Hanging by a Thread

by Randall Garrett

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: It's seldom that the fate of a shipful of men literally hangs by a thread--but it's also seldom that a device, every part of which has been thoroughly tested, won't work....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Jayjay Kelvin was sitting in the lounge of the interplanetary cargo vessel Persephone, his feet propped up on the low table in front of the couch, and his attention focused almost totally on the small book he was reading. The lounge itself was cozily small; the Persephone had not been designed as a passenger vessel, and the two passengers she was carrying at the time had been taken on as an accommodation rather than as a money-making proposition. On the other hand, the Persephone and other ships like her were the only method of getting to where Jayjay Kelvin wanted to go; there were no regular passenger runs to Pluto. It’s hardly the vacation spot of the Solar System.

On the other side of the table, Jeffry Hull was working industriously with pencil and paper. Jayjay kept his nose buried in his book--not because he was deliberately slighting Hull, but because he was genuinely interested in the book.

“Now wait,” said Masterson, looking thoughtfully at the footprints on the floor of the cabin where Jed Hooker had died. “Jest take another look at these prints, Charlie. Silver Bill Greer couldn’t have got much more than his big toe into boots that small! Somethin’ tells me the Pecos Kid has...”

“ ... Traveled nearly two billion miles since then,” said Hull.

Jayjay lifted his head from his book. “What?” He blinked. “I’m sorry; I wasn’t listening. What did you say?”

The younger man was still grinning triumphantly. “I said: We are approaching turnover, and, according to my figures, nine days of acceleration at one standard gee will give us a velocity of seventeen million, five hundred and fifty miles per hour, and we have covered a distance of nearly two billion miles.” Then he added: “That is, if I remembered my formulas correctly.”

Jayjay Kelvin looked thoughtfully at the ceiling while he ran through the figures in his head. “Something like that. It’s the right order of magnitude, anyway.”

Hull looked a little miffed. “What answer did you get?”

“A little less than eight times ten to the third kilometers per second. I was just figuring roughly.”

Hull scribbled hastily, then smiled again. “Eighteen million miles an hour, that would be. My memory’s better than I thought at first. I’m glad I didn’t have to figure the time; doing square roots is a process I’ve forgotten.”

That was understandable, Jayjay thought. Hull was working for his doctorate in sociology, and there certainly wasn’t much necessity for a sociologist to remember his freshman physics, much less his high-school math.

Still, it was somewhat of a relief to find that Hull was interested in something besides the “sociological reactions of Man in space”. The boy had spent six months in the mining cities in the Asteroid Belt, and another six investigating the Jovian chemical synthesis planes and their attendant cities. Now he was heading out to spend a few more months observing the “sociological organization Gestalt” of the men and women who worked at the toughest job in the System--taking the heavy metals from the particularly dense sphere of Pluto.

Hull began scribbling on his paper again, evidently lost in the joys of elementary physics, so Jayjay Kelvin went back to his book.

He had just read three words when Hull said: “Mr. Kelvin, do you mind if I ask a question?”

Jayjay looked up from his book and saw that Jeffry Hull had reverted to his role of the earnest young sociologist. Ah, well. “As I’ve told you before, Mr. Hull, questions do not offend me, but I can’t guarantee that the answers won’t offend you.”

“Yes; of course,” Hull said in his best investigatory manner. “I appreciate that. It’s just that ... well, I have trained myself to notice small things. The little details that are sometimes so important in sociological investigations. Not, you understand, as an attempt to pry into the private life of the individual, but to round out the overall picture.”

Jayjay nodded politely. To his quixotic and pixie-like mind, the term overall picture conjured up the vision of a large and carefully detailed painting of a pair of dirty overalls, but he kept the smile off his face and merely said: “I understand.”

“Well, I’ve noticed that you’re quite an avid reader. That isn’t unusual in a successful businessman, of course; one doesn’t become a successful businessman unless one has a thirst for knowledge.”

“Hm-m-m,” said Jayjay.

“But,” Hull continued earnestly, “I noticed that you’ve read most of the ... uh ... historical romances in the library...”

“You mean Westerns,” Jayjay corrected quietly.

“Uh ... yes. But you don’t seem to be interested in the modern adventure fiction. May I ask why?”

