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´╗┐Title: Spillthrough
Author: Galouye, Daniel F., 1920-1976
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 "Spillthrough" ***

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



                            SPILLTHROUGH

                        By Daniel F. Galouye

[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Imagination Stories of
Science and Fantasy January 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any
evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


[Sidenote: Ships switching from hyper to normal space had to do it in a
micro-second--if the crews were to live. But it would take Brad suicidal
minutes!]


Like the sibilant, labored breathing of a dying monster, the tortured
ship wailed its death sobs as it floundered in deep hyperstellar space.

_Clank-sss, clank-sss_, went the battered safety valve of the pile
cooling system.

_BOOM ... boom ... BOOM ... boom._ A severed and dangling piston rod
crashed in monotonous rhythm against a deck beam as the rest of the
auxiliary compression unit strained to satisfy its function.

An off-beat bass viol strum added its depressive note to the symphony of
destruction's aftermath--_throom-throom ... throom-throom_. It was the
persistent expansion of plate metal reacting to heat from a ruptured
tube jacket.

Forward, in the control compartment of the cargo craft, the sounds were
muted. But the intervening bulkheads did not lessen their portent.

Brad Conally ran a hand over the stubbles on his cheek and swayed
forward in the bucket-type seat, his head falling to rest against the
control column.

Somewhere aft the ship groaned and metal scraped against metal with a
sickening rending sound.

There was a lurch and Brad was jerked to one side, his head ramming
against the inclination control. The ventral jet came to life in
unexpected protest and fired once.

His hand shot out instinctively to return the loose, displaced lever to
neutral. But the force of the single burst had already taken effect and
the lower part of his stomach tied itself in a knot.

Centrifugal force reeled him to the fringe of consciousness. He
struggled to reach the dorsal-ventral firing lever, praying that the
linkage was not severed and the mechanism was still operative. His hand
found the lever and jerked. The dorsal jet came to life with a roar. He
jockeyed the control back and forth across neutral position. The two
jets fired alternately. The sickening, end-over-end gyration became
gentler.

The ship steadied itself again into immobility. But a snap sounded from
back aft. It was followed by a grating noise that crescendoed and
culminated in a terrific crash. His ears popped. A _clang_ reverberated,
evidence of an automatic airlock sealing off another punctured section
of the vessel.

Shrugging fatigue from his body, he looked up at the panel. The
massometer showed a decrease of six tons. The explanation was simple,
Brad laughed dryly: A good one-quarter of his load of crated inter-calc
audio retention banks had rammed through the hull and floated into
space.

He glanced at the scope. The twenty odd crates, some of them taking up
an orbital relationship with the vessel, were blips on the screen.

Twisting the massometer section selector, he read off the figures. Hold
One showed full cargo of inter-calc equipment. Hold Two, with its thirty
bins of hematite, was intact. The third cargo compartment, containing
more crated inter-calc units, was the damaged one. The massometer
reading for that hold accounted for the missing weight.

       *       *       *       *       *

"How're you doing, Brad?" the receiver rasped feebly. He recoiled at the
unexpected sound.

"She's still in one piece, Jim," he shouted to compensate for the
strength the signal would lose in traveling the distance to the fleeing
lifecraft. "Have you cleared through your second hyperjump yet?"

"Getting ready to go into the third. There won't be any more
communicating after that ... not with this short-range gear and your
faulty transmitter. Find out the trouble yet?"

Brad ignored the question. "How long, Jim?" His voice was eager. "How
long before you get to port?"

"Three jumps in one day. Seven more to go. That figures out to a little
over two more days. I'm making better time than we expected with this
peanut. Allow two more days for the slow tows to return.... Still think
it'll hold together?"

Brad was silent.

"Brad," Jim's voice went into low gear. "I've still got enough juice
to come back and pick you up. After all, one ship and one load of
cargo ... it's just not worth it."

Brad listened to the ominous convulsions of the ship for a moment. "Your
orders are to continue to Vega IV. I'm sticking."

"But, skipper! Dammit! There's always the chance of spilling through
into normal! That's a torturous way to go!"

Brad's lips brushed roughly against the bulkhead mike. "If I fall
through it's just me, isn't it?"

Although the sound level was too low, he knew there was a sigh on the
other end. "Okay," the speaker whispered. "If I can't convince you...."

Brad leaned against the bulkhead and shivered. He'd have to see whether
he couldn't get more output from the heat converter--if he could chance
going past the leaking pile again. Or _was_ it the cold that was causing
him to tremble?--If he entered normal space at less than minimum
breakthrough speed.... He didn't complete the distasteful mental
picture.

He thought of his only functioning hyperdrive tube. Its gauge showed a
power level that was only high enough to boost the craft back onto the
hyperspace level when it started to conform with the normal tendency to
fall through. How many times the tube could be counted on to repeat the
performance he couldn't guess. It might be painful if he should let the
drop gain too much momentum before correcting--human beings were built
to cross the barrier in nothing longer than a micro-second. But, he
resolved, he would worry about that when the time came.

"Why don't you let it go, Brad?" the voice leaped through the grating
again.

Brad started. He thought Jim had cut the communication.

"You know the score. If we swing this we can get all of West Cluster
Supplies' work. We'll need an extra ship--several of them. But with the
contract we'll be able to borrow as much as we want."

Jim laughed. "At least I'm glad there's a rational, mercenary
motive. For a while I thought you were going through with that
go-down-with-the-ship routine."

Boom ... _Boom_ ... BOOM. The loose rod pounded with suddenly increasing
fury.

He lunged through the hatch. At least the compression unit was forward
of the faulty pile. And, while he did the job which automatic regulators
had abandoned, he would not have to keep track of his time of exposure
to hard radiation.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Calling Space Ship Fleury. Repeat: Calling Space Ship Fleury.... Answer
please."

