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Title: First on the Moon
Author: Sutton, Jeff
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 "First on the Moon" ***

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                     FIRST on the MOON

                      by JEFF SUTTON


    ACE BOOKS, INC.
    1120 Avenue of the Americas
    New York 36, N.Y.

    FIRST ON THE MOON

    Copyright ©, 1958, by Ace Books, Inc.

    All Rights Reserved

    Printed in U. S. A.


    TO SANDY



                       SUICIDE RACE TO LUNA


    The four men had been scrutinized, watched, investigated, and
    intensively trained for more than a year. They were the best men to
    be found for that first, all-important flight to the Moon--the
    pioneer manned rocket that would give either the East or the West
    control over the Earth.

    Yet when the race started, Adam Crag found that he had a saboteur
    among his crew ... a traitor! Such a man could give the Reds
    possession of Luna, and thereby dominate the world it circled.

    Any one of the other three could be the hidden enemy, and if he
    didn't discover the agent soon--even while they were roaring on
    rocket jets through outer space--then Adam Crag, his expedition, and
    his country would be destroyed!



PROLOGUE


One of the rockets was silver; three were ashen gray. Each nested in a
different spot on the great Western Desert. All were long, tapered,
sisters except for color. In a way they represented the first, and last,
of an era, with exotic propellants, a high mass ratio and three-stage
design. Yet they were not quite alike. One of the sisters had within her
the artifacts the human kind needed for life--a space cabin high in the
nose. The remaining sisters were drones, beasts of burden, but beasts
which carried scant payloads considering their bulk.

One thing they had in common--destination. They rested on their launch
pads, with scaffolds almost cleared, heads high and proud. Soon they
would flash skyward, one by one, seeking a relatively small haven on a
strange bleak world. The world was the moon; the bleak place was called
Arzachel, a crater--stark, alien, with tall cliffs brooding over an ashy
plain.

Out on the West Coast a successor to the sisters was shaping up--a great
ship of a new age, with nuclear drive and a single stage. But the
sisters could not wait for their successor. Time was running out.



CHAPTER I


The room was like a prison--at least to Adam Crag. It was a square with
a narrow bunk, a battered desk, two straight-back chairs and little
else. Its one small window overlooked the myriad quonsets and buildings
of Burning Sands Base from the second floor of a nearly empty dormitory.

There was a sentry at the front of the building, another at the rear.
Silent alert men who never spoke to Crag--seldom acknowledged his
movements to and from the building--yet never let a stranger approach
the weathered dorm without sharp challenge. Night and day they were
there. From his window he could see the distant launch site and, by
night, the batteries of floodlights illumining the metal monster on the
pad. But now he wasn't thinking of the rocket. He was fretting; fuming
because of a call from Colonel Michael Gotch.

"Don't stir from the room," Gotch had crisply ordered on the phone. He
had hung up without explanation. That had been two hours before.

Crag had finished dressing--he had a date--idly wondering what was in
the Colonel's mind. The fretting had only set in when, after more than
an hour, Gotch had failed to show. Greg's liberty had been restricted to
one night a month. One measly night, he thought. Now he was wasting it,
tossing away the precious hours. Waiting. Waiting for what?

"I'm a slave," he told himself viciously; "slave to a damned bird
colonel." His date wouldn't wait--wasn't the waiting kind. But he
couldn't leave.

He stopped pacing long enough to look at himself in the cracked mirror
above his desk. The face that stared back was lean, hard, unlined--skin
that told of wind and sun, not brown nor bronze but more of a mahogany
red. Just now the face was frowning. The eyes were wide-spaced, hazel,
the nose arrogant and hawkish. A thin white scar ran over one cheek
ending.

His mind registered movement behind him. He swiveled around, flexing his
body, balanced on his toes, then relaxed, slightly mortified.

Gotch--Colonel Michael Gotch--stood just inside the door eyeing him
tolerantly. A flush crept over Crag's face. Damn Gotch and his velvet
feet, he thought. But he kept the thought concealed.

The expression on Gotch's face was replaced by a wooden mask. He studied
the lean man by the mirror for a moment, then flipped his cap on the bed
and sat down without switching his eyes.

He said succinctly. "You're it."

"I've got it?" Crag gave an audible sigh of relief. Gotch nodded without
speaking.

"What about Temple?"

"Killed last night--flattened by a truck that came over the center-line.
On an almost deserted highway just outside the base," Gotch added. He
spoke casually but his eyes were not casual. They were unfathomable
black pools. Opaque and hard. Crag wrinkled his brow inquiringly.

"Accident?"

"You know better than that. The truck was hot, a semi with bum plates,
and no driver when the cops got there." His voice turned harsh. "No ...
it was no accident."

"I'm sorry," Crag said quietly. He hadn't known Temple personally. He
had been just a name--a whispered name. One of three names, to be exact:
Romer, Temple, Crag. Each had been hand-picked as possible pilots of the
Aztec, a modified missile being rushed to completion in a last ditch
effort to beat the Eastern World in the race for the moon. They had been
separately indoctrinated, tested, trained; each had virtually lived in
one of the scale-size simulators of the Aztec's space cabin, and had
been rigorously schooled for the operation secretly referred to as "Step
One." But they had been kept carefully apart. There had been a time when
no one--unless it were the grim-faced Gotch--knew which of the three was
first choice.

Romer had died first--killed as a bystander in a brawl. So the police
said. Crag had suspected differently. Now Temple. The choice, after all,
had not been the swarthy Colonel's to make. Somehow the knowledge
pleased him. Gotch interrupted his thoughts.

"Things are happening. The chips are down. Time has run out, Adam."
While he clipped the words out he weighed Crag, as if seeking some clue
to his thoughts. His face said that everything now depended upon the
lean man with the hairline scar across his cheek. His eyes momentarily
wondered if the lean man could perform what man never before had done.
But his lips didn't voice the doubt. After a moment he said:

"We know the East is behind us in developing an atomic spaceship. Quite
a bit behind. We picked up a lot from some of our atomic sub work--that
and our big missiles. But maybe the knowledge made us lax." He added
stridently:

"Now ... they're ready to launch."

"Now?"

"Now!"

"I didn't think they were that close."

"Intelligence tells us they've modified a couple of T-3's--the big ICBM
model. We just got a line on it ... almost too late." Gotch smiled
bleakly. "So we've jumped our schedule, at great risk. It's your baby,"
he added.

Crag said simply; "I'm glad of the chance."

"You should be. You've hung around long enough," Gotch said dryly. His
eyes probed Crag. "I only hope you've learned enough ... are ready."

"Plenty ready," snapped Crag.

"I hope so."

Gotch got to his feet, a square fiftyish man with cropped iron-gray
hair, thick shoulders and weather-roughened skin. Clearly he wasn't a
desk colonel.

"You've got a job, Adam." His voice was unexpectedly soft but he
continued to weigh Crag for a long moment before he picked up his cap
and turned toward the door.

"Wait," he said. He paused, listening for a moment before he opened it,
then slipped quietly into the hall, closing the door carefully behind
him.

He's like a cat, Crag thought for the thousandth time, watching the
closed door. He was a man who seemed forever listening; a heavy hulking
man who walked on velvet feet; a man with opaque eyes who saw everything
and told nothing. Gotch would return.

Despite the fact the grizzled Colonel had been his mentor for over a
year he felt he hardly knew the man. He was high up in the missile
program--missile security, Crag had supposed--yet he seemed to hold
power far greater than that of a security officer. He seemed, in fact,
to have full charge of the Aztec project--Step One--even though Dr.
Kenneth Walmsbelt was its official director. The difference was, the
nation knew Walmsbelt. He talked with congressmen, pleaded for money,
carried his program to the newspapers and was a familiar figure on the
country's TV screens. He was the leading exponent of the
space-can't-wait philosophy. But few people knew Gotch; and fewer yet
his connections. He was capable, competent, and to Crag's way of
thinking, a tough monkey, which pretty well summarized his knowledge of
the man.

He felt the elation welling inside him, growing until it was almost a
painful pleasure. It had been born of months and months of hope, over a
year during which he had scarcely dared hope. Now, because a man had
died....

He sat looking at the ceiling, thinking, trying to still the inner
tumult. Only outwardly was he calm. He heard footsteps returning. Gotch
opened the door and entered, followed by a second man. Crag started
involuntarily, half-rising from his chair.

He was looking at himself!

"Crag, meet Adam Crag." The Colonel's voice and face were
expressionless. Crag extended his hand, feeling a little silly.

"Glad to know you."

The newcomer acknowledged the introduction with a grin--the same kind of
lopsided grin the real Crag wore. More startling was the selfsame
hairline scar traversing his cheek; the same touch of cockiness in the
set of his face.

Gotch said, "I just wanted you to get a good look at yourself. Crag
here"--he motioned his hand toward the newcomer--"is your official
double. What were you planning for tonight, your last night on earth?"

"I have a date with Ann. Or had," he added sourly. He twisted his head
toward Gotch as the Colonel's words sunk home. "Last night?"

Gotch disregarded the question. "For what?"

"Supper and dancing at the Blue Door."

"Then?"

"Take her home, if it's any of your damned business," snapped Crag. "I
wasn't planning on staying, if that's what you mean."

"I know ... I know, we have you on a chart," Gotch said amiably. "We
know every move you've made since you wet your first diapers. Like that
curvy little brunette secretary out in San Diego, or that blonde night
club warbler you were rushing in Las Vegas." Crag flushed. The Colonel
eyed him tolerantly.

"And plenty more," he added. He glanced at Crag's double. "I'm sure your
twin will be happy to fill in for you tonight."

"Like hell he will," gritted Crag. The room was quiet for a moment.

"As I said, he'll fill in for you."

Crag grinned crookedly. "Ann won't go for it. She's used to the real
article."

"We're not giving her a chance to snafu the works," Gotch said grimly.
"She's in protective custody. We have a double for her, too."

"Mind explaining?"

"Not a bit. Let's face the facts and admit both Romer and Temple were
murdered. That leaves only you. The enemy isn't about to let us get the
Aztec into space. You're the only pilot left who's been trained for the
big jump--the only man with the specialized know-how. That's why you're
on someone's list. Perhaps, even, someone here at the Base ... or on the
highway ... or in town. I don't know when or how but I do know this:
You're a marked monkey."

Gotch added flatly: "I don't propose to let you get murdered."

"How about him?" Crag nodded toward his double. The man smiled faintly.

"That's what he's paid for," Gotch said unfeelingly. His lips curled
sardonically. "All the heroes aren't in space."

Crag flushed. Gotch had a way of making him uncomfortable as no other
man ever had. The gentle needle. But it was true. The Aztec was his
baby. Gotch's role was to see that he lived long enough to get it into
space. The rest was up to him. Something about the situation struck him
as humorous. He looked at his double with a wry grin.

"Home and to bed early," he cautioned. "Don't forget you've got my
reputation to uphold."

"Go to hell," his double said amiably.

"Okay, let's get down to business," Gotch growled. "I've got a little to
say."

       *       *       *       *       *

Long after they left Crag stood at the small window, looking out over
the desert. Somewhere out there was the Aztec, a silver arrow crouched
in its cradle, its nose pointed toward the stars. He drew the picture in
his mind. She stood on her tail fins; a six-story-tall needle braced by
metal catwalks and guard rails; a cousin twice-removed to the great
nuclear weapons which guarded Fortress America. He had seen her at
night, under the batteries of floor lights, agleam with a milky
radiance; a virgin looking skyward, which, in fact, she was. Midway
along her length her diameter tapered abruptly, tapered again beyond the
three-quarters point. Her nose looked slender compared with her body,
yet it contained a space cabin with all the panoply needed to sustain
life beyond the atmosphere.

His thoughts were reverent, if not loving. Save for occasional too-brief
intervals with Ann, the ship had dominated his life for over a year. He
knew her more intimately, he thought, than a long-married man knows his
wife.

He had never ceased to marvel at the Aztec's complexity. Everything
about the rocket spoke of the future. She was clearly designed to
perform in a time not yet come, at a place not yet known. She would fly,
watching the stars, continuously measuring the angle between them,
computing her way through the abyss of space. Like a woman she would
understand the deep currents within her, the introspective sensing of
every force which had an effect upon her life. She would measure
gravitation, acceleration and angular velocity with infinite precision.
She would count these as units of time, perform complex mathematical
equations, translate them into course data, and find her way unerringly
across the purple-black night which separated her from her assignation
with destiny. She would move with the certainty of a woman fleeing to
her lover. Yes, he thought, he would put his life in the lady's hands.
He would ride with her on swift wings. But he would be her master.

       *       *       *       *       *

His mood changed. He turned from the window thinking it was a hell of a
way to spend his last night. Last night on earth, he corrected wryly. He
couldn't leave the room, couldn't budge, didn't know where Ann was. No
telephone. He went to bed wondering how he'd ever let himself get
snookered into the deal. Here he was, young, with a zest for life and a
stacked-up gal on the string. And what was he doing about it? Going to
the moon, that's what. Going to some damned hell-hole called Arzachel,
all because a smooth bird colonel had pitched him a few soft words.
Sucker!

His lips twisted in a crooked grin. Gotch had seduced him by describing
his mission as an "out-of-this-world opportunity." Those had been
Gotch's words. Well, that was Arzachel. And pretty quick it would be
Adam Crag. Out-of-this-world Crag. Just now the thought wasn't so
appealing.

       *       *       *       *       *

Sleep didn't come easy. At Gotch's orders he had turned in early, at the
unheard hour of seven. Getting to sleep was another matter. It's
strange, he thought, he didn't have any of the feelings Doc Weldon, the
psychiatrist, had warned him of. He wasn't nervous, wasn't afraid. Yet
before another sun had set he'd be driving the Aztec up from earth, into
the loneliness of space, to a bleak crater named Arzachel. He would face
the dangers of intense cosmic radiation, chance meteor swarms, and human
errors in calculation which could spell disaster. It would be the first
step in the world race for control of the Solar System--a crucial race
with the small nations of the world watching for the winner. Watching
and waiting to see which way to lean.

He was already cut off from mankind, imprisoned in a small room with
the momentous zero hour drawing steadily nearer. Strange, he thought,
there had been a time when his career had seemed ended, washed up,
finished, the magic of the stratosphere behind him for good. Sure, he'd
resigned from the Air Force at his own free will, even if his C. O. had
made the pointed suggestion. Because he hadn't blindly followed orders.
Because he'd believed in making his own decisions when the chips were
down. "Lack of _esprit de corps_," his C. O. had termed it.

He'd been surprised that night--it was over a year ago now--that Colonel
Gotch had contacted him. (Just when he was wondering where he might get
a job. He hadn't liked the prosaic prospects of pushing passengers
around the country in some jet job.) Sure, he'd jumped at the offer. But
the question had never left his mind. _Why had Gotch selected him?_ The
Aztec, a silver needle plunging through space followed by her drones,
all in his tender care. He was planning the step-by-step procedure of
take-off when sleep came.



CHAPTER 2


Crag woke with a start, sensing he was not alone. The sound came
again--a key being fitted into a lock. He started from bed as the door
swung open.

"Easy. It's me--Gotch." Crag relaxed. A square solid figure took form.

"Don't turn on the light."

"Okay. What gives?"

"One moment." Gotch turned back toward the door and beckoned. Another
figure glided into the room--a shadow in the dim light. Crag caught the
glint of a uniform. Air Force officer, he thought.

Gotch said crisply; "Out of bed."

He climbed out, standing alongside the bed in his shorts, wondering at
the Colonel's cloak-and-dagger approach.

"Okay, Major, it's your turn," Gotch said.

The newcomer--Crag saw he was a major--methodically stripped down to his
shorts and got into bed without a word. Crag grinned, wondering how the
Major liked his part in Step One. It was scarcely a lead role.

Gotch cut into his thoughts. "Get dressed." He indicated the Major's
uniform. Crag donned the garments silently. When he had finished the
Colonel walked around him in the dark, studying him from all angles.

"Seems to fit very well," he said finally. "All right, let's go."

Crag followed him from the room wondering what the unknown Major must be
thinking. He wanted to ask about his double but refrained. Long ago he
had learned there was a time to talk, and a time to keep quiet. This was
the quiet time. At the outer door four soldiers sprang from the darkness
and boxed them in. A chauffeur jumped from a waiting car and opened the
rear door. At the last moment Crag stepped aside and made a mock bow.

"After you, Colonel." His voice held a touch of sarcasm.

Gotch grunted and climbed into the rear seat and he followed. The
chauffeur blinked his lights twice before starting the engine. Somewhere
ahead a car pulled away from the curb. They followed, leaving the four
soldiers behind. Crag twisted his body and looked curiously out the rear
window. Another car dogged their wake. Precautions, always precautions,
he thought. Gotch had entered with an Air Force officer and had
ostensibly left with one; ergo, it must be the same officer. He
chuckled, thinking he had more doubles than a movie star.

They sped through the night with the escorts fore and aft. Gotch was a
silent hulking form on the seat beside him. It's his zero hour, too,
Crag thought. The Colonel had tossed the dice. Now he was waiting for
their fall, with his career in the pot. After a while Gotch said
conversationally:

"You'll report in at Albrook, Major. I imagine you'll be getting in a
bit of flying from here on out."

Talking for the chauffeur's benefit, Crag thought. Good Lord, did every
move have to be cloak and dagger? Aloud he said:

"Be good to get back in the air again. Perhaps anti-sub patrol, eh?"

"Very likely."

They fell silent again. The car skimmed west on Highway 80, leaving the
silver rocket farther behind with every mile. Where to and what next? He
gave up trying to figure the Colonel's strategy. One thing he was sure
of. The hard-faced man next to him knew exactly what he was doing. If it
was secret agent stuff, then that's the way it had to be played.

       *       *       *       *       *

He leaned back and thought of the task ahead--the rocket he had lived
with for over a year. Now the marriage would be consummated. Every
detail of the Aztec was vivid in his mind. Like the three great motors
tucked triangularly between her tail fins, each a tank equipped with a
flaring nozzle to feed in hot gases under pressure. He pictured the fuel
tanks just forward of the engines; the way the fuels were mixed,
vaporized, forced into the fireports where they would ignite and react
explosively, generating the enormous volumes of flaming hot gas to drive
out through the jet tubes and provide the tremendous thrust needed to
boost her into the skies. Between the engines and fuel tanks was a maze
of machinery--fuel lines, speed controllers, electric motors.

He let his mind rove over the rocket thinking that before many hours
had passed he would need every morsel of the knowledge he had so
carefully gathered. Midway where the hull tapered was a joint, the
separation point between the first and second stages. The second stage
had one engine fed by two tanks. The exterior of the second stage was
smooth, finless, for it was designed to operate at the fringe of space
where the air molecules were widely spaced; but it could be steered by
small deflectors mounted in its blast stream.

The third stage was little more than a space cabin riding between the
tapered nose cone and a single relatively low-thrust engine. Between the
engine and tanks was a maze of turbines, pumps, meters, motors, wires. A
generator provided electricity for the ship's electric and electronic
equipment; this in turn was spun by a turbine driven by the explosive
decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. Forward of this was the Brain, a
complex guidance mechanism which monitored engine performance, kept
track of speed, computed course. All that was needed was the human hand.
His hand.

       *       *       *       *       *

They traveled several hours with only occasional words, purring across
the flat sandy wastes at a steady seventy. The cars boxing them in kept
at a steady distance.

Crag watched the yellow headlights sweep across the sage lining the
highway, giving an odd illusion of movement. Light and shadow danced in
eerie patterns. The chauffeur turned onto a two-lane road heading north.
Alpine Base, Crag thought. He had been stationed there several years
before. Now it was reputed to be the launch site of one of the three
drones slated to cross the gulfs of space. The chauffeur drove past a
housing area and turned in the direction he knew the strip to be.

       *       *       *       *       *

Somewhere in the darkness ahead a drone brooded on its pad, one of the
children of the silver missile they'd left behind. But why the drone?
The question bothered him. They were stopped several times in the next
half mile. Each time Gotch gave his name and rank and extended his
credentials. Each time they were waved on by silent sharp-eyed sentries,
but only after an exacting scrutiny. Crag was groping for answers when
the chauffeur pulled to one side of the road and stopped. He leaped out
and opened the rear door, standing silently to one side. When they
emerged, he got back into the car and drove away. No word had been
spoken. Figures moved toward them, coming out of the blackness.

"Stand where you are and be recognized." The figures took
shape--soldiers with leveled rifles. They stood very still until one
wearing a captain's bars approached, flashing a light in their faces.

"Identity?"

Crag's companion extended his credentials.

"Colonel Michael Gotch," he monotoned. The Captain turned the light on
Gotch's face to compare it with the picture on the identification card.
He paid scant attention to Crag. Finally he looked up.

"Proceed, Sir." It was evident the Colonel's guest was very much
expected.

Gotch struck off through the darkness with Crag at his heels. The stars
shone with icy brilliance. Overhead Antares stared down from its lair in
Scorpio, blinking with fearful venom. The smell of sage filled the air,
and some sweet elusive odor Crag couldn't identify. A warmth stole
upward as the furnace of the desert gave up its stored heat. He strained
his eyes into the darkness; stars, the black desert ... and the hulking
form of Gotch, moving with certain steps.

He saw the rocket with startling suddenness--a great black silhouette
blotting out a segment of the stars. It stood gigantic, towering,
graceful, a taper-nosed monster crouched to spring, its finned haunches
squatted against the launch pad.

They were stopped, challenged, allowed to proceed. Crag pondered the
reason for their visit to the drone. Gotch, he knew, had a good reason
for every move he made. They drew nearer and he saw that most of the
catwalks, guardrails and metal supports had been removed--a certain sign
that the giant before them was near its zero hour.

Another sentry gave challenge at the base of the behemoth. Crag whistled
to himself. This one wore the silver leaf of a lieutenant colonel! The
ritual of identification was exacting before the sentry moved aside. A
ladder zigzagged upward through what skeletal framework still remained.
Crag lifted his eyes. It terminated high up, near the nose.

This was the Aztec! The real Aztec! The truth came in a rush. The huge
silver ship at Burning Sands, which bore the name Aztec, was merely a
fake, a subterfuge, a pawn in the complex game of agents and
counter-agents. He knew he was right.

"After you," Gotch said. He indicated the ladder and stepped aside.

Crag started up. He paused at the third platform. The floor of the
desert was a sea of darkness. Off in the distance the lights of Alpine
Base gleamed, stark against the night. Gotch reached his level and laid
a restraining hand on his arm.

Crag turned and waited. The Colonel's massive form was a black shadow
interposed between him and the lights of Alpine Base.

"This is the Aztec," he said simply.

"So I guessed. And the silver job at Burning Sands?"

"Drone Able," Gotch explained. "The deception was necessary--a part of
the cat and mouse game we've been playing the last couple of decades. We
couldn't take a single chance." Crag remained silent. The Colonel turned
toward the lights of the Base. He had become quiet, reflective. When he
spoke, his voice was soft, almost like a man talking to himself.

"Out there are hundreds of men who have given a large part of their
lives to the dream of space flight. Now we are at the eve of making that
dream live. If we gain the moon, we gain the planets. That's the destiny
of Man. The Aztec is the first step." He turned back and faced Crag.

"This is but one base. There are many others. Beyond them are the
factories, laboratories, colleges, scientists and engineers, right down
to Joe the Riveter. Every one of them has had a part in the dream.
You're another part, Adam, but you happen to have the lead role." He
swiveled around and looked silently at the distant lights. The moment
was solemn. A slight shiver ran through Crag's body.

"You know and I know that the Aztec is a development from the ICBM's
guarding Fortress America. You also know, or have heard, that out in San
Diego the first atom-powered spaceship is nearing completion." He looked
sharply at Crag.

"I've heard," Crag said noncommittally.

Gotch eyed him steadily. "That's the point. So have others. Our space
program is no secret. But we've suspected--feared--that the first stab
at deep space would be made before the atom job was completed. Not
satellites but deep space rockets. That's why the Aztec was pushed
through so fast." He fell silent. Crag waited.

"Well, the worst has happened. The enemy is ready to launch--may have
launched this very night. That's how close it is. Fortunately our gamble
with the Aztec is paying off. We're ready, too, Adam.

"We're going to get that moon. Get it now!" He reached into a pocket and
extracted his pipe, then thought better of lighting it. Crag waited. The
Colonel was in a rare introspective mood, a quiet moment in which he
mentally tied together and weighed his Nation's prospects in the
frightening days ahead. Finally he spoke:

"We put a rocket around the moon, Adam." He smiled faintly, noting
Crag's involuntary start of surprise. "Naturally it was fully
instrumented. There's uranium there--one big load located in the most
inaccessible spot imaginable."

"Arzachel," Crag said simply.

"The south side of Arzachel, to be exact. That's why we didn't pick a
soft touch like Mare Imbrium, in case you've wondered."

"I've wondered."

"Adam," the Colonel hesitated a long moment, "does the name Pickering
mean anything to you?"

"Ken Pickering who--"

"What have you heard?" snapped Gotch. His eyes became sharp drills.

Crag spoke slowly: "Nothing ... for a long time. He just seemed to drop
out of sight after he broke the altitude record in the X-34." He looked
up questioningly.

"Frankly, I've always wondered why he hadn't been selected for this job.
I thought he was a better pilot than I am," he added almost humbly.

Gotch said bluntly: "You're right. He is better." He smiled tolerantly.
"We picked our men for particular jobs," he said finally. "Pickering ...
we hope ... will be in orbit before the Aztec blasts off."

"Satelloid?"

"The first true satelloid," the Colonel agreed. "One that can ride the
fringes of space around the earth. A satelloid with fantastic altitude
and speed. I'm telling you this because he'll be a link in Step One, a
communication and observation link. He won't be up long, of course, but
long enough--we hope."

Silence fell between them. Crag looked past the Colonel's shoulder. All
at once the lights of Alpine Base seemed warm and near, almost personal.
Gotch lifted his eyes skyward, symbolic of his dreams. The light of
distant stars reflected off his brow.

"We don't know whether the Aztec can make it," he said humbly. "We
don't know whether our space-lift system will work, whether the drones
can be monitored down to such a precise point on the moon, or the
dangers of meteorite bombardment. We don't know whether our safeguards
for human life are adequate. We don't know whether the opposition can
stop us....

"We don't know lots of things, Adam. All we know is that we need the
moon. It's a matter of survival of Western Man, his culture, his way of
life, his political integrity. We need the moon to conquer the
planets ... and some day the stars."

His voice became a harsh clang.

"So does the enemy. That's why we have to establish a proprietory
ownership, a claim that the U.N. will recognize. The little nations
represent the balance of power, Adam. But they sway with the political
winds. They are the reeds of power politics ... swaying between the
Sputniks and Explorers, riding with the ebb and flow of power ... always
trying to anticipate the ultimate winner. Right now they're watching to
see where that power lies. The nation that wins the moon will tilt the
balance in its favor. At a critical time, I might add. That's why we
have to protect ourselves every inch of the way."

He tapped his cold pipe moodily against his hand. "We won't be here to
see the end results, of course. That won't be in our time. But we're the
starters. The Aztec is the pioneer ship. And in the future our economy
can use that load of uranium up there."

He smiled faintly at Crag. "When you step through the hatch you've left
earth, perhaps for all time. That's your part in the plan. Step One is
your baby and I have confidence in you." He gripped Crag's arm warmly.
It was the closest he had ever come to showing his feelings toward the
man he was sending into space.

"Come on, let's go."

Crag started upward. Gotch followed more slowly, climbing like a man
bearing a heavy weight.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Aztec's crew, Max Prochaska, Gordon Nagel and Martin Larkwell, came
aboard the rocket in the last hour before take-off. Gotch escorted them
up the ladder and introduced them to their new Commander.

Prochaska acknowledged the introduction with a cheerful smile.

"Glad to know you, Skipper." His thin warm face said he was glad to be
there.

Gordon Nagel gave a perfunctory handshake, taking in the space cabin
with quick ferret-like head movements.

Martin Larkwell smiled genially, pumping Crag's hand. "I've been looking
forward to this."

Crag said dryly. "We all have." He acknowledged the introductions with
the distinct feeling that he already knew each member of his crew. It
was the odd feeling of meeting old acquaintances after long years of
separation. As part of his indoctrination he had studied the personnel
records of the men he might be so dependent on. Now, seeing them in the
flesh, was merely an act of giving life to those selfsame records. He
studied them with casual eyes while Gotch rambled toward an awkward
farewell.

Max Prochaska, his electronics chief, was a slender man with sparse
brown hair, a thin acquiline nose and pointed jaw. His pale blue eyes,
thin lips and alabaster skin gave him a delicate look--one belied by his
record. His chief asset--if one was to believe the record--was that he
was a genius in electronics.

Gordon Nagel, too, was, thin-faced and pallid skinned. His black hair,
normally long and wavy, had been close-cropped. His eyes were small,
shifting, agate-black, giving Crag the feeling that he was uneasy--an
impression he was to hold. His record had described him as nervous in
manner but his psychograph was smooth. He was an expert in oxygen
systems.

Martin Larkwell, the mechanical maintenance and construction boss, in
many ways appeared the antithesis of his two companions. He was
moon-faced, dark, with short brown hair and a deceptively sleepy look.
His round body was well-muscled, his hands big and square. Crag thought
of a sleek drowsy cat, until he saw his eyes. They were sparkling brown
pools, glittering, moving with some strange inner fire. They were the
eyes of a dreamer ... or a fanatic, he thought. In the cabin's soft
light they glowed, flickered. No, there was nothing sleepy about him, he
decided.

All of the men were short, light, in their early thirties. In contrast
Crag, at 5' 10" and 165 pounds, seemed a veritable giant. A small
physique, he knew, was almost an essential in space, where every ounce
was bought at tremendous added weight in fuel. His own weight had been a
serious strike against him.

Colonel Gotch made one final trip to the space cabin. This time he
brought the _Moon Code Manual_ (stamped TOP SECRET), the crew personnel
records (Crag wondered why) and a newly printed pamphlet titled "Moon
Survival." Crag grinned when he saw it.

"Does it tell us how to get there, too?"

"We'll write that chapter later," Gotch grunted. He shook each man's
hand and gruffly wished them luck before turning abruptly toward the
hatch. He started down the ladder. A moment later his head reappeared.

He looked sharply at Crag and said, "By the way, that twosome at the
Blue Door got it last night."

"You mean...?"

"Burp gun. No finesse. Just sheer desperation. Well, I just wanted to
let you know we weren't altogether crazy."

"I didn't think you were."

The Colonel's lips wrinkled in a curious smile. "No?" He looked at Crag
for a long moment. "Good luck." His head disappeared from view and Crag
heard his footsteps descending the ladder.

Then they were alone, four men alone. Crag turned toward his companions.



CHAPTER 3


The great red sun was just breaking over the desert horizon when Crag
got his last good look at earth. Its rays slanted upward, shadows fled
from the sage; the obsidian sky with its strewn diamonds became slate
gray and, in moments, a pale washed blue. Daybreak over the desert
became a thunder of light. Tiny ants had removed the last of the metal
framework encompassing the rocket. Other ants were visible making last
minute cheeks.

He returned his attention to the space cabin. Despite long months of
training in the cabin simulator--an exact replica of the Aztec
quarters--he was appalled at the lack of outside vision. One narrow
rectangular quartz window above the control panel, a circular port on
each side bulkhead and one on the floor--he had to look between his
knees to see through it when seated at the controls--provided the sole
visual access to the outside world. A single large radarscope, a radar
altimeter and other electronic equipment provided analogs of the outside
world; the reconstruction of the exterior environment painted on the
scopes by electromagnetic impulses.

The cabin was little more than a long flat-floored cylinder with most
of the instrumentation in the nose section. With the rocket in launch
position, what normally was the rear wall formed the floor. The seats
had been swiveled out to operational position.

Now they were seated, strapped down, waiting. It was, Crag thought, like
sitting in a large automobile which had been balanced on its rear
bumper. During launch and climb their backs would be horizontal to the
earth's surface.

He was thankful they were not required to wear their heavy pressure
suits until well into the moon's gravisphere. Normally pressure suits
and helmets were the order of the day. He was used to stratospheric
flight where heavy pressure suits and helmets were standard equipment;
gear to protect the fragile human form until the lower oxygen-rich
regions of the air ocean could be reached in event of trouble. But the
Aztec was an all-or-nothing affair. There were no escape provisions, no
ejection seats, for ejection would be impossible at the rocket's speeds
during its critical climb through the atmosphere. Either everything went
according to the book or ... or else, he concluded grimly. But it had
one good aspect. Aside from the heavy safety harnessing, he would be
free of the intolerably clumsy suit until moonfall. If anything went
wrong, well ...

He bit the thought off, feeling the tension building inside him. He had
never considered himself the hero type. He had prided himself that his
ability to handle hot planes was a reflection of his competence rather
than courage. Courage, to him, meant capable performance in the face of
fear. He had never known fear in any type of aircraft, hence never
before had courage been a requisite of his job. It was that simple to
him. His thorough knowledge of the Aztec's theoretical flight
characteristics had given him extreme confidence, thus the feeling of
tension was distracting. He held his hand out. It seemed steady enough.

Prochaska caught the gesture and said, "I'm a little shaky myself."

Crag grinned. "They tell me the first thousand miles are the hardest."

"Amen. After that I won't worry."

The countdown had begun. Crag looked out the side port. Tiny figures
were withdrawing from the base of the rocket. The engine of a fuel truck
sounded faintly, then died away. Everything seemed unhurried, routine.
He found himself admiring the men who went so matter-of-factly about the
job of hurling a rocket into the gulfs between planets. Once, during his
indoctrination, he had watched a Thor firing ... had seen the missile
climb into the sky, building up to orbital speed. Its launchers had been
the same sort of men--unhurried, methodical, checking the minutiae that
went into such an effort. Only this time there was a difference. The
missile contained men.

Off to one side he saw the launch crew moving into an instrumented
dugout. Colonel Gotch would be there, puffing on his pipe, his face
expressionless, watching the work of many years come to ... what?

He looked around the cabin for the hundredth time. Larkwell and Nagel
were strapped in their seats, backs horizontal to the floor, looking up
at him. The tremendous forces of acceleration applied at right angles to
the spine--transverse g--was far more tolerable than in any other
position. Or so the space medicine men said. He hoped they were right,
that in this position the body could withstand the hell ahead. He gave a
last look at the two men behind him. Larkwell wore an owlish expression.
His teeth were clamped tight, cording his jaws. Nagel's face was intent,
its lines rigid. It gave Crag the odd impression of an alabaster
sculpture. Prochaska, who occupied the seat next to him facing the
control panels, was testing his safety belts.

Crag gave him a quick sidelong glance. Prochaska's job was in many
respects as difficult as his own. Perhaps more so. The sallow-faced
electronics chief bore the responsibility of monitoring the
drones--shepherding, first Drone Able, then its sisters to
follow--across the vacuum gulfs and, finally, into Arzachel, a pinpoint
cavity in the rocky wastelands of the moon. In addition, he was charged
with monitoring, repairing and installing all the communication and
electronic equipment, no small job in itself. Yes, a lot depended on the
almost fragile man sitting alongside him. He looked at his own
harnessing, testing its fit.

Colonel Gotch came on the communicator. "Pickering's in orbit," he said
briefly. "No details yet."

Crag sighed in relief. Somehow Pickering's success augured well for
their own attempt. He gave a last check of the communication gear. The
main speaker was set just above the instrument panel, between him and
Prochaska. In addition, both he and the Chief--the title he had
conferred on Prochaska as his special assistant--were supplied with
insert earphones and lip microphones for use during high noise
spectrums, or when privacy was desired. Crag, as Commander, could limit
all communications to his own personal headgear by merely flipping a
switch. Gotch had been the architect of that one. He was a man who liked
private lines.

