Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Neutral Vessel" by Harl Vincent, part 5

This is the fifth and final 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 four installments can be found here, here, here, and here.

As we join our story, Martian agents have sabotaged the interplanetary passenger liner Spirit of Terra so it will drive itself into the planet Venus at high speed, wrecking that world and ending the Martian-Venus War. With less than an hour left before impact, Captain Jeffery Brand sees a way to avert catastrophe, suggested to him by a beautiful passenger named Zona Phillips . . .

"Rosso!" he chirped. "And you, too, Worthman" -- two voices having come in by now -- "listen closely. Man lifeboats eleven to twenty and fifty-one to sixty. And don't ask any questions till I'm finished. That's ten above and ten below on the port side astern. Plug in an audio connection to each. Close all inner seals when manned. Seal boats themselves. Open outer seals of air locks. At my orders, we'll blast forward rockets."

"Of the lifeboats?" inquired Worthman incredulously.

"Certainly. They've weak jets, to be sure. But with twenty of them blasting, we may be able to get out of the lane."

"Will the air-lock seals hold?"

"We'll chance that. Put a watch on each. I'll stand by the audio."

"Now," he said to Carlin when they reached the bridge controls, "this is going to work like a full-crew ship. Give me visuals down stern lifeboat corridors on the port side. We're going to pull out of the magnetic lane."

"You mean --"

"With the lifeboats."

A slow red suffused the mate's cheeks as he watched the smile that wreathed Zona Phillips' lips. He'd be willing to bet she had something to do with this. And he hadn't thought of it himself. Of course the lifeboats would do it -- if --

Signs of activity showed in the corridors as soon as the viewplates lighted. Lock hatches were being opened one by one. One by one the individual audio connections plugged in.

"Blast forward jets gently," Brand told them, watching the cross lines of the course indicator. They blasted gently. "Inner seals holding all right?" he asked. The boats had driven back solidly by now.

One by one the men in the corridor reported them O. K.

"Increase blasts slowly," Brand ordered. The glowing, rapidly enlarging orb of Venus had not budged from the cross-line centering.

Carefully, as he would have done on a full-crew ship, Brand had them increase the power of their jets until the inner lock seals had all he thought they could stand of the reaction of the small lifeboats pushing to get through them and inside the ship. Then he added boat after boat to the number until all twenty he had designated were blasting, shoving mightily against the inner seals. There were no automatic relays to take care of things; Brand was jockeying to get a balance of energies the way you would jockey a horse. And he loved it.

But Venus still swooped in toward them. They hadn't budged the tiniest fraction of an inch from the magnetic course. Traveling 720 miles a second and only half a million miles to go. Brand dripped persiration.

"Quick, Rosso," he called. "Same thing on boats twenty-one to thirty and sixty-one to seventy forward, starboard." He'd twist the Spirit of Terra off this lane if it was his last act. And trying would be his last act if he didn't.

The men responded swiftly. All knew the importance of speed. In another minute two lifeboats were blasting on the opposite side of the liner, up near the nose, trying desperately to turn her vast bulk like a pinwheel. But only a fraction of an inch from her present line, just the slightest angularity would do. In fact, more than this would be as disastrous as the collision toward which they were heading. But only for themselves.

Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, sixty-two, sixty-three and sixty-four lifeboats blasting. Still Venus came in ever larger, rushing madly. Still centered precisely on the crosshairs. Twenty-five and sixty-five boats reported blasting. No one moved on the bridge. No one seemed to breath. Brand choked on the remains of his cigar and threw it away. Twenty-six and sixty-six in. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight. The crosshairs began a slow march eastward across Venus.

"Hold it there!" Brand yelped. "No more." The crosshairs kept on in their slow march. Venus was out of line. "Enough," called the captain. "Cut everything off." He slumped back weakly in his chair.

