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´╗┐Title: Slingshot
Author: Lande, Irving W.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Slingshot" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



SLINGSHOT

by

IRVING W. LANDE

Illustrated by Emsh



[Illustration]



            _The slingshot was, I believe, one of the few
          weapons of history that wasn't used in the last war.
            That doesn't mean it won't be used in the next!_


"Got a bogey at three o'clock high. Range about six hundred miles."
Johnson spoke casually, but his voice in the intercom was thin with
tension.

Captain Paul Coulter, commanding Space Fighter 308, 58th Squadron, 33rd
Fighter Wing, glanced up out of his canopy in the direction indicated,
and smiled to himself at the instinctive reaction. Nothing there but the
familiar starry backdrop, the moon far down to the left. If the light
wasn't right, a ship might be invisible at half a mile. He squeezed the
throttle mike button. "Any IFF?"

"No IFF."

"O.K., let me know as soon as you have his course." Coulter squashed out
his cigar and began his cockpit check, grinning without humor as he
noticed that his breathing had deepened and his palms were moist on the
controls. He looked down to make sure his radio was snug in its pocket
on his leg; checked the thigh harness of his emergency rocket, wrapped
in its thick belly pad; checked the paired tanks of oxygen behind him,
hanging level from his shoulders into their niche in the "cradle." He
flipped his helmet closed, locked it, and opened it again. He tossed a
sardonic salute at the photograph of a young lady who graced the side of
the cockpit. "Wish us luck, sugar." He pressed the mike button again.

"You got anything yet, Johnny?"

"He's going our way, Paul. Have it exact in a minute."

Coulter scanned the full arch of sky visible through the curving panels
of the dome, thinking the turgid thoughts that always came when action
was near. His chest was full of the familiar weakness--not fear exactly,
but a tight, helpless feeling that grew and grew with the waiting.

His eyes and hands were busy in the familiar procedure, readying the
ship for combat, checking and re-checking the details that could mean
life and death, but his mind watched disembodied, yearning back to
earth.

Sylvia always came back first. Inviting smile and outstretched hands.
Nyloned knees, pink sweater, and that clinging, clinging white silk
skirt. A whirling montage of laughing, challenging eyes and tossing
sky-black hair and soft arms tightening around his neck.

Then Jean, cool and self-possessed and slightly disapproving, with
warmth and humor peeping through from underneath when she smiled. A
lazy, crinkly kind of smile, like Christmas lights going on one by one.
He wished he'd acted more grown up that night they watched the rain
dance at the pueblo. For the hundredth time, he went over what he
remembered of their last date, seeing the gleam of her shoulder, and the
angry disappointment in her eyes; hearing again his awkward apologies.
She was a nice kid. Silently his mouth formed the words. "You're a nice
kid."

_I think she loves me. She was just mad because I got drunk._

The tension of approaching combat suddenly blended with the memory,
welling up into a rush of tenderness and affection. He whispered her
name, and suddenly he knew that if he got back he was going to ask her
to marry him.

He thought of his father, rocking on the porch of the Pennsylvania farm,
pipe in his mouth, the weathered old face serene, as he puffed and
listened to the radio beside him. He wished he'd written him last night,
instead of joining the usual beer and bull session in the wardroom. He
wished--. He wished.

"I've got him, Paul. He's got two point seven miles of RV on us. Take
thirty degrees high on two point one o'clock for course to IP."

       *       *       *       *       *

Automatically he turned the control wheel to the right and eased it
back. The gyros recorded the turn to course.

"Hold 4 G's for one six five seconds, then coast two minutes for initial
point five hundred miles on his tail."

"Right, Johnny. One sixty-five, then two minutes." He set the timer,
advanced the throttle to 4 G's, and stepped back an inch as the
acceleration took him snugly into the cradle. The Return-To-Station-Fuel
and Relative-Velocity-To-Station gauges did their usual double takes on
a change of course, as the ship computer recorded the new information.
He liked those two gauges--the two old ladies.

