"There's nothing like having a good quart of scotch with you when you're falling into the Sun," said Manchin. "Won't you join me, gentlemen?"
"Listen to him," sputtered Warnock. "He's enjoying this. He likes being cooked in a cubby-holed space ship; he likes to sit here day after day while the floor beneath him is burning his shoes."
Manchin, the wiry West-Virginian biologist, lowered the half-empty bottle from his lips and scowled at the ship's doctor. "But not for long, my dear Warnock, not for long. Our fate lies within a few hours. The ship will be drawn closer and closer to the Sun. The heat will become unbearable. Then—pffffft!—the ship will be a little spark—"
"You're a pain," growled Captain Harris.
Manchin raised his eyebrows quizzically and grinned. He said nothing, walked to a bunk, and sat down beside Joe, the pilot.
The silence continued for some time, broken only by the footfalls of Captain Harris in her nervous pacing. There was nothing to do but wait. The four of them knew that. The ship couldn't hold out much longer; it would burst under the terrific strain, would be reduced instantly to a cinder by the Sun's blistering heat.
They were trapped, falling into the Sun inevitably.
"One meteorite," said Manchin casually, "one hurtling fragment of some interstellar gadabout which chose to cross our path at the wrong time. That's all it took to smash our jets and send the four of us toward that fiery mass."
"Shut up!" snapped Harris. "It's bad enough without your moaning!"
Oblivious to the captain's words, Manchin patted his bottle affectionately.
"In the name of Heaven!" growled Warnock, leaping to his feet. "Why do we sit here like a lot of mummies? There's a rocket capsule aboard, you say, with sufficient power to carry one of us to Mercury. Why don't we use it? I ask you, Harris."
"You answered that yourself," the captain said bluntly. "True, that rocket capsule can carry one of us to Mercury. Just one, understand—there's room for but one person in a capsule. I ask you—which one of us would that be?"
"That's beside the point," muttered Warnock, as he wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. "You don't seem to realize what valuable information we possess. Think of that cylinder in the supply room. It contains all the photographs we took of Mercurian plant and animal life, and the photos of Vulcan. To say nothing of the data concerning the Sun's corona—why, our analysis would be of infinite value to Earth scientists!"
"Quite so," Harris said crisply. "But while you're thinking about that, don't forget the three who would be left aboard this ship—think of what would happen to them." She stopped her pacing and shook a finger under the doctor's imposing Van Dyke. "Do you know what would happen to them, Warnock? They'd burn alive—they'd cook—while on Earth your scientists would hop around in glee over a few photographs of Mercury!"
Warnock sat down heavily, exhausted.
"The doc's right, Harris," Joe interposed. "There's no reason for all four of us dying when it's possible for one to gain freedom. And for God's sake if you're going to do something do it in a hurry! We'll burn before you make up your mind!"
"My mind's made up," Harris retorted. "I'm staying. In case you've forgotten, a captain is the last one to leave her ship. As for you three, fight it out among yourselves. Draw straws—anything. The consequences will be your worry."
"I'll stay," murmured Manchin, lifting his bottle to his lips.
"You don't mean that," said the youthful Joe. "You want to go—we all want to go—but it can only be one of us."
He fell silent, placing his head in his hands. Harris resumed her pacing.
The ship drifted on, slowly it seemed, ever nearing the solar furnace, falling toward the flames that were eager to dissolve the tiny cruiser locked in an unyielding gravitational pull.
"Soon," mused Manchin. "Soon we'll be too close for the rocket capsule to break free of the Sun's drag. Then there will be no doubt as to what will be done. Ha!"
"Malarkey!" yelled Joe, jerking erect. "How can you be so confounded happy about it all? We're falling into the Sun, man—doesn't that have any effect upon you?"
Manchin shrugged. "Perhaps. We are falling into the Sun, yes. We'll die, no doubt, so my future is definite. I know what is coming. Soon I shall be but a tiny spark, drifting nowhere in a big Sun. Do I regret being a tiny spark? Not when I have my scotch with me."
"You're a smart guy," Joe thrust at him. "Maybe you can tell us how to choose the rocket capsule's passenger."
"Simple, my friend. The captain won't go—she must stay with the ship. I have no relatives, only my scotch, so I am satisfied. The doctor must stay—he's too fat to get in the capsule. M'sieu Joe, the honor is yours. Au revoir."
