The guard, white with rage, indicated Luke.
"So--the tough guy Fenton again. Can't you handle him?"
Kulan's yellow eyes flashed fire. "Sure I can; I will. But I want your permission, sir. With my hands."
"No,"--flatly. And then Gannett whirled to look over the mess tables, whence a few scattered hisses had arisen.
His gaze was solemn when he returned it to Kulan. Swiftly his black eyes measured the Martian's giant body, and then they swung to Luke. The comparison evidently pleased him, for he changed his mind.
"On second thought, yes," he said to Kulan. "It'll be good for discipline. Only don't disable him; he's too valuable a worker."
Luke concealed his unholy glee; stood glowering savagely. "In fair fight?" he put in.
"In fair fight," sneered Gannett. He took personal charge of Kulan's weapons. "All right, you," he yelled then to the mess, "you can watch this. But if there's a sound or a move from any one of you there'll be the neutro-broadcast and full gravity for an hour for the whole flea-bitten gang of you."
He drew back, motioning Luke and Kulan to an open space nearby. There was not the slightest doubt in his mind as to the outcome, for the Martian towered over his stocky opponent and was fully fifty pounds heavier. This irregular procedure would put a stop to some of the open homage paid to this reputed tough guy by the prisoners, and to the restlessness among them which his coming had occasioned.
They fought instantly and with silent deadliness of purpose, these two. Luke drove in two terrible blows to the big Martian's body in the split-second before they closed, breathtaking punches that rocked Kulan yet did not slow him up in the least. And then the tangle of arms and legs and bodies of the two was so swift moving and violent that the watchers could not follow them.
Now they were up, slugging, clinching; now down, rolling over and over, straining and tearing at each other like beasts of the jungle. Once, breaking free, Luke was seen to batter Kulan's face to a bloody mass with swift, hammering fists that thudded too rapidly to count. And then the Martian had flung him to the rocky ground so heavily that it seemed certain the Earthman's end had come. But such was not the case, for there was a flailing scramble and Luke Fenton rose up with the great body of Kulan across his shoulders. He spread his legs wide and heaved mightily.
The Martian guard kicked and squirmed, lashing out with his huge fists at the squarely-built and squarely-planted body of the Earthman below him. But to no avail. Grasping a shoulder and a thigh, Fenton straightened his thick arms and Kulan was hoisted aloft. Amazingly then, the madly struggling guard was flung out and away to land with a sickening thud, smashed and crumpled on the rocks.
Luke stood swaying on those spreadeagled legs and his lungs were near bursting from the exertion in the noxious atmosphere. "There you are, Gannett," he howled through swollen lips. "That fair enough for you?"
In the ominous silence a cracked voice yelped: "Attaboy Fenton!"
Wild disorder followed. Immediately there was the raucous call of the general alarm siren and a flashing light from the bastion that paled the red mists to a sickly, luminous pink. Full gravity coming down with crushing force on the hapless prisoners.
Luke, as he was flattened, gasping painfully under the enormous pressure, saw that Gannett and the rest of the guards were not affected by the neutro-broadcast. They stood erect and moved freely among the prisoners who sprawled everywhere in grotesque squashed heaps. Queer. There was no way of beating the authorities at this game.
Gannett transferred Luke to the dreaded sealed cell in the reduction plant, a room spoken of in hushed whispers by the convicts, and in which it was reported an inmate suffered indescribable tortures for the better part of three weeks. Then he died in horrible misery, for one could not survive longer than that.
Kulan had not been killed. He would recover, but was pretty well smashed up, with a fractured hip and several broken ribs, one of which had punctured a lung. It would be necessary to return him to Mars on the next ethership, due in two days. Strangely, the news brought Luke no great amount of satisfaction.
When they locked him up in the sealed cell for his first period of labor he saw there was only one other occupant. A tall lanky Earthman with narrow aristocratic features and keen gray eyes. He was perhaps forty-five, slightly stooped, and with thin graying hair. Luke had seen him several times at mess and had contemptuously classed him as a highbrow. Fuller, his name was.