"Five minutes to zero, Commander."

Commander! Crag liked that. He struggled against his harnessing to
glance back over his shoulder. Nagel's body, scrunched deep into his
bucket seat, seemed pitifully thin under the heavy harnessing. His face
was bloodless, taut. Crag momentarily wondered what strange course of
events had brought him to the rocket. He didn't look like Crag's picture
of a spaceman. Not at all. But then, none of them looked like supermen.
Still, courage wasn't a matter of looks, he told himself. It was a
matter of action.

He swiveled his head around farther. Larkwell reclined next to Nagel
with eyes closed. Only the fast rise and fall of his chest told of his
inner tensions--that and the hawk-like grip of his fingers around the
arm rests. Worried, Crag thought. But we're all worried. He cast a
sidelong glance at Prochaska. The man's face held enormous calm. He
reached over and picked up the console mike, then sat for what seemed an
eternity before the countdown reached minus one minute. He plugged in
his ear-insert microphone.

"Thirty seconds...." The voice over the speaker boomed. Prochaska
suddenly became busy checking his instruments. Jittery despite his
seeming calm, Crag thought.

"Twenty seconds...." He caught himself checking his controls, as if he
could gain some last moment's knowledge from the banks of levers and
dials and knobs.

"Ten ... nine ... eight...." He experimentally pulled at his harnessing,
feeling somewhat hypnotized by the magic of the numbers coming over the
communicator.

"Three ... two...."

Crag said, "Ready on one."

He punched a button. A muted roar drifted up from the stem. He listened
for a moment. Satisfied, he moved the cut-in switch. The roar increased,
becoming almost deafening in the cabin despite its soundproofing. He
tested the radio and steering rockets and gave a last sidelong glance at
Prochaska. The Chief winked. The act made him feel better. I should be
nervous, he thought, or just plain damned scared. But things were
happening too fast. He adjusted his lip mike and reached for the
controls, studying his hand as he did so. Still steady. He stirred the
controls a bit and the roar became hellish. He chewed his lip and took a
deep breath, exhaling slowly.

He said, "Off to the moon."

Prochaska nodded. Crag moved the controls. The cabin seemed to bob,
wobble, vibrate. A high hum came from somewhere. He glanced downward
through the side port. The Aztec seemed to be hanging in mid-air just
above the desert floor. Off to one side he could see the concrete
controls dugout. The tiny figures had vanished.

He thought: _Gotch is sweating it out now_. In the past rockets had
burned on the pad ... blown up in mid-air ... plunged off course and had
to be destroyed. The idea brought his head up with a snap. Was there a
safety officer down there with a finger on a button ... prepared to
destroy the Aztec if it wavered in flight?

He cut the thought off and moved the main power switch, bringing the
control full over. The ship bucked, and the desert dropped away with a
suddenness that brought a siege of nausea. He tightened his stomach
muscles like the space medicine doctors had instructed.

The first moment was bad. There was unbelievable thunder, a fraction of
a second when his brain seemed to blank, a quick surge of fear. Up ...
up. The Aztec's rate of acceleration climbed sharply. At a prescribed
point in time the nose of the rocket moved slightly toward the east. It
climbed at an impossibly steep slant, rushing up from the earth. Crag
swept his eyes over the banks of instruments, noted the positions of the
controls, tried to follow what the faint voice in his earphone was
telling him. Dials with wavering needles ... knobs with blurry
numerals ... a cacophony of noise, light and movement--all this and
more was crowded into seconds.

The rocket hurtled upward, driven by the tidal kinetic energy generated
by the combustion of high velocity exhaust, born in an inferno of
thousands of degrees. Behind him giant thrust chambers hungrily consumed
the volatile fuel, spewing the high-pressure gases forth at more than
nine thousand miles per hour. The crushing increased, driving him
against the back of his seat. His heart began laboring ... became a
sledge hammer inside his chest wall.

He lost all sense of motion. Only the almost unendurable weight crushing
his body downward mattered. He managed a glimpse of the desert through
the side port. It lay far below, its salient details erased. The roar of
the giant motors became muted. There was a singing in his ears, a high
whine he didn't like.

The Aztec began to tilt, falling off to the right.

He cast a quick glance at the engine instruments. A red light blinked.
Number three was delivering slightly less thrust than the others.
Somewhere in the complex of machinery a mechanical sensing device
reacted. Engines one and two were throttled back and the rocket
straightened. A second device shifted the mix on engine three, bringing
thrust into balance. All three engines resumed full power.

"Twenty-five thousand feet," Prochaska chattered. His voice was tinny
over the small insert earphone provided for communications, especially
for those first few hellish moments when the whole universe seemed
collapsed into one huge noise spectrum. Noise and pressure.

"Forty-five thousand...."

They were moving up fast now--three g, four g, five g. Crag's body
weight was equal to 680 pounds. The dense reaches of the
troposphere--the weather belt where storms are born--dropped below them.
They hurtled through the rarefied, bitterly cold and utterly calm
stratosphere.

"Eighty thousand feet...."

Crag struggled to move his body. His hand was leaden on the controls, as
if all life had been choked from it. A hot metal ball filled his chest.
He couldn't breathe. Panic ... until he remembered to breathe at the top
of his lungs.

At eighteen miles a gale of wind drove west. Rudders on the Aztec
compensated, she leaned slightly into the blast, negating its drift. The
winds ceased ... rudders shifted ... the rocket slanted skyward.
Faster ... faster.

Prochaska called off altitudes almost continuously, the chattering gone
from his voice. Crag was still struggling against the pinning weight
when it decreased, vanished. The firestream from the tail pipe gave a
burst of smoke and died. _Brennschluss_--burnout.

The Aztec hurtled toward the cosmic-ray laden ionosphere, driven only by
the inertial forces generated in the now silent thrust chambers. The
hard components of cosmic rays--fast mesons, high energy protons and
neutrons--would rip through the ship. _If dogs and monkeys can take it,
so can man._ That's what Gotch had said. He hoped Gotch was right.
Somewhere, now, the first stage would fall away. It would follow them,
at ever greater distances, until finally its trajectory would send it
plunging homeward.

"Cut in." Prochaska's voice was a loud boom in the silence. A strident
voice from the communicator was trying to tell them they were right on
the button. Crag moved a second switch. The resultant acceleration drove
him against the back of his seat, violently expelling the air from his
lungs. He fought against the increasing gravities, conscious of pressure
and noise in his ears; pressure and noise mixed with fragments of voice.
His lips pulled tight against his teeth. The thudding was his heart. He
tightened his stomach muscles, trying to ease the weight on his chest. A
mighty hand was gripped around his lungs, squeezing out the air. But it
wasn't as bad as the first time. They were piercing the thermosphere
where the outside temperature gradient would zoom upward toward the
2,000 degree mark.

Prochaska spoke matter-of-factly into his lip mike, "Fifty miles."

Crag marveled at his control ... his calm. No, he didn't have to worry
about the Chief. The little runt had it. Crag tried to grin. The effort
was a pain.

The Aztec gave a lurch, altering the direction of forces on their bodies
again as a servo control kicked the ship into the long shallow spiral of
escape. It moved upward and more easterly, its nose slanted toward the
stars, seeking its new course. Crag became momentarily dizzy. His vision
blurred ... the instrument panel became a kaleidoscope of dancing,
merging patterns. Then it was past, all except the three g force nailing
him to the seat.

He spoke into the communicator. "How we doing?"

"Fine, Commander, just fine," Gotch rasped. "The toughest part's over."

Over like hell, Crag thought. A one-way rocket to the moon and he tells
me the toughest part's over. Lord, I should work in a drugstore!

"Seventy-five miles and two hundred miles east," the Chief intoned. Crag
made a visual instrument check. Everything looked okay. No red lights.
Just greens. Wonderful greens that meant everything was hunky-dory. He
liked green. He wanted to see how Larkwell and Nagel were making out but
couldn't turn his head. It's rougher on them, he thought. They can't see
the instruments, can't hear the small voice from Alpine. They just have
to sit and take it. Sit and feel the unearthly pressures and weights and
hope everything's okay.

"Ninety-six miles ... speed 3.1 miles per second," Prochaska chanted a
short while later.

It's as easy as that, Crag thought. Years and years of planning and
training; then you just step in and go. Not that they were there yet. He
remembered the rockets that had burned ... exploded ... the drifting
hulks that still orbited around the earth. No, it wasn't over yet. Not
by a long shot.

The quiet came again. The earth, seen through the side port, seemed
tremendously far away. It was a study in greens and yellow-browns and
whitish ragged areas where the eye was blocked by cloud formations.
Straight out the sky was black, starry. Prochaska reached up and swung
the glare shield over the forward port. The sun, looked at even
indirectly, was a blinding orb, intolerable to the unprotected eye.
Night above ... day below. A sun that blazed without breaking the ebon
skies. Strange, Crag mused. He had been prepared for this, prepared by
long hours of instruction. But now, confronted with a day that was
night, he could only wonder. For a moment he felt small, insignificant,
and wondered at brazen man. Who dared come here? I dared, he thought. A
feeling of pride grew within him. I dared. The stars are mine.

       *       *       *       *       *

Stage three was easy by comparison. It began with the muted roar of
thrust chambers almost behind them, a noise spectrum almost solely
confined to the interior of the rocket. Outside there was no longer
sufficient air molecules to convey even a whisper of sound. Nor was
there a pressure build-up. The stage three engine was designed for
extremely low thrust extended over a correspondingly longer time. It
would drive them through the escape spiral--an orbital path around the
earth during which time they would slowly increase both altitude and
speed.

Crag's body felt light; not total weightlessness, but extremely light.
His instruments told him they were breaching the exosphere, where
molecular matter had almost ceased to exist. The atoms of the exosphere
were lonely, uncrowded, isolated particles. It was the top of the air
ocean where, heretofore, only monkeys, dogs and smaller test animals had
gone. It was the realm of Sputniks ... Explorers ... Vanguards--all the
test rockets which had made the Aztec possible. They still sped their
silent orbits, borne on the space tides of velocity; eternal tombs of
dogs and monkeys. And after monkey--man.

The communicator gave a burp. A voice came through the static. Drone
Able was aloft. It had blasted off from its blasting pad at Burning
Sands just moments after the Aztec. Prochaska bent over the radarscope
and fiddled with some knobs. The tube glowed and dimmed, then it was
there--a tiny pip.

Alpine came in with more data. They watched its course. Somewhere far
below them and hundreds of miles to the west human minds were guiding
the drone by telemeter control, vectoring it through space to meet the
Aztec. It was, Crag thought, applied mathematics. He marveled at the
science which enabled them to do it. One moment the drone was just a pip
on the scope, climbing up from the sere earth, riding a firestream to
the skies; the next it was tons of metal scorching through space,
cutting into their flight path--a giant screaming up from its cradle.

It was Prochaska's turn to sweat. The job of taking it over was his. He
bent over his instruments, ears tuned to the communicator fingers
nervous on the drone controls. The drone hurtled toward them at a
frightening speed.

Crag kept his fingers on the steering controls just in case, his mind
following the Chief's hands. They began moving more certainly. Prochaska
tossed his head impatiently, bending lower over the instrument console.
Crag strained against his harnessing to see out of the side port. The
drone was visible now, a silver shaft growing larger with appalling
rapidity. A thin skein of vapor trailed from its trail, fluffing into
nothingness.

_If angle of closure remains constant, you're on collision course._ The
words from the Flying Safety Manual popped into his mind. He studied the
drone.

Angle of closure was constant!

Crag hesitated. Even a touch on the steering rockets could be bad. Very
bad. The slightest change in course at their present speed would impose
tremendous g forces on their bodies, perhaps greater than they could
stand. He looked at the Chief and licked his lips. The man was intent on
his instruments, seemingly lost to the world. His fingers had ceased all
random movement. Every motion had precise meaning. He was hooked onto
Drone Able's steering rockets now, manipulating the controls with
extreme precision. He was a concert pianist playing the strident music
of space, an overture written in metal and flaming gas. Tiny corrections
occurred in the Drone's flight path.

"Got her lined up," Prochaska announced without moving his eyes from the
scope. He gradually narrowed the distance between the rockets until they
were hurtling through space on parallel courses scant miles apart. He
gave a final check and looked at Crag. They simultaneously emitted big
sighs.

"Had me worried for a moment," Crag confessed.

"Me, too." The Chief looked out of the side port "Man, it looks like a
battle wagon."

Crag squinted through the port. Drone Able was a silver bullet in space,
a twin of the Aztec except in color. A drone with view ports. He smiled
thoughtfully. Every exterior of the drone had been planned to make it
appear like a manned vehicle. Gotch was the architect of that bit of
deception, he thought. The Colonel hadn't missed a bet.

He looked at the earth. It was a behemoth in space; a huge curved
surface falling away in all directions; a mosaic of grays punctuated by
swaths of blue-green tints and splotches of white where fleecy clouds
rode the top of the troposphere. His momentary elation vanished,
replaced by an odd depression. The world was far away, retreating into
the cosmic mists. The aftermath, he thought. A chill presentiment crept
into his mind--a premonition of impending disaster.



CHAPTER 4


The communicator came to life with data on Pickering. The satelloid was
moving higher, faster than the Aztec, riding the rim of the exosphere
where the atmosphere is indistinguishable from absolute space. Crag felt
thankful he hadn't been tabbed for the job. The satelloid was a fragile
thing compared to the Aztec--a moth compared to a hawk. It was a
relative handful of light metals and delicate electronic components, yet
it moved at frightful speeds over the course the armchair astronauts had
dubbed "Sputnik Avenue." It was a piloted vehicle, a mite with small
stubby wings to enable it to glide through the air ocean to safe
sanctuary after orbiting the earth. Pickering would be crouched in its
scant belly, a space hardly larger than his body, cramped in a pressure
suit that made movement all but impossible. His smallest misjudgment
would spell instant death. Crag marveled at Pickering's audacity.
Clearly he had the roughest mission. While he thought about it, he kept
one part of his mind centered on the communicator absorbing the data on
the satelloid's position and speed.

The Northern tip of Africa came up fast. The Dark Continent of history
seen from the borders of space was a yellow-green splotch hemmed by
blue. The satelloid was still beyond the Aztec's radar range but a data
link analog painted in the relationship between the two space vehicles.
The instrument's automatic grid measured the distance between them in
hundreds of miles. Pickering, aloft before them, had fled into the east
and already was beginning to overtake them from the west. The ships were
seen on the analog as two pips, two mites aloft in the air ocean. Crag
marveled at the satelloid's tremendous speed. It was a ray of metal
flashing along the fringes of space, a rapier coming out of the west.

The Middle East passed under them, receding, a mass of yellow-green and
occasional smoke-blue splotches. The earth was a giant curvature, not
yet an orb, passing into the shadow of night. It was a night of
fantastic shortness, broken by daylight over the Pacific. The ocean was
an incredible blue, blue-black he decided. The harsh sound of the
communicator came to life. Someone wanted a confab with Crag. A private
confab. Prochaska wrinkled his brow questioningly. Crag switched to his
ear insert phone and acknowledged.

"A moment," a voice said. He waited.

"Commander, we've bad news for you." It was Gotch's voice, a rasp coming
over a great distance.

"The S-two reports a rocket being tracked by radar. ComSoPac's picked it
up. It's on intercept course."

Crag's thoughts raced. The S-two was the satelloid's code name. "Any
idea what kind?"

"Probably a sub-launched missile--riding a beam right to you. Or the
drone," he added. He was silent for a second. "Well, we sort of expected
this might happen, Commander. It's a tough complication."

A helluva lot of good that does, Crag thought. What next? Another set of
pilots, more indoctrination, new rockets, another zero hour. Gotch would
win the moon if he had to use the whole Air Force. He said, "Well, it's
been a nice trip, so far."

"Get Prochaska on the scope."

"He's on and ... hold it." The Chief was making motions toward the
scope. "No, it's the satelloid. He's--"

Gotch broke in with more data. Then it was there.

"He's got it," Crag announced. Gotch was silent. He watched the analog.
All three pips were visible. The satelloid was still above them, rushing
in, fast. The interceptor was lower to the northwest, cutting into their
path. He thought it was the Drone Able story all over again. Only this
time it wasn't a supply rocket. It was a warhead, a situation they
couldn't control.

_Couldn't control? Or could they?_ He debated the question, then quickly
briefed Prochaska and cut him in on the com circuit.

"We can use Drone Able as an intercept," he told Gotch.

"No!" The word came explosively.

Crag snapped, "Drone Able won't be a damn bit of good without the
Aztec."

"No, this is ground control, Commander." Gotch abruptly cut off. Crag
cursed.

"Calling Step One.... Calling Step One. S-two calling Step One. Are you
receiving? Over." The voice came faint over the communicator, rising and
falling.

"Step One," Crag said, adjusting his lip mike. He acknowledged the code
call while his mind registered the fact it wasn't Alpine Base. There was
a burst of static. He waited a moment, puzzled.

"S-two calling...."

Pickering! He had been slow in recognizing the satelloid's code call.
The voice faded--was lost. His thought raced. Pickering was up there in
the satelloid moving higher, faster than the Aztec, hurtling along the
rim of space in a great circle around the earth. The stubby-winged
rocket ship was a minute particle in infinity, yet it represented a part
in the great adventure. It was the hand of Michael Gotch reaching toward
them. For the instant, the knowledge gave him a ray of hope--hope as
quickly dashed. The S-two was just a high-speed observation and relay
platform; a manned vehicle traveling the communication orbit established
by the Army's earlier Explorer missiles. He turned back to Prochaska and
sketched in his plan of using Drone Able as an intercept.

"Could be." The Chief bit his lip reflectively. "We could control her
through her steering rockets, but we'd have to be plenty sharp. We'd
only get one crack."

"Chances are the intercept is working on a proximity fuse," Crag
reasoned. "All we'd have to do is work the drone into its flight path.
We could use our own steering rockets to give us a bigger margin of
safety."

"What would the loss of Able mean?"

Crag shrugged. "I'm more concerned with what the loss of the Aztec would
mean."

"Might work." The Chief looked sharply at him. "What does Alpine say?"

"They say nuts." Crag looked at the scope. The intercept was much
nearer. So was the S-two. Pickering's probably coming in for an
eye-witness report, he thought sourly. Probably got an automatic camera
so Gotch can watch the show. He looked quizzically at Prochaska. The
Chief wore a frozen mask. He got back on the communicator and repeated
his request. When he finished, there was a dead silence in the void.

The Colonel's answer was unprintable. He looked thoughtfully at
Prochaska. Last time he'd broken ground orders he'd been invited to
leave the Air Force. But Gotch had taken him despite that. He glanced
over his shoulder trying to formulate a plan. Larkwell was lying back in
his seat, eyes closed. Lucky dog, he thought. He doesn't know what he's
in for. He twisted his head further. Nagel watched him with a narrow
look. He pushed the oxygen man from his mind and turned back to the
analog. The pip that was Pickering had moved a long way across the grid.
The altitude needle tied into the grid showed that the satelloid was
dropping fast. The intercept was nearer, too. Much nearer. Prochaska
watched the scene on his radarscope.

"She's coming fast," he murmured. His face had paled.

"Too fast," Crag gritted. He got on the communicator and called Alpine.
Gotch came on immediately.

Crag said defiantly. "We're going to use Drone Able as an intercept.
It's the only chance."

"Commander, I ordered ground control." The Colonel's voice was icy,
biting.

"Ground has no control over this situation," Crag snapped angrily.

"I said ground control, Commander. That's final."

"I'm using Drone Able."

"Commander Crag, you'll wind up cleaning the heads at Alpine," Gotch
raged. "Don't move that Drone."

For a moment the situation struck him as humorous. Just now he'd like to
be guaranteed the chance to clear the heads at Alpine Base. It sounded
good--real good. There was another burst of static. Pickering's voice
came in--louder, clearer, a snap through the ether.

"Don't sacrifice the drone, Commander!"

"Do you know a better way?"

Pickering's voice dropped to a laconic drawl.

"Reckon so."

Crag glanced at the analog and gave a visible start. The satelloid was
lower, moving in faster along a course which would take it obliquely
through the space path being traversed by the Aztec. If there was such a
thing as a wake in space, that's where the satelloid would chop through,
cutting down toward the intercept. He's using his power, he thought, the
scant amount of fuel he would need for landing. But if he used it up....

He slashed the thought off and swung to the communicator.

"Step One to S-two ... Step One to S-two ..."

"S-two." Pickering came in immediately.

Crag barked, "You can't--"

"That's my job," Pickering cut in. "You gotta get that bucket to the
moon." Crag looked thoughtfully at the communicator.

"Okay," he said finally. "Thanks, fellow."

"Don't mention it. The Air Force is always ready to serve," Pickering
said. "Adios." He cut off.

Crag stared at the analog, biting his lip, feeling the emotion surge
inside him. It grew to a tumult.

"Skipper!" Prochaska's voice was startled. "For God's sake ... look!"

Crag swung his eyes to the scope. The blip representing Pickering had
cut their flight path, slicing obliquely through their wake. At its
tremendous speed only the almost total absence of air molecules kept the
satelloid from turning into a blazing torch. Down ... down ... plunging
to meet the death roaring up from the Pacific. They followed it
silently. A brief flare showed on the scope. They looked at the screen
for a long moment.

"He was a brave man," Prochaska said simply.

"A pile of guts." Crag got on the communicator. Gotch listened. When he
had finished, Gotch said:

"After this, Commander, follow ground orders. You damned near fouled up
the works. I don't want to see that happen again."

"Yes, Sir, but I couldn't have expected that move."

"What do you think Pickering was up there for?" Gotch asked softly. "He
knew what he was doing. That was his job. Just like the couple that got
bumped at the Blue Door. It's tough, Commander, but some people have to
die. A lot have, already, and there'll be a lot more."

He added brusquely, "You'll get your chance." The communicator was
silent for a moment. "Well, carry on."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Crag said. He glanced over his shoulder.

Larkwell was leaning over in his seat, twisting his body to see out the
side port. His face was filled with the wonder of space. Nagel didn't
stir. His eyes were big saucers in his white, thin face. Crag half
expected to see his lips quiver, and wondered briefly at the courage it
must have taken for him to volunteer. He didn't seem at all like the
hero type. Still, look at Napoleon. You could never tell what a man had
until the chips were down. Well, the chips _were_ down. Nagel better
have it. He turned reflectively back to the forward port thinking that
the next two days would be humdrum. Nothing would ever seem tough again.
Not after what they had just been through.

Prochaska fell into the routine of calling out altitude and speed. Crag
listened with one part of his mind occupied with Pickering's sacrifice.
Would he have had the courage to drive the satelloid into the warhead?
Did it take more guts to do that than to double for a man slated to be
murdered? He mulled the questions. Plainly, Step One was jammed with
heroes.

"Altitude, 1,000 miles, speed, 22,300." Prochaska whispered the words,
awe in his voice. They looked at each other wordlessly.

"We've made it," Crag exulted. "We're on that old moon trajectory." The
Chiefs face reflected his wonder. Crag studied his instruments. Speed
slightly over 22,300 miles per hour. The radar altimeter showed the
Aztec slightly more than one thousand miles above the earth's surface.
He hesitated, then cut off the third stage engine. The fuel gauge
indicated a bare few gallons left. This small amount, he knew,
represented error in the precise computations of escape. Well, the extra
weight was negligible. At the same time, they couldn't afford added
acceleration. He became aware that the last vestige of weight had
vanished. He moved his hand. No effort. No effort at all. Space, he
thought, the first successful manned space ship.

Elation swept him. He, Adam Crag, was in space. Not just the top of the
atmosphere but absolute space--the big vacuum that surrounded the world.
This had been the aim ... the dream ... the goal. And so quick!

He flicked his mind back. It seemed almost no time at all since the
Germans had electrified the world with the V-2, a primitive rocket that
scarcely reached seventy miles above the earth, creeping at a mere 3,000
miles per hour.

The Americans had strapped a second stage to the German prototype,
creating the two-stage V-2-Wac Corporal and sending it 250 miles into
the tall blue at speeds better than 5,000 miles per hour. It had been a
battle even then, he thought, remembering the dark day the Russians beat
the West with Sputnik I ... seemingly demolished it with Sputnik
II--until the U. S. Army came through with Explorer I. That had been the
real beginning. IRBM's and ICBM's had been born. Missiles and
counter-missiles. Dogs, monkeys and mice had ridden the fringes of
space. But never man.

A deep sense of satisfaction flooded him. The Aztec had been the first.
The Aztec under Commander Adam Crag. The full sense of the
accomplishment was just beginning to strike him. We've beaten the enemy,
he thought. We've won. It had been a grim battle waged on a
technological front; a battle between nations in which, ironically, each
victory by either side took mankind a step nearer emancipation from the
world. Man could look forward now, to a bright shiny path leading to the
stars. This was the final step. The Big Step. The step that would tie
together two worlds. In a few short days the Aztec would reach her
lonely destination, Arzachel, a bleak spot in the universe. Adam Crag,
the Man in the Moon. He hoped. He turned toward the others, trying to
wipe the smug look from his face.

The oddity of weightlessness was totally unlike anything he had expected
despite the fact its symptoms had been carefully explained during the
indoctrination program. He was sitting in the pilot's seat, yet he
wasn't. He felt no sense of pressure against the seat, or against
anything else, for that matter. It was, he thought, like sitting on air,
as light as a mote of dust drifting in a breeze. Sure, he'd experienced
weightlessness before, when pushing a research stratojet through a
high-speed trajectory to counter the pull of gravity, for example. But
those occasions had lasted only brief moments. He moved his hand
experimentally upward--a move that ended like the strike of a snake.
Yeah, it was going to take some doing to learn control of his movements.
He looked at Prochaska. The Chief was feeding data to Alpine Base. He
finished and grinned broadly at Crag. His eyes were elated.

"Sort of startling, isn't it?"

"Amen," Crag agreed. "I'm almost afraid to loosen my harnessing.

"Alpine says we're right on the button--schedule, course and speed.
There's a gal operator on now."

"That's good. That means we're back to routine." Crag loosened his
harnesses and twisted around in his seat. Larkwell was moving his hands
experimentally. He saw Crag and grinned foolishly. Nagel looked ill. His
face was pinched, bloodless, his eyes red-rimmed. He caught Crag's look
and nodded, without expression.

"Pretty rough," Crag said sympathetically. His voice, in the new-born
silence, possessed a curious muffled effect. "We're past the worst."

Nagel's lips twisted derisively. "Yeah?"

The querulous tone grated Crag and he turned back to the controls.
_Every minor irritant will assume major proportions._ That's what Doc
Weldon had warned. Well, damnit, he wouldn't let Nagel get him down.
Besides, what was his gripe? They were all in the same boat. He turned
to the instrument console, checking the myriad of dials, gauges and
scopes. Everything seemed normal, if there was such a thing as normalcy
in space. He said reflectively, speaking to no one in particular:

"Maybe I should have been more truthful with the Colonel before taking
on this damned job of moon pilot. There's something I didn't tell him."

"What?" Prochaska's face was startled.

"I've never been to the moon before."



CHAPTER 5


"Alpine wants a private confab," Prochaska said. His voice was ominous.
"Probably another stinker."

"Again?" Crag plugged in his ear insert microphone thinking he wasn't
going to like what he'd hear. Just when things had started looking
smooth too. He cut Prochaska out of the system and acknowledged.

"Crag?" Gotch's voice was brittle, hard. He looked sideways at
Prochaska, who was studiously examining one of the instruments, trying
to give him the privacy demanded. He shifted his head. Larkwell was
standing at the side port with his back toward him. Nagel lay back in
his seat, eyes closed.

Crag answered softly. "Shoot."

"More bad news," Gotch reported somberly. "Burning Sands picked a
package out of Drone Able just before launch time. It's just been
identified."

"Check," he replied, trying to assimilate what Gotch was telling him.

Gotch stated flatly. "It was a time bomb. Here's a description. Bomb was
packaged in a flat black plastic case about one by four inches. Probably
not big enough to wreck the drone but big enough to destroy the
controls. It was found tucked in the wiring of the main panel. Got
that?"

"Check."

"The bomb squad hasn't come through with full details yet. If you find a
mate, don't try to disarm it. Dump it, pronto!"

"Can't. It'll stay with us."

"It's size indicates it wouldn't be fatal if it exploded outside the
hull," Gotch rasped. "It was designed to wreck controls. If you find
one, dump it. That's an order." The earphones were silent. Crag was
swiveling toward Prochaska when they came to life again.

"One other thing." Gotch was silent for a moment. Crag pictured him
carefully framing his words. "It means that the situation is worse than
we thought," he said finally.

"They haven't left anything to chance. If you have a bomb, it was
carried there after the final security check. Do you follow me?"

"Yeah," Crag answered thoughtfully. He sat for a moment, debating what
to do. Prochaska didn't ask any questions. Gotch was telling him that
the Aztec might be mined. Wait, what else had he said? _The bomb was
carried there after the security check._ That spelled traitor. The Aztec
had been shaken down too often and too thoroughly for Intelligence to
have muffed. It would have to have been planted at the last moment. If
there was a bomb, he'd better keep quiet until Gotch's suspicions were
proven false--or verified.

He turned toward Prochaska, keeping his voice low. "Search the console
panels--every inch of them."

He looked around. Nagel and Larkwell were back in their seats. Nagel
seemed asleep, but Larkwell's face was speculative. Crag's eyes swept
the cabin. Spare oxygen tanks, packaged pressure suits, water vents,
chemical commode, the algae chamber and spare chemicals to absorb carbon
dioxide in case the algae system failed--these and more items filled
every wall, cupboard, occupied every cubic inch of space beyond the bare
room needed for human movement. Where was the most sensitive spot? The
controls. He sighed and turned back to the panels.

Prochaska was methodically running his hands through the complex of
wiring under the instrument panels. His face was a question, the face of
a man who didn't know what he was looking for. He decided not to tell
him ... yet. His earphones gave a burst of static followed by the
Colonel's hurried voice.

"Burning Sands reports packaged timed for 0815," he snapped. "That's
eight minutes away. Get on the ball. If you've got one there, it's
probably a twin."

"Okay," Crag acknowledged. "Adios, we've got work to do." He swung
toward Nagel.

"Break out the pressure suits," he barked. "Lend him a hand, Larkwell."

Nagel's eyes opened. "Pressure suits?"

"Check. We may need them in a couple of minutes."

"But--"

"Get to it," Crag rasped. "It may be a matter of life or death." He
turned. Prochaska was still examining the wiring. No time to search the
rest of the cabin, he thought. It might be anywhere. It would have to be
the panels or nothing. Besides, that was the most logical place. He went
to the Chief's assistance, searching the panels on his side of the
board, pushing his fingers gently between the maze of wiring. Nothing
below the analog, the engine instruments, the radar altimeter. He
glanced at the chronometer and began to sweat. The hands on the dial
seemed to be racing. Prochaska finished his side of the console and
looked sideways at him. Better tell him, Crag thought.

He said calmly, "Time bomb. Burning Sands says, if we have one, it may
blow in--" he glanced hurriedly at the chronometer--"five minutes."

Prochaska looked hurriedly at the array of gear lining the bulkheads.

"Probably in the controls, if we have one." Crag finished the panels on
his side without any luck. Prochaska hastily started re-examining the
wiring. Crag followed after him. A moment later his fingers found it, a
smooth flat case deeply imbedded between the wiring. Prochaska had gone
over that panel a moment before! The thought struck him even as he moved
it out, handling it gingerly. Prochaska showed his surprise. Crag
glanced at Nagel and Larkwell. They had the suits free. He laid the
bomb on the console. Larkwell saw it. His face showed understanding. He
heaved one of the suits to Prochaska and a second one to Crag. They
hurriedly donned them. Space limitations made it an awkward task. Crag
kept his eyes on the chronometer. The hand seemed to whiz across the
dial. He began to sweat, conscious that he was breathing heavily.

"Short exposure," he rapped out. "Minimum pressure." He slipped on his
helmet, secured it to the neck ring and snapped on the face plate. He
turned the oxygen valve and felt the pressure build up within the suit
and helmet. The chronometer showed two minutes to go. He snapped a
glance around. Nagel peered at him through his thick face plate with a
worried expression. Larkwell's lips were compressed against his teeth.
His jaws worked spasmodically. Both were waiting, tense, watching him.

Prochaska was the last to finish. Crag waited impatiently for him to
switch on his oxygen valve before picking up the bomb. He motioned the
others to stand back and began opening the dogs which secured the escape
hatch. He hesitated on the last one. The escaping air could whisk him
into space in a flash. The same thing had happened to crewmen riding in
bubbles that broke at high altitude. Whoosh! He'd be gone! Conceivably,
it could suck the cabin clean. Fortunately their gear had been secured
as protection against the high g forces of escape. Too late to lash
himself with the seat harnessing. Time was running out. Panic touched
his mind. Calm down, Crag, he told himself. Play it cool, boy.

Prochaska saw his dilemma at the same instant. He squatted on the deck
and thrust his legs straight out from the hips, straddling one of the
seat supports. Larkwell and Nagel hurriedly followed suit. Crag cast a
backward glance at the chronometer--a minute and ten seconds to go! He
threw himself to one side of the hatch, squatted and hooked an arm into
a panel console, hoping it was strong enough. He laid the bomb on the
deck next to the hatch and reached up with his free hand, held his
breath, hesitated, and jarred the last dog loose.

The hatch exploded open. A giant claw seemed to grab his body, pulling
him toward the opening. It passed as quickly as it came, leaving him
weak, breathless. The bomb had been whisked into space. He got to his
feet and grasped the hatch combing, looking out. It was a giddy,
vertiginous moment. Before him yawned a great purple-black maw, a
blacker purple than that seen through the view ports. It was studded
with unbelievably brilliant stars agleam with the hard luster of
diamonds--white diamonds and blue sapphires.

_Something bright blinked in space._

He hesitated. The cold was already coming through his suit. He
remembered he hadn't turned on either the heating element or interphone
system. He drew the hatch shut and dogged it down, then switched both
on. The others saw his movements and followed suit.

"See anything?" Prochaska was the first to ask. His voice sounded tinny
and far away. Crag adjusted his amplifier and said grimly:

"It blew."

"How ... how did it get here?" He identified the voice as Nagel's.

He snapped brusquely, "That's what I'm going to find out." Larkwell was
silent. Nagel began fiddling with the oxygen valves. They waited,
quietly, each absorbed in his thoughts until Nagel indicated it was safe
to remove their suits. Crag's thoughts raced while he shucked the heavy
garments. It's past, he thought, but the saboteur's still here. Who? He
flicked his eyes over the men. Who? That's what he had to find
out--soon! When the suit was off, he hurriedly put through a call to
Gotch, reporting what had happened.

The Colonel listened without comment. When Crag finished, he was silent
for a moment. Finally he replied:

"Here's where we stand. We will immediately comb the record of every
intelligence agent involved in the last shakedown. We'll also recomb the
records of the Aztec crew, including yours. I've got to tell you this
because it's serious. If there's a saboteur aboard--and I think there
is--then the whole operation's in jeopardy. It'll be up to you to keep
your eyes open and analyze your men. We've tried to be careful. We've
checked everyone involved back to birth. But there's always the sleeper.
It's happened before."

"Check," Crag said. "I only hope you don't catch up with all my early
peccadillos."

"This is no time to be funny. Now, some more news for you. Washington
reports that the enemy launched another missile this morning."

"Another one?" Crag sighed softly. This time there would be no
satelloid, no Pickering to give his life.

The Colonel continued grimly. "Radar indicates this is a different kind
of rocket. Its rate of climb ... its trajectory ... indicates it's
manned. Now it's a race."

Crag thought a moment. "Any sign of a drone with it?"

