THE s.p.a.cE PIRATES.
By TERRANCE d.i.c.kS.
Beacon Alpha One hung silently in the blackness of s.p.a.ce, its complex shape recalling the technology of distant Earth.On that far-away planet the beacon's different segments had been carefully constructed to withstand the rigours of long years in deep s.p.a.ce. They had been ferried to this isolated spot on the edge of the galaxy by s.p.a.ce freighter, and painstakingly a.s.sembled by skilled engineers. Held together by magnetic force and packed with complex computerized instruments, the beacon was one of a chain of lonely sentinels in s.p.a.ce that fulfilled vital navigational functions.Men had expended thousands of hours and millions of galactic credits to put Beacon Alpha One into position.Now other men were coming to destroy it.The sleek, black, dart-shaped ship slid smoothly up to the beacon like a killer shark approaching the belly of a basking whale. It locked smoothly on to the beacon's airlock with a precision that spoke of skilled piloting.A hatch slid open inside the beacon. Three s.p.a.ce-suited figures came through, each carrying a small black box. Their leader, a tall, thin, worried-looking man called Dervish, crossed to a hatch on the other side of the airlock and swung its locking-wheel. The three men filed through into the interior of the beacon.More s.p.a.ce-suited figures were busy outside the beacon, floating across its surface and attaching magnetic charges at carefully chosen weak points. Others were clamping small propulsion units to different segments of the beacon's hull. The team worked swiftly and efficiently in full radio silence, as if carrying out a familiar, often-rehea.r.s.ed operation.A lean, dark, sharp-featured man called Caven appeared in the airlock doorway. 'Dervish? Dervish, where are you man?'Dervish appeared hurriedly from inside the beacon. It wasn't wise to keep Caven waiting.'We've just about finished,' Dervish said defensively, before Caven could speak.'About time.''The men are just coming back - we'll detonate by radio beam.'Dervish cursed himself for babbling even as he spoke: he was saying things that Caven knew perfectly well, but somehow Caven always made him nervous.'Hurry up,' said Caven coldly. He left the airlock.The two other men on Dervish's team came through the airlock and all three followed Caven back into the ship. The airlock closed behind them.The s.p.a.ce-walk team propelled themselves back to the ship with their jet-packs and entered the ship's forward airlock. Minutes later the black dart of the s.p.a.ceship detached itself from the beacon streaked away into deep s.p.a.ce. Nothing happened for a minute longer. Then the charges detonated in a series of silent explosions.The beacon disintegrated.Not far away, another ship was approaching. It was a ma.s.sive T-shaped vessel - a six-decker bearing the 'striking eagle' insignia of the s.p.a.ce Corps.It was one of the s.p.a.ce Corps' latest V-ships, an immensely powerful battle-cruiser. Its six decks held laboratories, barracks, repair shops, a hospital and recreation areas. The battle-cruiser was like a city in s.p.a.ce, designed for long spells patrolling the outer reaches of Earth's empire.The cruiser's enormous flight deck was in two tiers. Teams of technicians monitored row upon row of complex instrument banks on the lower level. But on the upper level, the bridge, there was only a single command chair. It was occupied by a man in the white uniform of a general of the s.p.a.ce Corps.General Nikolai Hermack was a grim-faced man in his early fifties. His close-cropped hair was iron grey, but he was as lean and hard as a man half his age.Life was a simple matter to General Hermack, a man did his duty at all times and whatever the cost; there was no more to be said.A tall, pleasant-looking man entered the bridge, saluted and stood waiting. Ian Warne was a highflyer in every sense of the word. He was a brilliant fighter pilot and one of the youngest majors in the s.p.a.ce Corps. Just as tough as Hermack in his own way, he was more flexible than the older man and something of a diplomat when necessary, which was quite often in his position as General Hermack's aide.Hermack looked up. 'Any more information on that beacon signal?''No, sir. It seems to have just packed up. There's no response on the secondary emergency circuits either.''No, there wouldn't be,' said Hermack enigmatically. 'What do you think has happened to that beacon, Major Warne?''Difficult to say, sir. It could be a failure in the solar energy storage circuits.''No. The emergency power circuits would cut in, and we'd get a mayday signal.'Warne looked thoughtfully at his superior. 'I gather you don't think this is a mechanical failure, sir?''Those beacons are virtually foolproof,' Hermack fell silent for a moment. Then he struck the arm of his command chair with his fist. 'I must be right -I must!''Sir?''Those beacons are constructed almost entirely of argonite, Ian. Nothing else will stand the stresses of long spells in deep s.p.a.ce.' Hermack brooded for a moment before leaning forward to flip a switch.'Attention all personnel. This is General Hermack. This V-ship is now fifty days and as many billions of miles away from Earth.'All over the ship, men and women stopped what they were doing to listen.The strong confident voice went on. 'We are now entering the fourth sector of our galaxy. For some time now, Earth Government has been aware that an organized gang of criminals - s.p.a.ce pirates if you will - has been preying on defenceless cargo ships. Their main target has always been argonite, the most valuable mineral in the galaxy, found only in the planets of the fourth sector.'A Government s.p.a.ce-beacon marking the approach to the planet of New Sarum has recently ceased transmitting its navigation signals.' Hermack paused impressively. 'As you know, such beacons are constructed largely of argonite. It is my belief that the criminals have now turned to a new source of this precious metal. They have begun attacking the beacons and plundering their argonite.'In my view there can be no other explanation for the beacon's failure. I have therefore decided to deviate from our scheduled course to investigate the failure of the New Sarum beacon. I will see all section commanders on the bridge at twenty hundred hours.'No doubt about it, the old boy was impressive, thought Warne. Hermack had deduced a whole new pattern of criminal activity from one non-functioning s.p.a.ce-beacon, and he wasn't afraid to back his conclusions with action. Perhaps that was why he was a general.Warne turned to the star chart on the screen behind the command chair. 'There are eighteen s.p.a.ce beacons in this sector, sir.''Seventeen, Ian, until New Sarum is replaced.''Seventeen, then, sir - all millions of miles apart. How can we tell which one the pirates will choose next?'Hermack rose and joined him at the star chart. 'We can't.''Exactly so, sir. The odds are seventeen to one against our being in the right place at the right time.''Then we'll just have to rely on our speed to shorten the odds a bit.' Hermack jabbed a finger at the map. 'There are four beacons grouped fairly close together in the Pliny solar system. That's where we'll start our patrol.'Beacon Alpha Seven looked identical to the now defunct Alpha One, and it was currently the scene of exactly the same series of events.A slim, black, dart-shaped ship locked on to the beacon's airlock. Teams of s.p.a.ce-suited men emerged and began busying themselves about the inside and outside of the beacon.Caven watched impatiently inside the beacon's airlock as Dervish waited to see his team through the airlock. 'Come on, speed it up.''I don't like it,' said Dervish gloomily. 'Hitting another beacon so soon.''I'm not asking you to like it. Just get those scissor-charges in position.''We'll bring the whole darn s.p.a.ce Corps down on us if we go on attacking beacons at this rate.'Caven shook his head. 