Despite extensive research, no evidence was found that U.S. copyright on this book was renewed.
POCKET BOOKS, INC. NEW YORK, N. Y.
Reaching for the Stars....
Ever since ancient man first gazed in wonder at the stars, humanity has dreamed of traveling to outer space. Now scientists agree that space-flight may very soon become a reality.
Space Platform tells of man's first step into outer space ... of the difficulties and dangers of reaching for the stars. It is also an exciting adventure. When young Joe Kenmore came to Bootstrap to install pilot gyros in the Platform he hadn't bargained for sabotage or murder or love. But Joe learned that ruthless agents were determined to wreck the project. He found that the beautiful girl he loved, and men like The Chief, a rugged Indian steelworker, and Mike, a midget who made up for his size by brains, would have to fight with their bare hands to make man's age old dream of space travel come true!
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This science-fiction novel was originally published by Shasta Publishers.
Of other books by Murray Leinster, the following are science-fiction:
SIDEWISE IN TIME
THE LAST SPACE SHIP
THE LAWS OF CHANCE (Anthology)
GREAT STORIES OF SCIENCE FICTION (editor)
This Pocket Book includes every word contained in the original, higher-priced edition. It is printed from brand-new plates made from completely reset, clear, easy-to-read type.
* * * * *
Shasta edition published February, 1953
Pocket Book edition published March, 1953
1st printing January, 1953
All rights reserved. This book, or any part thereof, may not be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address: SHASTA PUBLISHERS, 5525 South Blackstone Avenue, Chicago, 37, Illinois.
Copyright, 1953, by Will F. Jenkins. This POCKET BOOK edition is published by arrangement with Shasta Publishers. Printed in the U.S.A.
* * * * *
Notice: POCKET BOOK editions are published in the United States by Pocket Books, Inc., in Canada by Pocket Books of Canada, Ltd., and in England by News of the World, Registered User of the Trade Marks. Trade Marks registered in the United States and British Patent Offices by Pocket Books, Inc., and registered in Canada by Pocket Books of Canada, Ltd.
This acknowledgment is necessary if I am to say thanks to some experts to whom I am indebted. There is Captain Charles Benjamin, who read over the aviation parts of this book with pursed lips and a belligerent attitude toward questionable statements of fact or observation. There is Dr. John Drury Clark, whose authoritative knowledge of rocket fuels was the basis for admitted but not extravagant extrapolation on my part. There is the crew of a four-engined transport ship, who argued over my manuscript and settled the argument by a zestful, full-scale crash-landing drill—repeat, "drill"—expressly to make sure I had described all the procedure just right. There is Willy Ley, whom I would like to exempt from responsibility for any statement in the book, while I acknowledge the value of personal talks with him and the pleasure anybody who has ever read his books will recognize. And there is Dr. Hugh S. Rice of the Hayden Planetarium, who will probably be surprised to find that I feel I owe him gratitude. They are in great part responsible for the factual matter in this book.
I think I may add, though, that I worked on it too.
MURRAY LEINSTER "Ardudwy" Gloucester, Va.
There wasn't anything underneath but clouds, and there wasn't anything overhead but sky. Joe Kenmore looked out the plane window past the co-pilot's shoulder. He stared ahead to where the sky and cloud bank joined—it was many miles away—and tried to picture the job before him. Back in the cargo space of the plane there were four big crates. They contained the pilot gyros for the most important object then being built on Earth, and it wouldn't work properly without them. It was Joe's job to take that highly specialized, magnificently precise machinery to its destination, help to install it, and see to its checking after it was installed.
He felt uneasy. Of course the pilot and co-pilot—the only two other people on the transport plane—knew their stuff. Every imaginable precaution would be taken to make sure that a critically essential device like the pilot gyro assembly would get safely where it belonged. It would be—it was being—treated as if it were a crate of eggs instead of massive metal, smoothed and polished and lapped to a precision practically unheard of. But just the same Joe was worried. He'd seen the pilot gyro assembly made. He'd helped on it. He knew how many times a thousandth of an inch had been split in machining its bearings, and the breath-weight balance of its moving parts. He'd have liked to be back in the cargo compartment with it, but only the pilot's cabin was pressurized, and the ship was at eighteen thousand feet, flying west by south.
He tried to get his mind off that impulse by remembering that at eighteen thousand feet a good half of the air on Earth was underneath him, and by hoping that the other half would be as easy to rise above when the gyros were finally in place and starting out for space. The gyros, of course, were now on their way to be installed in the artificial satellite to be blasted up and set in an orbit around the Earth as the initial stage of that figurative stepladder by which men would make their first attempt to reach the stars. Until that Space Platform left the ground, the gyros were Joe's responsibility.
The plane's co-pilot leaned back in his chair and stretched luxuriously. He loosened his safety belt and got up. He stepped carefully past the column between the right- and left-hand pilot seats. That column contained a fraction of the innumerable dials and controls the pilots of a modern multi-engine plane have to watch and handle. The co-pilot went to the coffeepot and flipped a switch. Joe fidgeted again on his improvised seat. Again he wished that he could be riding in back with the crates. But it would be silly to insist on perching somewhere in the freight compartment.
