By Harl Vincent Savagely cursing, Luke Fenton reeled backward from the porthole, his great hairy paws clapped over his eyes. No one had warned him, and he did not know that total blindness might result from gazing too earnestly into the sun's unscreened flaming orb, especially with that body not more than twenty million miles distant in space.
He did not know, in fact, that the ethership was that close: Luke had not the faintest notion of the vast distances of the universe or of the absence of air in space which permitted the full intensity of the dazzling rays to strike into his optics unfiltered save by the thick but clear glass which covered the port. He knew only that the sun, evidently very near, was many times its usual size and of infinitely greater brilliance. And he was painfully aware of the fact that the fantastically enlarged and blazing body had seared his eyeballs and caused the floating black spots which now completely obscured his vision.
Stumbling in his blindness, he fell across the hard cot that was the sole article of furniture in the cell he had occupied for more than two weeks. Lying there half dazed and with splitting head, he cursed the guard who had opened the inner cover of the port; cursed anew the fish-eyed Martian judge who had sentenced him to a term in Vulcan's Workshop.
Several of Luke's thirty-eight years had been spent in jails and sundry other penal institutions devised by Earthman and Martian for the punishment of offenders against the laws of organized society. And yet they had failed to break his defiant spirit or to convince him of the infallibility of his creed that might makes right. Nor had they taken from him the gorillalike strength that was in his broad squat body, the magnificent brute lustihood that made him a terror to police and citizen alike. Instead, the many periods of incarceration had only served to increase his hatred of mankind and his contempt of the forces of law and order. Especially was he contemptuous of the book-learning that gave the authorities their power.
As the pain back of his eyes abated, Luke could see dimly the shaft of light that slanted down from the porthole to the bare steel floor. His sight was returning, yet he lay there still, growling in his throat, his mind occupied with thoughts of his checkered past.
Steel-worker, mechanic, roustabout, he had worked in most of the populous cities of Earth and had managed to get into serious trouble wherever he went. It was his boast that he had never killed a man except in fair fight. And yet, at thirty, finding himself wanted by the police of a half dozen cities of Earth, he had signed up in the black gang of a tramp ethership bound for Mars, knowing he would never return and caring not at all.
At first, he had been riotously happy in the changed life on the new world. There had been plenty of soul-satisfying brawls and plenty of chulco, the fiery Martian distillate. On his many and frequent jobs there were excellent opportunities to rebel against authority, and he had fomented numerous mutinies in which he was always victorious but which usually landed him in one of the malodorous Martian jails for a more or less extended stay.
Then had come that final fracas in the Copau foundry on the bank of Canal Pyramus. Overly optimistic, Luke's new boss had struck out at the chunky, red-headed Earthman during an inconsequential argument and had promptly measured his length in a sand pile as a hamlike fist crashed home in return. They had picked up the foreman and taken him to the infirmary where it was found that his skull was fractured and that he had little chance for life. There were the red police after that, and Luke, single-handed, trounced four of them so soundly and thoroughly that someone sent in a riot call. It had taken a dozen of the reserves to club him into submission at the last.
That was too much for Martian justice. In pronouncing sentence the judge had termed Luke an incurably vicious character and a menace to society such as the planet had never harbored. And Luke, his head swathed in bandages from which his wiry red hair bristled like the comb of a gamecock, had grinned evilly and snarled his defiance.
And so they were taking him to the dread prison camp known as Vulcan's Workshop, a mysterious place of horror and hardship from which no convict had ever returned. Vaguely Luke knew that it was located on still another world, away off somewhere in the heavens. He had seen the lips of men go white when they were condemned to its reputed torture, had heard them plead for death in preference. Yet its terrors had not awed him; they did not awe him now. He had beaten the law before; he'd beat it again--even in Vulcan's Workshop.
A key rattled in the lock and Luke Fenton leaped to his feet, facing the barred door with feet spread wide and with his massive shoulders hunched expectantly. He could see now, with much blinking and watering of his still aching eyes, and he looked out with sneering disapproval at the three guards in the corridor. They were afraid of him, singly, these Martian cops, even though armed with the deadly dart guns and with shot-loaded billies. So afraid, Luke chuckled inwardly, that they had kept him from the other prisoners throughout the trip, kept him in solitary confinement.
