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The sun was glowing dull red as it slipped down behind the curving horizon of Mars, but Gregory Hunter was not able to see it.
There was no viewscreen in the ship's cabin; it was too tiny for that. Greg twisted around in the cockpit that had been built just big enough to hold him, and shifted his long legs against the brace-webbing, trying to get them comfortable.
He knew he was afraid ... but nobody else knew that, not even the captain waiting at the control board on the satellite, and in spite of the fear Greg Hunter would not have traded places at this moment with anyone else in the universe.
He had worked too hard and waited too long for this moment.
He heard the count-down monitor clicking in his ears, and his hands clenched into fists. How far from Mars would he be ten minutes from now? He didn't know. Farther than any man had ever traveled before in the space of ten minutes, he knew, and faster. How far and how fast would depend on him alone.
"All set, Greg?" It was the captain's voice in the earphones.
"All set, Captain."
"You understand the program?"
Greg nodded. "Twenty-four hours out, twenty-four hours back, ninety degrees to the ecliptic, and all the acceleration I can stand both ways."
Greg grinned to himself. He thought of the months of conditioning he had gone through to prepare for this run ... the hours in the centrifuge to build up his tolerance to acceleration, the careful diet, the rigorous hours of physical conditioning. It was only one experiment, one tiny step in the work that could someday give men the stars, but to Gregory Hunter at this moment it was everything.
"Goodluck, then." The captain cut off, and the blastoff buzzer sounded.
He was off. His heart hammered in his throat, and his eyes ached fiercely, but he paid no attention. His finger crept to the air-speed indicator, then to the cut-off switch. When the pressure became too great, when he began to black out, he would press it.
But not yet. It was speed they wanted; they had to know how much acceleration a man could take for how long and still survive, and now it was up to him to show them.
Fleetingly, he thought of Tom ... poor old stick-in-the-mud Tom, working away in his grubby little Mars-bound laboratory, watching bacteria grow. Tom could never have qualified for a job like this. Tom couldn't even go into free-fall for ten minutes without getting sick all over the place. Greg felt a surge of pity for his brother, and then a twinge of malicious anticipation. Wait until Tom heard the reports on this run! It was all right to spend your time poking around with bottles and test tubes if you couldn't do anything else, but it took something special to pilot an XP ship for Project Star-Jump. And after this run was over, even Tom would have to admit it....
There was a lurch, and quite suddenly the enormous pressure was gone.
Something was wrong. He hadn't pushed the cut-off button, yet the ship's engines were suddenly silent. He jabbed at the power switch. Nothing happened. Then the side-jets sputted, and he was slammed sideways into the cot.
He snapped on the radio speaker. "Control ... can you hear me? Something's gone wrong out here...."
"Nothing's wrong," the captain's voice said in his earphones. "Just sit tight. I'm bringing you back in. There's a call here from Sun Lake City. They want you down there in a hurry. We'll have to scratch you on this run."
"Who wants me down there?"
"The U.N. Council office. Signed by Major Briarton himself and I can't argue with the Major. We're bringing you in."
Greg Hunter sank back, disappointment so thick he could taste it in his mouth. Sun Lake City! That meant two days at least, one down, one back, maybe more if connections weren't right. It meant that the captain would send Morton or one of the others out in his place. It meant....
Suddenly he thought of what else it meant, and a chill ran up his back.
There was only one reason Major Briarton would call him in like this. Something had happened to Dad.
Greg leaned back in the cot, suddenly tense, as a thousand frightful possibilities flooded his mind. It could only mean that Dad was in some kind of trouble.
And if anything had happened to Dad....
The sun was sinking rapidly toward the horizon when the city finally came into sight in the distance, but try as he would, Tom Hunter could not urge more than thirty-five miles an hour from the huge lurching vehicle he was driving.
On an open paved highway the big pillow-wheeled Sloppy Joe would do sixty in a breeze, but this desert route was far from a paved road. Inside the pressurized passenger cab, Tom gripped the shock-bars with one arm and the other leg, and jammed the accelerator to the floor. The engine coughed, but thirty-five was all it would do.
