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   Chapter 2 No.2

Space Tug By Murray Leinster Characters: 29482

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The pressure of three gravities continued. Joe's chest muscles ached with the exertion of breathing over so long a period. Six gravities for fourteen seconds had been a ghastly ordeal. Three gravities for minutes built up to something nearly as bad. Joe's heart began to feel fatigue, and a man's heart normally simply doesn't ever feel tired. It became more and more difficult to see clearly.

But he had work to do. Important work. The take-off rockets were solid-fuel jobs, like those which launched the Platform. They were wire-wound steel tubes lined with a very special refractory, with unstable beryllium and fluorine compounds in them. The solid fuel burned at so many inches per second. The refractory crumbled away and was hurled astern at a corresponding rate-save for one small point. The refractory was not all exactly alike. Some parts of it crumbled away faster, leaving a pattern of baffles which acted like a maxim silencer on a rifle, or like an automobile muffler. The baffles set up eddies in the gas stream and produced exactly the effect of a rocket motor's throat. But the baffles themselves crumbled and were flung astern, so that the solid-fuel rockets had always the efficiency of gas-throated rocket motors; and yet every bit of refractory was reaction-mass to be hurled astern, and even the steel tubes melted and were hurled away with a gain in acceleration to the ship. Every fraction of every ounce of rocket mass was used for drive. No tanks or pumps or burners rode deadhead after they ceased to be useful.

But solid-fuel rockets simply can't be made to burn with absolute evenness as a team. Minute differences in burning-rates do tend to cancel out. But now and again they reinforce each other and if uncorrected will throw a ship off course. Gyros can't handle such effects. So Joe had to watch his instruments and listen to the tinny voice behind him and steer the ship against accidental wobblings as the Earth fell away behind him.

He battled against the fatigue of continuing to live, and struggled with gyros and steering jets to keep the ship on its hair-line course. He panted heavily. The beating of his heart became such a heavy pounding that it seemed that his whole body shook with it. He had to do infinitely fine precision steering with hands that weighed pounds and arms that weighed scores of pounds and a body that had an effective weight of almost a quarter of a ton.

And this went on and went on and on for what seemed several centuries.

Then the voice in the speaker said thickly: "Everything is in the clear. In ten seconds you can release your rockets. Shall I count?"

Joe panted, "Count!"

The mechanical voice said, "Seven ... six ... five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... cut!"

Joe pressed the release. The small, unburnt stubs of the take-off rockets went hurtling off toward emptiness. They consumed themselves as they went, and they attained an acceleration of fifty gravities once they were relieved of all load but their own substance. They had to be released lest one burn longer than another. It was also the only way to stop acceleration by solid-fuel rockets. They couldn't be extinguished. They had to be released.

From intolerably burdensome heaviness, there was abruptly no weight at all in the ship. Joe's laboring heart beat twice with the violence the weight had called for, though weight had ended. It seemed to him that his skull would crack open during those two heart-beats. Then he lay limply, resting.

There was a completely incredible stillness, for a time. The four of them panted. Haney was better off than Joe, but the Chief was harder hit. Mike's small body had taken the strain best of all, and he would use the fact later in shrill argument that midgets were designed by nature to be the explorers of space for their bulkier and less spaceworthy kindred.

The ending of the steady, punishing drag was infinitely good, but the new sensation was hardly pleasant. They had no weight. It felt as if they and the ship about them were falling together down an abyss which must have a bottom. Actually, they were falling up. But they felt a physical, crawling apprehension-a cringing from an imaginary imminent impact.

They had expected the sensation, but it was not the better for being understood. Joe flexed and unflexed his fingers slowly. He stirred and swallowed hastily. But the feeling persisted. He unstrapped himself from his seat. He stood up-and floated to the ceiling of the cabin. But there was of course no ceiling. Every way was up and every way was down. His stomach cramped itself in a hard knot, in the instinctive tensity of somebody in free fall.

He fended himself from the ceiling and caught at a hand-line placed there for just this necessity to grip something. In his absorption, he did not notice which way his heels went. He suddenly noticed that his companions, with regard to him, were upside down and staring at him with wooden, dazed expressions on their faces.