"Don't be crazy—"
"Do not worry about us, my friend. We will find something to do. Perhaps I can interest the doctor and the captain in three-handed bridge. If not, we'll wait. We'll go soon—sssss! Like that."
Joe buried his face in his hands again.
For a few moments there was an unbroken silence. From the double-insulated hulls emanated a dry hotness that scorched the already blistered air. The hotness increased, rising to a fierce, intolerable degree. It grew, inexorably, pressing against their lungs—
Joe floundered crazily, leaped across the control room and plucked a gun from his locker. "This'll make it easier," he gasped, lifting the weapon to his head. "Somebody's got to fly that capsule—"
For ten minutes, no one spoke. It was hard to speak—each breath was a torture to the lungs.
"Manchin," said Warnock finally, in short gasps, "in God's name will you get into the capsule and take that cylinder to Mercury? One of us has got to go—for Joe's sake!"
Manchin, sprawled out on the pilot's bunk, made no reply. The captain stood before the dull gray view-screen, watched him a moment, thoughtfully. "Can't you reverse the field?" he asked at length. "I'd like to see the System just once more."
Harris had already made a few deft motions on the instrument panel. Presently, the screen came to life. Its scope possessed a bright halo—the Sun's glow. In the center of the screen Mercury was visible, a faint, receding globe. Harris moved the scope slowly until she found the feeble point of light that designated the Earth. She watched it grimly. "Satisfied, Warnock?"
"Dr. Warnock is dead," came Manchin's monotone.
Harris turned. The doctor lay on his face, immobile and silent.
"The heat," said Rogers, "and his age."
They carried him to the supply room, laid him beside the inert form of Joe.
The two stood watching Earth's dull glimmer on the screen. The heat pressed them relentlessly, always increasing—
"Take the capsule, Manchin. You've no reason to remain."
"I prefer to stay, Captain Harris. You have relatives—it is only proper that you should fly the capsule."
"Under any circumstances, Manchin, the captain does not leave her ship in distress. Should I return to Earth without the rest of you, I would lose my rank unquestionably. Now, before we draw too close, take the cylinder to Mercury! You're a fool not to!"
"M'sieu Harris, I possess magnificent renown as a fool. I shall remain."
"But the cylinder—"
"The cylinder, Captain Harris, be damned."
They looked at each other a long minute. Harris, stripped to the waist, perspiring, her thick black hair hanging in her eyes; Manchin, small, wiry, faint traces of a smile lurking on his lips.
Suddenly the floor shook beneath them. A violent shudder passed through the ship from stem to stern. The momentum of the Sunward fall increased.
Regaining her balance, Harris gasped, "Good God—the capsule!"
They saw a flash of light on the screen, saw the tiny rocket streak for Mercury in a flare of brilliance. It dwindled rapidly to a receding speck that was swallowed in the depths of space.
Speechless, Harris and Manchin raced to the supply room. They found Joe there, but no Warnock and no cylinder. Needles on the face of the capsule compartment jutting out from the wall registered zero.
"He was faking," said Harris. "He wasn't dead—he merely pretended, the coward!"
Manchin took a quick drink, threw a sidelong glance at Joe's bloody form, and walked slowly back to the control room. Harris followed. The clicking of their heels made a sullen echo upon the blistered walls.
On the screen, something dim and remote was moving, growing in size. Harris hastened forward in amazement.
"It's Warnock!" he breathed. "Lord—he was too late—he's falling back!"
"A pity," said Manchin. "He has so much longer to wait now. It must be horrible."
"And the cylinder," Harris sighed. "All that information will be lost." Her tired, bloodshot eyes followed the little capsule's course across the screen, back toward the flaming Sun.
"Perhaps," remarked Manchin, "there will be another expedition to Mercury some day, another group of scientists, with a better ship and better equipment. And no meteorite will prevent their safe return to Earth." He hesitated, took two tumblers from a nearby cabinet and filled them with the remaining contents of his bottle. He handed one of them to Harris, took the other himself. "A final toast, Captain?"
Harris accepted. "To the next Mercurian expedition, Manchin."
"The next expedition, Captain Harris."
They drank, and Manchin sucked in a breath. "I say—it's getting a bit warm in here, isn't it?"