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´╗┐Title: Flight Perilous!
Author: Noll, Ray C.
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 "Flight Perilous!" ***

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                           Flight Perilous!

                            By Ray C. Noll

               As Captain of the ship, Hiller knew full
           responsibility was his, if he ordered Marship III
           through the uncharted asteroid belt--to death!...

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                               May 1955
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


As Fred Hiller slid back the door to his quarters in answer to their
knock, he found them lined up tensely against the bulkheads of the
companionway.

It was the best assembly area the jammed ship could offer. Here the
commander with a short turn of his head could meet any pair of eyes
in the nine-man crew. They had met here before, in a more friendly
atmosphere, soon after acceleration stopped and once for planning. He
considered it more effective for personal communication than the ship
speaker system.

But this assembly was different: it was their idea. They wanted a
decision. They stood without moving, waiting for him to speak. Their
discussions by this time probably had narrowed the alternatives to two.

As commander, of course, he was paid to make decisions on Marship III.
And he began to realize by their faces which alternative the consensus
expected. Their expressions indicated that in a degree every damn one
of them was scared, scared enough to unitize their thinking.

Phil Bleck was the one fishing for an impressive opening. He moved
forward to face the ship commander with hands pressed on his hips
defiantly. This was _the_ Phil Bleck, young man genius of United
Nuclear, pressured aboard Marship III as nuclear engineer through a
couple of Senators and the Secretary of Defense. Oh, he was good, as
long as he wasn't under fire. So good posterity required him and he
was obligated to save his skin. Hiller had expected Bleck would be the
spokesman.

"We want to know if you decided yet, Hiller," Bleck nearly mocked.

"_I'd_ have called this assembly if I had," Fred Hiller replied,
emphasizing a commanderish tone of voice.

"Then you haven't." Bleck turned to the others significantly and
brought back with him a harsher gaze, which he leveled at the
commander. "Most of us here think there's only one sane way out. A
couple will go along with any decision. But most of us, including me,
want to turn back. Isn't that right?" He turned again to the men for
support. Some nodded.

"We figured the chances if we keep on course," Bleck went on, breathing
a little heavier. "They're three to one against making it. I don't
like those odds, Hiller,"--his upper lip was curling a little--"and we
didn't agree to odds like that when we volunteered. With what we know
now, we can plan another trip and avoid this mess next time. That way,
you'd only waste time and money; going ahead, we waste that plus the
priceless knowledge of these scientists, the best the States has to
offer."

While Bleck was blowing off, Hiller had studied each man in turn. They
hardly represented a crew, though the men had specific jobs to perform
during takeoff, transit, and setdown. They represented specialists who
would bring back for the first time authoritative reports on Mars--the
first two ships had not returned....

Marship III, several times the size of the first ones, but not
one-hundredth as much publicized, had been under construction since the
first Marship attempts.

The crew technicians Hiller possessed on the trip were three. And as he
found the eyes of each, he realized they were not with Bleck.

Art Eastburn, an all-around engineer, whose capacity continued to amaze
Hiller, and who had helped build the Marships.

Dave Hollender, astronavigator, bucking for a space ride ever since the
moon-missile days; a cool thinker, who had the solar system duplicated
and in accurate motion inside his skull.

Wendell Merrick, electronics engineer, who supervised the wiring of
Marship III and was sensitive to the click of every relay in the almost
fully automatic craft.

These were with him, which fundamentally meant they were willing to
continue on course if he so decided. The others had succumbed to fear,
and they recognized no authority nor purpose: their choice was a
reactionary Earthward course.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Dammitohell, Hiller, we want an answer!" The commander's silence had
edged Bleck better than words. "The issue can't be plainer. Let's get
this indecision over with and give the orders to circle back! Or do you
want us to end up as dead as the first two Mars attempts!"

"Again, Bleck, I haven't decided," said Commander Hiller coolly. "I'm
going to take more photographs with the Newtonian. What comes out
of that will affect any decision I have to make. But since we're so
concerned with decisions, Bleck, have you decided what you'll do if I
should order us through?"

The commander's unexpected and pointed directness left Bleck blinking
long enough for Eastburn to cut in before any heated rejoinder by
the young nuclear engineer. Eastburn, because of his prominence and
experience, held the respect of most of the men.

"When I volunteered for this jaunt, I also agreed to follow the
commander's orders," Eastburn said firmly. "He may be wrong, but I
could just as well be wrong in thinking he is. We're after unity of
action, so at least something gets done in some direction."

Hiller smiled inwardly at that choice gem of rationality because
the crew's emotional perception made of it no more than a granule
of gravel. They would have to be appealed to emotionally; under the
pressure, they understood nothing else. The stir of resentment evoked
by Eastburn's words was dying down.

Bleck had started to say something, but Hiller's voice drowned him
easily with its overpowering bass.

"Then, let's put it this way. Suppose I decide to hold course and
you--ah, let's say--'persuade' me to circle back. When we all testify
at the hearing, I hope you don't expect me to protect you. I'll tell
them exactly what was behind the mutiny, your yellow vertebrae, and
what would that do to your reputations?" Hiller had to shout the last
words, because Bleck was screaming interruptions.