'Right now the s.p.a.ce Corps has got trouble on its hands all over the galaxy - little wars in dozens of different sectors. There's never been a better time for getting rich.'Dervish opened the hatch and beckoned his team into the airlock. 'All right, boys, same procedure as before. We'll place four shots along the main axle and attach repeaters around the hull.''You're a good engineer, Dervish,' said Caven patronizingly. 'Just look after your side of the job and leave me to worry about the s.p.a.ce Corps.''I spent ten years working for Earth Government,' began Dervish.'You shouldn't have got sticky fingers, should you?' sneered Caven. 'You could have stayed with it. You'd have got a pension - eventually!''Attacking Government property is the one crime they make sure never pays.'Caven slapped the metal bulkhead with a s.p.a.ce-gauntleted hand. 'Sixteen tons of pure argonite will pay all right. This isn't just a beacon to me, Dervish - it's a floating bank-roll!'Warne moved along the lower flight deck of the ma.s.sive V-ship on a routine inspection. He paused behind the s.p.a.ce radar console. 'What range are the forward scanners set for, Penn?''Fifteen hundred, sir.''Reset them for two thousand.''Very good, sir.''Keep a good eye on the screens. There are a lot of rogue asteroids in the Pliny system.'Warne went up to the bridge.Hermack was barking orders into a communicator. 'Make sure the minnow-ships are fully fuelled and on constant standby, and arm their missiles.''We're approaching the Pliny section now, general,' reported Warne. 'We've made routine scanner contact with all four beacons; they're functioning normally.'Hermack swung round, to study the star chart and pointed at it. 'There's Ta, main inhabited planet of the system. We'll orbit it for a few weeks and see what happens.''So that's Ta,' said Warne thoughtfully. 'Richest argonite deposits in the galaxy and headquarters of the Issigri Mining Corporation.'Hermack nodded. 'They say Madeleine Issigri's built quite a city there. It'll be handy for rest and recreation if we're out here long.'Penn's voice came up from the flight deck. 'Contact on s.p.a.ce radar, sir. A s.p.a.ceship seems to be locked on to Beacon Alpha Seven.'Warne hurried down to the s.p.a.ce radar screen; Hermack followed close behind him.'Keep locked on to it, Penn,' ordered Warne. 'Any identification?''Not yet, sir. Too far away.'Hermack peered at the screen. 'It's a ship, right enough. Ian, check flight information and see if anything's due out there.'Hermack grabbed the nearest communicator microphone. 'This is the bridge. Set a course for Beacon Alpha Seven.' He put down the microphone and then s.n.a.t.c.hed it up again. 'Bridge to power room. Give me ten seconds main boost.'Warne looked up from a screen of data. 'According to flight information there are no ships due at this beacon for the next seventeen days.'Hermack stared unwinkingly at the blip on the screen. 'So, whoever they are, they haven't logged their flight with Central Flight Information.''Do you think it's the pirates, sir?''It could be. Mind you, certain commercial flights don't always like to report their precise whereabouts, for reasons of their own. We'll know soon enough.''Sir, the ship's leaving the beacon,' called Penn. 'She's backing off.''Keep track of her!''Doing my best sir - but she's moving away fast.'Warne studied the fast-moving blip on the screen. 'That's quite a turn of speed for a commercial ship.'A sudden thought struck Hermack. 'Is Beacon Alpha Seven still functioning normally?'Penn checked his instruments. 'Yes sir. Signal's loud and clear.''Put it on audio.'Penn obeyed. A steady high-pitched warble filled the flight deck. Suddenly a high-pitched bleeping mingled with the warble of the beacon signal.'There's another signal coming through as well, sir. It sounds like UHF... 'Both signals cut out at once.Penn looked up from the s.p.a.ce radar screen, his face appalled. 'Alpha Seven's broken up, sir.'Hermack's fist smashed down on the nearest console. 'The pirates! They've done it again - and this time right under our noses!'
The Intruders'We've lost the beacon, sir,' reported Penn. 'No radar trace, and no more signal.''There won't be,' said Warne grimly. 'By now that beacon's in a dozen separate pieces.'Hermack was glaring angrily at the moving blip on the screen. 'Penn! Make sure you hold the contact with that pirate ship! At least we can make sure they don't get away. Major Warne, give me a projected arrival time.'Warne punched b.u.t.tons on a computer console. 'Three hours, sir.' He turned to a nearby technician. 'See if you can get a visual of them on the long-range scanner.'Moments later the black dart-shaped pirate vessel came into focus on the scanner. It seemed to be trailed by a scattering of squared-off shapes.'There she is, sir,' said Warne. 'And there's what's left of the beacon!''Then we've got them cold,' said Hermack with savage satisfaction. 'We'll be up with them long before they can salvage the argonite from the beacon.''As long as they don't spot us approaching, sir. That ship looks fast.''They don't even know we're in the area,' said Hermack confidently.'The ship's moving away now, sir,' said Penn. 'She's just increased speed. Sir, the debris is moving too!''Penn, keep that contact,'' ordered Hermack.Penn's hands were busy at the console. 'It's no use, sir, she's going faster and moving right out of range.'Hermack glared at the screen in frustrated rage. 'She must have at least twice our speed!''The minnow-ships could hold her,' suggested Warne.'Not at this distance, not for long. They simply don't have the range.'Penn looked up from his screen. 'Contact lost, sir.'Warne turned away in despair. 'They must have attached rocket propulsion units to the sections of beacon, sir.''Oh yes, they're very well organized,' said Hermack disgustedly. 'They cut the beacon into manageable sections and shoot the bits off to some prearranged collection point. Very clever!''And quicker too,' Warne pointed out. 'Cuts down the time they're at risk. They can burn out the argonite at leisure.'Hermack was pacing up and down the flight deck. 'We've got to rethink our tactics, Ian. We'll never catch them by normal patrol methods.'Warne looked puzzled. 'What else can we do sir?'Hermack demonstrated the talent for cutting to the heart of a problem that made him a general. 'Man the beacons! It's the only answer. We'll drop small parties of four or five men at every beacon in the sector. We'll leave them supplies for two months.'Warne looked stunned. 'I know the beacons are meant to serve as emergency survival stations, but I don't think anyone's ever tried living on them, sir.''The men may not be very comfortable, but they'll survive,' said Hermack ruthlessly. 'Set course for the nearest beacon!'Some hours later, the ma.s.sive V-ship was docked beside Beacon Alpha Four, and Major Warne was installing Lieutenant Sorba and a party of four s.p.a.ce Corps guardsmen on board the beacon.He handed Sorba a small black box. 'Here's your emergency signal, lieutenant. It will beam out automatically to main control. Remember, your purpose here is to give us the earliest possible warning of an approaching pirate. The first sign of trouble, you press the switch, OK?'Sorba, a lean, dark-featured man said, 'I'll press it, sir, don't worry.' He gave a wolfish grin. 'After that can we fight?''After that, Joe, you'll probably have to! Good luck!'Sorba saluted smartly. 'Thank you, sir.'Returning the salute, Warne went back through the airlock. The V-ship drew away from the beacon a few minutes later.'Set a course for Beacon Alpha Nine,' ordered Hermack.Warne entered the flight deck and saluted. 