Dragon-Queen of Venus Rescaled
uneasily where she lay on the parapet, staring into the heavy,
Venusian fog. The greasy moisture ran down the fort wall, lay rank
on her lips. With a sigh for the hot, dry air of Texas, and a curse
for the adventure-thirst that made her leave it, she shifted her
short, steel-hard body and wrinkled her sandy-red brows in the
never-ending effort to see.
A stifled cough
turned her head. She whispered, 'Hi, Breska.'
grinned and lay down beside her. Her skin was wind-burned like
Tex's, her black eyes nested in wrinkles caused by squinting
against sun and blowing dust.
For a second they
were silent, feeling the desert like a bond between them. Then
Breska, mastering her cough, grunted:
'They're an hour
late now. What's the matter with 'em?'
Tex was worried,
too. The regular dawn attack of the swamp-dwellers was long
thinking up some new tricks,' she said. 'I sure wish our relief
would get here. I could use a vacation.'
showed a cynical flash of white.
'If they don't
come soon, it won't matter. At that, starving is pleasanter than
beetle-bombs, or green snakes. Hey, Tex. Here comes the
Smith—Smith was a common name in the Volunteer Legion—crawled along
the catwalk. There were new lines of strain on the officer's gaunt
face, and Tex's uneasiness grew.
She knew that
supplies were running low. Repairs were urgently needed. Wasn't the
relief goin' to come at all?
Smith's pleasant English voice was as calm as though she were
discussing cricket-scores in a comfortable London club.
'Any sign of the
'No, sir. But I
got a feeling. . . .'
'H'm. Yes. We all
have. Well, keep a sharp. . . .'
A scream cut her
short. It came from below in the square compound. Tex shivered,
craning down through the rusty netting covering the
screams like that before.
A woman ran
across the greasy stones, tearing at something on her wrist. Other
women ran to help her, the ragged remnant of the force that had
marched into new Fort Washington three months before, the first
The tiny green
snake on the woman's wrist grew incredibly. By the time the first
women reached it, it had whipped a coil around its victim's neck.
Faster than the eye could follow, it shifted its fangs from wrist
The woman seemed
suddenly to go mad. She drew her knife and slashed at her comrades,
screaming, keeping them at bay.
she collapsed. The green snake, now nearly ten feet long, whipped
free and darted toward a drainage tunnel. Shouting, women
surrounded it, drawing rapid-fire pistols, but Captain Smith called
'Don't waste your
looked up. And in that second of respite, the snake coiled and
butted its flat-nosed bead against the grating.
In a shower of
rust-flakes it fell outward, and the snake was gone like a streak
of green fire.
Tex heard Breska
cursing in a low undertone. A sudden silence had fallen on the
compound. Women fingered the broken grating, white-faced as they
realized what it meant. There would be no metal for repairs until
the relief column came.
It was hard
enough to bring bare necessities over the wild terrain. And air
travel was impracticable due to the miles-thick clouds and magnetic
vagaries. There would be no metal, no ammunition.
'Reckon I'll never get used to those varmints, Captain. The
rattlers back home was just kid's toys.'
really.' Captain Smith spoke absently, her gray eyes following the
sag of the rusty netting below.
snakes, like the planarians, decrease evenly in size with
starvation. They also have a vastly accelerated metabolism. When
they get food, which happens to be blood, they simply shoot out to
their normal size. An injected venom causes their victims to fight
off help until the snake has fed.'
'Cute trick the swamp women thought up, starving those things and
then slipping them in on us through the drain pipes. They're so
tiny you mister one, every once in a while.'
'And then you get
that.' Tex nodded toward the corpse. 'I wonder who the war-chief
is. I'd sure like to get a look at her.'
Captain Smith. 'So would I.'
She turned to go,
crawling below the parapet. You never knew what might come out of
the fog at you, if you showed a target. The body was carried out to
the incinerator as there was no ceremony about burials in this
heat. A blob of white caught Tex's eye as a face strained upward,
watching the officer through the rusty netting.
'There's your countryman, Breska. I'd say she isn't so sold on the
idea of making Venus safe for colonists.'
'Oh, lay off her,
Tex.' Breska was strangled briefly by a fit of coughing. 'She's
just a kid, she's homesick, and she's got the wheezes, like me.
This lowland air isn't good for us. But just wait till we knock
sense into these white devils and settle the high
If she finished,
Tex didn't hear her. The red-haired Westerner was staring stiffly
upward, clawing for her gun.
