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Too Many Warnings







From: Gold In The Sky

For a moment, neither of the boys could say anything at all.

From the time they had learned to talk, they had heard stories and tales
that the miners and prospectors told about the Big Strike, the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow, the wonderful, elusive goal of every man
who had ever taken a ship into the Asteroid Belt.

For almost a hundred and fifty years ... since the earliest days of
space exploration ... there had been miners prospecting in the
Asteroids. Out there, beyond the orbit of Mars and inside the orbit of
Jupiter, were a hundred thousand ... maybe a hundred million, for all
anybody knew ... chunks of rock, metal and debris, spinning in silent
orbit around the sun. Some few of the Asteroids were big enough to be
called planets ... Ceres, five hundred miles in diameter; Juno, Vesta,
Pallas, half a dozen more. A few hundred others, ranging in size from
ten to a hundred miles in diameter, had been charted and followed in
their orbits by the observatories, first from Earth's airless Moon, then
from Mars. There were tens of thousands more that had never been
charted. Together they made up the Asteroid Belt, spread out in space
like a broad road around the sun, echoing the age-old call of the
bonanza.

For there was wealth in the Asteroids ... wealth beyond a man's wildest
dreams ... if only he could find it.

Earth, with its depleted iron ranges, its exhausted tin and copper
mines, and its burgeoning population, was hungry for metal. Earth needed
steel, tin, nickel, and zinc; more than anything, Earth needed
ruthenium, the rare-earth catalyst that made the huge solar energy
converters possible.

Mars was rich in the ores of these metals ... but the ores were buried
deep in the ground. The cost of mining them, and of lifting the heavy
ore from Mars' gravitational field and carrying it to Earth was
prohibitive. Only the finest carbon steel, and the radioactive metals,
smelted and purified on Mars and transported to Earth, could be made
profitable.

But from the Asteroid Belt, it was a different story. There was no
gravity to fight on the tiny asteroids. On these chunks of debris, the
metals lay close to the surface, easy to mine. Ships orbiting in the
Belt could fill their holds with their precious metal cargoes and
transfer them in space to the interplanetary orbit-ships spinning back
toward Earth. It was hard work, and dangerous work; most of the ore was
low-grade, and brought little return. But always there was the lure of
the Big Strike, the lode of almost-pure metal that could bring a fortune
back to the man who found it.

* * * * *

A few such strikes had been made. Forty years before a single claim had
brought its owner seventeen million dollars in two years. A dozen other
men had stumbled onto fortunes in the Belt ... but such metal-rich
fragments were grains of sand in a mighty river. For every man who found
one, a thousand others spent years looking and then perished in the
fruitless search.

And now Johnny Coombs was telling them that their father had been one of
that incredible few.

"You really think Dad hit a bonanza lode out there?"

"That's what I said."

"Did you see it with your own eyes?"

"No."

"You weren't even out there with him!"

"No."

"Then why are you so sure he found something?"

"Because he told me so," Johnny Coombs said quietly.

The boys looked at each other. "He actually said he'd found a rich
lode?" Tom asked eagerly.

"Not exactly," Johnny said. "Matter of fact, he never actually told me
what he'd found. He needed somebody to sign aboard the Scavenger
with him in order to get a clearance to blast off, but he never did plan
to take me out there with him. 'I can't take you now, Johnny,' he told
me. 'I've found something out there, but I've got to work it alone for a
while.' I asked him what he'd found, and he just gave me that funny
little grin of his and said, 'Never mind what it is, it's big enough for
both of us. You just keep your mouth shut, and you'll find out soon
enough.' And then he wouldn't say another word until we were homing in
on the shuttle ship to drop me off."

Johnny finished his coffee and pushed the cup aside. "I knew he wasn't
joking. He was excited, and I think he was scared, too. Just before I
left him, he said, 'There's one other thing, Johnny. Things might not
work out quite the way I figure them, and if they don't ... make sure
the twins know what I've told you.' I told him I would, and headed back.
That was the last I heard from him until the Patrol ship found him
floating in space with a torn-open suit and a ruined scooter floating a
few miles away."

"Do you think that Jupiter Equilateral knew Dad had found something?"
Tom asked.

"Who knows? I'm sure that he never told them, but it's awful hard to
keep a secret like that, and they sound awful eager to buy that rig,"
Johnny Coombs said.

"Yes, and it doesn't make sense. I mean, if they were responsible for
Dad's accident, why didn't they just check in for him on schedule and
then quietly bring in their rig to jump the claim?"

"Maybe they couldn't find it," Johnny said. "If they'd killed your dad,
they wouldn't have dared hang around very long right then. Even if
they'd kept the signal going, a Patrol ship might have come into the
region any time. And if a U.N. Patrol ship ever caught them working a
dead man's claim without reporting the dead man, the suit would really
start to leak." Johnny shook his head. "Remember, your Dad had a dozen
claims out there. They might have had to scout the whole works to find
the right one. Much easier to do it out in the open, with your
signatures on a claim transfer. But one thing is sure ... if they knew
what Roger found out there, and where it was, Tawney would never be
offering you triple price for the rig."