'Beacon party installed, sir. I told Lieutenant Sorba we'd be back in about six weeks.''We'll be back much earlier if the pirates raid Alpha Four. How is morale?''Pretty high, sir. I think Joe's looking forward to a fight.''They understand they're to shoot on sight?''Don't worry, sir. Anyone poking his nose aboard Alpha Four will probably get it blown off!'The silence of the computer bay of Beacon Alpha Four was shattered by a strange wheezing, groaning sound. The incongruous shape of a square blue police box materialized in the corner of the instrument-filled room.Alpha Four, like all the other beacons, was a honeycomb of different-sized compartments, most of them packed with instruments. Others held stores and equipment, and one or two had been left empty to provide the most basic of living accommodation, intended only for emergency use.The compartments were linked by ladders, hatches and companionways leading to a variety of metal corridors.One of the guards, young, inexperienced and very excited, clattered down a metal ladder and rushed up to Lieutenant Sorba who was briefing the other guards.'Sir!' he gasped.Sorba swung round. 'What is it? Why aren't you at your post in the observation dome.''There's something in the computer bay, sir!''What sort of something?''Don't know, sir. I was pa.s.sing it on my way to the observation dome when I heard something in there - a strange noise.'Sorba looked sceptically at the young guard, wondering if he was listening to the effects of an overheated imagination. 'All right, I suppose we'd better check it out.'The door of the police box opened and a strangely a.s.sorted trio emerged.First came a rather scruffy little man in baggy chequered trousers and an ill-fitting frock coat, which he wore with a wide-collared white shirt and a straggly bow tie. His deeply-lined face, wise, gentle and funny all at once, was surmounted by a mop of untidy black hair. Known only as the Doctor, he was a Time Lord, a wanderer through s.p.a.ce and time.He was followed by a brawny, truculent young man in the kilt of a Scottish Highlander. His name was James Robert McCrimmon - Jamie for short - and he had been s.n.a.t.c.hed from the eighteenth century to join the Doctor in his wanderings.Then came a small, pretty dark-haired girl in neatly tailored shorts and a crisp white jacket and blouse. She was called Zoe Herriot. Before joining the Doctor she had been a computer operator on a s.p.a.ce station - in some ways she was a bit of a human computer herself.The Doctor looked round the little room. 'Oh dear!''What's wrong?' asked Zoe suspiciously.'I don't think we're quite where I expected. Never mind, this looks very interesting.'Jamie sniffed. 'Interesting? It's just a lot of old machinery.''Exactly, Jamie. I don't think I've ever seen computers quite like this before.'Zoe looked round. 'It's some kind of control room, isn't it Doctor?''Yes, but what is it controlling?'Zoe didn't know.Jamie didn't want to know. 'If you ask me, we should get out of here right away.'Zoe pointed. 'There's a door over there.''I dinna mean we should go wandering off. I mean we should leave in the TARDIS before someone turns up and starts asking questions.''Don't worry, Jamie,' said the Doctor. 'I can a.s.sure you there's n.o.body here to bother us.''What makes you so sure?'The Doctor pointed to the instrument-lined walls. 'All these devices are designed to operate by themselves.''But what do they do, Doctor?' asked Zoe. 'Where are we?''On an unmanned s.p.a.cecraft in a fixed orbit, I should imagine. Let's see if we can find some more clues as to its purpose, shall we?'The Doctor opened the hatch Zoe had indicated, and he and Zoe climbed through.Jamie was just about to follow them when he heard a sudden clatter of booted feet on metal. It seemed to be coming from underneath him.He paused in the hatchway listening.Suddenly a circular hatch in the middle of the floor was flung open. A uniformed figure appeared, clutching a blaster.Jamie might have a problem with technology, but there was nothing wrong with his reflexes.He flung himself through the open hatchway just as a bolt from a blaster ricocheted off its edge.Slamming shut the hatch behind him, Jamie yelled, 'Look out!' and dashed down the corridor to where the Doctor and Zoe were waiting. He heard more m.u.f.fled shots echoing through the hatch.'n.o.body here, eh?' said Jamie bitterly.Zoe looked at the Doctor. 'Now what are we going to do? The TARDIS is back there - where they're shooting at us!'The shots grew louder and nearer. The hatch opened and a blaster-bolt sizzled down the corridor.'There's only one thing we can do,' said the Doctor. 'Run!'He set off down the corridor with Jamie and Zoe close behind him.'Next time you'll mebbe listen to me,' said Jamie.'If there is a next time,' said Zoe.In the computer bay, the baffled Lieutenant Sorba was staring at the TARDIS. 'They must have smuggled themselves on board in this thing. They were here, waiting for us all the time!'He turned to his men. 'All right, there are only three of them and they can't get away. Hunt them down, and don't forget your orders, shoot to kill!'In the excitement of the hunt, Sorba and his men were completely unaware of one very important event. A slim, black, dart-shaped ship was gliding up to the docking bay of Beacon Alpha Four.
Caven stood looking round the airlock. It felt very familiar, because all the beacons were built to the same design.'Welcome to Alpha Four,' he said satirically. 'Another present from the taxpayers of our beloved home planet!'Dervish, worried as ever, didn't raise a smile. 'Same procedure as last time?'Caven slapped him on the back. 'That's right, Dervish!' His voice hardened. 'Now you've had a bit of practice, get those scissor-charges laid a bit quicker, will you?'Suddenly they heard the m.u.f.fled thump of blaster fire from somewhere inside the beacon. Dervish was stunned, but Caven reacted with his usual brisk efficiency. 'Get the crew in here - on the double!'The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe pounded along another corridor, then climbed up a ladder and through a hatchway into the corridor above.The Doctor threw a locking bar across the hatch. 'There - that'll hold them for a while.''Are you all right, Zoe?' asked Jamie chivalrously.Zoe was more indignant than frightened. 'We haven't done anything. Why are they trying to kill us, Doctor?''I don't know, but we can't stop to find out!'Jamie sniffed. 'Doctor, look!'A wisp of smoke was rising from the hatch below them. Suddenly a fiery line began moving along the hatch-cover.'Come along,' said the Doctor briskly. 'I think we'd better find somewhere to hide!'They made their way through several more doors and hatches - and found themselves in an empty metal chamber. The only entrance was the doorway by which they'd entered.'It's a dead end,' said Zoe. 'Now what do we do?'She turned to go back, but the Doctor put out a hand to prevent her. 'I don't know, Zoe. If we go back into that pa.s.sage we'll walk straight into them. We're trapped!'Lieutenant Sorba and his men were using focused blaster beams to burn through the last of the hatches that separated them from the intruders.Sorba broke down the hatch with a couple of hefty kicks; the charred hatch-cover clanged to the floor. He was about to burst through when he heard the crackle of blaster-fire behind him.He swung round to see a motley group of s.p.a.ce-suited figures shooting down his men.Sorba swung up his blaster to fire, but a bolt from the blaster of one of the attackers took him in the right shoulder and his weapon spun from his hand.Wounded as he was, Lieutenant Sorba knew his duty. With his left hand he s.n.a.t.c.hed convulsively at the signal radio in his belt. His thumb came down on the transmit b.u.t.ton just as blackness flooded over him.'Thirty minutes to Beacon Alpha Three,' reported Penn.Hermack nodded, still staring at the star-chart. 'Right! Beacon party on standby, Ian.'Warne had already started to move away when a low warbling came from the long-range communications console.'Emergency on Beacon Alpha Four, sir!' shouted Penn.Warne swung round. 'Sorba must be under attack!''Set a course for Alpha Four,' snapped Hermack. He grabbed the communications microphone. "Bridge to power room. I want maximum boost -for as long as you can hold it without vaporizing the engines!'Caven rolled over the prostrate Sorba with his foot; the lieutenant moaned and stirred. 