It was an ingeniously guarded penal colony. So clever, in fact, that the men who built it were trapped also.
Illustrated by QUINN
“THEN the job’s finished,” grunted Al Lucain and he wiped the moisture from the vast expanse of his forehead. “By Copernicus, it’s odd to think we’ve worked six months without knowing the purpose of some of the units we’ve fitted up !”
Nimmo Manderly shrugged. He slid off the desk corner and made a gesture which took in the rocky landscape outside.
“Yes, but it’s a sweet little prison. There’s everything. Books, games, feather beds and gravity normal enough to make a home from home.”
Al Lucain nodded his ponderous head, a shaggy egg balanced on its pointed end. The responsibility of landing the ship on this strange planet had been his and luckily it had proved suitable for the prison city they had built. But Epiris was lonely and the hard, pinkish light slanting across the rocky plain outside never let them forget how remote was Earth. On the plain, towers ringed the city, thin, black girder-built fingers pointing to the strange, opalescent sky.
“Wonder if Cameron and Thorsen are crooked ?” murmured Nimmo Manderly, lean, tanned features pensive. “I seldom forget a face.”
Lucain shrugged shoulders wide enough for a man and a half.
“They’ve worked well enough.”
The bang of a door ended his words. Heavy steps came down the passage outside and Manderly turned his back to the window, frowning.
“There’s trouble brewing, Al,” he said.
The door swung wide and a heavy man with thick black hair topping his bullet head strode in. He jerked an order from the corner of his mouth at a slim individual who followed closely and shut the door.
Lucain straightened in his chair, grey eyes snapping as he recognised Cameron and Thorsen. “By the horned comet ! Knock when you come in,” he said icily. “Finished checking ?”
“We have, and you’ve got a few questions to answer !” Cameron thumped a mighty fist on the desk so that it rang. “Why did you come to this forsaken place ?”
Al Lucain glared at him and snorted powerfully.
“By my perihelion, I’ve explained ! I don’t return to Earth with jobs unfinished. There wasn’t enough fuel to go on to Equarius as planned so I landed here. I came out to build a prison city — a dumping ground for criminals — and I have. This planet’s no beauty spot but it’s good enough for them ! I’m satisfied and shall take full responsibility when we get back.”
“We shan’t get back.” Cameron’s voice shook with fury. “The fuel’s too low.”
"What ?” grated Manderly, coming to the desk.
Lucain thumped a double-sized fist on the desk and the metal bounced. “Let me handle this, Nimmo.” He glared at the men. “Explain.”
Cameron ejaculated an oath and leaned across the desk, snorting, his eyes like black glazed pins.
“The explaining’s wanted from you ! There’s insufficient fuel for a return trip to Earth. You should have turned the ship as soon as the state of our fuel supply was noted. We’d have got back then!”
Thorsen edged out from behind his leader, his beady eyes antagonistic.
“There’ll be no rescue ship calling when we’re overdue,” he pointed out. “It’ll go to Equarius. They don’t know we’re here on Epiris!”
LUCAIN brought all the vast area of his face into a gigantic scowl, silencing him with a look. But Thorsen’s words were true. Earth did not know they were on Epiris. Baulked by the planet’s blanket of static and the infinity of space beyond, radio was useless. Vain, too, was the chance that a ship would find them — Epiris was a mote among uncalculated millions. The rescue ship would land on Equarius, then presume them lost.
“By the ghost of Galileo Galilei, you’ve fumbled your checking !” he declared.
Cameron swore, but his retort was lost in a shout from Nimmo Manderly who was staring from the window with unutterable astonishment on his lean face.
“The robot apparatus has started, Al !”
Scraping back his chair Lucain saw Nimmo was right. On the top of each dark tower an illuminated globe had begun to spin and from the globes finger-like rays raked over and over the rocky ground, scanning every inch with relentless precision. A glance showed that the weaving lights formed a complete circle round the prison city — a circle which would be sensitive to any attempt at escape by those within and set in motion the deadly robot machines they had built.
“We’ll never get past the scanners,” Nimmo breathed.
