He left the lifeboat and closed the door behind him. There was no point in worrying about a boat he couldn't use.
He made his way back toward the engine room. Maybe there was something salvageable there. Swimming through the corridors was becoming easier with practice; his Cadet training was coming back to him.
Then he got a shock that almost made him faint. The beam of his light had fallen full on the face of a Rat. It took him several seconds to realize that the Rat was dead, and several more to realize that it wasn't a Rat at all. It was the spy they had been sent to pick up. He'd been in the sick bay for treatments of the ulcers on his back gained from five years of frequent lashings as a Rat slave.
Pendray went closer and looked him over. He was still wearing the clothing he'd had on when the Shane picked him up.
Poor guy, Pendray thought. All that hell--for nothing.
Then he went around the corpse and continued toward the engine room.
The place was still hot, but it was thermal heat, not radioactivity. A dead atomic engine doesn't leave any residual effects.
Five out of the six engines were utterly ruined, but the sixth seemed to be in working condition. Even the shielding was intact. Again, hope rose in Alfred Pendray's mind. If only there were tools!
A half hour's search killed that idea. There were no tools aboard capable of cutting through the hard shielding. He couldn't use it to shield the engine on the lifeboat. And the shielding that been on the other five engines had melted and run; it was worthless.
Then another idea hit him. Would the remaining engine work at all? Could it be fixed? It was the only hope he had left.
Apparently, the only thing wrong with it was the exciter circuit leads, which had been sheared off by a bit of flying metal. The engine had simply stopped instead of exploding. That ought to be fixable. He could try; it was something to do, anyway.
It took him the better part of two days, according to his watch. There were plenty of smaller tools around for the job, although many of them were scattered and some had been ruined by the explosions. Replacement parts were harder to find, but he managed to pirate some of them from the ruined engines.
He ate and slept as he felt the need. There was plenty of food in the sick bay kitchen, and there is no need for a bed under gravity-less conditions.
After the engine was repaired, he set about getting the rest of the ship ready to move--if it would move. The hull was still solid, so the infraspace field should function. The air purifiers had to be reconnected and repaired in a couple of places. The lights ditto. The biggest job was checking all the broken leads to make sure there weren't any short circuits anywhere.
The pseudogravity circuits were hopeless. He'd have to do without gravity.
On the third day, he decided he'd better clean the place up. There were several corpses floating around, and they were beginning to be noticeable. He had to tow them, one by one, to the rear starboard air lock and seal them between the inner and outer doors. He couldn't dump them, since the outer door was partially melted and welded shut.
He took the personal effects from the men. If he ever got back to Earth, their next-of-kin might want the stuff. On the body of the imitation Rat, he found a belt-pouch full of microfilm. The report on the Rats' new weapon? Possibly. He'd have to look it over later.
On the "morning" of the fourth day, he started the single remaining engine. The infraspace field came on, and the ship began moving at multiples of the speed of light. Pendray grinned. Half gone, will travel, he thought gleefully.
If Pendray had had any liquor aboard, he would have gotten mildly drunk. Instead, he sat down and read the spools of microfilm, using the projector in the sick bay.
He was not a scientist in the strict sense of the word. He was a navigator and a fairly good engineer. So it didn't surprise him any that he couldn't understand a lot of the report. The mechanics of making a semi-nova out of a normal star were more than a little bit over his head. He'd read a little and then go out and take a look at the stars, checking their movement so that he could make an estimate of his speed. He'd jury-rigged a kind of control on the hull field, so he could aim the hulk easily enough. He'd only have to get within signaling range, anyway. An Earth ship would pick him up.
If there was any Earth left by the time he got there.
He forced his mind away from thinking about that.
It was not until he reached the last spool of microfilm that his situation was forcibly brought to focus in his mind. Thus far, he had thought only about saving himself. But the note at the end of the spool made him realize that there were others to save.
The note said: These reports must reach Earth before 22 June 2287. After that, it will be too late.
That was--let's see....
This is the eighteenth of September, he thought, June of next year is--nine months away. Surely I can make it in that time. I've got to.
The only question was, how fast was the hulk of the Shane moving?
It took him three days to get the answer accurately. He knew the strength of the field around the ship, and he knew the approximate thrust of the single engine by that time. He had also measured the motions of some of the nearer stars. Thank heaven he was a navigator and not a mechanic or something! At least he knew the direction and distance to Earth, and he knew the distance of the brighter stars from where the ship was.
