"Yes?" I said, smiling to myself, and wondering what was coming next.
"Yes, Commander Hanson." There was just the faintest suggestion of steeliness in her voice now. "I fancy you've been giving him good advice, and painting me in lurid colors. Do you really think so badly of me?" Her hand pressed my arm with warm friendliness; her great blue eyes were watching me with beseeching interest.
"I think, Liane," I replied, "that Mr. Hendricks is a very young man."
"And that I am a dangerous woman?" She laughed softly.
"That, at least," I told her, "your interests and ours are not identical."
"True," she said coolly, pausing before the door of her stateroom. Her hand dropped from my arm, and she drew herself up regally. In the bright flow of the ethon tubes overhead she was almost irresistibly beautiful. "Our interests are not identical, Commander Hanson. They are widely divergent, directly opposed to each other, as a matter of fact. And--may I be so bold as to offer you a bit of advice?"
I bowed, saying nothing.
"Then, don't attempt to meddle with things which are more powerful, than you and the forces you control. And--don't waste breath on Mr. Hendricks. Fair warning!"
Before I could ask for more complete explanation, she had slipped inside her stateroom and firmly closed the door.
We set down on Lakos late that afternoon, close to the city--town, rather--of Gio, where those in charge of operations made their headquarters. With Liane and Correy, leaving the ship in charge of Kincaide, I made my way quickly toward the headquarters building.
We had gone but a few steps when Liane was surrounded by a shouting throng of her fellow Lakonians, and with a little mocking wave of a white hand, she stepped into a sort of litter which had been rushed to the scene, and was carried away.
"For one," commented Correy with a sigh of relief, "I'm glad she's out of sight. If I never see her again, it'll be too soon. When do we start something?"
"Not until we've talked with Fetter, who's in command here. I have a letter for him from the Chief. We'll see what he has to say."
One thing was certain; we could look for no assistance of any kind from the natives. They regarded us with bleak scowls, from beneath shaggy, lowering brows, our uniforms of blue, with the silver ornaments of our service and rank, identifying us clearly.
In the greenish Lakonian twilight, they were sinister figures indeed, clothed all alike in short, sleeveless tunics, belted loosely at the waist, feet and legs encased in leather buskins reaching nearly to the knees, their brown, gnarled limbs and stoop-shouldered postures giving them a half-bestial resemblance which was disturbing. Their walk was a sort of slow shuffle, which made their long arms dangle, swinging disjointedly.
We entered the administration building of gray, dull stone, and were ushered immediately into the office of the head of operations.
"Hanson?" he greeted me. "Mighty glad to see you. You too, Correy. Terrible hole, this; hope you're not here for long. Sorry I couldn't meet you at the ship; got your radio, but couldn't make it. Everything's in a jam. Getting worse all the time. And we're shorthanded; not half enough men here. Sit down, sit down. Seem good to feel firm ground under your feet?"
"Not particularly; your air here isn't as good as the Ertak's." Correy and I seated ourselves across the desk from the garrulous Fetter. "I've a letter here from the Chief; I believe it explains why we're here."
"I can guess, I can guess. And none too soon. Things are in terrible shape. Terrible." Fetter ripped open the letter and glanced through it with harried eyes.
"Right," he nodded. "I'm to help you all I can. Place myself at your disposal. What can I do?"
"Tell us what's up," I suggested.
"That would be a long story. I suppose you know something about the situation already. Several reports have gone in to Base. What did the Chief tell you, Hanson?"
Briefly, I sketched the Chief's report, Fetter nodding every few words. When I had finished, he rubbed his long, thin fingers together nervously, and stared down, frowning at the littered top of his desk.
"Right as far as he went," he said. "But he didn't go far enough. Wanted you to find out for yourself, I suppose.
"Well, there is a secret society working against us here. Sect, I'd call it. Undermined the whole inhabited portion of Lakos--which isn't a great area, as you know."
"The Chief Priestess is Liane. I believe you said she stowed away on the Ertak with you?"
"You're keeping her under guard?" asked Fetter.
"No; under the circumstances, we couldn't. We had no authority, you see. A crowd of natives bore her away in triumph."
"Then your work's cut out for you," groaned Fetter. "She's a devil incarnate. Beautiful, irresistible, and evil as corruption itself. If she's back, I'm afraid there's nothing to be done. We've been sitting on a volcano ever since she left. Pressure growing greater every instant, it seemed. She's just what's needed to set it off."
"We'll have to take our chances," I commented. "And now; just what is the set-up?"
