Johnny frowned, jabbed the button again. And again. The Captain started to speak, then fell watchfully silent. Johnny reached toward the button, touched it, then struck it savagely. He stepped back then, one foot striking the other like that of a clumsy child. He turned partially to the others. In his voice, as it came from the speaker across the room, was a deep amazement that rang like the opening chords of a prophetic and gloomy symphony.
He said, "The port won't open."
The extremes of mysticism and of pragmatism have their own expressions of worship. Each has its form, and the difference between them is the difference between deus ex machina and deus machina est. --E. Hunter Waldo "Of course it will open," said Hoskins. He strode past the stunned pilot and confidently palmed the control.
The port didn't open.
Hoskins said, "Hm?" as if he had been asked an inaudible question, and tried again. Nothing happened. "Skipper," he said over his shoulder, "Have a quick look at the meters behind you there. Are we getting auxiliary power?"
"All well here," said Anderson after a glance at the board. "And no shorts showing."
There was a silence punctuated by the soft, useless clicking of the control as Hoskins manipulated it. "Well, what do you know."
"It won't work," said Johnny plaintively.
"Sure it'll work," said Paresi swiftly, confidently. "Take it easy, Johnny."
"It won't work," said Johnny. "It won't work." He stumbled across the cabin and leaned against the opposite bulkhead, staring at the closed port with his head a little to one side as if he expected it to shriek at him.
"Let me try," said Ives, going to Hoskins. He put out his hand.
"Don't!" Johnny cried.
"Shut up, Johnny," said Paresi.
"All right, Nick," said Johnny. He opened his face plate, went to the rear bulkhead, keyed open an acceleration couch, and lay face down on it. Paresi watched him, his lips pursed.
"Can't say I blame him," said the Captain softly, catching Paresi's eye. "It's something of a shock. This shouldn't be. The safety factor's too great--a thousand per cent or better."
"I know what you mean," said Hoskins. "I saw it myself, but I don't believe it." He pushed the button again.
"I believe it," said Paresi.
Ives went to his desk, clicked the transmitter and receiver switches on and off, moved a rheostat or two. He reached up to a wall toggle, turned a small air-circulating fan on and off. "Everything else seems to work," he said absently.
"This is ridiculous!" exploded the Captain. "It's like having your keys home, or arriving at the theater without your tickets. It isn't dangerous--it's just stupid!"
"It's dangerous," said Paresi.
"Dangerous how?" Ives demanded.
"For one thing--" Paresi nodded toward Johnny, who lay tensely, his face hidden. "For another, the simple calculation that if nothing inside this ship made that control fail, something outside this ship did it. And that I don't like."
"That couldn't happen," said the Captain reasonably.
Paresi snorted impatiently. "Which of two mutually exclusive facts are you going to reason from? That the ship can't fail? Then this failure isn't a failure; it's an external control. Or are you going to reason that the ship can fail? Then you don't have to worry about an external force--but you can't trust anything about the ship. Do the trick that makes you happy. But do only one. You can't have both."
Johnny began to laugh.
Ives went to him. "Hey, boy--"
Johnny rolled over, swung his feet down, and sat up, brushing the fat man aside. "What you guys need," Johnny chuckled, "is a nice kind policeman to feed you candy and take you home. You're real lost."
Ives said, "Johnny, take it easy and be quiet, huh? We'll figure a way out of this."
"I already have, scrawny," said Johnny offensively. He got up, strode to the port. "What a bunch of deadheads," he growled. He went two steps past the port and grasped the control-wheel which was mounted on the other side of the port from the button.
"Oh my God," breathed Anderson delightedly, "the manual! Anybody else want to be Captain?"
"Factor of safety," said Hoskins, smiting himself on the brow. "There's a manual control for everything on this scow that there can be. And we stand here staring at it--"
"If we don't win the furlined teacup...." Ives laughed.
Johnny hauled on the wheel.
It wouldn't budge.
"Here--" Ives began to approach.
"Get away," said Johnny. He put his hands close together on the rim of the wheel, settled his big shoulders, and hauled. With a sharp crack the wheel broke off in his hands.
Johnny staggered, then stood. He looked at the wheel and then up at the broken end of its shaft, gleaming deep below the surface of the bulkhead.
