Buccaneer of the Star Seas by Repp, Ed Earl
BUCCANEER OF THE STAR SEAS
By Ed EARL REPP
"... and thou shalt be immortal!" Such was the curse of that 13th Century sorcerer. Now Carlyle roamed the uncharted star-seas, seeking Death as he sought the richly-laden derelicts in that sargossa of long-vanished space-galleons.
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Planet Stories Fall 1940. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
An unpleasant shudder went through Thaddeus Carlyle as the great iron door thundered behind him. Reading Gaol's raw, damp atmosphere seemed to settle into his bones. Hobbling on rheumatic legs, the aged turnkey preceded him down the vaulted stone corridor.
"'Tis the first time my key has disturbed Friar Bacon's lock these six months," his grumbling voice came to Carlyle's ears. "Plagued few they are that visit the roguish priest. Not even the canon comes now, to exhort him to renounce his black magic."
Thaddeus Carlyle's dark eyes flamed with quick interest. "Then he practices still these works of the devil?" he queried softly.
The turnkey stopped, his narrowed eyes mirroring fearful thoughts. With his crooked forefinger he tapped the young nobleman's gold-cloth tabard.
"Only last month he asked for brimstone, charcoal and niter. We gave him the stuff, seeing no harm. A week ago, as I am passing his cell, there was a great flash and roar. The devil's powders had exploded as steam bursts a tight-lidded vessel! He carries still the marks of a burn."
"No!" Carlyle's smooth features were blank. "Fire--from such stuff as that?"
"That's not all, my Lord. Friar Bacon tells me that if we would give him enough of the stuff and a long tube, he could throw an iron ball across the Thames!"
Turning away with a crafty nod and a meaningful blink, the turnkey led on to the mean little cell in which Roger Bacon had now spent nine years. The visitor was openly affected by the jailer's incredulous story. He had heard strange and terrible things of the Gray Friar. The church, in incarcerating him, had accused him of consorting with the devil. Some whispered that he had learned the secret of immortality. That was the rumor which had brought Thaddeus Carlyle, the second Lord Monfort, into the gloomy confines of Reading Gaol.
The lock scraped shrilly as the jailer turned it. Throwing the heavy door open, he grinned: "Lucky for him you came, my Lord! In another month this lock should have been rusted past turning. Then Friar Bacon would have been forever without hope!"
"Have I, indeed, such hope now?" a soft and gloomy voice inquired.
The turnkey merely winked at the nobleman and hobbled off.
Carlyle was suddenly seized by panic. Now that he was so close to the notorious philosopher, fear smote him and he was on the point of turning back. Yet, ridden by an even greater fear, he stiffened his purpose and advanced. Closing the door, he stared at the white-bearded man seated before a great calfskin-bound book on a ponderous table.
"What hast thou with me, young man?" demanded Roger Bacon, peering shrewdly from under ragged brows.
"Only the admiration of an ignorant man for a very learned one," said Thaddeus Carlyle simply.
Bacon's eyes misted. Precious years of his waning life had he spent in prison because there was no man to say such a thing before.
"You--you do not believe what they say of me, that I consort with Satan?" he queried. "That my science and my secrets are Lucifer's?"
"Well--as to that," said Carlyle, his confidence returning, "I am again the ignorant one. Where you get your knowledge I neither know nor care. I only know that your learning is great ... and that that learning can help me!"
* * * * *
The Gray Friar wagged his head wonderingly. His eyes went over Thaddeus. He saw a strapping young man over six feet in height, with a muscular development such as came only from constant participation in the strenuous contests popular among the nobility. His skin was brown as leather, burned, Bacon reckoned, by hot Oriental suns during the last Crusade. He saw a man whose rich clothing spoke of a fat purse. And he was asked to help him--he, who could not help himself!
"Who are you, young man?" he asked, at last.
"Thaddeus Carlyle, the second Lord Monfort," was the reply.
"A noble--!" Bacon murmured. "But you--you jest with me!"
"Not so!" Carlyle threw a leg across the corner of the table and peered earnestly into the monk's face. "You are old and wise, Friar Bacon. Perhaps you do not know the fear of death. I do! Always it is with me, haunting my pleasures, disturbing my sleep--Fear of growing old and toothless, of losing my strength--of dying as helpless as the day I was born!"
"But how can I help you?" frowned Bacon. "All men must face that fear."
"But not as I know it! I, who have so much to make life worth the living." Thaddeus rubbed his sweaty palms on his velvet-clad thighs, his brown young face set. Abruptly, he blurted: "They say you possess the secret of immortality, Friar. Is that true?"
"They say many things of me," muttered the philosopher.
Carlyle leaned toward him. "That doesn't answer my question," he snapped. "I have heard that you added twenty years to your own life by magic!"
Bacon stared strangely at him. "You believe that I could save you from death?"
"Implicitly!" Carlyle replied. "If you wished to!"
* * * * *
For the first time, Bacon stirred from the chair. His eyes flashed briefly to a brass-bound chest, near his pallet of straw. Then he stopped with his back to the wall, staring at the young nobleman.
"But even if I could do this--!" he frowned. "You do not know what immortality means. Perhaps it would be worse than death!"
"If so, I could easily put an end to my immortality," retorted the other.
Roger Bacon did not speak for long seconds. Then: "They speak true of me. I do possess this secret. But to release it would mean one more atom of misery thrown upon the world."
With his first words, Thaddeus had hunched forward, teeth shining behind drawn lips, eyes glittering. "Has the world been good to you?" he shot at him. "Do you owe it any consideration?"
"None," the Gray Friar muttered. "Tell me; what month is this?"
"November, Friar," the younger man replied frowningly.
In Bacon's mournful syllables lay all the bitter coldness of the winter itself. "November, Anno Domini twelve hundred and eighty-seven. Nine years since I was thrown into this place of stone and despair. The world has little loved me, my friend, and I hold no love for the world. _Inopem me copia fecit_--abundance made me poor. Abundance of foresight and inventiveness that might have made the world over."
The monk had paced to the window through which he got his only small view of the world. Now he swung back. "Yes, my Lord Monfort. I will do what you ask!"
Carlyle lurched forward to grasp his arm. "Friar," he breathed. "I only dared hope. But if you do what you promise, I will see that you are freed within the year!"
"_Dominus vobiscum!_" Bacon said, tiny lights shining in his eyes. He crossed to the massive chest and opened it. Digging around for a moment among hundreds of curious objects the like of which Carlyle had never seen, he at last returned to the table with two shining articles in his hand.
"I told you this would bring a certain amount of grief to the world," he said, when Carlyle was seated beside him on a stool. "I say it again. For each lifetime you add to your own, another must die. And always it shall be a woman ... a woman whose love you have won."
Carlyle stared at the philosopher with a mixture of hope and horror in his face.
