The Project Gutenberg eBook of Captives of the Thieve-Star

This ebook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this ebook or online at If you are not located in the United States, you will have to check the laws of the country where you are located before using this eBook.

Title: Captives of the Thieve-Star

Author: James H. Schmitz

Illustrator: Herman B. Vestal

Release date: January 2, 2021 [eBook #64198]

Language: English

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




When Peer and Channok grappled the derelict
Ra-Twelve, they hooked a death-prize—haunted
by the Yomm, stalked by the Mysterious Nine!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories May 1951.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The celebration of the wedding of Peer and Channok had to be cut a little short, because a flock of police-boats from Irrek showed up at detector-range about midway. But it was carried off with a flourish nevertheless.

The oxygen-bubble in the small moon crater was filled with colorful solidographs, creating the impression of an outdoor banquet hall. The best bands playing in the Empire that night unwittingly contributed their efforts, and food and drink were beyond reproach.

Though somewhat dazed throughout, Channok was startled to discover at one point that the thick carpets on which he stood were a genuine priceless Gaifornaab weave—and no solidographs either! The eighty-four small ships of the space-rat tribe—or voyageurs, as they distinctly preferred to be called—lined up along the outer edges of the banquet hall looked eerily out of place to him; but Peer didn't seem to mind. Her people rarely did go far away from their ships, and the lawless, precarious life they led made that an advisable practice.

It would be up to him now, Channok reflected, beaming down on Peer, to educate her into customs and attitudes more fitting for the wife of a regular citizen of the Empire and probable future member of the Imperial Secret Service—

And then, suddenly, the whole ceremony seemed to be over! A bit puzzled by the abruptness with which everybody had begun to pack up and leave, Channok was standing beside the ramp of his own ship, the Asteroid—an honest, licensed trader—when Santis strolled over to talk to him. Santis was Peer's father and the pint-sized chieftain of the tribe.

"Didn't tell you before, son," he remarked, "because you were already nervous enough. But as soon as they finish collapsing the bubble, you'll have about six minutes to get your Asteroid aloft and off this moon before the cops from Irrek arrive!"

"I heard you, Pop, and everything's packed!" Peer called down from the open lock of the Asteroid. "Come up and kiss me good-by and we'll seal her up!"

Frowning suspiciously, Channok followed Santis up the ramp. "Why should I worry about cops?" he inquired, looking down at the two little people while they briefly embraced. Peer came about up to his shoulder, though perfectly formed, and Santis was an inch or two shorter. The tribe didn't run to bulk. "Nobody's hunting for me!"

"Not yet, son," Santis conceded. He twirled his fierce brown mustache-tips thoughtfully and glanced at Peer.

"If you're passing anywhere near Old Nameless, you might cache that special cargo you're carrying for me there," he told her. "Around the foot of the Mound. Too bulky for the ships I've got here! Put a dowser plate in with it, and I'll come pick it up with a transport sometime in the next four months."

"Yes, Pop," said Peer.

"The Fourth Voyageur Fleet will rendezvous at New Gyrnovaan next Terra-spring. If you can talk this big lug into it, try to make it there, daughter!"

"We'll be there," promised Peer.

Channok cleared his throat impatiently. Not if he could help it, they wouldn't!

"Those cops are looking for the missing Crown Jewels of Irrek," Santis resumed, looking at him. "After they've opened you up from stem to stern to make sure you're not hiding them, they might apologize. And again they might not."

"Holy Satellites!" Channok said, stunned. "Did you actually—"

"Not I, son. I just master-mind these things. Some of the boys did the job. There goes the oxygen-bubble! Now will you get going?"

They got going, Channok speechless for once.

Some two months later, he stood in the Asteroid's control room, watching a pale blur creep up along the starboard screen.

"That's not just one ship—that's at least a hundred!" he announced presently, somewhat startled. "Looks like they've turned out the entire Dardrean war-fleet! Wonder what's up?"

Peer laid the cargo list she was checking down on the desk and came over to look at the screen.

"Hm!" she said.

"It couldn't possibly have anything to do with us, could it?" he inquired, on a sudden alarming hunch. Being unfamiliar with the dialect used on Dardrea, he had left most of the bargaining there to her.

Peer shrugged. She showed the bland, innocent look of a ten-year-old child, but that was habitual with her. On one occasion she'd been mistaken for his daughter, and at times he even had to remind himself that she'd been eighteen and a student at the Imperial Institute of Technology when he first met her there—and then unwittingly became Santis' tool in the abstraction of a small but important section of the IIT's top-secret experimental files! He'd been trying to counteract that little brigand's influence on Peer ever since, but he wasn't too sure of his degree of success so far.

"We took the Merchants Guild for plenty on our auction!" she admitted.

"Well," Channok frowned, "they'd hardly send a fleet after us for that."

"And, of course," added Peer, "we got the Duke of Dardrea's fabulous Coronet. Forgot to mention that. Perfectly legal, though! Some local crook swiped it and we took it in trade."

Channok winced. As a matter of fact, fencing was a perfectly legitimate business on Dardrea. But a man who planned to enter the Imperial Secret Service, as soon as he could save up the money to pay his way through the Academy, couldn't afford any stains on his past! Throughout the Empire, the Service was renowned in song and story as the one body of men who stood above the suspicion of reproach.

"The Duke won't know it's gone for another week," Peer consoled him. "Anyway, it looks to me as if those ships are beginning to pull off our course!"

There followed some seconds of tense observation.

"So they are," Channok acknowledged then. He mopped his forehead. "But I wish you wouldn't be quite so technical in your interpretation of local laws, Peer! Those babies are really traveling. Wonder who or what they're chasing?"

Three days later, as the Asteroid approached the area of the red giant sun of Old Nameless, where they were going to cache Santis' cargo for him—hot cargo, probably; and it would be a load off Channok's mind to get rid of it—they picked up the trail of the foundering spaceship Ra-Twelve and found part of the answer on board.


"It seemed to me," Channok remarked, watching the Ra-Twelve in the viewscreen before them, "as if her drives had cut off completely just then! But they're on again now. What do you think, crew-member Peer?"

"Let's just follow her a bit," Peer suggested. "I've seen ships act like that that were just running out of juice. But this one won't even answer signals!"

"It could be," Channok said hopefully, "a case of fair salvage! You might keep working the communicators, though...."

However, the Ra-Twelve continued to ignore them while she plodded on towards the distant red glare of the Nameless System like a blind, thirsty beast following its nose to a water-hole. Presently, she began a series of quavering zigzag motions, wandered aimlessly off her course, returned to it again on a few final puffs of invisible energy and at last went drifting off through space with her drives now obviously dead.

The Asteroid continued to follow at a discreet distance like a chunky vulture, watching. If there was anyone on board the Ra-Twelve, it almost had to be a ghost. Her rear lock was wide open, and the hull showed deep scars and marks of some recent space-action.

"But she wasn't really badly hurt," Channok pointed out. "What do you suppose could have happened to her crew?"

Peer gave him a nervous grin. "Maybe a space-ghost came on board!"

"You don't really believe those spooky voyageur stories, do you?" he said tolerantly.

"Sure I do—and so will you some day!" Peer promised him. "I'll tell you a few true ones just before your next sleep-period!"

