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Transcriber's note:

This etext was produced from If Worlds of Science Fiction April 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright
on this publication was renewed.




[Illustration]




ATOM DRIVE

BY CHARLES FONTENAY

_It was a race between the tortoise and the hare. But this hare was
using some dirty tricks to make sure the ending would be
different...._

[Illustration: _Illustrated by Ed Emsh_]


The two spaceship crews were friendly enemies, sitting across the table
from each other for their last meal before blastoff. Outside the ports,
the sky was nothing but light-streaked blackness, punctured periodically
by Earth glare, for Space Station 2 whirled swiftly on its axis,
creating an artificial gravity.

"Jonner, I figured you the last man ever to desert the rockets for a
hot-rod tow-job," chided Russo Baat, captain of the Mars Corporation's
gleaming new freighter, _Marsward XVIII_. Baat was fat and red-faced,
and one of the shrewdest space captains in the business.

Jonner Jons, at the other end of the table, inclined his grizzled head
and smiled.

"Times change, Russo," he answered quietly. "Even the Mars Corporation
can't stop that."

"Is it true that you're pulling five thousand tons of cargo, Captain?"
asked one of the crewmen of the _Marsward XVIII_.

"Something like that," agreed Jonner, and his smile broadened. "And I
have only about twice the fuel supply you carry for a 100-ton payload."

The communicator above them squawked and blared:

"Captain Jons and Captain Baat of Martian competition run, please report
to control for final briefing."

"I knew it!" grumbled Baat, getting heavily and reluctantly to his feet.
"I haven't gotten to finish a meal on this blasted merry-go-round yet."

In the space station's control section, Commander Ortega of the Space
Control Commission, an ascetic officer in plain blues, looked them up
and down severely.

"As you know, gentlemen," he said, "blastoff time is 0600. Tonnage of
cargo, fuel and empty vessels cannot be a factor, under the law. The
Mars Corporation will retain its exclusive franchise to the Earth-Mars
run, unless the ship sponsored by the Atom-Star Company returns to Earth
with full cargo at least twenty hours ahead of the ship sponsored by the
Mars Corporation. Cargo must be unloaded at Mars and new cargo taken on.
I do not consider the twenty-hour bias in favor of the Mars Corporation
a fair one," said Ortega severely, turning his gaze to Baat, "but the
Space Control Commission does not make the laws. It enforces them.
Docking and loading facilities will be available to both of you on an
equal basis at Phobos and Marsport. Good luck."

He shook hands with both of them.

"Saturn, I'm glad to get out of there!" exclaimed Baat, mopping his brow
as they left the control section. "Every time I take a step, I feel like
I'm falling on my face."

"It's because the control section's so close to the center," replied
Jonner. "The station's spinning to maintain artificial gravity, and your
feet are away from the center. As long as you're standing upright, the
pull is straight up and down to you, but actually your feet are moving
faster than your head, in a larger orbit. When you try to move, as in
normal gravity, your body swings out of that line of pull and you nearly
fall. The best corrective, I've found, is to lean backward slightly when
you start to walk."

As the two space captains walked back toward the wardroom together, Baat
said:

"Jonner, I hear the Mars Corporation offered you the _Marsward XVIII_
for this run first, and you turned them down. Why? You piloted the
_Marsward V_ and the _Wayward Lady_ for Marscorp when those upstarts in
the Argentine were trying to crack the Earth-Mars run. This Atom-Star
couldn't have enough money to buy you away from Marscorp."

"No, Marscorp offered me more," said Jonner, soberly now. "But this
atomic drive is the future of space travel, Russo. Marscorp has it, but
they're sitting on it because they've got their fingers in hydrazine
interests here, and the atom drive will make hydrazine useless for space
fuel. Unless I can break the franchise for Atom-Star, it may be a
hundred years before we switch to the atom drive in space."

"What the hell difference does that make to you?" asked Baat bluntly.

"Hydrazine's expensive," replied Jonner. "Reaction mass isn't, and you
use less of it. I was born on Mars, Russo. Mars is my home, and I want
to see my people get the supplies they need from Earth at a reasonable
transport cost, not pay through the nose for every packet of vegetable
seed."

They reached the wardroom door.

"Too bad I have to degrav my old chief," said Baat, chuckling. "But I'm
a rocket man, myself, and I say to hell with your hot-rod atom drive.
I'm sorry you got deflected into this run, Jonner; you'll never break
Marscorp's orbit."

