In his garden, Negu Mah, the Callisto uranium merchant, sat sipping a platinum mug of molkai with his guest, Sliss the Venusian.
Nanlo, his wife, pushing before her the small serving cart with its platinum molkai decanter, paused for an instant as she entered the shell of pure vitrite which covered the garden, giving it the illusion of out-of-doorness.
Negu Mah sat at his ease, his broad, merry, half-Oriental face good-humored, his features given a ruddy tinge by the light of rising Jupiter, the edge of whose sphere was beginning to dominate the horizon. Sliss, the intelligent amphibian, squatted across from him in the portable tub of water which he carried with him whenever absent from the swamps of his native Venus.
The amphibian’s popping eyes turned toward her, the wide frog-face split in a smile of appreciation as Nanlo approached. She refilled their mugs deftly and withdrew. But before she reentered the house she could not resist hesitating to glance toward rising Jupiter and the slim shaft of the rocketship silhouetted now against its surface.
The ship was the cargo rocket Vulcan, newest and swiftest of Negu Mah’s freighter fleet. Fully fueled and provisioned, storage space jammed with refrigerated foods that in space the cold of the encompassing void would keep perfectly for generations were it necessary, she would take off in the morning from the close-by landing port for Jupiter’s other satellites, then go on to the Saturnian system, returning finally with full holds of uranium for Negu Mah’s refineries on Callisto.
She was a beautiful craft, the Vulcan, and one man could manage her, though her normal crew was seven. She had cost a great sum. But Negu Mah was wealthy.
Nanlo’s face, sylph-like in its beauty, hardened. Negu Mah was wealthy indeed. Had he not bought her, and had she not cost him more, much more, than the Vulcan?
But no, it was not quite accurate to say that Negu Mah had bought her. However, since time immemorial beautiful daughters had been, if not sold, yet urged into marriages to wealthy men for the benefit of their impoverished families. And though science had made great strides, conquering the realms of the telescope and invading those below the level of the microscope, finding cures for almost every disease the flesh of man was heir to, there was one ailment it had not yet conquered--poverty.
Nanlo’s father had been a rocket port attendant. Once he had been a pilot, but a crash had crippled him for life. Thereafter, his wages had been quite insufficient to sustain him, his brood of half a dozen children, and their hard-working mother.
But Nanlo, growing up, had developed into a mature beauty that rivaled the exotic loveliness of the wild orchids of Io. And in debarking at the rocket port on a business trip to earth, because hurricanes had forced him to land far south of New York, Negu Mah had seen her.
Thereafter--But that is a story as ancient as history too.
It was a truth Nanlo conveniently overlooked now that she had not been unwilling to be Negu Mah’s bride. It was true she had driven a sharp bargain with him--her father’s debts paid, and sufficient more to ease her parents’ life and educate her brothers and sisters. Plus a marriage settlement for herself, and a sum in escrow in the Earth Union bank, should she ever divorce him for cruelty or mistreatment. But that had been only innate shrewdness. She would still have married him had he refused her demands for her family. For his wealth fascinated her, and the prospect of being a virtual queen, even of a distant outpost colony such as that on Callisto, appealed to her.
And she had thought that she was taking little risk, for if she were dissatisfied, the law these days was very lenient toward unhappy marital relationships. It required only definite proof of misconduct, mistreatment, or oppression of any kind to win freedom from an unwanted partner. Nanlo had been confident that after a year or two she would be able to shake free of the bonds uniting her to Negu Mah and take flight for herself into a world made vastly more pleasant by the marriage settlement remaining to her.
But now she had been married, and had lived on Callisto, for a full five years, and her tolerance of Negu Mah had long since turned to bitter hate. Not because he was a bad husband, but because he was too good a one!
There was an ironic humor in the situation, but Nanlo was not disposed to recognize it. Lenient as the law was, yet it required some grounds before it could free her. And she had no grounds whatever. Negu Mah was at all times the model of courtesy and consideration toward her. He granted every reasonable wish and some that were unreasonable--although when he refused one of the latter, it was with a firmness as unshakeable as a rock.
Their home was as fine as any on earth. She had more than adequate help in taking care of it. She had ample time for any pursuits that interested her. But she used it only to become more and more bitter against Negu Mah because she could find no excuse to divorce him.
So great had her bitterness become that, if she could have gotten off Callisto in any way, she would have deserted him. This would have meant forfeiting her marriage settlement and the sum that was in escrow. It would also have left her father in debt to Negu Mah for all that Negu Mah had given him. But Nanlo’s passionate rebellion had reached such a state of ferment in her breast that she would have accepted all this to strike a blow at the plump, smiling man who now sat drinking molkai in their garden with their guest from Venus.
The answer to that was--Negu Mah would not let her leave Callisto. The journey to earth, he logically argued, was still one containing a large element of danger. There was no reason for her to visit any other planet, and law and custom required that she look after their home while he himself was away on business.