"No, you won't," Channok said firmly. "Aside from space-ghosts, though, that crate has a downright creepy look to her. But I suppose I'd better go over and check, as soon as she slows down enough so we can latch on. And you're going to stay on the Asteroid, Peer."

"In a pig's eye, I am!" Peer said indignantly. And though Channok wished to know if she had forgotten that he was the Asteroid's skipper, it turned out that this was one time he'd have to yield.

"Because, Channy dear," Peer said, her big dark eyes welling slow tears, "I'd just die if something happened to you over there and I was left all alone in space!"

"All you'd have to do," Channok said uncomfortably, "is to head the Asteroid for New Gyrnovaan, and you know it. Well—you've got to promise to stay right behind me, anyway!"

"Of course," promised Peer, the tears vanishing miraculously. "Santis says a wife should always stick with her husband in space, because he might lead her into a jam, all right, but nothing like the !!****!; !**!! jams she's likely to run into if she strays around by herself."

"Whereas Ship's Regulation 66-B says," said Channok with grim satisfaction, "that crew-member Peer gets her mouth washed out with soap just before the next sleep-period because of another uncontrolled lapse into vituperous profanity—and what was that comment?"

"That one was under my breath," said Peer, crestfallen, "so it doesn't count!"

Without making any particular remarks about it, both of them had fastened a brace of guns to their jet-harnesses. At close range—held thirty feet away against the Asteroid's ring-bumpers by a set of dock grapnels—the Ra-Twelve's yawning lock looked more than ever like the black mouth of a cavern in which something was lurking for them.

Channok went over first, propelled by a single squirt of his jets, and landed a little heavier than he had intended to. Peer, following instructions to keep right behind him, came down an instant later in the middle of his back. They got untangled hurriedly, stood up and started swiveling their helmet beams about the Ra-Twelve's storage lock.

It was practically empty. So was the big rack that had held the ship's single big lifeboat. There were some tools scattered around. They kicked at them thoughtfully, looked at each other and started forward through an open door up a dark passageway, switching their lights ahead and from side to side.

There was a locked door which probably led into the Ra-Twelve's engine section, and then four cabins, each of which had been used by two men. The cabins were in considerable disorder, but from what one could tell in a brief look-around, each of the occupants had found time to pack up about what you would expect a man to take along when he was planning on a lifeboat trip. So whatever had happened probably hadn't been entirely unexpected.

The mess-room, all tidied up, was next; two locked doors were at the back of it, and also an open entrance to the kitchen and food storage. They glanced around at everything, briefly, and went on to the control room.

It was considerably bigger than the one on the Asteroid and luxuriously equipped. The pilot's section was in a transparently walled little office by itself. The instruments showed both Dardrean and Empire markings and instructions. Channok switched the dead drives off first and then reached out, quite automatically, for the spot above the control desk where a light button ought to be—

Light instantly flooded the interior of the Ra-Twelve.

The intruders jumped a foot. It was as if the ship had suddenly come alive around them! Then they looked at each other and grinned.

"Automatic," Channok sighed.

"Might as well do it the easy way!" Peer admitted. She slid the Ophto Needle she'd half-drawn back into its holster.

The Ra-Twelve had eighteen fully charged drive batteries still untouched. With some system of automatic power transfer working, she could have gone cruising along on her course for months to come. However, she hadn't been cruising, Channok discovered next; the speed controls were set to "Full Emergency".... An empty ship, racing through space till the battery she was operating on went dead—

He shook his head. And then Peer was tapping his arm.

"Look what I found! I think it's her log!"

It was a flat steel box with an illuminated tape at its front end, on which a date was printed. A line of spidery Dardrean script was engraved on a plate on the top of the box.

"Ra-Twelve," Peer translated. "That's her name."

"So it's a Dardrean ship! But they're using the Empire calendar," Channok pointed out, "which would make it an Empire crew.... How do you work this thing? If it is her log, it might give us an idea of what's happened."

"Afterwards, Channy! I just found another door leading off the other end of the control room—"

The door opened into a second passage, parallel to the one by which they had come forward, but only half as long and very dimly lit. Filled with uneasy speculations, Channok forgot his own instructions and let Peer take the lead.

"More cabins!" her voice said, just as he became aware of the wrecked door-frame out of which the light was spilling ahead of her.

A woman had been using that cabin. A woman who had liked beautiful and expensive things, judging by what was strewn about. It looked, Channok thought, as if she hadn't had time to finish her packing.

"Her spacesuit's gone, though," Peer's voice announced from the interior of a disordered closet.

Channok was inspecting the door. This was the first indication that there had been any violence connected with whatever had happened on the Ra-Twelve. The door had been locked from without and literally ripped open from within by a stream of incandescence played on it by a gun held probably not much more than a foot away. That woman had wanted out in an awful hurry!

Peer came over to watch him. He couldn't quite read her expression, but he had a notion she wanted to bawl.

"Let's take a quick look at the rest of it and get back to the Asteroid," he suggested, somewhat disturbed himself. "We ought to talk this over."

The one remaining cabin lay just beyond the point where the passage angled back into the ship. There was light in that one, too, and the door was half open. Channok got there first and pushed it open a little farther. Then he stood frozen in the door-frame for a moment.

"What's stopping you?" Peer inquired impatiently, poking his ribs from behind.

He stepped back into the passage, pulled the door shut all the way, scooped her up and heaved her to his shoulder. His space-boots felt like iron anchors as he clunk-clunked hastily back through the passages to the derelict's lock. There was nothing definite to run from any more; but he knew now what had happened on the Ra-Twelve, and he felt nightmare pacing after him all the way.

He crossed to the Asteroid's control room lock in a jump, without bothering with his jets.

"Close the outer lock!" he told Peer hoarsely, reaching up for the switch marked "Decontaminant" above him.

A fourfold spray of yellowish Killall was misting the trapped air in the lock about them an instant later.

"What was it?" Peer's voice came out of the fog.

"Antibiotic," Channok said, his scalp still crawling. "What you—what voyageurs call a lich, I think. I don't know that kind. But it got the guy in that last cabin."

The occupant of the last cabin had looked as if somebody had used a particularly vicious sort of acid gun on him, which somehow had missed damaging his clothing. To the grisly class of life-forms that produced that effect, an ordinary spacesuit offered exactly no resistance.

"A lich can't last more than an hour or so in space, Channy," Peer's voice came shakily after a pause. "It's a pretty awful way to get it, but that stuff over there must have been dead for a long time now."

"I know," said Channok. He hesitated, and then cut off the Killall spray and started the blowers to clear the lock. "I guess I just panicked for a moment. But I'm going to go over that ship with decontaminant before we do any more investigating! And meanwhile you'd better get in a few hours of sleep!"

"Wouldn't hurt any," Peer agreed. "How do you suppose the lich got on board?"

He could tell her that. He'd seen a heavy, steel-framed glassite container in a corner of the cabin, opened. They must have been transporting some virulent form of antibiotic; and there might have been an accident—

Five hours later, they had come to the conclusion that it had been no accident. Four hours of that time, Channok had been engaged in disinfecting the Ra-Twelve, even her engine sections. He'd given the one man left on board space-burial in one of the Asteroid's steel cargo crates. The crate hadn't been launched very far and presently hung suspended some eighty yards above the two ships, visible as a black oblong that obscured the stars behind it.

