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Placeholder image Picture of the cover art for The Runaway Asteroid Preview of Starman #2: The Runaway Asteroid

 

Chapter 3: Montezuma's Castle

 

"That's it," said Mark, as the navigation equipment locked onto the asteroid that was the home of the elusive Montezuma Vly. 

"Hmmm. No wonder it's so hard to find," observed Zip, looking over Mark's shoulder for a moment. Not far from major travelways but so unobtrusive you'd never notice it."

"It just hovers almost in the shadow of that large, worthless chunk here. Should be able to see it out the window before too long."

 Zip was busy threading the Vigilant Warrior through the asteroids for the next few minutes. He kept the ship at a moderate pace and passed easily around the slowly turning asteroids. They were all moving at about the same speed and maneuvering was not difficult.

"Should be coming up on it about now," offered Mark.

"There it is," said Zip almost immediately. The Vigilant Warrior had eased its way around an oblong worldlet-the "large, worthless chunk" that Mark had just mentioned-bringing a crescent-shaped, stony asteroid about ten miles long into view. It looked almost like a fat banana with the ends tapering into sharp points.

"Montezuma's Castle," breathed Zip. "Kind of looks like a moon for that large asteroid."

"I think it is," answered Mark. "It rotates around the larger chunk and the two make almost a helix pattern in their journey through the Belt. They were probably a single asteroid at one time. One powerful impact must have split them, but the pieces haven't drifted far apart."

"Well, let's get down there. There's no mistaking the shape of the 'Castle.' Whatever odd shapes you can find in the Belt, that's got to be unique." The Starman brought the Vigilant Warrior slowly into the proximity of Montezuma Vly's refuge. "See if you can raise him, Mark."

Mark Seaton flipped on the communicator.

"Starman Mark Seaton on the starship Vigilant Warrior calling Montezuma Vly on the Castle, requesting permission to land." His voice was smooth, intimate, and confident. There was no response. A minute later, Mark repeated the message. The metallic voice of an automatic response system came on.

"This asteroid is private property and visitors are not welcome."

"We understand that, sir," Mark replied, "and we would not request permission to land if it were not a matter of urgent business of personal concern." A human voice came on.

"Yeah, like I haven't heard that one before! I don't want visitors! If I wanted a social calendar, I'd go live in a big population center like Ganymede. Keep going! Next services are 3,000 miles away."

"Mr. Vly, this is Starman David Foster, Commander of the Starlight Enterprise ship Vigilant Warrior," Zip broke in. "We understand and respect your reluctance to receive visitors and will stay no longer than necessary. We are calling on you because your friend George St. George has information we need which is vital to the safety of all the settlements on Mars and even the Earth-Moon system. We also believe it possible that he is in danger from violent men."

"Well, that's a new one. George in danger? What about it?"

"May we land, Mr. Vly? I don't want to take the slightest risk that our conversation can be overheard. We won't stay any longer than necessary."

"You've found me. May as well come in and state your business." The communicator was shut off from Vly's end.

Zip came up on the Castle. It didn't take long to find the landing site. There were two spacecraft in position in about the middle of the asteroid. One was a small ship suitable for local jaunts, and the other was a normal-sized craft capable of interplanetary travel. The name Sentinel was painted on the side of the larger craft. Both were very old and in places a little battered, but were clearly cared for and well kept up. The Vigilant Warrior touched down about fifty yards from the closest of Vly's craft. Zip shut off the engines and pressed the security button. A slight shudder ran through the ship as bolts shot from the fins, securing the ship to the surface. The Starmen disembarked and descended the ladder.

"Over there," pointed Joe. The entrance to the airlock was discernible across the tiny landing area. The Starmen began walking toward it. The starfield swept away to right and left, with a couple of nearby asteroids visible to the eye. A great horn of stone rose up before them, sweeping several miles to a point above. Behind them a similar horn curved up in the opposite direction.

The ground was uneven, with contours sharply defined. Jagged, broken rock comprised most of the ter-rain, with a few smooth, ripples which rose about twenty or thirty feet from the plain. Shadows were utterly dark in the vacuum of space. The Starmen's boots gripped the hard ground of the asteroid. Without the asteroid shoes, the minimal gravity of "Montezuma's Castle" would have made walking a difficult task. The airlock was set into the side of a hill. The side had been artificially cut away in front of the door.

