CO-AUTHORS OF: ‘THIRSTY BLADES,’ ETC.
Zinlo, Torrogo of Olba, abruptly checked his restless pacing, and turned from the great circular window which he had passed and repassed a hundred times during that interminable Venusian afternoon.
“Body of Thorth! That ship from Doravia should have been here long ago. If Tandor has killed our envoys and stolen the ship, there’ll be war aplenty on Venus, and never mind what’s going to happen in the rest of the Solar System.”
The emperor’s handsome, youthful features were dark with wrath, and his eyes were steel blue and hard as the blade of the curved scarbo at his side as he regarded gray-haired Vorn Vangal, his personal counsellor. The old scientist, however, was unruffled by the Torrogo’s outburst. He leaned back in his cushioned, golden chair, planted his hands palms down on the great table of richly carved serali wood, and before speaking, paused to stroke his square cut, gray beard.
“Patience, Your Majesty,” he finally said, as his eyes shifted from the circular window of the Black Tower. “I’ve just received a telepathic message from Tandor himself. He is on his way to the conference – and while the treacherous hahoe might very well have taken advantage of the present interstellar situation to give you cause for war at a time when you couldn’t afford to strike back, I’m sure that your alarm is out of order – this time, at least.”
Zinlo nodded. The iron sternness of his clean-shaven, youthful features faded, and he smiled thinly.
“You’re usually right, Vorn Vangal. And it’s just possible that Tandor finally has learned his lesson.”
As he spoke, his powerful fingers curled about the pommel of the long, curved scarbo, whose deadly flickering blade had hacked a red path through Venusian anarchy and to the throne of the mighty Olban empire.
“But,” resumed the Torrogo, “it seems that these machine men never learn, in spite of their artificial bodies and the relative immortality they thus gain. We – some of us, at least – profit by experience, but Tandor’s record of treachery and intrigue makes me doubt that he’ll ever see the point of anything but this—“
He smiled grimly as the sudden closing of his fingers made the chains of his scarbo scabbard tinkle softly.
Vorn Vangal nodded, then gazed thoughtfully out over the garden with its winding walkways, its lagoons teeming with waterfowl and amphibious reptiles and mammals, its rare collection of tree ferns, cycads, thallophytes and grotesque fungi from all parts of Venus; but the old man’s thoughts were far beyond the rolling parkway that spread below him. Doravia, the empire of the Machine Men, had added to the white hairs that flecked his beard and head. Artificial bodies, cunningly devised to simulate human form, and actuated by electrochemical energy, had given the Doravians immortality. The only way in which a Doravian could die would be through carelessly exposing himself to peril before he had drawn upon the Imperial Laboratories for a spare body which his soul, or ego, could animate, and thus prolong his Venusian existence. With such relative immortality, the Doravians should have attained a superhuman wisdom through the richness of their experience; but actually they had developed egos so overgrown that wisdom had degenerated into cunning.
“Wrong, Your Majesty,” the old man finally said, as his glance shifted to the scarbo, and the brightly burnished tork whose crackling blasts were the young Emperor’s ultimate argument. “Your being a master of your weapons at times blinds you to the value of matching wits rather than steel. We can’t afford a Venusian war – and I am hoping that you will confuse Tandor by subtlety.”
“Subtlety!” exploded the Torrogo.
“Exactly, Your Majesty,” said the old man with an indulgent smile. “Let me tell you the rest of my telepathic communication. Tandor, as I said, is on his way in response to your invitation. But that is only the half of it; he is bringing—“
Zinlo’s crackling oath shook the brocaded tapestries. He knew, now.
“Bones of Thorth! Is that wench coming into the picture again? It’ll be a wonderful conference with that female pest keeping things in an uproar!”
“I knew Your Majesty would be delighted,” was Vorn Vangal’s ironic observation. “And that’s why I presumed to hint that finesse rather than steel be your weapon. She insisted upon accompanying her brother; but that is not the worst of it.”
Zinlo glared somberly for a moment. “Out with it!” he commanded.
