Dick laughed, but knew that it was close to the truth. The other men in the party were tied to their wives' apron strings. Aside from Dolores and Eileen McCarthy, none of the women trusted the space ship. They were afraid it might fly to pieces at any moment, although they had overcome their fear enough to find means of entertainment.
Small devices in the cabin showed miniature movies, with words in the tongue of the dome cities. Discovering this created desire to understand the language, and they eagerly attended the classes.
One lix Dick found Jerold Brown examining a piece of machinery. A few lix later Andrew Smith had joined him. Soon every earthman was spending his time in the machinery hold, with McCarthy acting as instructor. He would accept no excuse for being late at his classes--and they all arrived on time!
Weeks slipped by as the ship drove on through space. The earthmen learned to admire the men from Jupiter for their constant good-nature, although they were slightly childish.
The crew of engineers were slowly learning the rudiments of Jupiter's science. Barrow through his study of the domes, and McCarthy through study of the machines, far surpassed the others. At times both men spent hours in the model room, at others Dick examined the machines beside the Irishman. They compared notes until each knew the other's findings.
Dick took all the men into the model room once every third lix, and spent four hours instructing them in the civilization. Each man had his own set of maps, and marked down facts about his future location. Dick copied their notes on a large map, that covered all the cities. They used numbers to signify different mechanisms, to make it easier to describe equipment that was duplicated in more than one dome.
In a month they were able to carry on light conversation, and from then on mastery of the language was faster. The women far surpassed the men, due to desire for entertainment.
When he was able to question the crew, Dick received a terrible shock. They knew less about the ship's operation than his own men! They didn't understand their own equipment!
The people of the domes were content to enjoy the mechanical wonders of their ancestors--without bothering about how they ran. They used equipment for every purpose, without the slightest interest in why it worked. The earthmen suddenly realized what a gigantic task they faced. Seven men--to rebuild a civilization!
The men at the controls knew what reaction would take place by movement of a lever, but didn't understand why! Dick became slightly worried about reaching their destination--it was beyond all reason. Earthmen wouldn't have attempted to operate equipment they knew nothing about, by movement of controls to obtain the proper action.
It was no wonder these people had found it necessary to find engineers to run their machines!
Months slipped by as the ship moved steadily toward the giant planet. Every piece of equipment seemed to be the answer to perfection. This voyage had taught them more about mechanics than was covered in a complete engineering course on earth. It was of a far different kind, with gravity the basis of all operation. Even the space ship employed some of the same power, drawn from the nearest heavy body, then amplified until it reached enormous proportions.
Peter Yarbro was a practical chemist, and spent many hours trying to analyze the fuel. It was highly inflammable, yet could stand terrific compression without effect. When it was allowed to expand again, it reached the flash point immediately, creating enormous amounts of heavy gas. He believed it might be duplicated from crude oil, properly refined.
When Dick learned that there was a history of the space ship, in the metal books, his curiosity was aroused. He could read the language of the domes slightly, but not enough to study the intricate explanations. It was through these books that the dome men had learned to control the ship, and set the course for any desired planet.
Morquil's aid was enlisted, to translate the text, and he learned some amazing facts. A description of the fuel was given, but the base for manufacture was unknown, being of natural origin on Jupiter. As Morquil read farther and explained sections that Dick couldn't understand, the earthman felt uneasy.
The crew had abandoned all hope of returning to their home planet, the first time they started from the earth. They didn't understand what it meant to feel responsible for equipment. They manufactured enough fuel for two trips, according to the rating of consumption in the books--but Dick wondered?
The tanks were filled to capacity before the first trip, and hadn't been tested since. The happy dome people didn't consider that their ancestors might have been mistaken, or that actual operation might vary from the original plan.
For the first time in twenty years, the gauges were examined. Barrow and McCarthy crawled through the dust-coated passage beneath the floor of the machinery hold. They found a light switch, but the bulbs were so dust-coated that only a faint glow shed on the surrounding metal. They sneezed and coughed, as the dust-laden air filled their lungs.
"Darned if you don't get the craziest ideas, Dick. What good will it do to know how much 'ship juice' there is, anyway? We can't make it! This hole wasn't built for self-respecting men to crawl through."