"It's your word against ours!" yelled Bleck into Hiller's sudden
silence. "It's your word against ours that you didn't crack and blame
it on us!"

The commander lifted his eyebrows. What perfect projection!

"I guess somebody in a spot like this could crack, couldn't he?" Hiller
purposely addressed the remark to Bleck's followers. Most of them were
staring uncertainly at Bleck's perspiration-soaked shirt, his white
face, the hunching shoulders, and moving wordless lips.

"For the time being, let's leave it this way," said the commander
authoritatively. "Unless conditions improve, we're turning back. If
the odds seem later about even, we're going through. In the meantime,
we'll make these preparations just in case we can chance the clusters."

Possibly the instructions he gave sounded casual and
spur-of-the-moment; actually, they were the careful product of his
close figuring and planning, made during the last eight hours. It was
more a recitation, yet he had to make it seem ad libbed. No one yet
knew he had resolved on what data he had at present to hold the ship's
Marsward course.

       *       *       *       *       *

Even as he energized the lock mechanism on the door of his quarters,
Fred Hiller began to tremble, a violent physical reaction of taut
and unrested nerves. It had been capped by the crisis of the crew's
resistance, a matter hardly settled, mainly delayed.

He fell into his bunk and let the shakes take over. Right then they
felt ghastly, but he realized he'd feel better when they stopped. As
they subsided, he tried to keep the problem out of his mind. He was too
tired for that; the pictures returned again and again in front of him
mostly beyond his control.

He stopped fighting them, and let the pictures progress. He justified
the surrender with the thought he might learn something, might conceive
a better protective device against the myriad missiles of the Belt.

The same picture always started it--Lord, was it only a few hours
ago?--when Dave, the ship's astronavigator, called him to the
observation bubble....

Dave spent his time at the compact reflector, peering into his
frequently changed eyepieces and setting up one photograph after
another. The instrument was his own design, with a revolving optical
flat tempered for space temperature that could be suspended out from
the ship and rotated, effecting nearly a 270-degree field for the
telescope.

"Take a look," Dave said. At the time, he thought there had been a
slight edge to the astrogator's voice.

"Don't tell me you brought me up here again to admire colors in another
variable," he had grumbled.

"You won't admire this a bit," Dave replied.

"Where're we looking?" he asked, slipping into the seat behind the
eyepiece assembly.

"Space," Dave murmured. He was sighting in the finder and made azimuth
adjustments.

When the field slid to rest Hiller viewed once more the gripping
vastness of black wantonly perforated with intensely glaring stars. It
was impossible to study the closer ones; their brightness and energy
coursed pain along his optic nerve. Rather, he let his gaze wander
over the distant sprinkling of light that marked milestones toward
infinity.

"Notice that hazy part in the upper field," Dave was saying.

He found it, a faint stellar gauze wisping before the stars. It
appeared to be moving. But that kind of rapid movement was out of the
question; it would have to be too close.

"Now, I'm tripling the power," the astrogator informed him.

With the new eyepiece in place Hiller noted that the haze had condensed
into fine dust, each particle of which contrasted dimly against space
compared to the stars over which it was super-imposed. And it _did_
move! Part of it already was creeping into the invisible curve of the
eyepiece rim.

He pulled back from the telescope to look at Dave's grim features.
The quickening in his stomach meant anxiety, he recognized it easily.
Anxiety over what? How could he have known then what it meant?
Subawarely, he must have.

"What the hell is it, Dave?"

Hollender handed him photographs out of a transparent file cabinet.
"Here're some blowups under high power. Visible proof from these, but
nothing highly accurate from the spectography."

"But this is asteroid stuff," Hiller nodded at the photographs. "They
look like pinhead star clusters."

"That's what they are, clusters," Dave replied seriously. "Fragments of
planetoids, evidently, revolving around common centers of gravity."

"What're they doing around here? I mean, are they strays from the
Asteroid Belt or something?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Dave swept the back of his hand over a row of astronomical texts. "If
you can find any mention of 'em in there, I wish you'd let me know. And
they're a long way from the Asteroids."

"Well, you're the damn astronomer in this blowout," frowned Hiller
impatiently. "What's a good guess on 'em?"

"I don't know how good it is, but my guess is we're running into an
inner Asteroid Belt. I'll bet the first two flights ended here...."

"A _what_?"

"Inner Asteroid Belt," Dave stated. "A puny one, compared to the one
outside Mars, but nonetheless a Belt. Uncharted, and deadly."

Tension spread along Hiller's back. "We've had no advance data on crap
like that, not one bit."

"We have now," Dave shrugged.

"Why didn't one of the first trips miss this?"

"This Inner Belt orbits, too. Clustered minor particles with low
reflectivity may be a phenomenon found only in scattered sections
of the Belt. The first Marships happened to hit them, just like us.
Certainly no light instrument on Earth I know of could pick them up.
They'd move out too fast to register on a plate. So, they're our
babies."

The commander remarked soberly, "You evidently already know what this
means."

"It's a lousy break.... The first ships must have tried to get
through...."

Hiller brought his palms together to bolster the searching of his
mind. He was surprised to find them moist. "What about the size of the
particles in these clusters?"