Mrs. RSF kept track of how much more fuel they had than they needed to
get home. When they were moving away from station, she dropped in
alarmed little jumps, but when they were headed home, she inched along
in serene contentment, or if they were coasting, sneaked triumphantly
back up the dial.

Mrs. RVS started to get jittery at about ten mps away from home, and
above fifteen, she was trembling steadily. He didn't blame the old
ladies for worrying. With one hour of fuel at 5 G's, you didn't fire a
single squirt unless there was a good reason for it. Most of their time
on a mission was spent free wheeling, in the anxiety-laden boredom that
fighting men have always known.

_Wish the Red was coming in across our course._ It would have taken less
fuel, and the chase wouldn't have taken them so far out. But then they'd
probably have been spotted, and lost the precious element of surprise.

He blessed the advantage of better radar. In this crazy "war," so like
the dogfights of the first world war, the better than two hundred mile
edge of American radar was more often than not the margin of victory.
The American crews were a little sharper, a little better trained, but
with their stripped down ships, and midget crewmen, with no personal
safety equipment, the Reds could accelerate longer and faster, and go
farther out. You had to get the jump on them, or it was just too bad.

The second hand hit forty-five in its third cycle, and he stood loose in
the cradle as the power died.

_Sixty-two combat missions but the government says there's no war._ His
mind wandered back over eight years in the service. Intelligence tests.
Physical tests. Psychological tests. Six months of emotional adjustment
in the screep. Primary training. Basic and advanced training. The pride
and excitement of being chosen for space fighters. By the time he
graduated, the United States and Russia each had several satellite
stations operating, but in 1979, the United States had won the race for
a permanent station on the Moon. What a grind it had been, bringing in
the supplies.

A year later the Moon station had "blown up." No warning. No survivors.
Just a brand-new medium-sized crater. And six months later, the new
station, almost completed, went up again. The diplomats had buzzed like
hornets, with accusations and threats, but nothing could be
proven--there _were_ bombs stored at the station. The implication was
clear enough. There wasn't going to be any Moon station until one
government ruled Earth. Or until the United States and Russia figured
out a way to get along with each other. And so far, getting along with
Russia was like trying to get along with an octopus.

Of course there were rumors that the psych warfare boys had some gimmick
cooked up, to turn the U. S. S. R. upside down in a revolution, the next
time power changed hands, but he'd been hearing that one for years.
Still, with four new dictators over there in the last eleven years,
there was always a chance.

Anyway, he was just a space jockey, doing his job in this screwball
fight out here in the empty reaches. Back on Earth, there was no war.
The statesmen talked, held conferences, played international chess as
ever. Neither side bothered the other's satellites, though naturally
they were on permanent alert. There just wasn't going to be any Moon
station for a while. Nobody knew what there might be on the Moon, but if
one side couldn't have it, then the other side wasn't going to have it
either.

And meanwhile, the struggle was growing deadlier, month by month, each
side groping for the stranglehold, looking for the edge that would give
domination of space, or make all-out war a good risk. They hadn't found
it yet, but it was getting bloodier out here all the time. For a while,
it had been a supreme achievement just to get a ship out and back, but
gradually, as the ships improved, there was a little margin left over
for weapons. Back a year ago, the average patrol was nothing but a
sightseeing tour. Not that there was much to see, when you'd been out a
few times. Now, there were Reds around practically every mission.

_Thirteen missions to go, after today._ He wondered if he'd quit at
seventy-five. Deep inside him, the old pride and excitement were still
strong. He still got a kick out of the way the girls looked at the
silver rocket on his chest. But he didn't feel as lucky as he used to.
Twenty-nine years old, and he was starting to feel like an old man. He
pictured himself lecturing to a group of eager kids.

