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The Measure Of A Man



The Measure Of A Man







From: The Measure Of A Man

What is desirable is not always necessary, while that which is
necessary may be most undesirable. Perhaps the measure of a man is
the ability to tell one from the other ... and act on it.



Alfred Pendray pushed himself along the corridor of the battleship
Shane, holding the flashlight in one hand and using the other hand and
his good leg to guide and propel himself by. The beam of the torch
reflected queerly from the pastel green walls of the corridor, giving
him the uneasy sensation that he was swimming underwater instead of
moving through the blasted hulk of a battleship, a thousand light-years
from home.

He came to the turn in the corridor, and tried to move to the right, but
his momentum was greater than he had thought, and he had to grab the
corner of the wall to keep from going on by. That swung him around, and
his sprained ankle slammed agonizingly against the other side of the
passageway.

Pendray clenched his teeth and kept going. But as he moved down the side
passage, he went more slowly, so that the friction of his palm against
the wall could be used as a brake.

He wasn't used to maneuvering without gravity; he'd been taught it in
Cadets, of course, but that was years ago and parsecs away. When the
pseudograv generators had gone out, he'd retched all over the place, but
now his stomach was empty, and the nausea had gone.

He had automatically oriented himself in the corridors so that the doors
of the various compartments were to his left and right, with the ceiling
"above" and the deck "below." Otherwise, he might have lost his sense of
direction completely in the complex maze of the interstellar
battleship.

Or, he corrected himself, what's left of a battleship.

And what was left? Just Al Pendray and less than half of the
once-mighty Shane.

The door to the lifeboat hold loomed ahead in the beam of the
flashlight, and Pendray braked himself to a stop. He just looked at the
dogged port for a few seconds.

Let there be a boat in there, he thought. Just a boat, that's all I
ask. And air, he added as an afterthought. Then his hand went out to
the dog handle and turned.

The door cracked easily. There was air on the other side. Pendray
breathed a sigh of relief, braced his good foot against the wall, and
pulled the door open.

The little lifeboat was there, nestled tightly in her cradle. For the
first time since the Shane had been hit, Pendray's face broke into a
broad smile. The fear that had been within him faded a little, and the
darkness of the crippled ship seemed to be lessened.

Then the beam of his torch caught the little red tag on the air lock of
the lifeboat. Repair Work Under Way--Do Not Remove This Tag Without
Proper Authority.

That explained why the lifeboat hadn't been used by the other crewmen.

Pendray's mind was numb as he opened the air lock of the small craft. He
didn't even attempt to think. All he wanted was to see exactly how the
vessel had been disabled by the repair crew. He went inside.

The lights were working in the lifeboat. That showed that its power was
still functioning. He glanced over the instrument-and-control panels. No
red tags on them, at least. Just to make sure, he opened them up, one by
one, and looked inside. Nothing wrong, apparently.

Maybe it had just been some minor repair--a broken lighting switch or
something. But he didn't dare hope yet.

He went through the door in the tiny cabin that led to the engine
compartment, and he saw what the trouble was.

The shielding had been removed from the atomic motors.

He just hung there in the air, not moving. His lean, dark face remained
expressionless, but tears welled up in his eyes and spilled over,
spreading their dampness over his lids.

The motors would run, all right. The ship could take him to Earth. But
the radiation leakage from those motors would kill him long before he
made it home. It would take ten days to make it back to base, and
twenty-four hours of exposure to the deadly radiation from those engines
would be enough to insure his death from radiation sickness.

His eyes were blurring from the film of tears that covered them; without
gravity to move the liquid, it just pooled there, distorting his vision.
He blinked the tears away, then wiped his face with his free hand.

Now what?

He was the only man left alive on the Shane, and none of the lifeboats
had escaped. The Rat cruisers had seen to that.

