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Title: A Hitch in Space
Author: Leiber, Fritz
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 "A Hitch in Space" ***

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                      [Illustration: book cover]



                            A HITCH IN SPACE

                            BY FRITZ LEIBER

                          ILLUSTRATED BY GRAY

                      My Space-partner was a good
                      reliable sidekick—but _his_
                      partner was something else!


Once when I was doing a hitch with the Shaulan Space Guard out Scorpio
way, my partner Jeff Bogart developed just about the most harmless
psychosis you could imagine: he got himself an imaginary companion.

And the imaginary companion turned out to be me.

Well, I’m a pretty nice guy and so having two of me in the ship didn’t
seem a particularly bad idea. At first. In fact there’d be advantages of
it, I thought. For instance, Jeff liked to talk a weary lot ... and the
imaginary Joe Hansen could spell me listening to him, while I projected
a book or just harkened to the wheels going around in my own head
against the faint patter of starlight on the hull.

I met Jeff first at a space-rodeo, oddly enough, but now the two of us
were out on a servicing check of the orbital beacons and relays and
rescue depots of the five planets of the Shaulan system. A completely
routine job, its only drawback that it was lengthy. Our ship was an
ionic jeep that looked like a fancy fountain pen, but was very roomy for
three men—one of them imaginary.

I caught on to Jeff’s little mania by overhearing him talking to me. I’d
be coming back from the head or stores or linear accelerator or my bunk,
and I’d hear him yakking at me. It embarrassed me the first time, how to
go back into the cabin when the other me was there. But I just swam in,
and without any transition-strain at all that I could observe Jeff
looked around at me, smiling sort of glaze-eyed, and said warmly, “Joe.
My buddy Joe. Am I glad they paired us.”

If Jeff had a major fault, as opposed to a species of nuttiness, it was
that he was strictly a speak-only-good, positive-thinking guy who always
deferred to me. Even idolized me, if you can imagine that. He’d give me
such fulsome praise I’d be irked ten times an orbit.

Another thing that helped me catch on was that he always called the
other me Joseph.

                  *       *       *       *       *

At first I thought the whole thing might be a gag, or maybe a deliberate
way of letting off steam against me without violating his
always-a-sweet-guy code—like happy husbands cursing in the bathroom—but
then came the scrambled eggs.

I’d slept late and when I squinted into the cabin there was Jeff
hovering over a plate of yellow fluff and shaking his finger at my empty
seat and saying, “Dammit, Joseph, eat your scrambled eggs, I cooked ’em
’specially for you,” and when he crawfished out toward the galley a
couple seconds later he was saying, “Now you start on those eggs,
Joseph, before I get back.”

I thought for a bit and then I slid into my place and polished them off.

When he floated in with the coffee he gave me another of those
glaze-eyed God-fearing looks—but just a mite disappointed, I thought—and
said, “Dammit, Joe, you’re perfect! You always clean your plate.”

Apparently when I was there, Joseph just didn’t exist for Jeff. And vice
versa. It was sort of eerie, especially with the hum of space in my ears
like a seashell and nobody else for five million miles.

Beginning with the scrambled eggs, I discovered that Jeff didn’t exactly
idolize Joseph—or even take with him the attitude of “My buddy can do no
wrong,” like he did with me. I overheard him criticizing Joseph.
Reasonably at first; then I heard him chewing him out—next bullying him.

It made me wistful, that last, thinking how good it would feel to be
full-bloodedly cursed to my face once in a while instead of all the
sweetness and light. And right there I got the idea for some amateur
therapy, Shaula-Deva help me.

I waited for a moment when we were both relaxed and then I said, “Jeff,
the trouble with you is you’re too nice. You ought to criticize things
more. For a starter, criticize me. Tell me my faults. Go ahead.”

He flushed a little and said, “Dammit, Joe, how can I? You’re perfect!”

“No man is perfect, Jeff,” I told him solemnly, feeling pretty foolish.

“But you’re my buddy I always can trust,” he protested, squirming a bit.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk this way.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

“Jeff, you can’t trust anybody too far,” I said. “Even good guys can do
bad things. When I was a boy there was a kid named Harry I practically
worshipped. We lived on a pioneer world of Fomalhaut that had good snow,
and we’d hitch rides with our sleds off little airscrew planes taking
off. We’d each have a long white line on his sled and loop it beforehand
around the plane’s tail-gear and back to the sled. Then we’d hide. As
soon as the pilot got aboard we’d jump on our sleds and each grab the
free end of his line and have one comet of a ride, until the plane took
off. Then we’d quick let go.

“Well, one frosty morning I let go and nothing happened, except I
started to rise. Harry had tied the free end of my line tight to my
sled.