"From what I've calculated, they're fruitstand variety, for the most
part."

"Watermelons?" grunted Hiller, pessimistically.

"A few, maybe. But they're not cranberries, either."

"Density?"

"Roughly eight or nine. I can get that figure closer later on."

Hiller became irritated at himself for letting what started to be short
silence grow longer. The astronomer may have followed his thoughts; he
handed him a long photograph.

"Here's one I made at 150 diameters of the general area of the Inner
Belt we're due to pass through on our present course."

Hiller winced at the sight: the fuzzy glow thinned in the foreground
and thickening, paraded through the middle distance, still stretching
on until it faded from the lens' capability.

"We'll have to revise some of our theories about the formation of the
Outer Belt," Dave was saying. "It's apparently much deeper and wider
than anyone's guessed. Looks to me like a dead star went through our
system, breaking up a planet and maybe peeling a little off itself.
That would account perhaps for the retrograde orbit--"

"Dave, I don't give a good goddam about any dead star!" Hiller exploded
his tension. "How far apart are these space fruit?"

"A mile here, a couple of miles there. I really haven't figured that
aspect yet."

"Well, figure it." The commander jumped down from the observation seat.
"Get George, the psychologist, he types fast. Compile what data you
have, have him type it, send it down to me. I'll be in my quarters. And
hurry, man, or they'll be more than stars dead around here."

He slammed open the entrance panel to the observatory. By that time he
had cooled enough to pause and throw Dave a half-smile and limp salute.

"Thanks for the wide-awake work. Now, get busy."

       *       *       *       *       *

His watch showed he had been drowsing for more than an hour. The
pictures had exhausted themselves, and his head felt clearer. He had
needed that rest badly.

Sitting up, he reached into the bunk cupboard and poured a drink.
Now that Bleck was temporarily emotionally neutralized and the
brains uncertain, it was time to follow up with a little rationality
to substantiate his position. Anyway, he wanted verification and
cross-checking of his plans. He _could_ be way off base.

Over the ship's speaker system he summoned Merrick, Eastburn, and
Hollender to his quarters. They arrived promptly, almost too promptly,
as if they had been waiting. It was probably obvious to them, as it was
to him, the problem called for more than one man's calculation.

Nothing was said while he splashed out drinks. The men spread over
the floor where they could find room and left him the bunk. They were
evidently going to let him say something first, so he didn't disappoint
them.

"I don't think I'm surprising any of you when I say we're pushing
through the clusters, regardless of Bleck's nerves," he began. "What's
probably on your mind is my motive. You may understandably feel Bleck,
no matter how badly he expressed his point of view, may have something.
Sure, maybe my pride is driving me ahead. Maybe I'm being as emotional
in wanting to buck the clusters as Bleck is in wanting to run.

"I'll let you judge that for yourselves after you hear what's back
of those orders for preparation I gave. First I want to hear from
Hollender. What's the latest and most accurate you can give me now
on density of the particles, particle proximity, and our relative
velocities?"

The astronavigator unfolded a paper taken from his shirt pocket. "Well,
I have three results on density because of observation problems. I'll
give you the average. Mean density comes out to 7.8, lower than I first
figured. Roughly on proximity, 1800 yards, and that's more bunched than
I estimated. They're clustered, and that's about it," he shrugged.

"Now, on relative velocities," he continued, "I could get it pretty
close, knowing ours is a constant power-off glide. We exceed
the clusters' orbital velocity by three m.p.s. But our angle of
intersection with the Belt will reduce any actual impact to about two
m.p.s. In other words, particles would be overtaking us at about that
speed."

Hiller nodded. "That's about the way I worked it out. One more thing,
Dave: the depth of the cluster band."

"The part we have to worry about's only a little over a
hundred-thousand miles in depth. The rest is scattered asteroid strays
and shouldn't bother us. We'll be three hours maybe in transit through
the stuff."

       *       *       *       *       *

The men in the cramped commander's quarters stirred slightly,
wincing at the transit time. The other figures could not be readily
personalized; but each of them could visualize himself sweating out
three hours of stellar bombardment, the effects of which would not be
known accurately until the Belt was entered. And each could visualize
ultimately Marship III as a whirling, shredded mass, spouting synthetic
atmosphere, and glowing redly from rampant and uncontrolled fusion.

"On the fuel?" the commander asked of Eastburn. "Anything new on that?"

"Deceleration definitely out," the engineer replied firmly. "We
couldn't afford the drain needed later to catch Mars on her way around.
From what I gather of the problem, acceleration wouldn't do anyway, but
that's even more impossible. It would increase setdown consumption."

"Hollender and I've calculated the fuel drain required to
circumnavigate the clusters. It came close, close enough to make you
want to cry. But not close enough. The wall of the clusters happens
to be too spread out and in near-perfect line with our point of
rendezvous with Mars. If we'd spotted them sooner, we could have
hurdled 'em with a few spurts of the guide jets. By the time we got it
figured, we'd already passed the critical point by 23 minutes. That's
how close it was.

"The fuel was figured for this trip with very little margin, and we
used some margin already because of that lovely instrument error on
takeoff. I'd be a lot happier if we had a fusion system with fewer
limitations, like the ones they're working on now."

