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Pirates of Eros


After his space ship suffers a mysterious crash on Eros, Saunders is demoted
in disgrace. Seeking vindication, he uncovers a diabolic plan
to wreck interplanetary travel and enrich a band of unscrupulous pirates

A Lonely Post

CAPTAIN ROSS leaned across the desk, his eyes as grey and bleak as a Lunar landscape.

"I've read your report, Saunders," he said slowly, "and find it hard to believe you guilty of such gross negligence. Have you anything further to say before I sign your discharge?"

"Nothing, sir." Dave Saunders' voice was dull. "I've wanted all my life to be a pilot for Triplanetary. Now on my first run I've cost the company a ship, a cargo, the lives of twenty-three men. But I still don't understand how it happened."

"That cargo, now," Captain Ross murmured reflectively. "Odd we found so little of it in the wreckage. A hundred thousand dollars in gold, and a fortune in Martian rubies. Tell me in your own words, Saunders, just what occurred."

"Not much to tell, sir." Dave's fingers tightened until his knuckles were a row of white dots. "I was on the radio beam, heading for Earth—New York. I knew we'd pass close to Eros, but the asteroid was supposed to be flashing a ray to warn terrestial-bound shipping. Neither the robot pilot nor I picked up any such warnings. So I stayed on the radio beam. All at once our gravity detectors showed land dead ahead. Right under our nose. I had just time to yank the controlling lever of the forward rockets. They kept the bow up, but the rear of the ship slammed down, smashed to bits. Then, the fuel lines cut, the nose fell. When I came to, I was in the sick bay of the rescue ship."

"Sole survivor of twenty-two men in the crew and the ray tender on Eros," Captain Ross said grimly. "Your ship crashed right into the ray station there. A miracle that pilot room remained airtight." He paused, staring at Dave's pale, harassed face. "You say there was no warning beam. You say you kept your ship on the New York radio beam and still hit Eros, thousands of miles off the course. Some people might believe you, Saunders, but Triplanetary's board of directors won't." Again Ross paused. "Don't think I'm doing this because of your attachment to Mary... but, well, I've arranged for you to stay with the company. Not as a pilot, of course, but as a ray tender."

"A-a ray tender!" Dave gasped. "I...I..."

"It's a hard life," Ross went on. "A lonely, bitter life. But if you stick it out for two or three years, I'll have your case reviewed, try to get you reinstated."

Two or three years! Dave's eyes were dim. Three years away from Mary Ross! And then only a chance of being reinstated as a pilot! Men, they said, went mad on the lonely little asteroids and satellites....

"What post?" he muttered.

A thin, intense smile formed beneath Ross' grey, close-clipped moustache.

"A post recently deprived of its tender," he said at length. "Eros...."

Dave Saunders washed his supper dishes, settled himself in the big chrome-and-spun-glass chair. The ray station at Eros, hastily rebuilt after its destruction in the crash, was modelled along strictly utilitarian lines. The living quarters, a marvel oi compactness, included all told less than thirty square feet. Sink, table, stove, chair, bed, television set and bookshelves, each in its place. Four doors broke the walls of the room; one to the closet where Dave's clothes and belongings were kept; one to the storeroom, with its canned foods, its oxygen tanks; one to the cold, bleak surface of the asteroid outside; and one to the engine rooms, the beam broadcaster. Dave glanced bitterly about the barren living-quarters, reached for his pipe.

The past six months had been a nightmare of unutterable loneliness for Dave. The curiously shaped little planet was only twenty-two miles long and seven miles in diameter, but, space-suited and heavily weighted, he had explored every inch of it. The beam, entirely automatic, required no more than an occasional adjustment, an infrequent drop of oil. For the rest of his time there was only the unending fight against madness, despair.

Visions of Mars, his home, with its dusty red plains, its fiery blossoms, its whispering canals, tore at his brain. And Mercis, brilliant capital of Mars, with its great white crystalloid buildings, its gay little cafes, its traffic-jammed waterways! More poignant than all else was the memory of Mary Ross... Mary of the raw gold hair, the Mars-red lips, the soft, incredibly blue eyes. Dave's fingers gripped the arms of the chair, mercilessly.

