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´╗┐Title: Rescue Squad
Author: O'Hara, Thomas J.
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 "Rescue Squad" ***

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



    _When Mr. O'Hara won the prize story contest recently conducted by
    THE FANTASY WRITERS' WORKSHOP at the College of the City of New
    York, in conjunction with FANTASTIC UNIVERSE, it was the unanimous
    opinion of the judges that a second story by Mr. O'Hara, RESCUE
    SQUAD, deserved honorable mention. We think you'll agree with that
    decision when you've read this documentary-type science-fiction
    yarn, which so excitingly combines realistic characterization with
    the mystery, suspense and terror of the near future's exploration of
    space and a lone pilot's struggle to survive._


 rescue
  squad

 _by ... Thomas J. O'Hara_


 Stark disaster to a brave lad in space may--to the
 mind that loves--be a tragedy pridefully concealed.


The mail ship, MR4, spun crazily through space a million miles off her
trajectory. Her black-painted hull resembled a long thermonuclear
weapon, and below her and only a scant twenty million miles away burned
the hungry, flaming maw of the Sun.

The atomic-powered refrigeration units of the MR4 were working full
blast--and still her internal and external temperatures were slowly and
inexorably rising. Her atomic engines had been long since
silenced--beaten by the inexhaustible, fiery strength of the invincible
opponent waiting patiently a narrowing twenty million miles "below."

Hal Burnett twisted painfully on the narrow space-bunk, his tormented
body thrusting desperately against the restraining bands of the safety
straps that lashed him in against the dangers of non-gravity.

He moaned, and twisted sideways, while his half-asleep mind struggled on
an almost instinctive level against a dimly-remembered, utterly
intolerable reality.

It was a losing battle. He was suddenly wide awake, staring in horror at
the vibrating bulkheads of the deserted little mail ship. For a moment
his conscious barriers against reality were so completely down that he
felt mortally terrified and overwhelmed by the vast emptiness about him.
For a moment the mad idea swept into his mind that perhaps the universe
was just another illusion, an echo of man's own inner loneliness.

Realizing his danger, Burnett quickly undid the restraining safety
straps, sat up and propelled himself outward from the edge of his bunk.
The sudden surge of physical action swept the cobwebs from his mind.

He thought of his father--and there was bitterness in his heart and
frustration, and a rebellious, smouldering anger. The old man would
never know how close he had come to cracking up.

For a moment he wondered fearfully if his father's cold and precise
appraisal of his character and courage had been correct. Suppose he
_was_ unable to stand the rigid strains and pressures of a real
emergency. Suppose-- He tightened his lips in defiant self-justification.
What did they expect of a twenty-year-old kid anyway? He was, after all,
the youngest and probably the greenest mail pilot in the entire
Universal Run.

Suddenly the defensive barriers his mind had thrown up against the
grievous flaw in his character, which made him feel uncertain of himself
when he should have felt strong and capable, crumbled away completely.
He could no longer pretend, no longer deceive himself. He hated his
father because the elder Burnett had never known a moment of profound
self-distrust in his entire life.

He remembered his father's favorite line of reasoning with a sudden,
overwhelming resentment. "Fear can and must be controlled. If you have
your objective clearly in mind a new experience, no matter how
hazardous, will quickly become merely a routine obstacle to be
surmounted, a yardstick by which a man can measure his own maturity and
strength of purpose. You'll find peace of mind in doing your work ably
and well and by ignoring all danger to yourself."

It was so easy to say, so hard to live up to. How, for instance, could a
twenty-year-old kid on his _first_ mail run hope to completely outwit
fatigue, or even forget, for a single moment, that it _was_ his first
run. Fatigue had caused his undoing, but had he been completely fearless
he might have found a way to save himself, might have managed somehow to
prevent the small, navigational errors from piling up until they had
carried him past the point of no return.

A constant re-checking of every one of his instruments might have saved
him. But he had been too terrified to think straight, and too ashamed
of his "first-run" inexperience to send out a short wave message
requesting emergency instructions and advice. Now he was hopelessly off
his course and it was too late. Too late!

