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A narrow football of steel, the Interplanetary Vessel Arcturus stood upright in her berth in the dock like an egg in its cup. A hundred feet across and a hundred and seventy feet deep was that gigantic bowl, its walls supported by the structural steel and concrete of the dock and lined with hard-packed bumper-layers of hemp and fiber. High into the air extended the upper half of the ship of space--a sullen gray expanse of fifty-inch hardened steel armor, curving smoothly upward to a needle prow. Countless hundred of fine vertical scratches marred every inch of her surface, and here and there the stubborn metal was grooved and scored to a depth of inches--each scratch and score the record of an attempt of some wandering cosmic body to argue the right-of-way with the stupendous mass of that manmade cruiser of the void.
A burly young man made his way through the throng about the entrance, nodded unconcernedly to the gatekeeper, and joined the stream of passengers flowing through the triple doors of the double airlock and down a corridor to the center of the vessel. However, instead of entering one of the elevators which were whisking the passengers up to their staterooms in the upper half of the enormous football, he in some way caused an opening to appear in an apparently blank steel wall and stepped through it into the control room.
"Hi, Breck!" the burly one called, as he strode up to the instrument-desk of the chief pilot and tossed his bag carelessly into a corner. "Behold your computer in the flesh! What's all this howl and fuss about poor computation?"
"Hello, Steve!" Thechief pilot smiled as he shook hands cordially. "Glad to see you again--but don't try to kid the old man. I'm simple enough to believe almost anything, but some things just aren't being done. We have been yelling, and yelling hard, for trained computers ever since they started riding us about every one centimeter change in acceleration, but I know that you're no more an I-P computer than I am a Digger Indian. They don't shoot sparrows with coast-defense guns!"
"Thanks for the compliment, Breck, but I'm your computer for this trip, anyway. Newton, the good old egg, knows what you fellows are up against and is going to do something about it, if he has to lick all the rest of the directors to do it. He knew that I was loose for a couple of weeks and asked me to come along this trip to see what I could see. I'm to check the observatory data--they don't know I'm aboard--take the peaks and valleys off your acceleration curve, if possible, and report to Newton just what I find out and what I think should be done about it. How early am I?" While the newcomer was talking, he had stripped the covers from a precise scale model of the solar system and from a large and complicated calculating machine and had set to work without a wasted motion or instant--scaling off upon the model the positions of the various check-stations and setting up long and involved integrals and equations upon the calculator.
The older man studied the broad back of the younger, bent over his computations, and a tender, almost fatherly smile came over his careworn face as he replied:
"Early? You? Just like you always were--plus fifteen seconds on the deadline. The final dope is due right now." He plugged the automatic recorder and speaker into a circuit marked "Observatory," waited until a tiny light above the plug flashed green, and spoke.
"IPV Arcturus; Breckenridge, Chief Pilot; trip number forty-three twenty-nine. Ready for final supplementary route and flight data, Tellus to Mars."
"Meteoric swarms still too numerous for safe travel along the scheduled route," came promptly from the speaker. "You must stay further away from the plane of the ecliptic. The ether will be clear for you along route E2-P6-W41-K3-R19-S7-M14. You will hold a constant acceleration of 981.27 centimeters between initial and final check stations. Your takeoff will be practically unobstructed, but you will have to use the utmost caution in landing upon Mars, because in order to avoid a weightless detour and a loss of thirty-one minutes, you must pass very close to both the Martian satellites. To do so safely you must pass the last meteorological station, M14, on schedule time plus or minus five seconds, at scheduled velocity plus or minus ten meters, with exactly the given negative acceleration of 981.27 centimeters, and exactly upon the pilot ray M14 will have set for you."
"All x." Breckenridge studied his triplex chronometer intently, then unplugged and glanced around the control room, in various parts of which half a dozen assistants were loafing at their stations.
"Control and power check out--Hipe!" he barked. "Driving converters and projectors!"
The first assistant scanned his meters narrowly as he swung a multipoint switch in a flashing arc. "Converter efficiency 100, projector reactivity 100; on each of numbers one to forty-five inclusive. All x."