There was a steady roaring in the cabin—the motors. One's ears got accustomed to it, and by now the noise sounded as if it were heard through cushions. Presently the coffeepot bubbled, unheard. The co-pilot lighted a cigarette. Then he drew a paper cup of coffee and handed it to the pilot. The pilot seemed negligently to contemplate some dozens of dials, all of which were duly duplicated on the right-hand, co-pilot's side. The co-pilot glanced at Joe.
"Thanks," said Joe. He took the paper cup.
The co-pilot said: "Everything okay with you?"
"I'm all right," said Joe. He realized that the co-pilot felt talkative. He explained: "Those crates I'm traveling with——. The family firm's been working on that machinery for months. It was finished with the final grinding done practically with feather dusters. I can't help worrying about it. There was four months' work in just lapping the shafts and balancing rotors. We made a telescope mounting once, for an observatory in South Africa, but compared to this gadget we worked on that one blindfolded!"
"Pilot gyros, eh?" said the co-pilot. "That's what the waybill said. But if they were all right when they left the plant, they'll be all right when they are delivered."
Joe said ruefully: "Still I'd feel better riding back there with them."
"Sabotage bad at the plant?" asked the co-pilot. "Tough!"
"Sabotage? No. Why should there be sabotage?" demanded Joe.
The co-pilot said mildly: "Not quite everybody is anxious to see the Space Platform take off. Not everybody! What on earth do you think is the biggest problem out where they're building it?"
"I wouldn't know," admitted Joe. "Keeping the weight down? But there is a new rocket fuel that's supposed to be all right for sending the Platform up. Wasn't that the worst problem? Getting a rocket fuel with enough power per pound?"
The co-pilot sipped his coffee and made a face. It was too hot.
"Fella," he said drily, "that stuff was easy! The slide-rule boys did that. The big job in making a new moon for the Earth is keeping it from being blown up before it can get out to space! There are a few gentlemen who thrive on power politics. They know that once the Platform's floating serenely around the Earth, with a nice stock of atom-headed guided missiles on board, power politics is finished. So they're doing what they can to keep the world as it's always been—equipped with just one moon and many armies. And they're doing plenty, if you ask me!"
"I've heard——" began Joe.
"You haven't heard the half of it," said the co-pilot. "The Air Transport has lost nearly as many planes and more men on this particular airlift than it did in Korea while that was the big job. I don't know how many other men have been killed. But there's a strictly local hot war going on out where we're headed. No holds barred! Hadn't you heard?"
It sounded exaggerated. Joe said politely: "I heard there was cloak-and-dagger stuff going on."
The pilot drained his cup and handed it to the co-pilot. He said: "He thinks you're kidding him." He turned back to the contemplation of the instruments before him and the view out the transparent plastic of the cabin windows.
"He does?" The co-pilot said to Joe, "You've got security checks around your plant. They weren't put there for fun. It's a hundred times worse where the whole Platform's being built."
"Security?" said Joe. He shrugged. "We know everybody who works at the plant. We've known them all their lives. They'd get mad if we started to get stuffy. We don't bother."
"That I'd like to see," said the co-pilot skeptically. "No barbed wire around the plant? No identity badges you wear when you go in? No security officer screaming blue murder every five minutes? What do you think all that's for? You built these pilot gyros! You had to have that security stuff!"
"But we didn't," insisted Joe. "Not any of it. The plant's been in the same village for eighty years. It started building wagons and plows, and now it turns out machine tools and precision machinery. It's the only factory around, and everybody who works there went to school with everybody else, and so did our fathers, and we know one another!"
The co-pilot was unconvinced. "No kidding?"
"No kidding," Joe assured him. "In World War Two the only spy scare in the village was an FBI man who came around looking for spies. The village cop locked him up and wouldn't believe in his credentials. They had to send somebody from Washington to get him out of jail."
The co-pilot grinned reluctantly. "I guess there are such places," he said enviously. "You should've built the Platform! It's plenty different on this job! We can't even talk to a girl without security clearance for an interview beforehand, and we can't speak to strange men or go out alone after dark—."
The pilot grunted. The co-pilot's tone changed. "Not quite that bad," he admitted, "but it's bad! It's really bad! We lost three planes last week. I guess you'd call it in action against saboteurs. One flew to pieces in mid-air. Sabotage. Carrying critical stuff. One crashed on take-off, carrying irreplaceable instruments. Somebody'd put a detonator in a servo-motor. And one froze in its landing glide and flew smack-dab into its landing field. They had to scrape it up. When this ship got a major overhaul two weeks ago, we flew it with our fingers crossed for four trips running. Seems to be all right, though. We gave it the works. But I won't look forward to a serene old age until the Platform's out of atmosphere! Not me!"
He went to put the pilot's empty cup in the disposal slot.
