"Meteor," Jayjay said flatly. "The bumper hull is fused at the edges of the break, and the direction of motion was inward."
"I don't see how it could have got by the meteor detectors," said Smith, a lean, sad-looking man with a badly bruised face.
"I don't either," the captain said, "but it must have. If the engines had blown, the damage would have been quite different."
Jeffry Hull nervously took a cigarette from his pocket pack. His nose had quit bleeding, but his eye was purpling rapidly and was almost swollen shut.
Captain Al-Amin leaned over and gently took the cigarette from Hull's fingers. "No smoking, I'm afraid. We'll have to conserve oxygen."
"You guys are so damn calm!" Hull said. His voice betrayed a surface of anger covering a substratum of fear. "Here we are, heading away from the Solar System at eighteen million miles an hour, and you all act as if we were going on a picnic or something."
The observation was hardly accurate. Any group of men who went on a picnic in the frame of mind that Jayjay and the others were in would have produced the gloomiest outing since the Noah family took a trip in an excursion boat.
"There's nothing to worry about," Captain Al-Amin said gently. "All we have to do is set the screamers going, and the Interplanetary Police will pick us up."
"Screamers?" Hull looked puzzled.
Instead of answering the implied question, the captain looked at Smith. "Have you checked them?" He knew that Smith had, but he was trying to quiet Hull's fears.
Smith nodded. "They're O.K." He looked at Hull. "A screamer is an emergency radio. There's one in every compartment. You've seen them." He pointed across the room, toward a red panel in the wall. "In there."
"But I thought it was impossible for a spaceship in flight to contact a planet by radio," Hull objected.
"Normally, it is," Smith admitted. "It takes too much power and too tight a beam to get much intelligence over a distance that great from a moving ship. But the screamers are set up for emergency purposes. They're like flares, except that they operate on microwave frequencies instead of visible light.
"The big radio telescopes on Luna and on the Jovian satellites can pick them up if we beam them sunward, and the Plutonian station can pick us up if we beam in that direction."
Hull looked much calmer. "But where do you get the power if the engines are gone? Surely the emergency batteries won't supply that kind of power."
"Of course not. Each screamer has its own power supply. It's a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell that generates a hell of a burst of power for about thirty minutes before it burns out from the overload. It's meant to be used only once, but it does the job."
"How do they know where to find us from a burst like that?" Hull asked.
"Well, suppose we only had one screamer. We'd beam it toward Pluto, since it would be easier for an IP ship to get to us from there. Since all screamers have the same frequency--don't ask me what it is; I'm not a radio man--the velocity of our ship will be indicated by the Doppler Effect. That is, our motion toward or away from them can be calculated that way. Our angular velocity with respect to them can be checked while the screamer is going; they will know which direction we're moving, if we're moving at an angle.
"With that information, all they have to do is find out which ship is in that general area of the sky, which they can find out by checking the schedule, and they can estimate approximately where we'll be. The IP ship will come out, and when they get in the general vicinity, they can find us with their meteor detectors. Nothing to it."
"And," Captain Al-Amin added, "since we have eight screamers still left with us, we have plenty of reserves to call upon. There's nothing to worry about, Mr. Hull."
"But how can you aim a beam when we're toppling end-over-end like this?" Hull asked.
"Well, if we couldn't stop the rotation," said the captain, "we'd broadcast instead of beaming. Anywhere within the Solar System, a screamer can broadcast enough energy to overcome the background noise.
"The IP would have a harder time finding us, of course, but we'd be saved eventually."
"I see," said Hull "How do we go about stopping the rotation?"
"That's the next thing on the agenda," Al-Amin said. "This seasick roll is caused by the unevenness of the load, and I'm pretty sick of it, myself. Smith, will you and Mr. Kelvin get out the emergency rockets? We'll see what we can do to stabilize our platform."
It took better than an hour to get the ship straightened out. For the main job, emergency rockets were set off at the appropriate spots around the hull to counteract the rotation. The final trimming was done with carbon dioxide fire extinguishers, which Smith and Jayjay Kelvin used as jets.
Getting a fix on Pluto was easy enough; the lighthouse station at Styx broadcast a strong beep sunward every ten seconds. They could also pick up the radio lighthouses on Eros, Ceres, Luna, and Mimas. Evidently, the one on Titan was behind the Jovian bulk.
