As little as a month ago there had been no thought of the danger, no barest notion, until it exploded in the face of Earth's government. Steadily and methodically the Council of Science had been cleaning up the nest of robot spies that had riddled Earth and its possessions and whose power had been broken by Lucky Starr on the snows of Io .
It had been a grim job and, in a way, a frightening one, for the espionage had been thorough and efficient and, moreover, had come within an ace of succeeding and damaging Earth desperately.
Then, at the moment when the situation seemed completely in the clear at last, a crack appeared in the healing structure, and Hector Conway, Chief Councilman, awakened Lucky in the small hours one night. He showed signs of hurried dressing, and his fine white hair was in rumpled disarray.
Lucky, blinking sleep out of his eyes, offered coffee and said in amazement, "Great Galaxy, Uncle Hector" (Lucky had called him that since his early orphaned days, when Conway and Augustus Henree had been his guardians), "are the visiphone circuits out?"
"I dared not trust the visiphone, my boy. We're in a dreadful mess."
"In what way?" Lucky asked the question quietly, but he removed the upper half of his pajamas and began washing.
Bigman came in, stretching and yawning. "Hey, what's all this Mars-forsaken noise about?" Recognizing the Chief Councilman, he snapped into wakeful-ness. "Trouble, sir?"
"We've let Agent X slip through our fingers."
"Agent X? The mysterious Sirian?" Lucky's eyes narrowed a bit. "The last I heard of him, the Council had decided he didn't exist."
"That was before the robot spy business turned up. He's been clever, Lucky, darned clever. It takes a clever spy to convince the Council he doesn't exist. I should have put you on his track, but there always seemed something else you had to do. Anyway____________________"
"You know how all this robot spy business showed there must be a central clearing agency for the information being gathered and that it pointed to a position on Earth itself as the location of the agency. That got us on the trail of Agent X all over again, and one of the strong possibilities for that role was a man named Jack Dorrance at Acme Air Products right here in International City."
"I hadn't known this."
"There were many other candidates for the job. But then Dorrance took a private ship off Earth and blasted right through an emergency block. It was a stroke of luck we had a Councilman at Port Center who took the right action at once and followed. Once the report of the ship's block-blasting reached us, it took only minutes to find that of all the suspects only Dorrance was out of surveillance check. He'd gotten past us. A few other matters fit in then and-anyway, he's Agent X. We're sure of it now."
"Very well, then, Uncle Hector. Where's the harm? He's gone."
"We know one more thing now. He's taken a personal capsule with him, and we have no doubt that that capsule contains information he has managed to collect from the spy network over the Federation, and, presumably, has not yet had time to deliver to his Sirian bosses. Space knows exactly what he has, but there must be enough there to blow our security to pieces if it gets into Sirian hands."
"You say he was followed. He has been brought back?"
"No." The harassed Chief Councilman turned pettish. "Would I be here if he had been?"
Lucky asked suddenly, "Is the ship he took equipped to make the Jump?"
"No," cried the ruddy-faced Chief Councilman, and he smoothed his silvered thatch of hair as though it had risen in horror at the very thought of the Jump.
Lucky drew a deep breath of relief too. The Jump was, of course, the leap through hyperspace, a movement that carried a ship outside ordinary space and brought it back again into a point in space many light-years away, all in an instant.
In such a ship Agent X would, very likely, get away.
Conway said, "He worked solo; his getaway was solo. That was part of the reason he slipped through our fingers. And the ship he took was an interplanetary cruiser designed for one-man operation."
"And ships equipped with hyperspatials don't come designed for one-man operation. Not yet, anyway. But, Uncle Hector, if he's taken an interplanetary cruiser, then I suppose that's all he needs."
Lucky had finished washing and was dressing himself rapidly. He turned to Bigman suddenly. "And how about you? Snap into your clothes, Bigman."
Bigman, who was sitting on the edge of the couch, virtually turned a somersault getting off it.
Lucky said, "Probably, waiting for him somewhere in space, is a Sirian-manned ship that is equipped with hyperspatials."
"Right. And he's got a fast ship, and with his start and speed, we may not catch him or even get within weapons range. And that leaves… "
"The Shooting Starr. I'm ahead of you, Uncle Hector. I'll be on the Shooter in an hour, and Bigman with me, assuming he can drag his clothes on. Just get me the present location and course of the pursuing ships and the identifying data on Agent X's ship and we'll be on our way."