Brad jerked his head off the panel ledge. Hot coffee from a container
that his limp hand half-gripped sloshed over the brim and spilled on the
deck. He turned a haggard, puzzled face to the bulkhead speaker.

It had flooded the compartment with sound--live, vibrant sound. The
signal had been loud and clear. Not weak. Not like the one from Jim's
lifecraft two jumps away.

"This is the SS Fleury!" he shouted, stumbling forward eagerly and
gripping the gooseneck of the mike. "Come in!"

"Fleury from SS Cluster Queen.... Answering your SOS."

His hopes suddenly vanished. "Is that Altman? What are you doing on this
run?"

"Yeah, Conally. This is Altman. Freeholding to Vega.... What's your
trouble? Anything serious?"

Altman had come in to unload at Arcturus II Spaceport while the Fleury
was still docked, Brad recalled. The huge ship had been berthed next to
his.

"Main drive jacket blown out in the engine compartment," Brad said
hoarsely. "It happened at the end of the eighth jump. We're about a
half-notch into hyper--just barely off the border."

"That's tough." There was little consolation in the tone. "Got any
passengers?"

"No. None this trip. I'm solo now. My engineer's gone off in the craft."

"Can't you replace that jacket and limp through?"

"Got a faulty gasket on the replacement. Can't be patched up."

"You're in a helluva fix, Conally. Even a Lunar ferry pilot's got enough
sense to check his spare parts before blastoff."

"I check mine after each landing. There isn't much that can happen to it
when the pile's cold.... Can you give me a tow, Altman?"

"Can't do that, Conally. I'm not...."

"If you'll just give me a boost then. To the crest of this hyperjump.
Then I won't have to worry about slipping through."

"Like I started to tell you," Altman intoned insistently, "one of my
grapples is sheared."

"You still have two more."

"Uh-uh. This wise boy ain't gonna take a chance of a line snapping and
knocking a hunk outta my hull. Especially when you got cargo spilling
all over space."

Brad clenched his fists. He spoke through his teeth. "Look, Altman.
Regulations say...."

"... I gotta help you," the other cut him short. "I know that, pal.
That's why I happen to be stopping off at this not too enticing spot.
And I'm offering help.... Come aboard any time you want."

"And hang up a free salvage sign on the Fleury?"

Altman didn't answer.

Twisting the gooseneck in his hand, Brad sucked in a deep breath and
blew it out in a rush. But he didn't say what had leaped into his mind.
Instead he glanced over at the panel's screen.

Altman's ship showed up there--a large, greenish-yellow blip. There were
other small dots on the scope too. As he looked, the large blip coasted
over to one of the dots. The two became one mark on the screen.

"You're picking up my cargo!" Brad shouted.

"The stuff not in orbit around the Fleury ain't yours any longer,
Conally," Altman laughed. "You oughta bone up on your salvage laws."

"You damned scavenger!"

"Now, now, Brad," the other said smoothly. "What would you do if you
were in my position? Would you let top priority cargo slip through to
normal and get lost off the hyperlane? Or would you scoop it up and
bring it in for bonus price?"

"You're not after a bonus," Brad roared into the mike. "You're after a
contract.... Altman, I'll pay two thousand for a ten-minute tow up-arc.
That'll almost wipe out my profit on this haul."

"No sale."

Brad gripped the mike with both hands. "So you're just going to sit
around and pick up cargo droppings!"

"The book says I gotta stick around until you come aboard, until you get
underway on hyperpower, or until there just ain't any more ship or
crew.... Might as well pick up cargo; there's nothing else to do."

"And when I come aboard you'll want to unload the Fleury too, I take
it."

"Wouldn't you?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Half the spilled crates were in close orbit around the SS Fleury. The
tri-D scope showed that. Brad estimated distances of several of the
objects as he clamped the helmet to the neckring of his suit and
clattered to the pilot compartment airlock.

In the lock he unsnapped the hand propulsor from its bulkhead niche and
clamped it to his wrist plate while the outer hatch swung open and the
lock's air exploded into a void encrusted with a crisscross of vivid,
vari-colored lines. The individual streaks, he estimated, averaged at
least ten degrees in length. That indicated he was a reasonable period
of time away from spillthrough into normal space where the lines would
compress into the myriad normal pinpoints that were stars, undistorted
by hyperspace perspective. When the streaks decreased to four or five
degrees, he reminded himself, that was the time to start worrying about
dropping out the bottom of the trough.

He waited until one of the square, tumbling objects rolled by, obscuring
sections of the out-of-focus celestial sphere as it whirled in its
orbit. Timing it, he waited for the box to complete another revolution.
Just before it arrived the third time, he pushed off.

As he closed in on the crate, he knew his timing had been correct. He
intercepted it directly above the hatch and clung clumsily to a hand
ring as its greater mass swept him along in an altered orbit. A quick
blast from his propulsor eliminated the rotation he had imparted to the
object and he reoriented himself with respect to the ship. Spotting the
ruptured sideplate where the cargo had burst through the hull, he
steered his catch toward the hole with short bursts of power.

[Illustration]

The bent plate made a natural ramp down which he slid the crate onto the
gravity-fluxed deck. Inside, he degravitated the chamber, floated the
box into position and double-lashed it to the deck.

Pushing away from the ship again, he checked the length of the stellar
grid streaks. They were still approximately ten degrees long. It looked
hopeful. He might have time to collect all the orbiting cargo before he
got dangerously close to spillthrough. Then he'd see about pushing on
up-arc until the fuzzy streaks stretched to forty or fifty
degrees--perhaps even ninety, if he could allow himself the luxury of
wishful thinking. There he'd be at quartercrest and would have time to
rest before worrying about being drawn down the arc again toward normal
space.