“She has closed her mind. I’ve been unable to catch even a flash of thought waves. And if that doesn’t mean trouble, nothing does.”
Zinlo scowled, nodded, stroked his chin. He knew that is Xunia could insulate her thoughts against the incredibly keen perceptions of Vorn Vangal, she was indeed an enemy to consider; and that she had exerted the uncanny power necessary to resist the old psychologist’s scrutiny proved that her thoughts were indeed sinister. Her concealment was a confession; only the details were lacking. And to obtain those, Vorn Vangal had counselled his young master to abandon steel in favor of wits.
“At all events,” was Zinlo’s caustic comment, “there’s one thought she needn’t bother to conceal.”
Vorn Vangal smiled as he noted the wry grimace that accompanied the Torrogo’s observation. The hostility between Zinlo and the royal family of Doravia had begun when the Torrogo of Olba had flatly refused to marry the outwardly lovely Xunia, an imperial match which had been proposed by Tandor in a spirit of scientific inquiry. Xunia, despite her being a mechanical creation animated by a spirit that had slipped from body to body for ages, had all the physical attributes of a normal, Venusian woman, and her brother, Tandor, had long speculated as to the offspring of that imperial Doravian beauty and the young Emperor of Olba. And Zinlo’s flat, uncompromising refusal, which in itself was an affront to the pride of the oldest race on the planet, was heightened by his defeat of Tandor’s plans for marrying Loralie of Tyrhana, an imperial princess in her own right, and a ravishing beauty.
“Your Majesty is uncommonly acute,” murmured Vorn Vangal, reading the Emperor’s thought. “Xunia still wants to marry you – and that also must enter the calculations. Desire and vengeance and political intrigue are all hopelessly entangled threads in this impending conference.”
“Impending is just the word, Vorn Vangal. Doesn’t one usually use it in connection with dooms, disasters, plagues, and the like?”
Vorn Vangal smiled, but the jest which was to have been his rejoinder died unspoken.
“Here they are!” he exclaimed, gesturing toward the circular window.
Zinlo turned, shading his eyes with his hand. He stood alert and expectant as he watched the seven great aerial battleships slowly descending to the rolling sward below. Preeminent among the monarchs of Venus, he took his greatest pride in those mighty vessels which testified to the genius of the Olban scientist who had perfected a method of tremendously amplifying and harnessing telekinesis, the mysterious mental force which, operating on a small scale, enables Earthly mediums to move tables, chairs and other ponderable objects without physical contact. Olba alone of the empires of Venus had aerial battleships; and with the navy Zinlo had organized, he had enforced peace on that tempestuous planet.
The cloud-filtered light from the circular window touched to life the shimmering folds of his brocaded scarlet tunic and flamed from the jewel-encrusted hilt of the battle-nicked scarbo at his side. And the prodigious ruby which adorned his turban-like headpiece glowed and blazed like a looted city as Zinlo nodded his approval of the skillfully executed descent in echelon.
According to Olan etiquette, the ships which Zinlo had detailed to carry his fellow rulers to his capital were arranged in the order of the importance of their royal passengers and the landings were timed in order of precedence, so that the vessel which was the point of the wedge settled to the ground while the others still hovered clear of the field.
The roll of kettle drums and the hoarse blasts of huge trumpets that sounded the salute to the occupant of the first ship reminded Zinlo of the courtesy due his fellow princes. He stepped from the circular window, drew aside a scarlet velvet curtain that concealed an alcove and entered the elevator which would swiftly carry him to the broad terrace where he was to receive the members of the conference. So swift was his descent that he was at his post when the folding aluminum steps dropped from the hull of the ship. Grandon of Terra descended and strode along the chrysoprase slabs of the walk that led to the terrace.
“Blood of Thorth!” exclaimed Zinlo as the broad-shouldered, dark-haired young ruler of Reabon returned his salute. “Grandon, about the time we get this planet cleaned up, we’re getting grief from outside the Solar System.”