“Sure.” Jayjay found himself becoming irrationally irritated with Hull. He knew that the young sociologist had nothing to do with his own irritation, so he kept the remarks as impersonal as possible. “In the first place, you, as a sociologist, should know what market most fiction is written for.”

“Why ... uh ... for people who want to relax and--”

“Yes,” Jayjay cut in. “But what kind? The boys on Pluto? The asteroid slicers? No. There are four billion people on Earth and less than five million in space. The market is Earth.

“Also, most writers have never been any farther off the surface of Earth than the few miles up that an intercontinental cruiser takes them.

“And yet, the modern ‘adventure’ novel invariably takes place in space.

“I can read Westerns because I neither know nor care what the Old American West was really like. I can sit back and sink into the never-never land that the Western tells about and enjoy myself because I am not forced to compare it with reality.

“But a ‘space novel’ written by an Earthside hugger is almost as much a never-never land, and I have to keep comparing it with what is actually going on around me. And it irritates me.”

“But, aren’t some of them pretty well researched?” Hull asked.

“Obviously, you haven’t read many of them,” Jayjay said. “Sure, some of them are well researched. Say one half of one per cent, to be liberal. The rest don’t know what they’re talking about!”


“For instance,” Jayjay continued heatedly, “you take a look at every blasted one of them that has anything to do with a spacecraft having trouble. They have to have an accident in space in order to disable the spaceship so that the hairy-chested hero can show what a great guy he is. So what does the writer do? He has the ship hit by a meteor! A meteor!”

Hull thought that over for a second. “Well,” he said tentatively, “a ship could get hit by a meteor, couldn’t it?”

Jayjay closed his eyes in exasperation. “Of course it could! And an air-ship can run into a ruby-throated hummingbird, too. But how often does it happen?

“Look: We’re hitting it up at about one-fortieth of the velocity of light right now. What do you think would happen if we got hit by a meteor? We’d be gone before we knew what had happened.

“Why doesn’t it happen? Because we can spot any meteor big enough to hurt us long before it contacts us, and we can dodge it or blast it out of the way, depending on the size.

“You’ve seen the outer hull of this ship. It’s an inch thick shell of plastic, supported a hundred feet away from the steel hull by long booms. Anything small enough to get by the detectors will be small enough to burn itself out on that hull before it reaches the ship. The--”

Jayjay Kelvin was not ordinarily a man to make long speeches, especially when he knew he was telling someone something that they already knew. But this time, he was beating one of his favorite drums, and he went on with his tirade in a fine flush of fury.

Alas ... poor Jayjay.

Actually, Jayjay Kelvin can’t be blamed for his attitude. All he was saying was that it was highly improbable that a spaceship would be hit by a meteor. In one way, he was perfectly right, and, in another, he was dead wrong.

How small must a piece of matter be before it is no longer a meteor?

Fortunately, the big hunks rarely travel at more than about two times ten to the sixth centimeters per second, relative to Sol, in the Solar System. But there are little meteors--very tiny ones--that come in, hell-bent-for-leather, at a shade less than the velocity of light. They’re called cosmic rays, but they’re not radiation in the strict sense of the word. A stripped hydrogen atom, weighing on the order of three point three times ten to the minus twenty-second grams, rest mass, can come galumping along at a velocity so close to that of light that the kinetic energy is something colossal for so small a particle. Protons with a kinetic energy of ten to the nineteenth electron volts, while statistically rare, are not unusual.

Now, ten million million million electron volts may be a wee bit meaningless to the average man, so let’s look at it from another angle.

Consider. According to the well-known formula E = mc^2, a single gram of matter, if converted completely into energy, would yield some nine hundred million million million ergs of energy. An atomic bomb yields only a fraction of that energy, since only a small percentage of the mass is converted into energy.

If all of the mass of an atomic bomb were converted into energy, the test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, ‘way back in 1945, would probably have been the last such test on Earth; there wouldn’t have been anyone around to make a second test.

So what does this have to do with cosmic ray particle? Well, if that atomic bomb had been moving at the velocity with which our ten-to-the-nineteenth-electron-volts proton is moving, it could have been made of sand instead of U^235. It would have produced ten thousand million times as much energy as the total disintegration of the rest mass would have produced!

