"No more shooting," the heavy voice of the tall man growled. "You Bertha people. Can you hear me?"
"Yes," Scott said coldly. His eyes probed the shadows for motion.
"We're willing to be peaceful about this. I'm Captain Randell of the Kastil. There's no need for killing when there's plenty of ore for all of us."
"Not in this pit," Scott answered. "You have one minute."
"All right." Randell's voice, distorted as it was by the tiny radio, carried a sardonic edge. "We'll go--from here."
He sauntered out of the shadows, hands upraised. From the tangle of stone, his men crept out to join him. Without haste, insolent in their retreat, they crossed over the pit.
At the far side they paused. "This is the extent of your so-called claim." Randell's voice purred in their ears. "Our claim extends from this line. And if a man from the Bertha wants a quick blasting, he can cross this line." His radio snapped off with crisp finality.
Scott stepped from his shelter.
"All right," he ordered. "You men know the story. The Kastil's down here ready for work. And it's going to mean work if we're going to beat her back to Earth. Now, let's go. But watch your step."
They worked. Eighteen hours a day they worked. From the steel-like ground they scooped a dozen tons of the dirty black uranium ore and sent it hurtling back to the Bertha.
But in spite of all their efforts, the more modern equipment of the Kastil overtook them in a day. The blackness on their left was riddled with the flare of digging torches and the slender fire-trails of the jets soaring between the pit and the Kastil.
And now and again, Randell's drawling voice broke into Scott's ears. "You're slowing up, Bertha. Seventy tons for us today. Are you poor little men getting tired?" He clucked sympathetically, then burst into a yell of laughter. "We'll have the ore cleaned off this rock before you get half loaded."
But Scott and the men of the Bertha worked silently, with savage haste, forgetting sleep and food to keep the tonnage flowing to their ship. They had almost forgotten the cats....
But not for long.
Staggering with fatigue, Scott swayed into Central Control, and sagged into a seat. He had been too long in a space suit. A dull pounding beat behind his eyes. "I came as soon as you called the pit, Captain Elderburg. You sounded pretty urgent."
"It's urgent," Elderburg said. "We're beaten."
Scott stiffened. Fatigue fell from him as he gazed closely at the Captain, saw for the first time the bitter dullness of Elderburg's eyes.
"You better come with me," the Old Man said heavily. He rose stiffly, led the way from the room.
In silence they shuffled down the corridor toward the engine room. A tic worked at the corner of the Captain's mouth, but he did not seem to notice it. "Durval held the cats off with ultra-sonics. He purified about ten tons of the stuff and stored it."
They threaded their way along a chill black catwalk to the center of the ship. In the engine room, men slumped sullenly among the big atomics. As Scott and Elderburg passed a group of the black gang, mutely dangling wrenches, there was a sudden stir.
"That's him!" One of the men had leaped up. The wrench whipped back over his shoulder. He leaped raging toward Scott. "There's the rotten...."
"Easy, Billy." He was dragged back, disarmed.
"How'd the Kastil know...."
The Captain tugged Scott's arm. "Don't bother with them. Come on."
Scott nodded numbly, followed, his head aching and a nameless wave of apprehension sliding through him. "Where are the cats?" he asked once.
Elderburg ignored him. "Put on a radiation suit."
They had stopped before a side door of the main hold. As Scott struggled into the suit his mind swirled in a chaos of thoughts. When the suit was adjusted he dropped the helmet shut and stepped forward. Through the lighter gravity of the air lock they lumbered. Then Elderburg spun the controls that opened the door.
"There you are," he said to Scott. He sounded completely deflated. No sting remained in his voice.
Scott stepped forward into the hold, then froze. His body went cold.
The hold was a writhing mass of cats.
Their queer angled bodies darted in a great pile beyond the door. Their red bodies glowed and twisted strangely. They flew about a huge stack of lead containers--uranium cells secured for the long trip home.
And Scott went sick with understanding. Through rigid lips, he forced the words: "Energy-eaters!"
The Captain laughed oddly. "And you wondered how they lived on this naked rock. They ate the raw ore, of course. No wonder they hung around Durval's machines sucking up what free energy they could. They broke through the air feeder system here. No wonder. With cells of 80% pure uranium waiting for them." His voice broke.