The plane went on. There wasn't anything underneath but clouds, and there wasn't anything overhead but sky. The clouds were a long way down, and the sky was simply up. Joe looked down and saw a faint spot of racing brightness with a hint of colors around it. It was the sort of nimbus that substitutes for a shadow when a plane is high enough above the clouds. It raced madly over the irregular upper surface of the cloud layer. The plane flew and flew. Nothing happened at all. This was two hours from the field from which it had taken off with the pilot gyro cases as its last item of collected cargo. Joe remembered how grimly the two crew members had prevented anybody from even approaching it on the ground, except those who actually loaded the cases, and how one of the two had watched them every second.
Joe fidgeted. He didn't quite know how to take the co-pilot's talk. The Kenmore Precision Tool plant was owned by his family, but it wasn't so much a family as a civic enterprise. The young men of the village grew up to regard fanatically fine workmanship with the casual matter-of-factness elsewhere reserved for plowing or deep-sea fishing. Joe's father owned it, and some day Joe might head it, but he couldn't hope to keep the respect of the men in the plant unless he could handle every tool on the place and split a thousandth at least five ways. Ten would be better! But as long as the feeling at the plant stayed as it was now, there'd never be a security problem there.
If the co-pilot was telling the truth, though—.
Joe found a slow burn beginning inside him. He had a picture in his mind that was practically a dream. It was of something big and bright and ungainly swimming silently in emptiness with a field of stars behind it. The stars were tiny pin points of light. They were unwinking and distinct because there was no air where this thing floated. The blackness between them was absolute because this was space itself. The thing that floated was a moon. A man-made moon. It was an artificial satellite of Earth. Men were now building it. Presently it would float as Joe dreamed of it, and where the sun struck it, it would be unbearably bright, and where there were shadows, they would be abysmally black—except, perhaps, when earthshine from the planet below would outline it in a ghostly fashion.
There would be men in the thing that floated in space. It swam in a splendid orbit about the world that had built it. Sometimes there were small ships that—so Joe imagined—would fight their way up to it, panting great plumes of rocket smoke, and bringing food and fuel to its crew. And presently one of those panting small ships would refill its fuel tanks to the bursting point from the fuel other ships had brought—and yet the ship would have no weight. So it would drift away from the greater floating thing in space, and suddenly its rockets would spout flame and fumes, and it would head triumphantly out and away from Earth. And it would be the first vessel ever to strike out for the stars!
That was the picture Joe had of the Space Platform and its meaning. Maybe it was romantic, but men were working right now to make that romance come true. This transport plane was flying to a small town improbably called Bootstrap, carrying one of the most essential devices for the Platform's equipment. In the desert near Bootstrap there was a gigantic construction shed. Inside that shed men were building exactly the monstrous object that Joe pictured to himself. They were trying to realize a dream men have dreamed for decades—the necessary space platform that would be the dock, the wharf, the starting point from which the first of human space explorers could start for infinity. The idea that anybody could want to halt such an undertaking made Joe Kenmore burn.
The co-pilot painstakingly crushed out his cigarette. The ship flew with more steadiness than a railroad car rolls on rails. There was the oddly cushioned sound of the motors. It was all very matter-of-fact.
But Joe said angrily: "Look! Is any of what you said—well—kidding?"
"I wish it were, fella," said the co-pilot. "I can talk to you about it, but most of it's hushed up. I tell you——"
"Why can you talk to me?" demanded Joe suspiciously. "What makes it all right for you to talk to me?"
"You've got passage on this ship. That means something!"
"Does it?" asked Joe.
The pilot turned in his seat to glance at Joe.
"Do you think we carry passengers regularly?" he asked mildly.
Pilot and co-pilot looked at each other.
"Tell him," said the pilot.
"About five months ago," said the co-pilot, "there was an Army colonel wangled a ride to Bootstrap on a cargo plane. The plane took off. It flew all right until twenty miles from Bootstrap. Then it stopped checking. It dove straight for the Shed the Platform's being built in. It was shot down. When it hit, there was an explosion." The co-pilot shrugged. "You won't believe me, maybe. But a week later they found the colonel's body back east. Somebody'd murdered him."
"It wasn't the colonel who rode as a passenger," said the co-pilot. "It was somebody else. Twenty miles from Bootstrap he'd shot the pilots and taken the controls. That's what they figure, anyhow. He meant to dive into the construction Shed. Because—very, very cleverly—they'd managed to get a bomb in the plane disguised as cargo. They got the men who'd done that, later, but it was rather late."
Joe said dubiously: "But would one bomb destroy the Shed and the Platform?"
"This one would," said the co-pilot. "It was an atom bomb. But it wasn't a good one. It didn't detonate properly. It was a fizz-off."
Joe saw the implications. Cranks and crackpots couldn't get hold of the materials for atom bombs. It took the resources of a large nation for that. But a nation that didn't quite dare start an open war might try to sneak in one atom bomb to destroy the space station. Once the Platform was launched no other nation could dream of world domination. The United States wouldn't go to war if the Platform was destroyed. But there could be a strictly local hot war.
The pilot said sharply: "Something down below!"
The co-pilot fairly leaped into his right-hand seat, his safety belt buckled in half a heartbeat.
