"Well," Hellman said, "it's advertised as a Plugger. I suppose that's what it does--expands to plug up holes."
"Sure. But how much?"
"Unfortunately, I don't know how much two cubic vims are. But it can't go on much--"
Belatedly, they noticed that the Plugger had filled almost a quarter of the room and was showing no signs of stopping.
"We should have believed the label!" Casker yelled to him, across the spreading glob. "It is dangerous!"
As the Plugger produced more surface, it began to accelerate in its growth. A sticky edge touched Hellman, and he jumped back.
He couldn't reach Casker, on the other side of the gigantic sphere of blob. Hellman tried to run around, but the Plugger had spread, cutting the room in half. It began to swell toward the walls.
"Run for it!" Hellman yelled, and rushed to the door behind him.
He flung it open just as the expanding glob reached him. On the other side of the room, he heard a door slam shut. Hellman didn't wait any longer. He sprinted through and slammed the door behind him.
He stood for a moment, panting, the burner in his hand. He hadn't realized how weak he was. That sprint had cut his reserves of energy dangerously close to the collapsing point. At least Casker had made it, too, though.
But he was still in trouble.
The Plugger poured merrily through the blasted lock, into the room. Hellman tried a practice shot on it, but the Plugger was evidently impervious ... as, he realized, a good plugger should be.
It was showing no signs of fatigue.
Hellman hurried to the far wall. The door was locked, as the others had been, so he burned out the lock and went through.
How far could the glob expand? How much was two cubic vims? Two cubic miles, perhaps? For all he knew, the Plugger was used to repair faults in the crusts of planets.
In the next room, Hellman stopped to catch his breath. He remembered that the building was circular. He would burn his way through the remaining doors and join Casker. They would burn their way outside and....
Casker didn't have a burner!
Hellman turned white with shock. Casker had made it into the room on the right, because they had burned it open earlier. The Plugger was undoubtedly oozing into that room, through the shattered lock ... and Casker couldn't get out! The Plugger was on his left, a locked door on his right!
Rallying his remaining strength, Hellman began to run. Boxes seemed to get in his way purposefully, tripping him, slowing him down. He blasted the next door and hurried on to the next. And the next. And the next.
The Plugger couldn't expand completely into Casker's room!
Or could it?
The wedge-shaped rooms, each a segment of a circle, seemed to stretch before him forever, a jumbled montage of locked doors, alien goods, more doors, more goods. Hellman fell over a crate, got to his feet and fell again. He had reached the limit of his strength, and passed it. But Casker was his friend.
Besides, without a pilot, he'd never get off the place.
Hellman struggled through two more rooms on trembling legs and then collapsed in front of a third.
"Is that you, Hellman?" he heard Casker ask, from the other side of the door.
"You all right?" Hellman managed to gasp.
"Haven't much room in here," Casker said, "but the Plugger's stopped growing. Hellman, get me out of here!"
Hellman lay on the floor panting. "Moment," he said.
"Moment, hell!" Casker shouted. "Get me out. I've found water!"
"Get me out of here!"
Hellman tried to stand up, but his legs weren't cooperating. "What happened?" he asked.
"When I saw that glob filling the room, I figured I'd try to start up the Super Custom Transport. Thought maybe it could knock down the door and get me out. So I pumped it full of high-gain Integor fuel."
"Yes?" Hellman said, still trying to get his legs under control.
"That Super Custom Transport is an animal, Hellman! And the Integor fuel is water! Now get me out!"
Hellman lay back with a contented sigh. If he had had a little more time, he would have worked out the whole thing himself, by pure logic. But it was all very apparent now. The most efficient machine to go over those vertical, razor-sharp mountains would be an animal, probably with retractable suckers. It was kept in hibernation between trips; and if it drank water, the other products designed for it would be palatable, too. Of course they still didn't know much about the late inhabitants, but undoubtedly....
"Burn down that door!" Casker shrieked, his voice breaking.
