MESSAGE from VENUS
by R. R. WINTERBOTHAM
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Comet January 41.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The Venusians had one admirable characteristic. When they set out to do a thing, nothing could stop them. Captain Paul Bonnet had said something to this effect to Major Rogers and it made the old man so angry that he almost court-martialed the youth.
“We’re going to stop them!” the major roared.
Captain Bonnet glanced up into the sky, already dark with the ballooned bodies of the Venusian bipeds. The creatures looked like huge sausages, except that there was something deadly about them.
On the approaches to Outpost 53, sweating men labored on the caissons of twelve batteries of Amorg twenty-fives, pouring atomic destruction into a solidly packed mass of Venusians advancing through the wire entanglements.
Captain Bonnet nodded to the major. “You’re right, sir!” He turned to the members of his crew who were manning an anti-rocket gun. “Did you hear that? Knock ’em out of the sky!”
The gun coughed Amorg vapor into the sky. A gaping hole appeared directly overhead where the bodies of at least a hundred Venusians were disintegrated. Before the gun could be recharged the hole disappeared, filled by more bulging Venusians.
Lieutenant Bill Riley wiped the sweat from his face with his soiled coat sleeve.
“It’s like bailing a boat with a sieve!” he said.
Major Rogers looked as though he were going to have apoplexy.
“We’ll get ’em,” Captain Bonnet announced, winking at his lieutenant.
Lieutenant Riley grinned. There was a great deal in common between the captain and the lieutenant, besides the fact that they were both officers of the same space ship—The Piece of Sky—which now lay ruined on the landing field, its plates dissolved by acid poured from the sky by the Venusians.
Both officers were young and husky. Both had seen action on the Martian canals and this wasn’t the first meeting they had had with Venusians.
“If they had any sense they’d know they were licked,” the captain added, casting his steely blue eyes at the entanglements. The place was a grisly sight, strewn with parts of thousands of long-bodied Venusians.
But the captain knew and the lieutenant knew—perhaps even the major knew—that Outpost 53 was worth any sacrifice the Venusians were willing to make. If this post were captured, the Venusians could control their planet again. There were any number of reasons why it was best that the planet be governed by terrestrials, and not all of them were commercial. The Venusians were murderous, evil, destructive creatures who hated every other living thing in the universe.
Captain Bonnet checked his casualties. Of his crew of sixty, three were dead and twelve paralyzed by the poisoned darts the Venusians used. The other forty-five were half dead from exhaustion. Three days of fighting was about all any man could stand.
Captain Bonnet’s men had been in a more or less exposed position during the first part of the battle and their casualties had been heavy while they tried to prevent The Piece of Sky’s destruction. But probably ten percent of the fifteen hundred men who manned Outpost 53 were out of the action now, the majority of them suffering temporary paralysis from dart poison. The captain realized that the attack would continue until the Venusians captured the post.
The radio power house had been destroyed first of all. Then the space ship had been wrecked. The outpost was cut off from communication with the earth. Reinforcements who could attack the Venusians from above and disperse them would not be due for two months. If Outpost 53 lasted three weeks, it would mean fighting to the last man.
Lieutenant Riley reached into his bag between coughs of the Amorg gun. He brought out a slender bottle and pulled the cork. He pressed the bottle into Captain Bonnet’s hand.
“Martian Zingo,” the lieutenant said. “A friend of mine gave it to me for a little service in the Canal campaign on Mars. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion and it looks like this is it. Here’s to our short and merry lives, Captain!”
Night brought some relief, although the poisoned darts still rained on the outpost and the ground was lighted with flashes of the atom guns.
Major Rogers, his face drawn with weariness, stomped to the spacemen’s battery.
“We’ve got to get a man through to earth, Captain,” the major said. “Can’t your ship be fixed?”
“We’ve got to get a ship through to earth, Captain,” the Major said. “Can’t your ship be fixed?” The Captain shook his head slowly.
The captain shook his head. “No, sir.”
“Doesn’t your ship carry a lifeboat?”
“It does, but you couldn’t make the earth in that—and survive. The lifeboat carries just enough fuel to land on a planet. That fuel would be used on the takeoff.”
“But if you got off Venus and aimed the boat toward the earth, nothing would keep it from getting there, would it?”
“No, I suppose not, sir.”
“Then we’ve got to do it. Yes, yes, I know. It’s suicide. But it’s suicide not to try it. We simply must get a message through to the earth. We’ll ask for volunteers.”