"Oh, fine...." Ives whispered.
Suddenly Johnny threw back his head and loosened a burst of high, hysterical laughter. It echoed back and forth between the metal walls like a torrent from a burst dam. It went on and on, as if now that the dam was gone, the flood would run forever.
Anderson called out "Johnny!" three times, but the note of command had no effect. Paresi walked to the pilot and with the immemorial practice slapped him sharply across the cheeks. "Johnny! Stop it!"
The laughter broke off as suddenly as it had begun. Johnny's chest heaved, drawing in breath with great, rasping near-sobs. Slowly they died away. He extended the wheel toward the Captain.
"It broke off," he said, finally, dully, without emphasis.
Then he leaned back against the hull, slowly slid down until he was sitting on the deck. "Broke right off," he said.
Ives twined his fat fingers together and bent them until the knuckles cracked. "Now what?"
"I suggest," said Paresi, in an extremely controlled tone, "that we all sit down and think over the whole thing very carefully."
Hoskins had been staring hypnotically at the broken shaft deep in the wall. "I wonder," he said at length, "which way Johnny turned that wheel."
"Counter-clockwise," said Ives. "You saw him."
"I know that," said Hoskins. "I mean, which way: the right way, or the wrong way?"
"Oh." There was a short silence. Then Ives said, "I guess we'll never know, now."
"Not until we get back to Earth," said Paresi quickly.
"You say 'until', or 'unless'?" Ives demanded.
"I said 'until', Ives," said Paresi levelly, "and watch your mouth."
"Sometimes," said the fat man with a dangerous joviality, "you pick the wrong way to say the right thing, Nick." Then he clapped the slender doctor on the back. "But I'll be good. We sow no panic seed, do we?"
"Much better not to," said the Captain. "It's being done efficiently enough from outside."
"You are convinced it's being done from outside?" asked Hoskins, peering at him owlishly.
"I'm ... convinced of very little," said the Captain heavily. He went to the acceleration couch and sat down. "I want out," he said. He waved away the professional comment he could see forming on Paresi's lips and went on, "Not claustrophobia, Nick. Getting out of the ship's more important than just relieving our feelings. If the trouble with the port is being caused by some fantastic something outside this ship, we'll achieve a powerful victory over it, purely by ignoring it."
"It broke off," murmured Johnny.
"Ignore that," snorted Ives.
"You keep talking about this thing being caused by something outside," said Paresi. His tone was almost complaining.
"Got a better hypothesis?" asked Hoskins.
"Hoskins," said the Captain, "isn't there some way we can get out? What about the tubes?"
"Take a shipyard to move those power-plants," said Hoskins, "and even if it could be done, those radioactive tubes would fry you before you crawled a third of the way."
"We should have a lifeboat," said Ives to no one in particular.
"What in time does a ship like the Ambassador need with a lifeboat?" asked Hoskins in genuine amazement.
The Captain frowned. "What about the ventilators?"
"Take us days to remove all the screens and purifiers," said Hoskins, "and then we'd be up against the intake ports. You could stroll out through any of them about as far as your forearm. And after that it's hull-metal, skipper. That you don't cut, not with a piece of the Sun's core."
The Captain got up and began pacing, slowly and steadily, as if the problem could be trodden out like ripe grapes. He closed his eyes and said, "I've been circling around that idea for thirty minutes now. Look: the hull can't be cut because it is built so it can't fail. It doesn't fail. The port controls were also built so they wouldn't fail. They do fail. The thing that keeps us in stays in shape. The thing that lets us out goes bad. Effect: we stay inside. Cause: something that wants us to stay inside."
"Oh," said Johnny clearly.
They looked at him. He raised his head, stiffened his spine against the bulkhead. Paresi smiled at him. "Sure, Johnny. The machine didn't fail. It was--controlled. It's all right." Then he turned to the Captain and said carefully, "I'm not denying what you say, Skipper. But I don't like to think of what will happen if you take that tack, reason it through, and don't get any answers."
"I'd hate to be a psychologist," said Ives fervently. "Do you extrapolate your mastications, too, and get frightened of the stink you might get?"
Paresi smiled coldly. "I control my projections."