He tried to laugh, and gulped instead. He pulled over to the quartz-glass ports. He did not put his hand into the sunlight, but shifted the glare shutters over those ports which admitted direct sunshine. Some ports remained clear. Through one of them he saw the Earth seemingly at arm's length somewhere off. Not up, not down. Simply out from where he was. It filled all the space that the porthole showed. It was a gigantic mass of white, fleecy specks and spots which would be clouds, and between the whiteness there was a muddy dark greenish color which would be the ocean. Yet it seemed to slide very, very slowly past the window.

He saw a tanness between the clouds, and it moved inward from the edge of his field of view. He suddenly realized what it was.

"We've just about crossed the Atlantic," he said in a peculiar astonishment. But it was true the ship had not been aloft nearly as much as half an hour. "Africa's just coming into sight below. We ought to be about 1,200 miles high and still rising fast. That was the calculation."

He looked again, and then drew himself across to the opposite porthole. He saw the blackness of space, which was not blackness because it was a carpet of jewels. They were infinite in number and variations in brightness, and somehow of vastly more colorings than one noticed from Earth.

He heard the Chief grunt, and Haney gulp. He was suddenly conscious that his legs were floating rather ridiculously in mid-air with no particular relationship to anything. He saw the Chief rise very cautiously, holding on to the arms of his seat.

"Better not look at the sun," said Joe, "even though I've put on the glare-shields."

The Chief nodded. The glare-shields would keep out most of the heat and a very great deal of the ultraviolet the sun gave off. But even so, to look at the sun directly might easily result in a retinal sunburn which could result in blindness.

The loudspeaker behind Joe's chair clattered. It had seemed muted by the weight of its diaphragm at three gravities. Now it blasted unintelligibly, with no weight at all. Mike threw a switch and took the message.

"Communications says radar says we're right on course, Joe," he reported nonchalantly, "and our speed's okay. We'll reach maximum altitude in an hour and thirty-six minutes. We ought to be within calculated distance of the Platform then."

"Good," said Joe abstractedly.

He strained his eyes at the Earth. They were moving at an extraordinary speed and height. It had been reached by just four human beings before them. The tannishness which was the coast of Africa crept with astonishing slowness toward the center of what he could see.

Joe headed back to his seat. He could not walk, of course. He floated. He launched himself with a fine air of confidence. He misjudged. He was floating past his chair when he reached down-and that turned his body-and fumbled wildly. He caught hold of the back as he went by, then held on and found himself turning a grandly dignified somersault. He wound up in a remarkably foolish position with the back of his neck on the back of the chair, his arms in a highly strained position to hold him there, and his feet touching the deck of the cabin a good five feet away.

Haney looked greenish, but he said hoarsely:

"Joe, don't make me laugh-not when my stomach feels like this!"

The feeling of weightlessness was unexpectedly daunting. Joe turned himself about very slowly, with his legs floating indecorously in entirely unintended kicks. He was breathing hard when he pulled himself into the chair and strapped in once more.

"I'll take Communications," he told Mike as he settled his headphones.

Reluctantly, Mike switched over.

"Kenmore reporting to Communications," he said briefly. "We have ended our take-off acceleration. You have our course and velocity. Our instruments read-"

He went over the bank of instruments before him, giving the indication of each. In a sense, this first trip of a ship out to the Platform had some of the aspects of defusing a bomb. Calculations were useful, but observations were necessary. He had to report every detail of the condition of his ship and every instrument-reading because anything might go wrong, and at any instant. Anything that went wrong could be fatal. So every bit of data and every intended action needed to be on record. Then, if something happened, the next ship to attempt this journey might avoid the same catastrophe.

Time passed. A lot of time. The feeling of unending fall continued. They knew what it was, but they had to keep thinking of its cause to endure it. Joe found that if his mind concentrated fully on something else, it jerked back to panic and the feel of falling. But the crew of the Space Platform-now out in space for more weeks than Joe had been quarter-hours-reported that one got partly used to it, in time. When awake, at least. Asleep was another matter.

