Atom Drive

by Charles L. Fontenay

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: It was a race between the tortoise and the hare. But this hare was using some dirty tricks to make sure the ending would be different....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The two spaceship crews were friendly enemies, sitting across the table from each other for their last meal before blastoff. Outside the ports, the sky was nothing but light-streaked blackness, punctured periodically by Earth glare, for Space Station 2 whirled swiftly on its axis, creating an artificial gravity.

“Jonner, I figured you the last man ever to desert the rockets for a hot-rod tow-job,” chided Russo Baat, captain of the Mars Corporation’s gleaming new freighter, Marsward XVIII. Baat was fat and red-faced, and one of the shrewdest space captains in the business.

Jonner Jons, at the other end of the table, inclined his grizzled head and smiled.

“Times change, Russo,” he answered quietly. “Even the Mars Corporation can’t stop that.”

“Is it true that you’re pulling five thousand tons of cargo, Captain?” asked one of the crewmen of the Marsward XVIII.

“Something like that,” agreed Jonner, and his smile broadened. “And I have only about twice the fuel supply you carry for a 100-ton payload.”

The communicator above them squawked and blared:

“Captain Jons and Captain Baat of Martian competition run, please report to control for final briefing.”

“I knew it!” grumbled Baat, getting heavily and reluctantly to his feet. “I haven’t gotten to finish a meal on this blasted merry-go-round yet.”

In the space station’s control section, Commander Ortega of the Space Control Commission, an ascetic officer in plain blues, looked them up and down severely.

“As you know, gentlemen,” he said, “blastoff time is 0600. Tonnage of cargo, fuel and empty vessels cannot be a factor, under the law. The Mars Corporation will retain its exclusive franchise to the Earth-Mars run, unless the ship sponsored by the Atom-Star Company returns to Earth with full cargo at least twenty hours ahead of the ship sponsored by the Mars Corporation. Cargo must be unloaded at Mars and new cargo taken on. I do not consider the twenty-hour bias in favor of the Mars Corporation a fair one,” said Ortega severely, turning his gaze to Baat, “but the Space Control Commission does not make the laws. It enforces them. Docking and loading facilities will be available to both of you on an equal basis at Phobos and Marsport. Good luck.”

He shook hands with both of them.

“Saturn, I’m glad to get out of there!” exclaimed Baat, mopping his brow as they left the control section. “Every time I take a step, I feel like I’m falling on my face.”

“It’s because the control section’s so close to the center,” replied Jonner. “The station’s spinning to maintain artificial gravity, and your feet are away from the center. As long as you’re standing upright, the pull is straight up and down to you, but actually your feet are moving faster than your head, in a larger orbit. When you try to move, as in normal gravity, your body swings out of that line of pull and you nearly fall. The best corrective, I’ve found, is to lean backward slightly when you start to walk.”

As the two space captains walked back toward the wardroom together, Baat said:

“Jonner, I hear the Mars Corporation offered you the Marsward XVIII for this run first, and you turned them down. Why? You piloted the Marsward V and the Wayward Lady for Marscorp when those upstarts in the Argentine were trying to crack the Earth-Mars run. This Atom-Star couldn’t have enough money to buy you away from Marscorp.”

“No, Marscorp offered me more,” said Jonner, soberly now. “But this atomic drive is the future of space travel, Russo. Marscorp has it, but they’re sitting on it because they’ve got their fingers in hydrazine interests here, and the atom drive will make hydrazine useless for space fuel. Unless I can break the franchise for Atom-Star, it may be a hundred years before we switch to the atom drive in space.”

“What the hell difference does that make to you?” asked Baat bluntly.

“Hydrazine’s expensive,” replied Jonner. “Reaction mass isn’t, and you use less of it. I was born on Mars, Russo. Mars is my home, and I want to see my people get the supplies they need from Earth at a reasonable transport cost, not pay through the nose for every packet of vegetable seed.”

They reached the wardroom door.

“Too bad I have to degrav my old chief,” said Baat, chuckling. “But I’m a rocket man, myself, and I say to hell with your hot-rod atom drive. I’m sorry you got deflected into this run, Jonner; you’ll never break Marscorp’s orbit.”

The Marsward XVIII was a huge vessel, the biggest the Mars Corporation ever had put into space. It was a collection of spheres and cylinders, joined together by a network of steel ties. Nearly 90% of its weight was fuel, for the one-way trip to Mars.

Its competitor, the Radiant Hope, riding ten miles away in orbit around the Earth, was the strangest looking vessel ever to get clearance from a space station. It looked like a tug towing a barge. The tug was the atomic power plant. Two miles behind, attached by a thin cable, was the passenger compartment and cargo.