Thorsen peered past them and his thin face blanched. “Can we turn them off ?”
Lucain did not look round.
“By Halley, no! Except from the control tower, which we can’t reach. These scanners control the robot planes to make a prison without walls. We’re captives instead of the jailbirds who’d have been landed here !”
He halted. Beyond one of the towers a shaggy, hyena-like animal had emerged from the broken rocks. It paused, frightened by the interlacing scanning rays, then began to bound towards the shadowy forest half a mile away. Lucain waited, his grip tightening on the back of the chair.
Then it came — an egg-shaped plane that whined into view from their right. The animal broke into a furious spurt, flitting between the rocks but the plane followed its every move, drawing closer. Abruptly flashes spat from its nose. A sharp tat-tat-tat echoed across the boulder-strewn ground.
The little craft circled twice, then droned back to its hangar. Among the rocks a hairy body twitched momentarily.
“It’s got one of the Vesperus,” said Nimmo Manderly. “What chance would a man have ?”
"None" grunted Lucain. The long-limbed creatures which crept out with evening were twice as fleet as man ; yet the scanning beams had recorded the movements immediately and directed the robot plane with deadly accuracy. “Get all the men together in the hall below,” he ordered abruptly. “No one must go outside.”
Cameron growled something but Thorsen plucked his sleeve and with a dark backwards glance the men went out. Nimmo Manderly turned his back to the scanning beams, faintly luminous in the gathering darkness as they wove to and fro.
“What’s happened, Al ?” His voice was baffled. “Has one of the men switched on the robot apparatus ? How can we get out ? Nobody can run to the control tower without getting shot down — the prison’s too darned efficient for that !”
Lucain led the way towards the door. “Sufferin’ satellites ! No man in his senses would start this jail running, Nimmo. I’m puzzled.”
THEY passed along the airy corridor they had built from pre-fabricated sections. High on every wall throughout the compact, single block of the prison was a blue screen. Lucain halted before one. It was as large as his hand and burned with inner light.
“There’s a lot we don’t know, Nimmo,” he said pensively. “What are these things for ? We’ve put things together according to a book of rules without knowing their purpose.”
Manderly shrugged. “Perhaps they’re for sun-rays, germicidal radiations, or something. Let’s go on. I can hear the men. They dislike being jailed in their own prison !”
Lucain nodded. “By Satan’s Star, so do I ! I’ve got to get back to Earth according to contract ! And I never did admire the tangled forest and rocky hills making up our view !”
He paused at the top of wide steps. The hall below was filling with uneasy men who gathered in little groups and his spirits sank as the last entered and the door was kicked shut. All were present. He had hoped otherwise.
“We’re up against it, Nimmo,” he murmured. “If someone had started the prison apparatus as a fast plan we might reach terms. But everyone’s here. So we’re up against something inhuman — the scanners that locate anything moving, the autoseekers designed solely to kill, and all the rest of the prison gadgetry. This place was designed to be without guards and yet keep in toughs who’d burrow through concrete thick as a house.”
A murmur went round the hall as Lucain stopped halfway down the stairs. “Any man missing ?”
Heads shook uneasily at his question.
“Does anyone know why the apparatus started ?”
“No, but we know we’re penned up here and it’s your fault,” Cameron declared loudly, pushing his way towards the front. “There’ll be no rescue when we’re overdue ! We’re trapped in our own jail !”
A sympathetic murmur ran through the men. Lucain balanced on his toes like a heavy-weight pugilist and felt the corded muscles of his huge forearm. “I’ll take responsibility for that! Any ideas for getting out ?”
There was no reply until a fat, red-faced man near the stairs spoke.
“Have all the scanning towers started and the complete hangar of auto- seekers become ready to operate under their control ?”
Lucain nodded. “Yes. The installation was complete. All units have come into operation simultaneously but we don’t know why.”
Pondicherry shook his big head sadly. “Then we’re sunk, Mister Lucain. There’s near fifty of us but if we all ran out at the same time in different directions no one would reach the control tower. The autoseekers would get us all.”
