Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Neutral Vessel" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second 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 installment can be found here.

As we join our story, Captain Jeffery Brand of the interplanetary liner Spirit of Terra learns that all is not right on his command. A Venusian named Leander Phillips warns him that there are Martian spies aboard, and fears for the safety of himself and his daughter Zona. His fears prove justified when Brand and Zona find an armed Martian standing over his body a short time later. Now Brand must deal with a ship that has suddenly begun accelerating toward Venus . . .

Carlin at once seemed more solicitous of the girl than of the difficulties on the bridge and below.

"She's only fainted," Brand told him gruffly after one look at the control panels. He had never seen so many red lights flashing at one time in all his experience.

He glared at the mate, who scurried back to the controls. Then Brand howled into an audio frame for the infirmary. He told them about Phillips and about the daughter and to be damn quick doing something. He got the results he demanded. A nurse was with the girl almost before he had finished bellowing.

Then he glared at the indicating panel. Their speed had increased from the normal 27.6 to 45.8 miles per second in ten minutes. None of the operators spoke a word. Brand moved to the motor panels and saw that all five driving jets were on full blast, as were the four steering jets. He flicked a control key himself. Nothing happened. The jets continued to blast. They were accelerating with full power -- at five gravities. Nothing serious in that -- for a while. There was plenty of time to decelerate. But how long would the tubes stand the heat? And what was the trouble? The flashing lights showed everything in the ship wrong at once.

"I've notified maintenance," Carlin told him.

"What started it all?" Brand asked.

"Regular hourly test procedure, sir. The operators plugged in on their ground indicators and everything started. Every relay clicked furiously and the jets were on. As you can see, they refuse to cut off. That's all we know."

Brand thought of the circuit diagram and of Phillips, a frown creasing his brow. "Funny," he muttered.

Carlin jumped. "What's that, sir?"

"Nothing." The audio blared and Brand jumped.

The four operators straightened tensely. Something was in the air.

"Wilson, maintenance," squawked the audio. "Numbers one, two and three drive chambers inspected. All circuit breakers closed and fused solid. Can't be repaired without complete shutdown."

"We can't shut down. What's wrong with the hand disconnects?' returned the captain.

"Fused solid, sir."

"Very well. Stand by until the others report."

"Aye, sir."

Brand turned to the mate. "Now, what in the devil could have done that?' he demanded.

Carlin shook his head. Just then the audio started talking again. Four and five drive chambers were reported in the same condition as the first three. So were the steering-jet chambers. Brand grimaced.

"Get Jarvis up here," he told Carlin. "And Tony Rosso. You and I are going below."

The mate called and the second and third officers responded quickly. Zona Phillips had gone out with the nurse, Brand noticed. Jarvis and Rosso were here, reporting in. Brand pointed wordlessly to the panels and told them to stand by.

"We're going armed," he told Carlin, as they left.

"Armed?" The mate looked surprised.

Brand explained and, stopping at the mate's cabin for flame throwers, they started below. They went directly to Brinkerhof, the head maintenance engineer, finding him scratching his head as he looked over his file of circuit drawings.

"I can't figure it out," he told Brand. "It looks as if someone had tampered with the switches all around. It doesn't seem possible."

"No," agreed Brand. "But it --"

The door to the maintenance office crashed open and an electrician collapsed inside. Blood gushed from his throat in jerky spurts. He bubbled horribly: "Machine shop. They're --"

That was all. The man died while they stood rooted with horror. His jugular had been ripped wide open.

"A mutiny!" babbled Brinkerhof.

"Mutiny, hell!" Brand snorted. "This is war. On a neutral ship, too. Come on!"

* * *

The captain's burly form nearly filled the passageway as the three made toward the machine shop. They plunged through the central core forward of number three drive chamber and Brand glanced up at the huge disconnecting switch. Sure enough, its massive copper bars had been hand-brazed fast in their fingers. How could anyone have gotten away with this? They couldn't on a full-crew ship, that was a cinch.

This business of placing the drive motors as complete assemblies with their individual fuel supply in separate insulated cells was all right, he reflected, provided you never had trouble with more than one or two at a time. With all of them out of commission and the disconnects inoperative, what were you going to do?

Those disconnects were in the 13,800-volt bus from the main generator. To cut them out of a live circuit like that was something. The relays and main breakers, too, were inside the cells with the igniter tube, jet breech and fuel hopper. So were the step-up transformers, the phanotron rectifiers and the 400,000-volt D.C. for ignition. And the heat of a continuous blast. You couldn't even get in there to shut off the fuel supply. And you dared not shut down the main generators because the gravity compensators ran off the 13,800-volt A.C. And who could live to tell of sudden exposure to five gravities?

Also, and worse, the main generators supplied the current for the exciters that maintained the atomic blast which, in turn, supplied energy to turn that generator. Cut the generator, and the blast would die. With that out, the generator couldn't be restarted till the blast was restarted from a jury-rig exciter circuit. Generators weren't supposed to be cut out in transit; the exciter current for starting was supplied normally from special lines run in from dock before take-off. Rigging jury exciter circuits would take hours, and in the meantime nothing but low-voltage storage-battery power would be available.

It looked as if they'd just have to keep on accelerating for a while. Until they could figure a way out. Meanwhile --

His reflections ceased abruptly when he saw a bent figure skulking out of the machine shop. Not in ship's uniform, this figure. Brand splashed a lance of white flame at his feet and saw a floor grating glow instant red. The man yelped and ducked into a passage leading forward.