While he jockeyed the fourth crate into the hold, a huge shadow suddenly
blotched out part of the star lines off to the port side. It was the
Cluster Queen pursuing a crate not in orbit around the Fleury. Brad
shrugged; he'd be unable to pick up the ones that far out anyway.

But his head jerked upright in the helmet suddenly. If Altman was after
a free box, he realized, the Cluster Queen _could not_ appear in sharp
outline to an observer in the Fleury system! The Fleury, sliding down
the hyperspatial arc with its orbiting crates, would be moving slowly
toward normal space in response to the interdimensional pull exerted by
its warp flux rectifier, hidden inaccessibly in the bowels of the pile,
as it was on most outdated ships. But the free boxes, in another
time-space system with the Cluster Queen, would be stationary on the arc
and would appear increasingly fuzzy as the planal displacement between
the two systems became greater.

The truth, Brad realized, was that the Cluster Queen was drawing closer
both spatially and on the descending node of the hyperspatial arc!
Altman was violating the law; he was going to take the cargo in orbit.
And he could well get away with it too, since it would be the word of
only one man aboard the Fleury against the word of the entire crew of
the Queen.

       *       *       *       *       *

There were still six boxes in orbit. He pushed out again toward the
closest and saw he had not been wrong in his reasoning. The Queen's
outline was razor-edge sharp; it was close enough to stretch across
fifty-five degrees of the celestial sphere.

He kept it in the corner of his vision as he hooked on to the crate and
started back to the ship. The Queen was reversing attitude slowly. When
he had first spotted it, it was approaching at an angle, nose forward.
But now it had gyroed broadside and was continuing to turn as it drifted
slowly toward Brad and the box.

"Altman!" he cried into his all-wave helmet mike. "You're on collision
course!"

Brad kicked away from the crate and streaked back toward the Fleury.

There was a laugh in the receiver. "Did you hear something, Bronson?"

"No, captain," another voice laughed. "For a moment I thought maybe I
picked up a small blip near that crate. But I don't guess Conally would
be stupid enough to suit up and try to hustle his own cargo."

Brad activated his propulsor again and gained impetus in his dash for
the Fleury's hatch.

"Still," Altman muttered, "it seems like I heard somebody say something
about a collision course."

The Cluster Queen was no longer turning. It had stabilized, with its
tubes pointed in the general direction of the Fleury and her floating
crates.

Perspiration formed on Brad's forehead as he glanced up and saw the
other ship steady itself, settling on a predetermined, split-hair
heading. Somebody, he realized grimly, was doing a good job of aiming
the vessel's stern.

He got additional speed out of his propulsor, but the tubes swung slowly
as he covered more of the distance to his hatch. It seemed he couldn't
escape his position of looking up into the mouths of the jets.

"I don't know, boss," the speaker near his ear sounded again. "Maybe he
_is_ out there."

"We better not take chances, then," Altman was not hiding the heavy
sarcasm in his words. "Blast away!"

Brad kicked sideways, stiffened his arm and hit the wrist jet full
force. He shot to one side on a course parallel with the Fleury.

A blinding gusher of raw energy exploded--a cone of blistering,
scintillating force that streaked through space between himself and the
disabled ship. The aiming was perfect. Had he not swerved off when he
did, had he stayed on his original course, he would have been in the
center of the lance of hell-power.

As he drifted shakily into the hatch, the Queen wasn't even a dot
against the trellis of star traces. But, while he looked, a miniature
lance of flame burst in the general direction in which Altman's vessel
had gone--scores of miles away. He was maneuvering a standard turn to
approach again, Brad realized.

If he repeated the performance against the hull of the Fleury, he would
shake things up considerably, but at least the alloys of the plates
could stand the heat--possibly the thrust too ... but not for long.

       *       *       *       *       *

Invigorating effects of hot coffee flowed through Brad as he sat
strapped in the pilot's seat and allowed himself the luxury of a
cigarette.

But his eyes were fastened on the screen. The Cluster Queen was drawing
up to the last orbiting crate. He watched the large blip and the dot
become one.

Abruptly, there was motion in the direct-view port overhead. The Queen
and the crate drifted into view. He switched his gaze from the screen
and watched grapples clamp the crate like giant mandibles, drawing it
into the Queen.

His chest and abdomen hurt and he wanted to get out of the seat and
stretch, move around, do something. But that might be disastrous. If
Altman was going to play any more tricks with his tubes, he would be
ready to do it now, after the last box had been retrieved. And Brad
realized it wouldn't be healthy being shaken around inside an
erratically spinning compartment.

"That's the last one, Altman," he spoke dully into the mike.

"Say!" The irony was still in the other's voice. "Were you out there
when we blasted to avoid collision?"

Brad said nothing.

"Sorry if we warmed your tail," Altman continued. "But you should'a
stayed inside. Our instruments show you're getting close to
spillthrough. Ain't you gonna do anything about it?"

Brad snapped to alertness. Now he realized the origin of the pains in
his stomach and chest--the pin-prick sensations that seemed to be
spreading throughout his flesh. He glanced out the direct-view port.
Altman was right. The sky was no longer a grid of star streaks. The
lines had shrunken; their lengths now stretched scarcely over three or
four degrees. The scope showed the Queen was still there spatially, but
the fuzziness of her outline indicated she was well out of danger--high
up on the ascending node of the arc.

