3. Death in the Rings
There came to be no possible doubt about it as the hours passed. Even the pursuing guard ships, far behind The Shooting Starr, too far off to get completely accurate fixes on their mass detectors, were perturbed.
Councilman Wessilewsky contacted Lucky Starr. "Space, Lucky," he said, "where's he going?"
"Saturn itself, it seems," said Lucky.
"Do you suppose a ship might be waiting for him on Saturn? I know it has thousands of miles of atmosphere with million-ton pressures, and without Agrav
motors they couldn't… Lucky! Do you suppose they
have Agrav motors and forcefield bubbles?"
"I think he may be simply crashing to keep us from catching him."
Wess said dryly, "If he's all that anxious to die, why doesn't he turn and fight, force us to destroy him and maybe take one or two of us with him?"
"I know," said Lucky, "or why not short-circuit his motors, leaving Saturn a hundred million miles off course? In fact, it bothers me that he should be attracting attention to Saturn this way." He fell into a thoughtful silence.
Wess broke in! "Well, then, can you cut him off, Lucky? Space knows we're too far away."
Bigman shouted from his place at the control panel, "Sands of Mars, Wess, if we rev up enough ion beam to catch him, well be moving too fast to maneuver him away from Saturn."
"Space, there's an intelligent order," said Bigman. "Real helpful. 'Do something'."
Lucky said, "Just keep on the move, Wess. I'll do something."
He broke contact and turned to Bigman. "Has he answered our signals at all, Bigman?"
"Not one word."
"Forget that for now and concentrate on tapping his communication beam."
"I don't think he's using one, Lucky."
"He may at the last minute. He'll have to take a chance then if he has anything to say at all. Meanwhile we're going for him."
"Missile. Just a small pea-shot."
It was his turn to bend over the computer. While The Net of Space moved in an unpowered orbit, it required no great computation to direct a pellet at the proper moment and velocity to strike the fleeing ship.
Lucky readied the pellet. It was not designed to explode. It didn't have to. It was only a quarter of an inch in diameter, but the energy of the proton micro-pile would hurl it outward at five hundred miles a second. Nothing in space would diminish that velocity, and the pellet would pass through the hull of The Net of Space as though it were butter.
Lucky did not expect it would, however. The pellet would be large enough to be picked up on its quarry's mass detectors. The Net of Space would automatically correct course to avoid the pellet, and that would throw it off the direct course to Saturn. The time lost by Agent X in computing the new course and correcting it back to the old one might yet allow The Shooting Starr to come close enough to make use of a magnetic grapple.
It all added up to a slim chance, perhaps vanishingly slim, but there seemed no other possible course of action. Lucky touched a contact. The pellet sped out in a soundless flash, and the ship's mass-detector needles jumped, then quieted rapidly, as the pellet receded.
Lucky sat back. It would take two hours for the pellet to make (or almost make) contact. It occurred to him that Agent X might be completely out of power; that the automatic procedures might direct a course change which could not be followed through; that the pellet would penetrate, blow up the ship, perhaps, and in any case leave its course unchanged and still marked for Saturn.
He dismissed the idea almost at once. It would be incredible to suppose that Agent X would run out of the last bit of power at the moment his ship took on the precise collision course. It was infinitely more likely that some power was left him.
The hours of waiting were deadly. Even Hector Gonway, far back on Earth, grew impatient with the periodic bulletins and made direct contact on the sub-ether.
"But where in the Saturnian system do you suppose the base might be?" he asked worriedly.
"If there is one," said Lucky cautiously, "If what Agent X is doing is not a tremendous effort to mislead us, I would say the most obvious choice is Titan. It's Saturn's one really large satellite, with three times the mass of our own Moon and over twice the surface area. If the Sirians have holed up underground, trying to dredge all of Titan for them would take a long time."
"It's hard to believe that they would have dared do this. It's virtually an act of war."
"Maybe so, Uncle Hector, but it wasn't so long ago they tried to establish a base on Ganymede ."
Bigman called out sharply, "Lucky, he's moving."