He could almost feel the steadily-growing pull of his mindless enemy in
the distant sky. Floating and kicking his way over to the Tele-screen,
he quickly switched the instrument on. Rotating the control dials, he
brought the blinding white image of the onrushing solar disk into
perfect focus. Automatically he adjusted the two superimposed polaroid
filters until the proper amount of light was transmitted to his viewing
screen. They really built ships and filters these days, he reflected
wryly. Now if they could only form a rescue squad just as easily--

Even through the viewing screen he could almost feel the hot blast of
white light hit his face with the physical impact of a baseball bat.
With what was almost a whimper of suppressed fear he rocked backward on
his heels.

The Sun's ghastly prominences seemed to reach beckoning fingers toward
him, as its flood of burning, radiant light seared through the
incalculable cold of space, and its living corona of free electrons and
energy particles appeared to swell and throb menacingly.

Fearfully he watched the flaming orb draw closer and closer, and as its
pull grew more pronounced he wondered if it were not, in some
nightmarishly fantastic fashion becoming malignantly aware of him. It
resembled nothing so much as a great festering sore; an infection of the
very warp-and-woof stuff of space.

He flipped off the power control on the Tele-screen and watched the
image fade away with a depleted whine of dying energy. That incandescent
inferno out there-- Grimly he tried to recall the name of the man who
had said that, philosophically, energy is not actually a real thing at
all.

He knew better than to waste time trying the pilot controls again. They
were hopelessly jammed by the great magnetic attraction of the Sun. They
had been jammed for hours now. He forced his way back to his bunk, and
securely lashed himself to it again. Sleep was his only hope now, his
only real escape from the growing, screaming hysteria within him.

He flung an arm across his tired face. His thin features trembled as he
remembered the continuous alterations in his trajectory that had brought
him within range of the Sun's mighty pull. He remembered also every
detail of the last and gravest of the series of miscalculations that had
swept him from the established route of the regular Venus-Mercury mail
run, and threatened him with a violent, flaming end.

Greatly off course, he had been approaching Mercury, a routine
thirty-six million miles from the Sun. On this, the final leg of his
long journey, he had deviated just far enough from the extreme limits of
safety to find himself and his ship gripped inexorably in the mighty
magnetic fields of the Sun's passage....

He remembered a name-- Josephine.

There would be no lover's meeting now on the green fields of Earth in
the dusk of a summer evening. There would be no such meeting now. Not
unless the prayers and dreams a boy and a girl had shared had followed
him, plunging senselessly into the cold glacial heart of interstellar
space.

His false bravado began to break and he began to weep quietly. He began
to wish with all his heart that he had never left home.

The sudden crackling of the almost static-jammed ultra-wave radio
snapped through to his mind. Quickly he began to free himself from the
bunk.

"MR4, come in, MR4."

An eternity seemed to pass as he floated across the room, deliberately
disregarding the strategically-placed hand-grips on the walls, floor,
and ceiling. It seemed aeons before he reached the narrow little control
compartment, and got the ultra-wave radio into action, nearly wrecking
it in his clumsy-fingered haste.

"MR4 to Earth. Over."

He waited a few moments and then repeated the message as no
acknowledgment came through. Then he abruptly remembered the nearby
presence of the Sun and its interference with radio transmission and
reception. He was white and shaken by the time his message was received
and his report requested and given.

He gave the whole tragic picture in frantic short wave. The amount of
atomic fuel left in the ship, the internal and external temperatures,
the distance from the Sun, and the strength of the solar disk's magnetic
field and his rate of drift toward it--along with a staggering list of
other pertinent factors.

At last it was over and he stood by awaiting the decision from Earth
headquarters.

It came at last.

"MR4." The growling voice was Donnelly's, the huge space-engineer in
charge of the smaller mail-rocket units. "You're in a tough spot but
we've got an expert here from the Government. He's worked on deals like
this with me before and he's got an idea.

