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   Chapter 10 No.10

Space Tug By Murray Leinster Characters: 24330

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


There was bright sunshine at the Shed, not a single cloud in all the sky. The radar bowls atop the roof-they seemed almost invisibly small compared with its vastness-wavered and shifted and quivered. Completely invisible beams of microwaves lanced upward. Atop the Shed, in the communication room, there was the busy quiet of absolute intentness. Signals came down and were translated into visible records which fed instantly into computers. Then the computers clicked and hummed and performed incomprehensible integrations, and out of their slot-mouths poured billowing ribbons of printed tape. Men read those tapes and talked crisply into microphones, and their words went swiftly aloft again.

Down by the open eastern door of the Shed at the desert's edge, Sally Holt and Joe's father waited together, watching the sky. Sally was white and scared. Joe's father patted her shoulder reassuringly.

"He'll make it, all right," said Sally, dry-throated.

Joe's father nodded. "Of course he will!" But his voice was not steady.

"Nothing could happen to him now!" said Sally fiercely.

"Of course not," said Joe's father.

A loudspeaker close to them said abruptly: "Nineteen miles."

There was a tiny, straggling thread of white visible in the now. It thinned out to nothingness, but its nearest part flared out and flared out and flared out. It grew larger, came closer with a terrifying speed.

"Twelve miles," said the speaker harshly. "Rockets firing."

The downward-hurtling trail of smoke was like a crippled plane falling flaming from the sky, except that no plane ever fell so fast.

At seven miles the white-hot glare of the rocket flames was visible even in broad daylight. At three miles the light was unbearably bright. At two, the light winked out. Sally saw something which glittered come plummeting toward the ground, unsupported.

It fell almost half a mile before rocket fumes flung furiously out again. Then it checked. Visibly, its descent was slowed. It dropped more slowly, and more slowly, and more slowly still....

It hung in mid-air a quarter-mile up. Then there was a fresh burst of rocket fumes, more monstrous than ever, and it went steadily downward, touched the ground, and stayed there spurting terrible incandescent flames for seconds. Then the bottom flame went out. An instant later there were no more flames at all.

Sally began to run toward the ship. She stopped. A procession of rumbling, clanking, earth-moving machinery moved out of the Shed and toward the upright space tug. Prosaically, a bulldozer lowered its wide blade some fifty yards from the ship. It pushed a huge mass of earth before it, covering over the scorched and impossibly hot sand about the rocket's landing place. Other bulldozers began to circle methodically around and around, overturning the earth and burying the hot surface stuff. Water trucks sprayed, and thin steam arose.

But also an exit-port opened and Joe stood in the opening.

Then Sally began to run again.

* * *

Joe sat at dinner in the major's quarters. Major Holt was there, and Joe's father, and Sally.

"It feels good," said Joe warmly, "to use a knife and fork again, and to pick food up from a plate where it stays until it's picked up!"

"The crew of the Platform--" Major Holt began.

"They're all right," said Joe, with his mouth full. "They're wearing gravity simulator harness. Brent's got his up to three-quarters gravity. They get tired, wearing the harness. They sleep better. Everything's fine! They can handle the space wagons we left and they've got guided missiles to spare! They're all right!"

Joe's father said unsteadily, "You'll stay on Earth a while now, son?"

Sally moved quickly. She looked up, tense. But Joe said, "They're going to get the Moonship up, sir. We came back-my gang and me-to help train the crew. We only have a week to do it in, but we've got some combat tactics to show them on the training gadget in the Shed." He added anxiously, "And, sir-they'll have to take the Moonship off in a spiral orbit. She can't go straight up! That means she's got to pass over enemy territory, and-we've got to have a real escort for her. A fighting escort. It's planned for the space tug to take off a few minutes after the Moonship and blast along underneath. We'll dump guided missiles out-like drones-and if anything comes along we can start their rockets and fight our way through. And we four have had more experience than anybody else. We're needed!"

"You've done enough, surely!" Sally cried.

"The United States," said Joe awkwardly, "is going to take over the Moon. I-can't miss having a hand in that! Not if it's at all possible!"