* * *
She hadn't heard
or seen a thing. And now the fog was full of thundering wings and
shrill screams of triumph. Below the walls, where the ground-mist
hung in stagnant whorls, a host of half-seen bodies crowded out of
the wilderness into which no civilized woman had ever
pistol bucked and snarled in Tex's hand. Captain Smith, lying on
her belly, called orders in her crisp, unhurried voice. C Battery
on the northeast corner cut in with a chattering roar, spraying
explosive bullets upward, followed by the other three whose duty it
was to keep the air clear.
thumped. Powder-smoke bit her nostrils. Breska began to whistle
through her teeth, a song that Tex had taught her, called, 'The
ground-strafing crews got their guns unlimbered, and mud began to
splash up from below. But it wasn't enough. The gun emplacements
were only half manned, the remainder of the depopulated garrison
having been off-duty down in the compound.
were swarming up the incline on which the fort stood, attacking
from the front and fanning out along the sides when they reached
firm ground. The morasses to the east and west were absolutely
impassable even to the swamp-men, which was what made Fort
Washington a strategic and envied stronghold.
Tex watched the
attackers with mingled admiration and hatred. They had guts; the
kind the Red Indians must have had, back in the old days in
America. They had cruelty, too, and a fiendish genius for thinking
If the relief
column didn't come soon, there might be one trick too many, and the
way would be left open for a breakthrough. The thin, hard-held line
of frontier posts could be flanked, cut off, and
Tex shuddered to
think what that would mean for the colonists, already coming
hopefully into the fertile plateaus.
A sluggish breeze
rolled the mist south into the swamps, and Tex got her first clear
look at the enemy. Her heart jolted sharply.
This was no mere
raid. This was an attack.
Hordes of tall
warriors swarmed toward the walls, pale-skinned giants from the
Sunless Land with snow-white hair coiled in warclubs at the base of
the skull. They wore girdles of reptile skin, and carried bags
slung over their brawny shoulders. In their hands they carried
clubs and crude bows.
roaring and hissing, came their war-dogs; semi-erect reptiles with
prehensile paws, their powerful tails armed with artificial spikes
banged against the walls. Women and beasts began to climb, covered
by companions on the ground who hurled grenades of baked mud from
yelled Tex. 'Watch yourselves!'
She thrust one
ladder outward, and fired point-blank into a dead-white face. A
flying clay ball burst beside the woman who fired the nearest
ground gun, and in a split second every inch of bare flesh was
covered by a sheath of huge scarlet beetles.
face hardened. The woman's screams knifed upward through the
thunder of wings. Tex put a bullet carefully through her head and
tumbled the body over the parapet. Some of the beetles were shaken
off, and she glimpsed bone, already bare and gleaming.
down from above; beetle-bombs, green snakes made worm-size by
starvation. The women were swarming up from the compound now, but
the few seconds of delay almost proved fatal.
attackers were plain in the thinning mist—lightly-built women
mounted on huge things that were half bird, half lizard.
The rusty netting
jerked, catching the heavy bodies of woman and lizard shot down by
the guns. Tex held her breath. That net was all that protected them
from a concerted dive attack that would give the natives a
foot-hold inside the walls.
A gun in A
Battery choked into silence. Rust, somewhere in the mechanism. No
amount of grease could keep it out.
sulphurously and stamped a small green thing flat. Red beetles
crawled along the stones—thank God the things didn't fly. Women
fought and died with the snakes. Another gun suddenly cut
steadily at fierce white heads thrust above the parapet. The woman
next her stumbled against the infested stones. The voracious
scarlet flood surged over her, and in forty seconds her uniform
sagged on naked bones.
warned Tex aside as a lizard fell on the catwalk. Its rider pitched
into the stream of beetles and began to die. Wings beat close
overhead, and Tex crouched, aiming upward.
Her freckled face
relaxed in a stare of utter unbelief.
* * *
He was beautiful.
Pearl-white thighs circling the gray-green barrel of his mount,
silver hair streaming from under a snake-skin diadem set with the
horns of a swamp-rhino, a slim body clad in girdle and
breast-plates of iridescent scales.
His face was
beautiful, too, like a mask cut from pearl. But his eyes were like
pale-green flames, and the silver brows above them were drawn into
a straight bar of anger.