"Here's the substance of it. We're going to send out a space tug from
Mercury to see if we can haul you in. It's a new, experimental tug and
it's been kept under wraps until now. But it's been designed for jobs
like this and we figure it can sure as hell do it.

"There's just one hitch, though, kid. It's a mighty powerful ship so
there's going to be a terrific shock when it contacts you and the
magnetic grapples set to work. In your medicine kit you'll find a small
hypo in a red-sealed plastic box. Take the shot that's in it
immediately and we'll have the tug out there as soon as we can. It will
probably take about twelve hours."

Donnelly's voice broke and he hesitated strangely for a moment. "You'll
be out fast," he went on. "So you won't feel a thing when the shock wave
hits you. There's less chance of injuries, this way."

       *       *       *       *       *

"It's a lousy thing to do," cried Donnelly as he snapped off the set. "A
rotten, heartless way of giving the lad false hopes. But then you don't
give a damn about anybody's feelings but your own, do you, Doc?"

"Take it easy, Joe--"

"Shut up, Williams. I'm talking to this little Government time-server
over here, not to you."

The psychiatrist shrugged wearily. "I don't care what you think. I've
worked with you both on cases similar to this before, though I'll admit
that none of them were quite as hopeless. In any case, I'll do it my
way, or not at all."

"Maybe you will, maybe you will," said Donnelly. "But if I had to wait
thirty days in that thing and somebody told me it was only a matter of
hours--"

"I know what I'm doing even if you think that I don't. The Government
has developed a set approach in matters like this. Fortunately, there
aren't many of them. Perhaps if there were--"

"Let me take over, Doc," broke in Donnelly. "I'm a space-engineer and
that makes me far better qualified to handle this than you are. Why the
hell they ever put a psychiatrist on this job in the first place is
something I'll never know, if I live to be a hundred and ten. It's a job
for an engineer, not a brain washer."

"There's a lot of things you'll never know, Donnelly," the gaunt, thin
little man sighed wearily. He sat down at the long mahogany table in the
Radio Room. With a careless wave of one arm, he swept a pile of papers
and magazines to the floor.

"Try and get this through your head, Donnelly. There's not too much you
can do by yourself for that boy up there. You just don't know how to
cope with the psychological intangibles. That's why they have me
here--so that we could work together as a team.

"Now the sooner you get on that radio and follow my instructions for the
pilot the sooner we'll get this over with. Then maybe I can go home and
spend a hundred years trying to forget about it. Until then please try
and keep your personal opinions to yourself. Please."

Donnelly's face flushed a still deeper red. His fists clenched and, as a
muscle started to twitch warningly in his cheek, he started to get up.
He stopped for a moment--frozen in silence. Then he relaxed and pushed
back his chair. With a heavy sigh, he maneuvered his huge bear of a body
to its feet.

He rumbled something disgustedly in his throat and then spat casually on
the floor. "Williams," he thundered. "Get the hell out of here and get
us some coffee."

He waited a moment until the only witness had left the room and then,
with grim determination, he turned to the little psychiatrist seated at
the table.

"You, Doc," he said coldly and with deliberate malice, "are a dirty,
unclean little--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Williams, when he eased his slight body through the door a few minutes
later, found a suspicious scene. The little doctor, his face flushed and
rage-twisted, his effortless and almost contemptuous composure shaken
for once, was on his feet. Speechless, he faced the grinning
space-engineer who was waving a huge and warning finger in his face.

"Easy, Doc," Donnelly roared in a friendly voice. "I might take
advantage of it if you keep on giving me a good excuse. Then where would
all your psychiatry and your fine overlording manners get you?"

"Joe," yelled Williams in explosive sudden fright. "Leave him alone.
You're liable to have the Government Police down on us."

"Sure, Williams. The police and the newspapers too. They'd just love to
have the taxpayers find out what they're doing to those kids out in deep
space. What would they call it, Doc? Just an interesting psychological
experiment? Is that what it's meant to be, eh, Doc?"