"Check," he said in a new tone. "Where?"
The pilot pointed.
"I saw something dark," he said briefly, "where there was a deep dent in the cloud."
The co-pilot threw a switch. Within seconds a new sound entered the cabin. Beep-beep-beep-beep. They were thin squeaks, spaced a full half-second apart, that rose to inaudibility in pitch in the fraction of a second they lasted. The co-pilot snatched a hand phone from the wall above his head and held it to his lips.
"Flight two-twenty calling," he said crisply. "Something's got a radar on us. We saw it. Get a fix on us and come a-running. We're at eighteen thousand and"—here the floor of the cabin tilted markedly—"now we're climbing. Get a fix on us and come a-running. Over!"
He took the phone from his lips and said conversationally: "Radar's a giveaway. This is no fly-way. You wouldn't think he'd take that much of a chance, would you?"
Joe clenched his hands. The pilot did things to the levers on the column between the two pilots' seats. He said curtly: "Arm the jatos."
The co-pilot did something mysterious and said: "Check."
All this took place in seconds. The pilot said, "I see something!" and instantly there was swift, tense teamwork in action. A call by radio, asking for help. The plane headed up for greater clearance between it and the clouds. The jatos made ready for firing. They were the jet-assisted take-off rockets which on a short or rough field would double the motors' thrust for a matter of seconds. In straightaway flight they should make the plane leap ahead like a scared rabbit. But they wouldn't last long.
"I don't like this," said the co-pilot in a flat voice. "I don't see what he could do——"
Then he stopped. Something zoomed out of a cloud. The action was completely improbable. The thing that appeared looked absolutely commonplace. It was a silver-winged private plane, the sort that cruises at one hundred and seventy-five knots and can hit nearly two-fifty if pushed. It was expensive, but not large. It came straight up out of the cloud layer and went lazily over on its back and dived down into the cloud layer again. It looked like somebody stunting for his own private lunatic pleasure—the kind of crazy thing some people do, and for which there is no possible explanation.
But there was an explanation for this.
At the very top of the loop, threads of white smoke appeared. They should have been unnoticeable against the cloud. But for the fraction of an instant they were silhouetted against the silver wings. And they were not misty wisps of vapor. They were dense, sharply defined rocket trails.
They shot upward, spreading out. They unreeled with incredible, ever-increasing velocity.
The pilot hit something with the heel of his hand. There was a heart-stopping delay. Then the transport leaped forward with a force to stop one's breath. The jatos were firing furiously, and the ship jumped. There was a bellowing that drowned out the sound of the engines. Joe was slammed back on the rear wall of the cabin. He struggled against the force that pushed him tailward. He heard the pilot saying calmly: "That plane shot rockets at us. If they're guided we're sunk."
Then the threads of smoke became the thickness of cables, of columns! They should have ringed the transport plane in. But the jatos had jumped it crazily forward and were still thrusting fiercely to make it go faster than any prop-plane could. The acceleration made the muscles at the front of Joe's throat ache as he held his head upright against it.
"They'll be proximity——"
Then the plane bucked. Very probably, at that moment, it was stretched far past the limit of strain for which even its factor of safety was designed. One rocket had let go. The others went with it. The rockets had had proximity fuses. If they had ringed the transport ship and gone off with it enclosed, it would now be a tumbling mass of wreckage. But the jatos had thrown the plane out ahead of the target area. Suddenly they cut off, and it seemed as if the ship had braked. But the pilot dived steeply, for speed.
The co-pilot was saying coldly into the microphone: "He shot rockets. Looked like Army issue three point fives with proximities. They missed. And we're mighty lonely!"
The transport tore on, both pilots grimly watching the cloud bank below. They moved their bodies as they stared out the windows, so that by no possibility could any part of the plane mask something that they should see. As they searched, the co-pilot spoke evenly into the microphone at his lips: "He wouldn't carry more than four rockets, and he's dumping his racks and firing equipment now. But he might have a friend with him. Better get here quick if you want to catch him. He'll be the innocentest private pilot you ever saw in no time!"
Then the pilot grunted. Something was streaking across the cloud formation far, far ahead. Three things. They were jet planes, and they seemed not so much to approach as to swell in size. They were coming at better than five hundred knots—ten miles a minute—and the transport was heading for them at its top speed of three hundred knots. The transport and the flight of jets neared each other at the rate of a mile in less than four seconds.
The co-pilot said crisply: "Silver Messner with red wing-tips. The number began——" He gave the letter and first digits of the vanished plane's official designation, without which it could not take off from or be serviced at any flying field.
Joe heard an insistent, swift beep-beep-beep-beep which would be the radars of the approaching jets. He could not hear any answers that might reach the co-pilot as he talked to unseen persons who would relay his words to the jet fighters.
One of them peeled off and sank into the cloud layer. The others came on. They set up in great circles about the transport, crossing before it, above it, around it, which gave the effect of flying around an object not in motion at all.
The pilot flew on, frowning. The co-pilot said: "Yes. Sure! I'm listening!" There was a pause. Then he said: "Check. Thanks."
