Slow Burn by Still, Henry
BY HENRY STILL
_The problems of space were multiple enough without the opinions and treachery of Senator McKelvie--who really put the "fat into the fire". All Kevin had to do was get it out...._
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Worlds of If Science Fiction, October 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
"Tell 'em to look sharp, Bert. This pickup's got to be good." Kevin Morrow gulped the last of his coffee and felt its bitter acid gurgle around his stomach. He stared moodily through the plastic port where the spangled skirt of stars glittered against the black satin of endless night and a familiar curve of the space station swung ponderously around its hub.
Four space-suited tugmen floated languidly outside the rim. Beyond them the gleaming black and white moonship tugged gently at her mooring lines, as though anxious to be off.
Bert Alexander radioed quiet instructions to the tugmen.
"Why the hell couldn't he stay down there and mind his own business?" Kevin growled. "McKelvie's been after our hide ever since we got the appropriation, and now this." He slapped the flimsy radio-gram.
He looked up as the control room hatch opened. Jones came in from the astronomy section.
"Morning, commander," he said. "You guys had breakfast yet? Mess closes in 30 minutes." Kevin shook his head.
"We're not hungry," Bert filled in.
"You think you've got nerves?" Jones chuckled. "I just looked in on Mark. He's sleeping like a baby. You wouldn't think the biggest day of his life is three hours away."
"McKelvie's coming up to kibitz," Morrow said.
"The one and only," Bert said. "Here, read all about it."
He handed over the morning facsimile torn off the machine when the station hurtled over New England at 18,000 miles an hour. The upper half of the sheet bore a picture of the white-maned senator. Clearly etched on his face were the lines of too many half-rigged elections, too many compromises.
Beneath the picture were quotes from his speech the night before.
"As chairman of your congressional watchdog committee," the senator had said, "I'll see that there's no more waste and corruption on this space project. For three years they've been building a rocket--the moon rocket, they call it--out there at the space station.
"I haven't seen that rocket," the senator had continued. "All I've seen is five billion of your tax dollars flying into the vacuum of space. They tell me a man named Mark Kramer is going to fly out in that rocket and circle the moon.
"But he will fail," McKelvie had promised. "If God had intended man to fly to the moon, he would have given us wings to do it. Tomorrow I shall fly out to this space station, even at the risk of my life. I'll report the waste and corruption out there, and I'll report the failure of the moon rocket."
Jones crumpled the paper and aimed at the waste basket.
"Pardon me while I vomit," he said.
"We've been there," Kevin sighed deeply. "I suppose Max Gordon will be happy."
"He'll wear a hole in his tongue on McKelvie's boots," Bert said bitterly.
"Is it that bad?"
"How else would he get a first class spaceman's badge?" Morrow said. "He can't add two and two. But if stool pigeons had wings, he'd fly like a jet. We can't move up here without McKelvie knowing and howling about it.
"Don't worry," Jones said, "If the moon rocket makes it, public opinion will take care of the senator."
"If he doesn't take care of us first," Kevin said darkly. "He'll be aboard in 15 minutes."
* * * * *
Dawn touched the High Sierras as the station whirled in from the Pacific, 500 miles high.
"Bert. Get me a radar fix on White Sands."
Morrow huddled over the small computer, feeding in radar information as it came from his assistant.
"Rocket away!" Blared a radio speaker on the bulkhead. The same message carried to the four space-suited tugmen floating beyond the rim of the wheel, linked with life-lines.
Jones watched interestedly out the port.
"There she is!" he yelled.
Sunlight caught the ascending rocket, held it in a splash of light. The intercept technique was routine now, a matter of timing, but for a moment Kevin succumbed to the frightening optical illusion that the rocket was approaching apex far below the station. Then, slowly, the slender cylinder matched velocity and pulled into the orbit, crept to its destination.
With deceptive ease, the four human tugs attached magnetic shoes and guided the projectile into the space station hub with short, expert blasts of heavy rocket pistols.
"Take over Bert," Morrow directed, "I guess I'm the official greeter." He hurried out of the control room, through a short connecting tube and emerged floating in the central space surrounding the hub where artificial gravity fell to zero. Air pressure was normal to transfer passengers without space suits.