They were 1,600 miles high and still going out and up. The Earth as seen through the ports was still an utterly monstrous, bulging mass, specked with clouds above vast mottlings which were its seas and land. They might have looked for cities, but they would be mere patches in a telescope. Their task now was to wait until their orbit curved into accordance with that of the Platform and they kept their rendezvous. The artificial satellite was swinging up behind them, and was only a quarter-circle about Earth behind them. Their speed in miles per second was, at the moment, greater than that of the Platform. But they were climbing. They slowed as they climbed. When their path intersected that of the Platform, the two velocities should be exactly equal.

Major Holt's voice came on the Communicator.

"Joe," he said harshly, "I have very bad news. A message came from Central Intelligence within minutes of your take-off. I-ah-with Sally I had been following your progress. I did not decode the message until now. But Central Intelligence has definite information that more than ten days ago the-ah-enemies of our Space Exploration Project-" even on a tight beam to the small spaceship, Major Holt did not name the nation everybody knew was most desperately resolved to smash space exploration by anybody but itself-"completed at least one rocket capable of reaching the Platform's orbit with a pay-load that could be an atomic bomb. It is believed that more than one rocket was completed. All were shipped to an unknown launching station."

"Not so good," said Joe.

Mike had left his post when Joe took over. Now he made a swooping dart through the air of the cabin. The midget showed no signs of the fumbling uncertainty the others had displayed-but he'd been a member of a midget acrobatic team before he went to work at the Shed. He brought himself to a stop precisely at a hand-hold, grinning triumphantly at the nearly helpless Chief and Haney.

Major Holt said in the headphones: "It's worse than that. Radar may have told the country in question that you are on the way up. In that case, if it's even faintly possible to blast the Platform before your arrival with weapons for its defense, they'll blast."

"I don't like that idea," said Joe dourly. "Anything we can do?"

Major Holt laughed bitterly. "Hardly!" he said. "And do you realize that if you can't unload your cargo you can't get back to Earth?"

"Yes," said Joe. "Naturally!"

It was true. The purpose of the pushpots and the jatos and the ship's own take-off rockets had been to give it a speed at which it would inevitably rise to a height of 4,000 miles-the orbit of the Space Platform-and stay there. It would need no power to remain 4,000 miles out from Earth. But it would take power to come down. The take-off rockets had been built to drive the ship with all its contents until it attained that needed orbital velocity. There were landing rockets fastened to the hull now to slow it so that it could land. But just as the take-off rockets had been designed to lift a loaded ship, the landing-rockets had been designed to land an empty one.

The more weight the ship carried, the more power it needed to get out to the Platform. And the more power it needed to come down again.

If Joe and his companions couldn't get rid of their cargo-and they could only unload in the ship-lock of the Platform-they'd stay out in emptiness.

The Major said bitterly: "This is all most irregular, but-here's Sally."

Then Sally's voice sounded in the headphones Joe wore. He was relieved that Mike wasn't acting as communications officer at the moment to overhear. But Mike was zestfully spinning like a pin-wheel in the middle of the air of the control cabin. He was showing the others that even in the intramural pastimes a spaceship crew will indulge in, a midget was better than a full-sized man. Joe said:

"Yes, Sally?"

She said unsteadily. "I'm not going to waste your time talking to you, Joe. I think you've got to figure out something. I haven't the faintest idea what it is, but I think you can do it. Try, will you?"

"I'm afraid we're going to have to trust to luck," admitted Joe ruefully. "We weren't equipped for anything like this."

"No!" said Sally fiercely. "If I were with you, you wouldn't think of trusting to luck!"

"I wouldn't want to," admitted Joe. "I'd feel responsible. But just the same-"

"You're responsible now!" said Sally, as fiercely as before. "If the Platform's smashed, the rockets that can reach it will be duplicated to smash our cities in war! But if you can reach the Platform and arm it for defense, there won't be any war! Half the world would be praying for you, Joe, if it knew! I can't do anything else, so I'm goi

ng to start on that right now. But you try, Joe! You hear me?"

