HANGING BY A THREAD
By DAVID GORDON
It's seldom that the fate of a shipful of men literally hangs by a thread—but it's also seldom that a device, every part of which has been thoroughly tested, won't work....
Illustrated by Douglas
ayjay Kelvin was sitting in the lounge of the interplanetary cargo vessel Persephone, his feet propped up on the low table in front of the couch, and his attention focused almost totally on the small book he was reading. The lounge itself was cozily small; the Persephone had not been designed as a passenger vessel, and the two passengers she was carrying at the time had been taken on as an accommodation rather than as a money-making proposition. On the other hand, the Persephone and other ships like her were the only method of getting to where Jayjay Kelvin wanted to go; there were no regular passenger runs to Pluto. It's hardly the vacation spot of the Solar System.
On the other side of the table, Jeffry Hull was working industriously with pencil and paper. Jayjay kept his nose buried in his book—not because he was deliberately slighting Hull, but because he was genuinely interested in the book.
"Now wait," said Masterson, looking thoughtfully at the footprints on the floor of the cabin where Jed Hooker had died. "Jest take another look at these prints, Charlie. Silver Bill Greer couldn't have got much more than his big toe into boots that small! Somethin' tells me the Pecos Kid has...."
"... Traveled nearly two billion miles since then," said Hull.
Jayjay lifted his head from his book. "What?" He blinked. "I'm sorry; I wasn't listening. What did you say?"
The younger man was still grinning triumphantly. "I said: We are approaching turnover, and, according to my figures, nine days of acceleration at one standard gee will give us a velocity of seventeen million, five hundred and fifty miles per hour, and we have covered a distance of nearly two billion miles." Then he added: "That is, if I remembered my formulas correctly."
Jayjay Kelvin looked thoughtfully at the ceiling while he ran through the figures in his head. "Something like that. It's the right order of magnitude, anyway."
Hull looked a little miffed. "What answer did you get?"
"A little less than eight times ten to the third kilometers per second. I was just figuring roughly."
Hull scribbled hastily, then smiled again. "Eighteen million miles an hour, that would be. My memory's better than I thought at first. I'm glad I didn't have to figure the time; doing square roots is a process I've forgotten."
That was understandable, Jayjay thought. Hull was working for his doctorate in sociology, and there certainly wasn't much necessity for a sociologist to remember his freshman physics, much less his high-school math.
Still, it was somewhat of a relief to find that Hull was interested in something besides the "sociological reactions of Man in space". The boy had spent six months in the mining cities in the Asteroid Belt, and another six investigating the Jovian chemical synthesis planes and their attendant cities. Now he was heading out to spend a few more months observing the "sociological organization Gestalt" of the men and women who worked at the toughest job in the System—taking the heavy metals from the particularly dense sphere of Pluto.
Hull began scribbling on his paper again, evidently lost in the joys of elementary physics, so Jayjay Kelvin went back to his book.
He had just read three words when Hull said: "Mr. Kelvin, do you mind if I ask a question?"
Jayjay looked up from his book and saw that Jeffry Hull had reverted to his role of the earnest young sociologist. Ah, well. "As I've told you before, Mr. Hull, questions do not offend me, but I can't guarantee that the answers won't offend you."
"Yes; of course," Hull said in his best investigatory manner. "I appreciate that. It's just that ... well, I have trained myself to notice small things. The little details that are sometimes so important in sociological investigations. Not, you understand, as an attempt to pry into the private life of the individual, but to round out the overall picture."
Jayjay nodded politely. To his quixotic and pixie-like mind, the term overall picture conjured up the vision of a large and carefully detailed painting of a pair of dirty overalls, but he kept the smile off his face and merely said: "I understand."
"Well, I've noticed that you're quite an avid reader. That isn't unusual in a successful businessman, of course; one doesn't become a successful businessman unless one has a thirst for knowledge."
"Hm-m-m," said Jayjay.
"But," Hull continued earnestly, "I noticed that you've read most of the ... uh ... historical romances in the library...."
"You mean Westerns," Jayjay corrected quietly.
"Uh ... yes. But you don't seem to be interested in the modern adventure fiction. May I ask why?"
"Sure." Jayjay found himself becoming irrationally irritated with Hull. He knew that the young sociologist had nothing to do with his own irritation, so he kept the remarks as impersonal as possible. "In the first place, you, as a sociologist, should know what market most fiction is written for."
"Why ... uh ... for people who want to relax and—"
"Yes," Jayjay cut in. "But what kind? The boys on Pluto? The asteroid slicers? No. There are four billion people on Earth and less than five million in space. The market is Earth.
"Also, most writers have never been any farther off the surface of Earth than the few miles up that an intercontinental cruiser takes them.
"And yet, the modern 'adventure' novel invariably takes place in space.
"I can read Westerns because I neither know nor care what the Old American West was really like. I can sit back and sink into the never-never land that the Western tells about and enjoy myself because I am not forced to compare it with reality.
"But a 'space novel' written by an Earthside hugger is almost as much a never-never land, and I have to keep comparing it with what is actually going on around me. And it irritates me."
"But, aren't some of them pretty well researched?" Hull asked.
"Obviously, you haven't read many of them," Jayjay said. "Sure, some of them are well researched. Say one half of one per cent, to be liberal. The rest don't know what they're talking about!"
"For instance," Jayjay continued heatedly, "you take a look at every blasted one of them that has anything to do with a spacecraft having trouble. They have to have an accident in space in order to disable the spaceship so that the hairy-chested hero can show what a great guy he is. So what does the writer do? He has the ship hit by a meteor! A meteor!"
Hull thought that over for a second. "Well," he said tentatively, "a ship could get hit by a meteor, couldn't it?"
Jayjay closed his eyes in exasperation. "Of course it could! And an air-ship can run into a ruby-throated hummingbird, too. But how often does it happen?
"Look: We're hitting it up at about one-fortieth of the velocity of light right now. What do you think would happen if we got hit by a meteor? We'd be gone before we knew what had happened.
"Why doesn't it happen? Because we can spot any meteor big enough to hurt us long before it contacts us, and we can dodge it or blast it out of the way, depending on the size.
"You've seen the outer hull of this ship. It's an inch thick shell of plastic, supported a hundred feet away from the steel hull by long booms. Anything small enough to get by the detectors will be small enough to burn itself out on that hull before it