Doctor Neal Cloud had once been a normal human being, gregarious and neighborly. He had been concerned as little with death as is the normal human being. Death was an abstraction. It was inevitable, of course, but it could not actually touch him or affect him personally, except at some unspecified, unconsidered and remote future time.
For twenty uneventful years he worked in the Atomic Research Laboratory of the Galactic Patrol, seeking a way to extinguish the “loose” atomic vortices resulting from the breaking out of control of atomic power plants. At home he had had wife Jo and their three kids—and what Jo had meant to him can be described adequately only in mathematical, not emotional terms. They had formed practically a closed system.
Hence, when a loose atomic vortex crashed to earth through his home, destroying in an instant everything that had made life worthwhile—Doctor Cloud had changed.
He had had something to live for; he had loved life. Then—suddenly—he had not, and he did not.
Cloud had always been a mathematical prodigy. Given the various activity values of a vortex at any instant, he knew exactly the “sigma” (summation) curve. Or, given the curve itself, he knew every individual reading of which it was composed—all without knowing how he did it. Nevertheless, he had never tried to blow out a vortex with duodec. He wanted to live, and it was a mathematical certainty that that very love of life would so impede his perceptions that he would die in the attempt.
Then came disaster. While still numb with the shock of it, he decided to blow out the oldest and worst vortex on Earth; partly in revenge, partly in the cold hope that he would fail and die, as so many hundreds of good men had already died.
But it was the vortex that died, not Cloud. It was a near thing, but when he was released from the hospital he found himself the most famous man alive. He was “Storm” Cloud, the Vortex Blaster—Civilization’s only vortex blaster!
He had now extinguished hundreds of the things. The operation, once so thrilling to others, had become a drab routine to him.
But he had not recovered and never would recover a normal outlook upon life. Something within him had died with his Jo, a vital something had been torn from the innermost depths of his being. That terrible psychic wound was no longer stamped boldly upon him for all to see—it no longer made it impossible for him to work with other men or for other men to work with him—but it was there.
Thus he preferred to be alone. Whenever he decently could, he traveled alone, and worked alone.
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He was alone now, hurtling through a barren region of space toward Rift Seventy-one and the vortex which was next upon his list. In the interests of time-saving and safety—minions of the Drug Syndicate had taken him by force from a passenger liner not long since, in order to save from extinction a vortex which they were using in their nefarious business—he was driving a light cruiser converted to one-man control. In one special hold lay his vortex-blasting flitter; in others were his vast assortment of duodec bombs and other stores and supplies.
And as he drove along through those strangely barren, unsurveyed wastes, he thought, as always, of Jo. He had not as yet actually courted death. He had not considered such courting necessary. Everyone had supposed, and he himself hoped, that a vortex would get him in spite of everything he could do. That hope was gone—it was as simple to blow out a vortex as a match.
But it would be so easy to make a slip—and a tiny little bit of a slip would be enough…. No, the Vortex Blaster simply couldn’t put such a black mark as that on his record. But if something else came along he might lean just a trifle toward it….
A distress call came in, pitifully, woefully weak—the distress call of a warm-blooded oxygen-breather!
It would have to be weak, upon his low-powered apparatus, Cloud reflected, as he sprang to attention and began to manipulate his controls. He was a good eighty-five parsecs—at least an hour at maximum blast—from the nearest charted traffic route.
He could not possibly get there in time. When anything happened in space it usually happened fast—it was almost always a question of seconds, not of hours. Cloud worked fast, but even so he had no time even to acknowledge—he was just barely in time to catch upon his communicator-plate a tiny but brilliant flash of light as the frantic sending ceased.
Whatever had occurred was already history.
Nevertheless, he had to investigate. He had received the call and it was possible, even probable, that no other spaceship had been within range. Law and tradition were alike adamant that every such call must be heeded by any vessel receiving it, of whatever class or upon whatever mission bound. He hurled out a call of his own, with all of his small power. No reply—the ether was empty.
Driving toward the scene of catastrophe at max, Cloud did what little he could do. He had never witnessed a space emergency before, but he knew the routine.
There was no use whatever in investigating the wreck itself. The brilliance of the flare had been evidence enough to the physicist that that vessel and everything too near it had ceased to exist. It was lifeboats he was after. They were supposed to stick around to be rescued, but out here they probably would not—they would head for the nearest planet to be sure of air. Air was far more important than either water or food—and lifeboats, by the very nature of things, could not carry enough air.
Approaching the charted spot, he sent out the universal “survivors?” call and swept all nearby space with his detectors—fruitlessly.
But this was not conclusive. Since his cruiser was intended solely to get him safely from one planet to another, he had only low-power, short-range detectors. Of course, his communicator, weak as it was, could reach two or three times as far as any lifeboat could possibly be—but he had heard more than once of lifeboats, jammed full of women and children, being launched into space without anyone aboard who could operate even a communicator.
It required only a few minutes to pick out the nearest sun. As he shot toward it he kept his detectors fanning out ahead, combing space mile by plotted cubic mile. And when he was halfway to that sun his plate revealed a lifeboat.
It was very close to the solar system toward which Cloud was blasting—entering it—nearing one of the planets. Guided by his plate, he drove home a solid communicator beam.
Still no answer!
Either the lifeboat did not have a communicator—some of the older types didn’t—or else it was smashed, or nobody aboard could run it. He’d have to keep his plate on them and follow them down to the ground.
But what was that? Another boat on the plate? Not a lifeboat—too big, but not big enough to be a regular spaceship. It was coming out from the planet, apparently. To rescue? No—what the hell! The lug was beaming the lifeboat!
“Let’s go, you sheet-iron lummox!” the Blaster cried aloud, kicking in his every remaining watt of drive. Then, eyes upon his plate, he swore viciously, corrosively.
This story, by E.E. Smith, PhD, originally appeared in Astonishing Stories, October 1942.
Another installment will appear every other Sunday.