Kinetic energy, my children, has a great deal more potential than atomic energy.

But we digress.

What has all this to do with Jayjay Kelvin?

If Jayjay had been a detective story addict instead of a Western story addict, he would have heard of the HIBK or “Had I But Known” school of detective writing. You know: “Had I But Known that, at that moment, in the dismal depths of a secret underground meeting place, the evil Chuman-Fu was plotting...”

If Jayjay Kelvin had known what was going on a few million miles away from the Pluto-bound Persephone, he would have kept his mouth shut.

The cargo-ship Mordred was carrying a cargo of heavy metals sunward. In her hold were tightly-packed ingots of osmium-iridium-platinum alloy, gold-copper-silver-mercury alloy, and small percentages of other of the heavy metals. The cargo was to be taken to the Asteroid Belt for purification and then shipped Earthward for final disposition. The fact that silver had replaced copper for electrical purposes on Earth was due to the heavy-metals industry on Pluto. Because of Pluto, the American silver bloc had been broken at last.

The Mordred was approaching turnover.

Now, with a gravito-inertial drive, there is really no need to turn a ship over end-for-end as she approaches the mid-point of her trajectory. Since there is no rocket jet to worry about, all that is really necessary is to put the engine in reverse. In fact, the patrol ships of the Interplanetary Police do just that.

But the IP has been trained to take up to five standard gees in an end-to-end flip, and the ships are built to take the stress in both directions. An ordinary cargo ship finds it a lot easier to simply flip the ship over; that way, the stresses remain the same, and the ceiling-floor relationship is constant.

The Mordred had been having a little trouble with her Number Three drive engine, so the drive was cut off at turnover, while the engineer replaced a worn bearing. At the same time, the maintenance officer decided he’d take a look at the meteor-bumper--the plastic outer hull. Since the ship was in free fall, all he had to do was pull himself along one of the beams that supported the meteor-bumper away from the main hull. The end of one of the beams had cracked a part of the bumper hull--fatigue from stress, nothing more, but the hull might as well be patched while the drive was off.

It was a one-man job; the plastic was dense, but under null-gee conditions it was easy to maneuver. The maintenance officer repaired the slight crack easily, wiped the sticky pre-polymer from the fingers of his spacesuit gloves, and tossed the gooey rag off into space. Then he pushed himself back across the vacuum that separated the outer hull from the inner, entered the air lock, and reported that the job was finished. Five minutes later, the Mordred began decelerating toward the distant Asteroid Belt.

Forget the Mordred. The ship is no longer important. Keep your eyes on that rag. It’s a flimsy thing, composed of absorbent plastic and gooed up with a little unpolymerized resin, weighing about fifty grams. It is apparently floating harmlessly in space, just beyond the orbit of Uranus, looking as innocuous as a rag can look. But it is moving sunward at eight hundred million centimeters per second.

The Persephone was approaching turnover. The ship’s engineer reported that the engines were humming along smoothly, so there was no need to shut them off; the ship would simply flip over as she ran, making her path a slightly skewed, elongated S-curve--a sort of orbital hiccup.


Except that she never quite made it through the hiccup. The ship was almost perpendicular to her line of flight when she was sideswiped.

Her meteor detectors hadn’t failed; they were still functioning perfectly. But meteor detectors are built to look for solid chunks of metal and rock--not thin, porous bits of cloth.

The rag had traveled a good many millions of miles since it had been cast overboard; it was moving sunward with almost the same velocity with which the Persephone was moving Plutowards. The combined velocities were such that, if it had hit the Persephone dead on, it would have delivered close to seventeen thousand kilowatt-hours of energy in one grand burst of incandescence.

Fortunately, the tip of the rag merely gave the ship a slap on the tail as it passed. The plastic meteor-bumper wasn’t built to take that sort of thing. The plastic became an expanding cloud of furiously incandescent gas in a small fraction of a second, but the velocity of that bit of rag was so great that the gas acted as a solid block of superheated fury as it leaped across the hundred feet of vacuum which separated the bumper hull from the inner hull.

A rocket-driven missile carrying a shaped-charge warhead weighing several hundred pounds might have done almost as much damage.