"I don't know, John, but this trip may not be as easy as it appears. They've been driving at full force for months, when it seems to me that less power might carry us when we're not within the pull of some planet. I want to make sure that there's plenty of fuel. According to the books, the designers didn't expect the ship to be driven this hard."
John did a little cussing when they located the gauges, and found them so thick with grime that they had to be cleaned. He headed back through the dust for a cloth, with Dick's laugh following. "Alright, alright, but don't rub it in. Just because you happened to be in front of me, and there isn't room to pass, don't give you the right to laugh. Some day you'll be eating your share of dust, and will I laugh! I bet that the domes are all a mess."
Dick wrote down the reading of each gauge, as John cleaned the surfaces. He couldn't understand the strange numerals, and had to go over them with Morquil. Both men breathed a sigh of relief as they crawled back through the floor of the hold, and dropped the trap door in place.
An hour later Dick began to worry. According to Morquil, the tanks were less than one-eighth full. The big-headed man had gone over the figures twice, and was showing signs of agitation as he checked them again at Barrow's request. When he glanced up, Dick knew there was no mistake.
"The fuel is low Dick. According to the other trip, the greatest use of power is at the time we approach the planet, to fight the pull of gravity. Our trip from earth is only half completed, with the greatest need of fuel still ahead. You must think my race very stupid not to have thought of it?"
It took Dick a long time to answer. His mind was searching frantically for some solution. It was useless to ask help of the crew--they couldn't even think scientifically!
"No, Morquil. I don't think you're stupid, but I do consider your people very foolish. From the appearance of things we will never reach the domes!
"Unless something drastic is accomplished, the ship will smash to pieces on your planet. You don't know anything about the ship's operation, and we've only studied it for a short time."
They decided to inform the men immediately but say nothing to the women for the present. Within an hour of the discovery, Morquil warned the men at the controls to conserve the power as much as possible.
Every operation of the ship, was dependent on fuel. The generators for heat, light and controls, were turned by discharge through the tubes. At least one blast must be fired at all times to keep the controls sensitized, and develop power for emergency equipment. The other tubes were silenced.
During the rest migs Dick couldn't sleep, but spent every minute talking to John McCarthy. There must be some solution--and they had to find it!
An Engineer's Mettle In the morning the earthmen were called together. They came with smiling faces, which slowly changed to apprehension.
There were many suggestions in as many minutes, but none that gave a possibility of accomplishing the impossible. They had to stretch the fuel--without visible means of stretching it!
The women believed the meeting was a routine course in mechanics, and went on enjoying their entertainment. The men explained they were bothered by a knotty question about the machinery to account for their worried concentration. It would have been a terrible handicap if the women discovered the truth.
Three lix passed with little change. The fuel had been cut down for a while, but the ship didn't hold its course. Every tube had been fired to hold the direct route for Jupiter. They were constantly cutting into the meager supply that remained--and had to overcome the deficiency!
Due to the slight conservation of fuel the ship had been operating far below efficiency, and the cold of space began to seep through the walls. This affected the dome people more than the earthmen, and they suffered torture. Any change in temperature was unknown to them, they were chilled at a few degrees below normal heat.
Suddenly, during dinner on the third evening, Peter Yarbro jumped up from the table. The other men fastened eager eyes on his face, while the women watched in amazement.
He started to speak, then remembered the women, sat down quietly. "I--I think I've found the answer--to our problem! If you will join me in the hold, when we finish eating, I would like to talk it over with you."
Mrs. Yarbro was even more amazed. "Peter! I'm surprised at you. Jumping up from the table so excited, just because you happened to think of the answer to a problem! You ought to be ashamed."
In spite of his worries Dick lowered his head to hide the smile. If only Peter's wife knew what that problem was, she might not think it so strange.
Hardly a man touched his food, and as soon as they were out of earshot of the women, he spoke what was in his mind. The crew heard him at the table and many of them gathered to listen. For the first time in their lives they were worried. Their lives depended on the earthmen before they even reached their planet.
Yarbro hesitated. "I'm not so sure now, that I have found the answer. When it came to me, I thought it was simple, but now it seems more like a dream.
