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Stress Complex by Francis G Rayer

This short story first appeared in the magazine New Worlds, Issue Number 60, dated June 1957.
Editor: John Carnell. Publisher: Nova.
Country of first publication: Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).
This work is Copyright. All rights are reserved.

illustration from Stress Complex in  New Worlds #60 1957

Stress Complex

By Francis G. Rayer

Numerous authors have postulated a variety of difficulties besetting Man's attempt to break the force of gravity chaining him to this planet ; some have even inferred that it will never be accomplished. Either way these plots make interesting reading and Mr. Rayer's story herewith is no exception.

Illustrated by HARRY

The Monmurry was as perfect as human ingenuity could make her. No reason why she should not have his final clearance, Ruby Bond thought. Further delay would only put the project behind schedule.

He rode down in the ship’s cage. The Monmurry was larger than any of the remote-controlled, auto-piloted craft set down on Luna. Rightly so. Ruby thought as the cage touched concrete. Luna was no longer the target. Nor would servo mechanisms operate the controls — -this time, the pilot must be a living man.

Afternoon sun made red fire of Ruby’s hair as he crossed to the field runabout. He hoisted himself in, long-legged in the light blue uniform senior personnel wore, and smiled. The ship could accomplish what men demanded.

At the main entrance to the works, Pembridge himself waited. Lean, grey-haired, almost in his sixties, he had a vigilance younger men could envy. Upright, with the clear-cut features of a man aware of his own ability, he stepped out to meet the runabout.

Ruby slowed the vehicle, halting. Pembridge was no mere figurehead, but commanded respect. If younger, he would have been in the ship, not merely watching.

Ruby jumped out. Pembridge’s keen grey eyes appraised him.
“ The Monmurry is ready. Captain Bond ? ”
“ She is sir ! The reports were finished this morning. I'd stake my life on her.”

“ Good! ” Satisfaction curved his straight lips. “ Captain Pellon will be glad you feel like that. It’s easy to send up an auto-pilot.” Pembridge made an expressive gesture. “ We’ve sent up thousands, and destroyed more than I can count in the process. But human life is different. Yet in the end, it’s the ability to carry people that matters. A bagful of electronic gadgetry set down on Luna or Mars is a scientific achievement. But a group of living men landed there is a step forward for humanity.”

“ It is, sir.”

Ruby well knew his senior’s enthusiasm. Visionary, some-times inspired, it had made Pembridge Rockets a name known the world over. Pembridge had set the first bagful of gadgetry on Luna — a minute radio beacon, fist-sized final step of a multi-stage rocket. Four stages had got the missile to Luna. Two had braked. Miraculously the beacon had landed intact and burbled out its radio wave until its batteries failed.

“ Captain Pellon and Ed Simpson are waiting back in my office,” Pembridge stated.

He walked smartly through the works entrance. To the left high machine shops whined and thudded in their chorus of production. The works covered a hundred acres, being one of several, and Ruby remembered something Pembridge had said many years before.

“ When capital permits, build in threes ! One to blow up, one to investigate, and one to keep for stock ! It costs more in the first place, but loses less eventually.”

Ruby hoped that advancing techniques had by now out-moded the warning. The Monmurry was one of three — her identical sisters Goblincar and Allegro stood at respectful distances. Ships could be replaced. But the living men destroyed with them could not.

“ You think Pellon and Simpson will stand the drive ?” Pembridge asked as they turned between high buildings.
“ The personnel testing wing says they will.”

That fact should dispel unease, Ruby thought. Both pilot and radio man had undergone tests which exactly simulated flying the Monmurry. They had passed readily.

“ I’ll admit the drive is hell,” Pembridge said frankly. “ But it’s virtually essential. Steady burning would put a ship on Mars, but not leave fuel to come back. It’s the power-to-weight factor we’ve been fighting all along.”

Ruby nodded, following through the door. All too often in the past calculations had set impossible conditions. He remembered an old cadetship problem in which fifteen-hundred weight units of fuel were needed to set a thousand unit ship on Mars. How could a thousand-unit ship carry fifteen-hundred units of fuel ? But a team of experts had come up with explosive-propulsion, as they aptly termed it. A violent detonation at regular intervals gave increased exhaust velocity, and more speed per unit of fuel, compared with steady burning. Unfortunately the method was purgatory, as Pembridge said, but a steady thrust could not yet give a return trip to Mars.

Captain Jack Pellon had the bearing of an officer facing a tough job he knew he could accomplish. Erect, crisp, with a clipped brown moustache, his eyes nevertheless twinkled.

“ Two hours until zero,” he said.
Ruby nodded. “ You’ll find the ship in order.”

It was deliberate understatement. The Monmurry was a final improved version of a score of test models. Many had been flown to destruction by remote control, enduring stresses which the Monmurry would never meet.

Pembridge lowered himself into the swivel chair behind his desk, expression satisfied. A long finger tapped documents before him.

