in diameter.
From a pocket safe he procured a tiny fire pellet. This he moistened with saliva and quickly dropped into the center of his fuel stack. The pellet began to glow fiercely, throwing off an intense heat. In a few seconds the fuel caught, burning briskly and without smoke.
"Wouldn't dare do this in the open," the Martian explained, "if this stuff gave off any smoke at all. The pulpwood mounds down in the flats make a nice fire, but they smoke and leave black ashes, easy to see from the sky. Now you just rest easy. You'll feel better soon as you get some skitties under your belt."
The skitties proved to be a species of quasi-shellfish, possessing hemispherical houses. In lieu of the other half of their shell they attached themselves to sedimentary rocks. They were the only form of life that had been able to adapt themselves to the chemicalization of the ancient sea-remnant. The Martian had left them thin flakes of rock. Now he placed the shells in the red-hot coals, and in a very short time the skitties were turning out, crisp and appetizing. Following his host's example, Murray speared one with the point of his stiletto, blew on it to cool it. It proved to be delicious, although just a trifle salty.
"Drink plenty water with it," the Martian advised him. "Plenty more about five hundred feet down. Artesian spring there. Fact is, that's all that keeps that lake from drying up. You ought to see the mist rise at night."
Murray ate four of the skitties. Then, because the sun was getting ready to plop down, they carefully extinguished the fire, scattering the ashes. The I. F. P. agent felt greatly strengthened by his meal and assisted his host with the evening chores. Nightfall found them in their darkened cave, ready for an evening's yarning.
"I took the liberty of examining your effects," the Martian began. "Sort of introduced you to myself. The fact that you wore the Martian army uniform was no fine recommendation to me, though I once wore it myself. Your weapons I hid, except for the knife you needed to eat. But you'll find them in that little hollow right over your head. The fact that you're an enemy of Scar Balta is enough for the present. That alone is repayment for the labor of carrying you up all this way."
Murray then told him of work on Mars. There was no use concealing anything from one who was obviously a fellow fugitive, and who might be persuaded to do away with his guest, should he have strong enough suspicions. He told of the war cabal, of the financial-political oligarchy and its opposing monarchists. He related his own discovery and arrest; the pretended enlistment in Scar Balta's forces which terminated in Scar's prompt and ruthless action. When he finished he sensed that he had made a deep impression on his host. The latter spoke.
"What you have told me, Murray, relieves me very much," he said. "I know that we can work together. You might as well know how I came to be here. Perhaps I look forty or fifty years old. Well, I'm thirty. I was news director for the televisor corporations. I didn't have to be very smart to realize that a lot of the stuff we were ordered to send out was propaganda, pure and simple. Propaganda for the war interests, propaganda for the financiers. Commercial propaganda too.
"Why, the stuff we put out was a crime! The service to the teletabloids was the worst. You know how they outstrip the news; hired actors take the part of personages in the news. Ever watch 'em? The way they enact a murder is good, isn't it?"
"We got orders to bear down on your service too, the I. F. P. Your crew has too many points of contact, hiking from planet to planet. The high command couldn't see things the bankers liked, I guess.
"So whenever a man of the I. F. P. figured in the news we always gave him the worst of it. We hired bums to play his part, criminals, vicious degenerates. People believe what they see--that's the idea. I had seen very few of your men but I knew we were giving them a dirty deal. Orders were orders, though. We got lots of orders we didn't understand. Then secret deals were made, and those orders countermanded.
"But the order against the I. F. P. remained standing, and we certainly did effective work against 'em. The people had no way of knowing the difference, either, for the company controls all means of communication, and the I. F. P. does most of its work in out of the way places. Why just to show you how effective our work was--the people, in a special plebiscite, voted to withdraw their support from the Plutonian campaign! But that was going too far; the financiers quietly reversed that.
"At the same time, we got orders to glorify Wilcox, the planetary president. It was Wilcox signing a bill to feed the hungry--after their property had been stripped by the taxes. It was Wilcox the benevolent; Wilcox the superman. Wilcox, in carefully rehearsed dramatic situations, reproduced on the stereo-screens in every home. You know who put over the slogan, 'Wilcox, the Solar Savior?' We did it. It was easy!" He laughed shortly.
