The Blue Venus by Robert Emmett McDowell

THE BLUE VENUS
By EMMETT McDOWELL
Out of their mountain hideout came the
terrified band of The Renegade. Through
the valleys of Venus they swept, seeking
a greed-maddened slaver who planned an
experiment so cruel and barbaric it would
destroy the very foundation of mankind.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1946.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The hooded figure of a man detached itself from the shadows beside the door, paused, listening. Nothing stirred. The huge sprawling plantation house was silent and yet alive with the feel of sleepers.

Then from below stairs, he heard a door slam. The tinkle of laughter ascended to his ears. He crouched. His hand slipped inside his coat, fondled the slug gun nestling in its shoulder holster. The voices drifted out of hearing. Uneasy silence settled back over the plantation house.

The hooded man let his breath escape between his teeth. He slid back the door, passed inside like a shadow, shut the door behind him.

The room which he’d entered was lit by the intense, green radiations from the Venusian vegetation. The cold phosphorescent light streamed through the open windows, glinted from a glassite desk, soft flexoglas lounging chairs and sofa. It was the typical office from which the plantation owners directed the affairs of their feudal estates.

As silent as a night hawk, the hooded man drifted to the wall, ran his fingertips over the wood paneling. There was a faint click. The panel slid back revealing a wall safe.

A needle ray of light streamed suddenly from the hooded man’s hand, splashed off a paper which he’d drawn from his pocket. He checked the string of figures printed there, returned the paper to his pocket. He worked swiftly, surely. Then with a sigh of satisfaction he swung back the heavy door.

There was a faint thump in the corridor outside the office that broke the silence.

The hooded man snapped erect, the compressed air slug gun in his hand. He was sharply conscious of the hum of Venusian night life outside the windows. The room felt sticky, close. His hand was damp with sweat about the pommel of the slug gun.

He waited five minutes, ten minutes without moving, but the noise was not repeated.

He drew a breath, set to examining the papers in the safe by the aid of the midget flash. Most of them he put back carefully, just as they’d been, but two packets he stuffed into an inside coat pocket. He closed the door, spun the dial. He heard a sharp click behind him, leaped around.

At the same instant, the room was flooded with bright white light.

“Please don’t!” said a girl’s voice.

The hooded man arrested his hand halfway to his shoulder holster.

A startlingly beautiful girl, he saw, was standing in the doorway to the corridor covering him with a wicked dart gun. She was a tall girl with the yellowest hair he’d ever seen. She wore a spun glass negligee and her skin was blue. It was the pastel blue of a Terran dawn flushed with rose.

She came all the way inside, slid shut the door.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“Why don’t you turn in the alarm?” said the hooded man dryly. The poisoned needle gun was sending goose flesh quivering up his spine. A scratch would be fatal. His jaw tightened beneath the hood. His eyes were hard green discs, the dangerous eyes of a hunted man.

“Oh no.” The blue girl’s voice was low. “I wouldn’t do that. I’d never be able to get the safe open by myself.”

“What?”

“I want you to open the safe for me.”

The hooded man didn’t reply for a moment. At length, he asked: “What then?”

The girl giggled. “I take what I want, and you take what you want,” she explained naively. “See. And you’ll be blamed for taking it all. Only you’re going to be disappointed!”

“Disappointed? How?” He took a step toward her.

“Bemmelman never keeps his money on the plantation. It’s all at Venusport. There aren’t fifty monad in the safe.”

“Maybe I’m not after money.” He took a second step, his green eyes opaque.

She looked at him intently, made a thin gasping noise. “You’re the Renegade!” The dart gun trembled in her small blue fist. “Oh my God! I didn’t guess. You’re the Renegade!”

Without affirming or denying the statement, he asked, “What do you want from the safe?” and took a third step.

“Don’t come any closer! I’m a very good shot. See!”

The little gun went spat. The hooded man heard the dart whisper past his ear, thunk into the paneling behind him. His stomach felt suddenly hollow.

“My dear girl,” he said dryly; “if you do that again, I won’t be able to open a book, let alone that safe. I’m a mass of jelly now.”

“Then you will open it for me?”

“What is it you want?”

“Evidence!” Impulsively she took a step toward him, allowed the dart gun to waver out of line. “Evidence to send Bemmelman to the disintegration chamber!”

The hooded man felt appalled at the sheer animal hate in her violet eyes. Her skin was too light for her to be a full blooded Jovian primitive. She must be a cross. He mentally snapped his fingers. That was it, of course. The Blue Venus! The slave for whom Hal Bemmelman was asking five thousand monad on the Venusian Slave Mart. He said:

“You aren’t overly fond of Bemmelman?”

“I loathe him!” With a savage jerk, she yanked her white negligee down from her left shoulder. “See that?”

He saw a scar on the pale-blue skin above her breast. It was the shape of a fern leaf and he could have covered it with his thumb.

“Branded!” she spat. “My father was a Jovian Dawn Man—an animal! But my mother was an Earth woman. Hal Bemmelman kidnapped her!”

The hooded man regarded her pityingly. She was only a kid, he realized. He said:

“You can’t get Bemmelman like that. He runs the government at Venusport. He’d never come to trial.” He stopped, realizing that she wasn’t listening.

Nostrils flaring, head erect, the girl was looking through him blankly. A glimmer of fright flitted across her mobile features. Then she raised the dart gun, pointed it full at his chest.

“Put your hands on top of your head, please!”

His green eyes contracted angrily. He didn’t move.

“I mean it! Put your hands on top of your head, please.”

With a shrug, he obeyed. He saw the door to the corridor slide back. A heavy red-faced man in his late forties and a wrinkled snuff brown suit stared in at them. The red-faced man’s sparse sandy hair was plastered to his skull, and he had little mobile brown eyes like a pig.

“Is that you, Hal?” The blue girl didn’t turn around, didn’t take her eyes off the hooded man. “I’ve caught the Renegade!”

The red-faced man’s jaw dropped. “Yes sir,” he said. “Yes sir, it’s me, Sofi.” A shrewd gleam flickered in his pig-like eyes.

“I caught him trying to open the safe.”

“So I see! So I see!” Bemmelman rubbed his hands together, came into the room. He pulled a dart gun from the belly band of his trousers and leveled it at the Renegade. “Stand aside, Sofi.”

The hooded man felt his stomach turn slowly upside down. He considered hurling himself behind the glassite desk, snatching out his slug gun.

Bemmelman said: “Did you get his gun, Sofi?”

She shook her yellow head.

Alarm stiffened the planter’s features. “Get it, girl! No! No! Don’t get between us! Get behind him!”

The hooded man felt the girl’s hands pat his chest, draw forth the heavy slug gun.

The florid color crept back into Bemmelman’s gross features. “You may go, Sofi. I want a word with the Renegade.”

Sofi shot him a child-like pouting glance, but retreated obediently from the room, drawing the door shut behind her.

The lean young man in the hood watched, weighing his chances. He didn’t say anything.

“You’re surprised, eh, that I don’t turn you in to the Security Patrol?” Bemmelman began. “They’d like to get their hands on the Renegade, they would. But the fact is I want you more than they do. Yes sir, this is a piece of luck for me. I’ve been trying to contact you for months.”

The hooded man said dryly: “I’m listening,” and allowed his hands to sink to his side.

“Put your hands back on your head!” Bemmelman’s voice registered alarm. “No tricks. I can use you, lad, but no tricks.” He glared speculatively at the Renegade, added: “Yes sir, that I can. And now, if you’ll take off that hood we’ll get down to business.”

“If it’s business, I’ll keep the hood on.”

“No sir,” the planter blustered. “Off with the hood or I shoot. When I do business with a man, I like to know who he is.”

The hooded man’s green eyes were reckless. The law on Venus was harsh, implacable. There were no pardons. The disintegration chamber at Venusport yawned for him inexorably.

“You know, Bemmelman, I’d be completely at your mercy if I unmasked?”

“You are right now. Yes sir. You can take it off alive, or I’ll take it off of you dead.”

The hooded man was half crouched against the glassite desk. He said softly: “You don’t leave me much choice,” and dived beneath the dart gun.

His head struck the slave breeder’s paunch like a cannon ball. Bemmelman went, “Ooof!” and sat down with a thud. The dart gun spat a needle into the ceiling where it quivered viciously.

The hooded man was on him like a cat. One swipe of his hand knocked the dart gun clattering under the sofa. Purple faced, gasping Bemmelman scrambled to his feet. A look of fright swept his gross features, and he began stabbing a button on the glassite desk.

The hooded man could hear the shrill clamor of alarm bells pealing through the rambling building. He leaped for the door, threw it back.

“Ahhh!” he said.

Sofi stood in the entrance, her dart gun almost against his chest.

Like a whip, the hooded man twisted sideways, snatched the gun from the startled girl. He saw Bemmelman charging across the room. He grinned, shoved the girl into the planter’s arms, slammed the door.

The sound of shouts drifted up to him. He saw a Venusian serf, armed with a bell muzzled ray rifle, dash into the corridor. The serf caught sight of him. A yellow ray streamed from the gun, splashed off the wall; but the hooded man already had vanished up the stairs.

Bemmelman burst from the office. “Which way did he go? The force screens are up! He can’t escape!”

“He got in,” Sofi pointed out coolly.

Half a dozen armed serfs dashed into the hall. The alarm bells were still ringing.

“Which way?” Bemmelman roared.

The serf said: “Up.”

“We’ve got him. That leads to the roof. He can’t get off!” He charged the steps followed by the pack of Venusians.

At the roof Bemmelman paused, shoved up the trap. With considerable respect for his own skin, he ordered one of the serfs through first.

“Careful,” he advised. “The man’s desperate.”

The serf climbed fatalistically onto the roof, turned around and around.

“He’s not here.”

“Impossible!” The planter roared and squeezed his bulk through the opening.

The green phosphorescent glow of the vegetation lit the flat roof eerily. A raucous screech from some night flying bird floated down from the cloud mass overhead. There was no plane, no sign of a plane; but the man with the hood was gone.

II

Mia MacIver tried to concentrate on her head overseer’s report. She felt hot and sticky and the figures ran together, didn’t make sense. Moreover, the delicate notes of a flute kept scattering her thoughts. They came through the casement window from the patio outside her study.

“Damn,” said Mia MacIver and wriggled at her desk.

She was barefooted, clad only in a short yellow tunic, but she felt as if she were locked in a steam bath. She’d never get used to Venus, she supposed, to its turkish bath atmosphere, its lush phosphorescent vegetation, its ridiculous mingling of periods, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and the glass age all flourishing together. The Pan-like notes continued to assail her ears from outside the study.

She wrinkled her nose, wiped a trickle of sweat from the end. In despair, she flipped on the Newscaster.

The features of a plump young man flashed on the screen.

“Last night,” his voice came through the audio, “the plantation of Councillor Bemmelman was raided by the Renegade. Luckily, he was discovered immediately and the Security Patrol notified. But as usual the Renegade had vanished without a trace.”

Mia MacIver snapped to attention. It was absurd, she felt with a surge of anger that a man could make fools of the Venusian authorities as the Renegade had done for years.

She knew little of Venus. Her life had been spent in boarding schools on Earth. But when she’d received news that her father was dead, murdered by the Renegade, she’d booked passage to Venusport at once, determined to manage the plantation herself.

“Here’s a special bulletin,” the announcer was saying. “The plantation owners are subscribing ten thousand monads to be added to the price already on the Renegade’s head. That makes a total of fifty thousand monads for his capture. A punitive expedition is also being organized against his headquarters in the Cloud Mountains.”

Mia MacIver switched off the Newscaster, stood up. The notes of the pipes drifted into her study, exotic, compelling. She bit her lip, stepped through the window onto the vine roofed patio.

“Stop that noise, Cosmo! You’re driving me insane!”

Cosmo Horn took the Venusian pipes from his mouth, said dryly, “I didn’t think I was that bad.”

He was sprawled in a hammock, looking like a handsome, rather distinguished tramp.

“Did you hear the Newscaster, Cosmo?”

“No.” He shook his head. He had a lean, hawk-like visage, close cropped brown hair, green eyes.

“The Renegade was at the Bemmelman plantation last night!”

“Sure enough?”

Cosmo sat up, put the reeds in his pocket. He was wearing only coat and trousers. The brown triangle of hair on his chest extended in a thin line down his flat belly. “How much did he nick that dealer in flesh for?”

“Nothing. They scared him off before he had a chance to take anything. Cosmo, why can’t they catch him?”

“No one’s seen him without his hood. They don’t know who he is; they don’t know where to look, or what to look for.”

“On Earth …” began Mia.