On the control deck of the Radiant Hope, Jonner gripped a microphone and shouted profane instructions at the pilot of a squat ground-to-space rocket twenty miles away. T’an Li Cho, the ship’s engineer, was peering out the port at the speck of light toward which Jonner was directing his wrath, while Qoqol, the Martian astrogator, worked at his charts on the other side of the deck.

“I thought all cargo was aboard, Jonner,” said T’an.

“It is,” said Jonner, laying the mike aside. “That G-boat isn’t hauling cargo. It’s going with us. I’m not taking any chances on Marscorp refusing to ferry our cargo back and forth at Mars.”

“Is plotted, Jonner,” boomed Qoqol, turning his head to peer at them with huge eyes through the spidery tangle of his thin, double-jointed arms and legs. He reached an eight-foot arm across the deck and handed Jonner his figures. Jonner gave them to T’an.

“Figure out power for that one, T’an,” ordered Jonner, and took his seat in the cushioned control chair.

T’an pulled a slide rule from his tunic pocket, but his black almond eyes rested quizzically on Jonner.

“It’s four hours before blastoff,” he reminded.

“I’ve cleared power for this with Space Control,” replied Jonner. “That planet-loving G-boat jockey missed orbit. We’ll have to swing out a little and go to him.”

On a conventional space craft, the order for acceleration would have sent the engineer to the engine deck to watch his gauges and report by intercom. But the Radiant Hope‘s “engine deck” was the atomic tug two miles ahead, which T’an, in heavy armor, would enter only in emergencies. He calculated for a moment, then called softly to Jonner:

“Pile One, in ten.”

“In ten,” confirmed Jonner, pulling a lever on the calibrated gauge of the radio control.

“Pile Two, in fifteen.”

“In fifteen.”

“Check. I’ll have the length of burst figured for you in a jiffy.”

A faint glow appeared around the atomic tug far ahead, and there was the faintest shiver in the ship. But after a moment, Qoqol said in a puzzled tone:

“No Gs, Jonner. Engine not work?”

“Sure, she’s working,” said Jonner with a grin. “You’ll never get any more G than we’ve got now, Qoqol, all the way to Mars. Our maximum acceleration will be 1/3,000th-G.”

“One three-thousandth?” exclaimed T’an, shaken out of his Oriental calm. “Jonner, the Marsward will blast away at one or two Gs. How do you expect to beat that at 1/3,000th?”

“Because they have to cut off and coast most of the way in an elliptic orbit, like any other rocket,” answered Jonner calmly. “We drive straight across the system, under power all the time. We accelerate half way, decelerate the other half.”

“But 1/3,000th!”

“You’ll be surprised at what constant power can do. I know Baat, and I know the trick he’s going to use. It’s obvious from the blastoff time they arranged. He’s going to tack off the Moon and use his power right to cut 20 days off that regular 237-day schedule. But this tug-boat will make it in 154 days!”

They took aboard the 200-ton landing boat. By the time they got it secured, the radio already was sounding warnings for blastoff.

Zero hour arrived. Again Jonner pulled levers and again the faint glow appeared around the tail of their distant tug. Across space the exhaust of the Marsward XVIII flared into blinding flame. In a moment, it began to pull ahead visibly and soon was receding like a meteor.

Near the Radiant Hope, the space station seemed not to have changed position at all.

“The race is not always to the swift,” remarked Jonner philosophically.

“And we’re the tortoise,” said T’an. “How about filling us in on this jaunt, Jonner?”

“Is should, Jonner,” agreed Qoqol. “T’an know all about crazy new engine, I know all about crazy new orbit. Both not know all. You tell.”

“I planned to, anyway,” said Jonner. “I had figured on having Serj in on it, but he wouldn’t understand much of it anyhow. There’s no use in waking him up.”

Serj was the ship’s doctor-psychologist and fourth member of the crew. He was asleep below on the centerdeck.

“For your information, Qoqol,” said Jonner, “the atomic engine produces electrical energy, which accelerates reaction mass. Actually, it’s a crude ion engine. T’an can explain the details to you later, but the important thing is that the fuel is cheap, the fuel-to-cargo ratio is low and constant acceleration is practical.

“As for you, Tan, I was surprised at your not understanding why we’ll use low acceleration. To boost the engine power and give us more Gs, we’d either have to carry more fuel or coast part of the way on momentum, like an ordinary rocket. This way’s more efficient, and our 63-day margin over the Marsward each way is more than enough for unloading and loading more cargo and fuel.”