Lucky looked up in surprise. "Who's moving?"
"The Net of Space. The Sirian cobber."
Lucky said hastily, "I'll get in touch with you later, Uncle Hector," and broke contact. He said, "But he can't be moving, Bigman. He can't possibly have detected the pellet yet."
"Look and see for yourself, Lucky. I tell you he's moving."
Lucky, in one stride, was at the mass detectors of The Shooting Starr. For a long time now it had had a fix on the fleeing quarry. It had been adjusted for the ship's unpowered motion through space, and the blob that represented the detectable mass had been a small bright star mark on the screen.
But now the mark was drifting. It was a short line.
Lucky's voice was softly intense. "Great Galaxy, of course! Now it makes sense. How could I think his first duty would be merely to avoid capture? Big-
"Sure, Lucky. What?" The little Martian was ready for anything.
"We're being outmaneuvered. We've got to destroy him now even if it means crashing into Saturn ourselves." For the first time since the ion-beam jets had been placed aboard The Shooting Starr the year before, Lucky added the emergency thrusts to the main drive. The ship reeled as every last atom of power it carried was turned into a giant thrust backward that all but burned it out.
Bigman struggled for breath. "But what's it all about, Lucky?"
"It's not Saturn he's headed for, Bigman. He was just making use of the full power of its gravitational field to help him keep ahead of us. Now he's cutting around the planet to get into orbit. It's the rings he's headed for. Saturn's rings." The young Councilman's face was drawn with tension. "Keep after that communication beam, Bigman. He'll have to talk now. Now or never."
Bigman bent over his wave analyzer with a quickening heartbeat, though for the life of him he could not understand why the thought of Saturn's rings should so disturb Lucky.
The Shooting Starr's pellet came nowhere near its mark, not within fifty thousand miles. But now it was The Shooting Starr itself that was a pellet, striving for junction; and it, too, would miss.
Lucky groaned. "We'll never make it. There's not enough room left to make it."
Saturn was a giant in the sky now, with its rings a thin gash across its face. Saturn's yellow globe was almost at the full as The Shooting Starr burned toward it from the direction of the Sun.
And Bigman suddenly exploded, "Why, the dirty cobber! He's melting into the rings, Lucky. Now I see what got you about the rings."
He worked furiously at the mass detector, but it was hopeless. As a portion of the rings came into focus, each of the countless solid masses that composed them formed its own star mark on the screen. The screen turned pure white and The Net of Space was gone.
Lucky shook his head. "That's not an insoluble problem. We're close enough to get a visual fix now. It's something else that I'm sure is coming."
Lucky, pale and engrossed, had the visiplate under maximum telescopic enlargement. The Net of Space was a tiny metal cylinder obscured but not hidden by the material of the rings. The individual particles in the rings were no larger than coarse gravel and were only sparkles as they caught and threw back the light of the distant Sun.
Bigman said, "Lucky! I've got his communications beam… No, no, wait now… Yes, I have it."
There was a wavering voice crackling in the control room now, obscured and distorted. Bigman's deft fingers worked at the unscrambler,.trying to fit it better and ever better with the unknown characteristics of the Sirian scrambling system.
The words would die out, then come back. There was silence except for the faint hum of the recorder taking down permanently whatever came through.
"… not… wor… hither…" (Quite a pause while Bigman fought frantically with his detectors.)
"… on trail and… couldn't shake… done for and I must transmit… rn's rings in normal orb… dy launch… sties of or… follow… co-ordinate read thus…"
It broke off altogether at that precise point; the voice, the static, everything.
Bigman yelled, "Sands of Mars, something's blown!"
"Nothing here," said Lucky. "It's The Net of Space"
He had seen it happen two seconds after transmission ceased. Transmission through the sub-ether was at virtually infinite velocity. The light that he saw through the visiplate traveled at only 186,000 miles a second.
It took two seconds for the sight of it to reach Lucky. He saw the rear end of The Net of Space glow a cherry-red, then open and spatter into a flower of melting metal.
