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´╗┐Title: Gold in the Sky
Author: Nourse, Alan Edward, 1928-1992
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Gold in the Sky" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                            GOLD IN THE SKY

                           By ALAN E. NOURSE

                         ILLUSTRATOR LLEWELLYN

                BOOK-LENGTH NOVEL COMPLETE IN THIS ISSUE

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Amazing Science
Fiction Stories September 1958. Extensive research did not uncover any
evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



CONTENTS


  1. TROUBLE TIMES TWO

  2. JUPITER EQUILATERAL

  3. TOO MANY WARNINGS

  4. "BETWEEN MARS AND JUPITER..."

  5. THE BLACK RAIDER

  6. THE LAST RUN OF THE SCAVENGER

  7. PRISONERS

  8. THE SCAVENGERS OF SPACE

  9. THE INVISIBLE MAN

 10. THE TRIGGER

 11. THE HAUNTED SHIP

 12. THE SINISTER BONANZA

 13. PINPOINT IN SPACE

 14. THE MISSING ASTEROID

 15. THE FINAL MOVE



YOU WILL MEET--


Greg Hunter. Test pilot--happy only when his life hung in the balance.

Tom Hunter. A pioneer--his frontier was hidden in test tubes.

Johnny Coombs. A prospector--he returned from the asteroids too soon.

Merrill Tawney. An industrialist--he sought plunder even beyond the
stars.

Major Briarton. A government man--his creed was law and order.



[Illustration: They fought with whatever was handy, not bothering to
figure the odds.]



1. Trouble Times Two


The sun was glowing dull red as it slipped down behind the curving
horizon of Mars, but Gregory Hunter was not able to see it.

There was no viewscreen in the ship's cabin; it was too tiny for that.
Greg twisted around in the cockpit that had been built just big enough
to hold him, and shifted his long legs against the brace-webbing, trying
to get them comfortable.

He knew he was afraid ... but nobody else knew that, not even the
captain waiting at the control board on the satellite, and in spite of
the fear Greg Hunter would not have traded places at this moment with
anyone else in the universe.

He had worked too hard and waited too long for this moment.

He heard the count-down monitor clicking in his ears, and his hands
clenched into fists. How far from Mars would he be ten minutes from now?
He didn't know. Farther than any man had ever traveled before in the
space of ten minutes, he knew, and faster. How far and how fast would
depend on him alone.

"All set, Greg?" It was the captain's voice in the earphones.

"All set, Captain."

"You understand the program?"

Greg nodded. "Twenty-four hours out, twenty-four hours back, ninety
degrees to the ecliptic, and all the accelleration I can stand both
ways."

Greg grinned to himself. He thought of the months of conditioning he had
gone through to prepare for this run ... the hours in the centrifuge to
build up his tolerance to accelleration, the careful diet, the rigorous
hours of physical conditioning. It was only one experiment, one tiny
step in the work that could someday give men the stars, but to Gregory
Hunter at this moment it was everything.

"Good luck, then." The captain cut off, and the blastoff buzzer sounded.

He was off. His heart hammered in his throat, and his eyes ached
fiercely, but he paid no attention. His finger crept to the air-speed
indicator, then to the cut-off switch. When the pressure became too
great, when he began to black out, he would press it.

But not yet. It was speed they wanted; they had to know how much
accelleration a man could take for how long and still survive, and now
it was up to him to show them.

Fleetingly, he thought of Tom ... poor old stick-in-the-mud Tom, working
away in his grubby little Mars-bound laboratory, watching bacteria grow.
Tom could never have qualified for a job like this. Tom couldn't even go
into free-fall for ten minutes without getting sick all over the place.
Greg felt a surge of pity for his brother, and then a twinge of
malicious anticipation. Wait until Tom heard the reports on _this_ run!
It was all right to spend your time poking around with bottles and test
tubes if you couldn't do anything else, but it took something special to
pilot an XP ship for Project Star-Jump. And after this run was over,
even Tom would have to admit it....

There was a lurch, and quite suddenly the enormous pressure was gone.

Something was wrong. He hadn't pushed the cut-off button, yet the ship's
engines were suddenly silent. He jabbed at the power switch. Nothing
happened. Then the side-jets sputted, and he was slammed sideways into
the cot.

He snapped on the radio speaker. "Control ... can you hear me?
Something's gone wrong out here...."

"Nothing's wrong," the captain's voice said in his earphones. "Just sit
tight. I'm bringing you back in. There's a call here from Sun Lake City.
They want you down there in a hurry. We'll have to scratch you on this
run."

"_Who_ wants me down there?"

"The U.N. Council office. Signed by Major Briarton himself and I can't
argue with the Major. We're bringing you in."

Greg Hunter sank back, disappointment so thick he could taste it in his
mouth. Sun Lake City! That meant two days at least, one down, one back,
maybe more if connections weren't right. It meant that the captain would
send Morton or one of the others out in his place. It meant....

Suddenly he thought of what else it meant, and a chill ran up his back.

There was only one reason Major Briarton would call him in like this.
Something had happened to Dad.

Greg leaned back in the cot, suddenly tense, as a thousand frightful
possibilities flooded his mind. It could only mean that Dad was in some
kind of trouble.

And if anything had happened to Dad....

       *       *       *       *       *

The sun was sinking rapidly toward the horizon when the city finally
came into sight in the distance, but try as he would, Tom Hunter could
not urge more than thirty-five miles an hour from the huge lurching
vehicle he was driving.

On an open paved highway the big pillow-wheeled Sloppy Joe would do
sixty in a breeze, but this desert route was far from a paved road.
Inside the pressurized passenger cab, Tom gripped the shock-bars with
one arm and the other leg, and jammed the accelerator to the floor. The
engine coughed, but thirty-five was all it would do.

Through the windshield Tom could see the endless rolling dunes of the
Martian desert stretching to the horizon on every side. They called Mars
the Red Planet, but it was not red when you were close to it. There were
multitudes of colors here ... yellow, orange, brown, gray, occasional
patches of gray-green ... all shifting and changing in the fading
sunlight. Off to the right were the worn-down peaks of the Mesabi II,
one of the long, low mountain ranges of almost pure iron ore that helped
give the planet its dull red appearance from outer space. And behind
him, near the horizon, the tiny sun glowed orange out of a blue-black
sky.

Tom fought the wheel as the Sloppy Joe jounced across a dry creek bed,
and swore softly to himself. Why hadn't he kept his head and waited for
the mail ship that had been due at the Lab to give him a lift back? He'd
have been in Sun Lake City an hour ago ... but the urgency of the
message had driven caution from his mind.

A summons from the Mars Coordinator of the U.N. Interplanetary Council
was the same as an order ... but there was more to Tom's haste than
that. There was only one reason that Major Briarton would be calling him
in to Sun Lake City, and that reason meant trouble.

Something was wrong. Something had happened to Dad.

Now Tom peered up at the dark sky, squinting into the sun. Somewhere out
there between Mars and Jupiter was a no-man's-land of danger, a great
circling ring of space dirt and debris, the Asteroid belt. And somewhere
out there, Dad was working.

Tom thought for a moment of the pitiful little mining rig that Roger
Hunter had taken out to the Belt ... the tiny orbit-ship to be used for
headquarters and storage of the ore; the even tinier scout ship, Pete
Racely's old _Scavenger_ that he had sold to Roger Hunter for back taxes
and repairs when he went broke in the Belt looking for his Big Strike.
It wasn't much of a mining rig for anybody to use, and the dangers of a
small mining operation in the Asteroid Belt were frightening. It took
skill to bring a little scout-ship in for a landing on an asteroid rock
hardly bigger than the ship itself; it took even more skill to rig the
controlled-Murexide charges to blast the rock into tiny fragments, and
then run out the shiny magnetic net to catch the explosion debris and
bring it in to the hold of the orbit-ship....

Tom Hunter scowled, trying to shake off the feeling of uneasiness that
was nibbling at his mind. Asteroid mining was dangerous ... but Dad was
no novice. Nobody on Mars knew how to handle a mining rig better than
Roger Hunter did. He knew what he was doing out there, there was no real
danger for him or was there....

Roger Hunter, a good man, a gentle and peaceful man, had finally seen
all he could stomach of Jupiter Equilateral and its company mining
policies six months before. He had told them so in plain, simple
language when he turned in his resignation. They didn't try to stop
him ... a man was still free to quit a job on Mars if he wanted to, even
a job with Jupiter Equilateral. But it was an open secret that the big
mining outfit had not liked Roger Hunter's way of resigning, taking half
a dozen of their first-rate mining engineers with him. There had been
veiled threats, rumors of attempts to close the markets to Roger
Hunter's ore, in open violation of U.N. Council policies on Mars....

Tom fought the wheel as the big tractor lumbered up another rise, and
the huge plastic bubble of Sun Lake City came into view far down the
valley below.

He thought of Greg. Had Greg been summoned too? He closed his lips
tightly as a wave of anger passed through his mind. If anything had
happened, no matter what, he thought, Greg would be there. Taking over
and running things, as usual. He thought of the last time he had seen
his brother, and then deliberately blocked out the engulfing bitterness.

That had been more than a year ago. Maybe Greg had changed since then.

But somehow, Tom didn't think so.

The Sloppy Joe was on the valley floor now, and ahead the bubble
covering the city was drawing closer. The sun was almost gone; lights
were appearing inside the plastic shielding. Born and raised on Mars,
Tom had seen the teeming cities of Earth only once in his life ... but
to him none of the splendors of the Earth cities could match the simple,
quiet beauty of this Martian outpost settlement. There had been a time
when people had said that Sun Lake City could never be built, that it
could never survive if it were, but with each successive year it grew
larger and stronger, the headquarters city for the planet that had
become the new frontier of Earth.

The radiophone buzzed, and the airlock guard hailed him when he returned
the signal. Tom gave his routine ID. He guided the tractor into the
lock, waited until pressure and atmosphere rose to normal, and then
leaped out of the cab.

Five minutes later he was walking across the lobby of the Interplanetary
Council building, stepping into the down elevator. Three flights below
he stepped out into the office corridor of the U.N. Interplanetary
Council on Mars.

If there was trouble, this was where he would find it.

He paused for a minute before the gray plastic door marked MAJOR FRANK
BRIARTON in raised stainless steel letters. Then he pushed open the door
and walked into the ante-room.

It was empty. Suddenly he felt a touch on his shoulder. Behind him, a
familiar voice said, "Hello, Twin."

       *       *       *       *       *

At first glance they looked like carbon copies of each other, although
they were no more identical than identical twins ever are. Greg stood a
good two inches taller than Tom. His shoulders were broad, and there was
a small gray scar over one eye that stood out in contrast to the healthy
tanned color of his face. Tom was of slighter build, and wirier, his
skin much more pale.

But they had the same dark hair, the same gray eyes, the same square,
stubborn line to the jaw. They looked at each other for a moment without
speaking. Then Greg grinned and clapped his brother on the shoulder.

"So you got here, finally," he said. "I was beginning to think I'd have
to go out on the desert and find you."

"Oh, I got here, all right," Tom said. "I see you did too."

"Yes," Greg said heavily. "Can't argue with the major, you know."

"But what does he want?"

"How should I know? All he said was to get down here fast. And now he
isn't even here himself."

"Is Dad on Mars?" Tom asked.

Greg looked at him. "I don't know."

"We could check the register."

"I already checked it. He has not logged in, but that doesn't mean
anything."

"I suppose not," Tom said glumly.

They were silent for a moment. Then Greg said, "Look, what are you
worried about? Nothing could have happened to Dad. He's been mining the
Belt for years."

"I know. I just wish he were here, that's all. If he's in some kind of
trouble...."

"What kind of trouble? You're looking for spooks."

"Spooks like Jupiter Equilateral, maybe," Tom said. "They could make
plenty of trouble for Dad."

"With the U.N. in the driver's seat here? They wouldn't dare. Why do you
think the major rides them so hard with all the claim-filing
regulations? He'd give his right arm for a chance to break that outfit
into pieces."

"I still wish somebody had gone out to the Belt with Dad," Tom said.

Just then the door opened. The newcomer was a tall, gray-haired man with
U.N. Council stripes on his lapel, and major's rockets on his shoulders.
"Sorry I'm late, boys," Major Briarton said. "I'd hoped to be here when
you arrived. I'm sorry to pull you in here like this, but I'm afraid I
had no choice. When did you boys hear from your father last?"

They looked at each other. "I saw him six weeks ago," Tom said. "Just
before he left to go out to the Belt again."

"Nothing since then?"

"Not a word."

The major chewed his lip. "Greg?"

"I had a note at Christmas, I think. But what...."

"What did he say in the note?"

"He said Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Dad isn't much of a letter
writer."

"Nothing at all about what he was doing?"

Greg shook his head. "Look, Major, if there's some sort of trouble...."

"Yes, I'm afraid there's trouble," the major said. He looked up at them,
and spread his hands helplessly. "There isn't any easy way to tell you,
but you've got to know. There's been an accident, out in the Belt."

"Accident?" Greg said.

"A very serious accident. A fuel tank exploded in the scooter your
father was riding back to the _Scavenger_. It must have been very
sudden, and by the time help arrived...." The major broke off, unable to
find words.

For a long moment there was utter silence in the room. Outside, an
elevator was buzzing, and a typewriter clicked monotonously somewhere in
the building.

Then Tom Hunter broke the silence. "Who was it, Major?" he said. "Who
killed Dad? Tell us, or we'll find out!"



2. Jupiter Equilateral


For a moment, Major Briarton just stared at him. Then he was on his
feet, shaking his head as he came around the desk. "Tom, use your head,"
he said. "It's as much of a shock to me as it is to you, but you can't
afford to jump to false conclusions...."

Tom Hunter looked up bitterly. "He's dead, isn't he?"

"Yes, he's dead. He must have died the instant of the explosion...."

"You mean you don't know?"

"I wasn't there at the time it happened, no."

"Then who was?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Major Briarton spread his hands helplessly. "Nobody was. Your father was
alone. From what we could tell later, he'd left the _Scavenger_ to land
on one of his claims, using the ship's scooter for the landing. He was
on the way back to the _Scavenger_ when the rear tank exploded. There
wasn't enough left of it to tell what went wrong ... but it was an
accident, there was no evidence to suggest anything else."

Tom looked at him. "You really believe that?"

"I can only tell you what we found."

"Well, I don't believe it for a minute," Tom said angrily. "How long
have you and Dad been friends? Twenty years? Twenty-five? Do you really
think Dad would have an accident with a mining rig?"

"I know he was an expert engineer," the major said. "But things can
happen that even an expert can't foresee, mining in the Belt."

"Things like a fuel tank exploding? Not to Dad, they would never happen.
I don't care what anybody says...."

"Easy, Tom," Greg said.

"Well, I won't take it easy. Dad was too careful for something like that
to happen. If he had an accident, somebody _made_ it happen."

Greg turned to the major. "What was Dad doing out there?"

"Mining."

"By himself? No crew at all?"

"No, he was alone."

"I thought the regulations said there always had to be at least two men
working an asteroid claim."

"That's right. Your father had Johnny Coombs with him when he left Sun
Lake City. They signed out as a team ... and then Johnny came back to
Mars on the first shuttle ship."

"How come?"

"Not even Johnny knows. Your father just sent him back, and there was
nothing we could do about it then. The U.N. has no jurisdiction in the
belt, unless a major crime has been committed." Major Briarton shook his
head helplessly. "If a man is determined to mine a claim all by himself
out there, he can find a dozen different ways to wiggle out of the
regulations."

"But Dad would never be that stupid," Greg said. "If he was alone when
it happened, who found him?"

"A routine U.N. Patrol ship. When Roger failed to check in at the
regular eight-hour signal, they went out to see what was wrong. But by
the time they reached him, it was too late to help."

"I just don't get it," Greg said. "Dad had more sense than to try to
mine out there all by himself."

"I know," the major said. "I don't know the answer. I had the Patrol
ship go over the scene of the accident with a comb after they found what
had happened, but there was nothing there to find. It was an accident,
and that's that."

"What about Jupiter Equilateral?" Tom said hotly. "Everybody knows they
were out to get Dad ... why don't you find out what _they_ were doing
when it happened, bring them in for questioning...."

"I can't do that, I haven't a scrap of evidence," the major said
wearily.

"Why can't you? You're the Mars Coordinator, aren't you? You act like
you're scared of them."

Major Briarton's lips tightened angrily. "All right, since you put it
that way ... I _am_ scared of them. They're big, and they're powerful.
If they had their way, there wouldn't be any United Nations control on
Mars, there wouldn't be _anybody_ to fight them and keep them in check.
There wouldn't be any independent miners out in the Belt, either,
because they'd all be bought out or dead, and Earth would pay through
the nose for every ounce of metal that they got from the Asteroid Belt.
That company has been trying to drive the U.N. off Mars for thirty
years, and they've come so close to it that it scares me plenty." He
pushed his chair back sharply and rose to his feet. "And that is
exactly why I refuse to stir up a mess over this thing, unhappy as
it is, without something more than suspicions and rumors to back me
up ... because all Jupiter Equilateral needs is one big issue to make us
look like fools out here, and we're through."

He crossed the room to a wall cabinet, opened it, and pulled out a
scarred aluminum box. "We found this in the cabin of the _Scavenger_. I
thought you boys might want it."

They both recognized it instantly ... the battered old spacer's pack
that Roger Hunter had used for as long as they could remember. It seemed
to them, suddenly, as if a part of him had appeared here in the room
with them. Greg looked at the box and turned away. "You open it," he
said to Tom in a sick voice.

There was nothing much inside ... some clothing, a pipe and tobacco
pouch, a jack knife, half a dozen other items so familiar that Tom could
hardly bear to touch them. At the bottom of the pack was the heavy
leather gun case which had always held Roger Hunter's ancient .44
revolver. Tom dropped it back without even opening the flap. He closed
the box and took a deep breath. "Then you really believe that it was an
accident and nothing more?" he said to the major.

Major Briarton shook his head. "What I think or don't think doesn't make
any difference. It just doesn't matter. In order to do anything, I've
got to have evidence, and there just isn't any evidence. I can't even
take a ship out there for a second look, with the evidence I have, and
that's all there is to it."

"But you think that maybe it wasn't an accident, just the same," Tom
pursued.

The major hesitated. Then he shook his head again. "I'm sorry, but I've
got to stand on what I've said. And I think you'd better stand on it,
too. There's nothing else to be done."

       *       *       *       *       *

It should have been enough, but it wasn't. As Tom Hunter walked with his
brother down the broad Upper Ramp to the business section of Sun Lake
City, he could not shake off the feeling of helpless anger, the growing
conviction that Roger Hunter's death involved something more than the
tragic accident in space that Major Briarton had insisted it was.

"He didn't tell us everything he knew," Tom said fiercely. "He didn't
say everything he wanted to say, either. He doesn't think it was an
accident any more than I do."

"How do you know, are you a mind reader?"

"No."

"Well, Dad wasn't a superman, either. He was taking an awful risk,
trying to work a mining rig by himself, and he had a bad break. Why do
you have to have somebody to blame for it?"

"Keep talking," Tom said. "You'll convince yourself yet."

Greg just jammed his hands in his pockets, and they walked in silence
for a moment.

For Tom and Greg Hunter, Sun Lake City had always been home. Now they
walked along the Main Concourse, Tom with the aluminum box under his
arm, Greg with his own spacer's pack thrown over his shoulder. They
didn't talk; rather than being drawn closer by the news of the tragedy,
it seemed that they had drawn farther apart, as though the one common
link that had held them together had suddenly been broken.

Finally Tom broke the silence. "At least there's one thing we can do,"
he said. "I'm going to call Johnny Coombs."

He shortly found a phone booth and dialed a number. Johnny had been a
friend of the family for years; he and Roger Hunter had been partners in
many mining ventures in the Asteroid Belt before Roger had taken his
position with Jupiter Equilateral. If Johnny had any suspicions that
Roger Hunter's accident had been more than an accident, he certainly
would not hesitate to voice them....

After a dozen rings, Tom hung up, tried another number. There was no
answer there, either. Frowning, Tom rang the city's central paging
system. "Put in a personal call for Johnny Coombs," he said when the
"record" signal flashed on. "Tell him to contact the Hunters when he
comes in. We'll be at home...."

They resumed their silent walk. When they reached H wing on the fourth
level, they turned right down an apartment corridor, and stopped in
front of a familiar doorway. Tom pressed his palm against the
lock-plate, and the door swung open.

It was home to them, the only home they had ever known. Soft lights
sprang up on the walls of the apartment as the door opened. Tom saw the
old bookcases lining the walls, the drafting-board and light at the far
end of the room, the simple chairs and dining table, the door which led
into the bedroom and kitchen beyond. The room had the slightly
disheveled look that it had had ever since Mom had died ... a slipper on
the floor here, a book face down on the couch there....

It looked as though Dad had just stepped out for an hour or so.

Tom was three steps into the room before he saw the visitor.

The man was sitting comfortably in Roger Hunter's easy chair, a short,
fat man with round pink cheeks that sagged a little and a double chin
that rested on his neck scarf. There were two other men in the room,
both large and broad-shouldered; one of them nodded to the fat man, and
moved to stand between the boys and the door.

The fat man was out of his seat before the boys could speak, smiling at
them and holding out his hand. "I wanted to be sure to see you before
you left the city," he was saying, "so we just came on in to wait. I
hope you don't mind our ... butting in, so to speak." He chuckled,
looking from one twin to the other. "You don't know me, I suppose. I'm
Merrill Tawney. Representing Jupiter Equilateral, you know."

Tom took the card he was holding out, looked at the name and the tiny
gold symbol in the corner, a letter "J" in the center of a triangle. He
handed the card to Greg. "I've seen you before," he told the fat man.
"What do you want with us?"

Tawney smiled again, spreading his hands. "We've heard about the
tragedy, of course. A shocking thing ... Roger was one of our group so
recently. We wanted you to know that if there is anything at all we can
do to help, we'd be only too glad...."

"Thanks," Greg said. "But we're doing just fine."

Tawney's smile tightened a little, but he hung onto it. "I always felt
close to your father," he said. "All of us at Jupiter Equilateral did.
We were all sorry to see him leave."

"I bet you were," Greg said, "he was the best mining engineer you ever
had. But Dad could never stand liars, or crooked ways of doing
business."

One of the men started for Greg, but the fat man stopped him with a wave
of his hand. "We had our differences of opinion," he said. "We saw
things one way, your father saw them another way. But he was a fine man,
one of the finest...."

"Look, Mr. Tawney, you'd better say what you came to say and get out of
here," Greg said dangerously, "before we give your friends here
something to do."

"I merely came to offer you some help," Tawney said. He was no longer
smiling. "Since your father's death, you two have acquired certain
responsibilities. I thought we might relieve you of some of them."

"What sort of responsibilities?"