"We agreed to this firing system and realized its risks--all because
we'd rather not wait for the ones in development," Hiller reminded.
"We're comfortably powered, anyway, provided we follow our original
firing schedule. So, that means we enter the Inner Belt at our present
velocity without changing course."

Merrick spoke up, ruffling the red hairs that partially covered his
shiny scalp. "Back track here a minute, you boys went over that rapid.
I think I get everything but the velocity business. We connect with the
Belt at two m.p.s.? Sounds like optimistic but bad arithmetic to me."
Screwing up his mouth, he squinted at Hollender.

Hiller found himself laughing, and it felt good. "Pardon our
dynamics-centered minds," he said. He unsnapped his ballpoint from his
pocket and placed it over the air blower grill.

"Say the horizontal braces on this grill running parallel are the
clusters' paths at 12 m.p.s. My ballpoint's the ship at 15, traveling
in the same direction as the clusters. In that case, _we_ would collide
with the particles, overtaking them at three m.p.s. right?"

Merrick nodded. "I see that, but--"

"Okay," Hiller went on. "Now suppose we crossed the Belt at right
angles to the paths." He moved the ballpoint straight up the grill.

"They'd sock us at 12 m.p.s.," Merrick deduced. "So, what you're
getting at is the angle--"

"The angle makes the difference," finished Hiller. "If we entered
the belt at about this angle"--he inclined the ballpoint up slightly
from the horizontal--"we'd sail through with the same velocity as
the particles. If we hit any, it would be a nudge from our transit
motion through the Belt or from their velocity or revolution, which is
probably very low."

"I get it," Merrick slapped his forehead. "Our present course cuts the
Belt at such an angle that we get bumped at two m.p.s. instead of 12."
The others nodded. He reflected a moment, adding, "So, I get a bullet
through the head at 1200 feet per second or 200 feet per second: I
still get it in the end."

"Not in this case," Hiller smiled. "There's been quite a little work
done on effects of meteor impact by the Air Force. I've got a summary
of it in the control room. Art, here, could probably tell you more
about it than I could."

       *       *       *       *       *

Eastburn hugged his knees. "Not much, I don't think," he arched an
eyebrow. "Fred's being modest, the guy who designed the meteor-scanning
device used on all Marships. I'll take the ball, though, on this one.

"Del, we've got a brute of a hull on this ship, twice as resistant as
the ones on I and II. Second, it's smooth and curved. Third, it's going
awfully fast. The studies the Air Force has been able to make so far
show that small-sized meteors either glance off a ship and disintegrate
swiftly from the excessive rotation set up from the collision, or they
explode on contact from built-up kinetic energy.

"There seems to be three types of contact explosion. Where the angle
of impact is not quite perpendicular, the particle creases the hull
and explodes along its trajectory. This is the usual situation in the
heat-generation collision and rarely harms the ship.

"Perpendicular impact, however, does the damage. At low velocities and
densities perpendicular impact craters the hull and most of the blast
effect is dispersed laterally and to the rear. At higher velocities
the particle vaporizes but the explosive force craters the hull and
shapes inward, a lot like the effect of an air gun pellet on plate
glass. Although the hull penetration may be mere pea size, blast and
compression inside can be terrific, besides the sharp shock throughout
the whole ship."

Hiller grinned. "Thanks for bringing out the situation so well, Art.
Hollender's the mathematician here, and I don't go in for formulating
odds. But I'll give odds right now on our getting through with one
perpendicular strike. Any takers?"

"That's a hell of a bet," Merrick griped. "If you lose, who's around to
collect?"

"I'm talking odds," the commander said. "Anyway, you over-estimate the
effect of a perpendicular strike. In a closed compartment it could be
rough. By leaving every compartment hatch open, the compression would
dissipate throughout the ship with less damage."

Art Eastburn frowned. "How about the air supply, Fred? With no
compartmentations, one big enough hole and most of the ship's air
supply could escape before we could patch up."

"Good point," Hiller replied, "but if the hole were as large as you
may be imagining, the blast pressure would probably blow out ports and
open seams, leaving us in hopeless shape. The smaller holes, on the
other hand, could be patched, the kind we expect. I have reason to
believe that won't be a problem. A hunch, maybe."

"I guess we can let you get by with one hunch," Eastburn smiled wryly.
"But I can see what you're getting at on the odds you mentioned.
Considering Hollender's estimates on the spacing of this fruit-sized
stuff, I might not take your bet."

"Another factor," the commander noted, finishing his drink. "You don't
go through a barbed-wire fence standing up."

"Granted," agreed Merrick. "Are you giving again with that ballpoint?"

"Last time," promised Hiller. He held the pen over the grill, pointing
it at the approximate angle the ship was to take through the Inner
Belt. "That's the way we're heading now. We've set the gyros to keep
our nose in front, for the time being, to satisfy tradition and
maintain a consistent sighting base.

"Our main problem is avoiding perpendicular strikes and encouraging
oblique ones. The position of the ship in relation to the particle
direction becomes important, then." He moved his ballpoint at nearly
a 45-degree angle to the grill lines. "We won't head in the course
indicated by the nose, but we'll gyro the ship to this position. That
way we obtain the maximum deflection."

