The space freighter Queen Dierdre was a great, squat, pockmarked vessel of the Earth-Mars run and she never gave anyone a bit of trouble. That should have been sufficient warning to Mr. Watkins, her engineer. Watkins was fond of saying that there are two kinds of equipment--the kind that fails bit by bit, and the kind that fails all at once.
Watkins was short and red-faced, magnificently mustached, and always a little out of breath. With a cigar in his hand, over a glass of beer, he talked most cynically about his ship, in the immemorial fashion of engineers. But in reality, Watkins was foolishly infatuated with Dierdre, idealized her, humanized her, and couldn't conceive of anything serious ever happening.
On this particular run, Dierdre soared away from Terra at the proper speed; Mr. Watkins signaled that fuel was being consumed at the proper rate; and Captain Somers cut the engines at the proper moment indicated by Mr. Rajcik, the navigator.
As soon as Point Able had been reached and the engines stopped, Somers frowned and studied his complex control board. He was a thin and meticulous man, and he operated his ship with mechanical perfection. He was well liked in the front offices of Mikkelsen Space Lines, where Old Man Mikkelsen pointed to Captain Somers' reports as models of neatness and efficiency. On Mars, he stayed at the Officers' Club, eschewing the stews and dives of Marsport. On Earth, he lived in a little Vermont cottage and enjoyed the quiet companionship of two cats, a Japanese houseboy, and a wife.
His instructions read true. And yet he sensed something wrong. Somers knew every creak, rattle and groan that Dierdre was capable of making. During blastoff, he had heard something different. In space, something different had to be wrong.
"Mr. Rajcik," he said, turning to his navigator, "would you check the cargo? I believe something may have shifted."
"You bet," Rajcik said cheerfully. He was an almost offensively handsome young man with black wavy hair, blase blue eyes and a cleft chin. Despite his appearance, Rajcik was thoroughly qualified for his position. But he was only one of fifty thousand thoroughly qualified men who lusted for a berth on one of the fourteen spaceships in existence. Only Stephen Rajcik had had the foresight, appearance and fortitude to court and wed Helga, Old Man Mikkelsen's eldest daughter.
Rajcik went aft to the cargo hold. Dierdre was carrying transistors this time, and microfilm books, platinum filaments, salamis, and other items that could not as yet be produced on Mars. But the bulk of her space was taken by the immense Fahrensen Computer.
Rajcik checked the positioning lines on the monster, examined the stays and turnbuckles that held it in place, and returned to the cabin.
"All in order, Boss," he reported to Captain Somers, with the smile that only an employer's son-in-law can both manage and afford.
"Mr. Watkins, do you read anything?"
Watkins was at his own instrument panel. "Not a thing, sir. I'll vouch for every bit of equipment in Dierdre."
"Very well. How long before we reach Point Baker?"
"Three minutes, Chief," Rajcik said.
The spaceship hung in the void, all sensation of speed lost for lack of a reference point. Beyond the portholes was darkness, the true color of the Universe, perforated by the brilliant lost points of the stars.
Captain Somers turned away from the disturbing reminder of his extreme finitude and wondered if he could land Dierdre without shifting the computer. It was by far the largest, heaviest and most delicate piece of equipment ever transported in space.
He worried about that machine. Its value ran into the billions of dollars, for Mars Colony had ordered the best possible, a machine whose utility would offset the immense transportation charge across space. As a result, the Fahrensen Computer was perhaps the most complex and advanced machine ever built by Man.
"Ten seconds to Point Baker," Rajcik announced.
"Very well." Somers readied himself at the control board.
Somers activated the engines. Acceleration pressed the three men back into their couches, and more acceleration, and--shockingly--still more acceleration.
"The fuel!" Watkins yelped, watching his indicators spinning.
"The course!" Rajcik gasped, fighting for breath.
Captain Somers cut the engine switch. The engines continued firing, pressing the men deeper into their couches. The cabin lights flickered, went out, came on again.
And still the acceleration mounted and Dierdre's engines howled in agony, thrusting the ship forward. Somers raised one leaden hand and inched it toward the emergency cut-off switch. With a fantastic expenditure of energy, he reached the switch, depressed it.
The engines stopped with dramatic suddenness, while tortured metal creaked and groaned. The lights flickered rapidly, as though Dierdre were blinking in pain. They steadied and then there was silence.
Watkins hurried to the engine room. He returned morosely.
"Of all the damn things," he muttered.
"What was it?" Captain Somers asked.
"Main firing circuit. It fused on us." He shook his head. "Metal fatigue, I'd say. It must have been flawed for years."
"When was it last checked out?"
"Well, it's a sealed unit. Supposed to outlast the ship. Absolutely foolproof, unless--"
"Unless it's flawed."
"Don't blame it on me! Those circuits are supposed to be X-rayed, heat-treated, fluoroscoped--you just can't trust machinery!"
At last Watkins believed that engineering axiom.
"How are we on fuel?" Captain Somers asked.
"Not enough left to push a kiddy car down Main Street," Watkins said gloomily. "If I could get my hands on that factory inspector ..."
Captain Somers turned to Rajcik, who was seated at the navigator's desk, hunched over his charts. "How does this affect our course?"
Rajcik finished the computation he was working on and gnawed thoughtfully at his pencil.
"It kills us. We're going to cross the orbit of Mars before Mars gets there."
