Kenniston caught desperately at the hope implied by the Jovian's words.
"What do you mean, Holk?"
"I mean that I'm a hundred times stronger on this little asteroid than I am o_y own world, Jupiter. I can break the bolt of that door any time I want to."
"But there's an armed guard stationed outside it."
"I know, and that's where you come in, Kenniston. When I rip the door open, you be ready to jump the guard."
Kenniston considered swiftly. The chance of their getting out of the ship an_afely through the jungles to the pirate camp, even if they escaped thi_abin, seemed a slim one. Yet it presented the only possibility of deliverin_he equipment in the hold to John Dark.
The bitter irony of it struck Kenniston, for the hundredth time. He, Lanc_enniston, honorable space-man for a dozen years, working desperately to ai_he most notorious pirate in the void! Even drawing into danger the girl fo_hom he felt—
He shut Gloria out of his mind. He mustn't think of her now. He must thin_nly of Ricky, and of what would be lost if Ricky died. He must ris_verything, sacrifice everything, to prevent that loss.
"We might as well try it now," he told the Jovian in low tones. "The shi_eems quiet."
"I'll do my best to make as little noise as possible," Holk Or muttered. "Ar_ou ready?"
The Jovian's big hands grasped the knob of the door. Kenniston crouched _ittle behind him, every muscle tense.
Holk Or suddenly put all his gigantically magnified strength into a tremendou_ug at the door. Its bolt snapped with a crack like that of a pistolshot, an_t swung wide open.
The man on guard outside turned startledly, his hand darting to the atom-gu_t his belt and his mouth open to yell. But Kenniston had launched himsel_ike a human projectile as the door was torn open.
Kenniston's fist smashed the space-sailor's chin and the man sagged limp an_nconscious with no chance to utter the cry on his lips. Hastily, Kennisto_ook his atom-pistol and eased him to the floor.
He and Holk Or listened tensely. The single sharp crack of the snapping bol_ad apparently aroused no one. The ship was silent. All aboard were sleepin_xhaustedly.
"Come on," Kenniston murmured tensely to the Jovian. "We've got to hurry t_et to Dark's camp before night is over."
Holk Or chuckled. "The chief will welcome us with open arms when he learn_e've got the equipment here for him."
Kenniston gripped the atom-pistol as they stole through the dark ship and ou_f the space-door. Outside, they paused in the darkness.
The scene was one of magic, unearthly beauty. The metal bulk of the cruise_nd the towering jungle around the clearing were washed by brilliant silve_ight that fell from the wonderful night sky of this World with a Thousan_oons.
A thousand moons indeed seemed blazing in the canopied heavens overhead! Th_hole dark sky was crowded by the shining moonlets that rushed ceaselessl_cross the firmament with the spinning of the meteor-swarm of which they wer_art. It was like the glorious vista of a world seen in dreams.
But Kenniston was familiar with the unearthly spectacle. He led the wa_apidly toward the northern edge of the jungle.
"We'll just have to plunge in and head north," he told the Jovian. "If w_each that little lake, we can soon find Dark's camp."
They started into the dense jungle, a fairyland of silver beams siftin_hrough the choking fronds. Something scurried close by.
"Kenniston, shoot!" cried Holk Or instantly.
Kenniston had already glimpsed the white beast scurrying toward them across _ittle patch of moonslight. It was one of the big meteor-rats. On its nec_unched one of the little gray masses—a Vestan.
The horror inspired by the hideous parasites tightened Kenniston's finge_onvulsively on the trigger of the atom-pistol. The crackling bolt of fir_rom the weapon ripped into the Vestan on the meteor-rat, and both parasit_nd animal victim were instantly a scorched, smoking heap.
"Hell, that's torn it!" cried the big Jovian. "We've roused the whole ship!"
Men awakened by the blast of the atom-gun were pouring out of the _Sunsprite_ , rushing after the two escaped men. Kenniston heard Captain Walls shouting.
"They're in the jungle here! Spread out and surround them!" the officer wa_rdering.
Kenniston and the Jovian plunged forward, seeking to escape northward. Bu_hey had come up against an impenetrable abatis of brush.
Before they could find a way around it, they heard men crashing all aroun_hem. They were completely encircled.
"Kenniston, you and that Jovian walk back into the clearing with your hand_aised or we'll blast every inch of the brush till we get you!" came th_tentorian shout of the captain.
"The devil—they've got us boxed!" exclaimed Holk Or furiously. "We'll try t_ight our way through."
"No!" Kenniston declared. "We couldn't make it anyway. And I'm not going t_hoot innocent men."
Holk Or angrily grabbed for the atom-pistol, but Kenniston promptly threw i_way. Not even in this last extremity could he bring himself to kill.
"You're a fool!" gritted the Jovian. "Now there's nothing for it bu_urrender."
With their hands raised, they walked out of the jungle into the brillian_ilvery light of the clearing. Instantly they were surrounded by Captai_alls, Murdock and the other armed crew-men.
The girls and their scared chaperon, and young Lanning and Robbie Boone, wer_merging in alarm from the _Sunsprite_. Kenniston did not look toward them.
Captain Walls' face was grim in the moonslight, as he and his men covered th_wo captured fugitives. "Kenniston, you and this Jovian were going to mak_our way to John Dark and tell him of our presence here, weren't you? Yo_eedn't deny it—it's plain enough."
"Sure we were!" exclaimed the angry Jovian. "We'd have made it, too, if _estan hadn't jumped us in the jungle."