This was a small room where several slender chutes brought down tumbling crystals of a silvery salt from somewhere above, emptying it into glass containers that stood in endless rows in wooden racks. You filled these containers with the salt, then sealed them in lead tubes and packed them for shipment. There was a faint pungent odor in the air of the room, a new smell that widened Luke's nostrils and caught at his throat and lungs.
In this place you were watched by a guard who came regularly each half hour and spied on you through a peephole.
Child's play, the work in the sealed cell. Luke went at it half-heartedly and he spoke no word to Fuller after the heavy door had closed them in. After ten minutes of silence he caught himself watching his companion furtively.
What was there about Fuller that marked him as superior to Luke and the rest of the convicts? A good gust of wind would blow the man away; a woman might easily beat him in a rough and tumble. Yet this man had something which unmistakably proclaimed greatness, the same something that gave authority and power to the smart guys of Earth and Mars. Brains--book-learning! Luke snorted.
Fuller was looking at him with calmly appraising gaze. Luke scowled darkly, but the keen eyes that measured him did not waver.
"You're a fool, Fenton," came from the thin lips.
"What!" Luke advanced threateningly.
"I repeat: you are a fool." Still the gray eyes were unwavering.
"Why, you--you----" Spasmodically Luke's fingers closed down on the spare shoulder with crushing force.
By not so much as the flicker of an eyelash did Fuller betray the pain that must have come with that grip. He did not even wince, but swiftly lashed out with a bony fist, raking Luke's cheek with sharp knuckles. The blow stung, but was utterly futile. With a single cuff Luke could send the man sprawling; with a single wrench of his powerful hands, snap his spine. Yet he did neither, and the impulse to laugh coarsely died in his throat. Here was courage of a kind he never had encountered; here a man in whose bright eyes fearlessness and defiance mingled with a cool disdain that brought the first real feeling of inferiority Luke ever had experienced.
He relaxed his grip of Fuller's shoulder and his big hands fell loosely at his sides. It was that action which saved Fenton. He did not know it at the time, nor would he have believed it. But he was to remember many times and finally to realize it, though he never fully understood.
"That's better," breathed Fuller. And the ghost of a smile crinkled the corner of his mouth.
At the old man's warning Luke returned to his own work bench and was industriously engaged when the guard's eye showed at the peephole. Then the eye was gone and he grinned over at Fuller.
"How long you been in here?" he ventured.
"Five days in the sealed cell; ten altogether in the Workshop."
Luke pondered this. "How'd you get in the cell?"
"Same way you did--I struck a guard."
"No!" marveled Luke. "Mean to tell me you----"
"I had a reason to get in here," Fuller broke in mildly.
"You--you wanted to get in?" Luke was incredulous.
"My God, you ain't crazy, are you--wantin' to get yourself killed off quicker?"
"No, that isn't it," Fuller explained patiently. "I've a plan to escape and only by taking the chance of spending some time here could I obtain access to the necessary materials. Fenton, I'm a scientist and I know----"
"Escape!" Luke snorted. "You are crazy. Where you goin' to go?"
"Listen, Fenton." The other dropped his voice. "I'm not doing this blindly; I have friends outside. And you can help me. You can get away yourself, alive. I called you a fool and by that I meant that you have relied too much on brute force in your lifetime and had not sense enough to realize that this brought only trouble. Combine your brawn with my brains, now, and do as I say--if you will I promise you freedom. Will you do it, or do you want to keep on being a fool?"
Luke bristled, but the earnestness of that steady gaze served to check his rising temper. "I still think you're nuts," he growled, "but hell, I ain't fool enough to pass up any kind of chance of gettin' outa here. Gimme the dope."
Fuller coughed slightly and a fleck of red-tinged foam appeared at his lips. "It'll have to be to-day," he whispered. "One more day in this place and it'll be too late for me."
X.C.! Luke stared, horrified. Fuller had it already and didn't know it. Poor devil; he was a goner before he started this crazy break of his. Strangely, Luke was deeply concerned. It was a new experience, this feeling of compassion for a fellow man.
"To-day!" he grunted. "You ain't figurin' on gettin' out to-day?"
"Positively--it must be to-day. I'll explain."