“On Earth there wouldn’t be a Renegade,” interrupted Cosmo dryly. “Earth is unified. It isn’t split up into hundreds of independent countries like Venus. They don’t have slavery or serfdom or the feudal system on Earth. Men aren’t driven into outlawry….”

“Driven!” said Mia in a heated voice. “What makes you think he was driven? I’d say he was doing exactly as he pleased.”

Cosmo stood up, towering over the girl, took several short paces across the patio.

“I don’t think anyone would enjoy being constantly hunted. Everyman’s hand against him. Always on guard against treachery, surprise. And no matter how careful he is, sooner or later he’s bound to be caught. He can’t even quit, now. I feel sorry for him.”

“Feel sorry for him! I’d like to see him shot!”

Cosmo looked startled. “You’re a blood-thirsty little devil.” He grinned suddenly. “What I’ve been saying must have buzzed in one ear and out the other.”

Mia said: “He murdered father.”

Cosmo regarded her in surprise. “Great guns, Mia, where did you get that idea?”

“Hal Bemmelman told me. He found father down in the tara field where….” Her voice faltered, but she recovered herself, went on. “Where the serfs had hacked him to pieces with grass knives. They were the Renegade’s men.”

“Did he? Did he indeed?” Cosmo’s voice was grim. “What was Bemmelman doing there?”

Mia frowned. “He was trailing a runaway serf. Why?”

“Of course he was.” Her gray eyes widened. She stared at him. “Surely you aren’t accusing Bemmelman of murdering father. Why he’s the most influential member of the Council of Land Owners. He’s….”

“Did you ever hear of the Blue Venus?” he interrupted.

“The Blue Venus? What’s that?”

Cosmo’s face was grim, his green eyes cold. “She’s a cross between a Jovian Dawn Man and an Earth woman. She’s supposed to be the most beautiful girl in the System. She belongs to Bemmelman. He forced her mother to mate with a Jovian primitive as an experiment. He’s asking five thousand monad for her on the Slave Mart. Hal Bemmelman is a slave breeder.”

“I don’t believe it!” Mia said in horror, then asked with feminine perversity: “How do you know?”

Cosmo sat down in the hammock, grinned faintly. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone but your father, Mia. I think you ought to know, because you’re in danger.” His green eyes twinkled. “Quit chewing your fingernails.”

“Go on,” said Mia. “Go on, for the Lord’s sake, before I burst.”

He said: “Twenty-six years ago my father owned the Bemmelman plantation. He was murdered under almost the same circumstances as your father. So was my mother. My nurse escaped with me, hid me out in the mountains. I was only five.”

“Who did it?”

“Jovian Dawn Men. Slaves imported from Jupiter. They run amok during their rutting season, you know, and they were supposed to be amok at the time.”

“But …” began Mia.

“Wait a moment. Bemmelman held notes on the plantation. He moved in. But before Bemmelman took over our plantation, he was a slave runner. He imported Dawn Men from Jupiter for the Venusian Slave Mart.”

“You—you think Hal Bemmelman was in back of it?”

“Yes,” he said flatly.

“But why? Couldn’t he buy land?”

“No,” said Cosmo, “he couldn’t. Land here is entailed. It stays in the same family from generation to generation. Mu is one of the few countries on Venus where Terrans have been able to settle at all. Bemmelman’s only chance was to have my people murdered and forge notes.”

“Does he know who you are?”

Cosmo nodded. “He’s tried to have me assassinated several times,” he said indifferently.

Mia swallowed. “You—you said I was in danger.”

“Doesn’t it strike you there’s a great deal of similarity between your case and mine. Your father has been murdered, supposedly by the Renegade. It looks like Bemmelman is getting ready to expand.”

“He—he wouldn’t kill me!” said Mia indignantly. “Would he?”

“No,” said Cosmo, a smile quirking the corners of his wide, grim-lipped mouth. His lean, narrow jaw and thin, hooked nose gave him a saturnine cast. “But I wouldn’t put it past him to kidnap you. Remember the Blue Venus. I happen to know Bemmelman’s been anxious to repeat that experiment, but a beautiful Terran girl is hard to get.”

She shivered slightly, said: “That’s preposterous! He wouldn’t dare! Would he?”

But Cosmo had leaped to his feet. “There’s a plane coming!” he said in an edgy voice.

A surface flying car flashed to the edge of the patio, stopped, settled to the ground. The extreme altitude of the bullet-shaped vehicle was under three hundred feet, Cosmo knew. But even that height was impractical for flight on Venus, roofed as the planet was by the low, swirling cloud blanket. As a rule, the planes barely skimmed the surface.

A door in the monoloid hull swung open. A heavy set man got out.

“Why it’s Hal Bemmelman,” exclaimed Mia. “What does he want?”

“Speak of the devil,” drawled Cosmo.

Bemmelman strode across the patio, his eyes on Cosmo, said in a disagreeable voice: “If it isn’t the fortieth-century troubadour.”

Cosmo’s features set blankly. He didn’t reply.

“Mia.” Bemmelman took both the girl’s hands in his big paws. “I’ve bad news. Yes sir, very bad news. Three of my serfs ganged my second overseer, chopped him to pieces with grass knives.”

“What?” Mia’s eyes dilated in horror.

“They got him from behind, I guess. Then they broke into the arsenal. They’re armed, Mia, and heading this way. I dropped everything to fly over and warn you.”

“Coming this way?” Mia firmly disengaged her hands. “But why?”

“They’re trying to reach the Cloud Mountains and join the Renegade. Your place lies directly between mine and the mountains.”

“The Renegade!” Mia’s level gray eyes frosted with hate. “The rurals can’t catch him. He makes monkeys out of the Security Patrol. What is he? A wizard?”

“You’ve heard the news?” Bemmelman interrupted. “The Renegade was at my place last night. I’ve been worried about you, Mia, alone here on the edge of the mountains. Yes sir, I came to take you to my plantation until we have these murderous serfs behind bars.”

“But I’m quite safe. I—I….”

“This isn’t Earth, Mia,” he said in a silky voice. “I haven’t much time. No sir. I must return to organize the pursuit. We’ll teach those brutes a lesson they won’t soon forget.”

“If you catch them,” put in Cosmo in an amused voice.

“We’ll catch them!” Bemmelman turned his small, brown, pig-like eyes on Cosmo. “Yes sir, and the Renegade, too.”

Mia said with a grimace: “Thanks, Hal, but I’m not coming.”

Bemmelman lowered his head like a bull. “I haven’t the men to spare to guard you, even if I could trust them. I was too good a friend of your father’s, Mia, to leave you here with those three murderers roaming in the neighborhood. You’re coming with me.”

Cosmo, observing quietly, frowned to himself. What was the planter trying to pull?

“I’m not,” said Mia indignantly. “Really this is preposterous. It’s….”

Bemmelman glared at her, seized her arm. “Girl, don’t be a fool. If those runaways show up here, they’d chop you to pieces. Come along.” Unceremoniously, he began to drag her toward his plane.

“Cosmo!” Mia’s gray eyes snapped open like saucers.

Cosmo’s hand fell on Bemmelman’s shoulder, spun him around.

“You heard Miss MacIver.” Two rouge-like spots sprang out on Cosmo’s high cheek bones. His green eyes were opaque.

“Get your dirty paws off me!” Bemmelman roared in surprise. He almost choked with rage. “By Jupiter! I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget! Yes sir!”

With a growl, the red-faced planter lashed out with his fist. The blow struck Cosmo on his right cheek bone, snapped back his head.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” said Cosmo. He turned loose Bemmelman’s shoulder.

The planter swung again wildly. Cosmo slipped the blow. With a straight left, he knocked Bemmelman down.

The planter shook his head. There was a surprised look on his beefy red features. Sinking his head in his bull neck, he scrambled to his feet.

Cosmo knocked him down again.

Bemmelman turned his brown pig-like eyes up to Cosmo. He tried to rise. Cosmo knocked him down for the third time.

He said: “Bemmelman, get out of here. If you ever lay hands to me again, I’ll kill you.”

The planter heaved himself to his feet, lip drooling blood. He crossed to his surface plane, scrambled inside. Then he shook his fist at Cosmo.

“I’ll get you for this, Horn. You haven’t MacIver to protect you now. I’ll get you.”

Cosmo took a step toward the plane.

Bemmelman hastily slammed the door. The vehicle swooped from the ground, sped away like a silver bullet.

“He will,” said Mia in a small voice. “You shouldn’t have done that, Cosmo. He’s powerful. He controls the Council of Land Owners.”

“He struck me.” Cosmo’s lean features were like clay. “If he does it again, I’ll kill him.”

Mia shivered. “Do you always get so violent?”

“He hit me,” said Cosmo. “I should have killed him.”

All at once Mia said: “Cosmo!” in a strained, frightened voice.

He flicked a glance past the startled girl, stiffened in alarm. At the edge of the patio, three men stood in a silent group.

One, he saw, was a serf. Naked to the waist, the Venusian was darker, squatter than the Fozoqls, the killer caste of Venus. But he had the same venomous green eyes. A grass knife was thrust through his sash, and he held a ray rifle at a menacing angle.

It was the second figure, though, that took his breath away. A huge, naked, blue giant. His only weapon was a club.

“A Jovian Dawn Man!” said Mia in a stifled voice.

Cosmo felt his palms dampen. The terrific gravity of Jupiter endowed the Jovian primitives with superhuman strength. Normally, they were docile creatures and highly prized among the Venusians as slaves because of their terrible strength and weird beauty. The Dawn Man faced them now, nostrils flaring as he tested their scent. He was handsome as a matinee idol. But somewhere the Jovians had run into an evolutionary blind pocket. They would never evolve into true men. They were animals.

Cosmo scarcely noted the third member of the group, the short barrel-shaped Mercurian. He stood a little apart, smiling blandly and quietly like an inscrutable Buddha.

“Look at the scars on their shoulders,” Mia whispered hoarsely. “The fern leaf! That’s Bemmelman’s brand. They’re the runaways!”

The Venusian raised his rifle. His green eyes burned with hate for the Earthlings.

Mia shrank toward Cosmo. “He—he’s….”

“Put down your rifle,” said Cosmo in the Venusian dialect of Mu. He could feel the pulse beat in his ears; his lips felt dry. “Seek you the Renegade?”

The Venusian hesitated, indecision reflected in his dark-yellow features. The Dawn Man shook his club, growled deep in his chest. Muscles rippled like hawsers beneath his blue hide.

“Most certainly.” It was the Mercurian who spoke.

Cosmo glanced at him sharply, realized that behind the Mercurian’s smiling mask, he was violently distressed. Mercurians didn’t approve of bloodshed, he recalled.

Sweat dappled Cosmo’s forehead. Then, with a faint shrug, he made a peculiar gesture with his hand.

An expression of wonder and comprehension filled their faces. Only the blue giant continued to rumble deep in his chest.

“The Renegade!” cried the fat Mercurian, and his yellow eyes twinkled with relief. He plumped on his knees, repeated the cabalistic symbol.

With only a moment’s hesitation the serf followed suit. “Down, you big ox!” he shouted at the Jovian and thwacked him behind the knees with his ray rifle. “Down! That’s the Renegade!”

III

Mia MacIver stared at Cosmo in disbelief. “You—you’re not the Renegade! I don’t believe it.”

“It’s lucky for you, I am,” he said dryly.

She held her hands straight down at her side, small fists clenched. “Lucky? Father thought you were his friend and you killed him. I’d rather be dead than owe you anything.”

“Listen, Mia, get this straight. I didn’t kill your father.”

“Of course, you’d say that.” Her chin trembled; she set her jaw stubbornly. “Who’d believe the Renegade?”

Cosmo made a weary gesture, turned back to the runaways who’d been listening with interest.

“Get off your knees,” he said. His tone was embarrassed. “The Security Patrol is scouring the countryside for you right now. Take to the forest where the planes can’t follow. Make for the mountains. My men….”

“By Nemi!” the Buddha-faced Mercurian ejaculated suddenly. He pointed at Mia who was slipping through the window to her study. “The girl is escaping. After her, Tong!”

The Venusian serf leaped in pursuit, but Cosmo halted him with a lifted hand. “She won’t go far.” He turned back to the Mercurian. “I give the orders,” he said.

The moon-faced little man bowed good-naturedly. Cosmo realized he wasn’t even armed.

“What are you doing with this pair of cut-throats?” he asked.

“We understand one another,” the Mercurian replied blandly. “I act as a governor. My presence restrains them from indulging in an excess of blood letting.”

“Who sent you to me?” Cosmo asked shrewdly. “Was it Penang-ihtok?”

