As he stood near the door to Secretary Drake's office, Marcus Griffin listened as Drake discussed the defection of Professor Newton with Rocky Jones, Winky DelPonte, and Vena Ray. He grew increasingly alarmed at what he heard.
A few seconds' work by Jones at the library console brought up a star map of the region of space between the Solar System and 70 Ophiuchi. Joining him, Drake said, "After the scientific conference ended," (he tactfully avoided saying "after Newton's defection"), "they asked us to close our embassy. You won't be welcome, either."
"Yes, I understand, sir," Jones replied. "But it could happen that we were lost in space and forced to land, couldn't it?" Griffin was amused to see that Jones didn't so much as crack a smile as he calmly proposed his subterfuge. "I'm sure they're not prepared to invite open warfare by imprisoning a couple of Space Rangers."
"They will be soon," DelPonte pointed out, "with Professor Newton on their side, huh, Rocky?"
"It's a gamble," Drake declared.
"But worth the chance, sir," Jones insisted.
Griffin didn't wait to hear any more. Silently, he left Drake's office, closing the door behind him, then made his way across the outer office and activated the astrophone on his desk. With the ease of long practice, he shifted from the standard frequencies used by the Department of Space Affairs to one that was known only to himself. His desktop calculator hummed as it worked out a set of coordinates in extrasolar space, which he fed into the astrophone's directional antenna.
"Griff to W-O-X. Griff to W-O-X. Come in."
Six light years from the Sun, there was a red dwarf star known as Barnard's Star. There were no planets or moons worthy of the name orbiting Barnard's; instead, a few clouds of dust and a handful of comets made up the Barnard's system. Nevertheless, Barnard's was located in a strategic position: it was the place where the region of space claimed by the UWSS came closest to the region claimed by the Ophiuchians. Beyond Barnard's were the stars that made up the Ophiuchius Group: 61 Cygni, Ross 154, Wolf 1061, Altair, 36 Ophiuchi, and 70 Ophiuchi itself. It was the region beyond Barnard's Star that the people of Earth meant when they talked about the Curtain of Space.
Barnard's Star was host to Space Station RV-3, which served as Earth's eyes and ears beyond the Curtain of Space. Unknown to Earth's political and military leaders, Barnard's Star was also host to an Ophiuchian scout ship that Griffin knew only by the code designation W-O-X. W-O-X served as a necessary relay point between the Solar System and the Ophiuchius Group, since the two systems lay outside of astrophone range of each other.
There came an answer over the comm system, in Terran Standard but with an unmistakeable Ophiuchian accent. "W-O-X to Griff. Come in, Griff."
"Beam urgent message to Ophiuchius," Griffin said. "Drake now believes Professor Newton prisoner. Rocky Jones may attempt rescue flight."
"We'll get it through, Griff," said the Ophiuchian voice. "Any further orders, Griff?"
"Stand by," said Griffin. "If rescue flight is attempted by Rocky Jones, will inform you of blast-off time and refueling station. You are to destroy his Orbit Jet before it reaches your zone, and the blame placed on you. Out."
Replacing the microphone, Griffin reset the astrophone to standard frequencies, then hurried back to Secretary Drake's office, easing open the door a crack and listening. He could hear Drake remind the others, "This is the curtain that separates our league of planets from the Ophiuchius Group. From that point on, they're able to jam our messages. After you pass that point, you'll be without a communication link. You'll be on your own, Rocky. It'll be dangerous."
"I understand, sir," Jones replied. "We'll make it, though. Now, where will our refuel station be?"
"That's up to you," said Drake.
"May I suggest Space Station RV-5? That's stretching the first hop, and there'll be very little traffic there."
"Great," Drake agreed. "And in the interest of secrecy I'll declare the area out of bounds except to commercial craft. Now, for your crew."
"So that those on the other planet can't claim invasion," said Jones, "Winky and I should go it alone. We'll disable our ship, land, search for Professor Newton and Bobby, and try to bring them back with us."
Vena Ray spoke up. "Please, Mr. Secretary, can't I go?"
"Out of the question," Jones immediately declared.
"Why?" asked Ray. "Would that make it an invasion?"
"No," said Jones, "but it's not a picnic, either."
"That's fine with me," Ray responded. "I don't like picnics."
Frowning, Jones said, "What I mean is, a flight like this is no place for a girl."
"I am not a girl!" After a moment, Ray added, "Well, yes I am, but I'm not a girl in the way you mean I'm a girl. I can take care of myself, Rocky Jones. I can be a real help to you. Please, Mr. Secretary, I know these people. I speak their language, and I know their country. For your information, Mr. Rocky Jones, I'm also licensed as a navigator."
"Miss Ray would be extremely valuable as an interpreter," Drake pointed out. "We mustn't pass up any chance to make the mission a success."
Griffin found himself grinning. Earth's society had reacted to the matriarchal government of Ophiuchius by becoming rather suspicious of strong women, and Griffin knew that Jones had particularly strong objections to them. He could hear the lack of enthusiasm in Jones' voice as he said, "Planetary conditions will be ideal at 0230. If you'll state my crew, sir, I'll prepare for blast-off."
"Winky will go," said Drake, "and Vena Ray will be signed on as auxiliary Space Ranger."
"Very good, sir," said Jones, sounding even more unhappy. "Ranger Ray, prepare to stand inspection at 0200."
"Very good, sir," Ray said coolly, and Griffin didn't doubt that she had deliberately echoed Jones' response to Drake.