Naturally, I became better acquainted with my fellow prisoners than with my guards, and our relations were soon established upon a friendly basis. They were greatly impressed by my blond hair and blue eyes which elicited inquiries as to my genesis. As I answered their questions truthfully, they became deeply interested in my story, and every evening after the day’s work was completed I was besieged for tales of the mysterious, far distant world from which I came. Unlike the highly intelligent Vepajans, they believed all that I told them, with the result that I was soon a hero in their eyes; I should have been a god had they had any conception of deities of any description.
In turn, I questioned them; and discovered, with no surprise, that they were not at all contented with their lots. The former free men among them had long since come to the realization that they had exchanged this freedom, and their status of wage earners, for slavery to the state, that could no longer be hidden by a nominal equality.
Among the prisoners were three to whom I was particularly attracted by certain individual characteristics in each. There was Gamfor, for instance, a huge, hulking fellow who had been a farmer in the old days under the jongs. He was unusually intelligent, and although he had taken part in the revolution, he was now bitter in his denunciation of the Thorists, though this he was careful to whisper to me in secrecy.
Another was Kiron, the soldier, a clean-limbed, handsome, athletic fellow who had served in the army of the jong, but mutinied with the others at the time of the revolution. He was being disciplined now for insubordination to an officer who had been a petty government clerk before his promotion.
The third had been a slave. His name was Zog. What he lacked in intelligence he made up in strength and good nature. He had killed an officer who had struck him and was being taken back to Thora for trial and execution. Zog was proud of the fact that he was a free man, though he admitted that the edge was taken off his enthusiasm by the fact that every one else was free and the realization that he had enjoyed more freedom as a slave than he did now as a freeman.
“Then,” he explained, “I had one master; now I have as many masters as there are government officials, spies, and soldiers, none of whom cares anything about me, while my old master was kind to me and looked after my welfare.”
“Would you like to be really free?” I asked him, for a plan had been slowly forming in my mind.
But to my surprise he said, “No, I should rather be a slave.”
“But you’d like to choose your own master, wouldn’t you?” I demanded.
“Certainly,” he replied, “if I could find some one who would be kind to me and protect me from the Thorists.”
“And if you could escape from them now, you would like to do so?”
“Of course! But what do you mean? I cannot escape from them.”
“Not without help,” I agreed, “but if others would join you, would you make the attempt?”
“Why not? They are taking me back to Thora to kill me. I could be no worse off, no matter what I did. But why do you ask all these questions?”
“If we could get enough to join us, there is no reason why we should not be free,” I told him. “When you are free, you may remain free or choose a master to your liking.” I watched closely for his reaction.
“You mean another revolution?” he asked. “It would fail. Others have tried, but they have always failed.”
“Not a revolution,” I assured him, “just a break for liberty.”
“But how could we do it?”
“It would not be difficult for a few men to take this ship,” I suggested. “The discipline is poor, the night watches consist of too few men; they are so sure of themselves that they would be taken completely by surprise.”
Zog’s eyes lighted. “If we were successful, many of the crew would join us,” he said. “Few of them are happy; nearly all of them hate their officers. I think the prisoners would join us almost to a man, but you must be careful of spies—they are everywhere. That is the greatest danger you would have to face. There can be no doubt but there is at least one spy among us prisoners.”
“How about Gamfor,” I asked; “is he all right?”
“You can depend upon Gamfor,” Zog assured me. “He does not say much, but in his eyes I can read his hatred of them.”
“Just the man!” exclaimed Zog. “He despises them, and he does not care who knows it; that is the reason he is a prisoner. This is not his first offense, and it is rumored that he will be executed for high treason.”
“But I thought that he only talked back to an officer and refused to obey him,” I said.
“That is high treason—if they wish to get rid of a man,” explained Zog. “You can depend on Kiron. Do you wish me to speak to him about the matter?”
“No,” I told him. “I will speak to him and to Gamfor; then if anything goes wrong before we are ready to strike, if a spy gets wind of our plot, you will not be implicated.”
“I do not care about that,” he exclaimed. “They can kill me for but one thing, and it makes no difference which thing it is they kill me for.”
“Nevertheless, I shall speak to them, and if they will join us, we can then decide together how to approach others.”
Zog and I had been working together scrubbing the deck at the time, and it was not until night that I had an opportunity to speak with Gamfor and Kiron. Both were enthusiastic about the plan, but neither thought that there was much likelihood that it would succeed. However, each assured me of his support; and then we found Zog, and the four of us discussed details throughout half the night. We had withdrawn to a far corner of the room in which we were confined and spoke in low whispers with our heads close together.
