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Title: Far from Home
Author: Taylor, J.A.
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 "Far from Home" ***

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FAR FROM HOME

[Illustration]

BY J. A. TAYLOR

Illustrated by Emsh

     _"Far" is strictly a relative term. Half a world away from home is,
     sometimes, no distance at all!_


Someone must have talked over the fence because the newshounds were
clamoring on the trail within an hour after it happened.

The harassed Controller had lived in an aura of "Restricteds,"
"Classifieds" and "Top Secrets" for so long it had become a mental
conditioning and automatically hedged over information that had been
public property for years via the popular technical mags; but in time
they pried from him an admittance that the Station Service Lift rocket
A. J. "Able Jake" Four had indeed failed to rendezvous with Space
Station One, due at 9:16 Greenwich that morning.

The initial take-off and ascent had gone to flight plan and the pilot,
in the routine check-back after entering free flight had reported no
motor or control faults. At this point, unfortunately, a fault in the
tracking radar transmitter had resulted in it losing contact with the
target. The Controller did not, however, mention the defection of the
hungover operator in fouling up the signal to the standby unit, or the
consequent general confusion in the tracking network with no contact at
all thereafter, and fervently hoped that gentlemen of the press were not
too familiar with the organization of the tracking system.

At least one of the more shrewd looking reporters appeared as though he
were mentally baiting a large trap so the Controller, throwing caution
to the winds, plunged headlong into a violent refutal of various
erroneous reports already common in the streets.

Able Jake did not carry explosives or highly corrosive chemicals, only
some Waste Disposal cylinders, dry foodstuffs and sundry Station
Household supplies.

Furthermore there was no truth in the oft-revived rumors of weaknesses
in the so-called "spine-and-rib" construction of the Baur and Hammond
Type Three vessel under acceleration strain. The type had been
discontinued solely because the rather complicated structure raised
certain stowage difficulties in service with overlong turnabout times
resulting.

There may have been a collision with a meteor he conceded, but, it was
thought, highly unlikely. And now, the urgent business of the search
called, the Controller escaped, perspiring gently.

Able Jake was sighted a few minutes later but it was another three hours
before a service ship could be readied and got away without load to
allow it as much operating margin as possible. Getting a man aboard was
yet another matter. At this stage of space travel no maneuver of this
nature had ever been accomplished outside of theory. Fuel-thrust-mass
ratios were still a thing of pretty close reckoning, and the service
lift ships were simply not built for it.

The ship was in an elliptical orbit and a full degree off its normal
course. A large part of the control room was demolished and there was a
lengthy split in the hull. There was no sign of the pilot and some of
the cargo was missing also. The investigating crew assumed the obvious
and gave it as their opinion that the pilot had been literally
disintegrated by the intense heat of the collision.

The larger part of the world's population made it a point to listen in
on the first space burial service in history over the absent remains of
Johnny Melland.

       *       *       *       *       *

Such a small thing to cause such a fury. A mere twenty Earth pounds of
an indifferent grade of rock and a little iron, an irregular, ungraceful
lump, spawned somewhere a billion years before as a star died. But it
still had most of the awesome velocity and inertia of its birth.

Able Jake, with the controlling influence of the jets cut, had yawed
slightly and was now traveling crabwise. The meteor on its own course, a
trifle oblique to that of the ship, struck almost directly the slender
spring steel spine, the frightful energy of the impact transmuted on the
instant into a heat that vaporized several feet of the nose and spine
before the dying shock caused an anguished flexing of the ship's
backbone; thrust violently outward along the radial members and so
against the ribs and hull sheathing on that side. Able Jake's hull split
open like a pea pod for fully half its length and several items of its
cargo burst from their lashings, erupted from the wound.

Johnny was not inboard at the time, but floating, spacesuited alongside,
freeing a fouled lead to the radar bowl, swearing occasionally but
without any real passion at the stupidity of the unknown maintenance man
who failed to secure it properly. For some odd reason he had never quite
lost the thrill of his first trip "outside," and, donning pressure suit
with the speed of long practice, sneaked as many "inspections" as
possible, with or without due cause.

