The Project Gutenberg eBook of Exiles of the Three Red Moons

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Title: Exiles of the Three Red Moons

Author: Carl Selwyn

Illustrator: Leo Morey

Release date: April 4, 2020 [eBook #61752]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at




Slowly, horribly, men died in that outer-space
Devil's Island. Carter already could feel the
slow-gnawing, Emerald Death. What had he to lose,
even on a crazy-wild, 100-to-1 shot Pluto prison-break?

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Summer 1940.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Faint and distant, the sun fell swiftly behind the close horizon and three warm moons of Pluto climbed from the jagged rocks. Their pale, green light spread upon the rearing crags of dusty silica in a scintillating blanket of emerald, and gleamed richly upon the patches of white lichen.

As Rusty Carter strode down the winding trail from his cave, he gave no thought to the prismatic scene. Even his analytical eyes, veteran of ten years with the Tele-news, were not concerned. He had seen it in daylight, when the freezing winds swept across the glaring monotony of crystal sand, when men fought and killed for sheer sport, and when the Bugs came. The cold horror of day paled the beauty of night. And Rusty Carter was weary of both, after these Plutonian months. His heart quickened as he remembered this was his last evening.

Rounding a bend, he approached the squat, transparent target building gleaming above the restless crowd of men. They stood about in small groups, talking noisily.

Rusty glanced at his watch. It was twenty revs before the monthly ship was due. And this time it would not merely hover to drop drift-tubes containing more doomed men and newsprints from a ruthless Y.M.P.A. This time it would land—take him back to Earth. His heart sang at the thought. Lord, but it would be good to have real soil underfoot again, even the impassive pavement of New York!

As he pushed his way through the motley mob, Rusty's mind flashed far across space to his desk in the great New York Tele-news plant. He remembered Skipper Russell, his city editor, coming over, the twinkle in his sagacious eyes as he told him to go out and rob a bank. Then the eyes had changed to cool efficiency as he outlined his plan. Rusty was to enter the Planetary National, armed with a vib-ray gun. He was to menace the employees, then be trapped by pre-informed police. In feigned terror, he was to turn the gun upon the crowd, fire. Actors had been hired for the part. The vib-ray loaded with a harmless vibration, they were to fall before him. He would be captured, and with the best lawyers against him, sent to Pluto for life. Stories about this dread penal colony were dreadful, but mostly speculative. Forbidden entrance by the Interplanetary Control, Tele-news agencies had few facts. A first-hand story would be worth millions. It was Rusty's job to get it.

And here he was, the job done. The false arrest and its purpose was known only to Skipper and himself. Even the actors whose "bodies" were immediately claimed by their families, knew nothing of their work's significance. After two months, the city editor would confess to the hoax, pay whatever fine was imposed, and Rusty would be released—with a priceless story.

The two months were over, and the story was priceless. Dealing intimately with the primitive simplicity of souls without hope and their degenerate abandon of all that civilization had bestowed, his tale would weave a pattern of remorse that such conditions should exist anywhere in the universe. Pluto and its four moons were billions of miles from home, anybody's home. Three of its satellites, of about equal size and in close juxtaposition, were the planet's only source of warmth for the sun of the life line planets was dim, far away.

The flat emergency field was crowded with hulking forms from every planet; talking, gesticulating excitedly, curious vultures awaiting the new broken spirits, black-souled as themselves.

Rusty neared the low target building, saw his dim reflection in a glassy wall; tall and thin despite the cumbersome furs. He had lost weight, he observed. His bronzed seventy-five inches of slender, handsome youth had shed the surplus flesh that he had accumulated in Earthian cities. His body was now trimmed to bare muscle, sinews of steel. One fought to live here. One fought the cold, the Bugs, crazed men—but the hopelessness of the struggle could not be fought, and one died and was glad to die. One of their number in every other respect, Rusty had hope—and he had been forced to keep this thought ever before him as the contagion of omnipresent despair clutched at him also.

He ran a long hand through his leonine hair; badly in need of cutting, it swirled, dark sorrel, about his hawk-like features.

The huge Vulcanian, Lothar, approached. Massive head bent, he leaned toward Rusty as he passed.

"We leave at noon," he muttered. "Meet at White Cliff, if you go!"

Familiarity had bred disinterest in the strange forms from other worlds but the nearness of his departure gave new light to the things about him. Lothar, the Vulcanian! Rusty looked at the great creature, and thought of the excitement Vulcan's discovery had occasioned. In the orbit of Mercury, behind the sun, making it ever invisible to Earth, it was the first planet to be found by interstellar exploration. Occurring long before Rusty was born, it was another Stanley-Livingston affair in the annals of feature news. Of course, Vulcan's existence had been calculated by its effect on Mercury's perihelion as early as the nineteenth century by—what was his name?—Leverrier! Who had been disproved by Einstein, twentieth century, who was himself later disproved. Rusty smiled. Get the facts! Soon he would be back at the old job again....

He watched Lothar's monstrous bulk shuffle away into the crowd; suddenly he remembered the secret plan for escape that night. There would be five of them: Lothar, two Martians, a Venusian and Spike. Spike was from his own planet and his only friend here, if he might be called that. The short, chunky Earthian owed his life to Rusty. He had saved him from the Bugs a few days after his arrival, an exploit unheard of here where everyone saw to his own brief existence. But Spike had never forgotten. And when the little boat had been constructed from salvaged drift-tubes, he had inveigled the others into agreeing to take Rusty along.

Rusty Carter felt a twinge of conscience at not confiding his now propinquent departure. He had tactfully avoided a direct refusal, knowing if word of his pardon got around his life would be worthless. A jealous horde would have made short work of him. The others didn't matter; but, whatever heartless creature Spike was, Rusty hoped he got away.

There came a shout from the upturned faces of the grisly crowd and Rusty saw a red dot, high in the dim sky. It was the jet-blast of the coming ship. It was coming for him!