Two more gleaming switches leaped from point to point. "Converter efficiency 100, projector reactivity 100, dirigibility 100, on each of numbers one to thirty-two, inclusive, of upper band; and numbers one to thirty-two, inclusive, of lower band. All x."
"35,000. Drivers in equilibrium at ten degrees plus. All x."
"Upper lights and lookout plates!"
The second assistant was galvanized into activity, and upon a screen before him there appeared a view as though he were looking directly upward from the prow of the great vessel. The air above them was full of aircraft of all shapes and sizes, and occasionally the image of one of that flying horde flared into violet splendor upon the screen as it was caught in the mighty, roving beam of one of the twelve ultra-light projectors under test.
"Upper lights and lookout plates--all x," the second assistant reported, and other assistants came to attention as the checkout went on.
"Lower lights and lookout plates!"
"All x," was the report, after each of the twelve ultra-lights of the stern had swung around in its supporting brackets, illuminating every recess of the dark depths of the bottom well of the berth and throwing the picture upon another screen in lurid violet relief.
"Lateral and vertical detectors!"
"Laterals XP2710--all x. Verticals AJ4290--all x."
"15,270 kilofranks--all x."
"700,000 kilofrank-hours--all x."
Having thus checked and tested every function of his department, Breckenridge plugged into "Captain," and when the green light went on:
"Chief pilot check out--all x," he reported briefly.
"All x," acknowledged the speaker, and the chief pilot unplugged. Fifteen minutes remained, during which time one department head after another would report to the captain of the liner that everything in his charge was ready for the stupendous flight.
"All x, Steve?" Breckenridge turned to the computer. "How do you check acceleration and power with the observatory?"
"Not so good, old bean," the younger man frowned in thought. "They figure like astronomers, not navigators. They've made no allowances for anything, not even the reversal--and I figure four thousands for that and for minor detours. Then there's check station errors...."
"Check-station errors! Why, they're always right--that's what they're for!"
"Don't fool yourself--they've got troubles of their own, the same as anybody else. In fact, from a study of the charts of the last few weeks, I'm pretty sure that E2 is at least four thousand kilometers this side of where he thinks he is, that W41 is ten or twelve thousand beyond his station, and that they've both got a lateral displacement that's simply fierce. I'm going to check up, and argue with them about it as we pass. Then there's another thing--they figure to only two places, and we've got to have the third place almost solid if we expect to get a smooth curve. A hundredth of a centimeter of acceleration means a lot on a long trip when they're holding us as close as they are doing now. We'll ride this trip on 981.286 centimeters--with our scheduled mass, that means thirty six points of four seven kilofranks plus equilibrium power. All set to go," the computer stated, as he changed, by fractions of arc, the course-plotters of the automatic integrating goniometer.
"You're the doctor--but I'm glad it's you that'll have to explain to the observatory," and Breckenridge set his exceedingly delicate excess power potentiometer exactly upon the indicated figure. "Well, we've got a few minutes left for a chin-chin before we lift her off."
"What's all this commotion about? Dish out the lowdown."
"Well, it's like this, Steve. We pilots are having one sweet time--we're being growled at on every trip. The management squawks if we're thirty seconds plus or minus at the terminals, and the passenger department squalls if we change acceleration five centimeters total en route--claims it upsets the dainty customers and loses business for the road. They're tightening up on us all the time. A couple of years ago, you remember, it didn't make any difference what we did with the acceleration as long as we checked in somewhere near zero time--we used to spin 'em dizzy when we reversed at the halfway station--but that kind of stuff doesn't go any more. We've got to hold the acceleration constant and close to normal, got to hold our schedule on zero, plus or minus ten seconds, and yet we've got to make any detours they tell us to, such as this seven-million kilometer thing they handed us just now. To make things worse, we've got to take orders at every check-station, and yet we get the blame for everything that happens as a consequence of obeying those orders! Of course, I know as well as you do that it's rotten technique to change acceleration at every check-station; but we've told 'em over and over that we can't do any better until they put a real computer on every ship and tell the check-stations to report meteorites and other obstructions to us and then to let us alone. So you'd better recommend us some computers!"
"You're getting rotten computation, that's a sure thing, and I don't blame you pilots for yelling, but I don't believe that you've got the right answer. I can't help but think that the astronomers are lying down on the job. They are so sure that you pilots are to blame that it hasn't occurred to them to check up on themselves very carefully. However, we'll know pretty quick, and then we'll take steps."