Tex had never
seen such cold, fierce hate in any living creature, even a rattler
coiled to strike.
Her gun was
aimed, yet somehow she couldn't pull the trigger. When she had
collected her wits, he was gone, swooping like a stunting flyer
through the fire of the guns. He bore no weapons, only what looked
like an ancient hunting-horn.
Tex swore, very
softly. She knew what that horned diadem meant.
This was the war
The women had
reached the parapet just in time. Tex blasted the head from a
miniature Tyrannosaurus, dodged the backlash of the spiked tail,
and threw down another ladder. Guns snarled steadily, and corpses
were piling up at the foot of the wall.
Tex saw the man
urge his flying mount over the pit of the compound, saw his
searching out the plan of the place—the living quarters, the water
tanks, the kitchen, the radio room.
Impelled by some
inner warning that made her forget all reluctance to war against a
man, Tex fired.
clipped a tress of his silver hair. Eyes like pale green flames
burned into her for a split second, and his lips drew back from
reptilian teeth, white, small, and pointed.
Then he whipped
his mount into a swift spiral climb and was gone, flashing through
streamers of mist and powder-smoke.
A second later
Tex heard the mellow notes of his horn, and the attackers turned
and vanished into the swamp.
As quickly as
that, it was over. Yet Tex, panting and wiping the sticky sweat
from her forehead, wasn't happy.
She wished he
blow-torches scoured the fort clean of beetles and green snakes.
One party sprayed oil on the heaps of bodies below and fired them.
The netting was cleared, their own dead burned.
Tex, who was a
corporal, got her women together, and her heart sank as she counted
them. Thirty-two left to guard a fort that should be garrisoned by
like that, and there might be none. Yet Tex had an uneasy feeling
that the attack had more behind it than the mere attempt to carry
the fort by storm. She thought of the man whose brain had evoked
all these hideous schemes—the beetle-bombs, the green snakes. He
hadn't risked his neck for nothing, flying in the teeth of four
She had salvaged
the lock of silver hair her bullet had clipped. Now it seemed
almost to stir with malign life in her pocket.
Smith came out of the radio room. The officer's gaunt face was
oddly still, her gray eyes like chips of stone.
'At ease,' she
said. Her pleasant English voice had that same quality of dead
'Word has just
come from Regional Headquarters. The swamp women have attacked in
force east of us, and have heavily besieged Fort Nelson. Our relief
column had been sent to relieve them.
'More women are
being readied, but it will take at least two weeks for any help to
* * *
Tex heard the
hard-caught breaths as the news took the women like a jolt in the
belly. And she saw the eyes sliding furtively aside to the dense
black smoke pouring up from the incinerator, to the water tanks,
and to the broken grating.
whimpered. Tex heard Breska snarl, 'Shut up!' The whimperer was
Kuna, the young Martian who had stared white-faced at the captain a
short while before.
'Our situation is
serious. However, we can hold out another fortnight. Supplies will
have to be rationed still further, and we must conserve ammunition
and man-power as much as possible. But we must all remember
'Help is coming.
Headquarters are doing all they can.'
'With the money
they have,' said Breska sourly, in Tex's ear. 'Damn the
'. . . and we've
only to hold out a few days longer. After all, we volunteered for
this job. Venus is a virgin planet. It's savage, uncivilized,
knowing no law but brute force. But it can be built into a great
'If we do our
jobs well, some day these swamps will be drained, the jungles
cleared, the natives civilized. The people of Earth and Mars will
find new hope and freedom here. It's up to us.'
grim, gaunt face relaxed, and her eyes twinkled.
'Pity we're none
of us using our right names,' she said. 'Because I think we're
going to get them in the history books!'
laughed. The tension was broken. 'Dismissed,' said Captain Smith,
and strolled off to her quarters. Tex turned to Breska.
The Martian, her
leathery dark face set, was gripping the arms of her young
countryman, the only other Martian in the fort.
Breska, her teeth showing white like a dog's fangs. 'Get hold of
yourself! If you don't, you'll get into trouble.'
her wide black eyes watching the smoke from the bodies roll up into
the fog. Her skin lacked the leathery burn of Breska's. Tex guessed
that she came from one of the Canal cities, where things were
'I don't want to
die,' said Kuna softly. 'I don't want to die in this rotten
'Take it easy,
kid.' Tex rubbed the sandy-red stubble on her chin and grinned.