His heart leaped as he watched the crimson point grow, a line of flame, a dazzling comet upon the tinted moon glow. The light lengthened and a dark hulk appeared at its head. Then, with a roar, a burst of sparks, the ship entered the Plutonian atmosphere, floated gently downward on idling jets.

The crowd of wretches clamored, jostled one another. Rusty stood apart, tingling with excitement. He planned his journey, his homecoming, with a child-like joy. First he would radio Skipper. Then he would take a long luxurious bath—he could feel the warm water now—then go to sleep, with no nightmare of yellow insects crawling unseen toward him. Then he would....

The ship lowered, drifted to a stop high above them. The smile slowly left Rusty's face and his eyes widened.

Glistening in the dim light, the ship remained motionless. Three long objects came into view, gliding slowly from its underside—drift-tubes.

Rusty started forward, eyes fixed to the shining hull, panic leaping into his heart.

In a burst of flame, the ship zoomed upward. There was a faint tingle of ozone in the air, as it ascended, grew smaller in the glowing sky.

Rusty wanted to scream at the disappearing light. He leaned weakly against the wall and a sickness within him was cold and numb, a deadening blow. Then he grinned faintly. Of course! They were sending a special plane—maybe Skipper was coming himself. Of course.

The drift-tubes had landed and the crowd was gathered about them, encircling the newcomers, shouting questions about the outside worlds, inspecting the less formidable for chance possessions. Rusty pushed his way through the mass of foul bodies. At the edge of the group was a smaller, unopened tube—the Tele-news can.

Rusty opened the container, pulled out the roll of thin, printed sheets. It was like Skipper to send a special plane. Sure he would—this was a big story.

Idly glancing through the pages, weeks old, he was surprised to catch the familiar name. Then Rusty tensed, color gone from his face, as the full meaning of the headline came to him.

"PROMINENT EDITOR PASSES: S. K. Russell, Editor of the New York Tele-news for over thirty years, died at his home today, the victim of a heart attack. Russell, called 'Skipper' by all that knew him, was stricken—"

Rusty dropped the page from his hand. He stared, unseeing, into the night, his mind following a torturing logic to its inescapable conclusion. Skipper was dead—Skipper was the only one that knew—no one else would know of his innocence....

He snatched up the paper, read the column, his warrant of doom. Skipper had died three weeks ago, suddenly, before he could even make a will. His wife was sole heir to the Tele-news plant.

Rusty sank down to a rock.

A sense of wild terror gripped him as he realized he was trapped here, for the rest of his life—he had been legally convicted of robbery, murder. Skipper was the only person who could save him. But Skipper was dead!

Men howled, laughed as they passed him. And Rusty Carter knew he was now one of them. No more was there the glow of a secret thought, that soon he could leave—he was to stay until he died just as these others died, screaming or with a voiceless stare in the cold glare of Pluto.

Their laughter faded away and he was alone.

Walking aimlessly, Rusty left the deserted clearing, plodded up a sparkling path. He wandered amid the ghastly spangled crags, neither knowing nor caring where he went. It did not matter and nothing mattered, for he was dead inside. The three moons of Pluto hung low in the east and the enormous Great Moon, the nearby satellite of the planet, arose beside their departing light, a darker green.

Soon, another day. The cold wind. The Bugs. Haunted, restless sleep. The scream of a lonely soul in dreaming delirium. But what matter the cold and the Bugs? They could bring death. Was it not better so?

Rusty came to a long declivity, the rocks sloping down to a wide crater. In the center was a pale wall of lichen, smoothly white on the side of a towering peak. It was White Cliff. Largest landmark on the narrow-horizoned planet, it reared for hundreds of feet into the thin air. Upon its vast sides was a thick blanket of the plants, giving the cliff an unbroken, white distinctiveness and its name. Never visited by day because of the Bugs, it was rarely approached even at night. The reflecting vegetation surrounding it in a dim glow, the Bugs lingered even then. Foot-long obscenities of fuzzy yellow, razor-tipped tendrils before formless maws, by day they swarmed from every crevice of the distorted terrain. Subsisting chiefly upon the rabbit-like veedles, they would also eat a man.

Rusty stared at the ghostly scene, suddenly remembering the words of Lothar, the Vulcanian. Preferring the Bugs to curious eyes, it was here that the drift-tubes had been stored, the escape ship built. Escape! Why hadn't he thought of it before? As criminal as they now, he must take a criminal's chance—the odds were all against their survival—a swift death in the suffocating void of space, the sudden burn of a patrol's flame-gun. But each was a feeble fear. Death here was slow, gnawing for years at a weakening brain. Any chance was worth taking.

He glanced over his shoulder at the rising shape of the Great Moon, and sped across the quartz dust to the cliff.

Rounding the rise, Rusty came upon a dark form in a little clearing. It was the ship. Startled figures whirled as he burst upon them, relaxed as he was recognized. The great bulk of Lothar was stark against the dim light.

"Hello!" came a husky Earthian voice, and Rusty was relieved to see the barrel shape of Spike appear, his mop of black hair haloed in the green glow.

Rusty looked at the squat hull of the oddly constructed boat. The others gathered around him.

"Crude but crafty," admired Spike.

Rusty glanced at the others. The tall Martians stood at the side, slender silhouettes. The Vulcanian towered above him, long incisors gleaming between drooping lips.

"I think you know the rest," said Spike. "Here's Fish."

Rusty noticed for the first time the frail form of a Venusian in the shadows. He moved silently to Rusty, extended a finny hand in the Earthian clasp adopted by the Universe.

Venusians were an eternal surprise to Rusty. Half the height of an average man, limbs thin and tipped with prehensile spines, they were covered with fish-like scales, a delicate lavender in color. A single eye in the middle of the forehead, throughout the Universe they carried optional misnomers, "Cyclops" or "Fish."

Rusty shook the cold hand and for a moment forgot his plight, as he felt his usual presentiments. These weird creatures from the cloud-hidden planet never failed to arouse unreasoning tingles of distrust.

"When do we leave?" asked Rusty. He must have action. The thought of his abandonment here would soon drive him raving mad.