'Looks like this one's still alive.'Dervish wasn't used to bloodshed and he was close to panic. 'So the s.p.a.ce Corps are too busy to bother about us, are they?''Shut up, Dervish, I'm thinking.''Too late for thinking, we've got to get out of here.'Caven looked thoughtfully along the body-littered corridor. 'Four s.p.a.ce Corps guardsmen and an officer... What were they doing here?''There must be a battle-cruiser in the area,' said Dervish worriedly. 'I warned you.'Ignoring him, Caven pursued his train of thought. 'Not a big enough party to defend the beacon against an attack in force, but they must have been put aboard for some reason... ' He bent to look at the device in Sorba's hand, prising it loose from the unconscious man's fingers. 'Now then, what have we here?'Dervish examined the device. 'It looks like a fixed beam transmitter of some kind.' He looked up in alarm. 'That's it, Caven, that's what they've done. Their ship will be on its way back here right now!''Then we'd better get moving,' said Caven calmly. 'I take it the charges are all in place?''Well, very nearly but... ' Dervish stared at him, 'you're not still going to blow up the beacon?''That's what we came here for, isn't it? So let's not waste any more time, Dervish. Get on with it!'Caven threw the transmitter to the floor, raised his blaster and blew it to bits.On the flight deck of the battle-cruiser the warbling of the signalling device cut out. For a moment no one spoke.Warne said tentatively, 'Could be just that their radio's packed up sir.''Yes.- Projected arrival time, Penn?''Two hours, twenty minutes, sir.'Hermack's voice was unusually subdued. 'I should have left Sorba more men.''The beacon couldn't hold a force of any size, sir,' said Warne steadily. 'Sorba and his men were all volunteers. They knew they could hope only to. delay things.'General Hermack's voice was a low, murderous growl. 'I'm going to get that gang of murdering thieves if it's the last thing I do.'Sorba stirred and struggled to sit up, clutching his wounded shoulder. He looked along the corridor at the slumped, lifeless bodies of his men.A dark thin-faced man stood looking down at him, covering him with a blaster.Caven smiled coldly, 'Yes, lieutenant, they're all dead - I checked. I'm afraid you're the last of the tin soldiers.''Shot in the back,' said Sorba bitterly.'Does that mean we're disqualified, lieutenant? You don't want to play any more?''You won't get away with this,' said Sorba feebly.'No? Who's going to stop me, lieutenant?'Sorba struggled to remember recent events. 'How did you get those decoys on board?'Caven was genuinely puzzled. 'What decoys?''The three who lead us into your ambush.'Caven stared at him. 'Suffering from concussion, lieutenant, or just stalling for time?''You know what I'm talking about. They ran through into the aft companionway.''Come to think of it, we did hear firing down here. You mean there really is someone else on board?''We thought you'd planted them.'Caven shook his head. 'None of my men down here. Well, whoever they are, I've no time to worry about them.'Dervish came hurrying down the corridor. 'All the charges are laid. They're just fixing the last of the rockets now.'Caven nodded towards Sorba. Tf he can walk, get him out of here. If not, leave him.' He aimed his blaster at the hatchway, fusing its edges into a ma.s.s of molten metal.Dervish looked at him in amazement. 'What are you doing?''Sealing a coffin,' said Caven. 'Now come on, let's get moving!'Inside the little metal room, the Doctor and his companions stared at the smoking door.'Are they trying to burn through it, Doctor?' asked Zoe.'I don't know, Zoe.' The Doctor was listening at the door. 'It sounds as if they're going away... ' He tried the door, and s.n.a.t.c.hed his fingers away. 'It's still hot.' There was a booming clanging sound. 'Now it sounds as if someone's moving on the hull.''What do you think they're doing, Doctor?' asked Jamie.'Cleaning the windows?'Jamie groaned.'Why don't we sneak back to the TARDIS and get out of here?' suggested Zoe.'A sensible suggestion,' said the Doctor solemnly, 'just so long as there's no one out there, Zoe!'Zoe had her ear to the hatch. 'I haven't heard a sound for ages. Come on!'She grabbed the locking wheel and tried to turn it. It refused to move.Jamie edged her aside. 'You need to eat more porridge, girl. Let me try.' Jamie heaved until his muscles cracked, but the wheel refused to budge.The Doctor came to join him and together they struggled with the wheel. It was still no use.Suddenly the Doctor understood. 'We might as well give up, Jamie. They've welded the lock!'Zoe frowned. 'Why would they do that?''To keep us in here, obviously. We seem to be prisoners.'Hermack and Warne were grouped around Penn's radar screen.'The ship's leaving the beacon, sir,' reported Penn.Warne nodded. 'It's exactly like it was before,''What's our arrival time, Penn?' growled Hermack.'Ninety minutes, sir.''We're going to be too late again!' Hermack said bitterly'If they're following the same procedure,' said Warne 'that beacon will blow any second now!'The Doctor and his companions reeled as the little room in which they were imprisoned suddenly twisted and spun.A dense cloud of smoke poured into the room and they fell back choking...
Technician Penn stared intently at the s.p.a.ce radar screen, uncomfortably aware that General Hermack was leaning over his shoulder.'Give me a bearing on that pirate ship, Penn,' ordered Hermack.Penn stared desperately at the screen. 'Can't pick her up, sir.''What?''I can't pick her up, sir. The debris of the beacon is jamming the signals.''Penn, you incompetent, useless piece of s.p.a.ce-flotsam... ' With a sort of a choked-off growl, Hermack turned and strode away.Major Warne, who had been hovering discreetly in the background, gave Penn a consolatory tap on the shoulder. 'Just keep trying, Penn. Carry on,''Yes sir,' said Penn gratefully, and resumed his study of the screen.Warne moved to the far end of the bridge to join Hermack. The general was standing by a refreshment station watching black coffee trickle into a plastic cup.He glared evilly at Warne. 'Coffee?'Hermack punched the appropriate b.u.t.tons without waiting for a reply and handed the cup to Warne.'Thank you, sir,' said Warne stiffly.For a few moments the two men stood sipping the bitter coffee in silence.Then Hermack growled, 'All right, all right, I know. The men are doing their best, and Penn's the best radar-technician in the fleet.'Warne gave him a look of innocent enquiry. 'General?''Isn't that what you were going to say?''Something like that, sir.'Hermack turned and moved back to the s.p.a.ce radar screen. 'You see? Now even the debris is moving out of range.''If we could sustain continuous main boost it might be a different story,' said Warne ruefully. 'We're fifty days out from home planet, and they've probably got a base somewhere in this system.'Hermack nodded. 'Quite, so they can use main boost all the time. Our only chance will be to get close enough to launch the minnow-ships.''Or locate their base, sir. The bits of that beacon must have been dispatched there. If we could track down one of the segments... 'Hermack shook his head. 'Can't be done. Once those auxiliary rockets cut out, there's no energy-source to track.' He gestured towards the screen. 'You see - nothing there now!''We could try the tactile scanner, general.'The tactile scanner sensed the presence of solid bodies in s.p.a.ce, but it would work only for objects considerably larger than a few segments of s.p.a.ce beacon.'It would be like looking for a single speck of dust at the bottom of an argonite mine,' said Hermack dismissively, and turned away.Warne remained staring at the screen. 'Do you think there's any chance they might still be alive?'Hermack swung round. 