He chuckled suddenly as the little doctor flinched under his virulent
attack. "I really hit the spot that time, didn't I, Doc? So that's what
the Government's so scared and hush-hush about. They're really scared to
hell and back, aren't they? I wonder what's really going on behind all
this?"

He leaned forward, suddenly roaring and ferocious. "Why are Williams and
I followed everywhere we go when we leave here? To see who we talk to?
Is that the way of it? Why do quite a few of the ships you and I and
Williams have rescued in the past few years never show up again? Just
where are they? I don't see them reported missing in the newspapers,
either."

He leaned back in exhausted satisfaction at the look on the little
doctor's face. "Yeah, Doc, the only way to get anything out of you is to
blast it out, isn't it?"

Pale and frightened, Williams hurried across the room to the table and,
with shaky hands, took out three containers of coffee from the paper bag
and passed them out.

Nobody bothered to thank him.

The hidden tension in the room had begun to mount steadily, so Donnelly
helped it out a little.

"Is this the first time you've ever been on the defensive, Doc?" he
asked.

Williams jumped in before the explosion. "When will the rocket get to
the kid's ship, Doctor?" he asked.

"In about thirty days," the little man answered, coldly and
deliberately.

Williams blinked in surprise. "Good Lord," he said. "I thought it was
supposed to be in twelve hours or so?"

"That's the whole point," snapped Donnelly. "That's what I'm so fighting
mad about. Think of it yourself, Williams. Suppose you had a son or a
brother up there, how would you feel about this whole infernal, lying
business?

"I don't get it," he went on. "I just don't get the big central idea
behind it. Don't all these tugs we send out ever get there? First they
tell the kid he'll have his life saved in twelve hours or so. Then they
get him to take a shot so his mind won't crack up while he's waiting.

"Now they know very well the shot won't last for thirty days. If it did
he'd starve to death. So what have they accomplished? Nothing. As a
matter of fact they've made things worse instead of better. What's going
to happen to that poor kid when he wakes up in twelve hours and finds
out he still has to wait for thirty more days? What's going to happen to
him then, Doc? Don't you think that kid will really go off his rocker
for sure?"

Donnelly and Williams both looked at the little psychiatrist. He sat
again at his former place at the table, white and shaken. His face was
once again buried in one hand.

"Come on, Doc," whispered Williams, quietly. "What's going on here,
anyway?"

"That's enough," cried the doctor, suddenly. He sprang up and strode
toward the door. "Leave me alone," he exclaimed, almost in tears. "By
heaven, I've had enough of this. I've had all I can stand."

Donnelly moved to block the door and the psychiatrist came abruptly to a
halt. "That ain't enough, Doc. You get out after you talk."

"For God's sake, Joe."

"Shut up, Williams, I'm warning you for the last time."

"Let me by. I warn you, Donnelly. Let me by."

Williams moved in, regaining a sudden spurt of assurance. "What about
that kid up there, Doc? Nobody's letting him by, are they, Doc?"

A look of utter weariness swept across the doctor's face.

"All right," he said. "You may as well know the truth then. You won't
like or understand it, but here it is anyway. You see, there isn't any
tug up there, experimental or otherwise. There was only our need for a
good excuse--in this present case--to get him to take the drug. You're a
space-engineer and a good one, Donnelly. That's why you were chosen for
this job. If anybody could help those kids, you could."

Donnelly's face tightened warningly and the doctor hurried on. "You
would have known about it if there had been any experimental models
developed even if they had been secret. As a matter of fact, with your
standing, you would probably have been working on them."

"Why all this, then, Doc? Why?"

"Because," the little doctor hesitated--and then shrugged. "I may as
well tell you. It's not going to make any difference now, anyway. It was
all done to put him out for several hours until--"

"Until what, Doc?" Donnelly's tone was harsh and uncompromising.

"You must understand that I'm under orders. I'm doing what is done in
all these cases. Though heaven help me, I wish I didn't have to--"

"Doc," Donnelly roared. "You have been contradicting yourself all along
and I intend to find out why."

