Janichevski stared at the big red-haired man for a long while. Suddenly he stiffened. "O.K. On that account, and no other, I'll go along with you."
Blades wobbled on his feet, near collapse with relief. "Good man!" he croaked.
"But I will not have any of my officers or crew involved."
Blades rallied and answered briskly, "You needn't. Just issue orders that my boys are to have access to the scoopships. They can install the equipment, jockey the boats over to the full balloons, and even couple them on."
Janichevski's fears had vanished once he made his decision, but now a certain doubt registered. "That's a pretty skilled job."
"These are pretty skilled men. It isn't much of a maneuver, not like making a Jovian sky dive."
"Well, O.K., I'll take your word for their ability. But suppose the Altair spots those boats moving around?"
"She's already several hundred kilometers off, and getting farther away, running a search curve which I'm betting my liberty--and my honor; I certainly don't want to hurt my own country's Navy--I'm betting that search curve is guaranteed not to find the missile in time. They'll spot the Pallas as you depart--oh, yes, our people will be aboard as per orders--but no finer detail will show in so casual an observation."
"Again, I'll take your word. What else can I do to help?"
"Nothing you weren't doing before. Leave the piratics to us. I'd better get back." Blades extended his hand. "I haven't got the words to thank you, Adam."
Janichevski accepted the shake. "No reason for thanks. You dragooned me." A grin crossed his face. "I must confess though, I'm not sorry you did."
Blades left. He found his gang in the terminal, two dozen engineers and rockjacks clumped tautly together.
"What's the word?" Carlos Odonaju shouted.
"Clear track," Blades said. "Go right aboard."
"Good. Fine. I always wanted to do something vicious and destructive," Odonaju laughed.
"The idea is to prevent destruction," Blades reminded him, and proceeded toward the office.
Avis met him in Corridor Four. Her freckled countenance was distorted by a scowl. "Hey, Mike, wait a minute," she said, low and hurriedly. "Have you seen La Ziska?"
"The leftenant? Why, no. I left her with you, remember, hoping you could calm her down."
"Uh-huh. She was incandescent mad. Called us a pack of bandits and--But then she started crying. Seemed to break down completely. I took her to your cabin and went back to help Jimmy. Only, when I checked there a minute ago, she was gone."
"How should I know? But that she-devil's capable of anything to wreck our chances."
"You're not being fair to her. She's got an oath to keep."
"All right," said Avis sweetly. "Far be it from me to prevent her fulfilling her obligations. Afterward she may even write you an occasional letter. I'm sure that'll brighten your Rehab cell no end."
"What can she do?" Blades argued, with an uneasy sense of whistling in the dark. "She can't get off the asteroid without a scooter, and I've already got Sam's gang working on all the scooters."
"Is there no other possibility? The radio shack?"
"With a man on duty there. That's out." Blades patted the girl's arm.
"O.K., I'll get back to work. But ... I'll be so glad when this is over, Mike!"
Looking into the desperate brown eyes, Blades felt a sudden impulse to kiss their owner. But no, there was too much else to do. Later, perhaps. He cocked a thumb upward. "Carry on."
Too bad about Ellen, he thought as he continued toward his office. What an awful waste, to make a permanent enemy of someone with her kind of looks. And personality--Come off that stick, you clabberhead! She's probably the marryin' type anyway.
In her shoes, though, what would I do? Not much; they'd pinch my feet. But--damnation, Avis is right. She's not safe to have running around loose. The radio shack? Sparks is not one of the few who've been told the whole story and co-opted into the plan. She could-- Blades cursed, whirled, and ran.
His way was clear. Most of the men were still in their dorms, preparing to leave. He traveled in huge low-gravity leaps.
The radio shack rose out of the surface near the verandah. Blades tried the door. It didn't budge. A chill went through him. He backed across the corridor and charged. The door was only plastiboard-- He hit with a thud and a grunt, and rebounded with a numbed shoulder. But it looked so easy for the cops on 3V!
No time to figure out the delicate art of forcible entry. He hurled himself against the panel, again and again, heedless of the pain that struck in flesh and bone. When the door finally, splinteringly gave way, he stumbled clear across the room beyond, fetched up against an instrument console, recovered his balance, and gaped.
The operator lay on the floor, swearing in a steady monotone. He had been efficiently bound with his own blouse and trousers, which revealed his predilection for maroon shorts with zebra stripes. There was a lump on the back of his head, and a hammer lay close by. Ellen must have stolen the tool and come in here with the thing behind her back. The operator would have had no reason to suspect her.