"No, that's the surprising part, if this is a full-scale attempt at
establishing a moon base. And we believe it is."

Crag asked sharply. "It couldn't be their atom-powered job?" The
possibility filled him with alarm.

"Positively not. We've got our finger squarely on that one and it's a
good year from launch-date. No, this is a conventional rocket ...
perhaps more advanced than we had believed...." His voice dropped off.
"We'll keep you posted," he added after a minute.

"Roger." Crag sighed. He removed the earphone reflectively. He wouldn't
tell the others yet. Now that they were in space maybe ... just
maybe ... he could find time to catch his breath. Damn, they hadn't
anticipated all this during indoctrination. The intercept-missile ...
time bomb ... possible traitor in the crew. What more could go wrong?
For just a second he felt an intense hostility toward Gotch. An Air
Force full of pilots and he had to pick him--and he wasn't even in the
Air Force at the time. Lord, he should have contented himself with
jockeying a jet airliner on some nice quiet hop. Like between L. A. and
Pearl ... with a girl at each end of the run.

He thought wistfully about the prospect while he made a routine check of
the instruments. Cabin pressure normal ... temperature 78 degrees F. ...
nothing alarming in the radiation and meteor impact readings. Carbon
dioxide content normal. Things might get routine after all, he thought
moodily. Except for one thing. The new rocket flashing skyward from east
of the Caspian. One thing he was sure of. It spelled trouble.



CHAPTER 6


The U. S. Navy's Space Scan Radar Station No. 5 picked up the new rocket
before it was fairly into space. It clung to it with an electromagnetic
train, bleeding it of data. The information was fed into computers,
digested, analyzed and transferred to Alpine Base, and thence
telemetered to the Aztec where it appeared as a pip on the analog
display. The grid had automatically adjusted to a 500-mile scale with
the positions of the intruder and Aztec separated by almost the width of
the instrument face. The Aztec seemed to have a clear edge in the race
for the moon. Prochaska became aware of the newcomer but refrained from
questions, nor did Crag volunteer any information.

Just now he wasn't worrying about the East World rocket. Not at this
point. With Drone Able riding to starboard, the Aztec was moving at an
ever slower rate of speed. It would continue to decelerate, slowed by
the earth's pull as it moved outward, traveling on inertial force since
the silencing of its engines. By the time it reached the neutral zone
where the moon and earth gravispheres canceled each other, the Aztec
would have just enough speed left to coast into the moon's field of
influence. Then it would accelerate again, picking up speed until slowed
by its braking rockets. That was the hour that occupied his thoughts--a
time when he would be called upon for split-second decisions coming in
waves.

He tried to anticipate every contingency. The mass ratio necessary to
inject the Aztec into its moon trajectory had precluded fuel beyond the
absolute minimum needed. The rocket would approach the moon in an
elliptical path, correct its heading to a north-south line relative to
the planet and decelerate in a tight spiral. At a precise point in space
he would have to start using the braking rockets, slow the ship until
they occupied an exact point in the infinite space-time continuum, then
let down into cliff-brimmed Arzachel, a bleak, airless, utterly alien
wasteland with but one virtue: Uranium. That and the fact that it
represented the gateway to the Solar System.

He mentally reviewed the scene a hundred times. He would do this and
this and that. He rehearsed each step, each operation, each fleeting
second in which all the long years of planning would summate in victory
or disaster. He was the X in the equation in which the Y-scale was
represented by the radar altimeter. He would juggle speed, deceleration,
altitude, mass and a dozen other variables, keeping them in delicate
balance. Nor could he forget for one second the hostile architecture of
their destination.

For all practical purposes Arzachel was a huge hole sunk in the moon--a
vast depression undoubtedly broken by rocks, rills, rough lava outcrops.
The task struck him as similar to trying to land a high-speed jet in a
well shaft. Well, almost as bad.

He tried to anticipate possible contingencies, formulating his responses
to each. He was, he thought, like an actor preparing for his first
night. Only this time there would be no repeat performance. The critics
were the gods of chance in a strictly one-night stand.

Gotch was the man who had placed him here. But the responsibility was
all his. Gotch! All he gave a damn about was the moon--a chunk of real
estate scorned by its Maker. Crag bit his lip ruefully. Stop feeling
sorry for yourself, boy, he thought. You asked for it--practically
begged for it. Now you've got it.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the end of the second day the novelty of space had worn off. Crag and
Prochaska routinely checked the myriad of instruments jammed into the
faces of the consoles: Meteorite impact counters, erosion counters,
radiation counters--counters of all kinds. Little numbers on dials and
gauges that told man how he was faring in the wastelands of the
universe. Nagel kept a special watch on the oxygen pressure gauge.
Meteorite damage had been one of Gotch's fears. A hole the size of a
pinhead could mean eventual death through oxygen loss, hence Nagel
seldom let a half-hour pass without checking the readings.

Crag and Prochaska spelled each other in brief catnaps. Larkwell, with
no duties to perform, was restless. At first he had passed long hours at
the viewports, uttering exclamations of surprise and delight from time
to time. But sight of the ebony sky with its fields of strewn jewels
had, in the end, tended to make him moody. He spent most of the second
day dozing.

Nagel kept busy prowling through the oxygen gear, testing connections
and making minor adjustments. His seeming concern with the equipment
bothered Crag. The narrow escape with the time bomb had robbed him of
his confidence in the crew. He told himself the bomb could have been
planted during the last security shakedown. But a "sleeper" in security
seemed highly unlikely. So did a "sleeper" in the Aztec. Everyone of
them, he knew, had been scanned under the finest security microscope
almost from birth to the moment each had climbed the tall ladder leading
to the space cabin.

He covertly watched Nagel, wondering if his prowling was a form of
escape, an effort to forget his fears. He was beginning to understand
the stark reality of Nagel's terror. It had been mirrored in his face, a
naked, horrible dread, during the recent emergency. No ... he wasn't the
saboteur type. Larkwell, maybe. Perhaps Prochaska. But not Nagel. A
saboteur would have iron nerves, a cold, icy fanaticism that never
considered danger. But supposing the man were a consummate actor, his
fear a mask to conceal his purpose?

He debated the pros and cons. In the end he decided it would not be
politic to forbid Nagel to handle the gear during flight. He was, after
all, their oxygen equipment specialist. He contented himself with
keeping a sharp watch on Nagel's activities--a situation Nagel seemed
unmindful of. He seemed to have lost some of his earlier fear. His face
was alert, almost cheerful at times; yet it held the attitude of
watchful waiting.

Despite his liking for Prochaska, Crag couldn't forget that he had
failed to find the time bomb in a panel he had twice searched. Still,
the console's complex maze of wiring and tubes had made an excellent
hiding place. He had to admit he was lucky to have found it himself. He
tried to push his suspicions from his mind without relaxing his
vigilance. It was a hard job.

By the third day the enemy missile had become a prime factor in the
things he found to worry about. The intruder rocket had drawn closer.
Alpine warned that the race was neck and neck. It had either escaped
earth at a higher speed or had continued to accelerate beyond the escape
point. Crag regarded the reason as purely academic. The hard fact was
that it would eventually overtake the still decelerating Aztec. Just now
it was a pip on the analog, a pip which before long would loom as large
as Drone Able, perhaps as close. He tried to assess its meaning, vexed
that Alpine seemed to be doing so little to help in the matter.

Later Larkwell spotted the pip made by the East's rocket on the scope.
That let the cat out of the bag as far as Crag was concerned. Soberly he
informed them of its origin. Larkwell bit his lip thoughtfully. Nagel
furrowed his brow, seemingly lost in contemplation. Prochaska's
expression never changed. Crag assessed each reaction. In fairness, he
also assessed his own feeling toward each of the men. He felt a positive
dislike of Nagel and a positive liking for Prochaska. Larkwell was a
neutral. He seemed to be a congenial, open-faced man who wore his
feelings in plain sight. But there was a quality about him which, try as
he would, he could not put his finger on.

Nagel, he told himself, must have plenty on the ball. After all, he had
passed through a tough selection board. Just because the man's
personality conflicted with his own was no grounds for suspicion. But
the same reasoning could apply to the others. The fact remained--at
least Gotch seemed certain--that his crew numbered a ringer among them.
He was mulling it over when the communicator came to life. The message
was in moon code.

It came slowly, widely spaced, as if Gotch realized Crag's limitations
in handling the intricate cipher system evolved especially for this one
operation. Learning it had caused him many a sleepless night. He copied
the message letter by letter, his understanding blanked by the effort
to decipher it. He finished, then quickly read the two scant lines:

"_Blank channel to Alp unless survival need._"

He studied the message for a long moment. Gotch was telling him not to
contact Alpine Base unless it were a life or death matter. Not that
everything connected with the operation wasn't a life or death matter,
he thought grimly. He decided the message was connected with the
presence of the rocket now riding astern and to one side of the Aztec
and her drone. He guessed the Moon Code had been used to prevent
possible pickup by the intruder rather than any secrecy involving his
own crew.

He quietly passed the information to Prochaska. The Chief listened,
nodding, his eyes going to the analog.

According to his computations, the enemy rocket--Prochaska had dubbed it
Bandit--would pass abeam of Drone Able slightly after they entered the
moon's gravitational field, about 24,000 miles above the planet's
surface. Then what? He pursed his lips vexedly. Bandit was a factor that
had to be considered, but just how he didn't know. One thing was
certain. The East knew about the load of uranium in Crater Arzachel.
That, then, was the destination of the other rocket. Among the many X
unknowns he had to solve, a new X had been added; the rocket from behind
the Iron Curtain. Something told him this would be the biggest X of all.



CHAPTER 7


If Colonel Michael Gotch were worried, he didn't show it. He puffed
complacently on his black briar pipe watching and listening to the
leathery-faced man across from him. His visitor was angular, about
sixty, with gray-black hair and hard-squinted eyes. A livid scar bit
deep into his forehead; his mouth was a cold thin slash in his face. He
wore the uniform of a Major General in the United States Air Force. The
uniform did not denote the fact that its wearer was M.I.--Military
Intelligence. His name was Leonard Telford.

"So that's the way it looks," General Telford was saying. "The enemy is
out to get Arzachel at all costs. Failing that, they'll act to keep us
from it."

"They wouldn't risk war," Gotch stated calmly.

"No, but neither would we. That's the damnable part of it," the General
agreed. "The next war spells total annihilation. But for that very
reason they can engage in sabotage and hostile acts with security of
knowledge that we won't go to war. Look at them now--the missile attack
on the Aztec, the time bomb plant, the way they operate their networks
right in our midst. Pure audacity. Hell, they've even got an agent _en
route_ to the moon. On our rocket at that."

The Colonel nodded uncomfortably. The presence of a saboteur on the
Aztec represented a bungle in his department. The General was telling
him so in a not too gentle way.

"I seem to recall I was in Astrakhan myself a few years back," he
reminded.

"Oh, sure, we build pretty fair networks ourselves," the General said
blandly. He looked at Gotch and a rare smile crossed his face. "How did
you like the dancing girls in Gorik's, over by the shore?"

Gotch looked startled, then grinned. "Didn't know you'd ever been that
far in, General."

"Uh-huh, same time you were."

"Well, I'll be damned," Gotch breathed softly. There was a note of
respect in his voice. The General was silent for a moment.

"But the Caspian's hot now."

"Meaning?"

"Warheads--with the name Arzachel writ large across the nose cones." He
eyed Gotch obliquely. "If we secure Arzachel first, they'll blow it off
the face of the moon." They looked at each other silently. Outside a jet
engine roared to life.

       *       *       *       *       *

The moon filled the sky. It was gigantic, breath-taking, a monstrous
sphere of cratered rock moving in the eternal silence of space with
ghostly-radiance, heedless that a minute mote bearing alien life had
entered its gravitational field. It moved in majesty along its orbit
some 2,300 miles every hour, alternately approaching to within 222,000
miles of its Earth Mother, retreating to over 252,000 miles measuring
its strides by some strange cosmic clock.

The Apennines, a rugged mountain range jutting 20,000 feet above the
planet's surface, was clearly visible. It rose near the Crater
Eratosthenes, running northwest some 200 miles to form the southwest
boundary of Mare Imbrium. The towering Leibnitz and Dorfel Mountains
were visible near the edge of the disc. South along the terminator, the
border between night and day, lay Ptolemaeus, Alphons, and Arzachel.

Crag and Prochaska studied its surface, picking out the flat areas which
early astronomers had mistaken for seas and which still bore the names
of seas. The giant enclosure Clavius, the lagoon-like Plato and
ash-strewn Copernicus held their attention. Crag studied the north-south
line along which Arzachel lay, wondering again if they could seek out
such a relatively small area in the jumbled, broken, twisted land
beneath them.

At some 210,000 miles from earth the Aztec had decelerated to a little
over 300 miles per hour. Shortly after entering the moon's gravisphere
it began to accelerate again. Crag studied the enemy rocket riding
astern. It would be almost abreast them in short time, off to one side
of the silver drone. It, too, was accelerating.

"Going to be nip and tuck," he told Prochaska. The Chief nodded.

"Don't like the looks of that stinker," he grunted.

Crag watched the analog a moment longer before turning to the quartz
viewport. His eyes filled with wonder. For untold ages lovers had sung
of the moon, philosophers had pondered its mysteries, astronomers had
scanned and mapped every visible mile of its surface until selenography
had achieved an exactness comparable to earth cartography. Scientists
had proved beyond doubt that the moon wasn't made of green cheese. But
no human eye had ever beheld its surface as Crag was doing now--Crag,
Prochaska, Larkwell and Nagel. The latter two were peering through the
side ports. Prochaska and Crag shared the forward panel. It was a
tribute to the event that no word was spoken. Aside from the Chief's
occasional checks on Drone Able and Bandit--the name stuck--the four
pairs of eyes seldom left the satellite's surface.

The landing plan called for circling the moon during which they were to
maneuver Drone Able into independent orbit. It was Crag's job to bring
the Aztec down at a precise point in Crater Arzachel and the Chief's job
to handle the drone landings, a task as ticklish as landing the Aztec
itself.

The spot chosen for landing was in an area where the Crater's floor was
broken by a series of rills--wide, shallow cracks the earth scientists
hoped would give protection against the fall of meteorites. Due to lack
of atmosphere the particles in space, ranging from dust grains to huge
chunks of rock, were more lethal than bullets. They were another unknown
in the gamble for the moon. A direct hit by even a grain-sized particle
could puncture a space suit and bring instant death. A large one could
utterly destroy the rocket itself. Larkwell's job was to construct an
airlock in one of the rills from durable lightweight prefabricated
plastiblocks carried in the drones. Such an airlock would protect them
from all but vertically falling meteorites.

Crag felt almost humble in the face of the task they were undertaking.
He knew his mind alone could grasp but a minute part of the knowledge
that went into making the expedition possible. Their saving lay in the
fact they were but agents, protoplasmic extensions of a complex of
computers, scientists, plans which had taken years to formulate, and a
man named Michael Gotch who had said:

"_You will land on Arzachel._"

He initiated the zero phase by ordering the crew into their pressure
suits. Prochaska took over while he donned his own bulky garment,
grimacing as he pulled the heavy helmet over his shoulders. Later, in
the last moments of descent, he would snap down the face plate and
pressurize the suit. Until then he wanted all the freedom the bulky
garments would allow.

"Might as well get used to it." Prochaska grinned. He flexed his arms
experimentally.

Larkwell grunted. "Wait till they're pressurized. You'll think rigor
mortis has set in."

Crag grinned. "That's a condition I'm opposed to."

"Amen." Larkwell gave a weak experimental jump and promptly smacked his
head against the low overhead. He was smiling foolishly when Nagel
snapped at him:

"One more of those and you'll be walking around the moon without a
pressure suit." He peevishly insisted on examining the top of the helmet
for damage.

Crag fervently hoped they wouldn't need the suits for landing. Any
damage that would allow the Aztec's oxygen to escape would in itself be
a death sentence, even though death might be dragged over the long
period of time it would take to die for lack of food. An intact space
cabin represented the only haven in which they could escape from the
cumbersome garments long enough to tend their biological needs.

Imperceptibly the sensation of weight returned, but it was not the body
weight of earth. Even on the moon's surface they would weigh but
one-sixth their normal weight.

"Skipper, look." Prochaska's startled exclamation drew Crag's eyes to
the radarscope. Bandit had made minute corrections in its course.

"They're using steering rockets," Crag mused, trying to assess its
meaning.

"Doesn't make sense," said Prochaska. "They can't have that kind of
power to spare. They'll need every bit they have for landing."

"What's up?" Larkwell peered over their shoulders, eyeing the
radarscope. Crag bit off an angry retort. Larkwell sensed the rebuff and
returned away. They kept their eyes glued to the scope. Bandit
maneuvered to a position slightly behind and to one side of the silver
drone. Crag looked out the side port. Bandit was clearly visible, a
monstrous cylinder boring through the void with cold precision. There
was something ominous about it. He felt the hair prickle at the nape of
his neck. Larkwell moved alongside him.

Bandit made another minute correction. White vapor shot from its tail
and it began to move ahead.

"Using rocket power," Crag grunted. "Damn if I can figure that one out."

"Looks crazy to me. I should think--" Prochaska's voice froze. A minute
pip broke off from Bandit, boring through space toward the silver drone.

"Warhead!" Crag roared the word with cold anger.

Prochaska cursed softly.

One second Drone Able was there, riding serenely through space. The next
it disintegrated, blasted apart by internal explosions. Seconds later
only fragments of the drone were visible.

Prochaska stared at Crag, his face bleak. Crag's brain reeled. He
mentally examined what had happened, culling his thoughts until one cold
fact remained.

"Mistaken identity," he said softly. "They thought it was the Aztec."

"Now what?"

"Now we hope they haven't any more warheads." Crag mulled the
possibility. "Considering weight factors, I'd guess they haven't.
Besides, there's no profit in wasting a warhead on a drone."

"We hope." Prochaska studied Bandit through the port, and licked his
lips nervously. "Think we ought to contact Alpine?"

Crag weighed the question. Despite the tight beam, any communication
could be a dead giveaway. On the other hand, Bandit either had the
capacity to destroy them or it didn't. If it did, well, there wasn't
much they could do about it. He reached a decision and nodded to
Prochaska, then began coding his thoughts.

He had trouble getting through on the communicator. Finally he got a
weak return signal, then sent a brief report. Alpine acknowledged and
cut off the air.

"What now?" Prochaska asked, when Crag had finished.

He shrugged and turned to the side port without answering. Bandit loomed
large, a long thick rocket with an oddly blunted nose. A monster that
was as deadly as it looked.

"Big," he surmised. "Much bigger than this chunk of hardware."

"Yeah, a regular battleship," Prochaska assented. He grinned crookedly.
"In more ways than one."

Crag sensed movement at his shoulder and turned his head. Nagel was
studying the radarscope over his shoulder. Surprise lit his narrow face.

"The drone?"

"Destroyed," Crag said bruskly. "Bandit had a warhead."

Nagel looked startled, then retreated to his seat without a word. Crag
returned his attention to the enemy rocket.

"What do you think?" he asked Prochaska.

His answer was solemn. "It spells trouble."



CHAPTER 8


At a precise point in space spelled out by the Alpine computers Crag
applied the first braking rockets. He realized that the act had been an
immediate tip-off to the occupants of the other rocket. No matter, he
thought. Sooner or later they had to discover it was the drone they had
destroyed. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, their headlong flight was
slowed. He nursed the rockets with care. There was no fuel to spare, no
energy to waste, no room for error. Everything had been worked out long
beforehand; he was merely the agent of execution.

The sensation of weight gradually increased. He ordered Larkwell and
Nagel into their seats in strapdown position. He and Prochaska shortly
followed, but he left his shoulder harnessing loose to give his arms the
vital freedom he needed for the intricate maneuvers ahead.

The moon rushed toward them at an appalling rate. Its surface was a
harsh grille work of black and white, a nightmarish scape of pocks and
twisted mountains of rock rimming the flat lunar plains. It was, he
thought, the geometry of a maniac. There was no softness, no blend of
light and shadow, only terrible cleavages between black and white. Yet
there was a beauty that gripped his imagination; the raw, stark beauty
of a nature undefiled by life. No eye had ever seen the canopy of the
heavens from the bleak surface below; no flower had ever wafted in a
lunar breeze.

Prochaska nudged his arm and indicated the scope. Bandit was almost
abreast them. Crag nodded understandingly.

"No more warheads."

"Guess we're just loaded with luck," Prochaska agreed wryly.

They watched ... waited ... mindless of time. Crag felt the tension
building inside him. Occasionally he glanced at the chronometer, itching
for action. The wait seemed interminable. Minutes or hours? He lost
track of time.

All at once his hands and mind were busy with the braking rockets,
dials, meters. First the moon had been a pallid giant in the sky; next
it filled the horizon. The effect was startling. The limb of the moon,
seen as a shallow curved horizon, no longer was smooth. It appeared as a
rugged saw-toothed arc, somehow reminding him of the Devil's Golf Course
in California's Death Valley. It was weird and wonderful, and slightly
terrifying.

Prochaska manned the automatic camera to record the orbital and landing
phases. He spotted the Crater of Ptolemaeus first, near the center-line
of the disc. Crag made a minute correction with the steering rockets.
The enemy rocket followed suit. Prochaska gave a short harsh laugh
without humor.

"Looks like we're piloting them in. Jeepers, you'd think they could do
their own navigation."

"Shows the confidence they have in us," Crag retorted.

They flashed high above Ptolemaeus, a crater ninety miles in diameter
rimmed by walls three thousand feet high. The crater fled by below them.
South lay Alphons; and farther south, Arzachel, with walls ten thousand
feet high rimming its vast depressed interior.

Prochaska observed quietly: "Nice rugged spot. It's going to take some
doing."

"Amen."

"I'm beginning to get that what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here feeling."

"I've had it right along," Crag confided.

They caught only a fleeting look at Arzachel before it rushed into the
background. Crag touched the braking rockets from time to time, gently,
precisely, keeping his eyes moving between the radar altimeter and speed
indicator while the Chief fed him the course data.

The back side of the moon was spinning into view--the side of the moon
never before seen by human eyes. Prochaska whistled softly. A huge
mountain range interlaced with valleys and chasms pushed some thirty
thousand feet into the lunar skies. Long streaks of ochre and brown
marked its sides, the first color they had seen on the moon. Flat
highland plains crested between the peaks were dotted with strange
monolithic structures almost geometrical in their distribution.

Prochaska was shooting the scene with the automatic camera. Crag twisted
around several times to nod reassuringly to Nagel and Larkwell but each
time they were occupied with the side ports, oblivious of his gesture.
To his surprise Nagel's face was rapt, almost dreamy, completely
absorbed by the stark lands below. Larkwell, too, was quiet with wonder.

The jagged mountains fell away to a great sea, larger even than Mare
Imbrium, and like Mare Imbrium, devoid of life. A huge crater rose from
its center, towering over twenty thousand feet. Beyond lay more
mountains. The land between was a wild tangle of rock, a place of
unutterable desolation. Crag was fascinated and depressed at the same
time. The Aztec was closing around the moon in a tight spiral.

The alien landscape drew visibly nearer. He switched his attention
between the braking rockets and instruments, trying to manage a quick
glance at the scope. Prochaska caught his look.

"Bandit's up on us," he confirmed.

Crag uttered a vile epithet and Prochaska grinned. He liked to hear him
growl, taking it as a good sign.

Crag glanced worriedly at the radar altimeter and hit the braking
rockets harder. The quick deceleration gave the impression of added
weight, pushing them hard against their chest harnesses.

He found it difficult to make the precise hand movements required. The
Aztec was dropping with frightening rapidity. They crossed more
mountains, seas, craters, great chasms. Time had become meaningless--had
ceased to exist. The sheer bleakness of the face of the moon gripped his
imagination. He saw it as the supreme challenge, the magnitude of which
took his breath. He was Cortez scanning the land of the Aztecs. More,
for this stark lonely terrain had never felt the stir of life. No
benevolent Maker had created this chaos. It was an inferno without
fire--a hell of a kind never known on earth. It was the handiwork of a
nature on a rampage--a maddened nature whose molding clay had been
molten lava.

He stirred the controls, moved them further, holding hard. The braking
rockets shook the ship, coming through the bulkheads as a faint roar.
The ground came up fast. Still the landscape fled by--fled past for
seeming days.

Prochaska announced wonderingly. "We've cleared the back side. You're on
the landing run, Skipper."

Crag nodded grimly, thinking it was going to be rough. Each second, each
split second had to be considered. There was no margin for error. No
second chance. He checked and re-checked his instruments, juggling speed
against altitude.

Ninety-mile wide Ptolemaeus was coming around again--fast. He caught a
glimpse through the floor port. It was a huge saucer, level at the
bottom, rimmed by low cliffs which looked as though they had been carved
from obsidian. The floor was split by irregular chasms, punctuated by
sharp high pinnacles. It receded and Alphons rushed to meet them. The
Aztec was dropping fast. Too fast? Crag looked worriedly at the radar
altimeter and hit the braking rockets harder. Alphons passed more
slowly. They fled south, a slim needle in the lunar skies.

"Arzachel...." He breathed the name almost reverently.

Prochaska glanced out the side port before hurriedly consulting the
instruments. Thirty thousand feet! He glanced worriedly at Crag. The
ground passed below them at a fantastic speed. They seemed to be
dropping faster. The stark face of the planet hurtled to meet them.

"Fifteen thousand feet," Prochaska half-whispered. Crag nodded. "Twelve
thousand ... ten ... eight...." The Chief continued to chant the
altitude readings in a strained voice. Up until then the face of the
moon had seemed to rush toward the Aztec. All at once it changed. Now it
was the Aztec that rushed across the hostile land--rushing and dropping.
"Three thousand ... two thousand...." They flashed high above a great
cliff which fell away for some ten thousand feet. At its base began the
plain of Arzachel.

Out of the corner of his eye Crag saw that Bandit was leading
them. But higher ... much higher. Now it was needling into the
purple-black--straight up. He gave a quick, automatic instrument check.
The braking rockets were blasting hard. He switched one hand to the
steering rockets.

Zero minute was coming up. Bandit was ahead, but higher. It could, he
thought, be a photo finish. Suddenly he remembered his face plate and
snapped it shut, opening the oxygen valve. The suit grew rigid on his
body and hampered his arms. He cursed softly and looked sideways at
Prochaska. He was having the same difficulty. Crag managed a quick
over-the-shoulder glance at Larkwell and Nagel. Everything seemed okay.

He took a deep breath and applied full deceleration with the braking
jets and simultaneously began manipulating the steering rockets. The
ship vibrated from stem to stern. The forward port moved upward; the
face of the moon swished past and disappeared. Bandit was lost to sight.
The ship trembled, shuddered and gave a violent wrench. Crag was thrown
forward.

The Aztec began letting down, tail first. It was a sickening moment. The
braking rockets astern, heavy with smoke, thundered through the hull.
The smoke blanketed out the ports. The cabin vibrated. He straightened
the nose with the steering rockets, letting the ship fall in a vertical
attitude, tail first. He snapped a glance at the radar altimeter and
punched a button.

A servo mechanism somewhere in the ship started a small motor. A tubular
spidery metal framework was projected out from the tail, extending some
twenty feet before it locked into position. It was a failing device
intended to absorb the energy generated by the landing impact.

Prochaska looked worriedly out the side port. Crag followed his eyes.
Small details on the plain of Arzachel loomed large--pits, cracks, low
ridges of rock. Suddenly the plain was an appalling reality. Rocky
fingers reached to grip them. He twisted his head until he caught sight
of Bandit. It was moving down, tail first, but it was still high in the
sky. Too high, he thought. He took a fast look at the radar altimeter
and punched the full battery of braking rockets again. The force on his
body seemed unbearable. Blood was forced into his head, blurring his
vision. His ears buzzed and his spine seemed to be supporting some
gigantic weight. The pressure eased and the ground began moving up more
slowly. The rockets were blasting steadily.

For a split-second the ship seemed to hang in mid-air followed by a
violent shock. The cabin teetered, then smashed onto the plain, swaying
as the framework projecting from the tail crumpled. The shock drove them
hard into their seats. They sat for a moment before full realization
dawned. They were down--alive!

Crag and Prochaska simultaneously began shucking their safety belts.
Crag was first. He sprang to the side port just in time to see the last
seconds of Bandit's landing. It came down fast, a perpendicular needle
stabbing toward the lunar surface. Flame spewed from its braking
rockets; white smoke enveloped its nose.

Fast ... too fast, he thought. Suddenly the flame licked out. Fuel
error. The thought flashed through his mind. The fuel Bandit had wasted
in space maneuvering to destroy the drone had left it short. The rocket
seemed to hang in the sky for a scant second before it plummeted
straight down, smashing into the stark lunar landscape. The Chief had
reached his side just in time to witness the crash.

"That's all for them," he said. "Can't say I'm sorry."

"Serves 'em damn well right," growled Crag. He became conscious of Nagel
and Larkwell crowding to get a look and obligingly moved to one side
without taking his eyes from the scene. He tried to judge Bandit's
distance.

"Little over two miles," he estimated aloud.

"You can't tell in this vacuum," Prochaska advised. "Your eyes play you
tricks. Wait'll I try the scope." A moment later he turned admiringly
from the instrument.

"Closer to three miles. Pretty good for a green hand."

Crag laughed, a quiet laugh of self-satisfaction, and said, "I could use
a little elbow room. Any volunteers?"

"Liberty call," Prochaska sang out. "All ashore who's going ashore. The
gals are waiting."

"I'm a little tired of this sardine can, myself," Larkwell put in.
"Let's get on our Sunday duds and blow. I'd like to do the town." There
was a murmur of assent. Nagel, who was monitoring the oxygen pressure
gauge, spoke affirmatively. "No leaks."

"Good," Crag said with relief. He took a moment off to feel exultant but
the mood quickly vanished. There was work ahead--sheer drudgery.

"Check suit pressure," he ordered.

They waited a moment longer while they tested pressure, the interphones,
and adjusted to the lack of body weight before Crag moved toward the
hatch. Prochaska prompted them to actuate their temperature controls:

"It's going to be hot out there."

Crag nodded, checked his temperature dial and started to open the hatch.
The lock-lever resisted his efforts for a moment. He tested the dogs
securing the door. Several of them appeared jammed. Panic touched his
mind. He braced his body, moving against one of the lock levers with all
his strength. It gave, then another. He loosened the last lock braced
against the blast of escaping air. The hatch exploded open.

He stood for a moment looking at the ground, some twenty feet below. The
metal framework now crumpled below the tail had done its work. It had
struck, failing, and in doing so had absorbed a large amount of impact
energy which otherwise would have been absorbed by the body of the
rocket with possible damage to the space cabin.

The Aztec's tail fins were buried in what appeared to be a powdery ash.
The rocket was canted slightly but, he thought, not dangerously so.
Larkwell broke out the rope ladder provided for descent and was looking
busy. Now it was his turn to shine. He hooked the ladder over two pegs
and let the other end fall to the ground. He tested it then straightened
up and turned to Crag.

"You may depart, Sire."

Crag grinned and started down the ladder. It was clumsy work. The bulk
and rigidity of his suit made his movements uncertain, difficult. He
descended slowly, testing each step. He hesitated at the last rung,
thinking: _This is it!_ He let his foot dangle above the surface for a
moment before plunging it down into the soft ash mantle, then walked a
few feet, ankle deep in a fine gray powder. First human foot to touch
the moon, he thought. The first human foot ever to step beyond the
world. Yeah, the human race was on the way--led by Adam Philip Crag. He
felt good.

It occurred to him then that he was not the real victor. That honor
belonged to a man 240,000 miles away. Gotch had won the moon. It had
been the opaque-eyed Colonel who had directed the conquest. He, Crag,
was merely a foot soldier. Just one of the troops. All at once he felt
humble.

Prochaska came down next, followed by Nagel. Larkwell was last. They
stood in a half-circle looking at each other, awed by the thing they had
done. No one spoke. They shifted their eyes outward, hungrily over the
plain, marveling at the world they had inherited. It was a bleak,
hostile world encompassed in a bowl whose vast depressed interior
alternately was burned and frozen by turn. To their north the rim of
Arzachel towered ten thousand feet, falling away as it curved over the
horizon to the east and west. The plain to the south was a flat expanse
of gray punctuated by occasional rocky knolls and weird, needle-sharp
pinnacles, some of which towered to awesome heights.

Southeast a long narrow spur of rock rose and crawled over the floor of
the crater for several miles before it dipped again into its ashy bed.
Crag calculated that a beeline to Bandit would just about skirt the
southeast end of the spur. Another rock formation dominated the
middle-expanse of the plain to the south. It rose, curving over the
crater floor like the spinal column of some gigantic lizard--a great
crescent with its horns pointed toward their present position. Prochaska
promptly dubbed it "Backbone Ridge," a name that stuck.

Crag suddenly remembered what he had to do, and coughed meaningfully
into his lip mike. The group fell silent. He faced the distant northern
cliffs and began to speak:

"I, Adam Crag, by the authority vested in me by the Government of the
United States of America, do hereby claim this land, and all the lands
of the moon, as legal territory of the United States of America, to be a
dominion of the United States of America, subject to its Government and
laws."

When he finished, he was quiet for a minute. "For the record, this is
Pickering Field. I think he'd like that," he added. There was a lump in
his throat.

Prochaska said quietly, "Gotch will like it, too. Hadn't we better
record that and transmit it to Alpine?"

"It's already recorded." Crag grinned. "All but the Pickering Field
part. Gotch wrote it out himself."

"Confident bastard." Larkwell smiled. "He had a lot more faith than I
did."

"Especially the way you brought that stovepipe down," Nagel interjected.
There was a moment of startled silence.

Prochaska said coldly. "I hope you do your job as well."

Nagel looked provocatively at him but didn't reply.

Larkwell had been studying the terrain. "Wish Able had made it," he said
wistfully. "I'd like to get started on that airlock. It's going to be a
honey to build."

"Amen." Crag swept his eyes over the ashy surface. "The scientists
figure that falling meteorites may be our biggest hazard."

"Not if we follow the plan of building our airlock in a rill," Larkwell
interjected. "Then the only danger would be from stuff coming straight
down."

"Agreed. But the fact remains that we lost Able. We'll have to chance
living in the Aztec until Drone Baker arrives."

"If it makes it."

"It'll make it," Crag answered with certainty. Their safe landing had
boosted his confidence. They'd land Baker and Charlie, in that order, he
thought. They'd locate a shallow rill; then they'd build an airlock to
protect them against chance meteorites. That's the way they'd do it;
one ... two ... three....

"We've got it whipped," Prochaska observed, but his voice didn't hold
the certainty of his words.

Crag said, "I was wondering if we couldn't assess the danger. It might
not be so great...."

"How?" Prochaska asked curiously.

"No wind, no air, no external forces to disturb the ash mantle, except
for meteorites. Any strike would leave a trace. We might smooth off a
given area and check for hits after a couple of days. That would give
some idea of the danger." He faced Prochaska.

"What do you think?"

"But the ash itself is meteorite dust," he protested.

"We could at least chart the big hits--those large enough to damage the
rocket."

"We'll know if any hit," Larkwell prophesied grimly.

"Maybe not;" Nagel cut in. "Supposing it's pinhole size? The air could
seep out and we wouldn't know it until too late."

Crag said decisively. "That means we'll have to maintain a watch over
the pressure gauge."

"That won't help if it's a big chunk." Prochaska scraped his toe through
the ash. "The possibility's sort of disconcerting."

"Too damned many occupational hazards for me," Larkwell ventured. "I
must have had rocks in my head when I volunteered for this one."

"All brawn and no brain." Crag gave a wry smile. "That's the kind of
fodder that's needed for deep space."