"You must understand," said the Gray Friar, "that the life-spirit, as I call it, is not so deeply rooted in a woman as a man. You hear often of a woman dying of a broken heart, yet never of a man. This is because the woman simply wills her spirit to leave her. It will be your task to cause a woman to give you her life-spirit because she loves you sufficiently."
"Yes, Friar," Thaddeus whispered, his heart hammering against his ribs.
Bacon placed in his palm a tiny crystal heart dependent from a silver chain. It was crudely carved, yet alight with unholy brilliance.
"You will give this to the woman to wear. You yourself will wear this plain silver band I now give you. The process may take days or weeks. When you are with her, cause your own ring to be always touching the crystal heart. Gradually she will grow weaker, while your own strength increases boundlessly. When she dies ... you will have earned perhaps seventy years more of life."
"Must it be this way?" Thaddeus groaned, staring horrified at the baubles.
"It is the only way," Bacon murmured. "If at any time you decide that you prefer death to immortality, destroy either the heart or the ring and you will not long survive it. Old age will come swiftly."
Thaddeus got to his feet, his stomach a lump of ice in him. He suddenly felt a necessity to get into the open air, where he could think. Hastily he muttered:
"I will do as you say, Friar Bacon. Thank you for what you have done. I will see that you are freed as soon as possible."
Wise old Roger Bacon knew the struggle that was going on within the young lord, and he made no attempt to prolong the visit. "_Pax vobiscum_," he nodded soberly. "The Lord guide you in this."
"Th-thank you, Friar!" Thaddeus faltered, and hastily fumbled at the door and left.
* * * * *
For a month the crystal heart and the ring lay untouched in a small chest in his treasure-room. Then his old fears and nightmares drove him to take them out. He had become accustomed to the grisly demands and they no longer loomed so blackly in his mind. Pictures of himself as an ancient ruin with the skin hanging loosely from all his bones helped in this.
For a long time Thaddeus had known that the young daughter of Lord Cartwright secretly loved him. Tremblingly, one night, he bestowed on her the gift of death ... in the form of a tiny crystal pendant. Within a month the girl was dead.
And Thaddeus Carlyle ... in his body surged and leaped such strength as he had never dreamed of. He felt he must live forever. His friends began to change, growing wrinkled and less virile, but never he. Soon he saw he must change his abode, lest men suspect him.
It was ninety years before the need came upon him to renew the life-spirit in his body. He found a dark-eyed girl in Seville on one of his journeys whom he nominated for his second victim. It was easier, this time. Before she was laid away that old feeling of boundless youth was his again.
And so Thaddeus Carlyle saw kings change and nations dissolve, saw a German named Gutenberg print the first book and an Englishman named William Shakespeare write the most perfect prose ever devised. Saw wars and tragedy and comedy, and grew sick with the seeing. Gladly would he have given it up, had he the courage.
Down the corridors of time he passed, seeking death as many seek wealth. In peace and war, he was ever in the most dangerous occupations. When aviation came in, he was one of the first and most reckless pilots. Then space travel merged from dreams into reality.... Carlyle became a test pilot, taking on million-mile journeys any craft with a rocket tube and a steering device. To his disgust, he always came back.
He had not the courage to shatter the crystal heart and grow old swiftly. He who had condemned so many beautiful women to death was now chained to something worse--eternal life.
"Mr. Carlyle! _Mr. Carlyle._ Are you all right?"
Thaddeus Carlyle came out of his revery with a start, to hear the shrill rasping of the _televis_ on his desk. His hand snapped the instrument on.
"Sorry, Mrs. Loomis," he muttered. "I must have been napping."
The face of his middle-aged secretary looked relieved. "Captain Wolfe is here," she told him. "About the new secretary, you know."
"Send them in," Carlyle grunted.
He swore softly to himself. Too often lately he had dozed off at the wrong times. He was due for another replenishment, and he cursed his luck that it had to come now. Tomorrow he was leaving in his giant salvage ship, the _Friar Bacon_, for the newly-discovered sargasso off the orbit of Pluto. Nor could the trip be postponed.
But the renewal of his life-spirit could not wait either. He was a little too tired at night, a little too slow to react. But the certainty was in him that he would not survive the trip to the new salvage fields, with its attendant rigors.
Captain Wolfe, chief officer of the _Friar_, entered with a small, dark-haired young person at his side.
"You're in luck, Chief!" he grinned. "I told you I'd find an A-1 secretary for you, and I think I've got her. Miss Holland, meet Thaddeus Carlyle--and don't say you haven't heard of him. Mr. Carlyle, this is Ann Holland."
The two exchanged acknowledgments, and Carlyle drew up chairs. "We'll have to be brief," he said. "I've got a thousand things to attend to before night. Now--you have the report from the company doctor?"
Ann Holland took a folded slip from her purse and tendered it to the owner of Salvage Lines, Incorporated. Carlyle took the opportunity to appraise her swiftly. He hardly need to scan the physician's report to know her health was boundless. It glowed in the soft rose color of her cheeks, the sparkle of her dark eyes. Her brown hair was carefully combed back from a smooth forehead.
The report bore out his supposition. Carlyle questioned her briefly about her qualifications as a stenographer and secretary. Everything was satisfactory, and the references she had to show were excellent.
Carlyle handed back the papers. "I think I'm lucky to get so well-spoken of a secretary on such short notice," he smiled.
"I know darned well you are, Chief!" Larry Wolfe laughed. "I had to fight every officer in Ann's company to make them let her go."
Ann Holland laid a hand on his arm. "I think I had a little to do with my quitting, too," she reproved. "I can't tell you how I've been fascinated by the stories of your salvage trips, Mr. Carlyle. And, of course, hearing Larry talk of his work with you--"
Thaddeus's dark eyes opened wider. "Oh--Then you have known each other previously?" he queried.
Blond Larry Wolfe held up the girl's left hand, showing the sparkling diamond on the third finger. "Three years previously," he laughed. "We're going to be married after this trip."
Against the flash of resentment and disappointment that struck him, Thaddeus Carlyle brought a smile to his lips. "That's fine," he said. "Congratulations, both of you."
* * * * *
What he didn't voice was the strain of remorse coursing through his mind: "Fine, hell! It's bad enough preying on unattached girls. But the fiancee of your chief officer--"
Nevertheless, it was too late to change. Mrs. Loomis couldn't go because she was married. Besides, she was old. There wasn't much life to be stolen from her.
"Of course, you'll be wanting to know the type of work you're to do," he got out. "Frankly, it will be more tedious than adventuresome. I've been considering doing a book on the navigation conditions obtaining in the sargassos. You'll take dictation from me most of the time we're in the salvage field. I'll want the notes neatly typed up when we return. That's about all, except that the pay will be seventy-five dollars a week. Satisfactory?"