_Had a couple of close calls, those last two missions._ That Red had
looked easy, the way he was wandering around. He hadn't spotted them
until they were well into their run, but when he got started he'd made
them look like slow motion, just the same. If he hadn't tried that
harebrained sudden deceleration.... Coulter shook his head at the
memory. And on the last mission they'd been lucky to get a draw. Those
boys were good shots.

       *       *       *       *       *

"We're crossing his track, Paul. Turn to nine point five o'clock and
hold 4 G's for thirty-two seconds, starting on the count ...
five--four--three--two--one--go!" He completed the operation in silence,
remarking to himself how lucky he was to have Johnson. The boy loved a
chase. He navigated like a hungry hawk, though you had to admit his
techniques were a bit irregular.

Coulter chuckled at the ad lib way they operated, remembering the
courses, the tests, the procedures practiced until they could do them
backwards blindfolded. When they tangled with a Red, the Solter
co-ordinates went out the hatch. They navigated by the enemy. There were
times during a fight when he had no more idea of his position than what
the old ladies told him, and what he could see of the Sun, the Earth,
and the Moon.

And using "right side up" as a basis for navigation. He chuckled again.
Still, the service had had to concede on "right side up," in designing
the ships, so there was something to be said for it. They hadn't been
able to simulate gravity without fouling up the ships so they had to
call the pilot's head "up." There was something comforting about it.
He'd driven a couple of the experimental jobs, one with the cockpit set
on gimbals, and one where the whole ship rotated, and he hadn't cared
for them at all. Felt disoriented, with something nagging at his mind
all the time, as though the ships had been sabotaged. A couple of pilots
had gone nuts in the "spindizzy," and remembering his own feelings as he
watched the sky go by, it was easy to understand.

Anyway, "right side up" tied in perfectly with the old "clock" system
Garrity had dug out of those magazines he was always reading. Once they
got used to it, it had turned out really handy. Old Doc Hoffman, his
astrogation prof, would have turned purple if he'd ever dreamed they'd
use such a conglomeration. But it worked. And when you were in a hurry,
it worked in a hurry, and that was good enough for Coulter. He'd
submitted a report on it to Colonel Silton.

"You've got him, Paul. We're dead on his tail, five hundred miles back,
and matching velocity. Turn forty-two degrees right, and you're lined up
right on him." Johnson was pleased with the job he'd done.

Coulter watched the pip move into his sightscreen. It settled less than
a degree off dead center. He made the final corrections in course, set
the air pressure control to eight pounds, and locked his helmet.

"Nice job, Johnny. Let's button up. You with us, Guns?"

Garrity sounded lazy as a well-fed tiger. "Ah'm with yew, cap'n."

Coulter advanced the throttle to 5 G's. And with the hiss of power, SF
308 began the deadly, intricate, precarious maneuver called a combat
pass--a maneuver inherited from the aerial dogfight--though it often
turned into something more like the broadside duels of the old sailing
ships--as the best and least suicidal method of killing a spaceship. To
start on the enemy's tail, just out of his radar range. To come up his
track at 2 mps relative velocity, firing six .30 caliber machine guns
from fifty miles out. In the last three or four seconds, to break out
just enough to clear him, praying that he won't break in the same
direction. _And to keep on going._

_Four minutes and thirty-four seconds to the break._ Sixty seconds at 5
G's; one hundred ninety-two seconds of free wheeling; and then, if they
were lucky, the twenty-two frantic seconds they were out here
for--throwing a few pounds of steel slugs out before them in one
unbroken burst, groping out fifty miles into the darkness with steel and
radar fingers to kill a duplicate of themselves.

_This is the worst. These three minutes are the worst._ One hundred
ninety-two eternal seconds of waiting, of deathly silence and deathly
calm, feeling and hearing nothing but the slow pounding of their own
heartbeats. Each time he got back, it faded away, and all he remembered
was the excitement. But each time he went through it, it was worse. Just
standing and waiting in the silence, praying they weren't
spotted--staring at the unmoving firmament and knowing he was a
projectile hurtling two miles each second straight at a clump of metal
and flesh that was the enemy. Knowing the odds were twenty to one
against their scoring a kill ... unless they ran into him.