The second's fury that reduced the third stage of a $5,000,000 rocket to
junk was evident to him only as a brilliant blue-white flash, a
hammer-like shock through the antennae support that left his wrist and
forearm numb. Then a violent wrench as a long cylinder, expelled from
the split hull, caught the loop of his life line and dragged him in till
he clashed hard against it, the suddenly increased tension or a sharp
edge parting the line close to the anchored end. He clawed blindly for a
hold, found something he could not at that moment identify and hung on.

For a short time his vision seemed dulled and that part of his mind,
trained to the quick analysis of sudden situations groped but feebly
through a haze of shock to understand what had happened. Orienting
himself he found he was gripping a brace of the open-mounted motor on
one of the Waste Disposal Cylinders. About him he could see other odd
items of the cargo, some clustering fairly closely, others just
perceptibly drifting farther away. To one side, or "downwards" the Earth
rolling vastly, pole over pole, and with her own natural rotation
giving an odd illusion of slipping sideways from under him.

Only a sudden sun glint on the stubby swept-back wings showed him where
Able Jake was. Far away--too far, spinning slowly end over end. His
sideways expulsion from the ship then had been enough to give him and
his companion debris a divergent course.

Spacemen accept without question the fact of a ship or a station always
at hand with a safety man on watch at all times over those outside and a
"bug" within signaling distance constantly. They do not conceive of any
other state of affairs.

Now Johnny had to face the fact that he was in such a position--entirely
and utterly alone, except for the useless flotsam that came with him. He
might have flung himself into a mad chase after the ship on his suit
jets except that the thought of leaving his little island, cold comfort
though it was, to plunge into those totally empty depths was suddenly
horrible.

The tide of panic rose within him. He knew the sickening bodily revolt
of blind unreasoning terror--the terror of the lost, the terror of
certain untimely death, but mostly of death so dreadfully alone.

He might have gone insane. In the face of the insoluble problem his mind
might have retreated into a shadow world of its own, perhaps to prattle
happily the last few hours away. But there was something else there. The
pre-flight school psychiatrist had recognized it, Johnny himself
probably wouldn't have and it wasn't their policy to tell him. It saved
him. The labored heart pounding and the long shuddering gasps slowed in
time and with the easing of his physical distress he found enough heart
to muster a wry little smile at the thought that of the castaways of
history he at least stood fair to be named the most unique.

       *       *       *       *       *

And after a while, shaking himself mentally, a little ashamed of his
temporary fall from grace, he followed the example of the more
intelligent of his predecessors and settled down to itemize his assets,
analyze his position and conjecture the chances of survival.

Item: He was encased in a Denby Bros. spacesuit, Mark III, open space
usage, meant for no gravity use. Therefore it had no legs as such, the
lower half being a rigid cylinder allowing considerable movement within
and having a swivel mounted rocket motor at its base controlled by toe
pedals inside.

The upper half, semiflexible with jointed arms ending in gloves from
which by contorting the shoulders the hands could be withdrawn into the
sleeves when not in use.

A metal and tinted plastic helmet with earphones, mike and chin switch.
An oxy air-conditioning and reprocessing unit with its spare pure oxygen
tank; on this he could possibly depend for twelve hours given no undue
exertion and with the most rigid economy all the time.

The power pack for suit operation and radio had a safety margin of one
hour over the maximum air supply, if the radio wasn't used. At this time
Johnny couldn't see much use for it.

Item: One Waste Disposal Cylinder, expendable, complete with motor and
full fuel tanks, packed, according to his loading manifest with sundry
supplies to avoid dead stowage space. Seldom used, since most station
waste was ferried down in the otherwise empty service ships, they
occasionally handled certain laboratory refuse it was considered best to
destroy in space. The cylinders were decelerated and allowed to fall
into atmosphere where the friction of the unchecked plunge burned up
what the magnesium charge inside had not already. The rest of the
shipwrecked material had by now drifted beyond easy reach and Johnny did
not feel like wasting fuel rounding it up.

