Thursday, August 18, 2016

"The Creeping, Lurking Death That Darkened the Ship with Its Unescapable Shadow"

"Salvage in Space."
By Jack Williamson (1908-2006).
First appearance: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1933.
Collected in The Early Williamson (1975).
Short story (17 pages).
Online at Project Gutenberg HERE and at FeedBooks HERE; audio version HERE (1 hour 4 minutes 23 seconds).
"To Thad Allen, meteor miner, comes the dangerous bonanza of a derelict rocket-flier manned by death invisible."
Thad Allen, an independent rock rat trying to eke out a dangerous living prospecting the asteroids, sometimes has to ward off those feelings of alienation that come from being out there, all alone:
The strangeness of interplanetary space, and the somber mystery of it, pressed upon him like an illimitable and deserted ocean. The sun was a tiny white disk on his right, hanging between rosy coronal wings; his native Earth, a bright greenish point suspended in the dark gulf below it; Mars, nearer, smaller, a little ocher speck above the shrunken sun. Above him, below him, in all directions was vastness, blackness, emptiness. Ebon infinity, sprinkled with far, cold stars. Thad was alone. Utterly alone. No man was visible, in all the supernal vastness of space. And no work of man—save the few tools of his daring trade, and the glittering little rocket bolted to the black iron behind him. It was terrible to think that the nearest human being must be tens of millions of miles away. On his first trips, the loneliness had been terrible, unendurable. Now he was becoming accustomed to it. At least, he no longer feared that he was going mad. But sometimes....
Then he comes across the Red Dragon, a galactic derelict:
Could he board her, and take her to Mars? By law, it was his duty to attempt to aid any helpless ship, or at least to try to save any endangered lives upon her. And the salvage award, if the ship should be deserted and he could bring her safe to port, would be half her value. No mean prize, that. Half the value of ship and cargo! More than he was apt to earn in years of mining the meteor-belt.
While that seems like a good idea at the time, Thad doesn't have an inkling of the ordeal he's about to undergo—and certainly not how useful a jar of face powder can be . . .

~ A simple (too simple) atomic rocket:
   "On the other side of this tiny sphere of hard-won treasure, his Millen atomic rocket was sputtering, spurts of hot blue flame jetting from its exhaust. A simple mechanism, bolted to the first sizable fragment he had captured, it drove the iron ball through space like a ship. Through the magnetic soles of his insulated boots, Thad could feel the vibration of the iron mass, beneath the rocket's regular thrust."
~ No radar, just the Mark One eyeball:
   "He clambered to a better position; stood peering out into space, searching for the tiny gleam of sunlight on a meteoric fragment that might be worth capturing for its content of precious metals. For an hour he scanned the black, star-strewn gulf, as the sputtering rocket continued to drive him forward. . . . He studied the tiny speck intently, with practised eye, as the minutes passed—an untrained eye would never have seen it at all, among the flaming hosts of stars. Skilfully he judged, from its apparent rate of motion and its slow increase in brilliance, its size and distance from him."
. . . and no radio:
   "The officers of interplanetary liners lose no love upon the meteor miners, claiming that their collected masses of metal, almost helpless, always underpowered, are menaces to navigation. Thad could expect nothing from the ship save a heliographed warning to keep clear."
~ Low-tech grappling, no computers:
   "Rapidly he unslung from his belt the apparatus he used to capture meteors. A powerful electromagnet, with a thin, strong wire fastened to it, to be hurled from a helix-gun. He set the drum on which the wire was wound upon the metal at his feet, fastened it with its magnetic anchor, wondering if it would stand the terrific strain when the wire tightened. Raising the helix to his shoulder, he trained it upon a point well ahead of the rushing flier, and stood waiting for the exact moment to press the lever."
~ In space, no one can hear . . . anything:
   "Thad pressed the key that hurled the magnet from the helix. It flung away from him, the wire screaming from the reel behind it."
~ The usual pre-space program Solar System:
   "He climbed on down, feeling for the light button. He found it, as his feet touched the floor. Blue light flooded the hold. It was filled with monstrous things, colossal creatures, such as nothing that ever lived upon the Earth; like nothing known in the jungles of Venus or the deserts of Mars, or anything that has been found upon Jupiter's moons."
~ Zeronel, a super drug whose effects might wear off . . .
   ". . . perhaps in a year, perhaps in a hundred. The purity of my drugs is uncertain, and the injection was made hastily, so I do not know the exact time that must elapse."

Note: Our narrative doesn't fit the usual SF-mystery-crime template that we use to select stories for this weblog, being more of an Alien/Forbidden Planet/It! The Terror from Beyond Space monster hunt mashup thriller; yes, there are mysterious elements, but as a detective our protagonist is remarkably slow on the uptake when it comes to assembling clues that would show him how perilous his situation really is.

- Titania, the largest moon of Uranus (see HERE), figures heavily in our story—although the author's imagination does get a little out of hand, describing it as "the third and largest satellite of Uranus; [having] unearthly forests, sheltering strange and monstrous life . . ."
Whatever you do, don't go there.
- We've already dealt with the notion of salvaging things from the Big Up and Out (HERE).

The bottom line: ". . . I had seen the princess and let her lie there unawakened, because the happily ever after was so damnably much work."
Orson Scott Card

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