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Title: Asteroid H277—Plus
Author: Walton, Harry
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Asteroid H277—Plus" ***

                          Asteroid H277--Plus

                            By HARRY WALTON

              It was a pretty web that Akars spun aboard
                 the Sun-freighter _Cinnabar_.... Mass
                murder and piracy! But he wasn't clever
               enough to allow for the innocent-sounding
                   asteroid charted as "H277--Plus."

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                      Planet Stories Summer 1940.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Jon Akars, petty officer of the Sun Line freighter _Cinnabar_, backed
away from the jimmied manifold of the air circulators and hastily
felt for the emergency mask at his belt. Any moment now the Venusian
_kui-knor_ he had filched from the ship's medicine cabinet and dropped
into the circulators would take effect. Without warning men would drop
at their posts, apparently insensible, rigid of muscle, eyes staring
fixedly. Actually, they would be keenly aware of everything about them,
their senses sharpened rather than dulled by the drug. But it was no
part of Akars' plans to be one of them. He strapped on the mask, and,
at the sound of approaching footsteps, shrank back into the shadows of
the machines.

An officer peered into the circulator chamber for an instant, then
marched on down the corridor. Akars chuckled. Box Jordan _was_ part
of his plan; in a way, he had a star role. But not an enviable one.
Nor, to be sure, were the remainder of the _Cinnabar's_ crew going
to be particularly lucky. The luck of the scheme was reserved for
Akars himself, and it involved four kilos of precious Urulium which
Box Jordan had unearthed during an emergency landing on an unexplored
planetoid. Jordan had been fool enough to turn the stuff over as a
ship's prize, to be equally divided. But with the metal on board, it
was inevitable that a smarter man would see and grasp the chance that
was offered. Akars was that man.

He waited until the circulation meters told him that the _kui-knor_
had been diffused through every cubic foot of air in the ship, then
softly trod the steelene-walled corridor back to the navigating
compartment. The sight there was a gruesome one. Captain Cardigan was
slumped over the chart table, glassy-eyed, to all appearance dead. But
he wasn't dead, Akars knew. The captain and the chief petty officer
and the second navigator and the supercargo--all sprawled in grotesque
attitudes about the compartment, all staring vacantly into space, were
in the grip of an artificially induced coma.

Deliberately Akars walked over and kicked Captain Cardigan in the
chest. Cardigan's face remained impassive, the eyes expressionless,
yet there was a barely perceptible quiver that told the blow had hurt.
Akars grinned and landed another, then scowled and rubbed his ear with
the back of a hairy hand. It was the first navigator, Box Jordan, whom
he owed a special grudge. He'd nursed special ideas for Jordan, the
agony of broken bones, of a merciless beating, before death should wipe
him out. But Jordan wasn't here.

Built into the chart table was the fireproof compartment that held the
ship's log. Akars removed the bulky volume, opened it upon the table,
and ripped out the last four page entries, crumpling the thin metallic
foil before throwing it to the floor. With the log would perish all
records of the Urulium find; if any spaceman's notes or diary held
mention of it the _Cinnabar's_ fate would destroy that also.

Akars moved toward the control board, grasped the refrigeration
controls, swung them to "off." Immediately alarm bells clanged
warning. He could feel the horror which his act engendered in the
men who helplessly watched it--something of that horror chilled even
him. For without refrigeration the fuel tanks would quickly warm up.
The compressed gaseous fuel, held inert only by refrigeration, would
spontaneously explode. The _Cinnabar_, by that simple movement of two
levers, was doomed.

       *       *       *       *       *

The alarm bells echoed madly about him as he left the navigation
compartment and walked further aft, to the stern deck where the
ship's tender nestled against her hull. An airtight telescoping tube
connected parent ship and life ship, and Akars saw that the manhole
cover was slid aside. Someone was either in the tender or had just left
it--perhaps one of the spacemen now lying beside the manhole--on a
routine maintenance job.

Akars climbed the short ladder into the life ship's tiny control
compartment. Lamps were burning, but there was nobody in the
compartment, nor in the little vessel's supply compartment, engine
room, or living quarters. Satisfied, Akars checked food stores, fuel
and air gauges with keen satisfaction. Everything was in perfect order.
His scheme couldn't fail. Only a fool would have let a chance like this
slip by.

Then, thinking of Jordan again, Akars cursed. The lean, red-headed
first navigator had been poison to him ever since joining the ship.
Jordan hadn't been afraid of him. Other officers had excused or
overlooked badly done or neglected work--Box Jordan never. The red-head
had tongue-lashed Akars too often, and Akars had promised himself a
meeting with Jordan--Jordan helpless, paralyzed, but fully conscious
and able to feel every blow that fury could inflict. Now it seemed he
was to be cheated of that.

