A Golden Griffon Space Adventure
RIP FOSTER IN RIDE THE GRAY PLANET
Golden Press New York Golden Griffon TM of Western Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright 1952 by Western Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in the U.S.A. Published by Golden Press, New York, N.Y. First Golden Griffon Printing, 1969
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE: Spacebound
CHAPTER TWO: Rake That Radiation!
CHAPTER THREE: Capture and Drive!
CHAPTER FOUR: Find the Needle!
CHAPTER FIVE: The Gray World
CHAPTER SIX: Rip's Planet
CHAPTER SEVEN: Earthbound!
CHAPTER EIGHT: Duck—or Die!
CHAPTER NINE: Repel Invaders!
CHAPTER TEN: Get the Scorpion!
CHAPTER ELEVEN: Hard Words
CHAPTER TWELVE: Mercury Transit
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Peril!
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Between Two Fires
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: The Rocketeers
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Ride the Planet!
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Visitors!
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Courtesy—With Claws
CHAPTER NINETEEN: Spacefall
CHAPTER TWENTY: On the Platform
A thousand miles above Earth's surface the great space platform sped from daylight into darkness. Once every two hours it circled the earth completely, spinning along through space like a mighty wheel of steel and plastic.
Through a telescope on Earth the platform looked to be a lifeless, lonely disk, but within it, hundreds of spacemen and Planeteers went about their work.
In a ready room at the outer edge of the platform, a Planeteer officer faced a dozen slim, black-clad young men who wore the single golden orbits of lieutenants. This was a graduating class, already commissioned, having a final informal get-together.
The officer, who wore the three-orbit insignia of a major, was lean and trim. His short-cropped hair covered his head like a gray fur skull cap. One cheek was marked with the crisp whiteness of an old radiation burn.
"Stand easy," he ordered briskly. "The general instructions of the Special Order Squadrons say that it's my duty as senior officer to make a farewell speech. I intend to make a speech if it kills me—and you, too."
The dozen new officers facing him broke into grins. Maj. Joe Barris had been their friend, teacher, and senior officer during six long years of training on the space platform. He could no more make a formal speech than he could breathe high vacuum, and they all knew it.
Lt. Richard Ingalls Peter Foster, whose initials had given him the nickname "Rip," asked, "Why don't you sing for us instead, Joe?"
Major Barris fixed Rip with a cold eye. "Foster, three orbital turns, then front and center."
Rip obediently spun around three times, then walked forward and stood at attention, trying to conceal his grin.
"Foster, what does SOS mean?"
"Special Order Squadrons, sir."
"Right. And what else does it mean?"
"It means 'Help!' sir."
"Right. And what else does it mean?"
"Superman or simp, sir."
This was a ceremony in which questions and answers never changed. It was supposed to make Planeteer cadets and junior officers feel properly humble, but it didn't work. By tradition, the Planeteers were the cockiest gang that ever blasted through high vacuum.
Major Barris shook his head sadly. "You admit you're a simp, Foster. The rest of you are simps, too, but you don't believe it. You've finished six years on the platform. You've made a few little trips out into space. You've landed on the moon a couple of times. So now you think you're seasoned space spooks. Well, you're not. You're simps!"
Rip stopped grinning. He had heard this before. It was part of the routine. But he sensed that this time Joe Barris wasn't kidding.
The major absently rubbed the radiation scar on his cheek as he looked them over. They were like twelve chicks out of the same nest. They were about the same size, a compact five feet eleven inches, 175 pounds. They wore belted, loose black tunics over full trousers which gathered into white cruiser boots. The comfortable uniforms concealed any slight differences in build. All twelve were lean of face, with hair cropped to the regulation half inch. Rip was the only redhead among them.
"Sit down," Barris commanded. "Here's my speech."
The twelve seated themselves on plastic stools. Major Barris remained standing.
"Well," he began soberly, "you are now officers of the Special Order Squadrons. You're Planeteers. You are lieutenants by order of the Space Council, Federation of Free Governments. And—space protect you!—to yourselves you're supermen. But never forget this: To ordinary spacemen, you're just plain simps. You're trouble in a black tunic. They have about as much use for you as they have for leaks in their air locks. Some of the spacemen have been high-vacking for twenty years or more, and they're tough. They're as nasty as a Callistan teekal. They like to eat Planeteer junior officers for breakfast."
Lt. Felipe "Flip" Villa asked, "With salt, Joe?"
Major Barris sighed. "No use trying to tell you space chicks anything. You're lieutenants now, and a lieutenant has the thickest skull of any rank, no matter what service he belongs to."
Rip realized that Barris had not been joking, no matter how flippant his speech. "Go ahead," he urged. "Finish what you were going to say."
"Okay. I'll make it short. Then you can catch the Terra rocket and take your eight weeks' Earth leave. You won't really know what I'm talking about until you've batted around space for a while. All I have to say adds up to one thing. You won't like it, because it doesn't sound scientific. That doesn't mean it isn't good science, because it is. Just remember this: When you're in a jam, trust your hunch and not your head."
The twelve stared at him, openmouthed. For six years they had been taught to rely on scientific methods. Now their best instructor and senior officer was telling them just the opposite!
Rip started to object, but then he caught a glimmer of meaning. He stuck out his hand. "Thanks, Joe. I hope we'll meet again."
Barris grinned. "We will, Rip. I'll ask for you as a platoon commander when they assign me to cleaning up the goopies on Ganymede." This was the major's idea of the worst Planeteer job in the solar system.
The group shook hands all around; then the young officers broke for the door on the run. The Terra rocket was blasting off in five minutes, and they were to be on it.
Rip joined Flip Villa, and they jumped on the high-speed track that would whisk them to Valve Two on the other side of the platform. Their gear was already loaded. They had only to take seats on the rocket, and their six years on the space platform would be at an end.
"I wonder what it will be like to get back to high gravity," Rip mused. The centrifugal force of the spinning platform acted as artificial gravity, but it was considerably less than Earth's.
"We probably won't be able to walk straight until we get our Earth legs back," Flip answered. "I wish I could stay in Colorado with you instead of going back to Mexico City, Rip. We could have a lot of fun in eight weeks."
Rip nodded. "Tough luck, Flip. But anyway, we have the same assignment."
Both Planeteers had been assigned to Special Order Squadron Four, which was attached to the cruiser Bolide. The cruiser was in high space, beyond the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, doing comet research.
They got off the track at Valve Two and stepped through into the rocket's interior. Two seats just ahead of the fins were vacant, and they slid into them. Rip looked through the thick port beside him and saw the distinctive blue glow of a nuclear drive cruiser sliding toward the platform.
"Wave your eye stalks at that job," Flip said admiringly. "Wonder what it's doing here."
The space platform was a refueling depot, where conventional chemical fuel rockets topped off their tanks before flaming for space. The newer nuclear drive cruisers had no need to stop. Their atomic piles needed new neutron sources only once every few years, and they carried thousands of tons of methane, compressed into solid form, for their reaction mass.
The voice horn in the rocket cabin sounded. "The SCN Scorpius is passing Valve Two, landing at Valve Eight."
"I thought that ship was with Squadron One on Mercury," Rip recalled. "Wonder why they pulled it back here."
Flip had no chance to reply, because the chief rocket officer took up his station at the valve and began to call the roll. Rip answered to his name.
The rocket officer finished the roll, then announced: "Buttoning up in twenty seconds. Blast off in forty-five. Don't bother with acceleration harness. We'll fall free, with just enough flame going for control, after ten seconds of retrothrust to de-orbit."
The ten-second-warning bell sounded, and, before the bell had ceased, the voice horn blasted. "Get it! Foster, R.I.P., Lieutenant. Report to the platform commander. Show an exhaust!"
Rip leaped to his feet. "Hold on, Flip. I'll see what the old man wants and be right back."
"Get flaming," the rocket officer called. "Show an exhaust, like the man said. This bucket leaves on time, and we're sealing the port."
Rip hesitated. The rocket would leave without him!
Flip said urgently, "You better ram it, Rip."
He knew he had no choice. "Tell my folks I'll make the next rocket," he called, and ran. He leaped through the valve, jumped for the high-speed track, and was whisked around the rim of the space platform.
He ran a hand through his short red hair, a gesture of bewilderment. His records had cleared. So far as he knew, all his papers were in order, and he had his next assignment. He couldn't figure why the platform commander would want to see him. But the horn had called, "Show an exhaust!" which meant to get there in a hurry.
He jumped off the track at the main crossrun and hurried toward the center of the platform. In a moment he was at the commander's door, waiting to be identified.
The door swung open, and a junior officer in the blue tunic and trousers of a spaceman motioned him to the inner room. "Go in, Lieutenant."
"Thank you." He hurried into the commander's room and stood at attention.
Commander Jennsen, the Norwegian spaceman who had commanded the platform since before Rip's arrival as a raw cadet, was dictating into his command relay circuit. As he spoke, printed copies were being received in the platform personnel office, at Special Order Squadron headquarters on Earth, aboard the cruiser Bolide in high space, and aboard the newly landed cruiser Scorpius.
Rip listened, spellbound.
"Foster, R.I.P., Lieutenant, SOS. Serial seven-nine-four-three. Assigned SOS Four. Change orders, effective this date-time. Cancel Earth leave. Subject officer will report to commander, SCN Scorpius, with detachment of nine men. Senior noncommissioned officer and second in command, Koa, A.P., Sergeant Major, SOS. Serial two-nine-four-one. Commander of Scorpius will transport detachment to coordinates given in basic cruiser astro-course; deliver orders to detachment en route. Take required steps for maximum security. This is Federation priority A, Space Council security procedures."
Rip swallowed hard. The highest possible priority, given by the Federation itself, had canceled his leave. Not only that, but the cruiser to which he was assigned was instructed to follow Space Council security procedures, which meant that the job, whatever it was, was more urgent than secret!
Commander Jennsen looked up and saw Rip waiting. He snapped, "Did you get all of that?"
"You'll get written copies on the cruiser. Now flame out of here. Collect your men and get aboard. The Scorpius leaves in five minutes."
Rip ran. The realization hit him that the big nuclear cruiser had stopped at the platform for the sole purpose of collecting him and nine enlisted Planeteers.
