Double-Cross by Frederik Pohl



Revolt was brewing on Venus, led by the
descendant of the first Earthmen to
land. Svan was the leader making the final
plans—plotting them a bit too well.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The Officer of the Deck was pleased as he returned to the main lock. There was no reason why everything shouldn’t have been functioning perfectly, of course, but he was pleased to have it confirmed, all the same. The Executive Officer was moodily smoking a cigarette in the open lock, staring out over the dank Venusian terrain at the native town. He turned.

“Everything shipshape, I take it!” he commented.

The OD nodded. “I’ll have a blank log if this keeps up,” he said. “Every man accounted for except the delegation, cargo stowed, drivers ready to lift as soon as they come back.”

The Exec tossed away his cigarette. “If they come back.”

“Is there any question?”

The Exec shrugged. “I don’t know, Lowry,” he said. “This is a funny place. I don’t trust the natives.”

Lowry lifted his eyebrows. “Oh? But after all, they’re human beings, just like us—”

“Not any more. Four or five generations ago they were. Lord, they don’t even look human any more. Those white, flabby skins—I don’t like them.”

“Acclimation,” Lowry said scientifically. “They had to acclimate themselves to Venus’s climate. They’re friendly enough.”

The Exec shrugged again. He stared at the wooden shacks that were the outskirts of the native city, dimly visible through the ever-present Venusian mist. The native guard of honor, posted a hundred yards from the Earth-ship, stood stolidly at attention with their old-fashioned proton-rifles slung over their backs. A few natives were gazing wonderingly at the great ship, but made no move to pass the line of guards.

“Of course,” Lowry said suddenly, “there’s a minority who are afraid of us. I was in town yesterday, and I talked with some of the natives. They think there will be hordes of immigrants from Earth, now that we know Venus is habitable. And there’s some sort of a paltry underground group that is spreading the word that the immigrants will drive the native Venusians—the descendants of the first expedition, that is—right down into the mud. Well—” he laughed—”maybe they will. After all, the fittest survive. That’s a basic law of—”

The annunciator over the open lock clanged vigorously, and a metallic voice rasped: “Officer of the Deck! Post Number One! Instruments reports a spy ray focused on the main lock!”

Lowry, interrupted in the middle of a word, jerked his head back and stared unbelievingly at the tell-tale next to the annunciator. Sure enough, it was glowing red—might have been glowing for minutes. He snatched at the hand-phone dangling from the wall, shouted into it. “Set up a screen! Notify the delegation! Alert a landing party!” But even while he was giving orders, the warning light flickered suddenly and went out. Stricken, Lowry turned to the Exec.

The Executive Officer nodded gloomily. He said, “You see!”

“You see?”

Svan clicked off the listening-machine and turned around. The five others in the room looked apprehensive. “You see?” Svan repeated. “From their own mouths you have heard it. The Council was right.”

The younger of the two women sighed. She might have been beautiful, in spite of her dead-white skin, if there had been a scrap of hair on her head. “Svan, I’m afraid,” she said. “Who are we to decide if this is a good thing? Our parents came from Earth. Perhaps there will be trouble at first, if colonists come, but we are of the same blood.”

Svan laughed harshly. “They don’t think so. You heard them. We are not human any more. The officer said it.”

The other woman spoke unexpectedly. “The Council was right,” she agreed. “Svan, what must we do?”

Svan raised his hand, thoughtfully. “One moment. Ingra, do you still object?”

The younger woman shrank back before the glare in his eyes. She looked around at the others, found them reluctant and uneasy, but visibly convinced by Svan.

“No,” she said slowly. “I do not object.”

“And the rest of us? Does any of us object?”

Svan eyed them, each in turn. There was a slow but unanimous gesture of assent.

“Good,” said Svan. “Then we must act. The Council has told us that we alone will decide our course of action. We have agreed that, if the Earth-ship returns, it means disaster for Venus. Therefore, it must not return.”

An old man shifted restlessly. “But they are strong, Svan,” he complained. “They have weapons. We cannot force them to stay.”

Svan nodded. “No. They will leave. But they will never get back to Earth.”

“Never get back to Earth?” the old man gasped. “Has the Council authorized—murder?”