"I hope so--but say, Steve, I'm worried about using that much plus equilibrium power. Remember, we've got to hit M14 in absolutely good shape, or plenty heads will drop."
"I'll say they will. I know just how the passengers will howl if we hold them weightless for half an hour, waiting for those two moons to get out of the way, and I know just what the manager will do if we check in minus thirty-one minutes. Wow! He'll swell up and bust, sure. But don't worry, Breck--if we don't check in all right, anybody can have my head that wants it, and I'm taking full responsibility, you know."
"You're welcome to it." Breckenridge shrugged and turned the conversation into a lighter vein. "Speaking of weightlessness, it's funny how many weight-fiends there are in the world, isn't it? You'd think the passengers would enjoy a little weightlessness occasionally--especially the fat ones--but they don't. But say, while I think of it, how come you were here and loose to make this checkup? I thought you were out with the other two of the Big Three, solving all the mysteries of the Universe?"
"Had to stay in this last trip--been doing some work on the ether, forcefield theory, and other advanced stuff that I had to go to Mars and Venus to get. Just got back last week. As for solving mysteries, laugh while you can, old hyena. You and a lot of other dim bulbs think that Roeser's Rays are the last word--that there's nothing left to discover--are going to get jarred loose from your hinges one of these days. When I came in nine months ago they were hot on the trail of something big, and I'll bet they bring it in...."
Out upon the dock an insistent siren blared a crescendo and diminuendo blast of sound, and two minutes remained. In every stateroom and in every lounge and saloon speakers sounded a warning:
"For a short time, while we are pulling clear of the gravitational field of the Earth, walking will be somewhat difficult, as everything on board will apparently increase in weight by about one-fifth of its present amount. Please remain seated, or move about with caution. In about an hour weight will gradually return to normal. We start in one minute."
"Hipe!" barked the chief pilot as a flaring purple light sprang into being upon his board, and the assistants came to attention at their stations. "Seconds! Four! Three! Two! One! LIFT!" He touched a button and a set of plunger switches drove home, releasing into the forty-five enormous driving projectors the equilibrium power--the fifteen-thousand-and-odd kilofranks of energy that exactly counterbalanced the pull of gravity upon the mass of the cruiser. Simultaneously there was added from the potentiometer, already set to the exact figure given by the computer, the plus-equilibrium power--which would not be changed throughout the journey if the ideal acceleration curve were to be registered upon the recorders--and the immense mass of the cruiser of the void wafted vertically upward at a low and constant velocity. The bellowing, shrieking siren had cleared the air magically of the swarm of aircraft in her path, and quietly, calmly, majestically, the Arcturus floated upward.
Breckenridge, sixty seconds after the initial lift, actuated the system of magnetic relays which would gradually cut in the precisely measured "starting power," which it would be necessary to employ for sixty-nine minutes--for, without the acceleration given by this additional power, they would lose many precious hours of time in covering merely the few thousands of miles during which Earth's attraction would operate powerfully against their progress.
Faster and faster the great cruiser shot upward as more and more of the starting power was released, and heavier and heavier the passengers felt themselves become. Soon the full calculated power was on and the acceleration became constant. Weight no longer increased, but remained constant at a value of plus twenty three and six-tenths percent. For a few moments there had been uneasy stomachs among the passengers--perhaps a few of the first-trippers had been made ill--but it was not much worse than riding in a high-speed elevator, particularly since there was no change from positive to negative acceleration such as is experienced in express elevators.
The computer, his calculations complete, watched the pilot with interest, for, accustomed as he was to traversing the depths of space, there was a never-failing thrill to his scientific mind in the delicacy and precision of the work which Breckenridge was doing--work which could be done only by a man who had had long training in the profession and who was possessed of instantaneous nervous reaction and of the highest degree of manual dexterity and control. Under his right and left hands were the double-series potentiometers actuating the variable-speed drives of the flight-angle directors in the hour and declination ranges; before his eyes was the finely marked micrometer screen upon which the guiding goniometer threw its needle-point of light; powerful optical systems of prisms and lenses revealed to his sight the director-angles, down to fractional seconds of arc. It was the task of the chief pilot to hold the screened image of the cross-hairs of the two directors in such position relative to the ever-moving point of light as to hold the mighty vessel precisely upon its course, in spite of the complex system of forces acting upon it.