"All ready," said Spike. "Waiting for the moon to get in position."

Lothar tapped Rusty on the shoulder, his huge, four-fingered hand almost knocking him down.

"Make words," he boomed in his throat. "You go. Must be one with us—steal moon ship—pirates."

"He means we head for the Great Moon, steal a plane there and see what we can pick up in the Earthian traffic lanes," Spike translated. "It took me a long time to persuade them that you were okey, so be nice!"

"Sure," said Rusty. He had barely heard the words. "Sure."

Lothar stared at him with his slanting, narrow eyes. He finally nodded, moved away.

The little ship was crudely made, Rusty noticed, of cans in which the prisoners had been dropped. It was held down by ropes stretching over the hull. The thick, insulated drift-tubes were simple antigravitic units of low power. With the engineering skill of the Martians, six of these had been fixed together, forming a squat hull, blunt at one end. Powered by fuel salvaged from countless near-dry tubes, it was planned, he was told, to wait till the nearby satellite was directly overhead, then release the ship, allowing it to drift upward. After a few miles—with an over-load of fuel they would drift fast—they would be caught by the pull of the larger planet, sucked into it. The gravity of the Great Moon would overcome their diminished power and they would drift down. There was, of course, no oxygen equipment and they would doubtless lose consciousness. But it would be only a few moments in space and they should revive in the dense atmosphere of the moon. It was a chance they would have to take.

Creeping comets! thought Rusty. Wouldn't he have a story if he ever reached the Tele-news plant again! But would he ever see Earth again?

He felt little optimism when he looked up at the planet slowly swinging toward them. Gigantic, almost as large as Pluto, its rugged land and dark seas were quite visible across the few thousand miles. The triplet-moons were dead, of their own radiations, but the Great Moon, in a separate orbit, was eternally tropical. A regular transit to the eccentric orbit of the warming spheres, it received a degree of heat that Pluto's greater distance denied. Its atmosphere was thin, tinged with ozone, but breatheable. It rotated slowly, a perceptible movement. A smooth patch came into view upon its green surface and Rusty remembered it was the only inhabitable portion of the planet. The rest was insect-infested jungle, shallow oceans. If they waited till it was overhead, they could not miss the moon. But they must hit that little spot upon its surface.

"We're waiting till the Plain comes around again," Spike answered Rusty's thoughts. "Have to leave navigation to the Martians. They have an uncanny sense of precision."

"What—" began Rusty.

He heard a slithering in the plants behind them.

They turned. Rusty saw three Bugs crawl into the dim light. Yellow horrors, they moved swiftly. Sharp feelers waving, they advanced like giant cockroaches. Others came behind them. They swarmed into the clearing.

He turned to run. There was no fighting them. There was no running away—Bugs poured from all sides. Lord! must he die now? When a chance was so near? They were surrounded. He stood staring, the others behind him, weaponless.

Rusty remembered one man he had seen after their work. He sickened at the picture. Blood was what they smelled, what they sought. Those feelers chopped at one's legs, severed the feet, hovered with sucking mouths about the face of the victim, still alive.

The Bugs came on.

One neared Rusty. A tendril knifed at him. He kicked madly into the yellow mass, felt the pulpy insect crush under the blow. The ground was a blanket of writhing yellow, spreading toward them. He hoped it would be quick. But it never was. One died slowly. The life sucked from him. Rusty kicked at another. The others were stamping wildly.

"Into the ship!" yelled Spike.

The tubes! They would be safe there. Rusty leaped a slashing wave as there was a rush for the ship. He went into the ochre, crawling things with one bound, into a drift-can with another. He clanged the port over him, heard the others slam shut.

Rusty lay in the silent darkness, unable to move in the cramped cylinder. They would have to wait for the Bugs to leave. It might be days! The air was slowly becoming bad. He would have to open the port soon. He might be able to open it just a fraction, but those tendrils were thin, they might whip in. The place was stifling. His throat ached. There was bursting panic in his lungs.

Suddenly he was pressed against the bottom of the tube by an invisible force. They were moving.

But why? How? The Great Moon was not in position yet! They would miss it! He raised a hand to the port-lock. It would be better to jump. And the air—he could not breathe. He fumbled with the lock, could not open it. Weakly he clawed at the port. They would—drift—into—space....

Slowly, his mind relaxed into unconsciousness.

Rusty opened his eyes and breathed deeply of exquisite air. He saw green foliage above him. He was lying upon a verdant substance, soft and moist. It was very hot. His furs had been removed.

"It's time you came to!" said a voice, and Rusty sat up, saw the rotund Earthian approaching. He glanced around, saw the drift-lube nearby, half-buried in the mud. The others were standing beside it, their odd appearance increased by the removal of their heavy clothing.

They had made it. They had escaped! He was free!

"What happened?" he asked, head dizzy.

"Fool Bugs cut the ropes," said Spike. "We floated off Pluto. Several of them must have held on the rope-ends for a while. Their weight slowed us down till the moon came over, but we hit in the jungle—an ocean, either way, between us and the Plain."

"Lord!" said Rusty. "No man ever crossed this part of the planet on foot!"

"Nobody ever escaped from Pluto either," said Spike. "Until ten minutes ago." He yanked Rusty to his feet.

Rusty looked at the dense wall of plants about them. There was barely room for a man to pass between the twisted trunks and vines. Overhead was the same thick mass of green. Faint light seeped through. But here was a single, tangible thing—something one could grasp with the hands, fight for life—a goal at the end. There was a hope! It was better than Pluto.

The others came up.

"What now?" said one of the Martians in his toneless voice.

"Cross jungle, cross sea," said Lothar.

"Let's get going," said Spike. He turned to the seemingly impenetrable growths surrounding them.

Rusty followed. His heart stopped.

A great white thing fell slowly in front of them. It dangled in mid-air. It was a spider—bigger than an Earthian cow. Green, checked eyes bulging, it hung from a thick strand of translucent material.

Spike sprang back as the monstrosity reached out a hairy tendril. Rusty stood hypnotized by the pale hideousness of the creature.