The next few days were spent in approaching recruits—a very ticklish business, since they all assured me that it was almost a foregone conclusion that there was a spy among us. Each man had to be sounded out by devious means, and it had been decided that this work should be left to Gamfor and Kiron. I was eliminated because of my lack of knowledge concerning the hopes, ambitions, and the grievances of these people, or their psychology; Zog was eliminated because the work required a much higher standard of intelligence than he possessed.
Gamfor warned Kiron not to divulge our plan to any prisoner who too openly avowed his hatred of the Thorists. “This is a time-worn trick that all spies adopt to lull the suspicions of those they suspect of harboring treasonable thoughts, and to tempt them into avowing their apostasy. Select men whom you know to have a real grievance, and who are moody and silent,” he counselled.
I was a little concerned about our ability to navigate the ship in the event that we succeeded in capturing her, and I discussed this matter with both Gamfor and Kiron. What I learned from them was illuminating, if not particularly helpful.
The Amtorians have developed a compass similar to ours. According to Kiron, it points always toward the center of Amtor—that is, toward the center of the mythical circular area called Strabol, or Hot Country. This statement assured me that I was in the southern hemisphere of the planet, the needle of the compass, of course, pointing north toward the north magnetic pole. Having no sun, moon, nor stars, their navigation is all done by dead reckoning; but they have developed instruments of extreme delicacy that locate land at great distances, accurately indicating this distance and the direction; others that determine speed, mileage, and drift, as well as a depth gauge wherewith they may record soundings anywhere within a radius of a mile from the ship.
All of their instruments for measuring dislances utilize the radio-activity of the nuclei of various elements to accomplish their ends. The gamma ray, for which they have, of course, another name, being uninfluenced by the most powerful magnetic forces, is naturally the ideal medium for their purposes. It moves in a straight line and at uniform speed until it meets an obstruction, where, even though it may not be deflected, it is retarded, the instrument recording such retardation and the distance at which it occurs. The sounding device utilizes the same principle. The instrument records the distance from the ship at which the ray encounters the resistance of the ocean’s bottom; by contructing a right triangle with this distance representing the hypotenuse it is simple to compute both the depth of the ocean and the distance from the ship at which bottom was found, for they have a triangle of which one side and all three angles are known.
Owing to their extremely faulty maps, however, the value of these instruments has been greatly reduced, for no matter what course they lay, other than due north, if they move in a straight line they are always approaching the antarctic regions. They may know that land is ahead and its distance, but they are never sure what land it is, except where the journey is a short and familiar one. For this reason they cruise within sight of land wherever that is practical, with the result that journeys that might otherwise be short are greatly protracted. Another result is that the radius of Amtorian maritime exploration has been greatly circumscribed; so much so that I believe there are enormous areas in the south temperate zone that have never been discovered by the Vepajans or the Thorists, while the very existence of the northern hemisphere is even unguessed by them. On the maps that Danus showed me considerable areas contained nothing but the single word joram, ocean.
However, notwithstanding all this (and possibly because of it), I was confident that we could manage to navigate the ship quite as satisfactorily as her present officers, and in this Kiron agreed.
“At least we know the general direction of Thora,” he argued; “so all we have to do is sail in the other direction.”
As our plans matured, the feasibility of the undertaking appeared more and more certain. We had recruited twenty prisoners, five of whom were Vepajans, and this little band we organized into a secret order with passwords, which were changed daily, signs, and a grip, the last reminiscent of my fraternity days in college. We also adopted a name. We called ourselves Soldiers of Liberty. I was chosen vookor, or captain. Gamfor, Kiron, Zog, and Honan were my principal lieutenants, though I told them that Kamlot would be second in command if we were successful in taking the ship.
Our plan of action was worked out in detail; each man knew exactly what was expected of him. Certain men were to overpower the watch, others were to go to the officers’ quarters and secure their weapons and keys; then we would confront the crew and offer those who chose an opportunity to join us. The others—well, there I was confronted with a problem. Almost to a man the Soldiers of Liberty wanted to destroy all those who would not join us, and really there seemed no alternative; but I still hoped that I could work out a more humane disposition of them.
There was one man among the prisoners of whom we were all suspicious. He had an evil face, but that was not his sole claim upon our suspicions—he was too loud in his denunciation of Thorism. We watched him carefully, avoiding him whenever we could, and each member of the band was warned to be careful when talking to him. It was evident to Gamfor first that this fellow, whose name was Anoos, was suspicious. He persisted in seeking out various members of our group and engaging them in conversation which he always led around to the subject of Thorism and his hatred of it, and he constantly questioned each of us about the others, always insinuating that he feared certain ones were spies. But of course we had expected something of this sort, and we felt that we had guarded against it. The fellow might be as suspicious of us as he wished; so long as he had no evidence against us I did not see how he could harm us.