It and its contents were one of the reasons Channok was anxious to get done with the job of salvaging the Ra-Twelve. She was a stream-lined, beautiful ship; but after what had happened, he knew he would never be able to work up any liking for her. She seemed to be waiting sullenly and silently for a chance to deal with the two humans who had dared come on board her again.

He sealed her up presently, filled her with a fresh airmix and, having once more checked everything he could think of, let Peer come over again for a final briefing on their run to Old Nameless.

Peer wandered promptly into the cabin where the dead man had been and there discovered the wall-safe.


She called him. He couldn't imagine how he had overlooked it. Perhaps because it was so obviously there! It was an ordinary enough safe, from what they could see of the front of it; and there was a tiny key in its lock.

They looked at it thoughtfully.

"You didn't try to open it, did you?" Channok inquired.

"No," said Peer; "because—"

"That's what I was thinking," Channok admitted.

There had been, they had decided, at least two groups working against each other in the ship. The dead man had been in charge of the antibiotic. Perhaps the woman had been on his side, perhaps not. But the eight other men had acted together and had controlled the ship. What action or threat of theirs had caused the dead man to release his terrible weapon would be hard to discover now. But he had done it, and the eight men had abandoned the Ra-Twelve promptly, leaving the woman locked in her cabin....

It looked pretty much as if she had been the one who had switched the drives to full speed—before jumping out into space. A pretty tough, desperate lot all around, in Channok's opinion. The Ra-Twelve's log offered the information that they had left Dardrea three calendric days earlier, but had been of no further help in identifying crew or passengers. That most of them were professional criminals, however, seemed a pretty safe bet—as Peer had pointed out, in voyageur terms, amateurs didn't play around with taboo-weapons like a bottled lich!

Also, amateurs—Peer and Channok, for example—could have sense enough not to blunder into a booby-trap....

"He'd know, of course," Channok said reflectively, "that everybody would be wondering what's hidden in that safe! And it could be anything up to and including full instructions on how to set up an artificial culture of antibiotics. Plenty of governments would pay twenty times what the Ra-Twelve is worth as salvage for that kind of information. But it's nothing we need to know."

"Not that bad," Peer agreed.

"And the guy who opens that wall-safe had better be an armaments expert! Which we're not. But now, crew-member Peer, if we want to get Santis' cargo cached on Old Nameless before I fall asleep, we ought to get started. Idle curiosity is something we can satisfy some other time."

"Two hours past your sleep-period right now!" said Peer, glancing at her wrist-watch. "Tsk, tsk! That always makes you so grouchy."

Half an hour later, they were on their way—Channok in the Ra-Twelve, Peer in the Asteroid, keeping as close to each other as two ships in flight could safely get. With the red glare of the Old Nameless sun a trifle off-center before him, Channok settled down in the most comfortable pilot-seat he'd ever found on any ship and decided he could relax a trifle. Peer was obviously having a wonderful time doing her first solo-piloting job on a ship of the Asteroid's size; and since she'd run and landed the Asteroid any number of times under his supervision, he wasn't worried about her ability to handle it. However, he continued to check in on her over the communicators every five minutes or so, and grinned at the brisk, spacemanlike replies he got in return. Crew-member Peer was on her best behavior right now!

By and by, then—he couldn't have said just when it started—Channok began to realize that some very odd things were happening around him—

It appeared that the Thing he had put out for burial in a space-crate hadn't liked the idea of being left alone. So it was following him.

Channok decided uneasily that it might be best to ignore it. But it kept coming closer and closer until, finally, the crate was floating just outside the Ra-Twelve's control room port, spinning slowly like a running-down top.

The crate stayed shut, but he knew the Thing inside it was watching him.

"That's my ship," the Thing remarked presently.

Channok ignored it.

"And you're all alone," said the Thing.

"No, I'm not!" said Channok. "Peer's with me."

"Peer's gone back to Santis," said the Thing. "You're all alone! Except," it added, "for me."

"Well, good-by!" Channok said firmly. There was no point in getting too chummy with it. He punched the Ra-Twelve's drives down as far as they would go, and the crate vanished.

How that ship could travel! Nothing could hope to keep up with him now—except, perhaps, that round, red glare of light just behind the Ra-Twelve.

That was actually overtaking him, and fast. It was coming up like a cosmic police-ship, with a huge, hollow noise rushing before it. Channok listened apprehensively. Suddenly, there were words:

"WHOO-WHOOO!" it howled. "This is the Space Ghost!"

He shot up out of his chair like a jabbed cat, knocking it over, and glared around.

The Ra-Twelve's control room lay brightly lit and silent behind him.

"Ha-ha!" Peer's chuckle came from the communicator. "That woke you up, I bet! Was that you that fell over?"

"Aw-awk!" breathed Channok. Articulation came back to him. "All right, crew-member Peer! Just wait till we get to Old Nameless! I'll fix you good!"

"Shall I tell you the story now about the Horror Ship from Mizar?" Peer inquired intrepidly.

"Go right ahead," Channok challenged, righting his chair and settling back into it. "You can't scare me with that sort of stuff!" He began checking their position.

He must have been asleep for quite a while! The Nameless System was less than two hours ahead now. He switched on the front screen; and the sun swam up like a big, glowing coal before him. He began checking for the seventh planet.

"Well," he reminded the communicator grimly, "you were going to tell me a story."

The communicator remained silent a moment.

"I don't think I will, anyway," Peer said then, rather quietly.

"Why not?" Channok inquired, getting his screen-viewer disentangled from a meteor-belt in the Nameless System.

"I made that Space Ghost too good!" whispered Peer. "I'm getting scared myself now."

"Aha!" said Channok. "See what behaving like that will get you?" He got Old Nameless VII into the viewer.

The communicator remained still. He looked over at it.

"Of course, there's really nothing to be scared of!" he added reassuringly.

"How do you know?" quavered Peer. "I'm all alone."

"Nonsense!" Channok said heartily. "I can see the Asteroid right over there on the screen! You can see me, can't you?"

"Sure," said Peer. "That's a long way off, though. You couldn't do anything!"

"It's not safe for two ships to travel much closer together," Channok reminded her. "We're only two hours from Old Nameless right now—I'm already focussed on it."

"I've been focussed on it for an hour," said Peer. "While you were snoring," she added. "Two hours is an awful long time!"

"Tell you what," suggested Channok. "I'll race you to it. The Ra-Twelve's a mighty fast boat—" He checked himself. He'd only dreamed that, after all.

"Let's go!" Peer said briefly.

He let Peer stay just ahead of him all the way in, though the stream-lined derelict probably could have flown rings around the Asteroid, at that. Just an hour later, they went around Old Nameless VII twice, braking down, and then coasted into its atmosphere on their secondary drives.

"That's the place," Peer's voice said suddenly. "I can see the old Mound in the plain! In the evening strip, Channy—that straight-up cliff!"

He set the Ra-Twelve down first, at the base of a mountain that reared up almost vertically for eighteen thousand feet or so out of a flat, dimly-lit stretch of rocky desert land.

The Asteroid came down in a very neat landing, two hundred yards away. He got there on the run, just as the front lock opened. Peer came tumbling out of it into his arms and hung on fiercely, while her skipper hugged her.

"Let that scare be a lesson to you!" he remarked when he set her down.

"It certainly will," said Peer, still clutching his arm as they started over to the Ra-Twelve. "That old Space Ghost had me going!"