"So we're finished," he continued. "The Kastil will be loaded before we can even clean the cats out. We're done."
He swayed back against the bulkhead. Scott took his arm.
"Get away from me." Elderburg wrenched away, his loathing clear even behind the bulky suit. "If what the men say is true. If you sold us out--" His voice trailed off. "Call your men out of the pits, Jerill. We're blasting off tonight."
"No." Scott leaned forward, his eyes mere slits behind the lense of his helmet. "Is there any uranium left?"
"We saved two cells."
"It's enough," Scott snapped. His lean jaw lifted proudly. "It's a little late, Captain. But I can promise to get rid of the cats in two hours. With the ore deposits Vaugn and I have collected, we can still load a good cargo and beat the Kastil out by at least a day."
Elderburg eyed him sharply. "How can you handle the cats?"
"Get me a lead-lined box about eight feet by...."
Static blasted shrilly in their ears. The voice of the ship's lookout, strained with excitement, shouted. "Captain Elderburg. This is Main Control. Get here fast. An explosion at Lieutenant Jerill's mine."
As Elderburg leaped for the door with a muffled roar, the lookout's voice tautened. "No. No. Not an explosion. It's the Kastil. They're attacking the mine. They're attacking the mine."
They crammed into the observation blister on the Bertha's nose. Scanners swept smoothly over the wilderness of stone jutting up between the ship and the mine.
"There's a fire fight going out there." Elderburg's square face knotted with anger. "Scott, take a party. Blow that livid scum crew off this rock."
"Right, sir!" Scott bolted from the observation port. The emergency alarm howled through the ship. He buckled on a pair of blasters with unsteady hands, a black fury sweeping him. He stabbed one long finger down on the intercom.
"Masters," he yelled. "Get the cargo jet ready. With full battle equipment."
"Right, lieutenant. What's up?"
"Piracy." He spun toward the door. Then jolted to a halt, hands balling at his sides.
A picture was forming on the Master Communication Screen.
Elderburg pounded to his side. "Who is it?"
The picture on the screen was very definite now--a swarthy giant of a man, cynically grinning down at them. "Gentlemen," the figure on the screen said, and Scott needed no further introduction.
It was Randell, master of the ship Kastil.
"We've had a very entertaining two days," Randell said. His thick hands rubbed easily together. "It's been a real pleasure watching you work. But I'm afraid the pleasure is over. We're leaving you now. Oh, that disturbance at your mine pit?" He laughed, but only with his mouth; the close-set eyes remained unchanging, watchful. "It seemed so unnecessary to bother mining ore when so much of it was stacked near our pit."
"You bloody murdering bandit," Elderburg thundered. "We'll blast you...."
"You'll blast nobody. Any party approaching the Kastil will get blasted. Any party near the claim--our claim--will get burned down. By the way, I'm afraid your men at the mine contracted space-sickness, or something. They seem to be dead. You needn't bother coming after them."
He began to chuckle. "I think the ore my men are bringing in now will just complete our cargo. See you back on Earth."
The screen went gray. The sound shut off with a loud click.
Elderburg swung on Scott. "Take your men. Clean out that nest of thieves before they remove any more ore. Order out full battle gear. We'll blast the Kastil apart if it takes every man on board this ship."
"No!" Scott caught Elderburg's shoulder, gripped him. "There isn't time for an armed attack. I have a better idea."
"Scott, I order you to...."
"Get me a box," Scott cried desperately. "Made of lead and six feet deep."
Elderburg jerked his shoulder free. His face contorted. "Get to your cabin, Jerill. You're under arrest."
"Captain Elderburg, listen to me. We can...."
"That's a direct order. Go to your cabin." He whirled away from Scott, slammed down the intercom lever. "Attention all hands. Prepare full battle equipment...."
Scott slashed his blaster hard across the back of the Captain's head. Elderburg staggered, clutched the back of the seat. Scott hit him again. Elderburg's legs went loose. He toppled face forward, struck the intercom and sagged to the floor.
