XIV: THE TROUBLE WITH HOLLOW BOATS

Barlennan had been told at various times during his formative years that he was someday pretty sure to talk himself into more trouble than he could talk himself out of. At various later times during his career this prediction had come alarmingly close to fulfillment, and each time he had resolved to be more careful in future with his tongue. He felt the same way now, together with an injured feeling arising from the fact that he did not yet know just what he had said that had betrayed his mendacity to.the islander. He did not have time to theorize over it, either; something in the line of action was called for, the quicker the better. Reejaaren had already howled orders to the glider crews to pin the Bree to the bottom if she made a move toward the open sea, and the catapults on shore were launching more of the machines to reinforce those already aloft. The wind was coming from the sea at a sufficient angle to be lifted as it struck the far wall of the fiord, so the flyers could remain aloft as long as necessary. Barlennan had learned from the Earthmen that they probably could not climb very high — high enough for effective missile dropping — under the thrust of the updrafts from ocean waves; but he was a long way from the open sea where they would have to depend on such currents. He had already had a chance to observe their accuracy, and dismissed at once any idea of trusting to his dodging ability to save his ship.

As so frequently happened, the action was performed by a crew member while he was debating the best course. Don-dragmer snatched up the crossbow that had been given them by Reejaaren, nocked a bolt, and cocked the weapon with a speed that showed he could not have been completely absorbed in his hoist project at all times. Swinging the weapon shoreward, he rested it on its single support leg and covered the interpreter with the point.

“Hold on, Reejaaren; you’re moving in the wrong direction.” The islander stopped on his way out of the bay, liquid dripping from his long body, and doubled his front half back toward the ship to see what the mate meant. He saw clearly enough, but seemed for a moment undecided about the proper course of action.

“If you want to assume I’ll probably miss because I’ve never handled one of these things, go right ahead. I’d like to find out myself. If you don’t start coming this way in an awfully short time, though, it will be just as though you had tried to escape. Move!” The last word was issued in a barking roar that removed much of the interpreter’s indecision. He apparently was not quite sure of the mate’s incompetence; he continued the doubling movement, re-entered the bay, and swam out to the Bree. If he thought of concealing himself by submerging during the process, he evidently lacked the courage to try it. As he well.knew, the methane was only a few inches deep even at the ship’s location, and would hardly protect him from a bolt hurled with force enough to penetrate three inches of wood after a forty-yard trajectory under seven gravities. He did not think of it in those terms, of course, but he knew very well what those projectiles could do. He clambered aboard, shaking with rage and fear together.

“Do you think this will save you?” he asked. “You have simply made things worse for yourselves. The gliders will drop in any event if you try to move, whether I am aboard or not.”

“You will order them not to.”

“They will obey no order I give while I am obviously in your power; you should know that if you have any sort of

fighting force.”

“I’ve never had much to do with soldiers,” Barlennan replied. He had recovered the initiative, as he usually did once things had started in a definite direction. “However, I’ll believe you for the time being. Well just have to hold you here until some understanding is reached concerning this nonsense about our going ashore — unless we can take care of those gliders of yours in the meantime. It’s a pity we

didnt’ bring some more modern armament into this backward area.”

“You can stop that nonsense now,” returned the captive. “You have nothing more than the rest of the savages of the south. I’ll admit you fooled us for a. time, but you betrayed yourself a moment ago.”

“And what did I say that made you think I’d been lying?”

“I see no reason to tell you. The fact that you don’t yet know just proves my point. It would have been better for you if you hadn’t fooled us so completely; then we’d have been more careful with secret information, and you wouldn’t have learned enough to make your disposal necessary.”

“And if you hadn’t made that last remark, you might have talked us into surrendering,” cut in Dondragmer, “though I admit it’s not likely. Captain, I’ll bet that what you slipped up on was what I’ve been telling you all along. It’s too late to do anything about that now, though. The question is how to get rid of these pesky gliders; I don’t see any surface craft to worry about, and the folks on shore have only the crossbows from the gliders that were on the ground. I imagine they’ll leave things to the aircraft for the time being.” He shifted to English. “Do you remember anything we heard from the Flyers that would help us get rid of these pesky machines?” Barlennan mentioned their probable altitude limitations over open sea, but neither could see how that helped at the moment.

“We might use the crossbow on them.” Barlennan made the suggestion in his own language, and Reejaaren sneered openly. Krendoranic, the munitions officer of the Bree, who like the rest of the crew had been listening eagerly, was less contemptuous.

