Through the door nearly catapulted the first of the Project Hot Rodders, followed almost on his heels by twelve more.
"Where is Major Elbertson?"
"In sick bay, sir. He got a big radiation dose--"
The captain flipped the intercom key.
"Calling Major Elbertson in sick bay. Report to the bridge on the double, no matter what your condition. This is the captain speaking."
The intercom came alive at far end.
"This is Dr. Green, Captain Andersen. Major Elbertson is unconscious. He cannot report for duty. He was extremely ill from exposure to radiation and we have administered sulph-hydral, antispasmodic, and sedative."
Nails Andersen turned to the project crew.
"Which of you are Security officers?"
Three men stepped forward.
"Are all the project members here?"
"No, sir," said one. "Eight of our men are in sick bay."
"Very well," said the captain. "Now hear this, all of you. There is a saboteur--maybe more than one, we do not know--among you. There is no time to find out which of you it is. However, he has managed to leave Project Hot Rod operational while unattended. You are to turn it off, and to prevent the saboteur from stopping you. Do you understand?"
A voice in back--a rather high voice--spoke up. "Of course it's operational," it said. "We left it operational."
"You ... WHAT?"
"We left it operational. It's under Earth control. The control center at Thule is in charge, sir."
"Who are you?" the captain asked.
"Hot Rod communications officer, sir. I turned it over last thing before we shut down. Under the instructions of Dr. Koblensky. That's the shutdown procedure."
"Where's Dr. Koblensky?"
"Out. Out like a light," said another voice. "He got a good dose. Of radiation. The medics put him out."
"Who's senior officer here?"
"I'm Dr. Johnston." It was a man in front. Rather small, pedantic-looking. "I'm Dr. Koblensky's ... well, assistant." The word came hard as though the fact of an assistantship were at the least distasteful.
"Who's senior in Security?"
"I, sir. Chauvenseer."
"Very well. Dr. Johnston and Chauvens ... sor? ... are in charge. Now shut down that ruby hellmaker as fast as it can be done."
"But, captain," Dr. Johnston spoke, "we can't turn it off. We haven't the authority. We haven't the Security key. And the radiation won't let up for hours."
"I have just given you the authority. As for the radiation, that's a hazard you'll have to take. What's this about a Security key?" The captain's voice was not gentle.
"Major Elbertson has the key. He has the only key. Without it, the station cannot be removed from Earth control. Earth is in control. They can turn it off, captain." Dr. Johnston's voice took on as firm a tone of authority as that of the captain.
"Chau ... Chau ... You!" barked the captain. "Get that key!" He waited until the Security officer had disappeared through the door, then turned to the scientist.
"Dr. Johnston, Earth is not in control. I do not know why, and there is no way of finding out. Hot Rod is wild, and that," he pointed at the enlarging red spot that centered the computer display, "is what your ruby is doing to Earth.
"You will turn off the project, at gunpoint if necessary," he continued in a grim voice. "If you turn it off volitionally, you will be treated for radiation. If you refuse, you will not live to be treated for anything. Do you understand? How many men do you need to help you ... and I do mean you ... with the job?" he asked.
Dr. Johnston hesitated only fractionally, and Nails Andersen mentally put him down on the plus side of the personnel for the shortness of his com lag. Then he said, "The job will require only two men for the fastest accomplishment. You realize, captain that you are probably signing our death warrants--the two of us. But," he added, glancing only casually at the display on the console, "I can understand the need to sign that warrant, and I shall not quibble."
The intercom spoke. "This is Dr. Green, captain. There is no key on the person of Major Elbertson. We have searched thoroughly, sir. I understand the need is of an emergency nature. The key is not on his person. We have taken every possible measure to arouse him, as well, and have been unsuccessful."
Andersen flipped his switch. "Let me speak to the Hot Rod Security officer," he said briefly.
"Chauvenseer speaking, sir," the man's voice came on.
"Do you know what the key looks like?"
"Yes, sir. It looks somewhat like a common Yale key, sir. But I've never seen another just like it."
"There is only the one?"
"Where would he keep it, if not on his person?"
"I don't know, sir. We came straight to the morgue--the shield area, from the air lock. I don't believe he stopped off anywhere he could have put it."