"Since knowing that the fuel was low I've racked my brain for something that might be used--and it had to be on the ship. Every other man was looking for a mechanical answer, and my efforts would be of little use. So I've searched for a chemical.
"Water is the only liquid in any quantity. I discarded it so many times that it left a headache, but my search always came back to the same place. It's the only thing we've got.
"All other liquids are in too small amounts, even if they could be used, and the ship is equipped only for chemical fuel--in liquid form!
"At dinner when I became so excited, I thought that water would do the trick. Now I don't know. It has oxygen in large amounts, which is vitally needed, but that's the only advantage.
"Even if we dared try, it might injure the tubes. Still I believe it's the only chance of salvation. It's the one substance on board, in any large quantity. What do you think?"
There wasn't a sound as the minutes passed. Each man searched frantically for the slightest hope; searched for the one chance in a thousand!
Dick finally broke the silence. "What is your plan, Peter? You must have thought of something?"
"No, that's just the trouble. I thought that water might mix with the fuel, even fire with it. It was only a brain storm I'm afraid."
After a moment Dick spoke again. "It can't be! Since there is no other substance--we must use water! There has to be a way--and we've got to find it! We might as well use up the water and die of thirst, as to drift around in space until we starve to death, or die in the dive at Jupiter."
Twice Mrs. Martin came down the ramp to take her husband to bed, but Dick sent her away. The men would stay there until they had found a solution--they had to! The fuel was fast disappearing!
Morquil still sat in the background. The other men from Jupiter had gone to their quarters. He could offer no suggestion, but listened carefully to every word they spoke. Finally he stood up.
"I hope that you can forgive me. In the last three lixs I have regretted that I ever saw your earth. It were better that my people die, than for us to carry people from a happy planet to die in space--because of our stupidity. We are no better than children without cares or worries. The men of the crew realized the risk, before they left the domes--but it is not your fault!"
"Aw, sit down you big-headed numbskull!" McCarthy's voice boomed out. "We don't blame you! We'll find some way to run this crate, and get there in one piece. You just made us go to work before we expected. Why! A problem like this is simple on earth--they'd solve it in no time! You just go to bed and stop worrying. We'll have everything fixed by morning."
Morquil's expression changed slightly, and he almost smiled. He started for the ramp as if taking the words literally, but half way up he faced the little gathering again. "Thank you, John. But I haven't forgotten that you were a famous liar in your home town--and you haven't lost your ability. Thank you anyway, you're very kind."
When McCarthy turned toward the others, he looked rather sheepish. But the forced smiles he received made him feel a lot better.
Hours passed, while each man told everything he had known about water. At last Dick stood up. "We've covered every possible reaction, and many that are seemingly impossible, but have overlooked one very vital point that will either help or hinder greatly.
"The fuel is subjected to terrific pressure. Naturally, any water that was used would receive the same treatment. In the compression chamber the pressure rises very fast, which must develop high temperature. The result is that we would not have water--we'd have steam! It would be almost dry steam!
"Water in the liquid form couldn't discharge oxygen fast enough to affect the fuel, but as steam it might. There is a good chance that steam may even increase the explosive power to a point that we can't even imagine. There's only one way to find out--try it!
"Every man here will admit that John has the most practical mechanical brain. It will be his job to find a means of injecting the water in the proper amounts. The rest of us can try to find any kinks in the system that he suggests. He knows every piece of equipment on board, and can pick whatever is best suited for the purpose."
As Dick sat down, John got to his feet. "This is one time that I'm ahead of you. While you've been talking I've been planning a way to do just that. There's an extra firing tube that can hold the pressure we want.
"Fuel for all the blasts is compressed in one chamber, then discharged through any desired tube. If we put the water under the pressure, with the hydraulic system, and let it seep into the chamber at a set rate--it might work! Valves can control the steam perfectly, and regulate the flow to whatever is desired.
"The tube will have to be shut off from the fuel tank every few hours, to be filled. Preheating the water will develop steam pressure, and it won't draw enough from the hydraulic system to affect the operation of the blasts.
"What do you say, shall we try it? It means shutting off all but the emergency tube for several hours, and it will be cold!"
Within five minutes they were hauling the heavy tube from the storage room. In an hour everything was ready to assemble, and each man knew exactly what work he was to do. A pipe line was run from the water tanks, to fill the steam chamber in position.