Hellman was pondering the irony of it all. If one man's meat--and his poison--are your poison, then try eating something else. So simple, really.
But there was one thing that still bothered him.
"How did you know it was an Earth-type animal?" he asked.
"Its breath, stupid! It inhales and exhales and smells as if it's eaten onions!" There was a sound of cans falling and bottles shattering. "Now hurry!"
"What's wrong?" Hellman asked, finally getting to his feet and poising the burner.
"The Custom Super Transport. It's got me cornered behind a pile of cases. Hellman, it seems to think that I'm its meat!"
Broiled with the burner--well done for Hellman, medium rare for Casker--it was their meat, with enough left over for the trip back to Calao.
By Robert Silverberg
The Lexman Spacedrive was only the second most important theoretical accomplishment of the exciting years at the dawn of the Space Age, yet it changed all human history and forever altered the pattern of sociocultural development on Earth.
Yet it was only the second most important discovery.
The Cavour Hyperdrive unquestionably would have held first rank in any historical assessment, had the Cavour Hyperdrive ever reached practical use. The Lexman Spacedrive allows mankind to reach Alpha Centauri, the closest star with habitable planets, in approximately four and a half years. The Cavour Hyperdrive--if it ever really existed--would have brought Alpha C within virtual instantaneous access.
But James Hudson Cavour had been one of those tragic men whose personalities negate the value of their work. A solitary, cantankerous, opinionated individual--a crank, in short--he withdrew from humanity to develop the hyperspace drive, announcing at periodic intervals that he was approaching success.
A final enigmatic bulletin in the year 2570 indicated to some that Cavour had achieved his goal or was on the verge of achieving it; others, less sympathetic, interpreted his last message as a madman's wild boast. It made little difference which interpretation was accepted. James Hudson Cavour was never heard from again.
A hard core of passionate believers insisted that he had developed a faster-than-light drive, that he had succeeded in giving mankind an instantaneous approach to the stars. But they, like Cavour himself, were laughed down, and the stars remained distant.
Distant--but not unreachable. The Lexman Spacedrive saw to that.
Lexman and his associates had developed their ionic drive in 2337, after decades of research. It permitted man to approach, but not to exceed, the theoretical limiting velocity of the universe: the speed of light.
Ships powered by the Lexman Spacedrive could travel at speeds just slightly less than the top velocity of 186,000 miles per second. For the first time, the stars were within man's grasp.
The trip was slow. Even at such fantastic velocities as the Lexman Spacedrive allowed, it took nine years for a ship to reach even the nearest of stars, stop, and return; a distant star such as Bellatrix required a journey lasting two hundred fifteen years each way. But even this was an improvement over the relatively crude spacedrives then in use, which made a journey from Earth to Pluto last for many months and one to the stars almost unthinkable.
The Lexman Spacedrive worked many changes. It gave man the stars. It brought strange creatures to Earth, strange products, strange languages.
But one necessary factor was involved in slower-than-light interstellar travel, one which the Cavour drive would have averted: the Fitzgerald Contraction. Time aboard the great starships that lanced through the void was contracted; the nine-year trip to Alpha Centauri and back seemed to last only six weeks to the men on the ship, thanks to the strange mathematical effects of interstellar travel at high--but not infinite--speeds.
The results were curious, and in some cases tragic. A crew that had aged only six weeks would return to find that Earth had grown nine years older. Customs had changed; new slang words made language unintelligible.
The inevitable development was the rise of a guild of Spacers, men who spent their lives flashing between the suns of the universe and who had little or nothing to do with the planet-bound Earthers left behind. Spacer and Earther, held apart forever by the inexorable mathematics of the Fitzgerald Contraction, came to regard each other with a bitter sort of distaste.
The centuries passed--and the changes worked by the coming of the Lexman Spacedrive became more pronounced. Only a faster-than-light spacedrive could break down the ever-widening gulf between Earther and Spacer--and the faster-than-light drive remained as unattainable a dream as it had been in the days of James Hudson Cavour.