The clanging alarm reminded him that time was dangerously short. Soon
the tanks would let go; he couldn't afford to be near the doomed
freighter when the exploding fuel did its work. Without glancing back,
he shut the entrance port, pressed the button that collapsed the escape
tube, and took his place at the glowing controls of the little vessel.

The _Cinnabar's_ death knell was muffled now. Like a tocsin of the
dead, it rang dully in his ears as he reached for the levers. But
confidence returned as he felt the familiar handles beneath him. The
life ship was complete, self-sufficient. Charts were reduced to a
simple form, instruments were direct-reading, course plotting almost
automatic, so that the commonest spaceman could navigate the tender
at need. He had himself operated it during the _Cinnabar's_ emergency
landing a month ago.

He punched the internal-combustion engines into life, watched the
generator output mount, then cut in a weak repulsion field. With a
lurch the little ship tore free from its parent vessel and retreated
from the long, gleaming shape of the freighter. He switched over to
the space-induction field coils. Power thrummed in the depths of the
tiny craft; it swerved about and obediently plunged ahead, fleeing the
coming tragedy. After ten minutes at full field he turned it around and
held it motionless in space with respect to the now distant _Cinnabar_.

The slim freighter, gleaming gold in the light of the distant sun,
seemed to float upon a soft, star-sprinkled darkness. There was no
trace of movement, although she was still flying, with untended
engines, at three-quarters field. He bit his lips, waiting. Then,
soundlessly, catastrophe struck!

       *       *       *       *       *

From amidships flowered a terrible, consuming blossom of blue-white
flame, a petalled fire that engulfed the _Cinnabar_ from bow to stem
and limned itself fantastically against the velvet heavens behind.
Streamers of white-hot gas, sunlike in intensity, burst and flared
in the brief glory of destruction, then as swiftly collapsed upon
themselves, dimmed to the lesser glow of molten metal. The _Cinnabar_,
a slender, white-hot needle, broke into a thousand dripping fragments,
droplets of fire spattering the sky.

Akars chuckled uneasily, swore, rubbed his ear with the back of a hand.
That was that. Somewhere in the swirling, far-flung wreckage he must
find the tiny block of unbelievably heavy, practically indestructible
Urulium, flung out of the shattered strong room which he could have
penetrated in no other way. The explosion should have released the
treasure and wiped out all evidence against him at the same time. Like
the rest of his plan it was simple, direct, foolproof.

He flung the little tender back through space toward the glowing debris
which now milled about itself, spinning about a common center. A few
fragments had ripped free from the gravitational whirlpool of the rest.
He dodged a piece half as large as the life ship itself. Red hot still,
it swept past the port, more like a blazing meteor than anything, made
by man. Past other wreckage he swept, evidence of the terrific energy
of spontaneously exploded fuel--gruesome human debris as well as that
of the _Cinnabar_ itself. The temperature within the tender climbed
slowly as it absorbed heat from glowing fragments outside. Uneasily
he checked his own fuel refrigerator, turned thermostatic controls to
maintain a lower temperature.

Something swept into his field of vision with startling speed. He
ripped the helm over, swearing in sudden panic. The tender swerved,
but not sharply enough. A grating shock, a metallic crash, told that
the vessel had been hit. The jar of the concussion almost threw him
from the control seat.

His temples throbbing madly, Akars waited for the dread hiss of
escaping air, the drop in pressure which his ear drums would quickly
detect. The tender was small; a gash in the hull plates would empty it
of air rapidly.

But the pressure remained normal, and he relaxed at last, certain that
the collision had done no more than dent the hull plates. He forgot the
incident upon spying what had been the strong room door. Cautiously he
worked the tender alongside it, scanning nearby debris closely.

It took him fifteen minutes to find the thick-walled copper casket
containing the treasure, scarred by impact, half fused by the terrific
heat even though it had been protected by the walls of the strong
room from the brunt of it. He knew that its precious contents could
have suffered no harm, and carefully manipulated the ship's grappling
mechanism until the casket was safely inside the tender's loading port.
He swung the life ship about and drove for clear space.

So easy it had been! A few minutes of effort had won him ten times as
much as other men earned during a lifetime of hard, dangerous work in
the space-lanes. Lucky he wasn't squeamish by nature. This way he was
safe. Every witness against him was dead. His own word would be taken
as gospel truth. Already he had planned every detail of the story--how
he had been on routine inspection of the tender when the explosion
started forward, in the fuel tanks. How the life ship, with him aboard,
had been blown free by the blast--how he had barely managed to close
the port in time to escape suffocation--how from the tender he had
witnessed the destruction of the _Cinnabar_, and how--a touching detail
this--he had cruised back into the wreckage in search of survivors, but
found none. He would not try to explain the explosion. The lethally
dangerous nature of the fuel would answer all doubts. Nobody could
suspect him.