The door was opening and it came to Luke that the ethership was strangely and hollowly silent. The rocket tubes were stilled, that was it, and even the motors that drove the great ventilating fans had been stopped. They had arrived.
No time now to start anything. He would have to submit tamely to whatever they might mete out to him in the way of punishment--until he got the lay of the land. It would require some time to study things out and to plan. But plan he would, and act; they'd never hold him here until he died of whatever it was that killed men quickly in Vulcan's Workshop. Not Luke Fenton.
Sullenly docile, he was prodded forward to the air-lock. A draft of hot fetid air swept through the corridor, carrying with it the forewarning of unspeakable things to come. And a shriek of mortal terror wafted in from outside by the stinking breeze, told of some poor devil already demoralized. The thick muscles of Luke's biceps tightened to hard knots under his black prison jacket.
They were outside then and Luke essayed a deep breath, a breath that was chokingly acrid in his throat.
"Waugh!" he coughed, and spat. One of the guards laughed.
Any foul epithet that might have formed on Fenton's lips was forgotten in the sight that met his eyes. A barren and rugged terrain stretched out from the landing stage, a land utterly desolate of vegetation and incapable of supporting life. Pockmarked with craters and seamed with yawning fissures from which dense vapors curled, it was seemingly devoid of habitation. And the scene was visible only in the lurid half light of flame-shot mists that hung low over all. In the all too near distance, awesomely vast and ruddy columns of fire rose and fell with monotonous regularity. For the first time, Luke experienced something of the superstitious fear exhibited by even the most hardened criminals when faced with a term at Vulcan's Workshop. That term, to them, meant horror and misery, torture and swift death. And he, too, was ready to believe it now.
He was prodded down an incline that led from the landing stage to the rocks below. The guards from the ethership, he saw, remained behind on the platform and there were new guards awaiting him below. Husky fellows, these were, in strange bulky clothing and armed with the highest powered dart guns. The other prisoners from the vessel were already down there, a huddled and frightened mass--a squashed pile, almost--silent now and watchful of their jailers.
"Come on, show some speed, tough guy!" a guard yelled from the foot of the runway. "Think this is a reception?"
Another of the guards guffawed hoarsely, and Luke choked back the blasting retort that rose in his throat. Plenty of time yet before he'd be ready to make things hot for those birds.
The runway, he observed, was a strip of yielding metal that glowed faintly with an unnatural greenish light. He was nearing its lower end when the siren of the ethership shrieked and he heard the clang of the outer door of its air-lock as it swung to its seat.
Then he stepped out to the smooth stone slab on which the nearest of the guards was standing. Immediately it was as if a tremendous weight was flung upon him, bearing him down until his knees buckled beneath him. He was rooted to the spot by an enormous force which dragged at his vitals and weighted his limbs to leaden uselessness. With a mighty effort he raised his head to look up into the grinning yellow face of the guard, and his thick neck muscles were taut gnarled ridges under the strain.
"Damn your hide!" he howled. "It's a trick. I'll break you in two for this, you slob!"
His huge biceps tensed and his fists came up. But they came up slowly and ineffectually, ponderous things he could scarcely lift. A great roaring of rocket tubes was in his ears then, and the ethership screamed off through the red mists while he dabbed futilely at the leering yellow face. And vile curses rasped from between his set teeth at the laughter of the guards.
Luke Fenton never had taken the trouble to learn or he would have known something about this planet Vulcan on which he was a prisoner. As far back as 1859, by Earth chronology, its existence within the orbit of Mercury had been reported by one Lescarbault, a French physician. But other astronomers had failed to confirm, in fact had ridiculed his discovery, and it was not until some years after the establishing of interplanetary travel in the first decade of the twenty-first century that the body was definitely located.
