It was up to Jerill to think fast ... to do something ... before those strange beasts sucked away the last purified ore on the freighter Bertha.
A shouting wave of men rioted through the engine room.
From the bridge above the hulking atomics, Chief Engineer Durval vollied orders in a thunderous voice. "You men--you!" he raged. "Use your heads, not your feet. Drive them toward the door."
A scattering of Them--compact darting beasts the color of a poppy--scuttled into the shadow of an engine. Heavy Davison wrenches clubbed futilely behind them.
As Durval flew into new bursts of shouting, Scott Jerill, First Mate of the freighter Bertha, grimly shook his head. His lean face was not smiling now. "Call your men back," he commanded crisply. "We don't have time to drive those cats out like this."
Durval turned on him with a snarl. "Take over then. Think of a better way. If you hadn't hauled that load of space cats aboard in the first place...."
"Look out," Scott snapped.
With a crisp smack, a red creature the size of a man's hand struck the rail before them. It was all improbable angles, with no special shape, no front or back. It teetered crazily over the ten foot drop to the floor below. Then it settled, sputtering. It sounded curiously like an angry cat.
"There's one," roared Durval. His wrench slashed down, crashed shrilly on the rail as the cat skimmed effortlessly away. The wrench shot off toward the floor.
Durval shook his hand and roared. The cat, some twenty feet down the rail, cackled insanely. As Scott stepped slowly toward it, the cat hissed, bounded off the rail, and down the steps to the engine room floor.
Scott shook his head. "You're not going to catch them by hand. Better let them settle down, Durval."
"Settle down." The Chief brought the palm of his hand down on the rail. The rail trembled. "They've already settled down. On every generator in the place. One of them crawled under the main relay switch and shorted out half the board. Didn't hurt him a bit."
Scott interrupted gruffly. "We've got to get them out of here fast. Captain Elderburg wants to blast off here day after tomorrow, and we don't have half the ore cargo purified yet."
"And you won't have," Durval snapped. "If we blast off, we'll do it with an empty hold. I can't purify uranium with fifty cats running loose, getting caught in the machinery. It can't be done. Get these cats out and I'll give you a hold full of the best grade uranium Earth ever bought. But not till you get those cats out."
Scowling, Scott bit his knuckles. "We've got to get moving. The skipper thinks IP Metals is going to jump our claim," he said urgently.
"If you ask me, only a doddering fool would bring these things into a space ship." He glanced sharply at Scott. "What's this about IPM?"
Scott shook his head slowly. "Nothing. Forget I said anything. But get these cats out. And fast. Have you tried ultra-sonics on them?"
Durval's face slipped into new lines. "Maybe," he muttered. Leaning over the railing, he thundered, "Masters. Forget those cats a minute. Yes, forget them. Hook up an ultra-sonics sender and--"
The ship intercom over Durval's head clicked mechanically, hummed into life. "Mr. Jerill. Report to Central Control. Mr. Jerill. Report--"
Scott jabbed the Acknowledgement button. As he swung around Durval he glanced down into the engine room. Sweating men beat after the scuttling red beasts.
"Report to me about the sonics," he told Durval. "If that doesn't work, we'll scoop up those red kitties with our bare hands. But we got to get started on that uranium ore purification. Faster than ten minutes ago."
He slammed the engine room door, cutting off Durval's angry roar. Striding rapidly through the bluish light of the corridor, an anger bitter as Durval's throbbed in him. But he took pains to hold it down.
"Confound those cats," he thought. "The Kastil on top of us, and we have to stop work to chase space fauna. And we have three days left. Three days."
So engrossed was he in anger that he almost blundered head-on into the grinning red-head who lounged up the corridor toward him.
"Hey, Scott." Second Mate Max Vaugn raised a lazy eyebrow. "Slow down. Think of all your ulcers."
Scott spun impatiently on his heel. "Can't stop, Max. Got to see the Captain."
"And you don't even stop to say hello to an old friend back from the mines of a nameless asteroid." He grinned, slapped Scott's shoulder lightly with an open palm. "What's all this scandal I hear about your space cats?"
Scott grimaced. "I caught a few while we were scooping up ore over at my pit. Thought the Extra-Terrestrial Life Division back on Earth might be interested in them. They don't eat. They don't breathe.... Only their cage got smashed open, and they got into the engine room. Nobody knows how."