“We’ll take care of it,” was Grandon’s easy assurance as he fingered the hilt of his scarbo. “Ay-Artz is biting off a big mouthful.”
“Don’t underrate him,” was Zinlo’s low-voiced retort. “I’m fairly certain that he’s already driven a wedge into our opposition by buying the Doravians. Guard your remarks – and keep a watch on Tandor and his lovely sister.”
The brief colloquy was interrupted by a second fanfare of music and Zinlo turned to Kantar the Gunner, Torrogo of Mernerum, a staunch grim-faced veteran who had risen from the ranks. The scars that seamed his stern, leathery features testified to his bitterly contested march to a throne. And then in succession came Aardvan of Adonijar, burly and thunderous of voice; Ad of Tyrhana, dark, lean and predatory; Joto of Granterra, Rogo of the Valley of the Sabits, clad from head to foot in the wondrous brown armor which no tork bullet could penetrate; and Han Lay, Torrogo, of the Huitsenni, the yellow pirates who had been reformed by force of tork blast and scarbo thrust.
The squat, pudgy ruler of the Huitsenni waddled down the tiled walk, his narrow, cat-like eyes contracted in a permanent squint, and each of his three chins stained by the red juice of the narcotic kerra spores which he, like all members of his hairless, toothless race, mumbled incessantly. At his left walked an attendant who bore a portable, jeweled spittoon to receive the red expectoration that Han Lay aimed with mathematical precision, and at his right was a comely slave-girl with an embroidered kerchief, who daintily wiped his sunken lips so that he could greet Zinlo without drooling over his scarlet vest.
The six allies were ranged at Zinlo’s left as the seventh and final blare of music announced Tandor of Doravia and his sister Xunia. There was a gasp of admiration as the latter emerged from the battleship. She was slender and shapely, with dark, haughty eyes and finely chiseled features and a thin, faintly aquiline nose whose imperial curve belied the amorous softness of a mouth that was red as a scarbo slash.
The princess of Doravia was lovelier than she had been at previous meetings and for a moment Zinlo marveled at the regal beauty who now advanced with deliberate, undulant pace to greet him. Her hand was soft, warm and caressing, and her voice was as amorous as a kiss as she murmured: “It’s good to see you again, Zinlo. I do hope we’ll part on friendlier terms than the last time.
For just a moment Zinlo seconded the wish that she had expressed with what seemed to be unquestionable sincerity; but from the corner of his eye he caught the flickering, baleful glance of her handsome, olive-skinned brother, read the lurking enmity and shivered.
Zinlo remembered that Xunia was but the simulacrum of a woman; that that which he saw was but a cunningly wrought mechanism and that the lovely body was not even the same one she had worn when he had first met her some time before. And suddenly it seemed hideous and unutterably repulsive that a mere machine could be graced with so much feminine fascination – that it could hold the gaze of each member of that vast assembly of resplendent officials and glittering princes.
Xunia sensed his thought and the sudden gleam in her dark eyes contradicted the sweetness of her smile – the throaty caress of her voice.
Vorn Vangal, reading the silent clash of thought and determined to interrupt it, nodded to the master of ceremonies. The roar and thunder of field music checked the outburst that was impending.
Zinlo, in response to the signal, led the assembled rulers to the great conference hall and from his canopied chair of state invited the delegates to seat themselves about the massive table across whose polished top old grudges had been settled and new ones fanned to flame.
There was a moment of silence. Then Zinlo rose and eyed the great potentates of Venus, his cold level gaze taking the measure of each in turn. Finally he spoke.
“Fellow Torrogos, and Torrogina, my urgent invitation to the capital was for a purpose which no doubt some if not all of you already know. Dos-Tev, the exiled emperor of Lemnis, a planet of the twin suns, Alpha Centauri, warns us that Ay-Atrz the usurper is preparing to invade and loot to solar system. I need say no more. You know well that this raid will leave a succession of stripped and blasted planets, our civilizations and cultures obliterated and the survivors of several races chained and bleeding under the taskmaster’s lash.