Position? A matter of memory and some guesswork by now. Some ten minutes
out of powered flight at the time of collision, coasting up to station
orbit where a quick boost from the jets would have made up his lost
velocity to orbit standard. But there would be no boost now. So he'd
just fall off around the other side, falling around and into Mother
Earth, to skim atmosphere and climb on past and up to touch orbit
altitude--and down again. A nice elliptical orbit, apogee a thousand odd
miles, perigee, sixty-seventy--perhaps. How much speed had he left? How
long would it be before he brushed the fringe of atmosphere once too
often and too deep? Just another meteor.

And survival. A comparatively simple problem since the mechanics of it
were restricted by a simple formula in which his role would seem to be a
passive one. To survive he must be rescued by his own kind in twelve
hours or less. To be rescued he must be seen or heard. Since his radio
was a simple short-range intercom it followed that he must be seen first
and heard later. Being seen meant making a sufficiently distinguishable
_blip_ on somebody's radar screen to arouse comment over a _blip_ where,
according to schedule no orbiting _blip_ should be.

       *       *       *       *       *

Johnny was painfully aware that the human body is very small in space.
The cylinder would be a help but he doubted it would be enough. Then he
thought of the material inside the cylinder. He pried back the lugs
holding the cover in place with the screwdriver from his belt kit. He
started pulling out packages, bags, boxes, thrusting them behind him,
above him, downwards; cereals, ready mixed pastries, bundles of
disposable paper overalls--toilet paper! He worked furiously, now stuck
halfway down the cylinder, kicking the bundles behind him. He emerged
finally in a flurry of articles clutching a large plastic bag that had
filled the entire lower end of the tank.

About him drifted a sizable cloud of station supplies, stirring
sluggishly after his emergence. He pushed them a bit more, distributing
them as much as possible without losing them altogether.

Johnny tore open the big bag and was instantly enveloped in clinging
folds of ribbon released from the pressure of its packing. He knew what
it was now, the big string of ribbon chutes for the Venus Expedition,
intended for dropping a remote controlled mobile observer to the as yet
unseen and unknown surface. Johnny had ferried parts of the crab-like
mechanical monster on the last run, and illogically found himself
worrying momentarily over the set-back to the Probe his mischance would
cause.

But in the next minute he was making fast the lower end of the string to
the WD cylinder, then, finding the top chute he toed his pedals and
jetted himself out, trailing the string out to its full extent.

Now the period of action was over and he had done all he could, Johnny
found himself dreading the time of waiting to follow. He would have time
for thinking, and thinking wasn't profitable under the circumstances
unless it were something definitely constructive and applicable to his
present and future well-being. Waiting was always bad.

Surely they would find him soon. Surely they would press the search
farther even when they found Able Jake as they couldn't fail to in time.

A tightness started in his throat. Johnny quickly drowned the thought in
a flood of inconsequential nonsense, a trick he had learned as a green
pilot. He might sleep though, if sleep were a possible thing in this
cold emptiness. No one, to his recollection, had ever done so outside a
ship or station--the space psychology types would be interested
doubtless.

       *       *       *       *       *

Johnny tied his life line to the WD cylinder and then jetted clear of
his artificial cloud, positioning himself so that it formed a partial
screen between himself and the sun. He turned his oxygen down to the
bare minimum and the thermostat as low as he dared. He commenced a
relaxation exercise and was pleased when it worked after a fashion--a
mental note for Beaufort at the station. A drowsiness crept over him,
dulling a little the thin edge of fear that probed his consciousness.

Face down towards the earth he hung. The slow noise of his breathing
only intensified the complete silence outside. The well padded suit
encompassed him so gently there was no sense of pressure on his body to
make up for the weightlessness. Johnny felt as though he were bodiless,
a naked brain with eyes only hanging in nothingness.