The men were silent momentarily. Merrick suddenly sat up straight.

"It seems to me pointing the nose right at the asteroid flow would be
better."

"You forget our transit velocity, Del," the commander observed. "We'd
be chancing running into as many particles perpendicularly with the
ship lengthwise at two m.p.s. as we would miss by pointing our nose at
those catching up with us at about the same speed."

Merrick threw up his hands. "Okay, okay," he surrendered. "All I hope
is you math boys have it figured right."

"We're running it through the calculator to round off the rough edges,"
Hollender assured him.

The silence grew until the commander stood up and asked. "So, on the
basis of what we've covered, am I too much of a gambler in going ahead?"

The others had risen and Eastburn was the first to offer his hand,
the others following. They spoke at the same time their assurance
and backing. But Hiller's thoughts were already dwelling on the most
bothersome variable of all--Phil Bleck.

When he discovered from Hollender before he left that Bleck had no idea
when the ship would enter the Inner Belt, the variable began to assume
minor proportions.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Test drill 30 minutes! Test drill 30 minutes!"

The commander adjusted the mike closer to his chest and turned up the
volume on the portable transmission unit for the ship speaker system.
Under the coming circumstances he would need as much freedom as
possible.

The panel before him gradually lighted up as the stations checked in.
They were in no hurry since he had informed them in the last meeting
that the Inner Belt was still six hours away. That had provided Bleck
with enough time to map what counteraction he had in mind to oppose a
decision for continuing Marsward.

The commander noticed with satisfaction the colored lights wink on
over the board, each with its own vital significance. The row to the
left on the panel, half alight, indicated locked-open compartment
doors. Near the bottom a circular array showed Eastburn was prepared to
activate the gyros from the mechanical control center of the ship. The
green bulb newly burning indicated Merrick had completed his check of
the electronics at the control center in the next compartment to the
commander's and was standing by.

The blue glow at the top of the board was Hollender at his observation
post. The fire control posts--two, stationed near the ship's
center--blinked in almost together. Wayne Somerset, chemical engineer,
headed the patch crew made up of the zoologist and archeologist, the
team which was the last to signal readiness.

It lacked 12 minutes until drill time.

Hiller switched on the monitors for the nuclear chambers which he
lighted up by activating remote spotlights. He had some trouble
adjusting the scanning in one of the monitors for the fuel
compartments, but it came in clear by 10 minutes until drill.

"Test drill 10 minutes!" he announced. "I want an oral report on these
items from your stations: suits, rations, extra oxygen portables, first
aid and anti-ray kits."

The reports came in affirmative, and Hiller relaxed slightly. The
phrase "shipshape" kept coming into his mind but he rejected it as
histrionic. But maybe that was the word for the whole situation, with
his being guilty of plenty of hamming. Come to think of it, it was more
like TV fantascience than anything else.

"Bleck," he broadcast, "leave George at the fire station and report
for special orders."

He suspected Bleck was sulking through the preparations and would do
George little good. The best place for Bleck was with him, suspecting
what he did about the man's reactions.

"Test drill five minutes," he was announcing as a sullen Bleck arrived
at master control.

"Art, better adjust the pumps to lower air pressure. Somerset, plug in
the patch kits for molten. Fire crews, uncap and pressurize your mist
tanks."

Hiller swung in his chair to face Bleck. "Sit down," he said. He caught
the puzzlement on the man's face over the realistic degree of the last
orders he gave.

"Adjust the magnetizing on your boots to high, unless you have to
travel," he continued. "Unbind emergency deceleration straps and stand
by."

Bleck's color faded with the commander's last words. "Why the hell all
the realism, Hiller? Your rank puffing you up?"

Keeping his eyes on Bleck, the commander went on, "One minute to test
drill. Only this isn't a test drill. Repeat, this is _not_ a test
drill. It's the real thing. We are now into the Belt. Repeat, this is
the real thing."

Bleck clawed over the bulkheads of master control's cubicle searching
tactilely for the deceleration straps, his eyes riveted blankly on
Hiller.

"I take complete responsibility for this deception," Hiller spoke to
the crew, "and I can justify it. Yes, Hollender, Eastburn, and Merrick
were in on it. They also agree with me that our chances of getting
through are good as long as everyone does his job. You should be glad I
saved you worrying.

"We're inside the Belt now and the way to get out alive is to stay
alert and follow the drill plan. I'll keep you informed from master
control how we're doing without pulling punches. Let's have nothing on
the intercom unless it's strictly business."

       *       *       *       *       *

Bleck had found the straps, but he had not fastened any. Instead he
crouched, burrowing his head into one of the pads. He was curling up in
a knot and sobbing.

"I figured you'd break," Hiller mumbled more to himself than to the
quasi-comatic nuclear engineer. Breaking, this was the best place for
him. He wouldn't exactly boost the others' morale were he around them.
Nor with Hiller's dirty pool, could Bleck get the chance now to lower
morale enough to push over a mutiny.

"Art, let's gyro her to the transit angle," he broadcast. "I'll
cross-check on my indicator up here."