A heavy silence followed his words. At last a slim young man threaded his way forwards. Lucain looked down at him.
“Well, Roscoe. Any ideas ?”
“I — I’d like to try to reach the control tower, sir.” The lad grinned uneasily. “Few could beat me at a sprint. If I can switch the circuit off you’ll be free.”
Lucain raised his brows.
“You know the chances ?”
“I shan’t stop you. But if you think better of it nobody’ll blame you, by Jupiter. You’ll have to play tag for a full half mile with the fastest individual- seeking aircraft ever made.”
“Yes sir, I know.” The young man nodded grimly. “I’d like to wait until daylight to-morrow before I try.”
BACK in the room which formed his office, Lucain sank into his chair. For once in his life Nimmo Manderly seemed to have nothing to say. A walk round had shown them every scanning tower was functioning smoothly. The long, low hangar gaped, its dark mouth hiding a double row of robot autoseekers, each ready to flash into the air, track down its prey, then fly back to its place. A little beyond the encircling scanning pylons that controlled the craft the control tower stood ; half a mile behind it the vessel which had brought them from Earth was dimly visible.
Nimmo Manderly’s face was glum.
“Don’t think Roscoe’s got much chance,” he opiniated.
“Nor do I. But he volunteered and I’ve got to let him try for the men’s sake.” Lucain tapped his fingers on the desk, then suddenly glanced up. “It beats me why the apparatus started, by Halley ! I can’t believe it was a fault — faults don’t arise in machinery so superbly produced. Yet all the men, including that two-eyed monstrosity Cameron, are accounted for and Epiris has no life with sufficient intelligence to play such a trick.”
Manderly nodded agreement.
“We can’t suspect Cameron and Thorsen — they’d just started that quarrel,” he said. “We must count them out.”
Lucain felt mystified. Apparently no one could have started the apparatus, yet it would not begin to operate without reason. Their difficulty defied solution.
“Cameron’s got no liking for you, Nimmo,” he said quietly.
Manderly nodded. “He hates me. He could be a devil.”
THE next morning Lucain watched the hard sun rise above the rocky area surrounding the prison. Suddenly a figure broke from a doorway to the left, running like a madman, never glancing back for an instant as he strained every muscle for the distant tower. Lucain judged the distance covered. Twenty-five yards. Fifty. A hundred . . . Then there was a whining purr and something with stubby wings flashed into pursuit, glinting as it arced from the hangar.
The racing man leapt on, swift and sure on the rocks. As the whistling machine drew near he dodged frantically, zigzagging like a hare. But the machine dipped and curved too, its nose spurting red fire.
Nauseated, Lucain turned heavily from the window. Nimmo Manderly followed.
“So the plane got Roscoe first try. What now ?”
Lucain was silent while the little autoseeker droned back to its place, its deadly mission accomplished.
“We can’t beat the scanners, Nimmo. There’s only one answer — turn off the apparatus.”
“But how ?” Manderly’s lean face puckered. “We can’t reach the control tower and there’s no way to stop it from here. If there was, the whole jail would be useless because prisoners would simply let themselves out.”
Lucain grunted assent and motioned towards the papers spread over the desk. “Complete instructions as to assembly ! Yet we don’t know what some of the gadgets we’ve fitted in are for. There were too many pre- fabricated units marked Connect to 9th Unit as illustrated in Fig. 21, and so on, in this wall-eyed job ! If we knew how the place worked perhaps we could do something.”
“Maybe we’ll find out,” suggested Manderly hopefully.
“Don’t bank on it. This jail was made to house criminals clever as the tailed men of Mars and with nothing to do but think up ways of escape. Their sole guards would be the robot machinery. It’s a Devil’s Island with aircraft instead of sharks.”
Nimmo Manderly looked downcast. “You’re right. The best brains on Earth had their fingers in the pie. Mechanics, housing-designers, electronic experts, psychologists ”
He was interrupted by the door opening. Pondicherry, breathing heavily, entered.