Beneath, Earth rolled over with slow majesty, once every two hours. His
altered course was evident now, passing almost directly over the
geographic poles proper instead of paralleling the twilight zone where
night and day met. Sometimes he caught the faint glow of a big city on
the night side but the sight only stirred the worm of anxiety and he
closed his eyes.

Johnny was beginning to feel very comfortable. He supposed sleepily
that this was the way you were assumed to feel while freezing to death
in a snowbank, or so he'd heard. Air and heat too low perhaps. He should
really turn it up a notch.

On the other hand it was perhaps a solution to the problem of dying--a
gentle sleep while the stomach was still full enough from the last meal
to be reasonably comfortable and the throat yet unparched. Would it be
the act of an unbalanced mind or one of the most supreme sanity?

He dozed and dreamed a bit in fragments and snatches but it was not a
good sleep--there was no peace in it. At one time he seemed to be
standing outside the old fretworked boarding house he lived in--looking
in at the window of the "sitting room" where the ancient, wispy landlady
sat among her antimacassared chairs and the ridiculous tiny seashell
ashtrays that overflowed after two butts. He wanted desperately to get
in and sprawl in the huge bat-winged chair by the fire and stroke the
enormous old gray cat that would leap up and trample and paw his stomach
before settling down to grumble to itself asthmatically for hours.

It was cold and dark out here and he wanted to get in to the
friendliness and the warmth and the peaceful, familiar security, but he
didn't dare go around to the door because he knew if he did the vision
would vanish and he'd never find it again.

He scratched and beat at the window but his fingers made no sound, he
tried to shout but his cries were only strangled whispers and the old
lady sat and rocked and talked to the big gray cat and never turned her
head.

The fire seemed to be flaring up suddenly, it was filling the whole
room--a monstrous furnace; it shouldn't do that he knew, but the old
lady didn't seem to mind sitting there rocking amid the flames--and it
was so nice and warm. The fire kept growing and swelling though--soon it
burst through the window and engulfed him. Too hot. Too hot.

       *       *       *       *       *

Johnny swam hazily back to consciousness with an aching head and thick
mouth. He saw that he had drifted clear of his protective screen somehow
and the sun beat full on him. With clumsy, fumbling hands that seemed to
belong to somebody else he managed the air valve; the increased oxygen
reviving him enough to find the pedals and jet erratically about till he
gained the shadow once more.

Now he was entering upon the worst phase of the living nightmare. Awake,
the doubts and fears of his position tormented him; wearied, he feared
to sleep, yet continually he found himself nodding only to jerk awake
with that suddenness that is like a physical blow. Each one of these
awakenings took away a little more of his self-control till he was
reduced to near hysteria, muttering abstractly, sometimes whimpering
like a lost child; now seized with a feverish concern for his air
supply. He would at one instant cut it down to a dangerous minimum,
then, remembering the near disaster of his first attempt at economy,
frantically turn it up till he was in danger of an oxygen jag. In a
moment he would forget and start all over again.

In addition, he was now realizing bitterly what he had subconsciously
denied to himself for so long, that they had found Able Jake and drawn
the obvious conclusion. That he had been obliterated or blown out
through the hull by the collision without warning or preparation. That
he was undoubtedly dead if not vaporized altogether and, as they must,
considering the expense of a probably fruitless search, abandon him.

There came the moment when Johnny accepted this in full. This was
directly after the time when, sliding down the long hill to the perigee
of his orbit, he turned on his radio and cried for help. It was a bare
hundred miles or less to that wonderful world below, but there was the
Heaviside layer, and the weak signals beat but feebly against it. All
that seeped through by some instant's freak of transmission was a
fragment of incoherent babble to reach the uncomprehending ear of an
Arkansas ham and give that gentleman uneasy sleep for some time to come.

He kept calling mechanically even after perigee was long past, praying
for an answer from the powerful transmitters below or from a searching
ship. But when there was no slightest whisper in his phones or answering
flare among the stars, Johnny came to the end of faith. Even of
awareness, for his own ears did not register the transition of his calls
to an insane howling of intermixed pleas, threats, condemnation--a sewer
flood of foul vilification against those who had betrayed him.