“And still less need I remind you of the unpleasant doom the butcher of the twin-sunned planet reserves for captured monarchs.”
The low, confused muttering and wrathful growls that greeted Zinlo’s opening remarks told him that he would have little difficulty in organizing an expedition; but his eyes narrowed as he regarded the lovely Xunia who had intruded into the conference. Her royal blood technically entitled her to be present; and thus, despite her violation of tradition, it was beyond Zinlo’s power to deny her admission. And Zinlo, as he resumed his address, at the same time racked his brain for some clue as the nature of trickery which he was certain that Xunia’s presence indicated. Forewarned by his intuition, he had already devised a plan to thwart that lovely, insidiously evil creature whose amorous glances veiled her spite and resentment at Zinlo’s affront to her ancient race.
“I have already built a space-globe, patterned after the original designed by Dr. Morgan of Earth. Each of you will send me a volunteer delegate. They will be quartered here until Vorn Vangal receives a telepathic message from Dos-Tev, designating a rendezvous where we of Venus may meet the contingents from the other planets.
“You know the peril that hangs over us. Grandon ot Terra will hold my throne during my absence. I will in person lead the expedition. All of you must give me the utmost cooperation, or our Solar System will become a collection of smoking ruins – desolate globes whirling thru space.”
This time there was no murmur. The assembled monarchs, oppressed by the full realization of the doom that menaced them, exchanged glances, each reading the other’s concern. Even the yellow Huitsenni, the pirate emperor, for a moment forgot to masticate his kerra spores, and his slave girl, though but dimly understanding, forgot to wipe the royal chin.
“Return to your capitals, fellow princes,” resumed Zinlo. “I will—”
“But where is the conference to take place?” interrupted Xunia, smiling in the face of the general gravity, and patting her dusky hair. “I think we should know, so we could send reinforcements directly to the scene of action if an emergency arose.”
Zinlo’s glance caught the eye of Vorn Vangal. The chief counselor, standing respectfully in front of the agate pillar which was his station, stroked his gray beard and let his left eyelid droop for an instant. And Zinlo knew then why Xunia was present. Vorn Vangal’s projected thought flashed silver clear: “There you have it, Your Majesty. She wants to betray the rendezvous to Ay-Artz.”
Only that flash; and his thought waves were abruptly cut short, lest some other person sensing their powerful vibration would likewise receive their import. But that flash sufficed. No explanation was needed. Xunia’s motive was obvious: the reward of treason would be the entire looted planet of Venus for Xunia and Tandor, once Ay-Artz had completed his devastation. Betraying the meeting place would give Ay-Artz the victory; and without this treason, the butcher from Alpha Centauri’s far off planet would be forced to fight bitterly, might even strive in vain to complete his gigantic conquest.
Zinlo’s arm rose in a gesture of dismissal. “I am the chosen recipient of the message on this planet,” he said. Even I do not yet know the rendezvous; and if I did, it would be stupid indeed of me to broadcast such a vital secret. Ay-Artz has spies among us. Therefore abandon feminine curiosity, and do as I command. Or is there any one else who would prefer to lead the expedition?”
The clamor that ensued, assured Zinlo that the perilous honor was his; but Xunia’s venomous glance was more eloquent than her silence. Zinlo knew that she had taken his words as an accusation hurled to her teeth before this conclave of her peers; that she would use all her age-seasoned cunning to defeat him, to seek out the hidden rendezvous.
Zinlo repeated his gesture. The assembled monarchs saluted, then with deliberate, formal strides, left the conference hall.
“I do hope we’ll meet again, soon – when you are not so busy,” was Xunia’s sweet-voiced mockery as she turned to accompany her brother.
Zinlo shot an inquiring glance at Vorn Vangal.
“That she-marmelot’s up to something. But at least she didn’t stage a scene,” he muttered as, frowning, he sought to appraise the strange woman from all angles, sought to find some motive other then rank treason. Internal treachery was one thing; betraying a planet to an invader from beyond the Solar System was another; and even Xunia might not go to such lengths. But if not treachery, what was her aim?
