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Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

Isaac Asimov

  Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

  ( Lucky Starr - 2 )

  Isaac Asimov

  Isaac Asimov

  Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

  (Lucky Starr – 2)


  Back in the 1950s, I wrote a series of six derring-do novels about David "Lucky" Starr and his battles against malefactors within the Solar System. Each of the six took place in a different region of the system and in each case I made use of the astonomical facts-as they were then known.

  Now, a quarter-century later, Gregg Press is bringing out the novels in new hardcover editions; but what a quarter-century it has been! More has been learned about the worlds of our Solar System in this last quarter-century than in all the thousands of years of earlier observations.

  Prior to the 1950s, you see, we could only look from Earth's surface; since then, we have been able to send out rocket probes to take photographs and make studies at close range.

  The only one of the six Lucky Starr novels that has remained untouched by this-at least so far-is LUCKY STARR AND THE PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS, which was written in 1953. There is evidence that many of the asteroids may be a little darker and just a little larger than had been thought earlier, but that makes very little difference.

  Therefore, Lucky can fight the pirates and engage in his deadly duels right now just as he did a quarter-century ago, when this book was written. It I had to write the novel today, I would hardly have to change a word.

  Isaac Asimov


  To Frederik Pohl,

  That contradiction in terms-

  A lovable agent.

  Chapter 1

  The Doomed Ship

  Fifteen minutes to zero time! The Atlas waited to take off. The sleek, burnished lines of the space-ship glittered in the bright Earthlight that filled the Moon's night sky. Its blunt prow pointed upward into empty space. Vacuum surrounded it and the dead pumice of the Moon's surface was under it. The number of its crew was zero. There wasn't a living person aboard.

  * * *

  Dr. Hector Conway, Chief Councilor of Science, said, "What time is it, Gus?"

  He felt uncomfortable in the Moon offices of the Council. On Earth he would have been at the very top of the stone and steel needle they called Science Tower. He would have been able to look out the window toward International City.

  Here on the Moon they did their best. The offices had mock windows with brilliantly designed Earth scenes behind them. They were colored naturally, and lights within them brightened and softened during the day, simulating morning, noon, and evening. During the sleep periods they even shone a dim, dark blue.

  It wasn't enough, though, for an Earthman like Con-way. He knew that if he broke through the glass of the windows there would be only painted miniatures before his eyes, and if he got behind that, then there would be just another room, or maybe the solid rock of the Moon.

  Dr. Augustus Henree, whom Conway had addressed, looked at his wrist. He said, between puffs at his pipe, "There's still fifteen minutes. There's no point in worrying. The Atlas is in perfect shape. I checked it myself yesterday."

  "I know that." Conway's hair was pure white and he looked older than the lank, thin-faced Henree, though they were the same age. He said, "It's Lucky I'm worried about."


  Conway smiled sheepishly. "I'm catching the habit, I'm afraid. I'm talking about David Starr. It's just that everyone calls him Lucky these days. Haven't you heard them?"

  "Lucky Starr, eh? The name suits him. But what about him? This is all his idea, after all."

  "Exactly. It's the sort of idea he gets. I think he'll tackle the Sirian Consulate on the Moon next."

  "I wish he would."

  "Don't joke. Sometimes I think you encourage him in his idea that he ought to do everything as a one-man job. It's why I came here to the Moon, to keep an eye on him, not to watch the ship."

  "If that's what you came here for, Hector, you're not on the job."

  "Oh well, I can't follow him about like a mother hen. But Bigman is with him. I told the little fellow I would skin him alive if Lucky decided to invade the Sirian Consulate singlehanded."

  Henree laughed.

  "I tell you he'd do it," grumbled Conway. "What's worse, he'd get away with it, of course."

  "Well, then."

  "It would just encourage him, and then someday he'll take one risk too many, and he's too valuable a man to lose!"

  * * *

  John Bigman Jones teetered across the packed clay flooring, carrying his stein of beer with the utmost care. They didn't extend the pseudo-gravity fields outside the city itself, so that out here at the space-port you had to do the best you could under the Moon's own gravity field. Fortunately John Bigman Jones had been born and bred on Mars, where the gravity was only two fifths normal anyway, so it wasn't too bad. Bight now he weighed twenty pounds. On Mars he would have weighed fifty, and on the Earth one hundred and twenty.

  He got to the sentry, who had been watching him with amused eyes. The sentry was dressed in the uniform of the Lunar National Guard, and he was used to the gravity.

  John Bigman Jones said, "Hey. Don't stand there so gloomylike. I brought you a beer. Have it on me."

  The sentry looked surprised, then said regretfully, "I can't. Not when I'm on duty, you know."

  "Oh well. I can handle it myself, I guess. I'm John Bigman Jones. Call me Bigman." He only came up to the sentry's chin and the sentry wasn't particularly tall, but Bigman held out his hand as though he were reaching down with it.

  "I'm Bert Wilson. You from Mars?" The sentry looked at Bigman's scarlet and vermilion hip boots. Nobody but a Martian farm boy would let himself be caught dead in space with them.

