It was difficult to separate various concepts and orient herself to a present where and when.
Slowly the soft susurrus background song of the big wheel penetrated consciousness, and another, closer roar. Millie taking a shower, she realized.
Suddenly she came out of the vagueness wide awake, the hangover cleared magically, evaporating much too quickly to have been caused by alcohol.
But she had been tied up to a chair on the bridge beside Nails, prisoner of the Security men, only minutes ago.
WHAT was going on?
Millie stepped out of the shower into the compartment the two girls occupied, and smiled.
"How're you doing? About to come out of it?"
"Da, Da eta--" with an effort Bessie switched to English. "Explosion? What happened?"
"Oh, Mike just had to get the Security men off guard. Something to do with the air supply. He asked me to apologize to you if you don't feel so good. But after all, we got the Lab back and that's the main thing."
"Security. Oh! I've got to get to Nails right away. They've taken over Earth, too, you know. We've got to make sure they don't get control of the projects. We'll be shot of course. But their ambitions rest on having control of Hot Rod and the wheel. Probably secret control--"
"Nails has got to figure out how to destroy the project without too many casualties. Maybe he can get some of our men back to Earth, though of course we're all expendable. We can't let these monsters have the wheel and Hot Rod! That's what they need for power--"
"Of course, we can stand and fight for as long as possible, but we're sitting ducks, and even with Hot Rod there's not much we can do--we can't fire on Earth, we'd hit friend as well as enemy. So I think we've just got to stand and fight a bit, and then destroy both Hot Rod and the wheel. Anyhow, that's Nails' decision, and I've got to get to Nails--"
"Whoa!" Millie finally managed to stem the flow. "We're not stuck--not just stuck here in orbit any longer, waiting to see what's going on on Earth," she said softly, "or what they're going to do about us 'mad scientists.' Mike and Ishie started this whole thing when one of their experiments turned out to be a space drive, and the boys are working real hard on getting a drive unit set up capable of taking our whole complex out into space. But they need somebody to tell the captain ... uh ... properly ... as soon as he's awake that is ... uh ... you know what I mean."
"Whoa, yourself, girl. What's this--space drive?"
"Well, they didn't find out themselves until after it had wiped out Thule Base--nearly ten hours after that, in fact. That magneto-ionic thing the Sacred Cow's been talking about--they invented that real quick to cover up. You see ... oh, it's too complicated.
"Look, we've got a real space drive. We can go to the moon or Mars--or Pluto if we want to. And we've got to let Nails know real quick that he can get us out of here--and without making him mad that we wrecked Thule Base. But really, after the way those Security goons acted, maybe he won't be mad if you handle it right. How about it?"
The hangover was disappearing magically. But this flow of information was nearly as bad.
A space drive? Bessie knew she couldn't evaluate one way or the other on that. That would be Nails' problem.
But they were in a pickle, and it would be up to her to see that Nails didn't waste too much time evaluating things. Those Security men had been prepared to play real rough, and more of them were on their way up.
"Where is Nails?"
"The boys put him to bed. In his quarters. He got a dose of the same stuff that put you out. He ought to be coming to almost any time now. And probably mad about the whole thing."
Instantly, Bessie was on her feet, flinging on clothes, and out down the corridor toward Nails' private stateroom.
It had been thirty-two hours since Major--General--whatever it was Elbertson--had been defeated on the bridge for the final time.
He and his men were now securely locked in one of the empty labs. The paralysis effect of the needle gun had probably worn off. Mike hadn't checked to find out.
Bessie and her relief operators were watching the prisoners through a video display on the Sacred Cow's console, and would report anything unusual that went on to Captain Andersen.
Mike, Ishie, Millie, Paul and Tombu had completed the new Confusor drive units, and they were nearly installed.
More time would be taken arranging the engineering quarters so that the installation of her control panel and the units themselves would be completed.
This part, Mike didn't like too well. It meant re-arranging his already carefully arranged units, and considerable re-wiring without interfering with any of the basic functions of the wheel.
The new units had turned out to look very little like the original. Fourteen feet long by eighteen inches outside diameter, they looked very much like a group of stove-pipes arranged in a circular pattern around the engineering quarters, braced from wall to wall.
The control console itself, even though made rapidly, had the look of a carefully planned and well-made unit; something that might have turned up in one of Earth's better R&D labs, as part of a multi-million dollar project.