Abruptly, he leaped to his feet, snapped on the television set. An orchestra took shape on the screen filling the room with soft music. The plaintive rhythm of Venusian lutes, of strumming Martian guitars, pulled with nostalgic tenderness at Dave's heart. He spun the dial of the set, watched a commentator's face appear.

"... rumored that the new luxury liner, Stellar, en route from Mars to Earth is carrying a million dollars worth of gold bullion in her vaults to stabilize the wavering terrestial dollar. Among the noted passengers on the Stellar are, Ken Argyle, big game hunter and space trotter, Captain Robert Ross of Triplanetary and his daughter Miss Mary Ross...."

Dave Saunders laughed harshly, turned off the televisor. Mary on the Stellar! She'd pass within ten thousand miles of him! He could picture her, in a shimmering cellosilk dress, surrounded by admirers... while he wore away his soul on this barren bit of rock! Her last letter, brought by the monthly supply ship, had made no mention of the trip to Earth. Still, you couldn't expect a girl as attractive as Mary to wait three years on the slim chance that he would be reinstated as a pilot. The very slim chance....

Suddenly Dave opened the door of the closet, took out his space suit. A brisk walk in the cold void outside, he felt, would drive some of these torturing demons from his brain. Snapping the helmet into place, he moved toward the air-lock.

Dave's lead-soled shoes thudded dully against the rocky surface of Eros. Biting sub-zero cold penetrated even the heavy space suit. Except for the dim radiance of the stars it was dark; nearby Terra blotted out the sun. Only the ray-station, its round windows glowing with lights, gave a cheerful human touch to the scene. Dave set out across the plain with long swinging strides, stretching his cramped muscles until they ached pleasantly. He was returning to the station, refreshed by the exercise, when he saw the jet of ruddy flame lash across the sky. A rocket ship] Braking its speed to land on desolate Eros!

Stumbling in his haste, Dave ran to meet it. The supply ship was not due for another two weeks; could this be the Stellar, come to relieve him of his lonely post? Dave's heart leaped with hope.

The rocky plain was alive with lurid crimson light, shifting black shadows. Riding its columns of fire, a sleek silver ship settled to the ground. Dave adjusted his micro-wave communications set, moved toward the vessel.

He was just rounding the stern of it, heading for the main air-lock, when the heavy steel door swung open and a number of space-suited figures jumped to the ground. Tall, burly men, they were, and the sight of them, atomite rifles in hand, sent a wave of suspicion through Dave's brain. Crouching in the shadow of the ship's huge rocket tubes, he turned the dials of the microwave set. Hoarse commands echoed in his ears.

"Flane, you take your men and destroy the ray broadcaster. You, Donovan, start setting up the radio beam unit. The rest of you look for the raytender, blast him down! And hurry! The Stellar's due in four hours!"

Dave's face, behind the glassite helmet, became suddenly a grim white mask. Destroy the broadcaster! That would cut off the warning signal that went out into space to notify all pilots of Eros' presence! Set up a radio beam unit! Sudden remembrances of his own fatal crash on Eros flashed before his eyes. It was clear now... horribly clear! These wreckers, after eliminating the rays, had put up a powerful portable radio-beam transmitter, of the same frequency as the one in New York. And his robot pilot had followed this nearer, stronger beam, crashed the ship on dark Eros!

After the crack-up, while he lay unconscious, the wreckers had returned, taken the bars of gold from the shattered hull, and vanished in the void! Only their belief that the entire crew had been killed kept them from entering the control room where he had lain unconscious. Simple... and horrible! Now they planned to do the same to the Stellar, salvage her cargo. And aboard the Stellar was Mary, Captain Ross! Death loomed for all those on the luxury liner, and he, Dave, was unarmed, helpless!

Against the brilliantly-lighted windows of the station he could see dark forms swinging hammers, smashing the delicate equipment. In its place they were setting up heavy rheostats, yttrium filters, and sub-chromium grid screens. Following this radio beam the Stellar would crash into the station, leaving a mass of fused and twisted metal in no way recognizable as a radio beam transmitter. Here, too, would be the tender's mangled body, apparently killed in the wreck. Dave remained motionless, crouched in the shadow of the ship's stern. Scattered groups of the pirates were sweeping the plain with searchlights, looking, he knew, for him. Yet if he could remain undetected until after they had gone, he would be able to cut off the false radio beam....