"How long before?"
"Too long. Captain, we're flying out of the Solar System like the proverbial bat out of hell."
Rajcik smiled, a courageous, devil-may-care smile which Watkins found singularly inappropriate.
"Damn it, man," he roared, "don't just leave it there. We've got a little fuel left. We can turn her, can't we? You are a navigator, aren't you?"
"I am," Rajcik said icily. "And if I computed my courses the way you maintain your engines, we'd be plowing through Australia now."
"Why, you little company toady! At least I got my job legitimately, not by marrying--"
"That's enough!" Captain Somers cut in.
Watkins, his face a mottled red, his mustache bristling, looked like a walrus about to charge. And Rajcik, eyes glittering, was waiting hopefully.
"No more of this," Somers said. "I give the orders here."
"Then give some!" Watkins snapped. "Tell him to plot a return curve. This is life or death!"
"All the more reason for remaining cool. Mr. Rajcik, can you plot such a course?"
"First thing I tried," Rajcik said. "Not a chance, on the fuel we have left. We can turn a degree or two, but it won't help."
Watkins said, "Of course it will! We'll curve back into the Solar System!"
"Sure, but the best curve we can make will take a few thousand years for us to complete."
"Perhaps a landfall on some other planet--Neptune, Uranus--"
Rajcik shook his head. "Even if an outer planet were in the right place at the right time, we'd need fuel--a lot of fuel--to get into a braking orbit. And if we could, who'd come get us? No ship has gone past Mars yet."
"At least we'd have a chance," Watkins said.
"Maybe," Rajcik agreed indifferently. "But we can't swing it. I'm afraid you'll have to kiss the Solar System good-by."
Captain Somers wiped his forehead and tried to think of a plan. He found it difficult to concentrate. There was too great a discrepancy between his knowledge of the situation and its appearance. He knew--intellectually--that his ship was traveling out of the Solar System at a tremendous rate of speed. But in appearance they were stationary, hung in the abyss, three men trapped in a small, hot room, breathing the smell of hot metal and perspiration.
"What shall we do, Captain?" Watkins asked.
Somers frowned at the engineer. Did the man expect him to pull a solution out of the air? How was he even supposed to concentrate on the problem? He had to slow the ship, turn it. But his senses told him that the ship was not moving. How, then, could speed constitute a problem?
He couldn't help but feel that the real problem was to get away from these high-strung, squabbling men, to escape from this hot, smelly little room.
"Captain! You must have some idea!"
Somers tried to shake his feeling of unreality. The problem, the real problem, he told himself, was how to stop the ship.
He looked around the fixed cabin and out the porthole at the unmoving stars. We are moving very rapidly, he thought, unconvinced.
Rajcik said disgustedly, "Our noble captain can't face the situation."
"Of course I can," Somers objected, feeling very light-headed and unreal. "I can pilot any course you lay down. That's my only real responsibility. Plot us a course to Mars!"
"Sure!" Rajcik said, laughing. "I can! I will! Engineer, I'm going to need plenty of fuel for this course--about ten tons! See that I get it!"
"Right you are," said Watkins. "Captain, I'd like to put in a requisition for ten tons of fuel."
"Requisition granted," Somers said. "All right, gentlemen, responsibility is inevitably circular. Let's get a grip on ourselves. Mr. Rajcik, suppose you radio Mars."
When contact had been established, Somers took the microphone and stated their situation. The company official at the other end seemed to have trouble grasping it.
"But can't you turn the ship?" he asked bewilderedly. "Any kind of an orbit--"
"No. I've just explained that."
"Then what do you propose to do, Captain?"
"That's exactly what I'm asking you."
There was a babble of voices from the loudspeaker, punctuated by bursts of static. The lights flickered and reception began to fade. Rajcik, working frantically, managed to re-establish the contact.
"Captain," the official on Mars said, "we can't think of a thing. If you could swing into any sort of an orbit--"
"Under the circumstances, you have the right to try anything at all. Anything, Captain!"
Somers groaned. "Listen, I can think of just one thing. We could bail out in spacesuits as near Mars as possible. Link ourselves together, take the portable transmitter. It wouldn't give much of a signal, but you'd know our approximate position. Everything would have to be figured pretty closely--those suits just carry twelve hours' air--but it's a chance."
There was a confusion of voices from the other end. Then the official said, "I'm sorry, Captain."
"What? I'm telling you it's our one chance!"
"Captain, the only ship on Mars now is the Diana. Her engines are being overhauled."
"How long before she can be spaceborne?"
"Three weeks, at least. And a ship from Earth would take too long. Captain, I wish we could think of something. About the only thing we can suggest--"
The reception suddenly failed again.
Rajcik cursed frustratedly as he worked over the radio. Watkins gnawed at his mustache. Somers glanced out a porthole and looked hurriedly away, for the stars, their destination, were impossibly distant.
They heard static again, faintly now.
"I can't get much more," Rajcik said. "This damned reception.... What could they have been suggesting?"
"Whatever it was," said Watkins, "they didn't think it would work."
"What the hell does that matter?" Rajcik asked, annoyed. "It'd give us something to do."
They heard the official's voice, a whisper across space.
"Can you hear ... Suggest ..."
At full amplification, the voice faded, then returned. "Can only suggest ... most unlikely ... but try ... calculator ... try ..."