"I'll try," said Joe humbly. "Thanks, Sally."

He heard a sound like a sob, and the headphones were silent. Joe himself swallowed very carefully. It can be alarming to be the object of an intended murder, but it can also be very thrilling. One can play up splendidly to a dramatic picture of doom. It is possible to be one's own audience and admire one's own fine disregard of danger. But when other lives depend on one, one has the irritating obligation not to strike poses but to do something practical.

Joe said somberly: "Mike, how long before we ought to contact the Platform?"

Mike reached out a small hand, caught a hand-hold, and flicked his eyes to the master chronometer.

"Forty minutes, fifty seconds. Why?"

Joe said wrily, "There are some rockets in enemy hands which can reach the Platform. They were shipped to launchers ten days ago. You figure what comes next."

Mike's wizened face became tense and angry. Haney growled, "They smash the Platform before we get to it."

"Uh-uh!" said Mike instantly. "They smash the Platform when we get to it! They smash us both up together. Where'll we be at contact-time, Joe?"

"Over the Indian Ocean, south of the Bay of Bengal, to be exact," said Joe. "But we'll be moving fast. The worst of it is that it's going to take time to get in the airlock and unload our guided missiles and get them in the Platform's launching-tubes. I'd guess an hour. One bomb should get both of us above the Bay of Bengal, but we won't be set to launch a guided missile in defense until we're nearly over America again."

The Chief said sourly, "Yeah. Sitting ducks all the way across the Pacific!"

"We'll check with the Platform," said Joe. "See if you can get them direct, Mike, will you?"

Then something occurred to him. Mike scrambled back to his communication board. He began feverishly to work the computer which in turn would swing the tight-beam transmitter to the target the computer worked out, He threw a switch and said sharply, "Calling Space Platform! Pelican One calling Space Platform! Come in, Space Platform!..." He paused. "Calling Space Platform...."

Joe had a slide-rule going on another problem. He looked up, his expression peculiar.

"A solid-fuel rocket can start off at ten gravities acceleration," he said quietly, "and as its rockets burn away it can go up a lot higher than that. But 4,000 miles is a long way to go straight up. If it isn't launched yet-"

Mike snapped into a microphone: "Right!" To Joe he said, "Space Platform on the wire."

Joe heard an acknowledgment in his headphones. "I've just had word from the Shed," he explained carefully, "that there may be some guided missiles coming up from Earth to smash us as we meet. You're still higher than we are, and they ought to be starting. Can you pick up anything with your radar?"

The voice from the Platform said: "We have picked something up. There are four rockets headed out from near the sunset-line in the Pacific. Assuming solid-fuel rockets like we used and you used, they are on a collision course."

"Are you doing anything about them?" asked Joe absurdly.

The voice said caustically: "Unfortunately, we've nothing to do anything with." It paused. "You, of course, can use the landing-rockets you still possess. If you fire them immediately, you will pass our scheduled meeting-place some hundreds of miles ahead of us. You will go on out to space. You may set up an orbit forty-five hundred or even five thousand miles out, and wait there for rescue."

Joe said briefly: "We've air for only four days. That's no good. It'll be a month before the next ship can be finished and take off. There are four rockets coming up, you say?"

"Yes." The voice changed. It spoke away from the microphone. "What's that?" Then it returned to Joe. "The four rockets were sent up at the same instant from four separate launching sites. Probably as many submarines at the corners of a hundred-mile square, so an accident to one wouldn't set off the others. They'll undoubtedly converge as they get nearer to us."

"I think," said Joe, "that we need some luck."

"I think," said the caustic voice, "that we've run out of it."

There was a click. Joe swallowed again. The three members of his crew were looking at him.

"Somebody's fired rockets out from Earth," said Joe carefully. "They'll curve together where we meet the Platform, and get there just when we do."

The Chief rumbled. Haney clamped his jaws together. Mike's expression became one of blazing hatred.