The connecting lock clanked open. The rocket pilot stepped out.
"He got sick," the pilot whispered to Kevin. "I swabbed him off, but he's hoppin' mad."
The senator's mop of white hair appeared in the port. Kevin braced to absorb a tirade, but McKelvie's deep scowl changed to an expression of bliss as he floated weightless into the tiny room.
"Why, this is wonderful!" he sputtered. He waved his arms like a bird and kicked experimentally with a foot.
"Grab him!" Kevin shouted. "He's gone happy with it."
The pilot was too late. McKelvie's body sailed gracefully through the air and his head smacked the bulkhead. His eyes glazed in a frozen expression of carefree happiness.
Kevin swore. "Now he'll accuse us of a plot against his life. Help me get him to sick bay."
The two men guided the weightless form into a tube connecting with the outer ring. As they pushed outward, McKelvie's weight increased until they carried him the last 50 feet into the dispensary compartment.
Max Gordon burst wild-eyed into the room.
"What have you done to the senator?" he shouted. "Why didn't you tell me he was coming up?" Morrow made sure McKelvie was receiving full medical attention before he turned to the junior officer.
"He went space happy and bumped his head," Kevin said curtly, "and there was no more reason to notify you than the rest of the crew." He walked away. Gordon bent solicitously over his unconscious patron.
Kevin found Anderson in the passageway.
"I ordered them to start fueling Moonbeam," Bert said.
"Good. Is Mark awake?"
"Eating breakfast. The psycho's giving him a clinical chat."
"I wish it were over." Morrow brushed back his hair.
"You've really got the jitters, huh chief?"
Morrow turned angrily and then tried to laugh.
"I'd sell my job for a nickel right now, Bert. This will be touch and go, without having the worst enemy of space flight aboard. If this ship fails, it's more than a rocket or the death of a man. It'll set the whole program back 50 years."
"I know," Bert answered, "but he'll make it."
Footsteps sounded in the tube outside the cabin. Mark Kramer walked in.
"Hi, chief," he grinned, "Moonbeam ready to go?"
"The techs are out now and fuel's aboard. How about you? Shouldn't you get some rest?"
"That's all I've had since they shipped me out here." Kramer laughed. "It'll be a snap. After all, I'll never make over two gees and pick up 7000 mph to leave you guys behind. Then I play ring around the rosy, take a look at Luna's off side and come home. Just like that."
"Just like that," Kevin whispered meditatively. The moon rocket, floating there outside the station's rim was ugly, designed never to touch a planet's atmosphere, but it was the most beautiful thing man had ever built, assembled in space from individual fragments boosted laboriously from the Earth's surface.
Another clatter of footsteps approached the hatch. Max Gordon entered and stood at attention as Senator McKelvie made a dignified entrance. The senator wore an adhesive patch on his high forehead. He turned to Kramer.
"Young man," he rumbled, "are you the fool risking your life in that--that thing out there? You must know it'll never reach the moon. I know it'll never--"
Kramer's face paled slightly and he moved swiftly between the two men. Without using force, he backed the senator and Gordon through the hatch and slammed it behind him. Anger was a knot of green snakes in his belly.
"I want to talk to that pilot," McKelvie said belligerently.
"I'm sorry, senator. The best psychiatrists on Earth worked eight months to condition Kramer for this flight. He must not be emotionally disturbed. You can't talk to him."
"You forbid...?" McKelvie exploded, but Morrow intercepted smoothly.
"Gordon. I'm sure the senator would like a tour of the station. Will you escort him?"
McKelvie's face reddened and Max opened his mouth to object.
"Gordon!" Morrow said sharply. Max closed his mouth and guided the grumbling congressman up the tube.
* * * * *
"Twenty minutes to blastoff," Bert reported.
"Right," Kevin acknowledged absently. He studied taped data moving in by radio facsimile from the mammoth electronic computer on Earth.
"Our orbit's true," he said with satisfaction and wiped a sweaty palm on his trousers. "Get the time check, Bert." Beeps from the Naval Observatory synchronized with the space station chronometer.