"You have an unmanned orbit-ship which is now a derelict in the Asteroid
Belt. You have a scout-ship out there also. You can't just leave them
there as a navigation hazard to every ship traveling in the sector.
There are also a few mining claims which aren't going to be of much
value to you now."

"I see," Greg said. "Are you offering to buy Dad's mining rig?"

"Well, I doubt very much that we'd have any use for it, as such. But we
could save you the trouble of going out there to haul it in."

"That's very thoughtful," Greg said. "How much are you offering?"

Tom looked up in alarm. "Wait a minute," he said. "That rig's not for
sale...."

"How much?" Greg repeated.

"Forty thousand dollars," Merrill Tawney said. "Ship, rig and claims.
We'll even pay the transfer tax."

Tom stared at the man, wondering if he had heard right. He knew what
Roger Hunter had paid for the rig; he had been with Dad when the papers
were signed. Tawney's offer was three times as much as the rig was
worth.

But Greg was shaking his head. "I don't think we could sell at that
price."

The fat man's hands fluttered. "You understand that those ships are
hardly suited to a major mining operation like ours," he said, "and the
claims...." He dismissed them with a wave of his hand. "Still, we'd want
you to be happy with the price. Say, forty-five thousand?"

Greg hesitated, shook his head again. "I guess we'd better think it
over, Mr. Tawney."

"Fifty thousand is absolutely the top," Tawney said sharply. "I have the
papers right here, drawn up for your signatures, but I'm afraid we can't
hold the offer open."

"I don't know, we might want to do some mining ourselves," Greg said.
"For all we know, Dad might have struck some rich ore on one of those
claims."

Tawney laughed. "I hardly think so. Those claims were all Jupiter
Equilateral rejects. Our own engineers found nothing but low grade ore
on any of them."

"Still, it might be fun to look."

"It could be very expensive fun. Asteroid mining is a dangerous
business, even for experts. For amateurs...." Tawney spread his hands.
"Accidents occur...."

"Yes, we've heard about those accidents," Greg said coldly. "I don't
think we're quite ready to sell, Mr. Tawney. We may never be ready to
sell to you, so don't stop breathing until we call you. Now if there's
nothing else, why don't you take your friends and go somewhere else?"

The fat man scowled; he started to say something more, then saw the look
on Greg's face, and shrugged. "I'd advise you to give it some careful
thought," he said as he started for the door. "It might be very foolish
for you to try to use that rig."

Smiling, Greg closed the door in his face. Then he turned and winked at
Tom. "Great fellow, Mr. Tawney. He almost had me sold."

"So I noticed," Tom said. "For a while I thought you were serious."

"Well, we found out how high they'd go. That's a very generous outfit
Mr. Tawney works for."

"Or else a very crooked one," Tom said. "Are you wondering the same
thing I'm wondering?"

"Yes," Greg said slowly. "I think I am."

"Then that makes three of us," a heavy voice rumbled from the bedroom
door.

       *       *       *       *       *

Johnny Coombs was a tall man, so thin he was almost gangling, with a
long nose and shaggy eyebrows jutting out over his eyes. With his rudely
cropped hair and his huge hands, he looked like a caricature of a
frontier Mars-farmer, but the blue eyes under the eyebrows were not
dull.

"Johnny!" Tom cried. "We were trying to find you."

"I know," Johnny said. "So have a lot of other people, includin' your
friends there."

"Well, did you hear what Tawney wanted?"

"I'm not so quick on my feet any more," Johnny Coombs said, "but I got
nothin' wrong with my ears." He scratched his jaw and looked up sharply
at Greg. "Not many people nowadays get a chance to bargain with Merrill
Tawney."

Greg shrugged. "He named a price and I didn't like it."

"Three times what the rig is worth," Coombs said.

"That's what I didn't like," Greg said. "That outfit wouldn't give us a
break like that just for old times' sake. Do you think they would?"

"Well, I don't know," Johnny said slowly. "Back before they built the
city here, they used to have rats getting into the grub. Came right down
off the ships. Got rid of most of them, finally, but it seems to me
we've still got some around, even if they've got different shapes now."
He jerked his thumb toward the bedroom door. "In case you're wondering,
that's why I was standin' back there all this time ... just to make sure
you didn't sell out to Tawney no matter what price he offered."

Tom jumped up excitedly. "Then you know something about Dad's accident!"

"No, I can't say I do. I wasn't there."

"Do you really think it was an accident?"

"Can't prove it wasn't."

"But at least you've got some ideas," Tom said.

"Takes more than ideas to make a case," he said at length. "But there's
one thing I do know. I've got no proof, not a shred of it, but I'm sure
of one thing just as sure as I'm on Mars." He looked at the twins
thoughtfully. "Your dad wasn't just prospecting, out in the Belt. He'd
run onto something out there, something big."

The twins looked at him. "Run onto something?" Greg said. "You mean...."

"I mean I think your dad hit a Big Strike out there, rich metal, a real
bonanza lode. Maybe the biggest strike that's ever been made," the miner
said slowly. "And then somebody got to him before he could bring it in."



3. Too Many Warnings


For a moment, neither of the boys could say anything at all.

From the time they had learned to talk, they had heard stories and tales
that the miners and prospectors told about the Big Strike, the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow, the wonderful, elusive goal of every man
who had ever taken a ship into the Asteroid Belt.

For almost a hundred and fifty years ... since the earliest days of
space exploration ... there had been miners prospecting in the
Asteroids. Out there, beyond the orbit of Mars and inside the orbit of
Jupiter, were a hundred thousand ... maybe a hundred million, for all
anybody knew ... chunks of rock, metal and debris, spinning in silent
orbit around the sun. Some few of the Asteroids were big enough to be
called planets ... Ceres, five hundred miles in diameter; Juno, Vesta,
Pallas, half a dozen more. A few hundred others, ranging in size from
ten to a hundred miles in diameter, had been charted and followed in
their orbits by the observatories, first from Earth's airless Moon, then
from Mars. There were tens of thousands more that had never been
charted. Together they made up the Asteroid Belt, spread out in space
like a broad road around the sun, echoing the age-old call of the
bonanza.

For there was wealth in the Asteroids ... wealth beyond a man's wildest
dreams ... if only he could find it.

Earth, with its depleted iron ranges, its exhausted tin and copper
mines, and its burgeoning population, was hungry for metal. Earth needed
steel, tin, nickle, and zinc; more than anything, Earth needed
ruthenium, the rare-earth catalyst that made the huge solar energy
converters possible.

Mars was rich in the ores of these metals ... but the ores were buried
deep in the ground. The cost of mining them, and of lifting the heavy
ore from Mars' gravitational field and carrying it to Earth was
prohibitive. Only the finest carbon steel, and the radioactive metals,
smelted and purified on Mars and transported to Earth, could be made
profitable.

But from the Asteroid Belt, it was a different story. There was no
gravity to fight on the tiny asteroids. On these chunks of debris, the
metals lay close to the surface, easy to mine. Ships orbiting in the
Belt could fill their holds with their precious metal cargoes and
transfer them in space to the interplanetary orbit-ships spinning back
toward Earth. It was hard work, and dangerous work; most of the ore was
low-grade, and brought little return. But always there was the lure of
the Big Strike, the lode of almost-pure metal that could bring a fortune
back to the man who found it.

       *       *       *       *       *

A few such strikes had been made. Forty years before a single claim had
brought its owner seventeen million dollars in two years. A dozen other
men had stumbled onto fortunes in the Belt ... but such metal-rich
fragments were grains of sand in a mighty river. For every man who found
one, a thousand others spent years looking and then perished in the
fruitless search.

And now Johnny Coombs was telling them that their father had been one of
that incredible few.

"You really think Dad hit a bonanza lode out there?"

"That's what I said."

"Did you see it with your own eyes?"

"No."

"You weren't even out there with him!"

"No."

"Then why are you so sure he found something?"

"Because he told me so," Johnny Coombs said quietly.

The boys looked at each other. "He actually _said_ he'd found a rich
lode?" Tom asked eagerly.

"Not exactly," Johnny said. "Matter of fact, he never actually told me
_what_ he'd found. He needed somebody to sign aboard the _Scavenger_
with him in order to get a clearance to blast off, but he never did plan
to take me out there with him. 'I can't take you now, Johnny,' he told
me. 'I've found something out there, but I've got to work it alone for a
while.' I asked him what he'd found, and he just gave me that funny
little grin of his and said, 'Never mind what it is, it's big enough for
both of us. You just keep your mouth shut, and you'll find out soon
enough.' And then he wouldn't say another word until we were homing in
on the shuttle ship to drop me off."

Johnny finished his coffee and pushed the cup aside. "I knew he wasn't
joking. He was excited, and I think he was scared, too. Just before I
left him, he said, 'There's one other thing, Johnny. Things might not
work out quite the way I figure them, and if they don't ... make sure
the twins know what I've told you.' I told him I would, and headed back.
That was the last I heard from him until the Patrol ship found him
floating in space with a torn-open suit and a ruined scooter floating a
few miles away."

"Do you think that Jupiter Equilateral knew Dad had found something?"
Tom asked.

"Who knows? I'm sure that _he_ never told them, but it's awful hard to
keep a secret like that, and they sound awful eager to buy that rig,"
Johnny Coombs said.

"Yes, and it doesn't make sense. I mean, if they were responsible for
Dad's accident, why didn't they just check in for him on schedule and
then quietly bring in their rig to jump the claim?"

"Maybe they couldn't find it," Johnny said. "If they'd killed your dad,
they wouldn't have dared hang around very long right then. Even if
they'd kept the signal going, a Patrol ship might have come into the
region any time. And if a U.N. Patrol ship ever caught them working a
dead man's claim without reporting the dead man, the suit would really
start to leak." Johnny shook his head. "Remember, your Dad had a dozen
claims out there. They might have had to scout the whole works to find
the right one. Much easier to do it out in the open, with your
signatures on a claim transfer. But one thing is sure ... if they _knew_
what Roger found out there, and where it was, Tawney would never be
offering you triple price for the rig."

"Then whatever Dad found is still out there," Tom said.

"I'd bet my last dime on it."

"There might even be something to show that the accident wasn't an
accident," Tom went on. "Something even the Major would have to admit
was evidence."

Johnny Coombs pursed his lips, looking up at Tom. "Might be," he
conceded.

"Well, what are we waiting for? We turned Tawney's offer down ... he
might be sending a crew out to jump the claim right now."

"If he hasn't already," Johnny said.

"Then we've got to get out there."

Johnny turned to Greg. "You could pilot us out and handle the
navigation, and as for Tom...."

"As for Tom, he could get sick all over the place and keep us busy just
taking care of him," Greg said sourly. "You and me, yes. Not Tom. You
don't know that boy in a spaceship."

Tom started to his feet, glaring at his brother. "That's got nothing to
do with it...."

"It's true, isn't it? You'd be a big help out there."

Johnny looked at Tom. "You always get sick in free fall?"

"Look, let's be reasonable," Greg said. "You'd just be in the way. There
are plenty of things you could do right here, and Johnny and I could
handle the rig alone...."

Tom faced his brother angrily. "If you think I'm going to stay here and
keep myself company, you're crazy," he said. "This is one show you're
not going to run, so just quit trying. If you go out there, I go."

Greg shrugged. "Okay, Twin. It's your stomach, not mine."

"Then let me worry about it."

"I hope," Johnny said, "that that's the worst we have to worry about.
Let's get started planning."

       *       *       *       *       *

Time was the factor uppermost in their minds. They knew that even under
the best of conditions, it could take weeks to outfit and prepare for a
run out to the Belt. A ship had to be leased and fueled; there were
supplies to lay in. There was the problem of clearance to take care of,
claims to be verified and spotted, orbit coordinates to be computed and
checked ... a thousand details to be dealt with, anyone of which might
delay embarkation from an hour to a day or more.

It was not surprising that Tom and Greg were dubious when Johnny told
them they could be ready to clear ground in less than twenty-four hours.
Even knowing that Merrill Tawney might already have a mining crew at
work on Roger Hunter's claims, they could not believe that the red tape
of preparation and clearance could be cut away so swiftly.

They underestimated Johnny Coombs.

Six hours after he left them, he was back with a signed lease giving
them the use of a scout-ship and fuel to take them out to the Belt and
back again; the ship was in the Sun Lake City racks waiting for them
whenever they were ready.

"What kind of a ship?" Greg wanted to know.

"A Class III Flying Dutchman with overhauled atomics and hydrazine
side-jets," Johnny said, waving the transfer order. "Think you can fly
it?"

Greg whistled. "Can I? I trained in a Dutchman ... just about the
fastest scouter there is. What condition?"

"Lousy ... but it's fueled, with six weeks' supplies in the hold, and it
doesn't cost us a cent. Courtesy of a friend. You'll have to check it
over, but it'll do."

They inspected the ship, a weatherbeaten scouter that looked like a
relic of the '90's. Inside there were signs of many refittings and
overhauls, but the atomics were well shielded, and it carried a
surprising chemical fuel auxiliary for the cabin size. Greg disappeared
into the engine room, and Tom and Johnny left him testing valves and
circuits while they headed down to the U.N. Registry office in the
control tower.

On the way Johnny outlined the remaining outfitting steps. Tom would be
responsible for getting the clearance permit through Registry; Johnny
would check out all supplies, and then contact the observatory for the
orbit coordinates of Roger Hunter's claims.

"I thought the orbits were mapped on the claim papers," Tom said. "I
mean, every time an asteroid is claimed, the orbit has to be
charted...."

"That's right, but the orbit goes all the way around the sun. We know
where the _Scavenger_ was when the Patrol ship found her ... but she's
been travelling in orbit ever since. The observatory computer will
pinpoint her for us and chart a collision course so we can cut out and
meet her instead of trailing her for a week. Do you have the crew-papers
Greg and I signed?"

"Right here."

They were stepping off the ramp below the ship when a man loomed up out
of the shadows. It was a miner Tom had never seen before. Johnny nodded
as he approached. "Any news, Jack?"

"Quiet as a church," the man said.

"We'll be held up another eight hours at least," Johnny said. "Don't go
to sleep on us, Jack."

"Don't worry about us sleepin'," the man said grimly. "There's been
nobody around but yourselves, so far ... except the clearance
inspector."

Johnny looked up sharply. "You check his papers?"

"_And_ his prints. He was all right."

Johnny took Tom's arm, and they headed through the gate toward the
control tower. "I guess I'm just naturally suspicious," he grinned, "but
I'd sure hate to have a broken cut-off switch, or a fuel valve go out of
whack at just the wrong moment."

"You think Tawney would dare to try something here?" Tom said.

"Never hurts to check. We've got our hands full for a few hours getting
set, so I just asked my friends to keep an eye on things. Always did say
that a man who's going to gamble is smart to cover his bets."

At the control tower they parted, and Tom walked into the clearance
office. Johnny's watch-man had startled him, and for the first time he
felt a chill of apprehension. If they were right ... if this trip to the
Belt were not a wild goose chase from the very start ... then Roger
Hunter's accident had been no accident at all.

Quite suddenly, Tom felt very thankful that Johnny Coombs had
friends....

       *       *       *       *       *

"I don't like it," the Major said, facing Tom and Greg across the desk
in the U.N. Registry office below the control tower. "You've gotten an
idea in your heads, and you just won't listen to reason."

Somewhere above them, Tom could hear the low-pitched rumble of a
scout-ship blasting from its launching rack. "All we want to do is go
out and work Dad's claim," he said for the second time.

"I know perfectly well what you want to do, that's why I told the people
here to alert me if you tried to clear a ship. You don't know what
you're doing ... and I'm not going to sign those clearance papers."

"Why not?" Greg said.

"Because you're going out there asking for trouble, that's why not."

"But you told us before that there wasn't any trouble. Dad had an
accident, that was all. So how could we get in trouble?"

The Major's face was an angry red. He started to say something, then
stopped, and scowled at them instead. They met his stare. Finally he
threw up his hands. "All right, so I can't legally stop you," he said.
"But at least I can beg you to use your heads. You're wasting time and
money on a foolish idea. You're walking into dangers and risks that you
can't handle, and I hate to see it happen.

"Mining in the Belt is a job for experienced men, not rank novices."

"Johnny Coombs is no novice."

"No, but he's lost his wits, taking you two out there."

"Well, are there any other dangers you have in mind?"

Once more the Major searched for words, and failed to find them. "No,"
he sighed, "and you wouldn't listen if I did."

"It seems everybody is warning us about how dangerous this trip is
likely to be," Greg said quietly. "Last night it was Merrill Tawney. He
offered to buy us out, he was so eager for a deal that he offered us a
fantastic price. Then Johnny tells us that Dad mined some rich ore when
he was out there on his last trip, but never got a chance to bring it in
because of his ... accident. Up until now I haven't been so sure Dad
_didn't_ just have an accident, but now I'm beginning to wonder. Too
many people have been warning us...."

"You're determined to go out there, then?"

"That's about right."

The Major picked up the clearance papers, glanced at them quickly,
and signed them. "All right, you're cleared. I hate to do it, but I
suppose I'd go with you if the law would let me. And I'll tell you one
thing ... if you can find a single particle of evidence that will link
Jupiter Equilateral or anybody else to your father's death, I'll use all
the power I have to break them." He handed the papers back to Tom. "But
be careful, because if Jupiter Equilateral is involved in it, they're
going to play dirty."

At the door he turned. "Good trip, and good luck."

Tom folded the papers and stuck them thoughtfully into his pocket.

They met Johnny Coombs in the Registry offices upstairs; Tom patted his
pocket happily. "We're cleared in forty-five minutes," he said.

Johnny grinned. "Then we're all set." They headed up the ramp, reached
ground level, and started out toward the launching racks.

At the far end of the field a powerful Class I Ranger, one of the
Jupiter Equilateral scout fleet, was settling down into its slot in a
perfect landing maneuver. The triangle-and-J-insignia gleamed brightly
on her dark hull. She was a rich, luxurious-looking ship. Many miners on
Mars could remember when Jupiter Equilateral had been nothing more than
a tiny mining company working claims in the remote "equilateral" cluster
of asteroids far out in Jupiter's orbit. Gradually the company had grown
and flourished, accumulating wealth and power as it grew, leaving behind
it a thousand half-confirmed stories of cheating, piracy, murder and
theft. Other small mining outfits had fallen by the wayside until now
over two-thirds of all asteroid mining claims were held by Jupiter
Equilateral, and the small independent miners were forced more and more
to take what was left.

They reached the gate to the Dutchman's launching slot and entered.

Inside the ship Tom and Johnny strapped down while Greg made his final
check-down on the engines, gyros and wiring. The cabin was a tiny vault,
with none of the spacious "living room" of the orbit-ships. Tom leaned
back in the accelleration cot, and listened to the count-down signals
that came at one minute intervals now. In the earphones he could hear
the sporadic chatter between Greg and the control tower. No hint that
this was anything but a routine blastoff....

But there was trouble ahead, Tom was certain of that. Everybody on Mars
was aware that Roger Hunter's sons were heading out to the Belt to pick
up where he had left off. Greg had secured a leave of absence from
Project Star-Jump ... unhappily granted, even though his part in their
program had already been disrupted. Even they had heard the rumors that
were adrift....

And if there was trouble now, they were on their own. The Asteroid Belt
was a wilderness, untracked and unexplored, and except for an almost
insignificant fraction, completely unknown. If there was trouble out
there, there would be no one to help.

Somewhere below the engines roared, and Tom felt the weight on his
chest, sudden and breath-taking.

They were on their way.



4. "Between Mars and Jupiter...."


After all the tension of preparing for it, the trip out seemed
interminable.

They were all impatient to reach their destination. During blastoff and
accelleration they had watched Mars dwindle to a tiny red dot; then time
seemed to stop altogether, and there was nothing to do but wait.

For the first eight hours of free fall, after the engines had cut out,
Tom was violently ill. He fought it desperately, gulping the pills
Johnny offered and trying to keep them down. Gradually the waves of
nausea subsided, but it was a full twenty-four hours before Tom felt
like stirring from his cot to take up the shipboard routine.

And then there was nothing for him to do. Greg handled the navigation
skilfully, while Johnny kept radio contact and busied himself in the
storeroom, so Tom spent hours at the viewscreen. On the second day he
spotted a tiny chunk of rock that was unquestionably an asteroid moving
swiftly toward them. It passed at a tangent ten thousand miles ahead of
them, and Greg started work at the computer, feeding in the data tapes
that would ultimately guide the ship to its goal.

       *       *       *       *       *

Pinpointing a given spot in the Asteroid Belt was a gargantuan task,
virtually impossible without the aid of the ship's computer to compute
orbits, speeds, and distances. Tom spent more and more time at the
viewscreen, searching the blackness of space for more asteroid
sightings. But except for an occasional tiny bit of debris hurtling by,
he saw nothing but the changeless panorama of stars.

Johnny Coombs found him there on the third day, and laughed at his sour
expression. "Gettin' impatient?"

"Just wondering when we'll reach the Belt, is all," Tom said.

Johnny chuckled. "Hope you're not holdin' your breath. We've already
been _in_ the Belt for the last forty-eight hours."

"Then where are all the asteroids?" Tom said.

"Oh, they're here. You just won't see many of them. People always think
there ought to be dozens of them around, like sheep on a hillside, but
it just doesn't work that way." Johnny peered at the screen. "Of course,
to an astronomer the Belt is just loaded ... hundreds of thousands of
chunks, all sizes from five hundred miles in diameter on down. But
actually, those chunks are all tens of thousands of miles apart, and the
Belt _looks_ just as empty as the space between Mars and Earth."

"Well, I don't see how we're ever going to find one particular rock,"
Tom said, watching the screen gloomily.

"It's not too hard. Every asteroid has its own orbit around the sun, and
everyone that's been registered as a claim has the orbit charted. The
one we want isn't where it was when your Dad's body was found ... it's
been travelling in its orbit ever since. But by figuring in the fourth
dimension, we can locate it."

Tom blinked. "Fourth dimension?"

"Time," Johnny Coombs said. "If we just used the three linear
dimensions ... length, width and depth ... we'd end up at the place where
the asteroid _was_, but that wouldn't help us much because it's been
moving in orbit ever since the Patrol Ship last pinpointed it. So we
figure in a fourth dimension ... the time that's passed since it was last
spotted ... and we can chart a collision course with it, figure out just
where _we'll_ have to be to meet it."

It was the first time that the idea of time as a "dimension" had ever
made sense to Tom. They talked some more, until Johnny started bringing
in fifth and sixth dimensions, and problems of irrational space and
hyperspace, and got even himself confused.

"Anyway," Tom said, "I'm glad we've got a computer aboard."

"And a navigator," Johnny added. "Don't sell your brother short."

"Fat chance of that. Greg would never stand for it."

Johnny frowned. "You lads don't like each other very much, do you?" he
said.

Tom was silent for a moment. Then he looked away. "We get along, I
guess."