"The good news has got around," Max said grinning. "You don't know it, but there's twenty more sitting outside the main cargo hatch right now. What gets rid of them?"
"If you think of anything," Scott said as he turned away, "tell me. Got to go. Elderburg's waiting."
"Have you tried hitting them with strong light?" Max shouted after him.
"No," Scott shouted back. He was very late, and the Old Man wanted you fast when he wanted you. "Try light if you get a chance."
He broke into an effortless trot, his boots padding lightly on the shining gray floor. "Three days," he thought. He forgot Max. He forgot Durval and the cats. He thought, "Three days," and a fine film of perspiration spread cold across his back.
"We have three days," Captain Elderburg said. He was a small neat man with a prim voice. His bland eyes peered forward into some middle distance, ignoring Scott.
And Scott, sitting tautly in his chair, felt glad those eyes were not on him.
"In three days," the Captain said, "or probably before, the Kastil should find us. The Kastil--the best ship Inner-Planet Metals ever commissioned."
Scott nodded. In the savage, free-for-all world of the space-miner, the Kastil was known as the big ship, the new ship. The ship that could load its cargo hatches in a day, stuffing 100,000 tons of ore down in its belly for the hungering plants of Earth.
"I've fought IP Metals for fifteen years," Elderburg said slowly. His eyes were very far away. "For fifteen years they've grown bigger and bigger, and the bigger they've got, the rougher they've played. You know their record, Scott. Murder, claim-jumping. What they can't steal with a blaster, they take by law."
Glancing through the open port behind the Captain's head, out into the star-dappled dark of space, Scott asked: "Is there any way we can set up a permanent claim here on this asteroid without going back to Earth?"
"You know better than that." Elderburg's eyes turned full on Scott. "Unless we bring a full cargo of reasonably purified ore to Earth, we can't lay claim to these mines, or to any other mineral rights here."
His hands closed neatly, one inside the other. "And we've got to get a cargo back. This is our last chance. A strike as rich as this one will keep us going for a long time. But if we lose this claim to IPM, the days of the independent miner are over. Done with. We might as well sell the Bertha and get out."
"We'll be out of here in two days," Scott said eagerly. "If we...."
"If," said Elderburg very plainly. His eyes turned away from Scott and his hands went all loose at once and spread out flat on the table.
"If we cannot load in two days, Mister Jerill. If your cats that you so foolishly brought on board the Bertha delay us so much that the Kastil locates us. And beats us home with a load of ore. If that happens, Mister Jerill, I will see that you are black-listed from the rolls of every space flight unit now operating. You will be completely responsible for the failure of this cruise."
Slumping back in his seat, he grinned maliciously at Scott. "I realize that our company was offering you a captain's position at the end of the expedition...."
Scott stood up. Anger hammered powerfully at his temples. "All right. I admit I made a mistake. And I take full responsibility for my actions."
"You must admit, Mister Jerill, that only a fool would bring an unknown space beast into a ship."
"Only a fool would deny that the cats are as valuable as uranium in their own way."
"Now, Mister Jerill. Be very careful." There was no mistaking the venom in Elderburg's speech. In his passionless black eyes, viciousness lay coiled. "Your cats have stopped purification of the crude ore for two days. Two days, Mister Scott. We might have been Earth-bound by this time."
Scott leaned over the desk. In a voice quivering with anger, he said: "Listen to me. If you...."
There was a shocking blast of light. Stunning volumes of white light poured from the port behind the Captain's head. It blazed too brilliantly for the naked eye.
With a strangled exclamation, Scott stumbled for the port, clutching his eyes. His fingers clawed nervelessly for the light control.
There was a sharp snap as the port closed. They felt, rather than saw, the light flick abruptly out. Elderburg tore at the door.
They lurched into the corridor. Green-yellow lights flashed before their dazzled eyes. Scott located the wall and began to run, using his finger tips as guides.
"A magnesium flare!" The Captain's words drove at Scott, hard as fragments of metal. "What fool set off a magnesium flare with the Kastil on top of us?"
They stumbled through the cool corridor to the second level air lock. As they approached, the lock clanged open. A space-suited figure waddled into the corridor. The helmet opened back, revealing the vivid red hair of Second Mate Vaugn.
"Light don't bother those cats a bit," he announced. Then his grin faded. "What's the matter?"
The Captain croaked, "You set off a flare--when--when the Kastil has been hunting our claim for weeks. When they're right on top of us!"