"He's leaving the airlock now," Bert said. From the intercom, Morrow listened to periodic reports from crew members as McKelvie and Gordon progressed in their tour.
"This is Adams in Section M. The senator and Gordon have been in the line chamber for 10 minutes."
"Boot 'em out," Kevin said crisply. "Blastoff in 15 minutes."
"That machinery controls the safety lines," Bert said.
Kevin looked up with a puzzled frown, but turned back to watch Kramer creeping along a mooring line to the moon ship. A group of tugmen helped the space-suited figure into the rocket, dogged shut the hatch and cleared back to the station rim.
"Station to Kramer," on the radio, "are you ready?"
"All set," came the steady voice, "give me the word."
"All right. Five minutes." Kevin turned to the intercom. "Release safety lines."
In the weightlessness of space the cables retained their normal rigid line from the rim of the station to the rocket. They had been under no strain. Their shape would not change until they were reeled in.
"Two minutes," Morrow warned. Tension grew as Anderson began the slow second count. The hatch opened. McKelvie and Gordon entered the control room. No one noticed it.
"Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ..."
A gout of white fire jabbed from the stern of the rocket. Slowly the ship moved forward.
Morrow watched tensely, hands gripping a safety rail.
Then his face froze in a mask of disbelief and horror.
"The lines!" he shouted. "The safety lines fouled!"
He fell sprawling as the space station lurched heavily, tipped upward like a giant platter under the inexorable pull of the moon rocket.
Kevin scrambled back to the viewport, the shriek of tortured metal in his ears. Horror-stricken, he saw the taut cables that had failed to release. Then a huge section of nylon, aluminum and rubber ripped out of the station wall, was visible a second in the rocket glare, and vanished.
Escaping air whistled through the crippled structure. Pressure dropped alarmingly before the series of automatic airlocks clattered reassuringly shut.
Kevin's hand was bleeding. He staggered with the frightening new motion of the space station. Gordon and the senator had collapsed against a bulkhead. McKelvie's pale face twisted with fear and amazement. Blood streaked down the pink curve of his forehead.
Individual station reports trickled through the intercom. Miraculously, the bulk of the station had escaped damage.
"Line chamber's gone," Adams reported. "Other bulkheads holding, but something must have jammed the line machines. They ripped right out."
"Get repair crews in to patch leaks," Morrow shouted. He turned frantically to the radio. "Station to Moonbeam. Kramer! Are you all right?"
He waited an agonizing minute, then a scratchy voice came through.
"Kramer, here. What the hell happened? Something gave me a terrific yaw, but the gyro pulled me back on course. Fuel consumption high. Otherwise I'm okay."
"You ripped out part of the station," Kevin yelled. "You're towing extra mass. Release the safety lines if you can."
The faint answer came back, garbled by static.
Another disaster halted a new try to reach him.
With a howling rumble, the massive gyroscope case in the bulkhead split open. The heavy wheel, spinning at 20,000 revolutions per minute, slowly and majestically crawled out of its gimbals; the gyroscope that stabilized the entire structure remained in its plane of revolution, but ripped out of its moorings when the station was forcibly tilted.
Spinning like a giant top, the gyro walked slowly across the deck. McKelvie and Gordon scrambled out of its way.
"It'll go through!" Bert shouted. Kevin leaped to a chest of emergency patches.
The wheel ripped through the magnesium shell like a knife in soft cheese. A gaping rent opened to the raw emptiness of space, but Morrow was there with the patch. Before decompression could explode the four creatures of blood and bone, the patch slapped in place, sealed by the remaining air pressure.
Trembling violently, Kevin staggered to a chair and collapsed. Silence rang in his ears. Anderson gripped the edge of a table to keep from falling. Kevin turned slowly to McKelvie and Gordon.
"Come here," he said tonelessly.
"Now see here, young man--" the senator blustered.
"I said come here!"
The two men obeyed. The commander's voice held a new edge of steel.
"You were the last to leave the line control room," he said. "_Did you touch that machinery?_"
Gordon's face was the color of paste. His mouth worked like a suffocating fish. McKelvie recovered his bluster.
