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Title: Satellite Passage

Author: Theodore L. Thomas

Release Date: November 2, 2019 [EBook #60608]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII


Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
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It had to come sooner or later—the
perilous moment when Our satellite
crossed the orbit of Theirs....

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, October 1958.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The three men bent over the chart and once again computed the orbit. It was quiet in the satellite, a busy quiet broken by the click of seeking microswitches and the gentle purr of smooth-running motors. The deep pulsing throb of the air conditioner had stopped: the satellite was in the Earth's shadow and there was no need for cooling the interior.

"Well," said Morgan, "it checks. We'll pass within fifty feet of the other satellite. Too close. Think we ought to move?"

Kaufman looked at him and did not speak. McNary glanced up and snorted. Morgan nodded. He said, "That's right. If there's any moving to be done, let them do it." He felt a curious nascent emotion, a blend of anger and exhilaration—very faint now, just strong enough to be recognizable. The pencil snapped in his fingers, and he stared at it, and smiled.

Kaufman said, "Any way we can reline this a little? Fifty feet cuts it kind of close."

They were silent, and the murmuring of machinery filled the cramped room. "How's this?" said McNary. "Wait till we see the other satellite, take a couple of readings on it, and compute the orbit again. We'd have about five minutes to make the calculations. Morgan here can do it in less than that. Then we'd know if we're on a collision course."

Morgan nodded. "We could do it that way." He studied the chart in front of him. "The only thing, those boys on the other satellite will see what we're doing. They'll know we're afraid of a collision. They'll radio it down to Earth, and—you know the Russian mind—we'll lose face."

"That so bad?" asked Kaufman.

Morgan stared at the chart. He answered softly, "Yes, I think it is. The Russians will milk it dry if we make any move to get our satellite out of the way of theirs. We can't do that to our people."

McNary nodded. Kaufman said, "Agree. Just wanted to throw it out. We stay put. We hit, we hit."

The other two looked at Kaufman. The abrupt dismissal of a serious problem was characteristic of the little astronomer; Kaufman wasted no time with second guesses. A decision made was a fact accomplished; it was over.

Morgan glanced at McNary to see how he was taking it. McNary, now, big as he was, was a worrier. He stood ready to change his mind at any time, whenever some new alternative looked better. Only the soundness of his judgment prevented his being putty in any strong hands. He was a meteorologist, and a good one.

"You know," said McNary, "I still can't quite believe it. Two satellites, one pole-to-pole, the other equatorial, both having apogees and perigees of different elevations—yet they wind up on what amounts to a collision course."

Morgan said, "That's what regression will do for you. But we haven't got any time for that; we've got to think this out. Let's see, they'll be coming up from below us at passage. Can we make anything of that?"

There was silence while the three men considered it. Morgan's mind was focussed on the thing that was about to happen; but wisps of memory intruded. Faintly he could hear the waves, smell the bite in the salt sea air. A man who had sailed a thirty-two-foot ketch alone into every corner of the globe never thereafter quite lost the sound of the sea in his ear. And the struggle, the duel, the strain of outguessing the implacable elements, there was a test of a man....

"Better be outside in any case," said Kaufman. "Suited up and outside. They'll see us, and know we intend to do nothing to avoid collision. Also, we'll be in a better position to cope with anything that comes along, if we're in the suits."

Morgan and McNary nodded, and again there was talk. They discussed the desirability of radio communication with the other satellite, and decided against it. To keep their own conversations private, they agreed to use telephone communication instead of radio. When the discussion trailed off, Kaufman said, "Be some picture, if we have the course computed right. We stand there and wave at 'em as they go by."

Morgan tried to see it in his mind: three men standing on a long, slim tube, and waving at three men on another. The first rocket passage, and men waving. And then Morgan remembered something, and the image changed.

He saw the flimsy, awkward planes sputtering past each other on the morning's mission. The pilots, detached observers, non-combatants really, waved at each other as the rickety planes passed. Kindred souls they were, high above the walks of normal men. So they waved ... for a while.

Morgan said, "Do you suppose they'll try anything?"

"Like what?" said Kaufman.

"Like knocking us out of orbit if they can. Like shooting at us if they have a gun. Like throwing something at us, if they've got nothing better to do."

"My God," said McNary, "you think they might have brought a gun up here?"