'The Skipper'll get us through okay. She's aces.'
eyes wandered round to Tex. 'But why should I take the
She was shaken
suddenly by a fit of coughing. When she spoke again, her voice had
risen and grown tight as a violin string.
'Why should I
stay here and cough my guts out for something that will never be
Breska grimly, 'on Mars there are women and men breaking their
backs and their hearts to get enough bread out of the deserts.
You're a city woman, Kuna. Have you ever seen the famines that
sweep the drylands? Have you ever seen women with their ribs
cutting through the skin? Men and children with faces like
'That's why I'm
here, coughing my guts out in this stinking fog. Because people
need land to grow food on, and water to grow it with.'
Kuna's dark eyes
rolled, and Tex frowned. She'd seen that same starry look in the
eyes of cattle on the verge of a stampede.
bellyache?' she said sharply. 'You volunteered, didn't
'I didn't know
what it meant,' Kuna whispered, and coughed. 'I'll die if I stay
here. I don't want to die!'
said gently, 'are you going to do about it?'
Kuna smiled. 'He
was beautiful, wasn't he, Tex?'
started. 'I reckon he was, kid. What of it?'
'You have a lock
of his hair. I saw you pick it from the net. The net'll go out
soon, like the grating did. Then there won't be anything to keep
the snakes and beetles off of us. He'll sit up there and watch us
die, and laugh.
'But I won't die,
I tell you! I won't!'
She shuddered in
Breska's hands, and began to laugh. The laugh rose to a thin, high
scream like the wailing of a panther. Breska hit her accurately on
the point of the jaw.
grunted, as some of the women came running. 'She'll come round all
She dragged Kuna
to the dormitory, and came back doubled up with coughing from the
exertion. Tex saw the pain in her dark face.
murmured, 'you'd better ask for leave when the relief gets
'If it gets
here,' gasped the Martian. 'That attack at Fort Nelson was just a
feint to draw off our reinforcements.'
Tex nodded. 'Even
if the varmints broke through there, they'd be stopped by French
River and the broken hills beyond it.'
A map of Fort
Washington's position formed itself in her mind; the stone
blockhouse commanding a narrow tongue of land between strips of
impassable swamp, barring the way into the valley. The valley led
back into the uplands, splitting so that one arm ran parallel to
the swamps for many miles.
To fierce and
active women like the swamp-dwellers, it would be no trick to swarm
down that valley, take Fort Albert and Fort George by surprise in a
rear attack, and leave a gap in the frontier defenses that could
never be closed in time.
And then hordes
of white-haired warriors would swarm out, led by that beautiful
fury on the winged lizard, rouse the more lethargic pastoral tribes
against the colonists, and sweep outland Peoples from the face of
'They could do
it, too,' Tex muttered. 'They outnumber us a thousand to
Breska viciously, 'the lousy taxpayers won't even give us decent
equipment to fight with.'
'Armies are always stepchildren. I guess the sheep just never did
like the goats, anyhow.' She shrugged. 'Better keep an eye on Kuna.
She might try something.'
'What could she
do? If she deserts, they'll catch her trying to skip out, if the
savages don't get her first. She won't try it.'
But in the
morning Kuna was gone, and the lock of silver hair in Tex's pocket
was gone with her.
* * *
steaming days dragged by. The water sank lower and lower in the
tank. Flakes of rust dropped from every metal surface at the
Tex squatted on a
slimy block of stone in the compound, trying to forget hunger and
thirst in the task of sewing a patch on her pants. Fog gathered in
droplets on the reddish hairs of her naked legs, covered her face
with a greasy patina.
beside her, coughing in deep, slow spasms. Out under the sagging
net, women were listlessly washing underwear in a tub of boiled
swamp water. The stuff held some chemical that caused a stubborn
sickness no matter what you did to it.
Tex looked at it
thirstily. 'Girl!' she muttered. 'What I wouldn't give for just one
glass of ice water!'
growled Breska. 'At least, I've quit being hungry'
She coughed, her
dark face twisted in pain. Tex sighed, trying to ignore the hunger
that chewed her own belly like a prisoned wolf.
Nine more days to
go. Food and water cut to the barest minimum. Gun parts rusting
through all the grease they could put on. The strands of the net
were perilously thin. Even the needle in her hand was rusted so
that it tore the cloth.