Max's face blanched. "The Kastil! Scott, you never told me...." Sudden cunning swept his face. "Why didn't you tell me the Kastil was so close, Scott? Why did you tell me to try light on the cats when you knew--"
"Scott told you!" Elderburg snarled. But at that moment Scott cried out sharply, pointing out through the port by the air lock.
Two miles beyond the Bertha, settled a black cigar. Blue-white fire flared from its base. "The Kastil!" Scott gasped. Useless rage flooded his chest. "The Kastil--and she's found us!"
Under the hurtling jet, the surface of the asteroid was a jagged tangle of stone. Scott, staring tensely from the observation port, felt a swift moment of wonder. Two hours since the IPM ship had landed. And he was in trouble with a vengeance.
As he had left the ship with a party of picked men, he had felt Elderburg's cold eyes on him. Eyes that thought--and threatened.
It was easy enough to read the Old Man's mind. An officer might make one vital mistake. But not two--not introducing the cats into the ship; not permitting a flare to be set off. Unless....
Unless he wanted the Bertha to lose time. Unless he wanted the Kastil to find the precious claim.
Cold raced through Scott's veins. His hands locked white about the space helmet he was about to don. He had to prove his loyalty. Had to prove that the accidents were accidents. And little time was left, as the Kastil could load completely in two days.
"There's the pit, Mister Jerill." The navigator's voice was strained. "See anybody?"
"Not yet. Set her down."
The cargo jet dipped. The vast peaks of shattered stone sped up at them with terrifying speed. Scott refrained from closing his eyes, saw the razor-toothed surface of this shattered world streak toward him. Ahead, the bulk of the Kastil loomed. They must have used the ore pits as a landing marker, he thought. And--what was that?
Motion at the lip of the ore pit.
The jet grounded hissing on the burnt landing strip. "Watch it," Scott warned. "We got visitors out there."
There was an ugly muttering among the men. As Scott threw open the cargo doors and dropped to the rocky ground, he saw the crewmen checking blasters and the slender polonium tubes that could permanently blind a man.
He stepped away from the jet. And as he did so, seven men detached themselves from the shadows about the mine's edge, and strolled toward him. Seven men--two more than were with Scott. The odds might be worse, he thought with a sense of relief.
Cautiously, he loosened the blaster in his belt. They were tricky weapons to handle in space gloves, but he'd better be ready to use it fast.
"Party from the Bertha?" The words came thin and metallic into Scott's helmet.
"Right," he grunted. "You?"
"From the Kastil. Who gave you a clearance to land on our claim?"
"We have a prior claim on this pit," Scott flared. "We have it posted and registered. If you're going to mine, find someplace else."
A giant figure, grimly grotesque in a cumbersome vacuum suit, swaggered forward. "I don't see any of your claim posts."
Scott indicated a tall metal stake glittering somberly in the glare of the jet's loading lights.
The tall man laughed easily, his voice thin and far away in Scott's helmet. "Think of a better story. We just dug that claimer in ourselves. Now suppose you people jet out of here. Ought to be plenty of good claims someplace else."
Scott scarcely heard the sudden bitter burst of protest from his men. His body felt light and cool. The blaster pressed hard against his side. "There are plenty of good claims," he said. "You better go find them."
He swung the blaster up in a single smooth motion.
The tall man stood very still. They were not close enough to see each other's faces.
Then, high on a plateau of stone above the tall man's head, Scott saw the stars blot out.
"Scatter!" As he shouted, he took a giant leap to the right.
A blast of energy seared from the darkness, gouging a vast hole where Scott had stood.
From behind a boulder he could see the fire of the blaster sweep across the upper edges of the rocks, just at the level where the stars were cut off.
For a moment, the cold green line of his fire flicked harmlessly over naked stone. Then a thick squirt of fire flared quickly. A still-born scream died in his earphones.
The men of the Kastil had dodged away into the darkness.
Scott's voice rang out harshly. "I'll give you men two minutes to organize and get out of here. If you're not out by that time, we'll spin our jet around and burn you out."
There was a brief stir off in the shadows.
"You're in a blind alley there," Scott continued. "There's no way out. And we'll blast any man who tries to climb out over the rocks. Is that clear?"
A glowing flash of energy exploded against the rock protecting him. There was no sound, but bits of stone lightly flecked his suit. Scott braced himself on the rough face of the boulder and worked the blaster around for an open shot.