* * * * *

The _Marsward XVIII_ was a huge vessel, the biggest the Mars Corporation
ever had put into space. It was a collection of spheres and cylinders,
joined together by a network of steel ties. Nearly 90% of its weight was
fuel, for the one-way trip to Mars.

Its competitor, the _Radiant Hope_, riding ten miles away in orbit
around the Earth, was the strangest looking vessel ever to get clearance
from a space station. It looked like a tug towing a barge. The tug was
the atomic power plant. Two miles behind, attached by a thin cable, was
the passenger compartment and cargo.

On the control deck of the _Radiant Hope_, Jonner gripped a microphone
and shouted profane instructions at the pilot of a squat ground-to-space
rocket twenty miles away. T'an Li Cho, the ship's engineer, was peering
out the port at the speck of light toward which Jonner was directing his
wrath, while Qoqol, the Martian astrogator, worked at his charts on the
other side of the deck.

"I thought all cargo was aboard, Jonner," said T'an.

"It is," said Jonner, laying the mike aside. "That G-boat isn't hauling
cargo. It's going with us. I'm not taking any chances on Marscorp
refusing to ferry our cargo back and forth at Mars."

"Is plotted, Jonner," boomed Qoqol, turning his head to peer at them
with huge eyes through the spidery tangle of his thin, double-jointed
arms and legs. He reached an eight-foot arm across the deck and handed
Jonner his figures. Jonner gave them to T'an.

"Figure out power for that one, T'an," ordered Jonner, and took his seat
in the cushioned control chair.

T'an pulled a slide rule from his tunic pocket, but his black almond
eyes rested quizzically on Jonner.

"It's four hours before blastoff," he reminded.

"I've cleared power for this with Space Control," replied Jonner. "That
planet-loving G-boat jockey missed orbit. We'll have to swing out a
little and go to him."

On a conventional space craft, the order for acceleration would have
sent the engineer to the engine deck to watch his gauges and report by
intercom. But the _Radiant Hope_'s "engine deck" was the atomic tug two
miles ahead, which T'an, in heavy armor, would enter only in
emergencies. He calculated for a moment, then called softly to Jonner:

"Pile One, in ten."

"In ten," confirmed Jonner, pulling a lever on the calibrated gauge of
the radio control.

"Pile Two, in fifteen."

"In fifteen."

"Check. I'll have the length of burst figured for you in a jiffy."

A faint glow appeared around the atomic tug far ahead, and there was the
faintest shiver in the ship. But after a moment, Qoqol said in a puzzled
tone:

"No Gs, Jonner. Engine not work?"

"Sure, she's working," said Jonner with a grin. "You'll never get any
more G than we've got now, Qoqol, all the way to Mars. Our maximum
acceleration will be 1/3,000th-G."

"One three-thousandth?" exclaimed T'an, shaken out of his Oriental calm.
"Jonner, the _Marsward_ will blast away at one or two Gs. How do you
expect to beat that at 1/3,000th?"

"Because they have to cut off and coast most of the way in an elliptic
orbit, like any other rocket," answered Jonner calmly. "We drive
straight across the system, under power all the time. We accelerate half
way, decelerate the other half."

"But 1/3,000th!"

"You'll be surprised at what constant power can do. I know Baat, and I
know the trick he's going to use. It's obvious from the blastoff time
they arranged. He's going to tack off the Moon and use his power right
to cut 20 days off that regular 237-day schedule. But this tug-boat will
make it in 154 days!"

They took aboard the 200-ton landing boat. By the time they got it
secured, the radio already was sounding warnings for blastoff.

Zero hour arrived. Again Jonner pulled levers and again the faint glow
appeared around the tail of their distant tug. Across space the exhaust
of the _Marsward XVIII_ flared into blinding flame. In a moment, it
began to pull ahead visibly and soon was receding like a meteor.

Near the _Radiant Hope_, the space station seemed not to have changed
position at all.

"The race is not always to the swift," remarked Jonner philosophically.

"And we're the tortoise," said T'an. "How about filling us in on this
jaunt, Jonner?"

"Is should, Jonner," agreed Qoqol. "T'an know all about crazy new
engine, I know all about crazy new orbit. Both not know all. You tell."

"I planned to, anyway," said Jonner. "I had figured on having Serj in on
it, but he wouldn't understand much of it anyhow. There's no use in
waking him up."

Serj was the ship's doctor-psychologist and fourth member of the crew.
He was asleep below on the centerdeck.