Prochaska said, "We ought to let Gotch know he's just acquired a few
more acres."

"Right." Crag hesitated a moment. "Then we'll check out on Bandit."

"Why?" Larkwell asked.

"There might be some survivors."

"Let them rot," Nagel growled.

"That's for me to decide," Crag said coldly. He stared hard at the
oxygen man. "We're still human."

Nagel snapped, "They're damned murderers."

"That's no reason we should be." Crag turned back toward the ladder.
When he reached it, he paused and looked skyward. The sun was a precise
circle of intolerable white light set amid the ebony of space. The stars
seemed very close.

The space cabin was a vacuum. At Nagel's suggestion they kept pressure
to a minimum to preserve oxygen. When they were out of their suits,
Prochaska got on the radio. He had difficulty raising Alpine Base,
working for several minutes before he got an answering signal. When the
connection was made, Crag moved into Prochaska's place and switched to
his ear insert microphone. He listened to the faint slightly metallic
voice for a moment before he identified it as Gotch's. He thought: _The
Old Man must be living in the radio shack._ He adjusted his headset and
sent a lengthy report.

If Gotch were jubilant over the fruition of his dream, he carefully
concealed it. He congratulated Crag and the crew, speaking in precise
formal terms, and almost immediately launched into a barrage of
questions regarding their next step. The Colonel's reaction nettled him.
Lord, he should be jubilant ... jumping with joy ... waltzing the
telephone gal. Instead he was speaking with a business-as-usual manner.
Gotch left it up to Crag on whether or not to attempt a rescue
expedition.

"But not if it endangers the expedition in any way," he added. He
informed him that Drone Baker had been launched without mishap. "Just
be ready for her," he cautioned. "And again--congratulations,
Commander." There was a pause....

"I think Pickering Field is a fitting name." The voice in the earphones
died away and Crag found himself listening to the static of space. He
pulled the sets off and turned to Nagel.

"How much oxygen would a man need for a round trip to Bandit, assuming a
total distance of seven miles."

"It's not that far," Prochaska reminded.

"There might be detours."

Nagel calculated rapidly. "An extra cylinder would do it."

"Okay, Larkwell and I'll go. You and Prochaska stand by." Crag caught
the surprised look on the Chief's face.

"There might be communication problems," he explained. Privately, he had
decided that no man would be left alone until the mystery of the time
bomb was cleared up.

Prochaska nodded. The arrangement made sense. Nagel appeared pleased
that he didn't have to make the long trek. Larkwell, on the other hand,
seemed glad to have been chosen.



CHAPTER 9


There is no dawn on the moon, no dusk, no atmosphere to catch and spread
the light of the sun. When the lunar night ends--a night two earth weeks
long--the sun simply pops over the horizon, bringing its intolerable
heat. But the sky remains black--black and sprinkled with stars agleam
with a light unknown on earth. At night the temperature is 250 degrees
below zero; by day it is the heat of boiling water. Yet the sun is but
an intense circle of white aloft in a nigrescent sky. It was a world
such as Crag had scarcely dreamed of--alien, hostile, fantastic in its
architecture--a bizarre world spawned by a nature in revolt.

Crag stopped to adjust the temperature control on his suit. He started
to mop his brow before he remembered the helmet. Larkwell saw the
gesture, and behind his thick face plate his lips wrinkled in a grin.
"Go on, scratch it," he challenged.

"This moon's going to take a lot of getting used to." Crag swept his
eyes over the bleak plain. "And they send four men to conquer this."

"It ain't conquered yet," Larkwell spat.

Crag's answer was a sober reflection. "No, it isn't," he said quietly.
He contemplated the soot-filled sky, its magic lanterns, then looked
down again at the plain.

"Let's get moving."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was dawn--dawn in the sense that the sun had climbed above the
horizon. The landing had been planned for sunup--the line which divided
night from day--to give them the benefit of a two-week day before
another instantaneous onslaught of night.

They moved slowly across the ashy floor of the crater, occasionally
circling small knolls or jagged rock outcroppings. Despite the
cumbersome suits and the burden of the extra oxygen cylinder each
carried, they made good time. Crag led the way with Larkwell close
behind, threading his way toward the spot where the enemy rocket had
fallen from the sky. They had to stop several times to rest and regulate
their temperature controls. Despite the protective garments they were
soon sweating and panting, gasping for breath with the feeling of
suffocation. Crag felt the water trickling down his body in rivulets
and began to itch, a sensation that was almost a pain.

"It's not going to be a picnic," Larkwell complained. His voice sounded
exhausted in the earphones.

Crag grunted without answering. His feet ploughed up little spurts of
dust which fell as quickly as they rose. Like water dropping, he
thought. He wondered how long they would be able to endure the heat.
Could they possibly adapt their bodies to such an environment? What of
the cold of night? The questions bothered him. He tried to visualize
what it would be like to plunge from boiling day to the bitterly cold
night within the space of moments. Would they be able to take it? He
grinned to himself. They'd find out!

At the next halt they looked back at the Aztec.

"We don't seem to be getting anywhere," Larkwell observed. Crag
contemplated the rocket. He was right. The ship seemed almost as large
and clear as ever.

"Your eyes trick you," he said. "It's just another thing we'll have to
get used to." He let his eyes linger on the plain. It was washed with a
brilliant light which even their glare shields didn't diminish. Each
rock, each outcrop cast long black shadows--black silhouettes against
the white ash. There were no grays, no intermediate shades. Everything
was either black or white. His eyes began to ache and he turned them
from the scene. He nodded at Larkwell and resumed his trek. He was
trudging head down when he suddenly stopped. A chasm yawned at his feet.

"Mighty wide," Larkwell observed, coming up.

"Yeah," said Crag, indecisively. The rift was about twenty feet wide,
its bottom lost in black shadows.

Larkwell studied the chasm carefully. "Might be just the rill we need
for an airlock. If it's not too deep," he added. He picked up a boulder
and dropped it over the edge, waiting expectantly. Crag chuckled. The
construction man had forgotten that sound couldn't be transmitted
through a vacuum. Larkwell caught the laugh in his earphones and smiled
weakly.

He said sheepishly, "Something else to learn."

"We've plenty to learn." Crag looked both ways. To the right the chasm
seemed to narrow and, although he wasn't sure, end.

"Let's try it," he suggested. Larkwell nodded agreement. They trudged
along the edge of the fissure, walking slowly to conserve their energy.
The plain became more uneven. Small outcroppings of black glassy rock
punctured the ash, becoming more numerous as they progressed. Occasional
saw-toothed needles pierced the sky. Several times they stopped and
looked back at the Aztec. It was a black cylinder, smaller yet seemingly
close.

Crag's guess was right. The chasm narrowed abruptly and terminated at
the base of a small knoll. Both rockets were now hidden by intervening
rocks. He hesitated before striking out, keeping Backbone Ridge to his
right. The ground became progressively more uneven. They trudged onward
for over a mile before he caught sight of the Aztec again. He paused,
with the feeling something was wrong. Larkwell put it into words.

"Lost."

"Not lost, but off course." Crag took a moment to get his bearings and
then struck out again thinking their oxygen supply couldn't stand many
of these mistakes.

"How you doing, Skipper?"

Crag gave a start before remembering that Prochaska and Nagel were cut
into their intercom.

"Lousy," he told them. He gave a brief run-down.

"Just happened to think that I could help guide you. I'll work you with
the scope," Prochaska said.

"Of course," Crag exclaimed, wondering why they hadn't thought of it
before. One thing was certain: they'd have to start remembering a lot
of things. Thereafter, they checked with Prochaska every few minutes.

The ground constantly changed as they progressed. One moment it was
level, dusty with ash; the next it was broken by low rocky ridges and
interlacing chasms. Minutes extended into seeming hours and they had to
stop for rest from time to time. Crag was leading the way across a small
ravine when Larkwell's voice brought him up short:

"Commander, we're forgetting something."

"What?"

"Radcounters. Mine's whispering a tune I didn't like."

"Not a thing to worry about," Crag assured him. "The raw ores aren't
that potent." Nevertheless he unhooked his counter and studied it.
Larkwell was right. They were on hot ground but the count was low.

"Won't bother us a bit," he affirmed cheerfully.

Larkwell's answer was a grunt. Crag checked the instrument several times
thinking that before long--when they were settled--they would mark off
the boundaries of the lode. Gotch would want that. The count rose
slightly. Once he caught Larkwell nervously consulting his meter.
Clearly the construction boss wasn't too happy over their position. Crag
wanted to tell him he had been reading too many Sunday supplements but
didn't.

Prochaska broke in, "You're getting close." His voice was a faint
whisper over the phones. "Maybe you'd better make a cautious approach."

Crag remembered the fate of Drone Able and silently agreed. Thereafter
he kept his eyes peeled. They climbed a small knoll and saw Bandit. He
abruptly halted, waiting until Larkwell reached his side.

The rocket lay at the base of the slope, which fell away before them. It
was careened at a crazy angle with its base crumpled. A wide cleft
running half way to its nose was visible. Crag studied the rocket
carefully.

"Might still be oxygen in the space cabin," he ventured finally. "The
break in the hull might not reach that far."

"It does," Larkwell corrected. His eyes, trained in construction work,
had noted small cracks in the metal extending up alongside the hatch.

"No survivors in there," he grunted.

Crag said thoughtfully: "Might be, if they had on their pressure suits.
And they would have," he added.

He hesitated before striking across the clearing, then began moving down
the slope. Larkwell followed slowly. As he neared the rocket Crag saw
that it lacked any type of failing device to absorb the landing impact.
That, at least, had been one secret kept, he thought. He was wondering
how to get into the space cabin when Larkwell solved the problem. He
drew a thin hemp line from a leg pocket and began uncoiling it. Crag
smiled approval.

"Never without one in the construction business," he explained. He
studied Bandit. "Maybe I can hook it over the top of that busted tail
fin, then work my way up the break in the hull."

"Let me try," Crag offered. The climb looked hazardous.

"This is my province." Larkwell snorted. He ran his eye over the ship
before casting the line. He looked surprised when it shot high above the
intended target point.

"Keep forgetting the low gravity," he apologized. He tried again. On the
third throw he hooked the line over the torn tailfin. He rubbed his
hands against his suit then started upward, climbing clumsily, each
movement exaggerated by the bulky suit. He progressed slowly, testing
each step. Crag held his breath. Larkwell gripped the line with his body
swung outward, his feet planted against the vertical metal, reminding
Crag of a human fly. He stopped to rest just below the level of the
space cabin.

"Thought a man was supposed to be able to jump thirty feet on the moon,"
he panted.

"You can if you peel those duds off," Crag replied cheerfully. He ran
his eye over the break noting the splintered metal. "Be careful of your
suit."

Larkwell didn't answer. He was busy again trying to pull his body
upward, using the break in the hull to obtain finger grips. Only the
moon's low gravity allowed him to perform what looked like an impossible
task. He finally reached a point alongside the hatch and paused,
breathing heavily. He rested a moment, then carefully inserted his hand
into the break in the hull. After a moment he withdrew it, and fumbled
in his leg pocket withdrawing a switchblade knife.

"Got to cut through the lining," he explained. He worked the knife
around inside the break for several minutes, then closed the blade and
reinserted his hand, feeling around until he located the lockbar.

He tugged. It didn't give. He braced his body and exerted all of his
strength. This time it moved. He rested a moment then turned his
attention to the remaining doglocks. In short time he had the hatch
open. Carefully, then, he pulled his body across to the black rectangle
and disappeared inside.

"See anything?" Crag shifted his feet restlessly.

"Dead men." Larkwell's voice sounded relieved over the phones. "Smashed
face plates." There was a long moment of silence. Crag waited
impatiently.

"Just a second," he finally reported. "Looks like a live one." There was
another interval of silence while Crag stewed. Finally he appeared in
the opening with a hemp ladder.

"Knew they had to have some way of getting out of this trap," he
announced triumphantly. He knelt and secured one end to the hatch
combing and let the other end drop to the ground.

Crag climbed to meet him. Larkwell extended a hand and helped him
through the hatch. One glance at the interior of the cabin told him that
any life left was little short of a miracle. The man in the pilot's seat
lay with his faceplate smashed against the instrument panel. The top of
his fiberglass helmet had shattered and the top of his head was a bloody
mess. A second crewman was sprawled over the communication console with
his face smashed into the radarscope. His suit had been ripped from
shoulder to waist and one leg was twisted at a crazy angle. Crag turned
his eyes away.

"Here," Larkwell grunted. He was bent over the third and last crewman,
who had been strapped in a bucket seat immediately behind the pilot.
Crag moved to his side and looked down at the recumbent figure. The
man's suit seemed to have withstood the terrible impact. His helmet
looked intact, and his faceplate was clouded.

Prochaska nodded affirmatively. "Breathing," he said.

Crag knelt and checked the unconscious man as best he could before
finally getting back to his feet.

"It's going to be a helluva job getting him back."

Larkwell's eyes opened with surprise. "You mean we're going to lug that
bastard back to the Aztec?"

"We are."

Larkwell didn't reply. Crag loosened the unconscious man from his
harnessing. Larkwell watched for a while before stooping to help. When
the last straps were free they pulled him close to the edge of the hatch
opening. Crag made a mental inventory of the cabin while Larkwell
unscrewed two metal strips from a bulkhead and laced straps from the
safety harnessing between them, making a crude stretcher.

Crag opened a narrow panel built into the rear bulkhead and
involuntarily whistled into his lip mike. It contained two
short-barreled automatic rifles and a supply of ammunition. Larkwell
eyed the arms speculatively.

"Looks like they expected good hunting," he observed.

"Yeah," Crag grimly agreed. He slammed the metal panel shut and looked
distastefully at the unconscious man. "I've a damned good notion to
leave him here."

"That's what I was thinking."

Crag debated, and finally shrugged his shoulders. "Guess we're elected
as angels of mercy. Well, let's go."

"Yeah, Florence Nightingale Larkwell," the construction boss spat. He
looped a line under the unconscious man's arms and rolled him to the
brink of the opening.

"Ought to shove him out and let him bounce a while," he growled.

Crag didn't answer. He ran the other end of the line around a metal
stanchion and signaled Larkwell to edge the inert figure through the
hatch. Crag let the line out slowly until it became slack. Larkwell
straightened up and leaned against the hatch combing with a foolish look
on his face. Crag took one look at his gaping expression.

"Oxygen," he snapped. Larkwell looked blank. He seized the extra
cylinder from his belt and hooked it into Larkwell's suit, turning the
valve. Larkwell started to sway, and almost fell through the hatch
combing before Crag managed to pull him to safety.

Within moments comprehension dawned on Larkwell's face. Crag quickly
checked his own oxygen. It was low. Too low. The time they had lost
taking the wrong route ... the time taken to open Bandit's hatch ... had
upset Nagel's oxygen calculations. It was something else to remember in
the future. He switched cylinders, then made a rapid calculation. It was
evident they couldn't carry the injured man back with the amount of
oxygen remaining. He got on the interphones and outlined the problem to
Nagel.

"Try one of Bandit's cylinders," he suggested. "They just might fit."

"No go. I've already looked them over." He kicked the problem around in
his mind.

"Here's the routine," he told him. "You start out to meet us with a
couple of extra cylinders. We'll take along a couple of Bandit's spares
to last this critter until you can modify the valves on his suit to fit
our equipment. Prochaska can guide the works. Okay?"

"Roger," Prochaska cut in. Nagel gave an affirmative grunt.

Crag lowered two of Bandit's cylinders and the stretcher to the floor of
the crater, then took a last look around the cabin. Gotch, he knew,
would ask him a thousand technical questions regarding the rocket's
construction, equipment, and provisioning. He filed the mental pictures
away for later analysis and turned to Larkwell.

"Let's go." They descended to the plain and rolled the unconscious
crewman onto the stretcher. Crag grunted as he hoisted his end. It
wasn't going to be easy.

The return trip proved a nightmare. Despite the moon's low surface
gravity--one-sixth that of earth--the stretcher seemed an intolerable
weight pulling at their arms. They trudged slowly toward the Aztec with
Crag in the lead, their feet kicking up little fountains of dust.

Before they had gone half a mile, they were sweating profusely and their
arms and shoulders ached under their burden. Larkwell walked silently,
steadily, but his breath was becoming a hoarse pant in Crag's earphones.
The thought came to Crag that they wouldn't make it if, by any chance,
Nagel failed to meet them. But he can't fail--not with Prochaska guiding
them, he thought.

They reached the end of the rill and stopped to rest. Crag checked his
oxygen meter. Not good. Not good at all, but he didn't say anything to
Larkwell. The construction boss swung his eyes morosely over the plain
and cursed.

"Nine planets and thirty-one satellites in the Solar System and we had
to pick this dog," he grumbled. "Gotch must be near-sighted."

Crag sighed and picked up his end of the stretcher. When Larkwell had
followed suit they resumed their trek. They were moving around the base
of a small knoll when Larkwell's foot struck a pothole in the ash and he
stumbled. He dropped the end of the stretcher in trying to regain his
balance. It struck hard against the ground, transmitting the jolt to
Crag's aching shoulders. He lowered his end of the stretcher, fearful
the plow had damaged the injured man's helmet. Larkwell watched
unsympathetically while he examined it.

"Won't make much difference," he said.

Crag managed a weak grin. "Remember, we're angels of mercy."

"Yeah, carrying Lucifer."

The helmet proved intact. Crag sighed and signaled to move on. They
hoisted the stretcher and resumed their slow trek toward the Aztec.

Crag's body itched from perspiration. His face was hot, flushed and his
heart thudded in his ears. Larkwell's breathing became a harsh rasp in
the interphones. Occasionally Prochaska checked their progress. Crag
thought Nagel was making damned poor time. He looked at his oxygen meter
several times, finally beginning to worry. Larkwell put his fears into
words.

"We'd better drop this character and light out for the Aztec," he
growled. "We're not going to make it this way."

"Nagel should reach us soon."

"Soon won't be soon enough."

"Nagel! Get on the ball," Crag snapped curtly into the interphones.

"Moving right along." The oxygen man's voice was a flat imperturbed
twang. Crag fought to keep his temper under control. Nagel's calm was
maddening. But it was their necks that were in danger. He repressed his
anger, wondering again at the wisdom of trying to save the enemy
crewman. If he lived?

In short time Larkwell was grumbling again. He was on the point of
telling him to shut up when Nagel appeared in the distance. He was
moving slowly, stooped under the weight of the spare oxygen cylinders.
He appeared somewhat like an ungainly robot, moving with mechanical
steps--the movements of a machine rather than a man. Crag kept his eyes
on him. Nagel never faltered, never changed pace. His figure grew
steadily nearer, a dark mechanical blob against the gray ash. Crag
suddenly realized that Nagel wasn't stalling; he simply lacked the
strength for what was expected of him. Somehow the knowledge added to
his despair.

They met a short time later. Nagel dropped his burden in the ash and
squirmed to straighten his body. He looked curiously at the figure in
the stretcher, then at Crag.

"Doesn't make much sense to me," he said critically. "Where are we going
to get the oxygen to keep this bird alive?"

"That's my worry," Crag snapped shortly.

"Seems to me it's mine," Nagel pointed out. "I'm the oxygen man."

Crag probed the voice for defiance. There was none. Nagel was merely
stating a fact--an honest worry. His temper was subsiding when Larkwell
spoke.

"He's right. This bird's a parasite. We ought to heave him in the rill.
Hell, we've got worries enough without...."

"Knock it off," Crag snarled harshly. There was a short silence during
which the others looked defiantly at him.

"Stop the bickering and let's get going," Crag ordered. He felt on the
verge of an explosion, wanted to lash out. Take it easy, he told
himself.

With fresh oxygen and three men the remainder of the trip was easier.
Prochaska was waiting for them. He helped haul the Bandit crewman to the
safety of the space cabin. When it was pressurized they removed their
suits and Crag began to strip the heavy space garments from the injured
man's body. He finished and stepped back, letting him lie on the deck.

They stood in a tight half-circle, silently studying the inert figure.
It was that of an extremely short man, about five feet, Crag judged, and
thin. A thinness without emaciation. His face was pale, haggard and,
like the Aztec crewmen's, covered with stubbly beard. He appeared in his
late thirties or early forties but Crag surmised he was much younger.
His chest rose and fell irregularly and his breathing was harsh. Crag
knelt and checked his pulse. It was shallow, fast.

"I don't know." He got to his feet. "He may have internal injuries ...
or just a bad concussion."

"To hell with him," spat Larkwell.

Prochaska said, "He'll either live or die. In either case there's not
much we can do about it." His voice wasn't callous, just matter-of-fact.
Crag nodded agreement. The Chief turned his back. Crag was brooding over
the possible complications of having an enemy in their midst when his
nostrils caught a familiar whiff. He turned, startled. The Chief was
holding a pot of coffee.

"I did smuggle one small helping," he confessed.

Crag looked thoughtfully at the pot. "I should cite you for a
court-martial. However ..." He reached for the cup the Chief was
extending.

They drank the coffee slowly, savoring each drop, while Larkwell
outlined their next step. It was one Crag had been worrying about.

"As you know, the plans call for living in the Aztec until we can get a
sheltered airlock into operation," Larkwell explained. "To do that we
gotta lower this baby to the horizontal so I can loosen the afterburner
section and clear out the gunk. Then we can get the prime airlock
installed and working. That should give us ample quarters until we can
build the permanent lock--maybe in that rill we passed."

"We got to rush that," Nagel cut in. "Right now we lose total cabin
pressure every time we stir out of this trap. We can't keep it up for
long."

Crag nodded. Nagel was right. The airlock had to be the first order of
business. The plans called for just such a move and, accordingly, the
rocket had been designed with such a conversion in mind. Only it had
been planned as a short-term stopgap--one to be used only until a
below-surface airlock could be constructed. Now that Drone Able had been
lost--

"Golly, what'll we do with all the room?" Prochaska broke in humorously.
He flicked his eyes around the cabin. "Just imagine, we'll be able to
sleep stretched out instead of doubled up in a bucket seat."

Larkwell took up the conversation and they listened while he outlined
the step-by-step procedure. It was his show and they gave him full
stage. He suggested they might be able to use one of Aztec's now useless
servo motors in the task. When he finished, Crag glanced down at the
Bandit crewman. Pale blue eyes stared back at him. Ice-blue, calm, yet
tinged with mockery. They exchanged a long look.

"Feel better?" Crag finally asked, wondering if by any chance he spoke
English.

"Yes, thank you." The voice held the barest suggestion of an accent.

"We brought you to our ship ..." Crag stopped, wondering how to proceed.
After all the man was an enemy. A dangerous one at that.

"So I see." The voice was laconic. "Why?"

"We're human," snapped Crag brutally. The pale blue eyes regarded him
intently.

"I'm Adam Crag, Commander," he added. The Bandit crewman tried to push
himself up on his elbow. His face blanched and he fell back.

"I seem to be a trifle weak," he apologized. He looked at the circle of
faces before his eyes settled back on Crag. "My name is Richter. Otto
Richter."

Prochaska said, "That's a German name."

"I am German."

"On an Iron Curtain rocket?" Nagel asked sarcastically. Richter gave the
oxygen man a long cool look.

"That seems to be the case," he said finally. The group fell silent. It
was Crag's move. He hesitated. When he spoke his tone was decisive.

"We're stuck with you. For the time being you may regard yourself as
confined. You will not be allowed any freedom ... until we decide what
to do with you."

"I understand."

"As soon as we modify the valves on your suit to fit our cylinders we're
going to move you outside." He instructed Nagel to get busy on the
valves, then turned to Larkwell.

"Let's get along with lowering this baby."



CHAPTER 10


"Gordon Nagel?" The professor turned the name over in his mind. "Yes, I
believe I recall him. Let's see, that would have been about...." He
paused, looking thoughtfully into space.

The agent said, "Graduated in '55. One of your honor students."

"Ah, yes, how could I have forgotten?" The Professor folded his hands
across his plump stomach and settled back in his chair.

"I seem to recall him as sort of an intense, nervous type," he said at
last. "Sort of withdrawn but, as you mentioned, quite brilliant. Now
that I think of it--"

He abruptly stopped speaking and looked at the agent with a startled
face.

"You mean the man in the moon?" he blurted.

"Yes, that's the one."

"Ah, no wonder the name sounded so familiar. But, of course, we have so
many famous alumni. Ruthill University prides itself--"

"Of course," the agent cut in.

The professor gave him a hurt look before he began talking again. He
rambled at length. Every word he uttered was taped on the agent's pocket
recorder.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Gordon Nagel, the young man on the moon flight? Why certainly I recall
young Nagel," the high school principal said. "A fine student ... one of
the best." He looked archly at the agent down a long thin nose.

"Braxton High School is extremely proud of Gordon Nagel. Extremely
proud. If I say so myself he has set a mark for other young men to
strive for."

"Of course," the agent agreed.

"This is a case which well vindicates the stress we've put on the
physical and life sciences," the principal continued. "It is the
objective of Braxton High School to give every qualified student the
groundwork he needs for later academic success. That is, students with
sufficiently high I.Q.," he added.

"Certainly, but about Gordon Nagel...?"

"Yes, of course." The principal began to speak again. The agent relaxed,
listening. He didn't give a damn about the moon but he was extremely
interested in the thirty some years of Nagel's life preceding that trip.
Very much so. He left the school thinking that Nagel owed quite a lot to
Braxton High. At least the principal had inferred as much.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Yes, I did go with Gordon for a while," Mrs. LeRoy Farwell said. "But
of course it was never serious. Just an occasional school dance or
something. He might be famous but, well, frankly he wasn't my type. He
was an awful drip." Her eyes brushed the agent's face meaningfully.

"I like 'em live, if you know what I mean."

"Certainly, Mrs. Farwell," the agent said gravely. "But about Nagel...?"

There were many people representing three decades of contact with Gordon
Nagel. Some of them recalled him only fleetingly. Others rambled at
length. Odd little entries came to life to fit into the dossier.
Photographs and records were exhumed. Gordon Nagel ... Gordon Nagel....

The file on Gordon Nagel grew.

       *       *       *       *       *

Colonel Michael Gotch didn't like the idea of an addition to the Aztec
crew. Didn't like it at all. He informed Crag that the rescue had been
entirely unnecessary. Unrealistic, was the word he had used. He was
extremely interested in the fact that Bandit housed an arsenal. He
suggested, in view of Drone Able's loss, they shouldn't overlook
Bandit's supplies.

"Especially as you have another mouth to feed," he said blandly.

Crag agreed. He didn't say so but he had already planned just such a
move. The Colonel immediately launched into a barrage of questions
concerning the crashed rocket. He seemed grieved when Crag couldn't
supply answers down to the last detail.

"Look," Crag finally exploded, "give us time ... time. We just got here.
Remember?"

"Yes ... yes, I know. But the information is vital," Gotch said firmly.
"I would appreciate it if you would try...."

Crag cursed and snapped the communicator off.

"What's wrong? The bird colonel heckling you?"

"Hounding is the word," Crag corrected. He fixed the Chief with a
baleful eye and uttered an epithet with regard to the Colonel's
ancestry. Prochaska chuckled.

Larkwell quickly demonstrated that he knew the Aztec inside and out far
better than did any of the others. Aside from several large cables
supplied expressly for the purpose of lowering the rocket, he obtained
the rest of the equipment needed from the ship.

Under his direction two winches were set up about thirty yards from the
ship and a cable run to each to form a V-line. A second line ran from
each winch to a nearby shallow gully. Heavy weights--now useless parts
of the ship's engines--were fastened to these and buried. The lines were
intended to anchor the winches during the critical period of lowering
the rocket. Finally Larkwell ran a guide line from the Aztec's nose to a
third winch. This one was powered by an electric motor which was powered
by the ship's batteries.

While Larkwell and Nagel prepared to lower the rocket Crag smoothed off
an area of the plain's surface and marked off a twenty-foot square. He
finished and looked at his handiwork with satisfaction. Richter's eyes
were filled with interest.

"Using it to chart the frequency of meteorite falls," Crag explained.
"We'd like to get an idea of the hazard."

"Plenty," Richter said succinctly. He started to add more and stopped.
Crag felt the urge to pump him but refrained. The least he became
involved the better, he thought. It didn't escape him that the German
seemed to have recovered to a remarkable extent. Well, that was
something else to remember. Richter injured was one thing. But Richter
recovered ...

He snapped the thought off and turned toward the base of the rocket,
indicating that the German should follow. Larkwell was testing the
winches and checking the cables when they arrived.

"About ready," he told Crag.

"Then let her go."

The construction boss nodded and barked a command to Prochaska and
Nagel, who were manning the restraining winches. When they acknowledged
they were ready he strode to the power winch.

"Okay." His voice was a terse crack in the interphones. The Aztec
shuddered on its base, teetering, then its nose began to cant downward.
It moved slowly in an arc across the sky.

"Take up," Larkwell barked into the mike. The guide lines tautened.

"Okay."

This time Prochaska and Nagel fed line through the winches more slowly.
The nose of the rocket had passed through sixty degrees of arc when its
tail began to inch backward, biting into the plain.

"Hold up!" Larkwell circled the rocket and approached the tailfins from
one side. He looked up at the body of the ship, then back at the base.
Satisfied it would hold he ordered the winches started. The nose moved
slowly toward the ground, swaying slightly from side to side. In another
moment it lay on its belly on the plain.

"Now the real work begins," Larkwell told Crag. "We gotta clean
everything out of that stovepipe and get the airlock rigged." His voice
was complaining but his face indicated the importance he attached to the
job.

"How long do you figure it'll take?"

Larkwell rubbed his faceplate thoughtfully. "About two days, with some
catnaps and some help."

"Good." Crag looked thoughtfully at Richter. "Any reason you can't
help?" he asked sharply.

"None at all," Richter answered solemnly.

While Larkwell and Nagel labored in the tail section, Crag and
Prochaska rearranged the space cabin. The chemical commode was placed in
one corner and a nylon curtain rigged around it--their one concession to
civilization. Crag was conscious of Richter's eyes following
them--weighing, analyzing, speculating. He caught himself swiveling
around at odd times to check on him, but Richter seemed unconcerned.

Electric power from the batteries was limited. For the most part they
would be living on space rations--food concentrates supplemented with
vitamin pills--and a square of chocolate daily per man. Later, when the
airlock was installed in the area now occupied by the afterburners and
machinery, they would be able to appreciably extend their living
quarters. Until then, Crag thought wryly, they would live like
sardines--with an enemy in their midst. An enemy and a saboteur, he
mentally corrected. Aside from that there was the constant danger from
meteorite falls. He shook his head despairingly. Life on the moon wasn't
all it could be. Not by a damn sight.

Nagel was becoming perturbed over their oxygen consumption. He had set
up the small tanks containing algae in a nutrient solution, tending them
like a mother hen. In time, if the cultivation were successful, the
small algae farm would convert the carbon dioxide from their respiration
into oxygen. At the present time the carbon dioxide was being absorbed
by chemical means. As things stood, it was necessary for the entire crew
to don spacesuits every time one of them left the cabin. Each time the
cabin air was lost in the vacuum of the moon. Crag pointed out there was
no alternative until the airlock was completed, a fact which didn't keep
Nagel from complaining.

       *       *       *       *       *

Otto Richter recovered fast. Before another day had passed--the Aztec
continued to operate by earth clock--he seemed to have completely
recovered. It was evident that concussion and shock had been the extent
of his injuries. Crag didn't know whether to be sorry or glad, he
didn't, in fact, know what to do with the man. He gave firm orders that
Richter was never to be left alone--not for a moment.

He told him: "You will not be allowed in the area of any of the
electronic equipment. First time you do ..." He looked meaningfully at
him.

"I understand," the German said. Thereafter, except for occasional trips
to the commode, or to help with work, he kept to the corner of the space
cabin allotted him.

Larkwell came up for the evening meal wearing a grim look. He extended
his hand toward Crag, holding a jagged chunk of rock nearly the size of
a baseball.

Crag took the hunk and hefted it thoughtfully. "Meteorite?" The others
clustered around.

"Yeah. I saw a hole in that cleared off section and reached down. There
she was, big as life."

"If that had hit this pipe we'd be dead ducks," Prochaska observed.

"But it didn't hit," Crag corrected, trying to allay any gathering
nervousness. "It just means that we're going to have to get going on the
rill airlock as soon as possible."

"How will loss of Able affect that?" Nagel asked curiously.

"Only in the matter of size," Crag explained. "The possible loss of a
drone was taken into account. The plastiblocks are constructed to make
any size shelter possible. We'll start immediately when Baker lands." He
looked thoughtfully at the men. "Let's not borrow any trouble."

"Yeah, there's plenty without borrowing any more," Prochaska agreed. He
smiled cheerfully. "I vote we all stop worrying and eat."

Another complication arose. Drone Baker would be in orbit the following
morning. Prochaska had to be prepared to bring it down. He was busy
moving his equipment into one compact corner opposite the commode. He
rigged a curtain around it, partly for privacy but mainly to mark off a
definite area prohibited to Richter.

The communicator was becoming another problem that harried Crag. A
government geologist wanted a complete description of Arzachel's rock
structure. A space medicine doctor had a lot of questions about the
working of the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange system. Someone else--Crag
was never quite sure who--wanted an exact description of how the Aztec
had handled during letdown. In the end he got on the communicator and
curtly asked for Gotch.

"Keep these people off our backs until we land Drone Baker," he told
him. "It's not headquarters for some damned quiz program."

"You're big news," Gotch placated. "What you tell us will help with
future rockets."

"Like a mineral description of the terrain?"

"Even that. But cheer up, Commander. The worst is yet to come." He broke
off before Crag could snap a reply. Prochaska grinned at his
discomfiture.

"That's what comes of being famous," he said. "We're wheels."

"A wheel on the moon." Crag looked questioningly at him. "Is that good?"

"Damned if I know. I haven't been here long enough."

       *       *       *       *       *

Crag was surprised to see how rapidly work in the tail section was
progressing. Larkwell had loosened the giant engines and fuel tanks and
pulled them from the ship with power from one of the rocket's servo
motors. They lay on the dusty floor of the plain, incongruous in their
new setting. He thought it a harbinger of things to come. A rocket
garage on the floor of barren Arzachel. Four men attempting to build an
empire from the hull of a space ship. In time it would be replaced by an
airlock in a rill ... a military base ... a domed city. Pickering Field
would become a transportation center, perhaps the hub of the Solar
System's transportation empire. First single freighters, then ore
trains, would travel the highways of space between earth mother and her
long separated child. He sighed. The ore trains were a long way in the
future.

Larkwell crawled out from the cavern he had hollowed in the hull and
stretched. "Time for chow," he grunted. His voice over the interphones
sounded tired. Nagel followed him looking morose. He didn't acknowledge
Crag's presence.

At evening by earth clock they ate their scant fare. They were unusually
silent. The Chief seemed weary from his long vigil on the scope.
Larkwell's face was sweaty, smudged with grease. He ate quickly, with
the air of a man preoccupied with weighty problems. Nagel was clearly
bushed. Larkwell's fast pace had been too much for him. He wore a cross,
irritable expression and avoided all conversation. Richter sat alone,
seemingly unconcerned that he was a virtual prisoner, confined to one
small corner of the cabin barely large enough to provide sleeping space.
Crag had no feelings where he was concerned, neither resentment nor
sympathy. The German was just a happenstance, a castaway in the war for
Arzachel. Or, more probable, he thought, the war for the moon.

After chow the men took turns shaving with the single razor. It had been
supplied only because of the need to keep the oxygen ports in the
helmets free and to keep the lip mikes clear.

"Pure luxury," Prochaska said when his turn came. "Nothing's too good
for the spaceman."