Of the thirty-one
women left after Kuna deserted, they had lost seven; four by green
snakes slipped in through broken drain gratings, three by
beetle-bombs tossed over the parapet. There had been no further
attacks. In the dark, fog-wrapped nights swamp women smeared with
black mud crept silently under the walls, delivered their messages
of death, and vanished.
In spite of the
heat, Tex shivered. How much longer would this silent war go on?
The swamp-men had to clear the fort before the relief column came.
Where was Kuna, and why had she stolen that lock of hair? And what
scheme was the savage beauty who led these devils hatching
Water slopped in
the tub. Somebody cursed because the underwear never dried in this
lousy climate. The heat of the hidden sun seeped down in stifling
And suddenly a
guard on the parapet yelled.
out of the swamp! Woman the guns!'
Tex hauled her
pants on and ran with the others. Coming up beside the lookout, she
drew her pistol and waited.
crawling up the tongue of dry land toward the fort. At first she
thought it was one of the scaly war-dogs. Then she caught a gleam
of scarlet collar-facings, and shouted.
'Hold your fire,
women! It's Kuna!'
The grey, stooped
thing came closer, going on hands and knees, its dark head hanging.
Tex heard Breska's harsh breathing beside her. Abruptly the Martian
turned and ran down the steps.
'Don't go out
there, Breska!' Tex yelled. 'It may be a trap.' But the Martian
went on, tugging at the rusty lugs that held the postern gate. It
came open, and she went out.
Tex sent women
down to guard it, fully expecting white figures to burst from the
fog and attempt to force the gate.
the crawling figure, hauled it erect and over one shoulder, and
started back at a stumbling run. Still there was no attack. Tex
frowned, assailed by some deep unease. If Kuna had gone into the
swamps, she should never have returned alive. There was a trap here
somewhere, a concealed but deadly trick.
Silence. The rank
mist lay in lazy coils. Not a leaf rustled in the swamp
Tex swore and ran
down the steps. Breska fell through the gate and sagged down,
coughing blood, and it was Tex who caught Kuna.
The girl lay like
a grey skeleton in her arms, the bones of her face almost cutting
the skin. Her mouth was open. Her tongue was black and swollen,
like that of a woman dying of thirst.
fever-yellowed eyes opened. They found the tub, in which soiled
clothing still floated.
With a surge of
strength that took Tex completely by surprise, the girl broke from
her and ran to the water, plunging her face in and gulping like an
Tex pulled her
away. Kuna sagged down, sobbing. There was something wrong about
her face, but Tex couldn't think what.
'Won't let me
drink,' she whispered. 'Still won't let me drink. Got to have
water.' She clawed at Tex. 'Water!'
Tex sent someone
after it, trying to think what was strange about Kuna, scowling.
There were springs of sweet water in the swamps, and even the
natives couldn't drink the other. Was it simply the desire to
torture that had made them deny the deserter water?
Tex caught the
girl's collar. 'How did you get away?'
struggled to her knees. 'Breska,' she gasped. 'Breska!'
The older woman
looked at her, wiping blood from her lips. Kuna said something in
Martian, retched, choked on her own blood, and fell over. Tex knew
she was dead.
'What did she
teeth showed briefly white.
'She said she
wished she'd had my guts.' Her expression changed abruptly. She
caught Tex's shoulder.
'Look, Tex! Look
at the water!'
* * *
Where there had
been nearly a full tub, there was now only a little moisture left
in the bottom. While Tex watched, that too disappeared, leaving the
Tex picked up an
undershirt. It was as dry as any she'd ever hung in the prairie
air, back in Texas. She touched her face. The skin was like
sun-cured leather. Her hair had not a drop of fog on it.
Yet the mist hung
as heavy as ever.
came out of the radio room, looking up at the net and the guns. Tex
heard her mutter, quite unconsciously.
'It's the rust
that'll beat us. It's the rust that'll lose us Venus in the
'Captain. . . .'
Smith looked at
her, startled. But she never had time to ask what the matter was.
The lookout yelled. Wings rushed overhead. Guns chattered from the
parapet. The attack was on.
automatically for the catwalk. Passing Kuna's crumpled body, she
realized something she should have seen at first.
'Kuna's body was
dry when she came into the fort. All dry, even her clothes.' And
then, 'Why did the swamp-men wait until she was safely inside and
the door closed to attack?'
