Hansen was sitting at the control board in the single building on Communications Relay Station 43.4SC, when the emergency light flashed on for the first time in two hundred years.
With textbook-recommended swiftness, he located the position of the ship sending the call, identified the ship and the name of its captain, and made contact.
“This is Hansen on 43.4SC. Put me through to Captain Fromer.”
“Fromer here,” said an incredible deep voice, “what the devil do you want?”
“What do I want?” asked the astonished Hansen. “It was you, sir, who sent the emergency call.”
“I did no such thing,” said Fromer with great certainty.
“But the light flashed--”
“How long have you been out of school?” Fromer asked.
“Almost a year, sir, but that doesn’t change the fact that--”
“That you’re imagining things and that you’ve been sitting on that asteroid hoping that something would happen to break the monotony. Now leave me the hell alone or I’ll put you on report.”
“Now look here,” Hansen began, practically beside himself with frustration, “I saw that emergency light go on. Maybe it was activated automatically when something went out of order on your ship.”
“I don’t allow emergencies on the Euclid Queen,” said Fromer with growing anger. “Now, if you don’t--”
Hansen spared himself the indignity of being cut off. He broke contact himself. He sighed, reached for a book entitled _Emergency Procedure Rules_, and settled back in his chair.
Fifteen minutes later the emergency light flashed on for the second time in two hundred years. With its red glow illuminating his freckled excited face, Hansen triumphantly placed another call to the Euclid Queen.
“This is Hansen on 43.4SC. Let me speak to Captain Fromer, please.”
“Er--the Captain has asked me to contact you. I’m the navigator. I was just about to call you. We have a small problem that--”
“I’ll speak to the Captain,” Hansen repeated grimly.
“Now see here. I’m perfectly capable of handling this situation. Actually, it’s hardly even an emergency. You were, it seems, signaled automatically when--”
“If you’ll check your emergency procedures,” Hansen said, holding his thumb in the Rule Book, “you’ll note that the Relay Station Attendant contacts the Captain personally during all emergencies. Of course, if you want to violate--”
“Look, old man,” said the navigator, now sounding on the verge of tears, “try to realize the spot I’m in. Fromer has ordered me to handle this thing without his assistance. He seems to feel that you have a grudge of some kind--”
“If you don’t put me in touch with Captain Fromer in five minutes, I’ll put through a call to Sector Headquarters.” Hansen signaled off contact. If he knew nothing else about the situation, he knew that he had the upper hand.
Five minutes later Captain Fromer called him back. “I am calling in accordance with emergency procedures,” Fromer said between clinched teeth. “The situation is this: We are reporting an emergency--”
“What class emergency?” Hansen interrupted.
“Class?” asked Fromer, obviously caught off guard.
“Yes, Captain. There are three classes of emergencies. Major class, which would include death and injury. Mechanical class, including malfunction of Hegler units and such. And General class--”
“Yes, yes, of course, General class by all means,” Fromer said hurriedly. “You see, it’s hardly even an emergency. We--”
“Just what is the nature of the trouble, Captain?”
“Why, uh, well it seems that we were doing a preliminary landing procedure check, and...”
“Yes, go on.”
“Why, er, it seems that we can’t get the door open.”
It was Hansen’s turn to be taken aback. “You’re pulling my leg, sir.”
“I most certainly am not,” Captain Fromer said emphatically.
“You really mean that you can’t open the door?”
“I’m afraid so. Something’s wrong with the mechanism. Our technical staff has never encountered a problem like this, and they advise me that any attempt at repair might possibly result in the opposite situation.”
“You mean not being able to get the door closed?”
“Precisely. In other words, we can’t land.”
“I see. Then I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do except advise Sector Headquarters to send an emergency repair crew.”
Captain Fromer sighed. “I’m afraid so, too. How long will it take for a message to get there with your transmitting equipment?”
“Two days, Captain. At a guess, there’ll be a ship alongside within the week. You’ll be maintaining your present position, I assume?”
“Oh, we’ll be here, all right,” Fromer said bitterly. Then he cut contact.
As the single occupant of a large asteroid with nothing but time and boredom on his hands, Hansen was enjoying the whole situation immensely. He allowed himself the luxury of several dozen fantasies in which his name was mentioned prominently in galaxy-wide reports of the episode. He imagined that Captain Fromer was also creating vivid accounts--of quite another sort--that would soon be amusing several hundred billion news-hungry citizens of the Federation.