"The only time we failed was, when they wanted to end, once and for all, the prestige of the royal house. That was after they had bought the assassination of the claimant, his wife and their son. Didn't dare take Princess Sira too, because she has always been a popular darling. It would have been too raw, wiping out the whole family. They left one claimant, see? And then put it up to us to discredit her!
"Man! That fell down! The first attempt was very smooth, at that. But it brought in such a storm of condemnation they had to drop that.
"You can guess how we boys at the central office felt about it. No wonder we got cynical and lost all self-respect. We couldn't have stood it at all, but sometimes we'd put on a special party, just to let off steam. Did we rip 'em up high and handsome? The more outrageous the flattery we sent out, disguised as news, the more baldly truthful we were in those early morning rehearsals, with the mikes and telegs dead. Wilcox was our special meat.
"Of course, it was foolhardy. One night a mixer in the room below us got his numbers mixed, killing a banquet program on a trunk channel and sending our outrageous burlesque out instead. When the poor fellow discovered his mistake he made for the bottom of the canal. As for me, I made for the desert. I never heard what became of the others, and that was six years ago. I wonder if I've changed much."
"What's your name?" Murray asked suddenly.
"Tuman. Nay Tuman."
"The others must have been caught. As for yourself, orders have been sent all over the solar system to kill you on sight. They hung the killing of that electrician on you."
"That's their way!" Nay Tuman absented gloomily. "A price on my head. They thought I'd stow away on some rocket liner, I suppose."
"Weren't you afraid some desert rat would give you away?"
"No danger. They're just about all fugitives themselves. They hid me till I grew this foliage. They showed me how to find food and water where seemingly there was none. The desert isn't sterile. Why, I know of three or four men within fifty miles of here! Sometimes they stop at my spring for water. As for the harness frames at the fort, those sojers might as well be blind, considering all they miss."
"You asked a while ago if you've changed much. You have. I remember your picture. All of us studied it, because there's a 100,000 I. P. dollar reward out. You were a slim lad then, not the fuzzy bear you are now. How would you like to go in to Tarog with me? They seem to have us licked now--but did you ever hear that the I. F. P. is most dangerous when it's been thoroughly licked?"
"I don't know--I'm used to the solitude," Tuman demurred. "In the city I'd be lost."
But Murray won him over. He had a persuasive way with him.
The next morning they started, guiding their course by the Sun. They made no attempt to travel fast, but the going was easy. Although they rested during the heat of the day, and buried themselves for the nights in the sun-warmed sand, they made about fifteen miles a day. They saw no other human being. These desert dwellers did not meet for mere sociability.
They left the mountains on the second day, descending to the lower level of a broad, sterile plain which was studded by the low, greenish pulp-mounds, that resembled mossy rocks more than vegetation. After two days more they came to a region where huge blocks of stone, of the prevailing orange or brick color, lay scattered around on the plain.
"They look good to me," Tuman said. "If some patrol comes along now we'll have plenty of cover, at least. This belt is a hundred miles wide, maybe a little more. Good hunting there. Plenty of desert hogs, as fat and as round as a ball of bovine butter. I can knock 'em over with a rock, and you can use your neuro, in a pinch."
They did, in fact, succeed in capturing one of the little creatures soon afterward, and, dropping a moistened fire pellet on top of a pulp-mound, soon were roasting their meat.
Not once, however, did either one relax his vigilance. Almost simultaneously they discovered the little black dot that seemed to pop out of the irregular southern horizon. They leaped to their feet, kicked out the fire. They would have covered the ashes with sand but for hundreds of feet in either direction there was nothing but bare rock.
"Never mind!" Murray said. "Let's make for cover. They may think it's an old fireplace. With rains only about once in three years that spot will look like that indefinitely."
"Yes," Tuman agreed, running along, "if they didn't see the smoke!"
As the craft neared they could make out the orange and green of the Martian army.
"From the fort," Murray guessed. "Scar Balta must have had his doubts about me. He ordered them out to finish the job, if necessary."
"It's drifting," Tuman observed. "The driving tail seems to be missing."