       *       *       *       *       *

At eighty-five seconds, he corrected slightly to center the pip. The
momentary hiss of the rockets was a relief. He heard the muffled
yammering as Guns fired a short burst from the .30's standing out of
their compartments around the sides of the ship. They were practically
recoilless, but the burst drifted him forward against the cradle
harness.

And suddenly the waiting was over. The ship filled with vibration as
Guns opened up. _Twenty-five seconds to target._ His eyes flicked from
the sightscreen to the sky ahead, looking for the telltale flare of
rockets--ready to follow like a ferret.

_There he is!_ At eighteen miles from target, a tiny blue light
flickered ahead. He forgot everything but the sightscreen, concentrating
on keeping the pip dead center. The guns hammered on. It seemed they'd
been firing for centuries. At ten-mile range, the combat radar kicked
the automatics in, turning the ship ninety degrees to her course in one
and a half seconds. He heard the lee side firing cut out, as Garrity
hung on with two, then three guns.

He held it as long as he could. Closer than he ever had before. At four
miles he poured 12 G's for two seconds.

They missed ramming by something around a hundred yards. The enemy ship
flashed across his tail in a fraction of a second, already turned around
and heading up its own track, yet it seemed to Paul he could make out
every detail--the bright red star, even the tortured face of the pilot.
Was there something lopsided in the shape of that rocket plume, or was
he just imagining it in the blur of their passing? And did he hear a
_ping_ just at that instant, feel the ship vibrate for a second?

He continued the turn in the direction the automatics had started,
bringing his nose around to watch the enemy's track. And as the shape of
the plume told him the other ship was still heading back toward Earth,
he brought the throttle back up to 12 G's, trying to overcome the lead
his pass had given away.

Guns spoke quietly to Johnson. "Let me know when we kill his RV. Ah may
get another shot at him."

And Johnny answered, hurt, "What do you think I'm doing down
here--reading one of your magazines?"

Paul was struggling with hundred-pound arms, trying to focus the
telescope that swiveled over the panel. As the field cleared, he could
see that the plume was flaring unevenly, flickering red and orange along
one side. Quietly and viciously, he was talking to himself. "Blow!
Blow!"

       *       *       *       *       *

And she blew. Like a dirty ragged bit of fireworks, throwing tiny
handfuls of sparks into the blackness. Something glowed red for a while,
and slowly faded.

_There, but for the grace of God...._ Paul shuddered in a confused
mixture of relief and revulsion.

He cut back to 4 G's, noting that RVS registered about a mile per second
away from station, and suddenly became aware that the red light was on
for loss of air. The cabin pressure gauge read zero, and his heart
throbbed into his throat as he remembered that _pinging_ sound, just as
they passed the enemy ship. He told Garrity to see if he could locate
the loss, and any other damage, and was shortly startled by a low amazed
whistle in his earphones.

"If Ah wasn't lookin' at it, Ah wouldn't believe it. Musta been one of
his shells went right around the fuel tank and out again, without
hittin' it. There's at least three inches of tank on a line between the
holes! He musta been throwin' curves at us. Man, cap'n, this is our
lucky day!"

[Illustration]

Paul felt no surprise, only relief at having the trouble located. The
reaction to the close call might not come till hours later. "This kind
of luck we can do without. Can you patch the holes?"

"Ah can patch the one where it came in, but it musta been explodin' on
the way out. There's a hole Ah could stick mah head through."

"That's a good idea." Johnson was not usually very witty, but this was
one he couldn't resist.

"Never mind, Guns. A patch that big wouldn't be safe to hold air."

       *       *       *       *       *

They were about eighty thousand miles out. He set course for Earth at
about five and a half mps, which Johnson calculated to bring them in on
the station on the "going away" side of its orbit, and settled back for
the tedious two hours of free wheeling. For ten or fifteen minutes, the
interphone crackled with the gregariousness born of recent peril, and
gradually the ship fell silent as each man returned to his own private
thoughts.