He hung the instrument back where it belonged, above his head and behind him. He thoughtfully mopped his brow. He looked at Joe.
"Maybe," he said mildly, "you believe me when I tell you there's a sort of hot war on, to keep the Platform from taking off."
The pilot grunted. "Here's the third jet coming up."
It was true. The jet that had dived into the clouds came up out of the cloud formation with somehow an air of impassive satisfaction.
"Did they spot the guy?"
"Yeah," said the co-pilot. "He must've picked up my report. He didn't dump his radar. He stayed in the cloud bank. When the jet came for him—spotting him with its night-fighter stuff—he tried to ram. Tried for a collision. So the jet gave him the works. Blew him apart. Couldn't make him land. Maybe they'll pick up something from the wreckage."
Joe wet his lips.
"I—saw what happened," he said. "He tried to smash us with rockets. Where'd he get them? How were they smuggled in?"
The co-pilot shrugged. "Maybe smuggled in. Maybe stolen. They coulda been landed from a sub anywhere on a good many thousand miles of coast. They coulda been hauled anywhere in a station wagon. The plane was a private-type ship. Plenty of them flying around. It could've been bought easily enough. All they'd need would be a farm somewhere where it could land and they could strap on a rocket rack and put in a radar. And they'd need information. Probably be a good lead, this business. Only just so many people could know what was coming on this ship, and what course it was flying, and so on. Security will have to check back from that angle."
A shadow fell upon the transport ship. A jet shot past from above it. It waggled its wings and changed course.
"We've got to land and be checked for damage," said the co-pilot negligently. "These guys will circle us and lead the way—as if we needed it!"
Joe subsided. He still had in his mind the glamorous and infinitely alluring picture of the Space Platform floating grandly in its orbit, with white-hot sunshine on it and a multitude of stars beyond. He had been completely absorbed in that aspect of the job that dealt with the method of construction and the technical details by which the Platform could be made to work.
Now he had a side light on the sort of thing that has to be done when anything important is achieved. Figuring out how a thing can be done is only part of the job. Overcoming the obstacles to the apparently commonplace steps is nine-tenths of the difficulty. It had seemed to him that the most dramatic aspect of building the Space Platform had been the achievement of a design that would work in space, that could be gotten up into space, and that could be lived in under circumstances never before experienced. Now he saw that getting the materials to the spot where they were needed called for nearly as much brains and effort. Screening out spies and destructionists—that would be an even greater achievement!
He began to feel a tremendous respect and solicitude for the people who were doing ordinary jobs in the building of the Platform. And he worried about his own share more than ever.
Presently the transport ship sank toward the clouds. It sped through them, stone-blind from the mist. And then there was a small airfield below, and the pilot and co-pilot began a pattern of ritualistic conversation.
"Pitot and wing heaters?" asked the pilot.
The co-pilot put his hand successively on two controls.
The co-pilot moved his hands.
"Take-off and climb?" said the co-pilot.
The co-pilot moved his hands again to the appropriate controls, verifying that they were as he reported them.
"Main on," he said matter-of-factly, "crossfeed off."
The transport plane slanted down steeply for the landing field that had looked so small at first, but expanded remarkably as they drew near.
Joe found himself frowning. He began to see how really big a job it was to get a Space Platform even ready to take off for a journey that in theory should last forever. It was daunting to think that before a space ship could be built and powered and equipped with machinery there had to be such wildly irrelevant plans worked out as a proper check of controls for the piston-engine ships that flew parts to the job. The details were innumerable!
But the job was still worth doing. Joe was glad he was going to have a share in it.
It was a merely misty day. The transport plane stood by the door of a hangar on this military field, and mechanics stood well back from it and looked it over. A man crawled over the tail assembly and found one small hole in the fabric of the stabilizer. A shell fragment had gone through when the war rockets exploded nearby. The pilot verified that the fragment had hit no strengthening member inside. He nodded. The mechanic made very neat fabric patches over the two holes, upper and lower. He began to go over the fuselage. The pilot turned away.
"I'll go talk to Bootstrap," he told the co-pilot. "You keep an eye on things."
"I'll keep two eyes on them," said the co-pilot.
The pilot went toward the control tower of the field. Joe looked around. The transport ship seemed very large, standing on the concrete apron with its tricycle landing gear let down. It curiously resembled a misshapen insect, standing elaborately high on inadequate supporting legs. Its fuselage, in particular, did not look right for an aircraft. The top of the cargo section went smoothly back to the stabilizing fins, but the bottom did not taper. It ended astern in a clumsy-looking bulge that was closed by a pair of huge clamshell doors, opening straight astern. It was built that way, of course, so that large objects could be loaded direct into the cargo hold, but it was neither streamlined nor graceful.
"Did anything get into the cargo hold?" asked Joe in sudden anxiety. "Did the cases I'm with get hit?"
After all, four rockets had exploded deplorably near the ship. If one fragment had struck, others might have.
"Nothing big, anyhow," the co-pilot told him. "We'll know presently."