* * * * *

They weren't really rats, those people. Not literally. They looked
humanoid enough to enable plastic surgeons to disguise a human being as
one of them, although it meant sacrificing the little fingers and little
toes to imitate the four-digited Rats. The Rats were at a disadvantage
there; they couldn't add any fingers. But the Rats had other
advantages--they bred and fought like, well, like rats.

Not that human beings couldn't equal them or even surpass them in
ferocity, if necessary. But the Rats had nearly a thousand years of
progress over Earth. Their Industrial Revolution had occurred while the
Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes were pushing the Britons into Wales.
They had put their first artificial satellites into orbit while King
Alfred the Great was fighting off the Danes.

They hadn't developed as rapidly as Man had. It took them roughly twice
as long to go from one step to the next, so that their actual
superiority was only a matter of five hundred years, and Man was
catching up rapidly. Unfortunately, Man hadn't caught up yet.

The first meeting of the two races had taken place in interstellar
space, and had seemed friendly enough. Two ships had come within
detector distance of each other, and had circled warily. It was almost a
perfect example of the Leinster Hypothesis; neither knew where the
other's home world was located, and neither could go back home for fear
that the other would be able to follow. But the Leinster Hypothesis
couldn't be followed to the end. Leinster's solution had been to have
the parties trade ships and go home, but that only works when the two
civilizations are fairly close in technological development. The Rats
certainly weren't going to trade their ship for the inferior craft of
the Earthmen.

The Rats, conscious of their superiority, had a simpler solution. They
were certain, after a while, that Earth posed no threat to them, so they
invited the Earth ship to follow them home.

The Earthmen had been taken on a carefully conducted tour of the Rats'
home planet, and the captain of the Earth ship--who had gone down in
history as "Sucker" Johnston--was convinced that the Rats meant no harm,
and agreed to lead a Rat ship back to Earth. If the Rats had struck
then, there would never have been a Rat-Human War. It would have been
over before it started.

But the Rats were too proud of their superiority. Earth was too far away
to bother them for the moment; it wasn't in their line of conquest just
yet. In another fifty years, the planet would be ready for picking off.

Earth had no idea that the Rats were so widespread. They had taken and
colonized over thirty planets, completely destroying the indigenous
intelligent races that had existed on five of them.

It wasn't just pride that had made the Rats decide to wait before
hitting Earth; there was a certain amount of prudence, too. None of the
other races they had met had developed space travel; the Earthmen might
be a little tougher to beat. Not that there was any doubt of the
outcome, as far as they were concerned--but why take chances?

But, while the Rats had fooled "Sucker" Johnston and some of his
officers, the majority of the crew knew better. Rat crewmen were little
short of slaves, and the Rats made the mistake of assuming that the
Earth crewmen were the same. They hadn't tried to impress the crewmen as
they had the officers. When the interrogation officers on Earth
questioned the crew of the Earth ship, they, too, became suspicious.
Johnston's optimistic attitude just didn't jibe with the facts.

So, while the Rat officers were having the red carpet rolled out for
them, Earth Intelligence went to work. Several presumably awe-stricken
men were allowed to take a conducted tour of the Rat ship. After all,
why not? The Twentieth Century Russians probably wouldn't have minded
showing their rocket plants to an American of Captain John Smith's time,
either.

But there's a difference. Earth's government knew Earth was being
threatened, and they knew they had to get as many facts as they could.
They were also aware of the fact that if you know a thing can be done,
then you will eventually find a way to do it.

During the next fifty years, Earth learned more than it had during the
previous hundred. The race expanded, secretly, moving out to other
planets in that sector of the galaxy. And they worked to catch up with
the Rats.

They didn't make it, of course. When, after fifty years of presumably
peaceful--but highly limited--contact, the Rats hit Earth, they found
out one thing. That the mass and energy of a planet armed with the
proper weapons can not be out-classed by any conceivable concentration
of spaceships.

Throwing rocks at an army armed with machine guns may seem futile, but
if you hit them with an avalanche, they'll go under. The Rats lost
three-quarters of their fleet to planet-based guns and had to go home to
bandage their wounds.