Paul was wondering about the men on the other ship--whether any of them
were still alive. Eighty thousand miles to fall. That was a little
beyond the capacity of an emergency rocket--about 2 G's for sixty
seconds--even if they had them. What a way to go home! He wondered what
he'd do if it happened to him. Would he wait out his time, or just
unlock his helmet.

Guns' drawl broke into his reverie. "Say, cap'n, Ah've been readin' in
this magazine about a trick they used to use, called skip bombin'.
They'd hang a bomb on the bottom of one of these airplanes, and fly
along the ground, right at what they wanted to hit. Then they'd let the
bomb go and get out of there, and the bomb would sail right on into the
target. You s'pose we could fix this buggy up with an A bomb or an H
bomb we could let go a few hundred miles out? Stick a proximity fuse on
it, and a time fuse, too, in case we missed. Just sittin' half a mile
apart and tradin' shots like we did on that last mission is kinda hard
on mah nerves, and it's startin' to happen too often."

"Nice work if we could get it. I'm not crazy about those broadside
battles myself. You'd think they'd have found something better than
these thirty caliber popguns by now, but the odds say we've got to throw
as many different chunks of iron as we can, to have a chance of hitting
anything, and even then it's twenty to one against us. You wouldn't have
one chance in a thousand of scoring a hit with a bomb at that distance,
even if they didn't spot it and take off. What you'd need would be a
rocket that could chase them, with the bomb for a head. And there's no
way we could carry that size rocket, or fire it if we could. Some day
these crates will come with men's rooms, and we'll have a place to carry
something like that."

"How big would a rocket like that be?"

"Five, six feet, by maybe a foot. Weigh at least three hundred pounds."

It was five minutes before Guns spoke again. "Ah been thinkin', cap'n.
With a little redecoratin', Ah think Ah could get a rocket that size in
here with me. We could weld a rail to one of the gun mounts that would
hold it up to five or six G's. Then after we got away from station, Ah
could take it outside and mount it on the rail."

"Forget it, lad. If they ever caught us pulling a trick like that,
they'd have us on hydroponic duty for the next five years. They just
don't want us playing around with bombs, till the experts get all the
angles figured out, and build ships to handle them. And besides, who do
you think will rig a bomb like that, without anybody finding out? And
where do you think we'd get a bomb in the first place? They don't leave
those things lying around. Kovacs watches them like a mother hen. I
think he counts them twice a day."

"Sorry, cap'n. Ah just figured if you could get hold of a bomb, Ah know
a few of the boys who could rig the thing up for us and keep their
mouths shut."

"Well, forget about it. It's not a bad idea, but we haven't any bomb."

"Right, cap'n."

       *       *       *       *       *

But it was Paul who couldn't forget about it. All the rest of the way
back to station, he kept seeing visions of a panel sliding aside in the
nose of a sleek and gleaming ship, while a small rocket pushed its
deadly snout forward, and then streaked off at tremendous acceleration.

Interrogation was brief. The mission had turned up nothing new. Their
kill made eight against seven for Doc Miller's crew, and they made sure
Miller and the boys heard about it. They were lightheaded with the
elation that followed a successful mission, swapping insults with the
rest of the squadron, and reveling in the sheer contentment of being
back safe.

It wasn't until he got back to his stall, and started to write his
father a long overdue letter, that he remembered he had heard Kovacs say
he was going on leave.

When he finished the letter, he opened the copy of "Lady Chatterley's
Lover" he had borrowed from Rodriguez's limited but colorful library. He
couldn't keep his mind on it. He kept thinking of the armament officer.

Kovacs was a quiet, intelligent kid, devoted to his work. Coulter wasn't
too intimate with him. He wasn't a spaceman, for one thing. One of those
illogical but powerful distinctions that sub-divided the men of the
station. And he was a little too polite to be easy company.