“With those figures, I can’t see how Marscorp expects to win this competition,” said T’an.

“We’ve got them, flat, on the basis of performance,” agreed Jonner. “So we’ll have to watch for tricks. I know Marscorp. That’s why I arranged to take aboard that G-boat at the last minute. Marscorp controls all the G-boats at Marsport, and they’re smart enough to keep us from using them, in spite of the Space Control Commission. As for refueling for the return trip, we can knock a chunk off of Phobos for reaction mass.”

The meteor alarm bells clanged suddenly, and the screen lit up once with a fast-moving red line that traced the path of the approaching object.

“Miss us about half a mile,” said Jonner after a glance at the screen. “Must be pretty big ... and it’s coming up!”

He and T’an floated to one of the ports, and in a few moments saw the object speed by.

“That’s no meteor!” exclaimed Jonner with a puzzled frown. “That’s man-made. But it’s too small for a G-boat.”

The radio blared: “All craft in orbit near Space Station 2! Warning! All craft near Space Station 2! Experimental missile misfired from White Sands! Repeat: experimental missile misfired from White Sands! Coordinates...”

“Fine time to tell us,” remarked T’an drily.

“Experimental missile, hell!” snorted Jonner, comprehension dawning. “Qoqol, what would have happened if we hadn’t shifted orbit to take aboard that G-boat?”

Qoqol calculated a moment.

“Hit our engines,” he announced. “Dead center.”

Jonner’s blue eyes clouded ominously. “Looks like they’re playing for keeps this time, boys.”

The brotherhood of spacemen is an exclusive club. Any captain, astrogator or engineer is likely to be well known to his colleagues, either personally or by reputation.

The ship’s doctor-psychologist is in a different category. Most of them sign on for a few runs for the adventure of it, as a means of getting back and forth between planets without paying the high cost of passage or to pick up even more money than they can get from lucrative planetbound practice.

Jonner did not know Serj, the Radiant Hope‘s doctor. Neither T’an nor Qoqol ever had heard of him. But Serj appeared to know his business well enough, and was friendly enough.

It was Serj’s first trip and he was very interested in the way the ship operated. He nosed into every corner of it and asked a hundred questions a day.

“You’re as inquisitive as a cadet spaceman, Serj,” Jonner told him on the twenty-fifth day out. Everybody knew everyone else well by then, which meant that Jonner and Qoqol, who had served together before, had become acquainted with T’an and Serj.

“There’s a lot to see and learn about space, Captain,” said Serj. He was a young fellow, with fair hair and an easy grin. “Think I could go outside?”

“If you keep a lifeline hooked on. The suits have magnetic shoes to hold you to the hull of the ship, but you can lose your footing.”

“Thanks,” said Serj. He touched his hand to his forehead and left the control deck.

Jonner, near the end of his eight-hour duty shift, watched the dials.

The red light showing the inner airlock door was open blinked on. It blinked off, then the outer airlock indicator went on, and off.

A shadow fell across Jonner briefly. He glanced at the port and reached for the microphone.

“Careful and don’t step on any of the ports,” he warned Serj. “The magnetic soles won’t hold on them.”

“I’ll be careful, sir,” answered Serj.

No one but a veteran spaceman would have noticed the faint quiver that ran through the ship, but Jonner felt it. Automatically, he swung his control chair and his eyes swept the bank of dials.

At first he saw nothing. The outer lock light blinked on and off, then the inner lock indicator. That was Serj coming back inside.

Then Jonner noted that the hand on one dial rested on zero. Above the dial was the word: “ACCELERATION.”

His eyes snapped to the radio controls. The atomic pile levers were still at their proper calibration. The dials above them said the engines were working properly.

The atomic tug was still accelerating, but passengers and cargo were in free fall.

Swearing Jonner jerked at the levers to pull out the piles aboard the tug.

A blue flash flared across the control board, momentarily blinding him. Jonner recoiled, only his webbed safety belt preventing him from plummeting from the control chair.

He swung back anxiously to the dials, brushing futilely at the spots that swam before his eyes. He breathed a sigh of relief. The radio controls had operated. The atomic engines had ceased firing.

Tentatively, cautiously, he reversed the lever. There was no blue flash this time, but neither did the dials quiver. He swore. Something had burned out in the radio controls. He couldn’t reverse the tug.

He punched the general alarm button viciously, and the raucous clangor of the bell sounded through the confines of the ship. One by one, the other crew members popped up to the control deck from below.

He turned the controls over to Qoqol.

