The two spaceship crews were friendly enemies, sitting across the table from each other for their last meal before blastoff. Outside the ports, the sky was nothing but light-streaked blackness, punctured periodically by Earth glare, for Space Station 2 whirled swiftly on its axis, creating an artificial gravity.
"Jonner, I figured you the last man ever to desert the rockets for a hot-rod tow-job," chided Russo Baat, captain of the Mars Corporation's gleaming new freighter, Marsward XVIII. Baat was fat and red-faced, and one of the shrewdest space captains in the business.
Jonner Jons, at the other end of the table, inclined his grizzled head and smiled.
"Times change, Russo," he answered quietly. "Even the Mars Corporation can't stop that."
"Is it true that you're pulling five thousand tons of cargo, Captain?" asked one of the crewmen of the Marsward XVIII.
"Something like that," agreed Jonner, and his smile broadened. "And I have only about twice the fuel supply you carry for a 100-ton payload."
The communicator above them squawked and blared:
"Captain Jons and Captain Baat of Martian competition run, please report to control for final briefing."
"I knew it!" grumbled Baat, getting heavily and reluctantly to his feet. "I haven't gotten to finish a meal on this blasted merry-go-round yet."
In the space station's control section, Commander Ortega of the Space Control Commission, an ascetic officer in plain blues, looked them up and down severely.
"As you know, gentlemen," he said, "blastoff time is 0600. Tonnage of cargo, fuel and empty vessels cannot be a factor, under the law. The Mars Corporation will retain its exclusive franchise to the Earth-Mars run, unless the ship sponsored by the Atom-Star Company returns to Earth with full cargo at least twenty hours ahead of the ship sponsored by the Mars Corporation. Cargo must be unloaded at Mars and new cargo taken on. I do not consider the twenty-hour bias in favor of the Mars Corporation a fair one," said Ortega severely, turning his gaze to Baat, "but the Space Control Commission does not make the laws. It enforces them. Docking and loading facilities will be available to both of you on an equal basis at Phobos and Marsport. Good luck."
He shook hands with both of them.
"Saturn, I'm glad to get out of there!" exclaimed Baat, mopping his brow as they left the control section. "Every time I take a step, I feel like I'm falling on my face."
"It's because the control section's so close to the center," replied Jonner. "The station's spinning to maintain artificial gravity, and your feet are away from the center. As long as you're standing upright, the pull is straight up and down to you, but actually your feet are moving faster than your head, in a larger orbit. When you try to move, as in normal gravity, your body swings out of that line of pull and you nearly fall. The best corrective, I've found, is to lean backward slightly when you start to walk."
As the two space captains walked back toward the wardroom together, Baat said:
"Jonner, I hear the Mars Corporation offered you the Marsward XVIII for this run first, and you turned them down. Why? You piloted the Marsward V and the Wayward Lady for Marscorp when those upstarts in the Argentine were trying to crack the Earth-Mars run. This Atom-Star couldn't have enough money to buy you away from Marscorp."
"No, Marscorp offered me more," said Jonner, soberly now....