"Amen," Crag agreed. "I hope the next crew is going to get a bar of
soap."

"For their sake I hope they pick something better than this crummy
planet," Larkwell grunted.

       *       *       *       *       *

Drone Baker had entered the moon's gravisphere at the precise time
spelled out by the earth computers. Its speed had dropped to a mere two
hundred miles per hour. It began to accelerate, pulled by the moon,
moving in a vast trajectory calculated to put it into a closing orbit
around the barren satellite. Prochaska picked it up and followed it on
the scope. Telemeter control from Alpine fired the first braking
rockets. The blast countered the moon's pull. Drone Baker was still a
speck on the scope--a solitary traveler rushing toward them through the
void.

"Seems incredible it took us that long," Crag mused, studying the
instrument panel. He reached over and activated the analog. Back on
earth saucers with faces lifted to the skies were tracking the drone's
flight. Their information was channeled into computer batteries,
integrated, analyzed, and sent back into space. The wave train ended in
a gridded scope--the analog Crag was viewing.

"Seemed a damned lot shorter when we were up there," he speculated
aloud.

"That's one experience that really telescopes time," the Chief agreed.
"I'd hate to have to sweat it out again."

"When do we take over?"

Prochaska glanced at the master chrono. "Not till 0810, give or take a
few minutes. It depends on the final computations from Alpine."

"Better catch some sleep," Crag suggested. "It's going to be touchy once
we get hold of it."

"We'll be damn lucky if we get it down in Arzachel."

"We'd better." Crag grinned. "Muff this and we might as well take out
lunar citizenship."

"No thanks. Not interested."

"What's the matter, Max, no pioneer spirit?"

"Go to hell," Prochaska answered amiably.

"Now, Mr. Prochaska, that's no way to speak to your commanding officer,"
Crag reproved with mock severity.

"Okay. Go to hell, Sir," he joked.

Richter was a problem. Someone had to be awake at all times. Crag
decided to break the crew into watches, and laid out a tentative
schedule. He would take the first watch, Larkwell would relieve him at
midnight, and Nagel would take over at 0300. That way Prochaska would
get a full night's sleep. He would need steady nerves come morning. He
outlined the schedule to the crew. Neither Larkwell nor Nagel appeared
enthusiastic over the prospect of initiating a watch regime, but neither
protested openly.

When the others were asleep, Crag cut off the light to preserve battery
power. He studied the lunar landscape out the port, thinking it must be
the bleakest spot in the universe. He twisted his head and looked
starward. The sky was a grab bag of suns. Off to one side giant Orion
looked across the gulf of space at Taurus and the Pleiades, the seven
daughters of Atlas.



CHAPTER 11


"Commander!" Crag came to with a start Prochaska was leaning over him.
Urgency was written across his face.

"Come quick!" The Chief stepped back and motioned with his head toward
the instrument corner. Crag sprang to his feet with a sense of alarm.
Richter and Larkwell were still asleep. He glanced at the master chrono,
0610, and followed him into the electronics corner. Nagel was standing
by the scope, a frightened look on his face.

"What's up?"

"Nagel woke me at six. I came in to get ready for Drone Baker ...."

"Get to the point," Crag snapped irritably.

"Sabotage." He indicated under the panel. "All the wiring under the main
console's been slashed."

Crag felt a sense of dread. "How long will it take to make repairs?"

"I don't know--don't know the full extent of the damage."

"Find out," Crag barked. "How about the communicator?"

"Haven't tried it," Prochaska admitted. "I woke you up as soon as I
found what had happened." He reached over and turned a knob. After a few
seconds a hum came from the console. "Works," he said.

"See how quickly you can make repairs," Crag ordered. "We've got to hook
onto the drone pretty quick."

He swung impatiently toward Nagel. "Was anyone up during your watch? Did
anyone go to the commode?"

Nagel said defensively: "No, and I was awake all the time." Too
defensive, Crag thought. But no one had stirred during his watch.
Therefore, the sabotage had occurred between midnight and the time Nagel
wakened Prochaska. But, wait ... Prochaska could have done the sabotage
in the few moments he was at the console after Nagel woke him. It would
have taken just one quick slash--the work of seconds. That left him in
the same spot he'd been in with regard to the time bomb.

He grated harshly at Nagel: "Wake Larkwell and get on with the airlock.
And don't chatter about what's happened," he added.

"I won't," Nagel promised nervously. He retreated as if glad to be rid
of Crag's scrutiny.

"A lousy mess," Prochaska grunted.

Crag didn't answer.

"If we don't solve this, we're going to wind up dead," he pursued.

Crag turned and faced him. "It could be anybody. You ... me."

"Yeah, I know." The Chief's face got a hard tight look. "Only it
isn't ... it isn't me."

"I don't know that," Crag countered.

Prochaska said bitterly: "You'd better find out."

"I will," Crag said shortly. He got on the communicator. It took several
minutes to raise Alpine. He wasn't surprised when Gotch answered, and
briefly related what had happened.

"Is there any possibility of telemetering her all the way in?" He knew
there wasn't, but he asked anyway.

"Impossible."

"Okay, well try and make it from here."

The Colonel added a few comments. They were colorful but definitely not
complimentary. He got the distinct impression the Colonel wasn't pleased
with events on the moon. When his cold voice faded from the
communicator, Crag tried the analog. The grid scope came to life but it
was blank. Of course, he thought, Drone Baker was cut off from earth by
the body of the moon. It could not be simulated on the analog until it
came from behind the blind side where the earth saucers could track its
flight.

"Morning," Larkwell said, sticking his head around the curtain. "How
about climbing into your suits so we can get out of this can?" Crag
studied his face. It seemed void of any guile. Nagel stood nervously
behind him.

"Okay," Crag said shortly. He hated to have Prochaska lose the precious
moments. They hurriedly donned their suits and Nagel decompressed the
cabin, Larkwell opened the hatch and they left. Crag closed it after
them and released fresh oxygen into the cabin. Richter took off his suit
and returned to his corner. His eyes were bright with interest. He
knows, Crag thought.

At 0630 the communicator came to life. A voice at the other end gave
Drone Baker's position and velocity as if nothing had happened. The
drone, on the far side of the moon, was decelerating, dropping as servo
mechanisms operating on timers activated its blasters. It was guided
solely by the radio controlled servos, following a flight path
previously determined by banks of computers. Everything was in apple-pie
order, except for the snafu in Arzachel, Crag thought bitterly.

Prochaska worked silently, swiftly. Crag watched with a helpless
feeling. There wasn't room for both of them to work at one time. The
Chief's head and arms literally filled the opening of the sabotaged
console. Once he snapped for more light and Crag beamed a torch over his
shoulder, fretting from the inaction.

Sounds came through the rear bulkhead where Larkwell and Nagel were
working in the tail section. Strange, Crag thought, to all appearances
each crew member was a dedicated man. But one was a traitor. Which one?
That's what he had to find out. Richter would have been the logical
suspect were it not for the episode of the time bomb. No, it hadn't been
the German. It was either the competent Prochaska, the sullen Nagel or
the somehow cheerful but inscrutable Larkwell. But there should be a
clue. If only he knew what to look for. Well, he'd find it. When he
did ... He clenched his fists savagely.

At 0715 Alpine simulated the drone on the analog. Fifteen minutes later
Prochaska pulled his head from the console and asked Crag to try the
scope. It worked.

"Now if I can get those damn wires that control the steering and braking
rockets ..." He dived back into the console. Crag looked at the chrono,
then swung his eyes to the instruments. Drone Baker was coming in fast.
The minutes ticked off. The communicator came to life with more data.
Baker was approaching Ptolemaeus on its final leg. The voice cut off and
Gotch came on.

"We're ready to transfer control."

Prochaska shook his head negatively without looking up.

"What's the maximum deadline?" Crag asked.

"0812, exactly three minutes, ten seconds," Gotch rasped. Prochaska
moved his head to indicate maybe. The communicator was silent. Crag
watched the master chrono.

At 0812 Prochaska was still buried in the panel. Crag's dismay
grew--dismay and a sense of guilt over the sabotage. Gotch had warned
him against the possibility innumerable times. Now it had happened. The
loss of Drone Able had been a bad blow; the loss of Baker could be
fatal, not only to the success of their mission but to their survival.

Survival meant an airlock and the ability to live on their scant
supplies until Arzachel was equipped to handle incoming rockets on a
better-than-chance basis. Well, one thing at a time, he thought. He
suppressed the worry nagging at his mind. Just now it was Drone Baker's
turn at bat.

At 0813 Prochaska sprang to his feet and nodded. Crag barked an okay
into the communicator while the Chief got his bearings on the
instruments. Crag hoped the lost minute wouldn't be fatal. By 0814
Prochaska had the drone under control. It was 90,000 feet over Alphons
traveling at slightly better than a thousand miles per hour. He hit the
braking rockets hard.

"We're not going to make it," he gritted. He squinted his eyes. His face
was set, grim.

"Hold it with full braking power."

"Not sufficient fuel allowance."

"Then crash it as close as possible."

Prochaska nodded and moved a control full over. The drone's braking
rockets were blasting continuously. Crag studied the instruments. It was
going to be close. By the instrument data they couldn't make it. Drone
Baker seemed doomed. It was too high, moving too fast despite the lavish
waste of braking power. His hand clenched the back of Prochaska's seat.
He couldn't tear his eyes from the scope. Baker thundered down.

Suddenly the drone was on them. It cleared the north rim of Arzachel at
3,000 feet. Too high, Crag half-whispered. The difference lay in the
lost minute. Prochaska pushed and held the controls. Crag pictured the
rocket, bucking, vibrating, torn by the conflict of energies within its
fragile body.

Prochaska fingered the steering rockets and pushed the drone's nose
upward. Crag saw it through the port. It rushed through space in a
skidding fashion before it began to move upward from the face of the
moon. Prochaska hit the braking jets with full power. Crag craned his
head to follow its flight. Out of one corner of his eye he saw Nagel and
Larkwell on the plain, their helmeted heads turned skyward. He scrunched
his face hard against the port and caught the drone at the top of its
climb.

It was a slender needle with light glinting on its tail--the Sword of
Damocles hanging above their heads. It hung ... suspended in space ...
then began backing down, dropping stern first with flame and white vapor
pouring from its tail jets. It came fast. Occasional spurts from radial
jets around its nose kept its body perpendicular to the plain. Vapor
from the trail fluffed out hiding the body of the rocket. The flame
licked out while the rocket was still over a hundred feet in the air.

Prochaska cursed softly. The rocket seemed riveted to the black sky for
a fraction of a second before it began to fall. Faster ... faster. It
smashed into the lunar surface, lost from sight.

"Exit Baker," Prochaska said woodenly. Quietly Crag got on the
communicator and reported to Gotch. There was a brief silence when he
had finished.

Finally Gotch said, "Drone Charlie will be launched on schedule. We'll
have to reassess our logistics, though. Maybe we'd better knock off the
idea of the airlock-in-the-gully idea and shoot along extra oxygen and
supplies instead. How does the meteorite problem look?"

"Lousy," said Crag irritably. "We've had a scary near miss. I wouldn't
bet on being able to survive too long in the open. Again there was a
silence.

"You'll have to," Gotch said slowly, "unless you can salvage Baker's
cargo."

"We'll check that."

"You might investigate the possibility of covering the Aztec with ash."

"Sure ... sure," Crag broke in. "Good idea. I'll have the boys break out
the road grader immediately."

"Don't be facetious," Gotch reprimanded. "We have a problem to work
out."

"You're telling me!"

"In the meantime, try and clean up that other situation."

By "other situation" Crag knew he was referring to the sabotage. Sure,
be an engineer, intelligence agent, spaceman and superman, all rolled
into one. He wrinkled his face bitterly. Still he had to admire the
Colonel's tenacity. He was a man determined to conquer the moon.

"Will do," Crag said finally. "In the meantime we'll look Baker over.
There might be some salvage."

"Do that," the Colonel said crisply. He cut off.



CHAPTER 12


"Max Prochaska was a real well-liked boy," Mrs. Arthur Bingham said
firmly, "friendly with everyone in town. Of course, Vista was just a
small place then," she added reminiscently. "Not like now, especially
since the helicopter factory moved in. I do declare, a soul wouldn't
recognize the place any longer, with all the housing tracts and the new
supermarket--"

"Certainly," the agent interjected, "but about Max Prochaska."

"Yes, of course." Mrs. Bingham bit her lip reflectively. "My husband
always said Max would go places. I wish he could have lived to see it."
For just a moment her eyes brimmed wetly, then she blew her nose, wiping
them in the process. The agent waited until she had composed herself.

"Little Max--I always think of him as Little Max," she explained--"was
smart and pleasant, real well liked at school. And he _always_ attended
church." She stressed the word always.

"Just think, now they say he's on the moon." Her eyes fixed the agent
with interest "You'd think he'd get dizzy."

       *       *       *       *       *

The agent almost enjoyed tracing Max Prochaska's history, it was a neat,
wrapped-up job, one that moved through a regular sequence. Teacher ...
minister ... family doctor ... druggist ... scoutmaster ... athletic
director--all the ties a small-town boy makes and retains. Everything
was clear-cut, compact. Records, deeds, acquaintances--all in one handy
package. The memory of a man who grew up in a small town persisted,
borne in the minds of people whose worlds were small. The Vista paper
had obligingly carried Prochaska's biography, right on the front page,
under the headline: VISTAN LANDS ON MOON. The leading local drugstore
was featuring a Prochaska sundae and the Mayor of the town had
proclaimed MAX PROCHASKA week.

Clearly, Vista was proud of its native son, but not nearly as proud as
the elderly couple who still tended a chicken ranch on the outskirts of
town.

"Max is a good boy," Mrs. Prochaska said simply. Her husband beamed
agreement.

On the surface, Prochaska's record seemed clean--a good student,
well-liked, the usual array of girls, and nothing much in the way of
peccadillos you could hang a hat on. The agent's last view of the town
was a sign at the city limits: VISTA--THE HOME OF MAX PROCHASKA.

       *       *       *       *       *

Drone Baker looked a complete loss. It had smashed tail down onto the
ash covered plain about four miles to the southeast of the Aztec, off
the eastern lip of the curved crescent Prochaska had dubbed "Backbone
Ridge."

Crag calculated that the positions of Bandit, the drone and their own
rocket roughly formed an equilateral triangle on the floor of the
crater. The lower section of the rocket was crushed, its hull split
lengthwise.

Crag and Larkwell studied the scene from a small knoll. The drone lay in
a comparatively level area about thirty feet from the edge of a deep
fissure, careened at a steep angle from the vertical. Only its tail
imbedded into the ground kept it from toppling.

"Might as well have a closer look," Larkwell said finally. Crag nodded
and beckoned Richter, who was waiting at the bottom of the knoll. Since
the sabotage incident he had split the crew into two sections which
varied according to task. Richter was used by either section as needed.
It wasn't an arrangement that Crag liked but he didn't feel it wise, or
safe, to allow anyone the privilege of privacy.

Richter circled the base of the knoll and met them. When they reached
the rocket, Larkwell circled it several times, studying it from all
angles.

"We might come out pretty well," he said finally. His voice carried a
dubious note. He lifted his head and contemplated the rocket again.
"Maybe some of the cargo rode through."

"We hope," Crag said.

"I wouldn't bank too much on it."

"Think we might get inside?"

Larkwell said decisively: "Not this boy. Not until we pull the nose
down. This baby's ready to topple."

They were discussing their next move when Prochaska came in on the
interphone: "Alpine wants the dope on Baker."

Damn Alpine, Crag thought moodily. He contemplated the rocket. "Tell 'em
it's still here." All at once he felt depressed. Strain, he told
himself. Since blast-off his life had been a succession of climaxes,
each a little rougher than the one preceding. Not that he was alone in
his reactions. His mind switched to Nagel. The oxygen man had become
sullen, irritable, almost completely withdrawn from the group. He was,
Crag thought, a lonely, miserable man. Even Larkwell was beginning to
show the affects of their struggle to survive. His normal easygoing
manner was broken by periods of surliness. Only Prochaska had managed to
maintain his calm approach to life, but the effects were telling
physically. His face was a mask of parchment drawn tightly over bone,
accentuating his tired hollow eyes.

But Richter seemed to be thriving. Why not? He was a doomed man given a
fresh reprieve on life, with no responsibilities to burden his
existence. He was on a gravy train for the time being. Still, Richter
was in an unenviable spot. Nagel was openly hostile toward him. His
demeanor and looks were calculated to tell the German he was an
undesirable intruder. Larkwell's attitude was one of avoidance. He
simply acted as if the German were not on the moon. When in the course
of work it became necessary to give Richter an order, he did it with a
short surly bark. Prochaska concealed whatever feeling he had toward the
German. No, he thought, Richter's lot wasn't easy.

He tried to push the mood aside. It wouldn't push. He checked his
oxygen, and decided to swing over to Bandit before returning. The
sooner they got started on the salvage job, the better. He communicated
his plan to the others.

Larkwell protested, "Getting ready to open this baby's more important.
We'll never get started on the airlock fooling around this god forsaken
desert."

"Well get to that, too," Crag promised, fighting to keep his temper
under control. "By going from here we'll save a couple of miles over
having to make a special trip."

"Suit yourself," the construction boss said truculently.

Crag nodded stiffly and started toward the enemy rocket, now lost to
view behind intervening rock formations. By unspoken agreement Larkwell
fell in at the rear, leaving Richter sandwiched between them. The German
lived constantly under the scrutiny of one or another of the crew. Crag
intended to keep it that way.

The trip was more difficult than he had anticipated. Twice they were
forced to detour around deep fissures. Before they had gone very far
Crag's radiation counter came to life. He made a note of the spot
thinking that later they would map the boundaries of the radioactive
area. Once or twice he checked his course with Prochaska. His oxygen
meter told him they would have to hurry when they topped a low knoll of
glazed rock and came upon the ship.

He stopped and turned, watching Richter. If he had expected any show of
emotion he was disappointed. His face was impassive. It gave Crag the
feeling that he wasn't really seeing the rocket--that he was looking far
beyond, into nothingness. His eyes behind the face plate were vacuous
pools.

"We didn't have time to bury your companions," Crag said
matter-of-factly. He indicated the rocket with a motion of his head and
his voice turned cruel:

"They're still in there."

Richter's expression remained unchanged. "It doesn't make much
difference here," he said finally. He turned and faced Crag.

"One thing you should understand. They," he swept his arm toward Bandit,
"were the military."

"And you?"

Richter said stiffly: "I am a scientist."

"Who destroyed our drone thinking it was us." They faced each other
across the bleak lunar desert. The German's eyes had become blue
fires--azure coals leaping into flame.

"It makes no difference what you think," he said after a moment. "My
conscience is clear."

"Nuts." Larkwell spat the word with disgust. Richter shrugged and turned
back toward the rocket. Crag looked at him with varying emotions. One
thing was sure, he thought. Richter was a cool customer. He had seen new
depths in his blue eyes when they had faced each other. They were hard
eyes, ablaze with ice ... the eyes of a fanatic--or a saint. He pushed
the thought aside.

Prochaska came in on the phones to inquire about their oxygen. Crag
checked, chagrined to find that it was too low to spend more than a few
minutes at the rocket. He opened the arms locker, thinking he would have
to get rid of the weapons. They could be dangerous in the wrong hands.
He had been unable to carry them back the first trip. Then he had
regarded them as something totally useless on the moon. Now he wasn't so
sure.

He hurriedly studied the space cabin, seeking the information Gotch had
requested. The floor and walls were heavily padded with some foam
material--standard procedure to absorb vibration and attenuate noise.
Aside from the controls, there were no projecting metal surfaces or hard
corners ... the view ports were larger ... acceleration pads smaller,
thicker. All in all, the cabins of the two rockets were quite similar.
He was examining the contents of the supply cabinets when Larkwell
reminded him of their diminishing oxygen supply. They hurriedly
plundered Bandit of six oxygen cylinders and started back across
Arzachel's desolate plain.

       *       *       *       *       *

Crag arbitrarily broke the lunar day into twenty-four hour periods to
correspond with earth time. Twelve hours were considered as "day," the
remaining time as "night." He set up regular communication periods in
order to schedule their activities. Under the arrangement Alpine came in
promptly at exactly a half-hour before breakfast--0500 by earth
clock--and again following the evening meal. Prochaska monitored the
channel during the workday to cover possible urgent messages. The
schedule allowed a twelve-hour work period during the day and a
three-hour work period following the evening meal, from 7:00 to 10:00.
The communication periods quickly deteriorated into routine sessions--a
good omen to Crag--but Gotch kept his finger in the pie. Crag had the
satisfaction of knowing he was available around the clock. Consequently,
when the communicator came to life midway through the regular
twelve-hour work period, he knew something was brewing--something he
wasn't going to like. So did Prochaska. His voice, when he called Crag
to the communicator, spelled trouble.

Crag used the ear microphones for privacy and acknowledged the call with
a distinct feeling of unease. As he had expected, the caller was Gotch.

"Drone Charlie was launched at 0600," he told Crag. "We'll feed you the
data on the regular channels." There was a brief silence. "This one's
got to make it," he added significantly.

Crag said stonily: "We'll do our best."

"I know you will, Commander. I have absolutely no fear on that score.
How's everything going?" The twangy voice across the abyss of space took
on a solicitous tone that set his nerves on edge. Something's
wrong--something bad, he thought. The Colonel sounded like a doctor
asking a dying patient how he felt.

"Okay, everything seems in hand. We've got the ship in good shape and
Larkwell thinks we might fare pretty well with the drone. It might be in
better shape than we first thought."

"Good, good, glad to hear it. We need a silver lining once in a while,
eh?"

"Yeah, but I'm fairly certain you didn't call just to cheer me up," Crag
said dryly. "What's on your mind?" The silence came again, a little
longer this time.



CHAPTER 13


"You're in trouble." Gotch spoke like a man carefully choosing his
words. "Intelligence informs us that another rocket's been fired from
east of the Caspian. BuNav's got a track on it."

Crag waited.

"There are two possibilities," Gotch continued. "The first and most
logical assumption is that it's manned. We surmise that from the fact
that their first manned rocket was successful--that is, as far as
reaching the moon is concerned. The assumption is further borne out by
its trajectory and rate of acceleration." His voice fell off.

"And the second possibility?" Crag prompted.

"Warhead," Gotch said succinctly. "Intelligence informs us that the
enemy is prepared to blow Arzachel off the face of the moon if they fail
to take it over. And they have failed--so far." Crag tossed the idea
around in his mind.

He said fretfully, "I doubt if they could put a warhead down on
Arzachel. That takes some doing. Hell, it's tough enough to monitor one
in from here, let alone smack from earth."

"I think you're right, but they can try." Gotch's voice became brisk.
"Here's the dope as we see it. We think the rocket contains a landing
party for the purpose of establishing a moon base. In Arzachel,
naturally, because that's where the lode is."

"More to the point, you expect an attack on Pickering Base," Crag
interjected.

"Well, yes, I think that is a reasonable assumption...."

Crag weighed the information. Gotch was probably right. A nuclear
explosion on the moon would be detected on earth. That was the dangerous
course--the shot that could usher in World War III and perhaps a new
cave era.

Attack by a landing party seemed more logical. They batted ideas back
and forth. The Colonel suggested that just before the landing phase of
Red Dog--the code name assigned the new rocket--Crag post armed guards
at some point covering the Aztec.

"Might as well get some use out of Bandit's automatic weapons," Gotch
dryly concluded.

Crag disagreed. He didn't think it likely that any attack would take the
form of a simple armed assault. "That would give us time to get off a
message," he argued. "They can't afford that."

Gotch pointed out that neither could they launch a missile while still
in space. "A homing weapon couldn't differentiate between Aztec, Baker
and Bandit," he said.

"But they'd still have to have some sure fire quick-kill method," Crag
insisted.

"You may be right. Have you a better plan?"

Crag did, and outlined it in some detail. Gotch listened without comment
until he had finished.

"Could work," he said finally. "However, it's going to shoot your
schedule, even if you could do it."

"Why can't we?"

"You're not supermen, Commander," he said tersely. "The psychiatrists
here inform us that your crew--as individuals--should be near the
breaking point. We know the cumulative strain. To be truthful with you,
we've been getting gray hair over that prospect."

"Nuts to the psychiatrists," Crag declared with a certainty he didn't
feel. "Men don't break when their survival depends on their sanity."

"No?" The single word came across the void, soft and low.

"We can do it," Crag persisted.

"All right, I agree with the plan. I think you're wrong but you're the
Commander in the field." His voice was flat. "Good luck." He cut off
abruptly.

Crag looked at the silent panel for a moment. Another problem, another
solution required. Maybe Gotch was right. Maybe they'd all wind up as
candidates for the laughing academy--if they lived long enough. The
thought didn't cheer him. Well, he'd better get moving. There was a lot
to be done. He looked up and saw the question in Prochaska's eyes. Might
as well tell him, he thought.

He repeated the information Gotch had given, together with his plan.
Prochaska listened quietly, nodding from time to time. When he finished,
they discussed the pros and cons of Crag's proposed course of action.
Prochaska thought it would work. In the end they decided to pursue the
plan without telling the others the full story. It might be the breaking
point, especially for Nagel, and they would be needing a good oxygen man
in the coming days. Crag got on the interphone and called Larkwell, who
was working in the tail section with the others.

"Judging from what you've seen of Bandit, how long would it take to make
it livable as crew quarters?"

"Why?" he asked querulously.

"I haven't time to go into that now," Crag said evenly. "Just give me
your best estimate."

"You can't make it livable. It's hot."

"Not that hot. You've just got the radiation creeps. Let's have the
estimate."

Larkwell considered a moment. "There's quite a weld job on the hull,
assuming we could get the necessary patch metal from Bandit. We'd have
to haul one helluva lot of gear across that damned desert--"

"How long?" Crag cut in.

"Well, three days, at least. But that's a minimum figure."

"That's the figure you'll have to meet," Crag promised grimly. "Start
now. Use Nagel and Richter. Load up the gear you'll need and get in a
trip before chow."

"Now?" Larkwell's voice was incredulous. "What about winding up this job
first? The airlock is damned important."

"Drop it," Crag said briefly. There was silence at the other end of the
interphone.

"Okay," the construction boss grumbled finally.

Crag suggested that Prochaska make the first trip with them to look over
Bandit's electronic gear. He would need to know what repairs and
modifications would be necessary to make it usable. The Chief was
delighted. It would mark the first time he'd been out of the space cabin
since the day of their landing.

       *       *       *       *       *

Crag watched them leave through the port. It was impossible to tell the
crew members apart in their bulky garments. The extra oxygen and the
tools Larkwell had selected gave them an odd shambling gait, despite the
low gravity. They plodded in single file, winding slowly across the
plain. The thought struck him that they resembled grotesque life forms
from some alien planet. For just a moment he felt sorry, and a trifle
guilty, over assigning Nagel to the trip. The oxygen man was already in
a state of perpetual fatigue. Still, he couldn't allow anyone the luxury
of rest. Work was in the cards--grueling, slavish toil if they were to
survive.

It struck Crag that this was a moment of great risk. Of the four figures
plodding toward Bandit, one was an enemy ... one a saboteur. Yet, what
could either accomplish by striking now? Nothing! _Not while I live_, he
thought. Strangely enough, Richter bothered him more than the saboteur.
There was a quality about the man he couldn't decipher, an armor he
couldn't penetrate. It occurred to him that, outwardly at least, Richter
was much like Prochaska--quiet, calm, steady. He performed the tasks
assigned him without question ... evinced no hostility, no resentment.
He was seemingly oblivious to Nagel's barbs and Larkwell's occasional
surly rebuffs. On the face of the record he was an asset--a work horse
who performed far more labor than Nagel.

He decided he couldn't write the German off as a factor to be
continually weighed--weighed and watched. He was no ordinary man. Of
that he was sure. Richter's presence on the enemy's first moon rocket
was ample testimony of his stature. What were his thoughts? His plans?
What fires burned behind his placid countenance? Crag wished he knew.
One thing was certain. He could never lower his guard. Not for a second.

He sighed and turned away from the viewport. A lot of data had piled up.
He'd give Alpine a little work to do to get Gotch off his neck. He
reached for the communicator thinking of Ann. Probably got someone else
lined up by now, he thought sourly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Work on Bandit progressed slowly. Nagel dragged through each successive
work shift on the verge of exhaustion. Crag expected him to collapse
momentarily. His disintegration took him further and further from the
group. He ate silently, with eyes averted. He didn't protest the
arduous hours, but the amount of work he performed was negligible.
Larkwell maintained his stamina but had become more quiet in the
process. He seldom smiled ... never joked. Occasionally he was truculent
or derisive, referring to Bandit as the "Commander's hot box."

Richter remained impersonal and aloof, but performed his assigned tasks
without apparent resentment. Crag noticed that he stayed as far from
Larkwell as possible, perhaps fearing violence from the burly
construction boss. Prochaska, alone, maintained a cheerful exterior--for
which Crag was thankful.

He was watching them now--the evening of the last day of Larkwell's
three-day estimate--returning from the Bandit. The four figures were
strung out over half a mile. He regarded that as a bad omen. They no
longer worked as a crew, but as separate individuals, each in his
separate world, with exception of Prochaska. He turned away from the
port with the familiar feeling that time was running out, and mentally
reviewed what remained to be done.

Making Bandit habitable was a must. There still remained the arduous
task of transferring their belongings and gear to Bandit. Drone Baker
had to be toppled and her cargo salvaged. Then there was Drone Charlie,
at present just a minute speck somewhere in the great void between earth
and her moon; but in somewhat less than forty-eight hours it would
represent tons of metal hurtling over the rim of Arzachel. This time
they couldn't fumble the ball. The building of the airlock in the rill
loomed in the immediate future--an oppressive shadow that caused him no
end of worry. There were other problems, too--like the item of Red
Dog ... the possible battle for control of the moon.

Red Dog, in particular, had become the prime shadow darkening Arzachel's
ashy plains. He thought about the emotional deterioration which had laid
an iron grip over the expedition and wondered if they could hang on
through the rough days ahead. All in all, the task of colonizing the
moon appeared an extremely formidable one. He shook off his
apprehensions and began planning his next step.

       *       *       *       *       *

That evening Crag knocked off the usual three hour work period following
evening chow. Nagel tumbled onto his pad and was asleep almost
instantly. His breathing was a harsh rasp. At Crag's suggestion
Prochaska took the watch until midnight. Crag stood guard the remainder
of the night to allow Nagel and Larkwell a full night's rest.

While the others slept, Crag brooded at the port. Once he ran his hand
over his face, surprised at the hardness. All bone and no flesh, he
thought. He looked toward the north wall of Arzachel.

In a few short hours Drone Charlie would come blazing over the rim, and
Red Dog snapping at its heels.



CHAPTER 14


"Adam Crag was not a God-fearing man," the minister stated. His tone
implied that Crag had been just the opposite. "Not a bit like his
parents. The best family guidance in the world, yet he quit Sunday
school almost before he got started. I doubt that he's ever been to
church since."

He looked archly at the agent. "Perhaps a godless world like the moon is
just retribution."

A garage mechanic, a junk dealer and the proprietor of a tool shop had a
lot to say about Adam Crag. So did the owner of a small private
airport. They remembered him as a boy with an insatiable appetite for
tearing cars apart and converting them to what the junk dealer termed
"supersonic jalopies."

Many people in El Cajon remembered Adam Crag. Strangely enough, his
teachers all the way back through grade school had little difficulty in
recalling his antics and attitudes. An elementary teacher explained it
by saying, "He was that kind of a boy."

The family doctor had the most to say about Adam. He had long since
retired, a placid seventyish man who had elected to pass his last years
in the same house, in an older section of the town, in which he'd been
born.

He sat swinging and talking, reminiscing about "the growing up of young
Adam," as he put it. The agent had made himself at home on the front
steps, listening. The doctor's comments were little short of being an
eulogy.

He finished and was silent, tapping a black briar pipe against his hand
while he contemplated the agent with eyes which had long since ceased to
see.

"One other thing," he added finally. "Adam was sure a heller with the
girls."

The agent started to comment that Crag's dossier looked like the roll
call of a girl's dormitory but refrained. He didn't want to prejudice
the testimony.

       *       *       *       *       *

Zero hour on the plains of Arzachel. The sun, an intolerably brilliant
ball pasted against the ebony sky, had started its drop toward the
horizon. The shadows on the plain were lengthening, harbingers of the
bitter two-weeks-long night to come. They crept out from the sheer wall
of the crater, reaching to engulf Pickering Base with icy fingers.

Crag and Prochaska were alone, now, in the stripped cabin of the Aztec.
Nagel and Richter, under Larkwell's command, had departed for Bandit an
hour earlier with the last of their supplies. Crag disliked splitting
the crew but saw no alternative. He had to gamble. The element of
certainty, the ability to predict, the expectations of logic--all these
had vanished, swept away by the vagaries of chance. They could do only
so much. Beyond that their fate was pawn to the chaotic cross fires of
human elements pitted against the architecture of the cosmos. They were
puppets in the last lottery of probability.

Prochaska broke the silence: "It's going to be close."

Crag's eyes remained riveted to the instruments. Drone Charlie and Red
Dog were plunging through space separated by a scant half-hour's flight
time. Despite the drone's long launch lead, the gap between the two
rockets had been narrowed to a perilous point. Drone Charlie was
decelerating rapidly, her braking rockets flaring spasmodically to slow
her headlong flight.

"We'd better get into our suits," Crag said finally. "We want to get out
of this baby the second Charlie lets down."

Prochaska nodded. They left their suits unpressurized for the time being
to allow full mobility. In the moments ahead Prochaska, in particular,
couldn't afford to be hampered by the rigidity the suit possessed when
under pressure.

They turned back to the control panel. Charlie was hurtling over
Alphons, dropping toward the bleak lunar landscape with incredible
speed. The mechanical voice from Alpine droned a stream of data. There
was a rapid exchange of information between Prochaska and Alpine. At its
conclusion he began taking over control of the drone. Crag watched
tensely. Prochaska's fingers, even though encased in the heavy suit
material, moved with certainty. In a little while he spoke without
looking up.

"Got it," he said laconically. He studied the instruments, then his
fingers sought the buttons controlling Charlie's forward braking
rockets.

Crag thought: _This is it._ Within scant moments the drone had covered
the sky over the tangled land lying between Alphons and Arzachel. It
swept over the brimming cliffs at a scant two thousand feet. He saw the
rocket through the forward ports. White vapor flared from its nose
rockets. The Chief had it under full deceleration. The cloud of vapor
covered its body. Prochaska moved the steering control and the rocket
slanted upward at ever-increasing angle of climb. Crag strained his neck
to keep it in sight. He thought its rate of climb was too rapid but
Prochaska seemed unperturbed. His calm approach to the problem of
landing the drone gave Crag renewed confidence.

All at once, it seemed, Drone Charlie was hanging high in the sky, a
tapered needle miraculously suspended in the heavens. Then it began
dropping ... dropping. Bursts of smoke and white vapor shot from its
tail jets, becoming continuous as the rocket hurtled toward the plain.
The drone was lost to sight in its own clouds, but he charted its
progress by the vapor spurts at its lower edge. Prochaska was draining
the tail braking jets of every ounce of energy. Suddenly the rocket gave
the illusion of hanging in mid-air. The gap between it and the stark
terrain below seemed to have stopped closing. Crag half expected the
blasting stern tubes to begin pushing the drone back into the sky.
But ... no! It was moving down again, slowly.

Prochaska moved another control. A servo-mechanism within the rocket
stirred to life and a spidery metal network moved out from its tail
housing. The drone dropped steadily, ever slower, and finally settled.
The shock-absorbing frame folded, was crushed. At the same instant
Prochaska silenced its rockets. It settled down, its tail tubes pushed
into the plain's powdery ash scarcely a mile from the Aztec.