“No need of that, Major,” the captain said. “I’ll make the trip.”
“One man couldn’t do it,” broke in Lieutenant Riley. “I’m going along.”
“You know what it means?” the captain asked his friend.
“Any spaceman knows what a forty-five million mile trip in a lifeboat means, you mug,” the lieutenant replied. “But I’d rather die quickly in a crash landing than to face what the Venusians probably have thought up for us when they whittle us down to their size.”
“By gad! You’re both heroes.”
“Umph!” said Captain Bonnet, who had been a hero before.
“I was about to say: we’d better get started. It’s getting late.”
“Good! Take a detail to your ship and get the lifeboat ready. Then you and the lieutenant get some rest. I’ll call you in an hour for the takeoff.”
The Piece of Sky’s lifeboat was scarcely one hundred feet in length. It was powered by fourteen rocket valves, fed from detachable fuel containers, so arranged that as fast as a fuel drum was emptied it could be dropped from the rocket. The ship was streamlined from the nose to tail, but it was flattened on the bottom, so that either of two possible types of landing maneuvers could be attempted.
Attempted was the correct word, for lifeboats of space ships were never the last word in navigable machines. They were to be used only as a last resort under desperate circumstances. No lifeboat had ever been built as a machine for lengthy interplanetary travel. But the universe is foolproof to a certain extent. Any piece of matter is sure to obey the laws of the universe. Captain Bonnet supposed that if the lifeboat succeeded in taking off, and if it were put on the right orbit, it could reach the earth in time to send reinforcements back to Venus.
As Captain Paul Bonnet and Lieutenant Bill Riley took their places in the ship, Major Rogers explained that the craft had been equipped with a small parachute to be used just before the lifeboat crashed in dropping a message to authorities that Outpost 53 had been attacked and that reinforcements were needed.
“After you drop the message, you men are on your own,” the major explained.
“You mean we’re to try to get out of it, if we can?” asked Captain Bonnet dryly. “Humph!”
A few minutes later the lifeboat’s rockets roared and the craft soared upward through Venusian clouds to deliver a message to Terra.
Captain Bonnet watched the rockets drain the fuel tank on the takeoff. His gravity gauge told him that he was going to make it. Once beyond Venus and nosed toward the earth, which was approaching conjunction, no more fuel would be needed. The ship would be seized by terrestrial gravity and brought home. There would be a period of uncomfortable warmth as the sides of the ship became red hot in the earth’s atmosphere. A few moments of frantic work dropping the parachute over some populous region of the earth, and then a crash that would mean the end.
Each man had gone over the details of what he was to do. Each man had told himself that there was no end to this trip except death, yet each man hoped that in some way he could avoid the final disaster. If there were only some way a space ship could be landed without fuel!
“It’s no use,” Captain Bonnet said. “Up to the end of the Twentieth Century, when all problems dealing with space navigation were worked out, excepting space flight itself, all of the experts agreed that there was no practical way of landing a space ship. It wasn’t until the Twenty-first Century that the spiral landing orbit was discovered and it took another century to discover the Rippler force method of landing a ship intact.”
“At least the Rippler method’s out,” Lieutenant Riley said dryly. “We’d have to have fifty gallons of fuel to land a fourteen-valve lifeboat on its rocket jets.”
“Even the spiral landing orbit would require twenty-five gallons,” Captain Bonnet pointed out. “Both methods are out. We’ve got about two gallons of rocket fuel in the tank and we’ll need most of it in the cooling system to keep us from burning up until we can drop the message.”
Hours ticked swiftly away as the space ship moved closer to the earth. The craft had reached the middle of its course, where terrestrial and Venusian gravities neutralized, with speed to spare. From now on it would accelerate slowly under the pull of the earth’s attraction and it could be expected to enter the earth’s atmosphere at a speed greater than 200 miles a second. The entire trip from Venus to the earth would take about 72 hours. The job of decelerating from 200 miles a second to less than ten would be taken care of in the 1,000 miles of atmosphere lying above the earth. It could be accomplished with no more discomfort than a passenger in a car experiences in a sudden stop. But the last ten miles per second deceleration would mean the overcoming of the force of gravity itself.
Captain Bonnet considered the danger of the moon interfering with the ship’s flight to earth. He discovered, to his relief, that the moon was out of the way, on the opposite side of the earth. At least he would not have to use precious fuel to keep the craft from landing on the moon.