For almost an hour Breckenridge sat motionless, his eyes flashing from micrometer screen to signal panel, his sensitive fingers moving the potentiometers through minute arcs because of what he saw upon the screen and in instantaneous response to the flashing, multi-colored lights and tinkling signals of his board. Finally, far from earth, the moon's attraction and other perturbing forces comparatively slight, the signals no longer sounded and the point of light ceased its irregular motion, becoming almost stationary. The chief pilot brought both cross-hairs directly upon the brilliant point, which for some time they had been approaching more and more nearly, adjusted the photo-cells and amplifiers which would hold them immovably upon it, and at the calculated second of time, cut out the starting power by means of another set of automatically timed relays. When only the regular driving power was left, and the acceleration had been checked and found to be exactly the designated value of 981.286 centimeters, he stood up and heaved a profound sigh of relief.
"Well, Steve, that's over with--we're on our way. I'm always glad when this part of it is done."
"It's a ticklish job, no fooling--even for an expert," the mathematician agreed. "No wonder the astronomers think you birds are the ones who are gumming up their dope. Well, it's about time to plug in on E2. Here's where the fireworks start!" He closed the connections which transferred the central portion of the upper lookout screen to a small micrometer screen at Breckenridge's desk and plugged it into the first check-station. Instantly a point of red light, surrounded by a vivid orange circle, appeared upon the screen, low down and to the left of center, and the timing galvanometer showed a wide positive deflection.
"Hashed again!" growled Breckenridge. "I must be losing my grip, I guess. I put everything I had on that sight, and missed it ten divisions. I think I'll turn in my badge--I've cocked our perfect curve already, before we got to the first check-station!" His hands moved toward the controls, to correct their course and acceleration.
"As you were--hold everything! Lay off those controls!" snapped the computer. "There's something screwy, just as I thought--and it isn't you, either. I'm no pilot, of course, but I do know good compensation when I see it, and if you weren't compensating that point I never saw it done. Besides, with your skill and my figures I know darn well that we aren't off more than a tenth of one division. He's cuckoo! Don't call him--let him start it, and refer him to me."
"All x--I'll be only too glad to pass the buck. But I still think, Steve, that you're playing with dynamite. Who ever heard of an astronomer being wrong?"
"You'd be surprised," grinned the physicist, "Since this fuss has just started, nobody has tried to find out whether they were wrong or not...."
"IPV Arcturus, attention!" came from the speaker curtly.
"IPV Arcturus, Breckenridge," from the chief pilot.
"You have been on my ray almost a minute. Why are you not correcting course and acceleration?"
"Doctor Stevens is computing us and has full control of course and acceleration," replied Breckenridge. "He will answer you."
"I am changing neither course nor acceleration because you are not in position," declared Stevens, crisply, "Please give me your present supposed location, and your latest precision goniometer bearings on the sun, the moon, Mars, Venus, and your Tellurian reference limb, with exact time of observations, gyroscope zero-planes, and goniometer factors!"
"Correct at once or I shall report you to the Observatory," E2 answered loftily, paying no attention to the demand for proof of position.
"Be sure you do that, guy--and while you're at it report that your station hasn't taken a precision bearing in a month. Report that you've been muddling along on radio loop bearings, and that you don't know where you are, within seven thousand kilometers. And speaking of reporting--I know already that a lot of you astronomical guessers have only the faintest possible idea of where you really are, plus, minus, or lateral; and if you don't get yourselves straightened out before we get to W41, I'm going to make a report on my own account that will jar some of you birds loose from your upper teeth!" He unplugged with a vicious jerk, and turned to the pilot with a grin.
"Guess that'll hold him for a while, won't it?"
"He'll report us, sure," remonstrated Breckenridge. The older man was plainly ill at ease at this open defiance of the supposedly infallible check-stations.
"Not that baby," returned the computer confidently. "I'll bet you a small farm against a plugged nickel that right now he's working his goniometer so hard that it's pivots are getting hot. He'll sneak back into position as soon as he can calculate his results, and pretend he's always been there."