The Mercurian shuddered. “Yes. A violent man, that Penang-ihtok. An outcast Fozoql.”

“He’s safe then?” Cosmo interrupted. “Bemmelman doesn’t suspect him?”

“No.”

“Good.” He frowned, said: “Go now. Your time is short.”

Without a word the odd trio filed off. Cosmo watched them around the corner of the plantation house, then sprang through the window of Mia’s study.

The girl was at the telecast. She had tuned in the fat Commissioner of the Security Patrol.

“What?” the Commissioner’s voice rumbled from the audio. His jowls were shaking; his image wildly agitated. “Are you sure, Owner MacIver? The Renegade at your plantation with the serfs from the Bemmelman place?”

Without waiting for an answer, he turned away from the Visoscreen, but Cosmo could still hear his voice shouting orders at some underling.

“Contact the radio patrol planes! Order them to converge on the MacIver plantation! The Renegade! Good Lord, man, d’ya realize what a feather it’ll be in our caps? Hurry!”

The fat Commissioner swung back into the visoscreen. “I’ll have a dozen patrol planes there in ten minutes. What does he look like, Owner MacIver? Who is he?”

“He is …” began Mia, then discovered Cosmo standing beside the boxlike transmitter on the wall. He flashed her a faintly wolfish grin.

Mia gasped, brought her hand to her throat. Her high firm breasts heaved wildly beneath the yellow tunic.

“What’s wrong, Owner MacIver? What’s wrong?” came the excited voice from the audio.

Mia’s wide gray eyes brimmed with hate.

“He is …” she began again, but the screen went dead. Cosmo had yanked the transmitter from the wall. Wires like tentacles dangled from the back of the box. He dropped it to the gray straw matting.

“That won’t help!” Mia’s voice was triumphant as she backed away. “You can’t escape. They’ll come from all directions.”

Again Cosmo grinned. He jumped, seized Mia, swung her off her feet.

“Let me go!”

“You’re coming with me.” His voice was grim. “I’d rather the Commissioner didn’t find out I’m the Renegade just yet.”

“Put me down! Are you mad?” Mia’s long, bare legs thrashed wildly. She hammered at his chest. “You can’t escape by yourself, let alone with me.”

He calmly pinioned her flailing legs, strode out the window to the edge of the patio. Dropping her to her feet, he fumbled in his pocket, drew forth a whistle, put it to his lips, blew.

No audible sound resulted. The note was too high, too shrill to be detected by human ears.

Mia MacIver quit squirming, gaped at him blankly.

Cosmo’s eyes searched the dense pearl gray cloud ceiling. He blew twice more on the soundless whistle.

There was a disturbance in the cloud layer directly overhead as if tremendous fans were boiling the impenetrable fleecy ceiling into a froth. Then a huge grotesque shape plummeted from the clouds. With back flailing wings, the monster settled to the ground.

Mia screamed, tried to squirm free.

“Let me go! Let me go!”

“It’s just a bird,” he assured her.

“Just a bird, hell!” Mia shuddered. “That thing’s a nightmare. What is it?”

“An Ormoo.”

The Ormoo cocked its red-brown eye at Cosmo, rubbed its gunmetal gray beak against his leg, emitted a pleased raucous squawk.

Mia flinched. The beak looked capable of severing Cosmo’s leg like a twig. From wing tip to wing tip the Ormoo extended over sixty feet. Its pearl gray plumage was a perfect camouflage as it drifted through Venus’ eternal cloud blanket.

“Down!” shouted Cosmo.

The Ormoo crouched to its breast like a hen setting on her eggs. A saddle was strapped to its back.

“Cosmo!” cried Mia in terror, struggling to wrench free.

The Ormoo cocked its head again, eyed the frantic girl gravely as a robin might watch a beetle.

“My God, Cosmo, that thing wants to eat me. I’ll—I’ll have hysterics.”

He laughed, flung her astride the saddle. Holding onto her naked ankle, he vaulted up behind.

“Up!” he shouted.

The Ormoo lurched to its feet. It took a few ungainly steps, launched itself into the air with a powerful drive of its legs. The massive wings lashed the air like flails as it spiraled upward.

Mia clung to Cosmo with terror.

“Take me back, Cosmo. I won’t tell the Commissioner you’re the Renegade. I’ll lie like a Martian diplomat. Only make this monstrosity go down! Please Cosmo!”

He put an arm about her waist, steadying her.

“Don’t be frightened. He won’t hurt you so long as I’m here.”

“The hell you say,” said Mia between chattering teeth. “I tell you that bird considers me in the same light as a juicy worm.”

Already, the tenuous mist was closing around them. The Ormoo still spiraled upward. Cosmo saw a patrol flash by beneath them, pause like a humming bird over the patio. Another, then another streaked in from different directions.

Mia MacIver leaned over all at once, shrieked in a despairing voice: “Help! Help!”

“You little wretch,” Cosmo grinned, clapped his hand over her mouth. She bit him.

He jerked his hand away. Before she could cry out again, the wool-like cloud blanket smothered them. Everything disappeared in moist white fleece. Mia slumped forlornly in Cosmo’s powerful arm.

“Home,” Cosmo shouted.

The giant bird wheeled off at an angle, wings beating with the rhythmic swish of waves lapping at a beach. Guided by some peculiar sixth sense, it headed by the shortest route for the Cloud Mountains.

For a while, the whish—swish of the Ormoo’s wings was the only sound. It was like flying through a warm blinding blizzard.

“Does it know where it’s going?” Mia twisted about in Cosmo’s arm, curiosity overcoming her terror. Already her brown piquant features dripped with moisture. Her damp yellow tunic clung to her pliant figure like skin.

“Yes. The patrol planes can’t navigate in these clouds. But the Ormoo can. It flys by instinct.”

She relaxed, laid her damp black curls against his shoulder.

“Cosmo, why did you turn renegade?”

Her attitude had undergone such an about face that his green eyes hardened warily.

“It’s a long story.”

Mia snuggled deeper in his arms. “Was it because your father and mother were killed and Bemmelman stole your plantation?”

“That was part of it. My nurse fled with me to the Cloud Mountains. The Jovians trailed us, hunted us for months, then we fell in with a party of outlaws. They were rough men, but kind. I didn’t understand much that was happening at the time, but later I managed to piece it together. I swore I’d make Bemmelman pay.”

He laughed mirthlessly. “It was no use. The authorities weren’t interested in hearing anything against him. I thought maybe if I could get concrete evidence, that would force them to act. I broke into his manor house. I was discovered, but I got away. I was wearing a hood to conceal my features. The newscasters played it up. The hooded man. The Renegade. I suddenly found myself notorious—an outlaw.”

“But you raided other plantations. You stirred up the serfs!” She couldn’t keep the edge of hate and accusation out of her voice.

“Some,” he admitted with a grin, “though we preyed on other outlaws principally. But whenever the Security Patrol couldn’t solve a crime, they laid it to the Renegade. The list is astounding: murder, rapine, theft.” He chuckled grimly. “I’ve even been credited with committing two killings at the same time over five hundred miles apart.”

“But even if you get Bemmelman,” Mia pointed out; “what can you gain. You’re still an outlaw. You’ll be sent to the disintegration chamber.”

“Oh, they’ll get me someday,” he replied coolly. “But first, I’ll drag down Bemmelman.”

The Ormoo flew steadily, strongly. Presently, the girl said:

“Does the Ormoo really understand your commands?”

“A few simple ones.”

“Would it obey me?”

“Try it.”

“Down,” cried Mia.

The Ormoo plummeted toward the surface. Mia clapped her hands, shrieked: “Up!” Its wings thundered as it gained altitude again.

She twisted around in the saddle. “It obeys me,” she laughed infectiously. She placed her hands, as if to steady herself on Cosmo’s shoulder. All at once, her gray eyes contracted. She gave him a tremendous push.

Caught completely by surprise, Cosmo lunged desperately for the saddle, missed. He felt himself slipping faster and faster on the bird’s wet back. There he went over with a rush.

His wildly grabbing hand slid down Mia’s bare leg. Like a drowning man clutching at a straw, his fingers closed about her ankle.

Mia gave a shriek of terror, rolled over on her stomach, hugged the saddle.

“Let go!” she yelled. “You’re pulling me off!” She kicked wildly at the man dangling pendulum-like from her foot.

Cosmo grunted. He pulled himself up, grabbed her leg just above the calf. Thrusting his free hand into the Ormoo’s feathers, he seized a large quill, inched himself upward.

Mia was too busy hanging to the saddle to kick at him. She lay stomach down across the Ormoo’s back clinging with the strength of panic.

Cosmo released her leg, got a grip on her tunic. It parted halfway up her back, leaving him dangling wildly from the huge quill. He caught her leg again, strained upward until he could grasp the saddle and heave himself astride.

He sat there, trembling with exhaustion, panting.

Mia still lay stomach down across the saddle sobbing with frustration. There were red finger weals on ankle, calf and thigh where Cosmo’s iron fingers had dug into her flesh.

He flashed her his sudden grin. “You little devil,” he panted. “I ought to dangle you over the Ormoo’s side. See how you’d like it.”

A shudder passed through the girl. “I hate you! I hate you!” she sobbed in frustrated rage.

There was a soothing tempo to the swish-lift of the giant Ormoo’s flight. Mia dozed as the miles fled past, slumped against Cosmo’s chest.

Then unexpectedly, the bird wheeled, flapped sharply upward. Its huge wing tips brushed the face of a cliff. Fog swirled, whipped into froth by the frenzied wings.

Mia MacIver awakened in terror, clung to Cosmo, pressed her damp quivering body against him. The bird wheeled again and again, always gaining altitude.

“We’re in the Mountains of the Clouds.” Cosmo’s green eyes glittered. “We’ll be at the roost any moment.”

It was colder. Mia shivered. Then the Ormoo began to settle. Wings thrashing, it came to rest with a jar.

Nothing was visible but cloud, thick, clinging. The mountains, thrusting up into Venus’ cloud sheath, were perpetually mantled with the gray vapor. The deep throated roar of a waterfall beat at their ears like thunder.

Cosmo slid off the Ormoo’s back, shouted at Mia to jump. His voice was drowned in the waterfall. A dash of spray struck his face.

He felt for her ankle, yanked. She came tumbling into his arms with a scream. Cosmo laughed, bore her lightly across the jumble of sticks which was the Ormoo’s nest, down a long slippery flight of steps descending into the chasm. Spray drenched them both. The roar was unbearable.

He paused, fumbled at a section of the cliff. A door swung inward, revealing a long low chamber hewn from the living rock.

Cosmo carried the wet and shivering girl across the threshold.

Fog swirled about them like steam from a turkish bath. He set her on her feet, shut the door. The roar of the waterfall was blotted out. Only the hissing of gas jets which lighted the chamber disturbed the silence.

“My private entrance.” He surveyed his prize. The wet yellow tunic revealed every subtle curve. “You’re a handsome wench, Mia.”

Mia MacIver frowned. “Entrance to what?”

“The Renegade’s abode. The mountain’s honeycombed with caves. Come on.”

But Mia hung back dubiously. “What are you going to do with me?”

He eyed the suspicious girl, said solemnly: “Oh, the usual thing.”

“The usual thing?” She swallowed. “That’s what I was afraid of!”

“You’re easily resigned,” he observed dryly, and urged her toward the door at the rear of the chamber. “You need to get out of that wet tunic.” He grinned, regarded the rent in the back of the garment. “It isn’t doing its duty any longer anyway.”

“I think you’re horrible!” She grabbed the tear together, sidled crabwise through the door, her cheeks hot.

Cosmo followed chuckling. A long narrow corridor burrowed ahead of them straight into the heart of the mountain. Flaring gas jets hissed at regular intervals along the walls.

All at once the grin was wiped from his face. He seized Mia’s arm, said: “Hold it!”

Mia bit her lip, gasped.

Three men had edged into the corridor from a bisecting passage. They were huge, almost seven feet tall with skin a vivid blue. They were quite naked and the muscles bulged beneath their blue hides.

“Jovian Dawn Men!” Mia whispered. “My God! They’re running amok!”

Cosmo felt the cold breath of death blow up his spine. His hand slid automatically to his shoulder holster. It was empty. With a curse, he remembered that it had been taken by the Blue Venus. Her dart gun, he’d tossed aside, once free of the Bemmelman plantation.

The three naked giants minced daintily closer, nostrils flaring as they caught their scent. “They’re not amok,” he said over his shoulder. “The rutting season is months off yet. There’s something else behind this.”