"What's on the program, Altman?" Brad asked bitterly. "Let me guess....
I slip through the barrier. Passage at slow speed makes pretty much of a
pulpy mess out of my body. You pop the Queen through in a
milli-second.... You got a nice story to tell: You arrived as I was
slipping through. You couldn't do anything to stop me. You plunged
through after me. With a dead skipper aboard, the ship and cargo were
free to the first one who came along. You took the cargo, it being high
priority stuff. You left the ship, it being outdated, battered, useless
and drifting in normal interstellar where it would never be found. You
took what was left of the skipper, it being good evidence to
substantiate your tale."

"Now Brad, boy!" Altman stretched the words out in mock reprimand. "You
know _I_ wouldn't do a thing like _that_. You know the West Cluster
contract doesn't mean _that_ much to _me_!"

There was a long silence. Apparently Altman wasn't going to interrupt
it. Brad looked back at the scope. The Queen had withdrawn spatially and
hyperspatially.

The pains in his body rose sharply and he grimaced, biting down on his
lips. A knife slipped into his abdomen, twisted and shot up through his
chest and into his head. Then an incendiary bomb went off somewhere in
his stomach.

He reached for the control of the good main hyperjet. Then, as his face
contorted with near agony, he punched down on it.

The pain left swiftly. The ship rattled and clanked and ground
hatefully, its new cacophony of protest drowning out the old
_clank-sss_, _boom_ and _throom-throom_. The small blurs in the sky
elongated--five degrees, ten, twelve, twenty, twenty-five, forty.... The
Cluster Queen's outline on the scope became sharp and then faded into
fuzziness once more as the Fleury passed it hyperspatially along the
ascending node of the arc.

He pressed the normal drive jet lever and it spluttered weakly, creating
not even enough discordant sounds in the wracked ship to drown out the
_boom, throom, clank-sss_ symphony. The dot on the scope representing
the Queen faded into insignificance. With a sweep of his hand, he killed
power in the automatic distress transmitter.

Now it would take the Queen a little while to get a bearing on him along
four co-ordinates. It would be a reprieve of several' hours--even the
Fleet ships couldn't do it in less time than that without a signal to
home in on.

He had no idea what the skipper of the Queen would do next. But at the
moment he wasn't interested. The sharp pains were gone. But they had
been replaced by an uncontrollable, reactive nausea. He unclamped his
safety harness and stumbled to the jettison bin, holding a hand over his
mouth. He made it just in time.

Then he dropped onto the bunk, exhausted.

       *       *       *       *       *

The reprieve gained by his elusive tactics must have been a long one.
When Brad awoke he felt fresher than he had at any time since the engine
compartment eruption. He had no way of knowing how long he had slept;
the secondary bus bar off which the ship's clocks operated had gone up
in the initial blast when a section of the plate from the ruptured tube
jacket had smashed through the junction box.

Evenly spaced _swooshing_ sounds were emitting from the speaker. That,
he realized, was what had awakened him. Someone was blowing into a mike
to see if it was alive.

"SS Fleury, SS Fleury, SS Fleury," the sounds were suddenly exchanged
for words--Altman's.

Brad swung his legs out of the bunk and stood swaying, rubbing a hand
over his chafed, bearded face.

The elongated blip was back on the radar screen--clear, close.

"Answer, Conally," the receiver barked.

Brad strode to the panel and looked out the direct-view port He had
slept longer than he had at first suspected. The stellar trellis had
shortened considerably. They were back in the neighborhood of fifteen
degrees.

"Distress Regulation Four-Oh-Eight-Two," the speaker droned, "says that
if a disabled ship don't answer by radio or visually within fifteen
minutes after being called steadily, standby craft is to board it and
may take immediate possession."

"What do you want, Altman?" Brad said resignedly into the mike.

Altman hissed irritably. "Conally, there's no sense in playing
hide-'n-seek with the little power you've got left. Get off that damned
piece of junk and come aboard."

"Go to hell."

"Listen! I'm tired of wasting time! If you don't...."

"I'll sign a release and shoot it over to you. That's all you need to
clear you of rescue and standby responsibility. I'll keep my distress
signal off until you get out of range."

"Uh-uh. It ain't as simple as that. I want your cargo. And I'm going to
get it. Now let's be sensible. You know you don't have a chance."

"Maybe I've learned a few tricks."

The other snarled impatiently. "Okay, bright boy. I've had enough of
this horseplay. I'm gonna let you see just the way things are.... Notice
anything odd? Any peculiar noises aboard the Fleury?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Brad cocked his head toward the stern. The complaining clanks and
groans and off-beat thumpings maintained their steady rhythm. There were
some new noises.

"I been listening to it get louder for the past three hours," Altman
hinted.

Then Brad's ears picked it up--an erratic, excited
_clackety-clack-clackety-clack_. He gasped.

Altman laughed. "That counter's setting up quite a sing-song, ain't it?
I sorta think that pile might go _boom_ in a few hours. But I'm hoping I
can get your cargo aboard before then. You can come too if you want."

Brad swung swiftly and lurched for the passageway aft.

"Wish I was there to help you with the cad rod insertions," the laughing
voice raced after him.

The dial on the forward side of the shielded bulkhead read
Oh-Oh-point-Oh-Two-Four. He applied the figure to the adjacent graph and
learned he could remain in the engine compartment for one minute and
fourteen seconds, with a safety factor of ten per cent. In that period
of time, he rationalized, he ought to be able to insert a sufficient
number of cadmium control rods to bring the pile under control.

The counter clicked gratingly overhead as he undogged the hatch, swung
it open and lunged into the steam-tormented acrid compartment.

He broke open the first locker and jerked the remaining three cad rods
from their racks. Coughing and waving smoke from in front of his face,
he swung open the door of the first reserve compartment.

It was empty!

