Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Neutral Vessel" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third 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 two installments can be found here and here.

As we join our story, Captain Jeffery Brand of the interplanetary liner Spirit of Terra has learned that Martian saboteurs have sent his ship plunging toward Venus with her engines locked into continuous acceleration. The Martians have also killed at least nine crewmen and one passenger, a Venusian named Leander Phillips, and have cut off communications. Now Brand has learned that some of them were seen messing with a lifeboat . . .

Things like this just couldn't be happening on the greatest passenger ship in the skylanes. A neutral ship, at that. But they were happening. Brand caught himself wishing they hadn't been quite so damn neutral. His mind worked swiftly as he and the mate thudded along the corridor toward number twenty-one lifeboat lock.

"Got any theories?" he asked Carlin.

"No. Except someone's trying to get Earth into the war. It'll mean a declaration, sure as shooting."

"But why should Martians be trying to get us in on the other side? This'd mean war against Mars, not Venus."

Carlin grunted. "If we keep accelerating --"

What he had been about to say was jarred out of him by a catapaulting body that struck him amidships from out a side passage. The mate went down in a heap, thrashing wildly to get a grip on his assailant. Brand's weapon described a wide arc and crunched down on the fellow's head. Carlin rose groggily.

"Thanks," he said.

Brand searched the dead man's clothes without result. "Damn!" he muttered. "Shouldn't have killed him. Might have made him talk." On an impulse, he ripped open the fellow's shirt.

On his chest was tattooed the red orb of Mars and its two moons.

Sounds of a conflict were wafted toward them from ahead. They leaped toward the mêlée. The inner seal of number twenty-one life lock was open. And inside the narrow space surrounding the small craft it housed, a battle was raging. Tony Rosso and two stewards were finding their hands very full with some six or seven huskies who were trying to pulverize them. There were no searing pencils of white flame. No one seemed to be armed. Brand couldn't understand, anyway, how the one who'd killed Phillips had managed to get a flame thrower on board. He flung himself upon the one who was throttling Rosso's eyes out onto his cheeks and dragged him off with his big hands. Savagely he bent him back over his knee and bore down until his spine cracked. The fellow went limp.

Carlin's weapon spat luridly twice. His first blast splashed a hideously grinning Martian face into bubbling incandescence that drove back into an emptied skull. His second seared arm and shoulder from the one who had just slashed a steward's throat. Rosso scooped up the falling knife and killed a third with an upcurving slash that disemboweled him. The others remaining of the battling Martians tried to crowd into the small port of the lifeboat and Brand smeared them into blazing, frying blobs that stuck to the glowing spot his flames had painted on the hull. The lock was thick with choking smoke which stank sickeningly of red-hot death. The survivors piled out into the corridor.

"That's that," said Brand grimly when they were in the fresher air outside. "And that isn't all of them, I'll gamble. Listen, Rosso: I want you to go to Worthman and have him put a patrol in every blessed lifeboat corridor. Take this steward with you and tell him to arm his men from the stores. This is no picnic; it's an emergency and we have the right to small arms. Carlin, you and I are going forward and have a council of war. We can't be everywhere at once."

* * *

By the time they reached the bridge, the Spirit of Terra was ripping through the void at nearly 200 miles a second. About an hour and a half had passed since they started this mad acceleration.

Brand frowned. "I'm surprised the tubes haven't melted down," he observed.

"Guess the tungstoloy linings are better than the designers thought," said Carlin. "Looks like they'd stand maximum blast indefinitely."

"Yes." Brand shook his head reflectively. "How much time do we have?" he asked Carlin.

"Remembering we're in the Venus lane?"

Brand nodded. How could he forget? He moved to the audio frame as Carlin busied himself with his slide rule. Jarvis answered from the radio room.

"It's a mess, captain," he reported. "We have spare tubes to replace the broken ones and can repair the condensers and coils. But they shorted both generators. Armatures burned out. They'll have to be rewound."

"How long'll that take?" Brand bit the end from a fresh cigar.

"About eight -- ten hours. We only need one."

"All right. Have 'em rewound." Brand turned from the frame to Carlin with inquiring eyes.

"We're still adding five gravities," he stated. "At the end of two hours from when this started, we'll be doing 247 miles a second, at three hours 356 --"

"Never mind that. How long do we have?" Brand saw that the operators were cocking their ears at the board.

Carlin glanced at the chronometer and the velocity indicator. He lowered his voice. "A little over five hours to Venus," he whispered. "And the velocity then will be close to 800."