"Perfectly!" Ann breathed, and put her hand out to retrieve the papers from the desk. As she did so, Carlyle's brown, strong fingers picked up the references and tendered them. For an instant their fingers met....
Ann's eyes went suddenly wide, and they flashed up to lock with Carlyle's. She started, as if from a chill. It seemed as if a strong current flowed from his body into hers ... and yet, had she but known, the phenomenon was exactly an opposite one. By now, Carlyle's parasitical work was second nature to him, hardly requiring the jewel and ring.
It struck the girl that his eyes were the strangest ones she had ever gazed into. They were so clear she seemed to look through them and far past him. Clear--but yet somehow they were filled with wisdom. It was as though she was looking into vast, forgotten depths of time.
Abruptly, she recalled herself. Her hand drew swiftly away from his.
"Thank you so much," she murmured. "We're leaving at six, I think you said? I'll be ready."
When they were in the outer office, Larry Wolfe took her arm. He was more than happy at the prospect of having the girl along on the long trip.
"Drive you home?" he suggested.
A frown scored Ann's brow. "No, thanks, Larry," she murmured. "I've got some things to buy uptown. Then I want to go home and rest. I feel a little tired."
* * * * *
Thaddeus Carlyle stood at his window and watched the last bit of loading being done out on the field. The _Friar Bacon_, with her six tiny salvage ships in their bulging hangars growing out of the mother ship's shell, like pilot fish clinging to the body of a shark, was nearly ready for the trip. Carlyle sighed and wished again that he had time to linger a few weeks before leaving.
But it was out of the question. Even a man who possesses immortality must earn his living, and salvaging treasure ships from space was Carlyle's way of doing it. Right now that living was threatened by the savage competition of Brand Haggard, owner of another salvage outfit.
Haggard cared little for the ethics of the business. He'd double-cross, steal, murder, lie, to gain his ends. It was such tactics that had put Carlyle in his present hole.
Coming in on his last expedition, he had found the sargasso off Pluto and duly registered it with the Universal Salvage Commission, applying at the same time for exclusive salvage rights. But Haggard had used his crooked political affiliations to get in on the pie. Carlyle had had to share the rights with him. Now it was a bitter fight to be the first in the field, for the first ship there gutted the most treasure from the wrecked space vessels.
A delay of three weeks or a month would mean the _Friar Bacon_ returned with empty holds. And that might mean ruin for Carlyle. Lately, salvage pickings were getting smaller and smaller. He intended to get into another business for his next lifetime.
The question of the girl still lay like a bitter pellet in his mind, but with an effort he shelved his remorse. He decided to return to his packing. There were two more things to be stowed away in his private lockers. One was a plain silver ring, and the other was a little crystal heart.
* * * * *
At six o'clock the next morning the _Friar Bacon_ rested in its deep starting-tube in the center of the field. At seven o'clock it had proceeded so far on its journey that Earth was but a silver quarter hanging in the sky behind it.
Larry Wolfe was on the bridge. His engineer's eyes sparkled as he regarded the instruments. Fuel--brimming over; speed--one-quarter; retarding gravity quotient--three percent. Ideal conditions, and an ideal ship. He had faith in the _Friar Bacon_, and in its owner. He knew about Brand Haggard, but it didn't worry him particularly, with the best of materials and men to work with.
Larry was on the point of inching the speed up a trifle when a bell began to tinkle. Swiftly he twisted in his seat. Immediately he saw what had aroused the alarm. A ship was coming up fast, behind them. Haggard already! he thought. He stabbed at the buzzer to Carlyle's quarters.
The hard, brown features of the ship's owner snapped into view on the _televis_. "Yes?" was the metallic query.
"Ship approaching, sir!" Larry clipped. "I think it's Haggard's _Martian_. Shall I give her the gun?"
"No, let him come up with us. No use racing yet. We'd just strain the seams before they've heated properly."
"But if he beats us to the fields, sir!"
Thaddeus Carlyle's eyes crinkled. "He won't, Wolfe. I registered a false location with the Commission! He'll either go hell-for-leather out toward Uranus or he'll pace us. Either way, I'm not worrying."
"Very good, sir." Larry Wolfe turned from the instrument to his controls. "Hard as nails!" he chuckled to himself. "He wouldn't hurry for the devil himself. You'd think he'd lived five hundred years, the way he thinks of all the angles and beats hell out of every other ship in the fleet. He's too smart for one man."
That very night, trouble boarded the _Friar Bacon_. In a way, it was Larry Wolfe's fault.
Coming off duty eight hours after they left, he hurried to Ann Holland's stateroom near Carlyle's suite, eager to hear how she had enjoyed her first day aboard a space-liner.
He found her tired and curiously subdued.
"Excitement get you?" he asked her.
Ann's eyes flashed as she thought of the thousand new things she had seen. "A little, I guess," she admitted. "But, Larry, it's wonderful! Such a feeling of freedom, so many strange things to be seen. Here we are darting through space like a liner plowing the Atlantic!"
"You'll get over that pretty soon," Larry grinned. "Then you'll be like the rest of us space-sailors, cursing our luck that man can't push his darned ships along at the speed of light."
"I don't think I ever will," the girl mused. "They build these ships just like Swiss watches, don't they? Every beam and girder machined by hand, every nut and bolt a masterpiece. I went over the whole ship with Thad. I feel like an authority already!"
She laid her head against the cushioned back of the chair, glancing through drowsy eyes out the port-hole. With her face turned away from Larry's, she did not see the swift bolt of jealousy that shot through him.
"Thad?" he echoed. "That's funny, Ann. I've never been allowed to get that familiar with him myself. It's always 'Chief' or 'sir' to us crew members."
The girl's eyes widened a little; then she shrugged her slim shoulders. "I don't know how I happened to call him that. He seems to be a person so very likeable you can't be formal with him."
"I hadn't noticed it," Larry Wolfe snapped.
Ann sat up wearily, brushed stray hair back from her ear. "Oh, now, Larry," she reproved him. "Are you going to start acting like a high-school boy the minute we start?"
The young ship officer's jaw had set like cement. "What'd you do all day? Talk, I suppose?"
"Yes, we talked! For eight hours! I don't know where the time went, but I do know I've never had a better time in my life!"
She said it defiantly, and in the wake of the angry words grew a high wall of pride between them. Ann made one final effort at conciliation.
"Larry, do you have to be like this?" she pleaded. "I'm wearing your ring, isn't that enough?"
Larry stood up. "That's exactly it," he snapped. "You're wearing my ring and the men are going to be watching pretty damn closely when they see you hobnobbing constantly with Carlyle. Oh, don't get me wrong; he's a fine fellow and I think the world of him. But I'm going to ask you not to be with him any more than your work requires!"