“Cameron’s likely to cause trouble, Mister Lucain,” he said. “The men are jumpy, fearing the worst. He’s been telling them you should never have come here because Earth won’t know where we are. We’ll die of starvation, he says, or be shot one by one trying to get out. Him an’ Thorsen been quarrelling too — something about getting rich.”
A snort came from behind the fat man and Cameron strode in.
“It means we’re not so ready to take orders from Lucain as we were !” he grated.
LUCAIN returned Cameron’s stare coolly, wondering as he did why the blue screen behind the man’s head seemed to glow more brightly than ever before.
“You’re off orbit, Cameron !” he stated. “Trouble-making will do no good.”
Cameron swore. “You never should have had command ! The men realise that now. We’d like to see if you can reach the control tower, Lucain. You got us in here and you got to save us, or we’ll know why !”
Lucain strode round the desk and put a mighty fist under Cameron’s nose.
“Get out, you two-eyed space-cod !” he said.
“So you’re scared.”
“By Jupiter— I don’t plan suicide, much as you’d like it !” Lucain’s fist rose and Cameron backed, to turn abruptly and disappear, muttering darkly.
“He’ll make trouble,” Manderly stated pensively. “I keep thinking I’d seen him somewhere before he joined this gang. I never forget a face.”
Lucain stroked his ponderous chin and wondered why the blue screen was paler now. Strange they didn’t know what the screens were for.
“And what do you think of his idea, Nimmo ?”
“About you trying to reach the tower ?” There was surprise in Manderly’s voice. “We saw what happened to Roscoe and none of us expects you to try. It’s not your fault the machinery started and with that contract in view you’ve got more reasons for wanting to get back than any of us.”
“But machinery doesn’t come into action until someone, or something, starts it,” Al Lucain declared and began to thump up and down the office. There must be a reason to account for the apparatus starting, forcing them to remain prisoners in a jail of their own building. But what was that reason.
A light tap on the door halted him.
“Come in !”
A medium-sized man entered hesitantly.
“I’m Randall, sir. Mechanic’s hand.”
Lucain nodded in encouragement. “Go on.”
“I’d like to try to get to the control tower, sir.” He hesitated, adding in a rush: “Perhaps the scanners can’t distinguish things when they’re still. I believe they couldn’t tell a man from a rock, if he didn’t move. I’ll run as far as I can before the plane comes out, then lie still until it goes back to the hangar. Then I’ll make another dash, and another, until I’d got to the control tower.”
Lucain dropped his eyes from the man’s intent face. Manderly’s expression told nothing. At last he put a hand on Randall’s shoulder.
“I must give you your chance, for the others, laddie. Personally, I don’t ask you to risk it. Nobody here knows exactly how the robot installation works. You must decide for yourself.”
“Then I’ll go, sir.”
RANDALL left the room and Lucain followed. Knots of men were grumbling in the large hall but they dropped silent, watching the little procession with fearful, expectant eyes.
At the door Randall flung off his coat and moistened his lips.
“No use waiting. Wish me luck !”
He sprang from the building and Lucain watched him sprint across the broken ground. In the daylight the scanning beams were invisible, but he knew they were there, covering every foot, waiting to trip relays.
Randall was a hundred yards out when the shrill whine of an autoseeker taking off sounded and immediately he flung himself to the ground, becoming as motionless as the boulders dotting the plain.
The robot craft shot into view. It slowed, banking, then flew twice over the spot where Randall lay. Lucain waited, hardly breathing. Would the machine kill, or would it return to the hangar ?
It did neither, but settled into a tight circle to drone round and round the prone figure. Lucain turned away, shutting his ears against the soft purr of the engine which rose and fell as the deadly craft came and went on each circuit.
“Poor devil,” breathed Nimmo Manderly. “Whoever designed these robot machines took no chances.”
In the hall the grumbling was louder. Cameron was haranguing a group and sullen looks reached Lucain as he halted near the stairs.
“Well ?” he demanded heavily.
“We’re not satisfied with your leadership.” Cameron had appointed himself spokesman. “We’re not willing to stay here and starve. We shouldn’t have come to this planet at all !”
