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Chapter 4

But Grimes got his human company.

He was awakened in the small hours of the morning by the shrilling of the radar alarm. His first thought was that this must be a meteor on a collision course. By the time that he had sealed himself into his spacesuit—even though, to alleviate boredom, he had been carrying out daily emergency drills, the operation took many seconds—he was thinking that the hunk of cosmic debris should have struck by now. A merchant ship's radar does not operate at the same extremely long ranges as the installations aboard fighting vessels. Too, the alarm kept on sounding, which indicated that whatever had set it off was still in close vicinity to Bronson Star.

He left his quarters, made for the control room. He went at once to the radar screen. Yes, there was something out there all right, something big. Its range, a mere one kilometer, was neither opening nor closing; its azimuth was not changing. The shuttle from Port Bronson? wondered Grimes. Possibly—but surely Aerospace Control would have warned him that it was coming out to him. He was about to go to the transceiver to call the duty officer at the spaceport when his attention was diverted by a sharp tapping noise, audible even through his helmet. He opened the visor to hear better and to locate the source of the sound. It was coming from one of the viewports.

There, was something—no, somebody—outside. He could see a helmeted head and, through the, transparent faceplate, a pale face. He kicked himself away from the transceiver, fetched up against the viewport rather harder than he had intended. He stared into the eyes of the intruder. It was a woman staring back at him. Her wide mouth moved. She seemed annoyed that he made no reply to what she was saying. He nudged with his chin the on-off button that actuated his own suit radio.

"Help!" she said. "Help! This is urgent. Orbital met. station Beta. Explosion. Atmosphere lost. . . ."

One of the orbital met. stations? What the hell was it doing here?

"Don't just stand there! Open your airlock door and let us in! Some fool forgot to maintain our suit air bottles. . . ."

"Opening up," said Grimes, pushing himself away from the port and toward the auxiliary machinery control panel. He jabbed a gloved forefinger at the requisite buttons, saw the illuminated PUMP OPERATING sign come on, then PUMP STOPPED, then OUTER DOOR OPEN. The call to Aerospace Control, he decided, could wait until he had the survivors safely on board. He left the control room, hurrying as well as he could in the restrictive space armor, made his way to the head of the axial shaft. Fortunately the elevator cage was already at Captain's Flat level so he did not have to wait for it. Within two minutes he was in the airlock vestibule, watching the illuminated signs over the inner door. At last the OUTER DOOR OPEN was replaced by OUTER DOOR CLOSED. The needle of the airlock pressure gauge began to creep upward from Zero, finally stopped. Before Grimes could thumb the local control button—which, of course, was duplicated inside the chamber—the door began to open. Before it had done so fully a spacesuited figure shuffled through, careful not to break the contact of magnetic soles with the deck.

It was the woman, Grimes realized, with whom he had already talked. He realized, too, that she was holding a heavy pistol of unfamiliar make and that it was pointed at his belly.

Her voice, through his helmet phones, was coldly vicious.

"Don't try anything or I'll blow your guts through your backbone!"

She was followed by three other spacesuited figures. They, too, were armed.

"Take us up to the control room," ordered the woman.

Grimes had no option but to obey.

* * *

Only two of the intruders accompanied Grimes into the elevator cage, riding forward (there would be no "up" or "down" until the ship was accelerating) to Control. They told Grimes, menacing him with their weapons, to sit down. He did so, in the chair by the NST transceiver, thinking that he might, given half an opportunity, try to get out a call to Aerospace Control. But the woman anticipated this, fastening his seat belt so that it confined his arms as well as his body.

She asked, "Is this atmosphere breathable?"

He said, "Yes."

"Then why the hell are you wearing a spacesuit?"

"I was awakened by the radar alarm. I thought that it might be a meteor and that the ship might be holed."

"The alarm? It's not sounding now."

It wasn't. The craft that had set it off must now be drifting away from Bronson Star, Grimes thought.

"And the air is good, you say? There's just one way of finding out."

But her hands went not to her own helmet but to Grimes's, twisted, lifted. "Thank you," said Grimes, not overly sarcastically. The ship's atmosphere was better than that inside his suit.