The low gravity helped him cover the hundred yards to the personnel office in five leaps. He swung to a stop by grabbing the push bar of the office door. He yelled at the enlisted spaceman on duty. "Where do I find nine men?"
The spaceman looked at him vacantly. "What for? You got a requisition, Lieutenant?"
"Never mind requisitions," Rip snapped. "I've got to find nine Planeteers and get them on the Scorpius before it flames off."
The spaceman's face cleared. "Oh. You mean Koa's detachment. They left a few minutes ago."
"Where. Where did they go?"
The spaceman shrugged. The doings of Planeteers were no concern of his. His shrug said so.
Rip realized there was no use talking further. He ran down the long corridor toward the outer edge of the platform. The enlisted men's squad rooms were near Valve Ten. So was the supply department. His gear had departed on the Terra rocket, and he couldn't go into space with only the tunic on his back. He swung to the high-speed track and braced himself as he sped along the platform's rim.
There was no moving track inward to the enlisted Planeteers' squad rooms. He legged it down the corridor in long leaps, muttering apologies as blue-clad spacemen and cadets moved to the wall to let him pass.
The squad rooms were on two levels. He looked in the upper ones and found them deserted. The squads were on duty somewhere. He ran for the ladder to the lower level, took the wrong one, and ended up in a snapper-boat port. He had trained in the deadly little fighting rockets, and they never failed to interest him. But there wasn't time to admire them now. He went back up the ladder with two strong heaves, found the right ladder, and dropped down without touching. His knees flexed to take up the shock. He came out of the crouch facing a black-clad Planeteer sergeant who snapped to rigid attention.
"Koa," Rip barked. "Where can I find him?"
"He's not here, sir. He and eight men left fifteen minutes ago. I don't know where they went, sir."
Rip shot a worried glance at his wrist chronometer. He had two minutes left before the cruiser departed. No more time now to search for his men. He hoped the sergeant major had sense enough to be waiting at some reasonable place. He went up the ladder hand over hand and sped down the corridor to the supply room. The spaceman first class in charge of supplies was turning an audio-mag through a hand viewer, chuckling at the cartoons. At the sight of Rip's flushed, anxious face he dropped the machine. "Yessir?"
"I need a spack. Full gear, including bubble."
"Yessir." The spaceman looked him over with a practiced eye. "One full space pack. Medium-large, right, sir?"
"Correct." Rip took the counter stylus and inscribed his name, serial number, and signature on the blank plastic sheet. Gears whirred as the data was recorded.
The spaceman vanished into an inner room and reappeared in a moment lugging a plastic case called a space pack, or "spack" for short. It contained complete personal equipment for space travel. Rip grabbed it. "Fast service. Thanks, Rocky." All spacemen were called "Rocky" if you didn't know their names. It was an abbreviation for rocketeer, a title all of them had once carried.
Valve Eight was some distance away. Rip decided a cross ramp would be faster than the moving track. He swung the spack to his shoulder and made his legs go. Seconds were ticking off, and he had an idea that the SCN Scorpius would make space on time, whether or not he arrived. He lengthened his stride and rounded a turn by going right up on the wall, using a powerful leg thrust against a ventilator tube for momentum.
He passed an observation port as he reached the platform rim, and caught a glimpse of ruddy rocket exhaust flames outlined against the dark curve of Earth. That would be the Terra rocket making its controlled fall to home, with Flip aboard. Without slowing, he leaped across the high-speed track, narrowly missing a senior space officer. He shouted his apologies, and gained the entrance to Valve Eight just as the high buzz of the radiation warning sounded, signaling a nuclear drive cruiser preparing to take off.
Nine faces of assorted colors and expressions turned to him. He had a quick impression of black tunics and trousers. He had found his detachment! Without slowing, he called, "Follow me!"
The cruiser's safety officer had been keeping an eye on the clock, his forehead creased in a frown as he saw that only a few seconds remained to departure time. He walked to the valve opening and looked out. If his passengers were not in sight, he would have to reset the clock.
Rip went through the valve opening at top speed. He crashed head on into the safety officer.
The safety officer was driven across the deck, his arms pumping for balance. He grabbed at the nearest thing, which happened to be the deputy cruiser commander.
The preset clock reached firing time. The valve slid shut and the takeoff bell reverberated through the ship.
And so it happened that the spacemen of the SCN Scorpius turned their valves, threw their controls and disengaged their boron control rods, and the great cruiser flashed into space—while the deputy commander and the safety officer were completely tangled with a very flustered and unhappy new Planeteer lieutenant.
Sergeant Major Koa and his men had made it before the valve closed. Koa, a seven-foot Hawaiian, took in the situation and said crisply in a voice all could hear, "I'll bust the bubble of any son of a space sausage who laughs!"
Rake That Radiation!
The deputy commander and the safety officer got untangled and hurried to their post, with no more than black looks at Rip. He got to his feet, his face crimson with embarrassment. A fine entrance for a Planeteer officer, especially one on his first orders!
Around him the spacemen were settling in their acceleration seats or snapping belts to safety hooks. From the direction of the stern came a rising roar as methane, heated to a liquid, dropped into the blast tubes, flaming into pure carbon and hydrogen under the terrible heat of the atomic drive.
Rip had to lean against the acceleration. Fighting for balance, he picked up his spack and made his way to the nine enlisted Planeteers. They had braced against the ship's drive by sitting with backs against bulkheads or by lying flat on the magnesium deck. Sergeant Major Koa was seated against a vertical brace, his brown face wreathed in a grin.
Rip looked him over carefully. There was a saying among the Planeteers that an officer was only as good as his senior sergeant. Koa's looks were reassuring. His face was good-humored, but he had a solid jaw and a mouth that could get tough when necessary. Rip wondered a little at his size. Big men usually didn't go to space; they were too subject to space sickness. Koa must be a special case.
Rip slid to the floor next to the sergeant major and stuck out his hand. He sensed the strength in Koa's big fist as it closed over his.
Koa said, "Sir, that was the best fleedle I've ever seen an earthling make. You been on Venus?"
Rip eyed him suspiciously, wondering if the big Planeteer was laughing at him. Koa was grinning, but it was a friendly grin. "What is a fleedle?" Rip demanded. "I've never been on Venus."
"It's the way the water hole people fight," Koa explained. "They're like a bunch of rubber balls when they get to fighting. They ram each other with their heads."
Rip searched his memory for data on Venus. He couldn't recall any mention of fleedling. Venusians, if his memory was right, had a sort of blowgun as a main weapon. He told Koa so.
The sergeant major nodded. "That's when they mean business, Lieutenant. Fleedling is more like us fighting with our fists. Sort of a sport. Great Cosmos! The way they dive at each other is something to see."
Rip grinned. "I didn't know I was going to fleedle those officers. It isn't the way I usually enter a cruiser." He hadn't entered many. He added, "I suppose I ought to report to someone."
Koa shook his head. "No use, sir. You can't walk around very well until the ship reaches Brennschluss. Besides, you won't find any space officers who'll talk to you."
Rip stared. "Why not?"
"Because we're Planeteers. They'll give us the treatment. They always do. When the commander of this bucket gets good and ready, he'll send for you. Until then, we might as well take it easy." He pulled a bar of Venusian chru from his pocket. "Have some. It'll make breathing easier."
The terrific acceleration made breathing a little uncomfortable, but it was not too bad. The chief effect was to make Rip feel as though a ton of invisible feathers were crushing him against the vertical brace. He accepted a bite of the bittersweet vegetable candy and munched thoughtfully. Koa seemed to take it for granted that the spacemen would give them a rough time.
He asked, "Aren't there any spacemen who get along with the Special Order Squadrons?"
"Never met one." Koa chewed chru. "And I was on the Icarus when the whole thing started."
Rip looked at him in surprise. Koa didn't seem that old. The bad feeling between spacemen and the Special Order Squadrons had started about eighteen years ago, when the cruiser Icarus had taken the first Planeteers to Mercury.
He reviewed the history of the expedition. The spacemen's job had been to land the newly created Special Order Squadron on the hot planet. The job of the squadron was to explore it. Somehow confusion developed, and the spacemen, including the officers, later reported that the squadron had instructed them to land on the sun side of Mercury, which would have destroyed the spaceship and its crew, or so they believed at the time.
The commanding officer of the squadron denied issuing such an order. He said his instructions were to land as close as possible to the sun side, but not on it. Whatever the truth—and Rip believed the SOS version, of course—the crew of the Icarus mutinied, or tried to. They made the landing on Mercury with squadron guns pointed at their heads. Of course, they found that a sun-side landing wouldn't have hurt the ship. The whole affair was pretty well hushed up, but it produced bad feeling between the Special Order Squadrons and the spacemen. "Trigger-happy space bums," the spacemen called them, and much worse, besides.
The men of the Special Order Squadrons, searching for a handy nickname, had called themselves Planeteers, because most of their work was on the planets. As Maj. Joe Barris had told the officers of Rip's class, "You might say the spacemen own space, but we Planeteers own everything solid that's found in it."
The Planeteers were the specialists—in science, exploration, colonization, and fighting. The spacemen carried them back and forth, kept them supplied, and handled their message traffic. The Planeteers did the hard work and the important work—or so they believed.
To become a Planeteer, a recruit had to pass rigid intelligence, physical, aptitude, and psychological tests. Fewer than fifteen out of each one hundred who applied were chosen. Then there were two years of hard training on the space platform and the moon before a recruit was finally accepted as a Planeteer private. Out of each fifteen who started training, an average of five fell by the wayside.
For Planeteer officers, the requirements were even tougher. Only one out of each five hundred applicants finally received a commission. Six years of training made them proficient in the techniques of exploration, fighting, rocketeering, and both navigation and astrogation. In addition, each became a full-fledged specialist in one field of science. Rip's specialty was astrophysics.
Sergeant Major Koa continued, "That business on the Icarus started the war, but both sides have been feeding it ever since. I have to admit that we Planeteers lord it over the spacemen like we were old man Cosmos himself. So they get back at us with dirty little tricks while we're on their ships. We command on the planets, but they command in space. And they sure get a great big nuclear charge out of commanding us to do the dirty work!"
"We'll take whatever they hand us," Rip assured him, "and pretend we like it fine." He gestured at the other Planeteers. "Tell me about the men, Koa."