Much of what followed was unintelligible to Luke Fenton, but he absorbed enough of the scientist's explanation to understand that his plan was not impossible of realization. He waxed enthusiastic.
Tom Fuller was vague concerning his own past, but Luke gathered that a political crime had been responsible for his sentence to the Workshop. There was much bitterness in the scientist's refusal to dwell on this point. This, too, Luke was able to understand. The bond between them strengthened.
"It's like this," Fuller told him: "these suits which enable us to move about comfortably in Vulcan's gravity are really quite simple in their functioning. A maze of fine wires is woven into the fabric, and these wires are charged with anti-gravity energies from tiny capsules which are inserted under the belt of the garment. The capsules are really miniature atomic generators and are replaced with fresh ones each night during the sleeping period, since the initial charge lasts only eighteen hours. The generated energies neutralize more than eighty percent of the effect of gravity and our weight thus becomes approximately the same as it is on Earth. Such garments are worn by all prospectors and other visitors to Vulcan."
"How come the neutro-beams?" asked Luke.
They are used only here in the Workshop and they operate the same as the neutro-broadcast from the bastion, the only difference being that the broadcast blankets an area of about two miles in all directions. In both cases vibratory ether waves are sent out and these are of such frequency and wave form as to neutralize the anti-gravity energies originating in our capsules. They render our suits useless, but those of the guards are provided with insulating coverings which block off the waves and thus permit their own garments to function even when the neutro-broadcast is in operation."
"Smart guys," commented Luke. "Too smart. How the devil we gonna get away, then? They'll send out the alarm and----"
"Ah, that is where we fool them, Fenton. With the radium."
"Yes, didn't you know? This ore we mine here contains a higher percentage of that valuable element than any on Earth or Mars. Its emanations, together with certain atmospheric gases of Vulcan, are what cause X.C.--a swift destruction of tissue in the lungs and other vital organs. And this concentrate"--Fuller waved his hand toward the rows of tubes before him--"is most highly radioactive of all the products of the Workshop. That is why the sealed cell is so very dangerous to work in. But it is this radioactive salt that gives us the means for escape----"
Both men turned quickly to their labors on hearing the footsteps of the guard.
"My suit is already prepared," continued Fuller, when the eye had gone from the peephole. "Now to prepare yours. I discovered that this radioactivity can be used to defeat the purpose of the neutro-rays as well or better than the regular insulation, which, of course, we can not obtain. That is why I wanted to be in the sealed cell for a time. We merely pack a quantity of the radioactive salt around the capsules in the lining of our garments, and the radium emanations continue the excitation of the tiny atomic generators even under the influence of the neutralizing vibrations. Do you follow me?"
Luke did comprehend, even though the technical explanation was beyond his understanding. They would be able to defy this terrible gravity of Vulcan. They could fight unhampered; walk, or run--to meet these mysterious friends of Fuller's. The flashlights and the broadcast would be useless against them.
The lanky scientist outlined the further details of his plan in swift whispers while he worked with the energizing capsule of Luke's garment.
Actual escape was surprisingly easy. They waited until the labor period was finished, when Chan Dai, the yellow-skinned guard, came to unlock the door. As agreed, Tom Fuller came out first and Luke held back, dragging his feet and cursing softly to himself.
"What'd you say?" the guard snarled.
Luke grinned disarmingly. "Nothin'," he drawled. Still he hung back, scarcely moving from where he stood just within the door.
"Come on, tough guy, a little speed." Chan Dai reached for him.
And then Luke was upon him. The neutro-beam flashed harmlessly. Luke's big hands moved with lightning swiftness, his left one scooping the guard's dart gun from its shoulder strap and his right closing on the astonished Oriental's wind-pipe. It was the work of only an instant to choke him in unconsciousness and lock him in the sealed cell.
"Quick, the chute!" hissed Fuller. He dived head foremost into a rectangular wooden trough that was used for the disposal of the gangue from a crushing mill above. This chute, Fuller had said, led to the outside at the back of the reduction plant.
Across the passage Luke saw a squad of convicts and two guards emerging from the lift. Then he plunged down the steeply inclined trough after Fuller. As he slid and tumbled into the darkness, he heard the hoarse shouting of the guards.