Just before landing he would transfer the Urulium to his own duffle
bag--a new one, of course, stocked with clothing taken from the
tender's supplies. A welding torch would reduce the copper casket to a
lump of reddish metal. He would dispose of a little Urulium illegally,
outfit a one-man ship with the proceeds, and go on a prospecting cruise
from which he could return with a legitimate store of the precious
stuff. Disposed of to the Martians, who valued it as a healing agent,
the four kilograms would bring a fortune.

       *       *       *       *       *

He pushed the little ship to top speed, which was slow at best. Hour
after hour he hurled its silvery nose toward the distant stars, on
a course which his charts told him led to earth. Mars, smaller than
his own world, was on the other side of the sun. It was on earth that
automatic cameras would have snapped the explosion of the _Cinnabar_.
Perhaps salvage ships were already on their way; in a few hours he
might meet them.

Glancing at the chronometer, he saw that it was safe to remove his
mask. The last vestige of _kui-knor_ which might have entered the
tender from the _Cinnabar_ would have decomposed by now. By this time
it would also have decomposed in the blood of the drugged men had any
remained alive to experience it.

"Akars! Blast my orbit, what happened?"

He whirled at the voice, all his fear surging up within him, choking
him. In the doorway stood Box Jordan, his tall, lean figure swaying a
little, keen eyes questioning.

"Jordan! I--where d'you come from?"

"Routine inspection forward. I was checking the fuel tanks, started to
back out of the tank compartment when I froze up. Couldn't move a toe."
The navigator's sharp eyes narrowed. "What happened?"

"Happened?" Akars fought the panic in his voice, the fear of this man
who was not afraid of him. "Nothing much--just that the _Cinnabar_ blew

"Blew up! You mean we're the only survivors?"

Akars shrugged. "I thought I was, until you popped up. Of course I
looked around. There wasn't anybody else--" He stood up, stretching.
"If you'll take over a while, I'll get the kinks out of me."

For an instant Jordan hesitated. Akars watched him closely. He
suspected, of course--knew that he had been drugged. Even when
under the _kui-knor_, he must have felt the tender pull away from
the _Cinnabar_, and that without any evidence of an explosion. In a
moment he would add things up, reaching the only possible conclusion.
Desperately Akars glanced about for a weapon.

And Jordan, with a queer twisted smile, walked forward--not toward
the pilot's seat, but toward Akars. Those big bony hands of his were
working. His very silence was terrible.

Akars flattened himself against a wall. Big as he was, he knew himself
to be no match for the hard-muscled first navigator. Aroused as the
latter now was, he would be doubly dangerous. Akars clawed the bare
wall, breathing hard.

"You drugged the air-cycle," said Jordan. "You shut off the
refrigerators and took off in the tender. You stood by while the
_Cinnabar_ went to hell, with every man aboard her. Then you went back
and picked up the Urulium--"

"No!" screamed Akars. "No! I swear I didn't--"

Jordan's hard fingers closed over his windpipe, crushed in his throat
like a steel clamp tightened about it. He could feel his eyes bulging
from their sockets, his body turning cold and dwindling away from him.

He slumped suddenly, as though unconscious. A moment longer Jordan
held him in that terrible grip, then flung him away. Akars hit the
wall, collapsed into a huddled heap, gasping and retching as breath
passed his bruised throat. He took his time, gathering strength, sure
that Jordan would not attack him while he was down. Desperation lent
him courage. Concerned, there was nothing to do but fight it out. He
wouldn't let the navigator get another throat hold.

Pretending to be weaker than he was, Akars lurched to his feet. He
had a plan now, and warily circled Jordan before closing in. Then he
plunged forward, ducked a swift uppercut, took a solid body blow that
left him gasping--but reached the wall behind Jordan which was his
objective. A rack of oxygen tanks for use with space suits was fastened
there. Akar's hands tore one free--a slender, blunt-ended cylinder,
massive enough to be a dangerous club. As Jordan closed in Akars
brought it down on the navigator's left arm, which fell limp. With a
bellow of triumph Akars struck for the head.

Jordan, still drug-hazy and crippled in one arm, took the blow on a
temple. It stopped him like a shot; he crumpled to one knee and fell.
Breath rattling in his swollen throat, Akars stared into the hated face
and wondered whether he should finish the job with a few more blows.
Caution whispered consent, but still he hesitated. This was Box Jordan.
_Box Jordan!_ Why kill him like this? He wanted Jordan to know what was
coming--to know it as long as possible.