"Perfect." Prochaska sounded pleased with himself. His thin face broke
into a satisfied smile.

"Nice going," Crag agreed. "Now let's get out of this trap."

His eyes lingered for an instant on the analog. Red Dog had already
cleared Ptolemaeus. He snapped his face plate shut, clicked on the
interphone and turned the oxygen valve. His suit began to swell and grow
rigid against his body. When they were pressurized, he opened the hatch
and they clambered out onto the plain. He closed the hatch behind them
and struck off in the direction of Bandit with the Chief at his heels.

They moved as rapidly as possible. Their feet in the heavy insulated
space boots kicked up small fountains of dust which dropped as quickly
as they rose. From time to time Crag looked back toward the brimming
cliffs. Prochaska plodded head down. His quickened breathing in the
interphones sounded harsh to Crag. Plainly the long hours of monitoring
the Aztec's instruments had made him soft. The microphone in his helmet
came to life. It was Larkwell.

"Red Dog's cleared the rim," he told them.

Crag glanced back. His eyes caught the wispish trail of white vapor high
above the cliffs before he saw the rocket itself. It was already in
vertical attitude, letting down amid a cloud of white vapor from its
stern braking rockets.

"All hands disconnect their interphones," he commanded. "From here on
out we operate in silence." The Red Dog interphone system might or might
not be on the same band they used. He wasn't about to take that risk.

"Okay," Larkwell acknowledged. "We're shutting off."

Crag remembered that the German's interphones were still connected. Slip
one. He decided to leave his own open--at least he'd be forewarned if
anyone tried to alert the Red Dog crew. He turned back toward the
rocket. Red Dog was dropping about two or three miles from the Aztec in
the direction of the wrecked Baker.

White smoke and flame poured from its stern tubes. It slowed visibly as
it neared the lunar surface. He thought that a plumb bob dropped through
the long axis of the rocket would form a right angle with the surface
of Arzachel. Pilot's good, he thought. He watched until it touched down
teetering on its stern tubes for a moment before coming to rest; then he
turned and hurried to overtake Prochaska.

The Chief's face behind his mask was covered with perspiration. He
panted heavily. Crag beckoned him to follow and moved behind a low swale
of rock where they would be safe from detection. The nose of Bandit
jutted into the sky about a mile ahead of them. He motioned toward it,
gesturing for Prochaska to go on. The Chief nodded understanding and
struck off.

Crag turned and began climbing a low rocky ridge that now lay between
him and Red Dog. He stopped just below its crest and searched for a safe
vantage point. To his right a serrated rock structure extended up over
the backbone of the ridge. He angled toward it, then followed the
outcropping to a point where he could see the plain beyond. Red Dog had
its tail planted in the ash about three miles distant.

Minute figures milled at its base, small blobs of movement against the
crater floor. No sounds broke the silence of Crag's open interphones. He
took this as a sign that the Red Dog sets operated on a different band.
But he couldn't be sure. The tremendous advantage of having
communication with his own men must be discarded.

His vigil was rewarded a few moments later when the blobs around Red
Dog's base began moving in the direction of the Aztec. It struck him
that they couldn't see the rocket from their present position due to
small intervening hillocks, although both Baker and Charlie were clearly
visible. He decided the Aztec's horizontal position had tipped them to
its identity while they were still space-borne. One of the Red Dog
crewmen, obviously the leader, drew ahead of his companions. The other
two seemed to be struggling with some object they carried between them.
They moved close together, halting from time to time. He returned his
gaze to the rocket, conjecturing that another crewman would have
remained behind. If so, he was in the space cabin. The ship seemed
lifeless. The landing party approached a small ridge overlooking the
Aztec, bringing them closer to his lookout.

He saw that the two men following the leader were having difficulty with
their burden. They walked slowly, uncertainly, pausing from time to
time. The lead man started up the rocky knoll overlooking the Aztec. His
movements were slow, wary. He crouched near the top of the ridge,
scanning the plain beyond before waving to his companions to follow. The
gesture told Crag that their interphones were disconnected. The crewmen
near the base of the knoll started climbing, moving with extreme
difficulty. He watched them, wondering, until they reached the leader.
They stood for a moment scouting the plain, then two of the men crouched
over the burden they had lugged up the knoll.

A weapon, Crag guessed. He tried to discern its shape but failed. A few
moments later one of the men stepped back. A puff of white rose from the
knoll. A trail of vapor shot toward the Aztec. A portable rocket
launcher! His eyes tracked the missile's flight. The vapor trail
terminated at its target. An instant later the Aztec disintegrated.
Black chunks of the rocket hurtled into the lunar skies, becoming lost
to sight. Within seconds only a jagged few feet of broken torn metal
marked the site of man's first successful landing on the moon. _Wow,
what a weapon_, he thought. It didn't merely push a hole in the Aztec.
It disintegrated it, completely. That was one for Gotch. He filed the
thought away and watched.

The figures on the knoll searched the scene for a long time. Finally
they turned and started back, carrying the rocket launcher with them.
The act of saving the weapon told him that Red Dog carried more rockets
than just the single shot fired--a disconcerting thought.

He cautiously withdrew from his post and picked his way down the ridge
toward Bandit, moving as rapidly as the rough terrain permitted.
Everything now depended on the next move of the Red Dog's crew, he
thought. One thing was certain--there would be no quarter shown. The
ruthless destruction of the Aztec had set the pattern for the coming
battle of Arzachel. It was a declaration of war with all rules of human
warfare discarded. Well, that was okay with him.

He was breathing heavily by the time he reached a spot overlooking
Bandit. Nagel had decompressed the cabin and they were waiting for him
with the hatch open. He crossed the clearing and a moment later was in
the space cabin. He watched the gauge until it was safe to cut off his
suit pressure and open his face plate. He looked at Richter; his face
was blank. Tersely, then, he related what had happened.

"I sort of expected that," Prochaska said quietly when he had finished.
"It was the logical way."

"Logical to attempt to murder men?" Nagel asked bitterly.

"Entirely logical," Crag interjected. "The stakes are too big for a few
human lives to matter. At least we've been warned."

He turned to Prochaska. "Disconnect Richter's mikes until this show's
over."

The Chief nodded. Richter stood quietly by while his lip microphone was
disconnected and withdrawn from the helmet. Nagel's face showed
satisfaction at the act, but Larkwell's expression was wooden.

Crag said, "Defense of Bandit will be under Prochaska's command." He
looked grimly at his second-in-command. "Your fort has one automatic
rifle. Make it count if you have to use it." The Chief nodded.

Larkwell spoke up, "How about you?"

"I'll be scouting with the other automatic rifle. Stay in your suits and
keep ready. If they start to bring up the rocket launcher I'll signal.
If that happens you'll have to get out of here, pronto. You'd better
check your oxygen," he added as an afterthought.

"If they think we're dead ducks they won't be toting the launcher,"
Prochaska said.

"We hope." Crag exchanged his oxygen cylinder for a fresh one, then
checked one of the automatic rifles, slipping two extra clips in his
belt. On second thought he hooked a spare oxygen cylinder to the back
straps. He nodded to Nagel, snapped his face plate shut and pressurized
his suit. When the cabin was decompressed, he opened the hatch, scanning
the knoll carefully before descending to the plain. He struck off toward
the ridge overlooking Red Dog. The ground on this side of the spur was
fairly flat and he made good time, but was panting heavily by the time
he reached his lookout point on the crest.



CHAPTER 15


Crag sighted the Red Dog party immediately--three figures plodding in
single file toward Drone Baker. He saw with satisfaction that they had
discarded the rocket launcher. He took that as a sign they believed the
Aztec crew dead. He found a halfway comfortable sitting position, and
settled back to await developments.

The distant figures moved across the plain with maddening slowness. From
time to time he returned his eyes to the enemy rocket. It showed no
signs of life. Once he debated taking the gamble of trying to reach it,
but as quickly discarded the idea. Caught on the open plain and he'd be
a gone gosling.

He waited.

After what seemed a long while, the invaders reached a point overlooking
Drone Baker. One of the figures remained on a small rise overlooking the
drone while the other two separated and approached it from different
directions. The tactic disquieted him. It indicated that the newcomers
were not entirely convinced that they were alone in Crater Arzachel.

After another interminably long time, the two figures approaching the
rocket met at its base. They walked around the rocket several times,
then struck out, this time toward Drone Charlie. Their companion left
his lookout point and cut across the plain to join them.

Crag squirmed uncomfortably. He was tired and hungry; his muscles ached
from the constriction of the suit. His body was hot and clammy, and
perspiration from his brow stung his eyes. He sighed, wishing he had a
cigarette. Strange, he hadn't smoked in over a year but all at once the
need for tobacco seemed overwhelming. He pushed the thought aside.

The invaders were strung out in single file, moving in a direction which
brought them closer to his position. He shifted to a point below the
crest, moving slowly to avoid detection. Their path crossed his field of
vision at a distance of about half a mile. At the closest point he saw
they carried rifles in shoulder slings. He took this as another
indication they suspected the presence of survivors. The invaders
stopped and rested at a point almost opposite him. He fidgeted, trying
to get his body into a more comfortable position.

Finally they resumed their trek. Before they reached the drone they
halted. One man remained in the cover of a spur of rock while the other
two separated and advanced on the drone from different directions. Crag
cursed under his breath. They certainly weren't going to be sitting
ducks. Perhaps it was just a precaution. Simply good infantry tactics,
he told himself, but it still raised a complication.

He waited. The two invaders closed on the drone, meeting at its base.
They evidently decided it was abandoned, for they left within a few
minutes walking to join their waiting companion. After a short huddle
they struck out in the direction of Bandit. This was the move he had
waited for.

He withdrew to the lee side of the ridge and picked his way toward
Bandit as rapidly as possible, taking care not to brush against the
sharp slivers of rock. He drew near the rocket, thinking that the open
hatch would be a dead giveaway. Still, there was no alternative. A fort
without a gunport was no fort at all. He climbed to a spot close to the
crest of the ridge and peered back in the direction of the invaders,
startled to find they were nearer than he had supposed. He hastily
withdrew his head, deciding it was too late to warn the others to
abandon the rocket. If the invaders climbed straight up the opposite
side of the ridge, they conceivably could catch his crew on the open
plain. That made another complication.

He scanned the ridge. Off to his right a series of granite spurs jutted
from the base rock in finger formation. He picked his way toward them,
then descended until he found shelter between two rock outcroppings
which gave him a clear view of Bandit. He checked his automatic rifle,
moving the control lever to the semi-automatic position. The black
rectangle that marked Bandit's hatch seemed lifeless.

He waited.

Long minutes passed. He cursed the eternal silence of the moon which
robbed him of the use of his ears. A cannon could fire within an inch of
his back and he'd never know it, he thought. He moved his head slightly
forward from time to time in an effort to see the slope behind him.
Nothing happened. His body itched intolerably from perspiration. He
readjusted the suit temperature setting, gaining a slight respite from
the heat. All at once he caught movement out of the corner of his face
plate and involuntarily jerked his head back. He waited a moment, aware
that his heart was pounding heavily, then cautiously moved forward. One
of the invaders was picking his way down the slope in a path that would
take him within thirty yards of his position. The man moved slowly,
half-crouched, keeping his rifle cradled across his arm.

They know, he thought. The open hatch was the giveaway. He anxiously
searched Bandit. No sign of life was visible. He gave silent thanks that
the invaders had not lugged their rocket launcher with them. Prochaska,
he knew, would be watching, crouched in the shadow of the hatch opening
behind the heavy automatic rifle. He estimated the distance between the
base of the slope and the rocket at 400 yards--close enough for
Prochaska to pick off anyone who ventured onto the plain.

He waited while the invader passed abreast of him and descended to the
base of the plain, taking cover in the rocks. He halted there and looked
back. A few moments later Crag saw the second of the invaders moving
down the slope about a hundred yards beyond his companion. He, too,
stopped near the base of the rocks. Where was the third man? The same
technique they used before, Crag decided. He would be covering his
companions' advance from the ridge. That made it more difficult.

He studied the two men at the edge of the plain. It looked like a
stalemate. They either had to advance or retreat. Their time was
governed by oxygen. If they advanced, they'd be dead pigeons. Prochaska
couldn't miss if they chose to cross the clearing. As it was, neither
side could get a clear shot at the distance separating them, although
the invaders could pour a stream of shells into the open hatch. But
Prochaska would be aware of that danger and would have taken refuge to
one side of the opening, he decided. There was another complication.
The shells were heavy enough to perforate the rocket. Well, he'd worry
about that later. He moved his head for a better view of the invaders.

The man nearest him had gotten into a prone position and was doing
something with the end of his rifle. Crag watched, puzzled. Suddenly the
man brought the rifle to his shoulder, and he saw that the end of the
muzzle was bulged. Rifle grenade! Damn, they'd brought a regular
arsenal. If he managed to place one in the open hatch, the Bandit crew
was doomed. Heedless of the other two Red Dog crewmen, he stepped out
between the shoulders of rock to gain freedom of movement and snapped
his own weapon to his shoulder. He had trouble fitting his finger into
the trigger guard. The enemy was spraddled on his stomach, legs apart,
adjusting his body to steady his weapon.

Crag moved his weapon up, bringing the prone man squarely into his
sights. He squeezed the trigger, feeling the weapon jump against his
padded shoulder, and leaped back into the protective cover of rock.
Something struck his face plate. Splinter of rock, he thought. The
watcher on the ridge hadn't been asleep. He dropped to his knees and
crawled between the rock spurs to gain a new position. The sharp needle
fragments under his hands and knees troubled him. One small rip and he'd
be the late Adam Crag. He finally reached a place where he could see the
lower end of the ridge.

The man he'd shot was a motionless blob on the rocky floor, his arms and
legs pulled up in a grotesque fetal position. The vulnerability of human
life on the moon struck Crag forcibly. A bullet hole anywhere meant
sudden violent death. A hit on the finger was as fatal as a shot through
the heart. Once air pressure in a suit was lost a man was dead--horribly
dying within seconds. A pinhole in the suit was enough to do it. His
eyes searched for the dead man's companions. The ridge and plain seemed
utterly lifeless. Bandit was a black canted monolith rising above the
plain, seeming to symbolize the utter desolation and silence of Crater
Arzachel. For a moment he was fascinated. The very scene portended
death. It was an eery feeling. He shook it off and waited. He was
finally rewarded by movement. A portion of rock near the edge of the
plain seemed to rise--took shape. The dead man's companion had risen to
a kneeling position, holding his rifle to his shoulder.

Crag raised his gun, wondering if he could hold the man in his sights. A
hundred and fifty yards to a rifleman clothed in a cumbersome space suit
seemed a long way. Before he could pull the trigger, the man flung his
arms outward, clawing at his throat for an instant before slumping to
the rocks. It took Crag a second to comprehend what had happened.
Prochaska had been ready.

A figure suddenly filled the dark rectangle of Bandit, pointing toward
the ridge behind Crag. He apparently was trying to tell him something.
Crag scanned the ridge. It seemed deserted. He turned toward Bandit and
motioned toward his faceplate. The other understood. His interphones
crackled to life. Prochaska's voice was welcome.

"I see him," he broke in. "He's moving up the slope to your right,
trying to reach the top of the ridge. Too far for a shot," he added.

Crag scrambled into a clearing and scanned the ridge, just in time to
see a figure disappear over the skyline. He started up the slope in a
beeline for the crest. If he could reach it in time, he might prevent
the sniper from crossing the open plain which lay between the ridge and
Red Dog. Cops and robbers, he thought. Another childhood game had
suddenly been recreated, this time on the bleak plain of an airless
alien crater 240,000 miles from the sunny Southern California lands of
his youth.

Crag reached the ridge. The plain on the other side seemed devoid of
life. In the distance the squat needle that was Red Dog jutted above
the ashy plain, an incongruous human artifact lost on the wastelands of
the moon. Only its symmetry distinguished it from the jagged monolithic
structures that dotted this end of the crater floor. He searched the
slope. Movement far down the knoll to his right caught his eye. The
fugitive was trying to reach a point beyond range of Crag's weapon
before cutting across the plain. He studied the terrain. Far ahead and
to the left of the invader the crater floor became broken by bizarre
rock formations of Backbone Ridge--a great half-circle which arced back
toward Red Dog. He guessed that the fantastic land ahead was the
fugitive's goal.

He cut recklessly down the opposite slope and gained the floor of the
crater before turning in the direction he had last seen the invader. He
cursed himself for having lost sight of him. Momentarily, he slowed his
pace, thinking he was ripe for a bushwhacking job. His eyes roved the
terrain. No movement, no sign of his quarry. He moved quickly, but
warily, attempting to search every inch of the twisted rock formations
covering the slope ahead. His eye detected movement off to one side. At
the same instant a warning sounded in his brain and he flung himself
downward and to the side, hitting the rough ground with a sickening
thud. He sensed that the action had saved his life. He crawled between
some rock outcroppings, hugging the ground until he reached a vantage
point overlooking the area ahead. He waited, trying to search the slope
without exposing his position. Minutes passed.

He tossed his head restlessly. His eyes roved the plain, searching,
attempting to discern movement. No movement--only a world of still
life-forms. The plain--its rocks and rills--stretched before him, barren
and endless. Strange, he thought, there should be vultures in the sky.
And on the plain creosote bushes, purple sage, cactus ... coyotes and
rattlesnakes.

But ... no! This was an other-world desert, one spawned in the fires of
hell--a never-never land of scalding heat and unbelievable cold. He
thought it was like a painting by some mad artist. First he had sketched
in the plain with infinite care--a white-black, monotonous, unbroken
expanse. Afterward he had splashed in the rocks, painting with wild
abandon, heedless of design, form or structure, until the plain was a
hodgepodge of bizarre formations. They towered, squatted, pierced the
sky, crawled along the plain like giant serpents--an orgy in rock
without rhyme or reason. Somewhere in the lithic jungle his quarry
waited. He would flush him out.

He thought that the sniper must be getting low on oxygen. He couldn't
afford to waste time. He had to reach Red Dog soon--if he were to live.
Crag checked his oxygen meter and began moving forward, conscious that
the chase would be governed by his oxygen supply. He'd have to remember
that.

He reached a clearing on the slope just as the sniper disappeared into
the rock shadows on the opposite side. He hesitated. Would the pursued
man be waiting ... covering the trail behind him? He decided not to
chance crossing it and began skirting around its edge, fretting at the
minutes wasted. His earphones crackled and Prochaska's voice came, a
warning through the vacuum:

"Nagel says your oxygen must be low."

He glanced at the indicator on his cylinder. Still safe. He studied the
rocks ahead and told Prochaska:

"I've got to keep this baby from reaching Red Dog."

"Watch yourself. Don't go beyond the point of no return." Prochaska's
voice held concern.

"Stop worrying."

Crag pushed around the edge of the clearing with reckless haste. It was
hard going and he was panting heavily long before he reached the spot
where he had last seen the sniper. He paused to catch his breath. The
slope fell away beneath him, a miniature kingdom of jagged needle-sharp
rock. There was no sign of the fugitive. The plain, too, was devoid of
life. He descended to the edge of the clearing and picked his way
through the debris of some eon-old geologic catastrophe. Ahead and to
the left of the ridge, the plain was broken by shallow rills and weird
rock outcroppings. Farther out Backbone Ridge began as low mounds of
stone, becoming twisted black stalagmites hunched incongruously against
the floor of the crater, ending as jagged sharp needles of rock curving
over the plain in a huge arc.

A moment later he caught sight of his quarry. The invader had cut down
to the edge of the plain, abandoning the protection of the ridge, making
a beeline for the nearest rock extrusion on the floor of the crater. Too
far away for a shot. Crag cursed and made a quick judgment, deciding to
risk the open terrain in hopes of gaining shelter before the sniper was
aware of his strategy.

He abandoned the protection of the slope and struck out in a straight
line toward the distant mounds on the floor of the crater, keeping his
eyes on the fugitive. They raced across the clearing in parallel paths,
several hundred yards apart. The sniper had almost reached the first
rocks when he glanced back. He saw Crag and put on an extra burst of
speed, reaching the first rocks while Crag was still a hundred yards
from the nearest mound. Crag dropped to the ground, thankful that it was
slightly uneven. At best he'd make a poor target. He crawled, keeping
his body low, tossing his head in an effort to shake the perspiration
from his eyes.

"How you doing, skipper?" It was Prochaska. Lousy, Crag thought. He
briefed him without slowing his pace.

The ashy plain just in front of him spurted in little fountains of white
dust. He dropped flat on his belly with a gasp.

"You all right?"

"Okay," Crag gritted. "This boy's just using me for target practice."
Prochaska's voice became alarmed. He urged him to retreat.

"We can get them some other way," he said.

"Not if they once get that launcher in operation. I'm moving on." There
was a moment of silence.

"Okay, skipper, but watch yourself." His voice was reluctant. "And watch
your oxygen."

"Roger." He checked his gauge and hurriedly switched to the second
cylinder. Now he was on the last one. The trick would be to stretch his
oxygen out until the chase was ended--until the man ahead was a corpse.

He clung to the floor of the crater, searching for shelter. The ground
rose slightly to his right. He crawled toward the rise, noting that the
terrain crested high enough to cut his view of the base of the rocks.
Satisfied that he was no longer visible, he began inching his way toward
the nearest mounds.



CHAPTER 16


Crag studied the scene. He lay at one end of the great crescent of rock
forming Backbone Ridge, the other end of which ended about half a mile
from Red Dog. The floor of the crater between the rocket and the nearest
rock formations was fairly level and unbroken. The arced formation
itself was a veritable jungle of rocks of every type--gnarled, twisted
rock that hugged the ground, jutting black pinnacles piercing the sky,
bizarre bubble formations which appeared like weird ebony eskimo cities,
and great fantastic ledges which extruded from the earth at varying
angles, forming black caves against their bases.

Whole armies could hide there, he thought. Only the fugitive couldn't
hide. Oxygen was still the paramount issue. He'd have to thread his way
through the terrible rock jungle to the distant tip of the crescent,
then plunge across the open plain to the rocket if he hoped to survive.
The distance between the horns of the crescent appeared about three
miles. He pondered it thoughtfully, then got on the interphones and
outlined his plan to Prochaska.

"Okay, I know better than to argue," the Chief said dolefully when he
had finished. "But watch your oxygen." Damn the oxygen, Crag thought
irritably. He studied the labyrinth of rock into which his quarry had
vanished, then rose and started across the plain in a direct line for
the opposite tip of the crescent.

The first moments were the hardest. After that he knew he must be almost
out of range of the sniper's weapon. Perhaps, even, the other had not
seen his maneuver. He forced himself into a slow trot, his breath
whistling in his ears and his body sodden inside his suit. Perspiration
stung his eyes, his leg muscles ached almost intolerably, and every
movement seemed made on sheer will power. The whimsical thought crossed
his mind that Gotch had never painted this side of the picture. Nor was
it mentioned in the manual of space survival.

He was thankful that the plain between the two tips of the crescent was
fairly even. He moved quickly, but it was a long time before he reached
the further tip of the crescent. He wondered if he had been observed
from Red Dog. Well, no matter, he thought. He had cut the sniper's sole
avenue of escape. Victory over his quarry was just a matter of time, a
matter of waiting for him to appear. He picked a vantage point, a high
rocky ledge which commanded all approaches to his position. After
briefing Prochaska, he settled back to wait, thinking that the fugitive
must be extremely low on oxygen.

Long minutes passed. Once or twice he thought he saw movement among the
rocks and started to lift his rifle; but there was no movement.
Illusions, he told himself. His eyes were playing him tricks. The
bizarre sea of rocks confronting him was a study in black and white--the
intolerable light of sun-struck surfaces contrasting with the stygian
blackness of the shadows. His eyes began to ache and he shifted them
from time to time to shut out the glare. He was sweating again and there
was a dull ache at the back of his head. Precious time was fleeing. He'd
have to resolve the chase--soon.

All at once he saw movement that was not an illusion. He half rose,
raising his rifle when dust spurted from the ground a few feet to his
left. He cursed and threw himself to the ground, rolling until he was
well below the ridge. One thing was certain: the sniper had the ridge
well under control. The Red Dog watcher must have warned him, he
thought. He looked around. Off to one side a small rill cut through the
rocks running in the sniper's general direction. He looked back toward
the ridge, hesitated, then decided to gamble on the rill. He moved
crablike along the side of the slope until he reached its edge and
peered over. The bottom was a pool of darkness. He lowered himself over
the edge with some misgivings, searching for holds with his hands and
feet. His boot unexpectedly touched bottom.

Crag stood for a moment on the floor of the rill. His body was clothed
in black velvet shadows but it was shallow enough to leave his head in
the sunlight. He moved cautiously forward, half expecting the sniper to
appear in front of him. His nerves were taut, edgy.

_Relax, boy, you're strung like a violin_, he told himself. _Take it
easy._

A bend in the rill cut off the sun leaving him in a well of blackness.
He hadn't counted on that. Before he'd moved another dozen steps he
realized the rill wasn't the answer. He'd have to chance getting back
into the open. More time was lost. He felt the steep sides until he
located a series of breaks in the wall, then slung his rifle over his
shoulder and inched upward until his head cleared the edge. The sun's
sudden glare blinded him. Involuntarily he jerked his head sideways,
almost losing his hold in the process. He clung to the wall for a moment
before laboriously pulling his body over the edge.

He lay prone against the rocks, half-expecting to be greeted by a hail
of bullets. He waited quietly, without moving, then carefully raised his
head. Off to one side was a series of mounds. He crawled toward them
without moving his belly from the ground. When he reached the first one,
he half rose and scuttled forward until he found a view of the twisted
rocks where he had last seen the sniper.

The scene ahead was a still-life painting. It seemed incongruous that
somewhere among the quiet rocks death moved in the form of a man. He
decided against penetrating further into the tangle of rocks. He'd wait.
He settled back, conscious that time was fleeing.

"Skipper, are you checking your oxygen?" The Chief's voice rattled
against his eardrums. It was filled with alarm.

"Listen, I have no time--" Crag started to growl. His words were clipped
short as his eyes involuntarily took the reading of his oxygen gauge.
Low ... low. He calculated quickly. He was well past the point of no
return--too low to make the long trip back to Bandit. He was done, gone,
a plucked gosling. He had bought himself a coffin and he'd rest there
for all eternity--boxed in by the weird tombstones of Crater Arzachel.
Adam Crag--the Man in the Moon.

He grinned wryly. Well, at least his quarry was going with him. He
wouldn't greet his Maker empty handed. He tersely informed Prochaska of
his predicament, then recklessly moved to a high vantage point and
scanned the rocks beyond.

He had to make every second count. Light and shadow ... light and
shadow. Somewhere in the crisscross of light and shadow was a man-form,
a blob of protoplasm like himself, a living thing that had to be stamped
out before the last of his precious oxygen was gone. He was the
executioner. Somewhere ahead a doomed man waited in the docks ... waited
for him to come. They were two men from opposite sides of the world,
battling to death in Hell's own backyard. Only he'd win ... win before
he died.

He was scanning the rocky tableau when the sniper moved into his field
of vision, far to one side of Crag's position. He was running with short
choppy steps, threading between the rocks toward Red Dog. His haste and
apparent disregard of exposing himself puzzled Crag for a moment, then
he smiled grimly. Almost out of oxygen, he thought. Well, that makes two
of us. But he still had to make sure his quarry died. The thought
spurred him to action.

He turned and scrambled back toward the tip of Backbone Ridge to cut the
sniper's escape route. He reached the end rocks and waited. A few
moments later he sighted a figure scrambling toward him. He raised his
rifle thinking it was too far for a shot, then lowered it again. The
sniper began moving more slowly and cautiously, then became lost to
sight in a maze of rock outcroppings.

Crag waited impatiently, aware that precious moments were fleeing. He
was afraid to look at his gauge, plagued by the sense of vanishing
moments. Time was running out and eternity was drawing near--near to
Adam Crag as well as the sniper. The rocks extended before him, a
kaleidoscopic pattern of black and white. Somewhere in the tortuous
labyrinth was the man he had to kill before he himself died. He watched
nervously, trying to suppress the tension pulling at his muscles. A
nerve in his cheek twitched and he shook his head without removing his
eyes from the rocks ahead. Still there was no sign of the other.

Who was the stalker and who was the stalked? The question bothered him.
Perhaps even at that instant the sniper was drawing bead. Then he'd be
free to reach Red Dog--safety.

Crag decided he couldn't wait. He'd have to seek the other out, somehow
flush him from cover. He looked around. Off to one side a shelf of black
rock angled incongruously into the sky. Its sides were steep but its top
would command all approaches to the tip of the crescent. He made his way
to the base of the shelf and began scrambling up its steep sides,
finding it difficult to manage toe and hand holds. He slipped from time
to time, hanging desperately on to keep himself from rolling back to the
rocks below. Just below the top he rested, panting, fighting for breath,
conscious of his heart thudding in his ears. He had to hurry!

Slowly, laboriously he pulled himself up the last few feet and lay
panting atop the shelf, none too soon. The sniper scrambled out of the
rocks a scant hundred yards from Crag's position. He raised his rifle,
then hesitated. The Red Dog crewman had fallen to his hands and knees
and was fighting to rise. He pushed his hands against the plain in an
attempt to get his feet under him. Crag lowered his rifle and watched
curiously.

The sniper finally succeeded in getting to his feet. He stood for a
moment, weaving, before moving toward Crag's shelf with a faltering
zigzag gait. Crag raised the rifle and tried to line the sights. He had
difficulty holding the weapon steady. He started to pull the trigger
when the man fell again. Crag hesitated. The sniper floundered in the
ash, managed to pull himself half-erect. He weaved with a few faltering
steps and plunged forward on his face.

Crag watched for a moment. There was no movement. The black blob of the
suit lay with the stillness of the rocks in the brazen heat of the
crater. So that's the way a man dies when his oxygen runs out, he
thought. He just plops down, jerks a little and departs, with as little
ceremony as that. He grinned crookedly, thinking he had just watched a
rehearsal of his own demise. He watched for a moment longer before
turning his face back toward the plain.

Red Dog was a bare half-mile away--a clear level half-mile from the tip
of Backbone Ridge. That's how close the sniper had come to living. He
mulled the thought with a momentary surge of hope. Red Dog? Why not? If
he could shoot his way into the space cabin he'd live ... live. The
thought galvanized him to action.

He slung his rifle over his shoulder and scrambled down the slope
heedless of the danger of ripping his suit. He could make it. He had to
make it! He gained the bottom and paused to catch his breath before
starting toward the rocket. A glance at his oxygen meter told him that
the race was futile. Still, he forced his legs into a run, threading
through the rocks toward the floor of the crater. He reached the tip of
the crescent panting heavily and plunged across the level floor of the
plain. His legs were leaden, his lungs burned and sweat filled his eyes,
stinging and blurring his vision. Still he ran.

The rocket rose from the crater floor, growing larger, larger. He tried
to keep in a straight path, aware that he was moving in a crazy zigzag
course.

The rocket loomed bigger ... bigger. It appeared immense. Caution, he
told himself, there's an hombre up there with a rifle. He halted,
feeling his body weave, and tried to steady himself. High up in the nose
of Red Dog the hatch was a dancing black shadow--black with movement.
He pulled the rifle from his shoulder and moved the control to full
automatic, falling to his knees as he did so. Strange, the ashy floor of
the crater was erupting in small fountains just to his side. Danger, he
thought, take cover. The warning bells were still ringing in his brain
as he slid forward on his stomach and tried to steady his weapon. Dust
spurted across his face plate. The black rectangle of the hatch danced
crazily in his sights. He pulled back on the trigger, feeling the heavy
weapon buck against his shoulder, firing until the clip was empty. His
fingers hurriedly searched his belt for the spare clips. Gone. Somehow
he'd lost them. He'd have to rush the rocket.

He got to his feet, weaving dizzily, and forced his legs to move. Once
or twice he fell, regaining his feet with difficulty.

He heard a voice. It took him a minute to realize it was his own. He was
babbling to Prochaska, trying to tell him ...

The sky was black. No, it was white, dazzling white, white with heat,
red with flame. He saw Red Dog with difficulty. The rocket was a hotel,
complete with room clerk. He laughed inanely. A Single, please. No, I'll
only be staying for the night. He fell again. This time it took him
longer to regain his feet. He stumbled ... walked ... stumbled. His eyes
sought the rocket. It was weaving, swaying back and forth. Foolish, he
thought, there was no wind in Crater Arzachel. No air, no wind, no
nothing. Nothing but death. Wait, there was someone sitting on top of
the rocket--a giant of a man with a long white beard. He watched Crag
and smiled. He reached out a hand and beckoned. Crag ran. The sky
exploded within his brain, his legs buckled and he felt his face plate
smash against the ashy floor. For all eternity, he thought. The
blackness came.

       *       *       *       *       *

Adam Crag opened his eyes. He was lying on his back. Above him the dome
of the sky formed a great black canopy sprinkled with brilliant stars.
His thoughts, chaotic memories, gradually stabilized and he remembered
his mad flight toward Red Dog.

This couldn't be death, he thought. Spirits didn't wear space suits. He
sensed movement and twisted his head to one side. Gordon Nagel! The
oxygen man's face behind the heavy plate was thin, gaunt, but he was
smiling. Crag thought that he had never seen such a wonderful smile.
Nagel's lips crinkled into speech:

"I was beginning to wonder when you'd make it." Even his voice was
different, Crag thought. The nasal twang was gone. It was soft, mellow,
deep with concern. He thought it was the most wonderful sound he had
ever heard.

"Thanks, Gordon," he said simply. He spoke the words thinking it was the
first time he'd ever addressed the other by his first name.

"How'd you ever locate me?"

"Started early," Nagel said. "I was pretty sure you'd push yourself past
the point of no return. You seemed pretty set on getting that critter."

"It's a wonder you located me." He managed to push himself to a sitting
position.

"Prochaska didn't think I could. But I did. Matter of fact, I was pretty
close to you when you broke from the rocks heading for Red Dog." Red
Dog! Crag twisted his head and looked toward the rocket.

"He's lying at the base of the rocket," Nagel said, in answer to his
unspoken question. "Your last volley sprayed him."

"Skipper!" Prochaska's voice broke impatiently into his earphones.

"Still alive," Crag answered.

"Yeah--just." Prochaska's voice was peevish. "You were lucky with that
last burst of fire."

"Thanks to my good marksmanship," Crag quipped weakly.

"I wish you'd quit acting like a company of Marines and get back here."

"Okay, Colonel."

Prochaska cursed and Crag grinned happily. It was good to be alive, even
in Crater Arzachel.

Nagel helped him to his feet and Crag stood for a moment, feeling the
strength surge back into his body. He breathed deeply, luxuriating in
the plentiful oxygen. Fresh oxygen. Fresh as a maiden's kiss, he thought
Oxygen was gold. More than gold. It was life.

"Ready, now?"

"Ready as I ever will be," Crag answered. "Lead on, Gordon."

They had almost reached Bandit when Crag broke the silence. "Why did you
come ... to the moon, Gordon?"

Nagel slowed his steps, then stopped and turned.

"Why did you come, Commander?"

"Because ... because ..." Crag floundered. "Because someone had to
come," he blurted. "Because I was supposed to be good in my field." His
eyes met Nagel's. The oxygen man was smiling, faintly.

"I'm good in mine, too," he said. He chewed at his bottom lip for a
moment.

"I could give the same reasons as you," he said finally. "Truthfully,
though, there's more to it." He looked at Crag defiantly.

"I was a misfit on earth, Commander. A square peg in a round hole. I had
dreams ... dreams, but they were not the dreams of earth. They were
dreams of places in which there were no people." He gave an odd
half-smile. "Of course I didn't tell the psych doctors that."