'Lieutenant Sorba and his men? I doubt it, major. I very much doubt if there's anyone still alive on that beacon by now.'But General Hermack was wrong. A little air still remained in one of the sealed beacon segments that drifted purposefully through s.p.a.ce.Inside, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe were just beginning to stir.Relieved to have something to report at last, Penn looked up from his screen. 'Major Warne!'Warne hurried over. 'What is it?''Rocket ship, sir.''Are you sure?''No doubt about it, sir. She's right in the area I've been scanning - where Alpha Four went up!''Can you get me a visual scan?''Should be able to, sir.' Pen swung round to a nearby console. 'Bearing starboard nineteen.'Hermack hurried over. 'Something happened?''Penn's just picked up something on radar, general.''One of the pirates?''If it is them, they're acting very oddly, sir. That ship's hardly moving.''Maybe they haven't realized we're in the area.''The pirates must know there's a V-ship in the area,' Warne pointed out.' They've just run into our party on Alpha Four. Somehow, I don't think this can be them. They're hardly likely to be loitering near the scene of the crime.'Hermack was suspicious by nature. 'According to flight information, nothing is due in this area for the next eighty hours.'On a nearby screen, the shape of a rocket ship started to become clear.'There she is!' said Warne. 'I'm afraid it isn't the ship we caught sight of before, general.''No, it isn't. Try to get a closer shot, Penn.'Penn punched controls, and the image on the screen grew larger. It showed a battered, stubby, curiously old-fashioned rocket ship.Its battered hull was dented and pitted by numerous meteor-scars and it bore the insignia LIZ 79, painted in sprawling letters on the clumsy nose-cone.Warne stared at it in disbelief. 'That's one of the old Delta cla.s.s freighters, sir. I didn't know there were any of them left in s.p.a.ce.'Inside the battered old s.p.a.ceship that was causing General Hermack and Major Warne so much concern, an equally battered old s.p.a.ce pilot was about to start breakfast.Milo Clancey was a stocky, heavily-moustached man in his early sixties, as tough and weather-beaten as his ship. He sat now in the pilot's chair of its stark metallic flight cabin, surrounded by old-fashioned patched-up controls.He wore the trousers to an old-fashioned heavy-duty s.p.a.ce-suit - the tunic was draped over the back of his chair - together with a garish tartan shirt and a gaudy neck-scarf.He was staring expectantly at a slot in his control console. The slot gave out a sudden puff of steam and a boiled egg rolled into the container below.Scooping up the egg, Milo popped it into the egg-cup which stood with a coffee pot and mug on a nearby tray. Drawing a formidable-looking knife from its belt-sheath, Milo lopped off the top of the egg. He then stared expectantly at a smoking metal container on top of the console.The hinged lid of the container suddenly snapped back. Two blackened objects that had once been slices of toast shot out.Milo looked at them in disgust, and then hurled bread and toaster across the cabin. 'The last of me bread! Stupid newfangled solar toasters!'Above his head an illumintated panel bearing the word 'CALL' began flickering feebly.Milo flicked a switch, and a speaker gave out a roar of static. He twiddled a k.n.o.b and a voice emerged through the crackle.'This is V-41 calling calling LIZ 79. V-41 calling LIZ 79. Can you hear me?'Milo flicked another switch, shoved a spoonful of egg in his mouth and said indistinctly, 'I hear you V-41. Go away!'There was another sputter of static and the voice said, 'This is General Nikolai Hermack of the s.p.a.ce Fleet, First Division. Give me your ident.i.ty reading.'Milo took a swig of coffee. 'Oh, take yourself off will you now, general? I'm having me breakfast!'He dug out another spoonful of egg.On the flight deck of the battle-cruiser, Technician Penn and Major Warne were almost painfully straight-faced, neither daring to catch the other's eye.General Hermack on the other hand was slowly turning an alarming shade of purple.As Major Warne hurried to a computer terminal, Hermack snarled, 'LIZ 79, give me your ident.i.ty registration code. That is an order.''General, I forgot all that rigmarole years ago,' said the voice from the speaker. 'Now be a good laddie and away about your business!'Just in time to avert an explosion, Major Warne hurried up with a computer print-out. 'LIZ 79's registration, sir. She's a real antique - been in service more than forty years.'Hermack looked at the information sheet. 'Milo Clancey! I might have known,''You know him, sir?''I know of him. Out in Reja Magnum, where I did my first tour, he was a bit of a legend.' Hermack turned back to the communicator microphone. 'Milo Clancey! I have your ident.i.ty registration here.''Well, isn't that fine now general. You'll be happy now, will you? Good day to you!''Now you listen to me, Clancey! Where are you from and where are you bound?''And what possible business would that be of yours?' demanded the voice indignantly.Hermack's patience snapped. 'Clancey, I'm coming alongside and locking on. I'm sending a patrol to bring you aboard for interrogation. I warn you, don't try to resist.On board LIZ 79, Milo Clancey shrugged philosophically. 'Suit yourself, general. Mind you don't scratch your lovely new paint now!'At the end of the day, thought Milo, the big boys could make you do as they said. But they couldn't make you like it.
On board the now detached main segment of Beacon Alpha Four, the Doctor suddenly rolled over and sat up, clutching his aching head. He looked at his two motionless companions and shook them gently in turn, attempting to rouse them.'Jamie, come on now. Zoe, wake up!'Neither of them moved.Looking round the crampled cabin the Doctor saw an oxygen cylinder clamped to the wall.Struggling to his feet he unhooked it and carried it over to his unconscious, playing the stream of oxygen over their faces.They began to stir.Major Warne saluted. 'They're bringing Clancey on board now, sir. Apparently he didn't give any trouble.''He won't co-operate though,' said GeneralHermack gloomily. 'Ever run across any of these old-timers, Ian?''Not really, sir.''They think they're a law unto themselves - and they don't like the s.p.a.ce Corps one bit.''Why not, sir?'Hermack stared reminiscently into s.p.a.ce, remembering his days as a young lieutenant. 'People like Clancey - miners and prospectors -were the first men to go out into deep s.p.a.ce. For a long time they had it to themselves. They went wherever they wanted, fought over mineral rights, jumped each other's claims. They were a wild lot, and they got used to living without rules.''And then the s.p.a.ce Corps came along and started enforcing law and order?'Hermack nodded. 'Exactly - much to their resentment. Milo Clancey must be one of the last of the breed.'As if to prove his words, Milo Clancey shambled on to the bridge under the escort of a couple of nervous young troopers.Clancey had made no attempt to dress for the occasion. He still wore his ancient s.p.a.ce-suit trousers and tartan shirt. The only addition was an old but still serviceable blaster rifle resting casually over one shoulder. So far no one had felt like trying to take it away from him.Milo Clancey looked round the gleaming bridge with exaggerated, wide-eyed admiration. 'They certainly do you s.p.a.ce Corps slickers proud - it's a whole flying fun-palace you have here!'Hermack decided it was time to take control of the interview.'Milo Clancey?' he boomed. 'I am General Hermack, this is Major Warne, my aide. I shall come straight to the point. I want to know what you're doing in this system, and why you are not on feedback to Central Flight Information.'Milo Clancey sighed. 'To be honest with you, general, my feedback circuit burned out about five years ago - or was it ten? I've been meaning to get it fixed.'Major Warne was shocked. 