He had two checks to use, then. Star motion against engine thrust and field strength. He checked them. And rechecked them. And hated the answer.
He would arrive in the vicinity of Sol some time in late July--a full month too late.
What could he do? Increase the output of the engine? No. It was doing the best it could now. Even shutting off the lights wouldn't help anything; they were a microscopic drain on that engine.
He tried to think, tried to reason out a solution, but nothing would come. He found time to curse the fool who had decided the shielding on the lifeboat would have to be removed and repaired. That little craft, with its lighter mass and more powerful field concentration, could make the trip in ten days.
The only trouble was that ten days in that radiation hell would be impossible. He'd be a very well-preserved corpse in half that time, and there'd be no one aboard to guide her.
Maybe he could get one of the other engines going! Sure. He must be able to get one more going, somehow. Anything to cut down on that time!
He went back to the engines again, looking them over carefully. He went over them again. Not a single one could be repaired at all.
Then he rechecked his velocity figures, hoping against hope that he'd made a mistake somewhere, dropped a decimal point or forgotten to divide by two. Anything. Anything!
But there was nothing. His figures had been accurate the first time.
For a while, he just gave up. All he could think of was the terrible blaze of heat that would wipe out Earth when the Rats set off the sun. Man might survive. There were colonies that the Rats didn't know about. But they'd find them eventually. Without Earth, the race would be set back five hundred--maybe five thousand--years. The Rats would would have plenty of time to hunt them out and destroy them.
And then he forced his mind away from that train of thought. There had to be a way to get there on time. Something in the back of his mind told him that there was a way.
He had to think. Really think.
On 7 June 2287, a signal officer on the Earth destroyer Muldoon picked up a faint signal coming from the general direction of the constellation of Sagittarius. It was the standard emergency signal for distress. The broadcaster only had a very short range, so the source couldn't be too far away.
He made his report to the ship's captain. "We're within easy range of her, sir," he finished. "Shall we pick her up?"
"Might be a Rat trick," said the captain. "But we'll have to take the chance. Beam a call to Earth, and let's go out there dead slow. If the detectors show anything funny, we turn tail and run. We're in no position to fight a Rat ship."
"You think this might be a Rat trap, sir?"
The captain grinned. "If you are referring to the Muldoon as a rat trap, Mr. Blake, you're both disrespectful and correct. That's why we're going to run if we see anything funny. This ship is already obsolete by our standards; you can imagine what it is by theirs." He paused. "Get that call in to Earth. Tell 'em this ship is using a distress signal that was obsolete six months ago. And tell 'em we're going out."
"Yes, sir," said the signal officer.
It wasn't a trap. As the Muldoon approached the source of the signal, their detectors picked up the ship itself. It was a standard lifeboat from a battleship of the Shannon class.
"You don't suppose that's from the Shane, do you?" the captain said softly as he looked at the plate. "She's the only ship of that class that's missing. But if that's a Shane lifeboat, what took her so long to get here?"
"She's cut her engines, sir!" said the observer. "She evidently knows we're coming."
"All right. Pull her in as soon as we're close enough. Put her in Number Two lifeboat rack; it's empty."
When the door of the lifeboat opened, the captain of the Muldoon was waiting outside the lifeboat rack. He didn't know exactly what he had expected to see, but it somehow seemed fitting that a lean, bearded man in a badly worn uniform and a haggard look about him should step out.
The specter saluted. "Lieutenant Alfred Pendray, of the Shane," he said, in a voice that had almost no strength. He held up a pouch. "Microfilm," he said. "Must get to Earth immediately. No delay. Hurry."
"Catch him!" the captain shouted. "He's falling!" But one of the men nearby had already caught him.
In the sick bay, Pendray came to again. The captain's questioning gradually got the story out of Pendray.
"... So I didn't know what to do then," he said, his voice a breathy whisper. "I knew I had to get that stuff home. Somehow."
"Go on," said the captain, frowning.
"Simple matter," said Pendray. "Nothing to it. Two equations. Little ship goes thirty times as fast as big ship--big hulk. Had to get here before 22 June. Had to. Only way out, y'unnerstand.