The second reserve compartment was empty too, as were the two emergency
compartments. Only three cadmium rods when he needed at least three
dozen!

In a rapid dash around the pile block, he inserted the rods at spaced
intervals in their slots. At least they would mean a few hours' grace.
As he slid the last rod in he cursed himself and swore that if he ever
commanded another ship he would not leave it unmanned at the
dock--specifically if there was somebody like Altman berthed anywhere at
the same spaceport.

The ruptured hypertube jacket, he wondered suddenly, not losing his
count of seconds. It seemed unlikely now that it had let go as a result
of defective material. He stepped to the flange that connected it with
the stern bulkhead.

The tube, inactivated immediately after the blowout, was cold. He looked
where his suspicions directed.... The aperture control valve had been
readjusted! It had been displaced a full fifteen degrees on the topside
of optimum power! A cunning setting--one that would trap and concentrate
enough residual di-ions at normal power output to cut loose somewhere
between the fifth and tenth jump.

He thought, too, of his transmitter that hadn't been powerful enough to
reach farther than a couple of jumps since he had left spaceport. When,
he asked himself, had Altman's radioman worked on it?

       *       *       *       *       *

After he slammed the hatch and dogged it, he leaned against the thick
metal for a long while. The _clack-clack_ overhead was somewhat
pacified. But it wouldn't remain that way long. He quelled the fear
sensations that were racing through him and tried to think.

How long? How long had it been since Jim left? He was three jumps away a
few hours ago--or was it longer than that?--and he still had seven to go
or was it six? Had it been just a few hours ago, or was it days? He had
slept some--twice, he believed--since then. But for how long? And if the
tow ships did make it back in time, would they have spare rods?

He gave it up as a hopeless speculation and started back up the
passageway, shoulders drooping.

_Karoom!_

The new sound reverberated through the agonized vessel and the bulkheads
of the passageway shuddered in fanatic sympathy with it.

The deck shifted crazily beneath his feet and a port beam--the bulkhead
and the rest of the ship following it--swung over to crash into his
shoulder.

A stabbing pain shot up his arm as he slid down the tilting wall and
landed in the right angle between the deck and the bulkhead.

Massaging the torn ligament in his arm, he sat up and swayed dizzily in
resonance with the pendulum-like motion of the vessel. Then he struggled
to his feet and stood upright--one foot planted at an angle against the
deck and the other against the port bulkhead. Overhead was the
corresponding juncture made by the ceiling plate and the starboard
bulkhead.

Nausea welled as he tried to adjust to the new, perverted up and down
references. He didn't have to wonder what had happened. The starboard
gray coil that ran under the overheated converter, he knew, had finally
shorted out. The port coil was still operating normally. He considered
turning it off, but conceded it was better to struggle around in an
apparently listing ship than to be wracked by the nausea of
weightlessness.

Straddling the deck and port bulkhead, he waddled back to the hatchway,
threw a leg over its edge and lifted himself into the control
compartment, sliding down the floor to the port side. He worked his way
to the control seat, readjusted its tilt and crawled in it.

Then he tore a strip out of his jacket and wrapped it around his
shoulder as tightly as he could. The pressure eased the pain in his
aching muscle.

The air gauge showed an almost normal Two-Nine-point-Three-Two pounds,
sufficient oxygen content, and a satisfactory circulatory rate. He
eagerly fished a cigarette from his jacket. He had earned it, he assured
himself.

While he smoked he counted on the screen the amount of cargo that had
spilled out when the loose crates had lurched with the vessel. Almost as
fast as he counted it, the Cluster Queen swooped down on it and scooped
it into her hatch.

Numbed, he found he could no longer react to the total disregard of his
rights with any degree of excited resentment. He closed his eyes
indifferently. Shuddering, he squeezed the cylinder of tobacco between
his fingers without being aware of the action. The glowing end bent back
and burned his knuckle.

Tossing the cigarette away, he realized suddenly his fight was futile.
He couldn't possibly hold out until Jim returned, or in the hope that
some other vessel would happen along. The pile, his arm, spillthrough,
the Fleury threatening to break in two ... he enumerated all the
factors.

If he went aboard the Cluster Queen now, Altman would at least give him
passage to port. Any charges Brad would make would never hold up without
substantiation. And Altman would see that he brought nothing with him
that could back up the accusations. It would be just as easy for the
crew of the Queen to prove that Brad Conally had conceived the whole
weird account of assault and piracy as a means of winning back the cargo
he was faced with losing.

He knew, however, that no matter what happened, he could kiss the Fleury
goodbye. Altman would never allow it to reach port. There might be
evidence aboard--perhaps evidence as simple as finger prints--to prove
that Altman or one of his crew had tampered with the machinery.

Brad reached out to extend the gooseneck of the mike toward him.

       *       *       *       *       *

But the stellar grid showing through the direct-view port was blotted
out suddenly. He jerked his gaze to the scope. The Queen was
overhead--almost within grappling distance!

He started to shout out, but at the same time brilliant hell exploded
outside.

The Cluster Queen's jetwash raked across the upper bow of the Fleury,
throwing its nose down and its tail up and over in a hateful, wrenching
spin.

The spin continued, losing none of its neck-snapping vehemence, as the
Queen burst off into space. The harness cut across Brad's aching arm and
set up a new, rending torture. But his good arm shot out and found the
forward belly jet lever.

With what mushily reacted like the last erg of energy in the normal
drive converter tanks, the jet responded feebly. He nursed the power
carefully, determined not to waste juice through overcorrection. Finally
the Fleury steadied and resumed immobility of attitude.

"Sorry, Conally," Altman apologized with exaggerated concern. "But her
majesty's acting up frisky-like. Can't seem to do much with her....
Maybe if you came aboard we might find some way to quiet her down. How
about it?"