"I'm a United States senator," he stuttered, "I'll not be threatened...."
"I'm not threatening you," Kevin said, "but if you fouled that machinery to assure your prediction about the rocket, I'll see that you hang. Do you realize that gyroscope was the only control we had over the motion of this space station? Whatever it does now is the result of the moon rocket's pull. We may not live to see that rocket again."
As though verifying Morrow's words, the lights dimmed momentarily and returned to normal brilliance. A frightened voice came from the squawkbox.
"Hey, chief! This is power control. We've lost the sun!"
Anderson looked out the port, studied the slowly wheeling stars.
"Mother of God," he breathed. "We're flopping ... like a flapjack over a stove."
And the power mirrors were on only one face of the space station, mirrors that collected the sun's radiation and converted it to power. Now they were collecting nothing but the twinkling of the stars.
The vital light would return as the station continued its new, awkward rotation, but would the intermittent exposure be sufficient to sustain power?
"Shut down everything but emergency equipment," Morrow directed. "When we get back on the sun, soak every bit of juice you can into those batteries." He turned to Gordon and McKelvie. "Won't it be interesting if we freeze to death, or suffocate when the air machines stop?"
Worry replaced anger as he turned abruptly away from them.
"We've got a lot of work to do, Bert," he said crisply. "See if you can get White Sands."
"It's over the horizon, I'll try South Africa." Anderson worked with the voice radio but static obliterated reception. "Here comes a Morse transmission," he said at last. Morrow read slowly as tape fed out of the translator:
"Radar shows moon rocket in proper trajectory. Where are you?"
The first impulse was to dash to the viewport and peer out. But that would be no help in determining position.
"Radar, Bert," he whispered. Anderson verniered in the scope, measuring true distance to Earth's surface. He read the figure, swore violently, and readjusted the instrument.
"It can't be," he muttered at last. "This says we're 865 miles out."
"365 miles outside our orbit?" Morrow said calmly. "I was afraid of that. That tug from the Moonbeam not only cart-wheeled us, it yanked us out." He snatched a sheet of graph paper out of a desk drawer and penciled a point.
"Give me a reading every 10 seconds."
Points began to connect in a curve.
And the curve was something new.
"Get Jones from astronomy," Kevin said at last. "He can help us plot and maybe predict."
When the astronomer arrived minutes later, the space station was 1700 miles above the Earth, still shearing into space on an ascending curve.
"Get a quick look at this, Jones," Kevin spoke rapidly. "See if you can tell where it will be two hours from now."
The astronomer studied the curve intently as it continued to grow under Kevin's pencil.
"It may be an outward spiral," he said haltingly, "or it could be a ... parabola."
"No!" Bert protested. "That would throw us into space. We couldn't--"
"We couldn't get back," Kevin finished grimly. "There'd better be an alternative."
"It could be an ellipse," Jones said.
"It must be an ellipse," Bert said eagerly. "The Moonbeam couldn't have given us 7000 mph velocity."
Abruptly the lights went out.
The radar scope faded from green to black. Morrow swore a string of violent oaths, realizing in the same instant that anger was useless when the power mirrors lost the sun.
He bellowed into the intercom, but the speaker was dead. Already Bert was racing down the tube to the power compartment. Minutes later, the intercom dial flickered red. Morrow yelled again.
"You've got to keep power to this radar set for the next half-hour. Everything else can stop, even the air machines, but _we've got to find out where we're going_."
The space station turned again. Power resumed and Kevin picked up the plot.
"We're 6000 miles out!" he breathed.
"But it's flattening," Jones cried. "The curve's flattening!" Bert loped back into the control room. Jones snatched the pencil from his superior.
"Here," he said quickly, "I can see it now. Here's the curve. It's an ellipse all right."
"It'll carry us out 9600 miles," Bert gasped. "No one's ever been out that far."
"All right," Morrow said. "That crisis is past. The next question is where are we when we come back on nadir. Bert, tell the crew what's going on. Jones, you can help me. We've got to pick up White Sands and get a fuel rocket up here to push."