"For your information, Qoqol," said Jonner, "the atomic engine produces
electrical energy, which accelerates reaction mass. Actually, it's a
crude ion engine. T'an can explain the details to you later, but the
important thing is that the fuel is cheap, the fuel-to-cargo ratio is
low and constant acceleration is practical.

"As for you, Tan, I was surprised at your not understanding why we'll
use low acceleration. To boost the engine power and give us more Gs,
we'd either have to carry more fuel or coast part of the way on
momentum, like an ordinary rocket. This way's more efficient, and our
63-day margin over the _Marsward_ each way is more than enough for
unloading and loading more cargo and fuel."

"With those figures, I can't see how Marscorp expects to win this
competition," said T'an.

"We've got them, flat, on the basis of performance," agreed Jonner. "So
we'll have to watch for tricks. I know Marscorp. That's why I arranged
to take aboard that G-boat at the last minute. Marscorp controls all the
G-boats at Marsport, and they're smart enough to keep us from using
them, in spite of the Space Control Commission. As for refueling for the
return trip, we can knock a chunk off of Phobos for reaction mass."

The meteor alarm bells clanged suddenly, and the screen lit up once with
a fast-moving red line that traced the path of the approaching object.

"Miss us about half a mile," said Jonner after a glance at the screen.
"Must be pretty big ... and it's coming _up_!"

He and T'an floated to one of the ports, and in a few moments saw the
object speed by.

"That's no meteor!" exclaimed Jonner with a puzzled frown. "That's
man-made. But it's too small for a G-boat."

The radio blared: "All craft in orbit near Space Station 2! Warning! All
craft near Space Station 2! Experimental missile misfired from White
Sands! Repeat: experimental missile misfired from White Sands!
Coordinates...."

"Fine time to tell us," remarked T'an drily.

"Experimental missile, hell!" snorted Jonner, comprehension dawning.
"Qoqol, what would have happened if we hadn't shifted orbit to take
aboard that G-boat?"

Qoqol calculated a moment.

"Hit our engines," he announced. "Dead center."

Jonner's blue eyes clouded ominously. "Looks like they're playing for
keeps this time, boys."

* * * * *

The brotherhood of spacemen is an exclusive club. Any captain,
astrogator or engineer is likely to be well known to his colleagues,
either personally or by reputation.

The ship's doctor-psychologist is in a different category. Most of them
sign on for a few runs for the adventure of it, as a means of getting
back and forth between planets without paying the high cost of passage
or to pick up even more money than they can get from lucrative
planetbound practice.

Jonner did not know Serj, the _Radiant Hope_'s doctor. Neither T'an nor
Qoqol ever had heard of him. But Serj appeared to know his business well
enough, and was friendly enough.

It was Serj's first trip and he was very interested in the way the ship
operated. He nosed into every corner of it and asked a hundred questions
a day.

"You're as inquisitive as a cadet spaceman, Serj," Jonner told him on
the twenty-fifth day out. Everybody knew everyone else well by then,
which meant that Jonner and Qoqol, who had served together before, had
become acquainted with T'an and Serj.

"There's a lot to see and learn about space, Captain," said Serj. He was
a young fellow, with fair hair and an easy grin. "Think I could go
outside?"

"If you keep a lifeline hooked on. The suits have magnetic shoes to hold
you to the hull of the ship, but you can lose your footing."

"Thanks," said Serj. He touched his hand to his forehead and left the
control deck.

Jonner, near the end of his eight-hour duty shift, watched the dials.

The red light showing the inner airlock door was open blinked on. It
blinked off, then the outer airlock indicator went on, and off.

A shadow fell across Jonner briefly. He glanced at the port and reached
for the microphone.

"Careful and don't step on any of the ports," he warned Serj. "The
magnetic soles won't hold on them."

"I'll be careful, sir," answered Serj.

No one but a veteran spaceman would have noticed the faint quiver that
ran through the ship, but Jonner felt it. Automatically, he swung his
control chair and his eyes swept the bank of dials.

At first he saw nothing. The outer lock light blinked on and off, then
the inner lock indicator. That was Serj coming back inside.

Then Jonner noted that the hand on one dial rested on zero. Above the
dial was the word: "ACCELERATION."

His eyes snapped to the radio controls. The atomic pile levers were
still at their proper calibration. The dials above them said the engines
were working properly.

The atomic tug was still accelerating, but passengers and cargo were in
free fall.

Swearing Jonner jerked at the levers to pull out the piles aboard the
tug.

A blue flash flared across the control board, momentarily blinding him.
Jonner recoiled, only his webbed safety belt preventing him from
plummeting from the control chair.