“Let’s do that,” he cut in sharply. “There’s been something I’ve wanted to try ever since we were at that river village.”

“What?”

“I don’t think you’d want me to talk about it with our friend listening. Well show him instead, if you are willing.” Barlennan hesitated a moment, then gave consent.

Barlennan looked a trifle worried as Krendoranic opened one of the flame lockers, but the officer knew what he was doing. He removed a small bundle already wrapped in light-proof material, thus giving evidence of at least some of his occupation during the nights since they had left the village of the river-dwellers.

The bundle was roughly spherical, and evidently designed to be thrown by arm-power; like everyone else, Krendoranic had been greatly impressed by the possibilities of this new art of throwing. Now he was extending his idea even further, however.

He took the bundle and lashed it firmly to one of the crossbow bolts, wrapping a layer of fabric around bundle and shaft and tying it at? either end as securely as possible. Then he placed the bolt in the weapon. He had, as a matter of duty, familiarized himself with the weapon during the brief trip downstream and the reassembly of the Bree, and had no doubt about his ability to hit a sitting target at a reasonable distance; he was somewhat less sure about moving objects, but at least the gliders could only turn rapidly if they banked sharply, and that would give him warning.

At his order, one of the sailors who formed part of his flame-thrower crew moved up beside him with the igniting device, and waited. Then, to the intense annoyance of the watching Earthmen, he crawled to the nearest of the radios and set the leg of the bow on top of it to steady himself and the weapon in an upward position. This effectively prevented the human beings from seeing what went on, since the radios were set to look outward from a central point and neither of the others commanded a view of the first.

As it happened, the gliders were still making relatively low passes, some fifty feet above the bay, and coming directly over the Bree on what could on an instant’s notice become bomb runs; so a much less experienced marksman than the munitions officer could hardly have missed. He barked a command to his assistant as one of the machines approached, and began to lead it carefully. The moment he was sure of his aim, he gave a command of execution and the assistant touched the igniter to the bundle on the slowly rising arrow point. As it caught, Krendoranic’s pincers tightened on the trigger and a line of smoke marked the trail of the missile from the bow.

Krendoranic and his assistant ducked wildly back to deck level and rolled upwind to get away from the smoke released at the start; sailors to leeward of the release point leaped to either side. By the time they felt safe, the air action was almost over.

The bolt had come as close as possible to missing entirely; the marksman had underestimated his target’s speed. It had struck about as far aft on the main fuselage as it could, and the bundle of chlorine powder was blazing furiously. The cloud of flame was spreading to the rear of the glider and leaving a trail of smoke that the following machines made no effort to avoid. The crew of the target ship escaped the effects of the vapor, but in a matter of seconds their tail controls burned away. The glider’s nose dropped and it fluttered down to the beach, pilot and crew leaping free just before it touched. The two aircraft which had flown into the smoke also went out of control as the hydrogen chloride fumes incapacitated their personnel, and both settled into the bay. All in all, it was one of the great anti-aircraft shots of history.

Barlerman did not wait for the last of the victims to crash, but ordered the sails set. The wind was very much against him, but there was depth enough for the centerboards, and he began to tack out of the fiord. For a moment it looked as though the shore personnel were about to turn their own crossbows on the ship, but Krendoranic had loaded another of his frightful missiles and aimed it toward the beach, and the mere threat sent them scampering for safety — upwind; they were sensible beings for the most part.

Reejaaren had watched in silence, while his bodily attitude betrayed blank dismay. Gliders were still in the air, and some were climbing as though they might attempt runs from a higher altitude; but he knew perfectly well that the Bree was relatively safe from any such attempt, excellent though his aimers were. One of the gliders did make a run at about three hundred feet, but another trail of smoke whizzing past spoiled ‘his aim badly and no further attempts were made. The machines drifted in wide circles well out of range while the Bree slipped on down the fiord to the sea.

“What in blazes has been happening, Barl?” Lackland, unable to restrain himself longer, decided it was safe to speak as the crowd on shore dwindled with distance. “I haven’t been butting in for fear the radios might spoil some of your plans, but please let us know what you’ve been doing.”

Barlennan gave a brief resum6 of the events of the last few hundred days, filling in for the most part the conversations his watchers had been unable to follow. The account lasted through the minutes of darkness, and sunrise found the ship almost at the mouth of the fiord. The interpreter had listened with shocked dismay to the conversation between captain and radio; he assumed, with much justice, that the former was reporting the results of his spying to his superiors, though he could not imagine how it was being done. With the coming of sunrise he asked to be put ashore in a tone completely different from any he had used before; and Barlennan, taking pity on a creature who had probably never asked for a favor in his life from a member of another nation, let him go overboard from the moving vessel fifty yards from the beach. Lackland saw the islander dive into the sea with some relief; he knew Barlennan quite well, but had not been sure just what course of action he would consider proper under the circumstances.