With a quick movement it swung toward them.

Rusty broke his trance. He leaped aside. A tentacle slapped across his face as he sprawled into the mire.

He started up, saw the insect crouched upon the writhing form of a Martian. Shrill, animal screams cut the air as the red man struggled frantically to escape the tightening white claws. The gaping man drew close.

"Get him, Lothar!" shouted Spike from the edge of the jungle.

The eight-foot Uranian plodded to the thing, short legs working rapidly. With a massive hand, he caught one stalk-like feeler, and wrenched and twisted it from the globose body.

Holding the wriggling Martian, the spider flung itself upon Lothar. It landed upon him with all its pulpy weight. The Martian quit screaming, lay still. His eyes protruded and Rusty saw that his face, normally light red, was slowly darkening.

The ghastly pale insect lay upon the Uranian body, covering his chest and arms. It did not move. The eyes glazed. Then slowly the creature rolled over upon crumpled legs. It twitched feebly.

Lothar arose, his upper body a mass of pink, gelatinous fluid. Rusty revolted at the gory figure.

The Martian was dead. His fellow red man searched his pockets, shrugged and did not look at him again.

Lothar returned from a pool where he had washed away the "blood."

"Poke hands in soft middle," he grinned. "Pull insides out!"

Spike laughed uproariously. He stepped toward the plants.

They laugh, thought Rusty, and one of us is dead! They'll laugh when the next one dies. Who will it be? All? He looked into the green walls and the question arose from fact, not pessimism. He had thought those two Plutonian months had hardened him. Could he stand this new world of new terrors?

Warily moving around the body of the shuddering insect, Rusty followed them into the jungle.

The great moon's vast vegetal areas were a monotony of green. Pools of water, matted plants, glaucous mire underfoot, even the atmosphere was a virescent mist, tinted by an unknown gas. But the life there had not the monotony of the scene.

Pluto was a dying world; the moon, still upon its first step along the timeless path of evolution. Every mile brought new terrors. Carnivorous beetles. The purple Gux dragon, twenty feet long, daggered with venomous fangs. And the white spiders. The little gnats, slightly smaller than an Earthian hornet, followed constantly, raised deep sores upon bare faces and arms.

Slow against the resisting foliage, Rusty followed the maddening pace and considered every step his last. Snatching at strange fruit, pausing at shallow pools for unrefreshing sleep, they lost all conception of time. There was no distinct night and day, no restful blackness, only a change of hue in the tinted air and painted sky; a green which deepened to a phosphoric glow, then faded again as the strange sun burned redly over the jungle. Weary to falling, sick of mind with the heat and the moist air, Rusty plodded along at Spike's side, marveled at his fellow Earthian's endurance. But pirating about every planet of the system, had hardened Spike to anything the Universe could inflict. The little Venusian was not affected at all, but rather thrived in the dank heat which was little different from his native world. And immuned on a world that spun ceaselessly from hot to cold, his native Vulcan, nothing fazed the mighty Lothar.

The Martian, however, fared worse than the rest. His body, covered with thick, red hair, was matted with a viscous perspiration. His large ears drooped as he struggled along, spindling form bent as he slid one weary, primate foot after the other.

Rusty wondered how they knew the right direction. Dizzy with the heat, he did not realize he had even asked the question.

"Depend on Lothar," said Spike, wiping a streaming brow. "Vulcanites can find their way out of hell."

Hearing his name, the giant dropped back beside them.

"Any idea how much farther?"

As Lothar answered, a long, green coil fell silently upon the Venusian at Rusty's side, yanked him swiftly up into the thick plants.

It happened fast. Rusty doubted his eyes. It must be the heat—but the little green man was gone.

Spike yelled.

The Martian staggered up. They peered into the dense growth above and there was only the heavy leaves. The Venusian had vanished, as if spirited away by the Wisps of Jupiter.

"Another one," said Spike. He stepped on into the jungle.

"Wait!" cried Rusty. They couldn't just leave—without even looking. To what depths had these men sunk? Was there no spark of humanity left?

He grabbed a limb, swung up into the matted roof.

It was a stifling mass of green. He could see nothing. He probed about, futilely. There was not even a trace where the Venusian's body might have been dragged.

Spike was climbing up when he came down.

"There's nothing there! I—!"

Spike shrugged. "Let's go," he said impassively. He kicked aside the plants, struck off into the vegetation.

Rusty tarried, gazing up into the foliage. There was nothing he could do. There was nothing up there. That made two. Men had never survived this place. How long before it would be his turn?

He followed the three disappearing figures.

The heat closed in and the world swam, a green daze, before his eyes. His body moved by sheer will. His mind was far away, a cub reporter on his first assignment. He shook his head savagely as the Tele-news office appeared before him, a wavering hallucination.

It was several miles before they noticed that the Martian was gone.

Rusty looked back and there was only the dark jungle, quiet and ominous, green with a mirage-like beauty of fresh life, but a beauty of silent death. What things watched unseen from those thick masses? Watched their every move, ready to spring upon them? First the Martian killed by a spider. Then the little Venusian. Now another—to what death? God, if a man must die let him die seeing, not a swift vanishing to unknown terrors.

"Let him go," said Spike. "I never did like Martians."

Rusty wearily started to turn back. He tried to persuade the others. Spike and the Uranian laughed at his "girlish" exhortations. Every man for himself—they were probably right. He had a story to tell on Earth, one which he must live to tell. But Earth was far away.

They trudged on.

This time Rusty saw it happen. Or thought he did.

Spike was walking a short distance ahead. A thick, slender something fell slightly over his head.

Rusty screamed to him.

Long acquainted with danger, the man fell flat.

And the rope-like thing whipped back, vanished into the plants above. It had been long and green, a slick, menacing danger of no name.

After that, the three walked side by side.

And the jungle stopped abruptly. Before them was the purple sea.

The tinted ocean lay smooth as glass, not a ripple upon its dull surface. Directly ahead, rising from the vast expanse of still water, was a dim, distant island, mountains gently rolling.