“I could have just rolled off, I suppose, but I didn’t want to lose my
sled or my line either. Luckily I had a sheath knife handy and I used
it. I even made a whizeroo of a landing. But ever afterwards my feelings
toward Harry—”

“Stop it, please, Joe!” Jeff interrupted, very red in the face and
shaking a little. “That boy Harry was utterly evil. And I don’t want to
hear any more about this, or anything like it, ever again. Understand?”

I told him sure I did. Heck, I could see I’d gone the wrong way about
it. I even begged his pardon.

After that I just sweated it out. But I found I couldn’t spend much time
on books or my thoughts, I’d keep listening for what Jeff was saying to
Joseph. And sometimes when he’d pause for Joseph’s reply I’d catch
myself waiting for the imaginary me to make one. So I took to staying in
the same cabin as Jeff as much as I could.

That seemed to make him uncomfortable after a while, though he pretended
to glory in it. He’d ask me questions like, “Tell me about life, Joe. So
I’ll know how to handle myself if we’re ever parted.”

But the weariest things come to an end, even duty orbits around Shaula.
And so the time came when we were servicing our last beacon—outside the
planet Shaula-by, it was. Next step would be a fast interplanetary orbit
for Base at Shaula-near.

I was out working—on a safety line of course, but suit-jetting around
more than I needed to, just for the pure joy of it, so that my suit tank
was almost dry. I’d switched my suit radio off for a bit, because,
working in space, Jeff had taken to just gabbling to me nervously all
the time—maybe because he figured there couldn’t be room for Joseph with
him in his suit.

[Illustration: space walk]

I finished up and paused for a last look at the ship. She was sweetly
slim from her conical living quarters to the taper-tail of her ionic
jet, but she had more junk on her than an amateur asteroid prospector
hangs on his suit the first time out. Every duty orbit, fifty scientists
come with permission from the Commandant to hang some automatic research
gadget on the hull. The craziest one this time was a huge flattened band
of gold-plated aluminum, little more than foil-thick, attached crosswise
just in front of the tail and sticking out twenty feet on each side. I
don’t know what it was there for—maybe to measure the effects of space
on a Moebius strip—but it looked like a wedding ring that had been
stepped on. So Jeff and I called it Trompled Love.

But in spite of the junk, the ship looked mighty sweet against the
saffron steppes and baby-blue seas of Shaula-by with Shaula herself, old
Lambda Scorpii, flaming warm and wildly beyond, and with “United States”
standing out big as life on the ship’s living quarters. United States of
Shaula, of course.

                  *       *       *       *       *

I was almost dreaming out there, thinking how it hadn’t been such a
terrible duty after all, when I saw the ship begin to slide past Shaula.

Poking out of her tail, ghostlier than the flame over a cafe royale, was
the evil blue glow of her jet. In an instant I’d guessed exactly what
had happened and was beating myself on the head for not having
anticipated it. Joseph had swum into the cabin right after Jeff. And
Jeff had yelled at him. “It’s about time, you lazy lunkhead! Everything
secure? Okay, I’m switching on the beam!” And I’d probably brought the
whole thing about by telling him that damfool sled story—and then
sticking to him so close he just had to get rid of me, so as to be with
Joseph.

Meanwhile the ship was gathering speed in her sneaky way and the wavy
safety line between me and the airlock was starting to straighten.

As you know, an ionic jet’s only good space-to-space. It’s not for
heavy-G work; ours could deliver only one-half G at max and was doing
less than one-quarter now. Which meant the ship was starting off slower
than most ground cars.

But the beam would fire for hours, building up to a terminal velocity of
fifteen miles a second and carrying the ship far, far away from lonely
Joe Hansen.

Except that we were tied together, of course.

I was very grateful then for the weeks I’d practiced space-roping,
though I’d never won any prizes with it, because without thinking I
started to whip my line very carefully. And on the third try, just as it
was getting pretty straight, I managed to settle it in a notch in one
outside end of Trompled Love. After that I took up strain on the line as
gradually as I could, letting it friction through my gloves for as long
as I could before putting all my mass on it—because although one-quarter
G isn’t much, it piles up in a few seconds to quite a jerk. I spread
that jerk into several little ones.

Well, the last jerk came and the line didn’t part and Trompled Love
didn’t crumple much, though the Shaula-light showed me several very
nasty-looking wrinkles in it. And there I was trailing along after the
ship, though out to one side, and feeling about as much strain on the
line as if I were hanging from a cliff on the moon, and knowing I was
going about five feet a second faster every second.

                  *       *       *       *       *

My idea wanting to be out to the side (and bless my impulses for
realizing it was the one important thing!) was to keep my line and
myself out of the beam. An ionic jet doesn’t look hot from the side. But
from straight on it’s a lot brighter than an arc light—it’s almost as
tight as a laser beam—and I didn’t want to think about what it would do
to me, even trailing as I was a hundred yards aft.