Mia said with incredulity: “Look at their left shoulders. See that scar. The fern leaf! That’s Hal Bemmelman’s brand! Cosmo, those are Bemmelman’s slaves!”

The blue giants crouched. Their violet eyes were passionless, their handsome faces calm, inscrutable.

“Back!” Cosmo suddenly shouted in a tone of authority, and took a step toward them. A low snarl rumbled in their throats. Then like cats on a mouse, they pounced.

Mia screamed.

Cosmo kicked one of them in the belly, heard him grunt. With balled fist he swung at the placid handsome features of the second blue giant. Pain, like a hot iron, shot up his arm from his bruised knuckles. The Jovian shook his head, grabbed Cosmo’s wrist, jerked. His arm felt as if it were being torn from the socket.

He kicked, slugged the emotionless face with his free hand. The grip never relaxed. He heard Mia scream again like a rabbit in a steel trap.

Then the Jovian clouted him brutally alongside the temple with his open fist. Cosmo’s head snapped sideways like a punching bag. His knees collapsed. He seemed to be falling into the chasm of the waterfall, down, down into stygian blackness.

IV

Cosmo gradually became aware of a jolting swaying movement. At each jolt, a flash of pain shot across his eyes. He sat up, cracked his skull against something solid. A blinding pain jolted him into full consciousness.

He was in a cage, he saw, swung on poles like a litter between two of the blue giants. They were jogging along through a forest.

At once he became aware of warmth along his side, twisted his head. Mia was regarding him from wide frightened eyes. They’d been tumbled side by side into the cage. The girl was almost naked, her yellow tunic in tatters.

“You hurt?” he asked.

She shook her head.

He closed his eyes against the ache in his skull. If the pain would only let up. His mind felt fuzzy, his thoughts incoherent.

“Whew. That brute sure gave me a wallop. What happened?”

He could feel Mia shiver against him. “It was dreadful,” she said. “They grabbed me—ugh!—and stuffed me in this cage. They had it hidden outside on the trail from the Ormoo’s nest. Then they dumped you in on top of me like a bag of flour. I—I thought you were dead.”

“So did I,” said Cosmo dryly.

She regarded him dubiously, said: “They picked up the cage then and began to run down the trail. They carried us over the most impossible places, always down. I died with fright. Just a little while ago we came out into the forest.”

“I know the trail,” he said. “Nothing but Jovian primitives could have managed it. I wonder why Bemmelman didn’t have me killed outright.”

“Bemmelman?” Mia looked puzzled.

“Sure. They’re his slaves. You saw the fern leaf brand on their shoulders. We walked straight into a trap.”

“But that’s impossible. How could they have found your hideout?”

Cosmo shook his head and immediately regretted it. “One of my men must be a spy. Bemmelman’s shrewder than I’ve given him credit for being.”

“A spy?” Mia’s eyes grew round as saucers. “But why?”

“I don’t know. Unless he’s after that fifty thousand monad reward on my head!” He frowned. “Bemmelman said something odd last night when he caught me in his house. He said he’d been trying to get in touch with me.”

The blue giants swung effortlessly through the incredible forest. The trees were like cathedral columns disappearing in the swirling cloud blanket.

“You said we’d walked into a trap,” insisted Mia. “How could Bemmelman know when you’d get back. I don’t understand.”

Cosmo snorted. “Anybody could guess I’d head for my hideout after the alarm at your place. Most likely, Bemmelman tipped that Judas of his by radio when to expect me. The Dawn Men are animals. They hunt by scent. That fellow must have given them a piece of my clothing, planted them in the corridor. It was as simple as that.”

“But what does Bemmelman want with me?” she wailed.

“Don’t forget the Blue Venus. I told you he’d been trying to duplicate that experiment.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Mia in a shocked voice. “He wouldn’t dare! Would he?”

“What’s to hinder him? At Venusport they’ll think the Renegade abducted you. Who’d suspect that the eminent Councillor Bemmelman had hijacked me?”

“I don’t believe it,” she repeated indignantly. “You’re just trying to throw mud on him because you think he murdered your parents and stole your plantation. It’s—it’s an obsession. You have no proof.”

Cosmo regarded her with cloudy green eyes. “I had the Intersteller Investigation Bureau dig out his past. I’ve a man in Bemmelman’s household right now. I know.” He looked through the bars of the cage. They were approaching the edge of the forest. He turned back, said: “Something besides slave breeding is going on at Bemmelman’s. There are parts of the plantation where my man never has been able to penetrate.”

“What do you think it is?” Mia’s voice was a whisper.

“I don’t know. But hasn’t it occurred to you that slave breeding must entail a slow turnover. A child isn’t marketable until it’s sixteen or seventeen at least.”

“What are you driving at?”

“Suppose Bemmelman has discovered some way to speed up growth—to hasten maturity.”

“An aging process? It’s—it’s impossible.”

He shook his head. “Plants are forced; why not animals?”

The blue giants, he saw, had broken through the last of the trees into a lush meadow of mauve fen grass.

“Look, Mia!” he pointed toward the center of the meadow. “The second lap of our journey is provided for. Our kidnapper shows considerable foresight.”

In the center of the meadow, a small surface plane rested on the fen grass like a silver bullet. There was no sign of life inside or out.

“It’s deserted,” said Mia in surprise. Cosmo frowned, but didn’t reply.

The Jovian Dawn Men trotted straight to the empty plane. They opened a door in the side, shoved them within, cage and all. Cosmo heard the door click shut. The Dawn Men had not followed them inside.

He glanced curiously about the interior. All the seats had been removed, even the pilot’s chair.

“Where’s the pilot?” asked Mia in a subdued voice.

He shook his head. Through the port, he could see the blue giants disappearing among the trees.

Just then the plane gave a jerk.

“It’s moving!” With a shriek, Mia flung herself onto Cosmo.

He felt the plane lurch again, then shoot upward. At a hundred feet it leveled itself off, darted away on what he judged to be a southerly course. There was still no evidence of a pilot.

Mia MacIver held onto Cosmo like a drowning man to a straw as the pilotless plane hurtled southward.

He drew a long breath. “Robot pilot.” He patted her shoulder. “There’s nothing supernatural about it.”

Mia pulled herself away. “I didn’t mean to throw myself on you like that. I … I….” She halted lamely.

“Don’t apologize.” Cosmo flashed her his quick wolfish grin. “I enjoyed it. You’ve been hurling yourself at me at fairly regular intervals all day.”

“I think you’re horrid.” Mia’s cheeks colored, but her gray eyes twinkled.

“Mia,” he said serious all at once, “if Bemmelman—er—disposes of me, you’ll have to contact my man yourself. I told you I had a spy planted in his household. His name is Penang-ihtok.”

She looked suddenly startled.

“He’s a Venusian, an outcast Fozoql. You can recognize him by the blue star tattooed on his forehead. Tell him that my orders are to have the men raid Bemmelman’s plantation and carry you to Venusport.”

“Penang-ihtok,” she repeated.

“Of course,” he added dryly; “I’m hopeful Bemmelman won’t kill me right off, and I can contact Penang-ihtok myself. In which case, you won’t need to bother your pretty head about it.”

He yawned, stretched out as comfortably as he could arrange himself in their confined quarters, closed his eyes.

“You’re not going to sleep,” exploded Mia in alarm.

“Certainly. Nothing else to do.” He patted his shoulder. “Make yourself comfortable.”

She eyed him with suspicion.

“Go ahead. I haven’t any designs on you,” he said dryly.

“Well you don’t need to be so assertive about it,” said Mia, and laid her head gingerly on his shoulder.

“Sure,” said Cosmo. He was staring at the roof of the cage.

Presently, she said in a sleepy voice, “I haven’t leprosy either, in case you’re worried.”

“Of course not.”

Mia muttered something unladylike under her breath.

“What’s that?”

“I think,” said Mia distinctly; “that you’re a worm!”

Cosmo chuckled. The plane continued to steer itself arrow-like into the South of Mu.

A faint jerk brought Cosmo wide awake as some jungle animal. The plane, he realized had stopped, settled to Venus.

It was night. The green phosphorescent light of the luminous vegetation flooded through the port holes. From somewhere, the sound of a muffled bell, ringing, ringing, reached his ears.

Through the port, he could see a corner of a tower, part of a slate roof. The grotesque arms of a telo-antenna sprouted from the peak of the tower. He heard a door squeal open. The bell sounded louder, then it stopped to be replaced by the mutter of voices approaching.

“Wake up.” He shook Mia MacIver gently.

She opened her eyes, stared at him in bewilderment. “Where are we?”

“Shhh!”

The door opened. Cosmo caught sight of Bemmelman’s gross features in the opening. He looked ghastly in the phosphorescent glow. Beyond him reared an immense gray pile of a building.

The planter’s jaw dropped in disbelief as he recognized his captives. Then a tide of red swept up from his bull-like neck.

“You!” he shouted. “What the hell are you doing in there?”

“Didn’t you know?” said Cosmo dryly. “I’m trying to cure myself of claustrophobia.”

But already, a shrewd gleam of triumph had replaced the disappointment in Bemmelman’s pig-like brown eyes.

“You’re the Renegade.” He rubbed his hands together, began to grin. “Yes sir, you’re the Renegade. I should have guessed it before. And you, Mia.” He threw back his head, roared until the court reverberated with his heavy laughter.

“Let us in on the joke,” said Cosmo.

Bemmelman stopped laughing, wiped his eyes. “Two birds with one stone. I didn’t expect to catch both of you in the same trap. No sir, that I didn’t.” He stepped back, clapped his hands.

Two naked Blue Dawn Men appeared, hauled forth the cage, shouldered it. With Bemmelman following, they bore it across the court, into a doorway at the base of the lichen covered tower.

“I feel perfectly ridiculous,” whispered Mia, bouncing around in the cage. “Thank goodness none of my friends can see me.”

Cosmo chuckled, shot a glance after Bemmelman who was crossing the floor to an intercommunicating telecast. The room appeared to be a guard room. Weapons were racked against the walls, and a dozen naked blue giants lay sleeping on the floor. These raised their handsome, classical heads, surveyed the captives from incurious violet eyes. Cosmo put his lips against Mia’s ear and said:

“Remember Penang-ihtok.”

He heard Bemmelman say: “Switch on the current in the tower. Send Llana to me at once.”

A voice from the audio replied: “Right.”

From the corner of his eye, Cosmo saw a sheet of flame sear across the door leading to the court beyond. Then it vanished.

“Force screen,” he guessed.

Bemmelman approached, grinning amiably. He was wearing a snuff brown suit which set on him like a sack.

“Don’t try to escape,” cautioned the planter as he inserted a slender key in the spring lock, threw back the top of the cage. “You’d be electrocuted if you went through any of the outside doors or windows.”

Cosmo and Mia stood up shakily.

“We won’t bolt, if that’s what you mean,” Cosmo replied dryly. He glanced at the handsome, impassive blue giants, discarded any idea of attacking Bemmelman directly.

“I’m happy to see you’re amenable to reason, Cosmo. I sure am.” He rubbed his nose. “Yes sir. I like a reasonable man. I’m going to be able to use you, Cosmo.”

“That’s what you said last night,” Cosmo reminded him, his face blank. The palms of his hands were sweating. He wanted to run as fast and far from the sly, red-faced man as he could. Bemmelman, he was beginning to sense, was as slippery and dangerous as the infamous Venusian swamp rath.

A door at the rear of the chamber opened suddenly. Cosmo jumped. A glance assured him it was only a slave girl. She wasn’t a Venusian, though. He frowned. She was from Earth.

The Terran girl regarded the prisoners curiously, then faced Bemmelman. “Rabaul said you wanted me.” She was dressed in a green sarong which reached from her knees to her breasts. On her left shoulder was a small scar in the shape of a fern leaf: Bemmelman’s brand.

“Yes sir,” said the planter; “so I do. So I do, Llana. Be so good as to escort Miss MacIver to the tower apartment. Don’t leave her.”

Mia shuddered, clung tighter to Cosmo.

“Keep your head, Mia.” He gently disengaged her hand. “If you don’t go, they’ll drag you off willy-nilly.”

Dispiritedly she followed the slave girl from the guardroom. She was so woebegone that Cosmo felt a wrench at his heart. He faced the planter, said in a hard voice, “What did you want with me?”

Bemmelman’s eyelids drooped. He turned on his heel, said shortly, “Come along, Cosmo,” and started for the door. “I want to have a talk with you. Yes sir, a very interesting talk.”

V

Flanked by the two blue giants Cosmo followed his host down a long corridor, up a flight of steps and into a sumptuously furnished apartment. A yellow grass mat carpeted the floor from wall to wall. The furniture was covered with a coarse, woven fabric, barbaric in its color.