The only trouble was that Earth couldn't counterattack. Their ships were
still out-classed by those of the Rats. And the Rats, their racial pride
badly stung, were determined to wipe out Man, to erase the stain on
their honor wherever Man could be found. Somehow, some way, they must
destroy Earth.

And now, Al Pendray thought bitterly, they would do it.

* * * * *

The Shane had sneaked in past Rat patrols to pick up a spy on one of
the outlying Rat planets, a man who'd spent five years playing the part
of a Rat slave, trying to get information on their activities there. And
he had had one vital bit of knowledge. He'd found it and held on to it
for over three years, until the time came for the rendezvous.

The rendezvous had almost come too late. The Rats had developed a device
that could make a star temporarily unstable, and they were ready to use
it on Sol.

The Shane had managed to get off-planet with the spy, but they'd been
spotted in spite of the detector nullifiers that Earth had developed.
They'd been jumped by Rat cruisers and blasted by the superior Rat
weapons. The lifeboats had been picked out of space, one by one, as the
crew tried to get away.

In a way, Alfred Pendray was lucky. He'd been in the sick bay with a
sprained ankle when the Rats hit, sitting in the X-ray room. The shot
that had knocked out the port engine had knocked him unconscious, but
the shielded walls of the X-ray room had saved him from the blast of
radiation that had cut down the crew in the rear of the ship. He'd come
to in time to see the Rat cruisers cut up the lifeboats before they
could get well away from the ship. They'd taken a couple of parting
shots at the dead hulk, and then left it to drift in space--and leaving
one man alive.

In the small section near the rear of the ship, there were still
compartments that were airtight. At least, Pendray decided, there was
enough air to keep him alive for a while. If only he could get a little
power into the ship, he could get the rear air purifiers to working.

He left the lifeboat and closed the door behind him. There was no point
in worrying about a boat he couldn't use.

He made his way back toward the engine room. Maybe there was something
salvageable there. Swimming through the corridors was becoming easier
with practice; his Cadet training was coming back to him.

Then he got a shock that almost made him faint. The beam of his light
had fallen full on the face of a Rat. It took him several seconds to
realize that the Rat was dead, and several more to realize that it
wasn't a Rat at all. It was the spy they had been sent to pick up. He'd
been in the sick bay for treatments of the ulcers on his back gained
from five years of frequent lashings as a Rat slave.

Pendray went closer and looked him over. He was still wearing the
clothing he'd had on when the Shane picked him up.

Poor guy, Pendray thought. All that hell--for nothing.

Then he went around the corpse and continued toward the engine room.

The place was still hot, but it was thermal heat, not radioactivity. A
dead atomic engine doesn't leave any residual effects.

Five out of the six engines were utterly ruined, but the sixth seemed
to be in working condition. Even the shielding was intact. Again, hope
rose in Alfred Pendray's mind. If only there were tools!

A half hour's search killed that idea. There were no tools aboard
capable of cutting through the hard shielding. He couldn't use it to
shield the engine on the lifeboat. And the shielding that been on the
other five engines had melted and run; it was worthless.

Then another idea hit him. Would the remaining engine work at all? Could
it be fixed? It was the only hope he had left.

Apparently, the only thing wrong with it was the exciter circuit leads,
which had been sheared off by a bit of flying metal. The engine had
simply stopped instead of exploding. That ought to be fixable. He could
try; it was something to do, anyway.

It took him the better part of two days, according to his watch. There
were plenty of smaller tools around for the job, although many of them
were scattered and some had been ruined by the explosions. Replacement
parts were harder to find, but he managed to pirate some of them from
the ruined engines.

He ate and slept as he felt the need. There was plenty of food in the
sick bay kitchen, and there is no need for a bed under gravity-less
conditions.