Though of course long before it had ruined me, it would have
disintegrated my line.

My being out to the side was putting the ship off balance on its jet and
presumably throwing its course toward base and Shaula-near little by
little into error. But that was the least of my worries, believe me.

I thought for a bit and remembered I could talk to Jeff over my suit
radio. I decided to try it, not without misgivings.

I tongued it on and said, “Jeff. Oh, Jeff. I’m out here. You forgot me.”

I was going to say some more, but just then he broke in, angry and so
loud it made my helmet ring, with, “Joseph! Did you hear anything then?”
A pause, then, “Well, clean the wax out of your ears, stupid, because I
did! I think we got an enemy out there!”

Another and longer pause, while my blood curdled a bit thicker, then,
“Well, okay, Joseph, I’ll go along with you this time. But if I hear the
enemy once more, I’m going to suit up and take a rifle and sit in the
airlock door until I’ve potted him.”

I tongued the radio off quick, fearful I’d sneeze or something. I had
only one faint consolation: Joseph seemed to be a bit on my side, or
maybe he was just lazy.

I thought some more, a mite frantic-like now, and after a while I said
to myself, _Been going five minutes now, so I’m doing about a quarter of
a mile a second—that’s fifteen miles a minute, wow!—but out here
velocities are purely relative. My suit does a little better than a
quarter G full on. Okay. I’ll jet to the ship._

No sooner said than acted on—I was beginning to rely too much on impulse
now. The suit jet killed my false weight at once and I was off, mighty
careful to aim myself along my line or a little outside it, so as not to
wander over into the beam.

Pretty soon the tail and Trompled Love were getting noticeably bigger.

Then a lot bigger.

Then my suit fuel ran out.

                  *       *       *       *       *

I’d built up enough velocity so that I was still gaining on the ship for
a few seconds. In fact, I almost made it. My gauntlet was about to close
on Trompled Love when the ship started slowly to pull away. Oh, it was
frustrating!

I remembered then what I should have a lot earlier, and grabbed for the
ship-end of my line so as not to lose the distance I’d gained—and in my
haste I knocked it away from me. The only good thing was that I didn’t
knock it out of the notch.

Now I was losing space to the ship faster and faster. Yet all I could do
was reel in the me-end of the line as fast as I could. Suddenly the
whole line straightened and gave me a bigger jerk than I’d intended. I
could see Trompled Love crumple a little. And I was swinging just a bit,
like a pendulum.

I used a glove-friction to spread the rest of the jerk, but still I was
at the end of my line and Trompled Love had crumpled a bit more before I
was coasting along with the ship again.

My side of Trompled Love was bent back maybe twenty degrees. The eye of
the beam shone at me from the tail like a pale blue moon. For quite a
while it brightened and dimmed as I tick-tock swung.

Meanwhile I was beating my skull for not having thought earlier of the
obvious slow-but-safe way of doing it, instead of that lunatic
suit-jetting. I once heard a psychologist say we’re mental slaves to
power-machinery and I guess he had something.

Clearly all I had to do was climb hand-over-hand up the line to the
ship. At moon gravity that would be easy. If I should get tired I only
had to clamp on and rest.

So I waited for my emotions to settle a bit, and then I reached along
the line and gave a smooth, medium-strength heave.

Maybe there is something to ESP—at least in a devilish sort of
way—because I picked the exact moment when Jeff decided to feed the beam
more juice.

There was a _big_ jerk and I saw Trompled Love crumple a lot, so that it
was pointing more than forty-five degrees aft.

Now there was a steady pull on the line like I was hanging from a cliff
on Mars. And the eye of the beam was a blue moon not so pale—in fact
more like a sizzling blue sun seen through a light fog.

After that I just didn’t have the heart to try the climb again. Once I
started to draw myself up, very cautious, but on the first handhold I
seemed to feel along the line Trompled Love crumpling some more and I
quit for good.

I figured that at this boost Jeff would be up to proper speed for
Shaula-near in less than two hours. Well, I had suit-oxy and
refrigeration for longer than that.

Of course if Jeff decided not to cut the beam on schedule, maybe with
the idea of eloping with Joseph to the next solar system—well, I’d
discover then whether suit-oxy running out would stimulate me to try the
climb again alongside the beam.

(Or I could wait until he got her up near the speed of light, when by
the General Theory of Relativity the line ought to be shortened enough
so that I could hop aboard if I were sudden enough about it.... _No, Joe
Hansen, you quit that_, I told myself, _you don’t want to die with the
gears in your head all stripped_.)