"The government contract and grant is ours if you make a safe touch-down on Mars, Captain Pellon,” he said. "Pembridge Rockets can use that grant. We’ve not many days left if we’re to put a manned ship down safely within the period specified in our initial contract.”

“ We’ll do it easily enough,” Jack Pellon stated confidently.
“ You think you’ll stand the hammering the drive will give you ? ”
“ Easily, sir ! Ed Simpson and I have endured worse in the test wing.”

“ Then we’ll go over the final details again.” Pembridge leaned over his desk communicator. “ Have Lieutenant Simpson located and sent up.”
“ I understand he’s on his way, sir,” the speaker said.
“ Good.”

Within minutes Simpson entered. Ruby liked him, and respected his efficiency. They talked over details, and for once it seemed that everything was perfect. Jack Pellon was confident, and an excellent pilot. His training had been complete. Ed Simpson, whose duty it was to keep Earth informed, was equally sure. The Monmurry would fly as scheduled ; would reach Mars as planned. Simpson would beam back information. The contract would be signed. Everything was perfect, as good as done. Ruby felt glad. Rocket projects seldom went off as smoothly as this !

When they left the office there was an hour to go. Ruby spent it about the works. A certain tension made it impossible that he go home until the ship was safely on her way. Better phone Ella, he decided. Wives of rocketmen grew uneasy when husbands became overdue.

Her voice was cheery, tinkling. “ They’ll make it, Ruby ! Ed’s as good a radioman as you’ll find — and I should know, as I was in signals before meeting you. Jack’s tough, too.”

“ You sound happy about it,” he said.
“ Perhaps.” A pause. “ I was half afraid Pembridge would want you to fly her.”

He reassured Ella, and hung up. This, too, was a lurking fear always in a wife’s mind a husband might any day find himself piloting a craft which was three-quarters explosive fuel, and one-quarter complicated mechanism where the minutest fault could cause disaster. When he rang Ella unexpectedly from the works a tiny note of unease lay in her voice.

He was back on the field in time to see Pellon and Simpson enter the ship. Far away across the concrete the sister vessels gleamed, twin steel spires. When the two men had gone from view, the lock closed, and the area cleared. Ruby walked towards the radio tower. Everything was up to Pellon and Simpson now.

Men alone and in twos and threes were converging on the tower as if by chance. Recognising two. Ruby nodded. Wilf Jeffs and Joe Hopwood might either have been in Ed Simpson’s place. As he entered the lift. Ruby saw an officer, lean and upright, with taut features. Captain Telse who might have been in Jack Pellon’s sprung hammock. In due time each would have his chance. Ruby thought.

Clearance signals were passing between Ed Simpson and the control officer. Ruby stood at the wide, curved window that overlooked all the field. Pellon and Simpson lay on steel-mesh hammocks, elaborately sprung, mounted on hydraulic pistons. The kick in the Monmurry's tail could have flattened them to pulp, without such precautions.

Final messages had passed. Ruby wondered what Devil’s inspiration had first set the team of experts on calculating the results of exploding fuel in hefty quantities. Pembridge’s old rockets had been a joy to ride, on their little hops a scant few thousand miles high. Continuous thrust was easy on men and machinery. Violent explosions at frequent intervals were not. Men had come out of the test wing dazed and pale. Machinery that could stand twenty-gravities continuous acceleration broke down under the hammer blows of thrust, drift, thrust, drift.

The count had gone down to zero, a tense drone. Blue, scalding fire erupted under the Monmurry’s stern. For a fractional instant she seemed to pause, drive balancing inertia, then she was gone like a shell. Fury glared at her stern again. She was in the heavens, then gone from view. A tiny spark glowed, ceased ; then another, barely visible. Then nothing.

“ All in order and on course,” Ed Simpson’s voice said in the control room speaker.

He began repeating data, all to be recorded. Elsewhere in the building radar was tracking the ship’s course. At fifteen second intervals the voice ceased, and a dull, thunderous murmur came. The drive was operating in the way which achieved maximum velocity with minimum fuel.

Ruby left after twenty minutes because it had been a very long day. He got out his car unhurriedly, and drove slowly for home, pleasurably anticipating supper.

An hour had gone when he gained the house. The open door streamed light and Ruby felt unease ruffle his calm. Ella had heard the car and came out, running.

“ Mr. Pembridge is phoning for you ! ”
Her oval face was shocked. He strove to cling to his tranquillity, refusing to believe Pembridge could want him instantly.
Ella dragged open the car door. “ It’s the Monmurry, Ruby !”
Iced water washed through him. He sprang from the car and ran. The unhooked phone was not silent. He lifted it.
“ Captain Bond here.”

The noisy demands for attention terminated. “ This is Pembridge. The Monmurry has crashed.”
Ruby echoed the word, shocked.
“ Where ? ”

“ Africa. The Sahara. Radar watched her down west of a place called el Mabruk. A jet plane is waiting to take us over. I’ll give you twenty minutes.”