"They're a fine bunch, sir. I handpicked them myself. The one with the white hair is Corporal Nels Pederson, from Sweden. I served with him at Marsport, and he's a real tough spacewalker in a fight. The other corporal is Paulo Santos. He's from the Philippines, and the best snapper-boat gunner you ever saw."
He pointed out the six privates. Kemp and Dowst were Americans. Bradshaw was an Englishman, Trudeau a Frenchman, Dominico an Italian, and Nunez a Brazilian.
Rip liked their looks. They were as relaxed as acceleration would allow, but you got the impression that they would leap into action in a microsecond if the word were given. He couldn't imagine what kind of assignment was waiting, but he was satisfied with his Planeteers. They looked capable of anything.
He made himself as comfortable as possible and encouraged Koa to talk about his service in the Special Order Squadrons. Koa had plenty to tell, and he talked interestingly. Rip learned that the tall Hawaiian had been to every planet in the system, had fought the Venusians on the central desert, and had mined nuclite with SOS One on Mercury. He also found that Koa was one of the seventeen pure-blooded Hawaiians left. During the three hours that acceleration kept them from moving around the ship, Rip got a new view of space and of service with the SOS—it was the view of a Planeteer who had spent years around the Solar System.
"I'm glad they assigned you to me," Rip told Koa frankly. "This is my first job, and I'll be pretty green, no matter what it is. I'll depend on you for a lot of things."
To his surprise, Koa thrust out his hand. "Shake, Lieutenant." His grin showed strong white teeth. "You're the first junior officer I ever met who admitted he didn't know everything about everything. You can depend on me, sir. I won't steer you into any meteor swarms."
Koa had half turned to shake hands. Suddenly he spun on around, banging his head against the deck. Rip felt a surge of relaxing muscles that had been braced against acceleration. At the same time, silence flooded in on them. Rip murmured "Brennschluss," and the murmur was like a trumpet blast.
The Scorpius had reached velocity, and the nuclear drive had cut out. From terrific acceleration, they had dropped to zero. The ship was making high speed, but velocity cannot be felt. For the moment the men were weightless.
A nearby spaceman had heard Rip's comment. He spoke in an undertone to the man nearest. His voice was pitched low enough that Rip couldn't object officially, but loud and clear enough to be heard by everyone.
"Get this, gang. The Planeteer officer knows what Brennschluss is. He doesn't look old enough to know which end his bubble goes on."
Rip started to his feet, but Koa's hand on his arm restrained him. With a violent kick, the big sergeant major shot through the air. His line of flight took him past the spaceman, and somehow their arms got linked. The spaceman was jerked from his post, and the two came to a stop against the ceiling.
Koa's voice echoed through the ship. "Sorry. I'm not used to no-weight. Didn't mean to grab you. Here, I'll help you back to your post."
He whirled the helpless spaceman like a bag of feathers and slung him through the air. The force of the action only flattened Koa against the ceiling, but the hapless spaceman shot forward head first and landed with a clang against the bulkhead. He didn't hit hard enough to break any bones, but he would carry a bump on his head for a day or two.
Koa's voice floated after him. "Great Cosmos! I sure am sorry, spaceman. I guess I don't know my own strength." He kicked away from the ceiling, landing accurately at Rip's side. He added in a hard voice all could hear, "They sure are a nice gang, these spacemen. They never say anything about Planeteers."
No spaceman answered, but Koa's meaning was clear. No spaceman had better say anything about the Planeteers! Rip saw that the deputy commander and the safety officer had appeared not to notice the incident. Technically, there was no reason for an officer to take action. It had all been an "accident." He smiled. There was a lot he had to learn about dealing with spacemen, a lot Koa evidently knew very well indeed.
Suddenly he began to feel weight. The ship was going into rotation. The feeling increased until he felt normally heavy again. There was no other sensation, even though the space cruiser was now spinning on its axis through space at unaltered speed. The centrifugal force produced by the spinning gave them an artificial gravity.
Now that he thought about it, Brennschluss had come pretty early. The trip apparently was going to be a short one. Brennschluss—funny, he thought, how words stay on in a language, even after their original meaning is changed. Brennschluss was German for "burn out." It was rocket talk, and it meant the moment when all the fuel in a rocket burned out. It had come into common use because the English "burn out" could also mean that the engine itself had burned out. The German word meant only the one thing. Now, in nuclear drive ships, the same word was used for the moment when power was cut off.
Words interested him. He started to mention it to Koa just as the telescreen lit up. An officer's face appeared. "Send that Planeteer officer to the commander," the face said. "Tell him to show an exhaust."
Rip called instantly to the safety officer. "Where's his office?"
The safety officer motioned to a spaceman. "Show him, Nelson."
Rip followed the spaceman through a maze of passages, growing more weightless with each step. The closer to the center of the ship they went, the less he weighed. He was drawing himself along by plastic pull cords when they finally reached the door marked COMMANDER.
The spaceman left without a word or a salute. Rip pushed the lock bar and pulled himself in by grabbing the door frame. He couldn't help thinking it was a rather undignified way to make an entrance.
Seated in an acceleration chair, a safety belt across his middle, was Space Commander Kevin O'Brine, an Irishman out of Dublin. He was short, as compact as a deto-rocket, and obviously unfriendly. He had a mathematically square jaw, a lopsided nose, green eyes, and sandy hair. He spoke with a pronounced Irish brogue.
Rip started to announce his name, rank, and the fact that he was reporting as ordered. Commander O'Brine brushed his words aside and stated flatly, "You're a Planeteer. I don't like Planeteers."
Rip didn't know what to say, so he kept still. But sharp anger was rising inside of him.
O'Brine went on. "Instructions say I'm to hand you your orders en route. They don't say when. I'll decide that. Until I do decide, I have a job for you and your men. Do you know anything about nuclear physics?"
Rip's eyes narrowed. He said cautiously, "A little, sir."
"I'll assume you know nothing. Foster, the designation SCN means Space Cruiser, Nuclear. This ship is powered by a nuclear reactor—in other words, an atomic pile. You've heard of one?"
Rip controlled his voice, but his red hair stood on end with anger. O'Brine was being deliberately insulting. This was stuff any Planeteer recruit knew. "I've heard, sir."
"Fine. It's more than I had expected. Well, Foster, a nuclear reactor produces heat. Great heat. We use that heat to turn a chemical called methane into its component parts. Methane is known as marsh gas, Foster. I wouldn't expect a Planeteer to know that. It is composed of carbon and hydrogen. When we pump it into the heat coils of the reactor, it breaks down and creates a gas that burns and drives us through space. But that isn't all it does."
Rip had an idea what was coming, and he didn't like it. Nor did he like Commander O'Brine. It was not until much later that he learned that O'Brine had been on his way to Terra, to see his family for the first time in four years, when the cruiser's orders were changed. To the commander, whose assignments had been made necessary by the needs of the Special Order Squadrons, it was too much. So he took his disappointment out on the nearest Planeteer, who happened to be Rip.
"The gases go through tubes," O'Brine went on. "A little nuclear material also leaks into the tubes. The tubes get coated with carbon, Foster. They also get coated with nuclear fuel. We use thorium. Thorium is radioactive. I won't give you a lecture on radioactivity, Foster. But thorium mostly gives off the kind of radiation known as alpha particles. Alpha is not dangerous unless breathed or eaten. It won't go through clothes or skin. But when mixed with fine carbon, thorium alpha contamination makes a mess. It's a dirty mess, Foster—so dirty that I don't want my spacemen to fool with it.
"I want you to take care of it instead—you and your men. The deputy commander will assign you to a squad room. Settle in, then draw equipment from the supply room and get going. When I want to talk to you again, I'll call for you. Now blast off, Lieutenant, and rake that radiation. Rake it clean."
Rip forced a bright and friendly smile. "Yes, sir," he said sweetly. "We'll rake it so clean you can see your face in it, sir." He paused, then added politely. "If you don't mind looking at your face, sir—to see how clean the tubes are, I mean."
Rip turned and got out of there.
Koa was waiting in the passageway outside. Rip told him what had happened, mimicking O'Brine's Irish accent.
The sergeant major shook his head sadly. "This is what I meant, Lieutenant. Cruisers don't clean their tubes more'n once in ten accelerations. The commander is just thinking up dirty work for us to do, like I said."
"Never mind," Rip told him. "Let's find our squad room and get settled, then draw some protective clothing and equipment. We'll clean his tubes for him. Our turn will come later."
He remembered the last thing Joe Barris had said, only a few hours before. Joe was right, he thought. To ourselves we're supermen, but to the spacemen we're just simps. Evidently O'Brine was the kind of space officer who ate Planeteers for breakfast.
Rip thought of the way the commander had turned red with rage at that crack about his face, and he resolved, He may eat me for breakfast, but I'll be a very tough mouthful!
Capture and Drive!
Commander O'Brine had not exaggerated. The residue of carbon and thorium on the blast tube walls was stubborn, dirty, and penetrating. It was caked on in a solid sheet, but when scraped, it broke up into fine powder.
The Planeteers wore coveralls, gloves, and face masks with respirators, but that didn't prevent the stuff from sifting through onto their bodies. Rip, who directed the work and kept track of the radiation with a gamma-beta ion chamber and an alpha proportional counter, knew they would have to undergo personal decontamination.
He took a reading on the ion chamber. Only a few milliroentgens of beta and gamma radiation. That was the dangerous kind, because both beta particles and gamma rays could penetrate clothing and skin. But the Planeteers wouldn't get enough of a dose to do any harm at all. The alpha count was high, but so long as they didn't breathe any of the dust, it was not dangerous.
The Scorpius had six tubes. Rip divided the Planeteers into two squads, one under his direction and one under Koa's. Each tube took a couple of hours' hard work. Several times during the cleaning, the men would leave the tube and go into the main mixing chamber while the tube was blasted with live steam to throw the stuff they had scraped off out into space.
Each squad was on its last tube when a spaceman arrived. He saluted Rip. "Sir, the safety officer says to secure the tubes."
That could mean only one thing: deceleration. Rip rounded up his men. "We're finished. The safety officer passed the word to secure the tubes, which means we're going to decelerate." He smiled grimly. "You all know they gave us this job just out of pure love for the Planeteers. So remember it when you go through the control room to the decontamination chamber."
The Planeteers nodded enthusiastically.
