"Meteor," Jayjay said flatly. "The bumper hull is fused at the edges of the break, and the direction of motion was inward."
"I don't see how it could have got by the meteor detectors," said Smith, a lean, sad-looking man with a badly bruised face.
"I don't either," the captain said, "but it must have. If the engines had blown, the damage would have been quite different."
Jeffry Hull nervously took a cigarette from his pocket pack. His nose had quit bleeding, but his eye was purpling rapidly and was almost swollen shut.
Captain Al-Amin leaned over and gently took the cigarette from Hull's fingers. "No smoking, I'm afraid. We'll have to conserve oxygen."
"You guys are so damn calm!" Hull said. His voice betrayed a surface of anger covering a substratum of fear. "Here we are, heading away from the Solar System at eighteen million miles an hour, and you all act as if we were going on a picnic or something."
The observation was hardly accurate. Any group of men who went on a picnic in the frame of mind that Jayjay and the others were in would have produced the gloomiest outing since the Noah family took a trip in an excursion boat.
"There's nothing to worry about," Captain Al-Amin said gently. "All we have to do is set the screamers going, and the Interplanetary Police will pick us up."
"Screamers?" Hull looked puzzled.
Instead of answering the implied question, the captain looked at Smith. "Have you checked them?" He knew that Smith had, but he was trying to quiet Hull's fears.
Smith nodded. "They're O.K." He looked at Hull. "A screamer is an emergency radio. There's one in every compartment. You've seen them." He pointed across the room, toward a red panel in the wall. "In there."
"But I thought it was impossible for a spaceship in flight to contact a planet by radio," Hull objected.
"Normally, it is," Smith admitted. "It takes too much power and too tight a beam to get much intelligence over a distance that great from a moving ship. But the screamers are set up for emergency purposes. They're like flares, except that they operate on microwave frequencies instead of visible light.
"The big radio telescopes on Luna and on the Jovian satellites can pick them up if we beam them sunward, and the Plutonian station can pick us up if we beam in that direction."
Hull looked much calmer. "But where do you get the power if the engines are gone? Surely the emergency batteries won't supply that kind of power."
"Of course not. Each screamer has its own power supply. It's a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell that generates a hell of a burst of power for about thirty minutes before it burns out from the overload. It's meant to be used only once, but it does the job."
"How do they know where to find us from a burst like that?" Hull asked.
"Well, suppose we only had one screamer. We'd beam it toward Pluto, since it would be easier for an IP ship to get to us from there. Since all screamers have the same frequency—don't ask me what it is; I'm not a radio man—the velocity of our ship will be indicated by the Doppler Effect. That is, our motion toward or away from them can be calculated that way. Our angular velocity with respect to them can be checked while the screamer is going; they will know which direction we're moving, if we're moving at an angle.
"With that information, all they have to do is find out which ship is in that general area of the sky, which they can find out by checking the schedule, and they can estimate approximately where we'll be. The IP ship will come out, and when they get in the general vicinity, they can find us with their meteor detectors. Nothing to it."
"And," Captain Al-Amin added, "since we have eight screamers still left with us, we have plenty of reserves to call upon. There's nothing to worry about, Mr. Hull."
"But how can you aim a beam when we're toppling end-over-end like this?" Hull asked.
"Well, if we couldn't stop the rotation," said the captain, "we'd broadcast instead of beaming. Anywhere within the Solar System, a screamer can broadcast enough energy to overcome the background noise.
"The IP would have a harder time finding us, of course, but we'd be saved eventually."
"I see," said Hull "How do we go about stopping the rotation?"
"That's the next thing on the agenda," Al-Amin said. "This seasick roll is caused by the unevenness of the load, and I'm pretty sick of it, myself. Smith, will you and Mr. Kelvin get out the emergency rockets? We'll see what we can do to stabilize our platform."
It took better than an hour to get the ship straightened out. For the main job, emergency rockets were set off at the appropriate spots around the hull to counteract the rotation. The final trimming was done with carbon dioxide fire extinguishers, which Smith and Jayjay Kelvin used as jets.
Getting a fix on Pluto was easy enough; the lighthouse station at Styx broadcast a strong beep sunward every ten seconds. They could also pick up the radio lighthouses on Eros, Ceres, Luna, and Mimas. Evidently, the one on Titan was behind the Jovian bulk.
They were ready to send their distress call.
"It's simple," Smith said as he opened the red panel in the wall of the control room. "First we turn on the receiver." He pushed a button marked R. "Then we turn these two wheels here until the pip on that little screen is centered. That's the signal from Pluto. It comes in strong every ten seconds, see?"
Jayjay watched with interest. He'd heard about screamers and had seen them, but he'd never had the opportunity of observing one in action.
Like flares or bombs, they were intended for one-time use. The instructions were printed plainly on the inside of the red door, and Smith was simply reading off what was printed there.
"These wheels," he was saying, "line up the parabolic reflector with the Pluto signal, you see. There. Now we've got it centered. Now, all we have to do is make one small correction and we're all set. These things are built so that they're fool-proof; a kid could operate it. Watch."
Facing each other across a small gap were a pair of tapered screw plugs, one male and one female. The male was an average of half an inch in diameter; the female was larger and bored to fit the male.
"The female plug," Smith said, "leads to two tanks of high-pressure gas inside this cabinet on the left. One tank of oxygen, one of hydrogen. See how this male plug telescopes out to fit into the female? All we have to do is thread them together, and everything is automatic."
Jayjay was aware that Smith's explanations were meant to give Jeffry Hull something to think about instead of his fears. Hull was basically an Earth-hugger, and free fall did nothing to keep him calm. Evidently his subconscious knew that he had to latch on to something to keep his mental equilibrium, because he showed a tremendous amount of interest in what should have been a routine operation.
"How do you mean, it's all automatic?" he asked. "What happens?"
"Well, you can't see into the female plug, but look here at the male. See those concentric tubes leading into the interior of the cabinet on the right? The outer one leads in the oxygen, the inner leads in the hydrogen. We need twice as much hydrogen as oxygen, so the inner tube has twice the volume delivery as the outer. See?"
"Yes. But what is the solid silver bar in the center of the inner tube?"
"That's the electrical connection for the starter battery. There's a small, short-lived chemical battery, like the ones in an ordinary pocket radio, except that they're built to deliver a high-voltage, high-amperage current for about a tenth of a second. That activates the H-O cell, you see. Also, that silver stud depresses the corresponding stud in the female plug, which turns on the gas flow before it makes the connection with the starter battery. Follow?"
Hull didn't look as though he did, but he nodded gamely.