The iced water was cold in Ruby’s stomach. “ What of Pellon and Simpson, sir ? ”
“ We can guess.” A pause showed Pembridge was talking to someone in his office. “ Radar says she probably struck at about 3,000 ft. per second — over two thousand miles per hour — ”

The receiver was replaced : Pembridge had nothing more to say, at that moment. Ruby swore. The Monmurry had seemed so safe, so perfect.

He told Ella quickly, and saw she was remembering the day Ed Simpson had looked in for drinks and a talk. Rocketmen stayed in their craft. Escape was so impossible there weren’t even parachutes. No one could use them. There wasn’t time. Ruby read it all in her eyes.

“ I’m sorry, Ella,” he said.

He drove fast on the way back to the works. A stratocruiser stood on the concrete. Pembridge was waiting, cheeks sunken, the collar of a brown overcoat drawn up round his ears. He nodded curtly, silent, but dropped into the adjoining seat when they boarded. Other technical personnel from the works filed in.

“ We’ll be lucky if we find much worth sifting,” Pembridge said. He looked at his watch jerkily. “ I’d give all I have for her to have been on auto pilot.”

Ruby nodded, thoughts sombre. Unfortunately no remote-controlled or auto-piloted craft would satisfy the government, this time. Proof that men could reach Venus and Mars, and live, was wanted.

The last man reached his place. Such trips to the site of fallen rockets were not rare, and the Monmurry had hit nearer home than many. When the craft was airborne, whistling towards Europe above scattered cloud. Ruby ventured the question he knew others would soon be asking him.

“ Any indication of a — defect, sir ? ”

" No.” Pembridge stared through the window of the pressurised cabin, hat touching overcoat collar, thin nose projecting as from a cavern. “ Simpson kept reporting all well. Another hour would have seen them right out in space and on their way. Then Simpson’s reports ceased. Soon after radar said her course had changed and was parallel with the Earth’s surface. Then she began to come down. It was pretty quick. We could do nothing.”

“ No, sir.”

Ruby strove to analyse the information into terms which would indicate the fault. Radio broken down, then steerage lost. Or the sequence might be reversed. The Monmurry' s layout was clear in his mind. A blow-out in the steerage tubes one side might conceivably have damaged the radio equipment power generators one bulkhead away. The loss of steerage might not show up immediately, but the cessation of radio contact would.

“ It’ll be dark by the time we’re there, and dawn before we can do much,” Pembridge said wearily. “ When radar crosses have been checked there won’t be many square miles to search — nor much difficulty in finding what we want.”

His opinion proved correct. The plane and pilot had been on many such hunts, sometimes for crashed rockets not one fiftieth the Monmurry’ s size. Radar fixes came in, cutting down the area. Long hours passed, then the plane began searching at mile altitude under a silvery sky. Pembridge went for’ard, supporting himself by the seat backs like an old man. The craft began to wheel, homing on something radar had found. From the cabin window Ruby saw a crater in the silver sand sea below, a black hole the moonlight did not penetrate.

Soon the plane levelled, speed dropping further, as the pilot chose his landing place.

The sand was still, windless, and the day’s heat had been radiated back at the stars. Brilliantly illuminated, the plane stood with wide wheels pillowed in the furrows they had made. Just like any other crash check. Ruby thought. And yet unlike . . . Someone had placed two holly wreaths on the sand. Their green was singularly incongruous here, where no green thing ever grew.

Pembridge walked once round the crater, then returned to the plane and went in. Ruby stood on the crater lip. The brilliant light of day might reveal something — but he doubted whether anything of real use would emerge. Give a mechanic a broken car — he could easily say where the trouble was. But smash that car to scrap, then demand where the fault had been. It was awkward.

Dawn brought heat, drifting sand, and the certainty that investigation would not help. The several thousand tons of bullet-shaped steel had struck with such velocity that the Monmurry’s tail was well below surface level. The ship had squashed outwards, spreading under the hammer blow of momentum. She was a total wreck, pulverised, broken members bulging and interlocking. Pellon and Simpson could not still live.

Ruby half slid down into the crater. A minor explosion had blasted out one side of the ship, but the sand had closed back like silt round a forgotten hulk. He doubted whether a salvage operation would be justified.

“ So they’re dead,” a clipped voice said above.
Pilot Captain Telse stood on the crater lip, thumbs in his belt. Ruby had never liked him, but had to admit his efficiency.

Ruby nodded. “ Yes, they’re dead.”
It was certain that the Goblincar would follow the Monmurry heavenwards — and likely Telse would pilot her.
Telse surveyed the visible wreckage, his hard, lean face heavy with judgement. He came down, boots slipping ankle-deep at each sliding step.

“ Formed any opinion of the defect yet ?” His tone was condemning. “ Jack and Ed would like to know they had holly wreaths.”

