Trouble on Titan/Chapter V
GERRY and Strike stared at each other in electric tension. Another ship? Rescue?
"This is incredible," said Gerry in an awed tone. "Why, the odds against another ship being in this part of the Solar System at this particular moment must be billions to one." Sudden misgivings troubled her. "You don't suppose—"
They ran into each other, striving to see out of the forward port. Gerry groaned.
"It's that Kurtt! He would show up at a time like this. I'd almost rather not be rescued than to have—"
"This wouldn't be more than mere coincidence, would it?" Strike asked, his voice low and tense.
The radiophone signal buzzed. Gerry reluctantly snapped the switch. Coming through the televisor, Kurtt's buttery voice fairly dripped sympathy.
"Are you there, Miss Carlyle? Dear, dear, what a shocking disaster! I sincerely trust that no one has been injured. What could possibly have been the matter? Some structural weakness, no doubt."
Strike saw Gerry beginning to seethe.
"This is a time for diplomacy, kitten," he whispered. Facing the transmitter, he said: "Look, Kurtt. We've cracked up. Under these circumstances, of course, our little contest must be put aside. If you'd be so good as to ease over this way and take us aboard—"
"All in good time, Mr. Strike," Kurtt replied soothingly. "All in good time."
But his ship, instead of rescuing the castaways, moved alongside the Ark. It fastened itself to the riven hull like a leech. With a strangled exclamation, Gerry seized a pair of binoculars. She could see right through the glassed-in portion of Kurtt's ship. That part of the hold was partially filled with Saturnian vegetation, mostly the artichoke type and Blue Plate Special plants, doubtless intended to feed captured specimens. There were a few of these visible, but no dermaphos.
But the presence of the dermaphos was not long in coming. Mistily, through the green glass, Gerry could see figures moving, a port sliding open. Choking with rage, she cried out:
"The thief is helping himself to our dermaphos! We spent weeks preparing to make our capture, before finding one of the things. And now he helps himself, just like that. How does he get that way?"
As if in answer to her anguished exclamation, Kurtt's unctuous voice became audible again.
"Laws of salvage, Miss Carlyle, as you know. I hate to take advantage of your misfortune. Still, all's fair in love and war. Rather lucky for me that I happened along. I hadn't had time to locate a dermaphos before you were all ready to leave. That's the penalty of traveling in a slower ship. How fortunate that your specimen was still secure in its compartment. Might have been thrown free and ruined."
"Okay!" snapped Strike. "You've got the dermaphos. Now give us a hand here, will you?"
"Ah, I was coming to that. As a matter of fact, my poor ship is so small. That's the penalty of not being wealthy and glamorous. You see, there is hardly room for any more passengers. Insufficient food and oxygen, you understand. I might take two or three aboard, but how can I choose whom to take and whom to leave behind? Am I God, thus to deny succor to my fellow-men?" He registered pious shock. "Oh, my, no!"
Then he continued.
"I'm so sorry, but it is beyond my poor capabilities to aid you. However, be assured that I shall send out rescue parties just as soon as I get within radio range of Earth."
Thunderstruck, Strike stared at the microphone as if it had turned into a snake.
"Kurtt!" he bellowed. "You can't do this. It's murder! You wouldn't go off and leave us stranded in mid-space. Kurtt, are you listening?"
BUT Kurtt's rocket ship was already gathering momentum. It spewed flame in a great red blossom, kicking sharply away from the side of the Ark. For a supposedly slow ship, it gathered speed surprisingly as the pilot recklessly poured in the fuel. Within a minute's time it dwindled. Then its dark shape was abruptly lost in the blackness of interstellar space.
Strike turned to his fiancée.
"I had a hunch we were underestimating that bird. He's as cold-blooded a killer as the most vicious specimen we ever caught. Well, there goes everything. Von Zorn has backed a winner at last. The Zoo contract, the Ark, and us—wiped out."
Gerry's shoulders twitched. Strange burbling sounds came from her throat. Suddenly she threw back her head and burst into hearty laughter.
"Oh, I just thought of something. What a joke on poor Kurtt! Only he doesn't know it yet."
Strike and Lewis stared at one another in horrified astonishment. Was Gerry Carlyle of the iron nerves and the stout heart giving way to hysteria? The mere idea was a grim reminder that they were in a predicament from which there was little hope of escape. The two men quickly looked away, ostentatiously pretending to busy themselves with nothing in particular. The girl's hearty laughter abruptly ceased.
