"Then what happens?"
"Then the hydrogen and the oxygen come together in the fuel cell and, instead of generating heat, they generate electric current. That current is fed into the radio unit, and the signal is sent to Pluto. Real simple."
"I see," Hull said. "Well ... go ahead."
Smith telescoped the two leads together and began turning the collar on the female plug.
He screwed it up as far as it would go.
And nothing happened.
"What the hell?" asked Smith of no one in particular. He tried to twist it a little harder. Nothing happened. The threads had gone as far as they would go.
"What's the matter?" Jayjay asked.
"Damfino. No connection. Nothing's happening. And it's as tight as it will go."
"Are the gases flowing?" Jayjay asked.
"I don't know. These things aren't equipped with meters. They're supposed to work automatically."
Jayjay pushed Smith aside. "Let me take a look."
Smith frowned as though he resented an ordinary passenger shoving him around, but Jayjay ignored him. He cocked his head to one side and looked at the connection. "Hm-m-m." He touched it with a finger. Then he wet the finger with his tongue and touched the connection again. "There's no gas flow, Smith."
"How do you know?" Smith was still frowning.
"There's a gap there. That tapered thread isn't in tight. If there were any gas flowing, it would be leaking out." Before Smith could say anything Jayjay began unscrewing the coupling. When it came apart, it looked just the same as it had before Smith had put it together.
In the dim glow from the emergency lights, it was difficult to see anything.
"Got an electric torch?" Jayjay asked.
Smith pushed himself away from the screamer panel and came back after a moment with a flashlight. "Let me take a look," he said, edging Jayjay aside. He looked over the halves of the coupling very carefully, then said: "I don't see anything wrong. I'll try it again."
"Hold on a second," Jayjay said quietly. "Let me take a look, will you?"
Smith handed him the torch. "Go ahead, but there's nothing wrong."
Jayjay took the light and looked the connections over again. Then he screwed his head around so that he could look into the female plug.
"Hm-m-m. Hard to count. Gap's too small. Anybody got a toothpick?"
Jayjay turned to Jeffry Hull. "Mr. Hull, would you mind going to the lounge? I think there's some toothpicks in the snack refrigerator."
"Sure," said Hull. "Sure."
He pushed himself across the control room and disappeared through the stairwell.
"Get several of them," Jayjay called after him.
Captain Al-Amin said: "What's the trouble, Mr. Kelvin?"
"I'm not sure yet," Jayjay answered. "When did you last have the screamer units inspected?"
"Just before we took off from Jove Station," Al-Amin said. "That's the law. All emergency equipment has to be checked before takeoff. Why? What's the matter?"
"Did they check this unit?" Jayjay asked doggedly.
"Certainly. I watched them check it myself. I—" He brought himself up short and said: "Give me that torch, will you? I want to take a look at the thing."
Jayjay handed him the flashlight and grasped the captain's belt. With one arm in a splint, Al-Amin couldn't hold the flashlight and hold on to anything solid at the same time.
"I don't see anything wrong," he said after a minute.
"Neither do I," Jayjay admitted. "But the way it acts—"
"I got the toothpicks!" Jeffry Hull propelled himself across the room toward the three men who were clustered around the screamer.
Jayjay took the toothpicks, selected one, and inserted it into the female plug. "Hard to see those threads with all the tubes blocking that plug," he said offhandedly.
Hull said: "Captain, did you know that the refrigerator is off?"
"Yes," said Atef Al-Amin absently. "It isn't connected to the emergency circuits. Wastes too much energy. What do you find, Mr. Kelvin?"
After a second's silence, Jayjay said: "Let me check once more." He was running the tip of the toothpick across the threads in the female plug, counting as he did so. "Uh-huh," he said finally, "just as I thought. There's one less thread in the female plug. The male plug is stopped before it can make contact. There's a gap of about a tenth of an inch when the coupling is screwed up tight."
"Let me see," Smith said. He took the toothpick and went through the same operation. "You're right," he said ruefully, "the female plug is faulty. We'll have to use one of the other screamers."
"Right," said Jayjay.
Wrong, said Fate. Or the Powers That Be, or the Fallibility of Man, whatever you want to call it.
Every screamer unit suffered from the same defect.
"I don't understand it!" A pause. "It's impossible! Those units were tested!"
For the first time in his life, Captain Atef Abdullah Al-Amin allowed his voice to betray him.
Arabic is normally spoken about half an octave above the normal tone used for English. And, unlike American English, it tends to waver up and down the scale. Usually, the captain spoke English in the flat, un-accented tones of the Midwest American accent, and spoke Arabic in the ululating tones of the Egyptian.
But now he was speaking English with an Egyptian waver, not realizing that he was doing it.
"How could it happen? It's ridiculous!"
The captain, his maintenance officer, and Jeffry Hull were clustered around the screamer unit in the lounge. Off to one side, Jayjay Kelvin held a deck of cards in his hands and played a game of patience called "transportation solitaire." His eyes didn't miss a play, just as his ears didn't miss a word.
He pulled an ace from the back of the deck and flipped it to the front.
"You said the screamers had been checked," Jeffry Hull said accusingly. "How come they weren't checked?"
"They were!" Al-Amin said sharply.
"Sure they were," Smith added. "I watched the check-off. There was nothing wrong then."
"Meanwhile," Hull said, the acid bite of fear in his voice, "we have to sit here and wait for the Interplanetary Police to find us by pure luck."
The captain should have let Hull cling to the idea that the IP could find the Persephone, even if no signal was sent. But the captain was almost as angry and flustered as Hull was.
"Find us?" he snapped. "Don't be ridiculous! We won't even be missed until we're due at Styx, on Pluto, nine days from now. By that time, we'll be close to two billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto. We'll never be found if we wait 'til then. Something has to be done now!" He looked at his Maintenance Officer. "Smith, isn't there some way to make contact between those two plugs?"
"Sure," Smith said bitterly. "If we had the tools, it would be duck soup. All we'd have to do is trim down the male plug to fit the female, and we'd have it. But we don't have the tools. We've got a couple of files and a quarter-horsepower electric drill with one bit. Everything else was in the tool compartment—which is long gone, with the engine room."
"Can't you ... uh, what do you call it? Uh ... jury-something—" Hull's voice sounded as though he were forcing it to be calm.
"Jury-rig?" Smith said. "Yeah? With what? Dammit, we haven't got any tools, and we haven't got any materials to work with!"
"Can't you just use a wrench to tighten them more?" Hull asked helplessly.
Smith said a dirty word and pushed himself away from the screamer unit to glower at an unresisting wall.
"No, Mr. Hull, we couldn't," said Captain Al-Amin with restrained patience. "That would strip the threads. If the electrical contact were made at the same time, the high-pressure oxygen-hydrogen