Brad bit his lips and tightened his good fist until fingernails knifed
into the palm. "No, damn you!" he shouted with all the volume his lungs
could muster.

He summoned all the spacewise epithets any stevedore or crewman had ever
used, added a few he imagined no one had thought of before, and held
them in abeyance until Altman would answer.

But no sound came out of the speaker.

The reason was apparent on the scope. A half dozen of the massive crates
had crashed through the hull--this time out of hold number One, the
massometer showed--and the Cluster Queen was on her way to take them
aboard.

But he was more concerned with another complication. The red power
utilization indicator of the good hypertube was in motion, swinging back
to zero on its dial. He saw the flicker of the needle in the corner of
his vision.

He checked the suspicion against the blips on the scope and obtained
verification ... the outlines of the Queen and the crates were fuzzy,
despite the fact they were still nearby spatially. The fuzziness could
only result from the Fleury's being removed hyperspatially from that
vicinity.

He had accidentally touched the hyperjet lever while applying normal
power to correct the three-dimensional spin. Which way had he moved it?
Had he gone further into hyperspace? Or had he fallen further down the
descending node toward spillthrough?

Studying sensations in his body for an indication of abnormal pain, he
stared abruptly out the view port. The twisting pain was there--inside
his chest. The star lines were short.

He swore and scowled at his luck.

Then, as the pain intensified, he grasped the lever of the hyperjet
again and thrust it forward. The tube sputtered feebly, came on full
force for a second, sputtered again and was silent.

He jerked the lever back and forth on the forward side of neutral and
rammed it desperately all the way forward. The tube coughed, grabbed
once more for a moment, and sputtered out. He goosed it four more times,
but only got two boosts as a result. Then he twisted it past the stop to
the first emergency position. It wheezed, fired for two seconds and
died.

Sweat forming in beads on his face, he ignored the pain in his shoulder
and reached to the control column with his injured arm. He swung back
the second safety stop bar out of the way and rammed the lever all the
way forward.

The tube fired for another second, but that was all. He had used the
last erg.

But how much time had he bought with his final means of retreat from the
spillthrough trough? He checked the celestial crisscrosses.... Not
much....

       *       *       *       *       *

Altman? he wondered suddenly. Where was the Cluster Queen? It wasn't
showing up on the scope any longer. Neither were the crates. Had he
retrieved them and shoved off? Brad jiggled the scope's brilliance
control, wondering whether it was faulty and was simply not registering
the Queen.

An abrupt _thud_, coincident with a sharp jar throughout the ship and a
sudden shifting of the pseudogravitational field almost to normal,
brought him upright in his seat. He realized immediately what was
happening.

He hadn't been able to pick up the Queen on the scope because it was too
close to register as a blip separate from the central luminescence on
the screen which was representative of the Fleury itself. Altman had
maneuvered alongside, aligned the hatch flanges of the two ships and
activated his magnetic grapples. The nearness of his grav coils had
restored some of the Fleury's internal stability. He was preparing to
board the Fleury. He would be aboard within ten minutes.... It took that
long to make minute adjustments in order to insure perfect
superimposition of the flange surfaces.

Brad smiled grimly and unsnapped his harness with nervous fingers. If he
could get into his suit in time, it would be simple to open a hatch aft
and let the air spill from the Fleury. Then when Altman undogged the
inner hatch of the Fleury's air lock, it would be sucked open violently
and pull the skipper of the Cluster Queen into a vacuum. It would make a
mess out of the air lock and the control compartment--but that would be
advantageous. It would be evidence to prove at least that Altman had
taken the initiative in boarding the Fleury without first dispatching
his intention of doing so to the nearest port, as required by the law.

Brad planned that if he then found the Queen's locks dogged, he would
temporarily close the Fleury's inner lock and fill the between-ships
passage with normal pressure air so he would be able to open the Queen's
hatches against the thirty-pound pressure in the other ship. After
opening her hatches, he would leap back to the Fleury's inner hatch,
release the single doglatch and let the vacuum suck all the air from the
other ship too. He would immediately report the defensive action to Vega
IV, borrow emergency cad rods from the Queen, prevent an internal pile
blast aboard the Fleury and withdraw the crippled ship, together with
its engine compartment evidence, to the node of the arc to await the
arrival of investigators.

He clamped the helmet on his neck ring with a minute to spare as he
reassured himself it was a perfect plan and had a reasonable chance to
success. It was one too that required no physical exertion. He couldn't
go through any rough stuff with his sprained arm.

       *       *       *       *       *

Stiffening, he watched the first of the six doglatches on the hatch
swing to the unlocked position. He moved over against the starboard
bulkhead, well away from the hatch. He would have to get out of the suit
again, and it would be a messy job if he were standing close to Altman
when the vacuum went to work on him.

The final doglatch unsnapped. The hatch crashed open and he imagined he
could almost hear the swoosh of escaping air.

Instead he heard a mocking voice over his audio.

"You were right, captain," the voice laughed.

"Who'd think Conally would try a trick like that?" Altman taunted,
extending a spacesuit clad leg across the hatch ledge.

"You would and did.... He'll probably be right behind the hatch to the
left there, boss."

Brad sprang forward.

But Altman turned suddenly in his direction and pointed a gun at Brad's
stomach. It checked the attack. Brad backed away hopelessly.

"Okay," Altman jerked his head in the confines of the helmet, "go to
work."

The crewman from the Queen stepped into the control cabin and walked
toward the passageway aft while Altman held the gun on Brad.

"Think you can do it quick enough?" Altman asked the crewman.
"Radiation, you know."

The crewman thrust the wide-mouthed gun above his shoulder where Altman
could see it. "It'll just take one shot with this."