"Maybe. But sometimes just gettin' along isn't enough. Especially when
there's trouble. Give it a thought, when you've got a minute or two...."

Later, the three of them went over the computer results together. Johnny
and Greg fed the navigation data into the ship's drive mechanism,
checking and rechecking speeds and inclination angles. Already the
Dutchman's orbital speed was matching the speed of Roger Hunter's
asteroid ... but the orbit had to be tracked so that they would arrive
at the exact point in space to make contact. Tom was assigned to the
viewscreen, and the long wait began.

He spotted their destination point an hour before the computer had
predicted contact ... at first a tiny pinpoint of reflected light in the
scope, gradually resolving into two pinpoints, then three in a tiny
cluster. Greg cut in the rear and lateral jets momentarily, stabilizing
their contact course; the dots grew larger.

Ten minutes later, Tom could see their goal clearly in the
viewscreen ... the place where Roger Hunter had died.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was neither large nor small for an asteroid, an irregular chunk of
rock and metal, perhaps five miles in diameter, lighted only by the dull
reddish glow from the dime-sized sun. Like many such jagged chunks of
debris that sprinkled the Belt, this asteroid did not spin on any axis,
but constantly presented the same face to the sun.

Just off the bright side the orbit-ship floated, stable in its orbit
next to the big rock, but so small in comparison that it looked like a
tiny glittering toy balloon. And clamped on its rack on the orbit-ship's
side, airlock to airlock, was the _Scavenger_, the little scout ship
that Roger Hunter had brought out from Mars on his last journey.

While Greg maneuvered the Dutchman into the empty landing rack below the
_Scavenger_ on the hull of the orbit-ship, Johnny scanned the blackness
around them through the viewscope, a frown wrinkling his forehead.

"Do you see anybody?" Tom asked.

"Not a sign ... but I'm really looking for other rocks. I can see three
that aren't too far away, but none of them have claim marks. This one
must have been the only one Roger was working."

They stared at the ragged surface of the planetoid. Raw veins of
metallic ore cut through it with streaks of color, but most of the
sun-side showed only the dull gray of iron and granite. There was
nothing unusual about the surface that Tom could see. "Could there be
anything on the dark side?"

"Could be," Johnny said. "We'll have to go over it foot by foot ... but
first, we should go through the orbit-ship and the _Scavenger_. If the
Patrol ship missed anything, we want to know it."

The interior of the orbit-ship was dark. It spun slowly on its axis,
giving them just enough weight so they would not float free whenever
they moved. Their boots clanged on the metal decks as they climbed up
the curving corridor toward the control cabin.

Then Johnny threw a light switch, and they stared around them in
amazement.

The cabin was a shambles. Everything that was not bolted down had been
ripped open and thrown aside.

Greg whistled through his teeth. "The Major said the Patrol crew had
gone through the ship ... but he didn't say they'd wrecked it."

"They didn't," Johnny said grimly. "No Patrol ship would ever do this.
Somebody else has been here since." He turned to the control panel,
flipped switches, checked gauges. "Hydroponics are all right. Atmosphere
is still good; we can take off these helmets. Fuel looks all right,
storage holds ..." He shook his head. "They weren't looting, but they
were looking for something, all right. Let's look around and see if they
missed anything."

It took them an hour to survey the wreckage. Not a compartment had been
missed. Even the mattresses on the accelleration cots had been torn
open, the spring-stuffing tossed about helter-skelter. Tom went through
the lock into the _Scavenger_; the scout ship too had been searched,
rapidly but thoroughly.

But there was no sign of anything that Roger Hunter might have found.

Back in the control cabin Johnny was checking the ship's log. The old
entries were on microfilm, stored on their spools near the reader. More
recent entries were still recorded on tape. From the jumbled order,
there was no doubt that marauders had examined them. Johnny ran through
them nevertheless, but there was nothing of interest. Routine
navigational data; a record of the time of contact with the asteroid; a
log of preliminary observations on the rock; nothing more. The last tape
recorded the call-schedule Roger Hunter had set up with the Patrol, a
routine precaution used by all miners, to bring help if for some reason
they should fail to check in on schedule.

There was no hint in the log of any extraordinary discovery.

"Are any tapes missing?" Greg wanted to know.

"Doesn't look like it. There's one here for each day-period."

"I wonder," Tom said. "Dad always kept a personal log. You know, a sort
of a diary, on microfilm." He peered into the film storage bin, checked
through the spools. Then, from down beneath the last row of spools he
pulled out a slightly smaller spool. "Here's something our friends
missed, I bet."

It was not really a diary, just a sequence of notes, calculations and
ideas that Roger Hunter had jotted down and microfilmed from time to
time. The entries on the one spool went back for several years. Tom fed
the spool into the reader, and they stared eagerly at the last few
entries.

A series of calculations, covering several pages, but with no notes to
indicate what, exactly, Roger Hunter had been calculating. "Looks like
he was plotting an orbit," Greg said. "But what orbit? And why? Nothing
here to tell."

"It must have been important, though, or Dad wouldn't have filmed the
pages," Tom said. "Anything else?"

Another sheet with more calculations. Then a short paragraph written in
Roger Hunter's hurried scrawl. "No doubt now what it is," the words
said. "Wish Johnny were here, show him a _real_ bonanza, but he'll know
soon enough if...."

They stared at the scribbled, uncompleted sentence. Then Johnny Coombs
let out a whoop. "I told you he found something! And he found it _here_,
not somewhere else."

"Hold it," Greg said, peering at the film reader. "There's something
more on the last page, but I can't read it."

Tom blinked at the entry. "'Inter Jovem et Martem planetam interposui,'"
he read. He scratched his head. "That's Latin, and it's famous, too.
Kepler wrote it, back before the asteroids were discovered. 'Between
Jupiter and Mars I will put a planet.'"

Greg and Johnny looked at each other. "I don't get it," Greg said.

"Dad told me about that once," Tom said. "Kepler couldn't understand
the long jump between Mars and Jupiter, when Venus and Earth and Mars
were so close together. He figured there ought to be a planet out
here ... and he was right, in a way. There wasn't any one planet, unless
you'd call Ceres a planet, but it wasn't just empty space between Mars
and Jupiter either. The asteroids were here."

"But why would Dad be writing that down?" Greg asked. "And what has it
got to do with what he found out here?" He snapped off the reader switch
angrily. "I don't understand any of this, and I don't like it. If Dad
found something out here, where is it? And who tore this ship apart
after the Patrol ship left?"

"Probably the same ones that caused the 'accident' in the first place,"
Johnny said.

"But why did they come back?" Greg protested. "If they killed Dad, they
must have known what he'd found before they killed him."

"You'd think so," Johnny conceded.

"Then why take the risk of coming back here again?"

"Maybe they _didn't_ know," Tom said thoughtfully.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean maybe they killed him too soon. Maybe they thought they knew
what he'd found and where it was ... and then found out that they
didn't, after all. Maybe Dad hid it...."

Johnny Coombs shook his head. "No way a man can hide an ore strike."

"But suppose Dad did, somehow, and whoever killed him couldn't find it?
It would be too late to make him tell them. They'd _have_ to come back
and look again, wouldn't they? And from the way they went about it, it
looks as though they weren't having much luck."

"Then whatever Dad found would still be here, somewhere," Greg said.

"That's right."

"But where? There's nothing on this ship."

"Maybe not," Tom said, "but I'd like to take a look at that asteroid
before we give up."

       *       *       *       *       *

They paused in the big ore-loading lock to reclamp their pressure
suit helmets, and looked down at the jagged chunk of rock a hundred
yards below them. In the lock they had found scooters ... the little
one-man propulsion units so commonly used for short distance work in
space ... but decided not to use them. "They're clumsy," Johnny said,
"and the bumper units in your suits will do just as well for this
distance." He looked down at the rock. "I'll take the center section.
You each take an edge and work in. Look for any signs of work on the
surface ... chisel marks, Murexide charges, anything."

"What about the dark side?" Greg asked.

"If we want to see anything there, we'll either have to rig up lights or
turn the rock around," Johnny said. "Let's cover this side first and see
what we come up with."

He turned and leaped from the airlock, moving gracefully down toward
the surface, using the bumper unit to guide himself with short bursts
of compressed CO_{2}, from the nozzle. Greg followed, pushing off
harder and passing Johnny halfway down. Tom hesitated. It looked easy
enough ... but he remembered the violent nausea of his first few hours
of free fall.

Finally he gritted his teeth and jumped off after Greg. Instantly he
knew that he had jumped too hard. He shot away from the orbit-ship like
a bullet; the jagged asteroid surface leaped up at him. Frantically he
grabbed for the bumper nozzle and pulled the trigger, trying to break
his fall.

He felt the nozzle jerk in his hand, and then, abruptly, he was spinning
off at a wild tangent from the asteroid, head over heels. For a moment
it seemed that asteroid, orbit-ship and stars were all wheeling crazily
around him. Then he realized what had happened. He fired the bumper
again, and went spinning twice as fast. The third time he timed the
blast, aiming the nozzle carefully, and the spinning almost stopped.

He fought down nausea, trying to get his bearings. He was three hundred
yards out from the asteroid, almost twice as far from the orbit-ship. He
stared down at the rock as he moved slowly away from it. Before, from
the orbit-ship, he had been able to see only the bright side of the huge
rock; now he could see the sharp line of darkness across one side.

But there was something else....

He fired the bumper again to steady himself, peering into the blackness
beyond the light-line on the rock. He snapped on his helmet lamp, aimed
the spotlight beam down to the dark rock surface. Greg and Johnny were
landing now on the bright side, with Greg almost out of sight over the
"horizon" ... but Tom's attention was focussed on something he could see
only now as he moved away from the asteroid surface.

His spotlight caught it ... something bright and metallic, completely
hidden on the dark side, lying in close to the surface but not quite on
the surface. Then suddenly Tom knew what it was ... the braking jets of
a Class I Ranger, crouching beyond the reach of sunlight in the shadow
of the asteroid....

Swiftly he fired the bumper again, turning back toward the orbit-ship.
His hand went to the speaker-switch, but he caught himself in time. Any
warning shouted to Greg and Johnny would certainly be picked up by the
ship. But he had to give warning somehow.

He tumbled into the airlock, searching for a flare in his web belt. It
was a risk ... the Ranger ship might pick up the flash ... but he had to
take it. He was unscrewing the fuse cap from the flare when he saw Greg
and Johnny leap up from the asteroid surface.

Then he saw what had alarmed them. Slowly, the Ranger was moving out
from its hiding place behind the rock. Tom reached out to catch Greg as
he came plummeting into the lock. There was a flash from the Ranger's
side, and Johnny Coombs' voice boomed in his earphones: "Get inside! Get
the lock closed, fast ... hurry up, can't waste a second."

Johnny caught the lip of the lock, dragged himself inside frantically.
They were spinning the airlock door closed when they heard the
thundering explosion, felt the ship lurch under their feet, and all
three of them went crashing to the deck.



5. The Black Raider


For a stunned moment they were helpless as they struggled to pick
themselves up. The stable airlock deck was suddenly no longer
stable ... it was lurching back and forth like a rowboat on a heavy sea,
and they grabbed the shock-bars along the bulkheads to steady themselves.
"What happened?" Greg yelped. "I saw a ship...."

As if in answer there was another crash belowdecks, and the lurching
became worse. "They're firing on us, that's what happened," Johnny
Coombs growled.

"Well, they're shaking us loose at the seams," Greg said. "We've got to
get this crate out of here." He reached for his helmet, began unsnapping
his pressure suit.

"Leave it on," Johnny snapped.

"But we can't move fast enough in these things...."

"Leave it on all the same. If they split the hull open, you'll be dead
in ten seconds without a suit."

Somewhere below they heard the steady _clang-clang-clang_ of the
emergency-station's bell ... already one of the compartments somewhere
had been breached, and was pouring its air out into the vacuum of space.
"But what can we do?" Greg said. "They could tear us apart!"

"First, we see what they've already done," Johnny said, spinning the
wheel on the inner lock. "If they plan to tear us apart, we're done for,
but they may want to try to board us.... We'll wait and see."

An orbit-ship under fire was completely vulnerable. One well-placed
shell could rip it open like a balloon.

Tom and Greg followed Johnny to where the control cabin was located. In
control they found alarm lights flashing in three places on the
instrument panel. Another muffled crash roared through the ship, and a
new row of lights sprang on along the panel.

"How are the engines?" Greg said, staring at the flickering lights.

"Can't tell. Looks like they're firing at the main jets, but they've
ripped open three storage holds, too. They're trying to disable us...."

"What about the _Scavenger_?"

Johnny checked a gauge. "The airlock compartment is all right, so the
scout ships haven't been touched. They couldn't fire on them without
splitting the whole ship down the middle." Johnny leaned forward,
flipped on the viewscreen, and an image came into focus.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a Class I Ranger, and there was no doubt of its origin. Like the
one they had seen berthing at the Sun Lake City racks, this ship had a
glossy black hull, with the golden triangle-and-J insignia standing out
in sharp relief in the dim sunlight.

"It's our friends, all right," Johnny said.

"But what are they trying to do?" Tom said.

Even as they watched, a pair of scooters broke from the side of the
Ranger and slid down toward the sun side of the asteroid. "I don't
know," Johnny said. "I think they intended to stay hidden, until Tom
lost control of his bumper, and got far enough around there to spot
them." He frowned as the first scooter touched down on the asteroid
surface.

"Can't we fire on them?" Greg said angrily.

"Not the way this tub is lurching around. They've got our main gyros,
and the auxilliaries aren't powerful enough to steady us. Another blast
or two could send us spinning like a top, and we'd have nothing to
stabilize us...."

There was another flash from the Ranger's hull, and the ship jerked
under their feet. "Well, we're a sitting duck here," Greg said. "Maybe
those engines will still work." He slid into the control seat, flipped
the drive switches to fire the side jets in opposite pairs. They fired,
steadying the lurching of the ship somewhat, but there was no response
from the main engines. "No good. We couldn't begin to run from them.
We're stuck here."

"They could outrun us anyway," Tom said, watching the viewscreen. "And
they're moving in closer now."

"They're going to board us," Tom said.

Johnny nodded, his eyes suddenly bright. "I think you're right. And if
they do, we may have a chance. But we've got to split up.... Greg, you
take the control cabin here, try to keep them out if you can. Tom can
cover the main corridor to the storage holds, and I'll take the engine
room section. That will sew up the entrances to control, here, and give
us a chance to stop them."

"They may have a dozen men," Tom said. "They could just shoot us down."

"I don't think so," Johnny said. "They want _us_, not the ship, or they
wouldn't bother to board us. We may not be able to hold them off, but we
can try."

"What about making a run for it in the _Scavenger_?" Greg said.

Johnny chuckled grimly. "It'd be a mighty short run. That Ranger's got
homing shells that could blow the _Scavenger_ to splinters if we tried
it. Our best bet is to put up such a brawl that they think twice about
taking us."

They parted in the corridor outside control, Johnny heading down for the
engine room corridors, while Tom ran up toward the main outer-shell
corridor, a Markheim stunner in his hand. The entire outer shell of the
ship was storage space, each compartment separately sealed and connected
with the two main corridors that circled the ship. On each side these
corridors came together to join the short entry corridors from the
scout-ship airlocks.

Tom knew that the only way the ship could be boarded was through those
locks; a man stationed at the place where the main corridors joined
could block any entry from the locks ... as long as he could hold his
position. Tom reached the junction of the corridors, and crouched close
to the wall. By peering around the corner, he had a good view of the
airlock corridor.

Tom gripped the Markheim tightly, and he dialed it down to a narrow
beam. Nobody had ever been killed by a stunner ... but a direct hit with
a narrow beam could paralyze a man for three days.

There was movement at the far end of the airlock corridor. A helmeted
head peered around the turn in the corridor; then two men in pressure
suits moved into view, walking cautiously, weapons in hand. Tom shrank
back against the wall, certain they had not seen him. He waited until
they were almost to the junction with the main corridor; then he took
aim and pressed the trigger stud on his Markheim. There was an ugly
ripping sound as the gun jerked in his hand. The two men dropped as
though they had been pole-axed.

A shout, a scrape of metal against metal, and a shot ripped back at him
from the end of the corridor. Tom jerked back fast, but not quite fast
enough. He felt a sledge-hammer blow on his shoulder, felt his arm jerk
in a cramping spasm while the corridor echoed the low rumble of
sub-sonics. He flexed his arm to work out the spasm ... they were using
a wide beam, hardly strong enough to stun a man. His heart pounded. They
were being careful, very careful....

Two more men rounded the bend in the corridor. Tom fired, but they hit
the deck fast, and the beam missed. The first one jerked to his feet,
charged up the corridor toward him, dodging and sliding. Tom followed
him in his sights, fired three times as the Markheim heated up in his
hand. The beam hit the man's leg, dumping him to the deck, and bounced
off to catch the second one.

But now there was another sound, coming from the corridor behind him.
Voices, shouts, clanging of boots. He pressed against the wall,
listening. The sounds were from below. They must have gotten past
Johnny ... probably the men on the scooters. Tom looked around
helplessly. If they came up behind him, he was trapped in a crossfire.
But if he left his position, more men could come in through the airlock.
Even now two more came around the bend, starting up the corridor for
him....

Quite suddenly, the lights went out.

The men stopped. Sound stopped. The corridor was pitch black. Tom fired
wildly down the corridor, heard shouts and oaths from the men, but he
could see nothing. Then, ahead, a flicker of light as a headlamp went
on. The men from the airlock were close, moving in on him, and from
behind he saw light bouncing off the corridor walls....

He jerked open the hatch to a storage hold, ducked inside, and slammed
the hatch behind him. He pressed against the wall, panting.

He waited.

Suddenly an idea flickered in Tom's mind.

It was a chance ... a long chance ... but it was something. If they were
going to be captured in spite of anything they could do, even a long
chance would be worth trying....

He waited in the darkness, tried to think it through. It was a wild
idea, an utterly impossible idea, he had never heard of it being tried
before ... but _any_ chance was better than none. He remembered what
Johnny had said in the control cabin. The Ranger ship would have homing
shells. An attempt to make a run with the _Scavenger_ might be
disastrous.

He thought about it, trying to reason it out. The Jupiter Equilateral
men obviously wanted them alive. They did not dare to kill Roger
Hunter's sons, because Roger Hunter might have told them where the
bonanza was. And Jupiter Equilateral would not dare let anyone of them
break away. If one of them got back to Mars, the whole U.N. Patrol would
be out in the Belt....

The plan became clear in his mind, but he had to let Greg know. He
fingered the control of his helmet radio. The boarding party would have
a snooper, but if he was quick, they wouldn't have time to nail him. He
buzzed an attention code. "Greg? Can you hear me?"

Silence. He buzzed again, and waited. What was wrong? Had they already
broken through to the control cabin and taken Greg? He buzzed again.
"Greg! Sound off if you can hear me."

More silence. Then a click. "Tom?"

"Here. Are you all right?"

"So far. You?"

"They got past me, but they didn't hit me. How's Johnny?"

"I don't know," Greg said. "I think he's been hurt. Tom, you'd better
get off, they'll have snoopers...."

"All right, listen," Tom said. "How does it look to you?"

"Bad. We're outnumbered, they'll be through to here any minute."

"All right, I've got an idea. It's risky, but it might let us pull
something out of this mess. I'll need some time, though."

"How much?"

"Ten, fifteen minutes."

There was an edge to Greg's voice. "What are you planning?"

"I can't tell you, they're listening in. But if it works...."

"Look, don't do anything stupid."

"I can't hear you," Tom said. "You try to hold them for fifteen
minutes ... and don't worry. Take care of yourself."

Tom snapped off the speaker and moved to the hatchway. The corridor was
empty, and pitch black. He started down toward the airlock, then stopped
short at the sound of voices and the flicker of headlamps up ahead.

He crouched back, but the lights were not moving. Guards at the lock,
making certain that nobody tried to board their own ship. Tom grinned to
himself. They weren't missing any bets, he thought.

Except one. There was one bet they wouldn't even think of.

He backtracked to the storage hold, crossed through it, and out into the
far corridor. He followed the gentle curve of the deck a quarter of the
way around the ship. Twice along the way he stumbled in the darkness,
but saw no sign of the raiders. At last he reached the far side, and the
corridor leading to No. 2 airlock. Again he could see the lamps of the
guards around the bend; they were stationed directly inside their own
lock.

Inching forward, he peered into blackness. Each step made a muffled
clang on the deck plates. He edged his boots along as quietly as
possible, reaching along the wall with his hand until he felt the lip of
a hatchway.

The lights and voices seemed nearer now. In the dim reflected light he
saw the sign on the door of the hatchway:

     No. 2 Airlock
     BE SURE PRESSURE GAUGE IS AT ZERO BEFORE OPENING HATCH

He checked the gauge, silently spun the wheel. There was a _ping_ as the
seals broke. He pulled the hatch open just enough to squeeze into the
lock, then closed it behind him. Then he switched on the pumps, waiting
impatiently until the red "all clear" signal flashed on. Then he opened
the outside lock.

Just beyond, he could see the sleek silvery lines of the _Scavenger_.

It was their only chance.

He took a deep breath, and jumped across the gap to the open lock of the
_Scavenger_.



6. The Last Run of the Scavenger


To Greg Hunter the siege of the orbit-ship had been a nerve-wracking
game of listening and waiting for something to happen.

In the darkness of the control cabin he stretched his fingers, cramped
from gripping the heavy Markheim stunner, and checked the corridor
outside again. There was no sound in the darkness there, no sign of
movement. Somewhere far below he heard metal banging on metal; minutes
before he thought he had heard the sharp ripping sound of a stunner
blast overhead, but he wasn't sure. Wherever the fighting was going on,
it was not here.

He shook his head as his uneasiness mounted. Why hadn't Johnny come
back? He'd gone off to try and disable the Ranger ship leaving Greg to
guard the control cabin. Why no sign of the marauders in the control
cabin corridor? This should have been the first place they would head
for, if they planned to take the ship, but there had been nothing but
silence and darkness. Johnny had been gone near 15 minutes already. Greg
became more uneasy.

He waited. Suddenly, bitterly, he realized the hopelessness of it. Even
if Johnny did manage to damage the Ranger ship, what difference would it
make? They had been fools to come out here, idiots to ignore Tawney's
warning, the three of them. Tawney had told them in so many words that
there would be trouble, and they had come out anyway, just begging for
it.

Well, now they had what they'd begged for. Greg slammed his fist into
his palm angrily. What had they expected? That the big company would
step humbly aside for them, with a fortune hanging in the balance? If
they had even begun to think it through before they started....

But they hadn't, and now it was too late. They were under attack; Johnny
was off on a fool's errand, gone too long for comfort, and Tom ... Greg
glanced at his watch. It had been ten minutes since Tom's call. What had
he meant by it? A plan, he said. A long chance.

He couldn't shake off the cold feeling in his chest when he thought
about Tom. What if something happened to him....