But examination showed no other sign of the ship's recent nearness to destruction. It had been overstressed, certainly, but ships are built to take beatings. A spot check on areas where excessive flexing of the wings would have shown up—a big ship's wings are not perfectly rigid: they'd come to pieces in the air if they were—presented no evidence of damage. The ship was ready to take off again.
The co-pilot watched grimly until the one mechanic went back to the side lines. The mechanic was not cordial. He and all the others regarded the ship and Joe and the co-pilot with disfavor. They worked on jets, and to suggest that men who worked on fighter jets were not worthy of complete confidence did not set well with them. The co-pilot noticed it.
"They think I'm a suspicious heel," he said sourly to Joe, "but I have to be. The best spies and saboteurs in the world have been hired to mess up the Platform. When better saboteurs are made, they'll be sent over here to get busy!"
The pilot came back from the control tower.
"Special flight orders," he told his companion. "We top off with fuel and get going."
Mechanics got out the fuel hose, dragging it from the pit. One man climbed up on the wing. Other men handed up the hose. Joe was moved to comment, but the co-pilot was reading the new flight instructions. It was one of those moments of inconsistency to which anybody and everybody is liable. The two men of the ship's crew had it in mind to be infinitely suspicious of anybody examining their ship. But fueling it was so completely standard an operation that they merely stood by absently while it went on. They had the orders to read and memorize, anyhow.
One wing tank was full. A big, grinning man with sandy hair dragged the hose under the nose of the plane to take it to the other wing tank. Close by the nose wheel he slipped and steadied himself by the shaft which reaches down to the wheel's hub. His position for a moment was absurdly ungraceful. When he straightened up, his arm slid into the wheel well. But he dragged the hose the rest of the way and passed it on up. Then that tank was full and capped. The refueling crew got down to the ground and fed the hose back to the pit which devoured it. That was all. But somehow Joe remembered the sandy-haired man and his arm going up inside the wheel well for a fraction of a second.
The pilot read one part of the flight orders again and tore them carefully across. One part he touched his pocket lighter to. It burned. He nodded yet again to the co-pilot, and they swung up and in the pilots' doorway. Joe followed.
They settled in their places in the cabin. The pilot threw a switch and pressed a knob. One motor turned over stiffly, and caught. The second. Third. Fourth. The pilot listened, was satisfied, and pulled back on the multiple throttle. The plane trundled away. Minutes later it faced the long runway, a tinny voice from the control tower spoke out of a loud-speaker under the instruments, and the plane roared down the field. In seconds it lifted and swept around in a great half-circle.
"Okay," said the pilot. "Wheels up."
The co-pilot obeyed. The telltale lights that showed the wheels retracted glowed briefly. The men relaxed.
"You know," said the co-pilot, "there was the devil of a time during the War with sabotage. Down in Brazil there was a field planes used to take off from to fly to Africa. But they'd take off, head out to sea, get a few miles offshore, and then blow up. We must've lost a dozen planes that way! Then it broke. There was a guy—a sergeant—in the maintenance crew who was sticking a hand grenade up in the nose wheel wells. German, he was, and very tidy about it, and nobody suspected him. Everything looked okay and tested okay. But when the ship was well away and the crew pulled up the wheels, that tightened a string and it pulled the pin out of the grenade. It went off.... The master mechanic finally caught him and nearly killed him before the MPs could stop him. We've got to be plenty careful, whether the ground crews like it or not."
Joe said drily: "You were, except when they were topping off. You took that for granted." He told about the sandy-haired man. "He hadn't time to stick anything in the wheel well, though," he added.
The co-pilot blinked. Then he looked annoyed. "Confound it! I didn't watch! Did you?"
The pilot shook his head, his lips compressed.
The co-pilot said bitterly: "And I thought I was security-conscious! Thanks for telling me, fella. No harm done this time, but that was a slip!"
He scowled at the dials before him. The plane flew on.
This was the last leg of the trip, and now it should be no more than an hour and a half before they reached their destination. Joe felt a lift of elation. The Space Platform was a realization—or the beginning of it—of a dream that had been Joe's since he was a very small boy. It was also the dream of most other small boys at the time. The Space Platform would make space travel possible. Of course it wouldn't make journeys to the moon or planets itself, but it would sail splendidly about the Earth in an orbit some four thousand miles up, and it would gird the world in four hours fourteen minutes and twenty-two seconds. It would carry atom-headed guided missiles, and every city in the world would be defenseless against it. Nobody could even hope for world domination so long as it floated on its celestial round. Which, naturally, was why there were such desperate efforts to destroy it before its completion.
But Joe, thinking about the Platform, did not think about it as a weapon. It was the first rung on the stepladder to the stars. From it the moon would be reached, certainly. Mars next, most likely. Then Venus. In time the moons of Saturn, and the twilight zone of Mercury, and some day the moons of Jupiter. Possibly a landing could be dared on that giant planet itself, despite its gravity.
The co-pilot spoke suddenly. "How do you rate this trip by cargo plane?" he asked curiously. "Mostly even generals have to go on the ground. You rate plenty. How?"
