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   Chapter 11 No.11

Space Tug By Murray Leinster Characters: 22475

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The others got the space tug into the platform's lock and did things to it, in the way of loading, that its designers never intended, while Joe was calling Earth for calculations. The result was infuriating. The Moonship had taken off for the Moon on the other side of the Platform's orbit, when it had a velocity of more than 12,000 miles an hour in the direction it wished to go. The Platform and of course the space tug was now on the reverse side of the Platform's orbit. And of course they now had a velocity of more than 12,000 miles per hour away from the direction in which it was urgently necessary for the space tug to go. They could wait for two hours to take off, said Earth, or waste the time and fuel they'd need to throw away to duplicate the effect of waiting.

"But we can't wait!" raged Joe. Then he snapped. "Look here! Suppose we take off from here, dive at Earth, make a near-graze, and let its gravity curve our course! Like a cometary path! Figure that! That's what we've got to do!"

He kicked off his magnetic-soled shoes and went diving down to the airlock. Over his shoulder he panted an order for the radar-duty man to relay anything from Earth down to him there. He arrived to find Haney and Mike in hot argument over whether it was possible to load on an extra ton or two of mass. He stopped it. They would.

"Everything's loaded?" he demanded. "Okay! Space suits! All set? Let's get out of this lock and start blasting!"

He drove them into the space tug. He climbed in himself. He closed the entrance port. The plastic walls of the lock bulged out, pulled back fast, and the steering rockets jetted. The space tug came out of the lock. It spun about. It aimed for Earth and monstrous bursts of rocket-trail spread out behind it. It dived.

Naturally! When a ship from the Platform wanted to reach Earth for atmosphere-deceleration, it was more economical to head away from it. Now that it was the most urgent of all possible necessities to get away from Earth, in the opposite direction to the space tug's present motion, it was logical to dive toward it. The ship would plunge toward Earth, and Earth's gravity would help its rockets in the attainment of frenzied speed. But the tug still possessed its orbital speed. So it would not actually strike the Earth, but would be carried eastward past its disk, even though aimed for Earth's mid-bulge. Yet Earth would continue to pull. As the space tug skimmed past, its path would be curved by the pull of gravity. At the nearest possible approach to Earth, the tug would fire its heaviest rockets for maximum acceleration. And it would swing around Earth's atmosphere perhaps no more than 500 miles high-just barely beyond the measurable presence of air-and come out of that crazy curve a good hour ahead of the Platform for a corresponding position, and with a greater velocity than could be had in any other way. Traced on paper, the course of the tug would be a tight parabola.

The ship dived. And it happened that it had left the Platform and plunged deep in Earth's shadow, so that the look and feel of things was that of an utterly suicidal plunge into oblivion. There was the seeming of a vast sack of pure blackness before the nose of the space tug. She started for it at four gravities acceleration, and Joe got his headphones to his ears and lay panting while he waited for the figures and information he had to have.

He got them. When the four-gravity rockets burned out, the tug's crew painstakingly adjusted the ship's nose to a certain position. They flung themselves back into the acceleration chairs and Joe fired a six-g blast. They came out of that, and he fired another. The three blasts gave the ship a downward speed of a mile and a half a second, and Earth's pull added to it steadily. The Earth itself was drawing them down most of a 4,000-mile fall, which added to the speed their rockets built up.

Down on Earth, radar-bowls wavered dizzily, hunting for them to feed them observations of position and data for their guidance. Back on the Platform, members of the crew feverishly made their own computations. When the four in the Space tug were half-way to Earth, they were traveling faster than any humans had ever traveled before, relative to the Earth or the Platform itself. When they were a thousand miles from Earth, it was certain they would clear its edge. Joe proposed and received an okay to fire a salvo of Mark Tens to speed the ship still more. When they burned to the release-point and flashed away past the ports, the Chief and Haney panted up from their chairs and made their way aft.

"Going to reload the firing-frames," gasped the Chief.

They vanished. The space tug could take rockets from its cargo and set them outside its hull for firing. No other ship could.

Haney and the Chief came back. There was dead silence in the ship, save for a small, tinny voice in Joe's headphones.

"We'll pass Earth 600 miles high," said Joe in a flat voice. "Maybe closer. I'm going to try to make it 450. We'll be smack over enemy territory, but I doubt they could hit us. We'll be hitting better than six miles a second. If we wanted to, we could spend some more rockets and hit escape velocity. But we want to stop, later. We'll ride it out."

Silence. Stillness. Speed. Out the ports to Earthward there was purest blackness. On the other side, a universe of stars. But the blackness grew and grew and grew until it neatly bisected the cosmos itself, and half of everything that was, was blackness. Half was tiny colored stars.

Then there was a sound. A faint sound. It was a moan. It was a howl. It was a shriek.... And then it was a mere thin moan again. Then it was not.