"I'm afraid you will miss it, Joe," Major Holt said detachedly. "The occupation of the Moon will be a Navy enterprise. Space Exploration Project facilities are being used to prepare for it, but the Navy won the latest battle of the Pentagon. The Navy takes over the Moon."

Joe looked startled. "But--"

"You're Space Exploration personnel," said the major with the same coolness. "You will be used to instruct naval personnel, and your space tug will be asked to go along to the Platform as an auxiliary vessel. For purposes of assisting in the landing of the Moonship at the Platform, you understand. You'll haul her away from the Platform when she's refueled and supplied, so she can start off for the Moon. But the occupation of the Moon will be strictly Navy."

Joe's expression became carefully unreadable. "I think," he said evenly, "I'd better not comment."

Major Holt nodded. "Very wise-not that we'd repeat anything you did say. But the point is, Joe, that just one day before the Moonship does take off, the United Nations will be informed that it is a United States naval vessel. The doctrine of the freedom of space-like the freedom of the seas-will be promulgated. And the United States will say that a United States naval task force is starting off into space on an official mission. To attack a Space Exploration ship is one thing. That's like a scientific expedition. But to fire on an American warship on official business is a declaration of war. Especially since that ship can shoot back-and will."

Joe listened. He said, "It's daring somebody to try another Pearl Harbor?"

"Exactly," said the major. "It's time for us to be firm-now that we can back it up. I don't think the Moonship will be fired on."

"But they'll need me and my gang just the same," said Joe slowly, "for tugboat work at the Platform?"

"Exactly," said the major.

"Then," Joe said doggedly, "they get us. My gang will gripe about being edged out of the trip. They won't like it. But they'd like backing out still less. We'll play it the way it's dealt-but we won't pretend to like it."

Major Holt's expression did not change at all, but Joe had an odd feeling that the major approved of him.

"Yes. That's right, Joe," his father added. "You-you'll have to go aloft once more, son. After that, we'll talk it over."

Sally hadn't said a word during the discussion, but she'd watched Joe every second. Later, out on the porch of the major's quarters, she had a great deal to say. But that couldn't affect the facts.

The world at large, of course, received no inkling of the events in preparation. The Shed and the town of Bootstrap and all the desert for a hundred-mile circle round about, were absolutely barred to all visitors. Anybody who came into that circle stayed in. Most people were kept out. All that anyone outside could discover was that enormous quantities of cryptic material had poured and still were pouring into the Shed. But this time security was genuinely tight. Educated guesses could be made, and they were made; but nobody outside the closed-in area save a very few top-ranking officials had any real knowledge. The world only knew that something drastic and remarkable was in prospect.

Mike, though, was able to write a letter to the girl who'd written him. Major Holt arranged it. Mike wrote his letter on paper supplied by Security, with ink supplied by Security, and while watched by Security officers. His letter was censored by Major Holt himself, and it did not reveal that Mike was back on Earth. But it did invite a reply-and Mike sweated as he waited for one.

The others had plenty to sweat about. Joe and Haney and the Chief were acting as instructors to the Moonship's crew. They taught practical space navigation. At first they thought they hadn't much to pass on, but they found out otherwise. They had to pass on data on everything from how to walk to how to drink coffee, how to eat, sleep, why one should wear gravity harness, and the manners and customs of ships in space. They had to show why in space fighting a ship might send missiles on before it, but would really expect to do damage with those it left behind. They had to warn of the dangers of unshielded sunshine, and the equal danger of standing in shadow for more than five minutes, and--

They had material for six months of instruction courses, but there was barely a week to pass it on. Joe was run ragged, but in spite of everything he managed to talk at some length with Sally. He found himself curiously anxious to discuss any number of things with his father, too, who suddenly appeared to be much more intelligent than Joe had ever noticed before.

He was almost unhappy when it was certain that the Moonship would take off for space on the following day. He talked about it with Sally the night before take-off.