Vulcan, the smallest and innermost of the planets, circles the sun with great rapidity at a mean distance of twenty million miles. Its periods of rotation and revolution are equal, so that it always presents the same face toward the solar system's great center of heat and light--for which reason one side is terrifically hot and the other, that facing into outer space, unbearably cold.
There is no life native to the body, and mankind has found it possible to exist only in the narrow belt immediately on the dark side of the terminator, the line of demarcation between night and day. Here there are the dense vapors, illuminated perpetually by refracted light from the daylight side and by the internal fires of the planet itself, fires which erupt at regular intervals through many fissures and craters. And it is only under greatest hardship that man can exist even here, what with the noxious gases and the extremes of heat and cold to which his body it subjected. There is no natural source of water or of food, so these essentials must of necessity be conveyed from Mars or Earth by ethership.
In spite of all this, man has persisted in establishing himself in the vapor belt of Vulcan for the sake of wresting from the rocky soil its vast deposits of rare ores, and a great number of mining operations are continually in progress. All of these are commercial projects and are worked by adventurous seekers of fortune, save only the penal colony known as Vulcan's Workshop: But no Terrestrial or Martian, however greedy for riches, would dare to remain longer than two lunar months, which is the average time limit of human endurance. Only the condemned remain, and these remain to die.
Though hardly more than two hundred miles in diameter, Vulcan is possessed of a surface gravity almost six times greater than that on Earth. This is due to the planet's core of neutronium, the densest known substance of the universe, a little understood concentration of matter whose atoms comprise only nuclei from which all negative electrons have been stripped by some stupendous cataclysm of nature.
And so it was that Luke Fenton, uninsulated from the tremendous gravity pull when he stepped from the charged metal of the runway, was struggling against his own bodily weight, suddenly increased to more than twelve hundred pounds.
Doggedly, the Earthman pitted his mighty sinews against the force he could not understand. Here was an intangible thing, yet it was a power that challenged his own brute strength, and he exerted himself to the limit in accepting the challenge. With legs spread wide and with sweat oozing from every pore, he heaved himself erect, straightening knees and spine and standing there firmly on his two feet.
"He's carrying it!" came the husky whisper of a guard. "This bird is tough."
Craftily, Luke bared his white, even teeth in a good-humored grin. He had seen what they were doing with the other prisoners, fitting them one by one with the strange bulky breeches--garments that gave forth a faint greenish glow like that of the runway. And each of the men, so attired, was enabled somehow to get to his feet easily and walk about as if unhampered by the force which had flattened him to the rocks and which still held Luke's straining body in its grip.
The yellow-skinned guard, a Terrestrial of Asiatic origin, was solemnly engaged now in lacing the slitted legs of a similar garment to Luke's rigid nether limbs. Yet there was no cessation of that awful weight when the thing was done. The guard stepped back and leered wickedly. He had slung his dart gun over his shoulder and now produced a slender black tube which he leveled at Luke's midsection.
"You walk now, Fenton," he snarled.
The Earthman rose upward as if he would leave the ground. Two or three inches seemed added to his stature, and his muscles trembled from the sudden release. He stepped a pace forward.
Then a light beam flashed forth from the black tube and Luke sagged down with an astonished oath squeezed grunting from his throat. The swift renewal of the inexplicable force had caught him off balance and he dropped ignominiously to his knees.
"Ha!" gloated the Oriental. "It is thus we control the tough ones, Fenton. I've given you a warning; now get up--and march!"
On the last word came blessed release and the return of Luke's strength. He marched, meekly falling in with the file of new prisoners. He even smiled through the red stubble of his beard. But black hatred was in his heart, and renewed determination that he'd get away from this place somehow--alive.
Time would show him the way.
Fenton's slow but retentive mind absorbed many things during the succeeding few days. There was neither day nor night in this hellish place--only the flame-lit mists; but they had clocks like those of Earth, and you worked fourteen hours on the slope or in the smelter and had the rest of each so-called day of twenty-four hours in which to eat and sleep.