Ann's fingers tugged at the diamond ring, and suddenly she was handing it to him. "Then here's something for you to mull over, Mr. Larry Wolfe," she said frigidly. "While we're on the trip you can just pretend that you've never met me before. I won't have your jealousy preventing me from doing a good job."
Larry let the tiny platinum band drop into his broad palm. His eyes showed the pain that twisted through him, but all he said was: "All right, Ann. But when you want the ring back, you'll have to ask for it."
Brand Haggard's sleek, black _Martian_ did not try to pass them, as Carlyle had prophesied. For three weeks the ship was back there on the starboard quarter, matching them move for move. It was on Larry Wolfe's mind constantly while he stood on the bridge, doing little to ease the tension of his nerves.
Strange, unpredictable currents suddenly developed about the ship, and Larry knew that they were only a day or so from the sargasso. Staring through the finder, he made out the diaphonous cloud he had been searching for so long--the sargasso in which they hoped to find millions of dollars in salvage prizes.
Magnetic currents, as yet unidentified by scientists, drew space wreckage here from all over the solar system. Ruined space liners, flotsam and jetsam of fifty years of interplanetary traffic, here collected bit by bit. For the salvage crews who made lucky finds, there was wealth; for those who made the tiniest of errors in their dangerous work, there was death.
Larry Wolfe's thoughts were on the long-missing Astral as he stood his watch that last night. The _Astral_, lost gold transport from Mars to Earth, had been the dream of salvage men for twenty-five years. Somewhere in the solar system it still drifted about. The chances were good that it had been sucked into one of the many sargasso fields; still better, that this newest field, largest of all, had caught it.
In Thaddeus Carlyle's rooms, Ann had been hearing the same story that Larry was dreaming over even now. Carlyle's quiet, powerful words painted romantic highlights over it. The girl found her heart beating faster in anticipation of the days ahead.
"But in all this trackless wilderness of--of ether," she frowned, "how can you hope to find anything at all? Let alone the _Astral_--"
Carlyle smiled, glanced out the port at the vague gray shadow into which they were heading.
"If we worked with just the one ship, we wouldn't find much," he admitted. "Actually, we use six. We drop the smaller salvage ships here and there as we enter the sargasso. The three men in each craft cruise about within a one-hundred-thousand-mile radius. After we've dropped all the ships, we circle back to the spot where we left the first one and wait for the flare signal from it. There's no radio transmission out here, you know. The scout ships are pretty much on their own. When they've located a prize, they tie up to it and go to work dismantling the craft. If they haven't located anything after the first scouting trip, we move them along to the front of the line. It's something like playing leap-frog."
"I suppose your ships and Haggard's honor each other's finds?"
"Supposed to," said Carlyle grimly. His dark eyes flashed to the slim, shark-like hull haunting their wake. His big, sturdy body seemed to tighten. "Haggard's got the reputation of being a pirate. I'm not looking for trouble, but if there is any--well, we can take care of ourselves. I know a few tricks more than Brand Haggard, I think."
Looking at him, Ann knew a thrill of admiration. His attraction for her had been growing with every hour they spent together. "You seem so confident about it," she murmured.
"After twenty years of this sort of work you get your lines pretty well in mind," Carlyle chuckled.
"Twenty years!" Ann's brow arched. "But you don't seem to be over thirty--!"
"I'm a little older than that," the laughing answer came. "I began as a galley-boy."
Silence fell for a moment, while Ann tried to figure his age from what he had said. Then suddenly Thaddeus Carlyle was saying softly:
"You aren't wearing Captain Wolfe's ring any more. I couldn't help noticing. Anything wrong between you two?"
"We--we decided it was best, during the trip, to forget our engagement," the girl faltered, the color rising into her cheeks. She knew he saw through her evasive answer. His eyes, so piercing and yet gentle, seemed to know everything she thought.
* * * * *
Abruptly, Carlyle's fingers slipped about her hand. "Ann, if you and Larry ever do break it off," he pleaded, "will you remember that I--could love you very much?"
Ann was startled. Still more startled to feel the almost irresistible link between them, drawing them together. "I'll remember, Thad," she murmured.
Carlyle slipped something from his pocket. "And just to make sure you don't forget," he said sternly, "you're going to wear this as a reminder. I found it in a wrecked ship, a long time ago. Like it?" He leaned forward to slip the thin silver chain about her neck.
Ann's eyes widened as she accepted the necklace. She held the tiny crystal heart in her fingers as Carlyle snapped the tiny lock.
"I've never seen anything like it!" she breathed. "So crudely cut, and yet every line so perfect. Thad, look! The color of it! There seems to be just a suggestion of pink in the very heart of it--"
Thaddeus Carlyle let the gem fall into his palm, so that the crystal contacted his silver ring. Ann gasped. The suggestion of pink was now a glowing atom of scarlet, as though the heart held one drop of blood. It throbbed and pulsed with life of its own. The heart grew warm against Carlyle's palm--
Suddenly the girl fell back against the chair.
"I--I'm so tired, all of a sudden," she whispered. "Almost too tired--to breathe. Take me--to my cabin--Thad. I think I want--to lie down."
Carlyle swore under his breath. "Fool!" he muttered. "I've been wearing you out with work, and excitement piled on that. You're going to bed, young lady. The ship's surgeon is going to have a look at you, too."
"No, I'm all right," Ann murmured. "Just--tired."
But Thaddeus Carlyle's strong arms were under her, now, and even as he carried her from the cabin she fell asleep. Looking down on her placid features, so like death, he felt a stab of remorse.
Why did it have to be like this? he groaned. A life for a life--Carlyle knew within himself that he was willing to die right now. He'd seen enough of life and its disappointments. But always there was that strain of cowardice in his soul--fear of growing old, of dying. He'd courted death so long, hoping for a quick end on some battlefield, in some remote part of interstellar space. But never did it come. Friar Bacon had indeed cursed him with eternal life.
* * * * *
Six hours later, just as his shift was ending, Larry Wolfe spotted the first loose cluster of drifted wreckage. This meant they had entered the actual salvage field. He rang for Carlyle and the ship owner responded immediately, ducking to enter the bridge.
Larry's clipped voice masked the jealousy he felt toward Carlyle. "Flotsam off the starboard bow sir," he said mechanically.
Through powerful glasses, the other examined the wreckage. He lowered the glasses hurriedly. Apparently it was merely the torn, gutted shell of a barge, but--
"Rest of it may be near," he grunted. "We'll drop off Murphy, Stoller and Cass. Seen anything of Haggard lately? Anything to worry about, I mean?"
"Yes, sir. He's drawn closer ... much too close considering we should be splitting apart now."
Carlyle pivoted and shot a glance back at the darkly looming _Martian_. His brows drew into a solid bar across his angry eyes. "Half speed astern, Captain," he clipped.
Larry glanced back at him. "You mean that?"
"Exactly. Pull in beside the devil. I'm going to speak him."