Bigman caught the tail end of it, and he and Lucky watched wordlessly until radiation cooled the spectacle.
Lucky shook his head. "That close to the rings, even though you're outside the main body of them, space has more than its share of speeding material. Maybe he had no further power to run the ship out of the way of one of those bits. Or maybe two pieces converged at him from slightly different directions. In any case, he was a brave man and clever enemy."
"I don't get it, Lucky. What was he doing?"
"Don't you see even now? While it was important for him not to fall into our hands, it wasn't enough for him to die. I should have seen that earlier myself. His most important task was to get the stolen information in his possession to Sirius. He didn't dare risk the sub-ether for reeling off what may have been thousands of words of information-with ships in pursuit and possibly tapping his beam. He had to restrict his message to the briefest essentials and see to it that the capsule was placed bodily in the grip of the Sirians."
"How could he do that?"
"What we caught of his message contains the syllable "orb"-probably for "orbit"-and "dy launch," meaning "already launched."
Bigman caught at Lucky's arms, his small fingers pinching tightly on the other's sinewy wrists. "He launched the capsule into the rings; is that it, Lucky? It'll be a piece of gravel along with a zillion other pieces, like-a pebble on the Moon-or a water drop in an ocean."
"Or," said Lucky, "like a piece of gravel in Saturn's rings, which is worst of all. Of course he was destroyed before he could give the co-ordinates of the orbit he had chosen for the capsule, so the Sirians and we start even, and we had better make the most of that without delay."
"Start looking? Now?"
"Now! If he was ready to give the co-ordinates, knowing I was hot after him, he must also have known the Sirians were close by… Contact the ships, Bigman, and give them the news."
Bigman turned to the transmitter but never touched it. The reception button was glowing with intercepted radio waves. Radio! Ordinary etheric communication! Obviously someone was close by (certainly within the Saturnian system), and someone, moreover, felt not the least desire for secrecy, since a radio beam, unlike sub-etheric communication, was childishly simple to tap.
Lucky's eyes narrowed. "Let's receive, Bigman."
The voice came through with that trace of accent, that broadening of vowels and sharpening of consonants. It was a Sirian voice.
It said, "-fy yourselves before we are forced to place a grapple on you and take you into custody. You have fourteen minutes to acknowledge reception." There was a minute's pause. "By authority of the Central Body, you are ordered to identify yourself before we are forced to place a grapple on you and take you into custody. You have thirteen minutes to acknowledge reception."
Lucky said coldly, "Reception acknowledged. This is The Shooting Starr of the Terrestrial Federation, orbiting peacefully in the spatial volume of the Terrestrial Federation. No authority other than that of the Federation exists in these spaces."
There was a second or two of silence (radio waves travel with only the speed of light) and the voice retorted, "The authority of the Terrestrial Federation is not recognized on a world colonized by the Sirian peoples."
"Which world is that?" asked Lucky.
"The uninhabited Saturnian system has been taken possession of in the name of our government under the interstellar law that awards any uninhabited world to those who colonize it."
"Not any uninhabited world. Any uninhabited stellar system."
There was no answer. The voice said stolidly, "You are now within the Saturnian system and you are requested to leave forthwith. Any delay in acceleration outward will result in our taking you into custody. Any further ships of the Terrestrial Federation entering our territory will be taken into custody without additional warning. Your acceleration out of the Saturnian system must begin within eight minutes or we will take action."
Bigman, his face twisted with unholy glee, whispered, "Let's go in and get them, Lucky. Let's show them the old Shooter can fight."
But Lucky paid no attention. He said into the transmitter, "Your remark is noted. We do not accept Sirian authority, but we choose, of our own will, to leave and will now do so." He snapped off contact.
Bigman was appalled. "Sands of Mars, Lucky! Are we going to run from a bunch of Sirians? Are we going to leave that capsule in Saturn's rings for the Sirians to pick up?"
Lucky said, "Right now, Bigman, we have to." His head was bent and his face was pale and strained, but there was something in his eyes that was not quite that of a man backing down. Anything but that.