A faint vibration seeped through his feet as the electric motors
revved. Watching the unmoving star-scape through the front ports, he
waited for the slow shifting of the field. The effect was as if the
heavens had begun an expansive revolution about the ship, the stars
drifting lazily from their familiar positions in the ports.

The commander watched the positional needle creep away from the
arbitrary course zero. It swept beyond 10 and slowed at 15, halting a
little beyond 16.

"I show 16.2," Hiller communicated.

"Check," Art answered on the intercom.

There it was, physically as much as any commander could do under the
circumstances. The rest was largely luck--and, of course, how fast he
acted to offset any bad luck.

Hiller took the time to explain to the crew the tactics planned in
traversing the Belt.

"You guys are gamblers or you wouldn't have volunteered for this
commute," he concluded. "The only difference with the hand you're
holding now is that somebody else had to figure the odds for you.
They're not bad odds either. If you grouse and jump for the straps
every time a plum taps the hull, they're 50-50. Keep your heads and
follow my instructions and the odds go in our favor.

"We're going to be hit, we're going to be hit again, and maybe a
couple of dozen times after that. If a big one slams straight into us,
somebody might get a bloody nose. But we can get through even if the
ship turns out to look like a thick piece of Swiss cheese.

"Right now we're sailing in between thinned-out stuff, Hollender tells
me. The first hour will be a tea party compared to the second.

"The air pump room sits smack in ship center. Anyone who'd like to zip
his suit and shut himself in with the pumps has my permission. Speak up
now; I can't force co-operation in something like this."

The intercom stayed silent.

"Thanks," the commander said. "One more thing. Fish a couple of hunks
of cotton out of your first aid. After you hear the first hit, you'll
know where to put 'em."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hiller watched the changed stellar configurations through the ports.
The stars shone in a friendly brightness compared to the darkness
around them. That darkness held invisible missiles which possessed only
velocity and direction, harmless vectors. Only when they met the hull
would there be a molecular and not only calculative indication of their
presence.

The ship rode silently, weighted with the heaviness of a grim
expectancy.

Hiller curiously switched on his meteor-scanner, making sure to keep
the circuits connecting to the guiding jets and gyros cold. Even if
they could afford the fuel, the gadget would tear itself apart with the
plethora of loose particles to monitor.

The greenly glowing two radar scopes' limited field was clear for the
first few moments. Then three fine lines sped down the center, and
before they faded two others plummeted beside their fading tracks.

Watching the scope fascinated him. The lines traced, glowed, and
faded, always cutting the same angle, so far staying fairly clear of
the center. He caught himself tensing when one began at top center and
coursed swiftly toward the ship. A trail actually disappeared under the
center marker but came out the other side too swiftly for him to wince
under the anticipated shock.

Were they increasing in frequency? Definitely they were. A shower of
lines bracketing the scope center substantiated him.

He realized why more tracks appeared near the center than at the edge
of the scope. Most particles evidently were small enough so that at the
outer limits of the radar's range the trails made no register. Also,
the tracks glowed brighter near the center and faded toward the edge.

Too, he became aware the trails were hardly straight. The ship's
transit velocity through the Belt bent the trails toward an arc on the
scope face.

He saw the track start at the top: but before realization came
that it had gone no farther than the center, his head jarred in an
instantaneous headache. The quick jolt through his feet and buttocks
arrived at the same time, and his sight washed away into a watery blur.

Naturally, after admonishing the crew to use ear plugs, he had
neglected to use his. While his eardrums still throbbed with the sharp
compression, he fought for clear vision.

The hull mockup illuminated, he searched for the point of impact on
the electronic three-dimensional damage guide. No wonder all the rough
stuff; it turned out to be a good-sized crater above the control
compartment. Perhaps it hadn't been as bad elsewhere. There was no
penetration, but after that wallop he wasn't looking forward to any.

"Check in!" he announced.

Dutifully the crew responded, their voices sounding heavy with affected
steadiness.

"That landed on the front above control. The party's livening up, so
stand by."

Hiller noticed with concern the starfield drifting by the ports. The
positional dial showed 17.6 but falling.

"What's with the gyros, Art?" he asked.

"Impact shifted the ship position," he answered. "I'm resetting."

The commander bit his lip, suppressing the pun crossing his mind that
this was a new angle. He hadn't figured that much kinetic energy
affecting the ship position. As long as the impact came near center,
fine; but with a strike near the extremities of the ship, naturally the
effect was to spin it, like a top without a molecule of friction.

Oversight Number One. Hell, why count 'em? This one in itself could be
fatal. The gyros were never meant to counteract that kind of gyration.
Maybe a couple of impacts, yes. After that, they could burn out.

       *       *       *       *       *

Somebody opened the door of a boiler factory and shut it in a
millisecond. The reverberation surprisingly proved slight.

The commander peered closely at the damage guide. A short dark line
near the stern: it had taken him a second inspection to find it. He had
been looking for a crater.

"Crease over the firing chambers," he reported, then shifted his
attention to the indicator. The needle faltered at 18 as the gyros
kicked in harder and fell toward 16 again.

"What's the condition of the gyro motors, Art?" Hiller asked.

"Warming up," was the answer, "They're going to have to run full to do
any good at all."