When the repair ship arrived, it came, to Hansen’s astonishment, to the asteroid, and not alongside Fromer’s ship. He soon found out that there was someone else who shared the Captain’s embarrassment.
“I’m Bullard,” said a tall, thin, mournful man. “Mind if I sit?”
“Help yourself,” Hansen waved a hand toward the meager accommodations. He had no idea why a Senior Engineer was being so deferential, but he enjoyed the feeling of power.
“You’re probably wondering about a lot of things,” Bullard began sadly. “Frankly, we don’t have any ideas about how we can fix Captain Fromer’s door.” He waited to let that sink in. Then he continued: “It took us three days back at the base to find out that when these ships were built, almost five hundred years ago, nobody bothered to include detail drawings of the door mechanism.”
“But why? You certainly know how to build--”
“We know how to build Star Class ships, sure. We’ve built a few in the past century or two. There’s never been need for replacement, really. These ships are designed to last forever. The original fleet was conceived to fill the System’s needs for a full thousand years.”
“But the doors on the few ships that have been built. How--”
“The ship’s we’ve built were exact duplicates of Captain Fromer’s ship--except for the door.” Bullard’s long face radiated despair. “No one ever questioned why the door mechanism wasn’t included in the original plans. We simply designed another type--a different type--of door.”
“Well, you certainly can find out how this particular door works, can’t you?”
“I hope so,” Bullard said, wringing his hands. “But we have a couple of other problems. Number one, Captain Fromer has an extremely important passenger aboard. None other than His Exalted Excellency, R’thagna Bar. He is--or was--on his way home after concluding a treaty of friendship with the President of the Federation.”
Hansen managed a whistle.
“Furthermore,” Bullard continued, “His Excellency has to be home soon to get there in time for the mating season. This occurs once in a lifetime, I’m told, and this is his only chance to continue the ancestral rule--”
“Wait a minute,” Hansen said. “Are you trying to say that you can’t solve a simple problem like getting him home and getting him out of the ship? You can always cut it in two, can’t you?”
“These ships were made to last forever,” Bullard explained. “The hull is, of course, pseudo-met, but, not the kind of pseudo-met used for other applications. In short, about the only way you’ll get in that ship is to vaporize it.”
“But can’t you simply disassemble the door mechanism? My God, how complicated can it be?”
“We’re going to try to do just that,” Bullard said without a trace of confidence. “As far as the complication goes, let me say just this: it’s full of moving parts.”
“What are you getting at?” Hansen asked.
“Just this. These ships are perfect mechanisms. There is hardly anything in them that could be called a moving part. Now a door has to open and close. Sure, we devised a simple, safe way to do it a few hundred years after the original fleet was built. The men who designed the original door mechanism felt, perhaps, that it was incongruous to include it in the first place. Maybe that is why they threw away the plans. God knows, it is incongruous. Look! Here’s a photo we took of one in a ship back at base.”
Hansen scanned the photograph. It was a meaningless jumble. He handed it back. “Well, make yourself at home. I’m afraid that the only thing I can help with will be radio communication to Captain Fromer’s ship.”
“Good enough,” Bullard said. “I’m expecting someone else tomorrow. After you bring him down, feel free to drop over and see me anytime.”
Bullard went back to his ship, and Hansen went to bed. He dreamed of His Exalted Excellency R’thagna Bar, growing angrier day by day as the time of mating came closer. In his dream he suddenly came upon a magnificent solution to the problem, a solution involving a telepathic system of fertilization. He woke up before he had completely worked out the details.
Bullard’s friend arrived the same morning. He was a small, dark active little man whom Hansen immediately disliked.
“Meet Dr. Quemos,” Bullard said when Hansen dropped in on them. “Dr. Quemos is a specialist in the history of technology. He thinks he knows how our cute little door mechanism is made.”
“Can’t say for sure,” Quemos said, “but I’d guess that those components are made of metal--real metal.”
“I thought that metal was used only in jewelry,” Hansen said.