"It's the Plain!" cried Spike.

It was faint on the horizon, a hazy undulation darker than the mist of distance.

"Looks like mountains," said Rusty wearily. He despaired of finding anything right in this irrational world.

"It's the Plain," said Spike again. "You can't see it. They're the cliffs behind it."

He stepped to the water, waded in. Lothar followed.

"Hey!" yelled Rusty. "Why not build a raft? We can't swim that distance!"

"Build a raft from what? Those trees won't float. And the water's only five feet at the deepest."

Rusty gingerly waded in. The liquid, thicker than water but of similar elements, according to Spike, was covered with a thin film of vegetable oil. It was sticky, hot.

Making slow progress in the heavy stuff, Rusty splashed along in the wake of the ponderous Lothar. The water slowly deepened to his chest.

A scaly head popped up beside him. Water snake!

Impulsively, Rusty struck out with his fist.

The head disappeared, came to the surface again a short distance away.

It was not a snake. It was a Venusian—the Venusian.

He looked at Rusty and scowled, if a fish can scowl. Rusty stared, unbelieving. He had appeared so quietly the others had not turned. Where could he have come from? How could he have escaped the thing in the jungle?

"How did you get here!"

"Why do you strike at me, Earthman!"

Rusty uselessly attempted to explain. They could never understand Earthian reactions. Rusty hated the green creatures.

The Venusian sneered, swam silently to the others.

"Well!" said Spike, with his usual calm. "We didn't expect to see you again! What happened?"

"Tree vwark."

"Oh," said Spike. He turned and waded on.

Rusty stared, aghast. These men weren't human.

"Hey!" he called. "What the hell's a 'Tree vwark?'"

Spike turned and smiled.

"Vwark that lives in trees," he answered, turned back to the water.

And Rusty knew he could expect nothing more. The Venusians were strange of body, had stranger ways. They never spoke of their activities. It was an instilled custom of their kind. And he knew why Spike had not interrogated further, uselessly.

Scattered and splashing, the four waded toward the distant hills. Earthmen, Venusian, Vulcanian.

The Venusian swam easily ahead, often disappearing for long periods beneath the surface, absorbing oxygen from the water as adequately as from the air.

Rusty, succumbing to his innate get-the-facts complex, asked if the seas contained life, was answered in the negative. But he questioned the statement when they passed a half-submerged creature that weighed well over five tons, heavy clawed limbs rearing stiffly. The air about it was a nausea.

"Mud animal," explained Spike. "Life here came from the mire instead of the sea. With the exception of the Plain, the whole planet is covered with soft mud, thousands of miles deep. It is there that most of the life exists. This one probably got wounded, came blindly up and died."

As the Earthian spoke, he halted, his face suddenly darkened.

Rusty, advancing to him, felt a strong suction beneath his feet. Go back! But he could not turn back, nor go forward.

"Lothar!" yelled Spike, but the mighty Vulcanian was also caught fast in the grim pull.

The mire under the water had softened, like quicksand. It tugged at his feet and legs, pulling him slowly down into the green ooze. He splashed with powerful strokes. He sank deeper.

"Fish!" cried Spike. The lithe Venusian idly tread water beside them, showed little interest. "Get us out of here!"

The water slowly climbed up Rusty's fear-tingling body. He could feel the liquid creeping up, as he was pulled down, into the slime. He strained with all the power of his legs. Seized them with his hands and pulled. He sank deeper, slowly. He could feel the bottomless suction. Like a nightmare in which one falls slowly. It was no nightmare. It was stark reality. Thick water, green ooze. He splashed wildly.

Fish stared from one to the other, curiously.

"Get you out?" he asked.

This was madness. It could not happen to him. He was Rusty Carter, an ordinary Tele-newsman. He could not die here. The water was beneath his chin. Rusty remembered no aid could be expected from the Venusian. His nature, utterly individualistic, could barely conceive of anyone needing, much less asking for help. Damn Venusians.

"Damn you, I'll twist your scaly neck!" cried Spike. "Help us out of here!"

Rusty sank lower. Neck muscles strained to hold his head above the surface. He remembered once on Mars seeing six Venusians killed separately by a lizard, when together they could have easily torn it to pieces. He choked as water entered his mouth, swallowed. Must keep mouth closed. It had a sour taste.

Spike's tone changed. "Pull us out and I will give you much whirl-water when we reach Earth!"

Whisky was the one temptation of the bright star's people, something they coveted, could not understand. Rusty's eyes were filming, the water upon his face, straining back and upward. Interplanetary Control had long forbidden the sale of liquor to Venusians. The water was at his nose, burning, bubbling. He gasped. It entered his nose, his throat, tickled in his chest. He wanted to cough. The water covered his mouth. This was all. This was drowning. Wild fear, insane rage surged through him. His head went under. He tugged mightily at the water above him, felt hands in air. His lungs screamed for air, his chest bursting. He opened his mouth, and took a deep, gasping breath....

Coughing, he was carried a safe distance, dropped unceremoniously into the water again. His eyes were blurred and he was sick. He wanted to kill that Venusian. They were all that way.

Sputtering, Rusty rubbed his eyes, saw Spike and Lothar watching from shallow water. The Venusian swam ahead.

They turned and waded on.

It was night when they reached the Plain. Then it was pitch black, like fingers against his eyes. They had passed the balanced zone. Here there was a kilo-rev of darkness, they said. Rusty was told to get in line—the Uranian, cat-like, would lead the way.

With Spike before him and the cold fin of the Venusian to the rear, they were led for hours into the darkness.

Rusty's head vaguely ached. He walked with closed eyes, almost slept.

He bumped into something—Spike. Had he slept?

Lothar grunted, "Settlement."

Rusty strained his tired eyes, could see nothing. They marched on.

A faint glow appeared in the distance, slowly widened, became dots of light. It was one of the smaller moon settlements, Spike said; chiefly populated by rich farmers who raised the delicious cavote, luscious fruit cultivated for the interplanetary trade.

