Compared with a spaceship in distress, going to hell in a hand-basket is roomy and slow!
The space freighter Queen Dierdre was a great, squat, pockmarked vessel of the Earth-Mars run and she never gave anyone a bit of trouble. That should have been sufficient warning to Mr. Watkins, her engineer. Watkins was fond of saying that there are two kinds of equipment – the kind that fails bit by bit, and the kind that fails all at once.
Watkins was short and red-faced, magnificently mustached, and always a little out of breath. With a cigar in his hand, over a glass of beer, he talked most cynically about his ship, in the immemorial fashion of engineers. But in reality, Watkins was foolishly infatuated with Dierdre, idealized her, humanized her, and couldn’t conceive of anything serious ever happening.
On this particular run, Dierdre soared away from Terra at the proper speed; Mr. Watkins signaled that fuel was being consumed at the proper rate; and Captain
Somers cut the engines at the proper moment indicated by Mr. Rajcik, the navigator.
As soon as Point Able had been reached and the engines stopped, Somers frowned and studied his complex control board. He was a thin and meticulous man, and he operated his ship with mechanical perfection. He was well liked in the front offices of Mikkelsen Space Lines, where Old Man Mikkelsen pointed to Captain Somers’ reports as models of neatness and efficiency. On Mars, he stayed at the Officers’ Club, eschewing the stews and dives of Marsport. On Earth, he lived in a little Vermont cottage and enjoyed the quiet companionship of two cats, a Japanese houseboy, and a wife.
* * * * *
His instructions read true. And yet he sensed something wrong. Somers knew every creak, rattle and groan that Dierdre was capable of making. During blastoff, he had heard something different. In space, something different had to be wrong.
“Mr. Rajcik,” he said, turning to his navigator, “would you check the cargo? I believe something may have shifted.”
“You bet,” Rajcik said cheerfully. He was an almost offensively handsome young man with black wavy hair, blase blue eyes and a cleft chin. Despite his appearance, Rajcik was thoroughly qualified for his position. But he was only one of fifty thousand thoroughly qualified men who lusted for a berth on one of the fourteen spaceships in existence. Only Stephen Rajcik had had the foresight, appearance and fortitude to court and wed Helga, Old Man Mikkelsen’s eldest daughter.
Rajcik went aft to the cargo hold. Dierdre was carrying transistors this time, and microfilm books, platinum filaments, salamis, and other items that could not as yet be produced on Mars. But the bulk of her space was taken by the immense Fahrensen Computer.
Rajcik checked the positioning lines on the monster, examined the stays and turnbuckles that held it in place, and returned to the cabin.
“All in order, Boss,” he reported to Captain Somers, with the smile that only an employer’s son-in-law can both manage and afford.
“Mr. Watkins, do you read anything?”
Watkins was at his own instrument panel. “Not a thing, sir. I’ll vouch for every bit of equipment in Dierdre.”
“Very well. How long before we reach Point Baker?”
“Three minutes, Chief,” Rajcik said.
The spaceship hung in the void, all sensation of speed lost for lack of a reference point. Beyond the portholes was darkness, the true color of the Universe, perforated by the brilliant lost points of the stars.