Sudden voices, echoing in his microwave receiver, froze him with horror.

"Have a look about the stern of the ship. If he's not there, then he isn't on this blasted bit of rock!"

Dave glanced about. No place to hide, an sure death if he tried to run out in the open. A torch sent a pencil of light toward the rear of the vessel, barely missing him. In another minute... All at once his gaze fell upon the great rocket tubes, over two feet in diameter. No danger of their being hot. The rear rockets would not have been used since the ship acquired its initial momentum, somewhere out in frozen space.

With desperate haste Dave dove into the big metal cylinder. The ship was tilted nose down, due to the unevenness of the rocky plain. Very gently Dave slid down along the sooty exhaust tube, landed with a light thump in the ?ring chamber, of which there was one for each of the dozen rear rocket tubes. The ?ring chamber was large; Dave sat up, watched the lights ?ashing at the other end of the rocket tube.

As they died away, he chuckled softly. In another moment the men would be out of sight of the stern and he would be able to come out. It would be easy to remain in the shadow of the tubes until the Wreckers were all in the ship, ready to depart. Then, running clear of the exhaust flames, he would wait until they had left Eros, smash their radio beam. The Stellar saved, he would be able to explain his own crash, be reinstated as a pilot.... Thrusting his head and shoulders into the rocket tube, Dave started to wriggle out.

Escape from the firing chamber, however, seemed far more difficult than entering. Beneath their layer of soot the rocket tubes were smooth, gleaming ferro-beryllium. Hands clumsy in the asbestoid covering of the space-suit, he sought to gain a grip upon the walls of the tube, but to no avail.

Within the glassite helmet Dave's face grew moist with sweat; twisting, writhing desperately, he fought to reach the vague circle of starlight at the end of the tube. Yet after twenty minutes of struggling, he had not moved forward a foot. And as, exhausted, he ceased his efforts, he felt himself slide gently back into the firing chamber.

Sudden panicky terror gripped Dave. Trapped! In the cylinder of a space ship! Once the wreckers reentered their ship, turned on the rockets to leave, he would be reduced to a mere pinch of ashes! Again he tried to climb the slanting tube, but his efforts were futile. Nothing to grip, and the rear wall of the ?ring chamber was too far back for him to kick against it. He was a prisoner!


LONG dragging minutes passed. Dave crouched upon the floor of the combustion chamber, dull with despair. Any second now he would be blasted to eternity. And the Stellar, following the false radio beam toward Eros....

Suddenly, Dave straightened up. There was a chance... a wild, impossible chance, true, but better than sitting there waiting for death. His air supply, if used sparingly, might last another four hours. And in that time, well, anything could happen. Swiftly he began to grope about the wall of the big fire-box, seeking the fuel jet. Surprisingly small it was, a valve no larger than his little finger; yet so great was the power of the fuel that a few ounces of it would fill the chamber with flame. On each side of the fuel outlet was the dual ignition unit, two small spark-gaps.

His hand trembling, Dave felt in the capacious outer pocket of his space suit. Among other odds and ends he finally located the greasy rag he used to wipe off the contact points of the ray antenna. Tearing off a strip of the cloth, he forced it into the valve. Another and then another, until the fuel line was effectively clogged.

Dave had barely finished when the firing chamber was lit by a lambent blue light. Flickering flame danced between the terminals of the spark-gaps. With frantic haste he wedged himself in a corner of the great fire-box, braced for the shock.

A racking convulsion shook the ship. For a moment the pressure flattened Dave against the wall, crushing him with awful force. Then, inertia overcome, the pressure was relaxed, enabling him to crawl across the metal floor to the rocket tube, peer along it.

Roaring red exhausts from the other rockets enveloped the rear of the ship in flame, but while he could not see the sky, Dave knew that Eros was already hundreds of miles behind, a tiny bit of rock in the great black void. Adjusting his oxygen intake valve to half pressure, he sat still waiting, although for what he was not sure.