"Me, too," he confessed; "just for a moment, anyway! Well, let's get busy."

They went over the Ra-Twelve again from bow to stern, to make sure there was nothing they would want to take along immediately, and found there wasn't. They gave the unopened wall-safe a last calculating regard, and decided once more that they'd better not. Then they shut off everything, closed the front lock behind them and safetied it with the dock bolts.

The plain was darkening when they came out, but the top of the mountain still glowed with red light. They climbed into the Asteroid, and Channok closed the lock. He started for the control desk then; but Peer beat him to it and anchored herself into the seat of command with hands, knees and feet. It became apparent almost at once that he couldn't get her out of it without running the risk of pulling off her head.

"Now look here, crew-member Peer," he said persuasively, "you know good and well that if these top-heavy cargo crates have one weakness, it's the take-off!"

"It could be the pilot, too," Peer said meaningly. "I've been studying the manual, and I've watched you do it. It's my turn now."

He considered her thoughtfully.

"Suppose you die of old age, all of a sudden?" argued Peer. "Wouldn't want me to sit here alone without knowing even how to take her off, would you?"

That did it.

"Go ahead," said Channok with dignity, taking a position back of the chair. "Go right ahead! This decrepit old man of twenty-eight is going to stand right here and laugh himself sick!"

"You'll be sick, all right," promised Peer. "But it won't be from laughing! I'll read that chapter out of the manual to you sometime."

She had studied it, too, he decided. She sat perched forward on the edge of the chair, alert and cocky, and went through the starting operations without hitch or hesitation. The Asteroid rumbled beneath them, briefly building up power....

Channok braced himself—


For the next few seconds, the question seemed to be whether they'd pile into the plain or the mountain first; and, for another improbable moment, they were distinctly skidding along upside down. Then Peer got them straightened out, and they soared up rapidly into the night sky above Old Nameless.

Channok's hair settled slowly back into place.

Peer looked around at him, puzzled and rather pale.

"That's not the way it said in the manual!" she stated.

Channok whooped. Then he sat down on the floor, bent over and yelled.

When he got around to wiping the tears from his eyes, Peer was looking down at him disgustedly from the control chair.

"It wasn't the way it said in the manual!" she repeated firmly. "We're going to have to have this old crate overhauled before she'll be safe to fly—and if you weren't my husband, I'd really let you have it now!"

He stood up, muttering some sort of apology.

"I've done some just as bad!" he assured her.

"Hum!" said Peer coldly, studying Old Nameless in the screen below them. It seemed safe to pat her on the head then, but he kept his hand well out of biting range.

"We'd better get back to that mountain and bury the Ra-Twelve before it gets too dark to find the spot," he suggested.

"It's still just in sight," said Peer. "You get the guns ready, and I'll run us past it slowly."

Spaceships being what they were, there wasn't much ceremony about caching the Ra-Twelve. Channok got the bow-turret out; and as Peer ran the Asteroid slowly along the mountainside a few hundred feet above the Ra-Twelve, he cut a jagged line into the rock with the gun's twin beams. A few dozen tons of rock came thundering down on the Ra-Twelve.

They came back from the other side, a little higher up, and he loosened it some more. This time, it looked as if a sizable section of the mountain were descending; and when the dust had settled the Ra-Twelve was fifty feet under a sloping pile of very natural-looking debris. To get her out again, they'd only have to cut a path down to her lock and start her drives. She'd come out of the stuff then, like a trout breaking water....

Satisfied, they went off and got the Asteroid on an orbit around Old Nameless, not too far out. Peer had assured Channok that Santis' investigations had proved the planet safe for human beings, so it probably was. But he knew he'd feel more comfortable if they put in their sleep-periods outside its atmosphere. Bathed in the dismal light of its giant sun, Old Nameless looked like a desolate backyard of Hell. It was rocky, sandy, apparently waterless and lifeless and splotched with pale stretches of dry salt seas. Incongruously delicate auroras went crawling about its poles, like lopsided haloes circling a squat, brooding demon. It wasn't, Channok decided, the kind of planet he would have stopped at of his own accord, for any purpose.

The cliff against which they had buried the Ra-Twelve was the loftiest section of an almost unbroken chain of mountains, surrounding the roughly circular hundred-mile plain, which was littered with beds of boulders and sand-hills, like a moon crater. What Peer had referred to as the "Mound" lay approximately at the center of the plain. It turned out, next morning, to be a heavily weathered, dome-shaped structure half a mile high and five miles across, which gave the impression that all but the top tenth of a giant's skull had been buried in the sand, dented here and there with massive hammers, and sprinkled thickly with rock dust. It was obviously an artifact—constructed with hundred-foot bricks! As the Asteroid drifted down closer to it, Channok became interested.

"Who built it?" he asked.

Peer shrugged. She didn't know. "Santis spent a few hours jetting around the edges of it once," she said. "But he wouldn't tell us much; and, afterwards, he wouldn't let us get nearer than a mile to it. He didn't go back himself, either—said it was dangerous to get too close!"

It didn't look dangerous. But fifty thousand years ago, it might have been a fortress of some sort.

"You oughtn't to be flying so low over it, even!" Peer said warningly. "Right in the middle on top is where it's the most dangerous, Santis said!"

Channok didn't argue the matter—they had to get Santis' special cargo cached and off their hands first, anyway. He lifted the Asteroid a mile or so and then brought her down a couple of miles beyond the Mound, at the point Peer had designated.

They got out of the ship and gazed about the broken, rocky plain. The red light of the Nameless Sun was spilling across it in what passed for morning on this world. In it, the black mountain chains rearing about the horizon and the craggy waves of flat land had the general effect of a bomb-shattered and slowly burning city. Far off to their left, he could see the upper half of the towering precipice which marked the Ra-Twelve's resting-place.

"How long a time did you say you spent here?" he asked.

Peer reflected. "About two Terra-months, I guess. I'm not sure, though. That was a long time ago. My youngest brother Dobby wasn't born yet."

He shook his head. "What a spot for a nice family picnic!"

"It wasn't a picnic," Peer said. "But my kid brother Wilf and I had a lot of fun anyway, just running around and teasing the ghouls. I guess you don't notice so much what a place looks like when you're little."

"Teasing the what?"

"Ghouls," said Peer carelessly.

He looked at her suspiciously; but she seemed to be studying the nearby terrain for a good spot to start digging.

"And what were Santis and your mother doing?" he inquired.

"They were looking for some sort of mineral deposit on Old Nameless; I forget just what. How about that spot—just under that little overhang? It looks like good, solid top-rock."

Channok agreed it was just the place. He'd got a drilling attachment mounted to the Asteroid's small all-purpose tractor; and now he went back and ran the machine down the ramp from the storage lock. He ordered Peer, who wanted to help, up a rock about twenty feet overhead, where she perched looking like an indignant elf, out of reach of any stray puffs of the drill-blast. Then he started running a slanting, narrow tunnel down under the overhang.

Half an hour later, when he backed the tractor out of the tunnel, pushing a pile of cooking slag behind him, he saw her standing up on the rock with a small stun-gun in her hand. She beckoned to him.

Channok pulled off his breather-mask, shut off the tractor, and jumped from the saddle.

"What is it?" he called anxiously, trotting towards her, while the machine's clacking and roaring subsided.

