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Pirates of Eros

By FREDERIC ARNOLD KUMMER, JR.

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

CHAPTER I
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 figh...

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