She kissed him on the forehead. "Farewell, Wasil. I have been here two days already--far longer than prudence allows. They will be here looking for me. Have you any money?"
Wasil produced a roll of I. P. scrip; handed it to her.
"Kiss Mellie for me," she called, as she slipped out of the garden. She was still dressed in the coarse laborer's attire that she had bought on the trading boat, and mingled readily with the crowds in the streets. She hoped she would not meet Mellie, for the girl's devotion might outweigh her judgment.
The rest of that day Sira prowled about the city. Mingling with the common people, she came to have a new insight in their struggles, their sorrows. Passing the walls of her own palace, now locked and sealed, she felt, strangely, resentment that there should be such piled-up wealth while people all around lacked almost the necessities of life.
She surprised herself, also, by a changing attitude toward the life ambition of Prince Joro. The old man's discussions of social conditions that could be corrected by a benevolent monarch had always before seemed to her merely academic and without great interest. Such co-operation as she had given him was motivated entirely by personal ambition. Now she recalled some of Joro's theories, reviewed them in her mind, half consenting.
Always she would strike a barrier when she came to Scar Balta. The more she thought of him the more he repelled her. She puzzled over that. Scar was quite personable.
Tarog, every industrial city along the equatorial belt, and even the remotest provinces, were seething with war talk. The teletabloids at the street corners always had intent audiences. Sira watched one of them. Disease germs had been found in a shipment of fruit juices from the Earth. The teletabloids showed, in detail, diabolical looking terrestrials in laboratory aprons infecting the juices. Then came shocking clinical views of the diseases produced. Men, on turning away, growled deep in their throats and women chattered shrilly. The parks were milling with crowds who came to hear the patriotic speakers.
There was hardly anyone at the stereo-screens, where the news of real importance was given.
"President Wilcox announced to-day that an interplanetary conference of financiers will be held in his office three days from to-day, beginning at the third hour after sunrise. President Wilcox, whose efforts have been unremitting to prevent the war which daily seems more inevitable, declared that the situation may yet be saved unless some overt act occurs." At the same time the device showed a three-dimensional picture of the planetary president, impressive, dominating, stern with a sternness that could mean almost anything.
Sira, hurrying home to an inexpensive lodging house, thought: "Three days from to-day! I have done what I could. The hopes of the solar system now rest with Wasil. I am only a helpless spectator."
Tarog awaited the conference on the morrow bedecked like a bride. The Martian flag, orange and green, fluttered everywhere. On both sides of the canal the brilliantly lighted thoroughfares were restless with pedestrians, and the air was swarming with taxicabs. Excitement was universal, and business was good.
The glare of the twin cities could be seen far out in the cold desert. Four men, stumbling along wearily, occasionally estimated the distance with wearied eyes and plodded onward.
After a long silence Murray remarked: "It's just as well that the levitators gave out when they did. We were drifting mighty slow--making practically no time at all. Probably we'd have been spotted if we'd gone much further."
"Yeh?" Sime Hemingway conceded doubtfully. "But they may spot us anyway. We have no passes, and none of us looks very pretty. As for Tolto, we could hide a house as easy as him."
"But we must go on," said Tuman, the Martian. "Yonder lights seem too bright, too numerous for an ordinary day. There's some kind of celebration."
They trudged on for several hours more. Although weariness made their feet leaden and pressed on their eyelids, they dared not halt. Each one nursed some secret dread. Tolto thought of his princess, his child goddess, and mentally fought battle with whomever stood between him and her. Sime and Murray saw in those lights only war, swift and horrible. Tuman imagined a city full of enemies, ruthless and powerful.
Gradually, as they came closer, the lights began to go out one by one. The city was going to bed.
An hour later they came to an illuminated post marking the end of a street. A teletabloid was affixed to this post, buzzing, but its stereo-screen blank. Murray found a coin, inserted it in the slot.
"Marriage of the Princess Sira and Scar Balta will be held immediately after the financial congress," the machine intoned briskly, and in time with its running comments it began to display pictures.
Sime, watching indifferently, caught his breath. It seemed to him that he knew this girl, who appeared to be walking toward him up a stately garden alley. She came steadily forward with a queenly, effortless stride. And now it seemed as if she had seen him, for she turned and looked straight into his eyes. It seemed that her expression changed from laughing to pleading. And he recognized the girl with the stiletto whom he had caught in his hotel room.