The food was coarse, but there was plenty of it. There was only water to drink, lukewarm stinking stuff, doled out sparingly in rusty tin cups. And, during the sleeping periods, you were required to take off the gravity-insulated garments and sleep in huts with insulated floor coverings. The charged floor, of course, allowed you to sleep without being smashed flat on the uncomfortable cots. But they had you safe in these sleeping huts; they took away your clothes and you couldn't step out of the door without taking on the weight of a half a dozen men.
The Workshop itself was in a vast excavation from whose slopes a silvery-veined ore was being removed. There were the blast furnace and reduction plant on the one side and the convicts' huts and more pretentious houses of the guards on the other. And the choking mists, and the lurid flame behind. The stifling heat, Luke learned, too, that every ninth day, with what they called the libration of Vulcan, there came an equal period of raw and biting cold to replace the heat. As bad or worse, that would be.
There were perhaps three hundred prisoners here, Luke guessed, and a guard allotted to each squad of fifteen men. Not many guards for so large a number of convicts--but enough. The weird gravity of Vulcan had taken care of that, and the flashlight things they always carried--queer lights that would instantly neutralize the insulating property of his clothing and render a man helpless.
Luke was working high up on the slope, with rock drill and pick. The group to which he had been assigned was composed entirely of new prisoners, mostly white men, but with a few blacks and one coppery-skinned drylander of Mars. Whimpering, hopeless creatures, all of them; not worth his notice. All day he labored without speaking to any of them and the quantities of ore he removed gave mute evidence of his tireless vigor. If Kulan, the giant Martian guard, took any notice of it he gave no sign.
During the sleeping period, which they persisted in calling night, things were different. No guards were needed in the escape-proof huts and there was some surreptitious fraternizing among the prisoners. As long as they made no undue noise, they were left to their own devices. But for the most part they went to sleep heavily and wordlessly as soon as they flung into their bunks. A broken-spirited lot.
Luke saw men suffering from some horrible malady that made them cough and scream and bleed from nose and mouth. Old-timers, these were, men who had survived for as many as three of four months. He saw them, in their agony, beg the guards for merciful death; heard the brutal laughter of their tormentors. Only when they were no longer able to rise from their bunks were they put out of their misery by one of the singing darts from the senior guard's gun.
Novak had it, this malady known as X.C.--Novak, the scar-faced, yellow-fanged rat who occupied the bunk beneath Luke's and who talked to him in hoarse whispers long after the others had gone to sleep. It was from Novak that Luke was learning, and the knowledge he gained by listening to the doomed man served only to intensify the flame of hate that smoldered deep in his barrel-like chest.
After three red-lit days of grueling labor and three similarly red-lit nights of listening to Novak, he reached the grudging conclusion that escape from this place was impossible. With this conviction there came to him a deeper bitterness and the resolve that he, Luke Fenton, would have his revenge before he went the way of the rest.
Perhaps the law had him for keeps this time--it certainly seemed so; but he'd leave his mark on its representatives yet.
At inspection preceding the next labor period, Luke began doing things.
The prisoners were lined up and the guards were parading the line, reassigning them to new working squads, which were shifted and rearranged every third day. Kulan, the big Martian, selected Luke.
"You, Fenton," he snapped, "ten paces forward."
Luke grinned but made no move.
Amazed, the guard stepped closer. "You heard me!" he roared. "I'm keepin' you in my squad, tough guy."
A ripple of astonished comment ran along the line and the other guards bellowed for silence. Kulan fingered the black tube of his neutro-beam and his broad face was chalky white.
Luke advanced two paces, still grinning. And he looked up sneeringly into the grim face that was a foot above his own.
"That's right, you big ape," he grated, "you ain't man enough to fight the way men fight. Gotta use dart guns, or gravity."
It was sheer baiting of the big Martian. Fenton was shrewd and he knew the fellow's kind, quick to resent insult and prouder of their physical size and prowess than of any other possession. He saw the flush that rose to replace the guard's pallor, saw the huge lithe body go tense. Laughing derisively, he completed his ten paces with leisurely aplomb.
