Kenniston's mind was seething with despair as he stood there with hands upraised. His whole desperate plan was ruined at this last moment.
He wouldn't let it be ruined! He would get this cargo of machines and materials to John Dark if it meant his life!
"Turn back at once toward Mars, captain," Gloria was saying quietly to the stunned officer. Her face was still very pale.
Kenniston, standing tense, had had an idea. A desperate chance to make a break, in the face of Murdock's atom-gun.
The captain had said that he had just ordered the pilot to slow down the Sunsprite. In a moment would come the shock of the braking rocket-tubes firing from the bows -
That shock came an instant after the wild expedient flashed across Kenniston's mind. It was only a jarring vibration through the fabric of the ship, for the pilot knew his business.
It staggered them all on their feet, for just a moment. But Kenniston had been waiting for that moment. As Hugh Murdock moved his gun-arm involuntarily to balance himself, Kenniston lunged forward.
"The bridge, Holk!" he yelled as he hurled himself.
Kenniston's shoulder hit the captain and sent him caroming into Murdock. The two men sprawled on the floor.
Holk Or, with instant understanding, already had the door of the cabin open. They plunged out into the corridor together.
"Our only chance is to make the bridge and grab the controls!" Kenniston cried as they raced down the corridor. "We can keep them long enough to land on Vesta - "
Hiss - flash! The crackling blast of the atom-gun tore into the lower steps of the ladder up which he and the Jovian frantically climbed. Murdock was running after them as he fired, and there were shouts of alarm.
Kenniston and Holk Or burst into the glassite-walled bridge. Bray, the pilot, turned for a startled moment from his rocket-throttles.
Beyond the pilot, the transparent front wall framed a square of black space in which bulked the monstrous sphere of the nearby asteroid.
The World with a Thousand Moons! It loomed up only a few hundred miles away, a big, pale-green sphere encircled by the vast globular swarm of hundreds on hundreds of gleaming little meteor-satellites.
"Why - what - " stammered the pilot, bewildered.
Kenniston's fist caught his chin, and the man sagged to the floor.
"Bar the door, Holk!" yelled Kenniston as he leaped toward the rocket-throttles.
"Hell, there's only a catch!" swore the Jovian. He braced his brawny shoulders against the metal door. "I can hold it a little while."
Kenniston's hands were flashing over the throttles. The Sunsprite was moving at reduced speed toward the meteor-enclosed asteroid.
The cruiser shook to the bursting roar of power, as he opened up all the tail rockets. It plunged visibly faster toward the deadly swarm around Vesta, picking up speed by the minute.
Rocking, creaking, quivering to the dangerous rate of acceleration Kenniston was maintaining, the little ship rushed ahead. But now there was loud hammering at the bridge-room door.
"Open up or we'll burn that door down!" came Captain Walls' yell.
Kenniston didn't turn. Hunched over the throttles, peering tensely ahead, he was tautly estimating speed and direction. His eyes searched frantically for the periodic break in the outer meteors.
There was a muffled crackling and the smell of scorched metal flooded the bridge-room. A hoarse exclamation of pain came from Holk Or.
"They got my arm through the door, damn them!" cursed the Jovian. "Hurry, Kenniston!"
Kenniston was driving the Sunsprite full speed toward the whirling cloud of meteors around the asteroid. He had spotted the break in the cloud, the periodic opening caused by the gravitational influence of another nearby asteroid.
It was not a real opening. It was merely a small area in the swarm where the rushing meteors were not so thick, and where a ship had a chance to worm through by careful piloting.
Kenniston only remotely heard the struggle that Holk Or was putting up to hold the door against the hammering crowd outside. His mind was wholly intent on the desperately ticklish piloting at hand.
He cut speed and eased the Sunsprite down into that thinner area of the meteor-swarm. Space around them now seemed buzzing with rushing, brilliant little moons.
The meteorometers had gone crazy, blinking and buzzing unceasing warning, their needles bobbing all over the direction-dials. Instruments were useless here - he had to work by sight alone. He eased the cruiser lower through the swarm, his fingers flashing over the throttles, using quick bursts of the rockets to veer aside from the bright, rushing meteors.
"Hurry!" yelled Holk Or hoarsely again, over the tumult. "I can't - hold them out much longer - "
Down and down went the Sunsprite through the maze of meteor-moons, twisting, turning, dropping ever lower toward the green asteroid.
A last gasping shout from Holk Or, and the door crashed off its burned-through hinges. Kenniston, unable to turn from the life-or-death business of threading the swarm, heard the Jovian fighting furiously.
Next moment a hand gripped Kenniston's shoulder and tore him away from the controls. It was Murdock, his eyes blazing, his gun raised.
"Raise your hands or I'll kill you, Kenniston!" he cried.
"Let me go!" yelled Kenniston, struggling to get back to the throttles. "You fool!"
He had just glimpsed the jagged moonlet rushing obliquely toward them from the left, bulking suddenly big and monstrous.
Crash! The shock flung them from their feet, and the Sunsprite gyrated crazily in space. There was a blood-chilling shriek of outrushing air from the fore part of the ship, and the slam-slam-slam of the automatic air-doors closing, down there.
The cruiser's whole bows had been crushed in by the glancing blow of the meteor. Now, ironically, the ship was falling clear of the meteor-swarm for Kenniston's piloting had almost won through it before the impact. But the Sunsprite was falling helplessly, turning over and over as it plunged down toward the green surface of the jungled asteroid.
"My God, we're struck!" came Captain Walls' thin yell.
"This is your fault!" Murdock blazed at Kenniston. "You damned pirates will die for this!"
"Let me at those controls or we'll all die together in five minutes!" Kenniston cried. "We'll crash to smithereens unless I can make a tail-tube landing - "
Heedless of Murdock's gun, he jumped to the controls. His hands flew over the throttles, firing desperate quick bursts of the tail rocket-tubes to bring them out of the spin in which they were falling.
The brake-rockets in the bow were gone. The ship was crippled, almost impossible to handle. And the dark green jungles of Vesta's surface were rushing upward with appalling speed.
Kenniston's frantic efforts brought the Sunsprite out of the spin. By firing the lateral rockets, he kept it falling tail-downward.
"We're goners!" yelled someone in the stricken ship. "We're going to crash!"
Air was screaming outside the plummeting ship. Kenniston, his hands superhumanly tense on the throttles, mechanically estimated their distance from the uprushing green jungles.
He glimpsed a little black lake in the jungle, and near it the big circle of an electrified stockade. He recognized it - John Dark's camp!
Then, a thousand feet above the jungle, Kenniston's hands jerked open the throttles. The tail rockets spouted fire downward.
Sickening shock of the sudden check almost hurled him away from the controls. His hands jabbed the throttles in and out with lightning rapidity, checking their further fall with one quick burst after another.
A sound of rending branches - a staggering sidewise shock that flung him from his feet. A jarring thump, then silence. They had landed.