They halted on the outskirts of the city.

The city was dark. There were few lights but Rusty looked at the shadowed windows and knew people were asleep there, peacefully in a commonplace existence. For a moment he revered their simple lives, and the ordinary held no memory of monotony but a yearning for its rest as his heart went into the city and softly cried for admission. But there was no response to his pleas, only the black windows, and his longings were but a hollow mockery of his weary soul. He was a fugitive, a convicted murderer in the eyes of all he might meet—he was as these with whom he had fled just punishment. Trapped by a laughing fate, he felt little hope for peace ever again. His loneliness flamed to rage.

"Where's the space port?" asked Spike.

"I take," said Lothar, who had been there before.

He led them around the cluster of dimly lighted buildings, past the mud-flats of cavot plants. The city was voiceless, the streets were vacant. As they turned a corner, a great clearing spread before them, a landing field dotted with the shadowed shapes of space liners, and smaller craft. The field was sparsely lighted.

They paused.

"Spread out. See what's about," Spike whispered. "Meet here in ten revs."

The men slowly faded into the darkness.

Rusty saw a flat, lighted building at a near corner of the field.

Moving stealthily to a glowing window, he peeped over the sill. The walls were filled with space-station equipment. In the center of the room was a table around which nine men were seated, Martian pilots and a native watchman. As Rusty looked, the watchman arose, strapped a gun about him and left the room.

Rusty heard an outside door open and close, fled silently.

He returned, found the Venusian and Lothar. Spike had not come back.

They waited, staring into the darkness.

The night was suddenly torn by the staccato hiss of a vib-ray.

Spike appeared, breathless. "Watchman saw me!" he panted. "Found a ship. Come on!"

He sped again into the shadows, led them to a big space liner which nestled in the darkness of a hangar. The door was open. Spike motioned for them to enter.

A form materialized at the stern of the ship. A vib-ray spat.

Rusty, following the Venusian in the small door, saw Spike leap at the man. He could not make them out in the darkness. As he jumped down, he heard a quickly throttled groan.

Spike appeared again. "Get in! Quick!" Shouts and the sound of running feet came toward them.

Lothar was already inside. Rusty climbed in. Spike slammed the heavy door.

No sound came through the insulated walls but as they paused for breath the room grew rapidly warm—hot.

"They're raying the door!" cried Rusty. He had seen it done in many a police raid.

The plate glowed to a red heat, melted to a puddle. They sprang aside.

"Come out!" commanded a toneless voice. "We've got you!"

Rusty ran to the left, the others to the right. He tried the door to the next room. It was locked. The others had disappeared into the forward compartments, the door closed behind them. Rusty no longer felt fear nor panic. He was an animal now, fighting to live. He silently crept to the side of the seared hole in the hull. A dim glow of light entered from the field.

A sleek vib-ray poked its long nose in the doorway. Rusty waited. The gun was followed by an arm. A man came into view. His skin was red, Martian. He climbed into the ship, followed by six more.

Rusty crouched in the darkness, holding his breath.

They stood in the dim light, peering warily about. There had been nine at the station, Rusty remembered. Spike had gotten one. Where was the other? But they would discover him in a moment.

Rusty moved swiftly. He snatched a rifle from the nearest man. With the same movement, brought the stock upward, smashed it into the crimson face.

The others whirled.

Rusty leveled the vib-ray at them. They stared and their guns clattered to the floor. Slowly, their hands raised.

"Spike!" yelled Rusty.

The door opened and the Earthian peered out. Lothar and the Venusian crowded behind him.

"What's the best ship here?" Rusty demanded of the tight-lipped Martians. There was no answer. What did one do when one had a gun, wanted a man to speak and he wouldn't?

Spike entered the room. "I'll make 'em talk!" he said. He picked up a fallen gun, and before Rusty could stop him had fired into the group.

Four men died to show Rusty what one did.

The answers of the remaining three were as specific as they were hasty.

"Shall I finish 'em off?" asked Spike, amused. Rusty moved to stop him.

"Shall I finish you off?" said a voice at the door. "Don't turn around! Stay where you are!"

The missing man, thought Rusty. His heart did not leap at the sudden voice. He had grown to expect these things. Would he soon laugh at death as did Spike?

The Martians inside smirked, bent for their guns.

Rusty was looking at Spike. What would he do? And Spike was not slow in acting. His gun was still leveled at the stooping men. His face did not change as flame shot from the barrel. In utter bravado, Spike rayed them down. Darted swiftly back against the wall out of the line of fire.

The gun hissed outside, missed and struck into the bodies of his own fellows. He would fire again.

Before he could turn the gun, Rusty was upon him.

They crashed to the ground. Rusty's spring carried him over the man, who was on his feet instantly, gun poised.

The gun was silent. Rusty rolled cautiously over.

He saw the bulk of the Vulcanian looming behind the crimson man. A huge hand had crushed his shoulder.

Lothar raised the Martian, bashed him against the side of the ship. He fell limply, did not move.

Rusty got up. There were seven dead men in the plane. One was before him, broken and bleeding. Another lay somewhere in the shadows. The nine men he had seen at the table in the station were dead. Was it his fault? He had killed none of them. No? They had been protecting their rights, their property. They had died doing so.

Fish climbed down from the ship. He kicked aside the body on the ground. Lothar laughed deep in his chest.

"We're wasting time," said Spike with a grin. He turned to the designated ship.

Rusty wondered if he could write of these things. The Tele-news seemed but a hazy memory.

The plane was a light cruiser, swift and well-armed. Probably the property of a wealthy merchant, it was luxuriously furnished.

Rusty gave the ship no more than a tired glance, waited for the take-off.

Jets roared in a steep ascension, then hushed to a restful drone. They passed out of the moon's heavy atmosphere. Rusty saw the stars cease to twinkle, change to a steady, burning light.

They were in space, dim and shadowy—headed home.

Rusty, Spike and the Vulcanian fell into berths as the ship was set on its course. Navigation was left to the Venusian. He did not sleep, gave no sign of fatigue. It was part of his nature.