Greg remembered how he had grown to resent his brother. The time when
they were very young and Tom had been struck by the sickness, a native
Martian virus they called it. He remembered the endless nights of
attention given to Tom alone. From then on somehow they weren't friends
any more. But now all that seemed to disappear and Greg only wished that
Tom would appear down the corridor....

A sound startled him. He tensed, gripping the stunner, peering into the
darkness. Had he heard something? Or was it his own foot scraping on
the deck plate? He held his breath, listening, and the sound came
again, louder.

Someone was moving stealthily up the corridor.

Greg waited, covered by the edge of the hatchway. It might be Johnny
returning, or maybe even Tom ... but there was no sign of recognition.
Whoever it was was coming silently....

Then a beam of light flared from a headlamp, and he saw the blue crackle
of a stunner. He jerked back as the beam bounced off the metal walls.
Then he was firing point blank down the corridor, his stunner on a tight
beam, a deadly pencil of violent energy. He heard a muffled scream and a
bulk loomed up in front of him, crashed to the deck at his feet.

He fired again. Another crash, a shout, and then the sound of footsteps
retreating. He waited, his heart pounding, but there was nothing more.

The first attempt on the control cabin had failed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Five minutes later the second attempt began. This time there was no
warning sound. A sudden, ear-splitting crash, a groan of tortured metal,
and the barricaded hatchway glowed dull red. Another crash followed. The
edge of the hatch split open, pouring acrid Murexide fumes into the
cabin. A third explosion breached the door six inches; Greg could see
headlamps in the corridor beyond.

He fired through the crack, pressing down the stud until the stunner
scorched his hand. Then he heard boots clanging up the other corridor.
He pressed back against the wall, waited until the sounds were near,
then threw open the hatch. For an instant he made a perfect target, but
the raiders did not fire. The stunner buzzed in his hand, and once again
the footfalls retreated.

They _were_ being careful!

Silence then, and blackness. Minutes passed ... five, ten.... Greg
checked the time again. It was over twenty minutes since Tom had talked
to him. What had happened? Whatever Tom had planned must have misfired,
or something would have happened by now. For a moment he considered
leaving his post and starting down the dark corridor to search ... but
where to search? There was nothing to do but wait and hope for a
miracle.

Then suddenly the lights blazed on in the control cabin and the corridor
outside. An attention signal buzzed in Greg's earphones. "All right,
Hunter, it's all over," a voice grated. "You've got five minutes to get
down to No. 3 lock. If you make us come get you, you'll get hurt."

"I'll chance it," Greg snapped back. "Come on up."

"We're through fooling," the voice said. "You'd better get down here.
And bring your brother with you."

"Sure," Greg said. "Start holding your breath."

The contact broke for a moment, then clicked on again. This time it was
another voice. "We've got Johnny Coombs down here," it said. "You want
him to stay alive, you start moving. Without your stunner."

Greg chewed his lip. They could be bluffing ... but they might not be.
"I want to see Johnny," he said.

On the control panel a viewscreen flickered to life. "Take a look,
then," the voice said in his earphones.

They had Johnny, all right. A burly guard was holding his good arm
behind his back. Greg could see the speaker wires jerked loose from his
helmet.

"It's up to you," the voice said. "You've got three minutes. If you're
not down here by then, this helmet comes off and your friend goes out
the lock. It's quick that way, but it's not very pleasant."

Johnny was shaking his head violently; the guard wrenched at his arm,
and the miner's face twisted in pain. "Two minutes," the voice said.

"Okay," Greg said. "I'm coming down."

"Drop the stunner right there."

He dropped the weapon onto the deck. Three steps out into the corridor,
and two guards were there to meet him, stunners raised. They marched him
up the ramp to the outer level corridor and around to No. 3 lock.

They were waiting there with Johnny. A moment later the guards herded
them through the lock and into the hold of the Ranger ship, stripped off
their suits, and searched them.

A big man with a heavy face and coarse black hair came into the cabin.
He looked at Johnny and Greg and grunted. "You must be Hunter," he said
to Greg. "Where's the other one?"

"What other one?" Greg said.

"Your brother. Where is he?"

"How would I know?" Greg said.

The man's face darkened. "You'd be smart to watch your tongue," he said.
"We know there were three of you, we want the other one."

The man turned to a guard. "What about it?"

"Don't know, Doc. Nobody's reported him."

"Then take a crew and search the ship. We were due back hours ago. He's
in there somewhere."

"Sure, Doc." The guard disappeared through the lock. The man called Doc
motioned Greg and Johnny through into the main cabin.

"What are you planning to do with us?" Greg demanded.

"You'll find out soon enough." Doc's mouth twisted angrily.

A guard burst into the cabin. "Doc, there's just nobody there! We've
scoured the ship."

"You think he just floated away in his space suit?" Doc growled. "_Find
him._ Tawney only needs one of them, but we can't take a chance on the
other one getting back...." He broke off, his eyes on the viewscreen.
"Did you check those scout ships?"

"No, I thought...."

"Get down there and check them." Doc turned back to the viewscreen
impatiently.

Greg caught Johnny's eye, saw the big miner's worried frown. "Where is
he?" he whispered.

"I don't know. Thought you did...."

"All I know is that he had some kind of scheme in mind."

"Shut up," Doc said to them. "If you're smart, you'll be strapping down
before we...." He broke off in mid sentence, listening.

Quite suddenly, the Ranger ship had begun to vibrate. Somewhere, far
away, there was the muffled rumble of engines.

Doc whirled to the viewscreen. Greg and Johnny looked at the same
instant, and Johnny groaned.

Below them, the _Scavenger_'s jets were flaring. First the pale starter
flame, then a long stream of fire, growing longer as the engines
developed thrust.

Doc slammed down a switch, roared into a speaker. "That scout
ship ... stop it! He's trying to make a break!"

Two guards appeared at the lock almost instantly, but it was too late.
Already she was straining at her magnetic cable moorings; then the
exhaust flared, and the little scout ship leaped away from the
orbit-ship, moving out at a tangent to the asteroid's orbit, picking up
speed, moving faster and faster....

In toward the orbit of Mars.

The man called Doc had gone pale. Now he snapped on the speaker again.
"Frank? Stand by on missile control. He's asking for it."

"Right," the voice came back. "I'm sighting in."

The _Scavenger_ was moving fast now, dwindling in the viewscreen. One
panel of the screen went telescopic to track her. "All right," Doc said.
"Fire one and two."

From both sides of the Ranger, tiny rockets flared. Like twin bullets
the homing shells moved out, side by side, in the track of the escaping
_Scavenger_. With a strangled cry, Greg leaped forward, but Johnny
caught his arm.

"Johnny, _Tom's on ... that thing_...."

"I know. But he's got a chance."

Already the homing shells were out of sight; only the twin flares were
visible. Greg stared helplessly at the tiny light-spot of the
_Scavenger_. At first she had been moving straight, but now she was
dodging and twisting, her side-jets flaring at irregular intervals. The
twin pursuit shells mimicked each change in course, drawing closer to
her every second.

And then there was a flash, so brilliant it nearly blinded them, and the
_Scavenger_ burst apart in space. The second shell struck a fragment;
there was another flash. Then there was nothing but a nebulous powdering
of tiny metal fragments.

The last run of the _Scavenger_ had ended.

Dazed, Greg turned away from the screen, and somewhere, as if in a
dream, he heard Doc saying, "All right, boys, strap this pair down.
We've got a lot of work to do before we can get out of here."



7. Prisoners


Wherever they were planning to take them, the captors took great pains
to make sure that their two prisoners did not escape before they were
underway. Greg and Johnny were strapped down securely into accelleration
cots. Two burly guards were assigned to them, and the guards were taking
their job seriously. One of the two was watching them at all times, and
both men held their stunners on ready.

Meanwhile, under Doc's orders, the crew of the Jupiter Equilateral ship
began a systematic looting of the orbit-ship they had disabled. Earlier
they had merely searched the cabins and compartments. Now a steady
stream of pressure-suited men crossed through the airlocks into the
crippled vessel, marched back with packing cases full of tape records,
microfilm spools, stored computer data ... anything that might
conceivably contain information. The control cabin was literally torn
apart. Every storage hold was ransacked.

A team of six men was dispatched to the asteroid surface, searching for
any sign of mining or prospecting activity. They came back an hour
later, long-faced and empty handed. Doc took their reports, his scowl
growing deeper and deeper.

Finally the last of the searchers reported in. "Doc, we'd scraped it
clean, and there's nothing there. Not one thing that we didn't check
before."

"There's _got_ to be something there," Doc said.

"You tell me where else to look, and I'll do it."

Doc shook his head ominously. "Tawney's not going to like it," he said.
"There's no other place it could be...."

"Well, at least we have this pair," the other said, jerking a thumb at
Greg and Johnny. "They'll know."

Doc looked at them darkly. "Yes, and they'll tell, too, or I don't know
Tawney."

Greg watched it all happening, heard the noises, saw the packing-cases
come through the cabin, and still he could not quite believe it. He
caught Johnny's eye, then turned away, suddenly sick. Johnny shook his
head. "Take it easy, boy."

"He didn't even have a chance," Greg said.

"I know that. He must have known it too."

"But why? What was he thinking of?"

"Maybe he thought he could make it. Maybe he thought it was the only
chance...."

There was no other answer that Greg could see, and the ache in his chest
was deeper.

There was no way to bring Tom back now. However things had been between
them, they could never be changed now. But he knew that as long as he
was still breathing, somebody somehow was going to answer for that last
desperate run of the _Scavenger_....

       *       *       *       *       *

It had been an excellent idea, Tom Hunter thought to himself, and it had
worked perfectly, exactly as he had planned it ... so far. But now, as
he clung to his precarious perch, he wondered if it had not worked out a
little too well. The first flush of excitement that he had felt when he
saw the _Scavenger_ blow apart in space had begun to die down now; on
its heels came the unpleasant truth, the realization that only the easy
part lay behind him so far. The hard part was yet to come, and if that
were to fail....

He realized, suddenly, that he was afraid. He was well enough concealed
at the moment, clinging tightly against the outside hull of the Ranger
ship, hidden behind the open airlock door. But soon the airlock would be
pulled closed, and then the real test would come.

Carefully, he ran through the plan again in his mind. He was certain now
that his reasoning was right. There had been two dozen men on the raider
ship; there had been no question, even from the start, that they would
succeed in boarding the orbit-ship and taking its occupants prisoners.
The Jupiter Equilateral ship had not appeared there by coincidence. They
had come looking for something that they had not found.

And the only source of information left was Roger Hunter's sons. The
three of them together might have held the ship for hours, or even
days ... but with engines and radios smashed, there had been no hope
of contacting Mars for help. Ultimately, they would have been taken.

As he had crouched in the dark storage hold in the orbit-ship, Tom had
realized this. He had also realized that, once captured, they would
never have been freed and allowed to return to Mars.

If the three of them were taken, they were finished. But what if only
two were taken? He had pushed it aside as a foolish idea, at first. The
boarding party would never rest until they had accounted for all three.
They wouldn't dare go back to their headquarters leaving one live man
behind to tell the story....

Unless they thought the third man was dead. If they were sure of
that ... _certain_ of it ... they would not hesitate to take the
remaining two away. And if, by chance, the third man wasn't as dead as
they thought he was, and could find a way to follow them home, there
might still be a chance to free the other two.

It was then that he thought of the _Scavenger_, and knew that he had
found a way.

In the cabin of the little scout ship he had worked swiftly, fearful
that at any minute one of the marauders might come aboard to search it.
Tom was no rocket pilot, but he did know that the count-down was
automatic, and that every ship could run on an autopilot, as a drone,
following a prescribed course until it ran out of fuel. Even the
shell-evasion mechanism could be set on automatic....

Quickly he set the autopilot, plotted a simple high school math course
for the ship, a course the Ranger ship would be certain to see, and to
fire upon. He set the count-down clock to give himself plenty of time
for the next step.

Both the airlock to the _Scavenger_ and to the orbit-ship worked on
electric motors. The _Scavenger_ was grappled to the orbit-ship's hull
by magnetic cables. Tom dug into the ship's repair locker, found the
wires and fuses that he needed, and swiftly started to work.

It was an ingenious device. The inner airlock door in the orbit-ship was
triggered to a fuse. He had left it ajar; the moment it was closed, by
anyone intending to board the _Scavenger_, the fuse would burn, a
circuit would open, and the little ship's autopilot would go on active.
The ship would blast away from its moorings, head out toward Mars....

And the fireworks would begin. All that he would have to worry about
then would be getting himself aboard the Ranger ship without being
detected.

Which was almost impossible. But he knew there was a way. There was one
place no one would think to look for him, if he could manage to keep out
of range of the viewscreen lenses ... the outer hull of the ship. If he
could clamp himself to the hull, somehow, and manage to cling there
during blastoff, he could follow Greg and Johnny right home.

He checked the fuse on the airlock once again to make certain it would
work. Then he waited, hidden behind the little scout ship's hull,
until the orbit-ship swung around into shadow. He checked his suit
dials ... oxygen for twenty-two hours, heater pack fully charged,
soda-ash only half saturated ... it would do. Above him he could see the
rear jets of the Ranger. He swung out onto the orbit-ship's hull, and
began crawling up toward the enemy ship.

It was slow going. Every pressure suit had magnetic boots and hand-pads
to enable crewmen to go outside and make repairs on the hull of a ship
in transit. Tom clung, and moved, and clung again, trying to reach the
protecting hull of the Ranger before the orbit-ship swung him around to
the sun-side again....

He couldn't move fast enough. He saw the line of sunlight coming around
the ship as it swung full into the sun. He froze, crouching motionless.
If somebody on the Ranger spotted him now, it was all over. He was
exposed like a lizard on a rock. He waited, hardly daring to breathe, as
the ship spun ponderously around, carrying him into shadow again.

And nothing happened. He started crawling upward again, reached up to
grab the mooring cable, and swung himself across to the hull of the
Ranger. The airlock hung open; he scuttled behind it, clinging to the
hull in its shadow just as Greg and Johnny were herded across by the
Jupiter Equilateral guards.

Then he waited. There was no sound, no sign of life. After awhile the
Ranger's inner lock opened, and a group of men hurried across to the
orbit-ship. Probably a searching party, Tom thought. Soon the men came
back, then returned to the orbit-ship. After another minute, he felt the
vibration of the _Scavenger_'s motors, and he knew that his snare had
been triggered.

He saw the little ship break free and streak out in its curving
trajectory. He saw the homing shells burst from the Ranger's tubes. The
_Scavenger_ vanished from his range of vision, but moments later he saw
the sudden flare of light reflected against the hull of the orbit-ship,
and he knew his plan had worked, but the ordeal lay ahead.

And at the end of it, he might really be a dead man.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hours later, the last group of looters left the orbit-ship, and the
airlock to the Ranger clanged shut. Tom heard the sucking sound of the
air-tight seals, then silence. The orbit-ship was empty, its insides
gutted, its engines no longer operable. The Ranger hung like a long
splinter of silver alongside her hull, poised and ready to move on.

He knew that the time had come. Very soon the blastoff and the
accelleration would begin. He had a few moments to find a position of
safety, no more.

Quickly, he began scrambling toward the rear of the Ranger's hull,
hugging the metal sides, moving sideways like a crab. Ahead, he knew,
the viewscreen lenses would be active; if one of them picked him up, it
would be quite a jolt to the men inside the ship ... but it would be the
end of his free ride.

But the major peril was the blastoff. Once the engines cut off, the ship
would be in free fall. Then he could cling easily to the hull, walk all
over it if he chose to, with the aid of his boots and hand-pads. But
unless he found a way to anchor himself firmly to the hull during
blastoff, he could be flung off like a pebble.

He heard a whirring sound, and saw the magnetic mooring cables jerk. The
ship was preparing for blastoff. Automatic motors were drawing the
cables and grappling plates into the hull. Moving quickly, Tom reached
the rear cable. Here was his anchor, something to hold him tight to the
hull! With one hand he loosened the web belt of his suit, looped it over
a corner of the grappling plate as it pulled in to the hull.

The plate pulled tight against the belt. Each plate fit into a shallow
excavation in the hull, fitting so tightly that the plates were all but
invisible when they were in place. Tom felt himself pulled in tightly as
the plate gripped the belt against the metal, and the whirring of the
motor stopped.

For an instant it looked like the answer. The belt was wedged
tight ... he couldn't possibly pull loose without ripping the nylon
webbing of the belt. But a moment later the motor started whirring again.
The plate pushed out from the hull a few inches, then started back, again
pulling in the belt....

A good idea that just wouldn't work. The automatic machinery on a
spaceship was built to perfection; nothing could be permitted to
half-work. Tom realized what was happening. Unless the plate fit
perfectly in its place, the cable motor could not shut off, and
presently an alarm signal would start flashing on the control panel.

He pulled the belt loose, reluctantly. He would have to count on his
boots and his hand-pads alone.

He searched the rear hull, looking for some break in the polished metal
that might serve as a toehold. To the rear the fins flared out,
supported by heavy struts. He made his way back, crouching close to the
hull, and straddled one of the struts. He jammed his magnetic boots down
against the hull, and wrapped his arms around the strut with all his
strength.

Clinging there, he waited.

It wasn't a good position. The metal of the strut was polished and
slick, but it was better than trying to cling to the open hull. He
tensed now, not daring to relax for fear that the blastoff accelleration
would slam him when he was unprepared.

Deep in the ship, the engines began to rumble. He felt it rather
than heard it, a low-pitched vibration that grew stronger and stronger.
The Ranger would not need a great thrust to move away from the
orbit-ship ... but if they were in a hurry, they might start out at
nearly Mars-escape....

The jets flared, and something slammed him down against the fin strut.
The Ranger moved out, its engines roaring, accellerating hard. Tom felt
as though he had been hit by a ton of rock. The strut seemed to press in
against his chest; he could not breathe. His hands were sliding, and he
felt the pull on his boots. He tightened his grip desperately. This was
it. He had to hang on, _had_ to hang on....

He saw his boot on the hull surface, sliding slowly, creeping back and
stretching his leg, suddenly it broke loose; he lurched to one side, and
the other boot began sliding. There was a terrible ache in his arms, as
though some malignant giant were tearing at him, trying to wrench him
loose as he fought for his hold.

There was one black instant when he knew he could not hold on another
second. He could see the blue flame of the jet streaming behind him, the
cold blackness of space beyond that. It had been a fool's idea, he
thought in despair, a million-to-one shot that he had taken, and
lost....

And then the pressure stopped. His boots clanged down on the hull, and
he almost lost his hand-grip. He stretched an arm, shook himself, took a
great painful breath, and then clung to the strut, almost sobbing,
hardly daring to move.

The ordeal was over. Somewhere, far ahead, an orbit-ship was waiting for
the Ranger to return. He would have to be ready for the braking thrust
and the side-maneuvering thrusts, but he would manage to hold on.
Crouching against the fin, he would be invisible to viewers on the
orbit-ship ... and who would be looking for a man clinging to the
outside of a scout-ship?

Tom sighed, and waited. Jupiter Equilateral would have its prisoners,
all right. He wished now that he had not discarded the stunner, but
those extra pounds might have made the difference between life and death
during the blastoff. And at least he was not completely unarmed. He
still had Dad's revolver at his side.

He smiled to himself. The pirates would have their prisoners,
indeed ... but they would have one factor to deal with that they
had not counted on.

       *       *       *       *       *

For Greg it was a bitter, lonely trip.

After ten hours they saw the huge Jupiter Equilateral orbit-ship looming
up in the viewscreen like a minor planet. Skilfully Doc maneuvered the
ship into the launching rack. The guards unstrapped the prisoners, and
handed them pressure suits.

Moments later they were in a section in crews' quarters where they
stripped off their suits. This orbit-ship was much larger than Roger
Hunter's; the gravity was almost Mars-normal, and it was comforting just
to stretch and relax their cramped muscles.

As long as they didn't think of what was ahead.

Finally Johnny grinned and slapped Greg's shoulder. "Cheer up," he said.
"We'll be honored guests for a while, you can bet on that."

"For a while," Greg said bitterly.

Just then the hatchway opened. "Well, who do we have here?" a familiar
voice said. "Returning a call, you might say. And maybe this time you'll
be ready for a bit of bargaining."

They turned to see the heavy face and angry eyes of Merrill Tawney.



8. The Scavengers of Space


The casual observer might have been fooled. Tawney's guard was down only
for an instant; then the expression of cold fury and determination on
his face dropped away as though the shutter of a camera had clicked, and
he was all smiles and affability. They were honored guests here, one
would have thought, and this pudgy agent of the Jupiter Equilateral
combine was their genial host, anxious for their welfare, eager to do
anything he could for their comfort....

They were amazed by the luxuriousness of the ship. For the next few
hours they received the best treatment, sumptuous accommodations,
excellent food.

They were finishing their second cup of coffee when Tawney asked,
"Feeling better, gentlemen?"

"You do things in a big way," Johnny said. "This is real coffee, made
from grounds. Must have cost a fortune to ship it out here."

Tawney spread his hands. "We keep it for special occasions. Like when we
have special visitors."

"Even when the visits aren't voluntary," Greg added sourly.

"We have to be realistic," Tawney said. "Would you have come if we
invited you? Of course not. You gentlemen chose to come out to the Belt
in spite of my warnings. You thus made things very awkward for us, upset
certain of our plans." He looked at Greg. "We don't ordinarily allow
people to upset our plans, but now we find that we're forced to include
you in our plans, whether you happen to like the idea or not."

"You're doing a lot of talking," Greg said. "Why don't you come to the
point?"

Tawney was no longer smiling. "We happen to know that your father struck
a rich lode on one of his claims."

"That's interesting," Greg said. "Did Dad tell you that?"

"He didn't have to. A man can't keep a secret like that, not for very
long. Ask your friend here, if you don't believe me. And we make it our
business to know what's going on out here. We have to, in order to
survive."

"Well, suppose you heard right. The law says that what a man finds on
his own claim is his."

"Certainly," Tawney said. "Nobody would think of claim-jumping, these
days. But when a man happens to die before he can bring in his bonanza,
then it's a question of who gets there first, wouldn't you think?"

"Not when the man is murdered," Greg said hotly, "not by a long shot."

"But you can't prove that your father was murdered."

"If I could, I wouldn't be here."

"Then I think we'll stick to the law," Tawney said, "and call it an
accident."

"And what about my brother? Was that an accident?"

"Ah, yes, your brother." Tawney's eyes hardened. "Quite a different
matter, that. Sometimes Doc tends to be over-zealous in carrying out his
assigned duties. I can assure you that he has been ... disciplined."

"That's not going to help Tom very much."

"Unfortunately not," Tawney said. "Your brother made a very foolish
move, under the circumstances. But from a practical point of view,
perhaps it's not entirely a tragedy."

"What do you mean by that?"