He said nothing, however. He could hardly explain the feeling of sadness that came over him. He stood silent, while the others commented excitedly over the overshadowing war news.
"It's all in the box," Tuman said gloomily. "Many times I've helped cook up something like this. The boys in the central offices are laughing, or swearing, as the cast may be. The poor devils don't own their own souls, if they're equipped with any. I'd rather be here, expecting to be thrown into a cell by daylight!" He shivered in the night chill.
They ran into a little luck when they needed it most. A roving taxi swooped down upon them, hailed them for fares. They flew the rest of the way in. Their luck held. A city policeman, noting their stumbling walk as they lurched into a cheap hotel, did not trouble them for their passes. He had seen many such men that night, soldier and civilian, with clothes bloody and torn. The excitement of the day, coupled with the fact that nearly everyone carried arms, had led to numerous fights, not a few of which ended fatally.
"Merclite!" grinned the policeman, suppressing a hiccup of his own. "And besides, that big 'un would make two of me."
One Thousand to One The scheme that Sira had imparted to Wasil was simple--simple and direct. Moreover, it was sure, provided it succeeded. Its execution was something else again. Its chances were, mathematically expressed, about as follows: If every single detail worked as expected, a great and smashing success. Ratio: 1:1,000.
If one single detail failed, immediate and certain death for Wasil. Ratio: 1,000:1.
The princess knew that the power of Wilcox, his supporting oligarchy and the interplanetary bankers, was all based on the skilful use of propaganda. If the people of Mars and of Earth knew the forces that were influencing them, their revulsion would be swift and terrible. There would be no war. There would be events painful and disastrous to their present rulers, but a great betterment of humanity's condition.
The key to the situation was the news monopoly, the complete control of all broadcasting--of the stereo-screens, the teletabloids--that colored all events to suit the ends of the ruling group. The people of Mars as well as of Earth were capable of intelligent decision, of straight thinking, but they rarely had an opportunity to learn the truth.
They had now, by a knowing play on their emotions, directed by psychologists, been wrought to a point of frenzy where they demanded war. Their motives were of the highest in many individuals--pure patriotism, the desire to make the solar system safe for civilization. The bright, flaming spirit of self-sacrifice burned clear above the haze and smoke of passion.
What would happen if all these eager millions of two neighboring planets were to learn the true state of affairs? Sira knew what transpired in those secret conventions, when double guards stood at all doors and at the infrequent windows; when all communication was cut off and the twin lenses of the telestereos and the microphones were dead. Prince Joro had told her, with weary cynicism. But Joro had also told her that the oligarchs guarded this vital and vulnerable point with painstaking care.
Sira had reached inside their first defense, however. Wasil was loyal to his salt, but he had both loyalty and affection for Princess Sira. As the day of the interplanetary financial conference leaped into being, he was on his way to the executive hall that lay resplendently on the south canal bank, ready to lay down his life.
The hall proper was really only the west wing of the magnificent, high-arched building. Its brilliant, polished metal facade reflected the light of the rising Sun redly. The east wing, besides housing various minor executive offices, also contained the complicated apparatus for handling the propaganda broadcastings. On the roof, towering high into the air, was a huge, globular structure, divided into numerous zones, from which were sent various wave bands to the news screens both on Mars and on Earth. The planetary rulers had taken no chances of tampering with their propaganda. The central offices, where news and propaganda were dramatized, were in another building, but as everything from that source had to pass the reviewing officer, a trusted member of the oligarchy himself, in his locked and guarded office, this did not introduce any danger of the wrong information going out to the public.
When Wasil reached the broadcasting plant, he was admitted by four armed guards. He locked the door behind him, to find his associates already busy, testing circuits and apparatus. Stimson, the chief engineer, was sitting at his desk studying orders.
A few minutes later he called the men to him. There were three others besides Wasil: young Martians, keen, efficient, and, like most technies, loyal to the government that employed them.
"Sure are careful to-day," Stimson grunted, scratching his snow-white hair, which was stiffly upstanding and showed a coral tinge from his scalp. "Must be mighty important to get this out right. Wilcox personally wrote the order. If any man fumbles to-day, it's the polar penal colony for him!" The Sun-loving old Martian shivered.
"And here's another bright idea. Only one man's to be allowed in the plant after the circuits are all tested! How'n the name of Pluto will he handle things if a fuse blows? But what do they care about that! We're technies! We're supposed to know everything, and never have anything go wrong!"