Rip led the way from the mixing chamber, through the heavy safety door, and into the engine control room. His entrance was met with poorly concealed grins by the spacemen.
Halfway across the room, Rip turned suddenly and bumped into Sergeant Major Koa. Koa fell to the deck, arms flailing for balance—but flailing against his protective clothing. The other Planeteers rushed to pick him up, and somehow all their hands beat against each other.
The protective clothing was saturated with fine dust. It rose from them in a choking cloud and was picked up and dispersed by the ventilating system. It was contaminated dust. The automatic radiation safety equipment filled the ship with an earsplitting buzz of warning. Spacemen clapped emergency respirators to their faces and spoke unkindly of Rip's Planeteers in the saltiest space language possible.
Rip and his men picked up Koa and continued the march to the decontamination room, grinning under their respirators at the consternation around them. There was no danger to the spacemen, since they had clapped on respirators the moment the warning sounded. But even a little contamination meant the whole ship had to be gone over with instruments, and the ventilating system would have to be cleaned.
The deputy commander met Rip at the door of the radiation room. Above the respirator, his face looked furious.
"Lieutenant," he bellowed, "haven't you any more sense than to bring contaminated clothing into the engine control room?"
Rip was sorry the deputy commander couldn't see him grinning under his respirator. He said innocently, "No, sir, I haven't any more sense than that."
The deputy grated, "I'll have you up before the Discipline Board for this."
Rip was enjoying himself thoroughly. "I don't think so, sir. The regulations are very clear. They say, 'It is the responsibility of the safety officer to insure compliance with all safety regulations by both complete instructions to personnel and personal supervision.' Your safety officer didn't instruct us, and he didn't supervise us. You'd better run him up before the Board."
The deputy commander made harsh sounds into his respirator. Rip had him, and he knew it. "He thought even a stupid Planeteer had sense enough to obey radiation safety rules," he yelled.
"He was wrong," Rip said gently. Then, just to make himself perfectly clear, he added, "Commander O'Brine was within his rights when he made us rake radiation. But he forgot one thing. Planeteers know the regulations, too. Excuse me, sir. I have to get my men decontaminated."
Inside the decontamination chamber, the Planeteers took off their masks and faced Rip with admiring grins. For a moment he grinned back, feeling pretty good. He had held his own with the spacemen, and he sensed that his men liked him.
"All right," he said briskly. "Strip down and get into the showers."
In a few moments they were all standing under the chemically treated water, washing off the contaminated dust. Rip paid special attention to his hair, because that was where the dust was most likely to stick. He had it well lathered when the water suddenly cut off. At the same moment, the cruiser shuddered slightly as control blasts stopped its spinning and left them all weightless. Rip saw instantly what had happened. He called, "All right, men. Down on the floor."
The Planeteers instantly slid to the shower deck. In a few seconds the pressure of deceleration pushed at them.
"I like spacemen," Rip said wryly. "They wait until just the right moment before they cut the water and decelerate. Now we're stuck in our birthday suits until we land—wherever that may be."
Corporal Nels Pederson spoke up in a soft Stockholm accent. "Never mind, sir. We'll get back at them. We always do!"
While the Scorpius decelerated and started maneuvering for a landing, Rip did some rapid calculations. He knew the acceleration and deceleration rates of cruisers of this class, measured in terms of time, and part of his daily routine on the space platform had been to examine the daily astroplot, which gave the positions of all planets and other large bodies within the solar system.
There was only one possible destination: Mars.
Rip's pulse quickened. He had always wanted to visit the red planet. Of course, he had seen all the films, audio-mags, and books concerning it, and he had tried to see the weekly spacecast. He had a good idea of what the planet was like, but reading or viewing was not like actually landing and taking a look for himself.
Of course, they would land at Marsport. It was the only landing area equipped to handle nuclear drive cruisers.
The cruiser landed and deceleration cut to zero. At the same moment the water came on.
Rip hurriedly finished cleaning up, dressed, then took his radiation instruments and carefully monitored his men as they came from the shower. Private Dowst had to go back for another try at getting his hair clean, but the rest were all right. Rip handed his instruments to Koa. "You monitor Dowst when he finishes. I want to see what's happening."
He hurried from the chamber and made his way down the corridors toward the engine control room. There was a good possibility he might get a call from O'Brine, with instructions to take his men off the ship. He might finally learn what he was assigned to do!
As he reached the engine control room, Commander O'Brine was giving instructions to his spacemen on the stowage of equipment that evidently was expected aboard. Rip felt a twinge of disappointment. If the Scorpius had landed to take on supplies of some kind, his assignment was probably not on Mars.
He started to approach the commander with a question about his orders, then thought better of it. He stood quietly near the control panel and watched.
The air lock hissed, then slid open. A Martian stood in the entryway, a case on his shoulder. Rip watched him with interest. He had seen Martians before, on the space platform, but he had never gotten used to them. They were human, still....
He tried to figure out, as he had before, what it was that made them strange. It wasn't the blue-whiteness of their skins nor the very large, expressionless eyes. It was something about their bodies. He studied the Martian's figure carefully. He was slightly taller and more slender than the average earthman, but his chest measurements would be about the same. Nor were his legs very much longer.
Suddenly Rip thought he had it. The Martian's legs and arms joined his torso at a slightly different angle, giving him an angular look. That was what made him look like a caricature of a human, although he was human, of course—as human as any of them.
Rip saw that other Martians were in the air lock, all carrying cases of various sizes and shapes. They came through into the control room and put them down, then turned without a word and hurried back into the lock. They were all breathing heavily, Rip noticed. Of course! The artificial atmosphere inside the spaceship must seem very heavy and moist to them, after the thin, dry air of Mars.
The lock worked, and the Martians were replaced by others. They, too, deposited their cases. But these cases were bigger and heavier. It took four Martians to carry one, which meant they weighed close to half a ton each. The Martians could carry more than double an earthman's capacity.
When the lock worked next time, a Planeteer captain came in. He breathed the heavy air appreciatively, fingering the oxygen mask he had to wear outside. He saluted Commander O'Brine and reported, "This is all, sir. We filled the order exactly as Terra sent it. Is there anything else you need?"
O'Brine turned to his deputy. "Find out," he ordered. "This is our last chance. We have plenty of basic supplies, but we may be short of audio-mags and other things for the men." He turned his back on the Planeteer captain and walked away.
The captain grinned at O'Brine's retreating back, then walked over to Rip. They shook hands.
"I'm Southwick, SOS Two. Canadian."
Rip introduced himself and said he was an American. He added, "And aside from my men, you're the first human being I've seen since we made space."
Southwick chuckled. "Trouble with the spacemen? Well, you're not the first."
Talking about assignments wasn't considered good practice, but Rip was burning with curiosity. "You don't by chance know what my assignment is, do you?"
The captain's eyebrows went up. "Don't you?"
Rip shook his head. "O'Brine hasn't told me."
"I don't know a thing," Southwick said. "We got instructions to pack up a pretty strange assortment of supplies for the Scorpius, and that's all I know. The order was in special cipher, though, so we're all wondering about it."
The deputy commander returned, reported to O'Brine, then walked up to Rip and Southwick. "Nothing else needed," he said curtly. "We'll get off at once."
Southwick nodded, shook hands with Rip, and said in a voice the deputy could hear, "Don't let these spacemen bother you. Trouble with them is they all wanted to be Planeteers and couldn't pass the intelligence tests." He winked, then hurried to the air lock.
Spacemen worked quickly to clear the deck of the new supplies, stowing them in a nearby workroom. Within five minutes the engine control room was clear. The safety officer signaled, and the radiation warning sounded. Taking off!
Rip hurried to the squad room and climbed into an acceleration chair. The other Planeteers were already in the room, most of them in their bunks. Koa slid into the chair beside him. "Find out anything, sir?"
"Nothing useful. A bunch of equipment came aboard, but it was in plain crates. I couldn't tell what it was."
Acceleration pressed them against the chairs. Rip sighed, picked up an audio-circuit set, and put it over his ears. Might as well listen to what the circuit had to offer. There was nothing else to do. Music was playing, and it was the kind he liked. He settled back to relax and listen.
Brennschluss came some time later. It woke Rip up from a sound sleep. He blinked, glancing at his chronometer. Great Cosmos! With that length of acceleration they must be high-vacking for Jupiter! He waited until the ship went into the gravity spin, then got out of his chair and stretched. He was hungry. Koa was still sleeping. He decided not to wake him. The sergeant major would see that the men ate when they wanted to.
In the messroom only one table was occupied—by Commander O'Brine.
Rip gave him a civil hello and started to sit alone at another table. To his surprise, O'Brine beckoned to him.
"Sit down," the spaceman invited gruffly.
Rip did and wondered what was coming next.
"We'll start to decelerate in about ten minutes," O'Brine said. "Eat while you can." He signaled, and a spaceman brought Rip the day's ration in an individual plastic carton with thermo-lining. The Planeteer opened it and found a block of mixed vegetables, a slab of space meat, and two units of biscuit. He wrinkled his nose. Space meat he didn't mind. It was chewy but tasty. The mixed vegetable ration was chosen for its food value and not for taste. A good mouthful of Earth grass would be a lot more palatable. He sliced off pieces of the warm stuff and chewed thoughtfully, watching O'Brine's face for a clue as to why the commander had invited him to sit down.
It wasn't long in coming. "Your orders are the strangest things I've ever read," O'Brine stated. "Do you know where we're going?"
Rip figured quickly. They had accelerated for six and a half hours. Now, ten minutes after Brennschluss, they were going to start deceleration. That meant they had really high-vacked it to get somewhere in a hurry. He calculated swiftly.
"I don't know exactly," he admitted. "But from the ship's actions, I'd say we were aiming for the far side of the asteroid belt. Anyway, we'll fall short of Jupiter."
There was a glimmer of respect in O'Brine's glance. "That's right. Know anything about asteroids, Foster?"
Rip considered. He knew what he had been taught in astronomy and astrogation. Between Mars and Jupiter lay a broad belt in which the asteroids swung. They ranged from Ceres, a tiny world only 480 miles in diameter, down to chunks of rock the size of a house. No accurate count of asteroids—or minor planets, as they were called—had been made, but the observatory on Mars had charted the orbits of thousands. A few were more than a mile in diameter, but most were great boulders of irregular shape, from a few feet to several hundred feet at their greatest dimension.
