This is the fourth installment of "Neutral Vessel", a story by pioneering science fiction writer Harl Vincent that first appeared in the January 1940 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction magazine. The first three installments can be found here, here, and here.
As we join our story, the interplanetary passenger liner Spirit of Terra has been sabotaged by Martian agents as part of their ongoing war with Venus. The Martians have set the ship accelerating toward Venus and destroyed outside communications, as well as killing ten crew members and a Venusian passenger named Leander Phillips. Captain Jeffery Brand and his crew have killed several of the Martian saboteurs and prevented them from fleeing the ship in one of the lifeboats, but have been unable to repair the damage done. Brand further suspects that Leander Phillips' daughter Zona is in league with the Martians. The Spirit of Terra is now less than two hours away from slamming into Venus, and time is running out . . .
Four hours -- 466 miles a second. Five hours -- 575. And only a little more than four and a half million miles to Venus! They'd be there in an hour and three quarters. And they'd hit with --
Brand stared solemnly at the mate as they stood by the indicating panel. Brinkerhof would be ready with a new cutting apparatus in half an hour. He thought it was all perfectly constructed and shielded now. But Brand had his doubts. It was all right to say the conspirators had been able to braze those switches shut and we ought to be able to cut them open. That was all right, but there hadn't been 10,000 amperes of 13,800-volt juice flowing through the buses when the Martians did that. And, besides, the circuits were closed when they operated. There wasn't any opening of a 185,000-horsepower blast of energy to consider. They had casually brazed the switches tight with torches whose flames couldn't ground them. Then they'd gone in the cells and loaded the jet breakers with fusible material that would lock them closed at the next automatic momentary closing for routine test. They were well out of the danger zone what that happened. And the switches were all closed to stay!
"Couldn't we slow down the main generators gradually?" asked Carlin. "So the effect of changing gravity would not be severe?"
"Carlin, if it were the passengers alone now, I'd say yes. Mars isn't trying to get Earth in on this war; she's trying to end the whole thing. The Spirit of Terra's the heaviest thing in the skyways -- heavier than any warship. Moving at the speed she'll have when she reaches Venus, if we can't stop her -- Carlin, there won't be any Venus City! A meteor moves only about 100 miles a second; we have, ton for ton, sixty-four times as much energy of impact. And we're the largest meteor ever recorded!
"This ship has to be stopped -- and not for the sake of the passengers alone!"
Carlin shuddered. He simply could not visualize the terrific eventuality of smashing into Venus at close to 800 miles a second. With the Spirit of Terra's 80,000 tons a molten mass from atmospheric friction and the energy of impact proportioned to that mass multiplied by the square of the velocity! It would damn well destroy the planet, and that was just what the Martian conspirators had figured on. They hadn't been worried about Terra going to war on the side of Venus. There wouldn't be any Venus. Not any more.
"The lifeboats are worthless, too," Brand told Carlin. "At this speed they'd be helpless. Going out with the same residual velocity as ours, they'd never be able to decelerate with their weak jets and small supply of atomic fuel. Otherwise I'd have had them loaded an hour ago. Now it's way too late, even if it hadn't been then."
The audio frame blared in Rosso's voice. "Just caught a couple more at thirty-six lifeboat," was his amazing news. "Trying to get away. And a girl with them."
"A girl!" roared Brand. "Redhead?"
"Yes, and she won't talk. What'll we do with her? We blasted the two men."
"Do with her? Send her back to my lounge with three -- no, five stewards to guard her. She got away from two and I'm going to find out how." Brand turned a foolishly beaten gaze on the mate. "What do you know about that?" he demanded.
Then he lurched toward the lounge, the mate following.
* * *
Tommy Blake sat white-faced at his calculating board on the observation sphere above the clouds of Venus. He had finally caught the mysterious speeding object in the spectroscope. The shifting of the lines had checked its velocity of approach with the calculating board. Its speed was now over 600 miles a second. It would be here in little more than an hour. And would meet up with the planet at 780 miles per second, he figured.
"The thing's in the Venus-Terra magnetic lane," he told Masters. "It's bound to hit us."
"Doesn't seem like the right direction at all," the other objected.
"I've tried to tell you," Blake explained patiently, "that the beam is constantly shifting its curvature in space, due to the motions of the two planets in their orbits. This thing's in the lane, all right."
"But what is it? Accelerating like this."
"I'm just taking a determination of its mass," replied Blake, his lean young features drawn into grim lines.
The calculator before him was clacking and chuckling merrily. At last it stopped with a decisive clunk and Blake tore off the tape.
"163,705,040 pounds," he read off. His voice dropped to a whisper of despair. "The Spirit of Terra," he said hopelessly. "That would be just about her weight with passenger and freight load. And Zona is on board!"
Masters eyed him sympathetically. He knew how much his friend had been looking forward to the coming of the only girl -- to their marriage, which had all been arranged on the q. t. "Maybe they can pull out of it, Tommy," he said without much conviction.