Joe's mind went rather absurdly to the major's curious, almost despairing talk in his quarters that morning, when he'd spoken of a conspiracy to destroy all the hopes of men. The firing of rockets at the Platform was, of course, the work of men acting deliberately. But they were-unconsciously-trying to destroy their own best hopes. For freedom, certainly, whether or not they could imagine being free. But the Platform and the space exploration project in general meant benefits past computing for everybody, in time. To send ships into space for necessary but dangerous experiments with atomic energy was a purpose every man should want to help forward. To bring peace on Earth was surely an objective no man could willingly or sanely combat. And the ultimate goal of space travel was millions of other planets, circling other suns, thrown open to colonization by humanity. That prospect should surely fire every human being with enthusiasm. But something-and the more one thought about it the more specific and deliberate it seemed to be-made it necessary to fight desperately against men in order to benefit them.

Joe swallowed again. It would have been comforting to be dramatic in this war against stupidity and malice and blindness. Especially since this particular battle seemed to be lost. One could send back an eloquent, defiant message to Earth saying that the four of them did not regret their journey into space, though they were doomed to be killed by the enemies of their country. It could have been a very pretty gesture. But Joe happened to have a job to do. Pretty gestures were not a part of it. He had no idea how to do it. So he said rather sickishly:

"The Platform told me we could fire our landing-rockets as additional take-off rockets and get out of the way. Of course we've got missiles of our own on board, but we can't launch or control them. Absolutely the only thing we can choose to do or not do is fire those rockets. I'm open to suggestions if anybody can think of a way to make them useful."

There was silence. Joe's reasoning was good enough. When one can't do what he wants, one tries to make what he can do produce the results he wants. But it didn't look too promising here. They could fire the rockets now, or later, or-

An idea came out of the blue. It wasn't a good idea, but it was the only one possible under the circumstances. There was just one distinctly remote possibility. He told the others what it was. Mike's eyes flamed. The Chief nodded profoundly. Haney said with some skepticism, "It's all we've got. We've got to use it."

"I need some calculations. Spread. Best time of firing. That sort of thing. But I'm worried about calling back in the clear. A beam to the Platform will bounce and might be picked up by the enemy."

The Chief grinned suddenly. "I've got a trick for that, Joe. There's a tribesman of mine in the Shed. Get Charley Red Fox to the phone, guy, and we'll talk privately!"

The small spaceship floated on upward. It pointed steadfastly in the direction of its motion. The glaring sunshine which at its take-off had shone squarely in its bow-ports, now poured down slantingly from behind. The steel plates of the ship gleamed brightly. Below it lay the sunlit Earth. Above and about it on every hand were a multitude of stars. Even the moon was visible as the thinnest of crescents against the night of space.

The ship climbed steeply. It was meeting the Platform after only half a circuit of Earth, while the Platform had climbed upward for three full revolutions. Earth was now 3,000 miles below and appeared as the most gigantic of possible solid objects. It curved away and away to mistiness at its horizons, and it moved visibly as the spaceship floated on.

Invisible microwaves flung arrowlike through emptiness. They traveled for thousands of miles, spreading as they traveled, and then struck the strange shape of the Platform. They splashed from it. Some of them rebounded to Earth, where spies and agents of foreign powers tried desperately to make sense of the incredible syllables. They failed.

There was a relay system in operation now, from spaceship to Platform to Earth and back again. In the ship Chief Bender, Mohawk and steelman extraordinary, talked to the Shed and to one Charley Red Fox. They talked in Mohawk, which is an Algonquin Indian language, agglutinative, complicated, and not to be learned in ten easy lessons. It was not a language which eavesdroppers were likely to know as a matter of course. But it was a language by which computations could be asked for, so that a very forlorn hope might be attempted with the best possible chances of success.

Naturally, none of this appeared in the look of things. The small ship floated on and on. It reached an altitude of 3,500 miles. The Earth was visibly farther away. Behind the ship the Atlantic with its stately cloud-formations was sunlit to the very edge of its being. Ahead, the edge of night appeared beyond India. And above, the Platform appeared as a speck of molten light, quarter-illuminated by the sun above it.