Bright and beautiful, Earth rolled blandly beneath him, the sun was a
remote impersonal thing and the stars mocked silently. After a while the
radio carried only the agonized sounds of a man who had forgotten how to
cry and must learn again. There were times after this when he observed
incuriously a parade of mind pictures, part memory, part pure
hallucination and containing nothing of reason; other times when he
thought not at all. The sun appeared to dwindle, retreating and fading
far away into a remote place where there were no stars at all. It became
a feeble candle, guttered unsteadily a moment and suddenly winked out.
Abruptly Johnny was asleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

He opened his eyes and surveyed the scene with an oddly calm and
dispassionate curiosity, not that he expected to find his status changed
in any way but because he had awakened with a queer sense of unreality
about the whole business. He knew vaguely that he'd had a bad time in
the last few hours but could remember little of the details save that it
was like one of those fragmentary nightmares in the instant between
sleeping and waking when it is difficult to divide the fact from the
dream. Now he must reassure himself that this facet of it was real and
when he had done so, realized with a faint shock that he was no longer
afraid.

Fear, it seemed, had by its incessant pressure dulled its own edge. The
acceptance of inevitable death was still there, but now it seemed to
have little more significance than the closing of a book at the last
page.

It is possible that Johnny was not wholly sane at this point, but there
is no one to witness this and Johnny, not given to introspection at any
time, felt no spur to self-analysis, beyond a brief mental registration
of the fact.

So he made his visual survey, saw that it was real, nothing had changed;
noted with mild surprise that he'd somehow remained in the shadow of his
screen this time. He had lost track of time entirely but the suit's air
supply telltale was in the yellow indicating about two hours more or
less to go on breathing. In quick succession he reviewed the events,
accepted the probability of the abandoned search without a qualm and
made his decision. There was no need to wait about any longer.

A quick flip of the helmet lock, a moment's unpleasantness perhaps, and
out. As for the rest--a spaceman needs no sanctified ground, the
incorruptible vault of space is as good a place as any and perhaps the
more fitting for one of the first to travel its ways.

Well then--quickly. Johnny raised his hands.

But still--

Man has his pride and his vanity. Johnny, though not necessarily prone
to inflated valuation of himself still has just enough vanity left to
resent the thought of this anonymous snuffing out in the dark. There
should be, he thought, at least some outward evidence of his passing,
something like--a flare of light perhaps, that would in effect say, if
only to one solitary star gazer: "Here at this position, at this
instant, Johnny Melland, Spaceman, had his time."

The whimsy persisted. Johnny, casting about mentally for some means to
the end recalled the thermite bomb for the WD cylinder and was hauling
himself in to it when he remembered the charges for this lot had gone up
with Sally Uncle One two days before. But now he'd actually touched the
metal cylinder and, as though the brief contact had completed some
obscure mental circuit, the mad idea was conceived, flared up into an
irrepressible brilliance and exploded in a harsh bark of laughter.

One last push to his luck then, hardly worse than a gambler's last chip
except that the consequences of failure were somewhat more certain.
Either way he'd have what he wanted--survival or, in the brief
incandescence of friction's heat, a declaration of his passing.

A waste disposal cylinder will carry the equivalent of about three tons
of refuse. Its motor is designed to decelerate that mass by 1,075 mph in
order to allow it to assume a descending orbit.

Less the greater part of the customary mass, it should be considerably
more effective, and since he was already in what constituted a descent
path, but for a few miles and a little extra velocity, there would not
be the long fall afterwards to pick up what he'd lost.

       *       *       *       *       *
From there on his plan entered the realm of pure hypothesis; except for
the broad detail the rest depended on luck and whatever freakish
conditions might arise in his favor during the operation. These, too,
would be beyond his control and any move to take advantage of them would
have to be instinctive, providing he was in any shape to do so.

The tendency to gnaw worriedly at a thousand disturbing possibilities
drowned quickly in a rapidly rising sense of reckless abandon that
possessed him. The prospect of positive action of any sort served to
release any tension left in him and almost gayly he moved to set his
plan in action.