For the first five minutes Dave was comparatively comfortable; the reduced ?ow oi oxygen from his supply tank induced a dreamy, lethargic state. As time passed, however, heat from the other rockets began to penetrate the silent firing chamber.

Slowly the temperature rose, radiated from the hot walls; nor was the biting cold of the void outside able to enter through the rocket tube, since the entire stern of the ship was enveloped in searing, blazing rocket exhaust. Even the asbestoid space suit could not withstand the heat; sweat poured from Dave's face, plastering his hair in dark ringlets upon his pale forehead. Within the oxygen tank he could hear ominous cracking sounds as the compressed air, expanded by the heat, sought to burst the heavy durachrome container.

Dave shook his head, swore weakly. The terrible temperature was sapping his strength, making the most trivial movement a tremendous effort. Slowly he withdrew his arm from the sleeve of his space suit and, reaching up beneath the helmet, mopped his face. Expanding air ballooned the suit to grotesque rotundity. And as the other rockets increased their explosive tempo, a red glow crept along the flame-wreathed tube toward the firing chamber.

The heat was stifling, unbearable, now. Dave swayed slightly, crawled toward the inner wall of the chamber which, facing the interior of the ship, was slightly cooler. Even here heat radiated from the other plates of the metal fire-box surged in relentless waves toward him. A mist began to form before Dave's eyes. Quite suddenly everything was blotted out by blank unconsciousness.

It was the jarring blows on the plate behind him that awakened Dave. He opened his eyes confusedly, glanced about. All at once he realized that it was cool, pleasantly so. A glance along the rocket tube showed him that flame no longer formed a comet-like tail behind the ship; he could see a circle of blue-black sky stippled by brilliant stars. At his back the plate shook under a new rain of blows.

Suddenly the explanation leaped through Dave's cloudy brain. The wreckers, realizing that one of their rockets was out of commission, had shut off the other tubes, were opening the firing chamber to make repairs. Dave spun around, counting the pencils of light that stabbed the darkness behind them. Four of the great bolts that held the rear plate of the ?ring chamber in place had been removed. Only two remained. In another minute....

With a quick movement he opened his oxygen valve to its fullest extent, gulped in the life-giving air. Then, revived, he crouched low, waiting. Ten seconds, twenty seconds....

A jarring crash as the plate fell free, a flood of light pouring into the firebox. Dave could see three bulky figures, space-suited, since the engine room had been isolated, cleared of air, for the repair job. Behind their transparent helmets three brutish faces registered blank amazement at sight of him.

Shooting forward like a human meteor, Dave caught the first of the men about the knees, toppled him to the floor. The wrecker's glassite helmet banged upon the steel floor, splintered into a thousand gleaming bits. Dave had one glimpse of an awful convulsed countenance gasping for air, and then the others were upon him, brandishing heavy wrenches.

An almost instinctive leap backwards saved him. One of the massive tools, swung savagely at his head, missed the helmet by only a scant inch. The other struck his arm a glancing blow, numbed it to the fingertips.

Warily Dave retreated before the flailing blows, dodging, side-stepping, in desperation. In his micro-wave set he could hear the two men calling for help, telling their comrades to bring heat-rays. Dave backed away, his eyes darting from side to side in search of a weapon of some sort. All at once he saw one, a small, sharp-bladed chisel lying on a workbench. Snatching it up, he hurled it at the nearer of his two adversaries.

The little chisel whirled across the engine room, struck the man on the chest, ripping a hole in his space suit. A look of horror crossed the wrecker's face; dropping his wrench, he sought to grasp the edges oi the rent, prevent the precious Oxygen from escaping. It was too late. Like magic the tear in the suit widened, forced Open by the escaping air. Choking, his face black, the man fell to the floor.

As he threw the sharp-bladed little weapon, Dave had moved to one side, avoiding the ponderous blows of his remaining adversary. Confused thoughts surged through his brain. Mary... Captain Ross... the Stellar plunging through space to destruction! He had to do something, anything to save them!

Slowly he backed away from the last of the three men. Shouts from other parts of the ship sounded in his communications set earpiece. "Getting our space suits!" "Be there in another minute!" Dave eyed his opponent narrowly, seeking an opening. The man was pressing forward eagerly, encouraged by the nearness of his comrades.