She had not left the sender's chair, not even while the door was under attack. Only a carrier beam connected the Sword with the Altair. She continued doggedly to fumble with dials and switches, trying to modulate it and raise the ship.
"Praises be ... you haven't had advanced training ... in radio," Blades choked. "That's ... a long-range set ... pretty special system--" He weaved toward her. "Come along, now."
She spat an unladylike refusal.
Theoretically, Blades should have enjoyed the tussle that followed. But he was in poor shape at the outset. And he was a good deal worse off by the time he got her pinioned.
"O.K.," he wheezed. "Will you come quietly?"
She didn't deign to answer, unless you counted her butting him in the nose. He had to yell for help to frog-march her aboard ship.
"Pallas Castle calling NASS Altair. Come in, Altair."
The great ovoid swung clear in space, among a million cold stars. The asteroid had dwindled out of sight. A radio beam flickered across emptiness. Within the hull, the crew and a hundred refugees sat jammed together. The air was thick with their breath and sweat and waiting.
Blades and Chung, seated by the transmitter, felt another kind of thickness, the pull of the internal field. Earth-normal weight dragged down every movement; the enclosed cabin began to feel suffocatingly small. We'd get used to it again pretty quickly, Blades thought. Our bodies would, that is. But our own selves, tied down to Earth forever--no.
The vision screen jumped to life. "NASS Altair acknowledging Pallas Castle," said the uniformed figure within.
"O.K., Charlie, go outside and don't let anybody else enter," Chung told his own operator.
The spaceman gave him a quizzical glance, but obeyed. "I wish to report that evacuation of the Sword is now complete," Chung said formally.
"Very good, sir," the Navy face replied. "I'll inform my superiors."
"Wait, don't break off yet. We have to talk with your captain."
"Sir? I'll switch you over to--"
"None of your damned chains of command," Blades interrupted. "Get me Rear Admiral Hulse direct, toot sweet, or I'll eat out whatever fraction of you he leaves unchewed. This is an emergency. I've got to warn him of an immediate danger only he can deal with."
The other stared, first at Chung's obvious exhaustion, then at the black eye and assorted bruises, scratches, and bites that adorned Blades' visage. "I'll put the message through Channel Red at once, sir." The screen blanked.
"Well, here we go," Chung said. "I wonder how the food in Rehab is these days."
"Want me to do the talking?" Blades asked. Chung wasn't built for times as hectic as the last few hours, and was worn to a nubbin. He himself felt immensely keyed up. He'd always liked a good fight.
"Sure." Chung pulled a crumpled cigarette from his pocket and began to fill the cabin with smoke. "You have a larger stock of rudeness than I."
Presently the screen showed Hulse, rigid at his post on the bridge. "Good day, gentlemen," he said. "What's the trouble?"
"Plenty," Blades answered. "Clear everybody else out of there; let your ship orbit free a while. And seal your circuit."
Hulse reddened. "Who do you think you are?"
"Well, my birth certificate says Michael Joseph Blades. I've got some news for you concerning that top-secret gadget you told us about. You wouldn't want unauthorized personnel listening in."
Hulse leaned forward till he seemed about to fall through the screen. "What's this about a hazard?"
"Fact. The Altair is in distinct danger of getting blown to bits."
"Have you gone crazy? Get me the captain of the Pallas."
"Very small bits."
Hulse compressed his lips. "All right, I'll listen to you for a short time. You had better make it worth my while."
He spoke orders. Blades scratched his back while he waited for the bridge to be emptied and wondered if there was any chance of a hot shower in the near future.
"Done," said Hulse. "Give me your report."
Blades glanced at the telltale. "You haven't sealed your circuit, admiral."
Hulse said angry words, but complied. "Now will you talk?"
"Sure. This secrecy is for your own protection. You risk court-martial otherwise."
Hulse suppressed a retort.
"O.K., here's the word." Blades met the transmitted glare with an almost palpable crash of eyeballs. "We decided, Mr. Chung and I, that any missile rig as haywire as yours represents a menace to navigation and public safety. If you can't control your own nuclear weapons, you shouldn't be at large. Our charter gives us local authority as peace officers. By virtue thereof and so on and so forth, we ordered certain precautionary steps taken. As a result, if that war head goes off, I'm sorry to say that NASS Altair will be destroyed."
"Are you ... have you--" Hulse congealed. In spite of everything, he was a competent officer, Blades decided. "Please explain yourself," he said without tone.
"Sure," Blades obliged. "The Station hasn't got any armament, but trust the human race to juryrig that. We commandeered the scoopships belonging to this vessel and loaded them with Jovian gas at maximum pressure. If your missile detonates, they'll dive on you."
