Lucky Starr And The Rings Of Saturn (Lucky Starr #6) - 4. Between Jupiter and Saturn

The ranking officer in the pursuing squadron (not counting Councilman Wessilewsky, of course) was Captain Myron Bernold. He was a four-striper, still under fifty, and with the physique of a man ten years younger. His hair was graying, but his eyebrows were still their original black and his beard showed blue about his shaven chin.

He stared at the much younger Lucky Starr with undisguised scorn. "And you backed away?"

The Shooting Starr, having headed inward toward the Sun again, had met the ships of the squadron approximately halfway between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Lucky had boarded the flagship.

He said now quietly, "I did what was necessary to be done."

"When the enemy had invaded our home system, retreat can never be necessary. You might have been blown out of space, but you would have had time to warn us and we would have been there to take over."

"With how much power left in your micro-pile units, Captain?"

The captain flushed. "Nor would it matter if we got blasted out of space. That couldn't have been done before we had, in our rum, alerted home base."

"And started a war?"

"They've started the war. The Sirians... It is now my intention to move on to Saturn and attack."

Lucky's own rangy figure stiffened. He was taller than the captain, and his cool glance did not waver. "As full Councilman of the Council of Science, Captain, I outrank you and you know it. I will give no orders to attack. The orders I give you are to return to Earth."

"I would sooner... " The captain was visibly

struggling with his temper. His fists clenched. He said in a strangled voice, "May I ask the reason for the order, sir?" He emphasized the syllable of respect with heavy irony. "If, sir, you would be so good as to explain the excellent reason you no doubt have, sir. My own reasoning is based on a small tradition that the fleet happens to have. A tradition, sir, that the fleet does not retreat, sir."

Lucky said, "If you want my reasons, Captain, sit down and I'll give them to you. And don't tell me the fleet does not retreat. Retreat is a part of the maneuver of war, and a commanding officer who would rather have his ships destroyed than retreat has no business in command. I think it's only your anger that's speaking. Now, Captain, are we ready to start a war?"

"I tell you they have already started. They have invaded the Terrestrial Federation."

"Not exactly. They've occupied an unoccupied world. The trouble is, Captain, that the Jump through hyperspace has made travel to the stars so simple that Earthmen have colonized the planets of other stars long before ever colonizing the remoter portions of our own Solar System."

"Terrestrials have landed on Titan. In the year... "

"I know about the flight of James Francis Hogg. He landed on Oberon in the Uranian system also. But that was just exploration, not colonization. The Saturnian system was left empty, and an unoccupied world belongs to the first group that colonizes it."

"If," said the captain heavily, "that unoccupied planet or planetary system is part of an unoccupied stellar system. Saturn isn't that, you'll admit. It's part of our Solar System, which, by the howling devils of space, is occupied."

"True, but I don't think there is any official agreement to that effect. Perhaps it may be decided that Sirius is within its rights in occupying Saturn."

The captain brought his fist down upon his knee. "I don't care what the space lawyers say. Saturn is ours, and any Earthman with blood in him will agree. We'll kick the Sirians off and let our weapons decide the law."

"But that's exactly what Sirius would want us to do!"

"Then let's give her what she wants."

"And we will be accused of aggression... Captain, there are fifty worlds out there among the stars who never forget that they were our colonies once. We gave them their freedom without a war, but they forget that. They only remember we are still the most populous and most advanced of all the worlds. If Sirius shouts we have committed unprovoked aggression, she'll unite them against us. It is just for that reason that she is trying to provoke us to attack now, and it is just for that reason that I refused the invitation and came away."

The captain bit at his lower lip and would have answered, but Lucky drove on.

"On the other hand, if we do nothing, we can accuse the Sirians of aggression and we'll split public opinion in the outer worlds wide open. We can exploit that and bring them to our own side."

"The outer worlds to our side?"