The _Friar Bacon_ rolled and wallowed as the message was flashed to the engine room. Larry braced himself against the forward lurch of his body. The ship owner stood with legs spread wide, fists on hips, watching the _Martian_ shoot ahead, seemingly, until it was nearly even with them. Its stern jets, firing pale columns of flame, did not slacken.
"Send up a flare," ordered Carlyle. "I'm going to the air-lock. And by the way, tell Murphy to cut his ship loose right now."
"Yes, sir." The bridge door clanged shut and Larry sprang to his round of duties, sending up a purple flare--"we wish to speak you" signal--relaying the message to Murphy to drop away in the scout ship with his two-man crew, swinging the ship over until the _Martian_ was so close they could see the faces at the ports.
The purple answering flare went up, and Larry moved to maneuver the ship alongside, so that air-lock was to air-lock. The other pilot was an expert, handling his ship like a toy in the hands of a giant. The shock was almost imperceptible.
Larry left the bridge just after he saw Murphy, Stoller, and Cass silently pull away, keeping the tiny scout in the umbra of the _Friar Bacon_, hidden from Brand Haggard's eyes.
He found Carlyle waiting for him. Together they closed themselves into the tube. The outer end was now locked firmly against the glass door of the _Martian's_ air-lock. Forms shifted eerily behind the double-thickness glass. At a tap on the glass, Carlyle swung his own window back. The other ship's master did the same.
Then, suddenly, they were standing face to face, Haggard and Thaddeus Carlyle, Larry and the captain of the other craft.
Carlyle was not one to spar for openings.
"Let's have an understanding right now, Haggard," he snapped. "You've cut yourself in on this deal but you'll play it according to the rules. Make one misstep and it's war to the last man. Is that clear?"
Haggard chuckled. "I think I get it," he said. "Well, it's okay by me, mister. I'll work this section and you work the other side of the field."
"You will like hell," barked Carlyle. "I've got a ship in the field already. That, according to the Universal Salvage Code, gives me prior rights. Find yourself another playground."
Larry watched the other ship-man's eyes dwindle to steely pin-points, but still he kept a grin on his wide mouth. Haggard was a powerfully built Swede, one of those laughing, blond-headed men who seem a throwback to the days when giants fought with seventy-pound broadswords and wore chain mail. His savagery belonged to another era, too. Men who had shipped with him never did so again, and thanked their stars they were still alive and more or less sane.
"All right, Carlyle," he chuckled, at last. "Round one is yours. You keep your boys toeing the mark and I'll try to do the same." His eyes dropped to Larry's face. "Got your course mapped out?"
Larry handed his captain the chart he had brought with him, and the man glanced at it with shrewd, faded blue eyes. He was a hard-case old-timer, leathery of skin, short coupled, and tough as oak. But he knew his business, and handed the sheet back directly.
"Fair enough," he gruffed. "That gives us room enough to turn around in."
"I guess we're agreed, then," Thaddeus Carlyle said curtly, extending a broad palm to Haggard. "Good luck."
They shook hands, and once more the glass ports were rolled back in place, the locks opened, and the ships drew apart.
"The damned liar," Carlyle said darkly, watching the _Martian_ arch itself high above them and surge away. "We'll have trouble with him before two watches are down on the log."
It was not until just before he himself quitted the mother ship that Larry Wolfe learned of Ann's illness. Climbing above his pride, he had gone to her cabin to say good-bye.
Doctor Van Doren, ship's surgeon, met him at the door. "You must not excite her," he said, in a low tone. "Say good-bye if you like, but--"
"_Doctor!_" Larry seized his arm. "I--I hadn't heard Ann was sick. What is it?"
"I don't know. Just a complete physical collapse. She's too tired to eat, even. Ever since last night."
Larry was pushing past him into the cabin. He went down on his knees beside the girl's bed and his hand closed on her cold fingers. "Ann!" he choked. "They didn't tell me...."
Ann wouldn't meet his eyes. "I asked them not to. I'm all right, Larry. Just tired."
A cold blade stabbed at Larry's heart. "Why wouldn't you let me know?" he asked.
Ann's eyes seemed fixed on a rivet in the ceiling. "Because I didn't want to worry you. And--I didn't want to fight with you again."
"As if I'd so much as raise my voice, with you sick," Larry groaned. Then his eyes fastened on a ruby-colored heart lying on the girl's breast. "What's that?" he asked, half in alarm. "I've never seen it before; it looks--like it's alive, Ann!"
The girl's fingers toyed with it. "It was a gift," she murmured absently.
"Carlyle!" Larry could not restrain the angry syllables. "I don't like it, Ann! It's like a serpent's eye, or something. It looks so alive--"
Ann's eyes at last met his, and they were cold as space. "We won't argue about it," she said wearily.
Larry got up, striving against the hot resentment searing his heart. "You know I'm leaving now?"
"Yes. Good luck, Larry."
"Thanks!" Larry snorted, and strode from the room.
* * * * *
Larry's was the last scout to be dropped from the _Friar Bacon_. The mother ship was now piloted by Carlyle, who swung it back to the first salvage ship they had dropped.
For hours it was a matter of cruising this way and that, searching the sky for traces of wreckage. Bits of flotsam were everywhere, but large fragments were scarce indeed. Larry's heart was leaden, but he buried himself in the work and succeeded in half-forgetting his worries.
Lanky Jeff Adams was at the controls of the cramped little vessel when the first dark splinter was sighted in the void. Braced against the lurch and roll of the ship, Larry scrutinized the wrecked ship as they neared it. So unbelievable was the sight he saw that for an instant after he lowered the glasses it did not penetrate his reflexes. His fingers were tracing the vessel's name into the log when suddenly he stared at what he had written: "11:46 A. M. sighted derelict _Astral_. Good condition...."
Larry Wolfe dropped the glasses and let out a yell. Jeff leaped as though he had been stung, his magnificent red beak of a nose growing redder with the excitement. Abe Miller, stocky, beetle-browed helper, stared at the officer.
"What's amatter, Chief?" he jerked.
Dumbly, Larry pointed. "That's--the _Astral_!" he gasped. "Two hundred million dollars--in gold--!"
Abe and Jeff were stunned; then they crowded the port to stare at the ancient craft dead ahead. The scout had drawn near enough now that the name of the transport was plainly visible in letters running from stem half-way to stern. Weakly, Jeff let himself back into his seat and muttered:
"Two--hundred--million ... in Martian gold! And we get ten percent for findin' 'er. Ten percent of two hundred million, divided three ways--"
Larry laughed and poked playfully at his big nose. "Don't count your shekels before you hear them jingle," he counseled. "The _Astral_ may have been gutted by pirates. Give her the gun, mister; we're finding out!"