"I know the usual stuff about them," he told O'Brine. "I haven't any special knowledge."
O'Brine blinked. "Then why did they assign you? What's your specialty?"
"That might explain it. Second specialty?"
"Astrogation." He couldn't resist adding, "That's more advanced than the simple space navigation you use, Commander."
O'Brine started to retort, then apparently thought better of it. "I hope you'll be able to carry out your orders, Lieutenant," he said stiffly. "I hope, but not much. I don't think you can."
Rip asked, "What are my orders, sir?"
O'Brine waved in the general direction of the wall. "Out there somewhere in the asteroid belt, Foster, there is a little chunk of matter about one thousand yards in diameter. A very minor planet. We know its approximate coordinates as of two days ago, but we don't know much else. It happens to be a very important minor planet."
Rip waited, intent on the commander's words.
"It's important," O'Brine continued, "because it happens to be pure thorium."
Rip gasped. Thorium! The rare, radioactive element just below uranium in the periodic table of the elements, the element used to power this very ship! "What a find!" he said in a hushed voice. No wonder the job was Federation priority A, with Space Council security! "What do I do about it?" he asked.
O'Brine grinned. "Ride it," he said. "Your orders say you're to capture this asteroid, blast it out of its orbit, and drive it back to Earth!"
Find the Needle!
Rip walked into the squad room with a copy of the orders in his hand. After one look at his face, the Planeteers clustered around him. Santos woke those who were sleeping, while Rip waited.
"We have our orders, men," he announced. Suddenly he laughed. He couldn't help it. At first he had been completely overcome by the responsibility and the magnitude of the job, but now he was getting used to the idea, and he could see the adventure in it. Ten wild Planeteers riding an asteroid! Sunny space, what a great big thermonuclear stunt!
Koa remarked, "It must be good. The lieutenant is getting a real atomic charge out of it."
"Sit down," Rip ordered. "You'd better, because you might fall over when you hear this. Listen, men. Two days ago the freighter Altair passed through the asteroid belt on a run from Jupiter to Mars." He sat down, too, because deceleration was starting. As his men looked at each other in surprise at the quickness of it, he continued, "The old bucket found something we need—an asteroid of pure thorium."
The enlisted Planeteers knew as well as he what that meant. There were whistles of astonishment. Koa slapped his thigh. "By Gemini! What do we do about it, sir?"
"We capture it," Rip said. "We blast it loose from its orbit and ride it back to Earth."
He sat back and watched their reactions. At first they were stunned. Trudeau, the Frenchman, muttered to himself in French. Dominico, the Italian, held up his hands and exclaimed, "Santa Maria!"
Kemp, one of the American privates, asked, "How do we do it, sir?"
Rip grinned. "That's a good question. I don't know."
That stopped them. They stared at him. He added quickly, "Supplies came aboard at Marsport. We'll get the clue when we open them. Headquarters must have known the method when they assigned us and ordered the equipment they thought we'd need."
Koa stood up. He was the only one who could have moved upright against the terrific deceleration. He walked to a rack at one side of the squad room and took down a copy of The Space Navigator. Then, resuming his seat, he looked questioningly at Rip. "Anything else, sir? I thought I'd read what there is about asteroids."
"Go ahead," Rip agreed. He sat back as Koa began to recite what data there was, but he didn't listen. His mind was going ten astro-units a second. He thought he knew why he had been chosen for the job. Word of the priceless asteroid must have reached headquarters only a short time before he was scheduled to leave the space platform. He could imagine the speed with which the specialists at Terra base had acted. They had sent orders instantly to the fastest cruiser in the area, the Scorpius, to stand by for further instructions. Then their personnel machines must have whirred rapidly, electronic brains searching for the nearest available Planeteer officer with an astrophysics specialty and astrogation training.
He could imagine the reaction when the machine turned up the name of a brand-new lieutenant. But the choice was logical enough. He knew that most, if not all, of the Planeteer astrophysicists were in either high or low space on special work. Chances were there was no astrophysicist nearer than Ganymede. So the choice had fallen to him.
He had a mental image of the Terra base scientists feeding data into the electronic brain, taking the results, and writing fast orders for the men and supplies needed. Work at the Planeteer base had probably been finished within an hour of the time word was received.
When they opened the cases brought aboard by the Martians, he would see that the method of blasting the asteroid into a course for Earth was all figured out for him.
Rip was anxious to get at those cases. Not until he saw the method of operation could he begin to figure his course. But there was no possibility of getting at the stuff until Brennschluss. He put the problem out of his mind and concentrated on what his men were saying.
"... and he slugged into that asteroid going close to seven AU's," Santos was saying. The corporal shrugged expressively.
Rip recognized the story. It was about a supply ship, a chemical drive rocket job, that had blasted into an asteroid a few years before.
Private Dowst shrugged, too. "Too bad. High vack was waiting for him. Nothing you can do when Old Man Nothing wants you. Not a thing in space!"
Rip listened, interested. This was the talk of old space hands, who had given the high vacuum of empty space a personality, calling it "high vack," or "Old Man Nothing." With understandable fatalism, they believed—or said they believed—that when high vacuum really wanted you, there was nothing you could do.
Rip had come across an interesting bit of word knowledge. Spacemen and Planeteers alike had a way of using the phrase "by Gemini!" Gemini, of course, was the constellation of the Twins, Castor and Pollux. Both were useful stars for astrogation. The Roman horse soldiers of ancient history had sworn "by Gemini," or "by the Twins." The Romans believed the stars were the famous Greek warriors Castor and Pollux, placed in the heavens after their deaths. In later years, the phrase degenerated to the simple "by jiminy," and its meaning had been lost. Now, although few spacemen knew the history of the phrase, they were using it again, correctly.
Other space talk grew out of space itself, not out of history. For instance, the worst thing that could happen to a man was to have his helmet broken. Let the transparent globe be shattered, and the results were both quick and final. Hence the oft heard threat, "I'll bust your bubble."
Speaking of bubbles ... Rip realized suddenly that he and his men would have to live in bubbles and space suits while on the asteroid. None of the minor planets were big enough to have an atmosphere or much gravity.
If only he could get a look into those cases! But the ship was still decelerating, and he would have to wait. He put his head against the chair rest and settled down to wait as patiently as he could.
Brennschluss was a long time coming. When the deceleration finally stopped, Rip didn't wait for gravity. He hauled himself out of the chair and the squad room and went down the corridor hand over hand. He headed straight for where the supplies were stacked, his Planeteers close behind him.
Commander O'Brine arrived at the same time. "We're starting to scan for the asteroid," he greeted Rip. "May be some time before we find it."
"Where are we, sir?" Rip asked.
"Just above the asteroid belt near the outer edge. We're beyond the position where the asteroid was sighted, moving along what the Altair figured as its orbit. I'm not stretching space, Foster, when I tell you we're hunting for a needle in a junk pile. This part of space is filled with more objects than you would imagine, and they all register on the rad screens."
"We'll find it," Rip said confidently.
O'Brine nodded. "Yes. But it probably will take some hunting. Meanwhile, let's get at those cases. The supply clerk is on his way."
The supply clerk arrived, issued tools to the Planeteers, then opened a plastic case attached to one of the boxes and produced lists. As the Planeteers opened and unpacked the crates, Rip and O'Brine inspected, and the clerk checked off the items.
The first case produced a complete chemical cutting unit, with an assortment of cutting tips and adapters. Rip looked around for the gas cylinders and saw none. "Something's wrong," he objected. "Where's the fuel supply for the torch?"
The supply clerk inspected the lists, shuffled papers, and found the answer.
"The following," he read, "are to be supplied from the Scorpius complement. One landing boat, large, model twenty-eight. Eight each, oxygen cutting unit gas bottles. Four each, chemical cutting unit fuel tanks."
"That's that," Rip said, relieved. Apparently he was supposed to do a lot of cutting on the asteroid, probably of the thorium itself. The hot flame of the torch could melt any known substance. The torch itself could melt in unskilled hands.
The next case yielded a set of astrogation instruments, carefully cradled in a soft, rubbery plastic. Rip left them in the case and put them to one side. As he did so, Sergeant Major Koa let out a whistle of surprise.
"Lieutenant, look at this!"
Corporal Santos exclaimed, "Well, stonker me for a stupid space squid! Do they expect us to find any people on this asteroid?"
The object was a portable rocket launcher designed to fire light attack rockets. It was a standard item of fighting equipment for Planeteers.
"I recognize the shape of those cases over there, now," Koa said. "Ten racks of rockets for the launcher, one rack to a case."
Rip scratched his head. He was as puzzled as Santos. Why supply fighting equipment for a crew on an asteroid that couldn't possibly have any living thing on it?
He left the puzzle for the future and called for more cases. The next two yielded projectile-type handguns for ten men, with ammunition, and standard Planeteer space knives. The space knives had hidden blades, which were driven forth violently when the operator pushed a thumb lever, releasing the gas in a cartridge contained in the handle. The blades snapped forth with enough force to break a bubble or to cut through a space suit. They were designed for the sole purpose of space hand-to-hand combat.
The Planeteers looked at each other. What were they up against, that such equipment was needed on a barren asteroid?
Private Dowst opened a box that contained a complete tool kit, the tools designed to be handled by men in space suits. Yards of wire, for several purposes, were wound on reels. Two hand-driven dynamos capable of developing great power were included.
Corporal Pederson found a small case which contained books, the latest astronomical data sheets, and a space computer and scratch board. These were obviously for Rip's personal use. He examined them. There were all the references he would need for computing orbit, speed, and just about anything else that might be required. He had to admire the thoroughness of whoever had written the order. The unknown Planeteer had assumed that the space cruiser would not have all the astrophysics references necessary and had included a copy of each.
Several large cases remained. Koa ripped the side from one and let out an exclamation. Rip hurried over and looked in. His stomach did a quick orbital reverse. Great Cosmos! The thing was an atomic bomb!
Commander O'Brine leaned over his shoulder and peered at the lettering on the cylinder: EQUIVALENT TEN KT.
In other words, the explosion the harmless-looking cylinder could produce was equivalent to ten thousand tons of TNT, a chemical explosive no longer in actual use but still used for comparison.
