Prev Next

He looked up the name in the Mars City directory and dialed into the city from a nearby telephone booth. A woman's voice answered.

"Is Lana Elden there?" asked Jonner.

"I'm Lana Elden," she said.

Jonner swore under his breath. A woman! But if she weren't qualified, her name would not have been on the Commission board.

The verbal contract was made quickly, and Jonner cut the Commission monitor into the line to make it binding. That was done often when rival ships, even of the same line, were bidding for the services of crewmen.

"Blastoff time is 2100 tonight," he said, ending the interview. "Be here."

Jonner left the personnel office and walked down the hall. At the elevator, Deveet and Kruger hurried out, almost colliding with him.

"Jonner, we've run into trouble!" exclaimed Deveet. "Space Fuels won't sell us any hydrazine and nitric acid to refill the tanks. They say they have a new contract with Marscorp that takes all their supply."

"Contract, hell!" snorted Jonner. "Marscorp owns Space Fuels. What can be done about it, Kruger?"

Kruger shook his head.

"I'm all for you, but Space Control has no jurisdiction," he said. "If a private firm wants to restrict its sales to a franchised line, there's nothing we can do about it. If you had a franchise, we could force them to allot fuel on the basis of cargo handled, since Space Fuels has a monopoly here. But you don't have a franchise yet."

Jonner scratched his grey head thoughtfully.

It was a serious situation. The atom-powered Radiant Hope could no more make a planetary landing than the chemically-powered ships. Its power gave a low, sustained thrust that permitted it to accelerate constantly over long periods of time. To beat the powerful pull of planetary surface gravity, the terrific burst of quick energy from the streamlined G-boats, the planetary landing craft, was needed.

"We can still handle it," Jonner said at last. "With only twenty tons return cargo, we can take it up this trip. Add some large parachutes to that, Deveet. We'll shoot the end of the cable down by signal rocket, out in the lowlands, and stop the winch when we've made contact, long enough to attach the rest of the cargo to the cable. Pull it down with the cable and, with Mars' low gravity, the parachutes will keep it from being damaged."

But when Jonner got back to the landing field to check on unloading operations, his plan was smashed. As he approached the G-boat, a mechanic wearing an ill-concealed smirk came up to him.

"Captain, looks like you sprung a leak in your fuel line," he said. "All your hydrazine's leaked out in the sand."

Jonner swung from the waist and knocked the man flat. Then he turned on his heel and went back to the administration building to pay the 10-credit fine he would be assessed for assaulting a spaceport employee.

The Space Control Commission's hearing room in Mars City was almost empty. The examiner sat on the bench, resting his chin on his hand as he listened to testimony. In the plaintiff's section sat Jonner, flanked by Deveet and Lana Elden. In the defense box were the Mars Corporation attorney and Captain Russo Baat of the Marsward XVIII. Kruger, seated near the rear of the room, was the only spectator.

The Mars Corporation attorney had succeeded in delaying the final hearing more than a 42-day Martian month by legal maneuvers. Meanwhile, the Marsward XVIII had blasted down to Phobos, and G-boats had been shuttling back and forth unloading the vessel and reloading it for the return trip to Earth.

When testimony had been completed, the examiner shuffled through his papers. He put on his spectacles and peered over them at the litigants.

"It is the ruling of this court," he said formally, "that the plaintiffs have not presented sufficient evidence to prove tampering with the fuel line of the G-boat of the spaceship Radiant Hope. There is no evidence that it was cut or burned, but only that it was broken. The court must remind the plaintiffs that this could have been done accidentally, through inept handling of cargo.

"Since the plaintiffs have not been able to prove their contention, this court of complaint has no alternative than to dismiss the case."

The examiner arose and left the hearing room. Baat waddled across the aisle, puffing.

"Too bad, Jonner," he said. "I don't like the stuff Marscorp's pulling, and I think you know I don't have anything to do with it.

"I want to win, but I want to win fair and square. If there's anything I can do to help...."

"Haven't got a spare G-boat in your pocket, have you?" retorted Jonner, with a rueful smile.

Baat pulled at his jowls.

"The Marsward isn't carrying G-boats," he said regretfully. "They all belong to the port, and Marscorp's got them so tied up you'll never get a sniff of one. But if you want to get back to your ship, Jonner, I can take you up to Phobos with me, as my guest."

Jonner shook his head.

"I figure on taking the Radiant Hope back to Earth," he said. "But I'm not blasting off without cargo until it's too late for me to beat you on the run."

"You sure? This'll be my last ferry trip. The Marsward blasts off for Earth at 0300 tomorrow."

"No, thanks, Russo. But I will appreciate your taking my ship's doctor, Dr. Elden, up to Phobos."

"Done!" agreed Baat. "Let's go, Dr. Elden. The G-boat leaves Marsport in two hours."