He checked the cooling apparatus. It seemed in perfect working condition and should keep the two passengers from roasting alive until the ship crashed. At least this was a comfort.
Lieutenant Riley, who had been sleeping, opened his eyes.
“Say, Paul, I’ve an idea!”
“Yeah? Spill it.”
“Why couldn’t we keep the ship in an orbit outside the earth’s atmosphere until it is sighted by telescope?”
“There are two pretty good reasons for that,” Paul Bonnet replied. “In the first place we’ll be going too fast. If we tried to get into an orbit we’d sail right out again. To become a satellite of the earth—and I suppose that’s what you’re thinking of—we’d have to slow ourselves down to exactly the right speed necessary to overcome the earth’s gravity. That would be hard to do with the instruments on this lifeboat, even if we had the fuel necessary to brake. In the second place, if we got close enough to the earth to be seen by a telescope, our orbital speed would be too fast for any ‘scope to keep us in focus. We’d be mistaken on photographs for a meteor.”
“I guess we’re up against it, eh Paul?”
“I’ve been thinking,” Captain Bonnet said.
“What’s this, a joke?”
“There’s one plan that might work—a suicide plan. But even that might be spoiled by an accident.”
“If there’s a chance we ought to take it.”
“The message goes overboard first,” the captain said. “After that we save ourselves. I’ve been studying the charts and I know just where we ought to land—that is in which hemisphere.”
“We’re going to land somewhere in the Pacific.”
“That’s a nice thought. Who’s going to pick up our message in the middle of the Pacific?”
“That’s what gave me the idea of our suicide plan,” Captain Bonnet said. “In order to drop the message over a city, we’ve got to float around the earth until we get near one….”
Captain Bonnet began to explain his idea. The ship was going to hit the earth’s atmosphere at a terrific pace. The deceleration would be pretty stiff—might be fatal—unless it were done gradually, but spacemen had learned the trick of pancaking a flat-bottomed craft on top of the atmosphere, then diving; pancaking again, diving again, until the deceleration was accomplished.
This method of deceleration usually was accomplished with some use of rockets and it led to the old time spiral landing orbit. The atmosphere was the chief brake and the rockets were used to maneuver the craft into dives and pancakes. A first class cooling system was needed, of course, to carry off the heat of atmospheric friction, but the lifeboat was equipped with a cooling system and there was nothing to worry about from this source.
But the lifeboat had little fuel. Captain Bonnet, however, had flown airplanes. He knew that braking could be accomplished without fuel if the flat-bottomed ship were used as a plane. He planned to use airplane tactics to slow the ship down to a speed closely approximating the escape velocity of the earth—6.9 miles a second. This would enable the ship to soar over the earth until it was over a good sized city, where the message from Outpost 53 would be dropped.
“But if we land at that speed—and gravity will see to it we don’t hit much slower—we’ll be buried deep in the ground. Even if we hit the ocean, the deceleration will kill us—”
“Would it? There have been records of meteors striking the ground so lightly they did little more than raise a cloud of dust.”
“We’re not a meteor.”
“We’re practically a meteor and there’s one chance in a million that we can duplicate what a meteor can do, Bill. It’s our only chance.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Rocket engineers in developing machines for space travel had found speed the foremost bugaboo. It was the speed a rocket had to attain to leave terrestrial gravity that balked engineers. There also was man’s instinctive fear of going fast, in spite of the assurances of science that speed, in itself, was harmless. It was acceleration and deceleration that killed people.
One might travel seven miles a second indefinitely and suffer no ill effects, once he got going that rate of speed. However, one might die quickly while attaining it. Drugs enabled spacemen to withstand several gravities of acceleration or deceleration without fatal effects and there were a few of these pills aboard. But any speed change greater than nine or ten gravities would be dangerous under any conditions.
The craft neared the earth. Already the travelers could make out the dim outlines of the continental areas.
The gravity gauge registered the earth’s pull strongly and Captain Bonnet calculated that they were nearing the outer limits of the atmosphere. He twisted a valve a fraction of a turn.
From a steering jet, a tiny needle of flame shot into the ether. From another jet, a second flame glowed for an instant. The space ship turned, wheeling the onrushing earth out of line with the lifeboat’s prow. Now the huge, radiant ball peeked into the craft through the glass window in the floor, but the ship’s direction of travel continued toward it as before.
Captain Bonnet shut off the valves, conserving every ounce of rocket fuel that remained in the tanks. Lieutenant Riley started the cooling mechanism and for an instant the craft became uncomfortably cold.
