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Mel Gray flung down his hoe with a sudden tigerish fierceness and stood erect. Tom Ward, working beside him, glanced at Gray's Indianesque profile, the youth of it hardened by war and the hells of the Eros prison blocks.
A quick flash of satisfaction crossed Ward's dark eyes. Then he grinned and said mockingly.
"Hell of a place to spend the rest of your life, ain't it?"
Mel Gray stared with slitted blue eyes down the valley. The huge sun of Mercury seared his naked body. Sweat channeled the dust on his skin. His throat ached with thirst. And the bitter landscape mocked him more than Wade's dark face.
"The rest of my life," he repeated softly. "The rest of my life!"
He was twenty-eight.
Wade spat in the damp black earth. "You ought to be glad--helping the unfortunate, building a haven for the derelict...."
"Shut up!" Fury rose in Gray, hotter than the boiling springs that ran from the Sunside to water the valleys. He hated Mercury. He hated John Moulton and his daughter Jill, who had conceived this plan of building a new world for the destitute and desperate veterans of the Second Interplanetary War.
"I've had enough 'unselfish service'," he whispered. "I'm serving myself from now on."
Escape. That was all he wanted. Escape from these stifling valleys, from the snarl of the wind in the barren crags that towered higher than Everest into airless space. Escape from the surveillance of the twenty guards, the forced companionship of the ninety-nine other veteran-convicts.
Wade poked at the furrows between the sturdy hybrid tubers. "It ain't possible, kid. Not even for 'Duke' Gray, the 'light-fingered genius who held theInterstellar Police at a standstill for five years'." He laughed. "I read your publicity."
Gray stroked slow, earth-stained fingers over his sleek cap of yellow hair. "You think so?" he asked softly.
Dio the Martian came down the furrow, his lean, wiry figure silhouetted against the upper panorama of the valley; the neat rows of vegetables and the green riot of Venusian wheat, dotted with toiling men and their friendly guards.
Dio's green, narrowed eyes studied Gray's hard face.
"What's the matter, Gray? Trying to start something?"
"Suppose I were?" asked Gray silkily. Dio was the unofficial leader of the convict-veterans. There was about his thin body and hatchet face some of the grim determination that had made the Martians cling to their dying world and bring life to it again.
"You volunteered, like the rest of us," said the Martian. "Haven't you the guts to stick it?"
"The hell I volunteered! The IPA sent me. And what's it to you?"
"Only this." Dio's green eyes were slitted and ugly. "You've only been here a month. The rest of us came nearly a year ago--because we wanted to. We've worked like slaves, because we wanted to. In three weeks the crops will be in. The Moulton Project will be self-supporting. Moulton will get his permanent charter, and we'll be on our way.
"There are ninety-nine of us, Gray, who want the Moulton Project to succeed. We know that that louse Caron of Mars doesn't want it to, since pitchblende was discovered. We don't know whether you're working for him or not, but you're a troublemaker.
"There isn't to be any trouble, Gray. We're not giving the Interplanetary Prison Authority any excuse to revoke its decision and give Caron of Mars a free hand here. We'll see to anyone who tries it. Understand?"
Mel Gray took one slow step forward, but Ward's sharp, "Stow it! A guard," stopped him. The Martian worked back up the furrow. The guard, reassured, strolled back up the valley, squinting at the jagged streak of pale-grey sky that was going black as low clouds formed, only a few hundred feet above the copper cables that ran from cliff to cliff high over their heads.
"Another storm," growled Ward. "It gets worse as Mercury enters perihelion. Lovely world, ain't it?"
"Why did you volunteer?" asked Gray, picking up his hoe.
Ward shrugged. "I had my reasons."
Gray voiced the question that had troubled him since his transfer. "There were hundreds on the waiting list to replace the man who died. Why did they send me, instead?"
"Some fool blunder," said Ward carelessly. And then, in the same casual tone, "You mean it, about escaping?"
Gray stared at him. "What's it to you?"
Ward moved closer. "I can help you?"
A stab of mingled hope and wary suspicion transfixed Gray's heart. Ward's dark face grinned briefly into his, with a flash of secretive black eyes, and Gray was conscious of distrust.
"What do you mean, help me?"
Dio was working closer, watching them. The first growl of thunder rattled against the cliff faces. It was dark now, the pink flames of the Dark-side aurora visible beyond the valley mouth.
"I've got--connections," returned Ward cryptically. "Interested?"
Gray hesitated. There was too much he couldn't understand. Moreover, he was a lone wolf. Had been since the Second Interplanetary War wrenched him from the quiet backwater of his country home an eternity of eight years before and hammered him into hardness--a cynic who trusted nobody and nothing but Mel 'Duke' Gray.
"If you have connections," he said slowly, "why don't you use 'em yourself?"
"I got my reasons." Again that secretive grin. "But it's no hide off you, is it? All you want is to get away."
That was true. It would do no harm to hear what Ward had to say.
Lightning burst overhead, streaking down to be caught and grounded by the copper cables. The livid flare showed Dio's face, hard with worry and determination. Gray nodded.
"Tonight, then," whispered Ward. "In the barracks."