Rusty slept dreamlessly and when he awoke, he found almost two days had passed. Mars glowed redly behind them and the star of Earth was bright before the view Plates.

Earth. Home. New York. He stared at the pin point of light, tried to locate the city. Millions of people there, at this distance—nothing. The Tele-news! A simple joy tingled within Rusty as he gazed at the distant planet. He was coming home. He had been far, he had a story to tell—one that had long outgrown its intended bounds. He saddened, however, as he remembered there would be no Skipper to hear his tale.

Spike came in.

"Gosh," said Rusty. "Is there anything to eat?"

"Not much," he answered. "We'll have to catch another liner before long."

"Buy food?" asked Rusty, sleepily.

"Buy it!" Spike roared with laughter. "What do you think we got this ship for? Buy it! We take it—and anything else they happen to have aboard. We scuttled one liner off Saturn while you slept."

"Lord!" thought Rusty. This was what Lothar had mentioned on Pluto. They had turned pirate. And he was considered one of them. They knew nothing of the scheme that had landed him on the stellar prison. They thought he was as they—another rat driven from the law-respecting Universe.

Rusty could rationalize the dead men whose ship they had taken. The ship had been available in no other way. It had been a fair fight. But now it could go no further. Earth gleamed in the distance. His part must change here; he had fought against Earth's laws, that he might regain them. He must stand for them now.

"Spike," began Rusty, "there is something I never told you. I must tell you now." And he told of the false crime that had brought him to Pluto, how he was to have been released and his sudden abandonment. He was a fugitive, yes, in a way; but he must get to Earth—somehow vindicate himself. It would be impossible if he added real crimes to the pretension that had put him here. Spike must understand.

The chunky Earthian's face changed from surprise to rage. Then to a deadly calm. "We better not let the others know of this," he said.

The Venusian entered. He must have been just outside the door.

Rusty saw his eye, the cruel glint there, knew here would be a climax to his adventure. And he knew the result, while strength remained in his body, would be well. He could not lose now—Earth was too near, the end of his journey was at hand.

The Venusian stared at them with his single, beady eye. "Secrets!" he sneered. "I heard. An Earthian informer! I'll fix that!" He drew a short vib-pistol from his belt, leveled it in Rusty's face. His fishy eye gleamed.

Rusty met the gaze. "Put away the gun," he said. Rusty was experiencing a new sensation. He could kill this green thing without a twinge of conscience.

"Put up the gun," said Spike.

"Ah, so you're with him, too! I'll get you both." The pistol veered to Spike.

Rusty saw the bulk of Lothar squeeze the door behind the Venusian.

"Lothar is behind you, Fish," said Spike calmly.

The little green man slithered into a corner beside the door.

The Vulcanian stood there dumbly.

"Lothar," said Fish silkily, "these Earthians have turned against us—will sell us to the Patrol—send us back to Pluto. The red-haired one was a spy since the first!"

The huge Vulcanian stood silently, looking at Spike. His tremendous arms dangled at his sides.

"Don't believe him, Lothar," said Spike.

"Shut up, Earthman!" snapped the Venusian.

Spike ignored him. "We aren't—" He never finished.

The gun spit at him.

Spike stared at Fish in astonishment. Then he fell forward upon his face.

Lothar looked on foolishly.

The Venusian hissed softly between his teeth. The gun covered them both.

Rusty stared unbelieving. Spike was dead. He suddenly felt very alone. Spike had been merciless, cruel, little different from the others of his kind on Pluto. But he had been a man—an Earthian—a friend....

Lothar swung. Before the green man could squeeze the trigger. Fast. A heavy arm struck the scaly hand, snapped the gun from a broken wrist. The vib-ray fell to the floor.

Rusty watched him, motionless. Lothar grasped the green neck with one hand, placed iron fingers deftly over the squirming head and—as a man would pick up a marble—he plucked out the single eye. Rusty cringed.

Fish screamed. His reptilian arms flailed the air. Lothar slowly dismembered him, tore off his limbs one by one. He yanked the head from the twitching body—hurled the gory thing across the room.

Rusty stared with a strange fascination at the ghastly vengeance. He was still staring blankly when Lothar came toward him.

"You Earthman! I thought spy! You die, too."

The trance left Rusty. The giant Vulcanian loomed over him.

"No," Rusty said. "No! Lothar, listen—!" He suddenly realized just what was happening. He would be helpless in those powerful hands.

The creature reached for him. Rusty remembered covering a match between Earthman and Vulcanian once for the Tele-news sport section. The Earthian, champion of three worlds, hadn't had a chance.

He retreated slowly as the brute came on, bumped sharply against the wall.

The giant stopped before him, little eyes squinting at him. The stark deadliness of the face filled Rusty with an eery fright. Silently, a massive hand grabbed his arm.

With all the strength of his 170 pounds, Rusty swung at the jutting chin.

His hand smashed. The Vulcanian did not even blink.

He lifted Rusty, swung him around. His hold slipped and Rusty was flung against the opposite wall.

Arising dazed, he saw the Vulcanian lumbering over.

Rusty had seen what had happened to Fish. It would be the same with him. How could he fight a man he couldn't hurt? He went ill as his foot slid upon one of the Venusian's severed arms. The star of Earth gleamed brightly in the window and Rusty died a little death of sorrow.

The great Lothar plodded forward.

Rusty glanced wildly about, heart trembling. His shirt was growing wet. There was nothing—he almost fainted at what he saw. Beneath his feet was the weapon dropped by the Venusian.

Rusty snatched at the pistol as the Vulcanian swept upon him. He fired into the hairy chest. The mighty arm came on, knocked Rusty from his feet. Rusty fired again as he fell.

The monster's body fell across him, dead.

As he crawled madly from under the heavy body, Rusty saw the side viewplates filled with a gleaming hull. And printed on the sleek metal was a familiar insignia. It was a space-plane alongside—the Stellar Patrol. Hope leaped like a flame. His long journey was ended.