Svan shrugged. “The Council did not know what we would face. The Councilmen could not come to the city and see what strength the Earth-ship has.” He paused dangerously. “Toller,” he said, “do you object?”

Like the girl, the old man retreated before his eyes. His voice was dull. “What is your plan?” he asked.

Svan smiled, and it was like a dark flame. He reached to a box at his feet, held up a shiny metal globe. “One of us will plant this in the ship. It will be set by means of this dial—” he touched a spot on the surface of the globe with a pallid finger—”to do nothing for forty hours. Then—it will explode. Atomite.”

He grinned triumphantly, looking from face to face. The grin faded uncertainly as he saw what was in their eyes—uncertainty, irresolution. Abruptly he set the bomb down, savagely ripped six leaves off a writing tablet on the table next him. He took a pencil and made a mark on one of them, held it up.

“We will let chance decide who is to do the work,” he said angrily. “Is there anyone here who is afraid? There will be danger, I think….”

No answer. Svan jerked his head. “Good,” he said. “Ingra, bring me that bowl.”

Silently the girl picked up an opaque glass bowl from the broad arm of her chair. It had held Venus-tobacco cigarettes; there were a few left. She shook them out and handed the bowl to Svan, who was rapidly creasing the six fatal slips. He dropped them in the bowl, stirred it with his hand, offered it to the girl. “You first, Ingra,” he said.

She reached in mechanically, her eyes intent on his, took out a slip and held it without opening it. The bowl went the rounds, till Svan himself took the last. All eyes were on him. No one had looked at their slips.

Svan, too, had left his unopened. He sat at the table, facing them. “This is the plan,” he said. “We will go, all six of us, in my ground car, to look at the Earth-ship. No one will suspect—the whole city has been to see it already. One will get out, at the best point we can find. It is almost dusk now. He can hide, surely, in the vegetation. The other five will start back. Something will go wrong with the car—perhaps it will run off the road, start to sink in the swamp. The guards will be called. There will be commotion—that is easy enough, after all; a hysterical woman, a few screams, that’s all there is to it. And the sixth person will have his chance to steal to the side of the ship. The bomb is magnetic. It will not be noticed in the dark—they will take off before sunrise, because they must travel away from the sun to return—in forty hours the danger is removed.”

There was comprehension in their eyes, Svan saw … but still that uncertainty. Impatiently, he crackled: “Look at the slips!”

Though he had willed his eyes away from it, his fingers had rebelled. Instinctively they had opened the slip, turned it over and over, striving to detect if it was the fatal one. They had felt nothing….

And his eyes saw nothing. The slip was blank. He gave it but a second’s glance, then looked up to see who had won the lethal game of chance. Almost he was disappointed.

Each of the others had looked in that same second. And each was looking up now, around at his neighbors. Svan waited impatiently for the chosen one to announce it—a second, ten seconds….

Then gray understanding came to him. A traitor! his subconscious whispered. A coward! He stared at them in a new light, saw their indecision magnified, became opposition.

Svan thought faster than ever before in his life. If there was a coward, it would do no good to unmask him. All were wavering, any might be the one who had drawn the fatal slip. He could insist on inspecting every one, but—suppose the coward, cornered, fought back? In fractions of a second, Svan had considered the evidence and reached his decision. Masked by the table, his hand, still holding the pencil, moved swiftly beneath the table, marked his own slip.

In the palm of his hand, Svan held up the slip he had just marked in secret. His voice was very tired as he said, “I will plant the bomb.”

The six conspirators in Svan’s old ground car moved slowly along the main street of the native town. Two Earth-ship sailors, unarmed except for deceptively flimsy-looking pistols at their hips, stood before the entrance to the town’s Hall of Justice.

“Good,” said Svan, observing them. “The delegation is still here. We have ample time.”

He half turned in the broad front seat next to the driver, searching the faces of the others in the car. Which was the coward? he wondered. Ingra? Her aunt? One of the men?

The right answer leaped up at him. They all are, he thought. Not one of them understands what this means. They’re afraid.

He clamped his lips. “Go faster, Ingra,” he ordered the girl who was driving. “Let’s get this done with.”