"Stop acting like silly boys who were caught stealing the jam! I'm not hysterical. It is a joke, a colossal one. But I'm determined to be there when Kurtt finds out about it. It's too good to miss. So let's get busy and find a way out of this mess."
Quickly Gerry opened a small locker, took out the Emergency Chart every astronaut must have before being allowed to leave Earth. A map of the Solar System, it was marked to indicate the nearest source of aid in case of breakdown, illness or any other disaster at any particular point in space.
Gerry's finger quickly traced out the Saturnian system. The four inner satellites were colored black, signifying that they were airless chunks of rock, utterly useless for any purpose.
Rhea was marked with a red cross to indicate mineral wealth. Both the outer satellites, Iapetus and Phoebe, had arrows to show rocket fuel and food caches for stranded space wanderers. Hyperion was too small to be considered. But Titan, largest of all, had both blue and red crosses, indicating habitability plus mineral wealth.
Gerry was faced with the need of making a vital decision. Moreover, there would be no changing that decision once it was made. Of that handful of satellites, they could manage a lucky landing on only one. After they made their choice, there would be no getting away again unless and until the Ark was repaired. The tiny, short-range life-boats would be useless for cosmic distances.
Coolly Gerry stowed the Emergency Chart away and turned to the row of slim reference books that lined the bottom shelf. This little library was her pride. The most complete of its kind in the System, it had been compiled by Gerry herself.
It was a digest of every known fact concerning the planets, their satellites, and the asteroids. In it were represented every space explorer from Murray to the present, and the gleanings of knowledge by interplanetary hunters like Hallek and Gerry Carlyle. There was also a lengthy contribution —Gerry made a wry face—by Anthony Quade, Society of Spatial Cameramen, and the data he had collected while roaming the void for movie locations.
SHE opened up the volume on Saturn and its satellites, turned to Titan and quickly flipped the pages. Titan was extraordinarily rich in minerals of almost every conceivable type. Only transportation costs prevented mining there. Also, its atmosphere was breathable, its temperatures apparently not lethally extreme.
More remarkable, according to Murray's writings, there was civilized life on Titan. The cities there had been built with an amazing genius for metalworking. But Murray's notes were sketchy on the subject. It seemed that the inhabitants of Titan were few in number and difficult to communicate with, though quite friendly.
The fact that highly evolved life existed on the satellite was not startling. Advanced civilizations had been discovered in at least three other places in the System. If any nomadic tribe, gifted with the ability to work in metals, had wandered in from outer space and decided to locate in the Solar System, it was only natural for them to select Titan and its wealth of ores.
Gerry was not interested in making any social contacts at the moment. But it was the fact of life on Titan that motivated her final decision. The Ark needed metals for repair, and they were to be had on Titan. As a last resort, the inhabitants might conceivably be able to help. The girl weighed this possibility carefully against the undeniable fact that if any other rocket ships were to enter the Saturnian system, they would land only on the two outer satellites, never on Titan. Confident in her own self-reliance and the ability of her crew, though, Gerry made her choice.
Incisively she gave her orders. The eight little life-boats moved purposefully toward the Ark. Jockeying skillfully into place like tugs about an ocean liner, they began to haul the mighty space ship toward its rendezvous. Saturn's largest satellite was rapidly hurtling closer to the site of the disaster.
At first there was little appreciable progress. Then gradually momentum was gathered, aided by the growing effect of the satellite's gravity. More swiftly moved the Ark, till the lifeboats were forced to reverse their positions and act as brakes. The surface of Titan expanded with a terrifying rush. Desperately the miniature rocket ships strove to check the dangerous descent, blasting furiously with every available ounce of their limited fuel supply. In the final moments before the crash, the entire underside of the Ark was obscured by the savage blaze of the little rocket tubes.
Timing it perfectly, Gerry gave the order to dart away from underneath the falling juggernaut. With an awful concussion, the Ark's stern plowed deep into the soil of Titan, throwing a huge powdery wave into the air. Then, almost in slow motion, the rest of the tremendous metal giant toppled downward. Rocks and dust sprayed out on either side. The Ark lurched once like a dying monster, and gently rolled over on one side.
Gerry smiled, pleased with her expertness. She had brought the ship down so its torn hull would be easy to reach.
Gently, like a flock of curious birds, the life-boats fluttered to rest in a ragged circle. Gerry dabbed at her forehead with a wisp of handkerchief, then smiled hardily at the two men.
"Well, here we are on Titan, without benefit of brass bands." She paused, before continuing in a casual voice. "You know, I wonder if the place is destined to be our tomb."