"The Worshipers of the Flame, they call themselves. The membership takes in about every male being on Lakos. They meet in the great caverns which honeycomb the continent. Ghastly places; I've seen some of the smaller ones. Continent was thrust up from the sea in a molten state, some scientific chap told me once; these caverns were made by great belches of escaping steam or gas. You'll see them.
"She--Liane--and her priests rule solely by terror. The Lakonians are naturally just horses" (a draft animal of ancient Earth, now extinct), "content to work without thinking. Liane and her crew have made them think--just enough to be dangerous. Just what she tells them to think, and no more. Disobedient ones are punished by death. Rather a terrible death, I gather.
"Well, her chief aim is to stop the production of temite. She wishes to bargain with the Council--at her own terms."
"What's her price?" I asked. "What does she want, wealth?"
"No. Power!" Fetter leaned forward across the desk, hammering it with both fists to emphasize the word, his eyes gleaming from their deep sockets. "Power, Hanson, that's what she craves. She's insane on the subject. Utterly mad. She lusts after it. You asked her price; it's this: a seat in the Council!"
I gasped audibly. A seat in the Council! The Council, composed of the wisest heads of the universe, and ruling the universe with absolute authority!
"She is mad," I said.
"Crazy," grunted Correy. "Plain crazy. A woman--in the Council!"
Fetter nodded solemnly.
"Mad--crazy--use your own terms," he said. "But that's her price. The Chief didn't tell you that, did he? Well, perhaps he didn't know. I learned it in a very roundabout way. She'll make the formal demand when the time is ripe, never fear. And what's more, unless these Worshipers of the Flame are stamped out--she'll get what she demands!"
"Not at all. You know what this place is. Only a Lakonian can stand this atmosphere long. No vitality to the light that does come through this damned green stuff they breathe for air; and after a few days, the acid, metallic tang of it drives you frantic. Never can get used to it.
"So the Lakonians have to mine the temite. And the universe must have temite, in quantities that can't be supplied from any other source. If the Lakonians won't mine it--and they won't, when Liane tells them to quit--what will the Council and your Service do about it?"
"Plenty," growled Correy.
"Nothing," contradicted Fetter. "You can kill a man, disintegrate him, imprison him, punish him, as you will, but you can't make him work." And there that phase of the matter rested.
I asked him a number of questions which I felt would help us to start our work properly, and he answered every one of them promptly and fully. Evidently, Fetter had given his problem a great deal of thought, and had done more than a little intelligent investigating of his own.
"If there's anything else I can do to help you," he said as he accompanied us to the door, "don't fail to call upon me. And remember what I said: trust no one except yourselves. Study each move before you make it. These Lakonians are dull-witted, but they'll do whatever Liane tells them. And she thinks fast and cunningly!"
We thanked him for his warning, and hurried back to the ship through the sickly-green Lakonian dusk. The acrid odor of the atmosphere was already beginning to be disagreeable.
"Decent sort of a chap, Fetter," commented Correy. "All wrought up, isn't he? Worried stiff."
"I imagine he has cause to be. And--he might have been right in saying we should have held Liane: perhaps we could have treated with her in some way."
"No chance! Not that lady. When we treat with her, we'll have to have the whip hand, utterly and completely."
The heavy outer door of the Ertak's exit was open, but the transparent inner door, provided for just such an emergency, was in place, forming, in conjunction with a second door, an efficient air-lock. The guard saw us coming and, as we came up, had the inner door smartly opened, standing at salute as we entered. We returned his salute and went up to the navigating room, where I proposed to hold a brief council of war, informing Kincaide and Hendricks of what we had learned from Fetter, and deciding upon a course of action for the following day. Kincaide, whom I had left on watch, was there waiting.
"Well, sir, how do things stack up?" he asked anxiously.
"Not so good. Please ask Mr. Hendricks to report here at once, and I'll give you the whole story."
Kincaide pressed the attention signal to Hendricks' room, and waited impatiently for a response. There was none.
"Try my room," suggested Correy. "Maybe he hasn't moved back to his own quarters yet."
"That's what he said he would be doing," replied Kincaide. But that signal too failed to bring any response.
Correy glanced at me, a queer, hurt expression in his eyes.
"Shall I go forward and see if he--if he's ill?" he asked quickly.
"Please do," I said, and as soon as he was gone I turned to the microphone and called the sentry on duty at the exit.
"Commander Hanson speaking. Has Mr. Hendricks left the ship?"'
"Yes, sir. Some time ago. The lady came back, saying she had word from you; she and Mr. Hendricks left a few minutes later. That was all right, sir?"
"Yes," I said, barely able to force the word from between my lips. Hendricks ... and Liane? Hendricks ... a traitor? I cut the microphone and glanced at Kincaide. He must have read the facts in my eyes.