Rip asked huskily, "Any more of those things?" The importance of the job was becoming increasingly clear to him. Nuclear explosives were not used without good reason. The fissionable material was too valuable for other purposes.
The sides came off the remaining cases. Some of them held fat tubes of conventional rocket fuel in solid form, the igniters carefully packed separately.
There were three other atomic bombs, making four in all. There were two bombs each of five KT and ten KT.
Commander O'Brine looked at the amazing assortment of stuff. "Does that check, clerk?"
The spaceman nodded. "Yes, sir. I found another notation that says food supplies and personal equipment to be supplied by the Scorpius."
"Well, vack me for a Venusian rabbit!" O'Brine muttered. He tugged at his ear. "You could dump me on that asteroid with this assortment of junk, and I'd spend the rest of my life there. I don't see how you can use this stuff to move an asteroid!"
"Maybe that's why the Federation sent Planeteers," Rip said—and was sorry the moment the words were out.
O'Brine's jaw muscles bulged, but he held his temper. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that, Foster. We have to get along until the asteroid is safely in an orbit around Earth. After that, I'm going to take a great deal of pleasure in feeding you to the space fish, piece by piece."
It was Rip's turn to get red. "I'm sorry, Commander. Accept my apologies." He certainly had a lot to learn about space etiquette. There was a time for spacemen and Planeteers to fight each other and a time for them to cooperate.
"I'm sure you'll be able to figure out what to do with this stuff," O'Brine said. "If you need help, let me know."
And Rip knew his apology was accepted.
The deputy commander arrived, drew O'Brine aside, and whispered in his ear. The commander let out an exclamation and started out of the room. At the door he turned. "Better come along, Foster."
Rip followed as the commander led the way to his own quarters. At the door two space officers were waiting, their faces grave.
O'Brine motioned them to chairs. "All right, let's have it."
The senior space officer held out a sheet of flimsy. It was pale blue, the color used for highly confidential documents. "Sir, this came in Space Council special cipher."
"Read it aloud," O'Brine ordered.
"Yes, sir. It's addressed to you, this ship. From Planeteer Intelligence, Marsport. 'Consops cruiser departed general direction your area. Agents report crew Altair may have leaked data re asteroid. Take appropriate action.' It's signed 'Williams, SOS, Commanding.'"
Rip saw the meaning of the message instantly. The Consolidation of People's Governments, of Earth, traditional enemies and rivals of the Federation of Free Governments, needed radioactive minerals as badly as, or worse than, the Federation. In space it was first come, first take. They had to find the asteroid quickly. It was to prevent Consops from knowing of the asteroid that security measures had been taken. They hadn't worked, because of loose space chatter at Marsport.
O'Brine issued quick orders. "Now, get this. We have to work fast. Accelerate fifty percent, same course. I want two men on each screen. If anything of the right size shows up, decelerate until we can get mass and albedo measurements. Snap to it."
The space officers started out, but O'Brine stopped them. "Use one long-range screen for scanning high space toward Mars. Let me know the minute you get a blip, because it probably will be that Consops cruiser. Have the missile ports cleared for action."
Rip's eyes opened. Clear the missile ports? That meant getting the cruiser in fighting shape, ready for instant action. "You wouldn't fire on that Consops cruiser, would you, sir?"
O'Brine gave him a grim smile. "Certainly not, Foster. It's against orders to start anything with Consops cruisers. You know why. The situation is so tense that a fight between two spaceships might plunge Earth into war." His smile got even grimmer. "But you never know. The Consops ship might fire first. Or an accident might happen."
The commander leaned forward. "We'll find that asteroid for you, Mr. Planeteer. We'll put you on it and see you on your way. Then we'll ride space along with you, and if any Consops thieves try to take over and collect that thorium for themselves, they'll find Kevin O'Brine waiting. That's a promise."
Rip felt a lot better. He sat back in his chair and regarded the commander with mixed respect and something else. Against his will, he was beginning to like the man. No doubt of it, the Scorpius was well named. And the sting in the scorpion's tail was O'Brine himself.
The Gray World
Rip rejoined his Planeteers in the supply room and motioned for them to gather around him. "I know why Terra base sent us the fighting equipment," he announced. "They were afraid word of this thorium asteroid would leak out to Consops—and it has. A Connie cruiser blasted off from Marsport and it's headed this way."
He watched the faces of his men carefully, to see how they would take the news. They merely looked at each other and shrugged. Conflict with Consops was nothing new to them.
"The freighter that found the asteroid landed at Marsport, didn't it?" Koa asked. Getting a nod from Rip, he went on, "Then I know what probably happened. The two things spacemen can't do are breathe high vack and keep their mouths shut. Some of the crew blabbed about the asteroid, probably at the Space Club. That's where they hang out. The Connies hang out there, too. Result, we get a Connie cruiser after the asteroid."
"You hit it," Rip acknowledged.
Corporal Santos shrugged. "If the Connies try to take the asteroid away, they'll have a real warm time. We have ten racks of rockets, twenty-four to a rack. That's a lot of snapper-boats we can pick off if they try to make a landing."
The Planeteers stopped talking as the voice horn sounded. "Get it! We are going into no-weight. Prepare to stay in no-weight indefinitely. Rotation stops in two minutes."
Rip realized why the order was given. The Scorpius could not maneuver while in a gravity spin, and O'Brine wanted to be free to take action if necessary.
The voice horn came on again. "Now get it again. The ship may maneuver suddenly. Prepare for acceleration or deceleration without warning. One minute to no-weight."
Rip gave quick orders. "Get lines around the equipment and prepare to haul it. I'll get landing boats assigned, and we can load. Then prepare space packs. Lay out suits and bubbles. We want to be ready to go the moment we get the word."
Lines were taken from a locker and secured to the equipment. As the Planeteers worked, the ship's spinning slowed and stopped. They were in no-weight. Rip grabbed for a hand cord that hung from the wall and hauled himself out into the engine control room. The deputy commander was at his post, waiting tensely for orders. Rip thrust against a bulkhead with one foot and floated to his side. "I need two landing boats, sir," he requested. "One stays on the asteroid with us."
"Take numbers five and six. I'll assign a pilot to bring number five back to the ship after you've landed."
"Thank you." Rip would have been surprised at the deputy's quick assent if Commander O'Brine hadn't shown him that the spacemen were ready to do anything possible to aid the Planeteers. He went back to the supply room and told Koa which boats were to be used, instructed him to get the supplies aboard, then made his way to Commander O'Brine's office.
O'Brine was not in. Rip searched and found him in the astroplot room, watching a 'scope. Green streaks called "blips" marked the panel, each one indicating an asteroid.
"All too small," O'Brine said. "We've only seen two large ones, and they were too large."
"Space is certainly full of junk," Rip commented. "At least this corner of it is pretty full."
A junior space officer overheard him. "This is nothing. We're on the edge of the asteroid belt. Closer to the middle, there's so much stuff a ship has to crawl through it."
Rip wandered over to the main control desk. A senior space officer was seated before a simple panel on which there were only a dozen small levers, a visiphone, and a radar screen. The screen was circular, with numbers around the rim like those on an Earth clock. In the center of the screen was a tiny circle. The central circle represented the Scorpius. The rest of the screen was the area dead ahead. Rip watched and saw several blips on it that indicated asteroids. They were all small. He watched, interested, as the Scorpius overtook them. Once, according to the screen, the cruiser passed under an asteroid, with a clearance of only a few hundred feet.
"You didn't miss that one by much," Rip told the space officer.
"Don't have to miss by much," he retorted. "A few feet are as good as a mile in space. Our blast might kick them around a little, and maybe there's a little mutual mass attraction, but we don't worry about it."
He pointed to a blip that was just swimming into view, a sharp green point against the screen. "We do have to worry about that one." He selected a lever and pulled it toward him.
Rip felt sudden weight against his feet. The green point on the screen moved downward, below center. The feeling of weight ceased. He knew what had happened, of course. Around the hull of the ship, set in evenly spaced lines, were a series of blast holes through which steam was fired. The steam was produced instantly by running water through the heat coils of the nuclear engine. By using groups or combinations of steam tubes, the control officer could move the ship in any direction, set it rolling, spin it end over end, or whirl it in an eccentric pattern.
"How do you decide which tubes to use?" Rip asked.
"Depends on what's happening. If we were ducking missiles from an enemy, I'd get orders from the commander. But to duck asteroids, there's no problem. I go over them by firing the steam tubes along the bottom of the ship. That way, you feel the acceleration on your feet. If I fired the top tubes, the ship would drop out from under those who were standing. They'd all end up on the overhead."
Rip watched for a while longer, then wandered back to Commander O'Brine. He was getting anxious. At first the task of capturing an asteroid and moving it back to Earth had been rather unreal, like some of the problems he had worked out while training on the space platform. Now he was no longer calm about it. He had faith in the Terra base Planeteer specialists, but they couldn't figure out everything for him. Most of the problems of getting the asteroid back to Earth would have to be solved by Lt. Richard Ingalls Peter Foster.
A junior space officer suddenly called, "Sir, I have a reading at two-seventy degrees, twenty-three degrees eight minutes high."
Commander O'Brine jumped up so fast that the action shot him to the ceiling. He kicked down again and leaned over the officer's 'scope. Rip got there by pulling himself right across the top of the chart table.
The green point of light on the 'scope was bigger than any other he had seen.
"It's about the right size," O'Brine said. There was excitement in his voice. "Correct course. Let's take a look at it."
All hands gripped something with which to steady themselves as the cruiser spun swiftly onto the new course. The control officer called, "I have it centered, sir. We'll reach it in about an hour at this speed."
"Jack it up," O'Brine ordered. "Heave some neutrons into it. Double speed, then decelerate to reach it in thirty minutes."
The control officer issued orders to the engine control room. In a moment acceleration plucked at them. O'Brine motioned to Rip. "Come on, Foster. Let's see what Analysis makes of this rock."
Rip followed the commander to the deck below, where the technical analysts were located. His heart was pounding a little faster than usual, and not from acceleration, either. He found himself wetting his lips frequently and thought, Get hold of it, boy. You've got nothing to worry about but high vacuum.
He didn't really believe it. There would be plenty to worry about. Like detonating nuclear bombs and trying to figure their blast reaction. Like figuring out the course that would take them closest to the sun without pulling them into it. Like a thousand things—all of them up to him.