Ruby compressed his lips. The tone was deliberate insult. “ The Monmurry was as safe as technical know-how could make her ! Every component of every part of her was checked time and time again. Her control and drive equipment was run, dismantled, reassembled, and run again. There was no flaw. I’d have staked my life on that — ”

“ Jack and Ed did !” Telse said bitingly. “ You’re not flying auto-pilots, crate loads of junk, but human lives ! When we turn out a human pilot who can do his job, we expect the technician who tests the ship to be able to do his too ! ”

Ruby was silent. How could he argue, standing by the last monument to two good men ? It hurt to know Telse was half right.

“ If the Monmurry had a defect, it won’t be present in the Goblincar when she blasts off !” he stated.

Ruby was less certain, after three days investigation. The days were blistering, the nights frigid. Pembridge decided the ship was so wrecked it would be uneconomical to salvage her. They would dig for clues ; after that drifting sand would obliterate the sight, if not the memory.

Pembridge left in the stratocruiser. Engineers cut into the rear of the Monmurry. Inside, the impact had so flattened her that it was impossible to move for’ard. It would have taken weeks to reach the control and radio cabin. It seemed kinder to the memory of Jack Pellon and Ed Simpson to leave them undisturbed.

Grimed, tired. Ruby spent every hour he could on the site. Only three slender clues emerged, in all. The radio could have gone silent because power failed. The generator was near the side steering tube, and it was here that a minor explosion had ripped the hull. Yet that explosion had seemingly arisen on impact.

Finally they placed the two wreaths on the wreckage and shovelled back sand. The pit was a dark, shadow-filled depression when the plane took off into the steely evening sky.

Ruby slept on the return journey, fatigue triumphanting. Only twenty-four hours grace would remain before his report must be in — and it would confess failure. No one really knew why the Monmurry had crashed.

Pembridge’s manner showed his feelings. “ You know what she cost as accurately as I do. Captain Bond,” he said when Ruby saw him. “ We have always prided ourselves on not losing human lives. The Monmurry was supposed to be safe — if any rocket is that.”

“ She was, sir.” Ruby felt acutely uncomfortable. “ I can only suppose that conditions in actual flight differed from those of experimental tests. Going off course, then out of control, must mean steerage failed.”

“ Why didn’t Simpson radio details. He had time. He was the sort to use the last minutes of his life giving information which would have saved others.”

“ He was, sir.” Ruby remembered Ed well. A nice young fellow. “ I am working on the assumption that the same fault damaged the radio.”

Pembridge sighed, looking old. “ I leave it to you. Put what you think fit in your report for the directors. Then study the Goblincar in the light of any suspicions you have.” He looked up. Ruby was struck by the deep lines round his eyes. “ I’m relying on you. Captain Bond. Double check her until there’s nothing else to check, then test it all again ! Suspect everything. Take nothing for granted. Make her as perfect as you know !”

In the days that followed. Ruby did exactly that. There was an infinitesimal possibility that the repeated hammering of the drive caused some unanticipated fatigue failure in the generator So the latter was removed and fixed to a giant, rocket-fuel fired mechanism which simulated the stress of flight. The captive, propulsion thumped day and night, shuddering on its mountings. At three hour intervals blessed silence came while the generator, was tested. Each time if was perfect.

The control circuits were tested for minute flaws. None were discovered. Thunder and fury surrounded the Goblincar as her steerage jets were tested, thrusts balanced. Threefold normal thrust was used. The tubes would have withstood twice as much again.

During his short periods away from Pembridge Rockets, Ruby was a prowling bear who walked his apartment with his pockets bulging notes and data. He snapped monosyllabic replies at Ella, and did not observe that she understood his mood. He checked facts which he already knew by heart as he ate; more than once he left his bed, seeking his study, there to pour over some trifling doubt which proved unfounded.

At last there was nothing more to test. The Goblincar was perfect. So had the Monmurry.

Ruby jumped when the phone rang, and knew his nerves were in a bad way. Ella had just lain breakfast. Pembridge’s voice came on the line.

“ When will tests on the Goblincar be completed ? ”
“ They were finished late last night, sir.” This was the statement Ruby had been striving to delay.
“ There is nothing further you wish to check over ? ”
“ No, sir.” Ruby felt dispirited. “ Anything more will be chasing my own tail. If she’s not perfect now, she never will be.”

“ Good.” Pembridge’s voice carried returning optimism. “We must not fail this time. Apart from the loss of life, prestige, and capital, time grows short. You will remember we have provisionally undertaken to set a manned craft down on Mars.”

“ I remember, sir,” Ruby said thinly.
“ Very well. Telse and Jeffs will be leaving early this evening. Be present at blast off.”

The line went dead. Ruby knew that some of his tests had been a mere playing for time, though he would never admit it. The utter perfection of the waiting ship no longer gave confidence. The hunk of scrap silted over near el Mabruck had been similarly perfect.

He tried to rest, knowing it pointless to reach the field early. He had done all that it was within human power to do.