"Well, anyway, it's coming down, and where an army ship comes down is no place for us."
They heard the scrape of her keel as she settled down. Murray gave a gasp of surprise.
"Tuman," he muttered, "that fellow wearing the Martian uniform is an I. F. P. agent named Hemingway. The uniform doesn't fit and I bet the man he took it from is no longer alive. Do you know the giant with him?"
"Under that dirt and blood, I'd say he's Tolto, Princess Sira's special pet. No other man of Mars could be that big! Seven or eight years ago--she was just a kid, you know--she picked him up in some rural province. Kids just naturally do run to pets, don't they? And the princess was no exception. But he looks like nobody's pet now. I'd rather have him peg me with his neuro, though, than to take me in his hands!"
They watched as Sime and Tolto slowly walked about in widening circles, and when they were sufficiently far away Murray and Tuman closed in. They had no expectation of finding the ship unlocked, and wasted no time trying to get it. Instead they climbed a flat-topped block of stone about ten feet high. From this position they could command, with Murray's neuro, anyone who might seek to enter the ship.
"These fellows are our best hope," Murray told Tuman. "But we have to convince 'em that we're friends first. Otherwise we're liable to be cold meat, and cold meat can't convince anybody. Keep your head down."
The necessity of lying flat, in order to keep from silhouetting themselves against the sky, deprived them of the opportunity to see. Nevertheless, they could tell, by the sound of their voices, when Sime and Tolto returned. When it seemed that they were directly beneath, Murray risked a look. There they were.
Murray carefully set the little focalizer wheel for maximum diffusion. He felt sure that it would not be fatal, considering the distance and the physical vigor of the men he meant to hold. He pressed the trigger.
"Get down quick!" he snapped. "I'll let up for a second; you grab their neuros."
Tuman executed the order with dispatch. Stepping back, he trained the pistols on their late owners, while Sime and Tolto, a little dazed, stumbled to their feet. A man may argue, or take chances, when menaced by a needle-ray, but mere bravery does not count with the neuros. All men's nervous systems are similar, and when nerves are stricken, courage is of no avail.
Plot and Counter-Plot As these four men faced one another in the slanting rays of the setting Sun far out on the desert, the planetary president, Wilcox, sat in his office in the executive palace in South Tarog, situated, as were so many of the public buildings, on the banks of the canal.
Wilcox was in his sixties. A gray man, pedantic in his speech, his features were strong: his nose, short and straight, somehow, expressed his intense intolerance of opposition. His long, straight lower jaw protruded slightly, symbolizing his tenacity, his lust for power. His eyes, large, gray, intolerant, looked before him coldly. Wilcox was the result of the union of two root-stocks of the human race, of a terrestrial father, a Martian mother. He had inherited the intelligence of both--the conscience of neither.
Now he sat in a straight, severe chair, before a severe, heavy table. Even the room seemed to frown. Wilcox's face was free of wrinkles, yet it frowned too. He seemed not to see the flaming path the setting Sun drew across the broad expanse of the canal, for he was thinking of bigger things. Wilcox was a little mad, but he was a madman of imagination and resource, and he was not the first one to control the destinies of a world.
"Waffins!" His voice rang out sharp and querulous. A servant, resplendent in the palace livery of green and orange, was instantly before him bowing low.
"Who awaits our pleasure?"
"Scar Balta, sire," answered Waffins, bowing low again.
"We will see him."
Waffins disappeared. Scar Balta came in alone, sleek as usual showing no trace of his irritation over his long wait. He did not even glance at the somber hangings that concealed a number of recesses in the wall. Scar knew that guards stood back of those hangings, armed with neuro-pistols or needle-rays as a precaution against the ever-present menace of assassination. And of the loopholes back of these recesses, with still other armed men, as a constant warning to any of the inner guards whose thoughts might turn to treachery.
Scar Balta bowed respectfully.
"Your Excellency desired to see me?"
"I wished to see you, or I should not have had you called," Wilcox replied irritably. "I wish to have an explicit understanding with you as to our proceeding next week at our conference with the financial delegates. Sit here, close to me. It is not necessary for us to shout our business to the world."