  Bigman looked down at them proudly. "You bet. I'm stuck here for about a week. Great space, what a rock the Moon is. Don't any of you guys ever go out on the surface?"

  "Sometimes. When we have to. There isn't much to see there."

  "I sure wish I could go. I hate being cooped up."

  "There's a surface lock back there."

  Bigman followed the thumb that had been jerked back across the sergeant's shoulder. The corridor (rather poorly lit at this distance from Luna City) narrowed into a recess in the wall.

  Bigman said, "I don't have a suit."

  "You couldn't go out even if you had one. No one's allowed out without a special pass for a while."

  "How come?"

  Wilson yawned. "They've got a ship out there that's getting set to go," he looked at his watch, "in about twelve minutes. Maybe the heat will be off after it's gone. I don't know the story on it."

  The sentry rocked on the balls of his feet and watched the last of the beer drain down Bigman's throat. He said, "Say, did you get the beer at Patsy's Port Bar? Is it crowded?"

  "It's empty. Listen, tell you what. It'll take you fifteen seconds to get in there and have one. I've got nothing to do. I'll stay right here and make sure nothing happens while you're gone."

  Wilson looked longingly in the direction of the Port Bar. "I better not."

  "It's up to you."

  Neither one of them, apparently, was conscious of the figure that drifted past behind them along the corridor and into the recess where the space-locks huge door barred the way to the surface.

  Wilson's feet took him a few steps toward the Bar, as though they were dragging the rest of him. Then he said, "Nah! I better not."

  * * *

  Ten minutes to zero time.

  It had been Lucky Starr's idea. He had been in Con-way's home office the day the news arrived that the
T.S.S. Waltham Zachary had been gutted by pirates, its cargo gone, its officers frozen corpses in space and most of the men captives. The ship itself had put up a pitifully futile fight and had been too damaged to be worth the pirate's salvage. They had taken everything movable though, the instruments, of course, and even the motors.

  Lucky said, "It's the asteroid belt that's the enemy. One hundred thousand rocks."

  "More than that." Conway spat out his cigarette. "But what can we do? Ever since the Terrestrial Empire has been a going concern, the asteroids have been more than we could handle. A dozen times we've gone in there to clean out nests of them, and each time we've left enough to breed the troubles again. Twenty-five years ago, when-"

  The white-haired scientist stopped short. Twenty-five years ago Lucky's parents had been killed in space and he himself, a little boy, had been cast adrift.

  Lucky's calm brown eyes showed no emotion. He said, "The trouble is we don't even know where all the asteroids are."

  "Naturally not. It would take a hundred ships a hundred years to get the necessary information for the sizable asteroids. And even then the pull of Jupiter would be forever changing asteroidal orbits here and there."

  "We might still try. If we sent out one ship, the pirates might not know it was an impossible job and fear the consequences of a real mapping. If the word got out that we had started a mapping survey, the ship would be attacked."

  "And then what?"

  "Suppose we sent out an automatic ship, completely equipped, but with no human personnel."

  "It would be an expensive thing to do."

  "It might be worth it. Suppose we equipped it with lifeboats automatically designed to leave the ship when its instruments recorded the energy pattern of an approaching hyperatomic motor. What do you suppose the pirates would do?"

  "Shoot the lifeboats into metal drift, board the ship, and take it to their base."

  "Or one of their bases. Right. And if they see the lifeboats try to get away, they won't be surprised at finding no crew aboard. After all, it would be an unarmed survey ship. You wouldn't expect the crew to attempt resistance."

  "Well, what are you getting at?"

  "Suppose further that the ship is wired to explode once its temperature is raised to more than twenty degrees absolute, as it certainly would if it were brought into an asteroid hangar."

  "You're proposing a booby trap, then?"

  "A gigantic one. It would blow an asteroid apart. It might destroy dozens of pirate ships. Furthermore, the observatories at Ceres, Vesta, Juno, or Pallas might pick up the flash. Then, if we could locate surviving pirates, we might get information that would be very useful indeed."

  "I see."

  And so they started work on the Atlas.

  * * *

  The shadowy figure in the recess leading to the Moon's surface worked with sure quickness. The sealed controls of the air-lock gave under the needle beam of a micro-heatgun. The shielding metal disc swung open. Busy, black-gloved fingers flew for a moment. Then the disc was replaced and fused tightly back by a wider and cooler beam from the same heatgun.

  The cave door of the lock yawned. The alarm that rang routinely whenever it did so was silent this time, its circuits behind the tampered disc disarranged. The figure entered the lock and the door closed behind him. Before he opened the surface door that faced out into the vacuum, he unrolled the pliant plastic he carried under his arm. He scrambled into it, the material covering him wholly and clinging to him, broken only by a strip of clear silicone plastic across his eyes. A small cylinder of liquid oxygen was clamped to a short hose that lead to the headpiece and was hooked on to the belt. It was a semi-space-suit, designed for the quick trip across an airless surface, not guaranteed to be serviceable for stretches of more than half an hour.

  * * *

  Bert Wilson, startled, swiveled his head. "Did you hear that?"

  Bigman gaped at the sentry. "I didn't hear anything."