Telse was lean and sharp as a hawk, his eyes predatory and his nose beak-like. His brown leather suit gleamed creamy wool at the wrists as he zipped the suit to his throat. He struck a thigh with a padded glove as he stood waiting for the runabout to carry him across to the Goblincar.

“ We’ll get the ship to Mars if she’ll fly,” he said.
He was overbearingly confident. But better that than unease and timidity. Ruby thought. A man like Telse, buoyed up by pride and arrogance, skilful, capable, could accomplish much.

Wilf Jeffs was only up to Telse’s shoulder as he came from the offices. His confidence was more suppressed, but equally strong. He was short, yet rugged, a wide, stocky man who had withstood fantastic accelerations and pressures in the test-wing centrifuge. He had pounded out intelligible Morse while suffering discomforts rendering nine out of ten men unconscious.

The two rode out on the low vehicle, and Jeffs looked back giving a wave which expressed confidence and anticipated triumph. Telse forebore to look back, but faced the ship which was to be the first manned vessel on Mars.

Ruby ascended to the control tower to witness the take-off, and noted that two government observers had arrived. Pembridge talked to them in brief, clipped phrases. His gaze switched from them as Ruby entered.

“ You have given your clearance for the Goblincar, Captain Bond ? ”
“ I have, sir,” Ruby said heavily.
“ Good ! ”

It was dream-like, a repetition of the first occasion. But now only two ships stood on the field. Ruby listened to the talk, and quick hush as the count down began. The Goblincar was farther from the tower than the Monmurry had been. Beyond her was the Allegro, last of the three ships Nowhere on the field or in the works was any other manned rocket even one-tenth finished.

Fire roared into being under the distant vessel, licking out-wards from the narrow gap between ship’s base and concrete. The Goblincar rose like a fired shell, steerage jets flaming horizontally from near her stern. An explosion thumped the control room window. Silence came, then an abrupt down-flaring of energy marked the ship’s position. Seconds later a dull thud came. The ship was riding the hammer blows of her drive satisfactorily, and Wilf Jeffs was speaking over the radio link.

“ We are settling down to regular propulsion period.”

His voice was that of a man who had just had an elephant sit on his chest. The firing period was fifteen seconds. Four times each minute a thunderous explosion awoke in the stern, driving the ship’s velocity up and up in fierce steps of acceleration. At each, Jeffs was silent. Ruby could almost hear the breath forced from his lungs by shock.

The ship had long gone from sight and hearing into the tranquil evening sky. Pembridge and the two observers went down to the works offices to discuss details. Ruby stood by the window, gazing at the lonely Allegro, or watched the radar man as he plotted the Goblincar's ascent, Jeffs was relaying information regularly, his voice that of a tired man. Hull temperatures, fuel consumption, tube temperatures, accuracy of course. Automechanisms could have radioed signals conveying the information. But the ship could not carry such equipment and men, and so the duty was Jeffs’s.

Ruby strove to calm himself with the thought that the ship was flawless, but it didn’t help. He wondered if Pembridge was trying to accomplish too much. As rocket efficiency had slowly increased, longer journeys had become feasible. Yet Mars had still been too far, until the explosive-propulsion system. It might have been wiser to wait. In a decade, perhaps two, design would have caught up with distance, and steady thrust could have taken a ship to Mars.

“ Deviation in course,” radar said, tones clipped.

Ruby felt as if kicked in the stomach. Lips moving wordlessly he watched the screen. The blip that was the distant ship no longer rested on its datum line, but was drifting to the right. In terms of actual flight, that meant the beginning of a curve west.

Jeffs was still reading data. His voice had the toneless quality of a man under great stress. The voice ceased in mid-sentence.
The radio officer’s lips were bare inches away from the control room mike. “ You are off course. You are off course.”
“ Telse isn’t answering — ”

Jeffs’s words were faint, as if he leaned over to the circuit which gave him contact with the ship’s pilot. Ruby could picture it all — Jeffs strapped flat on his back, elbows brushing the steel walls. Suspended over him was the radio equipment. Telse was a mere fifteen feet away, for’ard. Yet the distance might have been infinity.

“ Telse doesn’t reply.” Panic coloured the statement.
“ Read your dials !” the radio officer snapped.
Jeffs began, faltered, and started again, voice almost inarticulate with tension. There was a grunt, then silence.

Face set. Ruby watched the blip creep across the screen. Jeffs was gone off the air. The next ten minutes were bedlam. Phones rang, radar reported mechanically. The Goblincar reached the top of her parabola and began to fall. The radio officer called regularly, as if repetition would evoke some reply. Ruby watched the radar screen, tight-cheeked, and calculated that the Goblincar had lasted a good ten minutes longer than the Monmurry.

The ship was soon descending at 2000 m.p.h., her altitude a mere 180 miles. She had only minutes to live. Ruby felt stricken. He could do nothing: his part had been finished before the ship rose, and somehow he had failed.

