Two weeks later, as the ship crossed Earth's orbit and headed in behind the planet in the plane of the sun, the meteorite hit. It tore a great hole in the passenger side of the ship, and knocked out the port jets.
The ship veered crazily under the influence of its lopsided blast, and the crew was hurled against the wall and pinned there as the continuing involuntary maneuver built up acceleration.
Gene, who had been in his bunk, was pressed against the wall by a giant hand. Savagely he fought to adjust himself into a more bearable position, then tried to figure out what had happened. Obviously the ship was veering about, out of control.
"Meteorite!" he gasped. "We've been hit."
He pulled himself from the bunk, slid along the wall to the door. It was all he could do to open it, but once in the companionway outside, he found that he could crawl along one wall, off the floor, in an inching progress. He made it finally to the control room, and forced his body around the door jamb and inside. Against the far wall Maher was plastered, dazed, but conscious. At his feet lay Heinie, his head crushed, obviously dead.
"Cut off the rest of the jets!" gasped Maher. "I can't make it!"
Gene crawled slowly around the room, following the wall, until he could reach the controls, then he pulled the lever that controlled the jet blast. The ship's unnatural veering stopped instantly and both Maher and Gene dropped heavily to the floor.
Gene was up first and helped Maher to his feet. Together they turned to the indicators.
"Passenger deck's out!" said Maher. "Except for a few compartments. The automatic seals have operated. But there must be somebody left alive in them."
"We've got to get them," said Gene. "But first, we've got to check up on what damage has been done here, and how many casualties we have."
"Heinie's dead," said Maher. "He hit the wall with his head."
Gene shuddered, and deep in his stomach nausea churned. He thought of Ann and his blood froze in his veins. "You take below decks, I'll go up," he said. Ann's cabin was on the deck above.
Maher nodded and staggered away. Gene scrambled up the stairwell as fast as he could, and ran down the corridor. At Ann's door he stopped, turned the knob. The door opened. The room was empty.
Suddenly he heard running footsteps, and Ann threw herself into his arms, sobbing.
"Where were you?" he asked, almost savagely.
"I went to your cabin, to see if you were hurt. What happened to the ship?"
"Meteorite hit us. Knocked out the passenger deck. Most of the passengers will be dead, but we've got to go in and rescue the survivors."
Doors were opening here and there and the crew members able to make it were congregating around them. They went to the recreation room. There Gene counted noses. Five crewmen were missing. Of those present, six men were injured, and one woman exhibited a black eye, accentuating her other abnormalities. The three prisoners were reported unharmed.
"What about the missing men?" Gene asked.
"Three dead," Maher replied, "two badly hurt. We'll need somebody to look after them."
"I'll go," volunteered Ann. The woman in fur stepped forward also, and they left the room behind Maher and Schwenky.
Gene faced the rest. "We've got a real problem now. With a reduced crew, we'll have to finish a trip that would have been tough with an uninjured ship. But first, we've got to search the passenger deck and remove the survivors. All of you who are able, put on pressure suits and come with me."
He led the way to the locker containing the pressure suits. Seven men, those who were not too deformed to don the suits, made up the party. Gene led the way to the Captain's stateroom, ordered the door sealed behind them, then opened the only door to the damaged deck. The air rushed out as the door swung open, and suddenly complete silence descended upon them. There would be no more communication between them except for signs.
In an hour they had determined the truth. All passengers but one, a woman, had been killed instantly. The woman was unconscious, but suffering only from bruises. It had been necessary, after discovering her unpierced cabin, to return to the deck above and cut through with a torch.
When she regained consciousness and saw her rescuers, she screamed.
"That'll give us some idea of how the people back on Earth will receive us," said Gene. "If we get there, that is."
Later, in the control room, Maher and MacNamara gave their report.
"We can make it," said MacNamara, "but we'll come in limping like a wounded moose. If any of the Company ships sight us, we'll be a sitting duck. But maybe it will be better that way. This is like war, and some of us must die...." His voice trailed off in a mumble.
"Some of us are dying," said Maher. "But he's right, Gene; we can make it, with luck. We'll not be able to come in fast, nor land in the city, but we'll make it to Earth."