All together, the drive rods would provide something better than a tenth of a gee thrust for the combined mass of the wheel, Hot Rod, the pile and the other subsidiary units around them.
A tenth of a gee. Not enough to land on Earth; but with things down there the way they were now, who wanted to?
With these units, the whole storehouse of the solar system was at their disposal.
With these units they could reach the asteroids.
With these units, they could range as far out as Pluto without fear of consequences--without, Mike added to himself, even the fear of radiation that was a constant threat to them here, for the farther from the sun they went, the less radiation they would have to endure. The three months would be extended. For those who needed it, better shielding could be found.
The system was theirs.
Possibly, also the stars beyond.
That, he reminded himself, if they could get these units installed before the scuttlebug arrived.
Undoubtedly, Earth Security had sent arms as well as men.
Where they were, not strictly on course, but still in a satellite-type orbit, they remained sitting ducks for any number of countermeasures that Earth might throw against them.
Once gone from this orbit, there was not sufficient rocket-power on Earth to track them down.
If they took Hot Rod with them, there was no single weapon at man's command that could stop them. And take Hot Rod with them they would.
In his address to the ship's personnel this morning, Captain Nails had made it quite clear that they wanted no part of the plots and counterplots of Earth; that theirs was the job of scientists, not soldiers; that a path was open to them that they would follow.
Later, they could return. Later, with the supplies that were free to be taken from space, they could build strength.
They could return quietly, one by one, two by two, at times and places of their own choosing.
Then, and only then, they could lend aid to those on Earth who would always fight for freedom.
But not now.
They were yet weak; the path of escape and the path of promise lay before them.
The only help they could be would be to follow that path.
It might not be that the path led where they wanted to go--or where they thought they were going--but nevertheless the path was there, and follow it they must.
Quite a speech, Mike thought. There had been much more, but that, and the Declaration of the Freedom of Space, were the parts that had stayed with him.
That last they had broadcast back to Earth, thrown, as it were, into the screaming teeth of the new dictatorial leaders.
Mike leaned back from what he was doing and caught Ishie's eye.
He chuckled, and said "That was quite a mass of stuff that the Cow upchucked on your command. Why didn't you just freeze her like I thought you were going to do?"
"Confusion say," quoth Ishie blandly, "he who would play poker with dishonest men should never put all cards on table too soon. Or in other words, Confusion is the better part of valor. The garbage made them think that the Cow had sprung a cog somewhere, without ever guessing that we had control.
"And by the way, Mike, that was quite a trick you pulled with the air supply. Having the Cow boost up the oxygen on the bridge until those idiots got so drunk they were climbing the walls."
"You don't happen to have any education as a psychologist, do you Ishie? Or perhaps a brain surgeon?" Mike inquired. "It seems a shame to drag those Security apes along with us. We can't just dump them overboard, but it would be nice if we could just confuse them or something."
"Sorry, Mike. Techniques of brainwashing are a bit out of my line. Beside, Confusion say those who run from wolf pack have better chance if they leave some meat behind for the wolves to fight over. I've already spoken to Captain Nails about it. We intend to dump them overboard--just twenty minutes before the scuttlebug arrives. In suits, of course," he added. "Then we'll take off and see whether Security takes care of its own."
There was a possibility, Mike felt grimly, that perhaps Security wouldn't take care of its own. But then, he asked himself, did he really care? And found it very difficult to come up with an answer. But he realized with vast respect that the master of Confusion was not himself confused as to the issues involved before them.
"It's lucky for us," Mike said, "that you happened to pick this time to be aboard. Your work would have gone more smoothly if you'd waited until the next go-round."
Ishie grinned, for once slightly embarrassed. "Confusion say," he said, "luck is for those who make it. I expected that with Hot Rod coming into operation, some such play would be attempted. I've met Security before."
Millie laid down her soldering iron, and disappeared through the bulkhead, returning shortly with a tray of sandwiches and coffee.
Coffee in real cups, for there was spin on the satellite, things were working well, and those bottles--ugh.
"Relax, boys, we've still got three hours," she told them. "Radar hasn't spotted the scuttlebug yet. But our new communications officer, Lal, has them on the line. He's apparently convinced them of his honorable intentions and gotten an exact prediction of arrival time. They think Major ... uh, General Elbertson has the situation well in hand. They even think Hot Rod's operational!"
The crew relaxed around the circular room, squatting wherever convenient, and sipping luxuriously at the cups of coffee, munching sandwiches, and for the moment content.