Dave continued his retreat. If he could catch his antagonist off guard.... Suddenly his heel struck metal. The wall of the engine room! No chance of escape now! He was cornered!

A Losing Race

A TRIUMPHANT grin spread over the face of the man before him. Raising the heavy wrench, he set himself for a finishing blow. As the weapon descended, Dave stepped inside its sweeping arc, sank his ?st with all the force of his lean wiry frame, into the man's stomach. The wrecker gasped, staggered, and slumped unconscious to the floor.

For a moment Dave leaned against the wall of the room, recovering his breath. All at once he noticed the door leading to the interior of the vessel glow red under a heat-ray blast. Locked on his side to prevent the escape of air while the rocket tube was open, it had to be forced. Still, there was only a question of minutes before the steel panels yielded to the heat gun. And then. . . .

Dave laughed sardonically. What chance would he have against twenty well-armed, well-equipped men? And the Stellar, plunging at breakneck speed toward Eros! Did fate decree death to all aboard the liner? To Mary... Mary of the sunny hair, the Mars-blue eyes! Unless he could somehow gain control of the ship....

Ail at once Dave's eyes fell upon the firing chamber, open since the removal of the rear plate. It was, he noticed, directly in line with the red-hot door. Springing forward, he unscrewed the valve, removed the strips of cloth with which he had clogged it. As he straightened up, a section of the engine room door as big as a dinner plate melted away. Air, cooped up in the rest of the ship, whistled through the opening, escaped via the open rocket tube. The beam of the heat ray shifted, focused upon the lock of the door. Confused shouts echoed in his micro-wave earphone.

Dave worked frantically, his fingers clumsy in their heavy asbestoid covering. The control wires, leading from the pilot room to the open firing chamber number four, were quickly cut, spliced to other sections of wire to increase their length. Clutching the strands of wire Dave retreated to a far corner of the engine room, crouched behind one of the gigantic gyro-stabilizers. The lock of the door, white-hot, was beginning to fuse, to run. Suddenly it disappeared altogether and the door swung slowly open.

Bulky figures, resembling misshapen monsters in their heavy space suits, crowded through the entrance. In their hands they held heat guns, powerful atomite rifles; their faces, beneath the glassite domes of their helmets, were cruel, savage.

Dave hooked two of the wires, twisted them together. The fuel valve of rocket number four opened, shot thin jets into the firing chamber. Standing before the doorway opposite it, the wreckers glanced cautiously about, their guns raised. Dave crouched even lower, touched the two remaining bits of wire, the ones controlling the ignition system.

A sickening shudder shook the ship. From the maw of firing chamber number four a crimson tongue of flame lashed out, jetting across the engine room. Terrible, searing heat, a veritable breath of hell, swept over Dave. Despite the fact that he was well out of its path, protected by the gyrostabilizer, he felt faint. Blinded by the fierce glare of the flames, Dave groped for the wires, tore them apart. Then, slumping to the floor, he lay still, waiting for the deep cold of the void to penetrate the rocket tube, cool the hot metal of the walls, the floor.

It was perhaps ten minutes before Dave felt strong enough to clamber to his feet. Wiping the soot from the face of his helmet, he glanced about.

The engine room was a chamber of horrors. Charred hits of asbestoid, fused fragments of metal and glassite, an occasional blackened bone or tooth. A grisly shambles, the remains of the twenty-odd vigorous men who had come to the engine room seeking his life. Dave shook his head, slightly nauseated.

All at once he straightened up. Mary... Captain Ross... the Stellar! Was there yet time to save them? Four hours, the Wreckers had said back on Eros! More than three must have passed since then. If he could reach the control room, the radio....

Springing forward, he ran toward the door. The iron floor about it was still glowing. Dave slipped and slid precariously as the lead gravity soles of his shoes melted like butter. Then his feet were ringing on the cooler metal of the companionway, the stairs leading to the pilot house above. Had the wreckers left anyone at the controls? Surely, with the ship hove to for repairs, they would not need to do so....

The door of the control room loomed ahead at the end of the corridor. Dave pushed it open cautiously, glanced about. The room was empty.