"But why only one man?" cried Scarba, one of the associate engineers. "It's asking too much! I'll not take it on, far as I'm concerned. My resignation will be ready soon's I can get a blank!"
"I too! I'm with you, Scarba!" "We work like dogs to get everything in first-line condition, and then--" The hard-working and uncomplaining technies were outspoken in their resentment.
"Oh, I see your point," Stimson agreed. "I could stand Balta, but Wilcox is just one too many for me. But do you boys think for one minute we could get away with a strike?" He laughed angrily. "I can remember when the technies were able to demand their guild rights. But you boys weren't even born then. Now, let's get this straight: "We are going to do just as we are told. Wilcox, of course, never explains an order, but the reason for having only one operator on the job is simply to concentrate responsibility on that one man. There will be no excuse if he fails. Before the convention starts, and after it is over, there will be a message to send out. The convention itself will be secret, as usual. During the convention, there will be some kind of filler stuff from the central office."
"Yeh!" snorted one of the men. "That's the dope, all right. One of us is stuck, but if it's me I'll walk out and head for the desert."
Stimson looked at him with a sardonic smile. "I forgot to mention: the doors will be locked and barred, and of course there's no such thing as windows."
Wasil whistled. "They're sure careful. Well, Stimson. I haven't a thing to do all day. I'll take it on."
They all looked at him, not sure that they had heard him right.
"What's the matter, sonny?" Stimson said slowly. "Too much Merclite last night? You're shaking!"
"It's an opening!" Wasil insisted.
"An opening to tramp ice at the pole for the rest of your life!"
"All right. I'll chance it!"
They consented, without very much argument, to let Wasil have the dangerous responsibility. At 2:30, two and a half hours after sunrise by the Martian reckoning, he signed a release acknowledging all circuits to be in proper order, and was locked behind the heavy doors, alone with a maze of complicated apparatus and cables that filled the large room from floor to ceiling.
Now it was done! Chance had thrown Wasil into a position where he could, without great danger of failure, carry out his plan. But at the same time things had so fallen that he, Wasil, must now die, regardless of the outcome!
If he succeeded in broadcasting the proceedings of the convention, and if they had the effect of arousing the public against Wilcox, there would still be no escape for Wasil. Wilcox, or Scar Balta, would come straight for this prison, neuro-pistol or needle-ray in hand!
Even if he should fail, death would be his portion for the attempt.
So thinking, Wasil sat down and carefully re-checked the circuits. The filler broadcast from central office must be sent to the twin cities of Tarog. Otherwise the convention would learn too soon what was happening, and would interrupt its business. The thousands who waited outside on the broad terraces must be regaled with entertainment, as had been originally planned.
But as for the rest of Mars, and Earth, they would get the truth for once. Those bankers would speak frankly, in the snug isolation of the hall. No supervision here. Conventions, empty politeness, would be forgotten. Sharp tirades, biting facts, threats, veiled and open, would pass across the table between these masters of money and men.
But this time they would be pitilessly bared to the worlds!
Feverishly, Wasil inspected the repeater. It was a little-used device that would, an hour or two later, as desired, give out the words and pictures fed into it. Although Tarog would not learn the convention's secrets as quickly as the rest of Mars, or Earth, Tarog would learn. Wasil threw over the links and clamped down the bolts with a grunt of satisfaction. When a man is about to die, he wants to do his last job well.
Suddenly a red light glowed, and a voice spoke.
"Special broadcast. Tarog circuit only!"
"Mornin', Lennings," Wasil remarked to the face in the screen. "All set? Go ahead."
The central office man held up a thick bundle of I. P. scrip, smiled pleasantly, saying: "Somebody in North or South Tarog, or in the surrounding territory, is going to be 100,000 I. P. dollars richer by to-morrow. How would you like to have 100,000 dollars? You all would like this reward. It represents the price of a snug little space cruiser for your family; a new home on the canal; maybe an island of your own. It would take you on a trip to the baths of Venus and leave you some money over. Of course you all want this reward!
"Now, if you'll excuse me a moment--"
The man's picture faded, and the screen glowed with the life and beauty of Princess Sira--Sira, smiling and alluring.
"You all know this young lady," the announcer's voice went on. "The beloved and lovable Sweetheart of Mars, the bride of Scar Balta--"
The Martian's sleek and well-groomed head appeared beside that of the girl.