"Good Lord, look at that!" Jones breathed. He stared out the port. The Earth, a dazzling huge globe filling most of the heavens, swam slowly past the plastic window. It was the first time they had been able to see more than a convex segment of oceans and continents. Kevin looked, soberly, and turned to the radio.
The power did not fail in the next crazy rotation of the station.
"There's the West Coast." Kevin pointed. "In a few minutes I can get White Sands, I hope."
Jones had taken over the radar plot. At last his pencil reached a peak and the curve started down. The station had reached the limit of its wild plunge into space.
"Good," Kevin muttered. "See if you can extrapolate that curve and get us an approximation where we'll cut in over the other side." The astronomer figured rapidly and abstractedly.
"May I remind you young man," McKelvie's voice boomed, "you have a United States senator aboard. If anything happens--"
"If anything happens, it happens to all of us," Kevin answered coldly. "When you're ready to tell me what _did_ happen, I'm ready to listen."
"White Sands, this is Station I. Come in please."
Kevin tried to keep his voice calm, but the lives of 90 men rode on it, on his ability to project his words through the crazy hash of static lacing this part of space from the multitude of radio stars. A power rocket with extra fuel was the only instrument that could return the space station to its normal orbit.
That rocket must come from White Sands.
White Sands did not answer.
He tried again, turned as an exclamation of dismay burst from the astronomer. Morrow bent to look at the plotting board.
Jones had sketched a circle of the Earth, placing it in the heart of the ellipse the space station was drawing around it.
From 9600 miles out, the line curved down and down, and down....
But it did not meet the point where the station had departed from its orbit 500 miles above Earth's surface.
The line came down and around to kiss the Earth--almost.
"I hope it's wrong," Jones said huskily. "If I'm right, we'll come in 87 miles above the surface."
"It can't!" Morrow shouted in frustration. "We'll hit stratosphere. It'll burn us--just long enough so we'll feel the agony before we die."
Jones rechecked his figures and shook his head. The line was still the same. Each 10 seconds it was supported by a new radar range. The astronomer's lightning fingers worked out a new problem.
"We have about 75 minutes to do something about it," he said. "We'll be over the Atlantic or England when it happens."
"Station I, this is...."
The beautiful, wonderful voice burst loud and clear from the radio and then vanished in a blurb of static.
"Oh God!" Kevin breathed. It was a prayer.
"We hear you," he shouted, procedure gone with the desperate need to communicate with home. "Come in White Sands. Please come in!"
Faintly now the voice blurred in and out, lost altogether for vital moments:
"... your plot. Altiac computer ... your orbit ... rocket on standby ... as you pass."
"Yes!" Kevin shouted, gripping the short wave set with white fingers, trying to project his words into the microphone, across the dwindling thousands of miles of space. "Yes. Send the rocket!"
"Can they do it?" Jones asked. "The rocket, I mean."
"I don't know," Kevin said. "They're all pre-set, mass produced now, and fuel is adjusted to come into the old orbit. They can be rigged, I think, if there's enough time."
* * * * *
The coast of California loomed below them now, a brown fringe holding back the dazzling flood of the Pacific. They were 3000 miles above the Earth, dropping sharply on the down leg of the ellipse.
At their present speed, the station appeared to be plunging directly at the Earth. The globe was frighteningly larger each time it wobbled across the viewport.
"Shall I call away the tugmen?" Bert asked tensely.
"I can't ask them to do it," Kevin said. "With this crazy orbit, it's too dangerous. I'm going out."
He slipped into his space gear.
"I'm going with you," Bert said. Kevin smiled his gratitude.
In the airlock the men armed themselves with three heavy rocket pistols each. Morrow ordered other tugmen into suits for standby.
"I wish I could do this alone, Bert," he said soberly. "But I'm glad you're coming along. If we miss, there won't be a second chance."
They knew approximately when they would pass over the rocket launching base, but this time it would be different. The space station would pass at 750 miles altitude and with a new velocity. No one could be sure the feeder rocket would make it. Unless maximum fuel had been adjusted carefully, it might orbit out of reach below them. Rescue fuel would take the place of a pilot.