He disappeared down the passageway.

"Hell, captain," the voice sounded a minute later. "It's dead. He musta
used up all his reserve juice in that last surge upward."

"Okay," Altman smiled--a weird, distorted smile as seen through the
thick, rounded helmet. "Come on back." He looked at Brad. "So you can't
pull away from the trough any longer? That's tough."

Brad wanted to say, Okay, Altman, I'll go aboard the Queen with you. But
he didn't. He realized the plea would have been futile anyway as he
watched the crewman rejoin Altman and heard the latter say: "Just think,
Conally, you could have come aboard. I would have let you a while back.
But you've made this thing too tough and gave my boys the chance to
convince me we might have slipped up somewhere and you might be able to
prove your side of the story."

The pair retreated to the air lock. Brad stood motionless, staring, not
breathing.

"The pile'll hold," the crewman announced, "for another four hours, just
about."

"Fine!" Altman exclaimed. "This junk'll slip through within an hour.
That'll give us another three hours, at least, to get this stiff aboard
the Queen and transfer cargo before she blows. Then we can mop up on
whatever crates we've...."

But the air lock closed and the rest of his words were cut off.

       *       *       *       *       *

If he could only get cleaned up before it came. If he could only enjoy
the luxury of a bath, a shave, clean clothes. Brad laughed at the last
item, wondering how clothes could be expected to remain clean if they
were on someone making the spillthrough transition at coasting speed.

The Fleury lurched as the Queen cut loose and blasted away. Brad had
watched the pressure gauge climb back to normal and was removing his
helmet at the time. The ship's one-sided gravity field caught hold
unexpectedly and he toppled to the deck rolling to the port bulkhead.
His hurt shoulder rammed into metal and new pain knifed into existence
as the heavy helmet clattered down and crashed against his head. The
blow almost stunned him. But it left him with enough awareness to wish
it _had_ knocked him insensible--permanently insensible.

The scope showed more cargo had spilled out in the last lurch. The Queen
started over toward the crates, but coasted past, turned and came back
to take post spatially alongside the disabled craft. Already the other
ship's outline was beginning to blur as the Fleury slipped away from her
hyperspatially--down the arc.

Brad straddle-stepped on the deck and bulkhead to the control column and
broke out his pack of cigarettes. Suddenly his feet left the deck. The
port gray coil had gone out, he realized grimly, the current having
dropped below the minimum requirements. For a moment he became concerned
over weightlessness. Then he cut in the heel magna-grips of his suit and
clanged onto the floor. At least, he wasn't confronted with a
topsy-turvy ship any longer. He blew a cloud of smoke into the air and
half-centered his attention on the scope. Two more crates had left the
Fleury's holds. With the grav fields out on the ship, they did not take
up orbit. They just floated away, at an almost imperceptible speed. But
the Queen was still apparently not interested in picking them up. There
would be plenty of time to do that; right now she must stick close to
the Fleury spatially, Brad realized, so her instruments would indicate
the moment the spillthrough to normal space occurred, so her crew could
get to work.

As though hypnotized in inconsequential thought, he watched the crates
slowly draw away. Almost incredibly expensive cargo. Cargo that Altman
would surely not allow to go unrecovered. Even as booty, the crated
equipment would bring every bit of what it was worth. But Altman would
see that they were delivered--every one of them. A contract with West
Cluster meant a good deal more than the face value of the one shipment
of inter-calc banks.

Brad started and his face became alive with expression as a sudden
realization drove home. It was followed almost immediately by a second
jarring consideration. He tossed away the half-consumed cigarette.

It wasn't more than fifteen minutes later when he stood before the mike
again.

"Altman," he called out.

Silence.

"Altman," he shouted louder.

"Go ahead and answer him, captain. Let's see what he has to say."

"You can't come aboard, Conally," Altman said finally.

"If you don't let me come aboard I'll slip through and be killed."

"Ain't that touching!"

"You mean you won't pick me up?"

"We'll pick you up all right--we wanna take what's left of you back to
show how you died."

"It's like that then? You're going to kill me to get the cargo?"

"You're learning fast."

"Are you going to hook on to the Fleury and drag her in to port?"

"Are you nuts? The inspectors could easily find out that we worked her
over before you left port.... What's the matter--got a sentimental
attachment for that old crate?"

"Look, Altman...."

"Go to hell, Conally."

The background hum died out of the Fleury's receiver abruptly. Brad
called twice. But there was no answer.

       *       *       *       *       *

The SS Fleury was vibrant with the final pounding of its weakening vital
parts.

_Clank-sss, clank-sss_, the coolant's safety valve hissed.
_Boom ... boom_, the jangling piston rod pounded. The expanding metal
plate added its _throom-throom_ note.

The counter in the passageway _clackety-clacked_ louder.

Their lines snapped by persistent tremors and lurches, more crates
danced in the holds. Some of them eventually found their way to the
gaping holes in the hull and, receiving a final, brief kick from jagged
metal, floated lightly out into space.

In the scope of the Cluster Queen, the Fleury's outline became fuzzier.

With mounting groans, the tortured vessel wrenched violently as she
slipped down the descending arc.

Then suddenly she was through--in normal space where stars shown with
pinpoint brilliancy and where the celestial sphere was no longer a lazy,
crazy crisscross of blurred lines.

The Cluster Queen started a wide hyperspatial turn, remaining spatially
alongside the Fleury. She gathered speed as she swung around and
straightened out and, with hyperjets blasting full force, plunged
through the barrier in somewhat less time than a milli-second.

Ahead, the Fleury was picked up immediately on the scope. Like a hawk,
the Queen closed the distance to the other trembling, silent ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

Vega IV's spaceport was bathed in brilliant, blue-cast light from the
magnificent sun.

