Lance Kenniston felt the cold realization of failure as he came out of th_uilding into the sharp chill of the Martian night. He stood for a moment, hi_ean, drawn face haggard in the light of the two hurtling moons.
He looked hopelessly across the dark spaceport. It was a large one, for thi_ncient town of Syrtis was the main port of Mars. The forked light of th_lying moons showed many ships docked on the tarmac—a big liner, severa_reighters, a small, shining cruiser and other small craft. And for lack o_ne of those ships, his hopes were ruined!
A squat, brawny figure in shapeless space-jacket came to Kenniston's side. I_as Holk Or, the Jovian who had been waiting for him.
"What luck?" asked the Jovian in a rumbling whisper.
"It's hopeless," Kenniston answered heavily. "There isn't a small cruiser t_e had at any price. The meteor-miners buy up all small ships here."
"The devil!" muttered Holk Or, dismayed. "What are we going to do? Go on t_arth and get a cruiser there?"
"We can't do that," Kenniston answered. "You know we've got to get back t_hat asteroid within two weeks. We've got to get a ship here."
Desperation made Kenniston's voice taut. His lean, hard face was bleak wit_nowledge of disastrous failure.
The big Jovian scratched his head. In the shifting moonslight his battere_reen face expressed ignorant perplexity as he stared across the bus_paceport.
"That shiny little cruiser there would be just the thing," Holk Or muttered, looking at the gleaming, torpedo-shaped craft nearby. "It would hold all th_tuff we've got to take; and with robot controls we two could run it."
"We haven't a chance to get that craft," Kenniston told him. "I found out tha_t's under charter to a bunch of rich Earth youngsters who came out here in i_or a pleasure cruise. A girl named Loring, heiress to Loring Radium, is th_ead of the party."
The Jovian swore. "Just the ship we need, and a lot of spoiled kids are usin_t for thrill-hunting!"
Kenniston had an idea. "It might be," he said slowly, "that they're tired o_he cruise by this time and would sell us the craft. I think I'll go up to th_erra Hotel and see this Loring girl."
"Sure, let's try it anyway," Holk Or agreed.
The Earthman looked at him anxiously. "Oughtn't you to keep under cover, Holk?
The Planet Patrol has had your record on file for a long time. If you happene_o be recognized—"
"Bah, they think I'm dead, don't they?" scoffed the Jovian. "There's no dange_f us getting picked up."
Kenniston was not so sure, but he was too driven by urgent need to waste tim_n argument. With the Jovian clumping along beside him, he made his way fro_he spaceport across the ancient Martian city.
The dark streets of old Syrtis were not crowded. Martians are not a nocturna_eople and only a few were abroad in the chill darkness, even they bein_rapped in heavy synthewool cloaks from which only their bald red heads an_olemn, cadaverous faces protruded.
Earthmen were fairly numerous in this main port of the planet. Swaggerin_pace-sailors, prosperous-looking traders and rough meteor-miners made up th_ost of them. There were a few tourists gaping at the grotesque old blac_tone buildings, and under a krypton-bulb at a corner, two men in the dra_niform of the Patrol stood eyeing passersby sharply. Kenniston breathed mor_asily when he and the Jovian had passed the two officers without challenge.
The Terra Hotel stood in a garden at the edge of town, fronting the moonli_mmensity of the desert. This glittering glass block, especially built t_ater to the tourist trade from Earth, was Earth-conditioned inside. It_ravitation, air pressure and humidity were ingeniously maintained at Eart_tandards for the greater comfort of its patrons.
Kenniston felt oddly oppressed by the warm, soft air inside the resplenden_obby. He had spent so much of his time away from Earth that he had becom_ore or less adapted to thinner, colder atmospheres.
"Miss Gloria Loring?" repeated the immaculate young Earthman behind th_nformation desk. His eyes appraised Kenniston's shabby space-jacket and th_ulking green Jovian. "I am afraid—"
"I'm here to see her on important business, by appointment," Kennisto_napped.
The clerk melted at once. "Oh, I see! I believe that Miss Loring's party i_ow in The Bridge. That's our cocktail room—top floor."
Kenniston felt badly out of place, riding up in the magnetic lift with Hol_r. The other people in the car, Earthmen and women in the shimmerin_ynthesilks of the latest formal dress, stared at him and the Jovian as thoug_ondering how they had ever gained admittance.
The lights, silks and perfumes made Kenniston feel even shabbier than he was.
All this luxury was a far cry from the hard, dangerous life he had led for s_ong amid the wild asteroids and moons of the outer planets.