Morgan began examining the interior of the tiny cabin. Slowly he turned his head, looking at one piece of equipment after another, visualizing what was packed away under it and behind it. To the right of the radio was the spacesuit locker, and his glance lingered there. He reached over, opened the door and slipped a hand under the suits packed in the locker. For a moment he fumbled and then he sat back holding an oxygen flask in his hand. He hefted the small steel flask and looked at Kaufman. "Can you think of anything better than this for throwing?"

Kaufman took it and hefted it in his turn, and passed it to McNary. McNary did the same and then carefully held it in front of him and took his hand away. The flask remained poised in mid-air, motionless. Kaufman shook his head and said. "I can't think of anything better. It's got good mass, fits the hand well. It'll do."

Morgan said, "Another thing. We clip extra flasks to our belts and they look like part of the standard equipment. It won't be obvious that we're carrying something we can throw."

McNary gently pushed the flask toward Morgan, who caught it and replaced it. McNary said, "I used to throw a hot pass at Berkeley. I wonder how the old arm is."

The discussion went on. At one point the radio came to life and Kaufman had a lengthy conversation with one of the control points on the surface of the planet below. They talked in code. It was agreed that the American satellite should not move to make room for the other, and this information was carefully leaked so the Russians would be aware of the decision.

The only difficulty was that the Russians also leaked the information that their satellite would not move, either.

A final check of the two orbits revealed no change. Kaufman switched off the set.

"That," he said, "is the whole of it."

"They're leaving us pretty much on our own," said McNary.

"Couldn't be any other way," Morgan answered. "We're the ones at the scene. Besides—" he smiled his tight smile—"they trust us."

Kaufman snorted. "Ought to. They went to enough trouble to pick us."

McNary looked at the chronometer and said, "Three quarters of an hour to passage. We'd better suit up."

Morgan nodded and reached again into the suit locker. The top suit was McNary's, and as he worked his way into it, Morgan and Kaufman pressed against the walls to give him room. Kaufman was next, and then Morgan. They sat out the helmets, and while Kaufman and McNary made a final check of the equipment, Morgan took several sights to verify their position.

"Luck," said Kaufman, and dropped his helmet over his head. The others followed and they all went through the air-sealing check-off. They passed the telephone wire around, and tested the circuit. Morgan handed out extra oxygen flasks, three for each. Kaufman waved, squeezed into the air lock and pulled the hatch closed behind him. McNary went next, then Morgan.

Morgan carefully pulled himself erect alongside the outer hatch and plugged the telephone jack into his helmet. As he straightened, he saw the Earth directly in front of him. It loomed large, visible as a great mass of blackness cutting off the harsh white starshine. The blackness was smudged with irregular patches of orangish light that marked the cities of Earth.

Morgan became aware that McNary, beside him, was pointing toward the center of the Earth. Following the line of his finger Morgan could see a slight flicker of light against the blackness; it was so faint that he had to look above it to see it.

"Storm," said McNary. "Just below the equator. It must be a pip if we can see the lightning through the clouds from here. I've been watching it develop for the last two days."

Morgan stared, and nodded to himself. He knew what it was like down there. The familiar feeling was building up, stronger now as the time to passage drew closer. First the waiting. The sea, restless in expectancy as the waves tossed their hoary manes. The gathering majesty of the elements, reaching, searching, striving.... And if at the height of the contest the screaming wind snatched up and smothered a defiant roar from a mortal throat, there was none to tell of it.

Then the time came when the forces waned. A slight let-up at first, then another. Soon the toothed and jagged edge of the waves subsided, the hard side-driven spray and rain assumed a more normal direction.

The man looked after the departing storm, and there was pain in his eyes, longing. Almost, the words rose to his lips, "Come back, I am still here, do not leave me, come back." But the silent supplication went unanswered, and the man was left with a taste of glory gone, with an emptiness that drained the soul. The encounter had ended, the man had won. But the winning was bitter. The hard fight was not hard enough. Somewhere there must be a test sufficient to try the mettle of this man. Somewhere there was a crucible hot enough to float any dross. But where? The man searched and searched, but could not find it.

Morgan turned his head away from the storm and saw that Kaufman and McNary had walked to the top of the satellite. Carefully he turned his body and began placing one foot in front of the other to join them. Yes, he thought, men must always be on top, even if the top is only a state of mind. Here on the outer surface of the satellite, clinging to the metallic skin with shoes of magnetized alloy, there was no top. One direction was the same as another, as with a fly walking on a chandelier. Yet some primordial impulse drove a man to that position which he considered the top, drove him to stand with his feet pointed toward the Earth and his head toward the outer reaches where the stars moved.