A thin-lipped officer was calculating the probable point of impact, and setting it some hundred miles north of Scotland. In the Atlantic, Ruby thought. Many crashed test rockets had been lost at sea. It was invariably impracticable to lift them, even when their exact location was known.

No human eye saw the Goblincar streak from the heavens and plunge into the sea. The waters parted in a fountain under the hurtling impact of the ship’s nose. Spray rained down over an area five hundred yards in diameter, and a ring of foam floated on the swell. For’ard plates buckled from the blow and the vessel sank deeper, into depths unknown.

Ruby’s thoughts had been unbearable from the moment the blip on the radar screen had ceased to exist. Without his clearance the Goblincar would never have taken off — yet he had supposed her perfect.

He listened with clenched fists while the usual crash warning went out trying not to think of Telse and Wilf Jeffs. The failure of a remote-controlled rocket had never made him feel like this.

It was an hour before a search craft radioed in a report that a drifting ring of foam was seen. Allowing for tide, wind and currents, the Goblincar had struck 59 degrees North on the meridian 6 degrees West of Greenwich. A glance at charts completed Ruby’s misery. She must be considered a total loss.

A peculiar silent gloom had settled over the works when he left. A seaplane was investigating, to be followed by a ship with sounding and diving equipment, but Ruby knew it was only a token search. Pembridge himself did not go; nor did he ask to see any of the men who had helped prepare the Goblincar, to Ruby’s secret relief. Investigation could only prove that the ship had been thought perfect.

Home, Ruby prowled his study. Ella kept out of his way, respecting his emotion. He did not sleep, but reviewed again details which he already knew were correct.

With first daylight he phoned the works for news. The ship had not been located. He stood in the doorway watching Ella prepare breakfast, his fists knotted in his jacket pockets.

“ Pembridge still has a third ship — the Allegro," he said.
Her quick glance and pale cheeks showed she had caught the tone.
“ He will try her, when the others failed, Ruby ? ”
“ Of course!"

Ella lifted cups from the cupboard. “ It may not be so easy as that, Ruby,” she said guardedly. “ I can’t imagine Pembridge’s pilots showing themselves anxious to fly the only one left of three”

“ They won’t need to,” Ruby said between his teeth. “ I shall take her up.”
A cup fell, breaking. Ella put her hands behind her on the table edge, her lips shaking.
“ You — you’ve been thinking of this for a long time, Ruby.” Her voice was small, tiny with fear.
“ All night, Ella ! ”
She looked unspeakably miserable. “ Don’t, Ruby — ”

“ I shall. There’s no other course. Am I afraid to go up in a ship when I’ve passed her ? I let Pellon, Simpson, Telse and Jeffs go up, didn’t I ? Do I say to somebody: The ship’s right, sure she’s right — but you fly her, I won’t !” He raked fingers through his uncombed red hair. “ What kind of a man do you want to be married to, Ella ? ”

He turned from her, refusing to watch her face. He took up the phone and got Pembridge without delay.
“ No news of the Goblincar, Captain Bond,” Pembridge said wearily.

“ I’m sorry.” He went on in a rush, assuring Pembridge did not ring off. “ I want to take up the Allegro as soon as I’ve passed her as ready.”

If Pembridge was shocked, he made no sound to reveal it. ” I was thinking of trying her on remote control — ”

“They’ve all been flown under remote control!” Ruby snapped. “ You know as well as I do that there’s nothing further to do but put a man in her and find out what goes wrong then ! It’s time I was present in person, sir — ”

“ Very well.”
The line went dead. Ruby felt relief, now that it was settled. He would be in the last of the three ships.
“ You don’t know you can find out what’s wrong with the Allegro,” Ella said quietly.
He faced her, pained : she thought he had missed a defect on the sister ships !
“ It’ll be my last chance to make sure I do find it !” he retorted.

He was sorry for the quick words, and the hurt on her face, but an acid, cold fury was eating him and would not be suppressed. He hated himself unendurably for letting Pellon and the others die.

The deadline date crept relentlessly nearer. To leave after schedule would lose the contract. Pembridge did not press it as a reason for haste.
“ I hadn’t expected such losses. Bond.” He was weary. “ If you’re not satisfied with the ship don’t take her up.”

Ruby shook his head. “ I’ll be taking her up ! ”

He repeated every test he had done to the Monmurry and Goblincar, and added a few more. He would stake his life on the Allegro being perfect, he thought — then recalled Pellon and the others had done exactly that with the other ships.

He interviewed the officer who would act as signals, and found him complaining of stomach pain. Joe Hopwood was slight, but no funk. Ruby hoped the pain would go soon.

In the personnel testing wing they rode the tethered rockets upon their spinning courses while instruments checked blood pressure and a host of other factors. Hopwood was as good as either Simpson or Jeffs, and could stand as much on the centrifuge as any man Ruby had known.