Paul remembered the time he had walked into the Muroc Base Officer's
Club with Marge Halpern on his arm. The hunger that had lain undisguised
on Kovacs' face the moment he first saw them. Marge was a striking
blonde with a direct manner, who liked men, especially orbit station
men. He hadn't thought about the incident since then, but the look in
Kovacs' eyes kept coming back to him as he tried to read.

He wasn't sure how he got there, or why, when he found himself walking
into Colonel Silton's office to ask for the leave he'd passed up at his
fiftieth mission. He'd considered taking it several times, but the
thought of leaving the squadron, even for a couple of weeks, had made
him feel guilty, as though he were quitting.

Once he had his papers, he started to get excited about it. As he
cleaned up his paper work and packed his musette, his hands were
fumbling, and his mind was full of Sylvia.

       *       *       *       *       *

The vastness of Muroc Base was as incredible as ever. Row on uncounted
row of neat buildings, each resting at the top of its own hundred-yard
deep elevator shaft. A pulsing, throbbing city, dedicated to the long
slow struggle to get into space and stay there. The service crew eyed
them with studied indifference, as they writhed out of the small hatch
and stepped to the ground. They drew a helijet at operations, and headed
immediately for Los Angeles.

Kovacs had been impressed when Paul asked if he'd care to room together
while they were on leave. He was quiet on the flight, as he had been on
the way down, listening contentedly, while Paul talked combat and women
with Bob Parandes, another pilot going on leave.

They parked the helijet at Municipal Field and headed for the public PV
booths, picking up a coterie of two dogs and five assorted children on
the way. The kids followed quietly in their wake, ecstatic at the sight
of their uniforms.

Paul squared his shoulders, as befitted a hero, and tousled a couple of
uncombed heads as they walked. The kids clustered around the booths, as
Kovacs entered one to locate a hotel room, and Paul another, to call
Sylvia.

"Honey, I've been so scared you weren't coming back. Where are you? When
will I see you? Why didn't you write?..." She sputtered to a stop as he
held up both hands in defense.

"Whoa, baby. One thing at a time. I'm at the airport. You'll see me
tonight, and I'll tell you the rest then. That is, if you're free
tonight. And tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after that. Are
you free?"

Her hesitation was only momentary. "Well, I was going out--with a girl
friend. But she'll understand. What's up?"

He took a deep breath. "I'd like to get out of the city for a few days,
where we can take things easy and be away from the crowds. And there is
another guy I'd like to bring along."

"We could take my helijet out to my dad's cottage at--_What did you
say?_"

It was a ticklish job explaining about Kovacs, but when she understood
that he just wanted to do a friend a favor, and she'd still have Paul
all to herself, she calmed down. They made their arrangements quickly,
and switched off.

He hesitated a minute before he called Marge. She was quite a dish to
give up. Once she'd seen him with Sylvia, he'd be strictly _persona non
grata_--that was for sure. It was an unhappy thought. Well, maybe it was
in a good cause. He shrugged and called her.

She nearly cut him off when she first heard his request, but he did some
fast talking. The idea of several days at the cottage intrigued her, and
when he described how smitten Kovacs had been, she brightened up and
agreed to come. He switched off, adjusted the drape of his genuine silk
scarf, and stepped out of the booth.

Kovacs and the kids were waiting. The armament officer had apparently
been telling them of Paul's exploits. They glowed with admiration. The
oldest boy, about eleven, had true worship in his eyes. He hesitated a
moment, then asked gravely: "Would you tell us how you kill a Red, sir?"

Paul eyed the time-honored weapon that dangled from the youngster's
hand. He bent over and tapped it with his finger. His voice was warm and
confiding, but his eyes were far away.

"I think next we're going to try a slingshot," he said.


THE END



Transcriber's Note:

This etext was produced from _Astounding Science Fiction_ November 1955.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright
on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors
have been corrected without note.





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