Hot Rod had been secured to the ship with extra acceleration cables, and as soon as practicable a remote-controlled Confusor would be placed aboard to assist in any fast maneuvers that they might have to make; but for now there was no acceleration, and the group composed of the wheel, the big laser, the dump and the pile moved peacefully in orbit under free-fall conditions.
Millie began to hum a soft tune. Someone else brought forth a harmonica that had been smuggled aboard, and suddenly Paul Chernov burst into song, his deep baritone, perhaps inspired by the captain's speech earlier in the day, lending the wailing "The Spaceman's Lament," an extra folk beat: "The captain spoke of stars and bars Of far-off places like maybe Mars But the slipsticks slip on this ship of ours-- And we'll get where I wasn't going!"
Mike looked over at Millie as she drank her coffee, a slender, dark figure--able with a soldering iron; able as a defending panther; able as a spaceman's mate. He was glad the captain of the ship was a proper marrying officer, for he had an idea the feeling he felt was mutual, as he joined with the crew in the chorus: "There's a sky-trail leading from here to there And another yonder showing-- But when we get to the end of the run It'll be where I wasn't going...."
By Frank M. Robinson
The captain had learned to hate. It was his profession--and his personal reason for going on. But even hatred has to be channeled for its maximum use, and no truths exist forever.
The battle alarm caught him in the middle of a dream, a dream that took place in a white house in a small town in Ohio, when both he and Alice had been very young and the grown adults he now called his children had really been little more than babies.
He rolled out of his bed immediately on hearing the gong, as any good sailor would, and slipped into his pants and shoes and felt around the bulkhead for his life jacket. He slipped into it and tightened the buckles, then put on his cap with the captain's insignia.
He opened the hatch and stepped out into the passageway, blinking for a moment in the unaccustomed light and trying to shake away the remnants of his dream. Officers were boiling up the passageway and up the ladder, some eager ensigns dressed only in their shorts and their life jackets. It was more wise than funny, he thought slowly. Ships had gone down in a matter of seconds and anybody who spent precious moments looking for his pants or his wallet never got out.
Harry Davis, the Exec, a portly man in his fifties, burst out of his stateroom, still trying to shake the sleep from gummy lids.
The Captain shook his head, trying to alert his mind to the point where it could make sensible evaluations, and started up the corridor.
"Any idea what it is, Harry?"
Davis shook his head. "Not unless it's what we've been expecting."
What we've been expecting. The Captain grasped the iron piping that served for railings and jogged up the ladder. Fifty miles north, lolling in the North Sea and holding maneuvers, was the Josef Dzugashvili, a hundred thousand tons of the finest aircraft carrier the Asiatic Combine had produced, carrying close to a hundred Mig-72's and perhaps half a dozen light bombers.
The Josef had been operating there for nearly a week. The Oahu had been detached from the Atlantic Fleet only a few days ago, to combat the possible threat. Maybe the ships were only acting as stake-outs for the politicians, the Captain thought slowly. The tinder waiting for the spark. And it wouldn't take much.
A curious pilot who might venture too close, a gunner with a nervous temperament ...
And now, maybe, this was it. It had to come some day. You couldn't turn the other cheek forever. And he, for one, was glad. He had spent almost all his life waiting for this. A chance to get even ...
Davis opened the hatch to the wheelhouse and the Captain slipped in, closing it tight behind him. It was pitch black and it took his eyes a few moments to adjust to it. When they had, he could make out the shadowed forms of the OD, the first class quartermaster at the wheel, and the radarman hunched over the repeater, the scope a phosphorescent blur in the darkness.
The ports were open in violation of GQ--it was a hot summer night--and the slight breeze that blew off the swelling sea smelled clean and cool. It was the only kind of air for a man to breathe, the Captain mused abstractly.
He glanced sharply through the ports. There was nothing that bulked on the dark horizon, and so far as he could tell, all the stars were fixed--there were none of the tell-tale flashes of jet exhausts.
He walked over to where the OD stood by the radar scope, seemingly fascinated by the picture on it. McCandless had the watch, a young lieutenant of not more than twenty-five but one with good sense and sound judgment nonetheless. A man who wasn't prone to panic, the Captain thought.
"What's the situation, Lieutenant?"
McCandless' voice was nervous. "I'm not exactly sure, sir. Not ... yet."
A brief regret at an interrupted dream of Ohio flickered in the back of the Captain's mind.