Spaceship and Platform moved on toward a meeting place. The ship moved a trifle faster, because it was climbing. The speeds would match exactly when they met. The small torpedo-shaped shining ship and the bulging glowing metal satellite floated with a seeming vast deliberation in emptiness, while the most gigantic of possible round objects filled all the firmament beneath them. They were 200 miles apart. It seemed that the huge Platform overtook the shining ship. It did. They were only 50 miles apart and still closing in.

By that time the twilight band of Earth's surface was nearly at the center of the planet, and night filled more than a quarter of its disk.

By that time, too, even to the naked eye through the ports of the supply-ship the enemy rockets had become visible. They were a thin skein of threads of white vapor which seemed to unravel in nothingness. The vapor curled and expanded preposterously. It could just be seen to be jetting into existence from four separate points, two a little ahead of the others. They came out from Earth at a rate which seemed remarkably deliberate until one saw with what fury the rocket-fumes spat out to form the whitish threads. Then one could guess at a three-or even four-stage launching series, so that what appeared to be mere pinpoints would really be rockets carrying half-ton atomic warheads with an attained velocity of 10,000 miles per hour and more straight up.

The threads unraveled in a straight line aimed at the two metal things floating in emptiness. One was small and streamlined, with inadequate landing-rockets clamped to its body and with stubby fins that had no possible utility out of air. The other was large and clumsy to look at, but very, very stately indeed in its progress through the heavens. They floated smoothly toward a rendezvous. The rockets from Earth came ravening to destroy them at the instant of their intersection.

The little spaceship turned slowly. Its rounded bow had pointed longingly at the stars. Now it tilted downward. Its direction of movement did not change, of course. In the absence of air, it could tumble indefinitely without any ill effect. It was in a trajectory instead of on a course, though presently the trajectory would become an orbit. But it pointed nose-down toward the Earth even as it continued to hurtle onward.

The great steel hull and the small spaceship were 20 miles apart. An infinitesimal radar-bowl moved on the little ship. Tight-beam waves flickered invisibly between the two craft. The rockets raged toward them.

The ship and the Platform were 10 miles apart. The rockets were now glinting missiles leaping ahead of the fumes that propelled them.

The ship and the Platform were two miles apart. The rockets rushed upward.... There were minute corrections in their courses. They converged....

Flames leaped from the tiny ship. Its landing-rockets spouted white-hot flame and fumes more thick and coiling than even the smoke of the bombs. The little ship surged momentarily toward the racing monsters. And then--

The rockets which were supposed to let the ship down to Earth flew free-flung themselves unburdened at the rockets which came with deadly intent to the meeting of the two Earth spacecraft.

The landing-rockets plunged down at forty gravities or better. They were a dwindling group of infinitely bright sparks which seemed to group themselves more closely as they dwindled. They charged upon the attacking robot things. They were unguided, of necessity, but the robot bombs had to be equipped with proximity fuses. No remote control could be so accurate as to determine the best moment for detonation at 4,000 miles' distance. So the war rockets had to be devised to explode when near anything which reflected their probing radar waves. They had to be designed to be triggered by anything in space.

And the loosed landing-rockets plunged among them.

They did not detonate all at once. That was mathematically impossible. But no human eye could detect the delay. Four close-packed flares of pure atomic fire sprang into being between the Platform and Earth. Each was brighter than the sun. For the fraction of an instant there was no night where night had fallen on the Earth. For thousands of miles the Earth glowed brightly.

Then there was a twisting, coiling tumult of incandescent gases, which were snatched away by nothingness and ceased to be.

Then there were just two things remaining in the void. One was the great, clumsy, shining Platform, gigantic in size to anything close by. The other was the small spaceship which had climbed to it and fought for it and defended it against the bombs from Earth.

The little ship now had a slight motion away from the Platform, due to the instant's tugging by its rockets before they were released.

It turned about in emptiness. Its steering-rockets spouted smoke. It began to cancel out its velocity away from the Platform, and to swim slowly and very carefully toward it.

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