The little space-craft slewed and rocked to a stop beside the giant transport. Shock struck the three men dumb with their first glimpse close up. Faces crowded the ports, staring out at them. Larry fancied he saw movement among the watchers on the bridge. To all appearances the _Astral_ might have been a vessel in mid-flight.
They cruised slowly up the side, not ten feet from the ghostly faces that watched them with staring eyes. Foot by foot they proceeded. Rounding the front of the craft, they could see into the bridge. Two men were working over charts and a man in blue-and-gray uniform was at the controls. Another, a pencil over his ear, stood reading a gauge high on the wall.
Then the meaning of it all came home to them.
The port side of the ship was ripped open from stem to stern. Something--no doubt a jagged meteor fragment--had sliced and torn its way through the shell of the speeding transport. The occupants of the open side had exploded like deep-sea fish drawn to the surface. These in the space-tight, unharmed cabins opposite had been frozen instantly by the outrush of pent-up air. And there they had stood in the attitudes in which Death had found them, staring out as they forged through the meteor-swarm, hoping they would not be hit.
In the silence they tied up to the derelict, their magnet-plates clinging like suction cups. Donning space suits and carrying kits of tools, they leaped through the rent into the dead ship.
A vague twilight dwelt in the interior. Larry led the way to the bridge. The frozen lock was cut out by means of a torch. With set jaws he went inside.
"Better load 'em out quick, boys. If the sunlight starts to thaw 'em there'll be a hell of a mess. Throw 'em clear of the ship. It's tough--but it's a sky-man's end, and we may all meet the same some day."
While Abe and Jeff carried the corpses away, he found the log and traced back to the vessel's start. There he located the cargo list. Two hundred million was correct, as the refining company had stated when the ship was lost.
Their next job was to cut into the hold. The sight of two hundred million dollars in gold bullion took their breath away. Jeff sat down and began laying the ponderous bars into three piles, muttering:
"One for me, one for you, and one for Abe. One for--"
Larry laughed, "Get to work, you half-baked lout. We've got to lug all these out to where they'll make quick loading. _Friar Bacon_ should loom up in about four hours. I'll set the flares--"
And then they all went stiff, hands reaching for energy-pistols. Through the ship's floor came the thud-thud-thud of walking men!
* * * * *
Larry sprang into the hall. Three whirled at his advance. He snapped on his transmitter, the instrument operating through the metal floor like a telegraph.
"Get the hell out of here!" he barked. "You're fifty thousand miles out of your territory. Is this how Haggard keeps a bargain?"
The foremost pirate said not a word, but suddenly the pistol in his hand flared redly. Larry flung himself aside, blasted away with his own weapon. The wall of the corridor dissolved beneath his shoulder.
A scream rang through his helmet, chopped off clean as the pirate's space suit was blown open. Jeff and Abe were yelling for Larry to get out of their way and give them a clear shot. Larry's answer was to duck into the hole blasted in the wall by the energy bolt.
He got the second pirate in his sights and saw him crumple under a wave of atom-dissolving force. A mere fringe of the charge scored the helmet of the last man. Screaming shrilly, air rushed from his suit. His body blew up like a balloon in a decompression-bell, until he filled the bulging suit. Then there was a ghastly moment of seeing blood spurt through the hole in the helmet. And after that he was only a sickening smatter of glass and blood and powdered bone.
The swiftness with which it was all over left the three salvage men weak. Larry forced himself down the hall. There might be more of them. But a glance outside showed only one _Martian_ scout tied up. As a precaution, he turned his force weapon on the little ship until the hammering and searing energy shocks melted its magnet plates and hurled it away.
Hastily, then, he turned to Jeff and Abe.
"Pile aboard," he cracked out. "We're dropping this until we contact Carlyle. Haggard will be back looking for his scout. We want more than hand guns to use when he returns. This is war!"
They sighted the _Friar Bacon_ well toward the front of the line of scouts. Only one ship lay in its carrier. The mother ship hove to while the tiny craft nuzzled into the waiting pocket.
Carlyle was waiting at the air-lock when they sprang out. Larry's words crackled with tension.
"We've raised the _Astral_, sir! Afraid Haggard's going to know about it in a few hours, too. One of his scouts jumped us and we killed the men. Better let us go back with Murphy's ship while you round up the rest of the fleet. This is going to mean trouble!"
Carlyle's eyes glowed, and his features seemed to shine with inner energy.
"Great work!" he breathed. "I'll drop off Murphy directly. Mark the way out there with flares. We'll get the rest of the boys and be there in three hours. If we're lucky we can unload the _Astral_ and be out of the territory without crossing his path."
Larry Wolfe saluted and turned back to the scout. He tried to summon the fierce dislike he had for the salvage boss when he was away from him, but it would not rise. Carlyle's personality was a strong one. Men instinctively took orders from him and liked it, and women--Well, Ann had certainly changed. Yet there was a shading of something sinister under the man's smooth, forceful exterior. Larry could not isolate the things about him he distrusted.
Once more they dropped away from the _Friar_. Murphy, Stoller and Cass came booming along after them, jets belching and the whole, tiny craft leaping like a released whippet in the effort to pace Larry.
It was an hour and a half before they saw the _Astral_ in their glasses once more. In their path they had dropped red fluctuating flares to guide the mother ship to the derelict. The scout sidled in beside the space-barge. Magnets sent out invisible tentacles and hauled them against the vessel with a stiff shock. Murphy's red head bobbed into view as his own craft made landing.
Larry Wolfe snapped orders. Stoller and Cass tackled the job of cutting away the ragged metal to provide more room for the loading of the salvage ship. Jeff, Abe, and Murphy joined Larry in the back-breaking toil of moving the gold.
And all the time they were conscious of the precious weapon that was slipping from their fingers ... _time_! Minutes, seconds, fleeing from them, while they wondered which ship would be first to return, the _Friar Bacon_ with its glittering silver hull, or the black tiger-shark of the void--the _Martian_.
Without warning there was a terrific crash against the side of the derelict. The six sweating workmen were flung to their faces on the floor. One of the scout ships was torn lose and went rolling away.
Larry ripped out his gun and crawled to the opening in the vessel's shell. What he saw caused him to sigh with new relief.
"Meteor shower," he called to the others. "We took the biggest part of it right then. You can hear the dust pattering against us now. Nothing to worry about."
_Nothing to worry about--!_
But right then another impact came that up-tilted the barge and hurled them from their feet, stunned. A shadow fell over the sunlight splashed room and a long, black shape glided past, a mile or two away. The _Martian_ was back and ready for war.
* * * * *
There was a second shot that sprawled them around. In the bow of the attacking cruiser winked a malevolent green eye. At Larry's signal, every man jammed the range setting on his pistol up to full. Even with the guns taxed to their utmost, they would be pitiful answer to the cannon aboard the other craft.
"Murphy!" Larry yelled. "Take your men up to the bridge where you can keep your eye on 'em. Keep firing. Don't let 'em rest."