"We touched air," said Joe calmly, "at six and a quarter miles per second. Pretty thin, though. At that, we may have left a meteor-trail for the populace to admire."

Nobody said anything at all. In a little while there was light ahead. There was brightness. Instantly, it seemed, they were out of night and there was a streaming tumult of clouds flashing past below-but they were 800 miles up now-and Joe's headphones rattled and he said:

"Now we can give a touch of course-correction, and maybe a trace of speed...."

Rockets droned and boomed and roared outside the hull. The Earth fell away and away and presently it was behind. And they were plunging on after the Moonship which was very, very, very far on before them.

It was actually many hours before they reached it. They couldn't afford to overtake it gradually, because they had to have time to work in after contact. But overtaking it swiftly cost extra fuel, and they hadn't too much. So they compromised, and came up behind the Moonship at better than 2,000 feet per second difference in speed-they approached it as fast as most rifle-bullets travel-and all creation was blotted out by the fumes of the rockets they fired for deceleration.

Then the space tug came cautiously close to the Moonship. Mike climbed out on the outside of the tug's hull, with the Chief also in space equipment, paying out Mike's safety-line. Mike leaped across two hundred yards of emptiness with light-years of gulf beneath him. His metal soles clanked on the Moonship's hull.

Then the vision-screen on the tug lighted up. Lieutenant Commander Brown looked out of it, quietly grim. Joe flicked on his own transmitter. He nodded.

"Mr. Kenmore," said Brown evenly, "I did not contact you before because I was not certain that contact could be made. How many passengers can you take back to the Platform?"

Joe blinked at him.

"I haven't any idea," he said. "But I'm going to hitch on and use our rockets to land you."

"I do not think it practicable," said Brown calmly. "I believe the only result of such a course will be the loss of both ships with all hands. I will give you a written authorization to return on my order. But since all my crew can't return, how many can you take? I have ten married men aboard. Six have children. Can you take six? Or all ten?" Then he said without a trace of emphasis, "Of course, none of them will be officers."

"If I tried to turn back now, I think my crew would mutiny," Joe said coldly. "I'd hate to think they wouldn't, anyhow! We're going to hook on and play this out the way it lies!"

There was a pause. Then Brown spoke again. "Mr. Kenmore, I was hoping you'd say that. Actually-er-not to be quoted, you understand-actually, intelligent defiance has always been in the traditions of the Navy. Of course, you're not in the Navy, Kenmore, but right now it looks like the Navy is in your hands. Like a battleship in the hands of a tug. Good luck, Kenmore."

Joe flicked off the screen. "You know," he said, winking at Mike, "I guess Brown isn't such a bad egg after all. Let's go!"

In minutes, the space tug had a line made fast. In half an hour, the two space craft were bound firmly together, but far enough apart for the rocket blasts to dissipate before they reached the Moonship. Mike returned to the tug. A pair of the big Mark Twenty rockets burned frenziedly in emptiness.

The Moonship was slowed by a fraction of its speed. The deceleration was hardly perceptible.

There were more burnings. Back on Earth there were careful measurements. A tight beam tends to attenuate when it is thrown a hundred thousand miles. It tends to! When speech is conducted over it, the lag between comment and reply is perceptible. It's not great-just over half a second. But one notices it. That lag was used to measure the speed and distance of the two craft. The prospect didn't look too good.

The space tug burned rocket after rocket after rocket. There was no effect that Joe could detect, of course. It would have been like noticing the effect of single oar-strokes in a rowboat miles from shore. But the instruments on Earth found a difference. They made very, very, very careful computations. And the electronic brains did the calculations which battalions of mathematicians would have needed years to work out. The electronic calculations which could not make a mistake said-that it was a toss-up.

The Moon came slowly to float before the two linked ships. It grew slowly, slowly larger. The word from Earth was that considering the rockets still available in the space tug, and those that should have been fired but weren't on the Moonship, there must be no more blasts just yet. The two ships must pass together through the neutral-point where the gravities of Earth and Moon exactly cancel out. They must fall together toward the Moon. Forty miles above the lunar surface such-and-such rockets were to be fired. At twenty miles, such-and-such others. At five miles the Moonship itself must fire its remaining fuel-store. With luck, it was a toss-up. Safety or a smash.

But there was a long time to wait. Joe and his crew relaxed in the space tug. The Chief looked out a port and observed:

"I can see the ring-mountains now. Naked-eye stuff, too! I wonder if anybody ever saw that before!"

"Not likely," said Joe.

Mike stared out a port. Haney looked, also.

"How're we going to get back, Joe?"

"The Moonship has rockets on board," Joe told him. "Only they can't sti

ck them in the firing-racks outside. They're stowed away, all shipshape, Navy fashion. After we land, we'll ask politely for rockets to get back to the Platform with. It'll be a tedious run. Mostly coasting-falling free. But we'll make it."