Murmurs of assent followed. Lucain met Cameron’s gaze.
“If you’ve got any ideas I’m ready to listen,” he stated. “If not, shut up.”
“I’m not going to shut up !” Cameron swore and his eyes flashed hate. “You’ve risked our lives. Probably you bribed your way into command expecting a soft job — and we suffer !”
Some of the men began to move behind Cameron and added their scowls to his. Lucain moved towards the stairs.
“You’re making trouble for a reason of your own, Cameron,” he grated.
“I was appointed boss here and by Copernicus I intend to stay boss ! Mutineers will be answerable to the police back on Earth.”
“That’s the last thing to bother us now — we’ll never get there !” Cameron snarled.
THE men behind him, he advanced. Manderly and a handful of the others gained the stairs first and Al Lucain saw that the hall had divided into two camps of almost equal strength. Half the men backed Cameron, half himself. The movement stopped, Pondicherry and a dozen more holding the stairs.
“We’re safe for the moment,” Nimmo Manderly grunted. He jerked his head towards the end of the corridor. “I’ve got something to tell you.” Out of earshot of the others he continued quickly: “I know where I’ve seen Cameron. When you mentioned the police the look on his face brought it back. Six years ago he was wanted for beating a man to death. His picture was in the papers after. Thorsen was his side-kick. They vanished.”
Al Lucain nodded understandingly.
“They’ve been shipping off on safe trips.”
“Bet your life they have ! I never forget a face.”
Lucain felt convinced Manderly had made no error.
“We’ll watch them, Nimmo,” he growled. “Now here’s news for you. Did you notice how brilliant the blue screens in the hall were during the rumpus ?”
Manderly looked astonished.
“Blue screens ? What have they to do with it ? We want to know the way to get out!”
“We do, ’’agreed Lucain, “and maybe we’ll find it. Not that I know what the screens are for — yet.” He paused. “Do you remember any men other than engineers who had a hand in designing this jail ?”
Manderly furrowed his brow in thought. “Yes, a few. There was Welby Patin, the criminal psychologist, Bywaters, the electro-encephalograph expert, and others.”
“Stone certainly. I never forget — — ”
“Good,” interrupted Lucain with relief. “We may make something of it yet.”
Outside the robot seeker still zoomed slowly above a motionless figure. Lucain wondered how long Randall would keep still. Perhaps he had fainted for the craft seemed ready to circle for ever over the spot where he lay. Lucain’s thoughts took a new turn. How could Cameron expect to get rich ?
Soon loud voices rose from the hall and Lucain closed the door.
“Perhaps we haven’t realised the value of the knowledge we have, Nimmo me lad,” he suggested. “What happened just before the apparatus started ?”
Manderly looked puzzled.
“Cameron began to quarrel, apparently over the fuel shortage.”
“Exactly, laddie. Cameron started quarrelling.” Lucain took a turn round. Dare he voice his thoughts ? They might prove wrong for he had only half- formed suspicions.
“I’m going to speak to the men,” he stated abruptly.
His appearance at the top of the stairs was greeted with hisses from below.
“I think we may get out,” he declared when silence returned. “But I promise nothing until you stop quarrelling. Until then I shan’t even try to explain what I suspect.”
Cameron’s voice hooted up from below, interrupting.
“Lies ! Take no notice, men ! He’s afraid for his own skin !”
A roar of throaty assent followed and Lucain withdrew, shrugging.
“It’s no use, Nimmo,” he said. “Tell Pondicherry and the others to move upstairs so that we can lock ourselves in the upper part of the building. We’ll be safe from those vermin then, for the moment.”
WHEN darkness came lights sprang to life, shining out into the night where the whirr of the circling craft could still be heard. Once a second plane whirred from the hangar and shots stuttered to the left. Lucain lifted his head to listen and saw Nimmo had heard it too.
“One of Cameron’s men tried to break out, I expect,” Manderly said, not without satisfaction. “They’re safely blocked in the lower section.”