Brand turned again to the audio and called Brinkerhof.

"How you making out with those disconnects?" he asked him.

"Just tried to burn one off with a 13,800-volt arc. Killed one of my men and blew up the rig we'd made. I'm going to try it with a 440-volt outfit. Have to make up a transformer rig."

"How long'll that take?"

"Two or three hours."

"All right. Go to it. What's the temperature in the drive cells?"

"Last I saw, captain, it was over boiling. Nobody can go in those."

"That's what I thought." Brand turned to Carlin, who looked grave. "I'm going to talk to the Phillips girl again," he told him.

"The girl?" Carlin wrinkled his forehead.

"Yes. I've a hunch." Brand strode off toward his own quarters, knowing the mate's puzzled eyes were following him.

He didn't know why he wanted to talk with her himself. Certainly not because she was so attractive. He was too old for that and, anyway, the situation was too desperate. There was some sort of hunch. If only the radio were operative, they'd not have so much to worry about. They could have the Venus-Terra beam lane cut off for an instant and, at this speed, they'd be out of the curve of its magnetic guiding forces in nothing flat. But the radio couldn't be fixed in time; they'd simply have to get a steering jet cut out within the five hours. Just one of them would do the trick; the opposing jet would swing them out of the lane and give them time to complete repairs. In a full-crew ship, now, this never could happen.

Brand almost ran headlong into Zona Phillips as she came out from his lounge on the arm of a tall male passenger with a decidedly Martian cast of countenance. The girl blushed furiously, avoiding the captain's accusing eyes.

"What are you doing here?" Brand demanded of the man. "Passengers aren't allowed here; you know that."

"Miss Phillips is a passenger," the Martian sneered.

"That's different." With a quick motion of his huge paw, Brand snatched open the front of the fellow's shirt. There was the brand of the red planet and its satellites!

Quick as a flash a flame thrower snout appeared in the fellow's fist. Another one! "Raise your hands!" the thin-lipped mouth over the ugly snout of the weapon snapped. "And be quick about it."

Brand's hands came up slowly. "Miss Zona," he said calmly, "you had better return to the lounge. You're not safe with this man."

They were backing away together, the man and the girl. No wonder he'd had a hunch about her, Brand thought sourly. She was in with the conspirators! And her old man, too, before he'd died, like as not. Or else she'd been double-crossing her own father. To look at the beauty and sweetness of her, you'd never think it. Brand was watching for the slightest sign of relaxing vigilance on the Martian's part. It didn't come.

Suddenly the girl's eyes widened with terror and, simultaneously, the Martian's thrower belched white flame. Brand dropped flat as its pencil of death fanned his cheek with blistering heat. There crackled another blast from behind and the Martian, because no man can stand up after his head has been blown away, toppled and lay still.

"Thanks," Brand said soberly, rising and gripping the mate's hand.

"That makes us even," grinned Carlin.

The girl started into a panicky run down the corridor.

"Oh, no, you don't, my pretty," he said, catching her and drawing her arms behind her. "You'll come right along with me and do some tall explaining."

Despite her kicks and struggles and pleading, he returned her to his lounge and tossed her on a divan. "Come in," he told Carlin, "and close the door."

"Now, young lady," he demanded, "what's this all about?"

Zona Phillips tossed her head and clamped her lips to a thin line. Her eyes flashed fire. She was more beautiful than ever; Brand heard Carlin draw in a quick breath.

"Are you going to tell me?" Brand shouted.

"There's nothing to tell," the girl insisted stubbornly. Then she began crying. Hysterically, Brand thought.

The captain couldn't bear to see a woman cry. Neither could the mate. Consulting in undertones while the girl regarded them fearfully, they decided it was best to leave her here under guard. Brand locked her in and went to audio Worthman for stewards to stay and see that she didn't get away or into any trouble. He'd deal with her later.

* * *

It was ghastly having to wait for results below. Brand left the mate on the bridge, where there was still nothing that could be done, and walked out to cool off. Out in the great central well of the ship where all the passenger decks circled like balconies, everything seemed exactly as usual. He moved along the spanning catwalk and was glad to observe that nothing seemed to be worrying the passengers at all. They had not the least inkling that anything was wrong. Dancing, cards, deck games, were proceeding as always at this time of day.