It struck him then that killing Jordan wasn't as simple as it seemed.
Found aboard the tender, Jordan's body would convict him. Flung into
space, this far from the _Cinnabar_ disaster, it would provoke awkward
questions--unanswerable questions--when discovered. Here was an
unexpected flaw in a scheme that had looked foolproof! Cursing, Akars
pulled the chart book toward him.

       *       *       *       *       *

He had tied Jordan's feet and fastened his hands behind him, lashed to
a wall railing. In a supply closet he had found a paralysis gun, which
he now wore in a side holster. For these and other reasons he was as
confident, when Jordan showed signs of returning life, as he had been
at first. Grinning, he watched the navigator stir and weakly sit up.

"Coming out of it, are you? Listen to me, Jordan. I've got the Urulium
aboard. Want to come in on this with me?"

Jordan rubbed his temple tenderly. "I suppose there isn't much choice--"

Akars chuckled. "You'll come in, huh? And spill the first chance you
get. I'd be asking for the mercury mines if I took you back. Skip it,
Jordan. I was kidding."

"So was I." The navigator smiled crookedly. "But when it comes to
teaming up with a rat, I'm ashamed of myself for even kidding about it."

Akars struck out--a hard flat hand blow that rocked Jordan's head and
left red welts on his cheek. "You know what? I've got your spot picked
out. Nice and cool. No air, except what'll be in your suit tank. And
about as much chance of rescue as an ice cube in hell--"

He picked up the chart book and with ruffled brow turned its
alumin-foil pages, his tongue between his lips. The page found, he held
it before Jordan.

"See that? A dinky space-apple that's been passed up by every claiming
bureau in the system. Ten miles through. Just big enough to keep you
from drifting free where a nosy patrolship might find you. It's the
nearest asteroid--I'd dump you on Pluto if it weren't out of my way."

"Asteroid H277 plus," read Jordan calmly. "Not exactly exciting. Why
not ray me here and chuck out the remains?"

Akars swore. "Because you're supposed to be with what's left of the
_Cinnabar_--damn you. I can't take you back there--salvage ships may be
out by now. And I can't throw you out where you may be picked up by a
patrol. I've got to ditch you where you'll stay put--"

"So it's H277 plus for me?" murmured Jordan. "The plus part of it
sounds interesting. What does it mean, Akars?"

"How the hell would I know? And what do you care? You won't live long
enough to worry about it."

But Akars himself was worrying as the asteroid floated into sight. He'd
had to go off-course to reach it, when he should be making a bee-line
for earth. There was a slight chance that the tender might be observed
stopping here--a risk he had to take, but which could be minimized
by haste. To cut the time shorter he'd let Jordan wear a space suit
and walk out of the airlock. That would save time. Otherwise, if he
killed Jordan on board, there would be some delay while he disposed of
the body. Besides, there was a savage satisfaction in marooning the
navigator alive, in letting him live out those last hopeless hours in
slow torture of body and mind. Akars himself shuddered as he thought of
it--the fate reserved for murderers taken aboard ship. A ten hour tank
of oxygen--and a barren island of the sky such as this.

       *       *       *       *       *

Asteroid H277 plus was a bleak lump of pitted rock, roughly oval in
shape, gleaming where the sunlight fell, pitch-black in the shadows.
No ship would ever come close enough to it to make out a man's body,
even if it lay in the light. In fact, space-ships avoided such masses
as this just as the ancient steamers avoided icebergs. The chance of
rescue was practically non-existent.

"Almost there, aren't we?" asked Jordan from the floor. "What do I
do--a swan dive from the emergency lock?"

Akars shut off power, held the tender immovable by a weak repulsion
field, and freed the navigator's feet.

"You get in a suit--and don't try any tricks or I'll beam you." He
watched sharply as Jordan meekly obeyed and climbed into the stiff
canvas garment. Akars set the helmet over his head and fastened the rim
studs, tearing off the collar bridge bearing the legend "_SS Cinnabar_."

"If you ever are found, you won't be recognized. They say a body loses
heat slowly enough for decomposition to make a good start, in one of
these suits. When we land, you close your face plate and go out through
the lock."

He watched Jordan narrowly as he jockeyed the ship closer to the tiny
asteroid. Without knowing why, he was uneasy. Jordan was a fighter.
Funny he'd go out like this, the hard way, without a scrap. But what
could he do? If he didn't march out of the lock under his own power,
Akars could beam him and throw him out through the loading port.