Scott stepped to the intercom. "Attention. All men, prepare full battle equipment and stand by. Stand by. Durval, get the largest lead-lined box you have and set it outside the entrance of the main cargo hatch. Shake it up. We have half an hour till the Kastil jets off."
He cut off the intercom, lugged Elderburg to the chart room and locked him inside.
The hold was beastly hot. Standing inside the hatchway, holding suspended over his head a three-foot long cell of uranium ore, Scott felt a moment of shuddering panic. Over the storage cells along the wall, over the tumbling bodies of the cats, an eerie glow quivered--the menacing flare of radio-activity.
Scott glanced nervously at the forward screen. Chief Durval waved toward him. "Your men ready, Durval?"
The Chief nodded. "Don't go getting yourself hurt now, Scott."
Scott grinned although he did not feel much like grinning.
He shuffled forward under the light gravity of the hold. The uranium cell balanced easily in his hands. Too easily. He could scarcely feel it press against his gloves. The heat control in his suit was jammed again. His hands streamed sweat.
He inched past the cats. A quick cold thrill passed through his stomach. With the energy of the ore almost gone, the scarlet beasts were growing increasingly uneasy. They were casting about for a new supply. It would be easy enough for a foot to slip, he thought. To spill the ore across the floor. New food for the cats--and the loss of the Bertha's last chance as strange space beasts sucked away the last purified ore.
He slipped cautiously past the last row of cells. A quick dash now for the open hatchway beyond....
Half a dozen of the bounding red beasts surged about his feet. Their weight drove his right leg forward. He staggered, caught at his balance. The lead cell above his head began to slip.
"Watch it, Scott!" Durval's voice cracked in his ears.
Straining every muscle against the queer weightlessness of no gravity, Scott struggled to regain his balance. He expected another blow at his legs as the cats leaped for the ore. It was hard to breathe the over-heated air of his suit.
But the cats had spun away. As he caught his balance, he stared after them, uncomprehending for an instant. The cats ran twisting in a somehow sinister dance. The bodies were queerly bloated. Down the upper portion of their bodies ran a heavy indentation. As they leaped and twisted, the indentation became a fissure, a crevice.
Then two of the beasts leaped, slammed together in mid-air. But more than two cats fell to the floor.
Their sharply angled bodies whisking back toward the depleted uranium cells, four cats appeared with shocking suddenness.
Reproduction. Elemental fission.
Scott had to clean them out, and fast. Soon the ship would be overrun with the energy-hungry felines.
He dashed toward the open hatch. Outside the opening, a great lead box, eight feet by eight feet, gaped upward. Beyond, four men tensely supported a vast lead cover.
"Is the uranium poured into the box?" he barked sharply.
"Yes, sir. All ready, Mister Jerill."
"Good." Turning from the hatch, he inverted his cell, poured out the uranium ore in a thick stream from the open hatch back across the hold toward the scrambling mass of cats upon the now empty rows of cells.
But he never reached the beasts.
A brawling torrent of animals leaped toward him. Hurling the container into their mass, he leaped to one side. They lunged into the trail of ore. Rolled, leaped, darted along the line. At the hatch edge, a pyramiding mass of cats paused a moment. Then plummeted over. Scott fell back against the bulkhead, his eyes fixed on the cats still scavenging among the empty cells.
Then these too were darting for the trail of ore. The uranium was scattered now. Cats plunged toward the new radiation in the box beyond the hold entrance.
The inarticulate cheers of Durval and his men rang in Scott's helmet. But his mind was already working at the next step of the problem.
"Durval," he ordered. "Get a decontamination unit in here. Clean this place out." Cats poured in a frenzied stream from the ship. "Call Mister Vaugn. Start purification of his ore as soon as it arrives."
Past the hatch, he saw the swift flash of the lead top dropping over the box. Excitement pounded hotly in his throat.
"I'm going to get rid of these cats once and for all," he called. "Be back in an hour."
"But what about the Kastil?"
"We'll worry about the Kastil later. Get that ore purified. We're blasting out of here in forty hours."
He swung from the cargo entrance to the top of the lead box. Under his feet, the lid trembled with the frantic struggling of the cats. "Load this crate in the cargo jet," he cried. "And hurry. We only have half an hour left."