With a quarter of
their guns disabled and two-thirds of their garrison gone, they
still held superiority due to their position and powerful
There was no
concerted attempt to force the walls. Groups of white-haired
warriors made sallies, hurled beetle-bombs and weighed bags of
green snakes, and retired into the mist. They lost women, but not
In the air, it
was different. The weird, half-feathered mounts wheeled and
swooped, literally diving into the gunbursts, the riders hurling
missiles with deadly accuracy. And they were dying, women and
lizards, by the dozen.
curiously dazed, fired automatically. Bodies thrashed into the net.
Rust flakes showered like rain. Looking at the thin strands, Tex
wondered how long it would hold.
caught sight of what, subconsciously, she'd been looking for. He
was there, darting high over the melee, his silver hair flying, his
body an iridescent pearl in the mist.
'You see what
he's up to, Tex? Those flyers are volunteers. Their orders are to
kill as many of our women as possible before they die themselves,
but they must fall inside the walls! On the net, Tex. To weaken,
break it if possible.'
Tex nodded. 'And
when it goes. . . .'
'We go. We
haven't enough women to beat them if they should get inside the
Smith brushed her
small military mustache, her only sign of nervousness. Tex saw her
start, saw her touch the bristles wonderingly, then finger her
skin, her tunic, her hair.
'Dry,' she said,
and looked at the fog. 'My Lady, dry!'
Tex grimly. 'Kuna brought it back. She couldn't get wet even when
she tried to drink. Something that eats water. Even if the net
holds, we'll die of thirst before we're relieved.'
She turned in
sudden fury on the distant figure of the man and emptied her gun
futilely at his swift-moving body.
ammunition,' cautioned Smith, and cried out, sharply.
Tex saw it, the
tiny green thing that had fastened on her wrist. She pulled her
knife and lunged forward, but already the snake had grown
incredibly. Smith tore at it vainly.
Tex got in one
slash, felt her knife slip futilely on rubbery flesh of enormous
contractile power. Then the venom began to work. A mad look twisted
the officer's face. Her gun rose and began to spit
Grimly, Tex shot
the gun out of Smith's hand, and struck down with the gun-barrel.
Smith fell. But already the snake had thrown a coil round her neck
and shifted its grip to the jugular.
Tex sawed at the
rubbery flesh. Beaten as though with a heavy whip, she stood at
last with the body still writhing in her hand.
Captain Smith was
dead, with the snake's jaws buried in her throat.
Dimly Tex heard
the mellow notes of the war-chief's horn. The sky cleared of the
remnants of the suicide squad. The ground attackers vanished into
the swamps. And then the man whirled his mount sharply and sped
straight for the fort.
Puffs of smoke
burst around his but he was not hit. Low over the parapet he came,
so that Tex saw the pupils of his pale-green eyes, the vital flow
of muscles beneath pearly skin.
She fired, but
her gun was empty.
He flung one hand
high in derisive salute, and was gone. And Breska spoke softly
command now. And there are just the fourteen of us
* * *
Tex stood staring
down at the dead and dying caught in the rusty net. She felt
suddenly tired; so tired that just standing and looking seemed too
much drain on hers wasted strength.
She didn't want
to fight any more. She wanted to drink, to sleep, and
There was only
one possible end. Her mouth and throat were dry with this strange
new dryness, her thirst intensified a hundredfold. The swamp women
had only to wait. In another week they could take the fort without
losing a woman.
Even with the
reduced numbers of the defenders, this fiendish thing would make
their remaining water supply inadequate. And then another thought
Suppose it stayed
there, so that even if by some miracle the garrison held out, it
made holding the fort impossible no matter how many women, or how
much water, there was?
The women were
looking at her. Tex let the dead snake drop to the catwalk and
vanish under a pall of scarlet beetles.
'Clean up this
mess,' said Tex automatically. Breska's black eyes were brilliant
and very hard. Why didn't the women move?
'Go on,' Tex
snapped. 'I'm ranking officer here now.'
The women turned
to their task with a queer reluctance. One of them, a big
scar-faced hulk with a mop of hair redder far than Tex's, stood
long after the others had gone, watching her out of narrowed green
Tex went slowly
down into the compound. There were no breaks in the net, but
another few days of rust would finish them.
What was the use
of fighting on? If they left, now, they might get out alive.
Headquarters could send more women, retake Fort
didn't have many women. And the man with the eyes like pale-green
flames wouldn't waste any time.