"Why not? There isn't a stellar system in existence that doesn't have hundreds of unoccupied worlds of all sizes. They won't want to set up a precedent that

would set every system to raiding every other system for bases. The only danger is that we will stampede them into opposition to us by making it look as if we are powerful Earth throwing our weight about against our former colonies."

The captain rose from his seat and strode the length of his quarters and then back. He said, "Repeat your orders."

Lucky said, "Do you understand my reason for retreat?"

"Yes. May I have my orders?"

"Very well. I order you to deliver this Capsule I now give you to Chief Councilman Hector Conway. You are not to discuss anything that has happened during this pursuit with anyone else, either on the sub-ether or in any other fashion. You are to take no hostile action-repeat, no hostile action-against any Sirian forces, unless directly attacked. And if you go out of your way to meet such forces, or if you deliberately provoke attack, I shall see you court-martialed and convicted. Is all clear?"

The captain stood frozen-faced. His lips moved as though they were carved out of wood and badly hinged. "With all due respect, sir, would it be possible for the Councilman to take over command of my ships and deliver the message himself?"

Lucky Starr shrugged slightly and said, "You are very obstinate, Captain, and I even admire you for it. There are times in battle when this kind of bull-doggedness can be useful... It is impossible for me to deliver this message, since it is my intention to return to The Shooting Starr and blast off for Saturn again."

The captain's military rigidity came unstuck. "What? Howling space, what?"

"I thought my statement was plain, Captain. I have left something undone there. My first task was to see to it that Earth was warned of the terrible political danger we are facing. If you will take care of that warning for me, I can carry on where I now belong- back in the Saturnian system."

The captain was grinning broadly. "Well, now, that's different. I would like to come along with you."

"I know that, Captain. Sheering away from a fight is the harder task for you, and I'm asking you to do it because I expect you are used to hard tasks. Now I want each of your ships to transfer some of their power into the micro-pile units of The Shooting Starr. There'll be other supplies I'll need from your stores."

"You need only ask."

"Very good. I will return to my ship and I will ask Councilman Wessilewsky to join me in my mission."

He shook hands briefly with the now thoroughly friendly captain, and then Councilman Wessilewsky joined him as Lucky stepped into the inter-ship tube that snaked between the flagship and The Shooting Starr.

The inter-ship tube was at nearly its full extension, and it took several minutes to negotiate its length. The tube was airless, but the two Councilmen could maintain space-suit contact easily and sound waves would travel along the metal to emerge squawkily but distinctly enough. And, after all, no form of communication is quite as private as sound waves over short range, so it was in the air tube that Lucky was able to speak briefly to the other.

Finally Wess, changing the subject slightly, said, "Listen, Lucky, if the Sirians are trying to start trouble, why did they let you go? Why not have harassed you till you were forced to turn and fight?"

"As for that, Wess, you listen to the recording of what the Sirian ship had to say. There was a stiffness about the words; a failure to threaten actual harm, only magnetic grappling. Fm convinced it was a robot-piloted ship."

"Robots!" Wess's eyes widened.

"Yes. Judge from your own reaction what Earth's would be if that speculation got about. The fact is that those robot-piloted ships could have done no harm to a human-piloted ship. The First Law of Robotics-that no robot can harm a human-would have prevented it. And that just made the danger greater. If I had attacked, as they probably expected me to, the Sirians would have insisted that I had made a murderous and unprovoked assault on defenseless vessels. And the outer worlds appreciate the facts of robotics as Earth does not. No, Wess, the only way I could cross them was to leave, and I did."

With that, they were at the air-lock of The Shooting Starr.

Bigman was waiting for them. There was the usual grin of relief on his face at meeting Lucky again after even the smallest separation...

"Hey," he said. "What do you know? You didn't

fall out of the inter-ship tube after all and... What's

Wess doing here?"

"He's coming with us, Bigman."

The little Martian looked annoyed. "What for? This is a two-man ship we've got here."

"We'll manage a guest temporarily. And now we'd better get set to drain power from the other ships and receive equipment along the tube. After that we make ready for instant blast-off."