Brand didn't even hear the thunderous explosion as Brinkerhof finally cut the mad flow of current to the jets -- quite safely and easily when he, almost simultaneously with Brand's inspiration, saw the answer. From spares, he got a series of the heavy emergency fuses, rigged a short by-pass line around a section of the main bus bars to a steering jet, and inserted the fuses in the by-pass. Then a hand power saw readily sliced out a two-foot section of the bypassed, and hence unloaded, bus bar. One of the heavy fuses paralleled in the by-pass circuit was then pulled out of the socket with the insulated pole, and the other promptly blew from the overload, and a roar of triumph interrupting and killing the jet circuit! Nor did Brand hear Jarvis reporting that one of the generators was again in commission and the radio operative. Ahead of time.

* * *

G. H. Q. was even more stubborn than Tommy Blake had anticipated. He did manage to get Major Verejo excited, though, and he promised to take it up with the colonel. The colonel would go to the general.

Blake groaned. In his radioscope screen the Spirit of Terra now was visible as a tiny speeding dot with a ten-mile trail of incandescent gases astern. He thought he saw faint illumination off to one side.

"See that, Masters?" he demanded. "Doesn't it look as if they were blasting a steering jet or something?"

"It does, Tommy, it does! But, Lord, they're only four hundred thousand miles off. And 730 miles a second. It's too late."

Blake tore into the radio room as the call came in. It was General Fulsen. He had to tell his story all over again. He was nearly sobbing as he finished. "Can't you see, sir?" he pleaded. "The major checked with the other sphere. He knows it's the truth. We've only a few minutes and it won't make any difference to any of us!"

"I'll see what I can do with the space line, young man." The G. H. Q. carrier was off and Tommy Blake tore his hair.

"He'll see what he can do!" he raved at nobody at all. "See what he can do. Masters, if we live to tell the tale, I'm getting out of this damn service."

Masters grinned in spite of the impending catastrophe. Two closely cropped heads came together before the radioscope screen.

"They are!" exulted Blake. "They are blasting off the side. And say! Masters! They're off line line. They'll miss us. To hell with G. H. Q. and their song of 'see what I can do'."

The two OBS men did a war dance of their own as a trail of penciled flame swept across the viewplate and off into space. Venus was safe and so was the Spirit of Terra.

* * *

In Captain Brand's lounge there was great rejoicing. A few minutes ago they had passed Venus with a thousand miles to spare, scarcely even feeling her gravity pull as they swept by at 800 miles per second and left her far astern.

Everyone was talking all at once in the captain's lounge. The ship's entire staff of officers was here. And an auburn-haired girl.

Captain Brand had shooed off all her other admirers and had her sitting beside him on one of the comfortable divans. She looked brightly up at the big man over the rim of her glass.

"You," he was telling her, "will see your Tommy boy. And you'll be able to marry him, if I have anything to say about it. That is, if I think he's good enough for you when I look him over."

The girl laughed throatily, happily. "How can you arrange that?" she demanded.

"How would you like to be my daughter, Miss Zona?" The captain looked down at his big red hands and blushed as if this were a proposal of marriage.

The girl's eyes misted. "Why?" she asked softly.

"Because," Brand told her solemnly, "that way you could have your Tommy Blake. Look: I'm the law and everything else on this ship. I can marry people or divorce them. I'm the judge and the jury and the preacher, if necessary. I can adopt you, have the papers attested and all, right here. Then, with my permission as your father, you can marry anybody you please on Venus. Passport be d-darned. Besides --" Brand searched the girl's wondrous and wondering eyes -- "I like you, Miss Zona. I sort of think I'd like to have you for a daughter."

Brand looked away. The chatter of the crowded lounge was a meaningless background for his leaping thoughts.

"Why, you old dear," a soft voice was saying. "I've lost a father and found a new one. I . . . I think I'd like what you propose, D-daddy Brand. I'm sure I would."


(continue to "Neutral Vessel" Ahoy!)

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