"Some of those ghouls!" Peer called back. "Climb up here and I'll show you." She didn't seem worried.

"They've ducked behind those rocks now," she said as he clambered up beside her; "but they won't stay there long. They're curious, and I think some of them remember the time we were here before."

"Are they dangerous?" he inquired, patting his holstered set of heavy-duty Reaper guns.

"No," said Peer. "They look sort of awful, but you mustn't shoot them! If they get inside of thirty feet I'll hit them in the stomach with a stunner. They grunt then and run. Santis said that was the right way to teach them not to get too nosey."

They waited a moment in silence, scanning the rocks.

Then Channok started violently.

"Holy !!**?** Satellites!" he swore, his hair bristling.

A big, dead-white shape had popped up springily on a rock about fifty feet away, stared at him for an instant out of eyes like grey glass-platters, and popped down out of sight again. Awful was right!

"Aha!" crew-member Peer gloated, grinning. "You shouldn't have said that! Tonight you've got to let me soap out your mouth!"

A light dawned gradually.

"You did it on purpose!" he accused her. "You knew I'd say something like that the first time I saw one!"

Peer didn't deny it.

"It's the soap for you, just the same!" she shrugged. "People ought to have some self-control—that's what you said! Look, there's another one now—no, two!"


When he came up for lunch, he found about fifty ghouls collected around the area. By that time he had dug the cache, steel-lined it, disinfected it and installed preservatives, a humidifier and a dowser plate. Loading it up would take most of the rest of the day.

He avoided looking at the local population as much as he could while he ate. However, the occasional glimpses he got suggested that the Nameless System had made a half-hearted and badly botched attempt at developing its own type of humanoid inhabitant. They had extremely capable looking jaws, at any rate, and their wide, lipless mouths were wreathed in perpetual idiot grins. The most completely disagreeable parts of them, Channok decided, were the enormous, red-nailed hands and feet. Like fat, white gargoyles, they sat perched around the tops of the rocks in a wide circle and just stared.

"Sloppy-looking things," he remarked, noticing Peer's observant eyes on him. "But at least they're not trying to strike up a conversation!"

"They never say anything until you hit them in the stomach with a stunner," she informed him. "Then they just grunt and run."

"Sure they mightn't get mean about that? The smallest of this lot looks plenty big enough to take us both apart."

Peer laughed. "All of them together wouldn't try it! They're real yellow. Wilf got mad at a couple of 'em once and ran 'em halfway over to the Mound before mother caught up with him and stopped him. Wilf had his blood up, that time!"

"Maybe the ghouls built the Mound," Channok suggested. "Their great-great-ancestors, anyway."

"They won't go near it now," Peer said, following-his gaze. "They're scared of that, too!"

They studied the rugged, ungainly slopes of the huge artifact for a moment. There was something fascinating about it, Channok thought. Perhaps just its size.

"Santis said the plain was the bottom of a sea a while ago," Peer offered. "So it could have been some sort of sea-things that built it."

"Any entrances into it?" he asked casually.

"Just one, right at the top."

"You know," he said, "I think I'd like to go over and have a look at that thing before we leave."

"No!" said Peer, alarmed. "You'd better not. Santis said it was dangerous—and there is something there! We saw a light one night."

"What kind of a light?"

"Like someone walking around the top of it, near that entrance, with a big lamp in his hand," Peer remembered. "Like he might have been looking for something."

"Sounds a bit like your old friend, the Space Ghost," Channok murmured suspiciously.

"No," Peer grinned. "This was a real light—and we took off the next evening. Santis said it might be as well if we moved somewhere else for a while."

Channok considered a moment. "Look," he said finally, "we can do it like this. I'll jet myself over there and stroll around it a bit in daylight; and if you're worried, you could hang overhead in the Asteroid with a couple of turrets out. Just in case someone gets tough."

"I could, maybe," said Peer, in a tight voice, "but I'm not going to. If you're going to go walking around there, after all Santis said, I'm going to be walking right behind you!"

"Oh, no, you're not," Channok said.

"Oh, yes, I am!" said Peer. "You can't make me stay here!"

He looked at her in surprise. Her eyes were angry, but her lower lip quivered.

"Hey," he said, startled. "Maybe I'm being a pig!"

"You sure are!" Peer said, relieved. The lip stopped quivering. "You're not going over there, then?"

"Not if you feel that way about it," Channok said. He paused. "I guess," he admitted awkwardly, "I just didn't like the idea of Santis flitting around space, Holy Aynstyn knows where, and still putting in his two millicredits worth every so often, through crew-member Peer!"

Peer blew her nose and considered in turn. "Just the same," she concluded, "when Santis says something like that, it's a lot better if people do it. Is 'Holy Aynstyn knows where' a swear-word?"

"No," said Channok. "Not exactly."

He'd finished his lunch and was just going to suggest they run the tractor out of the cache and back the few hundred yards to the Asteroid for the first load of Santis' cargo, when he noticed that all the ghouls had vanished.

He called Peer's attention to the fact.

"Uh-huh," she said in an absent-minded tone. "They do that sometimes...."

Channok looked at her. She was staring at a high boulder a short distance away, with a queer, intent expression, as if she were deep in thought about something. He hoped she wasn't still brooding about their little argument—

Then she glanced at him, gave him a sudden grin, swung herself around and slid nimbly off the rock.

"Come on down quick!" she said. "I want to show you something before you get back to work. A ghoul-burrow!"

"A ghoul-burrow?" Channok repeated unenthusiastically.

"Yes, sure!" said Peer impatiently. "They're cute! They're all lined with glass or something." She spread her arms wide. "Jump, and I'll catch you!"

Channok laughed, flopped over on his stomach with his legs over the edge of the rock, and slid down in a fair imitation of Peer's nonchalant style of descent, spraining his ankle only a little. Well, he hadn't grown up skipping from craggy moon to asteroid to heavy-planet to whatnot like she had....

They threaded their way about the rocks to the spot she had been studying. She explained that he'd have to climb into the burrow to get a good idea of what it was like.

"Well, look now, Peer!" Channok protested, staring into the big, round hole that slanted downwards under a big boulder—it did seem to be lined with black glass or some similar stuff. "That cave's got 'No Trespassing' written all over it. Supposing I slide down a half a mile and land in a mess of ghouls!"

"No, you won't," Peer said hurriedly. "It goes level right away, and they're never more than thirty feet long. And the ghoul's out—there's never more than one to a burrow; and I saw this one pop out and run off just before we started here! You're not scared, are you? Wilf and I crawled in and out of hundreds of them!"

"Well, just for a moment then," said Channok resignedly.

He got down on hands and knees and crept into the tunnel. After about six feet, he stopped and found he could turn around without too much trouble. "Peer?" he called back.

"Yes?" said Peer.

"How can I see anything here," Channok demanded peevishly, "when it's all dark?"

"Well, you're in far enough now," said Peer, who had sat down before the entrance of the tunnel and was looking in after him. "And now I've got to ask you to do something! You know how I always promptly carry out any orders you give me, like getting in my full sleep-period and all?" she added anxiously.

"No, you do not!" Channok stated flatly, resting on his elbows. "Half the time I practically have to drag you to the cabin. Anyway, what's that got to do with—"

"It's like this," Peer said desperately. She glanced up for a moment, as if she had caught sight of something in the dim red sky overhead. "You've got to stay in there a while, Channy!"