The captain turned to the second Security officer. "Search Elbertson's spacesuit," he said. Then to the intercom, "Search his hammock. Search every spot he went near. That key must be found in minutes. Commandeer as many men as can help in the search without getting in the way."
He paused a moment, then flipped another intercom key.
"Mr. Blackhawk," he said.
The intercom warmed at the far end. "Yes sir?" Mike's voice was relaxed.
"Is there any way to turn off Hot Rod without the Security key?"
"Why sure, captain." Mike's voice held a grin. "I could pull the power switch."
"Pull it. Fast. Hot Rod's out of control."
Mike's hand flashed to a master switch controlling the power that fed Hot Rod, and blessing as he did it the fallacy of engineering that had required external power to power the mighty energy collector.
In the big balloon now happily following the wheel at the end of its tether, the still-undamaged power-off fail-safe went into operation. The mirror surface behind each ruby rod rotated into its shielding position, dispersing the energy that the huge mirror directed towards the rods, back into space.
Hot Rod was secure.
Mike received only one further communication from the captain.
"Mr. Blackhawk," he was asked over the intercom, "is there any way that you secure the Hot Rod power switch so that it cannot be turned on without my personal authorization?"
"Sure, captain, I can--"
The captain interrupted. "Mr. Blackhawk, I should prefer that you not tell me or anyone else aboard the method you will use; and that you make your method as difficult as possible to discover. This I shall leave," he added dryly, "to your rather ... fertile ... imagination.
"There is reason to believe that Project Hot Rod was turned on by a saboteur. Your method must be proof against him, and if he exists, he will not be stupid." The captain switched off.
Mike turned to the control panel, and after a few minutes thought busied himself for some time.
Then he headed for the bridge where Dr. Johnston, Chauvenseer, and the captain had dismissed the others and were utilizing every check that Dr. Johnston could dream up to assure themselves that Hot Rod was actually turned off and would remain secure at least for the duration of the flare; and trying as well to find out just what form the sabotage had taken.
Without interrupting the others, Mike seated himself at the subsidiary post at the computer's console on Bessie's right, and got her to brief him while he examined the close-up display of Hot Rod.
After a few minutes he reached over and increased the magnification to its maximum, showing only a small portion of the balloon, then moved the focus to display the control room entrance as well as part of the anchor tube and the cable between the two.
"I think I've found your saboteur, sir," he said.
The captain was at his side almost instantly. "Where is he?" he asked briefly.
"Not he, sir. It. And I'm not sure just where--but look. Hot Rod's cable is taut. There's thrust on the balloon. That probably means a puncture and escaping nitrogen.
"I think," he said, "that the saboteur may have been a meteor that punctured the balloon, and the nitrogen escaping through the hole it made is now producing enough thrust to keep that cable taut. Though," he added thoughtfully, "I don't see why the servos couldn't maintain the beam to Thule--though obviously, they couldn't."
"How dangerous is such a puncture?" asked the captain. "How seriously would Hot Rod be damaged? How soon must it be repaired?"
"The puncture itself shouldn't be too dangerous. Even if all the nitrogen's gone, the balloon's in a vacuum and won't collapse--and that's about the only serious effect a puncture would have. Just a moment. We'll estimate its size by the thrust it's giving the ship," he added, and turned to Bessie.
"Ask the Cow whether we're getting thrust on the ship; and if so, how much. Wait a minute," he added, "if you ask for thrust on the ship, she'll say there isn't any because Hot Rod would be pulling us, not pushing. And if you ask her for the thrust on Hot Rod, she hasn't got any sensors out there.
"Hm-m-m. Ask her if we have added any off-orbit velocity; and if so how much."
The computer displayed the answer almost as soon as she received the question.
"Well," said Mike, "that's not too large a hole. Ask her how ... let's see ... how many pounds of thrust that velocity represents. That way we don't confuse her with whether it's push or pull."
The Cow displayed the answer, six hundred forty pounds of thrust.
"O.K.," said Mike. "Thanks." Then to the captain and the scientist and Security officer who were waiting beside him: "The puncture is obviously small enough to serve as a jet, rather than to have let the nitrogen out in one whoosh, since that would have given you far more than six hundred forty pounds of thrust. Therefore, it will probably be quite simple to patch the hole.
