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   Chapter 5 No.5

Space Tug By Murray Leinster Characters: 13011

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The four of them watched through the ports as the thread of vapor sped upward. They hated the rocket and the people who had built it. Joe said between his teeth, "We could spend our landing-rockets and make it chase us, but it'll have fuel for that!"

The Chief muttered in Mohawk. The words sounded as if they ought to have blue fire at their edges and smell of sulphur. Mike the midget said crackling things in his small voice. Haney stared, his eyes burning.

Their ship was a little over 400 miles up, now. The rocket was 100 or better. The rendezvous would be probably 200 miles ahead and correspondingly higher. The rocket was accelerating furiously. It had farther to travel, but its rate of climb was already enormous and it increased every second.

The ship could swing to right or left on steering rockets, but the war rocket could swerve also. It was controlled from the ground. It did not need to crash the small ship from space. Within a limited number of miles the blast of its atomic warhead would vaporize any substance that could exist. And of course the ship could not turn back. Even the expenditure of all its landing-rockets could not bring twenty tons of ship to a halt. They could speed it up, so it would pass the calculated meeting place ahead of the war rocket. But the bomb would simply follow in a stern chase. In any case, the ship could not stop.

But neither could the rocket.

Joe never knew how he saw the significance of that fact. On land or sea, of course, an automobile or a ship moves in the direction in which it is pointed. Even an airplane needs to make only minor corrections for air currents which affect it. But an object in space moves on a course which is the sum of all its previous speeds and courses. Joe's ship was moving eastward above the Earth at so many miles per second. If he drove north-at a right angle to his present course-the ship would not cease to move to the east. It would simply move northward in addition to moving east. If the rocket from Earth turned north or east it would continue to move up and merely add the other motion to its vertical rise.

Joe stared at the uncoiling thread of vapor which was the murder rocket's trail. He hated it so fiercely that he wanted to escape it even at the cost of destruction, merely to foil its makers. At one moment, he was hardly aware of anything but his own fury and the frantic desire to frustrate the rocket at any cost. The next instant, somehow, he was not angry at all. Because somehow his brain had dredged up the fact that the war rocket could no more turn back than he could-and he saw its meaning.

"Mike!" he snapped sharply. "Get set! Report what we do! Everybody set for acceleration! Steering rockets ready, Chief! Get set to help, Haney! I don't know whether we'll get out of this alive, but we'd better get into our space suits."

Then he literally dived back to his acceleration chair and strapped in in feverish haste. The ship was then a quarter of the way to the meeting place and the rocket had very much farther to go. But it was rising faster.

The ship's gyros whined and squealed as Joe jammed on their controls. The little ship spun in emptiness. Its bow turned and pointed down. The steering rockets made their roarings.

Joe found himself panting. "The-rocket's rising faster-than we are. It's been gaining-altitude maybe-two minutes. It's lighter than when-it started but-it can't stop-less than a minute, anyhow so we duck under it--"

He did not make computations. There was no time. The war rocket might have started at four or five gravities acceleration, but it would speed up as its fuel burned. It might be accelerating at fifteen gravities now, and have an attained velocity of four miles a second and still increasing. If the little ship ducked under it, it could not kill that rate-of-climb in time to follow in a stern chase.

"Haney!" panted Joe. "Watch out the port! Are we going to make it?"

Haney crawled forward. Joe had forgotten the radar because he'd seen the rocket with his own eyes. It seemed to need eyes to watch it. Mike spoke curtly into the microphone broadcasting to ground. He was reporting each action and order as it took place and was given. There was no time to explain anything. But Mike thought of the radar. He watched it.

It showed the vast curve of Earth's surface, 400 miles down. It showed a moving pip, much too much nearer, which was the war rocket. Mike made a dot on the screen with a grease pencil where the pip showed. It moved. He made another dot. The pip continued to move. He made other dots.

They formed a curving line-curved because the rocket was accelerating-which moved inexorably toward the center of the radar screen. The curve would cut the screen's exact center. That meant collision.

"Too close, Joe!" said Mike shrilly. "We may miss it, but not enough!"

"Then hold fast," yelled Joe. "Landing rockets firing, three-two-one!"

The bellowing of the landing-rockets smote their ears. Weight seized upon them, three gravities of acceleration toward the rushing flood of clouds and solidity which was the Earth. The ship plunged downward with all its power. It was intolerable-and ten times worse because they had been weightless so long and were still shaken and sore and bruised from the air-graze only minutes back.

Mike took acceleration better than the others, but his voice was thin when he gasped, "Looks-like this does it, Joe!" Seconds later he gasped again, "Right! The rocket's above us and still going away!"

The gyros squealed again. The ship plunged into vapor which was the trail of the enemy rocket. For an instant the flowing confusion which was Earth was blotted out. Then it was visible again. The ship was plunging downward, but its sidewise speed was undiminished and much greater than its rate of fall.

"Mike," panted Joe. "Get the news out. What we did-and why. I'm-going to turn the ship's head back on our-course. We can't slow enough but-I'd rather crash on Earth than let them blast us--"

The ship turned again. It pointed back in the direction from which it had come. With the brutal sternward pressure produced by the landing-rockets, it felt as if it were speeding madly back where it had come from. It was the sensation they'd felt when the ship took off from Earth, so long before. But then the cloud masses and the earth beneath had flowed toward the ship and under it. Now they flowed away. The appearance was that of an un

thinkably swift wake left behind by a ship at sea. The Earth's surface fled away and fled away from them.