Dr. Quemos grinned slyly. “That’s what most people think. Actually, refined metal of various types was used in large masses, formed masses, for thousands of years. Historically speaking, the pseudo-mets are relatively new.”
“It’s difficult to imagine metal functioning as machinery,” Hansen mused.
“And you say that this door mechanism has moving parts, lots of them?”
“Moving parts are nothing to be afraid of,” Quemos said. “Here, look at this.” He put something small on the table, much in the manner of a young boy dropping a garter snake in the midst of school girls. Bullard and Hansen crowded around. “Now, take turns,” said Quemos sharply, “and don’t drop it. It’s priceless, I assure you.” The ancient wrist watch with its transparent back was passed from hand to hand.
“Frightening little monster, isn’t it,” Bullard said.
“Those small round wheels are called gears,” elucidated Quemos, “one gear turns another, which turns another, and so on. I rather imagine that your door is operated on some similar principle.”
“I seem to be the one who asks all the schoolboy questions,” Hansen began, “would somebody tell me why Captain Fromer doesn’t take His Excellency to his home planet, land the ship, and then let his technical staff tear off the door mechanism?”
“We’ve gone through that,” Bullard said wearily. “Unfortunately we need special tools. And there’s no way to get them into the ship.”
“Can I speak to Captain Fromer?” Quemos asked.
“Right away,” Hansen said. He pressed his hand in various patterns on his belt. “This is Hansen. Let us talk to Captain Fromer, please.”
“Fromer here. Who is it?”
“Dr. Quemos speaking. How is your passenger?”
“My passenger is fine. But he keeps telling me that he is very anxious to plant his seed. When can you get us out of here?”
“Plant his seed?” said Quemos.
“There’s nothing salacious about this, I’ve been assured. He simply has a biological craving at this time in his life to--to plant his seed.”
“I got problems like that, too,” Bullard said, “but I don’t go around telling everybody.”
“Stop clowning,” Fromer snapped, “you guys better find a way to fix this damn door or you’ll have a galactic war on your hands. Anybody have any ideas yet?”
“We’re sure that the door mechanism is made of metal,” Quemos said, “and the construction is probably based on the principal of a worm gear.”
“A worm gear, Captain,” Quemos said patiently. “It’s an ancient metal device that was sometimes used for closing large doors. There is also the possibility that the door is closed and opened by dogs. These seem to have been used, at least, to operate doors of undersea crafts. Although we’re not quite certain about the function of dogs.”
The captain maintained a stony silence.
“Also,” Quemos continued, “we have unearthed, so to speak, a reference to a metal component called a babbitt--”
“Now see here!” Captain Fromer roared, “who do you think you’re kidding with this talk about worms, dogs and rabbits--”
“Babbitts, Captain, babbitts! Perhaps a type of bearing. Anyway, we’re at work on the problem, I assure you.” Quemos motioned to Hansen that he was through talking.
During the next three days, Hansen twice visited Bullard and Quemos. On each occasion, he found the two men in trance-like conditions, ostensibly thinking through the problem that they had been assigned to solve, but more probably, Hansen guessed, brooding about the reaction of Sector Headquarters to their daily progress reports which Hansen had been relaying for them. Hansen had only sympathy for the people back at Sector Headquarters, for if these two experts were the Galaxy’s two top trouble-shooters, the Federation, was not, as Hansen put it to himself, in very good shape to fight a war with one hundred billion enraged citizens who worshiped His Exalted Excellency R’thagna Bar almost as much as they did his seed.
Hansen went back to his reading, only to be interrupted with increasing frequency by message transmissions from an increasingly alarmed Sector Headquarters. Most messages were addressed to Bullard, and were bravely designed to disguise the senders’ hysteria, while at the same time urging Bullard on to more magnificent efforts. A few messages, fairly representative of the state of affairs as time wore on reflected an increasing suspicion on the part of Sector Headquarters that Quemos and Bullard, although certainly tops in their fields, were not tops enough.
BULLARD, COM. RLY.
PRESIDENT WOULD LIKE ESTIMATE OF WHEN DOOR WILL BE OPENED. YOU
SURE YOU CAN HANDLE? EMPHASIZE THAT POLITICAL SITUATION NOW
GETTING TOUCHY. REPEAT TOUCHY. R’THAGNA BAR CALLING ON PRESIDENT
TODAY TO MAKE DEMAND THAT SEED BE PLANTED ON TIME. SURE YOU
DON’T NEED MORE HELP?
