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Gold in the Sky
by Alan Edward Nourse
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GOLD IN THE SKY

By ALAN E. NOURSE

ILLUSTRATOR LLEWELLYN

BOOK-LENGTH NOVEL COMPLETE IN THIS ISSUE

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



CONTENTS

1. TROUBLE TIMES TWO

2. JUPITER EQUILATERAL

3. TOO MANY WARNINGS

4. "BETWEEN MARS AND JUPITER..."

5. THE BLACK RAIDER

6. THE LAST RUN OF THE SCAVENGER

7. PRISONERS

8. THE SCAVENGERS OF SPACE

9. THE INVISIBLE MAN

10. THE TRIGGER

11. THE HAUNTED SHIP

12. THE SINISTER BONANZA

13. PINPOINT IN SPACE

14. THE MISSING ASTEROID

15. THE FINAL MOVE



YOU WILL MEET—

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

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

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

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

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



1. Trouble Times Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

"All set, Captain."

"You understand the program?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who wants me down there?"

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

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

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

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

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

And if anything had happened to Dad....

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

Something was wrong. Something had happened to Dad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But somehow, Tom didn't think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

"But what does he want?"

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

"Is Dad on Mars?" Tom asked.

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

"We could check the register."

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

"I suppose not," Tom said glumly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing since then?"

"Not a word."

The major chewed his lip. "Greg?"

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

"What did he say in the note?"

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

"Nothing at all about what he was doing?"

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

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

"Accident?" Greg said.

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

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

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



2. Jupiter Equilateral

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

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

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

"You mean you don't know?"

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

"Then who was?"

* * * * *

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

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

"I can only tell you what we found."

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

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

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

"Easy, Tom," Greg said.

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

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

"Mining."

"By himself? No crew at all?"

"No, he was alone."

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

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

"How come?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What sort of responsibilities?"

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

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

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

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

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

"How much?" Greg repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Still, it might be fun to look."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

"Well, did you hear what Tawney wanted?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you really think it was an accident?"

"Can't prove it wasn't."

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

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

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

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



3. Too Many Warnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

"That's what I said."

"Did you see it with your own eyes?"

"No."

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Then let me worry about it."

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

* * * * *

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

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

They underestimated Johnny Coombs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Right here."

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

"Quiet as a church," the man said.

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

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

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

"And his prints. He was all right."

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

"Why not?" Greg said.

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

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

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

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

"Johnny Coombs is no novice."

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

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

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

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

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

"That's about right."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were on their way.



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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom blinked. "Fourth dimension?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

"Do you see anybody?" Tom asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You'd think so," Johnny conceded.

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

"Maybe they didn't know," Tom said thoughtfully.

"What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

"That's right."

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

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

* * * * *

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

"What about the dark side?" Greg asked.

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

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

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

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

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

But there was something else....

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

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

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

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

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

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



5. The Black Raider

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

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

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

"Leave it on," Johnny snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about the Scavenger?"

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite suddenly, the lights went out.

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

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

He waited.

Suddenly an idea flickered in Tom's mind.

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

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

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

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

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

More silence. Then a click. "Tom?"

"Here. Are you all right?"

"So far. You?"

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

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

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

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

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

"How much?"

"Ten, fifteen minutes."

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

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

"Look, don't do anything stupid."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was their only chance.

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



6. The Last Run of the Scavenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone was moving stealthily up the corridor.

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

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

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

The first attempt on the control cabin had failed.

* * * * *

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

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

They were being careful!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Drop the stunner right there."

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

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

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

"What other one?" Greg said.

"Your brother. Where is he?"

"How would I know?" Greg said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, I thought...."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In toward the orbit of Mars.

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

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

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

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

"Johnny, Tom's on ... that thing...."

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

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

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

The last run of the Scavenger had ended.

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



7. Prisoners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But why? What was he thinking of?"

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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