He landed heavily in the pile of gangue at the base of the chute; then was scrambling and slipping down with an avalanche of the sharp edged stone. At the bottom, he saw that Fuller had already started up the slope of the great pit which enclosed the Workshop. Luke darted after him.
They were hidden from the bastion by the buildings of the smelter and reduction plant. But the loud yelling of guards back there in the pit gave evidence that word of the escape was being passed along to Gannett. Before they were halfway up the slope there was the shriek of the alarm siren, and Luke felt his body sag with a sudden increase of weight. Fool that he had been to trust the scrawny scientist!
"It's the broadcast," panted Fuller, beside him. There is some effect, of course. You're probably carrying fifty extra pounds."
"Huh!" Luke hoped it would be no worse.
Fuller slipped into a narrow crevasse that ran slantwise of the slope and extended upward to the rim of the pit. The going was much easier here and they made rapid progress toward the top. Suddenly Luke realized that it was growing very cold; there was a bite to the foul air, and moisture from the red mist was frosting his beard. The liberation of the tiny planet and consequent shifting of the terminator was bringing frigidity to Vulcan's Workshop.
They came up out of the crevasse at the top of the pit and Luke could not resist looking back. Every convict in sight was flattened to the ground. They sprawled singly and in heaps, each one a squashed inert thing that would not move again until the neutro-broadcast was discontinued. The guards, confident they would find the escaped prisoners in like condition, were searching the slope below them.
Luke raised Chan Dai's, dart gun to his shoulder.
Fuller struck aside the muzzle of the weapon. "No!" he protested, "No unnecessary killing, Fenton. They're completely fooled, and we'll be well on our way before they know the truth."
Grumbling, Luke drew back from the rim of the excavation.
Up here the ground was fairly level, but there were many fissures and small craters which made the footing precarious. The mists were so dense they could see scarcely two hundred feet ahead.
"We'll be lost in the vapors when they finally wake up and come out after us," Fuller said. "And look Fenton, off there to the left are the three columns of fire that mark the rendezvous."
They plunged on through the red mist toward the flaming pillars. Those beacons, even though they subsided at regular intervals, quickly reappeared after each cessation. And their brilliance penetrated the mists with ease at this distance of about two miles. There was no fear of missing their destination.
"Sure your friends'll be there?" Luke asked doubtingly. He was beginning to have some misgivings about the matter--the scientist had been anything but explicit as to who these friends were. And the longer his thoughts dwelt upon the things Fuller had told him the more suspicious he became. Pretty cagey about everything but the actual getting away from the Workshop, Fuller had been.
"Certainly they will; they've been waiting two days." Fuller's tone was impatient and his words came painfully. "You leave that part of it to me, Fenton," he gasped. There was a fleck of blood at his lips.
As the scientist stumbled on through the mists, Luke's doubts increased and he began to lose his respect for the man's intellect and for the cunning which had enabled him to outwit the neutralizing energies used by the guards. After all, he was a weak and puny specimen. They all were, the smart guys who held the people of two worlds in their power by exercising the knowledge they had learned from books. And this one had failed even in that; whatever he might have been, he had run afoul of the law himself and was already a doomed man. Tricks! This trick of Fuller's had gotten them away, but of what use was it without the brute force necessary to carry on to a successful end?
The brawn Tom had spoken of so slightingly was what they needed from this time on, and nothing else would save them. Luke had that brawn; Fuller did not. The scientist slipped and nearly lost his balance at the edge of a fissure, but Luke made no move to help him. It was every man for himself at this stage of the game.
Increasing difficulty came with every step. Now they were sliding and rolling into a deep crater, now scrambling up its steep sides with hands torn and bodies bruised by the jagged boulders. A yawning crevasse opened before them and they were forced to skirt its edge for fully a half mile in the wrong direction before they found a crossing. And the cold was unbelievably intense. Numbed and silent, with their eyes half blinded and lungs seared by the frosty air, they struggled on toward the three pillars of flame.
And still Tom Fuller carried on, though Luke was now in the lead.
They had covered probably half the distance to the flaming columns when shouts arose behind them. The guards were on their trail.
"Can't--find us," Fuller panted. "The mists----"