He jimmied the timer on the rocket motor so it would fire to the last
drop. The string of ribbon chutes he reeled in hand over hand stuffing
it into the cylinder, discovering in the process why the chute Section
hands at Base wore that harried look. The mass of slithering,
incompressible white-and-yellow ribbon and its shrouds resisted him like
a live thing; in the end Johnny managed to bat and maul the obstreperous
stuff down the length of the tank. Even so, it filled it to within a
couple of inches of the opening.

[Illustration]

Now he cut off a length of his life line and attached one end to the
spring-loaded trigger release on the motor control, leaving enough to
trail the length of the cylinder and double back inside when he wanted
it. He blessed the economically minded powers that insisted on manual
firing control on these one-shot units instead of the complex radio
triggers beloved of the technical brains.

Making fast to the chutes was a major problem but eventually he managed
a makeshift harness of the remainder of the safety line. He wound it
awkwardly around himself with as many turns as possible, each returned
again and again through, the ring at the end of the master shroud.

By now he was casting anxious glances at the Earth below, aware that he
must have passed apogee several minutes before and that not more than
some twenty minutes were left before the low point of this swing would
be near. He was grimly aware also that it must be this time or not at
all. The air telltale was well through the yellow band and the next
possible chance after this one was an hour's time away, when conditions
inside the suit would be getting pretty sticky.

Jockeying the unwieldy cylinder into line of flight and making it stay
there took a lot longer than Johnny counted on. With no other manual
purchase than that afforded by his own lesser mass, the job proved
almost impossible and he had to use his suit motor. This caused some
concern over his meager fuel supply since his plan called for some
flat-out jetting later on. In the frantic flurry of bending, twisting,
over and under--controlling, the veneer of aplomb began to wear. Johnny
was sweating freely by the time he had the cylinder stabilized as best
he could judge and had gingerly worked himself into the open end as far
as he could against the cushioning mass of ribbon chute. He took the
trigger lanyard loosely in hand and craning his neck to see past the
bulk of the cylinder he watched and waited.

       *       *       *       *       *

To the experienced lift pilot there are certain subtle changes in color
values over the Earth's surface as one approaches more closely the outer
fringe of atmosphere. While braking approaches are auto-controlled, the
pilot taking over only after his ship is in atmosphere, the
conscientious man makes himself familiar with the "feel" of a visually
timed approach--just in case--and Johnny was a good pilot.

Watching Equatorial Africa sliding obliquely towards him Johnny suddenly
gave thought to a possible landing spot for the first time. Not that he
had any choice but a picture of a cold, wet immersion in any of several
possible bodies of water was not encouraging. The suit would probably
float but which end first was a matter for conjecture and out of it he
would be as badly off for Johnny could not swim a stroke.

Nor had he any clear idea how long it would take to slow down to a
vertical drop. Able Jake made a full half swing of the globe to brake
down but Able Jake was an ultra-streamlined object with many times the
mass and weight of Johnny and his rig; furthermore the ships were
controllable to a certain degree while Johnny was not. Beyond the
certain knowledge that the effect of the chutes would be quite violent
and probably short-lived, the rest was unpredictable.

He tried to shake off gloomy speculation, uneasily aware that much of
the carefree confidence of the last hour had deserted him. In a more
normal state of mind again he became prey to tension once more, a
pounding heart and dry mouth recalling mercilessly the essential
frailties of his kind. So, with aching neck and burning eyes he strained
for a clear view past the length of the cylinder and--

There! The preliminary to the visual changes, a sudden sweep of
distortion over the landscape as his angle of sight through the
refracting particles became more shallow. Now was the time he had judged
the throat vane gyros should begin their run-up.

He worked the lanyard back carefully, fearful an awkward movement might
upset the cylinder's line-up, pulling the trigger lever over to
half-cock where the micro switch should complete circuit with the dry
power pack. There should be approximately one minute before the major
color changes began, which was also the minimum time for gyro run up.
Johnny resumed the watching and the waiting.