Ruby himself hated the explosive-propulsion system, as every officer did, but stuck out a long test period. While instruments recorded his physical activities, and the rocket hammered as if to pulp every cell of his frame, he operated a mock-up of the ship’s control panel. At last, when he had had enough, he depressed a switch terminating the test.

He spent the last night before blast-off at the works, phoning Ella briefly just at dawn.
“ Good luck. Ruby.”
She always said that. He tried to pretend it was a tiny flip in some safe, well-tested craft.
“ I’ll phone you before coming home, Ella.”
He always said that too, understanding her tension.

Three hours remained until departure. The ship had been tested to finality. He had located no fault, no weakness, no defect. She was as perfect as the best Pembridge Rockets had made, as had been the Monmurry and Goblincar.

Surprisingly, he slept, only waking when a young officer came urgently to his door.
“ Time for flight, sir !”
“ Thanks.”

Just like a tiny, local flip. He had discussed the flight with Pembridge and his experts until further words were pointless. Pembridge merely waved from the control room lower window as Ruby went out.

Ruby adjusted his padding straps as he rode across the wide field.
“ All routine checks cleared ?” he asked.
An officer besides the runabout driver’s side nodded. “ Yes, sir. Your signals officer is already aboard. We are a trifle late, sir.”

“ Nothing to matter.”
Deposited by the silver spire, Ruby rode the lift up, entered the tiny port, and with quick skill operated the controls closing the ship for flight.

He was higher than the signals man, and did not descend the tiny tunnel to see him. The captain’s bunk, as they humorously called it, was steel mesh sprung and cushioned so that the kick in the ship’s tail was not fatal.

Strapped down, he flipped a switch. Dials, knobs and controls were close over his chest and face, suspended from metal panels.
“ Ready for take-off, signals ?”
“ Ready, sir.”
The voice was low, as if spoken aside. Ruby tightened the straps across his chest.

“ Synchronise with Control, and count me down.”
“ Aye, sir."

There were two minutes to go. The clock above Ruby’s head was correct, and his quick work in stowing the cage and closing the ship had left them easily on schedule. A red hand made a circuit; began another.

“ Twenty seconds, sir,” signals said.

Ruby felt it all slightly unreal, but mentally checked his routine. The signal officer’s voice was counting down as the red hand turned. Ruby’s fingers played over the studs. Thunder shook his ears and an elephant kicked his back. The thrust drove his hands back upon his chest, but he was ready for it. In the seconds of drift he set the controls for automatic firing. The Allegro was following her sister ships into the heavens.

The drive was torment. Ruby thought. Every fifteen seconds a thunderous explosion roared at the stern. Springs creaked, hydraulic cylinders hissed, and the shattering burst of acceleration flattened him like a giant’s hand. He began to watch the red second hand, his nerves growing taut in expectation of each blow. Four moments of torture for each revolution. The very regularity of the punishment made it worse.

The ship was on course. Acceleration must continue for many hours . . . wham. It would be a long time before the drift at constant velocity across space began . . . wham. He found himself thinking in urgent cycles, interrupted rhythmically by the fierce thrust of the drive.

Time drifted, and the massive control panels above him grew to new significance. As each wham of erupting fuel struck the ship, he expected the panels to collapse upon him. Instead, they shot away out of reach, as the couch sank, then crept back as it rose.

He tried closing his eyes at each quarter minute, but that was worse. He sensed that the massive equipment was collapsing upon him, girders caving in his ribs, and his eyes fled open. Sweat stood on his face . . . wham. He had endured this in the test wing, he reminded himself . . .wham. Panic was foolish.

He groaned, listening to signals from his companion, lower in the ship. The voice was talking in ten second spasms, trailing off in a note of terror as each quarter minute approached. He could hear breath forced from the officer’s lungs as acceleration struck. The voice was oddly high pitched, weak.

The Chinese drove men mad with dripping water, he thought. His mind seemed to be retreating, refusing to believe it was real. Only rarely did he move a hand up, adjusting a control minutely, and it was an automatic action.

The pulsations of thrust never ceased. He wished they would. Once, his hand was caught raised, and smashed down upon his lips. Blood began to flow.

His thoughts began running in circles. Never to know peace again. Always the shattering, killing thrust. He raked at the clock face with his fingers, to halt the turning hand, but the toughened glass resisted him. He gulped air, chest rising and falling. A psychological block seemed to be interrupting his breathing. He did not trust the turning hand. If the thrust came with his chest expanded, it could break every rib.

He held his breath, afraid to breathe, then gulped, choking. He cursed the red hand, always turning, and the terrifying hammer blows pounding his back. He’d had enough, he thought wildly . . .

His hand lifted to the switch which would signal the end of the test. It was not there. His fingers brushed cold metal, and a wham of acceleration took him, smashing his arm back upon the padding.

It was not a test, his mind screamed. He must endure this, on and on, for hours.

Cold fear made his thoughts leap up into new clarity for a moment. In the silence between the quarter minutes he heard someone sobbing. Not Joe Hopwood’s voice. Someone he knew. Astounded he tried to sit up, but the couch straps retained him.

