The Passing of Ku Sui
Chapter 15: There Is a Meteor
His face set and cold, Carse ran to the stores cabin, just as the Eurasian must have hurried there a few minutes before. He took one of Dr. Ku’s self-propulsive space-suits down from the rack and slipped into it, sticking a raygun in the belt. Still not speaking, he glided to the rear port-lock, Leithgow and Friday running alongside and attempting to dissuade him from the dangerous pursuit. Their words were wasted. Carse gave them only a faint smile and a few directions.
“Keep the ship as close as you can without danger. No, Eclipse; I’m going by myself; there’s no need to risk two. If I don’t come out, you’ve everything needed to prove your case. Eliot--the re-embodied brains, Ku Sui’s four white assistants--”
“I tell you you’re going to your death! You’ll be caught inside! Earth’s attracting the asteroid now, and in a few minutes it will be plunging through the atmosphere with terrific speed! The friction will make it a meteor, and you’ll burn. Carse! You’ll die in flames! You haven’t but a few minutes to do the whole thing!”
“Have to risk that, Eliot.” He swung open the inner door of the lock and stepped into the chamber. “Remember, keep as close to the asteroid as possible, and a steady watch for Ku Sui and me.” He looked levelly at them, white man and black, for a moment, then turned his face away. “That’s all. Good-by,” he said.
The door swung shut in their faces with a hiss of compressed air.
The Hawk closed the face-plate of his helmet and rapidly spun over the controls. Another hiss, and the outer door moved wide. He stepped with force into space.
The panorama below him was breath-taking: Earth seemed almost to hit him in the face. He had not realized it was so close. The sheer, mighty stretch of the globe filled his eyes, and for seconds he could not focus on anything else, so overwhelming to his vision was the colossal map. It reached away to left and right, before and behind, and he was so near that it seemed almost flat, a sun-gleaming plain on which stood out in sharp outline the continent of Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and, bordering it, the edge of North America.
To his left was the flaming orb of the sun; and directly underfoot, rotating against the vast background of the North Atlantic, he now saw the asteroid, glinting metallically along its craggy length as it swung over. Carse centered every bit of power he had on it, and at maximum acceleration began to overhaul his objective.
The asteroid was plunging free to Earth, and the rate of its uncontrolled plunge was second by second mounting tremendously; but Carse’s power-fall quickly enabled him to overtake it. As the dome swooped up in front of him, and the sunlight washed briefly over its desolate buildings, he looked hard for a shape moving amongst them, without success. Doubtless the Eurasian was well inside by now.
The job of getting into the dome was a hazardous one. About every thirty seconds the asteroid described a complete rotation, making the rim turn at a speed of half a mile a second, and that made the task of entering extremely dangerous to a man whose only protection was the metal and fabric of a space-suit. Misjudgment would either rip the suit or dash him to instant death. He had to slip cleanly down through the jagged tear in the dome, planning his swoop accurately to the fraction of a second.
Never cooler, the Hawk made it. Building a parallel speed equal to that of the rotating dome, he followed it over in a dizzy whirl; and as the rent came below he shot curving down and in with sufficient precision, and at once swiftly adjusted his gravity to offset the asteroid’s great centrifugal force.
For alternating fifteen-second periods the sunlight filled the dome and its buildings; and on the tail of the first of these, even as the sable tide swept all vision from him, the Hawk arrived at the door of one wing of the central building. He had not seen Ku Sui, and he had no time for exploration, but he did have a hunch as to where the Eurasian had gone, and he followed that hunch. A silent, giant-gray thing in the black silence of the corridor, grim, intent and seeming irresistible, he swept along it; and every second he knew that a raygun might spit from where it had been waiting in ambush to puncture his suit and kill him. For whether or not Ku Sui was aware that he was being tracked by his old, bitter foe, Carse did not know.
The asteroid plunged down faster and faster. Earth’s atmosphere, with all its perils of friction, coming ever closer, and the great bosom of the planet lying waiting to receive and bury the rock hurtling towards it. Throughout most of the leagues of space that asteroid had tracked on its master’s diverse errands, and in many distant places the trails of Hawk Carse and Ku Sui had crossed and left blood and crossed again; and now those three--asteroid, Eurasian and the Hawk--were drawn once more together for the spectacular and epic climax, now only minutes away. No power in the universe was to stop the plunge of the asteroid; it remained to be seen how one or both of the two living humans on it could get out in time...
But of all this, nothing was in Hawk Carse’s mind except the beating, driving realization that few minutes were left in which to play out the last scene. With reckless haste he sped to where his hunch led him, the secret panel in Dr. Ku’s laboratory. As he reached it, faint sunlight came filtering in from somewhere and he saw that the panel was open.
He looked within and dimly saw a ladder reaching down into black depths. Without hesitation he thrust through the opening and dropped into the blackness. He dared not lose a second.
He hit bottom with a thud, changed his glove controls and reached out in the darkness. He felt that he was in one end of a passageway. As rapidly as he could, his arms stretched wide, all his nerves and muscles and senses alert, he pressed along it.
Continually he was thrown into the rough wall at his right by the centrifugal force of the asteroid. How far did the passageway extend? Was Ku Sui at the end of it? It occurred to the Hawk that the asteroid was a developing shooting star, eating up the few hundred miles of life that remained, streaking down into the atmosphere, where waited quick friction and incandescence--and he down in the heart of it, blind, without clue to what lay in front of him, ignorant of everything, and with only minutes in which to achieve his end. There’d be no heat-warning through his insulated suit. Even now, perhaps, there was no time to get out; already the deadline might have been crossed; he could not know. He went on...
How far? A hundred yards; two hundred? Easily that, he thought, and still no variation in the blackness around him! The passageway seemed straight, so he might now be past the rim of the dome above.
Then, for just a second, he saw a faint wisp of light ahead!
Automatically Carse’s raygun came up, but in the time that simple motion took the light was gone and the blackness was as deep and lifeless as before. But he was coming to something. He went on, perhaps a little faster, hot to discover the last emergency resource of Dr. Ku. He took no pains to avoid making noise, for he knew Ku Sui could not hear him through the airless space between.
After another hundred yards or so the light from ahead winked again. It was stronger. Only a second of it, but he now suspected that it came at regular intervals. It was a machine, perhaps, working under the hands of the Eurasian. On--on! With the seconds fleeting by, building to the small total which would bring friction to the asteroid, and incandescence, and scalding death for him within it!
Again, suddenly, the mysterious light. It left instantly as usual, but not before it revealed, well ahead, the end of the passage. Quickly he traversed the remaining distance and felt around with his hands. He found what he half expected. There was an opening, a doorway, to his right. The room beyond surely held the final secret of the asteroid. And if Dr. Ku Sui were anywhere, he was in there.