It was worse up in the glittering cocktail room atop the hotel. The place ha_lassite walls and ceiling, and was designed to give an impression of th_avigating bridge of a space-ship. The orchestra played behind a phon_ontrol-board of instruments and rocket-controls. Meaningless space-chart_ung on the walls for decoration. It was just the sort of pretentious sham, Kenniston thought contemptuously, to appeal to tourists.
"Some crowd!" muttered Holk Or, looking over the tables of richly dressed an_ewelled people. His small eyes gleamed. "What a place to loot!"
"Shut up!" Kenniston muttered hastily. He asked a waiter for the Loring party, and was conducted to a table in a corner.
There were a half dozen people at the table, most of them young Earthmen an_irls. They were drinking pink Martian desert-wine, except for one sulky- looking youngster who had stuck to Earth whisky.
One of the girls turned and looked at Kenniston with cool, insolentl_ninterested gaze when the waiter whispered to her politely.
"I'm Gloria Loring," she drawled. "What did you want to see me about?"
She was dark and slim, and surprisingly young. There were almost childis_ines to the bare shoulders revealed by her low golden gown. Her thoroughbre_race and beauty were spoiled for Kenniston by the bored look in her clea_ark eyes and the faintly disdainful droop of her mouth.
The chubby, rosy youth beside her goggled in simulated amazement and terror a_he battered green Jovian behind Kenniston. He set down his glass with _heatrical gesture of horror.
"This Martian liquor has got me!" he exclaimed. "I can see a little gree_an!"
Holk Or started wrathfully forward. "Why, that young pup—"
Kenniston hastily restrained him with a gesture. He turned back to the table.
Some of the girls were giggling.
"Be quiet, Robbie," Gloria Loring was telling the chubby young comedian. Sh_urned her cool gaze back to Kenniston. "Well?"
"Miss Loring, I heard down at the spaceport that you are the charterer of tha_mall cruiser, the _Sunsprite_ ," Kenniston explained. "I need a craft lik_hat very badly. If you would part with her, I'd be glad to pay almost an_rice for your charter."
The girl looked at him in astonishment. "Why in the world should I let yo_ave our cruiser?"
Kenniston said earnestly, "Your party could travel just as well and a lot mor_omfortably by liner. And getting a cruiser like that is a life-or-deat_usiness for me right now."
"I'm not interested in your business, Mr. Kenniston," drawled Gloria Loring.
"And I certainly don't propose to alter our plans just to help a stranger ou_f his difficulties."
Kenniston flushed from the cool rebuke. He stood there, suddenly feeling _avage dislike for the whole pampered group of them.
"Beside that," the girl continued, "we chose the cruiser for this trip becaus_e wanted to get off the beaten track of liner routes, and see something new.
We're going from here out to Jupiter's moons."
Kenniston perceived that these bored, spoiled youngsters were out here huntin_or new thrills on the interplanetary frontier. His dislike of them increased.
A clean-cut, sober-faced young man who seemed older and more serious than th_est of the party, was speaking to the heiress.
"Unhardened space-travellers like us are likely to get hit by gravitatio_aralysis out in the outer planets, Gloria," he was saying to the heiress. "_on't think we ought to go farther out than Mars."
Gloria looked at him mockingly. "If you're scared, Hugh, why did you leav_our nice safe office on Earth and come along with us?"
The chubby youth called Robbie laughed loudly. "We all know why Hugh Murdoc_ame along. It's not thrills he wants—it's you, Gloria."
They were all ignoring Kenniston now. He felt that he had been dismissed bu_e was desperately reluctant to lose his last hope of getting a ship. Someho_e _must_ get that cruiser!
A stratagem occurred to him. If these spoiled scions wouldn't give up thei_hip, at least he might induce them to go where he wanted.
Kenniston hesitated. It would mean leading them all into the deadliest kind o_eril. But a man's life depended on it. A man who was worth all these ric_oung wastrels put together. He decided to try it.
"Miss Loring, if it's thrills you're after, maybe I can furnish them,"
Kenniston said. "Maybe we can team up on this. How would you like to go on _oyage after the biggest treasure in the System?"
"Treasure?" exclaimed the heiress surprisedly. "Where is it?"
They were all leaning forward, with quick interest. Kenniston saw that hi_ait had caught them.
"You've heard of John Dark, the notorious space-pirate?" he asked.
Gloria nodded. "Of course. The telenews was full of his exploits until th_atrol caught and destroyed his ship a few weeks ago."
Kenniston corrected her. "The Patrol caught up to John Dark's ship in th_steroid, but didn't completely destroy it. They gunned the pirate craft to _reck in a running fight. But Dark's wrecked ship drifted into a dangerou_one of meteor swarms where they couldn't follow."
"I remember now—that's what the telenews said," conceded the heiress. "Bu_ark and his crew were undoubtedly killed, they said."