Jonner watched Baat puff away, with the slender, white-clad brunette at his side. Baat personally would see Lana Elden safely aboard the Radiant Hope, even if it delayed his own blastoff.

Morosely, he left the hearing room with Deveet.

"What I can't understand," said the latter, "is why all this dirty work, why didn't Marscorp just use one of their atom-drive ships for the competition run?"

"Because whatever ship is used on a competition run has to be kept in service on the franchised run," answered Jonner. "Marscorp has millions tied up in hydrazine interests, and they're more interested in keeping an atomic ship off this run than they are in a monopoly franchise. But they tie in together: if Marscorp loses the monopoly franchise and Atom-Star puts in atom-drive ships, Marscorp will have to switch to atom-drive to meet the competition."

"If we had a franchise, we could force Space Fuels to sell us hydrazine," said Deveet unhappily.

"Well, we don't. And, at this rate, we'll never get one."

Jonner and Deveet were fishing at the Mars City Recreation Center. It had been several weeks since the Marsward XVIII blasted off to Earth with a full cargo. And still the atomic ship Radiant Hope rested on Phobos with most of her Marsbound cargo still aboard; and still her crew languished at the Phobos space station; and still Jonner moved back and forth between Mars City and Marsport daily, racking his brain for a solution that would not come.

"How in space do you get twenty tons of cargo up to an orbit 5,800 miles out, without any rocket fuel?" he demanded of Deveet more than once. He received no satisfactory answer.

The Recreation Center was a two-acre park that lay beneath the plastic dome of Mars City. Above them they could see swift-moving Phobos and distant Deimos among the other stars that powdered the night. In the park around them, colonists rode the amusement machines, canoed along the canal that twisted through the park or sipped refreshment at scattered tables. A dozen or more sat, like Jonner and Deveet, around the edge of the tiny lake, fishing.

Deveet's line tightened. He pulled in a streamlined, flapping object from which the light glistened wetly.

"Good catch," complimented Jonner. "That's worth a full credit."

Deveet unhooked his catch and laid it on the bank beside him. It was a metal fish: live fish were unknown on Mars. They paid for the privilege of fishing for a certain time and any fish caught were "sold" back to the management at a fixed price, depending on size, to be put back into the lake.

"You're pretty good at it," said Jonner. "That's your third tonight."

"It's all in the speed at which you reel in your line," explained Deveet. "The fish move at pre-set speeds. They're made to turn and catch a hook that moves across their path at a slightly slower speed than they're swimming. The management changes the speeds once a week to keep the fishermen from getting too expert."

"You can't beat the management," chuckled Jonner. "But if it's a matter of matching orbital speeds to make contact, I ought to do pretty well when I get the hang of it."

He cocked an eye up toward the transparent dome. Phobos had moved across the sky into Capricorn since he last saw her. His memory automatically ticked off the satellite's orbital speed: 1.32 miles a second; speed in relation to planetary motion....

Why go over that again? One had to have fuel first. Meanwhile, the Radiant Hope lay idle on Phobos and its crew whiled away the hours at the space station inside the moon, their feet spinning faster than their heads ... no, that wasn't true on Phobos, because it didn't have a spin to impart artificial gravity, like the space stations around Earth.

He sat up suddenly. Deveet looked at him in surprise. Jonner's lips moved silently for a moment, then he got to his feet.

"Where can we use a radiophone?" he asked.

"One in my office," said Deveet, standing up.

"Let's go. Quick, before Phobos sets."

They turned in their rods, Deveet collecting the credits for his fish, and left the Recreation Center.

When they reached the Atom-Star Company's Martian office Jonner plugged in the radiophone and called the Phobos space station. He got T'an.

"All of you get aboard," Jonner ordered. "Then have Qoqol call me."

He signed off and turned to Deveet. "Can we charter a plane to haul our Earthbound cargo out of Marsport?"

"A plane? I suppose so. Where do you want to haul it?"

"Charax is as good as any other place. But I need a fast plane."

"I think we can get it. Marscorp still controls all the airlines, but the Mars government keeps a pretty strict finger on their planetbound operations. They can't refuse a cargo haul without good reason."

"Just to play safe, have some friend of yours whom they don't know, charter the plane in his name. They won't know it's us till we start loading cargo."

"Right," said Deveet, picking up the telephone. "I know just the man."

Towmotors scuttled across the landing area at Marsport, shifting the cargo that had been destined for the Radiant Hope from the helpless G-boat to a jet cargo-plane. Nearby, watching the operation, were Jonner and Deveet, with the Marsport agent of Mars Air Transport Company.

"We didn't know Atom-Star was the one chartering the plane until you ordered the G-boat cargo loaded on it," confessed the Mars-Air agent.