"There's plenty I didn't tell 'em, myself," Crag said.

"Commander, you might not understand this but ... I like the moon." He
looked away, staring into the bleakness of Arzachel. Crag's eyes
followed his. The plain beyond was an ash-filled bowl broken by weird
ledges, spires, grotesque rocks. In the distance Backbone Ridge crawled
along the floor of the basin, forming its fantastic labyrinths. Yet ...
yet there was something fascinating, almost beautiful about the crater.
It was the kind of a place a man might cross the gulfs of space to see.
Nagel had crossed those gulfs. Yes, he could understand.

"I'll never return to earth," he said, almost dreamily.

"Nonsense."

"Not nonsense, Commander. But I'm not unhappy at the prospect. Do you
remember the lines:

    _Under the wide and starry sky
    Oh, dig the grave and let me lie ..._

Well, that's the way I feel about the moon."

"You'll be happy enough to get back to earth," Crag predicted.

"I won't get back, Commander. Don't want to get back." He turned
broodingly toward Bandit.

"Maybe we'd better move on," Crag said gently. "I crave to get out of
this suit."



CHAPTER 17


"Martin Larkwell was a good boy," the superintendent said reminiscently,
"and of course we're highly pleased he's made his mark in the world." He
looked at the agent and beamed. "Or should I say the moon?" The agent
smiled dutifully.

"Young Martin was particularly good with his hands. Not that he wasn't
smart," he added hurriedly. "He was very bright, in fact, but he was
fortunate in that he coupled it with an almost uncanny knack of using
his hands."

The superintendent rambled at length. The agent listened, thinking it
was the same old story. The men in the moon were all great men. They had
been fine, upstanding boys, all bright with spotless records. Well, of
course that was to be expected in view of the rigorous weeding out
program which had resulted in their selections. Only one of them was a
traitor. Which one? The question drummed against his mind.

"Martin wasn't just a study drudge," the superintendent was saying. "He
was a fine athlete. The star forward of the Maple Hill Orphanage
basketball team for three years," he added proudly. He leaned forward
and lowered his voice as if taking the agent into his confidence.

"We're conducting a drive to build the orphanage a new gym. Maybe you
can guess the name we've selected for it?"

"The Martin Larkwell Gymnasium," the agent said drily.

"Right." The superintendent beamed. "That's how much we think of Martin
Larkwell."

As it turned out, the superintendent wasn't the only one who remembered
Martin Larkwell with fondness. A druggist, a grocer, a gas station
operator and a little gray lady who ran a pet shop remembered the orphan
boy with surprising affection. They and many others. That's the way the
chips fall, the agent thought philosophically. Let a man become famous
and the whole world remembers him. Well, his job was to separate the
wheat from the chaff.

In the days to follow he painstakingly traced Martin Larkwell's trail
from the Maple Hill Orphanage to New York, to various construction jobs
along the East Coast and, finally, through other agents, to a two-year
stint in Argentina as construction boss for an American equipment firm.
Later the trail led back to America and, finally, to construction
foreman on Project Step One. His selection as a member of the Aztec Crew
stemmed from his excellent work and construction ability displayed
during building of the drones. All in all, the agent thought, the record
was clear and shiny bright.

Martin Larkwell, Gordon Nagel, Max Prochaska, Adam Crag--four eager
scrub-faced American boys, each outstanding in his field. There was only
one hitch. Who was the traitor?

       *       *       *       *       *

Crag filled Gotch in on the latest developments in Crater Arzachel. The
Colonel listened without interruption until he was through, then
retaliated with a barrage of questions. What was the extent of the
radioactive field? What were the dimensions of Red Dog? Had any progress
been made toward salvaging the cargo of Drone Baker? How was the airlock
in the rill progressing? Would he please describe the rocket launcher
the enemy had used to destroy the Aztec? Crag gritted his teeth to keep
from exploding, barely managing civil replies. Finally he could hold it
no longer.

"Listen," he grated, "this is a four-man crew, not a damn army."

"Certainly," Gotch interrupted, "I appreciate your difficulties. I was
just--in a manner of speaking--outlining what has to be done."

"As if I didn't know."

The Colonel pressed for his future plans. Crag told him what he thought
in no uncertain terms. When he finished he thought he heard a soft
chuckle over the earphones. Damn Gotch, he thought, the man is a sadist.
The Colonel gave him another morsel of information--a tidbit that
mollified him.

Pickering Field, Gotch informed him, was now the official name of the
landing site in Crater Arzachel. Furthermore, the Air Force was
petitioning the Joint Chiefs to make it an official part of the U.S.
Air Force defense system. A fact which had been announced to the world.
Furthermore, the United States had petitioned the U.N. to recognize its
sovereignty over the moon. Before cutting off he added one last bit of
information, switching to moon code to give it.

"_Atom job near completion_," he spelled out. For the moment Crag felt
jubilant. An atom-powered space ship spelled complete victory over the
Eastern World. It also meant Venus ... Mars ... magical names in his
mind. Man was on his way to the stars. MAN--the peripatetic quester. For
just an instant he felt a pang of jealousy. He'd be pinned to his vacuum
while men were conquering the planets. Or would he? But the mood passed.
Pickering Field, he realized, would play an important role in the future
of space flight. If it weren't the stars, at least it was the jump-off.
In time it would be a vast Air Force Base housing rockets instead of
stratojets. Pickering Base--the jump-off--the road to the stars. Pretty
soon the place would be filled with rank so high that the bird colonels
would be doing mess duty. But right now, he was Mr. Pickering Field, the
Man with the Brass Eyeballs.

While the others caught up on their sleep, Crag and Prochaska reviewed
their homework, as the Chief had dubbed their planning sessions. The
area in which Bandit rested was too far from the nearest rill to use as
a base of operation, and it was also vulnerable to meteorite damage.
Bandit had to be abandoned, and soon. Red Dog would be their next home.
There was also the problem of salvaging the contents of Drone Baker and
removing the contents of Drone Charlie. Last, there was the problem of
building the airlock in one of the rills. When they had laid out the
problems, they exchanged quizzical glances. The Chief smiled weakly.

"Seems like a pretty big order."

"A very big order," Crag amended. "The first move is to secure Red
Dog." They talked about it until Crag found his eyelids growing heavy.
Prochaska, although tired, volunteered to take the watch. Crag nodded
gratefully--a little sleep was something he could use.

       *       *       *       *       *

Red Dog was squat, ebony, taper-nosed, distinguishable from the lithic
structures dotting this section of Crater Arzachel only by its symmetry.
The grotesque rock ledges, needle-sharp pinnacles and twisted formations
of the plain clearly were the handiwork of a nature in the throes of
birth, when volcanoes burst and the floor of the crater was an uneasy
sea of white-hot magmatic rock. Red Dog was just as clearly the creation
of some other-world artificer, a creature born of the intelligence and
patience of man, structured to cross the planetary voids. Yet it seemed
a part of the plain, as ancient as the brooding dolomites and diorites
which made the floor of Arzachel a lithic wonderland. The tail of Red
Dog was buried in the ash of the plain. Its body reached upward, canted
slightly from the vertical, as if it were ready to spring again to the
stars.

The rocket launcher had been removed. Now it stood on the plain off to
one side of the rocket, small and portable, like some deadly insect. The
launcher bothered Crag. He wanted to destroy it--or the single missile
that remained--but was deterred by its possible use if the enemy should
land another manned ship. In the end he left it where it was.

One of the numerous rills which crisscrossed the floor of the crater cut
near the base of the rocket at a distance of about ten yards. It was a
shallow rill, about twelve feet wide and ten feet deep, with a bottom of
soft ash.

Adam Crag studied the rocket and rill in turn, a plan gradually forming
in his mind. The rocket could be toppled, its engines removed and an
airlock installed in the tail section, as had been done with the Aztec.
It could be lowered into the rill and its body, all except the airlock,
covered with ash. Materials salvaged from the drones could be used to
construct extensions running along the floor of the rill and these, in
turn, covered with ash. This, then, would be the first moonlock, a place
where man could live, safe from the constant danger of destruction by
chance meteorites.

He looked thoughtfully at the sun. It was an unbearable circle of white
light hanging in the purple-black sky just above the horizon. Giant
black shadows crept out from the towering walls of the crater. Within
another twenty-four hours they would engulf the rocket. During the lunar
night--two weeks long--the crater floor would be gripped in the cold of
absolute space; the rocket would lie in a stygian night broken only by
the brilliance of the stars and the reflected light of an earth which
would seem to fill the sky. But they couldn't wait for the advent of a
new day. They would have to get started immediately.

Larkwell opposed the idea of working through the long lunar night. He
argued that the suits would not offer sufficient protection against the
cold, they needed light to work, and that the slow progress they would
make wouldn't warrant the risks and discomfort they would have to
undergo. Nagel unexpectedly sided with Crag. He cited the waste of
oxygen which resulted by having to decompress Bandit every time someone
left or entered the ship.

"We need an airlock, and soon," he said.

Crag listened and weighed the arguments. Larkwell was right. The space
suits weren't made to withstand prolonged exposure during the bitter
hours of the lunar night. But Nagel was right, too.

"I doubt if we could live cooped up in Bandit for two weeks without
murdering one another," Prochaska observed quietly. "I vote we go
ahead."

"Sure, you sit on your fanny and monitor the radio," Larkwell growled.
"I'm the guy who has to carry the load."

Prochaska reddened and started to answer when Crag cut in: "Cut the
damned bickering," he snapped. "Max handles the communication because
that's his job." He looked sharply at Larkwell. The construction boss
grunted but didn't reply.

       *       *       *       *       *

Night and bitter cold came to Crater Arzachel with a staggering blow.
Instantly the plain became a black pit lighted only by the stars and the
enormous crescent of the earth--an airless pit in which the temperature
plunged until metal became as brittle as glass and the materials of the
space suits stiffened until Crag feared they would crack.

Larkwell warned against continuing their work.

"One misstep in lowering Red Dog and it'll shatter like an egg."

Crag realized he was right. Lowering the rocket in the bitter cold and
blackness would be a superhuman job. Loss of the rocket would be
disastrous. Against this was the necessity of obtaining shelter from the
meteor falls. His determination was fortified by the discovery that a
stray meteorite had smashed the nose of Drone Charlie. He decided to go
on.

The cold seeped through their suits, chilled their bones, touched their
arms and legs like a thousand pin pricks and lay like needles in their
lungs until every movement was sheer agony. Yet their survival depended
upon movement, hence every moment away from Bandit was filled with
forced activity. But even the space cabin of Bandit was more like an
outsized icebox than a place designed for human habitation. The rocket's
insulated walls were ice to the touch, their breaths were frosty
streams--sleep was possible only because of utter fatigue. At the end of
each work shift the body simply rebelled against the task of retaining
consciousness. Thus a few hours of merciful respite against the cold was
obtained.

Crag assigned Prochaska the task of monitoring the radio despite his
plea to share in the more arduous work. The knowledge that one of his
crew was a saboteur lay constantly in his mind. He had risked leaving
Prochaska alone before, he could risk it again, but he wasn't willing to
risk leaving any of the others alone in Bandit. Yet, Prochaska hadn't
found the bomb! Larkwell had worked superhumanly at the task of
rebuilding the Aztec--Nagel had saved his life when he could just as
easily have let him die. Neither seemed the work of a saboteur. Yet the
cold fact remained--there was a saboteur!

Richter, too, preyed on his mind. The self-styled Eastern scientist was
noncommittal, speaking only when spoken to. Yet he performed his
assigned duties without hesitation. He had, in fact, made himself so
useful that he almost seemed one of the crew. That, Crag told himself,
was the danger. The tendency was to stop watching Richter, to trust him
farther and farther. Was he planning, biding his time, preparing to
strike? How? When? He wished he knew.

       *       *       *       *       *

They toppled Red Dog in the dark of the moon.

Larkwell had run two cables to manually operated winches set about
twenty-five yards from the rocket. A second line extended from each
winch to the ravine. The ends of these were weighted with rocks. They
served to anchor the winches during the lowering of the rocket. Finally
a guide line ran from the nose of the rocket to a third winch. Richter
and Nagel manned the lowering winches while Larkwell worked with the
guide line, with only small hand torches to aid them. It was
approximately the same setup used on the Aztec--they were getting good
at it. Crag helped until the moment came to lower the rocket, then there
was little for him to do. He contented himself with watching the
operation, playing his torch over the scene as he felt it was needed.

It was an eery feeling. The rocket was a black monster bathed in the
puny yellow rays of their hand torches. The pale light gave the illusion
of movement until the rocket, the rocks, and the very floor of the
crater seemed to writhe and squirm, playing tricks on the eyes. It was,
he knew, a dangerous moment, one ripe for a saboteur to strike--or ripe
for Richter.

It was dark. Not an ebony dark but one, rather, with the odd color of
milky velvet. The earth was almost full, a gigantic globe whose
reflected light washed out the brilliance of the stars and gave a milky
sheen to Crater Arzachel. It was a light in which the eye detected form
as if it were looking through a murky sea. It detected form but missed
detail. Only the gross structures of the plain were visible: the
blackness of the rocket reaching upward into the night; fantastic
twisted rocks which blotted out segments of the stars; the black blobs
of men moving in heavy space suits, dark shadows against the still
darker night. The eery almost futile beams of the hand torches seemed
worse than useless.

"All set." Larkwell's voice was grim. "Let her come."

Crag fastened his eyes on the nose of Red Dog, a tapered indistinct
silhouette.

"Start letting out line at the count of three." There was a pause before
Larkwell began the countdown.

"One ... two ... three...."

The nose moved, swinging slowly across the sky, then began falling.

"Slack off!"

The lines jerked, snapped taut, and the nose hung suspended in space,
then began swinging to one side.

"Take up on your line, Richter." The sideward movement stopped, leaving
the rocket canted at an angle of about forty-five degrees.

"Okay...." The nose moved down again, slower this time. Crag began to
breathe easier. Suddenly the nose skidded to the rear, falling, then
the rocket was a motionless blob on the plain.

"That did it." Larkwell's voice was ominous, yet tinged with disgust.

"What happened?" Crag found himself shouting into the lip mike.

"The tail slipped. That's what we get for trying to lower it under these
conditions," Larkwell snarled. "The damn thing's probably smashed."

Crag didn't answer. He moved slowly toward the rocket, playing his torch
over its hull in an attempt to discern its details. He was conscious
that the others had come up and were doing the same thing, but even when
he stood next to it Red Dog was no more than a black shadow.

"Feel it," Larkwell barked, "that's the only way to tell. The torches
are useless." They followed his advice. Crag walked alongside the
rocket, moving his hand over the smooth surface. He had reached the tail
and started back on the opposite side when Larkwell's voice rang in his
ears.

"Smashed!"

"Where?"

"The under side--where she hit the deck. Looks like she came down on a
rock."

Crag hurried back around the rocket, nearly stumbling over Larkwell's
legs. The construction boss was lying on his stomach.

"Under here." Crag dropped to his knees, then to his stomach and moved
alongside Larkwell, playing his beam over the hull. He saw the break
immediately, a ragged, gaping hole where the metal had shattered against
a small rock outcropping. Too big for a weld? Larkwell answered his
unspoken thought.

"You'll play hell getting that welded."

"It might be possible."

"There may be more breaks." They lay there for a moment playing their
beams along the visible underside of Red Dog until they were satisfied
that, in this section at least, there was no more damage.

"What now?" Larkwell asked, when they had crawled back from under the
rocket.

"The plans haven't changed," Crag said stonily. "We repair it ... fix it
up ... move in. That's all there is to it."

"You can't fix it by just saying so," Larkwell growled. "First it's got
to be fixable. It looks like a cooked duck, to me."

"We gotta start back," Nagel said urgently, "oxygen's getting low."

Crag looked at his gauge. Nagel was right. They'd have to get moving. He
was about to give the signal to return to Bandit when Richter spoke up.

"It can be repaired." For a moment there was a startled silence.

"How?"

"The inside of the cabin is lined with foam rubber, the same as in
Bandit--a self-sealing type designed for protection against meteorite
damage."

"So...?" Larkwell asked belligerently.

Richter explained, "It's not porous. If the break were covered with
metal and lined with the foam, it would do a pretty good job of sealing
the cabin."

"You can't patch a leak that big with rubber and expect it to hold,"
Larkwell argued. "Hell, the pressure would blow right through."

"Not if you lined the break with metal first," Richter persisted.

The suggestion startled Crag, coming as it did from a man whom he
regarded as an enemy. For a moment he wondered if the German's instinct
for survival were greater than his patriotism. But the plan sounded
plausible.

He asked Larkwell: "What do you think?"

"Could be," he replied noncommittally. He didn't seem pleased that
Richter was intruding in a sphere which he considered his own.

Crag gave a last look at the silhouette of the fallen giant on the plain
and announced: "We'll try it."

"If it doesn't work, we're in the soup," Larkwell insisted. "Suppose
there are more breaks?"

"We'll patch those, too," Crag snapped. He felt an unreasonable surge of
anger toward the construction boss. He sucked his lip, vexedly, then
turned his torch on his oxygen meter. "We'd better get moving."



CHAPTER 18


Colonel Michael Gotch looked at the agent across the narrow expanse of
his battered desk, then his eyes fell again to the dockets. Four
dockets, four small sheaves of paper, each the capsuled story of a man's
life. The names on the dockets were literally burned into his mind: Adam
Philip Crag, Martin LeRoy Larkwell, Gordon Wells Nagel, Max Edward
Prochaska. Four names, four men, four separate egos who, by the magic of
man, had been transported to a bleak haven on another world. Four men
whose task was to survive an alien hell until the U.N. officially
recognized the United States' claim to sovereignty over the stark lands
of the moon.

But one of the men was a saboteur, an agent whose task was to destroy
the Western claim to ownership by destroying its occupancy of the moon.
That would leave the East free to claim at least equal sovereignty on
the basis that it, too, had established occupancy in a lunar base.

The agent broke into his thoughts. "I'd almost stake my professional
reputation he's your man." He reached over and tapped one of the dockets
significantly.

"The word, the single word, that's what you used to tell me to watch
for. Well, the single word is there--the word that spells traitor. I'd
gone over his record a dozen times before I stumbled on it." He ceased
speaking and watched the Colonel.

"You may be right," Gotch said at last. "That's the kind of slip I'd
pounce on myself." He hesitated.

"Go on," the agent said, as if reading his thoughts.

"There's one thing I didn't tell you because I didn't want to prejudice
your thinking. The psychiatrists agree with you."

"The psychiatrists?" The agent's brow furrowed in a question.

"They've restudied the records exhaustively, ever since we first knew
there was a saboteur in the crew.

"They've weighed their egos, dissected their personalities, analyzed
their capabilities, literally taken them apart and put them together
again. I got their report just this morning." Gotch looked speculatively
at the agent. "Your suspect is also their choice. Only there is no
traitor."

"No traitor?" The agent started visibly. "I don't get you."

"No traitor," Gotch echoed. "This is a tougher nut than that. The
personality profile of one man shows a distinct break." He looked
expectantly at the agent.

"A plant." The agent muttered, the words thoughtfully. "A ringer--a spy
who has adopted the life role of another. That indicates careful
planning, long preparation." He muttered the words aloud, talking to
himself.

"He would have had to cover every contingency--friends, relatives,
acquaintances, skills, hobbies--then, at an exact time and place, our
man was whisked away and he merely stepped in." He shook his head.

"That's the kind of nut that's really tough to crack."

"Crack it," Gotch said.

The agent got to his feet "I'll dig him out," he promised savagely.

       *       *       *       *       *

The drive to rehabilitate Red Dog became a frenzy in Crag's mind. He
drove his crew mercilessly, beset by a terrible sense of urgency. Nor
did he spare himself. They rigged lines in the dark of the moon and
rotated the rocket on its long axis until the break in the hull was
accessible.

Crag viewed it with dismay. It was far longer than he had feared--a
splintered jagged hole whose raw torn edges were bent into the belly of
the ship. They finally solved the problem by using the hatch door of
Drone Charlie as a seal, lining it with sheets of foam from Bandit,
whose interior temperature immediately plummeted to a point where it was
scarcely livable.

Prochaska bore the brunt of this new discomfort. Confined as he was to
the cabin and with little opportunity for physical activity, he nearly
froze until he took to living in his space suit.

Crag began planning the provisioning of Red Dog even before he knew it
could be repaired. During each trip from Bandit he burdened the men with
supplies. Between times he managed to remove the spare oxygen cylinders
carried in Drone Charlie. There was still a scant supply in Drone Baker,
but he decided to leave those until later.

The problems confronting him gnawed at his mind until each small
difficulty assumed giant proportions. Each time he managed to fit the
work into a proper mental perspective a new problem or disaster cropped
up. He grew nervous and irritable. In his frantic haste to complete the
work on Red Dog he found himself begrudging the crew the few hours they
took off each day for sleep. _Take it easy_, he finally told himself.
_Slow down_, Adam. Yet despite his almost hourly resolves to slow down,
he found himself pushing at an ever faster pace. Complete Red Dog ...
complete Red Dog ... became a refrain in his mind.

Larkwell grew sullen and surly, snapping at Richter at the slightest
provocation. Nagel became completely indifferent, and in the process,
completely ineffectual. Crag had long realized that the oxygen man had
reached his physical limits. Now, he knew, Nagel had passed them. Maybe
he was right ... maybe he wouldn't leave the moon.

When the break in Red Dog was repaired, Crag waited, tense and jittery,
while Nagel entered the rocket and pressurized it. It'll work, he told
himself. It's got to work. The short period Nagel remained in the rocket
seemed to extend into hours before he opened the hatch.

"One or two small leaks," he reported wearily. He looked disconsolately
at Crag. "Maybe we can locate them--with a little time."

"Good." Crag nodded, relieved. Another crisis past. He ordered Larkwell
to start pulling the engines. If things went right....

The work didn't progress nearly as fast as he had hoped. For one thing,
the engines weren't designed for removal. They were welded fast against
cross beams spread between the hull. Consequently, the metal sides of
the ship were punctured numerous times before the job was completed.
Each hole required another weld, another patch, and increased the danger
of later disaster.

Crag grew steadily moodier. Larkwell seemed to take a vicious
satisfaction out of each successive disaster. He had adopted an
I-told-you-so attitude that grated Crag's nerves raw. Surprisingly
enough, Richter proved to be a steadying influence, at least to Crag. He
worked quietly, efficiently, seeming to anticipate problems and find
solutions before even Crag recognized them. Despite the fact that he
found himself depending on the German more and more, he was determined
never to relax his surveillance over the man. Richter was an enemy--a
man to be watched.

Larkwell and Nagel were lackadaisically beginning work on the ship's
airlock when Prochaska came on the interphones with an emergency call.

"Gotch calling," he told Crag. "He's hot to get you on the line."

Crag hesitated. "Tell him to go to hell," he said finally. "I'll call
him on the regular hour."

"He said you'd say that," Prochaska informed him amiably, "but he wants
you now."

Another emergency--another hair-raiser. _Gotch is a damn ulcer-maker_,
Crag thought savagely. "Okay, I'm on my way," he said wearily. "Anything
to keep him off my back."

"Can I tell him that?"

"Tell him anything you want," Crag snapped. He debated taking the crew
with him but finally decided against it. They couldn't afford the time.
Reluctantly he put the work party in Larkwell's charge and started back
across the bowl of the crater, each step a deliberate weighted effort.
So much to do. So little time. He trudged through the night, cursing the
fate that had made him Gotch's pawn.

Gotch was crisp and to the point. "Another rocket was launched from east
of the Caspian this morning," he told him.

"Jesus, we need a company of Marines."

"Not this time, Adam."

"Oh ..." Crag muttered the word.

"That's right ... a warhead," Gotch confirmed.

Crag kicked the information around in his mind for a moment. "What do
the computers say?"

"Too early to say for sure, but it looks like it's on the right track."

"Unless it's a direct hit it's no go. We got ten thousand foot walls
rimming this hell-hole."

The Colonel was silent for a moment. "It's not quite that pat," he said
finally.

"Why not?"

"Because of the low gravity. Thousands of tons of rock will be lifted.
Some will escape but the majority will fall back like rain. They'll
smash down over a tremendously large area, Adam. At least that's what
the scientists tell us."

"Okay, in four days well be underground," he said with exaggerated
cheerfulness, "as safe as bunnies in their burrows."

"Can you make it that fast?"

"We'll have to. That means well have to use Prochaska. That'll keep you
off the lines except for the regular broadcast hour," he said with
satisfaction.

Gotch snorted: "Go to hell."

"Been on the verge of it ever since we left earth."

"One other thing," Gotch said. "Baby's almost ready to try its wings."

The atomic spaceship! Crag suppressed his excitement with difficulty. He
held down his voice.

"About time," he said laconically.

"Don't give me that blasé crap," the Colonel said cheerfully. "I know
exactly how you feel." He informed him that the enemy was proclaiming to
the world they had established a colony on the moon, and had formally
requested the United Nations to recognize their sovereignty over the
lunar world. "How's that for a stack of hogwash?" he ended.

"Pretty good," Crag agreed. "What are we claiming?"

"The same thing. Only we happen to be telling the truth."

"How will the U.N. know that?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, Adam. Just keep alive and
let us worry about the U.N."

"I'm not going to commit suicide if that's what you're thinking."

"You can--if you don't keep on your toes."

"Meaning...?"

"The saboteur...." His voice fell off for a moment. "I've been wanting
to talk with you about that, Adam. We have a lead. I can't name the man
yet because it's pretty thin evidence. Just keep on your toes."

"I am. I'm a grown boy, remember?"

"More than usual," Gotch persisted. "The enemy is making an all-out
drive to destroy Pickering Base. You can be sure the saboteur will do
his share. The stage is set, Adam."

"For what?"

"For murder."

"Not this lad."

"Don't be too cocky. Remember the Blue Door episode? You're the key
man ... and that makes you the key target. Without you the rest would
be a cinch."

"I'll be careful," Crag promised.

"Doubly careful," Gotch cautioned. "Don't be a sitting duck. I think
maybe we'll have a report for you before long," he added enigmatically.

"If the warhead doesn't get us," Crag reminded him. "And thanks for all
the good news." He laughed mirthlessly. They exchanged a few more words
and cut off. He turned to Prochaska, weighing his gaunt face.

"You get your wish, Max. Climb into your spaceman duds and I'll take you
for a stroll. As of now you're a working man."

"Yippee," Prochaska clowned, "I've joined the international ranks of
workers."

Crag's answering grin was bleak. "You'll be sorry," he said quietly.



CHAPTER 19


The earth was no longer a round full ball. It was a gibbous mass of
milk-white light, humpbacked, a twisted giant in the sky whose reflected
radiance swept the lunar night and dimmed even the brightest of the
stars. Its beacon swept out through space, falling in Crater Arzachel
with a soft creamy sheen, outlining the structures of the plain with its
dim glow.

Larkwell and Nagel had finished the airlock. The rocket had been tested
and, despite a few minute leaks they had failed to locate, the space
cabin was sufficiently airtight to serve their purpose. But the rocket
had still to be lowered into the rill. Larkwell favored waiting for the
coming sun.

"It's only a few more days," he told Crag.

"We can't wait."

"We smashed this baby once by not waiting."

"Well have to risk it," Crag said firmly.

"Why? We're not that short of oxygen."

Crag debated. Sooner or later the others would have to be told about the
new threat from the sides. That morning Gotch had given him ominous
news. The computers indicated it was going to be close. Very close. He
looked around. They were watching him, waiting for him to give answer to
Larkwell's question.

He said softly: "Okay, I'll tell you why. There's a rocket homing in
with the name Arzachel on its nose."

"More visitors?" The plaintive query came from Nagel. Crag shook his
head negatively.

"We've got arms," Prochaska broke in confidently. He grinned "We'll
elect you Commander of the First Arzachel Infantry Company."

"This rocket isn't manned."

"No?"

"It's a warhead," Crag said grimly, "a nuclear warhead. If we're not
underground when it hits...." He left the sentence dangling and looked
around. The masked faces were blank, expressionless. It was a moment of
silence, of weighing, before Larkwell spoke.

"Okay," he said, "we drop her into the hole."

He turned back and gazed at Red Dog. Nagel didn't move. He kept his eyes
on Crag, seemingly rooted to the spot until Prochaska touched his arm.

"Come on, Gordon," he said kindly. "We've got work to do." Only then did
the oxygen man turn away. Crag had the feeling he was in a daze.

They worked four hours beyond the regular shift before Crag gave the
signal to stop. The cables had been fastened to Red Dog--the winches
set. Now it was poised on the brink of the rill, ready for lowering into
the black depths. Crag was impatient to push ahead but he knew the men
were too tired. Even the iron-bodied Larkwell was faltering. It would be
too risky. Yet he only reluctantly gave the signal to start back toward
Bandit.

They trudged across the plain--five black blobs, five shadows plodding
through a midnight pit. Crag led the way. The earth overhead gleamed
with a yellow-green light. The stars against the purple-black sky were
washed to a million glimmering pinpoints. The sky, the crater, the black
shadows etched against the blacker night bespoke the alienage of the
universe. Arzachel was the forgotten world. More, a world that never
was. It was solid matter created of nothingness, floating in
nothingness, a minute speck adrift in the terrible emptiness of the
cosmos. He shivered. It was an eery feeling.

He reached Bandit and waited for the others to arrive. Prochaska,
fresher than the others, was first on the scene. He threw a mock salute
to Crag and started up the ladder. Larkwell and Richter arrived moments
later. He watched them approach. They seemed stooped--like old men, he
thought--but they gave him a short nod before climbing to the space
cabin. He was beginning to worry before Nagel finally appeared. The
oxygen man was staggering with weariness, barely able to stand erect.
Crag stepped aside.

"After you, Gordon."

"Thanks, Skipper."

Crag anxiously watched while Gordon pulled his way up the rope ladder.
He paused halfway and rested his head on his arms. After a moment he
resumed the climb. Crag waited until he reached the cabin before
following. Could Nagel hold out? Could a man die of sheer exhaustion?
The worry nibbled at his mind. Maybe he should give him a day's
rest--let him monitor the communicator. Or just sleep. As it was his
contribution to their work was nil. He did little more than go through
the motions.

Crag debated the problem while they pressurized the cabin and removed
their suits. What would Gotch do? Gotch would drive him till he died.
That's what Gotch would expect him to do. No, he couldn't be soft. Even
Nagel's slight contribution might make the difference between success or
failure. Life or death. He would have to ride it out. Crag set his lips
grimly. He had felt kinder toward the oxygen man since that brief period
when Nagel had let him peer into his mind. Now ... now he felt like his
executioner. Just when he was beginning to understand the vistas of
Nagel's being. But understanding and sympathizing with Nagel made his
task all the more difficult. Impatiently he pushed the problem from his
mind. There were other, bigger things he had to consider. Like the
warhead.

Larkwell was getting out their rations when Prochaska slumped
wordlessly to the floor. Crag leaped to his side. The Chief's face was
white, drawn, twisted in a curious way. Crag felt bewildered. Odd but
his brain refused to function. He was struggling to make himself think
when he saw Nagel leap for his pressure suit. Understanding came. He
shouted to the others and grabbed for his own garments. He fought a wave
of dizziness while he struggled to get them on. His fingers were heavy,
awkward. He fumbled with the face plate for long precious seconds before
he managed to pull it shut and snap on the oxygen.

Nagel had finished and was trying to dress Prochaska. Crag sprang to
help him. Together they managed to get him into his suit and turn on his
oxygen. Only then did he speak.

"How did we lose oxygen, Gordon?"

"I don't know." He sounded frightened. "A slow leak." He got out his
test equipment and fumbled with it. The others watched, waiting
nervously until he finally spoke.

"A very slow leak. Must have been a meteorite strike."

"Can you locate it?"

Nagel shrugged in his suit "It'll take time--and cost some oxygen."

Crag looked at him and decided he was past the point of work. Past,
even, the point of caring.

"We'll take care of it," he said gently. "Get a little rest, Gordon."

"Thanks, Skipper." Nagel slumped down in one of the seats and buried his
head in his arms. Before long Prochaska began to stir. He opened his
eyes and looked blankly at Crag for a long moment before comprehension
came to his face.

"Oxygen?"

"Probably a meteorite strike. But it's okay ... now."

Prochaska struggled to his feet "Well, I needed the rest," he joked
feebly.

The leak put an end to all thoughts of rations. They would have to
remain in their suits until it was found and repaired. At Crag's
suggestion Nagel and Larkwell went to sleep. More properly, they simply
collapsed in their suits. Richter, however, insisted on helping search
for the break in the hull. Crag didn't protest; he was, in fact,
thankful.

It was Prochaska who found it--a small rupture hardly larger than a pea
in one corner of the cabin.

"Meteorite," he affirmed, examining the hole. "We're lucky it hasn't
happened before."

They patched the break and repressurized the cabin, then tested it.
Pressure remained constant. Crag gave a sigh of relief and started to
shuck his suit. Richter followed his example but Prochaska hesitated,
standing uncertainly.

"Makes you leery," he said.

"The chances of another strike are fairly low," Crag encouraged. "I feel
the same way but we can't live in these duds." He finished peeling off
his garments and Prochaska followed suit.

Despite his fatigue sleep didn't come easy to Crag. He tossed
restlessly, trying to push the problems out of his mind. Just before he
finally fell asleep thought of the saboteur popped into his mind. I'll
be a sitting duck, he told himself. He was trying to pull himself back
to wakefulness when his body rebelled.

He slept.

       *       *       *       *       *

They prepared to lower Red Dog into the rill. Earth was humpbacked in
the sky, almost a crescent, with a bright cone of zodiacal light in the
east. The light was a herald of the coming sun, a sun whose rays would
not reach the depths of Crater Arzachel for another forty-eight hours.

In the black pit of the crater the yellow torches of the work crew
played over the body of the rocket, making it appear like some
gargantuan monster pulled from the depths of the sea. It was poised on
the brink of the rill with cables encircling its body, running to
winches anchored nearby. The cables would be let out, slowly, allowing
the rocket to descend into the depths of the crevice. Larkwell on the
opposite side of the rill manned a power winch rigged to pull the rocket
over the lip of the crevice.

"Ready on winch one?" His voice was a brittle bark, edgy with strain.
Nagel spoke up.

"Ready on winch one."

"Ready on winch two?"

"Ready on winch two," Prochaska answered.

"Here we go." The line from Red Dog to Larkwell's winch tautened,
jerked, then tautened once more. Red Dog seemed to quiver, and began
rolling slowly toward the brink of the rill. Crag watched from a nearby
spur of rock. He smiled wryly. Lowering rockets on the moon was getting
to be an old story. The cables and winches all seemed familiar. Well,
this would be the last one they'd have to lower. He hoped. Richter stood
beside him, silent. The rocket hung on the lip of the crevice for a
moment before starting over.

"Take up slack." The lines to the anchor winches became taut and the
rocket hung, half-suspended in space.

"Okay." Larkwell's line tightened again and the rocket jerked clear of
the edge, held in space by the anchor winches.

"Lower away--slowly."

Crag moved to the edge of the rill, conscious of Richter at his heels.
The man's constant presence jarred him; yet, he was there by his orders.
He played his torch over the rocket. It was moving into the rill in a
series of jerks. Its tail struck the ashy floor. In another moment it
rested at the bottom of the crevice. They would make it. A wave of
exultation swept him. The biggest problems could be whipped if you just
got aboard and rode them. Well, he'd ridden this one--ridden it through
a night of Stygian blackness and unbelievable cold. Ridden it to
victory despite damnable odds. He felt jubilant.