* * * * *
Anderson and Morrow floated clear of the huge wheel, turning lazily in the deceptive luxury of zero gravity. The familiar sensation of exhilaration threatened to wipe out the urgency they must bring to bear on their lone chance for survival. They could see the jagged hole where the Moonbeam had yanked out a section of the structure.
An unintelligible buzz of voice murmured in the radios. Unconsciously Kevin tried to squeeze the earphones against his ears, but his heavily-gloved hands met only the rigid globe of his helmet.
"You get it, Bert?"
"This is Jones," a new voice loud and clear. "Earth says 15 seconds to blastoff."
Like a tiny, clear bell the words emerged from static. Bert and Kevin gyrated their bodies so they could stare directly at the passing panorama of Earth below. They had seen it hundreds of times, but now 250 more miles of altitude gave the illusion they were studying a familiar landmark through the small end of a telescope.
"There it is!" Bert shouted.
A pinpoint of flame, that was it, with no apparent motion as it rose almost vertically toward them.
Then a black dot in an infinitesimal circle of flame--the rocket silhouetted against its own fire ... as big as a dime ... as big as a dollar....
... as big as a basketball, the circle of flame soared up toward them.
"It's still firing!" Kevin yelled. "It'll overshoot us."
As he spoke, the fire died, but the tiny bar of the rocket, black against the luminous surface of Earth, crawled rapidly up into their sector of starlit blackness. Then it was above Earth's horizon, nearly to the space station's orbit, crawling slowly along, almost to them--a beautiful long cylinder of metal, symbol of home and a civilization sending power to help them to safety.
Hope flashed through Kevin's mind that he was wrong, that the giant computer and the careful hands of technicians had matched the ship to their orbit after all.
But he was right. It passed them, angling slowly upward not 50 yards away.
Instantly the two men rode the rocket blast of their pistols to the nose of the huge projectile. But it carried velocity imparted by rockets that had fired a fraction of a minute too long.
Clinging to the metal with magnetic shoes, Morrow and Anderson pressed the triggers of the pistols, held them down, trying to push the cylinder down and back.
Bert's heavy breathing rasped in the radio as he unconsciously used the futile force of his muscles in the agonizing effort to move the ship.
Their pistols gave out almost simultaneously. Both reached for another. Thin streams of propulsive gas altered the course of the rocket, slightly, but the space station was smaller now, angling imperceptibly away and down as the rocket pressed outward into a new, higher orbit.
The rocket pistols were not enough.
"Get the hell back here!" Jones' voice blared in their ears. "You can't do it. You're 20 miles away now and angling up. Don't be dead heroes!" The last words were high and frantic.
"We've got to!" Morrow answered. "There's no other way."
"We can't do the impossible, chief," Bert gasped.
A group of tiny figures broke away from the rim of the space station. The tugmen were coming to help.
Then Kevin grasped the hideous truth. There were not enough rocket pistols to bring the men to the full ship and return _with any reserve to guide the projectile_.
"Get back!" he shouted. "Save the pistols. We're coming in."
Behind them their only chance for life continued serenely upward into a new orbit. There, 900 miles above the earth, it would revolve forever with more fuel in its tanks than it needed.
Fuel that would have saved the lives of 90 desperate men.
By leaving it, Morrow and Anderson had bought perhaps 30 more minutes of life before the space station became a huge meteor riding its fiery path to death in the the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
Both suffered the guilt of enormous betrayal. The fact that they could have done no more did not erase it.
Frantically, Kevin flipped over in his mind the possible tools that still could be brought to bear to lift the space station above its flaming destruction. But his tools were the stone axe of a primitive man trying to hack his way out of a forest fire.
* * * * *
Eager hands pulled them back into the station. For a moment there were the reassuring sounds as their helmets were unscrewed. Then the familiar smells and shape of the structure that had been home for so long. Now that haven was about to destroy itself.
Then Morrow remembered the Earth rocket that had brought Senator McKelvie to the great white sausage in space.
That rocket still contained a small quantity of fuel.
If fired at the precise moment, that fuel, anchored with the rocket in the hub socket, might be enough to lift the entire station.
He shouted instructions and men raced to obey. Kevin, himself, raced into the nearest tube. There was no sound, but ahead of him the hatch was open to the discharge chamber. He leaped into the zero gravity room.