He swung back anxiously to the dials, brushing futilely at the spots
that swam before his eyes. He breathed a sigh of relief. The radio
controls had operated. The atomic engines had ceased firing.

Tentatively, cautiously, he reversed the lever. There was no blue flash
this time, but neither did the dials quiver. He swore. Something had
burned out in the radio controls. He couldn't reverse the tug.

He punched the general alarm button viciously, and the raucous clangor
of the bell sounded through the confines of the ship. One by one, the
other crew members popped up to the control deck from below.

He turned the controls over to Qoqol.

"Take readings on that damn tug," Jonner ordered. "I think our cable
broke. T'an, let's go take a look."

When they got outside, they found about a foot of the one-inch cable
still attached to the ship. The rest of it, drawn away by the tug before
Jonner could cut acceleration, was out of sight.

"Can it be welded, T'an?"

"It can, but it'll take a while," replied the engineer slowly. "First,
we'll have to reverse that tug and get the other end of that break."

"Damn, and the radio control's burned out. I tried to reverse it before
I sounded the alarm. T'an, how fast can you get those controls
repaired?"

"Great space!" exclaimed T'an softly. "Without seeing it, I'd say at
least two days, Jonner. Those controls are complicated as hell."

They re-entered the ship. Qoqol was working at his diagrams, and Serj
was looking over his shoulder. Jonner took a heat-gun quietly from the
rack and pointed it at Serj.

"You'll get below, mister," he commanded grimly. "You'll be handcuffed
to your bunk from here on out."

"Sir?... I don't understand," stammered Serj.

"Like hell you don't. You cut that cable," Jonner accused.

Serj started to shrug, but he dropped his eyes.

"They paid me," he said in a low tone. "They paid me a thousand solars."

"What good would a thousand solars do you when you're dead, Serj ...
dead of suffocation and drifting forever in space?"

Serj looked up in astonishment.

"Why, you can still reach Earth by radio, easy," he said. "It wouldn't
take long for a rescue ship to reach us."

"Chemical rockets have their limitations," said Jonner coldly.

"And you don't realize what speed we've built up with steady
acceleration. We'd head straight out of the system, and nothing could
intercept us, if that tug had gotten too far before we noticed it was
gone."

He jabbed the white-faced doctor with the muzzle of the heat-gun.

"Get below," he ordered. "I'll turn you over to Space Control at Mars."

When Serj had left the control deck, Jonner turned to the others. His
face was grave.

"That tug picked up speed before I could shut off the engines, after the
cable was cut," he said. "It's moving away from us slowly, and at a
tangent. And solar gravity's acting on both bodies now. By the time we
get those controls repaired, the drift may be such that we'll waste
weeks maneuvering the tug back."

"I could jet out to the tug in a spacesuit, before it gets too far
away," said T'an thoughtfully. "But that wouldn't do any good. There's
no way of controlling the engines, at the tug. It has to be done by
radio."

"If we get out of this, remind me to recommend that atomic ships always
carry a spare cable," said Jonner gloomily. "If we had one, we could
splice them and hold the ship to the tug until the controls are
repaired."

"Is cable in cargo strong enough, Jonner?" asked Qoqol.

"That's right!" exclaimed Jonner, brightening. "Most of our cargo's
cable! That 4,000-ton spool we're hauling back there is 6,000 miles of
cable to lay a television network between the Martian cities."

"Television cable?" repeated T'an doubtfully. "Will that be strong
enough?"

"It's bound in flonite, that new fluorine compound. It's strong enough
to tow this whole cargo at a couple of Gs. There's nothing aboard this
ship that would cut off a length of it - a heat-gun at full power
wouldn't even scorch it - but we can unwind enough of it, and block the
spool. It'll hold the ship to the tug until the controls can be
repaired, then we can reverse the tug and weld the cable."

"You mean the whole 6,000 miles of it's in one piece?" demanded T'an in
astonishment.

"That's not so much. The cable-laying steamer _Dominia_ carried 3,000
miles in one piece to lay Atlantic cables in the early 20th century."

"But how'll we ever get 4,000 tons in one piece down to Mars?" asked
T'an. "No G-boat can carry that load."

Jonner chuckled.

"Same way they got it up from Earth to the ship," he answered. "They
attached one end of it to a G-boat and sent it up to orbit, then wound
it up on a fast winch. Since the G-boat will be decelerating to Mars,
the unwinding will have to be slowed or the cable would tangle itself
all over Syrtis."