In this he was unshakeable. There was a stern and unyielding side to him, inherited perhaps from his Eastern ancestors, that left Nanlo shaken and frightened when it appeared. She had seen it the one time she had seriously gone into a tantrum in an effort to make him let her take a trip to earth. It had so startled and terrified her that she had never used those tactics again.
But now, as she wheeled away the molkai decanter and left Negu Mah and Sliss to themselves, joy and exultation was singing in her. Doubly. For she was going to run away from Negu Mah, run away with the man she loved, and in their flight they were going to steal the Vulcan. Thus Negu Mah would be doubly punished. He would be hurt in his pride and in his pocketbook. And all through the Jupiter and Saturn systems, where his wealth, his position, and his beautiful wife were openly envied, he would be laughed at and derided.
Humming lightly under her breath, Nanlo put the molkai decanter away in a little pantry and hurried on to her own apartment. Molkai was a powerful, though non-habit-forming drink. Under its influence one became talkative, but disinclined to movement. Sliss and her husband would remain as they were for hours, leaving her free to do as she would. The servants were asleep in another part of the building, and there was no one to note as she changed her clothes swiftly for a light, warm travelling suit, caught up two small bags, one holding her personal things, the other her jewels, and let herself out through her own private entrance into the darkness of the rear gardens.
Where in the shadows the tall, blonde young engineer, Hugh Neils, was waiting for her...
Negu Mah, when his beautiful wife had left the garden, sighed and put to one side his mug of molkai.
“Sliss, my friend,” he said to the Venusian, who was regarding him with large, unblinking pop-eyes, “I am troubled in my mind. Tonight I must dispense justice. Justice to myself and justice to another. To be just is often to be terribly cruel.”
Sliss blinked, once, a film moving horizontally across his large eyes and retracting, to show that he understood. Due to the difficulty of using his artificial speech mechanism, he refrained from speaking until speech was necessary.
“My wife, Nanlo,” Negu Mah said heavily, “is unhappy. I have done all that is in my power to make her happy, but I have failed. She has made some requests that I have denied, namely, to be permitted freedom to visit earth. That I denied because I knew the paths she intended to tread would not have led her to happiness either, and I hoped that in the end, here she would find contentment. I have hoped in vain. Tonight she intends to take matters into her own hands.”
Sliss blinked again, politely, to indicate that he was interested if Negu Mah cared to tell him more. Negu Mah rose.
“My friend,” he said, “if you will come with me, I will show you what I mean.”
Sliss grasped the edge of his tub with webbed hands and swung his webbed, yellow-skinned feet free from the water which kept the sensitive membranes from drying, and at the same time supplied his body tissues with liquid. Falling upon all fours, like a great, misshapen pet, he waddled awkwardly after his host.
Negu Mah led him to an elevator within the house. This took them to a higher floor, and there they followed a corridor to the rear of the building. Here Negu Mah, without showing a light, opened a door, and in silence they moved out upon a small balcony overlooking the rear gardens, which were shrouded in darkness because rising Jupiter was on the opposite side of the building.
They had stood there only a moment when below them a door opened, and a small figure slipped through. Another figure appeared from beneath the shadows of a cluster of slender, purple neklo trees and moved forward to greet the first. They met in the center of a tiny open space, where a fountain spurting through holes in crystal made a sweet murmuring music. And to the two watchers rose whispered words--”Nanlo! Nanlo, my darling!” “Hugh! Oh, Hugh, my love, hold me close and tell me that everything is ready for us to leave!”
Hugh Neils’ arms held her close, and his lips were hot on hers. That he was here as they had planned meant that he had succeeded in the other plans they had agreed upon. Exultation soared higher in Nanlo’s breast.
“Then we can go? Go now?” she asked eagerly, as Hugh Neils released her. “The crew is asleep? You were able to arrange it?”
The young engineer looked down at her, his thin face a pale blur in the darkness.
“In five minutes, just five minutes, Nanlo, my own,” he whispered. “I left the guard half an hour ago, drinking molkai into which I put a sleeping powder. Give him five more minutes to fall asleep, then we can go to the ship unseen, unchecked. Until then, we can wait here in the garden.”
He led her toward the trilling fountain and they sat down upon a bench before it, of rare Callisto crystal. They still were in darkness, but the flame-like Jupiter light touched the tops of the neklo trees above them with a ruddy light which brought faint glimmerings from the radioactive leaves.
Hugh Neils was a recent college graduate whom Negu Mah had hired as an assistant supervisor in the refining mills on Callisto, where the precious uranium 235 was separated from the ordinary metal. It was not a desirable job, but the best Hugh Neils could get. His college record of reckless scrapes and entanglements with women had been against him. Indeed, this position had only come to him because his home was in the same section as Nanlo’s, and Negu Mah had thought that perhaps his company on occasion would help alleviate Nanlo’s restlessness.