Balta took the chair beside Wilcox, and they conversed in low tones.
"First of all," Wilcox wanted to know, "how is your affair with the Princess Sira progressing?"
"Your Excellency knows." Balta began cautiously, "that the news agencies have been sending out pictorial forecasts--"
"Save your equivocation for others!" Wilcox interrupted sharply. "I am aware of the propaganda work. It was by my order that the facilities were extended to you. I am also aware that the princess escaped from Joro's palace. An amazing piece of bungling! Did she really escape or is Joro forwarding some plot of his own?"
"He seems genuinely disturbed. He has spent a fortune having the canal searched by divers, flying ships and surface craft. If Sira fails to marry me Joro's life ambition will fail, for the hopes of the monarchists will then be forever lost."
"True; but his Joro some larger plan? His is a mind I do not understand, and therefore I must always fear. A man with no ambition for himself, but only for an abstract. It is impossible!"
"Not impossible!" Balta insisted. "Joro is a strange man. He believes that the monarchy would improve conditions for the people. And, Your Excellency, wouldn't I be a good king?"
Wilcox looked at him morosely. His low voice carried a chill.
"Do not anticipate events, my friend! There are certain arrangements to be made with the bankers regarding the election of a solar governor!" His large gray eyes burned. "Solar governor! Never in history has there been a governor of the entire solar system. Destiny shapes all things to her end, and then produces a man to fill her needs!"
"And that man sits here beside me, Balta added adroitly. Wilcox did not sense the irony of the quick take-up. He had been about to complete the sentence himself. But his mind was practical.
"The bankers must be satisfied. The terrestrial war must be assured before they will lend their support."
"It is practically assured now," Balta insisted. "Our propaganda bureau has been at work incessantly, and public feeling is being worked up to a satisfactory pitch. Only last night two terrestrial commercial travelers were torn to pieces by a mob on suspicion that they were spies."
"Good!" Wilcox approved. "Let there be no interruption in the work. Our terrestrial agents report excellent results on Earth. They succeeded in poisoning the water supply of the city of Philadelphia. Thousands killed, and the blame placed on Martian spies. Our agents found it necessary to inspire a peace bloc in the pan-terrestrial senate in order to keep them from declaring war forthwith. But these things are of no concern to you. Have you made the necessary arrangements with the key men of the army?"
"I have, Your Excellency. They are chafing for action. The overt act will be committed at the appointed time, and the terrestrial liner will be disintegrated without trace."
"And have you made arrangements for the disposal of the ship's records?"
"Our own ship? I thought it best to have a time bomb concealed aboard. That way not only the records will be destroyed but there will be no men left to talk when the post-war investigating commission comes around."
"Well managed!" Wilcox approved shortly. "See that there is no failure!" He dismissed the young man by withdrawing to his inner self, where he rioted among stupendous thoughts.
Scar Balta emerged into the streets, brightly illuminated with the coming of night, and his thoughts were far from easy. The absence of the princess was a serious handicap--might very easily be disastrous. With her consent and help it would have been so simple! The people, entirely unrealizing that their emotions were being directed into just the channels desired, could most easily be reached through the princess.
First the war, of course, and then, when the threatened business uprising against financial control had been crushed, a planet-wide sentimental spree over the revival of the monarchy and the marriage of the beautiful and popular princess. As prince consort, Scar would then find it a simple matter to maneuver himself into position as authentic king.
But without the princess! Ah, that was something else again! For the first time in his devious and successful career, Scar Balta felt distinctly unhappy. He had schemed, suffered and murdered to put himself in reach of this glittering opportunity, and he would inevitably lose it unless he could find Sira.
In the midst of his unhappy reflections he thought of Mellie.
Sira knew well that Wasil adored her. He had for her the same dog-like devotion that Mellie had. She knew she could ask for his life and he would give it. And what she had planned for him was almost equivalent to asking for his life.
She told him as much, sitting beside him on a bench in the garden. His smooth coral face was alight, his large eyes inspired.
"I will do just as you have commanded me!" he declared solemnly, and would have kissed her hand.
"You must not only do it; you must keep every detail to yourself. You must not even tell Mellie. Do you promise?"