Speechless with rage, Kulan stood rigid. Furtive boos and a few hoarse cheers came from somewhere in the long line of convicts, and Luke saw several men flattened to the ground by swift darting neutro-beams.
And then the head guard came running from the small bastion. "What the hell?" he demanded of Kulan. "Any trouble?"
Kulan saluted, and his eyes were narrow slits. "No sir," he returned stiffly, "no trouble."
Eyeing Luke suspiciously, the senior guard grunted, then moved on along the line. And the work of reallotting squads went on.
It was exactly as Fenton had expected. This Kulan, a head over him in stature and broad in proportion, was sure in his mind that he could handle the red-headed Earthman without resort to weapons. And the taunt as to his physical ability had struck home. In some way that guard would maneuver matters so the encounter could come about. Besides, he would endeavor to keep Luke in his squad where he would be able to drive him to the utmost. The guards, Novak had said, were on the job only a month when they were replaced by fresh recruits--and their pay was based on the productivity of the squads they commanded. Kulan had seen that the Earthman was a real sapper; worth three of the others. And he'd try to keep it so.
That working period was a highly gratifying one to Luke. With the rankling hatred concentrated and directed at Kulan, he was positively gleeful. And yet he was content to bide his time. He swung his pick and wielded his rock drill with joyful abandon, so that three men were kept busy loading the ore he removed.
Kulan, he saw with satisfaction, was sullen and watchful. But no word passed between the two. And the Earthman knew he had planted a seed that was bound to sprout and grow until it bore fruit.
At the midday mess it happened. The shifting of men had brought Novak in the same squad with Luke and they came in to sit at the long table together. Kulan eyed them narrowly from the head of the board.
"Say," Novak whispered, "yuh got under Kuley's skin, know it? He'll run yuh ragged."
"Yes?" Luke looked up at the guard, saw he was scowling darkly in their direction, and grinned evilly. "I'll run him, you mean. I'll bust him in two if I get my hands on him."
"Yuh ain't got a chance, I tell yuh. I seen a guy once, take a poke at a guard, and what they done to him was plenty. They----"
With that, the wasted body of Novak bent double and he dropped to the ground screaming. Blood gushed from his nostrils. Luke had seen the same thing happen to several others and he knew what to expect. It was all over for Novak, or nearly over.
Kulan came running and turned the stricken man face up.
"You'll last another period," he snarled. "Get up and eat."
He yanked Novak to his feet and shook him as he would a sack of meal. The sick man moaned and begged, his head rolling from side to side and his eyes filmed with pain.
"Let me have it," he whimpered. "I'm done, I tell yuh Kuley. Get Gannett, if yuh don't believe me."
Kulan slapped him heavily with the flat of his massive hand. "You'll work another period, sewer rat, if I have to prop you up!"
Then Luke Fenton took a chance. He didn't care particularly for Novak, nor was he overly concerned by what might happen to him. But this gave him an excuse, an opening.
He hooked his thick fingers in the collar of Kulan's jacket and twisted until the big Martian loosed Novak and whirled around. Then Luke drove a hard fist to his jaw--a pulled punch so as not to betray his real strength. Nevertheless it set the guard back on his heels and split the taut skin where it landed.
Pandemonium broke loose in the mess hall. Gannett, the senior guard, came bellowing down the aisle, and the squad guards were on their feet in an instant, neutro-tubes and dart guns ready. The uproar of the prisoners died down.
Kulan shook his shaggy head and crouched low as he circled the Earthman. Murder was in his heart, and the urge to break this tough guy Fenton with his bare hands. But Gannett was between them.
"Hell's bells!" he yelped. "What goes on here?"
Then he saw Novak--and heard him. Novak was writhing on the ground, begging for death. And the chief guard's dart gun twanged as its needlelike missile sped forth and drove into the sick man's breast where it sang its shrill song of vibratory dissolution.
In the twinkling of an eye where Novak had lain was only the dust of complete disintegration and a few scintillating, dancing light flecks that swiftly snuffed out. A speedy and merciful end.
In the silence that followed, Gannett turned on Kulan. "Why didn't you send for me?" he demanded.