"Pull out of it, hell! Something's jammed her stern jets full on. She's a runaway. Even if they could get them off now, they'd never be able to decelerate in time."
"Well, if they do hit us, we'll never know it," commented Masters.
"No, we won't." Blake was trying to figure the momentum of this hurtling mass at the square of its inconceivable velocity. He jumped up and paced the floor like a madman. "We've got to stop it from hitting, and I'm going to do something about it even if I'm court-martialed."
Young Blake strode into the radio room and spun the transmitter dials away from the military wave. He called Venus Spaceport, a most flagrant violation of regulations.
"Spaceport?" he asked, when a sleepy operator replied. "What report have you on the Spirit of Terra?"
"No report. She's still four days out and hasn't radioed at all."
"Oh, yeah?" Four days out. She'll be here in an hour -- only you won't know it."
"Who the hell is this? What're you talking about?"
"Listen, fellow," Blake mouthed frantically into the microphone. "I can't tell you who I am, but I'm above the clouds in an observation sphere. And I tell you the Spirit of Terra's a runaway. She's doing 600 miles a second right now and still in the lane. Get that beam cut off, for God's sake!"
The operator laughed raucously. "I'll say you're up in the clouds. Six hundred -- why, you're nuts --" His carrier cut off abruptly.
Blake groaned. "There you go. Nobody'll believe us, Masters."
He dialed down and started calling G. H. Q., watching the chronometer anxiously. Another sleepy operator answered. "Get me the major p. d. q.," Blake shouted. "Military emergency."
"The major's asleep. What do you mean, emergency."
"I tell you it's real," cried Blake. "You've gotta believe me, or we'll all be dead in another hour. Get me the major."
Evidently Blake's panic got through to the G. H. Q. operator. "All right," he said with sudden decision. "I'll get him."
"If only they'll cut out the usual red tape and do something, we may get somewhere," Blake groaned, eyeing the time. "But you know how it is in the service."
"Yeah." Masters looked dubious. He had not yet become really afraid. He would in a few minutes.
The G. H. Q. operator was back on the air. "Major threw a shoe at me and told me to get the hell out," he told Blake.
"Listen, fellow." Blake's voice was wheedling, frantically insistent. "We've got to put this across. Listen, do this for me, will you --"
The youngster in the black-and-white uniform of Venus was begging for Zona, for himself, for another billion and more lives. He put all of his fears and hopes into his quivering voice. G. H. Q. would have to listen. They'd have to get that beam cut off -- something --
* * *
Captain Brand found his cabin boy and two stewards locked in his serving pantry. He raged when he let them out.
"She asked for a cocktail, sir," one of the stewards explained.
"And it took three of you to make it for her!" Brand wheeled from them as three other stewards came in with Zona Phillips.
The girl was holding her head high, a spot of color burning on either cheek.
"So, now," the captain bellowed. "Now, young lady, you're up to something again. And you're going to talk this time."
"I'll talk," she said simply. "Send these others out." Her sweeping gesture embraced the goggling cabin boy and five goggling stewards.
Brand shooed the out and, as a precaution, locked the outer door to the lounge and pocketed the key. "Well?" he said, trying to keep his voice stern. Somehow, you couldn't stay angry with Zona Phillips.
"I was only trying to get away," she said breathlessly, "because I'm planning to get married on Venus."
"Married?" said Brand blankly.
"Yes, to a boy in the Venus forces -- Tommy Blake. It's forbidden, you know, and my passport's no good except for a visit. The Martians promised to land me secretly. That's all. I haven't done anything really wrong, have I?"
"Well, I'll be d-doggoned." Captain Brand looked his amazement. Then he spoke to the girl: "Wrong, no, but foolish, my dear. Do you realize how fast we're going?"
"N-no." The girl's eyes widened to their full blinding blue.
Brand told her. He told her what would have happened if she had succeeded in getting away from those Martians; that the little lifeboat would use up all its fuel trying to decelerate and then would go drifting forever in a solar orbit, a frozen, airless tomb at last. That even now the Spirit of Terra was headed for a disaster that would likely destroy the planet Venus along with themselves. "And you make trouble for me," he concluded glumly.
"I'm sorry." The girl's voice was truly contrite. She stared at the captain as the full purport of his words sank in. "Then we'll all die, anyway?" she asked. "And -- Tommy'll be killed, too?"
Brand nodded. "Unless maintenance wins out with their new cutting rig," he admitted.
The girl pursed her luscious lips and frowned prettily. "It seems," she said, "that something might be done with the lifeboats."
That was all, but it set Brand thinking. Suddenly he was a madly whirling tornado. He hugged Zona Phillips in his enthusiasm and she didn't seem to mind.
"Girl, you've got it!" he exulted. "With the lifeboats we'll do it." He began bawling into the audio frame.
"But you said --" began the girl.
"Never mind what I said." Brand's broad face was alight. "We'll do it with the lifeboats. Watch!"
He talked swiftly in clipped words to the frame when Rosso came in.
(continue to part 5)