She looked at him, and he was surprised to find compassion in her eyes. Silently she nodded, advanced the fuel-handle so that the clumsy car jolted a trace more rapidly over the corduroy road. It was quite dark now. The car’s driving light flared yellowishly in front of them, illuminating the narrow road and the pale, distorted vegetation of the jungle that surrounded them. Svan noticed it was raining a little. The present shower would deepen and intensify until midnight, then fall off again, to halt before morning. But before then they would be done.

A proton-bolt lanced across the road in front of them. In the silence that followed its thunderous crash, a man’s voice bellowed: “Halt!”

The girl, Ingra, gasped something indistinguishable, slammed on the brakes. A Venusian in the trappings of the State Guard advanced on them from the side of the road, proton-rifle held ready to fire again.

“Where are you going?” he growled.

Svan spoke up. “We want to look at the Earth-ship,” he said. He opened the door beside him and stepped out, careless of the drizzle. “We heard it was leaving tonight,” he continued, “and we have not seen it. Is that not permitted?”

The guard shook his head sourly. “No one is allowed near the ship. The order was just issued. It is thought there is danger.”

Svan stepped closer, his teeth bared in what passed for a smile. “It is urgent,” he purred. His right hand flashed across his chest in a complicated gesture. “Do you understand?”

Confusion furrowed the guard’s hairless brows, then was replaced by a sudden flare of understanding—and fear. “The Council!” he roared. “By heaven, yes, I understand! You are the swine that caused this—” He strove instinctively to bring the clumsy rifle up, but Svan was faster. His gamble had failed; there was only one course remaining. He hurled his gross white bulk at the guard, bowled him over against the splintery logs of the road. The proton-rifle went flying, and Svan savagely tore at the throat of the guard. Knees, elbows and claw-like nails—Svan battered at the astonished man with every ounce of strength in his body. The guard was as big as Svan, but Svan had the initial advantage … and it was only a matter of seconds before the guard lay unconscious, his skull a mass of gore at the back where Svan had ruthlessly pounded it against the road.

Svan grunted as his fingers constricted brutally.

Svan rose, panting, stared around. No one else was in sight, save the petrified five and the ground car. Svan glared at them contemptuously, then reached down and heaved on the senseless body of the guard. Over the shoulder of the road the body went, onto the damp swampland of the jungle. Even while Svan watched the body began to sink. There would be no trace.

Svan strode back to the car. “Hurry up,” he gasped to the girl. “Now there is danger for all of us, if they discover he is missing. And keep a watch for other guards.”

Venus has no moon, and no star can shine through its vast cloud layer. Ensign Lowry, staring anxiously out through the astro-dome in the bow of the Earth-ship, cursed the blackness.

“Can’t see a thing,” he complained to the Exec, steadily writing away at the computer’s table. “Look—are those lights over there?”

The Exec looked up wearily. He shrugged. “Probably the guards. Of course, you can’t tell. Might be a raiding party.”

Lowry, stung, looked to see if the Exec was smiling, but found no answer in his stolid face. “Don’t joke about it,” he said. “Suppose something happens to the delegation?”

“Then we’re in the soup,” the Exec said philosophically. “I told you the natives were dangerous. Spy-rays! They’ve been prohibited for the last three hundred years.”

“It isn’t all the natives,” Lowry said. “Look how they’ve doubled the guard around us. The administration is co-operating every way they know how. You heard the delegation’s report on the intercom. It’s this secret group they call the Council.”

“And how do you know the guards themselves don’t belong to it?” the Exec retorted. “They’re all the same to me…. Look, your light’s gone out now. Must have been the guard. They’re on the wrong side to be coming from the town, anyhow….”

Svan hesitated only a fraction of a second after the girl turned the lights out and stopped the car. Then he reached in the compartment under the seat. If he took a little longer than seemed necessary to get the atomite bomb out of the compartment, none of the others noticed. Certainly it did not occur to them that there had been two bombs in the compartment, though Svan’s hand emerged with only one.

He got out of the car, holding the sphere. “This will do for me,” he said. “They won’t be expecting anyone to come from behind the ship—we were wise to circle around. Now, you know what you must do?”

Ingra nodded, while the others remained mute. “We must circle back again,” she parroted. “We are to wait five minutes, then drive the car into the swamp. We will create a commotion, attract the guards.”