"That's enough," decided Gene. "If we can land near Chicago, I think I can manage the rest."
They turned to the controls, and MacNamara went back to his pile room. Once more the ship limped on, this time directly toward the ball of Earth, looming a scant twenty million miles away.
It took eight days to come within a million miles of their goal. Then tragedy struck again. The cabin on the passenger deck from which they had removed the sole survivor blew its door, and the air on the deck above rushed out through the hole they had burned into the cabin. It had been forgotten, and it meant the lives of three more crew members.
Then, as they prepared to bring the ship into the atmosphere, Maher, peering through the telescope, let out a shout. "Company ship, coming up fast! They're after us!"
Gene leaped to the telescope and peered through. Far to the left, a glowing silver streak in the sky, was the familiar shape of a space ship, growing larger by the minute. Studying it, Gene saw that it was an armed cruiser.
"They've got wise," said Maher. "I thought they would, when we didn't check in at Io. Probably radioed back to be on the lookout for us."
"Call MacNamara," said Gene. "We've got to see if he can set us down faster. Maybe there's some way to step up that pile."
Maher rushed off, and Ann came in. "What's up?" she asked.
"Cruiser after us," said Gene, his face grim. "Looks like we won't get to Chicago unless MacNamara has something up that old sleeve of his."
Ann went white, and together they waited for the old Engineer.
When he came in, Gene gestured to the telescope. "Take a look."
MacNamara squinted through the eyepiece with his double popeyes. "Don't see a thing," he grumbled.
"Well, it's a Company Cruiser, gunned to the limit. She's going to be near enough to shoot us down in about three hours."
"Three hours, you say?" MacNamara scratched his head. "How near we to Earth?"
"Half a million miles."
"You could make it in the lifeboat."
Gene snorted. "That Cruiser'd shoot down the lifeboat as easy as it will the ship--a lot easier."
"If they can catch you," said MacNamara. "Some of us must die, that the rest may live."
"Don't start that again, Mac," said Maher impatiently. "What we want to know is whether you can soup up that pile so we can beat that Cruiser down to Earth?"
"Not a thing I can do," said the Chief Engineer. "We've only one set of tubes. Full power would shoot us all over the sky. But I can do something as good."
The old Engineer considered them through his double eyes. "The rest of you'll take the lifeboat and make for Earth. I'll remain here on the ship and shield your flight. I'm sure I can hide the little boat for awhile, and then, even with one jet, I think I can delay the cruiser until you get away. Someone's got to make a sacrifice. I'm old, and I didn't want any of this to begin with."
Maher gasped. "Mac, you old fool. D'ya mind if I apologize for what I just said? But you're right, that's a possible answer. Only I'll be the one to stay."
"Do you know how to adjust the pile and the jets to make a weapon out of them?" asked MacNamara.
"No ..." began Maher.
MacNamara grinned, "Nor am I going to tell you! So, you see, you can't be the one to stay."
Maher gripped the old man's hand and pumped it. "You win," he said. "You old ... crackpot!" There was real affection in his voice.
"Then be off with you," said the Chief Engineer. "You've not a minute to lose. Every man jack of you into the boat, including the Captain and the Mates. I'll not have my ship cluttered up with extra hands that might cramp my style...." And turning, the old man made his way back to the pile room, mumbling to himself.
Eyes wet, Gene gave the orders to abandon ship, and within thirty minutes every living soul was aboard the lifeboat.
MacNamara had finished his work with the pile and was back in the control room, waiting for the lifeboat to cast off. As it did so, he waved, then turned to the controls.
As the lifeboat darted away on its chemical jet engines, they could see the old man maneuvering the big ship so as to keep it ever between them and the Cruiser. An hour later when they were within a hundred thousand miles of Earth, MacNamara sent up a flare denoting surrender.
Tensely they watched the distant speck of light that was the ship with MacNamara on it. Then, around its side came the Company Cruiser, steering in toward it to make the capture. It was scarcely a thousand miles from the disabled ship. Gradually it drew closer, then edged in. Now it was only a few miles away, and at this distance, both specks seemed to merge.
"They got him!" Maher said.