"He's ... gone, sir?"
"With Liane," I nodded.
The door burst open, and Correy came racing into the room.
"He's not there, sir!" he snapped. "But in his room I found this!"
He held out an envelope, addressed to me. I ripped it open, glanced through the hasty, nervous scrawl, and then read it aloud: "Sir: I am leaving with Liane. I am sorry. It had to be.
"That, gentlemen," I said hoarsely, after a long silence, "will make the blackest entry ever spread upon the log of the Ertak--upon any ship of the Service. Let us dismiss this thing from our minds, and proceed."
But that was easier, by far, to propose than to accomplish.
It was late indeed when we finished our deliberations, but the plan decided upon was exceedingly simple.
We would simply enforce our authority until we located definite resistance; we would then concentrate our efforts upon isolating the source of this resistance and overcoming it. That we would find Liane at the bottom of our difficulties, we knew perfectly well, but we desired to place her in a definite position as an enemy. So far, we had nothing against her, no proof of her activities, save the rather guarded report of the Chief, and the evidence given us by Fetter.
There were three major continents on Lakos, but only one of them was inhabited or habitable, the other two being within the large northern polar cap. The activities of The Worshipers of the Flame were centered about the chief city of Gio, Fetter had told us, and therefore we were in position to start action without delay.
Force of men would avail us nothing, since the entire crew of the Ertak would be but a pitiful force compared to the horde Liane could muster. Our mission could be accomplished--if, indeed, it could be accomplished at all--by the force of whatever authority our position commanded, and the outwitting of Liane.
Accordingly, it was decided that, in the emergency, all three of us would undertake the task, leaving the ship in charge of Sub-officer Scholey, chief of the operating room crew, and a very capable, level-headed man. I gave him his final instructions as we left the ship, early the next morning: "Scholey, we are leaving you in a position of unusual responsibility. An emergency makes it necessary, or at least desirable, for Mr. Correy, Mr. Kincaide and myself to leave the ship. Mr. Hendricks has already departed; therefore, the Ertak will be left in your charge.
"Remain here for five days; if we do not return in that time, leave for Base, and report the circumstances there. The log will reveal full authority for your actions."
"Very well, sir!" He saluted, and we passed through the air-lock which protected the Ertak from the unpleasant atmosphere of Lakos, armed only with atomic pistols, and carrying condensed rations and menores at our belts.
We went directly to the largest of the mines, the natives regarding us with furtive, unfriendly eyes. A great crowd of men were lounging around the mouth of the mine, and as we approached, they tightened their ranks, as though to block our passage.
"We'll bluff it through," I whispered. "They know the uniform of the Service, and they have no leader."
"I'd like to take a swing at one of them," growled Correy. "I don't like their looks--not a bit. But just as you say, sir."
Our bluff worked. We marched up to the packed mass as though we had not even noticed them, and slowly and unwillingly, they opened a path for us, closing in behind us with rather uncomfortable celerity. For a moment I regretted we had not taken a landing crew from the Ertak.
However, we won through the mouth of the mine without violence, but here a huge Lakonian who seemed to be in authority held up his hand and blocked our way.
"Let me handle him, sir," said Correy from the corner of his mouth. "I understand a little of their language."
"Right," I nodded. "Make it strong!"
Correy stepped forward, his head thrust out truculently, thumbs hooked through his belt, his right hand suggestively near his automatic pistol. He rapped out something in unpleasant gutturals, and the tall Lakonian replied volubly.
"He says it's orders," commented Correy over his shoulder. "Now I'll tell him who's giving orders around here!"
He stepped closer to the Lakonian, and spoke with emphatic briefness. The Lakonian fell back a step, hesitated, and started to reply. Correy stopped him with a single word, and motioned us to follow him. The guard watched us doubtfully, and angrily, but he let us pass.
"He told me," explained Correy, "that she had given orders. Didn't name her, but we can guess, all right. I told him that if she wished to say anything to us, she could do it in person; that we weren't afraid of her, of him, or all the Lakonians who ever breathed green soup and called it air. He's a simple soul, and easily impressed. So we got by."
"Nice work," I commended him. "It's an auspicious start, anyway."
The mouth of the mine was not the usual vertical shaft; as Fetters had told us, it was a great ramp, of less than forty-five degrees, leading underground, illuminated by jets of greenish flame from metal brackets set into the wall at regular intervals, and fed by a never-failing interplay of natural gas. The passageway was of varying height and width, but nowhere less than three times my height from floor to ceiling, and it was broad enough at its narrowest so that ten men might have marched easily abreast.