Cursing sounded below and the autoseeker droned back to its place, leaving only the monotonous whirr of the first craft to make the silence heavy. Lucain knew he could not sleep and for a time he watched the faint, weaving scanning beams, the only moving things under the dark, alien sky. Then he went to the door which parted them from the stairs and listened.
No sound came. He unfastened it and peered out, ready for trickery. The stairway was deserted; Cameron’s men slept in odd positions about the hall, huddled on cushions, spare clothing and improvised beds.
Half way down the stairs Lucain stopped, eyes on the blue screens. They were dim. Very dim indeed compared with their brilliance when the riot in the hall had been at its height.
For an hour he sat watching, chin on hands. Sometimes the sleepers stirred, but no one saw him. At last he returned and fastened the door, brows furrowed.
NIMMO Manderly woke him early.
“The ship seems in danger,” he said uneasily.
Al Lucain rubbed his eyes and looked out into the red dawn where the ship glinted like ruby. Small hairy forms of upright posture swarmed round it and with a start he recognised them as the creatures they had glimpsed before and apparently the most intelligent life on Epiris; creatures whom the dangerous, hyena-like Vesperus obeyed like dogs. No communication had been established, however. Lucain had classified them as indigenous savages, had noted they wore heavy brass ornaments and carried primitive weapons, then dismissed them from mind.
“They’ve been encouraged to come out by our absence,” he grunted. “If they interfere with the ship they’ll probably cause damage.”
“That’s what I feared. But we can’t drive them off !”
Al Lucain watched for a moment. The savages were carrying branches with which the climb up the vessel’s sides in an attempt to enter. Later, he left the office and found Nimmo placing food on the stairs.
“I warned them if anyone tried to rush me they’d get no grub for two days,” Manderly said. “It’s lucky we command the part of the building where the stores are.”
Lucain nodded. “It gives me an idea.”
Nimmo closed the door and fastened it. “There’s not enough food to last all of us for long. Do we die of starvation — or run out and get shot ?”
“Perhaps neither,” Lucain said pensively. “Are there any sleeping drops in the medical stores, laddie ?”
Nimmo nodded, surprised.
“Then put the strongest you can in the evening grub for the rats below,” Lucain ordered. “I want Cameron and his vacuum-brained rabble to be out. And I do mean out ! Can you fix it ? Unconscious as bricks.”
Nimmo Manderly furrowed his bony forehead. “We can, but they’ll be raving mad when they come round and know we’ve messed with their grub ! They’ll be ready for murder. They’re getting angry now, saying the natives will ruin the ship.”
Lucain shrugged. “We must risk that, Nimmo. Do your best.”
THE short day had almost gone when Manderly left the medical storeroom.
“Simpson’s been a doctor in his time,” he said, nodding towards a man behind him. “Half an hour after they’ve eaten the men below won’t wake if the place falls in on them.” He frowned. “What good will it do ?”
Lucain made a gesture. “I promise nothing, by Neptune ! I only suspect a scoundrel is less bad when he’s unconscious. His badness must take the form of nefarious action or thought and those things are in abeyance when he’s asleep.”
“Those below will soon make up for that when they come round !” Manderly predicted.
Lucain nodded. “Yes. That’s a risk we can’t avoid. Let’s remember this is the perfect jail and a perfect jail can’t keep good men imprisoned. It would be a contradiction. To sentence a man for a certain number of years has proved futile because one might become a good citizen after six months while another might deserve a twenty-year stretch. A man should be imprisoned only while he has felonious intent.”
Nimmo Manderly scratched his sandy head.
“Don’t tell me this jail’s that clever ! Roscoe was as good a chap as ever lived.”
“Yes,” Lucain agreed, “but he was part of the whole — and it’s the whole which is imprisoned. A kind of mass judgement.”
He knew now that they could only wait. Perhaps he would be proved right, or perhaps odd, disconnected possibilities had fooled him.
“YOU should be careful, Mister Lucain,” Pondicherry told him later, round face serious. “I heard them below through the ventilator slats and they’re ready to kill you. Cameron says it’s all your fault we have to stop here and starve.”