As he got to his feet, a voice thundered in the room. "Coming aboard for inspection!" The sound came through the walls by radio. "Open space-lock or we blast!"

Rusty ran to the adjoining room, swung the lever opening the outside trap.

It was barely opened when three men in space outfits entered. They slammed the trap behind them, doffed their helmets, entered the ship. Rusty could have embraced them. Earthmen, shaven and clean....

The men came in, guns drawn. "Keep your hands in the air!" cautioned one with a captain's stripe. He searched Rusty, pistol against his chest. The others went forward.

"Wait!" cried Rusty. "You don't understand...." His words died away. A stolen ship—four escaped Plutonian prisoners, three dead. How could they understand?

"What a mess," said one, glancing into the other compartment. "Looks like this fellow saved us trouble—killed off his chums before we came!"

How should he begin? How could he explain the stolen ship? They would never believe his story. And nine men had been killed in the ship's theft. He had done his part in their death.

They searched the ship thoroughly, Rusty closely guarded by the officer.

"I am Rusty Carter! I—"

"Shut up. We don't care who you are."

The patrolmen returned.

"No one else aboard," one reported. "Three bodies, two rayed by the same gun. A Venusian pulled apart—he must have been pretty annoyed with him!"

Rusty was pushed into a chair.

"Okay," said the captain. "Talk! We know you got this boat from the Great Moon near Pluto. We know you've been terrorizing the terrestrial traffic lanes for days. You killed nine men at the Great Moon space port. Where you come from?"

As calmly as possible, Rusty told his complete story, from the beginning of his mission in New York to his awakening presence in the ship. Hearing the story, he knew himself it was no good.

When he finished the patrolmen laughed.

"A good story anyway," said the officer, "but with its flaws. Editor Russell's dead and you can prove nothing. You lie! You could not have escaped Pluto, even in the fantastic way you said. And you might have waded the sea but no man could survive the jungle of the Great Moon. Then, of course, you and your bloody crew have been preying upon the commerce lines for two days, destroyed one liner. Even the bodies in there could convict you of murder. Give up, lad. You're a goner!"

Rusty sought vainly for belief. They must believe him! He could not return to Pluto again.

Without further ceremony, he was forced into a space suit.

"You know the law concerning piracy or murder in the space lanes, of course," said the Captain, adjusting his helmet. "Interplanetary law authorizes death at apprehension."

It could not be.

But he was carried to the patrol ship, locked in a guarded cell.

He sat upon the metal bunk, head heavy upon his hands. It was all over now. He had pled and sworn to no avail. His execution order had been filed. After the customary forty revs of grace, he would die. They would not even let him radio the Tele-news. Give up, his weary mind cried. At least death was better than Pluto. But he was so near home, his job completed. A priceless story would die with him. He felt fear no longer and his unreasoning rage had passed. There was only a great sadness, that he had come this far—to meet defeat. And at the hands of those whom he had sought.

The man before his cell moved away. The guard was probably changing.

Another patrolman approached, stared intently into the cage. "So you're Rusty Carter," he said. Rusty said nothing. No verbal torment could touch him. "I knew Carter once. He was a fine fellow then."

Rusty looked up. He had never seen the man before.

"Yeah," the guard continued, "Carter saved my reputation once—when I was caught in a bribery charge ten years ago, when I was on the ground force in New York."

Rusty searched his mind. He remembered a civil bribery scandal the Tele-news had uncovered many years ago. Several of the accused had been released by his activities. But the man before him struck no chord of recognition.

He was smiling. "You never knew me," he said, "but I knew you. I helped send you a medal when we were cleared, by your efforts. It's too bad you went wrong. Is there anything you want, in your last moments?"

Rusty almost burst with joy. Was there anything he wanted! "Can you get a message through to Earth?"

"If this is a trick, you won't live to see it done. I suppose I could—I know the radio operator."

"Send this. Quick! To the New York Tele-news office. Tell them what's happened. Tell them to do something!"

He waited for what seemed hours.

The man returned, sent the other guard away, shoved a printed message through the bars.

Rusty read with outward calm. His heart fell within him.

"Carter legally convicted attempted robbery, murder. Appealed to President, no avail. Nothing we can do. He was a good Tele-news man. Sorry."

He sank down to the bunk, the paper falling from his fingers.

Absently he heard the sound of marching feet in the corridor outside, looked up blankly, saw uniformed men before his cell.

The door opened and he was led out.

Rusty shook hands with the guard, was marched down the hall to the stern of the ship. It didn't matter now.

The older method of execution had been repealed, Rusty remembered idly. Instead of merely dropping the man out of the space lock, he was now placed in a disintegration chamber.

The lethal box stood before him, a small, compact cylinder of metal, levers upon its side.

The door was opened.

"Anything you wish to say?"

A man was speaking to him. Did he have anything to say? What could he say? But one should die with a flourish, a purple passage. Oddly none came. He merely wished the business over. He could rest then. Did he have anything to say?

"No, but you're wrong."

"Stubborn pirate. They all die innocent!"

The officer slammed the door.

Machinery whirred. It was very dark. Boy! wouldn't the public eat this story up! But in a few moments, before his mind could know it, he would be gone—body and mind—disintegrated into their component elements. He would be a wisp of gas, floating out when the door opened.

The humming stopped abruptly. It was dark and silent. It flashed to Rusty that this must be death.

Then the door opened. Would he float out? He sat there blinking in the sudden light.

"Message for you," said a voice.

Rusty stared. A hand reached in, gently helped him out. A paper was thrust into his hand.

He took it, read it again and again, but somehow his mind didn't take it in.

"You have the apologies of the Interplanetary Patrol!" someone said.

Rusty read the message again.

"Evidence brought by Mrs. S. K. Russell throws new light. Record just discovered in private papers of "Skipper" Russell. Carter granted full pardon."


Someone touched his arm. "The Commander requests your company for dinner."

Then a blinding light suddenly flashed in Rusty Carter's mind. "Dinner, hell!" he yelled. "Take me to the radio. I've got a story for the New York Tele-news!"