Vorn Vangal shook his head as he sensed the unspoken question.
“No, I’m not sure it’s treachery she contemplates, Your Majesty. But watch yourself,” he said aloud.
“I have,” replied Zinlo. To prevent the thought from being read, I thrust it for the time even from my own mind. But now that she’s far enough away, I’ll risk it. All the torrogos are going on the homeward trip. And while each is apparently on his way home, six of the battleships will shortly circle and return to the capital. But the ship carrying Tandor and his sister will not return. The delegates will be selected, and we will immediately leave for the rendezvous, which I feared to announce in Tandor’s presence.”
“Excellent, Your Majesty!” approved Vorn Vangal. “And you were very wise in keeping that thought insulated so heavily that even I could not grasp it.”
Late that night six aerial battleships silently settled in the inner court of the palace. There was no formal fanfare of music to greet the six torrogos who emerged from the vessels that had ostensibly set out to carry them to their capitals. Stealth, and the moonless darkness of Venus, guarded every move.
Zinlo stood on the broad balcony that overhung the vast court, watched the torrogos and their personal staffs filing from the darkened ships.
“Vorn Vangal,” he said, abruptly breaking into the profound speculations of the old scientist, “why not give up the idea of using the Doravians? It was a mistake to invite Tandor here. Those machine men will be more of a liability than an asset. We distrust their master – how can we trust the men?”
Vorn Vangal shook his head. “No, Your Majesty. The poison is concentrated in that lovely trouble maker and her ambitious brother. If we can win them over, the machine men, commanded by our officers, will serve us well enough. And remember this: they are splendid shock troops. Though the enemy kills them, they will straightway return to their spare bodies which are stored in the Doravian arsenals; and fast space globes will rush them back to the firing line to resume the assault.
“Practially every Doravian warrior has five spare bodies and their mojos and mojaks have seven apiece, while the romojaks have ten. All Venus would have a problem in subduing them and even Ay-Artz would find it a tough task.”
Zinlo grinned reminiscently as he recollected the old psychologist’s trick of projecting a neutralizing wave which would halt the electrochemical process that made the artificial bodies move in response to the urge of the egos that animated them. In case to treachery, Tandor would be defeated before his staff of scientists could stumble across that difficult weapon.
“Ay-Artz will be lucky if we don’t tan his hide and nail it on the Black Tower!” was Zinlo’s grim threat. “And now that Xunia won’t know where the rendezvous is, Ay-Artz will be stumped from the start. That—”
And then Zinlo caught his breath, gestured toward the courtyard below.
“Bones of Thorth! Look at that! Seven of them! Not six but seven!”
He could not distinguish the device on the pennant that fluttered from the mast of that unaccountable seventh ship which was in the courtyard but as he dashed to the elevator, he had a premonition of evil. He sensed that Xunia had penetrated his ruse, had brazenly sent an observer to join the returning torrogos. But as he emerged into the courtyard, he saw that Xunia herself had returned! Even in the dim glow from the tower windows, he recognized that slender, regal figure; and as she approached him, followed by and handful of attendants, he saw by the lights that filtered from the curtained windows of the left wing that she was smiling sweetly, as though she had not transfixed him with poisonous glances that evening.
“Oh, Zinlo,” she said in that caressing, rich voice, whose throaty tones Doravian scientists had labored for generations to perfect. “You dismissed us all so abruptly that I forgot the parting gift I had brought. So I came back.”
She clapped her jeweled hands. Four of her attendants came forward with a long, narrow chest of serali wood, heavily bound with bands of oxidized silver.
“A case of fern wine from my own cellar,” she explained. “And three hampers of the rare sub-aqueous globe-fruits from Bankuk. I know you are awfully fond of them.”
In the dim half-light she was lovelier than ever; and for a moment Zinlo forgot that the amorous light in her long-lashed eyes was the triumph of five thousand years of laboratory research. He caught the rich savor of the globe-fruits, which grow only in the spring-fed lakes of Bankuk, forever guarded by the terrible Flying Grampites, and his suspicions still further subsided when one of the attendants lifted the cover of the chest, displaying the great, topaz-colored clusters of that rare fruit, while from among the bunches in the further end, he saw the necks of porphory flasks of that incredibly ancient wine, made from the sweet sap of that specially cultivated fern, for which Doravia was famous.