Through the windshield Tom could see the endless rolling dunes of the Martian desert stretching to the horizon on every side. They called Mars the Red Planet, but it was not red when you were close to it. There were multitudes of colors here ... yellow, orange, brown, gray, occasional patches of gray-green ... all shifting and changing in the fading sunlight. Off to the right were the worn-down peaks of the Mesabi II, one of the long, low mountain ranges of almost pure iron ore that helped give the planet its dull red appearance from outer space. And behind him, near the horizon, the tiny sun glowed orange out of a blue-black sky.
Tom fought the wheel as the Sloppy Joe jounced across a dry creek bed, and swore softly to himself. Why hadn't he kept his head and waited for the mail ship that had been due at the Lab to give him a lift back? He'd have been in Sun Lake City an hour ago ... but the urgency of the message had driven caution from his mind.
A summons from the Mars Coordinator of the U.N. Interplanetary Council was the same as an order ... but there was more to Tom's haste than that. There was only one reason that Major Briarton would be calling him in to Sun Lake City, and that reason meant trouble.
Something was wrong. Something had happened to Dad.
Now Tom peered up at the dark sky, squinting into the sun. Somewhere out there between Mars and Jupiter was a no-man's-land of danger, a great circling ring of space dirt and debris, the Asteroid belt. And somewhere out there, Dad was working.
Tom thought for a moment of the pitiful little mining rig that Roger Hunter had taken out to the Belt ... the tiny orbit-ship to be used for headquarters and storage of the ore; the even tinier scout ship, Pete Racely's old Scavenger that he had sold to Roger Hunter for back taxes and repairs when he went broke in the Belt looking for his Big Strike. It wasn't much of a mining rig for anybody to use, and the dangers of a small mining operation in the Asteroid Belt were frightening. It took skill to bring a little scout-ship in for a landing on an asteroid rock hardly bigger than the ship itself; it took even more skill to rig the controlled-Murexide charges to blast the rock into tiny fragments, and then run out the shiny magnetic net to catch the explosion debris and bring it in to the hold of the orbit-ship....
Tom Hunter scowled, trying to shake off the feeling of uneasiness that was nibbling at his mind. Asteroid mining was dangerous ... but Dad was no novice. Nobody on Mars knew how to handle a mining rig better than Roger Hunter did. He knew what he was doing out there, there was no real danger for him or was there....
Roger Hunter, a good man, a gentle and peaceful man, had finally seen all he could stomach of Jupiter Equilateral and its company mining policies six months before. He had told them so in plain, simple language when he turned in his resignation. They didn't try to stop him ... a man was still free to quit a job on Mars if he wanted to, even a job with Jupiter Equilateral. But it was an open secret that the big mining outfit had not liked Roger Hunter's way of resigning, taking half a dozen of their first-rate mining engineers with him. There had been veiled threats, rumors of attempts to close the markets to Roger Hunter's ore, in open violation of U.N. Council policies on Mars....
Tom fought the wheel as the big tractor lumbered up another rise, and the huge plastic bubble of Sun Lake City came into view far down the valley below.
He thought of Greg. Had Greg been summoned too? He closed his lips tightly as a wave of anger passed through his mind. If anything had happened, no matter what, he thought, Greg would be there. Taking over and running things, as usual. He thought of the last time he had seen his brother, and then deliberately blocked out the engulfing bitterness.
That had been more than a year ago. Maybe Greg had changed since then.
But somehow, Tom didn't think so.
The Sloppy Joe was on the valley floor now, and ahead the bubble covering the city was drawing closer. The sun was almost gone; lights were appearing inside the plastic shielding. Born and raised on Mars, Tom had seen the teeming cities of Earth only once in his life ... but to him none of the splendors of the Earth cities could match the simple, quiet beauty of this Martian outpost settlement. There had been a time when people had said that Sun Lake City could never be built, that it could never survive if it were, but with each successive year it grew larger and stronger, the headquarters city for the planet that had become the new frontier of Earth.
The radiophone buzzed, and the airlock guard hailed him when he returned the signal. Tom gave his routine ID. He guided the tractor into the lock, waited until pressure and atmosphere rose to normal, and then leaped out of the cab.