With a sigh, Bemmelman lowered himself into a lounge chair, indicated another for Cosmo.

“You’re tired. You’ve had an uncomfortable journey. I won’t keep you up long.” He rang a bell.

With amazing promptness, a wizened Mercurian scurried through a sliding wall panel.

“Krudo juice,” said Bemmelman; “cold. And sandwiches. Better bring a bottle of food concentrates, too.”

The Mercurian disappeared.

Cosmo was staring at the bank of open windows. They gave onto a Venusian garden of grotesque beauty, each plant and shrub sparkling with a cold phosphorescence. Several insects, the huge, bird-like insects of Venus, winged in from the garden. As they reached the window, there was a sudden sparkle of flame. The insects dropped dead to the floor.

“An excellent warning,” Bemmelman said in a silky voice. “The force screens, you know. Yes sir, not only do they discourage guests from straying; but they keep intruders outside.”

Cosmo repressed a shiver. “Ingenious gadget.”

“Gadget?” The red-faced planter threw back his head, laughed uproariously. “You’re a droll rogue, you are. I like a man with a sense of humor.” He rubbed his nose, then pointed to a picture above the sofa. “Recognize her, don’t you?”

Cosmo saw a three dimensional photograph of a nude. Her skin was pale blue, flushed with healthy rose, her hair like molten gold.

“Sofi,” Cosmo said with distaste. “The Blue Venus. I should think, Bemmelman, you’d have to wait rather long for your profits.”

“So I do. So I do. But it’s possible to harvest a yearly crop from a forest. Trees grow even slower than people. I’ll show you the slave pens tomorrow. I’ve only the one Blue Venus, though. Unfortunately the rest have been males.”

Cosmo wondered why the planter had called attention to the Blue Venus. He suspected that Bemmelman was subtly trying to find out if he had learned anything from Sofi.

“What do you do with the males?” he asked, prompted by something in Bemmelman’s voice.

“They’re interesting, but they’ve no market value. I have them destroyed.”

Cosmo bit his lip. Bemmelman was a monster. He wondered what the sealed chambers held, the chambers where his spy Penang-ihtok had never been able to penetrate.

“I suppose,” said the planter unexpectedly; “you’re curious about what I wanted with you?”

Cosmo nodded.

“Well sir, I could have had you killed back in the caves of the Cloud Mountains. I’ve had a spy among your men for some time.” He paused as the Mercurian returned, deposited a tray between them. It held a silver pitcher of krudo juice, thin sandwiches, a bottle of food concentrates.

“Go ahead,” said Cosmo when the Mercurian had departed. He popped two of the pills into his mouth.

“Where was I? Oh yes. I could have had you assassinated several times, but you’ve some information I want?”

Cosmo’s green eyes narrowed warily. “What information?”

The planter leaned forward, tapped him on the knee. “That bird. The Giant Ormoo. Oh yes, I know how you escaped from the roof last night. Yes sir, and very neat, too.” He beamed amiably. “I want to know where the Ormoos feed.”

Cosmo sat back in surprise.

“Why?”

“That’s my secret,” said the beefy planter. “Yes sir, that’s my secret. But I’m a business man, Cosmo. Show me where the Ormoo feeds, and I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Five thousand monad,” Cosmo hazarded.

Bemmelman didn’t blink an eye. “Five thousand monad,” he agreed.

Cosmo sat back, his face blank. The planter, he realized, had no more idea of paying him five thousand monad than he had of adopting him. He’d agreed to the preposterous sum too readily. Cosmo’s green eyes hardened.

“And suppose I refuse.”

“But you won’t. You can’t. No sir. If you refused, I’ll be forced to kill you and trace the bird myself.”

“The devil you will.” Cosmo could feel sweat starting from his forehead. “That bird’s savage as a tiger. You’ve already tried to trace it to its feeding ground, haven’t you? That’s why you planted a spy among my men, wasn’t it?”

“Yes sir,” Bemmelman admitted with a sigh. “I don’t mind telling you he was supposed to find out what and where the bird ate. But it damn near tore him to pieces.”

Cosmo didn’t say anything.

Bemmelman leaned forward, tapped his knee again. “Unfortunately, the birds are rare as the dodo. I’ve spent quite a bit of money trying to locate another. The only one that’s been caught is in the Solar Apiary on Earth.”

Mention of the Ormoo in the Solar Apiary stirred Cosmo’s memory. He stared at Bemmelman with narrowed eyes. The Ormoo in its wild state matured to its full size in a few months. The one which the Terran expedition had secured, hadn’t reached adulthood until its nineteenth year. The discrepancy had been puzzling ornithologists ever since. Theories had flooded the scientific journals, but to date, no one had explained satisfactorily why a wild Ormoo should mature over twenty times as fast as the same bird in captivity.

“Well?” Bemmelman rubbed his nose, his eyelids drooping.

“If I show you where the Ormoo feeds, what guarantee have I that you’ll carry out your side of the bargain?”

“Just my word,” said Bemmelman with a chuckle. “Just my word.”

Two rouge-like spots sprang out on Cosmo’s cheek bones. He came halfway erect in his chair.

“No violence, please.” The planter held up his hand. “Look behind you.”

Cosmo turned his head. The two Jovian primitives were crouched to spring. He sank back in his chair, managed a tight grin. His lips felt dry, his stomach hollow.

“I don’t think you appreciate your position, Cosmo,” said the planter silkily. “No sir, I don’t.” He heaved himself from his chair with a grunt. “I’ve something to show you. Come with me.”

The two Jovian Dawn Men fell in beside Cosmo again as he trailed the planter down three steps, along a short corridor to a sunken court. Bemmelman paused, pointed to a huge wooden cross in the center of the court.

“You weren’t depending on him, were you,” he smirked.

Cosmo felt his blood run cold. His fists clenched until the nails bit into the flesh.

The body of Penang-ihtok hung from the cross. The outcast Fozoql had been crucified upside down.

“You see,” said Bemmelman, his voice heavy with assurance; “how futile it is to oppose me.”

Cosmo turned away from the cross with its grisly burden. He looked coldly, speculatively at Bemmelman’s beefy smiling face. At the look, fright glimmered in the planter’s eyes. He made a quick gesture to the Jovians who seized Cosmo by either arm.

“Take him away,” he ordered. “We’ll talk it over tomorrow.”

Cosmo was conducted into a plainly, but comfortably furnished room. One of the blue giants immediately stretched himself on the sofa and went to sleep. The other, though, took a stance by the door, folded his arms, regarded Cosmo with the unwinking stare of an idol. Obviously, the Jovian primitives intended to spell each other.

With a grunt of annoyance, Cosmo retreated into the bathroom. He had grossly underestimated Bemmelman, he realized with chagrin. A malignant genius, the slave breeder had no more scruples than his Dawn Men.

Cosmo heard a soft step behind him, whirled around. His Jovian guard was standing placidly just within the door.

“Damn,” he snapped, nerves jangling. “I’m not going to crawl out the drain.”

The blue giant never changed expression by so much as a flicker.

Cosmo got a grip on himself, shot the giant his flashing grin. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”

He stripped off coat and trousers, hung them carefully over the Jovian’s shoulder, stepped under the shower.

Considerably refreshed, he returned to his sleeping chamber, crawled raw into the huge bed. But sleep escaped him. That stark cross, the body illuminated by the radiations of the lichens and mosses, persisted in thrusting itself before his eyes. He clenched his fists, trembled in an agony of impotent fury. Somehow, he’d trip up Bemmelman, smash his disgusting racket.

Cosmo awakened in the huge bed, sweating with terror. The echo of some nameless horror still rang in his ears. He saw the Dawn Man, motionless as a statue, watching him with animal patience. Then he heard it again.

It was a girl’s scream. It reached him faintly. It went on and on. He leaped out of bed, tugged on his trousers.

The Dawn Man sprang across the room to intercept him. Cosmo seized a metal chair, swung it with the same movement. It caught the blue giant on his head and shoulders. The blow would have felled an ox. The Jovian folded onto the carpet, lay still. Cosmo thought he must be dead.

The second Jovian primitive jumped from the sofa at the crash. He had awakened like an animal. With a low snarl, he leaped for Cosmo.

Cosmo ducked under his first rush, crashed the chair down on the back of his head. The giant staggered groggily, but didn’t go down.

Cosmo measured the distance, walloped him again. The second blue giant went over like a falling tree.

Without stopping for coat or shoes, Cosmo hurtled into the hall. The screaming had been silenced. The building was quiet as a deserted church.

He set out at a lope in the direction of the tower where Mia was confined. That had been Mia screaming, he was sure. He’d recognized the timbre of her voice.

His heart thudding, he reached a stair, took the steps two at a time. It bent sharply to the left, went up another flight. He must be in the tower itself. The silence was oppressive. He wished fervently he had a dart gun, a ray projector, anything that would serve as a weapon. The steps continued to wind upward.

Gasping for breath, he reached the fifth level. From beneath a door seeped a crack of light. He sniffed. A peculiar odor impinged on his nostrils. Then he heard Bemmelman’s rough voice like the rasp of iron.

“That’s done. Take her to the slave pens.”

Cosmo’s heart contracted. A blinding rage swept him. He’d been too late.

He rammed the door with his shoulder. It burst open as if exploded. For a second he was poised in the doorway, big, rangy, naked to the waist, his hands hooked like claws, his nostrils distended.

Without a word, he leaped on Bemmelman.

The planter was standing beside an operating table upon which Mia MacIver was strapped. He fell back a step, raised his arm in a gesture of defense.

Cosmo’s rush bowled him over backward. He tried to scramble to his feet, but Cosmo was on him like a cat on a mouse. Time after time, he drove his fist into the planter’s face. A blinding rage shook him to the marrow.

As if from a distance, he heard Mia scream again.

“Cosmo! Look out behind you!”

He swung off the insensible Bemmelman, twisted to his feet. He saw Llana, the Terran slave girl, directly behind him. Her arm was upraised, her fist clutching a needle like dagger. With a sob, she plunged it downward toward his heaving chest.

Cosmo caught her wrist in a grip of iron, tore the dagger from her fingers. Contemptuously, he tossed the girl into a corner of the room, turned to Mia.

“Mia, are you all right?”

She gave a sob of relief. “Yes, yes! But get me out of this iron lung before I pass out.”

He fumbled hastily at the clamps. Her hair was tumbled. One shoulder of her tattered yellow tunic had been torn down to her stomach. He paused suddenly, his eyes dilating.

There was an angry red scar above Mia’s left breast. He realized what the smell on the landing outside the tower room had been. It was the odor of burning flesh.

Mia MacIver had been branded!

VI

Cosmo said, “Mia, Mia,” and gathered her to him. “What have they done to you?”

Llana scurried past like a frightened rabbit.

“She’s getting away!” Mia cried. “She’ll rouse the house!”

“Never mind.” Cosmo could hear her clatter down the stair. “We’ve got a hostage.” He gave Mia a wry grin, added, “that is, if I haven’t killed Bemmelman.”

Mia shivered, leaned against him. He glanced down, saw she was regarding him strangely. With a dry sob she buried her head on his shoulder.

“Cosmo, Cosmo, don’t ever leave me again.” Her voice was almost lost. “Take me with you—into the mountains.”

He frowned, said: “You crazy kid. You don’t know what you’re saying. I’m an outlaw. There’s no way to prove Bemmelman murdered my father and mother. And even if there was, that wouldn’t clear me. Every crime the Security Patrol hasn’t been able to solve has been laid at my doorstep.”

“We could run away. We could go to Ganymede.”

He shook his head. “It wouldn’t make any difference. As long as the Renegade is alive they’ll hunt. They’d trail me, extradite me.”

“I don’t care. I don’t care. At least—”

The brazen clamor of the alarm bells shrilled suddenly in their ears.

Cosmo tore himself away, knelt beside the unconscious planter. He drew a dart gun from Bemmelman’s pocket, said: “He’s alive.”

“What are we going to do, Cosmo?”

With a grunt, he hoisted the slack body over his shoulder. The alarm bells were pealing louder.

“I saw a telo-antenna on the roof of the tower when we were in the court. I’ve a hunch the telo-projector is somewhere above us.”

Mia MacIver, clutching the tunic about her shoulder, asked: “But can’t we run for it?”

“Not while the force screen is operating.”

Bent under his heavy burden, Cosmo strode from the room, up the steps to the next level. Saying, “What’s this?” he pressed the button of a sliding panel. The door slid back in its oiled grooves. “Whew!” he said. “My lady’s chamber.”

Mia MacIver peered around him wide-eyed.