"There isn't much more to find out.... Wait."

The doctor strode quickly over to the radio, and glanced at his
wristwatch. His face haggard with strain, he turned to Williams. "Will
you contact the MR4, please?"

He held up a silencing hand to Donnelly. "There's a reason behind all
this. Just wait for a moment, please. Just wait and listen--"

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a fumbling-fingered ten minutes later, after Donnelly had signed
off, that Hal Burnett finally found the tiny red plastic box in the
little emergency medical kit. Trembling he held it in his hand as he
floated in free fall.

It was a little red key--a key to Earth, to life and to the chance to
ram every cold, precise, contemptuous word down his father's
over-analytical mouth.

He didn't really hate the old man but he knew that he feared him. He
feared also that his father might be right about him after all. Who in
his own mind, he thought bitterly, should know a son better than that
son's own father.

A quick surge of elation swept over him as he swam quickly to the
Tele-screen and switched it on. It wasn't a bit like saying good-bye to
an old friend, he thought, as he gazed at the flaming prominences not so
far below him. After a while he switched the instrument off and swam
triumphantly back to his bunk.

There were some tri-dimensional color slides in the ditty bag hanging by
his bunk. He took them out and looked at them. None of them were of his
father.

The girl was there, though. She was a small, cute girl with a rainbow of
laughter wreathed about her. She hadn't been really important before,
but she sure was important now that he was going to live. His old man
had foretold that, too.

After a little while he put the slides back in the portable holder and
broke open the plastic box. It contained a gleaming hypo filled with
what looked like a small quantity of water. There was an odd
peppermint-like odor about it.

There were no instructions. Just the needle and the little red box.

He wondered how many hours he would have to wait before help would come.
But that didn't matter. He would be asleep, anyway.

The temperature had climbed. It was burning, roaring hot.

Gently he slid the needle into his arm and depressed the plunger....

       *       *       *       *       *

The MR4 continued to spin even more lazily in space. Her sun-blackened
hull, pitted by the glancing blows of by-passing meteor fragments, was
slowly overheating. Her refrigeration units were gradually breaking down
under their tremendous overload.

She was inching in ever-shortening circles always in the direction of
the massive, molten globe not so far below....

Sometime later, Hal Burnett awakened slowly, as if from some distant and
dimly-remembered dream. The haze of a deep and foggy sleep clung to the
unfamiliar mass that was his mind.

A distant alarm bell had rung deep within the primitive, subcortical
levels of his brain. It had rung--but not loudly nor insistently enough.
It had failed to cut through the eddying fog that was rising slowly into
his ebbing consciousness.

He did not remember undoing the straps with benumbed and aching fingers.
He did not remember the befogged and stumbling "walk" into the Control
Room. Dimly, as if viewing himself and the room from a distant world, he
switched on the dying hum of the radio and tried futilely to transmit a
message.

The faint crackle of the radio grew more distant. He slumped forward in
the bucket seat, his head striking the controls in front of him--and,
for him, the sounds of the muted radio died out completely.

The burning heat seared into the metal hull of the MR4. Its outer hull
was almost at the boiling point. Inside, it was a burning, suffocating
hell. Perhaps it was the heat that aroused Hal Burnett once again.
Somehow he managed to stumble to the Tele-screen. With the last vestige
of a waning strength, he managed to switch it on and hold himself erect.

The stupendous white blast of the Sun struck across his staring eyes,
but he did not flinch. Unconscious, his hands clutched at the control
knobs as his sagging legs let him drift weightlessly toward the floor.
He was like a drowning swimmer, out of control and helplessly floating
under water.

He seemed to become aware for a moment as a last flicker of
consciousness crossed his mind. He mouthed something unintelligible--a
last, forgotten word.

Anchored only by his grip on the control knobs, his weightless body
floated aimlessly in the almost steaming cabin as the awful stillness
re-echoed throughout the hollow vault of the ship.

Down below, with ever-growing closeness, the Sun waited patiently, like
a bright and hovering vulture.