The chief analyst greeted them. "We got the orders to change course, Commander. That gave us the location of the asteroid. We're already working on it."
"No, sir. We'll have the albedo measurement in a few minutes. It'll take longer to figure the mass."
The asteroid's efficiency in reflecting sunlight was its albedo. The efficiency depended on the material of which it was made. The albedo of pure metallic thorium was known. If the asteroid's albedo matched it, that would be one piece of evidence.
In the same way, the mass of thorium was known. The measurements of the asteroid were being taken. They would be compared with a chunk of thorium of the same size. If it worked out, that would be evidence enough.
Commander O'Brine motioned to chairs. "Might as well sit down while we're waiting, Foster." He took one of the chairs and looked closely at Rip. Suddenly he grinned. "I thought Planeteers never got nervous."
"Who's nervous?" Rip retorted, then answered his own question truthfully. "I am. You're right, sir. The closer we get, the more scared I get."
"That's a good sign," O'Brine replied. "It means you'll be careful. Got any real doubts about the job?"
Rip thought it over and didn't think so. "Not any real ones. I think we can do it. But I'm nervous just the same. Great Cosmos, Commander! This is my first assignment, and they give me a whole world to myself and tell me to bring it home. Maybe it isn't a very big world, but that doesn't change things much."
O'Brine chuckled. "I never expected to get an admission like that from a Planeteer."
"And I," Rip retorted, "never expected to make one like that to a spaceman."
The chief analyst returned, a sheet of computations in his hand. "Report, sir. The albedo measurement is correct. This may be it."
"How long before we get the measurements and comparisons?"
"Ten minutes, perhaps."
Rip spoke up. "Sir, there's some data I'll need."
"What, Lieutenant?" The analyst got out a notebook.
"I'll need all possible data on the asteroid's speed, orbit, and physical measurements. I will have to figure a new orbit and what it will take to blast the mass into it."
"We'll get those. The orbit will not be exact, of course. We have only two reference points. But I think we'll come pretty close."
O'Brine nodded. "Do what you can, Chief. And when Foster gets down to doing his calculations, have your men run them through the electronic computer for him."
Rip thanked them both, then stood up. "Sir, I'm going back to my men. I want to be sure everything is ready. If there's a Connie cruiser headed this way, we don't want to lose any time."
"Good idea. I think we'll dump you on the asteroid, Foster, and then blast off. Not too far, of course. Just enough to lead the Connie away from you if its screen picks us up."
That sounded good to Rip. "We'll be ready when you are, sir."
The chief analyst took less than the estimated ten minutes for his next set of figures. Commander O'Brine called personally while Rip was still searching for the right landing-boat ports. The voice horn bellowed, "Get it, Lieutenant Foster! The mass measurements are correct. This is your asteroid. Estimated twelve minutes before we reach it. Your data will be ready by the time you get back here. Show an exhaust!"
Rip found Koa and the men and asked the sergeant major for a report.
"We're ready, sir," Koa told him. "We can get out in three minutes. It will take us that long to get into space gear. Your stuff is laid out, sir."
"Get me the books and charts from the supplies," Rip directed. "Have Santos take them to the chief analyst. I'm going back and figure our course. No use doing it the hard way on the asteroid, when I can do it in a few minutes here with the ship's computer."
He turned and hurried back, hauling himself along by handholds. The ship had stopped acceleration and was at no-weight again. As he neared the analysis section, it went into deceleration, but the pressure was not too bad. He made his way against it easily.
The chief analyst was waiting for him. "We have everything you need, Lieutenant, except the orbital stuff. We'll do the best we can on that and have an estimate in a few minutes. Meanwhile you can mark up your figures. Incidentally, what power are you going to use to move the asteroid?"
"Nuclear explosions," Rip said, and saw the chief's eyes pop. He added, "With conventional chemical fuel for corrections."
He felt rising excitement. The whole ship seemed to have come to life. There was excited tension in the computer room when he went in with the chief. Spacemen, all mathematicians, were waiting for him. As the chief led him to a table, they gathered around him.
Rip took command. "Here's what we're after. I need to plot an orbit that will get us out of the asteroid belt without collisions, take us as close to the sun as possible without having it capture us, and land us in space about ten thousand miles from Earth. From then on I'll throw the asteroid into a braking ellipse around the earth, and I'll be able to make any small corrections necessary."
He spread out a solar system chart and marked in the positions of the planets as of that moment, using the daily almanac. Then he put down the position of the asteroid, taking it from the paper the chief analyst handed him.
"Will you make assignments, Chief?"
The chief shook his head. "Make them yourself, Lieutenant. We're at your service."
Rip felt a little ashamed of some of the unkind things he had said about spacemen. "Thank you." He pointed to a spaceman. "Will you calculate the inertia of the asteroid, please?" The spaceman hurried off. "First thing to do is plot the orbit as though there were no other bodies in the system," Rip said. "Where's Santos?"
"Here, sir." The corporal had come in unnoticed with Rip's reference books.
Rip had plotted orbits before, but never one for actual use. His palms were wet as he laid it out, using prepared tables. When he had finished he pointed to a spaceman. "That's it. Will you translate it into analogue figures for the computer, please?" He assigned to others the task of figuring out the effect Mercury, the sun, and Earth would have on the orbit, using an assumed speed for the asteroid.
To the chief analyst he gave the job of putting all the data together in proper form for feeding to the electronic brain.
It would have taken all spacemen present about ten days to complete the job by regular methods, but the electronic computer produced the answer in three minutes.
"Thanks a million, Chief," Rip said. "I'll be calling on you again before this is over." He tucked the sheets into his pocket.
"Anytime, Lieutenant. We'll keep rechecking the figures as we go along. If there are any corrections, we'll send them to you. That will give you a check on your own figures."
"Don't worry," Rip assured him, "we're going to have plenty of corrections before we're through."
Deceleration had been dropping steadily. It ceased altogether, leaving them weightless. O'Brine's voice came over the speaker. "Get it! Valve crews take stations at landing boats five and six. The Planeteers will depart in five minutes. Lieutenant Foster will report to central control if he cannot be ready in that time."
Santos grinned at Rip. "Here we go, Lieutenant."
Rip's heart would have dropped into his shoes if there had been any gravity. Only a little excitement showed on his face, though. He waved his thanks at the analysts and grinned back at Santos.
"Show an exhaust, Corporal. High vack is waiting!"
Rip rechecked his space suit before putting on his helmet. The air seal was intact, and his heating and ventilating units worked. He slapped his knee pouches to make sure the space knife was handy to his left hand, the pistol to his right.
Koa was already fully dressed. He handed Rip the shoulder case that contained the plotting board. Santos had taken charge of Rip's astrogation instruments.
A spaceman was waiting with Rip's bubble. At a nod, the spaceman slipped it on his head. Rip reached up and gave it a quarter turn. The locking mechanism clamped into place. He turned his belt ventilator control on full, and the space suit puffed out. When it was fully inflated, he watched the pressure gauge. It was steady. No leaks in suit or helmet. He let the pressure go down to normal.
Koa's voice buzzed in his ears. "Hear me, sir?"
Rip adjusted the volume of his communicator and replied, "I hear you. Am I clear?"
"Yessir. All men dressed and ready."
Rip made a final check. He counted his men, then personally inspected their suits. The boats were next. They were typical landing craft, shaped like rectangular boxes. There was no need for streamlining in the vacuum of space. They were not pressurized. Only men in space suits rode in the ungainly boxes.
He checked all blast tubes to make sure they were clear. There were small single tubes on each side of the craft. A clogged one could explode and blow the boat up.
Koa, he knew, had checked everything, but the final responsibility was his. In space, no officer took anyone's word for anything that might mean lives. Each checked every detail personally.
Rip looked around and saw the Planeteers watching him. There was approval on the faces behind the clear helmets, and he knew they were satisfied with his thoroughness.
At last, certain that everything was in good order, he said quietly, "Pilots, man your boats."
Dowst got into one and a spaceman into the other. Dowst's boat would stay with them on the asteroid. The spaceman would bring the other back to the ship.
Commander O'Brine stepped through the valve into the boat lock. A spaceman handed him a hand communicator. He spoke into it. Rip couldn't have heard him through the helmet otherwise. "All set, Foster?"
"Good. The long-range screen picked up a blip a few minutes ago. It's probably that Connie cruiser."
Rip swallowed. The Planeteers froze, waiting for the commander's next words.
"Our screens are a little better than theirs, so there's a slim chance they haven't picked us up yet. We'll drop you and get out of here. But don't worry. We have your orbit fixed, and we'll find you when the screens are clear."
"Suppose they find us while you're gone?" Rip said.
"It's a chance," O'Brine admitted. "You'll have to take spaceman's luck on that one. But we won't be far away. We'll duck behind Vesta, or another of the big asteroids, and hide so their screens won't pick up our motion. Every now and then we'll sneak out for a look, if the screen seems clear. If those high-vack vermin do find you, get on the landing-boat radio and yell for help. We'll come blasting."
He waved a hand, thumb and forefinger held together in the ancient symbol for "everything right," then ordered, "Get flaming." He stepped through the valve.
"Clear the lock," Rip ordered. "Open outer valve when ready."
He took a quick, final look around. The pilots were in the boats. His Planeteers were standing by, safety lines already attached to the boats and their belts. He moved into position and snapped his own line to a ring on Dowst's boat. The spacemen vanished through the valve, and the massive door slid closed. The overhead lights flicked out. Rip now snapped on his belt light, and the others followed suit.
In front of the boxlike landing boats a great door slid open, and air from the lock rushed out. Rip knew it was only imagination, but he felt as though all the heat from his suit was radiating into space, chilling him to near absolute zero. Beyond the lights from their belts, he saw stars and recognized the constellation for which the space cruiser was named. A superstitious spaceman would have taken that as a good sign. Rip admitted that it was nice to see.
"Float 'em," he ordered.
The Planeteers gripped handholds at the entrance with one hand and launching rails on the boats with the other, then heaved. The boats slid into space. As the safety lines tightened, the Planeteers were pulled after the boat.