Walking under these conditions was difficult, so Morgan moved with care. The feet could easily tread ahead of the man without his knowing it, or they could lag behind. A slight unthinking motion could detach the shoes from the satellite, leaving the man floating free, unable to return. So Morgan moved with care, keeping the telephone line clear with one hand.

When he reached the others, Morgan stopped and looked around. The sight always gave him pause. It was not pretty; rather, it was harsh and garish like the raucous illumination of a honkytonk saloon. The black was too black, and the stars burned too white. Everything appeared sharp and hard, with none of the softness seen from the Earth.

Morgan stared, and his lips curled back over his teeth. The anticipation inside him grew greater. No sound and fury here; the menace was of a different sort. Looming, quietly foreboding, it was everywhere.

Morgan leaned back to look overhead, and his lips curled further. This was where it might come, this was the place. Raw space, where a man moved and breathed in momentary peril, where cosmic debris formed arrow-swift reefs on which to founder, where star-born particles traveled at unthinkable speeds out of the macrocosm seeking some fragile microcosm to shatter.

"Sun." Kaufman's voice echoed tinnily inside the helmet. Morgan brought his head down. There, ahead, a tinge of deep red edged a narrow segment of the black Earth. The red brightened rapidly, and broadened. Morgan reached to one side of his helmet and dropped a filter into place; he continued to stare at the sun.

McNary said, "Ten minutes to passage."

Morgan unhooked one of the oxygen cylinders at his belt and said, "We need some practice. We'd better try throwing one of these now; not much time left." He turned sideways and made several throwing motions with his right hand without releasing the cylinder. "Better lean into it more than you would down below. Well, here goes." He pushed the telephone line clear of his right side and leaned back, raising his right arm. He began to lean forward. When it seemed that he must topple, he snapped his arm down and threw the cylinder. The recoil straightened him neatly, and he stood securely upright. The cylinder shot out and down in a straight line and was quickly lost to sight.

"Very nice," said McNary. "Good timing. I'll keep mine low too. No sense cluttering the orbits up here with any more junk." Carefully McNary leaned back, leaned forward, and threw. The second cylinder followed the first, and McNary kept his footing.

Without speaking Kaufman went through the preliminaries and launched his cylinder. Morgan and McNary watched it speed into the distance. "Shooting stars on Earth tonight," said McNary.

"Quick! I'm off." It was Kaufman.

"Quick! I'm off!"

Morgan and McNary turned to see Kaufman floating several feet above the satellite, and slowly receding. Morgan stepped toward him and scooped up the telephone wire that ran to Kaufman's helmet. Kaufman swung an arm in a circle so that it became entangled in the wire. Morgan carefully drew the wire taut and checked Kaufman's outward motion. Gently, so as not to snap the wire, he slowly reeled him in. McNary grasped Kaufman's shoulders and turned him so that his feet touched the metal shell of the satellite.

McNary chuckled and said, "Why didn't you ride an oxygen cylinder down?"

Kaufman grunted and said, "Oh, sure. I'll leave that to the idiots in the movies; that's the only place a man can ride a cylinder in space." He turned to Morgan. "Thanks. Do as much for you some day."

"Hope you don't have to," Morgan answered. "Look, any throwing to be done, you better leave it to Mac and me. We can't be fishing anyone back if things get hot."

"Right," said Kaufman. "I'll do what I can to fend off anything they throw at us." He sniffed. "Be simpler if we have a collision."

Morgan was staring to the left. He lifted a hand and pointed. "That it?"

The others squinted in that direction. After a moment they saw the spot of light moving swiftly up and across the black backdrop of the naked sky. "Must be," said Kaufman. "Right time, right place. Must be."

Morgan promptly turned his back on the sun and closed his eyes; he would need his best vision shortly now, and he wanted his pupils dilated as much as possible. "Make anything out yet?" he said.

"No. Little brighter."

Morgan stood without moving. He could feel the heat on his back as his suit seized the radiant energy from the sun and converted it to heat. He grew warm at the back, yet his front remained cold. The sensation was familiar, and Morgan sought to place it. Yes, that was it—a fireplace. He felt as does a man who stands in a cold room with his back toward a roaring fire. One side toasted, the other side frigid. Funny, the homey sensations, even here.

"Damn face plate." It was Kaufman. He had scraped the front of his helmet against the outside hatch a week ago. Since then the scratches distracted him every time he wore the helmet.

