‘Five minutes,’ said Dale.
Dugan attended to his own straps, then all five lay waiting.
The engineer rested motionless with all the graven solemnity of a stone knight upon his tomb. The journalist wriggled slightly to find the most comfortable position.
‘Good beds you give your guests, Dale,’ he murmured. ‘Makes one wonder why we’re such damn’ fools as ever to do anything but sleep.’
Dale lay silent, his eyes fixed upon a flicking second hand. The fingers of his right hand already grasped the starting lever set into the side of his couch. His concentration left him without visible sign of fear, excitement or worry.
The tension increased. Froud ceased to fidget. Dugan felt his heart begin to beat more quickly. The doctor started to count the seconds subconsciously; the surface of his mind was tormented with suggestions. Even yet it was not too late. If he were to jump up and attack Dale. .
‘Half a minute.’
‘And then what?’ thought the doctor. He turned his head. His uneasy eyes met Dugan’s, and he heard a murmur of encouragement.
‘Fifteen seconds,’ said Dale.
A comforting fatalism crept over the doctor. One must die sooner or later. Why not now? He’d had a good run for his money. If only it were quick . . .
‘Five-four-three-two-one . . .’
The chattering of the crowd died down to a murmur, and thence to an excited silence broken only by the voice from the loudspeakers inexorably counting away the time. Every eye was turned to the centre of the circle, each focused upon the glittering rocket, scarcely daring even to blink lest it should miss the critical moment of the start. Into the dullest mind there crept at this moment some understanding of the scene’s true meaning a thrill of pride in the indomitable spirit of man striving once again to break his age old bondage: reaching out to grasp the very stars.
So, into unknown perils had gone the galleys of Ericson so, too, had gone the caravels of Columbus, fearing that they might sail over the edge of the world into the Pit of Eternity, but persistent in their courage. It might well be that this day, this twelfth of October, 1981, would go down to history as a turning point in human existence it might well be. .
The telescopes in the great observatories were trained and ready. They had been trained before. They had followed the flaring tracks of adventurers from Earth, had seen them break from the shell of atmosphere into the emptiness of space, seen them fail to hold their courses and watched the beginnings of falls which would last for months until they should end at last in the sun. And now, before long, the fate of the Gloria Mundi would be told by the great lenses whether fate had decided that she should turn aside to be drawn relentlessly into the centre of the system, or whether she would be allowed to see the red disc of Mars growing slowly larger in the sky before her . . .
The last tense seconds passed. The watchers held their breath and strained their eyes.
A flash stabbed out between the tail fins. The great rocket lifted. She seemed balanced upon a point of fire, soaring like the huge shell she was into the blue above. Fire spewed from her ports in a spreading glory of livid flame like the tail of a monstrous comet. And when the thunder of her going beat upon the ears of the crowd, she was already a fiery spark in the heavens ….
The Daily Hail’s correspondent had left his telephone on the Press tower and was gravitating naturally towards the bar. Before he could reach it, he found himself accosted by an excited individual clad in mechanic’s overalls. This person gripped him firmly by the lapel.
‘Mr. Travers, do you want a scoop?’ he inquired urgently.
Travers detached the none too clean hand.
‘Scoop?’ he said. ‘There are no scoops nowadays. Everybody knows all about everything before it’s happened.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ the mechanic insisted earnestly. ‘I’ve got a real scoop for you if you see that I’m treated right.’
‘The Hail always treats everybody right,’ Travers said loyally. ‘What is it? About the rocket?’
The mechanic nodded. After a hasty glance to reassure himself that no one else was within hearing, he leaned closer and whispered in the journalist’s ear. Travers stopped him after the first sentence.
‘Nobody else knows?’
‘Not a soul. Take my oath on it.’
Two minutes later, the mechanic, with Travers firmly clasping his arm, was being rushed across the ground in the direction of the Hail’s special ‘plane.
CHAPTER VII. IN FLIGHT.
DOCTOR GRAYSON’s eyes were tightly shut. The lids were pressed desperately together as though the slender membranes could cut him off from all sensation. Dugan’s were open, and his head was turned slightly to one side as he watched Dale. The control lever and the hand upon it were hidden from him, but he could see the right arm stiffen as Dale’s fingers gripped.
There was a sudden roar, loud and terrifying in spite of the evacuated double walls. An invisible weight pressed him deep into the cushions of his couch. The shuddering of the rocket shook him all over, despite the intervening springs, with a vibration which seemed to be shaking him to pieces. His head was swimming, and his brains felt like lead in his skull.
A new high note, a penetrating shriek, soared above the roar as the atmosphere fled screaming past outside. With an effort he managed to turn his head and look at the thermometer suspended above Dale. The temperature of the outer hull was rising already, and the speed indicator was only yet moving past the mile a second mark three thousand, six hundred miles an hour Dugan was swept by a sudden panic-did Dale know?
Dale’s eyes were fixed on the large disc which bore only a single second-hand. Slowly, and in accordance with the planned acceleration of a hundred feet per second, per second, he was turning the control lever. And slowly the speed indicator was advancing. Intangible forces continued to press on the men. It became difficult to breathe. The fine springs and soft down felt like cast iron: compressed internal organs ached intolerably; hearts laboured: veins rose in cords. Heads burned and drummed: eyes no longer seemed to fit their sockets.
The whine of the air passed beyond hearing; the thermometer continued to rise, but it was still far below the red danger mark. The speed indicator slid forward three and a half, four, four and a half miles a second four minutes since the start . . A little behind schedule . . .
Dugan ceased to watch. He could no longer see clearly. His eyes felt as though they must burst. Like a refrain in his mind went the repetition: ‘Seven miles a second . . . Seven miles a second. .’ Less than that would mean failure to get free from Earth.
The pressure grew. Dale was increasing the acceleration beyond the hundred feet. The weight ground down on the men, crushing them with an intolerable agony, straining ribs as though to crack them . . . At last Dugan slipped into unconsciousness . . .
Dugan, the youngest and the strongest, was the first to open his eyes. He was immediately and violently sick. Before he had completely recovered the others were beginning to stir and to show similar symptoms. His first anxiety when he gained a little control of himself was the speed indicator, and he sighed with relief to see that it was registering a trifle above seven miles a second actually a point or two beneath seven might not have failed to tear them free from Earth’s attraction, but the safety margin would have been unpleasantly narrow. He turned over on his side to look at Dale who had begun to move slightly. How the man had held out against the pressure to accelerate to such a point was a mystery. Somebody, Dugan decided, would have to invent an automatic acceleration control.
He sat up with great caution and released his straps. The rocket tubes were shut off now, and the ship travelling under her own momentum, so there would be no appreciable pull of gravity. He unfastened a pair of magnetic soled shoes from their holders beside his couch and strapped them on before lowering his feet to the floor.
Burns was less circumspect. He undid his buckles, sat up abruptly and met the ceiling with a smack. He swore.
‘Why don’t you use your brains?’ the doctor grumbled, peevishly. He was feeling extremely unwell and remained quite unamused by the spectacle of Dugan dragging the engineer back to his couch.
‘I didn’t think we were going to hit the no gravity zone so soon,’ Burns explained. The doctor shook his head.