Zinlo bowed gravely. Something warned him that to accept the gift was the uttermost idiocy. The he resolved to have the fruits and wines tested for poison. And then he felt that his suspicions were churlish.
He gestured to an attendant.
“Stow that chest in the commissary department of the flying globe,” he commanded. “And seal it with my personal seal. Tell the steward to set the refrigeration controls very carefully. If that fruit is frostbitten I’ll have his head.”
The he turned again to Xunia.
“Our thanks,” he said gravely. “And I trust that you realize that this afternoon’s brusqueness was necessary, and not in any way personal.”
“Why, of course, Zinlo,” she replied. “And accept my very best wishes.” Then, as her fingers lingered caressingly in his hand, “Zinlo, won’t you ever, ever feel differently about me?”
“Maybe,” he compromised, valiantly swallowing the sudden and unpleasant recurrence of that thought that the warmth of that dainty hand was controlled by delicate thermostats. “But I’ve got another war on my mind – and you know how that is.”
“Good-bye, Zinlo. I know you’ll distinguish yourself,” was her farewell as she turned toward the ship which had brought her to the palace.
Zinlo stroked his chin, pondering as he watched that graceful figure merge with the shimmering dusk of the courtyard.
“Too bad she’s not human,” he conceded. “Can’t remember when I’ve seen a real woman who was anywhere near as nice looking.”
Then his eyes suddenly blazed with wrath.
“By the tonsils of Thorth! I’ll have somebody’s head for that! The mojak of that ship willfully and deliberately disobeyed my orders.”
Zinlo turned to summon the guard; but he restrained his impulse.
“I’ll attend to him later,” he compromised. “The quicker that girl gets out of here, the better.”
In another moment the battleship rose silently into the blackness overhead. Zinle exhaled a sigh of relief; and on second thought, it occurred to him that Xunia might not even have suspected his ruse. The six ships, gleaming silver gray masses in the gloom, could scarcely have by their presence hinted that their passengers were the six torrogos who had left earlier in the evening.
“And while she’s on her way home,” Zinlo reflected, “we’ll check out and head for the rendezvous.”
He strode down a passageway that led to a small room on the first floor of the palace. Vorn Vangal, awaiting the Torrogo, rose from his chair and respectfully stood by to receive orders.
“Bring them in at once,” commanded Zinlo, “and tell my romojak to have the globe ready to clear on an instant’s notice. Also have the scouting fleet take the air and permit no one to come closer than the borders of the empire. I’ll have no spies spotting our departure if I can prevent it.”
Zinlo impatiently paced the room as he awaited the arrival of the six torrogos. And when the broad shoulders of Grandon of Terra finally blocked the doorway, the prince of Olba came to the point without formality.
“Be seated, please,” he invited. Then, before they had disposed themselves about the circular table, he continued: “You will note that Tandor of Doravia is absent. I have reason to suspect his good faith. Thus have I arranged to leave his delegate out of the conference, which is to be on the Crater of Copernicus on Luna – the moon of Terra, as you may remember, Grandon.
“Each of you will detail a trusted officer or minister to accompany me to-night. Thus your interests will be protected; and at the same time, since I will be the only spokesman, the Venusian contingent will present a front unbroken by bickerings and quibblings. Your vote of confidence is all that is necessary.
“Have I that confidence, and will you without reservation accept my decisions as final, and representative of the wishes of the Venusian torrogats?”
The assent was unanimous. Zinlo bowed to express his acceptance of the heavy responsibility. The he said: “Have your staff officers line up and follow me. I leave at once.”