“Barl,” he said after a few moments’ silence, “do you suppose you could keep out of trouble for a few weeks, until we get our nerves and digestions back up here? Every time the Bree is held up, everyone on this moon ages about ten years.”

“Just who got me into ttts trouble?” retorted the Mesklin-ite. “If I hadn’t been advised to seek shelter from a certain storm — which it turned out I could have weathered better on the open sea — I’d certainly never have met these glider makers. I can’t say that I’m very sorry I did, myself; I learned a lot, and I know at least some of your friends wouldn’t have missed the show for anything. From my point of view this trip has been rather dull so far; the few encounters we have had have all terminated very tamely, and with a surprising amount of profit.”

“Just which do you like best, anyway: adventure or cash?”

“Well — I’m not sure. Every now and then I let myself in for something just because it looks interesting; but I’m much happier in the end if I make something out of it.”

“Then please concentrate on what you’re making out of this trip. If it will help you any to do that, we’ll collect a hundred or a thousand shiploads of those spices you just got rid of and store them for you where the Bree wintered; it would still pay us, if you’ll get that information we need.”

“Thanks, I expect to make profit enough. You’d take all the fun out of life.”

“I was afraid you’d feel that way. All right, I can’t order you around, but please remember what this means to us.”

Barlennan agreed, more or less sincerely, and swung his ship once more southward. For some days the island they had left was visible behind them, and often they had to change course to avoid others. Several times they saw gliders skimming the waves on the way from one island to another, but these always gave the ship a wide berth. Evidently news spread rapidly among these people. Eventually the last visible bit of land slipped below the horizon, and the human beings said that there was no more ahead — good fixes could once more be obtained with the weather in its present clear state.

At about forty-gravity latitude they directed the ship on a more southeasterly course to avoid the land mass which, as Reejaaren had said, swung far to the east ahead of her. Actually the ship was following a relatively narrow passage between two major seas, but the strait was far too wide for that fact to be noticeable from shipboard.

One minor accident occurred some distance into the new sea. At around sixty gravities the canoe, still following faithfully at the end of its towrope, began to settle visibly in the sea. While Dondragmer put on his best “I told you so” expression and remained silent, the little vessel was pulled up to the ship’s stern and examined. There was quite a bit of methane in the bottom, but when she was unloaded and pulled aboard for examination no leak was visible. Barlennan concluded that spray was responsible, though the liquid was much clearer than the ocean itself. He put the canoe back in. the sea and replaced its load, but detailed a sailor to inspect every few days and bail when necessary. This proved adequate for many days; the canoe floated as high as ever when freshly emptied, but the rate of leakage grew constantly greater. Twice more she was pulled aboard for inspection without result; Lackland, consulted by radio, could offer no explanation. He suggested that the wood might be porous, but in that case the leaking should have been present from the beginning.

The situation reached a climax at about two hundred gravities, with more than a third of the sea journey behind them. The minutes of daylight were longer now as spring progressed and the Bree moved ever farther from her sun, and the sailors were relaxing accordingly. The individual who had the bailing job was not, therefore, very attentive as he pulled the canoe up the stern rafts and climbed over its gunwale. He was aroused immediately thereafter. The canoe, of course, settled a trifle as he entered; and as it did so, the springy wood of the sides gave a little. As the sides collapsed, it sank a little farther — and the sides yielded more — and it sank yet farther-Like any feedback reaction, this one went to completion in a remarkably short time. The sailor barely had time to feel the side of the canoe pressing inward when the whole vessel went under and the outside pressure was relieved. Enough of the cargo was denser than methane to keep the canoe sinking, and the sailor found himself swimming where he had expected to be riding. The canoe itself settled to the end of its towrope, slowing the Bree with a jerk that brought the entire crew to full alertness.

The sailor climbed back into the Bree, explaining what had happened as he did so. All the crew whose duties did not keep them elsewhere rushed to the stern, and presently the rope was hauled in with the swamped canoe at the end of it. With some effort, the canoe and such of its load as had been adequately lashed down were hauled aboard, and one of the sets turned to view it. The object was not very informative; the tremendous resilience of the wood had resulted in its recovering completely even from this flattening, and the canoe had resumed its original shape, still without leaks. This last fact was established after it had once more been unloaded.