"From what I've heard," Tawney said, "you didn't have much use for your
twin brother. And now you certainly won't have to share your father's
legacy...."

It was too much. With a roar Greg swung at the little fat man. The blow
caught Tawney full in the jaw, jerked his head back. Greg threw his
shoulder into a hard left, slamming Tawney back against the wall. The
guard charged across the room, dragging them apart as Tawney blubbered
and tried to cover his face. Greg dug his elbow into the guard's
stomach, twisted away and started for Tawney again. Then Johnny caught
his arm and spun him around. "Stop it," he snapped. "Use your head,
boy...."

Greg stopped, glaring at Tawney and gasping for breath. The company man
picked himself up, rubbing his hand across his mouth. For a moment he
trembled with rage. Then he gripped the table with one hand, forcibly
regaining his control. He even managed a sickly smile. "Just like your
father," he said, "too hot-headed for your own good. But we'll let it
pass. I brought you here to make you an offer, a very generous offer,
and I'll still make it. I'm a businessman, when I want something I want
I bargain for it. If I have to share a profit to get it, I share the
profit. All right ... you know where your father's strike is. We want
it. We can't find it, so you've got us over a barrel. We're ready to
bargain."

Greg started forward. "I wouldn't bargain with you for...."

"Shut up, Greg," Johnny said.

Greg stared at him. The big miner's voice had cracked like a whip; now
he was drawing Merrill Tawney aside, speaking rapidly into his ear.
Tawney listened, shot a venomous glance across at Greg, and finally
nodded. "All right," he said, "but I can't wait forever...."

"You won't have to."

Tawney turned to the guard. "You have your orders," he said. "They're to
have these quarters, and the freedom of the ship, except for the outer
level. They're not to be harmed, and they're not to be out of your sight
except when they're locked in here. Is that clear?"

The guard nodded. Tawney looked at Johnny, and started for the door,
still rubbing his jaw. "We'll talk again later," he said, and then he
was gone.

When the guard had left, and the lock buzzed in the door, Johnny looked
at Greg and shook his head sadly. "You just about fixed things, boy, you
really did. You've got to use your head if you want to stay alive a
while, that's all. Look, there isn't going to be any bargaining with
Tawney, he just doesn't work that way. It's heads he wins, tails we
lose. Once he has what he wants we won't last six minutes. All right,
then there's just one thing that can keep us alive ... stalling him.
We've got to make him think you'll give in if he plays his cards right."

Greg was silent for a minute. "I hadn't thought of it that way."

"And we've got to use the time we have to find some way to break for
it." Johnny stood up, staring around the luxurious lounge. "If you want
my opinion, it's going to take some pretty fancy footwork to get out of
here with our skins."

       *       *       *       *       *

True to his word, Tawney had given them the freedom of the ship. Greg
and Johnny discovered that their guard was also an excellent guide. All
day he had been leading them through the ship, chatting and answering
their questions about asteroid mining, until they almost forgot that
they were really prisoners here. And the guard's obvious pride in the
scope and skill of his company's mining operations was strangely
infectious.

Watching the Jupiter Equilateral ship in operation, Greg felt his heart
sink. Here was a huge, powerful organization, with all the equipment and
men and know-how they could ever need. How could one man, or two or
three in a team, hope to compete with them? For the independent miner,
the only hope was the Big Strike, the single lode that could make him
rich. He might work all his life without finding it, and then stumble
upon it by sheer chance....

But if he couldn't keep it when he found it, then what? What if the
great mining company became so strong that they could be their own law
in the Belt? What if they grew strong enough and powerful enough to
challenge the United Nations on Mars itself, and gain control of the
entire mining industry? What chance would the independent miner have
then?

It was a frightening picture. Suddenly something began to make sense to
Greg; he realized something about his father that he had never known
before.

Roger Hunter had been a miner, yes. But he had been something else too,
something far more important than just a miner.

Roger Hunter had been a fighter, fighting to the end for something he
believed in....

Tawney interrupted Greg's thought.

"Quite an operation," he said.

Greg looked at him. "So I see."

"And very efficient, too. Our men have everything they need to work
with. We can mine at far less cost than anyone else."

"But you still can't stand the idea of independent miners working the
Belt," Greg said.

Tawney's eyebrows went up. "But why not? There's lots of room out here.
Our operation with Jupiter Equilateral is no different from an
independent miner's operation. We aren't different kinds of people."
Tawney smiled. "When you get right down to it, we're both exactly the
same thing ... scavengers in space, vultures picking over the dead
remains to see what we can find. We come out to the asteroids, and we
bring back what we want and leave the rest behind. And it doesn't matter
whether we've got one ship working or four hundred ... we're still just
scavengers."

"With just one difference," Greg said, turning away from the viewscreen.

"Difference?"

Greg nodded. "Even vultures don't kill their own," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Later, when they were alone in their quarters again, Greg and Johnny
stared at each other gloomily.

"Didn't you see _anything_ that might help us?" Greg said.

"Not much. For an orbit-ship, this place is a fortress. I got a good
look at that scout ship coming in ... it was armed to the teeth.
Probably they all are. And they're keeping a guard now at every
airlock."

"So we're sewed up tight," Greg said.

"Looks that way. They've got us, boy, and I think Tawney's patience is
wearing thin, too. We're either going to have to produce or else."

"But what can we do?"

"Start bluffing."

"It seems to me we're just about bluffed out."

"I mean talk business," Johnny said. "Tell Tawney what he wants to
know."

"When we don't know any more than he does? How?"

Johnny Coombs scratched his jaw. "I've been thinking about that," he
said slowly, "and I wonder if we don't know a whole lot more than we
think we do."

"Like what?" Greg said.

"We've all been looking for the same thing ... a Big Strike, a bonanza
lode. Tawney's men have raked over every one of your Dad's claims, and
they haven't turned up a thing." Johnny looked at Greg. "Makes you
wonder a little, doesn't it? Your Dad was smart, but he was no magician.
And how does a man go about hiding something like a vein of ore?"

"I don't know," Greg said. "It doesn't seem possible."

"It isn't possible," Johnny said flatly. "There's only one possible
explanation, and we've been missing it all along. Whatever he found, _it
wasn't an ore strike_. It was something else, something far different
from anything we've been thinking of."

Greg stared at him. "But if it wasn't an ore strike, what was it?"

"I don't know," Johnny said. "But I'm sure of one thing ... it was
something important enough that he was ready to die before he'd reveal
it. And that means it was important enough that Tawney won't dare kill
us until he finds out what it was."



9. The Invisible Man


Crouching back into the shadow, Tom Hunter waited as the heavy footsteps
moved up the corridor, then back down, then up and down again. He peered
around the corner for a moment, looking quickly up and down the curving
corridor. The guard was twenty yards away, moving toward him in a slow
measured pace. Tom jerked his head back, then peered out again as the
footsteps receded.

The guard was a big man, with a heavy-duty stunner resting in the crook
of his elbow. He paused, scratched himself, and resumed his pacing. Tom
waited, hoping that something might distract the big man, but he moved
stolidly back and forth, not too alert, but far too alert to risk
breaking out into the main corridor.

Tom moved back into the darkened corridor where he was standing, trying
to decide what to do. It was a side corridor, and a blind alley; it
ended in a large hatchway marked HYDROPONICS, and there were no
branching corridors. If he were discovered here, there would be no place
to hide.

But he knew that he could never hope to accomplish his purpose here....

A hatch clanged open, and there were more footsteps down the main
corridor as a change of guards hurried by. There was a rumble of voices,
and Tom listened to catch the words.

"... don't care what you think, the boss says tighten it up...."

"But they got them locked in...."

"So tell it to the boss. We're supposed to check every compartment in
the section every hour. Now get moving...."

The footsteps moved up and down the corridor then, and Tom heard hatches
clanging open. If they sent a light down this spur ... he turned to the
hatch, spun the big wheel on the door, and slipped inside just as the
footsteps came closer.

The stench inside was almost overpowering. The big, darkened room was
extremely warm, the air damp with vapor. The plastic-coated walls
streamed with moisture. Against the walls Tom could see the great
hydroponic vats that held the yeast and algae cultures that fed the crew
of the ship. Water was splashing in one of the vats, and there was a
gurgling sound as nutrient broth drained out, to be replaced with
fresh.

He moved swiftly across the compartment, into a darkened area behind the
rows of vats, and crouched down. He heard footsteps, and the ring of
metal as the hatchway came open. One of the guards walked in, peered
into the gloom, wrinkled his nose, and walked out again, closing the
hatchway behind him.

It would do for a while ... if he didn't suffocate ... but if this ship
was organized like smaller ones, it would be a blind alley. Modern
hydroponic tanks did not require much servicing, once the cultures were
growing; the broth was drained automatically and sluiced through a
series of pipes to the rendering plant where the yeasts could be
flavored and pressed into surrogate steaks and other items for spaceship
cuisine. There would be no other entrances, no way to leave except the
way he had come in.

And with the guards on duty, that was out of the question. He waited,
listening, as the check-down continued in nearby compartments. Then
silence fell again. The heavy yeast aroma had grown more and more
oppressive; now suddenly a fan went on with a whir, and a cool draft of
freshened reprocessed air poured down from the ventilator shaft above
his head.

Getting into the orbit-ship had been easier than he had hoped. In the
excitement as the new prisoners were brought aboard, security measures
had been lax. No one had expected a third visitor; in consequence, no
one looked for one. Huge as it was, the Jupiter Equilateral ship had
never been planned as a prison, and it had taken time to stake out the
guards in a security system that was at all effective. In addition,
every man who served as a guard had been taken from duty somewhere else
on the ship.

So there had been no guard at the airlock in the first few moments after
the prisoners were taken off the Ranger ship. Tom had waited until the
ship was moored, clinging to the fin strut. He watched Greg and Johnny
taken through the lock, and soon the last of the crew had crossed over
after securing the ship. Presently the orbit-ship airlock had gone dark,
and only then had he ventured from his place of concealment, creeping
along the dark hull of the Ranger ship and leaping across to the
airlock.

A momentary risk, then, as he opened the lock. In the control room, he
knew, a signal light would blink on a panel as the lock was opened. Tom
moved as quickly as he could, hoping that in the excitement of the new
visitors, the signal would go unnoticed ... or if spotted, that the
spotter would assume it was only a crewman making a final trip across to
the Ranger ship.

But once inside, he began to realize the magnitude of his problem. This
was not a tiny independent orbit-ship with a few corridors and
compartments. This was a huge ship, a vast complex of corridors and
compartments and holds. There was probably a crew of a thousand men on
this ship ... and there was no sign where Greg and Johnny might have
been taken.

He moved forward, trying to keep to side corridors and darkened areas.
In the airlock he had wrapped up his pressure suit and stored it on a
rack; no one would notice it there, and it might be handy later. He had
strapped his father's gun case to his side, some comfort, but a small
one.

Now, crouching behind the yeast vat, he lifted out the gun, hefted it
idly in his hand. It was a weapon, at least. He was not well acquainted
with guns, and in the shadowy light it seemed to him that this one
looked odd for a revolver; it even felt wrong, out of balance in his
hand. He slipped it back in the case. After all, it had been fitted to
Dad's hand, not his. And Johnny or Greg would know how to use it better
than he would.

If he could find them. But to do that, he would have to search the ship.
He would have to move about, he couldn't just wait in a storage hold.
And with all the guards that were posted, he would certainly stumble
into one of them sooner or later if he tried leaving this spot....

He shook his head, and started for the hatch. He would have to chance
it. There was no way to tell how much time he had, but it was a sure bet
that he didn't have very long.

In the spur corridor again, he waited until the guard's footsteps were
muffled and distant. Then he darted out into the main corridor, moving
swiftly and silently away from the guard. At the first hatchway he
ducked inside, waited in the darkness, panting....

The guard had stopped walking. Then his footsteps resumed, but more
quickly, coming down the corridor. He stopped, almost outside the
hatchway door. "Funny," Tom heard him mutter. "I'd have sworn...."

Tom held his breath, waiting. This was a storage hold, but he didn't
dare to move, even to take cover. The guard stood motionless for a
moment, then grunted, and resumed his slow pacing.

When he had moved away Tom caught his breath in huge gasps, his heart
beating in his throat. It was no use, he thought in despair. Once or
twice he might get away with it, but sooner or later a guard would be
alert enough to investigate an obscure noise, a flicker of movement in
the corner of his eye....

There had to be another way. His eye probed the storage hold,
hopelessly, and then stopped on a metal grill in the wall.

For a moment, he didn't recognize what it was. Then there was a
_whoosh-whoosh-whoosh_ as a fan went on, and he felt cool air against
his cheek. He held out his hand to the grill, found the air coming from
there.

A ventilation shaft. Every space craft had to have reconditioning units
for the air inside the ship; the men inside needed a constant supply of
fresh oxygen, but even more, without pumps to move the air in each
compartment they would soon suffocate from the accumulation of carbon
dioxide in the air they breathed out, or bake from the heat their bodies
radiated. On the other hand, the yeasts and algae required carbon
dioxide and yielded copious amounts of oxygen as they grew.

In Roger Hunter's little orbit-ship the ventilation shafts were small, a
loose network of foot-square ducts leading from the central pumps and
air-reconditioning units to every compartment in the ship. But in a ship
of this size....

The grill was over a yard wide, four feet tall. It started about
shoulder height and ran up to the overhead. The ducts would network the
ship, opening into every compartment, and no one would ever open them
unless something went wrong.

And then he was laughing out loud, working the grill out of the slots
that held it to the wall, trying to make his hands work in his
excitement.

He knew he had found his answer.

The grill came loose, lifted down in a piece. He stopped short as
footsteps approached in the corridor, paused, and went on. Then he
peered into the black gaping hole behind the grill. It was big enough
for a man to crawl in. He shinned up into the hole, and pulled the grill
back into its slot behind him.

Somewhere far away he heard a throbbing of giant pumps. There was a rush
of cool fresh air past his cheek, cold when it contacted the sweat
pouring down his forehead. He could not quite stand up, but there was
plenty of room for him to crouch and move.

Ahead of him was a black tunnel, broken only by a patch of light coming
through the grill that opened into the next compartment. He started into
the blackness, his heart racing.

Somewhere in the ship Johnny Coombs and Greg Hunter were
prisoners ... but now, Tom knew, there was a way to escape.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a completely different world, a world within a world, a world of
darkness and silence, of a thousand curving and intersecting tunnels,
some large, some small. For hours it seemed to him that he had been
wandering through a tomb, moving through the corridors of a dead ship,
the lone surviving crewman. There was some contact with the other world,
of course, the world of the spaceship outside ... each compartment had
its metal grill, and he passed many of them. But there were like doors
that only he knew existed. He met no one in _these_ corridors, there was
no danger of sudden discovery and arrest in these dark alleys....

His boots had made too much noise as he started out, so he had slipped
them off, hanging them from his belt and moving on in his stocking feet.
As he went from duct to duct, he had an almost ridiculous feeling of
freedom and power. In every sense, he was an invisible man. Not one soul
on this great ship knew he was here, or even suspected. He had the run
of the ship, complete freedom to go wherever he chose. He could move
from compartment to compartment as silently and invisibly as if he had
no substance at all.

       *       *       *       *       *

He knew the first job was to learn the pattern of the ducts, and
orientation was a problem. He had heard stories of men getting lost in
the deep underground mining tunnels on Mars, wandering in circles for
days until their food gave out and they starved. And there was that
hazard here, for every duct looked like every other one.

But there was a difference here, because the ducts curved just as the
main ship's corridors did. He could always identify the center of the
ship by the force of false gravity pulling the other way. Furthermore,
as the ducts drew closer to the pumps and reconditioning units, they
opened into larger vents, and the noise of the pumps thundered in his
ears. After an hour of exploration, Tom was certain that from any place
in the ship he could at least find his way to the outer layer, and from
there to one of the scout-ship airlocks.

Finding Greg and Johnny was quite a different matter.

He could not see enough through the compartment grills to identify just
what the compartments were; he was forced to rely on what he could hear.
The engine rooms were easily identified. In one area he heard the
banging of pots and pans, the steaming of kettles ... obviously the
galley. He found the control area. He could hear the clatter of typing
instruments, the _click-click-click_ of the computers working out the
orbits and trajectories for the scout-ships as they moved out from the
orbit-ship or came back in. In another compartment he heard a dispatcher
chattering his own special code-language into a microphone in a
low-pitched voice. He passed another grill, and then stopped short as a
familiar voice drifted through.

Merrill Tawney's voice.

Tom hugged the grill, straining to catch the words. The company man
sounded angry; the man he was talking to sounded even angrier. "I can't
help what you want or don't want, Merrill, I can only report what we've
found, and that's nothing at all. Every one of those claims has been
searched twice over. Doc and his boys went over them, and we didn't find
anything they missed. I think you're barking up the wrong tree."

"There's _got_ to be something," Tawney said, his voice tight with
anger. "Hunter couldn't have taken anything away from there, he didn't
have a chance to. You read the reports..."

"I know," the other said wearily, "I know what the reports said."

"Then what he found is still there. There's no other possibility,"
Tawney said.

"We went over that rock with a microscope. We blew it to shreds. Assay
has gone through the fragments literally piece by piece. They found low
grade iron, a trace of nickel, a little tin, and lots of granite. If we
never found anything richer than that, we'd have been out of business
ten years ago."

There was a long silence. Tom pressed closer to the grill. Then he heard
Tawney slam his fist into his palm. "You know what Roger Hunter's doing,
don't you?" he said. "He's making fools of us, that's what! The man's
dead, and he's making us look like idiots. If we hadn't been so sure we
had the lode spotted ..." He broke off. "Well, that's done, we can't
undo it. But this brat of his...."

"Any luck there?"

"Not a word. He's playing coy."

"Maybe he doesn't know anything. Doc made a bad mistake when he blasted
the other one ... suppose _he_ was the only one that knew."

"All right, it was a mistake," Tawney snapped. "What was he supposed to
do, let him get back to Mars? We've got a good front there, but it's not
that good. If the United Nations gets a toehold out here, the whole Belt
will go into their pocket, you realize that. They're waiting for us to
make one slip." He paused, and Tom heard him pacing the compartment.
"But I think we've got our boy. This one knows. We've been spoiling him
so far, that's all. Well, now we start digging. When I get through with
him, he'll be begging us to let him tell. You just watch me, as soon as
the okay comes through...."

Tom drew back from the grill, moving on in the darkness. So far he had
not rushed his exploration ... there was a chance to use the ducts for
escape, he wanted to know them well. But now he knew the hour was
getting late. So far Greg and Johnny had been stalling Tawney ... but
Tawney was getting impatient.

He moved quickly and he thought again of what Tawney had said. Tawney
was right about one thing ... there was no way that Dad could have
hidden a Big Strike so nobody could find it. It had to be there....

And yet it wasn't. He and Greg hadn't found it. Tawney's men hadn't
found it, either. Why not? There must be a reason.

But he could not put his finger on it.

Half an hour later he was seriously worried. Half the compartments in
the area were deserted, the men leaving for the cafeteria. The thought
reminded Tom how hungry he was, and thirsty. His small emergency ration
kit was empty. He toyed with the thought of sneaking into a food storage
compartment, then thrust it out of his mind as too risky. He had to find
Greg and Johnny before anything.

He passed a grill, and heard a murmur of voices; something in the deep
bass rumble caught his ear, and he stopped, listened.

The voices stopped also.

He waited for them to begin, pressing against the grill. Johnny Coombs
was not the only man with a deep bass voice, he might have been
mistaken. He listened, but there was no sound. He heard the whir of a
fan begin, still no sound, not even footsteps.

And then it happened, so fast he was taken completely off guard. The
grill suddenly gave way, pitching him forward into the compartment.
Something struck him behind the ear as he fell; there was a grunt, a
sharp command, and he was pinned to the floor in the semi-darkness of
the compartment.

Then he heard a gasp, and he opened his eyes. He was staring into his
brother's startled face. Greg was pinning his shoulders to the carpeted
deck, and behind him Johnny Coombs had a fist raised....

But they had stopped in mid-air, like a tableau of puppets. Greg gaped,
his jaw falling open, and Tom heard himself saying, "What are you trying
to do, kill a guy? Seems to me one time is enough."

He had found them.



10. The Trigger


In the first instance of astonishment they were speechless. Later, Tom
said it was the first time in his life that he had ever seen Greg
totally without words; his brother jumped back, as if he had seen a
ghost, and his mouth worked, but no sounds came out.

"Don't worry, it's me all right," Tom said, "and I'm mighty hungry."

Greg and Johnny stared at the black hole behind the grill ... and then
Greg was pumelling him, pounding him on the back, so excited he couldn't
get a sentence out, and Johnny was hovering over them, incredulous but
forced to believe his eyes, like a father overwhelmed by the impossible
behavior of a pair of unpredictable children. It was a jubilant reunion.
They broke open the cabinets and refrigerator in the back of the lounge
and pulled out surro-ham and rolls, while Johnny got some coffee going.
Tom was so famished he could hardly wait to make sandwiches of the ham.
He ate it as fast as he got it.

But finally he slowed up, got his mouth empty enough to talk. "All
right, let's have the story," Greg said, still looking as though he
couldn't believe his eyes. "The last we saw, you were blown into atoms
out there in that _Scavenger_ ... you've got some nerve turning up now
and scaring us half out of our skins...."

"You want me to go back in my hole?"

"Just sit still and talk!"

Tom told them, then, starting from the beginning.

Through it all Greg stared in admiration. "We've got a genius among us,
that's all," he said finally. "And I always thought you were the timid
one...."

"But what else could I do?" Tom said. "You know what they say about
grabbing a tiger by the tail ... once you get hold, you've got to hold
on."

"Okay," Greg said, "but the next time I make a crack about your retiring
nature, remind me to stick my foot in my mouth."

"I'll do it for him," Johnny Coombs rumbled.

Tom nodded toward the open grill. "The only thing I don't see is how you
knew I was back there."

Johnny grinned. "We were busy taking down the grill when you came
along. We'd found three microphones in this place, and figured they
might have one behind the grill. And then we heard somebody breathing
back there ... we thought they'd posted a guard back there, just to snoop
us."

"Well, I'm glad you didn't hit him any harder...."

Johnny started to say something, then stopped, cocked his head toward
the door. There were footsteps in the corridor outside; they came
closer, stopped by the door. "Quick," Johnny hissed, "back inside!"

There was no time to look for other concealment. Tom leaped across the
room, jumped up into the shaft again, and Greg slammed the grate up into
place just as the hatchway door swung open.

Merrill Tawney walked into the room, with two burly guards behind him.

       *       *       *       *       *

For the first few seconds, Greg was certain that they were lost. He
stood with his back to the ventilator grill, frozen in his tracks as the
fat little company man came in the room. He tried to keep his face
blank, but he knew he wasn't succeeding. He saw the puzzled frown form
on Tawney's face.