"Nitrogen is obviously escaping, but it wouldn't be worth a man's life to send him out into that flare-storm to patch it. We may even have enough nitrogen aboard to replace what we lose.
"The best I can figure," he said, "is that the meteor must have hit the orientation servos and thrown them off for a bit. We'll have to wait till after the flare to make more than an educated guess, though.
"We shouldn't be too far off-orbit by the time the flare's over, either, even with that jet constant. It'll take quite a bit of work, but we should be able to get her back into position with not too many hours of lost worktime.
"Except for Thule, I'd say we got off fairly light.
"Yes," he added grimly, "it looks like that's what your saboteur was. Rather an effective saboteur, but you'll have a hard time putting him up against a firing wall."
Having satisfied himself as to existing conditions, Mike excused himself shortly and went back to the engineering quarters, but his mind was no longer on Ishie's strange device. He glanced rapidly at the instruments regulating the power flow to the wheel, then stretched out comfortably on the acceleration couch and in minutes was asleep.
The captain, Dr. Johnston and Chauvenseer remained on the bridge another hour, convincing themselves that Mike's analysis was correct, and dictating a report to Earth, before the captain called in an aide to take over the bridge, and the three retired.
In the morgue, Dr. Y Chi Tung, who still slept peacefully as he had since the moment he reached his hammock, muttered quietly in his sleep, "Confusion--"
Mike snapped awake and glanced guiltily at the clock. Six hours had passed.
A situation report from the Cow was the first thing on his agenda any time that he had been out of contact for any length of time, flare or not.
It was not his job to be in constant contact with the complete situation of the ship and its vast complexities; he was not the captain. Nor was it in the manuals that he should have access to the computer's huge memory banks and abilities other than through "channels"--i.e., Bessie. But the book definition of the information he needed for his job, and his own criteria, were somewhat different, and he had built on Earth and installed shortly after he came aboard, a subcontrol link which put him in direct contact with the placid-Cow.
His original intention in rigging the link had been to use the calculator for that occasional math problem which might be more quickly resolved with her help; but then the criteria of needed information, curiosity, or both, had got the better of him, and the secret panel hidden in the legitimate control panels of an engineer's console was actually quite a complete link, covering all of the Cow's multiple functions without interfering in any was with Bessie's control links, or revealing its existence. This linkage gave Mike the only direct access to the computer's store of information and abilities other than that of the operator at the control console.
And Mike's secret pride was the vocoder circuit with which he had terminated his link, originated because a teletype system similar to that used at the control console would have been too obvious; and his nimble fingers got all tangled up on a keyboard anyhow.
Bessie might speak to the Cow through the teletype link and switches of her control console, but only Mike had the distinction of being able to speak directly to the big computer, and get the complacent, somewhat mooing answers; and only Mike knew of the existence of the vocoder aboard.
It had taken some care to get used to the literal-minded conversation that resulted; but eventually Mike felt he had worked out a satisfactory communications ability with the overly obvious "cow."
What he wanted now was a situation report. If he simply asked for that, however, he'd have received such miles of data that he'd have been listening for hours. So instead he broke his question down into the facets that he needed.
In a few minutes he had elicited the information that the solar flare was now predicted to be terminated and the major part of the flare protons past their solar orbital position within another ten hours; that Earth co-ordinates had shifted, indicating their own orbital shift to be a trifle over thirty-seven kilometers north in the past eight hours.
North? he thought. Hot Rod's pull on a taut cable would be to the south.
No. Lab One could be re-oriented to trail the thrusting balloon. But the lab's servos should have prevented that re-orientation unless the thrust were really heavy.
"What is our velocity?" he asked. Temporarily he was baffled by the placid Cow's literal translation of his request as one for any actual velocity, since she had replied with a figure very close to their original orbital speed. "What is our velocity at right angles to original course?" he inquired.
And the Cow's reply came: "Two-o-o hundred and fifty-seven point seven six ce-entimeters per se-econd."
That should be about right for six hundred forty pounds of thrust for, say, six and a half hours; and the distance of the orbit shift was about right.
But the direction?
"Is Hot Rod pulling us north?" he asked.