"How about using the jets once in a while," Hiller suggested. "Too hard
on the fuel?"

"Once in a while, it wouldn't be," the engineer replied. "Constantly
steadying a spinning ship this big with the guide jets would take more
fuel than we could spare."

Hiller swiftly considered the few possibilities there were. Burning out
the gyros was a risk he could not take. Going over the fuel margin was
out of the question. And the alternative to these--spinning until they
left the Belt.

Spinning provided the only choice. It wasn't necessarily fatal, but it
increased the chances for perpendicular strikes. Actually, with such
conditions, Bleck's sneering odds held more merit.

_Bleck!_

The shadow behind him, only a vague outline on the control panel,
moved. Hiller fell sideways from the seat, twisting around one of the
arms.

Bleck's magnetized boot slammed into the seat and left him
overbalancing long enough for Hiller to scramble to his feet.

The man appeared berserk with fear, except he had it channeled toward
the destruction of what he assigned as its cause--the ship commander.

No need to search; nothing serving as a weapon lay within reach. Taking
the time to stoop and remove his boot meant suicide.

Warily Bleck advanced with the retrieved boot upraised, clumsily
limping on the other. Hiller backed until he felt the acceleration
straps behind him on the bulkhead. There was no more backing after that.

The last resort--something he did not relish doing--was broadcasting
the crew his plight, pulling them from their stations. Anyway, by the
time someone arrived--if that didn't faze the man, he would have to try
ducking under the weapon and fighting it out.

As Bleck paused to savor his ascendant position and measure the
clobbering distance, Hiller started the first word of the announcement.
His thinking was riding the crest of a wave of fear which threatened at
any moment to break. And the first word was all he managed.

What saved him was his grasp of the straps behind him. On low for
movement, his boots would not have held.

His grip had tightened instinctively the moment the ship lurched to the
port side, a lurch so sharp he swung out from the bulkhead. His head
and chest felt as if they would cave in under the compression.

Wearing only one boot, the other demagnetized, Bleck probably was only
beginning to analyze how he was dying when he sailed the length of the
control room. His free boot dented the bulkhead and rang against the
floor. The boot attached to his foot was hidden under the mixture of
sodden clothes and shattered limbs that clung wetly to the bulkhead and
began oozing toward the outside of the centrifuge.

For the ship was now gyrating tightly, the stars parading endlessly
past the ports. Coming out of shock, strangely, was what bothered
Hiller most, the merry-go-rounding.

His hands hurt, he noticed, so he released the needless grip on the
straps. Dazedly he navigated to the control seat, sat down, and this
time fastened his nylon safety bands and set his boots for high.

       *       *       *       *       *

The concussion effects wouldn't blink out of his eyes and he stared
blearily at the damage indicator. He also found it difficult keeping
his eyes from Bleck's remains.

"Fred? Fred!" It was Art's voice. Of course, he hadn't announced damage
yet. How long had it been?

"Report!" That's all the commander could get out.

The crew responded weakly. The roll gave him time to locate the damage
as a definite penetration in the fuel chambers, evidently by a large
particle. The TV monitors showed no tanks dented, and the fine gauges
indicated no leaks. One thing, though: the temperature of the tanks had
skyrocketed.

He announced the damage and ordered suits on. It felt good to be
thinking again. A penetration in the air-filled portion of the ship and
the temperature could bake uninsulated flesh promptly. Oversight Number
Two.

Art reminded him over the intercom diplomatically, "I'm not
counteracting the spin, Fred."

"That's all we can do," the commander returned. "We're going to have to
spin through and like it."

"We'll be in the thickest in a couple of minutes." It was Hollender's
voice. "I think the patch crew ought to get some business."

"Belt in unless you're traveling," Hiller reminded. Only then did he
bring himself to relate to the crew how Bleck died, hoping it would be
of constructive value, provided they didn't frighten.

With the next oblique collisions Hiller found the suit better muffled
the sound. He wished there was something to be done about the wrenching
of his insides at each impact.

The suits helped little on the more direct collisions. Added to that,
the ship was gyrating faster and pseudo-gravity pulled at him from the
front ports. Giddiness on top of everything else was not improving
matters.

He crumpled under the wave of heat and compression when the first
particle penetrated the air compartments of the ship. Three of his
instrument dials cracked and he felt as if he had received a blow on
each square inch of his body. The penetration he located as in the
sleeping quarters and sent the patch crew there at once.

About that time the second one penetrated. The jolt was sickening.
Somerset reported both members of his crew unconscious when their boots
let them slide against bulkheads at the impact. Worse, he said the
patch equipment had spun loose and shorted, bent, and fused. He made
clear any patch repair as being hopeless.

While Hiller listened to the report, he was sick inside his suit from
the centrifugal effect. He recalled how he'd also been sick on the
Whirlwind ride at the amusement park when he was a kid. A hell of a
space commander. They could use a good collision against the direction
of gyration any time, provided the sudden deceleration of the twirl
didn't hemorrhage them internally.

Why was he worried about gyrations when the patch kit was a casualty?
That latest development cinched it: the odds on getting through were
falling every minute. He wasn't facing it, either.