'Surely you must know it's an offence to operate without proper feedback to CFI?''An offence, is it? Oh dear! There are so many offences these days, aren't there?'Hermack said sternly, 'And what is your business in this sector, Clancey?''Well, you see now, I'm the head of the Clancey s.p.a.ce Mining Company.'Hermack brandished the print-out. 'We know that, it's all here on your file.''Sure, and what a wonderful thing it is to have all those facts at your fingertips, general.''Just get to the point, man.'Milo Clancey's voice hardened. 'You'd know the point, general, if anyone had been taking any notice of the reports I've been sending for the last two years.''Reports? What about?' snapped Warne.'About argonite pirates, sonny. In the past two years I've lost five floaters carrying argonite ore back to Earth. They were hijacked and brought somewhere in this system.''You say you've reported this?''A dozen times - and a fat lot of notice anyone's taken. So I thought, right, I'll have to do something myself.''How much argonite did you have on each floater?' demanded Hermack.'About fifty thousand tons of unrefined ore. It's not economic to send less.''What makes you so sure the stolen floaters were taken somewhere in this system?' asked Warne curiously.'Time, sonny. This is the nearest system to the point where they vanished from the s.p.a.ceways. Floaters are unmanned with no propulsion units -they don't move very fast... ' Clancey broke off, sneezing. 'Is it all right if I blow my nose, sonny, or is that an offence too?'Without waiting for a reply Clancey produced a grubby handkerchief and blew a resounding blast.'My poor old nose just isn't used to this fancy air-conditioning.'Hermack tried to get the interrogation back on course. 'How long have you been in the vicinity of Beacon Alpha Four?'Milo Clancey scratched his head. 'Beacon Alpha Four? Now where might that be, general?'Hermack jabbed a finger at the star chart on a nearby screen. 'Here!'Clancey peered at the screen. 'Sure, there's nothing there, general. I tell you those beacons just aren't reliable - a waste of public money if you ask me.''Alpha Four isn't registering on the chart, Clancey, because it isn't there any more. It was blown into segments by argonite pirates and taken away.''Is that so?' said Milo Clancey softly. 'For salvage you mean? Aye, that would be it... 'He seemed lost in thought.'You don't seem very surprised, Clancey,' said General Hermack coldly.'I'm not, general. That explains what you're doing here. I can lose every floater I've got and your fancy s.p.a.ce Corps couldn't care less. But one government beacon goes missing and that's a different story, eh?''When we've caught these pirates,' said Hermack pompously, 'and if your story can be proved, then you'll be ent.i.tled to put in a claim for compensation.''When and if,' scoffed Clancey. 'If I wait until you catch them, I'll be waiting for ever. That marauding bunch of sharks have a Beta Dart, one of the latest ships, and with about twice your speed! You might just as well turn round and go home.'Warne looked at him with sudden suspicion. 'How do you know what type of ship they're using?''Because I crossed their thieving flight path a couple of times, sonny, when I was being robbed! If my old LIZ had the speed I'd have rammed them!'The Doctor was standing on Jamie's broad shoulders and peering through a small observation port set high in the wall. In the distance he could see other segments of the beacon, floating in a silent, eerie convoy.'All right, Jamie, let me down now.' The Doctor clambered down and Jamie said eagerly, 'What's on the other side? Could you see?''I'm afraid there's nothing on the other side. Just s.p.a.ce.'Zoe looked at the sealed hatchway below the window. 'But we just came through there!''We did indeed, Zoe, but that wras before this machine we're travelling in was blown into several pieces.'Zoe nodded calmly. 'That must have been the explosion that knocked us out!'Jamie was still baffled, but his practical mind went straight to the main problem. 'Does that mean we've lost the TARDIS, Doctor?''Yes, Jamie.''Why would anyone want to blow up this thing?' asked Zoe.The Doctor shrugged. 'Sabotage, perhaps.''What about those men who fired at us?''I rather think they were here to defend this place. They must have thought we were the attackers, that's why they were so unfriendly.'So we've landed in the middle of some kind of s.p.a.ce war,' said Jamie grimly.'And now we're stuck on a chunk of s.p.a.ce debris,' said Zoe gloomily. 'Just drifting aimlessly.''Not aimlessly, Zoe,' corrected the Doctor. 'The other pieces of the machine seem to have rockets attached to them. They're all moving in the same direction at the same speed, keeping about a mile apart.''So, whoever broke up the machine is sending all the pieces to the same place?'Jamie's mind was still preoccupied with his main concern. 'So mebbe we can get back to the TARDIS after all, Doctor? If it's only a mile away... ''A mile in s.p.a.ce,' said the Doctor gently. 'Without oxygen or any means of propulsion?''It might be as well be a thousand miles,' said Zoe.Jamie gave them both a disgusted look. 'Och, that's just fine!'The Doctor suddenly pressed his ear to a section of wall. He seemed to be listening intently.'Got an idea, Doctor?' asked Zoe hopefully.'Listen,' said the Doctor.Zoe listened. 'There seems to be a faint buzzing.''Exactly,' said the Doctor. 'I wonder what it is?'General Hermack took Milo Clancey through his story several times without persuading him to change it or add anything new.Clancey finally lost patience. 'If you've finished asking stupid questions, general, I'd like to get back to my ship.'To Warne's surprise, Hermack agreed at once. 'Very well, Mr Clancey. I'm sorry to have detained you.''You mean I can go?' asked Clancey cautiously.'Of course. Is there anything you need, by the way - any supplies or anything of that sort?'All Milo Clancey wanted was to be on his way. 'That's very kind of you, general, but I'm fully equipped.''In that case I'll say goodbye.' Hermack beckoned to a waiting trooper. 'See that Mr Clancey is escorted back to his ship.''Goodbye then, and thanks,' said Clancey, and hurried away.Hermack smiled coldly as he watched Clancey go. When the old-timer's shambling figure had left the flight deck, Hermack glanced quickly at Warne, catching his aide's expression of shocked disapproval.'You obviously think I've done the wrong thing, Ian.''That's not for me to say, sir.''You think I let Clancey go too easily?''I would have questioned him under the mind probe, sir.''The thought did occur to me. He seems to be very well informed about these argonite pirates, doesn't he? Do you think he might even be in league with them?''I think it's very possible, sir. You said yourself that he hadn't got much respect for the law. Even the story about his stolen argonite floaters could just be a cover.''I quite agree,' said Hermack smoothly. 'In my opinion Milo Clancey is the man behind the whole pirate organization - which is precisely why I let him go!'Warne stared at him for a moment before giving a sudden grin of comprehension. He spun round to the nearest communications microphone. 'Bridge to armoury. This is Major Warne. I want a minnow-ship readied for immediate launch. Fit Martian missiles with contact warheads.'With the aid of his trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor had succeeded in removing an inspection panel.Jamie yawned. 'What d'you think he's up to now?'Zoe shrugged. 'No idea. Ask him!''Och, it's no use. He's got his mysterious face on.''I think he's just trying to keep our hopes up,' said Zoe quietly.'How do you mean?''By looking busy right up to the end,' explained Zoe calmly. 'Really, there's nothing anyone can do now. We've got only a few hours at the outside.'Jamie stared at her in alarm. 'What do you mean, only a few hours?''Haven't you noticed, Jamie? Haven't you noticed how difficult it's getting to breathe?'