"Look," he said awkwardly. "As far as I'm concerned this has turned out a pretty sickly business. But when we have got a base on the Moon, it'll be a good job done. There will be one thing that nobody can stop! Everybody's been living in terror of war. If we hold the Moon the cold war will be ended. You can't kick on my wanting to help end that!"

Sally smiled at him in the moonlight.

"And-meanwhile," said Joe clumsily, "well-when I come back we can do some serious talking about-well-careers and such things. Until then-no use. Right?"

Sally's smile wavered. "Very sensible," she agreed wrily. "And awfully silly, Joe. I know what kind of a career I want! What other fascinating topic do you know to talk about, Joe?"

"I don't know of any. Oh, yes! Mike got a letter from his girl. I don't know what she said, but he's walking on air."

"But it isn't funny!" said Sally indignantly. "Mike's a person! A fine person! If he'll let me, I'll write to his girl myself and-try to make friends with her so when you come back I-maybe I can be a sort of match-maker."

"That, I like!" Joe said warmly. "You're swell sometimes, Sally!"

Sally looked at him enigmatically in the moonlight.

"There are times when it seems to escape your attention," she observed.

* * *

The next morning she cried a little when he left her, to climb in the space tug which was so small a part of today's activity. Joe and his crew were the only living men who had ever made a round trip to the Platform and back. But now there was the Moonship to go farther than they'd been allowed. It was even clumsier in design than the Platform, though it was smaller. But it wasn't designed to stay in space. It was to rest on the powdery floor of a ring-mountain's central plain.

Let it get off into space, and somehow get to the Platform to reload. Then let it replace the rockets it would burn in this take-off and it could go on out to emptiness. It would make history as the first serious attempt by human beings to reach the Moon.

Joe and his followers would go along simply to handle guided missiles if it came to a fight, and to tow the Moonship to its wharf-the Platform-and out into midstream again when it resumed its journey. And that was all.

The Moonship lifted from the floor of the Shed to the sound of hundreds of pushpot engines.

Then the space tug roared skyward. Her take-off rockets here substituted for the pushpots. Her second-stage rockets were also of the nonpoisonous variety, because she fired them at a bare 60,000 feet. They were substitutes for the jatos the pushpots carried.

She was out in space when the third-stage rockets roared dully outside her hull.

When the Moonship crossed the west coast of Africa, the space tug was 400 miles below and 500 miles behind. When the Moonship crossed Arabia, the difference was 200 miles vertically and less than 100 in line.

Then the Moonship released small objects, steadied by gyroscopes and flung away by puffs of compressed air. The small objects spread out. Haney and Mike and the Chief had reloaded the firing racks from inside the ship, and now were intent upon control boards and radar. They pressed buttons. One by one, little puffs of smoke appeared in space. They had armed the little space missiles, setting off tiny flares which had no function except to prove that each missile was ready for use.

By the time the two space craft floated toward India, above an area from which war rockets had been known to rise, there were more little weapons floating with them. One screen of missiles hurtled on before the space tug, and another behind. Anything that came up from Earth would instantly be attacked by dozens of midget ships bent upon suicide.

Radar probed the space formation, but enemies of the fleet and the Platform very wisely did no more than probe. The Moonship and its attendants went across the Pacific, still rising. Above the longitude of Washington, the space tug left its former post and climbed, nudging the Moonship this way and that. And from behind, the Platform came floating splendidly.

Tiny figures in space suits extended the incredibly straight lines which were plastic hoses filled with air. Very, very gently indeed, the great, bulbous Platform and the squat, flat Moonship came together and touched. They moored in contact.

And then the inert small missiles that had floated below, all the way up, flared simultaneously. Their rockets emitted smoke. In fine alignment, they plunged forward through emptiness, swerved with a remarkable precision, and headed out for emptiness beyond the Platform's orbit. Their function had been to protect the Moonship on its way out. That function was performed. There were too many of them to recover, so they went out toward the stars.

When their rockets burned out they vanished. But a good hour later, when it was considered that they were as far out as they were likely to go, they began to blow up. Specks of flame, like the tiniest of new stars, flickered against the background of space.

