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dwin Dollard's nervous stubby fingers spilled three precious drops of his fifth Scotch highball, as he veered his head away from the horrors on the telescreen. He was in time to observe Garth enter by the paneled tunnel door.

"Two more hours—and the ship will be ready," Garth announced. "The men still know nothing." His thin lips cracked into a forced smile. "I slipped them the poison at noon mess. There'll be no tales out of those greaseballs."

Dollard's pudgy features relaxed. "Just you and I, Garth ... to survive. The others—stupid sheep—let them die!" Lust spread his heavy cheeks into a wide grin. "As for women, there'll be time enough for them ... on Venus."

"I know," said Garth slowly. "Plague-untouched women. It'll be like being reborn again." His pained somber eyes lit up. "It's right good we understand each other...."

"Just see that we continue understanding one another," Edwin Dollard snapped. "I'm still the boss."

The last of America's industrial tycoons refocussed his attention on the world telecasts. Since breakfast, he had sat glued to the news while a battery of video announcers reported from central strongholds on the progress of the bacterial epidemic that already had swept the Atlantic seaboard.

"Any late news?" Garth asked, over Dollard's shoulder.

"For your information, I picked up a flash from Denver. Just before you came in—"

"Bad, eh?"

"You said it, Garth. A thousand new cases. Some think the Asiatics got another two or three missiles through the Canadian radar barrier. More likely, the germs hitch-hiked westward on human carriers, gangs of them streaming out of the eastern states. The mobs are like vermin; you can't hold 'em back. They sneak through the quarantine at a hundred points."

"They're people, aren't they?" said Garth, quietly.

"People? They're no more people than the loutish mechs you just did away with today."

"Under your orders," Garth pointed out.

"But it had to be done. Let's not be squeamish children—"

"Yes, so it did. You're safe enough."

"You and I both," Dollard completed. "As long as we're together, we're both safe...."

Dollard gripped his hands together and glanced nervously about the timbered walls of his High Sierra lodge, as if to assure himself that this carefully guarded retreat would protect him from the grisly crawling death that was demolishing his invincible country. Even in the presence of his most trusted hireling, Garth, who had been executive officer of Dollard's vast combine, the millionaire was ashamed to admit how the report from Colorado—which claimed the enemy-seeded plague had already crossed the broad prairie states—had been enough to send him into a cowering state of panic. And now, even after assurance that he could soon take off in his private vessel, bound for bacteria-free space and the antiseptic sanctuary of Venus, he was still suffering a paroxysm of fear so great that not even a double slug of his costly hoarded alcohol could banish it completely.

utside, hired thugs, outfitted with hydroflame rifles, patrolled the two roads entering the narrow valley—armed with orders to shoot to kill all unauthorized intruders. Already, the guards' task was proving more difficult as refugees from the Los Angeles area poured into the mountains by way of Bishop and Highway 395....