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The Dragon-Queen of Venus Rescaled

Lee Brackett

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2010 Lee Brackett



Tex stirred 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.'

The Martian 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 overdue.

'Reckon they're thinking up some new tricks,' she said. 'I sure wish our relief would get here. I could use a vacation.'

Breska's teeth 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 Skipper.'

Captain Joan 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?

But Captain Smith's pleasant English voice was as calm as though she were discussing cricket-scores in a comfortable London club.

'Any sign of the beggars, Tex?'

'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 well.

She'd heard 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 garrison.

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 to throat.

The woman seemed suddenly to go mad. She drew her knife and slashed at her comrades, screaming, keeping them at bay.

Then, abruptly, 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 out:

'Don't waste your ammunition, women!'

Startled faces 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.

Tex swore. 'Reckon I'll never get used to those varmints, Captain. The rattlers back home was just kid's toys.'

'Simple enough, really.' Captain Smith spoke absently, her gray eyes following the sag of the rusty netting below.

'The green 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.'

Breska snarled. '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.'

'Yes,' said 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.

Tex grunted. '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 plateaus.'

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 gone.

The rapid-fire 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.

Tex's heart thumped. Powder-smoke bit her nostrils. Breska began to whistle through her teeth, a song that Tex had taught her, called, 'The Lone Prairee.'

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.

The Venusians 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 up tricks.

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 annihilated.

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.

Beside them, roaring and hissing, came their war-dogs; semi-erect reptiles with prehensile paws, their powerful tails armed with artificial spikes of bone.

Scaling ladders banged against the walls. Women and beasts began to climb, covered by companions on the ground who hurled grenades of baked mud from their bags.

'Beetle-bombs!' 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.

Tex's freckled 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.

Missiles rained 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.

The aerial 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.

Breska swore 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 out.

Tex fired 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.

Breska's shout 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 chief!

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.

The bullet 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 hadn't smiled.

Women with 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 seventy.

Another attack 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 batteries.

She had salvaged the lock of silver hair her bullet had clipped. Now it seemed almost to stir with malign life in her pocket.

Captain Joan 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 stillness.

'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 reach us.'

* * *

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.

Somebody 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.

Captain Smith went on.

'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 this.

'Help is coming. Headquarters are doing all they can.'

'With the money they have,' said Breska sourly, in Tex's ear. 'Damn the taxpayers!'

'. . . 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 new world.

'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.'

The captain's 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!'

The women 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.

'Listen,' hissed Breska, her teeth showing white like a dog's fangs. 'Get hold of yourself! If you don't, you'll get into trouble.'

Kuna trembled, 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 softer.

'I don't want to die,' said Kuna softly. 'I don't want to die in this rotten fog.'

'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.'

'Maybe.' Kuna's eyes wandered round to Tex. 'But why should I take the chance?'

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 anyway?'

'Because,' said 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 skulls?

'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.

'What's the bellyache?' she said sharply. 'You volunteered, didn't you?'

'I didn't know what it meant,' Kuna whispered, and coughed. 'I'll die if I stay here. I don't want to die!'

'What,' Breska said gently, 'are you going to do about it?'

Kuna smiled. 'He was beautiful, wasn't he, Tex?'

The Texan 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.

'Cafard,' she grunted, as some of the women came running. 'She'll come round all right.'

She dragged Kuna to the dormitory, and came back doubled up with coughing from the exertion. Tex saw the pain in her dark face.

'Say,' she murmured, 'you'd better ask for leave when the relief gets here.'

'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 Venus.

'They could do it, too,' Tex muttered. 'They outnumber us a thousand to one.'

'And,' added Breska viciously, 'the lousy taxpayers won't even give us decent equipment to fight with.'

Tex grinned. '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.

* * *

Five hot, steaming days dragged by. The water sank lower and lower in the tank. Flakes of rust dropped from every metal surface at the slightest touch.

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.

Breska crouched 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!'

'Shut up,' 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 out?

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 waves.

And suddenly a guard on the parapet yelled.

'Something coming 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.

Something was 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.

Breska reached 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 edges.

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.

Kuna's sunken, 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 animal.

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?'

But Kuna 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 say, Breska?'

The Martian's 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 wood dry.

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.

Captain Smith 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 end.'

Tex said, '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.

Tex ran 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 weapons.

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 many.

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.

Tex, feeling 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.

Abruptly she 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.

Captain Smith spoke softly.

'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 walls.'

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!'

'Yes,' returned 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.

'Save your 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 bullets.

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 behind Tex.

'You're in command now. And there are just the fourteen of us left.'

* * *

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 forget.

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 struck her.

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 eyes.

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 Washington.

But Headquarters 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.

The beetles weren't eating Kuna.

They swirled around her restlessly, scenting meat, but they didn't touch her. Her face showed parchment dry under the whorls of fog. And suddenly Tex understood.

'It's because she's dry. They won't touch anything dry.'

Recklessly, she 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 beetle-bombs.

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 behind her.

The red-haired woman, whose name was Bulla, had a gun in her hand. She said gruffly,

'We're leavin', Tex.'

Tex got up. 'Yeah?'

'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.

Breska hunched over the nearest gun, whistling softly through her teeth. 'The Lone Prairee.' Tex stared incredulously.

'I—I thought you'd gone with the others.'

Breska grinned. '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.'

Breska coughed and nodded. 'I'll keep watch.'

Tex's throat 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.

Hertford's 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 the parapet.

'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 areas.

' 'These 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 clear.'

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 worry.'

* * *

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.

They wasted 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.

'It's breathing dry air,' she said, in a croaking whisper. 'It's so funny I could laugh.'

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 must!'

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! They'll attack!'

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 moment.

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.

Forcing stiff 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.

'Running water,' 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 agony.

It was too late. The rust had beaten them.

Her freckled, oil-smeared face tightened grimly. Drawing her gun, she charged the steps.

'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.

Something had 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 clothing.

Dry metal! The water-eating organisms kept the surface dry. There could be no rust.

'We've licked '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!'

Scientists could 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.

And suddenly, 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.

Breska watched his go. 'For Mars,' she said softly. Then, pounding Tex on the bosom until she winced.

Two voices, 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. . . .'

THE END



Artwork by Mark Sebastian



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