Lucain, returned from examining the food, nodded. The situation would soon become very grave. The men were uneasy and that uneasiness would increase as no way through the deadly scanners could be found.
When the sounds of eating below were at their maximum he silently opened the door and stood in the shadows at the top of the stairs.
Cameron’s men were an unpleasant lot. They argued ceaselessly and several quarrelled over cards scattered in one comer. The hall was a shambles. Lucain gazed at the brilliant blue of the wall screens and wondered.
Soon the noise began to subside as men yawned with puzzled faces. Before the truth dawned half were snoring in varied positions and the others had already finished eating and showed signs of losing the power to walk.
Cameron dragged himself to the bottom of the stairs and shook a fist.
“You’ll be sorry for this, Lucain !”
He tried to mount the stairs but half way up his legs gave. He snored and lay still. Lucain picked up a shiny object which had fallen from his pocket. It was crude gold.
“There’ll be hades let loose when they come round,” Manderly predicted from the door.
Lucain watched the screens. Was he mistaken or was the blue already less brilliant ? He pocketed the amulet and returned to where Manderly had been looking from a window.
“The natives are getting into the ship, Al,” he said. “If we don’t soon drive them away they’ll do damage.”
Lucain turned his gaze to the blue oblongs. “If those screens react to the mental atmosphere we should have a better chance with Cameron and the others unconscious,” he said. “Those plates may be sensitive to neuro radiations. I’ve noticed they’re brighter when there’s trouble. Remember the prison apparatus started when Cameron began the first quarrel. I think he planned a double-cross.”
“They might be recorders making a conduct register,” Manderly objected.
LUCAIN walked among the sleeping men. He doubted if the drug would keep them under many hours and from the door the recurrent drone of the autoseeker was audible as it circled a prone black shape.
“Get Pondicherry and the others ready, Nimmo,” he ordered, “but keep an eye on these scoundrels. Warn me if they begin coming round.”
An hour later the robot craft was still circling outside but the blue screens had become as dim as slate. After half an hour more the autoseeker suddenly straightened its course and droned back to its hangar. The light on each scanning tower snapped out.
Lucain gave a shout.
“By Epsilom, here I go ! If I reach the control tower bring the men out. If the apparatus gets me, keep back.”
He sprang from the building, flinging Randall over his shoulder as he passed. Stumbling, he went on, more slowly now and half expecting a plane to whistle in pursuit with every step.
At the control tower he lowered Randall to the ground and saw that he was unarmed. Manderly was leading a running line of men across the rocky space and Pondicherry brought up the rear, gasping.
“We’ve made it, Mister Lucain ! The scanners don’t reach this far. We’re safe now !”
Lucain nodded. The spaceship was out of the area, too. The natives had melted back into the cover of the forest and the men halted under the vessel’s curved side.
“What about the fuel shortage Cameron spoke of ?” whispered Manderly. “Is there enough to reach Earth ?”
Lucain shrugged. “We’ll see. If not we’ll go to Equarius and wait for the rescue ship. At the moment I’m more interested in seeing how perfect this jail is !”
As he spoke the scanning towers flashed into life. The little craft droned out, circled the spot where Randall had lain, then returned to its hangar. The distance was too great to be sure, but Lucain thought he heard a bellow from the squat buildings.
“Some are awake now,” he said. “If I’m a judge of character them horn- eyed toads will stay there till we release them and that won’t be until we’ve got a police vessel ready ! I suspect our fuel is all right. Cameron wanted to make trouble and get away with his cronies — and a load of these !” He showed the amulet.
Nimmo Manderly whistled and scratched his long chin.
“So the native trinkets aren’t brass ! There must be crude gold about by the ton. I remember now there’s a fat reward offered for Cameron and Thorsen. The authorities will be interested in some of those others, too. I never forget a face !” He slapped his leg. “What a jail, Al ! It switched itself on when Cameron started trouble ! If he’d kept quiet he’d have been a free man, but instead we’ve got a prison full of criminals, so black at heart they’ll need a life sentence.”
Francis G. Rayer.
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