"The others will be all right, then, probably, by the time we get to them?"
"Gosh, no--you're unusually dumb today, Breck. He won't tell anybody anything--he doesn't want to be the only goat, does he?"
"Oh, I see. How could you dope this out, with only the recorder charts?"
"Because I know the kind of stuff you pilots are--and those humps are altogether too big to be accounted for by anything I know about you. Another thing--the next station, P6, I think is keeping himself all x. If so, when you corrected for E2, which was wrong, it'd throw you all off on P6, which was right, and so on--a bad hump at almost every check-station. See?"
True to prediction, the pilot ray of P6 came in almost upon the exact center of the micrometer screen, and Breckenridge smiled in relief as he began really to enjoy the trip.
"How do we check on chronometers?" asked P6 when Stevens had been introduced. "By my time you seem to be about two and a half seconds plus?"
"All x--two points four seconds plus--we're riding on 981.286 centimeters, to allow for the reversal and for minor detours. Bye."
"All this may have been coincidence, Breck, but we'll find out pretty quick now," the computer remarked when the flying vessel was nearing the third check-station. "Unless I'm all out of control we'll check in almost fourteen seconds minus on W41, and we may not even find him on the center block of the screen."
When he plugged in W41 was on the block, but was in the extreme upper right corner. They checked in thirteen and eight-tenths seconds minus on the station, and a fiery dialogue ensued when the computer questioned the accuracy of the location of the station and refused point-blank to correct his course.
"Well, Breck, old onion, that tears it," Stevens declared as he unplugged. "No use going any further on these bum reference points. I'm going to report to Newton--he'll rock the Observatory on its foundations!" He plugged into the telegraph room. "Have you got a free high-power wave? ... Please put me on Newton, in the main office."
Moving lights flashed and flickered for an instant upon the communicator screen, settling down into a white glow which soon resolved itself into the likeness of a keen-eyed, gray-haired man, seated at his desk in the remote office of the Interplanetary Corporation. Newton smiled as he recognized the likeness of Stevens upon his own screen, and greeted him cordially.
"Have you started your investigation, Doctor Stevens?"
"Started it? I've finished it!" and Stevens tersely reported what he had learned, concluding: "So you see, you don't need special computers on these ships any more than a hen needs teeth. You've got all the computers you need, in the observatories--all you've got to do is make them work at their trade."
"The piloting was all x, then?"
"Absolutely--our curve so far is exactly flat ever since we cut off the starting power. Of course, all the pilots can't be as good as Breckenridge, but give them good computation and good check points and you shouldn't get any humps higher than about half a centimeter."
"They'll get both, from now on," the director assured him. "Thanks. If your work for the trip is done, you might show my little girl, Nadia, around the Arcturus. She's never been out before, and will be interested. Would you mind?"
"Glad to, Mr. Newton--I'll be a regular uncle to her."
"Thanks again, Operator, I'll speak to Captain King, please."
"Pipe down that guff, you unlicked cub, or I'll crown you with a proof-bar!" the chief pilot growled, as soon as Stevens had unplugged.
"You and who else?" retorted the computer, cheerfully. "Pipe down yourself, guy--if you weren't so darn dumb and didn't have such a complex, you'd know that you're the crack pilot of the outfit and wouldn't care who else knew it." Stevens carefully covered and put away the calculating machine and other apparatus he had been using and turned again to the pilot.
"I didn't know Newton had any kids, especially little ones, or I'd have got acquainted with them long ago. Of course I don't know him very well, since I never was around the office much, but the old tiger goes over big with me."
"Hmm. Think you'll enjoy playing nursemaid all the rest of the trip?" Breckenridge asked caustically, but with an enigmatic smile.
"Think so? I know so!" replied Stevens, positively. "I always did like kids, and they always did like me--we fall for each other like ten thousand bricks falling down a well. Why, a kid--any kid--and I team up just like grace and poise.... What's gnawing on you anyway, to make you turn Cheshire cat all of a sudden? By the looks of that grin I'd say you had swallowed a canary of mine some way or other; but darned if I know that I've lost any," and he stared at his friend suspiciously.