But Joe and the others were in the Platform by then. They'd brought up mail for the crew. And they were back on duty.

The Platform seemed strange with the Moonship's crew aboard. It had been a gigantic artificial world with very few inhabitants. With twenty-five naval ratings about, plus the four of its regular crew, plus the space tug's complement, it seemed excessively crowded.

And it was busy. There were twenty-five new men to be guided as they applied what they'd been taught aground about life in space. It was three full Earthdays before the stores intended for the journey to the Moon and the maintenance of a base there really began to move. The tug and the space wagons had to be moored outside and reached only by space suits through small personnel airlocks.

And there was the matter of discipline. Lieutenant Commander Brown had been put in command of the Platform for experience in space. He was considered to be prepared for command of the Moonship by that experience. So now he turned over command of the Platform to Brent-he made a neat ceremony of it-and took over the ship that would go out to the Moon. He made another ceremony out of that.

In command of the Moonship, his manner to Joe was absolutely correct. He followed regulations to the letter-to a degree that left Joe blankly uncomprehending. But he wouldn't have gotten along in the Navy if he hadn't. He'd tried to do the same thing in the Platform, and it wasn't practical. But he ignored all differences between Joe and himself. He made no overtures of friendship, but that was natural. Unintentionally, Joe had defied him. He now deliberately overlooked all that, and Joe approved of him-within limits.

But Mike and Haney and the Chief did not. They laid for him. And they considered that they got him. When he took over the Moonship, Lieutenant Commander Brown naturally maintained naval discipline and required snappy, official naval salutes on all suitable occasions, even in the Platform. And Joe's gang privately tipped off the noncommissioned personnel of the Moonship. Thereafter, no enlisted man ever saluted Lieutenant Brown without first gently detaching his magnet-soled shoes from the floor. When a man was free, a really snappy salute gave a diverting result. The man's body tilted forward to meet his rising arm, the upward impetus was one-sided, and every man who saluted Brown immediately made a spectacular kowtow which left him rigidly at salute floating somewhere overhead with his back to Lieutenant Brown. With a little practice, it was possible to add a somersault to the other features. On one historic occasion, Brown walked clanking into a storeroom where a dozen men were preparing supplies for transfer to the Moonship. A voice cried, "Shun!" And instantly twelve men went floating splendidly about the storeroom, turning leisurely somersaults, all rigidly at salute, and all wearing regulation poker faces.

An order abolishing salutes in weightlessness followed shortly after.

It took four days to get the transfer of supplies properly started. It took eight to finish the job. Affixing fresh rockets to the outside of the Moonship's hull alone called for long hours in space suits. During this time Mike floated nearby in a space wagon. One of the Navy men was a trifle overcourageous. He affected to despise safety lines. Completing the hook-on of a landing rocket, he straightened up too abruptly and went floating off toward the Milky Way.

Mike brought him back. After that there was less trouble.

Even so, the Moonship and the Platform were linked together for thirteen full days, during which the Platform seemed extraordinarily crowded. On the fourteenth day the two ships sealed off and separated. Joe and his crew in the space tug hauled the Moonship a good five miles from the Platform.

The space tug returned to the Platform. A blinker signal came across the five-mile interval. It was a very crisp, formal, Navy-like message.

Then the newly-affixed rockets on the Moonship's hull spurted their fumes. The big ship began to move. Not outward from Earth, of course. That was where it was going. But it had the Platform's 12,000 miles per hour of orbital speed. If the bonds of gravitation could have been snapped at just the proper instant, that speed alone would have carried the Moonship all the way to its destination. But they couldn't. So the Moonship blasted to increase its orbital speed. It would swing out and out, and as the Earth's pull grew weaker with distance the same weight of rockets would move the same mass farther and farther toward the Moon. The Moonship's course would be a sort of slowly flattening curve, receding from Earth and becoming almost a straight line where Earth's and the Moon's gravitational fields cancelled each other.

From there, the Moonship would have only to brake its fall against a gravity one-sixth that of Earth, and reaching out a vastly shorter distance.