Jayjay Kelvin moved his arms to pick himself up off the floor and found that there was no necessity for doing so. He was floating in the air of the lounge, and, strictly speaking, there was no floor anyway. He opened his eyes and saw that that which had been the floor was now just another wall, except that it had chairs bolted to it. It rose on his left, reached the zenith, and set on his right, to be replaced by another wall, and then by what had been the ceiling. The second time the floor came round, Jayjay began to wonder whether he was spinning around his longitudinal axis or whether the ship was actually rotating about him. He closed his eyes again.

He didn’t feel more than a little dizzy, but he couldn’t be sure whether the dizziness was caused by his spinning or the blow on his head. He opened his eyes again and grabbed at the book that was orbiting nearby, then hurled it as hard as he could toward the sometime ceiling. “The Pride of the Pecos” zoomed rapidly in one direction while Jayjay moved sedately in the other.

The ship was spinning slightly, all right. When he finally grabbed a chair, he found that there was enough spin to give him a weight of an ounce or two. He sat down as best he could and took a good look around.

Aside from “The Pride of the Pecos” and a couple of other books, the air was remarkably free from clutter. There hadn’t been much loose stuff laying around. A pencil, a few sheets of paper--nothing more.

There was one object missing. Jayjay looked around more carefully, and this time he saw a hand protruding from the space “beneath” the low table. He bent down for a better look and saw that Jeffry Hull was unconscious. Blood from his nose was spreading slowly over his face, and one eye looked rather battered. Jayjay grasped the protruding wrist and felt for a pulse. It was pumping nicely. He decided that Hull was in no immediate danger; very few people die of a bloody nose.

The lighting in the lounge was none too good; the low-power emergency system had come on automatically when the power from the ship’s engines had died. Jayjay wondered just what had happened. There had been a hell of an explosion; that was all he knew.

He wondered if anyone else aboard was alive and conscious, and decided he might as well find out. He took a long dive toward the central stairwell that ran the length of the ship’s long axis and looked down. The emergency door to the cargo hold was closed. No air, most likely. The way up looked clear, so he scrambled up the spiral stairway.

A few feet farther up, he found that he had passed the center of the ship’s rotation. The Persephone was evidently toppling end-over-end, and the center of rotation was in the lounge itself. The heavy cargo in the hold was balancing the lighter, but longer, part of the ship above the lounge. He began climbing down the stairwell toward the navigation and control sections.

Somewhere down there, somebody was cursing fluently in Arabic.

“Illegitimate offspring of a mangy she-camel! Eater of dogs! Wallower in carrion!” And then, with hardly a break: “Allah, All-Merciful, All-Compassionate! Have mercy on Thy servant! I swear by the beard of Thy holy Prophet that I will attend more closely to my duties to Thee if Thou wilt get me loose from this ill-begotten monstrosity! Help me or I perish!” The last words were a wail.

“I’m coming!” boomed Jayjay in the same tongue. “Save thy strength!”

There was silence from the control room as Jayjay clambered on down the stairwell. Fortunately, the steps had been built so that it was possible to use them from either side, no matter which way the gravity pull happened to be. By the time he reached the control room, he weighed a good fifteen pounds.

Captain Atef al-Amin was staring up at the stairs as Jayjay came down. He was jammed tightly into a space between two of the big control cabinets, hanging head downward and looking more disheveled than Jayjay had ever seen the usually immaculately-uniformed captain.

“Oh,” said Captain Al-Amin, in English, “it’s you. For a moment I thought--” Then he waved his free hand. “Never mind. Can you get me out of here?”

What had been the floor of the control room was now the ceiling. The two steel cabinets which housed parts of the computer unit now appeared to be bolted to the ceiling. They were only about five feet high, and the space between them was far too narrow for a man to have got in there by himself--especially a man of the captain’s build. None the less, he was in there--jammed in up to his waist. Only his upper torso and one arm was free. The other arm was jammed in against the wall.

Jayjay took the leap from the stairs and grabbed on to the chair that hung from the ceiling nearby. When you only weigh fifteen pounds, you can make Tarzan look like an amateur.

“You hurt?” he asked.

“It isn’t comfortable, sure as hell,” said Al-Amin. “I think my arm’s broken. Think you can get me loose?”