It was a large room, octagon shaped and carpeted wall to wall with the shaggy gray fur of the Polar Aard. But the most startling feature was the mirrors. The walls were paneled solid in mirrors. It gave the impression that the room stretched on forever.

“Well!” said Mia; “if this is the telecast operator’s room, he’s a voluptuous creature!”

Cosmo snorted, stepped across the threshold. At once replicas of themselves flashed in all the mirrored chambers.

“I feel wicked just being in a room like this,” said Mia.

Cosmo heard a click behind him, whirled around. The door through which they’d just passed was shut. In every direction, they were faced by an endless vista of mirrored chambers.

Mia gasped. “I’m scared,” she said.

“Who isn’t?” said Cosmo shortly and dropped Bemmelman to the floor with a thud. “What are you staring at?” He whipped around again.

A second door in the mirrors stood ajar. Framed in the entrance was a magnificently beautiful girl in skimpy shorts and bra. She was the twin of the photograph below stairs.

“Well, if it isn’t my old friend, Sofi,” said Cosmo without enthusiasm.

There was no recognition in the Blue Venus’ violet eyes. Her flawless pale-blue features revealed neither shock nor surprise.

“That’s Bemmelman.” She indicated the planter. “Is he dead?”

“No. Only unconscious.”

“Oh. That’s too bad,” she said in a calm manner, and swept up to the prostrate slave breeder, planted a kick in the seat of his pants. “There! I’ve never had the nerve to do that when he was conscious.”

Mia gasped.

Cosmo said sharply: “Where’s the telecast room?”

“The next floor. But you can’t escape. Nobody ever escapes from this house.”

Bemmelman stirred, opened his eyes, sat up groggily. His face was puffy, swollen. Blood had dried on his chin. He didn’t say anything.

The clatter of many feet resounded on the stair outside the boudoir. Mia clutched Cosmo’s arm, said: “They’re coming!”

Cosmo took the dart gun from his pocket, narrowed his green eyes. “You go first, Bemmelman, if they rush us. Understand?”

The slave breeder glared at Cosmo, moistened his battered lips. “What do you want me to do?” He spoke with difficulty.

“Clear the tower. Order everyone into the rest of the house.”

Bemmelman nodded sullenly.

Cosmo saw one of the mirrors shiver violently. Then the panel slid back. The stair was jammed with naked blue Jovians and Venusian serfs. The slave girl, Llana, was in the forefront. She pointed at Cosmo, screamed: “There they are!”

The Jovians started to surge through the narrow door.

Cosmo drew a bead on Bemmelman’s thick neck, smiled grimly.

Blood drained out of the planter’s face. “Get out!” he cried in panic.

The rescuers halted, stared stupidly. The ones in the rear continued to push forward causing momentary confusion.

“Get out!” Bemmelman raged. “Get out, you fools! D’you want to get me killed? Clear the tower!”

They began to withdraw sullenly.

Cosmo stepped after them, slid shut the panel. He could hear their footsteps retreating down the stair. He let his breath escape through his teeth.

“Keep your eye on the Blue Venus, Mia. She’s a shifty wench.”

Mia seized a candlestick from a dainty Martian table, said, “This isn’t going to hurt me half as bad as it will you,” to Sofi.

Cosmo dug the dart gun into Bemmelman’s kidneys. “Let’s go up to the telecast room.” He pushed the planter ahead of him through the door.

The stair well was deserted, silent.

“I smell roses,” said Mia.

Cosmo thought he detected a glint of triumph in the slave breeder’s eyes. “Up the steps,” he said grimly. “At the first sign of treachery, Bemmelman, I’m pulling the trigger.”

They reached the telecast room without opposition. It was a small square chamber banked with control panels. An opaque screen was built into the left wall. There was only one chair.

Cosmo closed the door, motioned Mia and the Blue Venus to one side. “Now, Bemmelman, call your head overseer; have him shut down the force screens.”

The red-faced planter laughed shortly, said: “No sir.” He had regained his composure. “No sir, you won’t kill me. You’d be throwing away your only chance to stay alive. The force screen stays up.”

“That’s what I thought you’d say.” Cosmo slipped the dart gun in his pocket. His eyes became hard green stones. “What about the Ormoo’s feeding ground? Why do you want to know where they eat?”

“That’s my secret.” A sullen note crept into Bemmelman’s manner.

“You don’t want me to mess you up, do you, Bemmelman?” Cosmo asked softly.

The planter flinched, but didn’t answer.

Cosmo knocked him sprawling against the wall. He heard Mia gasp. He said evenly: “What about the Ormoo?”

Bemmelman tasted the blood in his mouth, said: “You’ll never leave here alive, Cosmo. You won’t be able to carry tales…. Now wait a moment! There’s a plant the birds eat that contains a drug….” He paused.

Cosmo’s eyes narrowed. He had the impression that the planter was listening, waiting for something to happen. He said, “Go ahead.”

“The drug accelerates maturity. It acts directly through the glands.”

“How did you hit on the discovery?” A feeling of revulsion made Cosmo’s hands tremble, but his features were inscrutable.

Bemmelman chuckled amiably. “This information won’t do you a bit of good,” he said. “No sir, not a bit.”

“Go ahead.”

Bemmelman shrugged. “Well sir, I’ve been curious about how much longer it takes for an Ormoo in captivity to mature than the wild bird. The wild Ormoo, you know, reaches its full growth in less than a year. That’s an amazing phenomenon when you consider its size. Yes sir….” He paused again, mouth open, then hastily went on: “Yes sir. I wondered if it wasn’t the wild birds’ diet. I sent a man into the Cloud Mountains to locate an Ormoo. He found your bird’s nest.”

Cosmo’s green eyes were opaque. Revulsion for the slave breeder welled in his throat.

Bemmelman’s manner was derisive. He rubbed his nose, said: “One day my man found a shrub in the nest. He sent it to me on the chance that it might be what I was looking for. It was. The leaves contain a drug, which, when injected into the bloodstream, accelerates maturity at an unbelievable rate.” His lids drew down. “I injected it into one of the slave children in minute doses every twenty days. The child reached adolescence in eighteen months. In two years’ time, she was full grown.”

“You can breed slaves like guinea pigs now, eh Bemmelman?” Cosmo’s voice was low. “And in two years’ time have them ready for the market.”

Bemmelman said, “Certainly,” and paused.

“What are you listening for?” Cosmo asked suddenly.

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” His little eyes darted about the room. “Unfortunately,” he went on hurriedly, “I used up all the drug on the experiment, and I haven’t been able to locate any more of the plants. No sir, we’ve scoured the Cloud Mountains. They’re difficult to explore. Infra red rays help some, but not much.”

“Who’s the spy you planted among my men?” Cosmo interrupted in a cold voice.

Bemmelman shut his mouth with a snap.

“Who is he? Tell me, Bemmelman, or by heavens, I’ll work you over until your own mother couldn’t recognize you.”

Still the planter didn’t reply.

Cosmo hit him in the mouth. The planter’s head struck the wall. He slid down to the floor, said groggily: “It doesn’t matter. No sir. I won’t need him any more. He’s a Martian. His name’s Natal.”

Cosmo wasn’t surprised. They’d found the Martian wandering apparently lost in the mountains. A sly fellow, always curious, always prying.

Cosmo turned to the telecast. He felt Mia’s horrified eyes on him; the child-like stare of the Blue Venus. He switched on the telecast, signaled his headquarters in the Cloud Mountains. At the third attempt, he got through.

To his surprise, the inscrutable mien of the Mercurian runaway flashed on the visoscreen. His amber eyes twinkled, a smile split his Buddha-like face, and he bowed three times until Cosmo could only see the top of his head.

“I see you got through all right,” said Cosmo dryly. A faint hiss seemed to be coming through the audio. He tried to tune it out, but the hiss persisted.

“Yes,” said the Mercurian. “Delightful fellows. But blood-thirsty. You should hear the tales they’ve been telling.” He shuddered.

“I’ve heard them,” Cosmo interrupted. “Often. Where’s Big Unse?”

“Playing truk with the men. I’m on duty at the telecast.”

Cosmo frowned. The hissing noise was louder. He said: “I haven’t time for you to call him. I’m at the Bemmelman plantation. I’m holding Bemmelman himself as a hostage. Tell Big Unse to bring the Ormoo. You follow in the surface plane with the men. Don’t land. Hang in the clouds above the plantation until I whistle for the Ormoo. Oh yes. Be sure that Natal, the Martian, comes along. Got it?”

“Yes.”

Cosmo flipped off the telecast, frowned. The hissing had not stopped. There was the faintest smell of roses in the air. He felt suddenly dizzy. Mia gave a small cry and crumpled to the floor.

“Paralysis gas!” he thought and wheeled toward Bemmelman, almost lost his balance as he did so.

The planter’s head had dropped on his chest. He raised it groggily, leered with triumph at Cosmo. “Concealed tubes,” he muttered. “Every room.”

Cosmo swayed. He fumbled at his pocket. His hand emerged with the dart gun. He strained to elevate the gun, send a poisoned needle into the slave breeder. His muscles refused to obey him. The gun sagged. His knees sagged. Then slowly, he toppled sideways.

VII

Cosmo opened his eyes in the office with the glassite desk. He sat up. Chains rattled. He realized with chagrin that he was manacled hand and foot.

Bemmelman was on the sofa. A serf, directed by the slave girl, Llana, was working over him. Mia and the Blue Venus were stretched out on the floor beside him, still unconscious. Both of them were manacled. Two Blue giants watched incuriously.

In a moment, Bemmelman stirred. He sat up, swung his feet to the floor. His eyes lit on Cosmo. With a grunt he crossed the room, kicked the manacled man in the ribs.

Cosmo’s face hardened, but he didn’t say anything.

The planter swung on his servitors, barked: “Get out!” They left the room, all except Llana. He turned back to Cosmo, said: “I’m through playing around with you. Yes sir. Where’s the Ormoo’s feeding ground?”

Cosmo said nothing.

Bemmelman’s face went purple. He kicked Cosmo viciously in the ribs. “Where’s the feeding ground? Where is it? Where is it?”

Mia regained consciousness, sat up. She stared wide-eyed at the berserk planter.

Bemmelman glanced at her, paused. He rubbed his nose, a fiendish light shining in his pig-like eyes. He said in a sudden altered tone: “I’m still willing to bargain, Cosmo.”

“What do you mean?”

“Either you reveal the location of the feeding grounds, or I hand Miss MacIver over to the Dawn Men. Yes sir, I’m anxious to repeat that experiment.” He pointed to the Blue Venus who was just coming out from under the effects of the gas.

Cosmo’s features were inscrutable. He asked: “What happens to Miss MacIver if I give you that information?”

“I’ll release her in Venusport with her fare back to Earth. I’m holding personal notes on the MacIver plantation anyway.”

“Notes?” echoed Mia blankly. “Father never mentioned any notes. I—I don’t believe it!”

A veil dropped before Bemmelman’s eyes. “I haven’t told you before. I didn’t like to so soon after your father’s death. But I lent him considerable money. Yes sir, considerable.”

Cosmo laughed without humor. “Up to your old tricks, eh Bemmelman?”

“What d’you mean?” The red-faced planter looked faintly rattled. He took a threatening step.

“You kick me again,” said Cosmo, “and I’ll kill you if I have to bite you to death.”

Mia giggled nervously.

“Well?” said Bemmelman. “That’s my proposition. Take it or leave it.”

“What about me?” asked Cosmo.

“You’re worth fifty thousand monad on the hoof, Cosmo. Yes sir. I’m going to turn you and your men over to the Security Patrol.”

“Suppose I talk?”

“Talk?” Bemmelman threw back his head and roared. “Talk d’you say? Who’ll believe anything the Renegade says?”

“A nice point,” Cosmo conceded dryly. “But what about Mia?”

“Miss MacIver? What can she tell? Aren’t you forgetting, Cosmo, that I rescued her from you. Yes sir. What’s more, I’ve captured you, and I’m turning you over to the officials.” His eyes twinkled. “Who’s she going to tell, anyway?”

Cosmo’s lean visage was unreadable. So that, he thought, was the line Bemmelman planned to take. Only Mia MacIver would never be released. He wondered if the planter really considered him such a fool. He said: “You don’t give me much choice,” and twisted to his feet. He hobbled to the desk, dropped awkwardly into the chair. “Give me pen and paper.”

Bemmelman produced writing material, spread them before him.

“Here’s the Cloud Mountains.” Hindered by the manacles, Cosmo sketched a chain of hills, indicated north with a crude compass. He placed a dot halfway into the mountains, then laid off a line from the dot running diagonally into the most rugged sector. He shoved the paper across to Bemmelman. “The first dot’s the Ormoo’s nest. You know where it is?”