The company man motioned the guards into the room, peered suspiciously
at Greg and Johnny. "Am I interrupting something, by any chance?"

"Nothing at all," Johnny blurted. "We were just talking."

"Talking." Tawney repeated the word as if it were some strange language
he didn't quite understand. He looked at the guard. "Let's just check
them."

While one guard patted down their clothes, the other withdrew a stunner,
held it on ready. Tawney prowled the lounge. He glanced at the food on
the table, then reached under the chair cushion and withdrew the
disconnected microphone, looked at the loose wires, and tossed it aside.

"They're clean," the guard said.

Tawney's face was a study of uneasiness, but he clearly could not
pinpoint what the trouble was. Finally he shrugged, turned on the smile
again, although his eyes remained watchful. "Well, maybe you won't mind
if I join in the talking for a while," he said. "You've been
comfortable? No complaints?"

"No complaints," Greg said.

"Then I presume we're ready to talk business." He looked at Greg.

"You said you were ready to bargain," Greg said, "but I haven't heard
any terms yet."

"Terms? Very simple. You direct us to the lode, we give you half of
everything we realize from it," Tawney said, smiling.

"You mean you'll write us a contract? With a U.N. witness to it?"

"Well, hardly ... under the circumstances. I'm afraid you'll have to
take our word."

Greg looked at the company man, and shook his head. "Not that I don't
trust you," he said, "but I'm afraid I can't give you what you want,"
Greg said.

"Why not?"

"Because I don't know where Dad made his strike."

The company man's face darkened. "Somebody knows where it is. Your
father would never have found something like that without telling his
own sons...."

"Sorry," Greg said. "Of course, I can tell you where you can find out,
if you want to go look."

"We've already searched his records...."

"_Some_ of his records," Greg said. "Not all of them. There was a
compartment behind the main control panel in Dad's orbit-ship. Dad used
it to store deeds, claims, other important papers. There was a packet of
notes in there before your men fired on the ship. But of course, maybe
you searched more thoroughly, the second time."

Tawney stared at him for a moment, then at Johnny. Johnny Coombs
shrugged his shoulders solemnly, and shook his head. Without a word, the
little company man walked to the intercom speaker on the wall. He spoke
sharply into it, waited, then had a brief, pungent conversation with
someone. Then he turned back to Greg, his face heavy with suspicion.
"You saw these papers?"

"Certainly I saw them. I didn't have time to read them through, but what
else could they be?"

"Let me warn you," Tawney said coldly, "if I send a crew out there on a
wild goose chase, the party will be over when they get back, do you
understand? You've been given every consideration. If this is a fool's
errand, you'll pay for it very dearly." He turned on his heel, snarled
at one of the guards. "I want them watched every minute," he said. "One
of you stay with them constantly. It won't take long to find out if this
is a stall...."

He stalked out, and the hatchway clanged behind him. One guard went
along; the big one with the stunner stayed behind, eyeing his prisoners
unpleasantly. The stunner was in his hand, the safety off.

Johnny Coombs started across the room toward the kitchennette, passing
close to the guard. Suddenly he turned, swung his fist heavily down on
the guard's neck. The stunner crackled, but Greg had jumped aside.
Another blow from Johnny's fist sent the gun flying. Another blow, and
the guard's legs slid out from under him. He fell unconscious to the
floor.

In an instant they were across the room, lifting down the grill, helping
Tom out of his hiding place. "Okay, boy," Johnny said to Greg, "I guess
you pulled the trigger with that story of yours."

"Not me," Greg said. "Tom did. He's the one that showed us the way
out ... the same way he came in."

       *       *       *       *       *

The guard was out for a while, they made sure of that first. Then there
was a hasty consultation. "The airlocks are guarded," Johnny said, "and
if they tumble to the ventilator shafts, they can smoke us out in no
time. How are we going to get a scout-ship without showing ourselves?
For that matter, how are we going to get a scout-ship away from here
without being blown up the way the _Scavenger_ was blown up?"

"I think I know a way," Tom said. "We have to have something to keep a
lot of the crew busy. If we could get to the ship's generators and put
them out of commission somehow, it might do it."

"Why?" Greg wanted to know.

"Because of the air supply," Tom said. "Without the generators, the fans
won't run. They'll have to get a crew to fix them or they'll suffocate."

"But that would only take a few men," Johnny said. "As soon as
the generators went out, they'd look for us, and if we were
missing ... well, they'd have the whole crew beating the bushes for us.
It wouldn't be long before somebody thought of the ventilators."

"But we've got to do something, and do it fast," Tom said.

"I know." Johnny chewed his lip. "It's a good idea, but we need more
than just the generators. We've got to disable the ship ... throw so
many things at them so fast from so many different directions that they
don't know which way to turn. That means we'd need to split up, and we'd
need weapons." He hefted the guard's Markheim. "One stunner between
three of us isn't enough."

"Well, we have this." Tom unbuckled Roger Hunter's gun case from his
belt. "Dad's revolver. It's not a stunner, but it might help." He tossed
the case to Johnny. "I can give you both a rundown on how the shafts go.
We could plan to meet at a certain spot in a certain length of time...."

He broke off, looking at Johnny. The big miner had taken Roger Hunter's
gun from the case, and hefted it in his hand, started to check it
automatically as Tom talked. But now his hand froze as he stared at the
weapon.

"What's wrong?" Tom asked.

"This gun is wrong," Johnny said. "All wrong. Where did you get this
thing?"

"From Dad's spacer pack, the one the Patrol brought back. The Major gave
it to us in Sun Lake City." Tom peered at the gun. "Is it broken or
something? It's just Dad's revolver...."

"It is, eh?" Johnny turned the gun over in his hand. "Whoever told you
about guns?"

"What's wrong with it?"

There was an odd expression on Johnny's face as he handed the weapon
back to Tom. "Take a look at it," he said. "Tell me whether it's loaded
or not."

Tom looked at it. Except for a few hours on the firing range, he had had
no experience with guns; he couldn't have taken down a Markheim and
reassembled it if his life depended on it. But he had seen his father
take the old revolver out of the leather case many times before.

Now Tom could see that this was not the same gun.

The thing in his hand was large and awkward. The hand-grips didn't fit;
there was no trigger guard, and no trigger. Several inches along the
gleaming metal barrel was a shiny stud, and below it a dial with notches
on it.

"That's funny," Tom said. "I've never seen this thing before."

Greg took it from him, balanced it in his hand. "Doesn't feel right," he
said. "All out of balance."

"Look at the barrel," Johnny said quietly.

Greg looked. There was no hole in the end of the barrel. "This thing's
crazy," he said.

"And then some," Johnny said. "You haven't had this out of the case
since you took it from the pack?"

"Just once," said Tom. "And I put it right back. I hardly looked at it.
Look, maybe it's just a new model Dad got."

"It's no new model. I'm not even sure it's a gun," Johnny said. "Doesn't
_feel_ like a gun."

"What happens when you push the stud here?" Greg asked.

Johnny licked his lips nervously. "Try it," he said.

Greg leveled the thing at the rear wall of the lounge and pressed the
stud. There was a sharp buzzing sound, and a blinding flash of blue
light against the wall. It looked for all the world like the flash of a
live power line shorting out. They squinted at the flash, rubbed their
eyes....

And stared at the wall. Or at what was left of the wall, because most of
the wall was gone. The metal had bellied out in a six-foot hole into the
storage hold beyond....

Johnny Coombs whistled. "This thing did _that_?" he whispered.

"It must have...."

"But there's no gun ever made that could do that." He walked over to the
hole in the wall. "That's half-inch steel plate. There's no way to pack
that kind of energy into a hand gun."

They stared at the innocent-looking weapon in Greg's hand. "Whatever it
is, Dad must have put it in the gun-case."

"Yes, he must have," Johnny said.

"Well, don't you see what that means? _Dad must have found it
somewhere_. Somewhere out here in the Belt ... a gun that no man could
have made...."

He took the weapon, ran his finger along the gleaming barrel. "I
wonder," he said, "what else Dad might have found out there."

       *       *       *       *       *

Somewhere below them they heard a hatch clang shut, and even deeper in
the ship generator motors began throbbing in a steady even rhythm. In
the silence of the lounge they could hear their own breathing, and
outside a thousand tiny sounds of the ship's activity were audible.

But now they had attention only for the odd-shaped piece of metal in
Greg's hand, and for the hole that gaped in the wall.

"You think that _this_ was what Dad found?" Greg said. "The Big Strike
he told Johnny about?"

"It must be part of it," Tom said.

"But what is it? And where did it come from? It doesn't make sense,"
Greg protested.

"It doesn't make sense the way we've been looking at it," Tom said. "All
we've found was some gobbledegook in Dad's private log to tell us what
he found ... but it couldn't have been a vein of ore, or Tawney's men
would have unearthed it. It had to be something else. Something that was
so big and important that Dad didn't even dare let Johnny in on it."

"Yes, that's been the craziest part of it, to me," Johnny said. "I've
done a lot of mining with your Dad. If he'd hit rich ore, he would have
taken me out there to mine it with him. But he didn't. He said it was
something he had to work on alone for awhile, and he sent me back."

"As if he'd found something that scared him," Tom said, "or something
that he didn't understand. He was _afraid_ to tell anybody. And whatever
he found, he managed to hide it somewhere, so that nobody would find
it...."

"Then why didn't he hide this part of it, too?" Greg said.

"Maybe to be sure there was some trace left, if anything happened to
him," Tom said.

They were silent for a moment. The only sound was the stertorous
breathing of the unconscious guard. "Well," Greg said finally, "I have
to admit it makes sense. It makes other things add up better, too. Dad
was no fool, he must have known that Tawney was onto something. And Dad
would never have risked his life for an ore strike. He'd either have
made a deal with Tawney or let him hijack the lode, if that was all
there was to it. But there's still one big question ... where did he
hide what he found? And we aren't going to find the answer here." He
walked over to the hole in the wall.

"Made quite a mess of it, didn't it?" Johnny said.

"Looks like it. I wonder what that thing would do to a ship's generator
plant." He turned to Johnny. "We haven't much time. With this thing, we
could tear this ship apart, leave them so confused they'll never know
what broke loose. And if we could get that gun back to Major Briarton,
he'd have to listen to us, and get the U.N. Patrol into the search...."

They had been so intent on their talking that they did not hear the
footsteps in the corridor until the door swung open. It was another
guard, the one who had departed with Tawney. He stopped short, blinking
at his companion on the floor, and then at the gaping hole in the wall.
When he saw the twins, side by side, his jaw sagged and a strangled
sound came from his throat.

Then Johnny grabbed his arm, jerked him into the lounge, and slammed the
hatch shut. Greg pulled the stunner from his holster and tossed it to
Tom. The guard let out a roar, twisted free, and met Johnny's fist as he
came around. He sagged at the knees and slid to the floor beside the
other guard. "All right," Johnny said, "we've dealt the cards, now we'd
better play the hand. Tom, you first."

Tom pulled the ventilator grill down, and climbed up into the shaft.
Greg followed, with Johnny at his heels, pulling the grill back up into
place from the inside. They waited for a moment, but there was no sound
from the lounge.

"All right," Johnny said breathlessly. "Let's move."

Swiftly they started down the dark tunnel.



11. The Haunted Ship


They did not pause, even to catch their breath, for the first twenty
minutes as Tom led them swiftly and silently down through the maze of
corridors and chutes that made up the ventilation system of the huge
ship. Greg lost his bearing completely in the first twenty seconds; each
time his brother paused at a junction of tubes, he felt a wave of panic
rise up in his throat ... suppose they lost themselves in here! He heard
Johnny's trousers flapping behind him, saw Tom's figure flit past
another grill up ahead, and plunged doggedly on.

It was amazingly hard to move quietly. Even in stocking feet they made a
soft thud with each footfall.

But there was no sign of detection, no sound of alarm. Finally they came
out into a large shaft which allowed them to stand upright, and they
stopped to catch their breath.

"Main tube to the living quarters," Tom said when they had caught up to
him. "Joins with the lower-level tube by a series of chutes. We've
actually been circumnavigating the ship ... I wanted to get as far away
from that lounge compartment as possible, in case they check up on you
right away."

"We can't have much time," Johnny said. "That second guard must have
been coming to relieve the other, and when the first one doesn't report
back, they'll smell something fishy."

       *       *       *       *       *

They talked it over for a moment. Johnny had been careful to leave the
hatchway into the corridor ajar before he climbed into the ventilator
shaft, and then he had pulled the shaft snugly into place behind him.
Anyone who came would find two unconscious guards, a burnt-out hole in
the wall, and the door unlocked.

"We'll hope that he takes things at face value, and assumes we're at
large in the ship somewhere, for awhile at least," Johnny said. "That
hole in the wall is going to set them back a couple of steps, too."

"But they'll sound the alarm, at least," Tom said.

"You bet they will! They'll have every man on the crew shaking down the
ship for us. But they may not think of the ventilators until they can't
find us anywhere else."

"But sooner or later they're bound to think of it."

"That's true," Johnny said. "Unless they keep seeing us in the ship. The
way I figure it, this crew has been on battle stations plenty of times.
They'll be able to search the whole ship in half an hour. We're just
going to have to show ourselves ... at least enough to keep them
searching."

"Well, what if they do think of the ventilators?" Greg said. "They'd
still have a time finding us."

"Maybe, but don't underestimate Tawney. He might just mask up his crew
and flood the tubes with cyanide."

They thought about that for a minute. There was no sound here but their
own breathing, and the low chug-chug-chug of the pumps somewhere deep in
the ship. Momentarily they expected to hear the raucous clang of the
alarm bell, as some crew member or another walked into the lounge and
found them gone. But so far there was no sign they had been discovered
missing. "No," Johnny said finally, "if we just hide out in here, and
hope for a chance at one of the scout ships, they'll find us eventually.
But we've got three big advantages, if we can figure out how to use
them. That fancy gun, for one. A way to get around the ship, for
another ... and the fact that there's one more of us than they count on."
He flipped on his pocket flash, began drawing lines on the dusty floor of
the shaft. "My idea is to keep them so busy fighting little fires that
they won't have a chance to worry about where the big one is."

He drew a rough outline-sketch of the organization of the ship. "This
look right to you, from what you've seen?" he asked Tom.

"Pretty much," Tom said. "There are more connecting tubes."

"All the better. We want to get the generators with our little toy here
first. That'll darken the ship, and put the blowers out of commission in
case they think of using gas. Also, it will cut out their computers and
missile-launching rigs, which might give us a chance to get a scout-ship
away in one piece if we could get aboard one."

"All right, the generators are first," Tom said. "But then what? There
are four hundred men on this ship. They'll have every airlock triple
guarded. They'll block us for sure."

"Not when we get through, they won't," Johnny grinned. "We've got an old
friend aboard who's going to help us."

"_Friend?_"

"Ever hear of panic?" Johnny said. "Just listen a minute."

Quickly then, he outlined his plan. Tom and Greg listened, watched
Johnny make marks with his finger in the dust. When he finished, Greg
whistled softly. "You missed your life work," he said. "You should have
gone into crime."

"If I'd had a ghost to help me, I might have," Johnny said.

"It's perfect," Tom said, "if it works. But it all depends on one
thing ... keeping it rolling after we start...."

For another five minutes they went over the details. Then Johnny clapped
them each on the shoulder. "It's up to you two," he said. "Let's go."

They moved down the large shaft to the place where it broke into several
spurs. Johnny started down the chute toward the engine rooms; Tom and
Greg headed in opposite directions toward the main body of the ship.
Just as they broke up, they heard a muffled metallic sound from the
nearest compartment grill.

It was the _clang-clang-clang_ of the orbit-ship's general alarm.

       *       *       *       *       *

Crewmen stopped with food halfway to their mouths, jerked away from
tables. Orders buzzed along a dozen wires, and section chiefs began
reporting their battle-stations alert and ready. Finally Tawney snapped
on the general public address system speaker. "Now get this," he roared.
"I want every inch of this ship searched ... every corridor, every
compartment. I want a special crew standing by for missile launching.
I want double guards at every airlock. If they get a ship away from
here, the man who lets them through had better be dead when I find
him...." He broke off, clutching the speaker until his voice was under
control again. "All right, move. They're armed, but there's no place they
can go. Find them."

A section-chief came back over the speaker. "Dead or alive, boss?"

"Alive, you idiot! At least the Hunter brat. I'll take the other one any
way you can get him."

He switched off, and waited, pacing the control cabin like a caged
animal. Ten minutes later a buzzer sounded. "Hydroponics, boss. All
clear."

"No sign of them?"

"Nothing."

Another buzz. "Number seven ore hold. Nothing here."

Still another buzz. "Crew's quarters. Nothing, boss."

One by one the reports came in. Fuming, Tawney checked off the sections,
watched the net draw tighter throughout the ship. They were somewhere,
they _had_ to be....

But nobody seemed to find them.

He was buzzing for his first mate when the power went off. The lights
went out, the speaker went dead in his hand. The computers sighed
contentedly and stopped computing. Abruptly the emergency circuits went
into operation, flooding the darkness with harsh white lights. The
intercom started buzzing again.

"Engine room, boss."

"What happened down there?" Tawney roared.

The man sounded like he'd just run the mile. "Generators," he panted.
"Blown out."

"Well, get somebody in there to fix them. Have a crew seal off the
area...."

"Can't, boss. Fix them, I mean."

"Why not? What have we got electricians for?"

"There's nothing left to fix. The generators aren't wrecked ... they're
demolished...."

"Then get the pair that did it...."

"They're not here. We've been sealed up tight. There's no way anybody
could have gotten in here...."

After that, things began to get confusing.

       *       *       *       *       *

For a while Merrill Tawney thought that his crew was going crazy ... and
then he began to wonder if he were the one who was losing his mind.

Whatever the case, Merrill Tawney was certain of one thing. The things
that were happening on his orbit-ship could not possibly be happening.

A guard in one of the outer shell storage holds called in with a
disquieting report. Greg Hunter, it seemed, had just been spotted
vanishing into one of the storage compartments from the main outer-shell
corridor. When the guard had broken through the jammed hatchway to
collar his trapped victim, there was no sign of the victim anywhere
around.

At the same moment, a report came in from a guard on the opposite side
of the ship. He had just spotted Greg Hunter _there_, it seemed, moving
down a spur corridor. The guard had held his fire (according to Tawney's
orders) and summoned help to corner the quarry ... but when help
arrived, the quarry had vanished.

       *       *       *       *       *

Five minutes later the Hunter boy was discovered in the Hydroponics
section, busily reducing all the yeast vats to shambles with a curious
weapon that seemed to eat holes in things. It ate the deck out from
under the guard's feet, sending him plunging through the floor into the
galley. By the time he had scrambled back again, the Hunter boy was
gone, and a rapid move to seal off the region failed to turn him up
again. The guard was upset; Tawney was a great deal more upset, because
at the time Greg Hunter was (reportedly) playing havoc with the
yeast-vats in Hydroponics he was also (reportedly) knocking guards down
like ten-pins in the main corridor off the engine room while
reinforcements tried to pin him down with a wide-beam stunner....

Quite suddenly emergency circuits closed and lights flashed in the
control cabin, the special signal for a meteor-collision with the outer
shell in No. 3 hold. Tawney signalled for the section chief frantically.
"What's happening down there?"

"I can't talk," the section chief gasped. "Gotta get into a suit, we're
leaking in here...."

"Well, plug up the hole!"

"The hole's four feet wide, sir!" There was a fit of coughing and the
contact broke. The signals for No. 4 hold and No. 5 hold were flashing
now; while the crew members in the vicinity scrambled for pressure suits
someone systematically proceeded to blow holes in No. 9, No. 10 and No.
11 holds....

It was impossible. The reports came in thick and fast. Greg Hunter
was in two places at once, and everywhere he went ... in both
places ... there was a trail of unbelievable destruction. Bulkheads
demolished, gaping holes torn in the outer shell, the air-reconditioning
units smashed beyond repair.... Tawney buzzed for his first mate.

An emergency switch cut into the line, with the frantic voice of a
section chief. Johnny Coombs had been spotted disappearing into the
ventilator shaft in the engine sector. "Well, go in after him!" Tawney
screamed. He got his first mate finally, and snarled orders into the
speaker. "They're in the ventilators. Get a crew in there and stop
them."

But it was dark in the ventilator shafts. No emergency lights in there.
Worse, the crewmen were hearing the things that were being whispered
around the ship. The ventilator shafts yawned menacingly before them;
they went in reluctantly. Once in the dark maze of tunnels,
identification was difficult. Two guards met each other headlong in the
darkness, and put each other out of the fight in a flurry of nervous
stunner-fire. While they searched more of the holds were broken open,
leaking air through gaping rents in the hull....

Tawney felt the panic spreading; he tried to curb it, and it spread in
spite of him. The fugitives were appearing and disappearing like
wraiths. Reports back to control cabin took on a frantic note, confused
and garbled. Now the second-level bulkheads were being attacked. Over a
third of the compartments were leaking precious air into outer space.

When a terrified section chief came through with a report that two Greg
Hunters had been spotted by the same man at the same time, and that the
guards in the sector were shooting at anything that moved, including
other guards, Tawney made his way to the radio cabin and put through a
frantic signal to Jupiter Equilateral headquarters on Mars.

The contact took forever, even with the ship's powerful emergency
boosters. By the time someone at headquarters was reading him, Tawney's
report sounded confused. He was trying for the third time to explain,
clearly and logically, how two men and a ghost were scuttling his
orbit-ship under his very feet when one wall of the cabin vanished in a
crackle of blue fire, and he found himself staring at two Greg Hunters
and a grim-faced Johnny Coombs.

He made squeaky noises into the microphone and dropped it with a crash.
He groped for a chair; Johnny jerked him to his feet again. "A
scout-ship," he said tersely. "Clear it for launching. We want one with
plenty of fuel, and we don't want a single guard anywhere near the
airlock." He picked up an intercom microphone and thrust it into the
little fat man's trembling hand. "Now move! And you'd better be sure
they understand you, because you're coming with us."

Merrill Tawney stared first at Tom, then at Greg, and finally at the
microphone. Then he moved. The orders he gave to his section chiefs were
very clear and concise.

He had never argued with a ghost before, and he didn't care to start
now.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was over so quickly that it seemed to Tom it had just begun, and if
so much had not been at stake, it might have been fun.

It had been the gun ... the remarkable gun that Roger Hunter had left as
his legacy ... that had been the key. It ate through steel and aluminum
alloy like putty. Whatever its power source, however it worked, by
whatever means it had been built, there had been no match for it on the
orbit-ship.

It had _worked_ ... and that was all that mattered right then.

With it, and with the advantage of a ghost that walked like a
man ... Tom Hunter, to be exact ... they had reduced the Jupiter
Equilateral orbit-ship to a smoking wreck in something less than thirty
minutes.