Joe pulled his thoughts back from satisfied imagining. It hadn't occurred to him that it was remarkable that he should be allowed to accompany the gyros from the plant to their destination. His family firm had built them, so it had seemed natural to him. He wasn't used to the idea that everybody looked suspicious to a security officer concerned with the safety of the Platform.
"Connections? I haven't any," said Joe. Then he said, "I do know somebody on the job. There's a Major Holt out there. He might have cleared me. Known my family for years."
"Yeah," said the co-pilot drily. "He might. As a matter of fact, he's the senior security officer for the whole job. He's in charge of everything, from the security guards to the radar screens and the jet-plane umbrella and the checking of the men who work in the Shed. If he says you're all right, you probably are."
Joe hadn't meant to seem impressive. He explained: "I don't know him too well. He knows my father, and his daughter Sally's been kicking around underfoot most of my life. I taught her how to shoot, and she's a better shot than I am. She was a nice kid when she was little. I got to like her when she fell out of a tree and broke her arm and didn't even whimper. That shows how long ago it was!" He grinned. "She was trying to act grown-up last time I saw her."
The co-pilot nodded. There was a brisk chirping sound somewhere. The pilot reached ahead to the course-correction knob. The plane changed course. Sunshine shifted as it poured into the cabin. The ship was running on automatic pilot well above the cloud level, and at an even-numbered number of thousands of feet altitude, as was suitable for planes traveling south or west. Now it droned on its new course, forty-five degrees from the original. Joe found himself guessing that one of the security provisions for planes approaching the Platform might be that they should not come too near on a direct line to it, lest they give information to curious persons on the ground.
Time went on. Joe slipped gradually back to his meditations about the Platform. There was always, in his mind, the picture of a man-made thing shining in blinding sunlight between Earth and moon. But he began to remember things he hadn't paid too much attention to before.
Opposition to the bare idea of a Space Platform, for instance, from the moment it was first proposed. Every dictator protested bitterly. Even politicians out of office found it a subject for rabble-rousing harangues. The nationalistic political parties, the peddlers of hate, the entrepreneurs of discord—every crank in the world had something to say against the Platform from the first. When they did not roundly denounce it as impious, they raved that it was a scheme by which the United States would put itself in position to rule all the Earth. As a matter of fact, the United States had first proposed it as a United Nations enterprise, so that denunciations that politicians found good politics actually made very poor sense. But it did not get past the General Assembly. The proposal was so rabidly attacked on every side that it was not even passed up to the Council—where it would certainly have been vetoed anyhow.
But it was exactly that furious denunciation which put the Platform through the United States Congress, which had to find the money for its construction.
In Joe's eyes and in the eyes of most of those who hoped for it from the beginning, the Platform's great appeal was that it was the necessary first step toward interplanetary travel, with star ships yet to come. But most scientists wanted it, desperately, for their own ends. There were low-temperature experiments, electronic experiments, weather observations, star-temperature measurements, astronomical observations.... Any man in any field of science could name reasons for it to be built. Even the atom scientists had one, and nearly the best. Their argument was that there were new developments of nuclear theory that needed to be tried out, but should not be tried out on Earth. There were some reactions that ought to yield unlimited power for all the world from really abundant materials. But there was one chance in fifty that they wouldn't be safe, just because the materials were so abundant. No sane man would risk a two-per-cent chance of destroying Earth and all its people, yet those reactions should be tried. In a space ship some millions of miles out in emptiness they could be. Either they'd be safe or they would not. But the only way to get a space ship a safe enough distance from Earth was to make a Space Platform as a starting point. Then a ship could shoot away from Earth with effectively zero gravity and full fuel tanks. The Platform should be built so civilization could surge ahead to new heights!
But despite these excellent reasons, it was the Platform's enemies who really got it built. The American Congress would never have appropriated funds for a Platform for pure scientific research, no matter what peacetime benefits it promised. It was the vehemence of those who hated it that sold it to Congress as a measure for national defense. And in a sense it was.
These were ironic aspects Joe hadn't thought about before, just as he hadn't thought about the need to defend the Platform while it was being built. Defending it was Sally's father's job, and he wouldn't have a popular time. Joe wondered idly how Sally liked living out where the most important job on Earth was being done. She was a nice kid. He remembered appreciatively that she'd grown up to be a very good-looking girl. He tended to remember her mostly as the tomboy who could beat him swimming, but the last time he'd seen her, come to think of it, he'd been startled to observe how pretty she'd grown. He didn't know anybody who ought to be better-looking.... She was a really swell girl....
He came to himself again. There was a change in the look of the sky ahead. There was no actual horizon, of course. There was a white haze that blended imperceptibly into the cloud layer so that it was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the clouds or earth began. But presently there were holes in the clouds. The ship droned on, and suddenly it floated over the edge of such a hole, and looking down was very much like looking over the edge of a cliff at solid earth illimitably far below.