General Hermack was pacing up and down the flight deck.'Penn, you're to keep constant track of Major Warne in the minnow. Let me know as soon as he's in visual range of Clancey's ship.''Yes, sir,' said Penn patiently.Hermack took a few more paces to and fro. 'Tell him - never mind, I'll speak to him myself.' He s.n.a.t.c.hed up a communications microphone. 'V-Master to Minnow Twenty-one, come in. Come in Minnow Twenty-one.'The minnows were light, fast manoeuvrable scout-ships, a sort of deep s.p.a.ce equivalent to old-fashioned atmospheric fighter-planes.Inside the cramped c.o.c.kpit of the tiny ship, Warne flicked his communicator switch. 'Minnow Twenty-one to V-Master.''This is General Hermack. What's your situation?''Everything's OK, general. My tracking system's locked on to Clancey's ship, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't know I'm tailing him.''Well done, Ian. But remember, Milo Clancey's no fool. If he does suspect you're following him, there'll be trouble. I'm going to visit the Issigri mining headquarters on Ta and see what I can find out there.'The Doctor lifted the panel clear of the wall to reveal a jumble of power cables and junction boxes. 'Just as I thought - solar powered construction along the lines of its electromagnetic fields.'Weak as she was, Zoe's scientific mind was intrigued. 'You mean the rocket was built in sections and a.s.sembled by magnetism - and the explosion broke the magnetic attraction between each section?''Exactly, Zoe! Now, if I can step up the electromagnetic power to bridge the s.p.a.ce between this section and the next... ''Draw it towards us, you mean?''That's right. We could repeat the process with the next section and the next until we reach the TARDIS!'Zoe frowned. 'How do you know the next section is an opposite pole? Unlike poles attract, but like poles repel. You might just send the next section shooting off in the opposite direction!''Don't be so pessimistic, Zoe,' said the Doctor reproachfully. 'Jamie, just help me to move this hatch cover out of the way will you?'Undeterred by Zoe's doubts, the Doctor set to work. After all, any plan was better than none.The head office of the Issigri Mining Corporation on Ta was the most up-to-date and luxurious of all the underground installations on that remote frontier planet. After all, it was the headquarters of one of the richest and most powerful organizations in the galaxy.Madeleine Issigri, president of the corporation, was fully as impressive as her office. A tall, dark-haired, strikingly beautiful young woman, she had the kind of well-groomed aloof good looks that kept others at a respectful distance. Her manner had the calm authority of someone accustomed to wealth and power.At the moment she was leaning back in her chair, a faint smile on her lips, watching as General Hermack made free with her company's ultramodern s.p.a.ce communications service.The screen showed the head and shoulders of the s.p.a.ce-suited Major Warne against the background of his tiny instrument-crammed c.o.c.kpit.'I'm still maintaining contact with Clancey's ship, general. Nothing more to report.'The screen went blank.'It must be extremely uncomfortable inside one of those minnow-ships, general,' said Madeleine Issigri, a hint of mockery in her voice.'It is at first, but you hardly notice it after a week or two.'She shuddered. 'And may I ask why Milo Clancey is being followed?''I suspect him of having some connection with the argonite pirates,' said Hermack bluntly.'But surely he has his own argonite mines on Lobos.''Worked out, I hear.'Madeleine Issigri smiled. 'That's what they said about my mines on this planet. I brought in up-to-date technology, and now they're the most productive in the galaxy.'Hermack looked thoughtfully at her. 'Surely you're not defending Clancey - you, of all people? Wasn't he once your father's partner, and didn't he have something to do with your father's mysterious death?''I thought so at the time, general, but I could never prove it.''And now you run the most successful argonite mines in the galaxy, while Clancey is nearly bankrupt.''And you think he's taken to piracy?'Hermack shrugged. 'For a man like Clancey to find a woman beating him at his own game... He might think it was worth any risk to get even.''I'd hate to think that was so. He and my father were friends and partners for years.''Your concern does you credit, Miss Issigri. In any event we should have proof within the next few hours.''How?''According to Warne's report, Clancey has been in the same dimensional orbit for quite some time. My theory is that he has a rendezvous with the pirate ship. And if he has... I've got him!'Hermack clenched his hand into a fist.The Doctor gave Jamie and Zoe a brief blast of oxygen. 'I think that's all we can spare for the moment.'As far as Jamie could see, the Doctor had simply arranged the tangle of wires and cables into an even greater tangle. 'Will it take much longer, Doctor?' he asked feebly.'No, no, it's practically ready now. There's just one last connection... ''Aye, well, I just hope it works.''Of course it will work, Jamie,' said the Doctor, with an indignant look at Zoe. 'The theory is absolutely sound! Now then, are you ready?''Ready, Doctor,' said Zoe.The Doctor pulled a switch and a low humming noise filled the little cabin. Rising steadily in frequency, it soon turned into an ear-splitting shriek.The whole cabin started to vibrate.'You've got it wrong, Doctor,' shouted Zoe. 'We're gathering speed!'The Doctor tried to pull back the switch but it wouldn't budge. 'The power's too great, I can't shut it off... ' He looked apologetically at Zoe. 'I'm afraid you were right, my dear. Instead of being attracted we're being repelled - shot out further into s.p.a.ce!'Sprawled in his chair, feet up on the console, Milo Clancey was trusting his beloved LIZ to the care of the automatic pilot. Suddenly a nearby console began giving out an insistent beep.Milo reached out a foot and kicked it, but the bleeping only became louder.Yawning, Milo got to his feet and wandered over to another console.He flicked switches and a monitor screen came foggily to life.There was something odd on it, a strangely shaped object moving through nearby s.p.a.ce.Milo Clancey stared at the centre-section of Beacon Alpha Four for a moment before realizing what he was looking at. He hurried back to the chair and kicked the ancient rocket motors into life.Jamie and Zoe were thrown about the cabin like a dice in a shaker while the Doctor held on with one hand and desperately struggled to shut down his magnetic lash-up with the other.'Do something, Doctor,' yelled Zoe.'I'm trying , I'm trying... 'The Doctor succeeded at last; the high-pitched howling died away and the cabin became still.'Are we all right now?' gasped Jamie.'I'm afraid not,' said the Doctor sadly. 'Even if I could manage to reverse the magnetic field we're too far from the other segments of the beacon to be attracted back.''So we're worse off than ever,' said Zoe sternly. 'Now we're just floating hopelessly in s.p.a.ce.'The Doctor looked contrite. 'I'm afraid we are. What a stupid blundering idiot I am!'No one disagreed.Warne's voice crackled from the communication unit in Madeleine Issigri's office.'LIZ 79 is linked up with a section of Beacon Alpha Four. Request further orders.'Hermack said triumphantly. 'You see? Clancey knew the collection zone. He's simply been waiting for the beacon sections to reach him.'It could be coincidence, general' said Madeleine Issigri. Perhaps he just happened to spot the drifting wreckage.''And what are the odds against?' Hermack shook his head. 'This is the proof I needed. If I can use your communications unit again?'Madeleine Issigri nodded, and Hermack leaned forward over the microphone.'V-Master to Minnow Twenty-one, are you receiving me?''Standing by for orders, general. LIZ 79 is just completing link-up.''Good,' said Hermack. 'That means he can't make any sudden move. Go in and arrest him, Ian.''Tell your man to be careful' warned Madeleine Issigri. 'Clancey's got a terrible temper - he could go up like glyceryl trinitrate.''V-Master to Minnow Twenty-one,' said Hermack. 'If Clancey shows any sign of resistance, you are authorized to use your missiles. Otherwise just escort him back here.'Jamie and Zoe were slumped back, scarcely able to move. The Doctor divided the last squirt of oxygen between them.'What about you?' whispered Zoe feebly.'It's all right, my dear, I don't need as much as you do.' Which was true enough, reflected the Doctor. Nevertheless, lack of oxygen would kill him in the end, as it would Jamie and Zoe. It would just take a little longer.Suddenly a loud, grinding thump came from outside.'Somebody's locked on to us,' said the Doctor.Bolts began dropping from the sealed door one by one.Zoe was astonished. 'Somebody's cutting the bolts from the outside!'Jamie staggered to his feet. 'We've been found!'A section of door fell away, and a bulky s.p.a.ce-suited figure appeared covering them with a blaster rifle.Jamie knew a weapon when he saw one and he reacted instantly.'Oh no you don't!' he yelled, and sprang to the attack.'Jamie, stop!' yelled the Doctor, but it was too late.There was a fierce crackle of energy from the blaster and Jamie fell...'Murderer!' shrieked Zoe.The blaster rifle swung round to cover her...