"Then whatever Dad found is still out there," Tom said.

"I'd bet my last dime on it."

"There might even be something to show that the accident wasn't an
accident," Tom went on. "Something even the Major would have to admit
was evidence."

Johnny Coombs pursed his lips, looking up at Tom. "Might be," he
conceded.

"Well, what are we waiting for? We turned Tawney's offer down ... he
might be sending a crew out to jump the claim right now."

"If he hasn't already," Johnny said.

"Then we've got to get out there."

Johnny turned to Greg. "You could pilot us out and handle the
navigation, and as for Tom...."

"As for Tom, he could get sick all over the place and keep us busy just
taking care of him," Greg said sourly. "You and me, yes. Not Tom. You
don't know that boy in a spaceship."

Tom started to his feet, glaring at his brother. "That's got nothing to
do with it...."

"It's true, isn't it? You'd be a big help out there."

Johnny looked at Tom. "You always get sick in free fall?"

"Look, let's be reasonable," Greg said. "You'd just be in the way. There
are plenty of things you could do right here, and Johnny and I could
handle the rig alone...."

Tom faced his brother angrily. "If you think I'm going to stay here and
keep myself company, you're crazy," he said. "This is one show you're
not going to run, so just quit trying. If you go out there, I go."

Greg shrugged. "Okay, Twin. It's your stomach, not mine."

"Then let me worry about it."

"I hope," Johnny said, "that that's the worst we have to worry about.
Let's get started planning."

* * * * *

Time was the factor uppermost in their minds. They knew that even under
the best of conditions, it could take weeks to outfit and prepare for a
run out to the Belt. A ship had to be leased and fueled; there were
supplies to lay in. There was the problem of clearance to take care of,
claims to be verified and spotted, orbit coordinates to be computed and
checked ... a thousand details to be dealt with, anyone of which might
delay embarkation from an hour to a day or more.

It was not surprising that Tom and Greg were dubious when Johnny told
them they could be ready to clear ground in less than twenty-four hours.
Even knowing that Merrill Tawney might already have a mining crew at
work on Roger Hunter's claims, they could not believe that the red tape
of preparation and clearance could be cut away so swiftly.

They underestimated Johnny Coombs.

Six hours after he left them, he was back with a signed lease giving
them the use of a scout-ship and fuel to take them out to the Belt and
back again; the ship was in the Sun Lake City racks waiting for them
whenever they were ready.

"What kind of a ship?" Greg wanted to know.

"A Class III Flying Dutchman with overhauled atomics and hydrazine
side-jets," Johnny said, waving the transfer order. "Think you can fly
it?"

Greg whistled. "Can I? I trained in a Dutchman ... just about the
fastest scouter there is. What condition?"

"Lousy ... but it's fueled, with six weeks' supplies in the hold, and it
doesn't cost us a cent. Courtesy of a friend. You'll have to check it
over, but it'll do."

They inspected the ship, a weatherbeaten scouter that looked like a
relic of the '90's. Inside there were signs of many refittings and
overhauls, but the atomics were well shielded, and it carried a
surprising chemical fuel auxiliary for the cabin size. Greg disappeared
into the engine room, and Tom and Johnny left him testing valves and
circuits while they headed down to the U.N. Registry office in the
control tower.

On the way Johnny outlined the remaining outfitting steps. Tom would be
responsible for getting the clearance permit through Registry; Johnny
would check out all supplies, and then contact the observatory for the
orbit coordinates of Roger Hunter's claims.

"I thought the orbits were mapped on the claim papers," Tom said. "I
mean, every time an asteroid is claimed, the orbit has to be
charted...."

"That's right, but the orbit goes all the way around the sun. We know
where the Scavenger was when the Patrol ship found her ... but she's
been travelling in orbit ever since. The observatory computer will
pinpoint her for us and chart a collision course so we can cut out and
meet her instead of trailing her for a week. Do you have the crew-papers
Greg and I signed?"

"Right here."

They were stepping off the ramp below the ship when a man loomed up out
of the shadows. It was a miner Tom had never seen before. Johnny nodded
as he approached. "Any news, Jack?"

"Quiet as a church," the man said.

"We'll be held up another eight hours at least," Johnny said. "Don't go
to sleep on us, Jack."

"Don't worry about us sleepin'," the man said grimly. "There's been
nobody around but yourselves, so far ... except the clearance
inspector."

Johnny looked up sharply. "You check his papers?"

"And his prints. He was all right."

Johnny took Tom's arm, and they headed through the gate toward the
control tower. "I guess I'm just naturally suspicious," he grinned, "but
I'd sure hate to have a broken cut-off switch, or a fuel valve go out of
whack at just the wrong moment."

"You think Tawney would dare to try something here?" Tom said.

"Never hurts to check. We've got our hands full for a few hours getting
set, so I just asked my friends to keep an eye on things. Always did say
that a man who's going to gamble is smart to cover his bets."