Svan, listening, thought: It’s not much of a plan. The guards would not be drawn away. I am glad I can’t trust these five any more. If they must be destroyed, it is good that their destruction will serve a purpose.

Aloud, he said, “You understand. If I get through, I will return to the city on foot. No one will suspect anything if I am not caught, because the bomb will not explode until the ship is far out in space. Remember, you are in no danger from the guards.”

From the guards, his mind echoed. He smiled. At least, they would feel no pain, never know what happened. With the amount of atomite in that bomb in the compartment, they would merely be obliterated in a ground-shaking crash.

Abruptly he swallowed, reminded of the bomb that was silently counting off the seconds. “Go ahead,” he ordered. “I will wait here.”

“Svan.” The girl, Ingra, leaned over to him. Impulsively she reached for him, kissed him. “Good luck to you, Svan,” she said.

“Good luck,” repeated the others. Then silently the electric motor of the car took hold. Skilfully the girl backed it up, turned it around, sent it lumbering back down the road. Only after she had traveled a few hundred feet by the feel of the road did she turn the lights on again.

Svan looked after them. The kiss had surprised him. What did it mean? Was it an error that the girl should die with the others?

There was an instant of doubt in his steel-shackled mind, then it was driven away. Perhaps she was loyal, yet certainly she was weak. And since he could not know which was the one who had received the marked slip, and feared to admit it, it was better they all should die.

He advanced along the midnight road to where the ground rose and the jungle plants thinned out. Ahead, on an elevation, were the rain-dimmed lights of the Earth-ship, set down in the center of a clearing made by its own fierce rockets. Svan’s mist-trained eyes spotted the circling figures of sentries, and knew that these would be the ship’s own. They would not be as easily overcome as the natives, not with those slim-shafted blasters they carried. Only deceit could get him to the side of the ship.

Svan settled himself at the side of the road, waiting for his chance. He had perhaps three minutes to wait; he reckoned. His fingers went absently to the pouch in his wide belt, closed on the slip of paper. He turned it over without looking at it, wondering who had drawn the first cross, and been a coward. Ingra? One of the men?

He became abruptly conscious of a commotion behind him. A ground car was racing along the road. He spun around and was caught in the glare of its blinding driving-light, as it bumped to a slithering stop.

Paralyzed, he heard the girl’s voice. “Svan! They’re coming! They found the guard’s rifle, and they’re looking for us! Thirty Earthmen, Svan, with those frightful guns. They fired at us, but we got away and came for you. We must flee!”

He stared unseeingly at the light. “Go away!” he croaked unbelievingly. Then his muscles jerked into action. The time was almost up—the bomb in the car—

“Go away!” he shrieked, and turned to run. His fists clenched and swinging at his side, he made a dozen floundering steps before something immense pounded at him from behind. He felt himself lifted from the road, sailing, swooping, dropping with annihilating force onto the hard, charred earth of the clearing. Only then did he hear the sound of the explosion, and as the immense echoes died away he began to feel the pain seeping into him from his hideously racked body….

The Flight Surgeon rose from beside him. “He’s still alive,” he said callously to Lowry, who had just come up. “It won’t last long, though. What’ve you got there?”

Lowry, a bewildered expression on his beardless face, held out the two halves of a metallic sphere. Dangling ends of wires showed where a connection had been broken. “He had a bomb,” he said. “A magnetic-type, delayed-action atomite bomb. There must have been another in the car, and it went off. They—they were planning to bomb us.”

“Amazing,” the surgeon said dryly. “Well, they won’t do any bombing now.”

Lowry was staring at the huddled, mutilated form of Svan. He shuddered. The surgeon, seeing the shudder, grasped his shoulder.

“Better them than us,” he said. “It’s poetic justice if I ever saw it. They had it coming….” He paused thoughtfully, staring at a piece of paper between his fingers. “This is the only part I don’t get,” he said.

“What’s that?” Lowry craned his neck. “A piece of paper with a cross on it? What about it?”

The surgeon shrugged. “He had it clenched in his hand,” he said. “Had the devil of a time getting it loose from him.” He turned it over slowly, displayed the other side. “Now what in the world would he be doing carrying a scrap of paper with a cross marked on both sides?”