This discomfort lasted only a few minutes, however, for the craft soon began to strike the first atoms of the atmosphere and its sides began to glow with heat. The space ship was fast becoming a meteor flashing into the atmosphere of the earth.
There was a sudden jerk. Once more Bonnet twisted the valve, nosing the streamlined craft downward slightly to allow these atoms of air to strike the sides less forcefully. There was danger of a blackout if the deceleration were too fast.
The ship dived forward and Bonnet used more precious fuel to turn it broadside again. The craft slowed, this time not so violently.
The atoms of the atmosphere were audible now as whistling screams as the ship spiraled one thousand miles above the earth.
Captain Bonnet watched the air speed indicator. For a long time it stood at twenty miles a second—the highest speed it would register. Then it began to slow: nineteen, fifteen, twelve, nine, seven miles a second.
Instead of decreasing the speed further, he nosed the craft down. The speed increased slightly, and then, like an airplane in flight, he brought the craft slowly broadside by degrees. The effect of the slow turn was to catch the atoms on the flat bottom so that the downward rush was transformed into a horizontal rush. The craft was speeding in an orbit parallel to the surface of the earth. Captain Bonnet had brought the space ship out of a tail spin.
Instantly he shut off the fuel valves, leaving the remainder of the fuel available for the cooling apparatus.
Lieutenant Riley looked wide-eyed at the hemisphere beneath the craft.
“Well, we’re here and we’ve less than a gallon of fuel,” he said. “What next?”
“Unless there’s an accident, we’re going to land on an ounce or two,” Captain Bonnet replied. “A meteor doesn’t use any fuel, but it has accidents. That tiny bit of fuel is going to keep us from having an accident—I hope.”
“That fuel is mighty potent,” the lieutenant admitted. “It’s the most powerful explosive known. But old Terra’s gravity is a pretty big thing, too.”
“For every action there must be a reaction,” Captain Bonnet said. “Strangely, no one ever considered this principle in respect to coming down, as well as going up.”
“Gravity is action and you’re the reaction in that case,” the lieutenant observed.
“Not exactly. The escape velocity of the earth is gravity in reverse—if we can twist our minds around to think of it that way. We manufacture the escape velocity with our rocket fuel and use it to neutralize gravity. An object going 6.9 miles a second goes far enough around the earth in a second that the earth’s curvature doesn’t catch up with it, so to speak.”
“I hope you’re sure of your reactions, although it doesn’t make a lot of difference if we get this message down.”
“We’re hitting the atmosphere at a speed close to the escape velocity of the earth. If we were going that speed we’d never get any closer to the surface. But we’re being slowed so that we’re falling—not very fast, but fast enough. Our speed around the earth is about 6.9 miles a second, minus a few decimals. Our speed toward the earth isn’t very fast—I’d say a few feet a second. Our only problem now is to stop our forward speed without speeding our downward speed.”
“I don’t suppose you’re very optimistic about it?” the lieutenant asked, hopefully.
“No,” the captain admitted, “but we can try. You’ve seen airplanes land at speeds of one hundred miles an hour or more. That was their speed forward. Their speed downward was measured in feet per minute. That’s our problem now. We’ve got to land like an airplane—make a deadstick landing without crashing.”
“Oh we might be able to land, but the minute we touch, some of our forward speed is going to get us into trouble. Remember, an airplane has wheels.”
Captain Bonnet pointed to a small globe painted with a map of the world. His finger touched a dot in the South Pacific near the Antarctic continent at 60 degrees south latitude and 120 degrees west longitude.
“That’s Dougherty Island,” he said. “Between that island and San Francisco are 6,300 miles of empty Pacific ocean. We’re going to try to land near Dougherty Island at a speed so fast we’ll barely touch the surface of the water. But as we touch the water, the frictional heat of the sides of our space ship will transform the water instantly into steam. The steam will cushion our ship against shock and decelerate us rapidly—but not too rapidly for endurance. The stop will be rough, but we can take it. We ought to be able to stop in 6,300 miles.”
“Whew! A steam landing!”
Captain Bonnet kept his hands on the control, ready to use a few drops of precious fuel to keep the craft in its spiral parallel to the surface of the earth. The earth seemed to float upward slowly to meet the space ship.
The interior of the craft grew uncomfortably hot, but the cooling system worked.
A vast expanse of white appeared directly below the craft. It was the South Polar ice cap.