But there was no slowing down Brand Haggard. With the cunning of a tiger, he swooped and curvetted about the _Astral_, never stopping long enough to let one of those pistol shots burn deep. There was not an instant when the derelict was still; constantly it rolled in a sea of searing, churning ether, burned fiercely by force-charges. From time to time a great hole was gashed through the barge.
Then there came a blasting concussion that piled Larry, Jeff, and Abe in a corner like three rats in a box. Blood filtered down Larry's neck where his space suit had gashed him. Light spilled into the ship through the fore parts. With his heart hammering, he ran forward to the bridge.
He found the hole where the bridge had been, but Murphy, Stoller and Cass were gone. A hundred yards away the _Martian_ was maneuvering for another shot.
Larry ran back to the others.
"They're gone," he bit out. "And we're slated for the same if we hold out any longer. Let's grab the scout and head for the _Friar_. Maybe we can get back here before Haggard guts this barge."
All three men seemed to sense the cessation of the _Astral's_ rolling at the same instant. They glanced dumbly at each other. _What had caused the pirate to stop its barrage?_
All at once, Jeff was pointing, yelling like a madman. Cheers broke from the others' throats. With the swift grace of a bullet, the _Friar Bacon_ was shooting across the sky in pursuit of Haggard's ship!
For a few minutes it was like watching a pair of clever fencers feint and lunge. The speed of the ships went for little now. It was the daring and skill of the man at the controls that spelled victory or defeat.
But in the end it was the _Martian_ that drew off. A shot ripped away most of a scout carrier and showed Brand Haggard, temporarily, at least, that he was bucking a tougher, smarter man.
Carlyle did not chase him. Such a pursuit, zig-zagging on full throttles through space, could easily last a week. He brought the big cruiser alongside the wrecked _Astral_ and the survivors sprang aboard.
Larry, Jeff, and Abe were pounded on the back by their companions, while eager hands dropped to the derelict to begin the transfer of cargo.
"You three better hie yourselves down to the galley and get some grub," Carlyle grinned.
Jeff and Abe took him at his word; but Larry, lingering, asked Carlyle pointedly:
"How's Ann? She was pretty sick when I left her."
He would have taken oath that the salvage boss' dark eyes flinched. Those piercing eyes searched his face for an instant before Carlyle replied. Finally:
"Not so good, Captain," he said. "Why don't you look at her? Might do a lot for her, you know."
"I'm afraid I don't know, sir," Larry Wolfe ground out. "I seemed to be so much excess cargo last time."
He turned stiffly and passed him. But, drawn by something more powerful than his wounded pride, he went straight to Ann's room and knocked softly.
A voice so weak he scarcely recognized it answered him.
Larry went in. Ann was lying back against the pillows. The deathly pallor of her face caused him to start.
"Ann!" he groaned. "What is it? What's happening to you?"
The girl's bloodless features did not warm at sight of him. But a strain of fear coursed through her throaty tones.
"I don't know," she whispered. Her fingers went to toying with the little heart lying against her throat.
Suddenly Larry was striding forward, to stand looking down at the jewel with blazing eyes. "Damn that thing!" he gritted. "You're going to turn it over to me right now. I don't know what it is, but I'll swear it's alive with some deadly force of its own. It's glowing like a piece of red radium!"
Ann's waxen fingers closed over it. "You're talking like an insane man, Larry!" she panted. "You may as well understand right now that I'm not taking orders from you like a stevedore. If I want to wear a simple piece of jewelry, no amount of your ranting will prevent me!"
Larry's cheeks grew scarlet, his fists knotting up hard. "Maybe it won't," he retorted, "but by Heaven, Carlyle knows the secret of that stone and I'm going to wring it out of him right now!"
"Larry!" The girl's voice followed him, laden with sharp fear. Larry Wolfe ignored her cry and strode to the loading deck. What he contemplated was mutiny, perhaps, but it was Ann's life at stake.
Carlyle was not on the loading deck, nor did Larry locate him on the bridge. As a final resort he strode to the ship owner's room. The door was unlocked, and he barged in without knocking.
Staring angrily about him, he saw no sign of his quarry. Then a sort of madness laid hold of him. He began to ransack Carlyle's belongings, searching--what he sought, he couldn't have said. But he was seeking proof that Thaddeus Carlyle was something more than he represented himself to be.
There was nothing he wouldn't have expected to find there. Nothing but one small article: an oval-shaped brooch of yellowed ivory, a tiny painting of a man's head on it. He had examined similar ones in museums. Carrying it over to the light, Larry was shocked to note the resemblance of the man's face to Carlyle.
Then he found the minute, hair-line script below it: "Thaddeus Carlyle, Lord Mon--" The last word had been obliterated by time. Larry's breath rattled in his throat as a queer panic gripped him. Feverishly he shoved stiff fingers through his hair. _Lord Monfort--!_ They hadn't made miniatures like this one for hundreds of years.
Larry turned the brooch over and discovered on the back the words: "From Helene. Nov. 1346."
The brooch struck the floor with a clink. The sound seemed to pour new life into Larry. He shouted, "Ann!" and sprang into the hall and swiftly toward the girl's room.
* * * * *
Voices stopped him just before he touched the knob. Carlyle's voice, softer than he had dreamed it could be, murmuring:
"If only there weren't Larry--if I weren't afraid he might steal your love back. You say he means nothing to you, and yet--"
"You _know_ he means nothing to me!" For all its animation, Ann's voice held the monotonous cadence of one who is half-asleep.
"You do love me, Ann--more than life itself?"
"Ann, I'm going to ask you something--wait, dear! I know you're tired; but you must keep your eyes open a moment longer...."
The door crashed inward. Larry Wolfe was through it and upon Carlyle before the latter could get to his feet. He had been sitting on the edge of Ann's bunk. With steel fingers Larry hauled him to his feet.
"You damned parasite!" he shouted. "You thought you'd prey upon Ann the same way you did the others, did you?" His fist struck out, but the salvage boss caught his wrist and held it.
"Are you insane?" he roared.
Larry's mood was not one of arguing. Again he struck, and this time the blow chopped into Carlyle's mouth and brought blood.
Ordinarily the bigger man could have cut Larry down with a few man-killing punches, but the madness in Larry Wolfe knew neither pain nor weakness. He took savage blows to the face and ribs, but stayed on his feet. A lucky uppercut jarred Carlyle's teeth in his head, and for an instant he was sagging against the wall.
Larry seized that split-second to spring to the bedside of the terrified girl and tear the necklace from her throat. He threw it at Carlyle with all his force. The gem missed, shivered into tiny, glittering crystals on the floor, like shining drops of blood.
Thaddeus Carlyle's face paled under its deep tan. He glanced down at the wreck of the crystal heart. He was on the point of drawing his pistol when the alarm began to ring.