Lackland, looking it over, shook his head and offered no explanation. “Tell me just what happened — what everyone who saw anything at all did see.”

The Mesklinites complied, Barlennan translating the stories of the crewman who had been involved and the few others who had seen the event in any detail. It was the first, of course, that provided the important bit of information.

“Good Earth!” Lacklaiid muttered, half aloud. “What’s the use of a high school education if you can’t recall it when needed later on? Pressure in a liquid corresponds to the weight of liquid above the point in question — and even methane under a couple of hundred gravities weighs a good deal per vertical inch. That wood’s not much thicker than paper, either; a wonder it held so long.” Barlennan interrupted this rather uninformative monologue with a request — for information.

“I gather you now know what happened,” he said. “Could you please make it clear to us?”

Lackland made an honest effort, but was only partly successful. The concept of pressure, in a quantitative sense, defeats a certain number of students in every high school class.

Barlennan did get the idea that the deeper one went into the sea the greater was the crushing force, and that the rate of increase with depth went up along with gravity; but he did not connect this force with others such as wind, or even the distress he himself had experienced when he submerged too rapidly in swimming.

The main point, of course, was that any floating object had to have some part of itself under the surface, and that sooner or later that part was going to be crushed if it was hollow. He avoided Dondragmer’s eye as this conclusion was reached in his conversation with Lackland, and was not comforted when the mate pointed out that this was undoubtedly where he had betrayed his falsehood when talking to Reejaaren. Hollow ships used by his own people, indeed! The islanders must have learned the futility of that in the far south long since.

The gear that had been in the canoe was stowed on deck, and the voyage continued. Barlennan could not bring himself to part with the now useless little vessel, though it took up a good deal of space. He disguised its uselessness thinly by packing it with food supplies which could not have been heaped so high without the sides of the canoe to retain them. Dondragmer pointed out that it was reducing the ship’s flexibility by extending the length of two rafts, but the captain did not let this fact worry him.

Time passed, as it had before, first hundreds and then thousands of days. To the Mesklinites, long-lived by nature, its passage meant little; to the Earthmen the voyage gradually became a thing of boredom, part of the regular routine of life. They watched and talked to the captain as the line on the globe slowly lengthened; measured and computed to determine his position and best course when he asked them to; taught English to or tried to learn a Mesklinite language from sailors who sometimes also grew bored; in short, waited, worked where possible, and killed time as four Earthly months — nine thousand four hundred and some odd Mesklinite days — passed. Gravity increased from the hundred and ninety or so at the latitude where the canoe had sunk to four hundred, and then to six, and then further, as indicated by the wooden spring balance that was the Bree’s latitude gauge. The days grew longer and the nights shorter until at last the sun rode completely around the sky without touching the horizon, though it dipped toward it in the south. The sun itself seemed shrunken to the men who had grown used to it during the brief time of Mesklin’s perihelion passage. The horizon, seen from the Bree’s deck through the vision sets, was above the ship all around, as Barlennan had so patiently explained to Lackland months before; and he listened tolerantly when the men assured him it was an optical illusion. The land that finally appeared ahead was obviously above them too; how could an illusion turn out to be correct? The land was really there. This was proved when they reached it; for reach it they did, at the mouth of a vast bay that stretched on to the south for some two thousand miles, half the remaining distance to the grounded rocket. Up the bay they sailed, more slowly as it finally narrowed to the dimensions of a regular estuary and they had to tack instead of seeking favorable winds with the Flyer’s help, and finally to the river at its head. Up this they went too, no longer sailing except at rare, favorable intervals; for the current against the blunt faces of the rafts was more than the sails could usually overcome, broad as the river still was. They towed instead, a watch at a time going ashore with ropes and pulling; for in this gravity even a single Mesklinite had a respectable amount of traction. More weeks, while the. Earthmen lost their boredom and tension mounted in the Toorey station. The goal was almost in sight, and hopes ran high.

And they were dashed, as they had been for a moment months before when Lackland’s tank reached the end of its journey. The reason was much the same; but this time the Bree and its crew were at the bottom of a cliff, not the top. The cliff itself was three hundred feet high, not sixty; and in nearly seven hundred gravities climbing, jumping and other rapid means of travel which had been so freely indulged at the distant Rim were utter impossibilities for the powerful little monsters who manned the ship.

The rocket was fifty miles away in horizontal distance; in vertical, it was the equivalent, fot a human being, of a climb of nearly thirty-five — up a sheer rock wall.

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