"If everything doesn't blow when we land," said the Chief.

Joe said uncomfortably: "It won't. Not that somebody won't try." Then he stopped. After a moment he said awkwardly: "Look! It's necessary that we humans get to the stars, or ultimately we'll crowd the Earth until we won't be able to stay human. We'd have to have wars and plagues and such things to keep our numbers down. It-it seems to me, and I-think it's been said before, that it looks like there's something, somewhere, that's afraid of us humans. It doesn't want us to reach the stars. It didn't want us to fly. Before that it didn't want us to learn how to cure disease, or have steam, or-anything that makes men different from the beasts."

Haney turned his head. He listened intently.

"Maybe it sounds-superstitious," said Joe uneasily, "but there's always been somebody trying to smash everything the rest of us wanted. As if-as if something alien and hateful went around whispering hypnotically into men's ears while they slept, commanding them irresistibly to do things to smash all their own hopes."

The Chief grunted. "Huh! D'you think that's new stuff, Joe?"

"N-no," admitted Joe. "But it's true. Something fights us. You can make wild guesses. Maybe-things on far planets that know that if ever we reach there.... There's something that hates men and it tries to make us destroy ourselves."

"Sure," said Haney mildly. "I learned about that in Sunday School, Joe."

"Maybe I mean that," said Joe helplessly. "But anyhow there's something we fight-and there's Something that fights with us. So I think we're going to get the Moonship down all right."

Mike said sharply: "You mean you think this is all worked out in advance. That we'd be here, we'd get here--"

The Chief said impatiently, "It's figured out so we can do it if we got the innards. We got the chance. We can duck it. But if we duck it, it's bad, and somebody else has to have the chance later. I know what Joe's saying. Us men, we got to get to the stars. There's millions of 'em, and we need the planets they've got swimming around 'em."

Haney said, "Some of them have planets. That's known. Yeah."

"Those planets ain't going to go on forever with nobody using 'em," grunted the Chief. "It don't make sense. And things in general do make sense. All but us humans," he finished with a grin. "And I like us, anyhow. Joe's right. We'll get by this time. And if we don't-some other guys'll have to do the job of landing on the Moon. But it'll be done-as a starter."

"I can see lots of mountains down there. Plain," Mike said quietly.

"What's the radar say?"

Joe looked. Back at the Platform it had shown the curve of the surface of Earth. Here a dim line was beginning to show on the vertical-plane screen. It was the curve of the surface of the Moon.

"We might as well get set," said Joe. "We've got time but we might as well. Space suits on. I'll tighten up the chain. Steering rockets'll do that. Then we'll take a last look. All firing racks loaded outside?"

"Yeah," said Haney. He grinned wrily. "You know, Joe, I know what I know, but still I'm scared."

"Me, too," said Joe.

But there were things to do. They took their places. They watched out the ports. The Moon had seemed a vast round ball a little while back. Now it appeared to be flattening. Its edges still curved away beyond a surprisingly nearby horizon. The ring-mountains were amazingly distinct. There were incredibly wide, smooth spaces with mottled colorings. But the mountains....

When the ships were 40 miles high the space tug blasted valorously, and all the panorama of the Moon's surface was momentarily hidden by the racing clouds of mist. The rockets burned out.

Haney and the Chief replaced the burned-out rockets. They were gigantic, heavy-bore tubes which they couldn't have stirred on Earth. Now they loaded them into the curious locks which conveyed them outside the hull into firing position.

The ring-mountains were gigantic when they blasted again! They were only 20 miles up, then, and some of the peaks rose four miles from their inner crater floors.

The ships were still descending fast. Joe spoke into his microphone.

"Calling Moonship! Calling--" He stopped and said matter-of-factly, "I suggest we fire our last blast together. Shall I give the word? Right!"

The surface of the Moon came toward them. Craters, cracks, frozen fountains of stone, swelling undulations of ground interrupted without rhyme or reason by the gigantic splashings of missiles from the sky a hundred thousand million years ago. The colorings were unbelievable. There were reds and browns and yellows. There were grays and dusty deep-blues and streaks of completely impossible tints in combination.

But Joe couldn't watch that. He kept his eyes on a very special gadget which was a radar range-finder. He hadn't used it about the Platform because there were too many tin cans and such trivia floating about. It wouldn't be dependable. But it did measure the exact distance to the nearest solid object.

"Prepare for firing on a count of five," said Joe quietly. "Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... fire!"

The space tug's rockets blasted. For the first time since they overtook the Moonship, the tug now had help. The remaining rockets outside the Moonship's hull blasted furiously. Out the ports there was nothing but hurtling whitenesses. The rockets droned and rumbled and roared....

The main rockets burned out. The steering rockets still boomed. Joe had thrown them on for what good their lift might do.