"I see you and Mr. Deveet are signed up to accompany the cargo. You'll have to rent suits for the trip. We have to play it safe, and there's always the possibility of a forced landing."

"There are a couple of spacesuits aboard the G-boat that we want to take along," said Jonner casually. "We'll just wear those instead."

"Okay." The agent spread his hands and shrugged. "Everybody at Marsport knows about you bucking Marscorp, Captain. What you expect to gain by transferring your cargo to Charax is beyond me, but it's your business."

An hour later, the chartered airplane took off with a thunder of jets. Aboard was the 20-ton cargo the Radiant Hope was supposed to carry to Earth, plus some large parachutes. The Mars-Air pilot wore a light suit with plastic helmet designed for survival in the thin, cold Martian air. Jonner and Deveet wore the bulkier spacesuits.

Five minutes out of Marsport, Jonner thrust the muzzle of a heat-gun in the pilot's back.

"Set it on automatic, strap on your parachute and bail out," he ordered. "We're taking over."

The pilot had no choice. He went through the plane's airlock and jumped, helped by a hearty boost from Jonner. His parachute blossomed out as he drifted down toward the green Syrtis Major Lowland. Jonner didn't worry about him. He knew the pilot's helmet radio would reach Marsport and a helicopter would rescue him shortly.

"I don't know what you're trying to do, Jonner," said Deveet apprehensively over his spacehelmet radio. "But whatever it is, you'd better do it fast. They'll have every plane on Mars looking for us in half an hour."

"Let 'em look, and keep quiet a while," retorted Jonner. "I've got some figuring to do."

He put the plane on automatic, took off the spacesuit handhooks and scribbled figures on a scrap of paper. He tuned in the plane's radio and called Qoqol on Phobos. They talked to each other briefly in Martian.

The darker green line of a canal crossed the green lowland below them.

"Good, there's Drosinas," muttered Jonner. "Let's see, time 1424 hours, speed 660 miles an hour...."

Jonner boosted the jets a bit and watched the terrain.

"By Saturn, I almost overran it!" he exclaimed. "Deveet, smash out those ports."

"Break out the ports?" repeated Deveet. "That'll depressurize the cabin!"

"That's right. So you'd better be sure your spacesuit's secure."

Obviously puzzled, Deveet strode up and down the cabin, knocking out its six windows with the handhooks of his spacesuit. Jonner maneuvered the plane gently, and set it on automatic. He got out of the pilot's seat and strode to the right front port.

Reaching through the broken window, he pulled in a section of cable that was trailing alongside. While the baffled Deveet watched, he reeled it in until he brought up the end of it, to which was attached a fish-shaped finned metal missile.

Jonner carried the cable end and the attached missile across the cabin and tossed it out the broken front port on the other side, swinging it so that the 700-mile-an-hour slipstream snapped it back in through the rearmost port like a bullet.

"Pick it up and pass it out the right rear port," he commanded. "We'll have to pass it to each other from port to port. The slipstream won't let us swing it forward and through."

In a few moments, the two of them had worked the missile and the cable end to the right front port and in through it. Originating above the plane, it now made a loop through the four open ports. Jonner untied the missile and tied the end to the portion which came into the cabin, making a bowline knot of the loop. Deveet picked up the missile from the floor, where Jonner had thrown it.

"Looks like a spent rocket shell," he commented.

"It's a signal rocket," said Jonner. "The flare trigger was disconnected."

He picked up the microphone and called the Radiant Hope on Phobos.

"We've hooked our fish, Qoqol," he told the Martian, and laid the mike aside.

"What does that mean?" asked Deveet.

"Means we'd better strap in," said Jonner, suiting the action to the words. "You're in for a short trip to Phobos, Deveet."

Jonner pulled back slowly on the elevator control, and the plane began a shallow climb. At 700 miles an hour, it began to attain a height at which its broad wings--broader than those of any terrestrial plane--would not support it.

"I'm trying to decide," said Deveet with forced calm, "whether you've flipped your helmet."

"Nope," answered Jonner. "Trolling for those fish in Mars City gave me the idea. The rest was no more than an astrogation problem, like any rendezvous with a ship in a fixed orbit, which Qoqol could figure. Remember that 6,000-mile television cable the ship's hauling? Qoqol just shot the end of it down to Mars' surface by signal rocket, we hooked on and now he'll haul us up to Phobos. He's got the ship's engine hooked onto the cable winch."

The jets coughed and stopped. The plane was out of fuel. It was on momentum--to be drawn by the cable, or to snap it and fall.

"Impossible!" cried Deveet in alarm. "Phobos' orbital speed is more than a mile a second! No cable can take the sudden difference in that and the speed we're traveling. When the slack is gone, it'll break!"

Report error

If you found broken links, wrong episode or any other problems in a anime/cartoon, please tell us. We will try to solve them the first time.