Joe and the others watched the roiling masses of rocket fumes as the ship seemed to grow infinitely small.

"We should've been in that ship," said Haney heavily when the naked eye could no longer pick it out. "We could've beat her to the Moon!"

Joe said nothing. He ached a little inside. But he reflected that the men who'd guided the Platform to its orbit had been overshadowed by himself and Haney and the Chief and Mike. A later achievement always makes an earlier one look small. Now the four of them would be forgotten. History would remember the commander of the Moonship.

Forgotten? Yes, perhaps. But the names of the four of them, Joe and Haney and the Chief and Mike, would still be remembered in a language Joe couldn't speak, in a small village he couldn't name, on those occasions when the Mohawk tribe met in formal council.

The Chief grumbled. Mike stared out the port with bitter envy.

"It was a dirty trick," growled the Chief. "We shoulda been part of the first gang ever to land on the Moon!"

Joe grimaced. His crew needed to be cured of feeling the same way he did.

"I wouldn't say this outside of our gang," said Joe carefully, "but if it hadn't been for us four that ship wouldn't be on the way at all. Haney figured the trick that got us back to Earth the first time, or else we'd have been killed. If we had been killed, Mike wouldn't have figured out the metal-concrete business. But for him, that Moonship wouldn't even be a gleam in anybody's eye. And if the Chief hadn't blown up that manned rocket we fought in the space wagons, there wouldn't be any Platform up here to reload and refuel the Moonship. So they left us behind! But just among the four of us I think we can figure that if it hadn't been for us they couldn't have made it!"

Haney grinned slowly at Joe. The Chief regarded him with irony. Mike said, "Yeah. Haney, and me, and the Chief. We did it all."

"Uh-huh," said the Chief sardonically. "Us three. Just us three. Joe didn't do anything. Just a bum, he is. We oughta tell Sally he's no good and she oughta pick herself out a guy that'll amount to something some day." He hit Joe between the shoulders. "Sure! Just a bum, Joe! That's all! But we got a weakness for you. We'll let you hang around with us just the same! Come on, guys! Let's get something to eat!"

The four of them marched down a steel-floored corridor, their magnetic-soled shoes clanking on the plates. Their progress was uncertain and ungainly and altogether undignified. Suddenly the Chief began to bawl a completely irrelevant song to the effect that the inhabitants of the kingdom of Siam were never known to wash their dishes. Haney chimed in, and Mike. They were all very close together, and they were not at all impressive. But it hit Joe very hard, this sudden knowledge that the others didn't really care. It was the first time it had occurred to him that Haney and Mike and the Chief would rather be left behind with him, as a gang, than go on to individual high achievement in a first landing on the Moon.

It felt good. It felt real good.

* * *

But that, and all other sources of satisfaction, was wiped out by news that came back from the Moonship a bare six hours later.

The Moonship was in trouble. The sequence and timing of its rocket blasts were worked out on Earth, and checked by visual and radar observation. The computations were done by electronic brains the Moonship could not possibly have carried. And everything worked out. The ship was on course and its firings were on schedule.

But then the unexpected happened. It was an error which no machine could ever have predicted, for which statistics and computations could never have compensated. It was a human error. At the signal for the final acceleration blast, the pilot of the Moonship had fired the wrong set of rockets.

Inexperience, stupidity, negligence, excitement-the reason didn't matter. After years of planning and working and dreaming, one human finger had made a mistake. And the mistake was fatal!

When the mistake was realized, they'd had sense enough to cut loose the still-firing rockets. But the damage had been done. The ship was still plunging on. It would reach the Moon. But it wouldn't land in Aristarchus crater as planned. It would crash. If every rocket remaining mounted on the hull were to be fired at the best possible instant, the Moonship would hit near Copernicus, and it would land with a terminal velocity of 800 feet per second-540 miles an hour.

It could even be calculated that when the Moonship landed, the explosion ought to be visible from Earth with a fairly good telescope. It was due to take place in thirty-two hours plus or minus a few minutes.

* * *

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