Rip left his feet with a little spring and shot through the door. Directly below him, the asteroid gleamed darkly in the light of the tiny sun. His first reaction was "Great Cosmos! What a little chunk of rock!" But that was because he was used to looking from the space platform at the great curve of Terra or at the big ball of the moon. Actually the asteroid was fair-sized, when compared with most of its kind.
The Planeteers hauled themselves into the boats by their safety lines. Rip waited until all were in, then pulled himself along his own line to the black square of the door. Koa was waiting to give him a hand into the craft.
The Planeteers were standing, except for Dowst. Rip had never seen an old-type railroad, or he might have likened the landing boat to a railroad boxcar. It was about the same size and shape, but had huge "windows" on both sides and in front of the pilot—windows that were not enclosed. The space-suited men needed no protection.
"Blast," Rip ordered.
A pulse of fire spurted from the top of each boat, driving them bottom first toward the asteroid.
"Land at will," Rip said.
The asteroid loomed large as he looked through an opening. It was rocky, but there were plenty of smooth places.
Dowst picked one. He was an expert pilot, and Rip watched him with pleasure. The exhaust from the top lessened, and fire spurted soundlessly from the bottom. Dowst balanced the opposite thrusts of the top and bottom blasts with the delicacy of a woman threading a needle. In a few moments the boat was hovering a foot above the asteroid. Dowst cut the exhausts, and Rip stepped out onto the tiny planet.
The Planeteers knew what to do. Corporal Pederson produced hardened steel spikes with ring tops. Private Trudeau had a sledge. Driving the first spike would be the hardest, because the action of swinging the hammer would propel the Planeteer like a rocket exhaust. In space, the law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction had to be remembered every moment.
Rip watched, interested in how his man would tackle the problem. He didn't know the answer himself, because he had never driven a spike on an airless world with almost no gravity, and no one had ever mentioned it to him.
Pederson searched the gray metal with his torch and found a slender spur of thorium, perhaps two feet high, a short distance from the boat. "Here's a hold," he said. "Come on, Frenchy. You too, Bradshaw."
Trudeau, carrying the sledge, walked up to the spur of rock and stood with his heels against it. Pederson sat down on the ground with his legs on either side of the spur. He stretched, hooking his heels around Trudeau's ankles, anchoring him. With his gloves, he grabbed the seat of the Frenchman's space suit.
Bradshaw took a spike and held it against the gray metal ground. The Frenchman swung, his hammer noiseless as it drove the tough spike. A few inches into the metal was enough. Bradshaw took a wrench from his belt, put it on the head of the spike, and turned it. Below the surface, teeth on the spike bit into the metal. It would hold.
The rest was easy. The spike was used to anchor Trudeau while he drove another, at his longest reach. Then the second spike became his anchor, and so on, until enough spikes had been set to lace the boat down against any sudden shock.
The boat piloted by the spaceman was tied to the one that would remain, and the Planeteers floated its supplies through a window. It took only a few moments, with Planeteers forming a chain from inside the boat to a spot a little distance away. The crates weighed almost nothing, but still retained their mass. Once their inertia was overcome, they moved from one man to the next like ungainly balloons.
"All clear, sir," Koa called.
Rip stepped inside and made a quick inspection. The box was empty except for the spaceman pilot. He put a hand on the pilot's shoulder. "On your way, Rocky. Thanks."
"You're welcome, sir." The pilot added, "Watch out for high vack."
Rip and Koa stepped out and walked a little distance away. Santos and Pederson cast the landing boat adrift and shoved it away from the anchored boat. In a moment fire spurted from the bottom tube, spreading over the dull metal and licking at the feet of the Planeteers.
Rip watched the boat rise upward to the great, sleek, dark bulk of the Scorpius. The landing boat maneuvered into the air lock with brief flares from its exhausts. In a few moments the sparkling blast of auxiliary rocket tubes moved the spaceship away. O'Brine was putting a little distance between his ship and the asteroid before turning on the nuclear drive. The ship decreased in size until Rip saw it only as a dark, oval silhouette against the Milky Way. Then the exhaust of the nuclear drive grew into a mighty column of glowing blue, and the ship flamed into space.
For a moment Rip had a wild impulse to yell for the ship to come back. He had been in vacuum before, but only as a cadet, with an officer in charge. Now, suddenly, he was the one responsible. The job was his. He stiffened. Planeteer officers didn't worry about things like that. He forced his mind to the job at hand.
The next step was to establish a base. The base would have to be on the dark side of the asteroid, once it was in its new orbit. That meant a temporary base now and a better one later, when they had blasted the little planet into its new course. He estimated roughly the approximate positions where he would place his charges, using the sun and the star Canopus as visual guides.
"This will do for a temporary base," he announced. "Rig the boat compartment. While two of you are doing that, you others break out the rocket launcher and rocket racks and assemble the cutting torch. Koa will make assignments."
While the sergeant major translated Rip's general instructions into specific orders for each man, the young lieutenant walked to the edge of the sun belt. There was no atmosphere, so the edge was a sharp line between dark and light. There wasn't much light, either. They were too far from the sun for that. But as they neared the sun, the darkness would be their protection. They would get so close to Sol that the metal on the sun side would get soft as butter.
He bent close to the uneven surface. It was clean metal, not oxidized at all. The thorium had never been exposed to oxygen. Here and there, pyramids of metal thrust up from the asteroid, sometimes singly, sometimes in clusters. They were metal crystal formations. He guessed that once, long ages ago, the asteroid had been a part of something much bigger, perhaps a planet. One theory said the asteroids were formed when a planet exploded. This asteroid might have been a pocket of pure thorium in the planet.
There would be plenty to do in a short while, but meanwhile he enjoyed the sensation of being on a tiny world in space with only a handful of Planeteers for company. He smiled. "King Foster," he said to himself. "Monarch of a thorium space speck." It was a rather nice feeling, even though he laughed at himself for thinking it. Since he was in command of the detachment, he could in all truth say that this was his own personal planet. It would be a good bit of space humor to spring on the folks back on Terra.
"Yep, once I was boss of a whole world. Made myself king. Emperor of all the metal molecules and king of the thorium spurs. And my subjects obeyed my every command." He added, "Thanks to Planeteer discipline. The detachment commander is boss."
He reminded himself that he had better stop gathering space dust and start acting like a detachment commander. He walked back to the landing boat, stepping with care. With such low gravity, a false step could send him high above the asteroid. Of course, that would not be dangerous, since space suits were equipped with six small compressed-air bottles for emergency propulsion. But it would be embarrassing.
Inside the boat, Dowst and Nunez were setting up the compartment. Sections of the rear wall swung out and locked into place against airtight seals, forming a box at the rear end of the boat. Equipment sealed in the stern, next to the rocket tube, supplied light, heat, and air. It was a simple but necessary arrangement. Without it, the Planeteers could not have eaten.
There was no air lock for the compartment. The half of the detachment not on duty would walk in, seal it up, turn on the equipment, wait until the gauges registered sufficient air and heat, and then remove their space suits. When it was time to leave, they would don suits, open the door, and walk out, and the next shift would enter and repeat the process. Earlier models had permanent compartments, but they took up too much room in craft designed for carrying as many men and as much equipment as possible. They were strictly work boats, and hard experience had dictated the best design.
The rocket launcher was already set up near the boat. It was a simple affair, with three adjustable legs bolted to ground spikes. The legs held a movable cradle in which the rocket racks were placed. High-geared hand controls enabled the gunner to swing the cradle at high speed in any direction except straight down. A simple, illuminated optical sight was all the gunner needed. Since there were neither gravity nor atmosphere in space, the missiles flashed out in a straight line, continuing on into infinity if they missed their targets. Proximity fuses made this a remote possibility. If the rocket got anywhere near the target, the shell would explode.
Rip found his astrogation instruments set carefully to one side. He removed the data sheets from his case and examined them. Now came the work of finding the spots in which to place his atomic charges. Since the computer aboard ship had done all the mathematics necessary, he needed only to take sights to determine the precise positions.
He took a transit-like instrument from the case, pulled out the legs of its self-contained tripod, then carried it to a spot near where he had estimated the first charge would be placed. The instrument was equipped with three movable rings to be set for the celestial equator, for the zero meridian, and for the right ascension of any convenient star. Using a regular level would have been much simpler. The instrument had one, but with so little gravity to activate it, the thing was useless.
The sights were specially designed for use in space, and his bubble was no obstacle in taking observations. He merely put the clear plastic against the curved sight and looked into it much as he would have looked through a telescope on Earth.
As he did so, a hint of pale pink light caught the corner of his eye. He backed away from the instrument and turned his head quickly, looking at the colorimeter-type radiation detector at the side of his helmet. It was glowing.
An icy chill sent a shiver through him. Great, gorgeous galaxies! He had forgotten ... had Koa and the others? He turned so fast that he lost his balance and floated above the surface like a captive balloon. Santos, who had been standing nearby to help if requested, hooked a toe on the ground spike, caught him, and set him upright on the ground again.
"Get me the radiation detection instruments," he ordered.
Koa sensed the urgency in his voice and got the instruments himself. Rip switched them on and read the illuminated dial on the alpha counter. Plenty high, as was natural. But no danger there—alpha particles couldn't penetrate the space suits. Then, his hand clammy inside the space glove, he switched on the other meter. The gamma count was far below the alpha, but there were too many of the rays around for comfort. Inside the helmet his face turned pale.
There was no immediate danger. It would take many days to build up a dose of gamma that could hurt them. But gamma was not the only radiation. They were in space, fully exposed to equally dangerous cosmic radiation.
The Planeteers had gathered while he read the instruments. Now they stood watching him.
They knew the significance of what he had found.
"I ought to be busted to recruit," he told them. "I knew this asteroid was thorium and that thorium is radioactive. If I had used my head, I would have added nuclite shielding to the list of supplies the Scorpius provided. We could have had enough of it to protect us while around our base, even if we couldn't be protected while working on the charges. That would at least have kept our dosage down enough for safety."
"No one else thought of it, either, sir," Koa reminded him.
"It was my job to think of it, and I didn't. So I've put us in a time squeeze. If the Scorpius gets back soon, we can get the shielding before our radiation dosage has built up very high. If the ship doesn't come back, the dosage will mount."
He looked at them grimly. "It won't kill us, and it won't even make us very sick. I'll have the ship take us off before we build up that much dosage."