"Eh?" said Channok.

"When those ghouls pop out of sight in daytime like that, it's because there's a ship or something coming."

"Peer, are you crazy? A ship! Who—I'm coming right out!"

"Stay there, Channy! It's hanging over the Asteroid right now. A big lifeboat with its guns out—it must be those men from the Ra-Twelve! They must have had a tracer of some sort on her!"

"Then get in here quick, Peer!" Channok choked, hauling out one of the Reapers. "You know good and well that bunch would kill a woman as soon as a man!"

"They've already seen me—I wanted them to," Peer informed him. She was talking out of the side of her mouth, looking straight ahead of her, away from the cave. "I'm not going to be a woman. I'm going to be a dumb little girl, ordinary size. I can pull that one off any time!"


"They'll want to ask questions. I think I can get them to send that lifeboat away. We can't fight that, Channy; it's a regular armed launch! Santis says you can always get the other side to split its forces, if you're smart about it."

"But how—"

"And then, when I yell 'Here we go!' then you pop out. That'll be the right moment—" She stood up suddenly. "We can't talk any more! They're getting close—" She vanished with that from before the mouth of the burrow.

"Hold on there!" a voice yelled in the distance a few seconds later, as Channok came crawling clumsily up the glassy floor of the tunnel, hampered by the Reaper he still clutched in one hand. It seemed to come from up in the air, and it was using the Empire's universal dialect.

Peer's footsteps stopped abruptly.

"Who you people?" her voice screeched in shrill alarm. "You cops? I ain't done nothing!"


"And just look at those guns she's carrying!" the deeper of the two strange voices commented. "The real stuff, too—a stunner and an Ophto Needle! Better get them from her. If it isn't a baby Flauval!"

"I didn't shoot nobody lately!" Peer said, trembly-voiced.

"No, and you ain't going to shoot nobody either!" the other strange voice mimicked her. That one was high-pitched and thin, with a pronounced nasal twang to it. "Chief, if there're kids with them, it's just a bunch of space-rats that happened along. It couldn't be Flauval!"

"I'd say 'it couldn't be Flauval', if we'd found her dead in her cabin," the deep voice said irritably. "But that door was burned out from inside—and somebody ditched the Ra-Twelve on this clod!" It sounded as if the discovery of Peer had interrupted an argument between them.

"I still can't see how she got out," Nasal-voice Ezeff said sullenly. "She must have been sleeping in her spacesuit. We were out of the ship thirty seconds after I slap-welded that lock across her door! She must have felt the boat leaving and started burning her way out the same instant—"

"It doesn't matter how she did it," said the deep voice. Apparently, it belonged to someone with authority. "If Flauval could think and move fast enough to switch the drives to Full Emergency and still get alive out of a ship full of the Yomm, she could cheat space, too! She always did have the luck of the devil. If we'd had just that minute to spare before leaving, to make sure—"

It paused a moment and resumed gloomily: "That stubborn old maniac of a Koyle—'I'm the Duke's man, sir!' Committing suicide—like that—so no one else would get control of the Yomm! If we hadn't managed to start the launch's locators in time.... Well, I hope I'll never have to sweat out another four days like the last. And now we still have to find whoever got Koyle's records!"

"Flauval ain't here," Peer offered at that point, brightly.

There was a pause. It seemed that the two newcomers must have almost forgotten their prisoner for a moment.

"What was that you said, kid?" Nasal-voice inquired carefully.

"Those space-rats are all half crazy," the deep voice said contemptuously. "She doesn't know what we're talking about."

"Sure I know!" Peer said indignantly. "You was talking about Flauval. It's Wilf that's the crazy one—I ain't! And she ain't here. Flauval."

"She ain't, eh?" Nasal-voice said, with speculative alertness.

"No, sir," Peer said, timid again. "She's went with the rest of'm."

Both voices swore together in startled shock.

"Where are they?" the deep voice demanded. "Hiding on the ship?"

"No, sir," quavered Peer. "It's just me on the ship, till they come back."

"You mean," the deep voice said, with strained patience, "you're supposed to be on the ship?"

"Yes, sir," said Peer. She added in a guilty mutter, "Sleepin'...."

"Where did the others go?" Nasal-voice inquired sharply.

"But I ain't tired," said Peer. "Well, with the boxes and stuff! What Flauval wants buried."

There was another duet of exclamations which Channok, at almost any other time, would have considered highly unsuitable for Peer's ears. Right now, it escaped his attention.

"She's got Koyle's records!" stated the deep voice then.

"What's in those boxes?" Nasal-voice snapped.

"D-d-don't shake me!" wept Peer. "Papers and stuff—I don't know. They don't never tell me nothing," she wailed, "because I'm just a little girl!"

"Yes, you're just a little girl," said Nasal-voice, exasperated. "You're not going to get much bigger either."

"Cut that," said the deep voice. "No sense scaring the kid."

"Well, you're not figuring on taking them back, are you?" Nasal-voice inquired.

"No. Just Flauval. The colonel will be glad to chat with Flauval a bit, now that she's turned up alive again. Koyle may have told her plenty before we soured him on her. But there's no point in making the rest of them desperate. It's easier when they surrender."

There was a short pause. Then the deep voice addressed Peer with a sort of amiable gruffness:

"So they all went off to bury the boxes, but you don't know where they went—is that it, little girl?"

"Oh, sure!" Peer said, anxious to please. "Yes, sir! I know that!"

"WHERE?" said both voices together, chorusing for the third time.

"It's that big Mound over there," Peer said; and Channok started nervously. "It's got a big door on top. No," she added, "I guess you can't see from down here—and you can't see from the ship. That's why I came out. To watch for'm. But you can see it plain from the top of the rocks."

"That would be the old reservoir or whatever it was we passed back there," said the deep voice.

"That's right," said Peer. "That's just what Flauval called it at lunch! The word you said. There was water there oncet, she said. They flew the boxes over with jets, but they'll be back before it's dark, they said."

There was a brief silence.

"Scares me when it's dark, it does!" grumbled the idiot-child.

"Well, that ties it up!" the deep voice said, satisfied. "It's the exact kind of stunt Flauval would try. But she's outsmarted herself, this time!"

"How do you figure on handling it?" Nasal-voice inquired.

"Get up on one of those rocks with the kid where you can watch both that 'mound' and the lock of their ship. Yes, I know it's more trouble that way—but don't, ah, do anything conclusive about the—uh—aforementioned, before we've corralled the rest! Much more useful while capable of inhaling. Hostage possibilities. Inducement to surrender!"

"Uh-huh," Nasal-voice said comprehendingly.

"Yes, sir!" added Peer.

There was another short pause.

"Might as well skip the circumlocutions," the deep voice continued. "Barely human! I'll send a couple of men through the ship and, if it's empty, I'll leave one of them in the forward lock where you can see him. That's just in case anyone slips past us and comes back. The rest of us will go over to the reservoir in the launch. If the entrance is where she says it is, we've got them bottled. If it looks right, we'll go in."

"That'll be only four of you," said Nasal-voice. "No; three—you're keeping one at the launch-guns, aren't you?"

"Yes, of course. Hey, little girl—how many are with Flauval?"

"Of us, you mean?" Peer asked.

"Of what else?" snarled Nasal-voice.