The signal came back that a scout-ship was ready, unguarded. Johnny
prodded Tawney with the stunner. "You first," he said.

"But where are you taking me?"

"You'll see," Johnny said.

"It was a trick," Tawney said, glaring at Tom. "They told me they shot
your ship to pieces...."

"The ship, yes," Tom said. "Not me."

"Well ... well, that's good, that's good," Tawney said quickly. He
turned to Greg. "You don't have to take me back ... the bargain is still
good...."

"Move," Johnny Coombs said.

With Tawney between them, Greg and Tom marched down the corridor toward
the airlock, with Johnny bringing up the rear. No one stopped them. No
one even came near them. One crewman stumbled on them in the corridor;
he saw Tawney with a gun in his back, and fled in terror.

They found the scout-ship, and strapped Tawney down to an accelleration
bunk, binding his hands and feet so he couldn't move. Greg checked the
controls while Tom and Johnny strapped down. A moment later the engines
fired, and the leaking wreck of the orbit-ship fell away, dwindling and
disappearing in the blackness of space.

It was a quiet journey. The red dot that was Mars grew larger every
hour. One of the three stayed awake at all times to watch Tawney while
the others slept. During the second rest period, Tom woke up while Greg
was on duty.

"How's our prisoner doing?" Tom asked.

"No problem there, he can barely move. I almost wish he'd try something,
he's too quiet."

It was true. Tawney had recovered from his shock ... but rather than
grow more worried as Mars grew large on the screen, he seemed to become
more cheerful by the minute. "He doesn't seem very worried, does he?"
Tom said.

"No, and it doesn't quite add. We've got enough on him to get Jupiter
Equilateral pushed right out of the Belt."

"I'd still feel better if we had the whole picture for the Major," Tom
said. "We still don't know what Dad found, or where he hid it...."

The uneasiness grew. Tawney ignored them, staring at the image of the
red planet on the viewscreen almost eagerly. Then, eight hours out of
Sun Lake City a U.N. Patrol ship appeared, moving toward them swiftly.
"Intercepting orbit," Greg said. "Looks like they were waiting for us."

They watched as the big ship moved in to tangential orbit, matching its
speed to theirs. Then Greg snapped the communicator switch. "Sound off,"
he said cheerfully. "We've got a prize for you."

"Stand by, we're boarding you," the Patrol sent back. "And put your
weapons aside."

Four scooters broke from the side of the Patrol ship. Greg activated the
airlock. Five minutes later a man in Patrol uniform with captain's bars
stepped into the control cabin, a stunner on ready in his hand. Three
Patrolmen came in behind him.

The captain looked around the cabin, then saw Tawney, and took a deep
breath. "Well, thank the stars you're safe at any rate. Pete, Jimmy,
take the controls."

"Hold on," Greg said. "We don't need a pilot."

The Captain looked at him. "Sorry, but we're taking you in. There won't
be any trouble unless you make it. You three are under arrest, and I'm
authorized to make it stick if I have to. I suggest you just cooperate."

They stared at him. Then Johnny said, "What are the charges?"

"You ought to know," the Captain said. "We have a formal complaint from
the main offices of Jupiter Equilateral, charging you with piracy,
murder, kidnapping of a company official, and totally wrecking a company
orbit ship. I don't quite see how you managed it, but we're going to
find out in short order."

There was a stunned silence in the cabin, and then a sound came from the
rear of the cabin.

Merrill Tawney was laughing.



12. The Sinister Bonanza


They were taken to a small, drab internment room. A half hour passed and
still no word from the Major. From the moment the Patrol crew had
boarded them, everything had seemed like a bad dream. The shock of the
arrest, the realization that the Captain had been serious when he reeled
off the charges lodged against them ... they had been certain it was
some kind of ill-planned joke until they saw the delegation of Jupiter
Equilateral officials waiting at the port to greet Merrill Tawney like a
man returned from the dead. They had watched Tawney climb into the sleek
company car and drive off toward the gate, while the Captain had
escorted them without a word down to the internment rooms.

The door clicked, and the Captain looked in. "All right, come along
now," he said.

"Is the Major here?" Tom said.

"You'll see the Major soon enough." The Captain herded them into another
room, where a clerk efficiently fingerprinted them. Then they went down
a ramp to a jitney-platform, and boarded a U.N. official car. The trip
into the city was slow; rush-hour traffic from the port was heavy. When
they reached U.N. headquarters, there was another wait in an upper
level ante-room. The Captain stood stiffly with his hands behind his
back and ignored them.

"Look, this is ridiculous," Greg burst out finally. "We haven't done
anything. You haven't even let us make a statement."

"Make your statement to the Major. It's his headache, not mine, I'm
happy to say."

"But you let that man walk out of there scot free...."

The Captain looked at him. "If I were you," he said, "I'd stop
complaining and start worrying. If I had Jupiter Equilateral at my
throat, I'd worry plenty, because once they start they don't stop."

A signal light blinked, and he took them downstairs. Major Briarton was
behind his desk; his eyes tired, his face grim. He dismissed the
Captain, and motioned them to seats. "All right, let's have the story,"
he said, "and by the ten moons of Saturn it had better be convincing,
because I've about had my fill of you three."

He listened without interruption as Tom told the story, with Greg and
Johnny adding details from time to time. Tom told him everything, from
the moment they had blasted off for Roger Hunter's claim to the moment
the Patrol ship had boarded them, except for a single detail.

He didn't mention the remarkable gun from Roger Hunter's gun case. The
gun was still in the spacer's pack he had slung over his shoulder; he
had not mentioned it when the Patrolmen had taken their stunners away.
Now as he talked, he felt a twinge of guilt in not mentioning it....

But he had a reason. Dad had died to keep that gun secret. It seemed
only right to keep the secret a little longer. When he came to the part
about their weapons, he simply spoke of "Dad's gun" and omitted any
details.

And through the story, the Major listened intently, interrupting only
occasionally, pulling at his lip and scowling.

"So we decided that the best way to convince you that we had the
evidence you wanted was to bring Tawney back with us," Tom concluded.

"A brilliant maneuver," the Major said dryly. "A real stroke of genius."

"But then the Patrol ship intercepted us and told us we were under
arrest. And when we landed, they let Tawney drive off without even
questioning him."

"The least we could do, under the circumstances," the Major said.

"Well, I'd like to know why," Greg broke in bitterly. "Why pick on us?
We've just been telling you...."

"Yes, yes, I heard every word of it," the Major sighed. "If you knew the
trouble ... oh, what's the use? I've spent the last three solid hours
talking myself hoarse, throwing in every bit of authority I could
muster and jeopardizing my position as Coordinator here, for the sole
purpose of keeping you three idiots out of jail for a few hours."

"Jail!"

"That's what I said. The brig. The place they put people when they don't
behave. You three are sitting on a nice, big powder keg right now, and
when it blows I don't know how much of you is going to be left."

"Do you think we're lying?" Greg said.

"Do you know what you're charged with?" the Major snapped back.

"Some sort of nonsense about piracy...."

"Plus kidnapping. Plus murder. To say nothing of totally disabling a
seventeen-million-dollar orbit-ship and placing the lives of four
hundred crewmen in jeopardy." The Major picked up a sheet of paper from
his desk. "According to Merrill Tawney's statement, the three of you
hijacked a company scout-ship that chanced to be scouting in the
vicinity of your father's claim. Your attack was unprovoked and violent.
Everybody on Mars knows you were convinced that Jupiter Equilateral was
responsible for your father's death." He looked up. "In the absence of
any evidence, I might add, although I did my best to tell you that." He
rattled the report-sheet. "All right. You took the scout-ship by force,
with the pilot at gunpoint, and made him home in on his orbit-ship. Then
you proceeded to reduce that orbit-ship to a leaking wreck, although
Tawney tried to reason with you and even offered you amnesty if you
would desist. By the time the crew stopped shooting each other in the
dark ... fifteen of them subsequently expired, it says here ... you had
stolen another scout-ship and kidnapped Tawney for the purpose of
extorting a confession out of Jupiter Equilateral, threatening him with
torture if he did not comply...." The Major dropped the paper to the
desk.

Johnny Coombs picked it up, looked at it owlishly, and put it back
again. "Pretty large operation for three men, Major," he said.

The Major shrugged. "You were armed. That orbit-ship was registered as a
commercial vessel. It had no reason to expect a surprise attack, and had
no way to defend itself."

"They were armed to the teeth," Greg said disgustedly. "Why don't you
send somebody out to look?"

"Oh, I could, but why waste the time and fuel? There wouldn't be any
weapons aboard."

"Then how do they explain the fact that the _Scavenger_ was blown to
bits and Dad's orbit-ship ripped apart from top to bottom?"

"Details," the Major said. "Mere details. I'm sure that the company's
lawyers can muddy the waters quite enough so that little details like
that are overlooked. Particularly with a sympathetic jury and a judge
that plays along."

He stood up and ran his hand through his hair. "All right, granted I'm
painting the worst picture possible ... but I'm afraid that's the way
it's going to be. I believe your story, don't worry about that. I know
why you went out there to the Belt and I can't really blame you, I
suppose. But you were asking for trouble, and that's what you got.
Frankly, I am amazed that you ever returned to Mars, and how you managed
to make rubble of an orbit-ship with a crew of four hundred men trying
to stop you is more than I can comprehend. But you did it. All right,
fine. You were justified; they attacked you, held you prisoner,
threatened you. Fine. They'd have cut your throats in another few hours,
perhaps. Fine. I believe you. But there's one big question that you
can't answer, and unless you can no court in the Solar System will
listen to you."

"What question?" Tom said.

"The question of motives," the Major replied. "You had plenty of motive
for doing what Tawney says you did. But what motive did Jupiter
Equilateral have, if your story is true?"

"They wanted to get what Dad found, out in the Belt."

"Ah, yes, that mysterious bonanza that Roger Hunter found. I was afraid
that was what you'd say. And it's the reason that Jupiter Equilateral is
going to win this fight, and you're going to lose it."

"I don't think I understand," Tom said slowly.

"I mean that I'm going to have to testify against you," the Major said.
"_Because your father didn't find a thing in the Asteroid Belt_, and I
happen to know it."

       *       *       *       *       *

"It's been a war," the Major said later, "a dirty vicious war with no
holds barred and no quarter given. Not a shooting war, of course,
nothing out in the open ... but a war just the same, with the highest
stakes of any war in history.

"It didn't look like a war, at first," the Major went on. "Back when the
colonies were being built, nobody really believed that anything of value
would come of them ... scientific outposts, perhaps, places for
laboratories and observatories, not much more. The colonies were placed
under United Nations control. Nobody argued about it.

"And then things began to change. There was wealth out here ... and
opportunities for power. With the overpopulation at home, Earth was
looking more and more to Mars and Venus for a place to move ... not tiny
colonies, but places for millions of people. And as Mars grew, Jupiter
Equilateral grew."

"But it was just a mining company," Tom said.

"At first it was, but then its interests began to expand. The company
accumulated wealth, unbelievable wealth, and it developed many friends.
Very soon it had friends back on Earth fighting for it, and the United
Nations found itself fighting to stay on Mars."

"I don't see why," Tom said. "The company already has half the mining
claims in the Belt...."

"They aren't interested in the mining," the Major said. "They have a
much longer-range goal than that. The men behind Jupiter Equilateral are
looking ahead. They know that someday Earthmen are going to have to go
to the stars for colonies ... it won't be a matter of choice after a
while, they'll _have_ to go. Well, Jupiter Equilateral's terms are very
simple. They're perfectly willing to let the United Nations control
things on Earth. All they want is control of everything else. Mars, if
they can drive us out. Venus too, if it ever proves up for colonies. And
if they can gain control of the ships that leave our Solar System for
the stars, they can build an empire, and they know it."

They were silent for a moment. Then Johnny Coombs said, "Doesn't anybody
on Earth know about this?"

"There are some who know ... but they don't see the danger. They think
of Jupiter Equilateral as just another big company. So far U.N. control
of Mars and Venus has held up, even though the pressure on the
legislators back on Earth has been getting heavier and heavier. Jupiter
Equilateral won the greatest fight in its history when they limited U.N.
jurisdiction to Mars, and kept us out of the Belt. And now they hope to
convince the lawmakers that we're incompetent to administer the Martian
colonies and keep peace out here. If they succeed, we'll be called home
in nothing flat; we've had to fight just to stay."

The Major spread his hands helplessly. "Like I said, it's been a war.
Our only hope was to prove that the company was using piracy and murder
to gain control of the asteroids. We had to find a way to smash the
picture they've been painting of themselves back on Earth as a big,
benevolent organization interested only in the best for Earth colonists
on the planets. We had to expose them before they had the Earth in
chains ... not now, maybe not even a century from now, but sometime,
years from now, when the breakthrough to the stars comes and Earthmen
discover that if they want to leave Earth they have to pay toll...."

"They could never do that!" Greg protested.

"They're doing it, son. And they're winning. We have been searching
desperately for a way to fight back, and that was where your father came
in. He could see the handwriting, he knew what was happening. That was
why he broke with the company and tried to organize a competing force
before it was too late. And it was why he died in the Belt. He knew I
couldn't send an agent out there without unquestionable evidence of
major crime of some sort or another. But a private citizen could go out
there, and if he happened to be working with the U.N. hand in glove,
nobody could do anything about it."

"Then Dad was a U.N. agent?"

"Oh, not officially. There's not a word in the records. If I were forced
to testify under oath, I would have to deny any connection. But
unofficially, he went out there to lay a trap."

The Major told them then. It had been an incredible risk that Roger
Hunter had taken, but the decision had been his. The plan was simple: to
involve Jupiter Equilateral in a case of claim-jumping and piracy that
would hold up in court, pressed by a man who would not be intimidated
and could not be bought out. Roger Hunter had made a trip to the Belt
and come back with stories ... very carefully planted in just the right
ears ... of a fabulous strike. He knew that Jupiter Equilateral had
jumped a hundred rich claims in the past, forcing the independent miners
to agree, frightening them into silence or disposing of them with
"accidents."

But this was one claim they were not going to jump. The U.N. cooperated,
helping him spread the story of his Big Strike until they were certain
that Jupiter Equilateral would go for the bait. Then Roger Hunter had
returned to the Belt, with a U.N. Patrol ship close by in case he needed
help.

"We thought it would be enough," the Major said unhappily. "We were
wrong, of course. At first nothing happened ... not a sign of a company
ship, nothing. Your father contacted me finally. He was ready to give
up. Somehow they must have learned that it was a trap. But they had just
been careful, was all. They waited until our guard was down, and then
moved in fast and hit hard."

He sank down in his seat behind the desk, regarding the Hunter twins
sadly. "You know the rest. Perhaps you can see now why I tried to keep
you from going out there. There was no proof to uncover and no bonanza
lode for you to find. There never was a bonanza lode."

The twins looked at each other, and then at the Major. "Why didn't you
tell us?" Greg said.

"Would you have listened? Would telling you have kept you from going out
there? There was no point to telling you, I knew you would have to find
out for yourselves, however painfully. But what I'm telling you now is
the truth."

"As far as it goes," Tom Hunter said. "But if this is really the truth,
there's one thing that doesn't fit into the picture."

Slowly Tom pulled the gun case from his pack and set it down on the
Major's desk. "It doesn't explain what Dad was doing with this."



13. Pinpoint in Space


Tom knew now that it was the right thing to do. There was no question,
after the Major's story, of what Dad had been doing out in the Belt at
the time he had been killed. He had been doing a job that was more
important to him than asteroid mining ... but he had found something
more important than his own life, and had no chance to send word of what
he had found back to Major Briarton on Mars. That had been the
unforeseeable part of the trap.

But now, of course, the Major had to know.

The Mars Coordinator looked at the thing on the desk for a long moment
before he reached out to touch it. The bright metal gleamed in the
light, pale gray, lustrous. The Major picked it up, balanced it expertly
in his hand, and a puzzled frown clouded his face. He examined it
minutely.

"What is this thing?" he said.

"Suppose you tell us," Johnny Coombs said from across the room.

"It looks like a gun."

"That's what it is, all right."

"You've fired it?"

"Yes ... but I wouldn't fire it in here, if I were you," Johnny said.
"You were wondering how we wrecked Tawney's orbit-ship so thoroughly.
That's your answer right there." He told about the hole in the bulkhead,
the way the ship's generators had melted like clay under the powerful
blast of the weapon.

The Major could hardly control his excitement. "Where did you get it?"
he asked, turning to Tom.

"From the space pack that you turned over to us. I didn't even look at
it, until we needed a gun in a hurry. I just assumed it was Dad's
revolver."

"And your father found it somewhere in the Belt," the Major said softly.
He looked at the weapon again, shaking his head. "There isn't any such
gun," he said finally. "These things you say it could do ... they would
require energy enough to break down the cohesive forces of molecules.
There isn't any way we know of to harness that kind of energy and
channel it in a hand weapon. Nobody on Earth...."

He broke off and stared at them.

"That's right," Johnny said. "Nobody on Earth."

"You mean ... extraterrestrial?"

"There isn't any other answer," Johnny said. "_Look_ at the thing,
Major. _Feel_ it. Does it feel like it was made for a human hand? It
doesn't fit, it doesn't balance, you have to hold it with both hands to
aim it...."

"_But where did it come from?_" the Major said. "We've never had
visitors from another star system ... not in the course of recorded
history. And we know that Earthmen are the only intelligent creatures in
our Solar System."

"You mean that they're the only ones _now_," Tom said.

"Or any other time."

"We don't know that, for sure," Tom said.

"Look, we've explored Venus, Mars, all the major satellites. If there
had ever been intelligence on any of them, we'd have known it."

"Maybe there was a planet that Earthmen haven't explored," Tom said.
"Even Dad tried to tell us that. The quotation from Kepler that he
scribbled down in his log ... 'Between Jupiter and Mars I will put a
planet.' Why would Dad have written that? Unless he had suddenly
discovered proof that there _had_ been a planet there?"

"You mean this ... this gun," the Major said.

"And whatever else he found."

"But there's never been any proof of that theory ... not even a hint of
proof."

"Maybe Dad found proof. There are hundreds of thousands of asteroid
fragments out there in the Belt, and only a few hundred of them have
ever been examined by men."

On the desk the strange weapon stared up at them. Evidence, mute
evidence, and yet its very existence said more than a thousand words. It
was there. It could not be denied.

And someone ... or _something_ ... had made it.

Slowly the Major pulled himself to his feet. "It must have happened
after his last message to me," he said. "It wasn't part of the scheme we
had set up, but he made a strike just the same ... an archeological
strike ... and this gun was part of it." He picked up the weapon, turned
it over in his hand. "But it was days after that last message before his
signal went off, and the Patrol ship moved in."

"It makes sense," Johnny Coombs said. "He found the gun, and something
more."

"Like what?"

"I wouldn't even guess," Johnny said. "A planet with a race of creatures
intelligent enough and advanced enough to make a weapon like that ... it
could have been anything. But whatever it was, it must have scared him.
He must have known that a company ship might turn up any minute ... so
he hid whatever he had found, and all he dared to leave was a hint."

"And now it's vanished," the Major said. "The big flaw in the whole
idea. My Patrol ship found nothing when it searched the region. You
looked, and drew a blank. The company men scoured the area." He spread
his hands helplessly. "You see, it just won't hold up, not a bit of it.
Even with this gun, it won't hold up. We've got to find the answer."

"It's out there somewhere," Tom said doggedly. "It's got to be."

"But _where_? Don't you see that everything hangs on that one thing? If
we could prove that your father found something just before he was
killed, we could tear Jupiter Equilateral's case against you into
shreds. We could charge them with piracy and murder, and make it stick.
We could break their power once and for all ... but until we know what
Roger Hunter found, we're helpless. They'll take you three to court, and
I won't be able to stop them. And if you lose that case, it may mean the
end of U.N. authority on Mars."

"Then there's just one thing to do," Johnny Coombs said. "We've got to
find Roger Hunter's bonanza."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was almost midnight when they left the Major's office, a gloomy trio,
walking silently up the ramp to the Main Concourse, heading toward the
living quarters.

They had been talking with the Major for hours, going over every facet
of the story, wracking their brains for the answer ... but the answer
had not come.

Roger Hunter had found something, and hidden it so well that three
groups of searchers had failed to discover it. After seeing the gun, the
Major was convinced that there had indeed been a discovery made. But
whatever that discovery had been, it was gone as if it had never
existed ... as if by some sort of magic it had been turned invisible,
or conjured away to another part of the Solar System.

Finally, they had given up, at least for the moment. "It has to be
there," the Major had said wearily. "It hasn't vanished, or miraculously
ceased to exist. We know he was working on one claim, one asteroid.
There were no other asteroids in the region ... and even the ones within
suicide radius have been searched."

"It's there, all right," Tom said. "We're missing something, that's
all."

"But what? Asteroids have stable orbits. Nobody can just make one
disappear...."

They had called it a night, finally.

Once home they found more bad news waiting. There were two messages on
the recordomat. The first was an official summons to appear before the
United Nations Board of Investigations at 9:00 the following morning to
answer "certain charges placed against the above named persons by the
Governing Board of Jupiter Equilateral Mining Industries, and by one
Merrill Tawney, plaintiff, representing said Governing Board." They
listened to the plastic record twice. Then Greg tossed it down the waste
chute.

The other message was addressed to Greg, from the Commanding Officer of
Project Star-Jump. The message was very polite and regretful; it was
also very firm. The pressure of the work there, in his absence, made it
necessary for the Project to suspend Greg on an indefinite leave of
absence. Application for reinstatement could be made at a later date,
but acceptance could not be guaranteed....

"Well, I might have expected it," Greg said, "after what the Major told
us. The money for Star-Jump must have been coming from somewhere, and
now we know where. The company probably figures to lay claim on any
star-drive that's ever developed." He dropped the notice down the chute,
and laughed. "I guess I really asked for it."

"You mean I pushed you into it," Tom said bitterly. "If I'd kept my big
mouth shut at the very start of this thing, you'd have gone back to the
Project and that would have been the end of it...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Greg looked at him. "You big bum, do you think I really care?" He
grinned. "Don't feel too guilty, Twin. We've been back to back on this
one."

He pulled off his shirt and walked into the shower room. Johnny Coombs
was already stretched out on the sofa, snoring softly.

Quite suddenly the room seemed hot and stuffy, oppressive. He couldn't
make his thoughts come straight. There had been too much thinking, too
much speculation. Tom stood up and slipped on his jacket.

He had to walk, to move about, to try to think. He slipped open the
door, and started for the ramp leading to the Main Concourse.

There was an answer, somewhere.

He walked on along the steel walkways, trying to clear his mind of the
doubts and questions that were plaguing him. At first he just wandered,
but presently he realized that he had a destination in mind.

He went up a ramp and across the lobby of the United Nations
Administration Building. He took a spur off the main corridor, and came
to a doorway with a small circular staircase beyond it. At the bottom of
the stairs he opened a steel door and stepped into the Map Room.