Swiftly he turned to examine the ship's radio. A large and powerful television set, it seemed to be in excellent condition saving only that it lacked a view plate. The Wreckers, no doubt, had removed the plate in order not to be recognized when communicating with other ships, shore stations. Still, as long as the sound system was intact. . . . Dave bent over the transmitter, adjusted its dials.

He was just about to call the Stellar when swift, sickening realization swept over him. The ship was empty of air! No sound could penetrate the heavy helmet, the vacuum about him... and to remove the helmet, was sure death; the air in his lungs, expanding, would burst his chest. No time to search the ship for the missing view-plate, write messages... and no time to build up the air pressure in the control room. Impossible to warn the Stellar, prevent it from hurtling to destruction on Eros' rocky surface!

Rising blood made a tight collar about Dave's throat. To have come through so much, to have gained control of this ship... and all to no avail! The wreckers' false radio beam was drawing the liner inexorably toward the dark asteroid and he had no way of warning them!

All at once Dave's eyes lit up. If he could destroy that broadcasting unit, the Stellar would return to the true beam, the weaker one emanating from New York! And to destroy it, he would have to reach Eros before the big liner! He glanced at the ship's chronometer. Ten minutes!

Yanking back the T-bar, he tried a tentative blast of the rear rockets. The ship responded sluggishly, with a jerking motion.

Its rockets roaring in a staccato uneven cadence, the battered ship streaked through space.

Close, now. It must be. Dave's hand closed about the forward rocket release. Perhaps he should start slowing her down.... He glanced at the mirror in the observer. No chance of seeing Eros, but...

Dave's shoulders stiffened. That row of yellow dots, dim even in the powerful lens! No stars, nor asteroids... but the big port holes of the luxury liner! Too late to think of landing, cutting off the radio beam! Seconds only remained before both vessels crashed head-on against the little asteroid. Yet if he struck it first, the explosion oi his crack-up might serve to warn them....

Dave released his grip on the forward rocket lever, opened the rear rockets to their limit. The crippled ship leaped ahead crazily. Dave glanced up at the big mirror. The row of yellow portholes was nearer, larger, now. And somewhere behind one of them was a girl with deep blue eyes and tawny hair.... A quick smile spread over Dave's tanned face.

"Goodbye... Mary!" he whispered!

All at once the gravity detectors shrilled a sharp warning. Dave froze into still immobility. If only the flare of the crash would serve as a warning to those aboard the Stellar! If only its pilot. . . .

A blinding explosion shook the ship. Dave felt only the merest fraction of an instant's pain before oblivion dragged him into its black abysmal depths.

Mary's face was dim, incredibly far-off. More, she seemed to be crying. Dave shook his head, painfully.

"You're not real, of course," he muttered. "I'm dead. I couldn't help but be."

"Dave!" Warm, very real lips touched his cheek. A tear, dangling precariously from one of her eyelashes, splashed upon his chin.

"But it's impossible!" he whispered unbelievingly. "Full speed... into Eros... no one could live! Before, slowed down, it was... miracle. This time... rockets wide open...."

"You never touched Eros, Saunders." Captain Ross' face materialized in the mist. "Your fuel tanks exploded just as you were about to crash. Overheated engines, I guess. I don't have to tell you the asteroid is only seven miles across and almost without gravity. Well, the force of the explosion, while it demolished the rear of the ship, shot the forward half off on a tangent. The glare of burning fuel warned us in the nick 'of time, saved us from piling up on Eros. We set out after the remains of the wrecked ship to see if anyone aboard were still alive. Found you in the control room with most of the T-bar assembly parked on your chest. Lucky you had on a space suit, Saunders!"

"Had to wear one, sir! The firing chamber open, when the wreckers...."

"Take it easy, son." Captain Ross smiled. "Plenty of time for you to make your report later on. First thing is for you to rest up, get well. You see, the Stellar's sister ship will be launched next month and we'll be needing a quick-thinking, competent pilot to handle her!"

Dave glanced from Captain Ross to Mary, grinned weakly.

"Guess I must be dead," he said at last. "And by some mistake landed in heaven!"