How long is a minute?

Is it the time it takes the fear-frozen trainee, staring glass-eyed at
the fumbled grenade to realize that this one at his feet is a dud?

Or is it the time before the rock-climber, clinging nail and toe to the
rock face with the rope snapped suddenly taut, feels it at last slacken
and sees the hands gripping safely come into sight?

Perhaps the greenhorn, rifle a-waver, watching the glimpse of tawny
color in the veldt-grass and waiting the thunder and the charge, could
say.

They'd all be wrong. It's much longer.

Long enough for Johnny to think of a dozen precautions he could have
taken, a dozen better ways to rig this or that. Long enough to worry
about whether the gyros were really running up as they should. A
thousand queries and doubts piled mountainously upward to an almost
unbearable peak of tension till suddenly the browns and greens below
flashed a shade lighter and it was time, and the savage snap on the
lanyard a blessed relief and total committal.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the few seconds after the firing of the prime and before the busy
little timer snapped the valves wide open Johnny managed to slip his
toes under the jet pedals to avoid accidental firing. At the same time
he braced himself as rigidly as possible with aching arms against the
walls of the cylinder.

He saw briefly the flare of the jet reflected off the remnants of his
cloud of station stores before deceleration with all its unpleasantness
began.

The lip of the cylinder's mouth swept up past his helmet as he was
rammed deep into the absorbent mass of ribbon chute. This wasn't a
padded contour chair under a mild 3G lift. The chutes took the first
shock, but Johnny took the rest the hard way, standing bolt upright.

He found with some surprise his head was right down through the neck
ring and inside the suit proper, his arms half withdrawn from the
sleeves, knees buckled to an almost unbelievable angle considering the
dimensions of the lower case.

He had time to hope fervently the cheap expendable motor wouldn't burn
out its throat and send him cart-wheeling through space, or blow the
surrounding tanks before the blackout came down.

He came out of it sluggishly, to find the relief from the dreadful
pressure almost as stupefying as the deceleration itself. While his
conscious mind screamed the urgency of immediate action, his bruised and
twisted body answered but feebly. The condition of complete
weightlessness and the springy reaction of the ribbon mass was all that
allowed him finally to claw himself out of the cylinder to where he
could use the suit jet without fear of burning the precious chutes.

He was so tired. His muscles of their own accord seemed to relax
intermittently, interfering with the control of his movements. Only the
sudden sight of the Earth, transformed by a weird illusion of position
from a bright goal to an enormous, distorted thing, looming, apparently,
over him with glowing menace, spurred his flagging resolution to frantic
activity.

He jetted straight back trailing his string of chutes behind him, then,
before the last was free of the cylinder, kicked himself around to
assume the original course once more.

At this stage it was no longer possible, even granted the time, to judge
visually how near he was to the atmosphere. The uneasy feeling that he
must already be brushing the Troposphere jarred his nerve so that he
merely gave himself a short flat-out boost in the right direction before
spinning bodily one hundred eighty degrees so that he was traveling feet
first.

Reflected in the curved helmet face, the string of chutes obediently
followed-my-leader around a ragged U-shape, the last--the small
pilot-chute trailed limply around as he watched.

There could surely be but a few seconds left before the grand finale.
Johnny found he was unconsciously holding his breath, and, as he
deliberately inhaled long slow draughts of his already staling air,
realized abstractly that he seemed to be attempting to meet his possible
end with some degree of dignity if not with resignation, and wondered
if he were the exception or the rule.

Possibly, he thought sardonically, because there is so little room for
dignity in our living years, and was mildly surprised at an
uncharacteristic excursion into the realm of philosophy.

There was a faintly perceptible tug on the harness. It was sustained and
now there came a definite strain. Reflected for a moment in the helmet
face was a glimpse of the lead chute slowly opening out like a gigantic
flower.