"Now don't get her so scared she can't talk!" the deep voice reproved. "That's right, little girl—how many of you?"

"Well, there's me," sniffled Peer, "and my old man, and my big brother Dobby. And then there's Wilf—that's all. But I don't like Wilf!"

"I don't like Wilf either!" agreed Nasal-voice. "Four against three, chief! It might be safer to bring over the two from the Ra-Twelve first—no point in searching her anyway, now that we know where the records are!"

"No," said the deep voice. "Flauval could just happen to decide to come out in the few minutes we're gone. It's sewed up too neatly right now. We'll have the heavy guns from the launch and we'll give them a chance to surrender. Flauval's too intelligent to pass that up—she never stops hoping! The chances are there won't be any shooting, till afterwards."

"Any friends of hers are likely to be tough," Nasal-voice warned.

"Very tough," said his chief. "Like the kid there! You worry at the wrong times, my boy. A parcel of space-rats that happened along." He swore again. "That woman's unbelievable luck! Well, take care of yourself, Ezeff. I'm off. Keep your eyes open both ways! Just in case—"


There was silence for a moment. Then footsteps came crunching over the rocks towards the ghoul-burrow, and Channok got set. But the footsteps halted a few yards away.

"That's the one I was sitting on," Peer volunteered. "Nice, easy one to climb!"

"Yeah, I never saw a nicer looking rock," Nasal-voice said sourly. "We've got to climb it, too! I'm not trying any point-landings with jets. Get on up there then, before I boot you up!"

There were sounds of scrambling.

"Don't you move now!" Peer said suddenly.

"What are you talking about?" demanded Nasal-voice.

"Durn rock come loose!" muttered Peer. "Near flung me off!"

But Channok, meanwhile, had got the idea and settled back. It was not yet the Right Moment....

There were more scrambling sounds and some breathless swearing from Ezeff, who obviously had not spent his formative years in asteroid-hopping either. But at last all become quiet.

"And here we are!" Peer's voice floated down clearly. A small chunk of rock dropped right in front of the burrow's entrance, like a punctuation mark.

"Sit still, blast you!" said Nasal-voice, badly out of breath.

A large, dim shadow swept silently over the ground before the ghoul's burrow just then. That would be the launch, going towards the Mound. A prolonged silence overhead confirmed the impression.

"They want to give Flauval a surprise?" Peer inquired meekly at last.

Rather startlingly, Nasal-voice laughed.

"They sure do!" he agreed. "That's a good one! Yes, sir, they sure do!"

"Flauval's nice, don't you think?" continued Peer conversationally, picking up courage.

"Depends a lot on how you look at it," Nasal-voice said dreamily. "She's a real pretty thing anyhow, that Flauval! Luck of the devil she's had, too. But it's got to run out sometime."

There was another silence. Then Peer remarked:

"Boy, he set that launch down nice! Right quick spang on top of the—what the big guy said it was. On the Mound."

"We've got a good pilot," Nasal-voice agreed. "Flauval's going to get her surprise in just a minute now!"

"And there they come out of the launch," continued Peer. "One, two, three, four. All four of them. Marching right down into the Mound!"

"You've got sharp eyes," Nasal-voice acknowledged. "But that's funny!" he continued worriedly. "One of them was to stay with the guns."

"And now look at the launch!" cried Peer in a high, bright voice. "Getting pulled right into the Mound!"

Nasal-voice was making loud, choking sounds.

"What was that?" he screamed then. "What's happened? What's that over there?"

"Let go my arm!" cried Peer. "Don't pull it—you're pushing me off! Here we go!"

A small avalanche of weathered rock came down before the burrow's mouth as Channok shot out through it into the open. He looked up. In what looked like an inextricable tangle of arms and legs, Peer and Nasal-voice were sliding and scuffling down the steep side of the rock together. Nasal-voice was trying to hang on to the rock, but Peer was hanging on to him and jerking like a hooked fish whenever he got a momentary hold.

She looked down and saw Channok, put her boots into the small of Nasal-voice's back, pushed off and landed two yards from Channok on hands and feet. He flattened himself back against the boulder, while Nasal-voice skidded down the rest of the way unaided, wisely refraining from triggering his jets. In the position he was in, they simply would have accelerated his descent to a fatal degree.

He arrived more or less on his feet. Peer bounced up and down before him, her finger pointed, like a small lunatic.

"Surprise!" she screamed. "Surprise! Like Flauval got! When you locked her in her cabin and ran off with the launch, so she'd have to jump out into space!"

"That's right, kid," Nasal-voice panted softly, fumbling for his gun without taking his eyes off her. He looked somewhat like a white-faced lunatic himself just then. "Don't get scared, kid! Don't run off! I won't shoot."

He pulled the gun out suddenly.

But Channok had taken two soft steps forward by then, and he had only to swing. The Reaper was clubbed in his right hand, and he brought the butt end down on the top of Nasal-voice Ezeff's skull-tight flying cap as if he were trying to ram a stake through the surface rock of Old Nameless.

"What happened over there on the Mound?" he inquired in a voice that kept wanting to quaver. He was hurriedly pulling on Nasal-voice's flight suit.

"Here's his goggles," said Peer, also shakily. "Tell you tonight about the Mound. But Santis was right!"

"That's what it sounded like," Channok admitted. He slipped on the goggles. "Do I look like this Ezeff now?"

"Not very much," Peer said doubtfully. "You still got that nose and that jaw. Better hold me close up to your face! I'll put on a good act."

"All right. As soon as I set you down in the lock, jump past the guard and yell, or something. If he looks after you, we mightn't have to kill this one." He held out his arms. "Hop up! We'd better get started before those last two on the Ra-Twelve decide to come over."

Peer hopped up. Channok wrapped his right arm carefully around her. They looked at each other thoughtfully for a moment.

"All set?" he asked.

"Sure," said crew-member Peer. She smiled faintly.

He triggered the jets with his left hand, and they shot upwards. Peer drew a deep breath.

"Quit bossing me around all the time, you big lug!" she yelled suddenly. She reached up for that nose and gave it a good yank.

"All right," Channok muttered, startled. "You don't have to be so realistic! He can't even see us yet!"

"Just because you're bigger'n me!" shrieked Peer as they soared over the top of the rocks into view of the Asteroid's lock. She hooked a smart right to Channok's left ear.

"Cut that out now, Peer!" he ordered futilely.

He was lightly battered all around by the time they reached the Asteroid's lock, though the act did get them in safely. But then—whether it was the nose or the jaw—the instant he dropped Peer to her feet, the guard stopped laughing and brought a gun out and up faster than Channok ever had seen a man produce one before. However, the Reaper had been ready in his hand all the time; so, with a safe fraction of a second to spare, it talked first—

With a fraction of a second to spare, the Reaper talked first....

The glare of the discharge seemed about fifty times brighter than normal.

"Hit the floor, Channy!" he heard Peer's shout.

He hit it without thought, dropping over the dead guard's legs....

Sound rammed at him enormously, roared on and began banging itself about and away among distant mountains. The Asteroid's floor had surged up ponderously, settled back, quivered a bit and become stable again.

"An earthquake," Channok muttered, sitting up dazedly, "was exactly all we needed right now!"

"That wasn't any earthquake!" said Peer, standing pale-faced above him. "Get up and look!"