One favorable element, however, was appearing: the particles size
remained uniformly small. No structural damage of any consequence had
occurred from the collisions already experienced. The hull, at least,
could sustain the heat and explosion effects.

       *       *       *       *       *

Subawarely the commander realized his thinking was punchy. The impacts
of missiles against the heating ship's hull constituted a slowly
fading pattern of noise and pressure and pain which he was observing
objectively, almost amusedly. When he attempted to read the damage
indicator or communicate with the crew, the effort became immense and
the discomfort great. So much easier to remain contemplative about it.

No doubt this was the condition of the crew. After so much beating, the
organic function can tolerate no more. Oversight Number Three.

The commander was aware sufficiently to hope Art Eastburn kept the air
cooler circulating. He had already assumed, since the crew was suited
in, that the engineer had cut off the fresh air supply. They didn't
have to lose it all, just most of it, enough to suffocate somewhere in
space.

That hunch? Seemed a hunch fitted in there somewhere. Was it really
important? Nothing seemed important except escaping the punishment
the particles of the Inner Asteroid Belt were inflicting on the
near-senseless bodies in the spinning ship.

His thought processes alternately raced and then froze in a
semi-conscious sleep. Between impacts rationality awoke in brief
segments of contemplative continuity and slowed when another concussion
shuddered the ship. And soon there was no rationality but fantasies
rooted in present trauma....

Starlight seeped through the punctured hull around the control chamber.
The air supply had long since whistled into space. What ship atmosphere
that was salvaged had been piped into the suits and rationed among the
men.

They had circumnavigated the Inner Belt after plotting a course back to
Earth. Hollender's computations presented them with a rough chance of
making it before the air would no longer maintain their life processes.

But it had not worked out. The Earth was yet a bright star in the front
ports when the coughing began, when the function of respiration became
painful labor.

Some were already choosing the quick way out. Hollender had entered the
control room, waved a hand in salute, and unzipped his suit, even as
Hiller watched. The instant freezing from the space-filled ship bloated
the body slightly, but otherwise there was little difference. Hollender
stood statuesquely, coldly rigid, clamped solidly by his boots.

Art Eastburn arrived next, unsmiling. The two men regarded each other,
chests heaving, for an endless moment. The mechanical engineer reached
for his suit zipper.

"Art, hold on! Not yet, Art, not yet!"

"Not what, Fred? Come out of it, man!"

Eastburn was standing over him, speaking against the plastiglas of
Hiller's visor. He sat before the control board, still cinched in his
seat. The mechanical engineer wore no suit and he was smiling.

"We're through," his friend was saying. "We made it, Fred."

       *       *       *       *       *

The ship commander shook his head. The words were supposed to mean
something vital. He played them back in his mind.

"We're through. We're through."

If he could understand why the silence hurt his ears, why he was tense,
why--Realization spread over his body in a wave of exhilarating relief.

Speech failed him after Art helped him remove his suit. Speech was
unnecessary the way Art rapidly filled him in on the lack of casualties
and minor damage.

"How long was I out?" the commander at last brought himself to ask,
noticing Bleck's body had been removed.

"Over an hour," Art answered. "When the rocks stopped punching
I couldn't raise you on the intercom. Found you passed out. You
wouldn't revive so I took advantage of my second-in-command rank and
straightened out the ship's spin with the guide jets."

Hiller glanced at the ports. The stars rode steadily, and he was aware
his viscera felt stable.

"But dammit, Art, all this air!" Hiller complained, waving his hand
over his head. "Aren't you over-generous? We must have lost enough
through the hull to put us in suits, or at least turn us back."

The engineer grinned teasingly. "I don't think we've lost a cubic inch,
Fred."

"The patch kit?"

"Still out."

"But all those penetrations with us in a twirl--"

"All taken care of." Art was enjoying himself.

Hiller's hunch, never considered seriously, jumped back into his mind.
That had to be the only explanation.

Art was going on, "As a matter of fact, there's a good example right
there." He pointed above them to the bulkhead, layered with plastic,
a coolant area, and duralite, that separated the men from space. "One
of the toughest hits the ship took, blasted an inch-round hole, looks
like. No wonder you conked out."

The after effects of the experience again was making it difficult for
the commander to focus his eyes. He unbound his seat bands and clanked
directly under the spot, his friend following.

From the closer viewpoint he could see a small, glistening white circle
in the bulkhead surrounded by a ring of heat-discolored metal. That was
no patch.

He grinned back at Art. "Automatic, eh?"

"I never considered the possibility," Art replied. "I figured the
inside pressure would be too great."

"I'm not trying to sound off big," the commander said, "but I had it
in the back of my mind when I decided to sail through. As it turned
out, it meant the difference between survival or otherwise. Had I known
that, I might not have gambled."

Fred Hiller returned to his seat and pushed himself down. His strength
was only beginning to return.

"With a bigger hole, it wouldn't have worked. But I was counting on
little holes with our strong hull. It would take more pressure than
what's inside the ship to stop the instant freeze of space cold in
small openings like that.

"I think our frozen air plugs will hold way longer than it takes to
repair the patch kit. Matter of fact, I may leave them in until we hit
Mars' atmosphere. I'm feeling sentimental about them already!"



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