A few moments later, the huge space globe rose swiftly from the courtyard and into the unplumbed blackness of the night. Swifter than light – swift as thought itself – it bored into space, propelled by the telekinetic amplifiers which by resonance of harmonic will impulses developed the terrific velocity which made the trip from Venus to Luna merely a matter of visualizing the vessel hovering about the bleak, pock-marked face of Terra’s satellite.
Zinlo, standing in the control room, watched Lotar’s deft manipulating of the space globe as, having retarded their velocity, he was slowly circling above Copernicus, awaiting the order to descend. Once or twice the romojak glanced inquiringly at his imperial master; but Zinlo’s narrow eyed stare ignored the navigator.
“Hold it, Lotar!” he suddenly snapped. “There’s something wrong.”
“Very well, Your Majesty,” replied Lotar.
Zinlo closed his eyes to exclude all distractions that might scatter the hazy thought-increments which were slowly concentrating in his mind.
“Why did she send me that chest of fruit?” he asked himself for the hundredth time. “Something is wrong. It’s all right on the face of it – her her good wishes came too suddenly. And that sentimental touch was overdone.”
And Zinlo resolved not to alight at Copernicus until he had untangled the riddle.
“She couldn’t have known my destination – couldn’t even have known that I was heading for Luna to-night,” he pondered. “Then if there is any trick in the present it must have some bearing on what she did know – must have some relation to the space ship’s maneuverings.”
He shook his head, sought to recreate in his mind’s eye the unexpected return of Xunia.
“If it really is a trick, then she must have known, in some way, that I did have a fast move in mind. She must also have known I’d be preoccupied – that I’d be almost certain to have her present stowed in the commissary compartment.”
Zinlo nodded slowly as he considered another salient point: that from the perishability as well as the exceeding rarity of the delicacies she had offered him, it would be almost inevitable that he would take the chest with him on whatever trip he had in mind, regardless of the destination or purpose.
“And since she was so determined that I’d take it with me, I’ll at least break her stride by disposing of it, now!”
He jabbed at a pushbutton; and presently a steward entered.
“That that chest out of storage and heave it out through the air lock,” Zinlo commanded. “Get rid of it, immediately.”
“Very well, Your Majesty.”
“And now,” muttered Zinlo, as the steward strode down the gangway to the commissary, “whether it’s poison, explosive, or some other trick, it’s kinked before it has started.”
He nodded and chuckled grimly as he anticipated Xunia’s wide-eyed surprise at hearing him tell her, on his return, how much he had enjoyed the delicacies. He pictured the wrathful flash of her eyes as she realized from his very presence that he had nipped her trickery.
Bit Zinlo’s thoughts were interrupted by a cry of amazement that echoed from the gangway. He turned, and saw the steward hurrying toward the control room.
“Your Majesty,” he began, then, abashed at his presumption, he swallowed and tried a fresh start. “Will Your Majesty repeat that order? I’m afraid—“
“What are you afraid of?” demanded Zinlo. “Throw it into space.”
“But Your Majesty,” protested the steward, “I’m sure there’s some mistake. I don’t think—“
“You’re not supposed to think!” snapped Zinlo. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a woman in that chest,” began the steward. “So I thought.”
“Beard of Thorth!” exploded Zinlo. “Bring her in, quickly.”
And Zinlo knew that Xunia had in some way tricked him. “A woman – one of her female attendants – had been smuggled on board the space globe to spy on him, to note the exact position of the secret rendezvous. Fruit and wine, indeed!
“Here she is, Your Majesty.”
For a moment he was speechless with wrath. The woman was none other than Xunia herself. Almost he doubted the evidence of his eyes. He had seen her enter a battleship, had seen the ship rise swiftly into the Venusian night. It could not be Xunia – but the voice of the stowaway left no remaining doubt.
“Oh, Zinlo, I do hope you’ll not be angry,” she purred, as she stepped clear of the steward and approached the young ruler. “But I always did want to make a flight in a space globe. You’ve always been so suspicious of me and my people, never letting us have even one tiny airship. So I—“
“But how did you get in here?” demanded Zinlo. “I saw—“
“Of course you saw,” laughed Xunia. “But you forget—“
She checked herself abruptly, as though the subject she had been on the verge of discussing was highly distasteful; and that moment of hesitation gave Zinlo time to overcome his perplexity and arrive at a solution.