After the engine was repaired, he set about getting the rest of the ship
ready to move--if it would move. The hull was still solid, so the
infraspace field should function. The air purifiers had to be
reconnected and repaired in a couple of places. The lights ditto. The
biggest job was checking all the broken leads to make sure there weren't
any short circuits anywhere.

The pseudogravity circuits were hopeless. He'd have to do without
gravity.

* * * * *

On the third day, he decided he'd better clean the place up. There were
several corpses floating around, and they were beginning to be
noticeable. He had to tow them, one by one, to the rear starboard air
lock and seal them between the inner and outer doors. He couldn't dump
them, since the outer door was partially melted and welded shut.

He took the personal effects from the men. If he ever got back to Earth,
their next-of-kin might want the stuff. On the body of the imitation
Rat, he found a belt-pouch full of microfilm. The report on the Rats'
new weapon? Possibly. He'd have to look it over later.

On the "morning" of the fourth day, he started the single remaining
engine. The infraspace field came on, and the ship began moving at
multiples of the speed of light. Pendray grinned. Half gone, will
travel, he thought gleefully.

If Pendray had had any liquor aboard, he would have gotten mildly drunk.
Instead, he sat down and read the spools of microfilm, using the
projector in the sick bay.

He was not a scientist in the strict sense of the word. He was a
navigator and a fairly good engineer. So it didn't surprise him any that
he couldn't understand a lot of the report. The mechanics of making a
semi-nova out of a normal star were more than a little bit over his
head. He'd read a little and then go out and take a look at the stars,
checking their movement so that he could make an estimate of his speed.
He'd jury-rigged a kind of control on the hull field, so he could aim
the hulk easily enough. He'd only have to get within signaling range,
anyway. An Earth ship would pick him up.

If there was any Earth left by the time he got there.

He forced his mind away from thinking about that.

It was not until he reached the last spool of microfilm that his
situation was forcibly brought to focus in his mind. Thus far, he had
thought only about saving himself. But the note at the end of the spool
made him realize that there were others to save.

The note said: These reports must reach Earth before 22 June 2287.
After that, it will be too late.

22 June!

That was--let's see....

This is the eighteenth of September, he thought, June of next year
is--nine months away. Surely I can make it in that time. I've got to.

The only question was, how fast was the hulk of the Shane moving?

It took him three days to get the answer accurately. He knew the
strength of the field around the ship, and he knew the approximate
thrust of the single engine by that time. He had also measured the
motions of some of the nearer stars. Thank heaven he was a navigator and
not a mechanic or something! At least he knew the direction and distance
to Earth, and he knew the distance of the brighter stars from where the
ship was.

He had two checks to use, then. Star motion against engine thrust and
field strength. He checked them. And rechecked them. And hated the
answer.

He would arrive in the vicinity of Sol some time in late July--a full
month too late.

What could he do? Increase the output of the engine? No. It was doing
the best it could now. Even shutting off the lights wouldn't help
anything; they were a microscopic drain on that engine.

He tried to think, tried to reason out a solution, but nothing would
come. He found time to curse the fool who had decided the shielding on
the lifeboat would have to be removed and repaired. That little craft,
with its lighter mass and more powerful field concentration, could make
the trip in ten days.

The only trouble was that ten days in that radiation hell would be
impossible. He'd be a very well-preserved corpse in half that time, and
there'd be no one aboard to guide her.

Maybe he could get one of the other engines going! Sure. He must be
able to get one more going, somehow. Anything to cut down on that time!

He went back to the engines again, looking them over carefully. He went
over them again. Not a single one could be repaired at all.

Then he rechecked his velocity figures, hoping against hope that he'd
made a mistake somewhere, dropped a decimal point or forgotten to divide
by two. Anything. Anything!

But there was nothing. His figures had been accurate the first time.

For a while, he just gave up. All he could think of was the terrible
blaze of heat that would wipe out Earth when the Rats set off the sun.
Man might survive. There were colonies that the Rats didn't know about.
But they'd find them eventually. Without Earth, the race would be set
back five hundred--maybe five thousand--years. The Rats would would have
plenty of time to hunt them out and destroy them.