Then swiftly, in half a breath the harness coils were tightening about
him like steel fingers, the heavy ring at the end of the master shroud
clashed against the back of his helmet and began a sickening, thrumming
vibration there.

The harness encompassed his torso like a vise but his legs were
unsupported and weighed what seemed a thousand tons. He could feel them
stretching. Somewhere a coil slipped a fraction. His arms were jerked
suddenly upwards and Johnny knew a sensation he'd never believed
possible. At the same time his leaden feet crashed down on the jet
pedals. For a few, brief, blessed moments the intolerable extension
eased a fraction with the firing of the suit jets.

He cringed mentally from the thought of what was to come and thought
hazily: "This is what the rack was like. This is going to be bad, bad,
bad!"

It was impossible and Johnny went out with the last drop of fuel.

       *       *       *       *       *

Somewhere there was a queer coughing sound like wind through a crevice.
He strained to identify it but an awful agony swamped him and he fled
before it back into the darkness.

And later still a thumping and a rushing, gurgling sound.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dim, grotesque figures moved about him or swooped and hovered over him.
He felt an unreasoning fear of them and tried to shut them out. They
were holding him down, hurting him. One was pulling and twisting at his
arm. He shouted and swore at it telling it to leave him alone, but it
ignored him or didn't seem to hear. There was a sudden dull snapping
sound and a little of the pain abated.

The figures flowed together and swirled around like some great oily
vortex but never quite left him.

Then there was a time when they separated jerkily and became the hazy
but definable figures of men in rough seaman's clothes. Johnny had never
heard Breton French before; in his dazed condition the apparently insane
gabble might well have been the tongue of another world and gave him
little assurance. He hurt so badly and so generally that he could not
have determined that he was lying down save for a view of white clouds
scudding overhead.

Some of the men were holding up what looked like a crumpled parody of a
man. He recognized it without surprise as the soaking remains of his
spacesuit, battered and with tattered shreds of outer cover and
insulation hanging in festoons.

A sharp, bearded face shot into focus abruptly, waving a hypodermic
needle. It spoke English and observed passionately either to Johnny or
itself that: "Name of a Spanish cow! What is it in men that they must
abuse themselves so? Now here is one who was both squeezed and stretched
alternately as well as hammered, dehydrated and almost asphyxiated, is
it not? This will bear watching. It is alive but there will have to be
X-rays in profusion."

It danced long sensitive fingers over the welts and bruises and
commented bluntly that it was well the fishermen had returned his arms
and legs into their sockets before he fully regained consciousness. It
muttered and clucked to itself as it used the hypo which Johnny could
not feel. "Formidable!"

The pleasant drowsiness came down just as he was identifying the queer
smell as ozone, brine and good fresh air.

After a while they moved him to a small hospital in an upcoast town,
where he slept much, suffered not a little and, even waking, viewed the
world incuriously through drug-laden eyes. Finally they allowed him to
waken fully and the sharp-faced doctor, together with half a dozen
others from various parts of the world decided that, after all, he
seemed to be surviving.

Johnny lay and itched intolerably in the cast that covered him from nape
to thigh and listened to the bustling of the elderly nursing sister who,
good soul, having never been more than ten miles from her town in her
life, reminded him that it wanted but two days to Christmas and opined
that: "Such a tragedy for M'sieu. To be so far from home!"

Johnny smiled at the ceiling, not daring to laugh yet, and sniffed at
the salt sea air with its undertone of rank seaweed and gloried in it;
even a chance whiff of that particular cigarette tobacco that only a
Frenchman can appreciate. He thought that here, as across the water,
night and day followed each other in their proper order and the ground
was a solid thing beneath the feet.

Why--he could never be closer.


FIN.


  +--------------------------------------------------------------+
  |                      Transcriber's Note                      |
  |                                                              |
  | This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction,     |
  | December 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any        |
  | evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was     |
  | renewed.                                                     |
  |                                                              |
  | A few obvious typographical errors have been corrected.      |
  |                                                              |
  | Punctuation has been left as is.                             |
  +--------------------------------------------------------------+





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