Xunia had taken one her spare bodies and packed it in a chest; and then, returning to Doravia, she had walked into her storage room, left the body she had worn on Olba, and flashing through space, had sent her ego to animate the smuggled form. The lovely body and features were almost identical; but Zinlo’s closer scrutiny revealed several betraying differences. The eyes, for instance, where narrower by a shade, and trifle longer.
But that same trouble-making, intriguing ego animated it.
“Throw her out, you gawking idiot!” roared Zinlo.
But the steward, now recognizing the imperious features and the insigni and adornments of her imperial rank, knew not which way to turn. He dared not disobey his royal master; nor yet could he bring himself to lay his hands on the Torrogina of Doravia.
“Your Majesty – really – I”
“Get out!” thundered Zinlo. “I’ll tend to her.”
“Oh, Zinlo, don’t be angry with me,” she purred, flashing the full fire of her seductive, crimson smile at him. “I’ve always wanted—“
Zinlo knew that there had been several things which she had always wanted, chief of them being a share of the throne of Olba. The slender, shapely arms closed about his neck – the perfumed aura of that lovely girl was an intoxicating fragrance. And then Zinlo resented the momentary and undeniable appeal of her. She wasn’t a woman; she was a machine – and a traitor to the Venusian empires. He snatched her arms clear of his neck – stepped back.
The globe could not be kept indefinitely hovering above Copernicus; and neither could it land with Xunia as a passenger, and thus betray to Tandor of Doravia, and through him to Ay-Artz, the rendezvous of the allies.
“Ho, steward!” shouted Zinlo. “Lock her up in the storage compartment.”
“Zinlo, you’re positively brutal,” she murmured, “but really I love it.”
The dainty little hand stroked his cheek. Zinlo’s rage flared forth.
“I’ll fix your clockwork!”
His hand flashed to the hilt of his scarbo. The deadly swiftness of motion that had made him feared on three planets, caught Xunia off guard. Even before the amorous, languishing eyes could widen with terror, the trenchant blade drove home, shearing through the faultlessly curved throat. The headless trunk, grotesquely horrible, stood for an instant, poised on the dainty feet. Then it tottered, collapsed dropped sprawling on the polished deck. Zinlo recoiled in horror; for even though he realized fully what he had done, he was momentarily sickened by the decapitated thing which twitched and quivered in the dark pool that slowly spread across the metal deck.
“Bones of Thorth!” he muttered. “She’ll be good as new. I didn’t really kill her – and her ego had to get out and reanimate one of the bodies she has stored in Doravia.”
Then he shuddered at the memory of the warm caresses of those slender hands. The dark pool that was sluggishly creeping toward the bulkhead wasn’t blood; it was the chemical energizing fluid that aided the moving force for the synthetic body. Its corrosive action on the metal deck was indicated by the violet fumes that began bubbling from the now viscous fluid. He wiped the blade of his scarbo, and saw that its steel had been deeply etched by the machine woman’s chemical blood.
Zinlo shook his head.
“Toenails of Thorth! And they wanted me to marry that!”
And only then did Zinlo realize that Xunia, despite his swift sword stroke, had outwitted him. Turning as he sheathed the corroded scarbo, he faced the televiz grid, saw in its silvered screen the clear image of the great ring mountain, Copernicus. He knew that Xunia’s caresses and soft murmurings had distracted his attention long enough to permit her to glance over his shoulder and read the position of the space globe.
“She doesn’t know that Copernicus is the rendezvous,” he muttered, “but we were so close to landing that she’s just as certain of our destination as though I’d told her. And now her ego is back in Doravia, telling that sneaking hahoe of a brother what a fool she made of me.
“Lotar, land the globe and break out the air-suits. Anyway, we know that the Doravians know – and that’s something.”
“Very well, Your Majesty,” replied Lotar, as he turned to the control panel.