"Mr. Carlyle! Captain Wolfe!" the voice boomed through the ship. "_Martian_ returning. All hands at their posts!"
On the tail of the warning came a shock that tore the _Friar Bacon_ from the side of the derelict. Larry had a glimpse through the port, of men in space suits left hanging in the void between the two ships, of gold ingots floating grotesquely around them.
The battle was forgotten, as fighters toppling over a cliff forget their differences and scramble for safety. Larry followed the ship owner up the corridor, climbed the ladder to the top deck, sprang to the firing lever of the big energy gun stationed in the nose.
The other men darted from the control room to their posts. The _Friar_ was stationary for a second, while Carlyle located the other ship. With a surge of swift power that took the passengers' breath, the craft shot after it.
* * * * *
Haggard's strategy had been to get in line with the sun and keep in line with it while he rushed down on the unsuspecting salvage ship. Reports were crackling in from all parts of the ship regarding the damage done. Nothing had been touched, it seemed, except one of the forward scout carriers, which was blasted loose.
Larry was tensely vigilant as he crouched over the firing lever. He did not glance at Carlyle. The salvage boss' face seemed to have set into grimmer lines than ever. Up ahead the _Martian_ was fighting to keep out of line. Haggard's poor shot had put them in the disadvantage.
Carlyle piloted like a demon, straining the ship until the bulkheads chattered in their steps. Haggard's slightest error meant the gap between them closed that much more. Suddenly something seemed to go wrong. The _Martian_ faltered for a tenth of a second. In the next moment Thaddeus Carlyle swerved until the pirate's rocket tubes were straight before them.
"Fire!" he clipped.
Larry pulled swiftly at the lever. There was no response. Harder, he tugged.
"I said _fire_!" Carlyle shouted at him. "I can't hold this point any longer. They're under way again."
Sweat started from Larry's pores. "The thing's jammed, Chief!" he groaned. "They got our gun with that first shot."
Carlyle seemed to wilt a little. What it meant was that they were up against a fast, armed vessel with no means of defending themselves. As if Brand Haggard sensed the trouble, too, he put the _Martian_ about and came booming down the line at them, head-on.
Carlyle's response was slow. The ship heaved violently as a rear stabilizer melted under Haggard's shot. Only the fact that the shock threw them away from the pirate's line of fire saved them.
Now it was the _Friar Bacon_ that dodged and ran. The air boiled all about them. Larry could envision Haggard's grinning, savage countenance hovering over the firing lever, ceaselessly yanking at it.
And there was something wrong with the staggering _Friar_. Larry thought for a while that their stabilizers were not functioning. Always they were a fraction of a second late in diving out of range. It was when Haggard was not over a few hundred yards in the rear that Larry glanced over at Carlyle. In a flash he was on his feet....
He saw sunken, shrivelled cheeks and glazing eyes. Gray hair straggling from under the jaunty officer's cap. A scrawny neck going down into a collar many sizes too large.
Larry was cold all over. He took Carlyle by the shoulders and hauled him out of the chair, surprised at the lightness of his body. The bony fingers clawed at the controls and then gave them up. Larry let him sag to the floor and grabbed the controls.
Haggard was diving again, with throttles wide open. A few miles ahead lay the wreckage of the _Astral_. Larry suddenly saw his chance. He had no gun, nothing to fight back with; but here was where courage and skill might count heavily.
With the _Martian_ a hundred yards in the rear, dead on the stern, Larry fired both bow rockets and the port stern rocket. Braces screamed and loose objects toppled, as the _Friar Bacon_ slowed and went into a tight pin-wheel. The _Martian_ roared up alongside. Larry blasted out with the other stern rocket and the two craft jarred together. At the same instant he turned on the boarding magnets, so that the ships were held together as though welded.
Brand Haggard's blond head bobbed into view only fifteen feet away. He stood up from the firing lever and stared through the bridge port at Larry. This was the first time Larry had ever seen him when he was not grinning that arrogant wicked grin of his.
* * * * *
Haggard was shaking his fist and yelling. His gun was useless now. And he knew only too well what lay in Larry's mind: To carry him dead into the _Astral_ and pile the _Martian_ up like a racing car striking a brick wall!
The captain of the black vessel tried every strategy he knew. But Larry held it down to the course he had set. The two ships flashed on toward destruction.
Haggard's face showed in the glass, threatening, cajoling, pleading. At the last moment he held up two fist-fulls of paper money, trying to buy another chance. Larry laughed and dropped his hand on the magnet lever.
Screams of terror built up within the _Friar Bacon_ as the crew discovered the derelict dead ahead. They were drowned under the roar of rockets as Larry cut the pirate loose and moved to avoid the _Astral_.
He had a horrible moment of watching a fin on the wrecked vessel reach out to rake the belly of the slewing salvage ship. Then all dissolved in a shower of wreckage, the fin crumpling away and flames shooting up where it had been. The _Martian_ had crumpled up like an accordion.
Bodies flew past the windows, to explode as the pressureless atmosphere inflated them. Gold ingots mingled with them. Everywhere there was death, and the horror that can come only from a wreck of two such space-giants as the _Martian_ and the long-dead _Astral_.
The _Friar_ toppled end over end, a chip caught in a maelstrom. Miles away from the carnage, Larry Wolfe managed to right it. He stood up from the controls to find Ann Holland standing white and silent above Carlyle's body.
Larry shuddered. Carlyle's face was that of a mummy. His hands were crooked brown hooks like the dried talons of a buzzard. His uniform draped his shrivelled body like a gunny sack over a skeleton.
Ann pressed against Larry's side, seemingly unconscious that there had ever been anything wrong between them. "What was he, Larry?" she whispered.
"I don't know," he admitted. "But he was old--Lord knows how old. That crystal heart he gave you ... there was something queer about it. I think that when I destroyed it, I killed him, too."
The girl suddenly buried her face against his chest. "Oh, Larry!" she sobbed. "It's so horrible. Let's go back ... now!"
"Just as soon as we comb a few gold bars out of the sky," he told her softly. "Then we're going back and carry on with those plans we had before you gave me back my ring. But--I'd like to find out some time--just how old he was, and _what_ he was."
* * * * *
Sooner than they had expected, they were to find at least the answer to Thaddeus Carlyle's age. Larry and Ann were married the day they docked in New York. For their honeymoon they sailed to England. It occurred to Larry while they were there to look for the Monfort tomb in Westminster Abbey.
They found it, an ancient stone crypt with the names of thirteen Lord Monforts inscribed, hidden in the shadows of the building's oldest wing. Birth and death dates followed each name. But after Thaddeus Carlyle's name were engraved only the numerals:
"Wish I had the courage of my convictions," muttered Larry. "I'd get them to finish it for the poor devil: '--died, 1970.'"