NO HELP NEEDED. MAKING PROGRESS, ASSURE PRESIDENT. TODAY FOUND
OUT METAL IN MECHANISM IS VERY HARD. IN CONSTANT RADIO TOUCH
WITH FROMER. PASSENGER IMPATIENT BUT QUIETER. SLEEPS MORE NOW.
THIS SIGNIFICANT? QUEMOS DEVELOPING THEORY OF MECHANISM. SAYS
WILL TAKE TIME TO WORK OUT. HOW MUCH TIME WE HAVE? WHEN MUST
SEED BE PLANTED?
BULLARD, COM. RLY.
MUST HAVE ESTIMATE WHEN DOOR OPENS. THIS AN ORDER. AMBASSADOR
THREATENING WAR. CAN’T GIVE DEADLINE OF SEED PLANTING TIME SINCE
SUBJECT VERY TABOO. OUR BIOLOGISTS SAY R’THAGNA BAR SLEEPY
SIGNIFICANT. MAY BE PRELUDE TO SEEDING TIME. TELL ABOUT QUEMOS
THEORY IN NEXT COMMUNICATION. WILL EVALUATE HERE. NICE TO KNOW
METAL IS HARD. KEEP UP GOOD WORK. PRESSURE HERE TO SEND YOU
HELP. PRESIDENT SAYS WHOLE FEDERATION PRAYING FOR DOOR TO BE
FIXED. SAYS TO HURRY UP.
NO ESTIMATE POSSIBLE. QUEMOS THEORY ALMOST COMPLETE. STATES THAT
MECHANISM BUILT ON PRINCIPLE OF WORM GEAR. REPEAT. WORM GEAR.
TODAY INSTRUCTED FROMER’S CREW TO JIGGLE MOVING PARTS OF
MECHANISM AT RANDOM. PARTS WOULD NOT JIGGLE. FROMER STATES THAT
R’THAGNA BAR SLEEPS ALL TIME AND COLOR CHANGES TO BLUE AND RED
ON STOMACH. THIS SIGNIFICANT?
BULLARD, COM. RLY
IMPORTANT YOU AMPLIFY LAST MESSAGE. RED AND BLUE ON STOMACH? WHY
R’THAGNA BAR UNDRESSED? INVESTIGATE! PRESIDENT ORDERS HELP
SENT. HELP ON WAY. REPEAT. WHY R’THAGNA BAR UNDRESSED?
FROMER ADVISES TELL YOU SHIPS PHYSICIAN HAS PUT R’THAGNA BAR IN
QUEMOS. COM. RLY.
TAKE OUT OF REFRIGERATOR! THIS AN ORDER! WHY UNDRESSED?
BULLARD MAKING MODEL OF MY DRAWINGS. READY SOON. R’THAGNA BAR
OUT OF REFRIGERATOR AS REQUESTED BUT SHIPS PHYSICIAN VERY ANGRY
AND WANTS TO PUT BACK IN. COLOR ON STOMACH PINK AND YELLOW WITH
BLUE SQUARES. THIS SIGNIFICANT?
It went on like this for several more days. Hansen, at first amused, was now alarmed and completely convinced that both Quemos and Bullard were thoroughly useless. The messages were his only source of information, since both “experts” were too immersed in their work to talk with him. As his alarm grew, he decided that he might at least try to strike up a friendship with someone on board Captain Fromer’s sealed ship--someone who might have something comforting to report. He called up the ship’s navigator.
“This is Hansen. How’re things going up there?”
“What’s that mean? Good or bad?”
“It means,” the navigator said, while yawning, “that things are falling apart rapidly. In fact, in a day or two I don’t think it’ll make much difference whether or not they open that damn door.”
“You, er, care to fill me in?”
“Why not?” said the navigator, with the voice of a man who knows that it is too late for anything to matter. “The members of the crew are divided into two factions. It appears that our physician has rallied half the crew to support his medical contention that our exhalted passenger belongs in the refrigerator. The good captain, with some justice, one must admit, thinks that he is in command of the ship, and prefers to believe that R’thagna Bar belongs out of the refrigerator.”