"Yah!" Schwenky boomed, disappointment in his voice. "Me, I should have been the one to stay. I would slap them."
Suddenly, out in space, a bright flower grew. A flower of incandescent light that blossomed with terrifying rapidity, until it seemed to engulf all space in the area of the two ships. The familiar sphere of brilliance that marked an exploding atom bomb hung there in the heavens an instant, then it was gone. In its place was only a vast cloud of smoke, the dust and scattered atoms that were all that remained of two gigantic space ships.
"He detonated the pile!" said Gene, "He turned himself into an atom bomb!"
"Yah!" said Schwenky, his voice strangely muted. "Yah!" Awkwardly he turned and patted Ann's head as she began to sob.
"Is it not handsome?" asked Schwenky proudly, holding the front page of the newspaper up for all to see. "I have my picture in the paper! Is it not nice?"
Laughing, Ann kissed the big Swede right on the lips, and hugged him, paper and all. "It's beautiful, you big lug!" she said. "The handsomest picture I've ever seen in any paper."
"Nah!" denied Schwenky. "It is not the handsomest. All of us have our pictures in the paper. We are all very good looking! Not only Schwenky. Is it not so, Gene, my friend?"
Gene grinned at him, and at the others. Maher pounded him on the back, and over the uproar came the voice of the editor of the Sentinel. "Telephone for Mr. Schwenky!"
Schwenky looked dazed, cocked his big ears at the editor. "For Schwenky?" he asked stupidly. "Telephone? Who would call Schwenky on the telephone?"
"How do I know?" said the editor. "It's some lady...." He thrust the phone into the big Swede's hand.
"Lady?" said Schwenky wonderingly. "Hello ... lady ..." he spoke into the receiver, his booming voice making it rattle.
"The other ..." began Gene, then desisted. "Never mind, she'll hear you...."
"What? You want to marry me? Lady...." Schwenky's eyes bulged even more, and he roared into the transmitter. "Lady! You wait! I come!" He thrust the phone into the editor's hands and made for the door like a lumbering bull.
"Where you going?" yelled Gene.
Schwenky halted, turned with a big grin, "I go to marry lady. She asked me to become my wife!"
"Where is she?" asked Gene. "Where are you going to meet her?"
Schwenky looked stupidly at the now silent phone. "By golly! I forget to ask her!" There was tragedy in his voice. "Now I never find her!"
The editor laughed. "Never mind--you'll get a hundred more proposals before the day's over. You can take your pick!"
Schwenky's eyes opened wide. Then he grinned again. "Yah!" he roared. "I take my pick! She will be so beautiful! Yah!"
The chatter of the teletype interrupted him, and the editor turned to watch the tape as it came from the machine. Then he began to read: "Washington. April 23. President Walworth has grounded all spaceships and ordered all those enroute to proceed to the nearest port. A Congressional committee has been picked, including top members of the cabinet, to investigate the ships, the atomic drives, and the system of secret slavery among crews. In a statement to the Press, President Walworth said that space travel will not be resumed until proper shields are developed. But he added that he had been informed by leading physicists that the problem can be solved within a year if sufficient funds were available. Said the President: 'I will see that the funds are made available!'"
The editor dropped the tape and turned to Gene. "I have one more bit of information, this one direct from the President by phone. He has asked me to inform you that he has appointed you new head of FAST."
"FAST?" asked Gene. "What's that?"
"Federal Agency for Space Travel," grinned the editor. "And congratulations. I hate to lose a good reporter, but maybe you'll be back after you finish in Washington--at a substantial increase in salary."
Gene grinned back. "Maybe I will," he said. "And I'll need the money." He put an arm around Ann and drew her to him. "Two can't live as cheap as one, you know."
By H. Beam Piper
Once, wars were won by maneuvering hired fighting men; now wars are different--and the hired experts are different. But the human problems remain!
Duncan MacLeod hung up the suit he had taken off, and sealed his shirt, socks and underwear in a laundry envelope bearing his name and identity-number, tossing this into one of the wire baskets provided for the purpose. Then, naked except for the plastic identity disk around his neck, he went over to the desk, turned in his locker key, and passed into the big room beyond.