Morgan waited, and the exultation seethed and bubbled and fumed. "Anything?" he said.

"It's brighter," said McNary. "But—wait a minute, I can make it out. They're outside, the three of them. I can just see them."

It was time. Morgan turned to face the approaching satellite. He raised a hand to shield his face plate from the sun and carefully opened his eyes. He shifted his hand into the proper position and studied the other satellite.

It was like their own, even to the three men standing on it, except that the three were spaced further apart.

"Any sign of a rifle or gun?" asked McNary.

"Not that I see," said Morgan. "They're not close enough to tell."

He watched the other satellite grow larger and he tried to judge its course, but it was too far away. Although his eyes were on the satellite, his side vision noted the bright-lit Earth below and the stars beyond. A small part of his mind was amused by his own stubborn egocentricity. Knowing well that he was moving and moving fast, he still felt that he stood motionless while the rest of the universe revolved around him. The great globe seemed to be majestically turning under his rooted feet. The harsh brilliances that were the stars seemed to sweep by overhead. And that oncoming satellite, it seemed not to move so much as merely swell in size as he watched.

One of the tiny figures on the other satellite shifted its position toward the others. Sensitive to the smallest detail, Morgan said, "He didn't clear a line when he walked. No telephone. They're on radio. See if we can find the frequency. Mac, take the low. Shorty, the medium. I'll take the high."

Morgan reached to his helmet and began turning the channel selector, hunting for the frequency the Russians were using. Kaufman found it. He said, "Got it, I think. One twenty-eight point nine."

Morgan set his selector, heard nothing at first. Then hard in his ear burst an unintelligible sentence with the characteristic fruity diphthongs of Russian. "I think that's it," he said.

He watched, and the satellite increased in size. "No rifle or any other weapon that I see," said Morgan. "But they are carrying a lot of extra oxygen bottles."

Kaufman grunted. McNary asked, "Can you tell if it's a collision course yet? I can't."

Morgan stared at the satellite through narrowed eyes, frowning in concentration. "I think not. I think it'll cross our bow twenty or thirty feet out; close but no collision."

McNary's breath sounded loud in the helmet. "Good. Then we've nothing but the men to worry about. I wonder how those boys pitch."

Another burst of Russian came over the radio, and with it Morgan felt himself slip into the relaxed state he knew so well. No longer was the anticipation rising. He was ready now, in a state of calm, a deadly and efficient calm—ready for the test. This was how it always was with him when the time came, and the time was now.

Morgan watched as the other satellite approached. His feet were apart and his head turned sideways over his left shoulder. At a thousand yards, he heard a mutter in Russian and saw the man at the stern start moving rapidly toward the bow. His steps were long. Too long.

Morgan saw the gap appear between the man and the surface of the other ship, saw the legs kicking in a futile attempt to establish contact again. The radio was alive with quick, short sentences, and the two men turned and began to work their way swiftly toward the bit of human jetsam that floated near them.

"I'll be damned," said Kaufman. "They'll never make it."

Morgan had seen that this was true. The gap between floating man and ship widened faster than the gap between men and floating man diminished. Without conscious thought or plan, Morgan leaned forward and pulled the jack on the telephone line from McNary's helmet. He leaned back and did the same to Kaufman, straightened and removed his own. He threw a quick knot and gathered the line, forming a coil in his left hand and one in his right, and leaving a large loop floating near the ship in front of him. He stepped forward to clear Kaufman, and twisted his body far around to the right. There he waited, eyes fixed on the other satellite. He crouched slightly and began to lean forward, far forward. At the proper moment he snapped both his arms around to throw the line, the left hand throwing high, the right low. All his sailor's skill went into that heave. As the other satellite swept past, the line flew true to meet it. The floating man saw it coming and grabbed it and wrapped it around his hand and shouted into the radio. The call was not needed; the lower portion of the line struck one of the walking men. He turned and pulled the line into his arms and hauled it tight. The satellite was barely past when the bit of human jetsam was returning to its metallic haven. The two men became three again, and they turned to face the American satellite. As one man the three raised both arms and waved. Still without thinking, Morgan found himself raising an arm with Kaufman and McNary and waving back.

He dropped his arm and watched the satellite shrink in size. The calmness left him, replaced by a small spot of emptiness that grew inside him, and grew and swelled and threatened to engulf him.

Passage was ended, but the taste in his mouth was of ashes and not of glory.

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of Satellite Passage, by Theodore L. Thomas


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