The MR4 swung and pivoted gently like a ship at sea straining at its
anchor in the first, fresh breezes of a gathering storm. For a moment it
seemed to hesitate like a coy maiden on the verge of some unknown
threshold. Then, abruptly, she climaxed her voyage and plunged directly
toward the waiting Sun some twenty million miles below, carrying with
her only her dead cargo; her pilot--

       *       *       *       *       *

The radio crackled noisily after Hal Burnett's last incoherent
transmission. It crackled aimlessly for a few moments--and then was
still.

"Something's wrong," said Williams, a thin thread of moisture shining
down his face. "Something's gone wrong up there!"

"It sure has," said Donnelly, quietly. "And I know who I'm going to ask
about it."

The little doctor said nothing. His face was an embittered parchment
mask. "It's happened. God help me. It's happened. He's gone," he
muttered, almost inaudibly.

Donnelly sighed heavily, a look almost of defeat sweeping momentarily
across his features. "See here, Doc," he said exhaustedly. "Don't be so
heartless about people. You've got a son of your own in space, so you
ought to understand how other people feel. What kind of a father would
do a thing like this to another man's son anyway?"

"Look, Donnelly," said the little man with bitter weariness. "Do me a
favor will you? You fill out the reports tonight. Somehow or other I
just don't feel up to it."

"Maybe it's your conscience," said Donnelly, sarcastically. "But I'll be
damned if I'll do it for you. You don't like to do your own dirty work,
do you, Doc? I thought you just loved to fill out Government reports."

"Donnelly, Donnelly," cried the doctor in sudden anguish. "Can't you
understand yet. Even an undertaker's job is unpleasant but somebody's
got to do it. Don't you see yet? _It has to be done!_"

With a muffled groan of disgust, Donnelly sprang to the radio once
again, pushing Williams roughly aside. Futilely, and in desperation he
strained at the controls for a moment and then, with a roar of fury, he
turned back to the doctor.

"Now see here, Doc--" he thundered, and then stopped in amazement.

The door to the dim and ill-lighted outer hallway of the lab was
standing open. And at the far end, the outer door was quietly closing
behind the disappearing figure of the bent-shouldered little man.

Donnelly started to spring after him, and then abruptly stopped. His
huge figure slumped in sudden despairing futility as he recognized the
tragic hopelessness of the situation.

"Let him go," rasped Williams. "There's nothing we can do now anyway,
Joe."

"Yeah, yeah. Let's write the report up ourselves. That's real important,
you know. The Government needs it."

He sat down at the typewriter, his heavy features twisted in hopeless
bitterness and anger. He started typing, and then stopped for a moment.

"What was this kid pilot's full name, Williams?"

Williams checked the Government order sheet. "Hell," he said.
"Strangely, it's the same as the doctor's, Dr. Alfred Burnett. Only the
kid's name is Harold Burnett."

Donnelly sat, suddenly transfixed, staring at his typewriter. A peculiar
look flashed across his face. Then he shook his massive head in an
unbelieving gesture of agonized understanding.

"Hell, no," he muttered to himself. "It couldn't be. It just couldn't
be. It just isn't possible. Burnett! _Burnett!_"

Swiftly he was on his feet and moving through the door after the
vanished figure of the little doctor, his face a mask of grim remorse.

"It was merciful," he muttered. "Yes, it _was_ merciful. It was the only
thing Doc Burnett could have done."

Williams stared after Donnelly's disappearing figure in frank and
open-mouthed amazement.

"Hey, Joe," he yelled. "Where the hell are you going?"

The outer door slammed shut on the departing echo of his words. "Well,
I'll be hung for an ugly son!" he muttered to himself. "Nobody makes
sense around this place, any more."

He shrugged half to himself and then began to type out the rest of the
report.

"I don't get it," he mumbled to himself. "I just don't get it at all.
There's no logic in it."



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Fantastic Universe_ September 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. Although
    _polaroid_ appears as originally printed, given the lack of a
    capital letter, it may be a printer's error for _polarized_.





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