Thinking about the beam got me wondering exactly how close I was to it.
I unshipped my suit-antenna and pulled it out to full length—about eight
feet—and fished around with it in the direction of the beam.

Nothing seemed to happen to it. It didn’t glow or anything; but I
suddenly got a little electric shock, and when I drew it back I could
see three inches of the tip were gone and the next couple inches were
pitted. So much for curiosity.

Next I reattached the antenna to my suit—which turned out to be a lot
more troublesome job than unshipping it—and tongued on the radio with
the idea of listening in on Jeff.

                  *       *       *       *       *

Right away I heard him say, “Wake up, Joseph! I’m going to tell you your
faults again. I got a new way of cataloguing them—chronologically. Begin
with childhood. You hitched sled-rides on airplanes. That was bad,
Joseph, that was against the law. If the man had caught you doing it, if
he’d seen you whizzing along there back of him, he’d have had every
right to shoot you down in cold blood. Life is hard, Joseph, life is
merciless....”

Right then I felt a tickle in my throat.

I tried quick to shut off the radio, but it is remarkably difficult to
tongue anything when you have a cough coming. It came out finally in a
series of squeaky glubs.

“Snap to, Joseph, and listen hard,” I heard Jeff say. “It’s started
again. Animal noises this time. You know if they make spacesuits for
black panthers, Joseph?”

I tongued off the radio quick, before the follow-up cough came.

I didn’t have anything left to do now but think. So I thought about
Jeff—how there seemed to be one Jeff who hated my guts and another Jeff
who idolized me and another Jeff sneaking around in a jungle of
sabertooth tigers and ... heck, there was probably a good twenty Jeffs
sitting around inside his skull, some in light, some in darkness, but
all of them watching each other and arguing together all the time. It
was an odd way to think of a personality—a sort of perpetual
_Kaffeeklatsch_—but it had its points. Maybe some of the little guys
weren’t Jeffs at all, but his father and mother and a caveman ancestor
or two and maybe some great-great-grandchild butting in now and then
from the future....

Well, I saw that speculation was getting out of hand so, taking a tip
from Jeff, I began to count my own sins.

It took quite a while. Some of them were pretty interesting reading,
almost enough to take my mind off my predicament, but I tired of it
finally.

Then I began to count the stars.

It was really the longest two hours plus I ever spent, except maybe the
time my first big girl disappeared. But I don’t know. The experiences
are hard to compare.

I was about halfway through the stars when I went weightless. For an
awful instant I thought the line had parted at last, but then I looked
toward the ship and saw the bright little moon was gone.

                  *       *       *       *       *

Right away I gave a couple of tugs on the line and began to close slowly
with the tail. No trouble at all—actually my only difficulty was
resisting the temptation to build up more momentum, which would have
resulted in a crash landing.

I softed-in on Trompled Love okay, except there was a big spark. The
beam must have charged me good. Then I worked my way to the true hull.
After that there were handholds.

Finally I got to a porthole in the living quarters, and I looked in, and
there was Jeff jawing away at my empty seat. I put my helmet against the
hull and very faintly I heard him say, “Joseph, I’m still worried about
the enemy. I keep thinking I hear him or it. I’m going to make us some
coffee, so we’ll stay real alert. You break out the guns.”

I don’t suppose anyone ever moved quite so quietly _and_ so quickly in a
spacesuit as I did then. I got in the airlock, I got her up to pressure,
I got unsuited—and all in less than five minutes, I’m sure. Maybe less
than four.

I swam to the cabin. It was empty. I slid into my seat just as Jeff
floated in with the coffee.

He went real pale when he spotted me. I saw there might be some trouble
this time with the Joseph-Joe transition. But I knew the only way to
play it was real cool. I nested there in my seat as if I hadn’t a worry
or urge in the world—though my nerves and throat were just screaming for
a squirt of that coffee.

“Joe!” he squeaked at last. “Migod, you gave me an awful scare. I
thought you’d done a bunk, I thought, you’d spaced yourself, I kept
picturing you outside the ship.”

“Why no, Jeff,” I answered quietly. “One way or another, I’ve been in
this seat ever since take-off.”

His brow wrinkled as he thought about that.

I looked at the board and noticed that our terminal trip-velocity read
fifteen miles a second. My, my.

Finally Jeff said, “That’s right, you have.” And then, just a shade
unhappily, “I might have known. You always tell the truth, Joe—you’re
perfect.”


                                  END



                           TRANSCRIBER’S NOTE


This etext was produced from Worlds of Tomorrow, August 1963. Extensive
research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this
publication was renewed.

Punctuation has been normalized. Spelling and hyphenation have been
retained as they were in the original book.

Italicized phrases are presented by surrounding the text with
_underscores_.





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