--Sociocultural Dynamics Leonid Hallman London, 3876
The sound of the morning alarm rang out, four loud hard clear gong-clangs, and all over the great starship Valhalla the men of the Crew rolled out of their bunks to begin another day. The great ship had travelled silently through the endless night of space while they slept, bringing them closer and closer to the mother world, Earth. The Valhalla was on the return leg of a journey to Alpha Centauri.
But one man aboard the starship had not waited for the morning alarm. For Alan Donnell the day had begun several hours before. Restless, unable to sleep, he had quietly slipped from his cabin in the fore section, where the unmarried Crewmen lived, and had headed forward to the main viewscreen, in order to stare at the green planet growing steadily larger just ahead.
He stood with his arms folded, a tall red-headed figure, long-legged, a little on the thin side. Today was his seventeenth birthday.
Alan adjusted the fine controls on the viewscreen and brought Earth into sharper focus. He tried to pick out the continents on the planet below, struggling to remember his old history lessons. Tutor Henrich would not be proud of him, he thought.
That's South America down there, he decided, after rejecting the notion that it might be Africa. They had pretty much the same shape, and it was so hard to remember what Earth's continents looked like when there were so many other worlds. But that's South America. And so that's North America just above it. The place where I was born.
Then the 0800 alarm went off, the four commanding gongs that Alan always heard as It's! Time! Wake! Up! The starship began to stir into life. As Alan drew out his Tally and prepared to click off the start of a new day, he felt a strong hand firmly grasp his shoulder.
Alan turned from the viewscreen. He saw the tall, gaunt figure of his father standing behind him. His father--and the Valhalla's captain.
"Good rising, Captain."
Captain Donnell eyed him curiously. "You've been up a while, Alan. I can tell. Is there something wrong?"
"Just not sleepy, that's all," Alan said.
"You look troubled about something."
"No, Dad--I'm not," he lied. To cover his confusion he turned his attention to the little plastic gadget he held in his hand--the Tally. He punched the stud; the register whirred and came to life.
He watched as the reading changed. The black-on-yellow dials slid forward from Year 16 Day 365 to Year 17 Day 1.
As the numbers dropped into place his father said, "It's your birthday, is it? Let it be a happy one!"
"Thanks, Dad. You know, it'll feel fine to have a birthday on Earth!"
The Captain nodded. "It's always good to come home, even if we'll have to leave again soon. And this will be the first time you've celebrated your birthday on your native world in--three hundred years, Alan."
Grinning, Alan thought, Three hundred? No, not really. Out loud he said, "You know that's not right, Dad. Not three hundred years. Just seventeen." He looked out at the slowly-spinning green globe of Earth.
"When on Earth, do as the Earthers do," the Captain said. "That's an old proverb of that planet out there. The main vault of the computer files says you were born in 3576, unless I forget. And if you ask any Earther what year this is he'll tell you it's 3876. 3576-3876--that's three hundred years, no?" His eyes twinkled.
"Stop playing games with me, Dad." Alan held forth his Tally. "It doesn't matter what the computer files say. Right here it says Year 17 Day 1, and that's what I'm going by. Who cares what year it is on Earth? This is my world!"
"I know, Alan."
Together they moved away from the viewscreen; it was time for breakfast, and the second gongs were sounding. "I'm just teasing, son. But that's the sort of thing you'll be up against if you leave the Starmen's Enclave--the way your brother did."
Alan frowned and his stomach went cold. He wished the unpleasant topic of his brother had not come up. "You think there's any chance Steve will come back, this time down? Will we be in port long enough for him to find us?"
Captain Donnell's face clouded. "We're going to be on Earth for almost a week," he said in a suddenly harsh voice. "That's ample time for Steve to rejoin us, if he cares to. But I don't imagine he'll care to. And I don't know if I want very much to have him back."