At the control tower they parted, and Tom walked into the clearance
office. Johnny's watch-man had startled him, and for the first time he
felt a chill of apprehension. If they were right ... if this trip to the
Belt were not a wild goose chase from the very start ... then Roger
Hunter's accident had been no accident at all.

Quite suddenly, Tom felt very thankful that Johnny Coombs had
friends....

* * * * *

"I don't like it," the Major said, facing Tom and Greg across the desk
in the U.N. Registry office below the control tower. "You've gotten an
idea in your heads, and you just won't listen to reason."

Somewhere above them, Tom could hear the low-pitched rumble of a
scout-ship blasting from its launching rack. "All we want to do is go
out and work Dad's claim," he said for the second time.

"I know perfectly well what you want to do, that's why I told the people
here to alert me if you tried to clear a ship. You don't know what
you're doing ... and I'm not going to sign those clearance papers."

"Why not?" Greg said.

"Because you're going out there asking for trouble, that's why not."

"But you told us before that there wasn't any trouble. Dad had an
accident, that was all. So how could we get in trouble?"

The Major's face was an angry red. He started to say something, then
stopped, and scowled at them instead. They met his stare. Finally he
threw up his hands. "All right, so I can't legally stop you," he said.
"But at least I can beg you to use your heads. You're wasting time and
money on a foolish idea. You're walking into dangers and risks that you
can't handle, and I hate to see it happen.

"Mining in the Belt is a job for experienced men, not rank novices."

"Johnny Coombs is no novice."

"No, but he's lost his wits, taking you two out there."

"Well, are there any other dangers you have in mind?"

Once more the Major searched for words, and failed to find them. "No,"
he sighed, "and you wouldn't listen if I did."

"It seems everybody is warning us about how dangerous this trip is
likely to be," Greg said quietly. "Last night it was Merrill Tawney. He
offered to buy us out, he was so eager for a deal that he offered us a
fantastic price. Then Johnny tells us that Dad mined some rich ore when
he was out there on his last trip, but never got a chance to bring it in
because of his ... accident. Up until now I haven't been so sure Dad
didn't just have an accident, but now I'm beginning to wonder. Too
many people have been warning us...."

"You're determined to go out there, then?"

"That's about right."

The Major picked up the clearance papers, glanced at them quickly,
and signed them. "All right, you're cleared. I hate to do it, but I
suppose I'd go with you if the law would let me. And I'll tell you one
thing ... if you can find a single particle of evidence that will link
Jupiter Equilateral or anybody else to your father's death, I'll use all
the power I have to break them." He handed the papers back to Tom. "But
be careful, because if Jupiter Equilateral is involved in it, they're
going to play dirty."

At the door he turned. "Good trip, and good luck."

Tom folded the papers and stuck them thoughtfully into his pocket.

They met Johnny Coombs in the Registry offices upstairs; Tom patted his
pocket happily. "We're cleared in forty-five minutes," he said.

Johnny grinned. "Then we're all set." They headed up the ramp, reached
ground level, and started out toward the launching racks.

At the far end of the field a powerful Class I Ranger, one of the
Jupiter Equilateral scout fleet, was settling down into its slot in a
perfect landing maneuver. The triangle-and-J-insignia gleamed brightly
on her dark hull. She was a rich, luxurious-looking ship. Many miners on
Mars could remember when Jupiter Equilateral had been nothing more than
a tiny mining company working claims in the remote "equilateral" cluster
of asteroids far out in Jupiter's orbit. Gradually the company had grown
and flourished, accumulating wealth and power as it grew, leaving behind
it a thousand half-confirmed stories of cheating, piracy, murder and
theft. Other small mining outfits had fallen by the wayside until now
over two-thirds of all asteroid mining claims were held by Jupiter
Equilateral, and the small independent miners were forced more and more
to take what was left.

They reached the gate to the Dutchman's launching slot and entered.

Inside the ship Tom and Johnny strapped down while Greg made his final
check-down on the engines, gyros and wiring. The cabin was a tiny vault,
with none of the spacious "living room" of the orbit-ships. Tom leaned
back in the accelleration cot, and listened to the count-down signals
that came at one minute intervals now. In the earphones he could hear
the sporadic chatter between Greg and the control tower. No hint that
this was anything but a routine blastoff....

But there was trouble ahead, Tom was certain of that. Everybody on Mars
was aware that Roger Hunter's sons were heading out to the Belt to pick
up where he had left off. Greg had secured a leave of absence from
Project Star-Jump ... unhappily granted, even though his part in their
program had already been disrupted. Even they had heard the rumors that
were adrift....

And if there was trouble now, they were on their own. The Asteroid Belt
was a wilderness, untracked and unexplored, and except for an almost
insignificant fraction, completely unknown. If there was trouble out
there, there would be no one to help.

Somewhere below the engines roared, and Tom felt the weight on his
chest, sudden and breath-taking.

They were on their way.





Next: Between Mars And Jupiter

Previous: Jupiter Equilateral



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