Long veils of stuff, presumably solid chunks of mountain, were drifting down the distant, towering face of the cliff at the foot of which they had buried the Ra-Twelve. Rising to meet them, its source concealed beyond the horizon of the plain, was the slow, grey cloud of some super-explosion.

"I guess," he said slowly, "one of those two must have got curious about Koyle's wall-safe!"

"We were pretty smart about that," nodded Peer.

"We were, for once!" Channok agreed. He was looking around for something to sit down on quietly when he caught sight of the dead guard again. He started violently.

"Almost forgot about him! I guess now I'll have to bury him, and that Ezeff, the first thing. Maybe this one is carrying something that will show who they were."

He found something almost instantly—and he was glad then that Peer was still watching the oily writhings of the cloud across the plain. It was in a flat steel case he took out of one of the dead man's pockets: the identification disk of a member of the Imperial Secret Service—

The Service!

And they would have murdered us, he thought, shocked. They were going to do it!

He turned the guard over on his back. A big muscular young man with a look of sudden purpose and confidence still fixed on his face. It was the same face as the one on the disk.

Channok put the disk back in its case and shoved the case into the dead man's pocket. He stood up, feeling rather sick. Peer turned around from the lock and regarded him reflectively for a moment.

"You know, Channy," she stated carefully, "if you can't help it, it doesn't count."

He looked back at her. "I guess not," he said—and suddenly, for a moment, he could see four men marching one after the other down into the Mound. "Of course, it doesn't count!" he told her firmly.


They worked hard at shifting the cargo into the cache, but the Nameless Sun was beginning to slide down behind the mountains before they were finished. And by the time Channok had rammed the tunnel full of rocks with the tractor and cemented them into a glassy plug with the drill-blast, and scattered a camouflaging mess of boulders over everything, only a foggy red glow over the mountain crests, half obscured by the lingering upper drifts of the explosion of the Ra-Twelve, remained of the day.

There was no moon, but the sky had come full of stars big and little over the opposite section of the plain; and so there was light enough to make out the dark hump of the Mound in the distance. Every time Channok looked in that direction, the low, sinister pile seemed to have edged a little closer; and he looked as often as his work gave him a chance to do it. Santis might have been right in stating that the Mound wasn't dangerous if you didn't get too close to it—but the instant he suspected there might be something going on over there, Channok was going to hop off the tractor, grab up Peer and get off Old Nameless at the best speed he and the Asteroid could produce.

However, the Mound remained quiet. With everything done, he gave Peer a last ride back to the Asteroid on the tractor, ran it up the ramp into the storage section and closed the rear lock. Then they discovered they'd left their lunch containers lying among the rocks.

If he'd been alone, Channok would have left them there. But Peer looked so matter-of-fact about it that he detached the tractor's headlight and started back with her on foot. It was only a couple of hundred yards, and they found the containers without any difficulty. The Mound seemed to have moved a little closer again, but not too much. He gave it only a casual glance this time.

"Where are your friends, the ghouls?" he inquired, shining the light around the rocks as they started back. The grisly creatures had put in a few cautious appearances during the afternoon, but their nerves seemed to have suffered even more than his own from all that had happened.

"The ghouls always hit their burrows at sundown," Peer explained. "They're not like the story ones."

"What do they find to eat around here?" Channok inquired.

"Some sorts of rocks. They've got no real teeth but their mouth is like a grinder inside. Most of the rest of their insides, too, Santis said. I had a tame one I used to pitch stones at and he'd snap 'em up. But all that weren't blue he'd spit out. The blue ones went right down—you could hear them crunching for about a foot."

"What a diet!" Channok commented. Then he stopped short. "Say, Peer! If they bite like that, they could chew right into our cache!"

"They won't," said Peer. "Come on."

"How do you know?" Channok asked, following her.

"They can't bite through a good grade of steel-alloy. And they don't like its taste anyhow. Santis said so."

Well, it had been Santis this and Santis that for quite a while now! Peer's father seemed to be on record with a definite opinion on just about everything. And what made him think he knew what a ghoul liked to chew on?

Perhaps Channok couldn't be blamed too much. He was dog-tired and dirty and hungry. He'd killed his first two men that day, and not in fair fight either but with an assassin's sneak thrusts, from behind and by trickery; and he'd buried them, too. He'd seen the shining ISS disclose itself in action as something very tarnished and ugly, and a salvaged ship worth a fortune go up in a cloud of writhing grey smoke....

There had been a number of other things—close shaves that had felt too close, mostly.

At any rate, Channok stated, in flat unequivocal terms, that he didn't wish to hear anything else that Santis had said. Not ever!

"You're taking the wrong attitude," Peer informed him, frowning. "Santis is a very smart man. He could teach you a lot!"

"What makes you think I want to learn anything from a space-rat?" Channok inquired, exasperated.

Peer stopped short. "That was a dirty thing to say!" she said in a low, furious voice. "I'm not talking to you any more."

She drew away till there was a space of about six feet between them and marched on briskly towards the Asteroid, looking straight ahead.

Channok had to hurry to keep abreast of her. He watched her in the starlight for a few moments from the corners of his eyes. He probably shouldn't have used that term—the half-pint did look good and mad!

"Tsk! Tsk!" he said, disturbed.

Peer said nothing. She walked a bit faster. Channok lengthened his stride again.

"Who's my nice little girl friend?" he inquired wheedlingly.

"Shuddup!" growled Peer.

She climbed into the Asteroid ahead of him and disappeared while he sealed the locks. The control room was dark, but he felt she was around somewhere. He switched on the power and the instruments. Familiar dim pools of green and pink gleamings sprang up in quick sequence like witchfire quivering over the control desk. Perhaps it wasn't an exceptionally beautiful sight, but it looked home-like to Channok. Like fires lighting up on a hearth.

"Well, let's see you handle this take-off!" he invited the shadows around him briskly. This time there weren't any mountains nearby to worry about.

"You handle it," Peer said from behind his shoulder. "It's my turn to laugh."

She did, too, a few minutes later—loud and long! After he'd got over the first shock of narrowly missing the Mound, Channok gave a convincing imitation of a chagrined pilot and indignantly blamed the Asteroid....

He'd guided them halfway out of the Nameless System when she came behind the control chair in the dark, wrapped her arms in a stranglehold around his neck, and fondly bit his ear.

"Cut it out," Channok choked.

"Just the same," stated Peer, loosening her grip a trifle, "you're not so smart, like Santis is!"

"I'm not, eh?"

"No," said Peer. "But Santis said you would be some time. 'That Channok's going to make a real spacer!' he said. 'Just give him a chance to catch on.'"

"Well," Channok muttered, secretly flattered, "we'll hope he was right."

"And, anyway," said Peer, "I LOVE you just as much!"

"Well, that's something, too!" Channok admitted. He was beginning to feel very much better.

"And guess what I've got here," Peer said tenderly.


"A nice, soapy cloth. For what you said when you saw the first ghoul. So just open that big trap right up now, Channy!"

He couldn't tell in the dark; but it tasted like she'd taken the trouble to mix something extra foul into the soap lather, too.

"And after you've stopped spitting bubbles," said crew-member Peer, who was switching on all lights to observe that part of the business, "I'll tell you what I saw on the Mound."

Channok shuddered.

"If you don't mind, Peer," he suggested soapily, "let's wait with that till we're a lightyear or two farther out!"