They were ready to send their distress call.
"It's simple," Smith said as he opened the red panel in the wall of the control room. "First we turn on the receiver." He pushed a button marked R. "Then we turn these two wheels here until the pip on that little screen is centered. That's the signal from Pluto. It comes in strong every ten seconds, see?"
Jayjay watched with interest. He'd heard about screamers and had seen them, but he'd never had the opportunity of observing one in action.
Like flares or bombs, they were intended for one-time use. The instructions were printed plainly on the inside of the red door, and Smith was simply reading off what was printed there.
"These wheels," he was saying, "line up the parabolic reflector with the Pluto signal, you see. There. Now we've got it centered. Now, all we have to do is make one small correction and we're all set. These things are built so that they're fool-proof; a kid could operate it. Watch."
Facing each other across a small gap were a pair of tapered screw plugs, one male and one female. The male was an average of half an inch in diameter; the female was larger and bored to fit the male.
"The female plug," Smith said, "leads to two tanks of high-pressure gas inside this cabinet on the left. One tank of oxygen, one of hydrogen. See how this male plug telescopes out to fit into the female? All we have to do is thread them together, and everything is automatic."
Jayjay was aware that Smith's explanations were meant to give Jeffry Hull something to think about instead of his fears. Hull was basically an Earth-hugger, and free fall did nothing to keep him calm. Evidently his subconscious knew that he had to latch on to something to keep his mental equilibrium, because he showed a tremendous amount of interest in what should have been a routine operation.
"How do you mean, it's all automatic?" he asked. "What happens?"
"Well, you can't see into the female plug, but look here at the male. See those concentric tubes leading into the interior of the cabinet on the right? The outer one leads in the oxygen, the inner leads in the hydrogen. We need twice as much hydrogen as oxygen, so the inner tube has twice the volume delivery as the outer. See?"
"Yes. But what is the solid silver bar in the center of the inner tube?"
"That's the electrical connection for the starter battery. There's a small, short-lived chemical battery, like the ones in an ordinary pocket radio, except that they're built to deliver a high-voltage, high-amperage current for about a tenth of a second. That activates the H-O cell, you see. Also, that silver stud depresses the corresponding stud in the female plug, which turns on the gas flow before it makes the connection with the starter battery. Follow?"
Hull didn't look as though he did, but he nodded gamely. "Then what happens?"
"Then the hydrogen and the oxygen come together in the fuel cell and, instead of generating heat, they generate electric current. That current is fed into the radio unit, and the signal is sent to Pluto. Real simple."
"I see," Hull said. "Well ... go ahead."
Smith telescoped the two leads together and began turning the collar on the female plug.
He screwed it up as far as it would go.
And nothing happened.
"What the hell?" asked Smith of no one in particular. He tried to twist it a little harder. Nothing happened. The threads had gone as far as they would go.
"What's the matter?" Jayjay asked.
"Damfino. No connection. Nothing's happening. And it's as tight as it will go."
"Are the gases flowing?" Jayjay asked.
"I don't know. These things aren't equipped with meters. They're supposed to work automatically."
Jayjay pushed Smith aside. "Let me take a look."
Smith frowned as though he resented an ordinary passenger shoving him around, but Jayjay ignored him. He cocked his head to one side and looked at the connection. "Hm-m-m." He touched it with a finger. Then he wet the finger with his tongue and touched the connection again. "There's no gas flow, Smith."
"How do you know?" Smith was still frowning.
"There's a gap there. That tapered thread isn't in tight. If there were any gas flowing, it would be leaking out." Before Smith could say anything Jayjay began unscrewing the coupling. When it came apart, it looked just the same as it had before Smith had put it together.
In the dim glow from the emergency lights, it was difficult to see anything.
"Got an electric torch?" Jayjay asked.
Smith pushed himself away from the screamer panel and came back after a moment with a flashlight. "Let me take a look," he said, edging Jayjay aside. He looked over the halves of the coupling very carefully, then said: "I don't see anything wrong. I'll try it again."
"Hold on a second," Jayjay said quietly. "Let me take a look, will you?"
Smith handed him the torch. "Go ahead, but there's nothing wrong."
Jayjay took the light and looked the connections over again. Then he screwed his head around so that he could look into the female plug.