Bemmelman nodded, wrote “Ormoo’s nest” on the map.

Cosmo closed his eyes, sighed faintly. “The mountains are impassable except by plane, and then its all blind flying. Rise to an altitude of four thousand meters. You’ll clear any peaks that way. Starting at the Ormoo’s nest, fly due North, Northwest for a distance of ninety-three kilometers.” He paused.

Only the scrape of Bemmelman’s pen could be heard as the planter wrote the directions on the bottom of the map.

“Drop straight into the valley,” Cosmo went on as the pen scratching ceased. “It’s narrow, a canyon. The floor of the valley is at an altitude of one thousand, seven hundred meters, so you’ll be in clouds all the time. It’s tricky navigating.”

Bemmelman stopped writing, waved the paper dry. Then he folded it, put it away in the wall safe, behind the sliding panel. “This had better be right,” he said ominously.

Cosmo, opening his eyes, said: “It’s right. I’ve been there a dozen times. The first time the bird carried me there accidentally before he was well trained.”

“Good.” Bemmelman glanced at his watch. “Now Cosmo, we’ll lay a trap for those men of yours. Yes sir. They should be along any minute. How many have you?”

“Nine.” Again Cosmo emitted a faint sigh. “What do you want me to do?” He realized that Mia and Llana both were staring at him with distaste. Only the Blue Venus seemed untouched.

“You can’t betray your men!” Mia burst out.

Cosmo’s face hardened. He said, “Can you suggest a better way?”

“You’re a sensible man, Cosmo, a sensible man.” The planter rubbed his hands together triumphantly. He snapped on the intercommunicating telecast on the glassite desk, said into it: “Rabaul!”

“Right,” came the voice from the audio.

“That was good work with the gas tubes, Rabaul.”

“You can thank Llana,” came the voice of the overseer from the audio. Cosmo recognized the sibilant accent of a Martian. “She gave the alarm.”

Bemmelman grunted. “Take twenty Jovians,” he said, “and a dozen serfs. Arm the serfs with Ray Rifles. Hide them about the roof. The Renegade’s men will try to land shortly and I’d like to prepare a welcome for ’em.”

“Right,” came Rabaul’s voice.

The planter switched off the telecast. He looked at Cosmo, smiled, said: “Whistle ’em down, Cosmo, that’s all. My Jovians will take care of the rest.”

“It’s daylight,” said the Blue Venus with an air of childish surprise. She was looking out the windows.

Cosmo was aware of the heat, all at once. It curled about him like a steaming towel. He looked at Mia. There were circles under her eyes. Her hair was tangled, her tunic in threads. “Poor kid,” he said.

Bemmelman glanced at his watch. “Your men should be up in the clouds now, waiting? Eh, Cosmo?”

Cosmo said: “They’ll be up there.”

“We’ll give them another hour,” said Bemmelman, “to be on the safe side.” He rang for a servant, ordered breakfast served in the office.

They picked at their food listlessly when it arrived. Bemmelman kept glancing at his watch. At length, he stood up, turned to the slave girl. “Call the Security Patrol, Llana.”

Cosmo frowned, but said nothing.

“What should I tell them?” asked Llana snapping on the telecast.

“Get hold of the Commissioner. Tell him we’ve caught the Renegade.” He chuckled amiably. “That should make him sit up. Yes sir. Tell him to get right out here, though, because the Renegade’s men are trying to rescue him.”

A girl’s features, horsefaced, blonde, formed on the screen. “Venusport Security Patrol,” she said.

“The Commissioner,” said Llana. “This is the Bemmelman plantation calling.”

The screen blanked out as the horsefaced girl switched to the Commissioner’s office. In a moment, the fat face and shoulders of the Commissioner blotted out half the screen. His eyes were puffy. His jowls sagged. He looked as if he were suffering from a hangover.

“Well?” he asked.

“We’ve captured the Renegade.”

“What?” His eyes snapped open.

“We’ve got the Renegade here at the plantation. But hurry! His men are trying to rescue him. Please hurry!”

“I’m on my way!”

The Commissioner leaped out of vision forgetting to shut off the telecast. They could hear his bull-like voice roaring orders. Llana snapped off the machine, turned indifferently to the windows.

Bemmelman chuckled, said, “Keep your eyes on Miss MacIver, Llana. Don’t let Sofi go galavanting around either.” He took the chains off Cosmo’s ankles, but left his hands manacled. Next he went to his desk, took out a dart gun. He said, “Come along,” to Cosmo and led the way into the corridor.

They didn’t go through the trap this time, but up in the tower where a door gave directly onto the flat roof. Cosmo saw that the chamber just inside the door was jammed with naked blue giants and Venusian serfs.

A tall, black eyed Martian, foppishly dressed in spite of the heat came to meet them. He wrinkled his nose at the stale odor of sweat already thick in the room, picked his way through the men.

“I didn’t deploy them on the roof,” he said in the sibilant accent of the Red Planet, “because there’s no cover. They’d be spotted at once. They can rush the Renegade’s men through the door.” He examined Cosmo curiously.

Bemmelman rubbed his hands together, said: “That’s right, Rabaul. Yes sir, I’m glad you thought of that.” He glanced through the door at the low swirling cloud mass, then turned back to Cosmo. “Get out on the roof. Whistle ’em down. No tricks, now.”

Cosmo stepped through the door into the hot, dim daylight. He glanced aloft, put two fingers in his mouth, whistled loudly. He had trouble managing the cuffs, but he blew again and again.

His eyes swept the heavens, but no sign of bird or plane appeared through the veiling clouds.

“What’s wrong?” called Bemmelman in a low nervous voice.

Cosmo shook his head. He put his fingers back in his mouth, whistled until he was red in the face. He might as well have whistled for a wind.

Bemmelman stamped out of the tower. He scoured the low roof of clouds, an ominous glitter in his pig-like eyes.

“Where are they?”

“You know as much about it as I do.” Cosmo shrugged. “They’re not there or they’d come down.”

“If you’re tricking me….”

“How the hell would I be tricking you?” Cosmo asked irritably. “You heard me give my orders over the telecast. They’re not there, that’s all. And I’m damn glad they’re not!”

The planter continued to stare at him suspiciously. Cosmo could feel his plan hanging precariously in the balance, then Bemmelman said: “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. They can be rounded up later. The Security Patrol will be here any moment.” He shoved Cosmo ahead of him into the tower.

Cosmo let his breath escape evenly. He could feel little beads of sweat on his forehead.

The red-faced planter slipped the dart gun out of his pocket. “Rabaul,” he ordered grumpily; “Get the men back to their quarters.”

The Martian elevated his eyebrows, but Bemmelman vouchsafed no explanation. The planter watched his overseer herd the men down the stair, then turned to Cosmo as the last of the Jovians were disappearing. The dart gun dangled in his fist at his side. His eyes were mean.

“Get a move on,” he said sharply.

“All right,” said Cosmo. He was right beside the planter.

In that instant Bemmelman sensed danger. His eyes widened. He tried to whip up the dart gun. Then Cosmo’s manacles smashed the planter along side the head.

It was a terrible blow. The red-faced slave breeder caved to the floor as if his bones had turned to jelly. For a moment, Cosmo thought he’d killed him. He stooped, found Bemmelman’s pulse. It was weak but steady. Grim-lipped, he leaped back to the roof.

Cursing his manacles, Cosmo fumbled a whistle from his pocket. He wet his lips, blew. As the time he’d summoned the Ormoo to carry off Mia, the high shrill note was inaudible to human ears.

Bemmelman, Cosmo thought grimly, had been a bit too clever. The planter had heard him say whistle over the telecast. It hadn’t occurred to him that the Ormoo might be trained only to notes in the higher register.

He glanced aloft. The cloud blanket began to boil suddenly. Then the Ormoo plummeted soundlessly to the roof. Big Unse, the blue star of the Fozoql caste tattooed on his yellow forehead, his face split by a grin, leaped silently from its back.

The bird stretched out its beak, rubbed it against Cosmo’s leg.

“Quick!” said Big Unse. “On to the bird. We’ll be spotted in a minute.”

Cosmo shook his head, watching a surface plane nose cautiously down from the clouds. “There’s a girl below stairs.”

Big Unse scowled in disgust. “Why,” he asked practically, “do you have to have that particular one?”

The surface plane came to rest lightly beside the Ormoo. The door was flung open and eight men piled out, weapons in their hands. There was no word spoken. Five were swarthy Venusian serfs. There was the yellow eyed Mercurian, bland, smiling unarmed. There was Natal, the traitorous Martian, and the blue Jovian.

“We’re going to get a girl,” said Big Unse.

Cosmo slapped the Ormoo on the side. It launched itself silently into the air. “The plane won’t be noticed,” he said; “but that bird would catch the eye of a dead man.” He nodded toward the tower. Like wolves they followed him silently inside.

“The manacles.” Cosmo’s voice was low as he held out his arms. “Bemmelman has the key.”

Big Unse dropped beside the unconscious planter. He dug out the key, unlocked Cosmo’s wrists.

“Put them on Bemmelman,” said Cosmo. As soon as the planter was securely cuffed, he said, “pick him up. Bring him along.”

They crept down the stairs, fanned out like hunting dogs. Without appearing to do so, Cosmo kept Natal, the spy, under observation. They reached the corridor, started for the office. A serf came out of a bisecting passage. He saw them, drew back, tried to yell. Two of the Venusians were on him like tigers. They clamped a hand over his mouth, held him so that he couldn’t wriggle.

Cosmo said, “Bring him along too.”

Big Unse put his face down close to the serf’s, said, “Don’t cry out, or by the star on my forehead, I’ll skin you alive.”

The serf’s eyes rolled. He nodded vigorously trying to convey his absolute willingness to cooperate.

There was a faint amused gleam in Cosmo’s eyes. He paused before the office, then slid the panel back.

Mia and the Blue Venus, still manacled, stumbled to their feet. Llana, the slave woman jerked around from the windows, her jaw dropping. Then she bit her lip, glanced at the button on the glassite desk.

“Stay away from the desk, Llana,” Cosmo admonished her. He stood aside, allowed his men to file into the office. They deposited Bemmelman on the sofa. Cosmo saw that Natal was safely inside, shut the door. At his nod, Big Unse unlocked both the girls.

Mia said: “But … but….” Then a look of fright wiped away the relief on her wide gray eyes. “The Security Patrol! Cosmo, they’ll be here any moment! Please Cosmo, don’t let them catch you!”

The buzzer on the telecast began to sound.

“It’s too late.” Cosmo smiled grimly. “I’ve a hunch that’s the Security Patrol now.” He turned to the Terran slave girl, said: “Llana, string along with me, and I’ll promise that both you and your daughter are provided with passage to Earth.”

The telecast continued to buzz impatiently.

“My daughter!” The slave girl clapped her hand to her mouth. “You know.”

“I’ve suspected,” he corrected her. “There’s a resemblance. So Sofi really is your daughter.”

Mia looked from the Blue Venus to Llana in bewilderment. There didn’t seem to be over five years difference in their ages. “It’s … it’s impossible!” she blurted out.

The Blue Venus smiled enigmatically.

Cosmo said: “I thought, Llana, that Sofi was the hold Bemmelman had over you.”

At mention of the planter’s name Llana stiffened. “He’ll kill Sofi if I betray him!”

Cosmo shook his head.

“You haven’t any evidence against him,” she insisted. “Even if you had, they wouldn’t believe the Renegade.”

“Exactly,” said Cosmo. “Answer the telecast, Llana.”

Her face set. She went to the audio, switched it on.

“The Security Patrol is here,” came Rabaul’s voice. “What shall I do with them?”

Llana glanced deadfaced at Cosmo, who said in an undertone: “Tell him to send the Commissioner here. Have his men served with refreshments.”

She repeated the orders tonelessly into the telecast.

“Right,” said Rabaul. The instrument went dead.

Cosmo went behind the glassite desk, sat down. He leveled his dart gun straight at Natal, the Martian.

“Natal,” he said in a cold manner. “Bemmelman sold you down the river. He told me you were his spy.”

The Martian blanched, but his black eyes were hard as marbles. “I should have guessed the pig would betray me.”

“Get his gun, Big Unse,” said Cosmo.

The Fozoql catfooted behind the Martian, relieved him of his weapon.

“Follow my lead,” said Cosmo to Natal, concealing the dart gun up his sleeve. “Because, so help me, if you don’t, you’re a dead Martian.”

Natal nodded, stiff faced but willing.