"Sounds like it's made to order," said T'an, grinning. "I'll get into my
spacesuit."

"You'll get to work on the radio controls," contradicted Jonner, getting
up. "That's something I can't do, and I can get into a spacesuit and
haul a length of cable out to the tug. Qoqol can handle the winch."

* * * * *

Deveet, the Atom-Star Company's representative at Mars City, and Kruger
of the Space Control Commission were waiting when the _Radiant Hope_'s
G-boat dropped down from the Phobos station and came to rest in a wash
of jets. They rode out to the G-boat together in a Commission groundcar.
Jonner emerged from the G-boat, following the handcuffed Serj.

"He's all yours," Jonner told Kruger, gesturing at Serj. "You have my
radio reports on the cable-cutting, and I'll make my log available to
you."

Kruger put his prisoner in the front seat of the groundcar beside him,
and Jonner climbed in the back seat with Deveet.

"I brought the crates of dies for the groundcar factory down this time,"
Jonner told Deveet. "We'll bring down all the loose cargo before
shooting the television cable down. While they're unloading the G-boat,
I wish you'd get the tanks refilled with hydrazine and nitric acid.
I've got enough to get back up, but not enough for a round trip."

"What do you plan to do?" asked Deveet. He was a dark-skinned,
long-faced man with a sardonic twist to his mouth.

"I've got to sign on a new ship's doctor to replace Serj. When the
_Marsward_ comes in, Marscorp will have a dozen G-boats working round
the clock to unload and reload her. With only one G-boat, we've got to
make every hour count. We still have reaction mass to pick up on
Phobos."

"Right," agreed Deveet. "You can take the return cargo up in one load,
though. It's just twenty tons of Martian relics for the Solar Museum.
Mars-to-Earth cargos run light."

At the administration building, Jonner took his leave of Deveet and went
up to the Space Control Commission's personnel office on the second
floor. He was in luck. On the board as applying for a Mars-Earth run as
ship's doctor-psychologist was one name: Lana Elden.

He looked up the name in the Mars City directory and dialed into the
city from a nearby telephone booth. A woman's voice answered.

"Is Lana Elden there?" asked Jonner.

"I'm Lana Elden," she said.

Jonner swore under his breath. A woman! But if she weren't qualified,
her name would not have been on the Commission board.

The verbal contract was made quickly, and Jonner cut the Commission
monitor into the line to make it binding. That was done often when rival
ships, even of the same line, were bidding for the services of crewmen.

"Blastoff time is 2100 tonight," he said, ending the interview. "Be
here."

Jonner left the personnel office and walked down the hall. At the
elevator, Deveet and Kruger hurried out, almost colliding with him.

"Jonner, we've run into trouble!" exclaimed Deveet. "Space Fuels won't
sell us any hydrazine and nitric acid to refill the tanks. They say they
have a new contract with Marscorp that takes all their supply."

"Contract, hell!" snorted Jonner. "Marscorp owns Space Fuels. What can
be done about it, Kruger?"

Kruger shook his head.

"I'm all for you, but Space Control has no jurisdiction," he said. "If a
private firm wants to restrict its sales to a franchised line, there's
nothing we can do about it. If you had a franchise, we could force them
to allot fuel on the basis of cargo handled, since Space Fuels has a
monopoly here. But you don't have a franchise yet."

Jonner scratched his grey head thoughtfully.

It was a serious situation. The atom-powered _Radiant Hope_ could no
more make a planetary landing than the chemically-powered ships. Its
power gave a low, sustained thrust that permitted it to accelerate
constantly over long periods of time. To beat the powerful pull of
planetary surface gravity, the terrific burst of quick energy from the
streamlined G-boats, the planetary landing craft, was needed.

"We can still handle it," Jonner said at last. "With only twenty tons
return cargo, we can take it up this trip. Add some large parachutes to
that, Deveet. We'll shoot the end of the cable down by signal rocket,
out in the lowlands, and stop the winch when we've made contact, long
enough to attach the rest of the cargo to the cable. Pull it down with
the cable and, with Mars' low gravity, the parachutes will keep it from
being damaged."

But when Jonner got back to the landing field to check on unloading
operations, his plan was smashed. As he approached the G-boat, a
mechanic wearing an ill-concealed smirk came up to him.

"Captain, looks like you sprung a leak in your fuel line," he said. "All
your hydrazine's leaked out in the sand."

Jonner swung from the waist and knocked the man flat. Then he turned on
his heel and went back to the administration building to pay the


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