Something like amusement tinged Hulse's shocked expression. "Do you seriously consider that a weapon?"
"I seriously do. Let me explain. The ships are orbiting free right now, scattered through quite a large volume of space. Nobody's aboard them. What is aboard each one, though, is an autopilot taken from a scooter, hooked into the drive controls. Each 'pilot has its sensors locked onto your ship. You can't maneuver fast enough to shake off radar beams and mass detectors. You're the target object, and there's nothing to tell those idiot computers to decelerate as they approach you.
"Of course, no approach is being made yet. A switch has been put in every scooter circuit, and left open. Only the meteorite evasion units are operative right now. That is, if anyone tried to lay alongside one of those scoopships, he'd be detected and the ship would skitter away. Remember, a scoopship hasn't much mass, and she does have engines designed for diving in and out of Jupe's gravitational well. She can out-accelerate either of our vessels, or any boat of yours, and out-dodge any of your missiles. You can't catch her."
Hulse snorted. "What's the significance of this farce?"
"I said the autopilots were switched off at the moment, as far as heading for the target is concerned. But each of those switches is coupled to two other units. One is simply the sensor box. If you withdraw beyond a certain distance, the switches will close. That is, the 'pilots will be turned on if you try to go beyond range of the beams now locked onto you. The other unit we've installed in every boat is an ordinary two-for-a-dollar radiation meter. If a nuclear weapon goes off, anywhere within a couple of thousand kilometers, the switches will also close. In either of those cases, the scoopships will dive on you.
"You might knock out a few with missiles, before they strike. Undoubtedly you can punch holes in them with laser guns. But that won't do any good, except when you're lucky enough to hit a vital part. Nobody's aboard to be killed. Not even much gas will be lost, in so short a time.
"So to summarize, chum, if that rogue missile explodes, your ship will be struck by ten to twenty scoopships, each crammed full of concentrated Jovian air. They'll pierce that thin hull of yours, but since they're already pumped full beyond the margin of safety, the impact will split them open and the gas will whoosh out. Do you know what Jovian air does to substances like magnesium?
"You can probably save your crew, take to the boats and reach a Commission base. But your nice battleship will be ganz kaput. Is your game worth that candle?"
"You're totally insane! Releasing such a thing--"
"Oh, not permanently. There's one more switch on each boat, connected to the meteorite evasion unit and controlled by a small battery. When those batteries run down, in about twenty hours, the 'pilots will be turned off completely. Then we can spot the scoopships by radar and pick 'em up. And you'll be free to leave."
"Do you think for one instant that your fantastic claim of acting legally will stand up in court?"
"No, probably not. But it won't have to. Obviously you can't make anybody swallow your yarn if a second missile gets loose. And as for the first one, since it's failed in its purpose, your bosses aren't going to want the matter publicized. It'd embarrass them to no end, and serve no purpose except revenge on Jimmy and me--which there's no point in taking, since the Sword would still be privately owned. You check with Earth, admiral, before shooting off your mouth. They'll tell you that both parties to this quarrel had better forget about legal action. Both would lose.
"So I'm afraid your only choice is to find that missile before it goes off."
"And yours? What are your alternatives?" Hulse had gone gray in the face, but he still spoke stoutly.
Blades grinned at him. "None whatsoever. We've burned our bridges. We can't do anything about those scoopships now, so it's no use trying to scare us or arrest us or whatever else may occur to you. What we've done is establish an automatic deterrent."
"Against an, an attempt ... at sabotage ... that only exists in your imagination!"
Blades shrugged. "That argument isn't relevant any longer. I do believe the missile was released deliberately. We wouldn't have done what we did otherwise. But there's no longer any point in making charges and denials. You'd just better retrieve the thing."
Hulse squared his shoulders. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"Well, you can send a man to the Station. He'll find the scooters lying gutted. Send another man over here to the Pallas. He'll find the scoopships gone. I also took a few photographs of the autopilots being installed and the ships being cast adrift. Go right ahead. However, may I remind you that the fewer people who have an inkling of this little intrigue, the better for all concerned."
Hulse opened his mouth, shut it again, stared from side to side, and finally slumped the barest bit. "Very well," he said, biting off the words syllable by syllable. "I can't risk a ship of the line. Of course, since the rogue is still farther away than your deterrent allows the Altair to go, we shall have to wait in space a while."
"I don't mind."
"I shall report the full story to my superiors at home ... but unofficially."
"Good. I'd like them to know that we asterites have teeth."
"Signing off, then."