Asteroid H277 plus swam up to meet the ship. Akars picked his landing
spot and reduced his repulsion field carefully. The ship settled.
Jordan seemed to stiffen expectantly. Akars lifted the paralysis gun
from its holster.

Directly beneath the basalt blackness of the asteroid shimmered oddly
with a strange translucent light. Akars swore softly. There couldn't be
anything down there. A trick of the sunlight--perhaps the shadow of the
ship? But it was queer. Maybe he shouldn't land--just make Jordan jump
from the ship. That was it.

His eyes flickered to the navigator, stiff as a ramrod now, with that
tense air of waiting for something to happen. Akars tightened his grip
on the gun, jerked his eyes back to the asteroid--and froze with fear.

From the basalt surface leaped a fountain of fire--cold leaping fire
licking upward at the ship. He jerked the controls over to full
repulsion, screamed in terror as the ship dipped further instead of
rising. An electrical flame sprang to meet it--a snapping, snarling
fury of saw-edged lightning. Incredulously he saw it leave the prow of
the vessel, flicker back to strike white flame from the hull plates
just over the fuel tanks forward.

A muffled roar beat upon his ears. Flame billowed forth before the
pilot glass. The ship trembled and shuddered to the force of unleashed
gases; acrid fumes swirled over the control board and seeped from the
very floor plates beneath his feet. Through drifting smoke he saw
the deck curl back, white hot, and drift lazily out of sight like a
burnt leaf. His ear drums snapped as air fled into space. Vaguely he
saw the black surface of the asteroid fly upward, felt a crunch and
crash of metal as it exploded in his face, and fell through senseless

       *       *       *       *       *

"So you're alive?"

It was Box Jordan's voice, Akars realized as he awoke to painful
consciousness. Parts of him seemed to be on fire. He was wearing a
space suit, as Jordan was, and they were no longer in the ship, but on
the asteroid.

"Hard time getting you into a suit when the ship's air went," remarked
the navigator, his voice loud in Akars' earphones. "Of course I knew
what was coming and had only to close my face plate, just as you told
me. But I wanted to save you particularly. They need good, tough
murderers like you at the mines. Some last as long as five years, I

Akars tried to sit up, discovered that he was bound--and that Jordan
had the paralysis gun now.

"I found the Urulium," continued the navigator. "The _Cinnabar's_
widows and orphans will get their share, after all."

"What happened?" asked Akars thickly. "That explosion--"

"Only a feeble imitation of the _Cinnabar's_. Don't forget that her
fuel exploded spontaneously--with a thousand times the force. In our
case the fuel was inert, because our refrigeration didn't fail. It
_burnt_, once ignited, but without an explosion--just as I expected.
What I didn't tell you, Akars, was that the collision you had near the
wrecked _Cinnabar_ knocked a hole in one fuel tank. I was lying almost
against it--almost froze, too--and for hours I could hear fuel leaking
out through the rip. Not much--just enough to catch fire when that
spark hit us, and to carry back and ignite the whole tank."

Akars groaned. "That spark--that damn spark!"

Jordan was staring into space. He rose and looked long, then sat down

"We're rescued, Akars. Naturally the salvage ships kept a lookout for
the missing life ship and saw the flare-up here. They'll arrive soon."

"That spark!" groaned Akars. "What the devil was it?"

"That was what you weren't interested in, Akars. The 'plus' of H277
plus. Did you know that the earth and most planets are negatively
charged--have a surplus of electrons? And that our ships are also
negatively charged--in fact super-charged because of the driving
fields we use? A planetoid or asteroid with a simple name or number
is also negative and no precautions are necessary. But a 'plus'
following the designation means it is positively charged, whether
because of interacting gravitational fields, internal radio-activity,
or induction between the body and an atmosphere or some other reason.
When an accredited navigator has to land on a 'plus' body he orders a
careful check of all fuel tanks, because he knows there will be a heavy
electrical discharge between it and the ship just before landing. But
you didn't know that--

"Another thing you didn't know, being a petty and not a commissioned
officer, is that a new I.T.C. ruling requires an exact duplicate of the
ship's log to be kept aboard life tenders at all times. Just before I
went back to the tanks I replaced that duplicate log book. You took
it along, Akars, and I found it when I found the Urulium, safe and
sound in its fireproof case. That's what will convict you, Akars--not
my words, but the story of the Urulium find and my turning it over as
a ship's prize, written and signed by Captain Cardigan himself. The
I.T.C. would have found that duplicate log anyhow, Akars. You never
really had a chance to get away with it. Funny, isn't it? Funny how
dumb a smart guy can be...."

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Asteroid H277—Plus" ***

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