Some falling body
had crushed a beetle-bomb caught in the net. The scarlet things
were falling like drops of blood on Kuna's body. Tex smiled
crookedly. In a few seconds there'd be nothing left of the flesh
Kuna had cherished so dearly.
And then Tex
rubbed freckled hands over her tired blue eyes, wondering if she
were at last delirious.
weren't eating Kuna.
around her restlessly, scenting meat, but they didn't touch her.
Her face showed parchment dry under the whorls of fog. And suddenly
she's dry. They won't touch anything dry.'
put her own hand down in the scarlet stream. It divided and flowed
around it, disdaining the parched flesh.
Tex laughed, a
brassy laugh with an edge of hysteria in it. Now that they were
going to die anyway, they didn't have to worry about
Feet, a lot of
them, clumped up to where she knelt. The red-haired giant with the
green eyes stood over her, the women in a sullen, hard-faced knot
woman, whose name was Bulla, had a gun in her hand. She said
Tex got up.
'Yeah. We figure
it's no use stayin'. Comin' with us?'
Why not? It was
her only chance for life. She had no stake in the colonies. She'd
joined the Legion for adventure.
Then she looked
at Kuna, and at Breska, thinking of all the people of two worlds
who needed ground to grow food on, and water to grow it with.
Something, perhaps the ancestor who had died in the Alamo, made her
shake her sandy head.
'I reckon not,'
she said. 'And I reckon you ain't, either.'
She was quick on
the draw, but Bulla had her gun already out. The bullet thundered
against Tex's skull. The world exploded into fiery darkness,
through which she heard Breska say,
'Sure, Bulla. Why
should I stay here to die for nothing?'
Tex tried to cry
out, but the blackness drowned her.
She came to lying
on the catwalk. Her head was bandaged. Frowning, she opened her
eyes, blinking against the pain.
over the nearest gun, whistling softly through her teeth. 'The Lone
Prairee.' Tex stared incredulously.
you'd gone with the others.'
'I just wasn't as dumb as you. I hung behind till they were all
outside, and then I barred the door. I'd seen you weren't dead,
and—well, this cough's got me anyway, and I hate forced marches.
They give me blisters.'
They grinned at
each other. Tex said,
'We're a couple
of damn fools, but I reckon we're stuck with it. Okay. Let's see
how long we can fool 'em.' She got up, gingerly. 'The Skipper had
some books in her quarters. Maybe one of 'em would tell what this
dry stuff is.'
and nodded. 'I'll keep watch.'
burned, but she was afraid to drink. If the water evaporated in her
mouth as it had in Kuna's. . . .
She had to try.
Not knowing was worse than knowing. A second later she stood with
an empty cup in her hand, fighting down panic.
Half the water
had vanished before she got the cup to her mouth. The rest never
touched her tongue. Yet there was nothing to see, nothing to feel.
Nothing but dryness.
She turned and
ran for Captain Smith's quarters.
Jungles of Venus, the most comprehensive work on a subject still
almost unknown, lay between Kelland's Field Tactics and Alice in
Wonderland. Tex took it down, leafing through it as she climbed to
'Here it is,' she
said suddenly.' 'Dry Spots. These are fairly common phenomena in
certain parts of the swamplands. Seemingly Nature's method for
preserving the free oxygen balance in the atmosphere, colonies of
ultra-microscopic animalcules spring up, spreading apparently from
spores carried by animals which blunder into the dry
animalcules attach themselves to hosts, inanimate or otherwise, and
absorb all water vapor or still water nearby, utilizing the
hydrogen in some way not yet determined, and liberating free
oxygen. They become dormant during the rainy season, apparently
unable to cope with running water. They expand only within definite
limits, and the life of each colony runs about three weeks, after
which it vanishes.' '
'The rains start
in about a week,' said Breska. 'Our relief can't get here under
nine days. They can pick us off with snakes and beetle-bombs, or
let us go crazy with thirst, let the first shower clear out the
ani—the whatyoucallits, and move in. Then they can slaughter our
girls when they come up, and have the whole of Venus
Tex told her
about Kuna and the beetles. 'The snakes probably won't touch us,
either.' She pounded a freckled fist on the stones. 'If we could
find some way to drink, and if the guns and the net didn't rust, we
might hold them off long enough.'
'If ,' grunted
Breska. 'If we were in heaven, we wouldn't have to
* * *
The days that
followed blurred into a daze of thirst and ceaseless watching. For
easier defense, there was only one way down from the parapet
through the net. They took the least rusted of the guns and filled
the small gap. They could hold out there until they collapsed, or
the net gave.
several quarts of water in vain attempts to drink. Then they gave
it up. The final irony of it made Tex laugh.