Captain Anderson's lips twitched in passing amusement, and then his expression sobered. "I'll take the challenge, Paresi. We have a cause and an effect. Something is keeping us in the ship. Corollary: We--or perhaps the ship--we're not welcome."
"Men of Earth," quoted Ives, in an excellent imitation of the accentless English they had heard on the radio, "welcome to our planet."
"They're kidding," said Johnny heartily, rising to his feet. He dropped the control wheel with a clang and shoved it carelessly aside with his foot. "Who ever says exactly what they mean anyhow? I see that conclusion the head-shrinker's afraid you'll get to, Skipper. If we can't leave the ship, the only other thing we can do is to leave the planet. That it?"
Paresi nodded and watched the Captain closely. Anderson turned abruptly away from them all and stood, feet apart, head down, hands behind his back, and stared out of the forward viewports. In the tense silence they could hear his knuckles crack. At length he said quietly, "That isn't what we came here for, Johnny."
Johnny shrugged. "Okay. Chew it up all you like, fellers. The only other choice is to sit here like bugs in a bottle until we die of old age. When you get tired of thinking that over, just let me know. I'll fly you out."
"We can always depend on Johnny," said Paresi with no detectible emphasis at all.
"Not on me," said Johnny, and swatted the bulkhead. "On the ship. Nothing on any planet can stop this baby once I pour on the coal. She's just got too much muscles."
"Well, Captain?" asked Hoskins softly.
Anderson looked at the basking valley, at the too-blue sky and the near-familiar, mellow-weathered crags. They waited.
"Take her up," said the Captain. "Put her in orbit at two hundred kilos. I'm not giving up this easily."
Ives swatted Johnny's broad shoulder. "That's a take-off and a landing, if I know the Old Man. Go to it, Jets."
Johnny's wide white grin flashed and he strode to the control chair. "Gentlemen, be seated."
"I'll take mine lying down," said Ives, and spread his bulk out on the acceleration couch. The others went to their take-off posts.
"On automatics," said the Captain, "Fire away!"
"Fire away!" said Johnny cheerfully. He reached forward and pressed the central control.
Johnny put his hand toward the control again. It moved as if there were a repellor field around the button. The hand moved more and more slowly the closer it got, until it hovered just over the control and began to tremble.
"On manual," barked the Captain. "Fire!"
"Manual, sir," said Johnny reflexively. His trembling hand darted up to an overhead switch, pulled it. He grasped the control bars and dropped the heels of his hands heavily on the firing studs. From somewhere came a muted roar, a whispering; a subjective suggestion of the thunder of reaction motors.
A frown crossed Paresi's face. The rocket noise was gone as the mind reached for it, like an occluded thought. The motors were silent; there wasn't a tremor of vibration. Yet somewhere a ghost engine was warming up, preparing a ghost ship for an intangible take-off into nothingness.
He snapped off the catch of his safety belt and crossed swiftly and silently to the console. Johnny sat raptly. A slow smile of satisfaction began to spread over his face. His gaze flicked to dials and gauges; he nodded very slightly, and brought both hands down like an organist playing a mighty chord. He watched the gauges. The needles were still, lying on their zero pins, and where lights should have flickered and flashed there was nothing. Paresi glanced at Anderson and met a worried look. Hoskins had his head cocked to one side, listening, puzzled. Ives rose from the couch and came forward to stand beside Paresi.
Johnny was manipulating the keys firmly. His fingers began to play a rapid, skillful, silent concerto. His face had a look of intense concentration and of complete self-confidence.
"Well," said Ives heavily. "That's a bust, too."
Paresi spun to him. "Shh!" It was done with such intensity that Ives recoiled. With a warning look at him, Paresi walked to the Captain, whispered in his ear.
"My God," said Anderson. "All right, Doctor." He came forward to the pilot's chair. Johnny was still concentratedly, uselessly at work. Anderson glanced inquiringly at Paresi, who nodded.
"That does it," said the Captain, loudly. "Nice work, Johnny. We're smack in orbit. The automatics couldn't have done it better. For once it feels good to be out in space again. Cut your jets now. You can check for correction later."
"Aye, sir," said Johnny. He made two delicate adjustments, threw a master switch and swung around. "Whew! That's work!"
Facing the four silent men, Johnny thumbed out a cigarette, put it in his mouth, touched his lighter to it, drew a long slow puff.