“Take readings on that damn tug,” Jonner ordered. “I think our cable broke. T’an, let’s go take a look.”

When they got outside, they found about a foot of the one-inch cable still attached to the ship. The rest of it, drawn away by the tug before Jonner could cut acceleration, was out of sight.

“Can it be welded, T’an?”

“It can, but it’ll take a while,” replied the engineer slowly. “First, we’ll have to reverse that tug and get the other end of that break.”

“Damn, and the radio control’s burned out. I tried to reverse it before I sounded the alarm. T’an, how fast can you get those controls repaired?”

“Great space!” exclaimed T’an softly. “Without seeing it, I’d say at least two days, Jonner. Those controls are complicated as hell.”

They re-entered the ship. Qoqol was working at his diagrams, and Serj was looking over his shoulder. Jonner took a heat-gun quietly from the rack and pointed it at Serj.

“You’ll get below, mister,” he commanded grimly. “You’ll be handcuffed to your bunk from here on out.”

“Sir? ... I don’t understand,” stammered Serj.

“Like hell you don’t. You cut that cable,” Jonner accused.

Serj started to shrug, but he dropped his eyes.

“They paid me,” he said in a low tone. “They paid me a thousand solars.”

“What good would a thousand solars do you when you’re dead, Serj ... dead of suffocation and drifting forever in space?”

Serj looked up in astonishment.

“Why, you can still reach Earth by radio, easy,” he said. “It wouldn’t take long for a rescue ship to reach us.”

“Chemical rockets have their limitations,” said Jonner coldly.

“And you don’t realize what speed we’ve built up with steady acceleration. We’d head straight out of the system, and nothing could intercept us, if that tug had gotten too far before we noticed it was gone.”

He jabbed the white-faced doctor with the muzzle of the heat-gun.

“Get below,” he ordered. “I’ll turn you over to Space Control at Mars.”

When Serj had left the control deck, Jonner turned to the others. His face was grave.

“That tug picked up speed before I could shut off the engines, after the cable was cut,” he said. “It’s moving away from us slowly, and at a tangent. And solar gravity’s acting on both bodies now. By the time we get those controls repaired, the drift may be such that we’ll waste weeks maneuvering the tug back.”

“I could jet out to the tug in a spacesuit, before it gets too far away,” said T’an thoughtfully. “But that wouldn’t do any good. There’s no way of controlling the engines, at the tug. It has to be done by radio.”

“If we get out of this, remind me to recommend that atomic ships always carry a spare cable,” said Jonner gloomily. “If we had one, we could splice them and hold the ship to the tug until the controls are repaired.”

“Is cable in cargo strong enough, Jonner?” asked Qoqol.

“That’s right!” exclaimed Jonner, brightening. “Most of our cargo’s cable! That 4,000-ton spool we’re hauling back there is 6,000 miles of cable to lay a television network between the Martian cities.”

“Television cable?” repeated T’an doubtfully. “Will that be strong enough?”

“It’s bound in flonite, that new fluorine compound. It’s strong enough to tow this whole cargo at a couple of Gs. There’s nothing aboard this ship that would cut off a length of it--a heat-gun at full power wouldn’t even scorch it--but we can unwind enough of it, and block the spool. It’ll hold the ship to the tug until the controls can be repaired, then we can reverse the tug and weld the cable.”

“You mean the whole 6,000 miles of it’s in one piece?” demanded T’an in astonishment.

“That’s not so much. The cable-laying steamer Dominia carried 3,000 miles in one piece to lay Atlantic cables in the early 20th century.”

“But how’ll we ever get 4,000 tons in one piece down to Mars?” asked T’an. “No G-boat can carry that load.”

Jonner chuckled.

“Same way they got it up from Earth to the ship,” he answered. “They attached one end of it to a G-boat and sent it up to orbit, then wound it up on a fast winch. Since the G-boat will be decelerating to Mars, the unwinding will have to be slowed or the cable would tangle itself all over Syrtis.”

“Sounds like it’s made to order,” said T’an, grinning. “I’ll get into my spacesuit.”

“You’ll get to work on the radio controls,” contradicted Jonner, getting up. “That’s something I can’t do, and I can get into a spacesuit and haul a length of cable out to the tug. Qoqol can handle the winch.”

Deveet, the Atom-Star Company’s representative at Mars City, and Kruger of the Space Control Commission were waiting when the Radiant Hope‘s G-boat dropped down from the Phobos station and came to rest in a wash of jets. They rode out to the G-boat together in a Commission groundcar. Jonner emerged from the G-boat, following the handcuffed Serj.

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