“We’re over James Ellsworth Land,” the captain said, checking his position. “That’s about twenty-three degrees east of the longitude of Dougherty Island. That’s lucky.”
“Lucky?” said the lieutenant.
“We can circle the earth once, drop our message over some city and get back on the right longitude,” the captain explained. “It’ll take us about an hour and a half at our present speed to make the circumnavigation. In that time the earth will turn twenty-two and one-half degrees beneath us.”
The Pacific ocean flashed beneath the craft. The ship struck the continent on the coast of Mexico and skirted above eastern Texas. Over Kansas City, Captain Bonnet jerked a lever to release the message of the beleaguered Venusian garrison.
The lieutenant watched it fall slowly down toward the ground.
Then he groaned.
“We’ve failed!” he said. “The parachute dropped in the Missouri river! The last chance to save the garrison is lost!”
Captain Bonnet turned to his companion. “It isn’t the last chance—if our landing works!”
The craft soared northward into Canada, passing some distance west of Hudson Bay. It crossed the Arctic sea, reached Siberia and then zoomed southward, flying dangerously close to the tall peaks of the Himalayas. Each minute saw it moving closer to the earth.
The craft shot across the Indian Ocean and entered the Antarctic again. The Antarctic continent was reached near Douglas Island and it crossed Enderby and Kemp lands toward the pole.
The metal monster was scarcely two thousand feet high as it soared over the South Pole. The loss of the natural elevation of the polar plateau left the ship about the same distance above the surface of the earth as it approached the ocean again.
Captain Bonnet used a few more ounces of fuel to keep the craft in its course, headed always toward the horizon, which at 1,600 feet seemed fifty miles away.
Down the craft sank, inch by inch, toward the sea. Suddenly Lieutenant Riley shouted and pointed:
“Dougherty Island! Over there!”
A black speck rose out of the Pacific dead ahead.
The two men already had slipped into their emergency landing harness to protect themselves from the deceleration that was bound to come. They had swallowed pills to protect themselves from the gravitational pressure and now they felt the drug taking hold of their systems.
The ship seemed to be sailing parallel to the surface of the sea. The tops of the waves reached up and touched the bottom of the craft, and evaporated in a hiss of steam.
Gracefully, like a huge dirigible airship, the lifeboat dipped down. It shuddered as the disturbed air roared like thunder around it. There was a tremendous drag and a loud explosion as the ship touched the water.
Both men pitched forward in their harness.
Captain Bonnet felt the world growing black around him. With superhuman effort he shook off the threatened blackout and sent the last drop of fuel into the lower jets to hold the ship one second more above the waves.
There was a terrific jar. Tons and tons of pressure exerted itself against the ship and on the men inside. But nothing cracked.
Outside the window, vision was obscured by clouds of swirling vapor. The craft bounded forward in gigantic, hundred-mile leaps, like a rock skipping across the surface of a huge pond.
Lieutenant Riley hung limply in his harness, a stream of blood trickling from his nose. Slowly he opened his eyes.
“We’re alive!” he gasped.
Then he fainted again.
The craft slowed down. A startled fishing craft off the Central American coast almost capsized in the wash of the monster from the skies.
Ahead of them land reared its head above the horizon. Captain Bonnet wondered if the ship would stop in time, but he did not realize how quickly the craft was coming to a standstill. He turned the rudders and steered for shore. A cry came from Lieutenant Riley.
It was the Golden Gate.
A patrol boat met them in the harbor as the space ship, floating in boiling water, came to a stop.
Captain Bonnet opened the locks and climbed out on the top of the craft. He wore an asbestos space suit to protect himself from the heat of the sides.
“Have you a wireless aboard?” he called to the patrol.
“Of course, captain!” came the reply from the patrol boat, as the rescuers saw the insignia of rank on Bonnet’s clothing.
“Send a message to the nearest interplanetary garrison that reinforcements are needed at Outpost 53 on Venus. Lieutenant Riley and myself just came from there—the situation is desperate….”
“You don’t mean you came all the way from Venus in a lifeboat?”
“If you’re going to waste time asking questions, let us come aboard,” Captain Bonnet said. “But get that message in the air at once!”
Lieutenant Riley followed the captain through the locks into the patrol boat. He lifted his hand and showed a bottle to the captain.
“Look what a close shave we had,” he said. “This bottle of Martian Zingo was in the lockers all the way from Venus and neither of us suspected it. Lord, if we’d crashed we’d never have been able to sample it!”