"To borrow your own phrase, Steve, 'You'd be surprised,'" and Breckenridge, though making no effort to conceal his amusement, would say no more.
In a few minutes the door opened, and through it there stepped a grizzled four-striper. Almost hidden behind his massive form there was a girl, who ran up to Breckenridge and seized both his hands, her eyes sparkling.
"Hi, Breckie, you old darling! I knew that if we both kept after him long enough Dad would let me ride with you sometime. Isn't this gorgeous?"
Stevens was glad indeed that the girl's enthusiastic greeting of the pilot was giving him time to recover from his shock, for Director Newton's "little girl, Nadia" was not precisely what he had led himself to expect. Little she might be, particularly when compared with the giant frame of Captain King, or with Steve's own five-feet-eleven of stature and the hundred and ninety pounds of rawhide and whalebone that was his body, but child she certainly was not. Her thick, fair hair, cut in the square bob that was the mode of the moment, indicated that Nature had intended her to be a creamy blonde, but as she turned to be introduced to him, Stevens received another surprise--for she was one of those rare, but exceedingly attractive beings, a natural blonde with brown eyes and black eyebrows. Sun and wind had tanned her satin skin to a smooth and even shade of brown, and every movement of her lithe and supple body bespoke to the discerning mind a rigidly trained physique.
"Doctor Stevens, you haven't met Miss Newton, I hear," the captain introduced them informally. "All the officers who are not actually tied down at their posts are anxious to do the honors of the vessel, but as I have received direct orders from the owners, I am turning her over to you--you are to show her around."
"Thanks, Captain, I won't mutiny a bit against such an order. I'm mighty glad to know you, Miss Newton."
"I've heard a lot about you, Doctor. Dad and Breckie here are always talking about the Big Three--what you have done and what you are going to do. I want to meet Doctor Brandon and Doctor Westfall, too," and her hand met his in a firm and friendly clasp. She turned to the captain, and Stevens, noticing that the pilot, with a quizzical expression, was about to say something, silenced him with a fierce aside.
"Clam it, ape, or I'll climb up you like a squirrel!" he hissed, and the grinning Breckenridge nodded assent to this demand for silence concerning children and nursemaids.
"Since you've never been out, Miss Newton, you'll want to see the whole works," Stevens addressed the girl. "Where do you want to begin? Shall we start at the top and work down?"
"All right with me," she agreed, and fell into step beside him. She was dressed in dove-gray from head to foot--toque, blouse, breeches, heavy stockings, and shoes were of the one shade of smooth, lustrous silk; and as they strolled together down the passageway, the effortless ease and perfect poise of her carriage called aloud to every hard-schooled fiber of his own highly trained being.
"We're a lot alike you and I--do you know it?" he asked, abruptly and unconventionally.
"Yes, I've felt it, too," she replied frankly, and studied him without affectation. "It has just come to me what it is. We're both in fine condition and in hard training. You're an athlete of some kind, and I'm sure you're a star--I ought to recognize you, but I'm ashamed to say I don't. What do you do?"
"Oh, of course--Stevens, the great Olympic high and fancy diver! I would never have connected our own Doctor Stevens, the eminent mathematical physicist, with the King of the Springboard. Say, ever since I quit being afraid of the water I've had a yen to do that two-and-a-half twist of yours, but I never met anybody who knew it well enough to teach it to me, and I've almost broken my back forty times trying to learn it alone!"
"I've got you, now, too--American and British Womens' golf champion. Shake!" and the two shook hands vigorously, in mutual congratulation. "Tell you what--I'll give you some pointers on diving, and you can show me how to make a golf ball behave. Next to Norman Brandon, I've got the most vicious hook in captivity--and Norm can't help himself. He's left-handed, you know, and, being a southpaw, he's naturally wild. He slices all his woods and hooks all his irons. I'm consistent, anyway--I hook everything, even my putts."
"It's a bargain! What do you shoot?"
"Pretty dubby. Usually in the middle eighties--none of us play much, being out in space most of the time, you know--sometimes, when my hook is going particularly well, I go up into the nineties."
"We'll lick that hook," she promised, as they entered an elevator and were borne upward, toward the prow of the great interplanetary cruiser.