One day Kiron came to me evidently laboring under suppressed excitement. It was at the end of the day, and our food had just been issued to us for the evening meal—dried fish and a hard, dark-colored bread made of coarse meal.
“I have news, Carson,” he whispered.
“Let us go off in a corner and eat,” I suggested, and we strolled away together, laughing and talking of the day’s events in our normal voices. As we seated ourselves upon the floor to eat our poor food, Zog joined us.
“Sit close to us, Zog,” directed Kiron; “I have something to say that no one but a Soldier of Liberty may hear.”
He did not say Soldier of Liberty, but “kung, kung, kung,” which are the Amtorian initials of the order’s title. Kung is the name of the Amtorian character that represents the k sound in our language, and when I first translated the initials I was compelled to smile at the similarity they bore to those of a well-known secret order in the United States of America.
“While I am talking,” Kiron admonished us, “you must laugh often, as though I were telling a humorous tale; then, perhaps, no one will suspect that I am not.
“Today I was working in the ship’s armory, cleaning pistols,” he commenced. “The soldier who guarded me is an old friend of mine; we served together in the army of the jong. He is as a brother to me. For either the other would die. We talked of old times under the banners of the jong and compared those days with these, especially we compared the officers of the old regime with those of the present. Like me and like every old soldier, he hates his officers; so we had a pleasant time together.
“Finally he said to me, quite suddenly, ‘What is this I hear of a conspiracy among the prisoners?’
“That almost took me off my feet; but I showed no emotion, for there are times when one must not trust even a brother. ‘What have you heard?’ I asked.
“‘I overheard one of the officers speaking to another,’ he told me. ‘He said that a man named Anoos had reported the matter to the captain, and that the captain had told Anoos to get the names of all the prisoners whom he knew to be involved in the conspiracy and to learn their plans if he possibly could.’
“‘And what did Anoos say?’ I asked my friend.
“‘He said that if the captain would give him a bottle of wine he believed that he could get one of the conspirators drunk and worm the story from him. So the captain gave him a bottle of wine. That was today.’
“My friend looked at me very closely, and then he said, ‘Kiron, we are more than brothers. If I can help you, you have but to ask.’
“I knew this, and knowing how close to discovery we already were, I decided to confide in him and enlist his aid; so I told him. I hope you do not feel that I did wrong, Carson.”
“By no means,” I assured him. “We have been forced to tell others of our plans whom we knew and trusted less well than you know and trust your friend. What did he say when you had told him?”
“He said that he would help us, and that when we struck he would join us. He promised, too, that many others of the soldiers would do likewise; but the most important thing he did was to give me a key to the armory.”
“Good!” I exclaimed. “There is no reason now why we should not strike at once.”
“Tonight?” asked Zog eagerly.
“Tonight!” I replied. “Pass the word to Gamfor and Honan, and you four to the other Soldiers of Liberty.”
We all laughed heartily, as though some one had told a most amusing story, and then Kiron and Zog left me, to acquaint Gamfor and Honan with our plan.
But upon Venus as upon earth, the best laid plans of mice and men “gang aft a-gley,” which is slang for haywire. Every night since we had sailed from the harbor of Vepaja the hatch had been left off our ill-smelling prison to afford us ventilation, a single member of the watch patrolling near to see that none of us came out; but tonight the hatch was closed.
“This,” growled Kiron, “is the result of Anoos’s work.”
“We shall have to strike by daylight,” I whispered, “but we cannot pass the word tonight. It is so dark down here that we should certainly be overheard by some one outside our own number if we attempted it.”
“Tomorrow then,” said Kiron.
I was a long time getting to sleep that night, for my mind was troubled by fears for our entire plan. It was obvious now that the captain was suspicious, and that while he might not know anything of the details of what we purposed, he did know that something was in the air, and he was taking no chances.
During the night, as I lay awake trying to plan for the morrow, I heard some one prowling around the room, and now and again a whisper. I could only wonder who it was and try to guess what he was about. I recalled the bottle of wine that Anoos was supposed to have, and it occurred to me that he might be giving a party, but the voices were too subdued to bear out that theory. Finally I heard a muffled cry, a noise that sounded like a brief scuffle, and then silence again fell upon the chamber.
“Some one had a bad dream,” I thought and fell asleep.
Morning came at last, and the hatch was removed, letting a little light in to dissipate the gloom of our prison. A sailor lowered a basket containing the food for our meager breakfast. We gathered about it and each took his share, and moved away to eat it, when suddenly there was a cry from the far side of the room.
“Look what’s here!” the man shouted. “Anoos has been murdered!”