"Crazy, this!" Joe muttered thickly. "If the ship were lighter-or we had more power-we could land! I'm sorry, but I'd rather--"

Haney turned his head from where he clung near the bow-ports. His features changed slowly as he talked because of acceleration-driven blood engorging his lips and bloating his cheeks. After one instant he closed his eyes fiercely. They felt as if they would pop out of his head. He gasped, "Yes! Get down to air-resistance. A chance-not good but a chance-ejection seats-with space suits-might make it...."

He began to let himself back toward his acceleration chair. He could not possibly have climbed forward. It was a horrible task to let himself down, with triple his normal weight pulling at him and after the beating taken a little while ago.

Sweat stood out on his skin as he lowered himself sternward. Once his grip on a hand-line slipped and he had to sustain the drag of nearly six hundred pounds by a single hand and arm. It would not be a good idea to fall at three gravities.

The landing rockets roared and roared, and Joe tilted the bow down a little farther, so that the streaming flood of clouds drew nearer.

Haney got to his acceleration chair. He let himself into it and his eyes closed.

Mike's sharp voice barked: "What's the chance, Haney?"

Haney's mouth opened, and closed, and opened again. "Rocket flames," he gasped, "pushed back-wind-splash on hull-may melt-lighten weight-hundred to one against--"

The odds were worse than that. The ship couldn't land because its momentum was too great for the landing rockets to cancel out. If it had weighed five tons instead of twenty, landing might have been possible. Haney was saying that if the ship were to be lowered into air while rushing irresistibly sternward despite its rockets, that the rocket flames might be splashed out by the wind. Instead of streaking astern in a lance-like shape, they might be pushed out like a rocket blast when it hits the earth in a guided missile take-off. Such a blast spreads out flat in all directions. Here the rocket flames might be spread by wind until they played upon the hull of the ship. If they did, they might melt it as they melted their own steel cases in firing. And three-fourths or more of the hull might be torn loose from the cabin bow section. So much was unlikely, but it was possible.

The impossible odds were that the four could survive even if the cabin were detached. They were decelerating at three gravities now. If part of the ship burned or melted or was torn away, the rocket thrust might speed the cabin up to almost any figure. And there is a limit to the number of gravities a man can take, even in an acceleration chair.

Nevertheless, that was what Haney proposed. They were due to be killed anyhow. Joe tried it.

He dived into atmosphere. At 60 miles altitude a thin wailing seemed to develop without reason. At 40 miles, the ship had lost more than two miles per second of its speed since the landing-rockets were ignited, and there was a shuddering in all its fabric-though because of the loss of speed it was not as bad as the atmosphere-graze. At 30 it began to shake and tremble. At 25 miles high there was as horrible a vibration and as deadly a deceleration as at the air-graze. At 12 miles above the surface of the Earth the hull temperature indicators showed the hind part of the hull at red heat. The ship happened to be traveling backward at several times the speed of sound, and air could not move away from before it. It was compressed to white heat at the entering surface, and the metal plating went to bright red heat at that point. But the hull just aft of the rocket mouths was hotter still. There the splashing rocket flames bathed it in intolerable incandescence. Hull plates, braces and beams glared white--

The tip of the tail caved in. The ship's empty cargo space was instantly filled with air at intolerable pressure and heat.

The hull exploded outward where the rocket flames played. There was a monstrous, incredible jerking of the cabin that remained. That fraction of the ship received the full force of the rocket thrust. They could decelerate it at a rate of fifteen gravities or more.

They did.

Joe lost consciousness as instantly and as peacefully as if he had been hit on the jaw.

An unknown but brief time later, he found himself listening with a peculiar astonishment. The rockets had burned out. They had lasted only seconds after the separation of the ship into two fragments. Radars on the ground are authority for this. Those few seconds were extremely important. The cabin lost an additional half-mile per second of velocity, which was enough to make the difference between the cabin heating up too, and the cabin being not quite destroyed.

The cabin remnant was heavy, of course, but it was an irregular object, some twenty feet across. It was below orbital velocity, and wind-resistance slowed it. Even so, it traveled 47 miles to the east in falling the last 10 miles to Earth. It hit a hillside and dug itself a 70-foot crater in the ground.

But there was nobody in it, then. A little over a month before, it had seemed to Joe that ejection seats were the most useless of all possible pieces of equipment to have in a space ship. He'd been as much mistaken as anybody could be. With an ejection seat, a jet pilot can be shot out of a plane traveling over Mach one, and live to tell about it. This crumpling cabin fell fast, but Joe stuffed Mike in an ejection seat and shot him out. He and the Chief dragged Haney to a seat, and then the Chief shoved Joe off-and the four of them, one by one, were flung out into a screaming stream of air. But the ribbon-parachutes did not burst. They nearly broke the necks of their passengers, but they let them down almost gently.

And it was quite preposterous, but all four landed intact. Mike, being lightest and first to be ejected, came down by himself in a fury because he'd been treated with special favor. The Chief and Joe landed almost together. After a long time, Joe staggered out of his space suit and harness and tried to help the Chief, and they held each other up as they stumbled off together in search of Haney.

When they found him he was sleeping heavily, exhausted, in a canebrake. He hadn't even bothered to disengage his parachute harness or take off his suit.

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