"Anyway. Two equations. Simple. Work 'em in your head. Big ship takes ten months, little one takes ten days. But can't stay in a little ship ten days. No shielding. Be dead before you got here. See?"
"I see," said the captain patiently.
"But--and here's a 'mportant point: If you stay on the big ship for eight an' a half months, then y' only got to be in the little ship for a day an' a half to get here. Man can live that long, even under that radiation. See?" And with that, he closed his eyes.
"Do you mean you exposed yourself to the full leakage radiation from a lifeboat engine for thirty-six hours?"
But there was no answer.
"Let him sleep," said the ship's doctor. "If he wakes up again, I'll let you know. But he might not be very lucid from here on in."
"Is there anything you can do?" the captain asked.
"No. Not after a radiation dosage like that." He looked down at Pendray. "His problem was easy, mathematically. But not psychologically. That took real guts to solve."
"Yeah," said the captain gently. "All he had to do was get here alive. The problem said nothing about his staying that way."
THE SPHERE OF SLEEP.
By Chester S. Geier
Brad Nelson had a perfect way to kill Big Tim without any danger of being accused. Then his foot slipped and he was hurled into an unknown world.
"I've got to kill you, Big Tim. I've just got to kill you! I want Laura--and you're standing in my way...."
The thought beat urgently and continuously in Brad Nellon's mind. He was absorbed in it to the extent that the terrible Titanian gale which roared beyond the shelter of his thermalloy suit was forgotten.
Beside him, the object of his deadly thoughts strode unknowing. His large, brown face crinkled in a grin of boyish enjoyment, Tim Austin was fighting his way through the fierce drive of wind and snow. That grin was always there. It was as much a part of him as his thick, tow hair, his gentle brown eyes and giant's frame. He was big and carefree, and life ran rich and full in his veins.
On Brad Nellon's face there was no enjoyment in the battle against the storm. There was not even his usual resentment of the bitter cold and the thick, white snow. His grey eyes were covered with a heavy film of thought. He walked in a world where there was no storm save that of his emotions, no reality outside of the imagery constructed by his brain. His stocky, powerful form plodded along mechanically.
They moved in a world of snow and ice and screaming wind. Great pinnacles and ridges, worn into fantastic shapes by the gale, towered on every side. The curtain of snow occasionally lifted to reveal white hills marching upon white hills, huge, glittering ice sheets, yawning chasms. And sometimes, farther in the distance, there would be awesome alien vistas.
The dark thread of Brad Nellon's thoughts was broken abruptly by the sudden hum of his helmet earphones. He looked up with guilty quickness. Awareness of his companion, of the frigid hell of his Titanian surroundings, rushed back in a flood.
"On the watch, guy," the voice of Big Tim Austin cautioned. "We're almost near Tower Point."
Nellon moved his head in a jerky nod of understanding. His eyes probed momentarily into those of the other, then dropped quickly back to the snow. His earphones hummed again.
"Say, Brad, anything wrong?"
Nellon's face tautened in sudden panic. Again his eyes flashed to Austin. But he did not find in them the suspicion which he expected. There was only solicitous wonder.
"I'm all right," Nellon answered. "Just a bit tired, that's all." He realized that his voice sounded hoarse and unnatural. With masked gaze, he tried to learn its effect upon Austin.
But it was the content of his voice, not its tone which had registered upon Big Tim. Nellon was startled by the unexpected flood of vehemence which poured in through his earphones.
"That's the result of short rations, damn it! I knew it would get us sooner or later. We should've been on our way home long ago. The whole expedition has been a mess from beginning to end.
"You shouldn't have come with me, Brad, when I volunteered to go after old Ryska's stuff. But I thought it would be all right, because we're the only real he men among all those runty scientists. They're good for nothing but theory-spinning. They've thrown the expedition off schedule with their mental butterfly chasing, and got the rest of us down on short rations. And now, just as we're ready to leave at last, one of them has to remember that he left a pile of valuable equipment lying around somewhere in the snow."
Austin was silent a while. When he spoke again, the old laughter-lights were back twinkling in his eyes.
"Oh, hell, Brad. I guess I'm just sore because I'm being kept away from Laura every second the brain-gang holds us back. I can't wait to see her again."
"Yes, I know how it is," Nellon muttered.
"Swell kid, isn't she?"
"Yes." Nellon forced out the answer with difficulty.