Five minutes later he was walking across the lobby of the Interplanetary Council building, stepping into the down elevator. Three flights below he stepped out into the office corridor of the U.N. Interplanetary Council on Mars.
If there was trouble, this was where he would find it.
He paused for a minute before the gray plastic door marked MAJOR FRANK BRIARTON in raised stainless steel letters. Then he pushed open the door and walked into the ante-room.
It was empty. Suddenly he felt a touch on his shoulder. Behind him, a familiar voice said, "Hello, Twin."
At first glance they looked like carbon copies of each other, although they were no more identical than identical twins ever are. Greg stood a good two inches taller than Tom. His shoulders were broad, and there was a small gray scar over one eye that stood out in contrast to the healthy tanned color of his face. Tom was of slighter build, and wirier, his skin much more pale.
But they had the same dark hair, the same gray eyes, the same square, stubborn line to the jaw. They looked at each other for a moment without speaking. Then Greg grinned and clapped his brother on the shoulder.
"So you got here, finally," he said. "I was beginning to think I'd have to go out on the desert and find you."
"Oh, I got here, all right," Tom said. "I see you did too."
"Yes," Greg said heavily. "Can't argue with the major, you know."
"But what does he want?"
"How should I know? All he said was to get down here fast. And now he isn't even here himself."
"Is Dad on Mars?" Tom asked.
Greg looked at him. "I don't know."
"We could check the register."
"I already checked it. He has not logged in, but that doesn't mean anything."
"I suppose not," Tom said glumly.
They were silent for a moment. Then Greg said, "Look, what are you worried about? Nothing could have happened to Dad. He's been mining the Belt for years."
"I know. I just wish he were here, that's all. If he's in some kind of trouble...."
"What kind of trouble? You're looking for spooks."
"Spooks like Jupiter Equilateral, maybe," Tom said. "They could make plenty of trouble for Dad."
"With the U.N. in the driver's seat here? They wouldn't dare. Why do you think the major rides them so hard with all the claim-filing regulations? He'd give his right arm for a chance to break that outfit into pieces."
"I still wish somebody had gone out to the Belt with Dad," Tom said.
Just then the door opened. The newcomer was a tall, gray-haired man with U.N. Council stripes on his lapel, and major's rockets on his shoulders. "Sorry I'm late, boys," Major Briarton said. "I'd hoped to be here when you arrived. I'm sorry to pull you in here like this, but I'm afraid I had no choice. When did you boys hear from your father last?"
They looked at each other. "I saw him six weeks ago," Tom said. "Just before he left to go out to the Belt again."
"Nothing since then?"
"Not a word."
The major chewed his lip. "Greg?"
"I had a note at Christmas, I think. But what...."
"What did he say in the note?"
"He said Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Dad isn't much of a letter writer."
"Nothing at all about what he was doing?"
Greg shook his head. "Look, Major, if there's some sort of trouble...."
"Yes, I'm afraid there's trouble," the major said. He looked up at them, and spread his hands helplessly. "There isn't any easy way to tell you, but you've got to know. There's been an accident, out in the Belt."
"Accident?" Greg said.
"A very serious accident. A fuel tank exploded in the scooter your father was riding back to the Scavenger. It must have been very sudden, and by the time help arrived.... "The major broke off, unable to find words.
For a long moment there was utter silence in the room. Outside, an elevator was buzzing, and a typewriter clicked monotonously somewhere in the building.
Then Tom Hunter broke the silence. "Who was it, Major?" he said. "Who killed Dad? Tell us, or we'll find out!"
Posted December 24, 2013
I Also Recommend:
A space adventure set on Mars and the asteroid belt. It's a novella rather than novel length but well paced. The imagery and concepts seem fairly dated, though. Inertia is still a problem, but they apparently have artificial gravity. The predominant weapon is the adjustable strength stunner, though projectile weapons are still around. Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump is from roughly the same period, but I liked it better. For a story dealing with the asteroid belt possibly being a formerly inhabited planet, I much prefer Inherit the Stars by James Hogan.
The Project Gutenberg eBook was formatted well with no obvious errors.