"--Scar Balta, whose services to Mars have been great beyond his years; who, in the threatening war with Earth, would be one of our greatest bulwarks of security."
The announcer's face appeared again, stern and sorrowful.
"A great disaster has befallen these lovers--and all the world loves a lover, you know. Some thugs, believed by the police to be terrestrial spies, have kidnapped the princess from the palace of her uncle, Prince Joro of Hanlon. It is believed that they had drugged her and hypnotized her, so that she has forgotten her duty to her lover and her country."
The green light flashed, and Wasil broke the circuit. The central man lingered a moment, favoring Wasil with a long wink.
"What a liar you're getting to be!" Wasil remarked coldly. But the central man, not offended, laughed.
So they were offering a reward! And urging further treachery as an act of patriotism! Wasil was not too much excited, however. The disguise the princess had chosen would probably serve her well. Besides, she had promised to keep in retirement as much as possible.
Clack! Clack! The electrically controlled lock of the door was opening. Only Wilcox knew the wave combination. Wasil felt a chill of apprehension as the door opened and Scar Balta strode in. He was fully armed, dressed in the military uniform; but the former colonel was now wearing on his shoulder straps the concentric rings denoting a general's rank.
Giant Against Giant Although Princess Sira had promised to keep out of the way, she could not resist the powerful attraction of the executive hall, in which, on this day, the fate of two planets was to be decided. As the crowds of people began to drift toward the hall, she joined them, still dressed in her laboring man's shapeless garments, the broad sun-helmet hiding her face effectively. Her long, black hair was concealed under the clothing. Having nearly been drawn into a brawl the day before, she now carried a stained but still very serviceable short sword that she had purloined from a merclite-drunken reveler in a gutter.
Thousands were already on the terraces surrounding the government buildings. They were milling about, for it was still too soon after the night's chill to sit down or lie on the rubbery red sward. Taxis were bringing swarms over the canal from North Tarog, and water vehicles were crossing over in almost unbroken lines.
Already the merclite vendors were busy, making their surreptitious way from group to group, selling the highly intoxicating and legally proscribed gum that would lift the users from the sordid, miserable plane of their daily existence to exalted, reckless heights.
War vessels now began to course overhead, their solid, heavily plated hulls glinting dully in the sun. Their levitator helices moaned dismally, and as their long, slanting shadows slid over the assembled thousands, it seemed that they cast a prophetic pall; that there was a hush of foreboding.
But the psychological expert high in a nearby tower immediately noted the slump in the psycho-radiation meter whose trumpet-shaped antenna pointed downward. At the turn of the dial the air was filled with throbbing martial music, and the expert noted with contemptuous satisfaction that the needle now stood even higher than before.
Sira, caught like all the rest of the people in that stirring flood of music, felt her own pulse leap. But she thought: "This is the day! Wasil, could I only be with you!"
She thought sadly of Joro, whose shrewd observations and counsel she missed more than she had ever thought possible.
"Poor, dear Joro! You would be a better king than any man you could ever find! I wish I could have done as you wished me to."
There was a stir near the main entrance of the hall. A large private yacht was slowly descending. She was bedecked with the green and gold bunting of the terrestrial government, the green and orange of Mars. Her hull glittered goldenly.
"Back!" shouted the captain of a Martian guard detail, the soldiers running with pennant-decked ropes looping after them. The crowd surged against the barrier, but more guards were sent out as reinforcements, until they had cleared a space for the ship and a lane to the hall entrance.
"Mars greets the distinguished guests from our sister planet!" boomed the giant loudspeaker in the tower. Immediately afterward came the strains of the song--"Terrestria--Fair Green Terrestria"--in a rushing torrent of sound. But the frank and fluent melody was strangely distorted, with unpleasant minor turns and harsh whisperings of menace, and the tower psychologist noted a further rise of the needle.
There was a diversion of interest now. The mob of first arrivals, as well as the ever-freshening stream of newcomers, was moving toward the teletabloids and the more conservative stereo-screens. On this occasion they were both carrying the same message, however. Sira heard the propaganda division's latest fabrication about her alleged kidnaping by terrestrial agents. She needed no radiation meter to tell her of the intense wave of hatred for the Earth that swept over the densely packed area. And this was followed by another emotion--a wave of cupidity--set up by the offer of 100,000 I. P. dollars reward for her return. She saw about her faces greedy, faces wistful, even compassionate faces. But outnumbering them by far were faces set in truculent mold.