"Hm-m-m. Hard to count. Gap's too small. Anybody got a toothpick?"
Jayjay turned to Jeffry Hull. "Mr. Hull, would you mind going to the lounge? I think there's some toothpicks in the snack refrigerator."
"Sure," said Hull. "Sure."
He pushed himself across the control room and disappeared through the stairwell.
"Get several of them," Jayjay called after him.
Captain Al-Amin said: "What's the trouble, Mr. Kelvin?"
"I'm not sure yet," Jayjay answered. "When did you last have the screamer units inspected?"
"Just before we took off from Jove Station," Al-Amin said. "That's the law. All emergency equipment has to be checked before takeoff. Why? What's the matter?"
"Did they check this unit?" Jayjay asked doggedly.
"Certainly. I watched them check it myself. I--" He brought himself up short and said: "Give me that torch, will you? I want to take a look at the thing."
Jayjay handed him the flashlight and grasped the captain's belt. With one arm in a splint, Al-Amin couldn't hold the flashlight and hold on to anything solid at the same time.
"I don't see anything wrong," he said after a minute.
"Neither do I," Jayjay admitted. "But the way it acts--"
"I got the toothpicks!" Jeffry Hull propelled himself across the room toward the three men who were clustered around the screamer.
Jayjay took the toothpicks, selected one, and inserted it into the female plug. "Hard to see those threads with all the tubes blocking that plug," he said offhandedly.
Hull said: "Captain, did you know that the refrigerator is off?"
"Yes," said Atef Al-Amin absently. "It isn't connected to the emergency circuits. Wastes too much energy. What do you find, Mr. Kelvin?"
After a second's silence, Jayjay said: "Let me check once more." He was running the tip of the toothpick across the threads in the female plug, counting as he did so. "Uh-huh," he said finally, "just as I thought. There's one less thread in the female plug. The male plug is stopped before it can make contact. There's a gap of about a tenth of an inch when the coupling is screwed up tight."
"Let me see," Smith said. He took the toothpick and went through the same operation. "You're right," he said ruefully, "the female plug is faulty. We'll have to use one of the other screamers."
"Right," said Jayjay.
Wrong, said Fate. Or the Powers That Be, or the Fallibility of Man, whatever you want to call it.
Every screamer unit suffered from the same defect.
"I don't understand it!" A pause. "It's impossible! Those units were tested!"
For the first time in his life, Captain Atef Abdullah Al-Amin allowed his voice to betray him.
Arabic is normally spoken about half an octave above the normal tone used for English. And, unlike American English, it tends to waver up and down the scale. Usually, the captain spoke English in the flat, un-accented tones of the Midwest American accent, and spoke Arabic in the ululating tones of the Egyptian.
But now he was speaking English with an Egyptian waver, not realizing that he was doing it.
"How could it happen? It's ridiculous!"
The captain, his maintenance officer, and Jeffry Hull were clustered around the screamer unit in the lounge. Off to one side, Jayjay Kelvin held a deck of cards in his hands and played a game of patience called "transportation solitaire." His eyes didn't miss a play, just as his ears didn't miss a word.
He pulled an ace from the back of the deck and flipped it to the front.
"You said the screamers had been checked," Jeffry Hull said accusingly. "How come they weren't checked?"
"They were!" Al-Amin said sharply.
"Sure they were," Smith added. "I watched the check-off. There was nothing wrong then."
"Meanwhile," Hull said, the acid bite of fear in his voice, "we have to sit here and wait for the Interplanetary Police to find us by pure luck."
The captain should have let Hull cling to the idea that the IP could find the Persephone, even if no signal was sent. But the captain was almost as angry and flustered as Hull was.
"Find us?" he snapped. "Don't be ridiculous! We won't even be missed until we're due at Styx, on Pluto, nine days from now. By that time, we'll be close to two billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto. We'll never be found if we wait 'til then. Something has to be done now!" He looked at his Maintenance Officer. "Smith, isn't there some way to make contact between those two plugs?"
"Sure," Smith said bitterly. "If we had the tools, it would be duck soup. All we'd have to do is trim down the male plug to fit the female, and we'd have it. But we don't have the tools. We've got a couple of files and a quarter-horsepower electric drill with one bit. Everything else was in the tool compartment--which is long gone, with the engine room."