As Zip, Mark, and Joe approached the airlock, the outer door opened. When they had passed through, it shut behind them. Joe kept watch on the instruments as air filled the compartment. When the atmosphere had become normal, he removed his helmet. Zip and Mark followed suit. They opened the second door and passed through. A dimly-lit stairway led down in front of them. About twenty-five steps brought them to the beginning of a short passageway. At the end was another door. It was solid.

Zip approached the door and paused. He turned his head to the other two, lifted his eyebrows and shrugged. Mark and Joe nodded. Zip knocked. The door was opened almost immediately.

A good-looking, clean-shaven man with dark hair looked them over once quickly, then stepped aside. "Come in," he said, waving a hand while the other held the door. "I'm Montezuma Vly." He had powerful hands, obviously used to hard labor. His nails had grit under them. Strong as the hands were, clearly they were also the hands of an artist, capable of fine work. He shook hands with the Starmen as they entered.

"Wow!" said Joe, the last to enter. Vly shut the door. The three Starmen gazed about them. A small room was packed with machinery-old fashioned-machinery used for rock cutting, polishing stones, and mounting speci-mens. The heady smell of machine oil hung in the air, not heavy like an aircraft hangar but attractive and ener-gizing, almost like a perfume.

The machinery was made of cast iron, with wheels and gears, rods and chains visible inside the cases. Each machine was lovingly maintained. The newest machine must have been at least fifty years old, but all were in top quality condition.

"They're made to be used," explained Vly. "You can't get better machines than these today. The new stuff doesn't last and can't be depended on."

Joe, the engine master of the trio, immediately thought of the precision instruments produced by Star-light Enterprise. He opened his mouth, but said nothing. He knew that SE made quality machinery, but little of it was iron. He didn't want to make a fool of himself by talking about something of which he knew little. Instead he smiled and decided to take a closer look.

He leaned over the closest apparatus. His mild skepticism quickly turned to awe. "My goodness, Mr. Vly! This is incredible! These machines are beautiful!" Vly didn't smile, but his face softened a little.

Mark and Zip were looking around the room. On two walls were hung various hand tools. Several shelves held cans of oil and paint, boxes of supplies, and dozens of samples of minerals and crystals. The other two walls were lined with books, half of them behind glass.

Zip turned his head to the side to read the titles of some of the books. He saw The Complete Works of William Shakespeare; Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl; Homer's Odyssey; and several advanced textbooks on mineralogy, metallurgy, engineering, and electronics. Zip's eyebrows lifted. He was impressed.

Mark was looking at the books on the other wall. Basic Watercolor, he read. The Stories of Edgar Allen Poe was next to The Life of Johann Sebastian Bach. Mark whistled. "Not what I expected, Mr. Vly," he said. "Not at all what I expected."

"Uh huh," murmured Montezuma Vly. "Let's get down to business. Follow me." He squeezed past Zip in the crowded little workplace, passed through a narrow door on the other side of the room, and through a pas-sageway. The Starmen followed.

A small furry shape leaped through the air in front of Joe. "Ack!" exclaimed the lanky Starman, stumbling backward, knocking over a couple of small boxes as his arms flailed. Nuts and bolts scattered on the floor. Joe backed into another box and sat down hard on it.

"What-?" exclaimed Vly, turning.

"What was that?" cried Joe. "Something jumped across the corridor. I think it went into this recess here." He pointed to an opening between a few stacked boxes.

"One of my koalangs," answered Montezuma. "I've got four of them here. And a few more in the living quarters. Good company. They can startle you, though, and they can make an awful mess. More than once I've threatened to make stew out of 'em and eat 'em for dinner." The Starmen looked at one another, wondering if he was joking. His next action showed that he was.

"Come on, Howard," said Montezuma gently, bending over and calling into the dark place where the koalang had hidden. "They won't hurt you. I know you're not used to company, but no one's gonna hurt you. Come on out. That's it, come on." He reached in gently and drew a small creature out of the darkness. It had a small furry face with large, frightened eyes, and snuggled up against the miner. Its fur was caramel and white. He folded it into his chest and covered it gently with both hands. He crooned to it lovingly for a moment or two, then said, "That's right. You're okay. Go play." Then he added with mock fierceness, "Just stay out of the paint!" He set it down and turned back to the door at the end of the corridor

"In here," he directed, leading the way into the room beyond.

 

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2011 by David Baumann, Jonathan Cooper, Mike Dodd. All rights reserved.