Dick was building an electric heating unit to encase the entire tube, which could be regulated for any desired temperature.
Half of the rest period had passed when the chamber was finished and they were ready to cut an opening in the compression unit. Perspiration poured down the body of every man, but not from the exertion. Each minute that passed ate deeper into the fuel. If water couldn't replace the liquid, they were helpless.
They wanted to install the tube, while the women were asleep. The ship would be too cold for comfort for a long time after the blasts could be started again. When the heating units in the hull were shut off it would become freezing inside.
Men raced through the ship, stopping at their staterooms on the way. Dick dropped three extra covers over Dolores without disturbing her, then slipped into the heaviest clothing that he owned.
Each man was occupied in his own room, in the same way. Heavy coats were taken to the men at the controls while the remainder of the crew were sent to a room with an emergency heating unit.
In fifteen minutes they were back at the compression chamber, and at the touch of a button the blasts were silenced from the control room.
By the time an opening was cut in the heavy tanks, the cold had begun to creep into the ship. The men worked desperately, and for a while perspiration dampened their clothing. Then the chill crept deeper--and they shivered. Their fingers grew numb, and they had to warm them over a small electric unit, but the opening slowly enlarged beneath their torches.
When the tube was fitted into the hole, and the metal began to flow around the edges, even the torches seemed to throw little heat. Dick knew his nose was frosted, and warned the others not to touch their nose or ears. According to John's watch it required three hours to fit the tube in place.
When they rang for the power to be turned on, they waited in vain. When minutes passed without reaction, they glanced at each other in consternation. Brown and Martin raced up the ramp while the others waited. Within a few minutes the tubes began to fire and warmth slowly drove back the numbing cold.
Water pipes had burst, and they hurried to stop the leaks. The main tanks were uninjured, as the cold hadn't penetrated the big supplies in storage.
Dick suddenly realized that Brown and Martin hadn't returned. When he reached the upper deck all of the women were gathered near the room where the crew had been left. The thermometer was only fifty degrees, even then, and they shivered in heavy coats.
Every dome man was stretched out on the floor! As Dick stepped within, his heart almost stopped beating--but they were only unconscious! His breath escaped in a long sigh, after holding it for almost a minute.
Brown and Martin were trying to revive the prone forms. The control men lay beside the others, brought there by the two earthmen. The eyes of first one then another, slowly opened, and they looked around in amazement. Cold affected them like an anaesthetic, causing complete unconsciousness.
When the ship reached normal warmth, they felt as good as ever. It hadn't been cold enough to freeze them, in their section, and not a man was injured. When they understood what happened, the men hurried back to the controls.
The heavy coils were soon fastened around the tube, and it was filled through a valve on the upper side. A gauge was set to register the pressure of the vapor within. They decided to raise steam pressure enough to equal the compression of the fuel.
It required fifteen minutes for the water to reach the boiling point, while they nervously held their watches. They could keep track of minutes and hours, although there was no longer day and night in their lives. According to their figures, they now ate dinner at three o'clock in the morning, and went to bed in the early afternoon.
They held their breath when the steam valve was opened. It moved slowly under Dick's fingers, while a thousand questions raced through every mind.
"Would it silence the blasts? Would it put them out of commission permanently? Was that moment, and the turning of that valve, the end of existence for them all?"
Dick glanced at the gauge on the tube, then jerked the valve shut. The pressure was still far below that of the fuel. He turned the heating unit on full, and watched the gauge climb higher. They didn't understand the numerals of the domed cities, but knew the pressure was getting terrifically high.
When he opened the valve again, the steam gauge did not rise! It held almost steady. The hiss of escaping steam, sounded through the heavy metal faintly.
The tubes began to fire spasmodically! Dick bit his lips, as he opened the valve a little wider. John McCarthy wiped the sweat from his forehead, as every face turned white as chalk.
They fired evenly again!!! The steam was working through the mixture--discharging through the blasts!
They felt their bodies sway under the effects of acceleration and exultance filled them. There was some reaction, at least!
Morquil appeared on the ramp, his face lighted by a smile. "What have you done? The ship is traveling at almost twice the speed that it was before! Is it all right?"