"Joe!" said Haney in a surprised tone. "I feel weight! Not much, but some! And the main rockets are off!"

Joe nodded. He watched the instruments before him. He shifted a control, and the space tug swayed. It swayed over to the limit of the tow-chain it had fastened to the Moonship. Joe shifted his controls again.

There was a peculiar, gritty contact somewhere. Joe cut the steering rockets and it was possible to look out. There were more gritty noises. The space tug settled a little and leaned a little. It was still. Then there was no noise at all.

"Yes," said Joe. "We've got some weight. We're on the Moon."

They went out of the ship in a peculiarly solemn procession. About them reared cliffs such as no man had ever looked on before save in dreams. Above their heads hung a huge round greenish globe, with a white polar ice-cap plainly visible. It hung in mid-sky and was four times the size of the Moon as seen from Earth. If one stood still and looked at it, it would undoubtedly be seen to be revolving, once in some twenty-four hours.

Mike scuffled in the dust in which he walked. Nobody had emerged from the Moonship yet. The four of them were literally the first human beings ever to set foot on the surface of the Moon. But none of them mentioned the fact, though all were acutely aware of it. Mike kicked up dust. It rose in a curiously liquid-like fashion. There was no air to scatter it. It settled deliberately back again.

Mike spoke with an odd constraint. "No green cheese," he said absurdly.

"No," agreed Joe. "Let's go over to the Moonship. It looks all right. It couldn't have landed hard."

They went toward the bulk of the ship from Earth, which now was a base for the military occupation of a globe with more land-area than all Earth's continents put together-but not a drop of water. The Moonship was tilted slightly askew, but it was patently unharmed. There were faces at every port in the hull.

The Chief stopped suddenly. A sizable boulder rose from the dust. The Chief struck it smartly with his space-gloved hand.

"I'm counting coup on the Moon!" he said zestfully "Tie that, you guys!"

Then he joined the others on their way to the Moonship's main lock.

"Shall we knock?" asked Mike humorously. "I doubt they've got a door-bell!"

But the lock-door was opening to admit them. They crowded inside.

Commander Brown was waiting for them with an out-stretched hand. "Glad to have you aboard." And there was a genuine smile creeping across his face.

* * *

Joe talked with careful distinctness into a microphone. His voice took a little over a second to reach its destination. Then there was a pause of the same length before the first syllable of Sally's reply came to him from Earth.

"I've reported to your father," said Joe carefully, "and the Moonship has reported to the Navy. In a couple of hours Haney and the Chief and Mike and I will be taking off to go back to the Platform. We got rockets from the stores of the Moonship."

Sally's voice was surprisingly clear. It wavered a little, but there was no sound of static to mar reception.

"Then what, Joe?"

"I'm bringing written reports and photographs and first specimens of geology from the Moon," Joe told her. "I'm a mailman. It'll probably be sixty hours back to the Platform-free fall most of the way-and then we'll refuel and I'll come down to Earth to deliver the reports and such."

Pause. One second and a little for his voice to go. Another second and something over for her voice to return.

"And then?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out," said Joe. "What day is today?"

"Tuesday," said Sally after the inevitable pause. "It's ten o'clock Tuesday morning at the Shed."

Joe made calculations in his mind. Then he said:

"I ought to land on Earth some time next Monday."

Pause.

"Yes?" said Sally.

"I wondered," said Joe. "How about a date that night?" Another pause. Then Sally's voice. She sounded glad.

"It's a date, Joe. And-do you know, I must be the first girl in the world to make a date with the Man in the Moon?"

* * *

COMBAT MISSION!

Joe Kenmore's mission was as dangerous as it sounded simple:

"DELIVER SUPPLIES AND ATOMIC WEAPONS TO THE SPACE PLATFORM. THEN PREPARE FOR MAN'S FIRST EXPEDITION TO THE MOON."

Joe had helped launch the first Space Platform-that initial rung in man's ladder to the stars. But the enemies who had ruthlessly tried to destroy the space station before it left Earth were still at work. They were plotting to stop Joe's mission!

Cover painting by Robert Schulz

* * *

Transcriber's Note

A hyperlinked Table of Contents has been added.

Hyphens

Hyphens have been removed from the following words to conform to the majority use in text.

Page Word

86 brain-storm

123 loud-speaker

The following words have been left in both hyphenated and unhyphenated forms because of equal prevalence of both forms:

half-way halfway

pay-load payload

rocket-lift rocketlift

sun-lamps sunlamps

hand-hold handhold

pin-points pinpoints

"overall" and "over-all" have been left as such since the writers are different (The narrator and a character).

Typos

The following typos have been corrected:

Page Typo Correction

14 runing running

15 level lever

78 Adorning Adoring

128 thiry-nine thirty-nine

132 shed Shed

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