"He hasn't died," said the woman, "so it must be all right."

She took off her own headpiece. Her companion followed suit. Grimes looked at the skyjackers curiously. The woman's face was thin, with fine bone structure, with eyes so deep a blue as to be almost black. Her glossy brown hair was swept back to a coil at the nape of her neck. Her mouth was wide, full lipped, palely pink in contrast to the deep tan of her skin. The man could have sat as a model for one of the more decadent Roman emperors. Greasy black ringlets framed a fleshy face, with jutting nose over a petulant mouth.

She said, "We are taking your ship. If you cooperate you will live."

"For the time being," said the man nastily.

Grimes said nothing.

"Has the cat got your tongue?" she asked.

He decided that he had better say something. In any case he wanted to find out what this was all about.

"Cooperate?" he queried. "How?"

"You know this ship," she said. "We don't. Furthermore—I'll be frank—our navigator got himself killed when we took over the met. satellite. . . ." She laughed. "We're all of us spacepersons, of a sort—but met. wallahs. Orbital flights only, apart from Hodge. . . ."


"You'll meet him. He's served as engineer in deep-space ships. He's checking up now. . . ."

A voice came from the intercom speaker. "Hodge to Lania. Main hydrogen fusion power generator operating. Inertial and Mannschenn Drives on Stand By. She's all yours. You'd better get her the hell out of here before the Aerospace Control boys realize that Station Beta's not where she's supposed to be."

"Take her away," ordered Lania, addressing Grimes, making a threatening gesture with her gun hand. Her companions also displayed their weapons menacingly.

"If I'm dead," said Grimes reasonably, "I shan't be able to take this ship anywhere."

"If you're dead," she said, "you're dead. Period. It's quite permanent, you know. Are you going to play along or not?"

"I'll play," muttered Grimes. "But you have to release me first."

"Cover him, Paul," she said to her companion, handing him her own pistol. She unmapped the catch of Grimes's seat belt, standing to one side so as to leave a clear field of fire for the guns. Then she stepped smartly back and retrieved her own weapon.

"I have to sit in the command chair," said Grimes.

"Then sit in the command chair. We'll be sitting behind you. We're not such fools as to remain standing while you're setting trajectory."

"Where do you want to go?" asked Grimes.

"Just get us out of here, fast, the way she's heading now. Mannschenn Drive as soon as you can so that we can't be picked up by Aerospace Control's radar. We'll set trajectory properly later."

Grimes went through the familiar routine. He almost enjoyed it, this awakening of a slumbering ship, this breaking out and away from that deadly dull parking orbit. He would have enjoyed it had he not been acting under duress. There was the arrhythmic cacophony of the inertial drive and with the acceleration, blessed gravity again after the weeks of Free Fall. The ship was now headed, he saw, looking up through the transparency of the forward viewport, for the bright star that was the major luminary of the constellation called, by the Bronsonians, the Hobbit. He did not suppose that any world revolving about that primary would be the destination but it was as good a target star as any for the time being.

He cut the inertial drive. Would the sudden return to weightless conditions give him the opportunity to do something, anything? From behind him he heard the tense whisper, "Watch it, Grimes! Watch it. We have you covered." He sighed, audibly. He said, "Stand by Mannschenn Drive, for temporal disorientation."

There was the almost inaudible humming, a vibration rather than a sound, as the gyroscopes began to spin, a low hum that gradually heightened its pitch to a thin, high whine. As always, Grimes visualized that complexity of gleaming rotors, spinning, tumbling, precessing, warping the Continuum about the ship and all aboard her. Perspective was distorted and colors sagged down the spectrum. There was the usual dizziness, the faint nausea—and then inside the ship all was normal once more but outside, seen through the viewports the stars were no longer hard, diamond-sharp points of light but writhing, iridescent nebulosities. Still in view, just abaft the beam, was Bronsonia, no longer a sphere but a sluggishly pulsating ellipsoid.

Grimes restarted the inertial drive and it dwindled to invisibility.

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