“I can try. Give me your hand.” Jayjay took the captain’s free hand and gave it a tug. Then he released the chair he was holding, braced both feet against the panels of the computer housings, and gave a good pull. The captain didn’t budge, but he winced a little.

“That hurt?”

“Just my arm. The pressure has cut off my blood circulation; my legs are numb, and I can’t tell if they hurt or not.”

Jayjay grabbed the chair again and surveyed the situation. “Where’s your First Officer?”

“Breckner? Down in the engine room.”

Jayjay didn’t comment on that. If the hold was airless, it was likely that the engine room was, too, and there was no need to worry Al-Amin any more than necessary just now.

“Can you use a cutting torch?” the captain asked.

“Yes, but I don’t think it’ll be necessary,” Jayjay said. “Hold on a minute.” He went back up the stairs to the officers’ washroom and, after a little search, got a container of liquid soap from the supplies. Then he went back down to the control room. He made the jump to the chair, holding on with one hand while he held the container of soap with the other.

“Can you hold me up with one hand? I’ll need both hands to work with.”

“In this gravity? Easy. Give me your belt.”

Captain Atef Al-Amin grabbed Jayjay’s belt and hung on, while Jayjay used both hands to squirt the liquid soap all over the captain from the waist down.

It would have made a great newspaper photo. Captain Al-Amin, wedged between two steel cabinets, hanging upside-down under a pull of one-fifteenth standard gee, holding up his rescuer by the belt. The rescuer, right-side-up, was squeezing a plastic container of liquid soap and directing the stream against the captain.

When Al-Amin was thoroughly wetted with the solution, Jayjay again braced his feet against the steel panels and pulled.

With a slick, slurping sound, the captain slid loose, and the two of them toppled head-over-heels across the room. Jayjay was prepared for that; he stopped them both by grasping an overhead desk-top as they went by. Then he let go, and the two men dropped slowly to what had been the ceiling.

Hoo!“ said the captain. “That’s a relief! Allah!”

Jayjay took a look at the man’s arm. “Radius might be broken; ulna seems O.K. We’ll splint it later. Your legs are going to tingle like crazy when the feeling comes back.”

“I know. But we have other things to worry about, Mr. Kelvin. Evidently you and I are the only ones awake so far, and I’m in no condition to go moving all over this spinning bucket just yet. Would you do some reconnoitering for me?”

“Sure,” said Jayjay. “Just tell me what you want.”

Within half an hour, the news was in.

There were five men alive in the ship: Jayjay, Captain Al-Amin, Jeffry Hull, Second Officer Vandenbosch, and Maintenance Officer Smith. Vandenbosch had broken both legs and had to be strapped into a bunk and given a shot of narcolene.

Jayjay had put on a spacesuit and taken a look outside. The whole rear end of the ship was gone, and with it had gone the First Officer, the Radio Officer, and the Engineering Officer. And, of course, the main power plant of the ship.

Most of the cargo hold was intact, but the walls had been breached, and the air was gone.

“Well, that’s that,” said Captain Al-Amin. Jayjay, Smith, Hull, and the captain were in the control room, trying not to look glum. “I wish I knew what happened.”

“Meteor,” Jayjay said flatly. “The bumper hull is fused at the edges of the break, and the direction of motion was inward.”

“I don’t see how it could have got by the meteor detectors,” said Smith, a lean, sad-looking man with a badly bruised face.

“I don’t either,” the captain said, “but it must have. If the engines had blown, the damage would have been quite different.”

Jeffry Hull nervously took a cigarette from his pocket pack. His nose had quit bleeding, but his eye was purpling rapidly and was almost swollen shut.

Captain Al-Amin leaned over and gently took the cigarette from Hull’s fingers. “No smoking, I’m afraid. We’ll have to conserve oxygen.”

“You guys are so damn calm!” Hull said. His voice betrayed a surface of anger covering a substratum of fear. “Here we are, heading away from the Solar System at eighteen million miles an hour, and you all act as if we were going on a picnic or something.”

The observation was hardly accurate. Any group of men who went on a picnic in the frame of mind that Jayjay and the others were in would have produced the gloomiest outing since the Noah family took a trip in an excursion boat.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Captain Al-Amin said gently. “All we have to do is set the screamers going, and the Interplanetary Police will pick us up.”