The Cluster Queen was docked. A tractor kept itself busy rolling up the
ramp into the ship and out again with huge crates that were apparently
in somewhat poorer condition than when they left Arcturus II. An
occasional splintered board jutted outward, held to its box only by
loose nails.

Three men were next to the hold's hatch. They stood grouped about an
elongated form that lay on the concrete apron, covered with a white
square of linen. A spacesuit clad arm jutted out under one side of the
covered square.

"We'll take you over to the office," Inspector Graham was saying.
"You'll have to make out an affidavit, you know. We'll need a couple of
your crewmen to verify it."

"Be glad to," Altman answered. "Any time you're ready."

"As soon as they pick up--Conally," the inspector looked down at the
form.

"I don't understand it," Jim muttered, rubbing a thumb and forefinger
over closed eyelids.

"_Maybe I've got a version that's easier to understand, Jim_," the voice
sounded forcefully from the direction of the hatch.

Inspector Graham and Altman spun around.

Jim didn't have to. He was facing the hatch.

Altman blanched; backed away; stopped, and held his ground.

"Brad!" Jim shouted unbelievingly and rushed forward to grasp his arms
as the Fleury's skipper leaped off the side of the ramp. He was haggard
but smiling.

"Who's this?" the inspector asked.

"This is Conally, the skipper of the Fleury," Jim explained jubilantly.

The inspector started, looked at the form on the apron, back at Brad,
then at Altman.

"A trick!" Altman cried hoarsely. "I see it all, inspector. It's a
damned trick! I've been roped in!"

He was putting on a rather good act, Brad thought. But he went along
with his story anyway. As Brad unfolded the incidents of sabotage,
threat, assault, refusal to assist, pirating cargo, plotting murder and
disregard of Space Code Regulations, he watched Altman gain more control
over himself.

"I realized about an hour before spillthrough," Brad was approaching the
end of his account, "that the Fleury was no longer holding the spilled
cargo in an orbit because its grav system wasn't working. Whatever
crates broke free from the holds also broke free from the ship's system
and were no longer being dragged down the descending node toward
spillthrough. They were remaining stationary on the arc--where Altman
was sure to pick them up.

"Your spacesuit, Jim, came in handy. Without it, nothing could have been
done. I just filled it up with anything I could find--extra clothing,
insulation from the ruptured tube, a few utensils. It didn't make any
difference. The crew members who would handle the "body" would believe
it felt as torn apart as any other space suited body that experienced
spillthrough at a snail's pace.

"To add weight, I broke open a bin of hematite and poured about a
hundred pounds or so of the stuff into the suit. I stirred it gently;
got more hematite--red ocher, you know--and half-filled the helmet. We
had enough control column oil left to wet it down rather thoroughly. The
new mixture had a rich, dark-red color, just like I thought it would. I
sloshed the goo around in the helmet so all the inner surface was coated
with the mixture and with small bits of indistinguishable odds and ends;
then I clamped the dome onto the suit and harnessed it in the pilot's
seat.

"I put on my own helmet again, went aft and crawled into a half-busted
crate. With the wrist propulsor, I jockeyed the thing out of the hold to
make damned sure it would break free of the Fleury's system and wouldn't
spill through with the ship. After I saw I was drifting off, I worked my
way well into the bracing between the crate and the inter-calc unit so I
couldn't be seen through the broken sections of the box.

"Sure enough--about three hours later, along comes grabbenheimer," he
threw a thumb in Altman's direction, "with his grapples. I was able to
squeeze out of the suit an hour or so after that. But I've been cramped
up in that crate for two days, with only emergency rations."

       *       *       *       *       *

Altman loosed a sarcastic laugh and turned to the inspector. "It's a
damned clever trick, inspector!" he shouted. "I been grappled in on the
scheme.... Like I said, I arrived when he was slipping through. I
couldn't do anything to stop it. Naturally I wasn't going to let the
cargo go to waste. Naturally I was going to bring back what I thought
was his body--regulations say I gotta do that.

"But he knew for a couple of hours that I was coming in answer to his
SOS. I had gotten a fix on the point where he was slipping through and
he was certain I would follow the Fleury through to normal space, pick
up his body and the cargo that was aboard and go back into hyper to get
the rest of the cargo. He had time to make all those preparations. So he
dreams up the scheme of hiding in with the cargo that's free in hyper
and telling this story later. You see...."

Brad laughed. "Your tongue's working a little too fast, Altman. When I
picked the crate I was going to ride in, I picked a very special one.
The tractor's bringing it out now." He pointed to the ramp. Part of the
space suit was visible through the splintered side of the box.

"That crate," he continued, "will carry more weight as evidence than the
oaths of all your crewmen on a pile of Bibles stacked from here to
Arcturus."

Altman frowned puzzledly.

Jim and the inspector looked at each other.

"Inside is one of West Cluster's integrator-calculator audio retention
banks," Brad explained. "It took only ten minutes to hook leads from the
bank input to the intercommunication jackbox in the hold and to switch
it in on the radio voice system. With that setup, everything said on the
voice radio afterward spilled over into the retention bank. The only
reason why I held that final conversation with you was to get you to
repeat what you had done and were planning."

Brad turned to Graham. "How about it inspector? Do you think the courts
will see that we get compensation for the loss of the Fleury?"

"The least you'll get," Graham said, "is the Cluster Queen."

Brad looked up appraisingly at the massive vessel. "She ought to
do as security on a loan to cover the purchase of two or three other
spaceworthy freighters to go with her. Wouldn't you think so,
Jim?--That'd make a nice nucleus for a fleet!"





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