“ Ella! ”
He scarcely knew he had spoken. The sobbing halted, a thrust took them, then her voice came, weak.
“ Joe was still ill. I made Pembridge let me come. I didn’t want to live if you didn’t come back — ”
Ruby swore inwardly again. Ella ! Qualified for just such a job long before they were married.
“ You shouldn’t have come !” he roared.
“ It was both of us or nothing. Ruby- — ”

Thrust kicked as she spoke, and her breath rasped out. When he called her again she did not reply.

Drifting minutes. The rotating hand. Punishment like strokes of a whiplash, regular beyond enduring. Ruby felt he would go mad. The tests could always be stopped, when a man wished, but this repetitive torment could not.

No sound came on the intercom now. He wondered whether Pembridge really knew Ella had come, or whether she had merely walked aboard.

Soon his thoughts lacked sufficient coherence to wonder. Only misery remained. The rhythm of the drive was killing him, its slow thudding punctuating the unbearable tension. He strove to fight it, but could not; strove to quell his mental agony, and failed. Sanity and consciousness were failing together. It was doubtful which would out-last the other.

His nervous system was failing under the punishment. Pain racked every limb and agony in his forehead made lights dance across the seemingly unreal panels above. Their rise and fall made him feel like a fly under a great power press. Everything was distorted, fantastic, unendurable . . .

His last sane, conscious thought was directed to ceasing the torment. His fingers grasped at the master switch, missed, grasped again, and it clicked over.

The rhythmic thrust at the Allegro's stern ceased, like a spent projectile her velocity fell, became zero, then she was hurtling back Earthwards. Both occupants were unconscious, and would remain so for hours.

The ship gained speed steadily, her slender fins biting into rarified air bringing her nose down. Soon her course was almost vertical, and her velocity over 1000 m.p.h. The Earth was taking back to itself a mote that had dared to try to escape.

At thirty miles altitude, her speed was nearly 2000 m.p.h., and not rising so fast now, from atmospheric resistance. Both occupants lay in the deep coma of shock, white-faced, breathing shallowly. Land and sea awaited the impact.

At fifteen miles, her passage began leaving a trail of ice crystals, a white vapour stalk which observers on Earth could see against the blue sky. In a far-off building, a radar officer was already calculating the point where she would hit. He shook his head sadly. At such a velocity, even the scrap would not be worth collecting.

The altitude was barely seven miles when braking and steerage jets flared. The Allegro went into a curve that might bring her on to a horizontal course with as much as half a mile to spare.

Ruby awoke knowing all motion and noise had ceased. The control panel was still, the hands showed six hours had passed since he had knocked up the switch.

An irregular tapping began and his gaze sped to the observation port at his right. Pembridge clung there, elf-like, his nose red, breathing steam from the cavern formed by his coat collar and hat.

It took Ruby nearly an hour to free himself and reach the lock. Every muscle felt as if punched to pulp. The ship was one third buried in snow, on a sloping hillside. A helicopter stood fifty yards higher. A short ladder sloped to the lock, and Pembridge now waited on it.

Ruby stared at him. He thought of Ella.
“ My wife— ? ”
“ She’s all right. She recovered enough to contact us by radio five minutes ago.”
Thankful, Ruby began descending the ladder. Half way down he halted.
“ Where are we ? ”
“ A few miles West of Murmansk. You lasted longer than Pellon or Telse.”

Ruby stepped from the ladder on to the trampled snow, steadying himself. It all seemed astonishingly impossible. Pembridge read his expression.

“ Pembridge Rockets have always put human life first, and success second. Captain,” he said. “ That’s the only basis for lasting progress. You’re saved because you told me that both the Monmurry and Goblincar were faultless, and I believed you. Your words put my thoughts in new channels.” He indicated the silent ship. “ I had remote control equipment fitted when you were away. We could take over at anything under ten miles altitude.” He sighed. “ We were trying to get men onto Mars before we were technically ready. There’s no point in shooting a corpse from Earth to Mars and calling that successful inter-planetary transport. From now on I stick to ships men can fly in comfort. They won’t reach Mars yet — but one day they will.”

An officer was helping Ella from the signals exit. Ruby guessed Pembridge would never have let her go without this precaution of a remote control able to take over if the pilot failed.

He looked at Pembridge quickly. “ Fitting that equipment put the ship outside the terms of the contract, sir. Even if we’d reached Mars it wouldn’t have counted.”

“ I know.” Pembridge drew a hand from his overcoat pocket, and bits of printed paper fluttered to the snow underfoot. “ I tore up the agreement before you left. I’m a wiser man. Losing the Monmurry and Goblincar taught me a lot. With luck the Allegro will reach Mars one day — perhaps in five years, perhaps ten. She’ll try when we're ready, this time !”

Ruby smiled. A truck was whirring down over the furrowed snow to pick them up.

Francis G. Rayer

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