McKelvie was crawling through the connecting port into the feeder rocket. Kevin sprawled headlong into Gordon. The recoil threw them apart, but Gordon recovered balance first.
He had a gun.
"Get back," he snarled. "We're going down." He laughed sharply, near hysteria. "We're going down to tell the world how you fried--through error and mismanagement."
"You messed up those lines," Kevin said. It didn't matter now. He only hoped to hold Gordon long enough for diversionary help to come out of the tube.
"Yes," Gordon leered. "We fixed the lines. The senator wasn't sure we should, but I helped him over his squeamishness, and now we'll crack the whip when we get back home."
"You won't make it," Kevin said. "We're still more than 600 miles high. The glide pattern in that rocket is built to take you down from 500 miles."
McKelvie's head appeared in the hatch. He was desperately afraid.
"You said you could fly this thing, Gordon. Can you?"
Max nodded his head rapidly, like a schoolboy asked to recite a lesson he has not studied.
Kevin was against the bulkhead. Now he pushed himself slowly forward.
"Stay back or I'll shoot?" Gordon screamed. Instead, he leaped backward through the hatch.
Hampered by his original slow motion, Kevin could not move faster until he reached another solid surface.
The hatch slammed shut before his grasping fingers touched it.
A wrenching tug jostled the space station structure. The rocket was gone, and with it the power that might have saved all of them.
Morrow ran again. He had not stopped running since the beginning of this nightmare.
He tumbled over Bert and Jones in the tube. They scrambled after him back to the control room. The three men watched through the port.
"If he doesn't hit the atmosphere too quick, too hard ..." Kevin whispered. His fists were clenched. He felt no malice at this moment. He did not wish them death. There was no sound in the radio. The plummeting projectile was a tiny black dot, vanishing below and behind them.
When the end came, it was a mote of orange red, then a dazzling smear of white fire as the rocket ripped into the atmosphere at nearly 20,000 miles an hour.
"They're dead!" Jones voice choked with disbelief. Kevin nodded, but it was a flashing thing that lost meaning for him in the same instant. He knew that unless a miracle happened, ninety men in his command would meet the same fate.
* * * * *
Like a perpetual motion machine, his brain kept reaching for something that could save his space station, his own people, the iron-nerved spacemen who knew they were near death but kept their vital posts, waiting for him to find a way.
Stories do not end unhappily--that thought kept cluttering his brain--a muddy optimism blanking out vital things that might be done.
"What's the altitude Jones?"
"520 now. Leveling a bit."
"Enough?" It was a stupid question and Kevin knew it. Jones shook his head.
"We might be lucky," he said. "We'll hit it about 97 miles up. The top isn't a smooth surface, it billows and dips. But," he added, almost a whisper, "we'll penetrate to about 80 miles before...."
"How much time?" Kevin asked sharply. A tiny chain of hope linked feebly.
"About 22 minutes."
"Bert, order all hands into space suits--emergency!"
While the order was being carried out, Kevin summoned the tugmen.
"How many loaded pistols do we have?"
"Six," the chief answered.
"All right. Get this quick. Anchor yourselves inside the hub. Aim those pistols at the Earth and fire until they're exhausted."
The chief stared incredulously.
"I know it's crazy," Kevin snapped. "It's not enough, but if it alters our orbit 50 feet, it'll help." The tugmen ran out. Bert, Kevin and Jones scrambled into space suits. Morrow called for reports.
"All hands," he intoned steadily, "open all ports. Repeat. Open all ports. Do not question. Follow directions closely."
Ten seconds later, a whoosh of escaping air signaled obedience.
"Now!" Kevin shouted, "grab every loose object within reach. Throw it at the Earth. Desks, books, tools, anything. Throw them down with every ounce of strength you've got!"
It was insane. Everything was insane. It couldn't possibly be enough.... But space around the hurtling station blossomed with every conceivable flying object that man has ever taken with him to a lonely outpost. A pair of shoes went tumbling into darkness, and behind it the plastic framed photograph of someone's wife and children.
Jones knew his superior had not gone berserk. He bent anxiously over the radar scope.
