“If you do that, you’re talking suicide,” Nelson cried.
“We’re talking certain death for O’Hanlon if I don’t,” Spear shot back. The Colonel was already squirming into his space suit. Nelson paced nervously, “If you fire the emergency tether gun, there’s a good chance you will lose control and you’ll both be floating in space.”
“I’ve done this before in training,” Spear said, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Look, I’m in charge here. This is my call.” With that, Spear climbed into the air lock and fastened his helmet tightly. The air lock only took seconds to depressurize, but it felt like an eternity to Spear. He held the bulky tether gun in his hand, feeling a bit like Captain Ahab. He looked at the giant red letters along the side of the barrel declaring, “For Emergency Use Only!” Spear couldn’t think of a bigger one than right then.
The door slid open and he was suddenly facing the vast unknown. Already tethered, Spear slipped his boots into the foot harnesses on the floor and balanced the device on his shoulder. Although the gun was equipped with an exhaust to mitigate the force of the exploding gases within, Spear knew from his training on Marsbase that this thing could still pack a wallop. He planted himself firmly and scanned the ebony abyss through the viewfinder, desperately seeking some glimpse of his friend. Sweat ran down his neck and tickled his chest, but he had no way to scratch. Stay focused, he told himself. Then he spotted a fleck of yellow. It must be O’Hanlon’s suit! Spear squeezed the trigger.
There was no sound, but Spear could feel the jolt of the gun. An arrow darted into the inky space, followed by the life-saving length of tether. With no gravity, the line stood straight, but there was no tension on the other end. Spear’s heart sank. He took too long. O’Hanlon must be too far away. His finger moved toward the release button when he felt another jolt, much softer than the firing on the gun, but definitely firm. Then the line went taut and a steady tug pulled him toward the doorway. His spirits lifted. The yellow speck moved closer turning into a man.
The swirling colors of Jupiter’s gaseous surface filled the sky as Spear and Nelson delicately maneuvered the rocket down to the asteroid’s surface. O’Hanlon’s repairs were even better than Spear had anticipated and the spaceship settled into a rocky valley without incident. As soon as the engines powered down, Spear checked the monitor screen to his right.
“Just as Dr. Buttons had predicted,” Spear smiled, “the asteroid is rotating at a speed that creates a gravity about 35% of Earth normal. That should make our lives a little easier.”
“Sure,” Nelson agreed. “That’s just enough to use the terra-cycles. We can zip around the equator of the asteroid in style.”
The two men laughed, but the terra-cycles were a critical piece of the mission. The nuclear devices had to be placed at regular distances along the equator of the asteroid. Accomplishing that task in a timely manner was critical to completing the mission within a safe timeframe. Their oversized motorcycles were designed, not only to carry the devices, but to handle the rugged terrain.
Spear and Nelson wasted no time in donning their environmental suits and wheeling their terra–cycles from the storage bay. As planned, O’Hanlon would stay on board to monitor their progress and prepare the ship’s engines for immediate liftoff. Rolling his bulky vehicle down the gangplank, Spear felt a spring in his step that reminded him of his days back on Marsbase. He allowed himself the luxury of feeling slightly confident about the success of the mission. Then he looked back and noticed his partner awkwardly skipping sideways and manfully struggling to keep his cycle upright.
“This lighter gravity takes some getting used to,” Spear spoke to Nelson over the communicator built into his helmet. “Try to relax and think of each movement like the delicate response of the joystick controls.”
“I’ll give it a try,” Nelson sighed and proceeded walk more cautiously.
By the time he had wheeled his cycle onto the rocky ground, Nelson seemed to have a feel for things. Spear gestured to the west, indicating that he would head westbound along the equator. Nelson nodded and pointed east. With that, the two were on their way. Charges were placed every 20 miles. Arming each device was simply a matter of removing the protective cover from the control panel and pressing the red button. This placed the explosive in a standby mode. The devices could be exploded only by the controls on board the rocket.
“This is your three-hour check, gentlemen,” O’Hanlon spoke to them over the communicator. “What is your status, Colonel?”
“I’m just finishing number 12. Only three more charges to be planted,” Spear replied. “How are you doing, Clark?”
“Keeping the same pace,” Nelson reported. “I should be rendezvousing with you back at the ship in approximately one half hour.”
“Sounds great men,” O’Hanlon said in the same professional monotone he would use whether he had landed on Pluto or was about to be struck by a comet. “I’m running the final systems check. We should be ready to take off by the time you get back.”
“Roger that. Out,” Spear replied.
“Roger, Nelson out.”
Spear pressed the red button on Charge #12 and turned back to his terra-cycle. He barely took a step when he was greeted with a sight that froze him in place. A dark figure about six and a half feet tall and covered in fur was looking over his terra-cycle like a claims adjustor examining a wrecked Studebaker.
“Hey, who are you?” Spear cried out before realizing the foolishness of his actions. His voice could not carry through the airless void of space. The creature, however, seemed to become aware of Spear’s presence all the same. He leapt back in a display of surprise and started to run. Spear gave chase, forgetting about his training and hopping like a cricket across the terrain at 10-yard intervals. Within seconds, he was upon the lumbering beast.
“What were you doing with my cycle?” Spear asked, now face to face with the being. Actually, the creature barely had a face, just two black orbs for eyes and a gabbing maw. He stared blankly at the Colonel for a moment, then pushed him to the ground with a force Spear was not expecting. By the time Spear could scramble to his feet, the strange visitor had disappeared.
“Nelson,” Spear cried. “Nelson, come in. You won’t believe this.”
The speaker in Spear’s helmet crackled with static. Then came a faint cry. “Nelson, what is it?”
“Lance, I’m being attacked by – “ Spear could make out heavy breathing and grunts, as if Nelson was struggling with a tremendous force. “Help!”
Spear could only think one thing: Whatever beings inhabit the lonely asteroid, one of these beasts was trying to kill his friend.