But they would have to hurry if they were to get all their supplies and
gear moved from Bandit before the warhead struck. They still had to
cover Red Dog, burying it beneath a thick coat of ash. Would that be
enough? It was designed to protect them from the dangers of meteorite
dust, but would it withstand the rain of hell to come when the warhead
struck? Wearily he pushed the thought from his mind.

When the others had secured their gear, he gave the signal to return to
Bandit. They struck out, trudging through the blackness in single file,
following a serpentine path between the occasional rills and knolls
scattered between the two ships. Crag swung his arms in an effort to
keep warm. Tiny needles of pain stabbed at his hands and feet, and the
cold in his lungs was an agony. Even in the darkness the path between
the rockets had become a familiar thing.

Despite the discomfort and weariness he rather liked the long trek
between the rockets. It gave him time to think and plan, a time when
nothing was demanded of him except that he follow a reasonably straight
course. There was no warhead, no East World menace, no Gotch. There was
only the blackness and the solitude of Crater Arzachel. He even liked
the blackness of the lunar night, despite its attendant cold. The mantle
of darkness hid the crater's ugliness, erasing its menacing profile and
softening its features. He turned his eyes skyward as he walked. The
earth was huge, many times the size of the full moon as seen from its
mother planet, yet it seemed fragile, delicate, a pale ethereal wanderer
of the heavens.

Crag did not think of himself as an imaginative man. Yet when he beheld
the earth something stirred deep within him. The earth became not a
thing of rock and sea water and air, but a living being. He thought of
Earth as _she_. At times she was a ghost treading among the stars, a
waif lost in the immensity of the universe. And at times she was a
wanton woman, walking in solitary splendor, her head high and proud. The
stars were her lovers. Crag walked through the night, head up, wondering
if ever again he would answer her call.

He had almost reached Bandit when Nagel's voice broke excitedly into his
earphones.

"Something's wrong with Prochaska!"

Crag stopped in his tracks, gripped by a sudden fear.

"What?"

"He was somewhere ahead of me. I just caught up to him...."

"What's wrong with him?" Crag snapped irritably. Damn, wouldn't the man
stop beating around the bush?

"He's collapsed."

"Coming," Crag said. He hurried back through the darkness, cursing
himself for having let the party get strung out.

"Too late, Commander." It was Richter's voice. "His suit's deflated.
Must have been a meteorite strike."

"Stay there," Crag ordered. "Larkwell...?"

"I'm backtracking too...."

They were all there when he arrived, gathered around Prochaska's huddled
form. The yellow lights of their torches pinned his body against the
ashy plain. Larkwell, on his knees, was running his hands over the
electronic chief's body. Crag dropped to his side.

"Here it is!"

Larkwell's fingers had found the hole, a tiny rip just under the
shoulder. Crag examined it, conscious that something was wrong. It
didn't look like the kind of hole a meteorite would make. It looked, he
thought, like, a small rip. The kind of a rip a knife point might make.
He stared up at Larkwell. The construction boss's eyes met his and he
nodded his head affirmatively. Crag got to his feet and faced the
German.

"Where were you when this happened?"

"Ahead of him," Richter answered. "We were strung out. I think I was
next in line behind you."

Larkwell said softly: "You got here before I did. That would put you
behind me."

"I was ahead of you when we started." The German contemplated Larkwell
calmly. "I didn't see you pass me."

Crag turned to Nagel. "Where were you, Gordon?"

"At the rear, as usual." His voice was bitter.

"How far was Prochaska ahead of you?"

"I wouldn't know." He looked away into the blackness, then back to Crag.
"Would you expect me to?"

Crag debated. Clearly he wasn't getting anywhere with the interrogation.
He looked at Nagel. The man seemed on the verge of collapse.

"We'll carry Max back. Lend a hand, Richter." His voice turned cold. "I
want to examine that rip in the light."

The German nodded calmly.

"Stay together," Crag barked. "No stringing out Larkwell, you lead the
way."

"Okay." The construction boss started toward Bandit. Nagel fell in at
his heels. Crag and Richter, carrying Prochaska's body between them,
brought up at the rear.

It took the last of Crag's strength before they managed to get the body
into the space cabin.

The men were silent while he conducted his examination. He removed the
dead man's space suit, then stripped the clothing from the upper portion
of his body, examining the flesh in the area where the suit had been
punctured. The skin was unmarked. He studied the rip carefully. It was a
clean slit.

"No meteorite," he said, getting to his feet. His voice was cold,
dangerously low. Larkwell's face was grim. Nagel wore a dazed, almost
uncomprehending expression. Richter looked thoughtful. Crag's face was
an icy mask but his thoughts were chaotic. Fear crept into his mind.
This was the danger Gotch had warned him of.

Richter? The saboteur? His eyes swung from man to man, coming finally to
rest on the German. While he weighed the problem, one part of his mind
told him a warhead was scorching down from the sides. Time was running
out. He came to a decision. He ordered Larkwell and Richter to strip the
pressure gear from Prochaska's body and carry it down to the plain.

"Well bury him later--after the warhead."

"If we're here," Larkwell observed.

"I have every intention of being here," Crag said evenly.



CHAPTER 20


The day of the warhead arrived.

The earth was a thin crescent in the sky whose light no longer paled the
stars. They gleamed, hard and brittle against the purple-black of space,
the reds and yellows and brilliant hot blues of suns lying at
unimaginable distances in the vast box of the universe. Night still
gripped Crater Arzachel with its intolerable cold, but a zodiacal light
in the sky whispered of a lunar dawn to come. Measured against the
incalculable scale of space distances the rocket had but a relative inch
to cross. That inch was almost crossed. The rocket's speed had dropped
to a mere crawl before it entered the moon's gravitational field; then
it had picked up again, moving ever faster toward its rendezvous with
destruction. Now it was storming down into the face of the land.

They buried Red Dog. Larkwell had improvised a crude scraper made of
metal strips from the interior of Drone Baker to aid in the task. He
attached loops of cable to pull it. Crag, Larkwell and Richter wearily
dragged the scraper across the plain, heaping the ash into piles, while
Nagel handled the easier job of pushing them over the edge of the rill.

The unevenness of the plain and occasional rock outcroppings made the
work exasperatingly slow. Crag fumed but there was little he could do to
rectify the situation. It took the better part of eight hours before the
rill was filled level with the plain, with only the extreme end of the
tail containing the airlock being left accessible.

"Won't do a damn bit of good if anything big comes down," Larkwell
observed when they had finished.

"There's not much chance of a major hit," Crag conjectured. "It's the
small stuff that worries me."

"Bandit would be just as safe," Larkwell persisted.

"Perhaps." He turned away from the construction boss. Richter was
swinging his arms and stamping his feet in an effort to keep warm. Nagel
sat dejectedly on a rock, head buried in his arms. Crag felt a momentary
pity for him--a pity tinged with resentment. Nagel was the weak link in
their armor--a threat to their safety. For all practical purposes two
men--he didn't include Richter--were doing the work of three. Yet, he
thought, he couldn't exclude the German. The oxygen and supplies he
consumed were less than those they had obtained from Bandit and Red Dog.
And Richter worked--worked with a calm, relentless purpose--more than
made up for Nagel's inability to shoulder his share. Maybe Richter was a
blessing in disguise. He smiled grimly at the thought. But we're all
shot, he told himself--all damned tired. Someone had to be the first to
cave in. So why not Nagel?

He looked skyward. The stars reminded him of glittering chunks of ice in
some celestial freezebox. He moved his arms vigorously, conscious of the
bitter cold gnawing at his bones--sharp needles stabbing his arms and
legs. He was cold, yet his body felt clammy. He became conscious of a
dull ache at the nape of his neck. Thought of the warhead stirred him to
action.

"We gotta fill this baby," he said, speaking to no one in particular.
"Oxygen ... food ... gear. There's not much time left."

Larkwell snickered. "You can say that again."

Crag said thinly: "Well make it." He looked sympathetically at Nagel.

"Come on, Gordon. We gotta move."

Crag kept the men close together, in single file, with Larkwell leading.
He was followed by Nagel. Crag brought up at the rear. Memory of
Prochaska's fate burned in his mind and he kept his attention riveted on
the men ahead of him. They trudged through the night, slowly; wearily
following the serpentine path toward Bandit. He occasionally flicked on
his torch, splaying it over the column, checking the positions of the
men ahead of him. They rounded the end of a rill, half-circled the base
of a small knoll, winding their way toward Bandit. Overhead Altair
formed a great triangle with Deneb and Vega. Antares gleamed red from
the heart of Scorpius. Off to one side lay Sagittarius, the Archer. He
thought that the giant hollow of Arzachel must be the loneliest spot in
all the universe. He felt numbed, drained of all motion.

"Commander."

The single imperative call snapped him to attention.

"Come quick. Something's wrong with Nagel!"

Crag leaped ahead, flashing his torch. He saw Richter's form bent over a
recumbent figure while his mind registered the fact that it was the
German's voice he had heard. He leaped to his side, keeping his eyes
pinned on Richter until he saw the man's hands were empty. He knelt by
Nagel--his suit was inflated! Crag breathed easier. He said briefly:
"Exhaustion."

Richter nodded. An odd rumble sounded in Crag's earphones, rising and
falling. It took him a moment to realize it was Nagel snoring. He rose,
in a secret sweat of mingled relief and apprehension, and looked down at
the recumbent form, thankful they were near Bandit.

Larkwell grunted, "Gets tougher all the time."

It took the three of them to get Nagel back to the rocket. Crag
pressurized the cabin and opened the sleeping man's face plate. He
continued to snore, his lips vibrating with each exhalation. While he
slept they gulped down food and freshened up. When they were ready to
start transferring oxygen to Red Dog, Nagel was still out. Crag
hesitated, reluctant to leave him alone. The move could be fatal--if
Nagel were the saboteur. But if it were Larkwell, he might find himself
pitted against two men. The outlook wasn't encouraging. He cast one more
glance at the recumbent figure and made up his mind.

"He'll be out for a long time," Larkwell commented, as if reading his
mind.

"Yeah." Crag replaced Nagel's oxygen cylinder with a fresh one, closed
his face plate and opened the pressure valve on his suit He waited until
the others were ready and depressurized the cabin. He climbed down the
ladder thinking he would have to return before the oxygen in Nagel's
cylinder was exhausted.

Each man carried three cylinders. When they reached Red Dog, Larkwell
scrambled down into the rill and moved the oxygen cylinders, which Crag
and Richter lowered, into the rocket through the new airlock. They
increased the load to four cylinders each on the following trip, a
decision Crag regretted long before they reached Red Dog. It was a
nightmarish, body-breaking trek that left him staggering with sheer
fatigue. He marveled at Larkwell and Richter. Both were small men
physically. Small but tough, he thought. Tough and durable.

Nagel was awake, waiting for them when they returned for another load.
He greeted them with a slightly sheepish look. "Guess I caved in."

"That you did," Crag affirmed. "Not that I can blame you. I'm just about
at that point myself."

Nagel spoke listlessly. "Alpine sent a message."

"Oh?" Crag waited expectantly.

"Colonel Gotch. He said the latest figures indicated the rocket would
strike south of Alphons at 1350 hours."

South of Alphons? How far south? It would be close, Crag thought Maybe
too close. Maybe by south of Alphons Gotch meant Arzachel. Well, in that
case his worries would be over. He looked at the master chrono. Time for
two more trips--if they hurried.

       *       *       *       *       *

They were making their last trip to Bandit.

Larkwell led the way with Crag bringing up the rear. They trudged
slowly, tiredly, haunted by the shortness of time, yet they had pushed
themselves to their limit. They simply couldn't move faster.

Strange, Crag thought, there's a rocket in the sky--a warhead, a nuclear
bomb hurtling down from the vastness of space--slanting in on its target
The target: Adam Crag and crew. If we survive this ... what next? The
question haunted him. How much could they take? Specifically, how much
could _he_ take? He shook the mood off. He'd take what he had to take.

He thought: _One more load and we'll hole up._ The prospect of ending
their toil perked up his spirits. During the time of the bomb they'd
sleep--sleep. Sleep and eat and rest and sleep some more.

Halfway to Bandit he suddenly sensed something wrong. Richter's form,
ahead, was a black shadow. Beyond him, Nagel was a blob of movement. He
flicked his torch on, shooting its beams into the darkness beyond the
oxygen man. Larkwell--there was no sign of Larkwell. He quickened his
pace, weaving the light back and forth on both sides of their path.

"Larkwell?" His voice was imperative.

No answer.

"Larkwell?" Silence mocked him. Richter stopped short. Nagel turned,
coming toward him in the night.

"Where's Larkwell?"

"He was ahead of me." It was Nagel.

Richter shrugged. "Can't see that far ahead."

Crag's thoughts came in a jumbled train. Had Larkwell been hit by a
meteorite? No, they would have seen him fall.

"Must have drawn ahead," Richter observed quietly. There was something
in his voice that disturbed Crag.

"Why doesn't he answer?" Nagel cut in. "Why? why?"

"Larkwell! Larkwell, answer me!" Silence. A great silence. A suspicion
struck his mind. Crag caught his breath, horrified at the thought.

"Let's get moving--fast." He struck out in the direction of Bandit,
forcing his tired legs into a trot. His boots struck against the plain,
shooting needles of pain up his legs. His body grew sweaty and clammy,
hot and cold by turn. A chill foreboding gripped him. He tried to light
the way with his torch. The rocks made elusive shadows--shadows that
danced, receded, grew and shortened by turn, until he couldn't
discriminate between shadow and rock. He stumbled--fell heavily--holding
his breath fearfully until he was re-assured his suit hadn't ripped.
After that he slowed his pace, moving more carefully. His torch was a
yellow eye preceding him across the plain.

Bandit rose before him, jutting against the stars, an ominous black
shadow. He moved his light, playing it over the plain. Larkwell--where
was Larkwell? The yellow beam caressed the rocket, wandering over its
base.

Something was wrong--dreadfully wrong. It took him an instant to realize
that the rope ladder had vanished. He swung the torch upward. Its yellow
beams framed Larkwell's body against the hatch.

"Larkwell." Crag called imperiously.

The figure in the hatch didn't move. Richter came up and stood beside
him. Crag cast a helpless glance at him. The German was silent,
motionless, his face turned upward toward the space cabin as if he were
lost in contemplation. Crag called again, anger in his voice. There was
a moment of silence before a voice tinkled in his earphones.

"Larkwell? There's no Larkwell here." The words were spoken slowly,
tauntingly.

Crag snapped wrathfully: "This is no time to be joking. Toss that ladder
down and make it quick." The silence mocked him for a long moment before
Larkwell answered.

"I'm not joking, Mister Crag." He emphasized the word _Mister_. "There
is no Larkwell. At least, not here."

A fearful premonition came to Crag. He turned toward Richter. The German
hadn't moved. He touched his arm and began edging back until he was well
clear of the base of the rocket. Nagel stood off to one side, seeming
helpless and forlorn in the drama being enacted. Crag marshaled his
thoughts.

"Larkwell?"

"My name is Malin ... if it interest you, Mister Crag. Igor Malin." The
words were spoken in a jeer.

Crag felt the anger well inside him. All the pent-up emotion he had
suppressed since leaving earth boiled volcanically until his body shook
like a leaf. The scar on his face tingled, burned, and he involuntarily
reached to rub it before remembering his helmet. He waited until the
first tremors had passed, then spoke, trying to keep his voice calm.

"You're disturbed, Larkwell. You don't know what you're doing."

"No? You think not?"

Crag bit his lip vexedly. He spoke again:

"So, you're our saboteur?"

"Call me that, if you wish."

"And a damned traitor!"

"Not a traitor, Mister Crag. To the contrary, I have been very faithful
to my country."

"You're a traitor," Crag stated coldly.

"Come, be reasonable. A traitor is one who betrays his country. You work
for your side ... I work for mine. It's as simple as that." He spoke
languidly but Crag knew he was laughing at him. He made an effort to
control his his temper.

"You were born in the United States," Crag pursued.

"Wrong again."

"Raised in the Maple Hill Orphanage. I have your personnel record."

"Ah, that _was_ your Martin Larkwell." The voice taunted. "But I became
Martin Larkwell one sunny day in Buenos Aires. Part of, shall we say, a
well planned tactic? No, I am not your Martin Larkwell, Mister Crag. And
I'm happy enough to be able to shed his miserable identity."

"What do you expect to gain?" Crag asked. He kept his voice reasonable,
hedging for time.

"Come, now, Mister Crag, you know the stakes. The moon goes to the
country whose living representative is based here when the U.N. makes
its decision--which should be soon. Note that I said _living_."

"Most of the supplies are in Red Dog," Crag pointed out.

"There's enough here for one man." The voice was maddeningly bland in
Crag's earphones.

"You won't live through the rockstorm," Crag promised savagely.

"The chances of a direct hit are pretty remote. You said that yourself."

"Maybe...."

"That's good enough for me."

"Damn you, Larkwell, you can't do this. Throw that ladder down." It was
Nagel. Again the scream came over the earphones: "Throw it down, I say."

"You've made a mistake," Crag cut in calmly. "We can survive. There's
enough oxygen in Red Dog."

"I opened each cylinder you handed down," the man in the hatch stated
matter-of-factly. "In fact, I opened all of the cylinders in Red Dog.
Sorry, Mister Crag, but the oxygen's all gone. Soon you'll follow
Prochaska."

"You did that?" Crag's voice was a savage growl.

"This is war, Mister Crag. Prochaska was an enemy." He spoke almost
conversationally. Crag had the feeling that everyone was crazy. It was a
fantastic mixed-up dream, a nightmare. Soon he'd awaken....

"Coward!" Nagel screamed. "Coward--damned coward!"

The figure in the hatch vanished into the rocket. He's armed! Crag's
mind seized on die knowledge that two automatic rifles were still in
Bandit. He ordered the men back, alarmed. Nagel stood his ground
screaming maledictions.

"Come back, Gordon," Crag snapped.

Malin reappeared a few seconds later holding a rifle. Crag snapped his
torch off, leaving the plain in darkness.

"Move back," he ordered again.

"I won't. I'm going to get into that rocket," Nagel babbled. He lunged
forward and was lost in the darkness before Crag could stop him.

"Nagel, get back here! That's an order."

"I won't ... I won't!" His scream was painful in Crag's ears.

A yellow beam flashed down from the hatch and ran over the ground at the
base of the rocket. It stopped, pinning Nagel in a circle of light. His
face was turned up. He was cursing wildly, violently.

"Nagel!" Crag shouted a warning. Nagel shook his fist toward the hatch
still screaming. Flame spurted from the black rectangle and he fell,
crumpled on the plain.

"Move further back," Richter said quietly.

Crag stood indecisively.

Richter spoke more imperatively. "He's gone. Move back--while you can."

"Happy dreams, Mister Crag ... and a long sleep." The hatch closed.



CHAPTER 21


Nagel was dead. He lay sprawled in the ash, a pitifully small limp
bundle in a deflated suit. He had gotten his wish--he would never see
earth again. _Under the wide and starry sky_ ... Now he was asleep with
his dream. Asleep in the fantastically bizarre world he had come to
love. But the fact still remained: Nagel had been murdered. Murdered in
cold blood. Murdered by the killer of little Max Prochaska. And now the
killer was in command! Crag looked down at the crumpled body, reliving
the scene, feeling it burn in his brain.

Finally he rose, filled with a terrible cold anger.

"There's one thing he forgot...."

"What?" Richter asked.

"The cylinders in Drone Baker. We didn't move them."

He looked at his oxygen gauge. Low. Baker lay almost four miles to the
east on a trail seldom used. They had never traversed it by night.
Baker, in fact, had become the forgotten drone. He probed his mind.
There was a spur of intervening rock ... rills ... a twisty trail
threading between lofty pinnacles....

"Well have to hurry," Richter urged.

"Let's move...."

They started toward the east, walking silently, side by side, their
former relationship forgotten. Crag accepted the fact that their
survival, the success of his mission--Gotch's well-laid plans--could
very well depend upon what Richter did. Or didn't do. He had suddenly
become an integral part in the complex machine labeled STEP ONE.

They reached the ridge which lay between them and the drone and started
upward, climbing slowly, silently, measuring distance against time in
which time represented life-sustaining oxygen. The climb over the ridge
proved extremely hazardous. Despite their torches they more than once
brushed sharp needles of rock and stumbled over low jagged extrusions.
They were panting heavily before they reached the crest and started down
the opposite side. They reached the plain and Crag checked his oxygen
gauge. The reading alarmed him. He didn't say anything to Richter but
speeded his pace. The German's breath became a hoarse rumble in the
earphones.

"Stop!" There was consternation in Richter's warning cry. Crag
simultaneously saw the chasm yawning almost at their feet.

Richter said quietly: "Which way?"

"Damned if I know." Crag flashed his torch into the rill. It was wide
and deep, a cleft with almost vertical sides. They would have to go
around it. He flashed the light in both directions along the plain.
There was no visible end to the fissure.

He studied the stars briefly and said, "East is to our right. We'll have
to work along the rill and gamble that it ends soon."

It did. They rounded its end and resumed their way toward the east. Crag
had to stop several times to get his bearings. The shadows danced before
the torch beams confusing him, causing odd illusions. He fell to
navigating by the stars. It occurred to him that Baker, measured against
the expanse of the plain, would be but a speck of dust.

Richter's voice broke reflectively into his earphones, "Oxygen's about
gone. Looks like this place is going to wind up a graveyard."

Crag said stubbornly: "We'll make it."

"It better be soon...."

"We should be about there."

They topped a small rise and dropped back to the plain. The needle of
Drone Baker punctuated the sky--blotted out the stars. Oxygen ...
oxygen. The word was sweet music. He broke into a run, reached its base
and clawed at the ladder leading to its hold. He got inside panting
heavily, conscious of a slightly dizzy feeling, and grabbed the first
cylinder he saw. He hooked it into his suit system before looking down
toward the plain. Richter was not in sight. Filled with alarm he grabbed
another cylinder and hurried down the ladder. His torch picked up
Richter's form near the base of the rocket. He hooked the cylinder into
his suit system and turned the valve, hoping he was in time, then
flashed his torch on the German's face. He seemed to be breathing. Crag
called experimentally into the earphone, without answer. He finally
snapped off the torch to conserve the battery and waited, his mind a
jumble of thoughts.

"Commander...?"

"Good. I was scared for a moment." He flashed the torch down. Richter's
eyes were open; he was smiling faintly.

"Not a bad way to go," he managed to say. "Nice and easy."

"The only place you're going is Red Dog."

"I'll be okay in a minute."

"Sure you will."

Richter struggled to his feet breathing deeply. "I'm okay."

"We'd better get some more oxygen--enough to last through the
fireworks," Crag suggested.

They returned to the drone and procured eight cylinders, lowering them
with a piece of line supplied for the purpose. They climbed down to the
plain, packed the cylinders and started for Red Dog.

"Going to be close but we'll make it," Crag said, thinking of the
warhead.

Richter answered confidently: "We'll make it."

Strange, Crag thought, I wind up fighting with the enemy to keep one of
my own crew from murdering me. Enemy? No, he could no longer brand
Richter an enemy. He felt a pang of regret over the way he'd mistrusted
him. Still, there had been no other course. A thought jolted him. He
spoke casually, aware he might be stepping on Richter's toes: "There's
one thing I don't understand...."

"What?"

"Larkwell's an enemy agent...." He hesitated.

"And...?"

"Why didn't he attempt to solicit your aid?" Crag finished bluntly.

"You're a spaceman, Commander, not an intelligence agent."

"I don't get the connection."

"An agent trusts no one. And a saboteur is the lone wolf of the agents.
Trust me? Ha! He'd just as soon trust your good Colonel Gotch. No,
Larkwell wouldn't have trusted me. Never."

Crag was silent. An agent who couldn't trust a soldier of his own
country, even when the chips were down? It was a philosophy he couldn't
understand. As for Larkwell! He vowed he'd live long enough to see him
dead. More, he'd kill him himself. He was planning how he'd accomplish
it when they reached the rill where Red Dog was buried. He switched his
torch on and ran it along the edge of the chasm until he located the
rope ladder leading down to the airlock.

"You lower 'em and I'll pack 'em." Crag ordered. He descended into the
rill and began moving the cylinders Richter lowered to him. Finished, he
examined the cylinders they had brought earlier. Empty! His lips set in
a thin line as he examined the cylinders which the rocket had brought
from earth. Empty ... all empty. Larkwell had done a thorough job.

He gritted his teeth. Before he was through he'd ram the empty cylinders
down Larkwell's throat. Yeah, and that wasn't all. He contemplated the
step-by-step procedure. Larkwell would die. Die horribly. He looked
toward the hatch wondering what was detaining Richter. He waited a
moment, then climbed back to the plain. The German was nowhere in sight.

"Richter?" There was no answer. He checked his interphone to make sure
it was working and called again. Silence. He swept his torch over the
plain. No Richter. The German had vanished ... disappeared into the
black maw of the crater.

"Richter! Richter, answer me...!" Silence. Apprehension swept him. He
called again, desperately:

"Richter!"

"I'm all right, Commander." Richter's voice was low, seeming to have
come from a distance. "You'd better get back into Red Dog."

"Where are you?" Crag demanded.

"I have a job to do."

"Come back." The German didn't answer. Crag was about to start in
pursuit when he realized he didn't have the faintest idea what direction
Richter had taken. He hesitated, baffled and fearful by turn.

Periodically he called his name without receiving an answer. He fumed,
wondering what the German had in mind. He couldn't get into Bandit and,
besides, he was unarmed. He popped back into Red Dog and looked at the
chrono. If Gotch's figures were right the warhead would strike in four
minutes. He climbed out of the rill.

"Warhead due in less than four minutes," he called into his mike.

"Get back into Red Dog, Commander," Richter insisted.

Crag snapped irritably: "What the hell are you trying to do."

"Commander, many people have crossed the frontier--from East to West.
Many others have wanted to."

"I don't get you."

"I had to come all the way to Arzachel to find my frontier, Commander."

"Richter, come back," Crag ordered, his voice level.

"There's nothing you can do. You didn't know it but when I landed here I
crossed the frontier, Commander. I went from East to West, on the moon."

"Richter...?"

"Now I am free."

"I don't know what you're talking about, but you'd better get back
here--and pronto. You'll get massacred if you're on the plain when the
rocket hits." Inwardly he was shaken. "There's not a damn thing you can
do about Larkwell."

"Ah, but there is. He forgot two things, Commander. The oxygen in Baker
was only the first."

"And the second?"

Richter did not answer.

Crag called again. No answer. He waited, uncertain what to do next.

The ground twisted violently under his feet. The warhead! A series of
diminishing quakes rolled the plain in sharp jolts. Missed Arzachel, he
thought jubilantly. It missed ... missed. He twisted his head upward.
The sky was black, black, a great black spread that reached to infinity,
broken only by the brilliance of the stars. Off to one side Betelgeuse
was a baleful red eye in the shoulder of Orion.

A picture of what was happening flashed through his mind. Somewhere
between Alphons and Arzachel thousands of tons of rock were hurtling
upward in great ballistic trajectories, parabolic courses which would
bring them crashing back onto the lunar surface. Many would escape,
would hurtle through space until infinity ended. Some would be caught in
the gravisphere of planets, would crash down into strange worlds. But
most would smash back on the moon. Rocks ranging in size from grains of
dust to giants capable of smashing skyscrapers would fall like rain.

"Richter! Richter!" He repeated the call several times. No answer. He
swept his torch futilely over the plain. Richter was a dedicated man. If
the coming rain of death held any fears for him he failed to show it. He
looked up again, fancying that he saw movement against the stars.
Somewhere up there mountains were hurtling through the void. He
hurriedly descended into the rill, hesitated, then moved into the
rocket. He again hesitated before leaving the airlock open. Richter
might return.

After a while he felt the first thud, a jolt that shook the rocket and
traveled through his body like a wave. The floor danced under his feet.
He held his breath expectantly, suppressing an instant of panic. The
rocket vibrated several times but none of the jolts was as severe as the
first. He waited, aware of the stillness, a silence so deep it was like
a great thunder. The big stuff must all be down. The thought bolstered
his courage. The idea of being squashed like a bug was not appealing. He
waited, wondering if Richter had survived. He thought of Larkwell and
involuntarily clenched his fists. Larkwell, or Igor Malin--if he
lived--would be his first order of business. He remembered Nagel and
Prochaska and began planning how he would kill the man in Bandit. He
waited a while longer. The absolute silence grated his ears. Now, he
thought.

He slipped on a fresh oxygen cylinder, and hooked a spare into his belt,
then pawed through the supplies until he found fresh batteries for his
torch. Finally he got one of the automatic rifles from Red Dog's
arsenal. After that he climbed up to the plain. He called Richter's name
several times over the phones, with little hope of answer. He looked at
the sky, then swept his torch over the moonscape. A feeling of solitude
assailed him. For the first time since leaving earth he was totally
alone.

The last time he had experienced such a feeling was when he'd pushed an
experimental rocket ship almost to the edge of space. He shook off the
feeling and debated what to do. Richter undoubtedly was dead. Had
Larkwell--or was it Malin?--survived the rock storm? Spurred to action,
he turned toward Bandit. Nothing seemed changed, he thought, or almost
nothing. Here and there the smooth ash was pitted. Once he came to a
jagged rock which lay almost astride his path. He was sure it hadn't
been there before.

He moved more cautiously as he drew near Bandit, remembering that the
occupant of the rocket was armed. He climbed a familiar knoll, searching
the plain ahead with his torch. He stopped, puzzled, flashing the light
to check his bearings. Satisfied he was on the right knoll he played the
light ahead again while moving down to the plain. He walked slowly
forward. Once he dropped to the ground to see if he could discern the
bulk of Bandit against the stars. Finally he walked faster, sweeping the
torch over the plain in wide arcs. Suddenly he stopped. Gone! Bandit was
gone! It couldn't be. It might be demolished, smashed flat, but it
couldn't disappear. He wondered if he were having hallucinations. No, he
was sane ... completely sane. He began calling Richter's name. The
silence mocked him. Finally he turned back toward Red Dog.

Crag slept. He slept with the airlock closed and the cabin flooded with
oxygen. He slept the sleep of the dead, a luxurious sleep without
thought or dream. When he awakened, he ate and donned the pressure suit,
thinking he would have to get more oxygen from the drone. He opened the
hatch and scrambled out. The plain was light. The sun was an intolerable
circle hanging at the very edge of the horizon. He blinked his eyes to
get them used to the glare.

He studied the plain for a long time, then hefted the rifle and started
toward Bandit before he remembered there was no Bandit. No Bandit? When
he reached the top of the knoll, he knew he was right. Bandit
unaccountably was gone. He searched the area in wide circles. The
question grew in his mind. He found several twisted pieces of metal--a
jagged piece of engine. Abruptly he found Richter.

He was dead. His suit hung limp, airless against his body. He stared at
the object next to Richter. It was a moment before he recognized it as
the rocket launcher.

"_He forgot two things, Commander...._"

Now he understood Richter's words. Now he knew the motive that had
driven him onto the plain in the face of the rock storm. Richter had
used the launcher to destroy Bandit, to destroy the murderer of
Prochaska and Nagel. He marveled that Richter could have carried the
heavy weapon. Once, before, he had watched two men struggle under its
weight Richter must have mustered every ounce of his strength.

He looked at the fallen form for a long time. Richter had crossed his
frontier. At last he turned and started toward Red Dog. Adam Crag, the
Man in the Moon. Now he was really the Man in the Moon. The only Man.
Colonel Crag, Commanding Officer, Pickering Field. General Crag of the
First Moon expeditionary Force. Adam Crag, Emperor of Luna. He
laughed--a mirthless laugh. Damned if he couldn't be anything he wanted
to be--on the Moon.

       *       *       *       *       *

The sun climbed above the rim of Arzachel transforming the vast
depressed interior of the crater into a caldron of heat and glare. In
the morning of the lunar day the rock structures rising from the plain
cast lengthy black shadows over the ashy floor--a mosaic in black and
white. Crag kept busy. He stripped the drones of their scant amount of
usable supplies--mainly oxygen cylinders from Baker--and set up a new
communication post in Red Dog. In the first hours of the new morning
Gotch named the saboteur. Crag listened, wearily. Just then he wasn't
interested in the fact that an alert intelligence agent had doubted that
a man of 5' 5" could have been a star basketball player, as the
Superintendent of the Maple Hill Orphanage had said. He expressed his
feelings by shutting off the communicator in the middle of the Colonel's
explanation.

The sun climbed, slowly, until it hung overhead, ending a morning which
had lasted seven earth days in length. At midday the shadows had all but
vanished. He finished marking the last of three crosses and stepped back
to survey his work. He read the names at the head of the mounds: Max
Prochaska, Gordon Nagel, Otto Richter. Each was followed by a date. Out
on the plain were other graves, those of the crewmen of Bandit and Red
Dog. He had marked each mound with a small pile of stones. Later it
struck him that someday there might be peace. Someday, someone might
want to look at one of those piles of stone. He returned and added a
notation to each.

       *       *       *       *       *

The sun moved imperceptibly across the sky. It seemed to hover above the
horizon for a long while before slipping beyond the rim. Night seemed
eternal. Crag worked and slept and waited. He measured his oxygen,
rationed his food, and planned. He was tough. He'd survive. If only to
read Gotch off, he promised himself savagely.

The sun came up again. In time it set. Rose and set.

Crag waited.

       *       *       *       *       *

He watched the silvery ship let down. It backed down slowly, gracefully,
coming to rest on the ashy plain with scarcely a jar. Somehow he didn't
feel jubilant. He waited, gravely, watching the figures that came from
the ship. He wasn't surprised that the first one was Colonel Michael
Gotch.

       *       *       *       *       *

Later they gathered in the small crew room of the Astronaut, the name of
the first atom-powered spaceship. They waited solemnly--Gotch and Crag,
the pilot, and two crewmen--waiting for the thin man to speak. Just now
he was sitting at the small pulldown chow table peering at some papers,
records of the moon expedition. Finally he looked up.

"It seems to me that your Nation's claim to the Moon is justified," he
said. The words were fateful. The thin man's name was Fredrick Gunter.
He was also Secretary-General of the United Nations.

       *       *       *       *       *

    Jeff Sutton, although experienced in journalistic and technical
    writings, has only recently turned his hand to novels with the
    result that _First on the Moon_ is also his first novel. A native
    Californian, and a Marine veteran, he is presently employed as a
    research engineer for Convair-San Diego, specializing appropriately
    enough for this novel in problems of high altitude survival. He says
    of himself:

    "I have long been a science-fiction reader (a common ailment among
    scientists and engineers). On the personal side, a number of factors
    have coalesced to pin me to the typewriter. I am living in--and
    working in--a world of missiles, rockets, and far-reaching dreams.
    In many areas the border between science-fiction and science
    suddenly has become a lace curtain. It is a world I have some
    acquaintance with--and fits very nicely into my desire to write."

       *       *       *       *       *

                     SCIENCE-FICTION AT ITS BEST

                  Luna Was The Goal, Earth The Prize

     It was a top secret, and yet the enemy knew. They knew that the
     Americans were about to send a manned rocket to the moon and
     thereby claim it for Old Glory. They knew also that whoever held
     the moon would command the Earth ... and they were determined to
     stop us at all costs!

     When assassination and sabotage failed to stop the take-off, they'd
     have to use even more drastic measures. There might be an H-bomb
     loaded rocket missile, there could be a Red spaceship with a
     suicide crew, and there was always the possibility of their placing
     a spy aboard the U.S. rocket.

     FIRST ON THE MOON is a thrilling adventure of the very near future.
     Written with up-to-the-minute accuracy by a professional aviation
     research engineer, it is a top-notch novel that is science-fiction
     only by the thinnest margin!

                              AN ACE BOOK





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About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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