Bemmelman groaned, sat up. He regarded the scene in disbelief. Then his little pig eyes narrowed. He didn’t say anything and Cosmo ignored him.

There was a knock on the door.

“That’s the Commissioner,” said Cosmo. “Let him in, Big Unse.”

Mia looked wretched, frightened. “No,” she said and bit her lip to stifle the rest of the protest.

Big Unse slid back the panel.

The fat commissioner waddled inside. He was even fatter than he appeared over the visoscreen. He bulged in his clothes like a sausage.

“Well, Hal,” he began in a hearty voice, “you lucky dog. The fifty thou….” The words stuck in his throat. He stared at the hard faced green eyed man behind the desk, at Bemmelman in irons. He revolved slowly, taking in the silent men about the walls, the three girls. “Wh-what’s this?” He sputtered, but there was a sick, frightened look in his eyes. “Where’s the Renegade?”

“There he is, Commissioner,” replied Cosmo dryly. “All done up in irons.” He pointed at Bemmelman lying manacled on the sofa.

VIII

Bemmelman was the first to recover his voice. His neck swelled. He laughed hoarsely. “Nobody’s fool enough to believe I’m the Renegade, Cosmo.”

“You’re crazy, young man,” the Commissioner burst out as he caught his breath. “If this is a joke, it’s in remarkably poor taste.”

“It’s no joke.” Cosmo’s eyes hardened.

“You lying rogue,” Bemmelman shouted. “This has gone far enough. There’s your Renegade, Commissioner.”

“Keep him quiet, Big Unse,” said Cosmo softly, “until I finish. He can talk his head off then.”

Big Unse doubled his fist, shook it in Bemmelman’s face. The planter subsided, but a cunning gleam winked in his little brown eyes.

The Commissioner drew a handkerchief from his pocket, dabbed at his forehead. He sank into a chair with a groan. “Talk fast, young man,” he said. “And it had better be good.” He eyed Cosmo with obvious distrust.

Cosmo took a moisture-proof cigarette case from his pocket, snapped it open. “I realize, Commissioner, this must be quite a shock. Bemmelman’s been powerful in politics. He has allies in high places. But when they learn he’s the Renegade, they’ll be the first to disown him.” He took a cigarette out of the case, eyed it critically, put it back. “Even rats,” he added, glancing up at the Commissioner, “have sense enough to leave a sinking ship.”

“Um,” said the Commissioner. He looked discomfited, shot a sly glance at the manacled planter.

Bemmelman started to roar a protest, but Big Unse grinned, shook his hammer-like fist in his face.

“I’d better sketch in his background,” said Cosmo judicially. “He was an organic chemist on Earth, but got involved in a forgery case. He next showed up smuggling Jovian primitives to Venus. The T.I.S. got on his trail, but they were never able to pin anything on him.”

“How do you know all this?” the Commissioner asked.

“You don’t need to take my word. It’s all in the records. You can investigate them yourself.”

“Um,” said the Commissioner again and dabbed at his forehead. He purposefully avoided Bemmelman’s eye.

Cosmo glanced at Mia who was regarding him in sheer amazement. He smiled at her, said: “Bemmelman figured it’d be safer to breed slaves here on Venus rather than run the risk of capture by the Empire’s Patrol Spacers. But he found that land on Venus can’t be bought except in rare cases.” He paused, looked at the apoplectic slave breeder.

“Bemmelman murdered my father having first provided himself with forged notes to the plantation. You’ll remember, he was mixed up with a forgery case on Earth.”

“Wh-why,” the Commissioner sputtered indignantly, “that’s preposterous.”

“Here are the notes.” Cosmo pulled two packets of papers from his pocket, tossed them to the Commissioner’s lap. “You’ll find notes for old MacIver’s plantation there, too. Bemmelman had decided to grab it off too.”

The fat Commissioner examined them curiously.

“They’re good,” said Cosmo. “But it won’t be too hard to prove they’re forgeries.”

The Commissioner rustled the papers. “But what’s all this to do with the Renegade? I came out here to collar him, not rattle old bones.”

Cosmo pointed his right hand lazily at Natal, the Martian spy. It was the arm with the dart gun up its sleeve. Natal blanched.

“Ask him,” said Cosmo blandly. “He’s one of the Renegade’s men.”

Everyone stared at the Martian.

“Well?” thundered the Commissioner.

“Natal wanted to quit. Bemmelman had tried to sell him out.” Cosmo subtly reminded the Martian of the planter’s treachery. “He came to me.”

“Why to you?” the Commissioner wanted to know.

“He knew I was trying to prove Bemmelman murdered my father and mother and stole my plantation.” Cosmo shrugged, added in a pointed tone. “I told him that if he would—ah—share his information with you, Commissioner, that the two of you could split the fifty thousand monad reward. I’d be satisfied with regaining my plantation.”

The fat Commissioner’s eyes shone with cupidity. He and the astounded Martian exchanged glances.

Bemmelman, who hadn’t missed this by-play, roared and half flung himself from the sofa.

“He’s trying to frame me!”

The Commissioner regarded Bemmelman with a frown. Then he turned away, asked in a changed voice: “Will Natal go on the witness stand?”

“Go ahead, Natal,” said Cosmo.

Natal ran the tip of his tongue over his thin lips. He gave Bemmelman a venomous glance, said: “He’s the Renegade all right. We holed up in the Cloud Mountains. Bemmelman gave us our orders, for the most part, over a special frequency radio phone. He never let anyone here on the plantation guess he was the Renegade. He played a dual role.”

“A Jekyll and Hyde role,” interposed Cosmo smoothly.

“Lies! Lies!” shouted Bemmelman.

The Commissioner ignored him, kept his eyes on Natal. “You can show us the hideout?”

“Certainly.”

“What about the other men.”

“They escaped,” Cosmo interposed, quickly.

“Um,” said the Commissioner. He didn’t appear anxious to pursue that line.

“Natal’s not the only witness,” said Cosmo. He pointed at Mia. “The Renegade kidnapped Miss MacIver. She tried to reach you by telecast.”

“She did!” The Commissioner enthusiastically smacked his right fist in his left palm. “By heaven, she did! But when my men got there, he’d gotten away with her.”

“I don’t think she’ll object to taking the witness stand either,” said Cosmo in a thoughtful voice. “After all, Bemmelman murdered her father.”

“No.” Mia’s voice was so low that the Commissioner had to bend forward to hear her. “No. I won’t mind being a witness. Bemmelman kidnapped me.”

“I didn’t kidnap her. I rescued her from the Renegade.” The sweat was pouring from the planter’s forehead.

The girl’s head jerked up. She said in a ringing voice, “Then how do you explain this?” and exposed the brand on her shoulder.

The Commissioner’s eyes started from their sockets.

“You might call the head overseer and check on Bemmelman’s movements,” suggested Cosmo.

The Commissioner nodded.

Llana switched on the telecast. “Rabaul,” she said, “the Commissioner wants you in the office.”

“Right,” came the voice of the Martian.

“There’s the safe, too,” said Cosmo.

The Commissioner heaved himself from his chair, waddled across to Bemmelman.

“What’s the combination, Hal?”

The planter’s little eyes were bloodshot. Obscenity burst from his mouth.

A laugh rumbled up from the Commissioner’s belly, shook all three of his chins. “You’re done for, Hal. What’s the combination?”

Grudgingly Bemmelman told him. “But you won’t find anything there,” he added vindictively. “I’m going to sink you.”

Cosmo opened the safe, waved the Commissioner forward to investigate.

“Um,” said the Commissioner in disappointment, leafing through the papers. “Maybe we can dig something incriminating out of this mess. I don’t know. Hey! What’s this?” He held up the paper upon which Bemmelman had written the directions for reaching the Ormoo’s feeding ground. “Looks like a map!”

“It is a map,” replied Cosmo grimly. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t the location of the loot from the plantations Bemmelman’s men have raided.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” snapped the excited Commissioner.

The Martian overseer stalked into the office, glanced about him in surprise.

“Tell these fools I’m not the Renegade!” Bemmelman roared.

Rabaul regarded his employer blankly. “You’re certainly not the Renegade so far as I know.”

“Of course not,” interrupted the Commissioner. “We don’t expect you to be able to identify him. We only want to ask you a few questions.”

The Martian pursed his lips, shrugged. “Anything I know, Commissioner.”

“Where was Bemmelman yesterday morning?”

“I don’t know.” The Martian overseer looked surprised. “He left in his surface plane in the direction of the MacIver plantation.”

“Alone?”

Rabaul nodded.

“Um. Has he ever received messages from the Cloud Mountains? Radio calls?”

“Yes,” admitted Rabaul grudgingly. “Though I can’t tell you what they’re about. I’ve instructions to call him immediately when the call signals come through. He takes them personally.”

“Have you ever known him to make trips into the mountains?”

Again the Martian nodded. “Yes. He’s made expeditions into them after botanical specimens, I believe.”

“We got him!” said the Commissioner and Cosmo could see him counting his half of the reward. “That map is the most damning evidence of all. It’s in his handwriting, isn’t it?”

“You can have it checked,” said Cosmo complacently. “But there’s one thing more.”

“Eh?”

“Motive.”

Cosmo’s face hardened. “Slaves aren’t cattle. After Bemmelman started his slave farm he couldn’t expect profits for eighteen years. He needed money, lots of money to carry on certain experiments. He was an organic chemist. He believed it possible to force humans the same way a gardener forces plants. An aging process isn’t a new idea, but it took Bemmelman to find a commercial use for it.”

“It fits like a glove,” said the Commissioner, “but how do you know about the experiment?”

“I can tell you about the experiments,” interposed Llana suddenly.

Everyone stared at her.

She bit her lip. “I’m a Terran. He—he kidnapped me, mated me with a Dawn Man as an experiment. Sofi is my daughter.”

“Not a bad experiment,” said the Commissioner admiringly. His eyes ran over the Blue Venus.

“That was only the beginning!” said Llana. “I found out he’s got a laboratory below stairs where he’s constantly experimenting with the slave children. He’s obsessed with the scheme of maturing the children quicker so that he can reap faster profits. Bemmelman is a monster.”

“Go on,” said the Commissioner eagerly.

“He—he succeeded at last.”

“What do you mean?”

Llana pointed at the Blue Venus. “Sofi,” she said in a low voice. “Sofi is only seven years old!”

Absolute silence gripped the room.

“You’ll swear to that?” asked the Commissioner at length.

“Of course. Half the serfs in the house know her age anyway.”

“We’ve got him,” cried the Commissioner jubilantly. “We’ve got him dead to rights.”

“It’s a frame up,” shouted Bemmelman in despair. “A dirty frame up, I tell you.”

Cosmo regarded the planter with opaque green eyes. “Save your breath, Bemmelman,” he counseled him dryly. “No one’s going to believe the Renegade—remember?”

From the flat roof of the manor house, Cosmo and Mia watched the Security Patrol planes take off one by one for Venusport. The head overseer was to take charge of the plantation until the courts confirmed Cosmo’s claims. Llana and Sofi planned to visit Earth after Bemmelman’s trial.

Cosmo had taken Big Unse aside, sent him off secretly with the men to destroy any evidence in their hideout. They were to return to the plantation. “I want the lot of you under my eyes,” Cosmo had explained with a grin, “where you won’t be tempted to raid my plantation.”

As the last of the Patrol Planes rose from the roof, Cosmo turned to Mia. “That’s finis for the Renegade!”

“Bemmelman isn’t the Renegade, really?” said Mia, half in doubt. “Is he?”

“Maybe not the Renegade,” grinned Cosmo, “but he’s certainly a renegade.”

Mia gulped suddenly, said, “The map! Good heavens! What will the Commissioner do when he doesn’t find anything but bird food?”

“Bird food, the devil,” Cosmo said dryly. “I haven’t the remotest idea where the Ormoos feed. That map will lead him straight to the spot where I’ve hidden every stick of loot I’ve—ah—accumulated.” He pulled the Ormoo’s whistle from his pocket.

Mia eyed it in alarm. “What are you going to do?”

“Take you to Venusport.” He blew twice on the whistle. “We’re going before the registrar today!”

“But Cosmo. Not on that—that monstrosity. I refuse to do it. I won’t go.” There was a disturbance in the cloud blanket directly overhead. A huge gray shape plunged Venusward. “Besides,” she added in haste; “I can’t go to Venusport like this—can I?”

“We’ll stop by your plantation, spruce up a bit.”

The Ormoo lit with a thud. It gave a pleased raucous squawk, eyed them with amiable red-brown eyes.

“Oh well,” said Mia between her teeth. “I might as well get used to traveling on the darn thing, I suppose.”