"Good." Conway 's harried face smoothed out a bit. "And, David"-he used Lucky's real name, as he always did in moments of emotion-"you will be careful?"
"Did you ask that of the personnel on the other ten ships too, Uncle Hector?" Lucky asked, but his voice was soft and affectionate.
Bigman had one hip boot pulled up now and the other in his hand. He patted the small holster on the velvety inner surface of the free boot. "Are we on our way, Lucky?" The light of action glowed in his eyes, and his puckish little face was wrinkled in a fierce grin.
"We're on our way," said Lucky, reaching out to tousle Bigman's sandy hair. "We've been rusting on Earth for how long? Six weeks? Well, that's long enough."
"And how," agreed Bigman joyfully, and pulled on the other boot
They were out past the orbit of Mars before they made satisfactory sub-etheric contact with the pursuing ships, using the tightest scrambling.
It was Councilman Ben Wessilewsky on the T.S.S. Harpoon who answered.
He shouted, "Lucky! Are you joining us? Swell!" His face grinned out of the visiplate and he winked. "Got room to squash Bigman's ugly puss into a corner of your screen? Or isn't he with you?"
"I'm with him," howled Bigman as he plunged between Lucky and the transmitter. "Think Councilman Conway would let this big lunk go anywhere without me to keep an eye on him so's he doesn't trip over his big feet?"
Lucky picked Bigman up and tucked him, squawking, under one arm. He said, "Seems to be a noisy connection, Wess. What's the position of the ship we're after?"
Wess, sobering, gave it. He said, "The ship's The Net of Space. It's privately owned, with a legitimate record of manufacture and sale. Agent X must have bought it under a dummy name and prepared for emergency a long time ago. It's a sweet ship and it's been accelerating ever since it took off. We're falling behind."
"What's its power capacity?"
"We've thought of that. We've checked the manufacturer's record of the craft, and at the rate he's expending power, he can't go much farther without either cutting motors or sacrificing maneuverability once he reaches destination. Wre counting on driving him into that exact hole."
"Presumably, though, he may have had the sense to rev up the ship's power capacity."
"Probably," said Wess, "but even so he can't keep this up forever. The thing I worry about is the possibility that he might evade our mass detectors by asteroid-skipping. If he can get the breaks in the asteroid belt, we may lose him."
Lucky knew that trick. Place an asteroid between yourself and a pursuer, and the pursuer's mass detectors locate the asteroid rather than the ship. When a second asteroid comes within reach, the ship shifts from one to the other, leaving the pursuer with his instrument still fastened on the first rock.
Lucky said, "He's moving too fast to make the maneuver. He'd have to decelerate for half a day."
"It would take a miracle," agreed Wess frankly, "but it took a miracle to put us on his trail, and so I almost expect another miracle to cancel the first."
"What was the first miracle? The Chief said something about an emergency block."
"That's right." Wess told the story crisply, and it didn't take long. Dorrance, or Agent X (Wess called him by either name), had slipped surveillance by using an instrument that distorted the spy-beam into uselessness. (The instrument had been located, but its workings were fused and it could not even be determined if it was of Sirian manufacture.) He reached his getaway ship, The Net of Space, without trouble. He was ready to take off with this proton micro-reactor activated, his motor and controls checked, clear space above-and then a limping freight ship, meteor-struck and unable to radio ahead, had appeared in the stratosphere, signaling desperately for a clear field.
The emergency block was flashed. All ships in port were held fast. Any ship in the process of take-off, unless it was already in actual motion, had to abandon take-off procedure.
The Net of Space ought to have abandoned take-off, but it did not. Lucky Starr could well understand what the feelings of Agent X aboard must have been. The hottest item in the Solar System was in his possession, and every second counted. Now that he had made his actual move he could not rely on too long a time before the Council would be on his heels. If he abandoned take-off it would mean an untold delay while a riddled ship limped down and ambulances slowly emptied it. Then, when the field was cleared again, it would mean reactivation of the micro-reactor and another controls check. He could not afford the delay.
So his jet blasted and up he went.
