Final Exam

Final Exam

by Arthur Zirul

The ship seemed to hang motionless above the great, green planet. The harsh, unfiltered light of the planet’s mother star glinted on the silvery hull, highlighting the ragged edge of a huge hole in the stern of the vessel.

The occupants of the spaceship stood anxiously by their posts. Even the youngest novice among them knew that the ship had seen its last flight; it was finished. The engines were gone, vanished in the crackling horror of an atomic fire. The holocaust had begun accidentally in the fuel center. In a few milliseconds the screaming flames had torn through the main bulkheads, following the fuel lines to the stern exhaust ports, destroying everything in their path. In a flash of hellish fire it was all over. Only the isolated control deck, where the few survivors now stood, remained intact.

It was only a matter of hours till the magnetic claws of the planet would pull the ship down, faster and faster, until the friction against the atmosphere would turn it into a molten, pitted mass—unrecognizable save as its component elements.

Each individual stood alone with his thoughts, separated from his neighbors by the cold inches of the space armor he wore. The atmosphere had long since hissed away through the gaping wounds in the ship. The vessel was tomb silent without it. Only the suit intercoms kept them in communications.

The chief engineer, stationed by his useless panel, studied the young second navigator for a moment. The youngster was tense, nervous; his features through the glass of his armor revealed the fear that chewed at his control.

“Take it easy boy,” the engineer beamed at him through the intercom. “We’re lucky, you know.”

“Lucky?” the navigator shouted. “You call this lucky? Dying on some lump parsecs from home! If that’s luck, you can stick it in your stern tubes!”

“Lucky,” the engineer repeated. “This planet might not have been so convenient. We might have drifted in an orbit around that sun until our suit tanks gave out; and then—”

“Oh shut up!” The navigator turned quickly and walked to his table. He began checking his instruments in a vain attempt to be doing something. Suddenly he raised his head, and with his voice barely under control, cried:

“Why doesn’t the skipper say something? What’s he doing in that cabin?”

“Maybe he’s saying his prayers,” the engineer smirked.

The navigator threw his sextant viciously against the bulkhead.

“Shut up, I said!” he snapped.

“Now hear this! Now hear this!”

Each crewman straightened as the general call activated his individual receiver.

“The captain will address the crew. Attention, please.”

There was a pause, then the familiar voice of the skipper came through.

“Men, there is no need for me to remind you of the gravity of our situation. We have no power, and as we are without communications our chances for immediate rescue are practically nonexistent. The situation, however, is not entirely hopeless.”

The crew stirred in surprise and a murmur echoed through the intercom.

“As you know, we were blown off our course by the blast recoil. We are in a strange sector being drawn into the planet below us. The planetologist informs me that this world has an atmosphere similar to that of our home planet. The gravity and vegetation, too, are very similar. In short, if need be, we can manage to survive there. Even more important than that, however, we have discovered signs of a highly developed culture. The alien sociologist tells me that this planet shows all the earmarks of a seventh-level culture. If that is true, then it means we might very well be able to obtain aid in returning home!”

The babble in the phones grew to a hopeful crescendo for a moment before the captain’s voice resumed.

“Do not become too optimistic however; we have a serious problem before us first. Since we have no power, our ship’s degravitators are useless; therefore if we are to manage a landing at all we must rely upon our suit degravitators. In short, we will abandon ship just as soon as we enter the atmosphere.

“Since our course carries us on a shallow tangent with the planet, and our atmospheric speed will exceed several thousand units per hour, we will be widely scattered when we land. Also contributing to our wide dispersion will be the high surface winds of the planet. Even if we leave as quickly as possible to negate the other difficulties, the winds will fling us to all points of the compass; especially as we will be nearly weightless with our degravitators on. It is quite possible that we may be separated by as much as the diameter of the planet.

“In order that we maintain as much fighting force as possible we will tie ourselves together in groups of three; more than that may prove cumbersome and dangerous. Some of the groups may be lost in the oceans. Some may die elsewhere in landing. I can only hope and pray that we all make it.

“The chief navigator will issue maps to each group designating the rendezvous point on the planet for the entire crew. Proceed to that point as quickly as possible, by any means that you can manage. Good luck for now, and God be with you.”

Illustrated by Arthur Sussman

There was a faint click as the captain signed off. His voice in the intercom was replaced by the excited babble of the crew.

“All right men, knock it off!” the chief navigator ordered through the phones. “Here’s the dope on this operation.”

He walked among the crew handing out the freshly printed maps. The first officer spoke next.

“There are fifteen of us left; you will separate into groups of three, according to alphabetical order. Each group will tie themselves together with their emergency lines. When you are ready, arrange yourselves in jump order by the forward escape hatch and the main lock. Three groups to the locks, two to the hatch. You will stand by for degrav and jump signals. Any questions?”

“Yes, sir,” the junior navigator said. “Do we have to turn our degravitators on right away? Can’t we fall a while and then switch them on just before we land? That way we’ll be surer of narrowing our landing area, and of staying together.”

“I see you’ve never used escape gear before,” the first said a little impatiently. “Those suit degravitators work in inverse proportion to the height of the fall. The further you fall, the slower you go. The unit needs distance to build up its field. These suit jobs are uncontrollable. They have only one setting and that’s ‘on.’ You’ll need all the height you can get if you hope to build up any weightlessness with these ‘One-lungers.’ If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up spread out like a quart of jam in a 10-G pull out. Any other questions?”

“N-No, sir,” the young officer stammered.

“All right then, hop to, you birds,” the first ordered. “Be ready to shove off at count-off signal from the captain. The captain, the chief navigator, and myself will leave last through the escape hatch. Remember, rendezvous as quickly as possible. We will maintain the rendezvous point for ten time-cycles; about forty light-periods on this planet. If you can’t get back by then, you’re on your own. Stand by for count off!”

The groups were quickly formed and tied together. They waited t ensely by the hatches for the signal that would send them out and down to the unknown world below. The captain’s voice clicked on again.

“Ready now men, we will enter atmosphere in ten centiunits. Stand by for count-off from five centiunits after entrance.”

They waited in their little groups, arms about each other resembling small football huddles, the better to keep them in one tight mass when they left ship. The first faint whistle of the upper atmosphere through the hole in the stern alerted them for the count off.

“Ready! Degravs on!” the captain’s voice tinned through their earphones. “Five… four… three… two… one… NOW!”

Like spilled fruit the groups tumbled out of the hatches. In a few seconds they were all out and caught in the grip of the upper air currents. The winds snatched them up, tumbled them about like multi-legged bowling balls, and whipped them away into the blue distance even before their degravitator fields had reached full effect. By the time they had reached five thousand feet they had decelerated to a gentle fall. By then, however, they had been so widely scattered by the winds that no one group was in sight of another.

Two of the groups fell in the Pacific Ocean in the midst of a tropical storm. One of them washed up on the beach of Kauai Island, in the Hawaiian group, several hours later. More dead than alive, they managed to crawl out of their buoyant suits and into the palm jungle. The other group was lost forever in the wild sea. One landed in North America; in a suburb of New York. Another fell in the deserted, frozen wastes of Antartica. They were forced to leave the warm safety of their suits when their power packs ran out. They froze to death soon afterwards. The last group alighted near Kamkov, a small village in East Russia.

Alma, Amika, and Babla, the three members of the first group to jump, were sitting huddled by the bole of a Royal Palm tree intensely studying the map spread out before them. They paid scant attention to the warm beauty of the Hawaiian island about them. Their recent ordeal in the ocean had left their aesthetic senses somewhat dulled. They were still weak, though a few meals of coconuts and berries had added a good deal to their vigor. ...

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