“Screamers?” Hull looked puzzled.

Instead of answering the implied question, the captain looked at Smith. “Have you checked them?” He knew that Smith had, but he was trying to quiet Hull’s fears.

Smith nodded. “They’re O.K.” He looked at Hull. “A screamer is an emergency radio. There’s one in every compartment. You’ve seen them.” He pointed across the room, toward a red panel in the wall. “In there.”

“But I thought it was impossible for a spaceship in flight to contact a planet by radio,” Hull objected.

“Normally, it is,” Smith admitted. “It takes too much power and too tight a beam to get much intelligence over a distance that great from a moving ship. But the screamers are set up for emergency purposes. They’re like flares, except that they operate on microwave frequencies instead of visible light.

“The big radio telescopes on Luna and on the Jovian satellites can pick them up if we beam them sunward, and the Plutonian station can pick us up if we beam in that direction.”

Hull looked much calmer. “But where do you get the power if the engines are gone? Surely the emergency batteries won’t supply that kind of power.”

“Of course not. Each screamer has its own power supply. It’s a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell that generates a hell of a burst of power for about thirty minutes before it burns out from the overload. It’s meant to be used only once, but it does the job.”

“How do they know where to find us from a burst like that?” Hull asked.

“Well, suppose we only had one screamer. We’d beam it toward Pluto, since it would be easier for an IP ship to get to us from there. Since all screamers have the same frequency--don’t ask me what it is; I’m not a radio man--the velocity of our ship will be indicated by the Doppler Effect. That is, our motion toward or away from them can be calculated that way. Our angular velocity with respect to them can be checked while the screamer is going; they will know which direction we’re moving, if we’re moving at an angle.

“With that information, all they have to do is find out which ship is in that general area of the sky, which they can find out by checking the schedule, and they can estimate approximately where we’ll be. The IP ship will come out, and when they get in the general vicinity, they can find us with their meteor detectors. Nothing to it.”

“And,” Captain Al-Amin added, “since we have eight screamers still left with us, we have plenty of reserves to call upon. There’s nothing to worry about, Mr. Hull.”

“But how can you aim a beam when we’re toppling end-over-end like this?” Hull asked.

“Well, if we couldn’t stop the rotation,” said the captain, “we’d broadcast instead of beaming. Anywhere within the Solar System, a screamer can broadcast enough energy to overcome the background noise.

“The IP would have a harder time finding us, of course, but we’d be saved eventually.”

“I see,” said Hull “How do we go about stopping the rotation?”

“That’s the next thing on the agenda,” Al-Amin said. “This seasick roll is caused by the unevenness of the load, and I’m pretty sick of it, myself. Smith, will you and Mr. Kelvin get out the emergency rockets? We’ll see what we can do to stabilize our platform.”

It took better than an hour to get the ship straightened out. For the main job, emergency rockets were set off at the appropriate spots around the hull to counteract the rotation. The final trimming was done with carbon dioxide fire extinguishers, which Smith and Jayjay Kelvin used as jets.

Getting a fix on Pluto was easy enough; the lighthouse station at Styx broadcast a strong beep sunward every ten seconds. They could also pick up the radio lighthouses on Eros, Ceres, Luna, and Mimas. Evidently, the one on Titan was behind the Jovian bulk.

They were ready to send their distress call.

“It’s simple,” Smith said as he opened the red panel in the wall of the control room. “First we turn on the receiver.” He pushed a button marked R. “Then we turn these two wheels here until the pip on that little screen is centered. That’s the signal from Pluto. It comes in strong every ten seconds, see?”

Jayjay watched with interest. He’d heard about screamers and had seen them, but he’d never had the opportunity of observing one in action.

Like flares or bombs, they were intended for one-time use. The instructions were printed plainly on the inside of the red door, and Smith was simply reading off what was printed there.

“These wheels,” he was saying, “line up the parabolic reflector with the Pluto signal, you see. There. Now we’ve got it centered. Now, all we have to do is make one small correction and we’re all set. These things are built so that they’re fool-proof; a kid could operate it. Watch.”

There is more of this story...
The source of this story is SciFi-Stories

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.