"John Dark," Kenniston went on, "looted scores of ships during his career. H_massed a hoard of jewels and precious metals. And he kept it right with hi_n his ship. That treasure's still in that lost wreck."
"How do you know?" asked Hugh Murdock bluntly.
"Because I found the lost wreck of Dark's ship myself," Kenniston answered. H_ated to lie like this, but knew that he had no choice.
He plunged on. "I'm a meteor-miner by profession. Two weeks ago my Jovia_artner and I were prospecting in the outer asteroid zone in our littl_ocket. Our air-tanks got low and to replenish them, we landed on the asteroi_esta. That's the big asteroid they call the World with a Thousand Moons, because it's circled by a swarm of hundreds of meteors.
"It's a weird, jungled little world, inhabited by some very queer forms o_ife. In landing, my partner and I noticed where some great object had crashe_own into the jungle. We discovered it was the wreck of John Dark's ship. Th_reck had drifted until it crashed on Vesta, almost completely burying itsel_n the ground. No one was alive on it, of course."
Kenniston concluded. "We knew Dark's treasure must still be in the burie_reck. But it would take machinery and equipment to dig out the wreck. So w_ame here to Mars, intending to get a small cruiser, load it with th_ecessary equipment, and go back to Vesta and lift the treasure. Only w_aven't been able to get a ship of any kind."
He leaned toward the girl. "Here's my proposition, Miss Loring. You take u_nd our equipment to Vesta in your cruiser, and we'll share the treasure wit_ou fifty-fifty. What do you say?"
The blonde girl beside Gloria uttered a squeal of excitement. "Pirat_reasure! Gloria, let's do it—what a thrill it would be!"
The others showed equal excitement. The romance of a treasure hunt in the wil_steroids lured them, rather than the possible rewards.
"We'd certainly be able to take back a wonderful story to Earth if we foun_ohn Dark's treasure," admitted Gloria, with quick, eager interest.
Hugh Murdock was an exception to the general enthusiasm. He asked Kenniston,
"How do you know the treasure's still in the buried wreck?"
"Because the wreck was still undisturbed," Kenniston answered. "And because w_ound these jewels on the body of one of John Dark's crew, who had been flun_lear somehow when the wreck crashed."
He held out a half-dozen gems he took from his pocket. They were Saturnia_oon-stones, softly shining white jewels whose brilliance waxed and waned i_erfect periodic rhythm.
"These jewels," Kenniston said, "must have been that pirate's share of th_oot. You can imagine how rich John Dark's own hoard must be."
The jewels, worth many thousands, swept away the lingering incredulity of th_thers as Kenniston had known they would.
"You're sure no one else knows the wreck is there?" Gloria asked breathlessly.
"We kept our find absolutely secret," Kenniston told her. "But since I can'_et a ship any other way, I'm willing to share the hoard with you. If I wai_oo long, someone else may find the wreck."
"I accept your proposition, Mr. Kenniston!" Gloria declared. "We'll start fo_esta just as soon as you can get the equipment you'll need loaded on th_Sunsprite_."
"Gloria, you're being too hasty," protested Hugh Murdock. "I've heard of thi_orld with a Thousand Moons. There're stories of queer, unhuman creatures the_all Vestans, who infest that asteroid. The danger—"
Gloria impatiently dismissed his objections. "Hugh, if you are going to star_orrying about dangers again, you'd better go back to Earth and safety."
Murdock flushed and was silent. Kenniston felt a certain sympathy for th_oung businessman. He knew, if these others did not, just how real was th_lien menace of those strange creatures, the Vestans.
"I'll go right down to the spaceport and see about loading the equipmen_board your cruiser," Kenniston told the heiress. "You'd better give me a not_o your captain. We ought to be able to start tomorrow."
"Pirate treasure on an unexplored asteroid!" exulted the enthusiastic Robbie.
"Ho for the World with a Thousand Moons!"
Kenniston felt guilty when he and Holk Or left the big hotel. Thes_oungsters, he thought, hadn't the faintest idea of the peril into which h_as leading them. They were as ignorant as babies of the dark evil an_nearthly danger of the interplanetary frontier.
He hardened himself against the qualms of conscience. There was that at stake, he told himself fiercely, against which the safety of a lot of spoiled, ric_oung people was absolutely nothing.
Holk Or was chuckling as they emerged into the chill Martian night. He tol_enniston admiringly, "That was one of the smoothest jobs of lying I eve_eard, that story about finding John Dark's treasure. Take it from me, it wa_lick!"
The Jovian guffawed loudly as he added, "What would their faces be like i_hey knew that John Dark and his crew are still living? That it was John Dar_imself who sent us here?"
"Be quiet, you idiot!" ordered Kenniston hastily. "Do you want the whol_atrol to hear you?"