'Here we are,
being noble till it hurts, and it won't matter a damn. The Skipper
was right. It's the rust that'll lose us Venus in the end—that, and
these Dry Spots.'
Food made thirst
greater. They stopped eating. They became mere skeletons, moving
feebly in sweat-box heat. Breska stopped coughing.
dry air,' she said, in a croaking whisper. 'It's so funny I could
A scarlet beetle
crawled over Tex's face where she lay beside the Martian on the
catwalk. She brushed it off, dragging weak fingers across her
forehead. Her skin was dry, but not as dry as she remembered it
after windy days on the prairie.
'Funny it hasn't
taken more oil out of my skin.' She struggled suddenly to a sitting
position. 'Oil! It might work. Oh, God, let it work! It
Breska stared at
her out of sunken eyes as she half fell down the steps. Then a
sound overhead brought the Martian's gaze upward.
'A scout, Tex!
Tex didn't bear
her. Her whole being was centered on one thing—the thing that would
mean the difference between life and death.
Dimly, as she
staggered into the room where the oil was kept, Tex heard a growing
thunder of wings. She groaned. If Breska could only hold out for a
It took all her
strength to turn the spigot of the oil drum. It was empty, All the
stuff had been used to burn bodies. Almost crying, Tex crawled to
the next one, and the next. It was the fourth drum that yielded
black, viscous fluid.
lips apart, Tex drank.
If there'd been
anything in her, she'd have vomited. The vile stuff coated lips,
tongue, throat. Outside, Breska's gun cut in sharply. Tex dragged
herself to the water tank.
she thought. Tilting her head up under the spigot, she turned the
tap. Water splashed out. Some of it hit her skin and vanished. But
the rest ran down her oil-filmed throat. She felt it, warm and
brackish and wonderful, in her stomach.
She laughed, and
let go a cracked rebel yell. Then she turned and lurched back
outside, toward the steps.
The net sagged to
the weight of white-haired warriors and roaring lizards. Breska's
gun choked and stammered into silence. Tex groaned in utter
It was too late.
The rust had beaten them.
oil-smeared face tightened grimly. Drawing her gun, she charged the
'Where the hell
did you go?' snarled Breska. 'The ammo belt jammed.' She grabbed
for the other gun set in the narrow gap.
Then it wasn't
rust! And Tex realized something else. There were no rust flakes
failing from the net.
stopped the rusting. Before, her physical anguish had been too
great for her to see that the net strands grew no thinner, the
gun-barrels no rustier.
Scraps of the
explanation shot through Tex's mind. Breska's cough stopping
because the air was dried before it reached her lungs. Dry stone.
Dry metal! The
water-eating organisms kept the surface dry. There could be no
'em, Breska! By God, we've licked 'em!' She shouldered the Martian
out of the way, gripped the triggers of the gun. Shouting over the
din, she told Breska how to drink, sent her lurching down the
steps. She could hold the gap alone for a few minutes.
Looking up, Tex
found him, swooping low over the fight, his silver hair flying in
the wind. Tex shouted at him.
'You did it! You
outsmarted yourself, lady. You showed us the way!'
find out how to harness the Dry Spots to keep off the rust, and
still let the soldiers drink.
And some day the
swamps would be drained, and women and men would find new wealth,
new life, new horizons here on Venus.
Breska came back,
grinning, and fought the jam out of the gun. White bodies began to
pile up, mixed with the saurian carcasses of their war-dogs. And
presently the notes of the war-chief's horn drifted down, and the
attackers faded back into the swamps.
wheeling his mount away from the others, the warrior man swooped
low over the parapet. Tex held her fire. For a moment she thought
he was going to dash his lizard into them. Then, at the last
second, he pulled her up in a thundering climb.
His face was a
cut-pearl mask of fury, but his pale-green eyes held doubt, the
beginning of an awed fear. Then he was gone, bent low over him
mount, his silver hair hiding his face.
his go. 'For Mars,' she said softly. Then, pounding Tex on the
bosom until she winced.
cracked, harsh, and unmusical, drifted after the retreating form of
the white-haired war-chief.
'Oh, bury us not
on the lone prairie-e-e. . . .'
Artwork by Mark
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