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Lucky's voice was firm, his change of subject definite. Bigman knew better than to argue.

He muttered, "Sure thing," and stepped across into the engine room after one malignant scowl in the direction of Councilman Wessilewsky.

Wess said, "Now what's eating him? I haven't said a word about his size."

Lucky said, "Well, you have to understand the little fellow. He's not a Councilman officially, although he is one for all practical purposes. He's the only one who doesn't realize that. Anyway, he thinks that because you're another Councilman we'll get chummy and cut him out; have our little secrets from him."

Wess nodded. "I see. Are you suggesting then that we tell him... "

"No." The stress on the word was soft, but emphatic. "I'll tell him what has to be told. You say nothing."

At that moment Bigman stepped into the pilot room again and said, "She's sopping up the power," then looked from one to the other and growled, "Well, sorry I'm interrupting. Shall I leave the ship, gentlemen?"

Lucky said, "You'll have to knock me down first, Bigman."

Bigman made rapid sparring motions and said, "Oh boy, what a difficult task. You think an extra foot of clumped fat makes it any job?"

With blinding speed he was inside Lucky's arm as it was thrown out laughingly toward him, and his fists landed one-two, thwackingly, in Lucky's mid-section.

Lucky said, "Feel better?"

Bigman danced back. "I pulled my punch because I didn't want Councilman Conway bawling me out for hurting you."

Lucky laughed. "Thank you. Now listen, I've got an orbit for you to calculate and send on to Captain Bernold."

"Sure thing." Bigman seemed quite at ease now, any rancor gone.

Wess said, "Listen, Lucky, I hate to act the wet blanket, but we're not very far from Saturn. It seems to me that the Sirians will have a fix on us right now and know exactly where we are, when we leave, and where we go."

"I think so too, Wess."

"Well, then, how in space do we leave the squadron and head back for Saturn without their knowing exactly where we are and heading us off too far from the system for our purposes?"

"Good question. I was wondering if you'd guess how. If you didn't, I was reasonably certain the Sirians wouldn't guess either, and they don't know the details of our system nearly as well as we do."

Wess leaned back in his pilot's chair. "Let's not make a mystery of it, Lucky."

"It's perfectly plain. All the ships, including ourselves, blast-off in tight formation, so that, considering the distance between the Sirians and ourselves, we'll register as a single spot on their mass detectors. We maintain that formation, flying on almost the minimum orbit to Earth, but just enough off course to make a reasonable approach to the asteroid Hidalgo, which is now moving out toward aphelion."

" Hidalgo?"

"Come on, Wess, you know it. It's a perfectly legitimate asteroid and known since the primeval days before space travel. The interesting thing about it is that it doesn't stay in the asteroid belt. At its closest to the Sun it moves in as close as the orbit of Mars, but at its farthest it moves out almost as far as Saturn's orbit. Now when we pass near it, Hidalgo will register on the Sirian mass-detection screens also, and from the strength with which it will register they'll know it to be an asteroid. Then they'll spot the mass of our ships moving on past Hidalgo toward Earth and they won't spot the less than ten per cent total decrease in ship's mass that will result when The Shooting Starr turns and heads back out from the Sun in Hidalgo 's shadow. Hidalgo 's path isn't directly toward the present position of Saturn by any means, but after two days in its shadow we can head well out of Ecliptic toward Saturn and rely on not being detected."

Wess raised his eyebrows. "I hope it works, Lucky." He saw the strategy. The plane in which all the planets and commercial space-flight routes lay was the Ecliptic. One practically never looked for anything moving well above or below that zone. It was reasonable to suppose that a space ship moving on the orbit being planned by Lucky would evade Sirian instruments. Yet there was still the look of uncertainty on Wess's face.

Lucky said, "Do you think we'll make it?"

Wess said, "Maybe we will. But even if we do get

back... Lucky, I'm in this and I'll do my part, but

just let me say this once and I'll never say it again. I think we're as good as dead!"