"I'll get him," grunted Carlin and sprinted down the corridor.

Poking the snout of his flame thrower around the door jamb ahead of himself, Brand followed it cautiously into the machine shop, Brinkerhof at his heels. The place was a shambles. Not a man of the shop force was alive. They hung draped over lathe, drill press and milling machine, heads battered in or jugulars slashed. Obviously they had been taken by surprise and by a superior force. Altogether, there were nine dead. One was not in ship's uniform. Brand turned the fellow over and thought he might be a Martian drylander. You could never be sure, though, with more than five generations of intermarriage between various races of the three planets. Brinkerhof groaned as if in pain.

"Lord, captain, what's it all about?" he asked helplessly.

Carlin dashed in, panting. "Lost him," he reported ruefully. "He gave me the slip."

Brand rose from the prostrate outlander corpse. He hadn't found a single identifying mark. "Whatever it's all about, it's serious," he said grimly. "And we have to get to the bottom of it. Carlin, you'll return to the bridge. Brinkerhof, you get busy and find a way of cutting these stern jets out of commission. I'm going to the infirmary and question that girl."

"The girl?" asked the mate, blankly.

"Yes, the girl." Brand grinned. There hadn't been a "mister" or a "sir" tossed around lately. It reminded Brand of the old full-crew days.

He found Zona Phillips recovered, though pale and obviously much shaken. Her father's body was lying in the mortuary, pending instructions for disposal. So was that of his murderer.

Brand patted her shoulder sympathetically. "Sorry to bother you in the circumstances, Miss Zona," he said. "But I'm afraid I'll have to ask you a few questions."

"If I can be of any help," she said tremulously, "I'll be glad to."

"You know, of course, why your dad was -- put out of the way."

The girl nodded mutely, her big eyes filling anew with the tears she was struggling to hold back.

"He thought certain parties at your table were spies. Did you?"

Zona Phillips became articulate. "I'm sure of it," she said.

"Can you identify them?" Brand asked gently.

"I . . . I could. But --" The blue eyes widened farther and a look of fear glazed over the sorrow.

"I'll protect you," the captain assured her hastily.

"It isn't that. I'm not really afraid for myself. It's something else I can't --" Her hand went swiftly to her mouth as if to shut off words she shouldn't be saying.

Brand was nonplussed. Was this girl willfully hiding anything? "Miss Zona," he said soberly, "this ship is in grave danger of some sort. I don't know even yet how serious it may be in extent. If you can help us to identify the miscreants at the bottom of it, you will be rendering a great service. It may be the means of saving other lives."

"Oh, I will! I will. I'll do anything."

"Do you know the names of the ones your father suspected?"

The girl looked fearfully around the infirmary waiting room. "I think so. If I can see the passenger list --"

Brand knew then that she was in utmost terror. "Now, you can stop worrying," he told her. "Come along with me, young lady, and I'll see that nothing happens to you. We've a duplicate list in the bridge office. You won't even need to cross a passenger deck."

Zona Phillips brightened perceptibly, though there still remained a look about her eyes that might have been furtive. Brand laid it to her fears. Or tried to. He still wondered vaguely.

* * *

They found the bridge in somewhat of a turmoil, the usual discipline having relaxed. The operators were fidgety at the control board. And Carlin was in a huddle with the second and third officers. They pulled apart when they saw the captain coming. All eyes were on Zona Phillips. Caressingly, almost, those eyes. For some reason, Brand bristled inside.

"Anything new?' he asked Carlin.

"Only that the radio room has been wrecked and the radio transmitter ruined. And Brinkerhof reports every cutting torch in his stores either smashed or missing entirely."

You could have heard a pin drop on the bridge after that. Brand's eyes strayed to the indicating panel. The speed was 105 miles a second. Faster than any of them had ever expected to travel. And still the Spirit of Terra was accelerating at five gravities!

"Tell Brinkerhof to rig up an electric-arc burning outfit and cut out those disconnects as fast as he can," Brand ordered. "You, Jarvis, get after the radio and have it fixed. Rosso, get below and organize the steward's department. But make sure the passengers don't get wise that anything's up."

He moved toward the office with the girl.

"We're still in the Venus-Terra beam," Carlin reminded him in a sort of hushed voice.

"I know it," snapped Brand. He didn't want to think about that now, and he didn't want the girl to be alarmed further.

In the office, looking over the passenger list, she seemed more at ease. Brand was surprised when she identified five unpronounceable names.

"Those weren't all at your table?" he exclaimed.

"No, only two. But I saw those two talking confidentially with all three of the others at different times."

Brand noted the cabin numbers of the five and immediately audioed the chief steward to round up their occupants. He had no sooner left the frame when it crackled back at him in Rosso's voice:

"Deckhand says he saw several passengers fooling with the lock of number twenty-one lifeboat. I'm going down there."

"So am I," Brand shot back. Then, to the girl: "You stay in my lounge, Miss Zona. You'll be safe there. Tell the cabin boy I said it'd be all right."

He picked up Carlin as he rushed across the bridge and they sped to join Rosso. It looked as if whoever had made such a thorough job of putting the ship out of commission was trying for a getaway.

(continue to part 3)

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