It was a small darkened amphitheater, with a curving row of seats along
one wall. On either side were film viewers and micro-readers. And
curving around on the far wall, like a huge parabolic mirror, was the
Map.

Tom had been here many times before, and always he gasped in wonder when
he saw the awesome beauty of the thing. Stepping into the Map Room was
like stepping into the center of a huge cathedral. Here was the glowing,
moving panorama of the Solar System spread out before him in a
breath-taking three-dimensional image. Standing here before the Map it
seemed as if he had suddenly become enormous and omnipotent, hanging
suspended in the blackness of space and staring down at the Solar System
from a vantage point a million miles away.

Once, Dad had told him, there had been a great statue in the harbor of
Old New York which had been a symbol of freedom for strangers coming to
that city from across the sea, and a welcome for countrymen returning
home. And someday, he knew, this view of the Solar System would be
waiting to greet Earthmen making their way home from distant stars. The
Map was only an image, a gift from the United Nations to the colonists
on Mars, but it reproduced the Solar System in the minutest detail that
astronomers could make possible.

In the center, glowing like a thing alive, was the Sun, the hub of the
magnificent wheel. Around it, moving constantly in their orbits, were
the planets, bright points of light on the velvet blackness of the
screen. Each orbit was computed and held on the screen by the great
computer in the vault below.

But there was more on the Map than the Sun and the planets, with their
satellites. Tiny green lights marked the Earth-Mars and the Earth-Venus
orbit-ships, moving slowly across the screen. Beyond Mars, a myriad of
tiny lights projected on the screen, the asteroids. Without the
magnifier Tom could identify the larger ones ... Ceres, on the opposite
side of the Sun from Mars now as it moved in its orbit; smaller Juno,
and Pallas, and Vesta....

For each asteroid which had been identified, and its orbit plotted,
there was a pinpoint of light on the screen. For all its beauty, the Map
had a very useful purpose ... the registry and identification of
asteroid claims among the miners of Mars. Each asteroid registered as a
claim showed up as a red pinpoint; unclaimed asteroids were white. But
even with the advances of modern astronomy only a small percentage of
the existing asteroids were on the map, for the vast majority had never
been plotted.

Tom moved up to the Map and activated the magnifier. Carefully he
focussed down on the section of the Asteroid Belt they had visited so
recently. Dozens of pinpoints sprang to view, both red and white, and
beneath each red light the claim-number neatly registered. Tom peered at
the section, searching until he found the number of Roger Hunter's last
claim.

It was quite by itself, not a part of an asteroid cluster. He stepped up
the magnification, peered at it closely. There were a dozen other
pinpoints, all unclaimed, within a ten-thousand-mile radius....

But near it, nothing....

No hiding place.

And then, suddenly, he knew the answer. He stared at the Map, his heart
pounding in his throat. He cut the magnification, scanning a wide area.
Then he widened the lens still further, and checked the coordinates at
the bottom of the viewer.

He knew that he was right. He _had_ to be right. But this was no wild
dream, this was something that could be proved beyond any question of
error.

Across the room he picked up the phone to Map Control. It buzzed
interminably; then a sleepy voice answered.

"The Map," Tom managed to say. "It's recorded on time-lapse film, isn't
it?"

"'Course it is," the sleepy voice said. "Observatory has to have the
record. One frame every hour...."

"I've got to see some of the old film," Tom said.

"_Now?_ It's three in the morning."

"I don't need the film itself, just project it for me. There's a reader
here."

He gave the man the dates he wanted, Mars time. The man broke the
contact, grumbling, but moments later one of the film-viewers sprang to
life. The Map coordinates showed at the bottom of the screen.

Tom stared at the filmed image ... the image of a segment of the
Asteroid Belt the day before Roger Hunter had died.

It was there. When he had looked at the Map, he had seen a single red
pinpoint of light, Roger Hunter's asteroid, with nothing in the heavens
anywhere near it.

But on the film image taken weeks before there were two points of light.
One was red, with Roger Hunter's claim number beneath it. The other was
white, so close to the first that even at full magnification it was
barely distinguishable.

_But it was there._

Tom's hands were trembling with excitement; he nearly dropped the phone
receiver as he punched the buttons to ring the apartment. Greg's face
appeared on the screen, puffy with sleep. "What's that? Thought you were
in bed...."

"You've got to get down here," Tom said.

Greg blinked, waking up. "What's the matter? Where are you?"

"In the Map Room. Wake Johnny up and get down here. And try to get hold
of the Major."

"You've found something," Greg said, excited now.

"I've found something," Tom said. "I've found where Dad hid his
strike ... and I know how we can find it! We've got the answer, Greg."



14. The Missing Asteroid


It had been a wild twelve hours since Tom Hunter's call to his brother
from the Map Room in Sun Lake City. The Major had arrived first, still
buttoning his shirt and wiping sleep from his eyes. Johnny and Greg came
in on his heels. They had found Tom waiting for them, so excited he
could hardly keep his words straight.

He told them what he had found, and they wondered why they had not
thought of it from the first moment. "We knew there had to be an
answer," Tom said, "some place Dad could have used for a hiding place,
some place nobody would even think to look. Dad must have realized that
he didn't have much time. When he saw his chance, he took it."

And it was pure, lucky chance. Tom showed them the section of the Map he
had examined, with the pinpoint of light representing Roger Hunter's
asteroid claim. Then the Map Control officer ... much more alert when he
saw Major Briarton ... brought an armload of films up and loaded them
into the projector. They stared at the screen, and saw the two pinpoints
of light where one was now.

"What was the date of this?" the Major asked sharply.

"Two days before Dad died," Tom said. "There's quite a distance between
them there ... but watch. One frame for every hour. Watch what happens."

He began running the film, the record taken from the Map itself,
accurate as clockwork. The white dot was moving in toward the red dot at
a forty-degree angle. For an instant it looked as though the two were
colliding ... and then the distance between them began to widen again.
Slowly, hour by hour, the white dot was moving away, off the screen
altogether....

The Major looked up at Tom and slammed his fist on the chair-arm. "By
the ten moons of Saturn...." he exploded, and then he was on his feet,
shouting at the startled Map Control officer. "Get me Martinson down
here, and fast. Call the port on a scrambled line and tell them to stand
by with a ship on emergency call, with a crack interceptor pilot ready
to go. Then get me the plotted orbits of every eccentric asteroid that's
crossed Mars' orbit in the last two months. And double-A security on
everything ... we don't want to let Tawney get wind of this...."

Later, while they waited, they went over it to make sure that nothing
was missing. "No wonder we couldn't spot it," the Major said. "We were
looking for an asteroid in a standard orbit in the Belt."

"But there wasn't any," Tom said. "Dad's rock was isolated, nowhere near
any others. And we were so busy thinking of the thousands of rocks in
normal orbits between Mars and Jupiter that we forgot that there are a
few eccentric ones that just don't travel that way."

"Like this one." The Major stared at the screen. "A long, intersecting
orbit. It must swing out almost to Jupiter's orbit at one end, and come
clear in to intersect Earth's orbit at the other end...."

"Which means that it cuts right through the Asteroid Belt and on out
again." Tom grinned. "Dad must have seen it coming ... must have thought
it was on collision course for a while. But he also must have realized
that if he could hide something on its surface as it came near, it would
be carried clear out of the Belt altogether in a few days' time."

"And if we can follow it up and intercept it...." The Major was on his
feet, talking rapidly into the telephone. Sleep was forgotten now,
nothing mattered but pinpointing a tiny bit of rock speeding through
space. Within an hour the asteroid had been identified, its eccentric
orbit plotted. The coordinates were taped into the computers of the
waiting Patrol ship, as the preparations for launching were made.

It could not be coincidence. Somewhere on the surface of that tiny
planetoid racing in toward the Sun they knew they would find Roger
Hunter's secret.

       *       *       *       *       *

Below them, as they watched, the jagged surface of the asteroid drew
closer.

It was not round ... it was far too tiny a bit of cosmic debris to have
sufficient gravity to crush down rocks and round off ragged corners. It
was roughly oblong in shape, and one side was sheer smooth rock surface.
The other side was rough, bristling with jutting rock. More than
anything else it looked like a ragged mountain top, broken off at the
peak and hurled into space by an all-powerful hand.

Slowly the scout-ship moved closer, braking with its forward jets. The
pilot was expert. Carefully and surely he aligned the ship with the rock
in speed and direction. In the accelleration cot Tom could feel only an
occasional gentle tug as the power cut on and off.

Then the Lieutenant said, "I think we can make a landing now, Major."

"Fine. Take a scooter down first, and carry a guy line."

They unstrapped, and changed into pressure suits. In the airlock they
waited until the Lieutenant had touched the scooter down. Then Major
Briarton nodded, and they clamped their belts to the guy line.

One by one they leaped down toward the rock.

From a few miles out in space, the job of searching the surface had not
appeared difficult. From the rock itself, things looked very different.
There was no way, from the surface, to scan large areas, and the surface
was so rough that they had to take constant care not to damage their
boots or rip holes in their suits. There were hundreds of crevices and
caves, half concealed by the loose rock that crumbled under their feet
as they moved.

They spread out from the scooter for an hour of fruitless searching. Tom
spent most of the time pulling his boots free of surface cracks and
picking his way over heaps of jagged rock. None of them got farther than
a hundred yards from the starting place. None of them found anything
remarkable.

"We could spend weeks covering it this way," Greg said when they met at
the scooter again. "Why don't I take the scooter and criss-cross the
whole surface at about fifty feet? If I spot anything, I'll yell."

It seemed like a good idea. Greg strapped himself into the scooter's
saddle, straddling the fuel tanks, using the hand jet to guide himself
as he lifted lightly off the surface. He disappeared over the horizon of
rock, then reappeared as he moved over the surface and back.

Tom and Johnny waited with the Major. Twenty minutes later Greg brought
the tiny craft back again. "It's no good," he said. "I've scanned the
whole bright-side, came as close as I dared."

"No sign of anything?" Johnny said.

"Not a thing. The dark side looks like a sheer slab, from what my lights
show. If we only had some idea what we were looking for...."

"Maybe you weren't close enough," Tom said. "Why not drop each of us off
to take a quarter of the bright-side and work our way in?"

The others agreed. Tom waited until the Major and Johnny had been
posted; then he hopped on the scooter behind Greg and dropped off almost
at the line of darkness, where the sheer slab began. All of them had
hoped that there might be a sign, something that Roger Hunter might have
left to mark his cache, but if there was one none of them spotted it.
Tom checked with the others by the radio in his helmet, and started
moving back toward the center of the bright side.

An hour later he was only halfway to the center, and he was nearly
exhausted. At a dozen different spots he thought he had found a
promising cleft in the rock, a place where something might have been
concealed ... but exploration of the clefts proved fruitless.

And now his confidence began to fail. Supposing he had been wrong? They
knew the rock had passed very close to Roger Hunter's asteroid, the
astronomical records proved that. But suppose Dad had not used it as his
hiding place at all? He pulled himself around another jagged rock shelf,
staring down at the rough asteroid surface beyond....

At the base of the rock shelf, something glinted in the sunlight. He
leaped down, and thrust his hand into a small crevice in the rock. His
hand closed on a small metal object.

It was a gun. It felt well balanced, familiar in his hand ... the
revolver Dad had always carried in his gun case.

He had to let them know. He was just snapping the speaker switch when he
heard a growl of static in his earphones, and then Greg's voice,
high-pitched and excited. "Over here! I think I've found something!"

It took ten minutes of scrambling over the treacherous surface to reach
Greg. Tom saw his brother tugging at a huge chunk of granite that was
wedged into a crevice in the rock. Tom got there just as the Major and
Johnny topped a rise on the other side and hurried down to them.

The rock gave way, rolling aside, and Greg reached down into the
crevice. Tom leaned over to help him. Between them they lifted out the
thing that had been wedged down beneath the boulder.

It was a metal cylinder, four feet long, two feet wide, and bluntly
tapered at either end. In the sunlight it gleamed like polished silver,
but they could see a hairline break in the metal encircling the center
portion.

They had found Roger Hunter's bonanza.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the cabin of the scout-ship they broke the cylinder open into two
perfect halves. It came apart easily, a shell of paper-thin but
remarkably strong metal, protecting the tightly packed contents.

There was no question what the cylinder was, even though there was
nothing inside that looked even slightly familiar at first examination.
There were several hundred very tiny thin discs of metal that fit on the
spindle of a small instrument that was packed with them. There were
spools of film, thin as tissue but amazingly strong. Examined against
the light in the cabin, the film seemed to carry no image at all ... but
there was another small machine that accepted the loose end of the film,
and a series of lenses that glowed brightly with no apparent source of
power. There was a thick block of shiny metal covered on one side with
almost invisible scratches....

A time capsule, beyond doubt. A confusing treasure, at first glance, but
the idea was perfectly clear. A hard shell of metal protecting the
records collected inside....

_Against what? A planetary explosion? Some sort of cosmic disaster that
had blown a planet and its people into the fragments that now filled the
Asteroid Belt?_

At the bottom of the cylinder was a small tube of metal. They examined
it carefully, trying to guess what it was supposed to be. At the bottom
was a tiny stud. When they pressed it, the cylinder began to expand and
unfold, layer upon layer of thin glistening metallic material that
spread out into a sheet that stretched halfway across the cabin.

They stared down at it. The metal seemed to have a life of its own,
glowing and glinting, focussing light into pinpoints on its surface.

It was a map.

At one side, a glowing ball with a fiery corona, an unmistakeable
symbol that any intelligent creature in the universe that was able to
perceive it at all would recognize as a star. Around it, in clearly
marked orbits, ten planets. The third planet had a single satellite, the
fourth two tiny ones. The sixth eleven. The seventh planet had ten, and
was encircled by glowing rings.

But the fifth planet was broken into four parts.

Beyond the tenth planet there was nothing across a vast expanse of the
map ... but at the far side was another star symbol, this one a double
star with four planetary bodies.

They stared at the glowing map, speechless. There could be no mistaking
the meaning of the thing that lay before them, marked in symbols that
could mean only one thing to any intelligence that could recognize stars
and planets.

But in the center of the sheet was another symbol. It lay halfway
between the two Solar Systems, in the depths of interstellar space. It
was a tiny picture, a silvery sliver of light, but it too was
unmistakeable.

It could be nothing else but a Starship.

       *       *       *       *       *

Later, as they talked, they saw that the map had told each of them,
individually, the same thing. "They had a star-drive," Tom said.
"Whatever kind of creatures they were, and whatever the disaster that
threatened their planet, they had a star-drive to take them out of the
Solar System to another star."

"But why leave a record?" Greg wanted to know. "If nobody was here to
use it...."

"Maybe for the same reason that Earthmen bury time capsules with records
of their civilization," Major Briarton said. "I'd guess that the records
here will tell, when they have been studied and deciphered. Perhaps
there was already some sign of intelligent life developing elsewhere in
the Solar System. Perhaps they hoped that some of their own people would
survive. But they had a star-drive, so some of them must have escaped.
And with the record here...."

"We may be able to follow them," Greg said.

"If we can decipher the record," Johnny Coombs said. "But we don't have
any clue to their language."

"Did you have any trouble understanding what the map had to say?" the
Major said quietly.

"No...."

"I don't think the rest will be much more difficult. They were
intelligent creatures. The record will be understandable, all right." He
started to fold the map back into a tube again. "Maybe Roger Hunter
tried to use the film projector. We'll never know. But he must have
realized that he had discovered the secret of a star-drive. He realized
that the United Nations were the ones to explore it and use it, and he
gave his life to keep it out of the hands of Tawney and his men...."

"A pity," a cold voice said close behind them, "that he didn't succeed,
after all."

They whirled. In the hatchway to the after-cabin, Merrill Tawney was
standing, with a smile on his lips and a Markheim stunner trained
directly on Major Briarton's chest.



15. The Final Move


"I realize I'm much earlier than you expected, Major. You did a very
neat job of camouflaging your takeoff ... we were almost fooled ... and
no doubt the dummy ship you sent off later got full fanfare. I suppose
there will be a dozen Patrol ships converging on this spot in a few
hours, expecting to surprise a Jupiter Equilateral ship making a
desperate attempt to hijack your little treasure here."

The little fat man laughed cheerfully. "Unfortunately for you," he
added, "we have many friends on Mars ... including a man in the Map
room ... and I'm afraid your little trap isn't going to work after all."

The Major's face was gray. "How did you get here?"

"By hitch-hiking. How else? Most uncomfortable, back there, even with a
pile of pressure suits for padding, but your pilot was really very
skillful."

Johnny Coombs turned on the Major. "What does he mean, a trap? I don't
get this...."

The Major sighed wearily. "I had to try to force his hand. Even if we
found what we were looking for, we had no case that could stand up
against them. We needed _proof_ ... and I thought that with this as bait
we could trap them. He's right about the Patrol ships ... but they won't
be near for hours."

"And that will be a little late to help," Tawney said pleasantly.

The Major glared at him. "Maybe so ... but you've gone too far this
time. This is an official U.N. ship. You'll never be able to go back to
Mars."

"Really?" the fat man said. "And why not? Officially I'm on Mars right
now, with plenty of people to swear to the fact." He chuckled. "You seem
to forget that little matter of proof, Major. When your Patrol ships
find a gutted ship and five corpses, they may suspect that something
more than an accident was involved, but what can they prove? Nothing
more than they could prove in the case of Roger Hunter's accident.
Scout-ships have been known to explode before."

He ran his hand over the metal cylinder. "And as for this ... it's
really a surprise. Of course when we failed to find any evidence of
mining activity, we were certain that Roger Hunter's bonanza was
something more than a vein of ore, but _this_! You can be certain that
we will exploit the secret of a star-drive to the very fullest."

"How do you think you can get away with it?" the Major said. "Turning up
with something like that right after a whole series of suspicious
accidents in space?"

"Oh, we aren't as impatient as some people. We wouldn't be so foolish as
to break the news now. Five years from now, maybe ten years, one of our
orbit-ships will happen upon a silvery capsule on one of our asteroid
claims, that's all. I wouldn't be surprised if a non-company observer
might be on board at the time, maybe even a visiting Senator from Earth.
For something this big, we can afford to be patient."

There was silence in the little scout-ship cabin. The end seemed
inevitable. This was a desperate move on Tawney's part. He was gambling
everything on it; he would not take the chance of letting any of them
return to Mars or anywhere else to testify.

Greg caught Tom's eye, saw the hopelessness on his brother's face. He
clenched his fists angrily at his side. If it were not for Tom, Dad's
bonanza might have gone on circling the sun for centuries, maybe
forever, wedged in its hiding place on the rocky surface of the
eccentric asteroid.

But it had been found. Earth needed a star-drive badly; a few more
years, and the need would be desperate. And if a group of power-hungry
men could control a star-drive and hold it for profit, they could
blackmail an entire planet for centuries, and build an empire in space
that could never be broken.

He knew that it must not happen that way. Dad had died to prevent it.
Now it was up to them.

       *       *       *       *       *

Greg glanced quickly around the cabin, searching for some way out,
something that might give them a chance. His eyes stopped on the control
panel, and he sucked in his breath, his heart pounding. A
possibility....

It would require a swift, sure move, and someone to help, someone with
fast reflexes. It was dangerous; they might all be killed. But if his
training at Star-jump was good for anything, it might work.

He caught Johnny Coombs' eye, winked cautiously. A frown creased
Johnny's forehead. He shot a quick look at Tawney, then lowered his
eyelid a fraction of an inch. Greg could see the muscles of his
shoulders tightening.

Greg took quick stock of the cabin again. Then he took a deep breath and
bellowed, "Johnny ... _duck_!"

Almost by reflex, Johnny Coombs hurled himself to the floor. Tawney
swung the gun around. There was an ugly ripping sound as the stunner
fired ... but Greg was moving by then. In two bounds he was at the
control panel. He hooked an arm around a shock bar, and slammed the
drive switch on full.

There was a roar from below as the engines fired. Greg felt a jolt of
pain as the accelleration jerked at his arm. Tom and the Major were
slammed back against a bulkhead, then fell in a heap on top of Johnny
and the Lieutenant as the awful force of the accelleration dragged them
back. Across the cabin Tawney sprawled on the floor. The stunner flew
from his hand and crashed against the rear bulkhead.

On the panel Greg could see the accelleration gauge climbing
swiftly ... past four g's, up to five, to six. The ship was moving
wildly; there was no pilot, no course.

With all the strength he could muster Greg tightened his arm on the
shock bar, lifting his other arm slowly toward the cut-off switch. He
had spent many hours in the accelleration centrifuge at Star-Jump,
learning to withstand and handle the enormous forces of accelleration
for brief periods, but the needle was still climbing and he knew he
could not hold on long. His fingers touched the control panel. He
strained, inching them up toward the switch....

His fingers closed on the stud, and he pulled. The engine roar ceased.
On the floor behind him Tawney moved sluggishly, trying to sit up. Blood
was dripping from his nose. He was still too stunned to know what had
happened.

Greg leaped across the room, caught up the stunner, and then sank to the
floor panting. "All right," he said as his breath came back, "that's
all. Your ship may have trouble finding us now ... but I bet our pilot
can get us back to Mars."

       *       *       *       *       *

When they left the Sun Lake City infirmary it was almost noon, and the
red sun was gleaming down from overhead. Walking slowly, the Hunter
twins moved along the surface street toward the U.N. building.

"He'll recover without any trouble," the doctor had assured them. "He
caught the stunner beam in the shoulder, and it will be a while before
he can use it, but Johnny Coombs will be hard to keep down."

They had promised Johnny to return later. They had had check-ups
themselves. Both Tom's eyes were surrounded by purple splotches, and his
broken left arm was in a sling. Greg's arms and legs were so stiff he
could hardly move them. The Major and the Lieutenant had been sore but
uninjured.

Now the boys walked without talking. Already a U.N. linguist was at work
on the record tapes from the metal cylinder, and a mathematician was
doing a preliminary survey on the math symbols on the metal block.

"I hope there's no trouble reading them," Greg said.

"There won't be. It'll take time, but the records are decipherable. And
Dr. Raymond was certain that the engineering can be figured out. Earth
is going to get her star-ship, all right."

"And we've got work to do."

"You mean the trial? I guess. The Major says that Jupiter Equilateral is
trying to pin the whole thing on Tawney now. They won't get away with
it, but it may be nasty just the same."

"Well, one thing's sure ... there'll be some changes made, with the U.N.
moving out into the Belt," Greg said.

Somewhere in the distance the twins heard the rumble of engines. They
stopped and watched as a great silvery cargo ship lifted from the space
port and headed up into the dark blue sky. They watched it until it
disappeared from sight.

They were both thinking the same thing.

An Earth-bound ship, powerful and beautiful, but limited now to the sun
and nine planets, unable to reach farther out.

But someday soon a different kind of ship would rise.


THE END





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