General Hermack was talking to the flight deck of his V-ship from Madeleine Issigri's office. '... and there's a possibility Major Warne may need a.s.sistance. I want you to stand-off at about twenty miles in case Clancey tries any tricks during the landing.'The duty officer's voice came back. 'Very good, sir.'If Madeleine Issigri resented having her office taken over as an unofficial s.p.a.ce Corps headquarters she gave no sign of it.'Aren't you going back to your ship, general?''No, I'm looking after ground reception. I've kept back a section of guards equipped with short-range missiles.''All this for one old man? You're not taking any chances are you?''That's why I'm a general, ma'am.''What will happen to Milo?''He'll be taken back to Earth for trial.''You know, I can't help feeling sorry for him,'Madeleine Issigri said thoughtfully. 'I tried to buy him out years ago. I offered him enough to retire to Earth in luxury, but he refused. He's a stubborn old fool.'Major Warne abruptly came through on the communicator. 'Minnow Twenty-one to V-Master.Clancey's ship is berthed against the beacon section.''Challenge him, and order him to surrender!' There was a brief, tense pause before Warne's voice came again. 'No audio response from LIZ 79, sir.''Challenge him again. Fire warning rockets if you get no response within two minutes. If that doesn't work, stand off and destroy him with the Martian missiles.'Warne glanced at the scanner screen in the c.o.c.kpit of his minnow-ship. The screen was filled with a close-up of LIZ 79 berthed against the beacon segment.'This is s.p.a.ce Fleet minnow fighter to LIZ 79. You have two minutes to surrender. Do you read me, Clancey? You have two minutes to surrender before I blow you into s.p.a.ce.'Inside LIZ 79 the message blared from a wall speaker. The cabin, however, was empty.The Doctor was kneeling by the unconscious Jamie. 'It's all right, Zoe, he's coming round.''Of course he's coming round,' growled Milo Clancey. 'The blaster's only set on stun. Now, I want to know who you are and what you are doing here.'He waved the blaster rifle threateningly.'It's very rude to point,' said Zoe severely. "Especially with a gun.''How did you all get here?' demanded Milo exasperatedly. 'Where's your ship? You must have docked on to the beacon... ''Not so much on as in,' said the Doctor cautiously.'In it? Now how could you be doing that, it's impossible!'Painfully, Jamie sat up. 'Nothing's impossible in the TARDIS, especially when the Doctor's at the controls.''You really expect me to believe this nonsense?' demanded Clancey. 'Now look, if you three comedians don't start telling me the truth... 'The whole beacon segment was rocked by a shattering explosion from the first of the minnow-ship's warning shots.'Tarnation, someone's shooting at us!' said Milo Clancey indignantly.He turned and dashed through the gap he had blown in the wall.'Hey, wait for us!' shouted the Doctor.He bustled Jamie and Zoe out after Clancey.Too agitated to question their presence, Milo Clancey let them follow him on board. He closed the airlock behind them, and then led the way into the flight cabin, where Warne's voice was crackling from an antiquated speaker.'That was just a warning, Clancey. You can't hope to get away. Surrender or I'll put a missile salvo through your hull.'Ripping off his helmet, Milo hurled himself into the pilot's seat. 'It's that puppy from the s.p.a.ce Corps, is it? I'll show him a thing or two.'He heaved and thumped at the controls, and the ancient rocket motors roared into life.'I can see you moving, Clancey,' said Warne's voice from the speaker. 'I'll give you ten seconds to surrender. Ten seconds and then I fire!''Ten seconds, is it?' muttered Clancey. 'The nerve of the lad, talking to me like that!'The voice started counting. 'Ten... nine... eight... ''Don't you think it might be wise to, er, parley with him?' suggested the Doctor nervously.'Milo Clancey takes ultimatums from no man!''Seven... six... five... 'Zoe looked at Clancey in horror. 'He's going to fire a missile!''I've a trick for that young whippersnapper worth ten missiles,' boasted Clancey. He heaved on a rusty lever.Major Warne's minnow-ship was in close pursuit of the fleeing LIZ 79. The ancient vessel was clear on his scanner screen and in his missile sights.'Four... three... two... one!' concluded Warne. 'Sorry, Clancey, you had your chance.' His thumb stabbed the firing b.u.t.ton; the slender-finned missile streaked away from his ship straight at LIZ 79. It was point blank range; there was no possibility of a miss.Suddenly the astonished Warne saw a dense cloud of needle-like particles streaming from under the tail of the fleeing vessel. He watched in amazement as the missile entered the cloud and began pitching and rolling uncontrollably, deviating from its course and streaking uselessly into s.p.a.ce.He was even more amazed when his minnow-ship entered the cloud and began behaving in exactly the same way.He wrestled furiously with the controls.Milo Clancey brought the rear scanner into focus and chuckled gleefuly at the sight of the wildly-spinning minnow-ship. 'So much for you and your newfangled toy. Get yourself out of that Sunny Jim!'His recently acquired pa.s.sengers were looking at him with new respect.'What did you do to him, Mr Clancey?' asked Zoe.'Sure, that was me own invention, girl. A few tons of copper needles - I just tip them out when one of these modern ships gets too close for me peace of mind!'Jamie was equally impressed. 'Och, how can copper needles stop a s.p.a.ceship and a missile?'Milo sprawled back in his chair. 'Well, they've both got these computerized guidance systems, haven't they? The argonite in their casings attracts the copper, then all the little copper needles jigger up the computer systems!''What's argonite?' asked Zoe.'It's a metal used in s.p.a.ceships,' said the Doctor. 'It's tensile, ductile, heatproof, almost indestructible - and magnetically polarized for copper!''That's right!' Milo looked at Zoe. 'And you've never heard of it, girl? Where do you come from?''Well, it's a little complicated,' began the Doctor. He told Milo about the TARDIS, and about the way they had lost contact with it.Milo shook his head in wonder. 'Well, if that doesn't beat performing fleas!''So you can understand, Mr Clancey,' concluded the Doctor, 'we're very anxious to get back to the TARDIS. Would it be taking you too far out of your way to, um, drop us off?''Sure, I couldn't even if I wanted to. I don't know where the bits of the beacon are headed. Only the argonite pirates will know that.''Pirates?' asked Jamie. Milo told them about the recent run of argonite hijackings.'Dear me,' said the Doctor. 'That does make things a little difficult.'Milo turned his mind back to the present problems. 'We've got to get away from here. General Hermack will be sending more of his minnow-ships after us, and I've used up all me needles!' He told them about his recent brush with the s.p.a.ce Corps. 'Hermack's here hunting the s.p.a.ce pirates - and he thinks I'm one of them.''There's one thing I still don't understand, Mr Clancey,' said Zoe.'Sure, there's a million things I don't understand, girl, but I don't stand around asking daft questions about them!' He looked hopefully at her. 'You can make some tea if you like!'Zoe took a deep breath. 'The pot's broken!' said Jamie hurriedly. He picked up the fragments of china on the deck.Milo was already busy at the controls. 'There's another in the galley. That'll be okay - it's made of tillium.''What's tillium?' asked Zoe.Milo slammed a fist down on the control console. Tillium! The metal this s.p.a.ceship's made of. Makes a lousy cup of tea, but it's lasted me all round the galaxy.''So that's why your own ship wasn't affected by the copper needles! That's what I couldn't understand.' Her scientific curiosity satisfied, Zoe went off to look for the teapot.'What will happen if those minnow-ships catch us?' asked Jamie.'They won't laddie. I'm heading for the one place that bone-headed general will never think of looking.''He used some kind of anti-pursuit device, sir,' said Warne apologetically. 'It jammed the missile's guidance systems and the shi
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