Of course, though the Spirit of Terra had accelerated to terrific speed and was still accelerating, there was no sensation observable aboard. Not any more than when traveling at normal speed, not any more than you would notice the 18.5 miles a second orbital velocity on Earth or the 21.7 on Venus. With gravity compensation functioning here as it did, you just didn't notice anything at all different from what it would be at home. But Brand knew, and he was getting impatient and more than ever concerned. They had accelerated for nearly three hours now and were doing about 350. And still those atomic jets astern stood up to the punishment. How to cut them off or, temporarily, even that one steering jet?

Rosso had reported everything quiet in the lifeboat corridors and Worthman's men hadn't been able to locate any of those Zora Phillips had originally reported. Brand could not hlep wondering about the girl, and he was beginning to think that all of the conspirators had been accounted for. He decided to check up on Brinkerhof's gang.

He found them working at number two steering jet, in the approach tunnel, rigging up an insulated platform under the disconnect overhead. Ordinarily these disconnects were pulled open by hand with a hook on the end of a long insulating handle. Now the blades were brazed fast. And each was carrying some 10,000 amperes at main voltage.

"Nearly ready?" Brand asked Brinkerhof, who was fluttering about his sweating men.

Through the cell bulkhead you could hear the thrum of the igniter tube under its 400,000 volts and the rhythmic tapping of the tiny fuel-admission valve. The nearly continuous atomic blast of the jet was evident only by a faint tremor that was in the floorplates, the air, everything -- and the heat, which was almost intolerable even here in the tunnel.

"Nearly ready," said Brinkerhof. "We couldn't find a single one of the cutting torches. One of those would be the trick."

"Couldn't we make one quicker than this?" Brand jerked a thumb toward the 440-volt cables that looped along the floor to the resistance of the arc rig that was still missing its transformer.

"No, I had Wilson check up. Machining nozzles and valves and all would take four or five hours."

Brand examined his flame thrower, then experimentally lashed its full blast up at a blade of the disconnect. The men ducked and the copper glowed red, then white. But it refused to melt down; the flame spread over too great an area. These things were made to kill men, not to cut through metals. The charge was exhausted; the weapon valueless without reloading.

"Wonder if we couldn't make a cutting torch out of one of these," said Brand, handing it to the maintenance man. "Nozzle it down."

"The nozzle's tungstoloy," muttered Brinkerhof. "Another four-or-five hour machining job. And no assurance it'd work."

The men were bringing in the new transformer and swiftly connecting it in the arc circuit. Mopping his brow, Brand turned away.

"Wait, sir," suggested the maintenance man. "They'll be ready to cut in a moment." He handed Brand dark goggles.

The captain waited. He needn't have been so concerned, he thought. Cutting out this one jet would hurl them out of the Venusward course. Then cutting off number four steering jet would set their course straight in space again and give them plenty of time to get the drive motors out and start permanent repairs. Their terrific velocity could then be decelerated with the forward braking jets, which you didn't dare use now for fear of buckling the hull plates. Brand cheered up.

"Move back, sir," Brinkerhof warned as the men swung the hinged rod of the cutting arc up toward the disconnect. "There'll be fireworks."

Controlled from thirty feet away by handwheels behind an asbestos shield, the contact points snapped viciously, and there was a lurid green flare of a copper arc. The quartz tube that sheathed the heavy conductor and insulated careless workmen from the low -- in the necessarily cramped power room of the spaceship -- 13,800-volt bus bar shattered and tinkled on the floor. The contacts moved forward again, one planted firmly on the heavy copper bus. Then the other touched it, moved slowly away, drawing out the hissing, luridly green flare of the 440-volt arc. The metal sputtered a dazzling shower of sparks and started fusing away. In two minutes a slash opened down through the six-inch thickness of copper -- and the 13,800-volt arc let loose with a roar and a blast of flame that enveloped the entire apparatus and drove everyone far back into the corridor. By a miracle, all of the men escaped death. The heat, even here, was brutal.

The high-tension arc continued, melting down the heavy bar as if it were tallow. In this narrow space the sixty-cycle note of released power was ear-shattering. Metal dripped over the apparatus and -- the transformer burned out with a deep groan and a billow of thick oil smoke!

The shield above the disconnect was dripping molten metal. There was an abrupt cessation of sound and the huge arc whipped out of existence. A glowing, white-hot blob of metal had bridged the gap and reclosed the circuit to the jet cell. Nothing had been accomplished.

And the cutting apparatus was wrecked again. All to do over.

Brand cursed luridly, mopping perspiration and looking at his watch. Then he took his headache away from there and went bridgeward.

(continue to part 4)

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