And then he forced his mind away from that train of thought. There had
to be a way to get there on time. Something in the back of his mind told
him that there was a way.

He had to think. Really think.

* * * * *

On 7 June 2287, a signal officer on the Earth destroyer Muldoon picked
up a faint signal coming from the general direction of the constellation
of Sagittarius. It was the standard emergency signal for distress. The
broadcaster only had a very short range, so the source couldn't be too
far away.

He made his report to the ship's captain. "We're within easy range of
her, sir," he finished. "Shall we pick her up?"

"Might be a Rat trick," said the captain. "But we'll have to take the
chance. Beam a call to Earth, and let's go out there dead slow. If the
detectors show anything funny, we turn tail and run. We're in no position
to fight a Rat ship."

"You think this might be a Rat trap, sir?"

The captain grinned. "If you are referring to the Muldoon as a rat
trap, Mr. Blake, you're both disrespectful and correct. That's why we're
going to run if we see anything funny. This ship is already obsolete by
our standards; you can imagine what it is by theirs." He paused. "Get
that call in to Earth. Tell 'em this ship is using a distress signal
that was obsolete six months ago. And tell 'em we're going out."

"Yes, sir," said the signal officer.

It wasn't a trap. As the Muldoon approached the source of the signal,
their detectors picked up the ship itself. It was a standard lifeboat
from a battleship of the Shannon class.

"You don't suppose that's from the Shane, do you?" the captain said
softly as he looked at the plate. "She's the only ship of that class
that's missing. But if that's a Shane lifeboat, what took her so long
to get here?"

"She's cut her engines, sir!" said the observer. "She evidently knows
we're coming."

"All right. Pull her in as soon as we're close enough. Put her in
Number Two lifeboat rack; it's empty."

* * * * *

When the door of the lifeboat opened, the captain of the Muldoon was
waiting outside the lifeboat rack. He didn't know exactly what he had
expected to see, but it somehow seemed fitting that a lean, bearded man
in a badly worn uniform and a haggard look about him should step out.

The specter saluted. "Lieutenant Alfred Pendray, of the Shane," he
said, in a voice that had almost no strength. He held up a pouch.
"Microfilm," he said. "Must get to Earth immediately. No delay. Hurry."

"Catch him!" the captain shouted. "He's falling!" But one of the men
nearby had already caught him.

In the sick bay, Pendray came to again. The captain's questioning
gradually got the story out of Pendray.

"... So I didn't know what to do then," he said, his voice a breathy
whisper. "I knew I had to get that stuff home. Somehow."

"Go on," said the captain, frowning.

"Simple matter," said Pendray. "Nothing to it. Two equations. Little
ship goes thirty times as fast as big ship--big hulk. Had to get here
before 22 June. Had to. Only way out, y'unnerstand.

"Anyway. Two equations. Simple. Work 'em in your head. Big ship takes
ten months, little one takes ten days. But can't stay in a little ship
ten days. No shielding. Be dead before you got here. See?"

"I see," said the captain patiently.

"But--and here's a 'mportant point: If you stay on the big ship for
eight an' a half months, then y' only got to be in the little ship for a
day an' a half to get here. Man can live that long, even under that
radiation. See?" And with that, he closed his eyes.

"Do you mean you exposed yourself to the full leakage radiation from a
lifeboat engine for thirty-six hours?"

But there was no answer.

"Let him sleep," said the ship's doctor. "If he wakes up again, I'll let
you know. But he might not be very lucid from here on in."

"Is there anything you can do?" the captain asked.

"No. Not after a radiation dosage like that." He looked down at Pendray.
"His problem was easy, mathematically. But not psychologically. That
took real guts to solve."

"Yeah," said the captain gently. "All he had to do was get here alive.
The problem said nothing about his staying that way."





Next: The Penal Cluster

Previous: Hated Mars



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