"That would have meant capture of us all by Dark's pirates," said the captai_rimly. "You two are a danger to us all, while you live. I'm going to remov_hat danger. As master of a space-ship, I have legal right to order summar_xecution of any space-pirates I capture. I'm going to order that now."
"You're going to kill them?" exclaimed Gloria. "Oh, no—you can't!"
"It's absolutely necessary, before they betray us to the pirates, Mis_oring," defended the captain. "They'd be sentenced to death by the courts i_e took them back to Mars, anyway. But we daren't take a chance on keepin_hem prisoned that long."
"But just to shoot them down!" said Gloria horrifiedly. "I won't stand fo_hat!"
Murdock took her by the arm. "It's space law, Gloria," he told her earnestly.
"You'd better go back into the ship."
Kenniston stood silent in the moonslight, for he realized from the finality o_alls' voice that appeals would be utterly useless. There was no use tryin_gain to explain why he'd been willing to betray them all to save Ricky. Eve_f they listened, they wouldn't understand.
He felt tired, crushed, old. He'd gone a long way in the last dozen years, bu_very mile of it had only led toward this ending. He was going to die her_nder the hurtling meteor-moons of Vesta, and that meant that Ricky an_icky's dream were going to die soon too.
"I _told_ you you were a fool to throw away that gun," Holk Or wa_uttering.
"You two march over there to the edge of the clearing," Captain Walls ordere_rimly, gesturing with his gun. "Anything you want to say first, Kenniston?"
"Nothing that you would listen to or understand, you people," Kennisto_nswered dully. "No, I've got nothing to say."
A crackling voice came out of the dark jungle at that moment.
" _I_ have something to say! Drop those guns, every man of you, and get you_ands up!"
Walls spun around with an oath, levelling his atom-pistol. But out of th_ungle crashed a streak of fire that hit the captain's arm and sent hi_eeling.
One of the girls screamed. Another of the _Sunsprite's_ crew had tried t_im his weapon and had been cut down by a second bolt of atomic fire that ha_it his leg.
"I _don't_ want to kill you unless you force me to," came that crisp voic_rom the darkness. "You have ten seconds to drop the guns."
"That's the chief, Kenniston!" yelled Holk Or excitedly. "It's John Dar_imself!"
The dreaded name of the pirate, a synonym for cold ruthlessness, reinforce_he threat from the darkness.
Murdock let his weapon fall and shouted, "Drop the atom-guns, men! If we tr_o fight, the women will be hurt!"
The _Sunsprite's_ men dropped their atom-pistols. Instantly out into th_rilliant light from the jungle rushed a score of armed pirates. Martians, Earthmen, Venusians and others—this horde represented the criminal under-worl_f every planet in the System.
In a moment they had those in the clearing completely disarmed and lined u_gainst the ship. All except Holk Or, who was loudly greeting his pirat_omrades.
Kenniston saw John Dark coming across the moonslit clearing toward them. Th_otorious pirate was a tall, bulky Earthman, but he walked with th_ightfootedness of a cat in his moonshoes. His black hair was bare, and in th_ilver light his black-browed, intelligent face was coldly calm as his eye_earched the row of prisoners.
"So you finally got here, Kenniston. What about the repair-equipment?" h_sked sharply.
Kenniston nodded toward the _Sunsprite_. "It's in the hold. We got everythin_ou listed."
"Good!" Dark approved. "We saw your ship crash-landing today, and started thi_ay at once. We've been beating through the jungle, fighting off the damne_estans, until we heard the uproar going on here. What happened? Who are thes_eople?"
Kenniston explained briefly how he had induced Gloria Loring's party to com_n a pretended treasure-hunt. He was careful to stress the wealth of th_arty, and John Dark reacted as he had expected.
"If they're that wealthy, their families can pay big ransoms. You've done ver_ell, Kenniston."
"What about Ricky?" asked Kenniston tensely. "He's all right?"
"Sure he's all right—he's up at the camp," Dark answered.
Gloria said bitterly to Kenniston, "You can congratulate yourself. You'v_anaged to save your brother."
John Dark addressed her. "Miss Loring, I presume you and your companions ar_illing to pay ransom for your crew also? I never take prisoners, unless the_romise a good profit."
"Yes, of course we'll pay the ransom of the crew!" Gloria agreed hastily.
"Good!" said the pirate calmly. "You'll not find your captivity any mor_rksome than necessary."
Mrs. Milsom, the dumpy chaperon, was goggling at the notorious pirate in a_xtreme of terror. A sardonic gleam came into Dark's eyes as he glanced a_er.
"You're a handsome wench," he told the plump dowager with mock admiration.
"I've half a mind to keep you and let the ransom go."
"No, no!" shrieked the terrified woman.
Dark burst into a roar of laughter. "All right, my shrinking beauty, we'l_ccept ransom for you."
He turned and shot efficient orders to his subordinates, who by now ha_athered behind him.
"Get that stuff out of the hold, rig up power-sledges, and start freighting i_p to the camp. You'll have to cut a path through the jungle—use atom-blaster_o burn one out."
One of the pirates, a hard-faced Martian, said uneasily, "That will make _acket that'll bring every Vestan on the asteroid down on us."
"You can keep the Vestans off if you keep your eyes open," Dark retorted. "Ge_o work, now! We've got to get the stuff up there and repair the _Falcon_ a_nce. I'll take these prisoners up to camp."
Kenniston was grouped with the other prisoners. With a strong escort of arme_irates guarding them, and Dark and Holk Or ahead, they started through th_ungle toward the pirate camp.