And still Agent X might have escaped. The alarm sounded, the port police put out wild messages to The Net of Space, but it was Councilman Wessilewsky, serving a routine hitch at Port Center, who took proper action. He had played his part in the search for Agent X, and a ship that blasted off against an emergency block somehow smelled wildly of just enough desperation to mean Agent X. It was the wildest possible guess, but he acted.
With the authority of the Council of Science behind him (which superseded all other authority except that contained in a direct order from the President of the Terrestrial Federation, he ordered ships into space, contacted Council Headquarters, and then boarded the T.S.S. Harpoon to guide the pursuit. He had already been in space for hours before the Council as a whole caught up with events. But then the message came through that he was indeed pursuing Agent X and that other ships would be joining him.
Lucky listened gravely and said, "It was a chance that paid off, Wess. And the right thing to do. Good work."
Wess grinned. Councilmen traditionally avoided publicity and the trappings of fame, but the approval of one's fellows in the Council was something greatly to be desired.
Lucky said, "I'm moving on. Have one of your ships maintain mass contact with me."
He broke visual contact, and his strong, finely formed hands closed almost caressingly on his ship's controls-his Shooting Starr, which in so many ways was the sweetest vessel in space.
The Shooting Starr had the most powerful proton micro-reactors that could be inserted into a ship of its size; reactors almost powerful enough to accelerate a battle cruiser at fleet-regulation pace; reactors almost powerful enough to manage the Jump through hyper-space. The ship had an ion drive that cut out most of the apparent effects of acceleration by acting simultaneously on all atoms aboard ship, including those that made up the living bodies of Lucky and Bigman. It even had an Agrav, recently developed and still experimental, which enabled it to maneuver freely in the intense gravitational fields of the major planets.
And now The Shooting Starr's mighty motors hummed smoothly into a higher pitch, just heard, and Lucky felt the slight pressure of such backward drag as was not completely compensated for by the ion drive. The ship bounded outward into the far reaches of the Solar System, faster, faster, still faster…
And still Agent X maintained his lead, and The Shooting Starr gained too slowly. With the main body of the asteroid belt far behind, Lucky said, "It looks bad, Bigman."
Bigman looked surprised. "Well get him, Lucky."
"It's where he's heading. I was sure it would be a Sirian mother-ship waiting to pick him up and make the Jump homeward. But such a ship would be either way out of the plane of the Ecliptic or it would be hidden in the asteroid belt. Either way, it could count on not being detected. But Agent X stays in the Ecliptic and heads beyond the asteroids."
"Maybe he's just trying to shake us before he heads for the ship."
"Maybe," said Lucky, "and maybe the Sirians have a base on the outer planets."
"Come on, Lucky." The small Martian cackled his derision. "Right under our noses?"
"It's hard to see under our noses sometimes. His course is aimed right at Saturn."
Bigman checked the ship's computers, which were keeping constant tab on the other's course. He said, "Look, Lucky, the cobber is still on a ballistic course. He hasn't touched his motors in twenty million miles. Maybe he's out of power."
"And maybe he's saving his power for maneuvers in the Saturnian system. There'll be a heavy gravitational drag there. At least I hope he's saving power. Great Galaxy, I hope he is." Lucky's lean, handsome face was grave now and his lips were pressed together tightly.
Bigman looked at him with astonishment. "Sands of Mars, Lucky, why?"
"Because if there is a Sirian base in Saturn's system, we'll need Agent X to lead us to that base. Saturn has one tremendous satellite, eight sizeable ones, and dozens of splinter worlds. It would help to know exactly where it was."
Bigman frowned. "The cobber wouldn't be dumb enough to lead us there."
"Or maybe to let us catch him… Bigman, calculate his course forward to the point of intersection with Saturn's orbit."
Bigman did so. It was a routine moment of work for the computer.
Lucky said, "And how about Saturn's position at the moment of intersection? How far will Saturn be from Agent X's ship?"
There was the short pause necessary for getting the elements of Saturn's orbit from the Ephemeris, and then Bigman punched it in. A few seconds of calculation and Bigman suddenly rose to his feet in alarm. "Lucky! Sands of Mars!"
Lucky did not need to ask the details. He said, ''I'm thinking that Agent X may have decided on the one way to keep from leading us to the Sirian base. If he continues on ballistic course exactly as he is now, he will strike Saturn itself-and sure death."