  "I could swear it was a lock door closing. There isn't any alarm, though."

  "Is there supposed to be?"

  "Sure. You've got to know when one door is open. It's a bell where there's air and a light where there isn't. Otherwise someone is liable to open the other door and blow all the air out of a ship or corridor."

  "All right. If there's no alarm, there's nothing to worry about."

  "I'm not so sure." With flat leaps, each one covering twenty feet in the Moon's baby gravity, the sentry passed up the corridor to the air-lock recess. He stopped at a wall panel on the way and activated three separate banks of ceiling Floressoes, turning the area into a noonday of light.

  Bigman followed, leaping clumsily and in perpetual danger of overbalancing into a slow nose landing.

  Wilson had his blaster out. He inspected the door, then turned to look up the corridor again. "Are you sure you didn't hear anything?"

  "Nothing," said Bigman. "Of course, I wasn't listening."

  Five minutes to zero time.

  Pumice kicked up as the space-suited figure moved slow-motion toward the Atlas. The space-ship glittered in the Earthlight, but on the Moon's airless surface the light did not carry even an inch into the shadow of the ridge that hemmed in the port.

  In three long leaps the figure moved across the lighted portion and into the pitchy shadow of the ship itself.

  He moved up the ladder hand over hand, flinging himself into an upward drift that carried him ten rungs at a time. He came to the ship's air-lock. A moment at the controls and it yawned open, then closed.

  The Atlas had a passenger. One passenger!

  * * *

  The sentry stood before the corridor air-lock and considered its appearance dubiously.

  Bigman was rattling on. He said, "I been here nearly a week. I'm supposed to follow my side-kick around and make sure he doesn't get into trouble. How's that for a space wrangler like me. I haven't had a chance to get away-"

  The anguished sentry said, "Give it a rest, friend. Look, you're a nice kid and all that, but let's have it some other time.

  For a moment he stared at the control seal. "That's funny," he said.

  Bigman was swelling ominously. His little face had reddened. He seized the sentry by the elbow and swung him about, almost overbalancing himself as he did so.

  "Hey, bud, who're you calling a kid?"

  "Look, go away!"

  "Just a minute. Let's get something straight. Don't think I let myself get pushed around because I'm not as tall as the next fellow. Put 'em up. Go ahead. Get your fists up or I'll splatter your nose all over your face."

  He was sparring and slipping about.

  Wilson looked at him with astonishment. "What's got into you? Stop being foolish."


  "I can't fight on duty. Besides, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I've just got a job to do and I haven't got any time for you."

  Bigman lowered his fists. "Hey, I guess the ship's taking off."

  There was no sound, of course, since sound would not travel through a vacuum, but the ground under their feet vibrated softly in response to the hammer blows of a rocket exhaust lifting a ship off a planet.

  "That's it, all right." Wilson's forehead creased. "Guess there's no use making a report. It's too late anyway." He had forgotten about the control seal.

  * * *

  Zero time!

  The ceramic-lined exhaust pit yawned under the Atlas and the main rockets blasted their fury into it. Slowly and majestically the ship lifted and moved upward ponderously. Its speed increased. It pierced the black sky, shrinking until it was only a star among stars, and then it was gone.

  * * *

  Dr. Henree looked at his watch for the fifth time and said, "Well, it's gone. It must be gone now." He pointed with the stem of his pipe to the dial.

  Conway said, "Let's check with the port authorities."

  Five seconds later they were looking at the empty space-port on the visiscreen. The exhaust pit was still open. Even
in the near-ultimate frigidity of the Moon's dark side it was still steaming.

  Conway shook his head. "It was a beautiful ship."

  "Still is."

  "I think of it in the past. In a few days it will be a rain of molten metal. It's a doomed ship."

  "Let's hope that there's a pirate base somewhere that's also doomed."

  Henree nodded somberly.

  They both turned as the door opened. It was only Bigman.

  He broke into a grin. "Oh, boy, it was sure nice coming in to Luna City. You could feel the pounds going back on with each step you took." He stamped his feet and hopped two or three times. "See," he said, "you try that out where I was and you hit the ceiling and look like one big fool."

  Conway frowned. "Where's Lucky?"

  Bigman said, "I know where he is. I know where he is every minute. Say, the Atlas has just taken off."

  "I know that," said Conway. "And where is Lucky?"

  "On the Atlas, of course. Where do you think he'd be?"

  Chapter 2

  Vermin Of Space

  Dr. Henree dropped his pipe and it bounced on the linolite flooring. He paid it no attention.


  Conway reddened and his face stood out, plumply pink, against his snowy hair. "Is this a joke?"

  "No. He got on five minutes before it blasted. I talked to the sentry, guy called Wilson, and kept him from interfering. I had to pick a fight with the fellow and I would have given him the old bingo-bango," he demonstrated the one-two punch with quick, hard blows at the atmosphere, "but he backed off."

  "You let him? You didn't warn us?"

  "How could I? I've got to do what Lucky says. He said he had to get on at the last minute and without anyone knowing, or you and Dr. Henree would have stopped him."