It was not a matter of jettisoning weight. Every action has an equal reaction, and the force each man gave to a thrown object was as effective in its diminuitive way as the exhaust from a rocket.
"Read it!" Morrow shouted. "Read it!"
"265 miles," Jones cried. "I need more readings to tell if it helped."
There was no sound in the radio circuit, save that of 90 men breathing, waiting to hear 90 death sentences. Jones' heavily-gloved hands moved the pencil clumsily over the graph paper. He drew a tangent to a new curve.
"It helped," he said tonelessly, "We'll go in at 100 miles, penetrate to 90...."
"Not enough," Kevin said. "Close all ports. Repeat. Close all ports!"
An unheard sigh breathed through the mammoth, complex doughnut as automatic machinery gave new breath to airless spaces.
It might never be needed again to sustain human life.
But the presence of air delivered one final hope to Morrow's frantic brain.
"Two three oh miles," Jones said.
"Air control," Kevin barked into the mike, "how much pressure can you get in 15 minutes?"
"Air control, aye," came the answer, and a pause while the chief calculated. "About 50 pounds with everything on the line."
"Get it on! And hang on to your hats," Kevin yelled.
The station dropped another 30 miles, slanting in sharply toward the planet's envelope of gas that could sustain life--or take it away. Morrow turned to Anderson.
"Bert. There are four tubes leading into the hub. Get men and open the outer airlocks. Then standby the four inner locks. When I give the signal, open those locks, fast. You may have to pull to help the machinery--you'll be fighting three times normal air pressure."
Bert ran out. Nothing now but to wait. Five minutes passed. Ten.
"We're at 135 miles," Jones said. Far below the Earth wheeled by, its apparent motion exaggerated as the space station swooped lower.
Kevin's throat was parched, his lips dry. Increasing air pressure squeezed the space suits tighter around his flesh. A horror of claustrophobia gripped him and he knew every man was suffering the same torture.
"Almost there," Bert breathed, unaware that his words were audible.
Then a new force gripped them, at first the touch of a caressing finger tip dragging back, ever so slightly. Kevin staggered as inertia tugged him forward.
"We're in the air!" he shouted. "Bert. Standby the airlocks!"
The finger was a hand, now, a huge hand of tenuous gases, pressing, pressing, but the station still ripped through its death medium at a staggering 20,000 miles an hour.
Jones pointed. Morrow's eyes followed his indicating finger to the thermocouple dial.
The dial said 100° F. While he watched it moved to 105, quickly to 110°.
* * * * *
Five seconds more. A blinding pain of tension stabbed Kevin behind the eyes. But through the flashing colors of agony, he counted, slowly, deliberately....
"Now!" he shouted. "Open airlocks, Bert. NOW!"
Air rushed out through the converging spokes of the great wheel, poured out under tremendous pressure, into the open cup of the space station hub, and there the force of three atmospheres spurted into space through the mammoth improvised rocket nozzle.
Kevin felt the motion. Every man of the crew felt the surge as the intricate mass of metal and nylon leaped upward.
That was all.
Morrow watched the temperature gauge. It climbed to 135°, to 140° ... 145 ... 150....
"The temperature is at 150 degrees," he announced huskily over the radio circuit. "If it goes higher, there's nothing we can do."
The needle quivered at 151, moved to 152, and held....
Two minutes, three....
The needle stepped back, one degree.
"We're moving out," Kevin whispered. "We're moving out!"
The cheer, then, was a ringing, deafening roar in the earphones. Jones thumped Kevin madly on the back and leaped in a grotesque dance of joy.
* * * * *
Morrow leaned back in the control chair, pressed tired fingers to his temples. He could not remember when he had slept.
The first rocket from White Sands had brought power to adjust the orbit. This one was on the mark.
The next three brought the Senate investigating committee.
But that didn't matter, really. Kevin was happy, and he was waiting.
The control room door banged open. Mark Kramer's grin was like a flash of warm sunlight.
"Hi, commander," he said, "wait'll you see the marvelous pictures I got."
Outside the Moonbeam rode gently at anchor, tethered with new safety lines.