The holes increased in number. Then there were no holes at all, but only clouds breaking up the clear view of the ground beneath. And presently again even the clouds were left behind and the air was clear—but still there was no horizon—and there was brownish earth with small green patches and beyond was sere brown range. At seventeen thousand feet there were simply no details.
Soon the clouds were merely a white-tipped elevation of the white haze to the sides and behind. And then there came a new sound above the droning roar of the motors. Joe heard it—and then he saw.
Something had flashed down from nowhere. It flashed on ahead and banked steeply. It was a fighter jet, and for an instant Joe saw the distant range seem to ripple and dance in its exhaust blast. It circled watchfully.
The transport pilot manipulated something. There was a change in the sound of the motors. Joe followed the co-pilot's eyes. The jet fighter was coming up astern, dive brakes extended to reduce its speed. It overhauled the transport very slowly. And then the transport's pilot touched one of the separate prop-controls gently, and again, and again. Joe, looking at the jet, saw it through the whirling blades. There was an extraordinary stroboscopic effect. One of the two starboard propellers, seen through the other, abruptly took on a look which was not that of mistiness at all, but of writhing, gyrating solidity. The peculiar appearance vanished, and came again, and vanished and appeared yet again before it disappeared completely.
The jet shot on ahead. Its dive brakes retracted. It made a graceful, wallowing, shallow dive, and then climbed almost vertically. It went out of sight.
"Visual check," said the co-pilot drily, to Joe. "We had a signal to give. Individual to this plane. We didn't tell it to you. You couldn't duplicate it."
Joe worked it out painfully. The visual effect of one propeller seen through another—that was identification. It was not a type of signaling an unauthorized or uninformed passenger would expect.
"Also," said the co-pilot, "we have a television camera in the instrument board yonder. We've turned it on now. The interior of the cabin is being watched from the ground. No more tricks like the phony colonel and the atom bomb that didn't 'explode.'"
Joe sat quite still. He noticed that the plane was slanting gradually downward. His eyes went to the dial that showed descent at somewhere between two and three hundred feet a minute. That was for his benefit. The cabin was pressurized, though it did not attempt to simulate sea-level pressure. It was a good deal better than the outside air, however, and yet too quick a descent meant discomfort. Two to three hundred feet per minute is about right.
The ground took on features. Small gulleys. Patches of coloration too small to be seen from farther up. The feeling of speed increased. After long minutes the plane was only a few thousand feet up. The pilot took over manual control from the automatic pilot. He seemed to wait. There was a plaintive, mechanical beep-beep and he changed course.
"You'll see the Shed in a minute or two," said the co-pilot. He added vexedly, as if the thing had been bothering him, "I wish I hadn't missed that sandy-haired guy putting his hand in the wheel well! Nothing happened, but I shouldn't have missed it!"
Joe watched. Very, very far away there were mountains, but he suddenly realized the remarkable flatness of the ground over which they were flying. From the edge of the world, behind, to the very edge of these far-distant hills, the ground was flat. There were gullies and depressions here and there, but no hills. It was flat, flat, flat....
The plane flew on. There was a tiny glimmer of sunlight. Joe strained his eyes. The sunlight glinted from the tiniest possible round pip on the brown earth. It grew as the plane flew on. It was half a cherry stone. It was half an orange, with gores. It was the top section of a sphere that was simply too huge to have been made by men.
There was a thin thread of white that ran across the dun-colored range and reached that half-ball and then ended. It was a highway. Joe realized that the half-globe was the Shed, the monstrous building made for the construction of the Space Platform. It was gigantic. It was colossal. It was the most stupendous thing that men had ever created.
Joe saw a tiny projection near the base of it. It was an office building for clerks and timekeepers and other white-collar workers. He strained his eyes again and saw a motor truck on the highway. It looked extraordinarily flat. Then he saw that it wasn't a single truck but a convoy of them. A long way back, the white highway was marked by a tiny dot. That was a motor bus.
There was no sign of activity anywhere, because the scale was so great. Movement there was, but the things that moved were too small to be seen by comparison with the Shed. The huge, round, shining half-sphere of metal stood tranquilly in the midst of emptiness.
It was bigger than the pyramids.
The plane went on, descending. Joe craned his neck, and then he was ashamed to gawk. He looked ahead, and far away there were white speckles that would be buildings: Bootstrap, the town especially built for the men who built the Space Platform. In it they slept and ate and engaged in the uproarious festivity that men on a construction job crave on their time off.
The plane dipped noticeably.
"Airfield off to the right," said the co-pilot. "That's for the town and the job. The jets—there's an air umbrella overhead all the time—have a field somewhere else. The pushpots have a field of their own, too, where they're training pilots."
Joe didn't know what a pushpot was, but he didn't ask. He was thinking about the Shed, which was the greatest building ever put up, and had been built merely to shelter the greatest hope for the world's peace while it was put together. He'd be in the Shed presently. He'd work there, setting up the contents of the crates back in the cargo space, and finally installing them in the Platform itself.
The pilot said: "Pitot and wing heaters?"
"Off," said the co-pilot.
"Spark and advance——"
Joe didn't listen. He looked down at the sprawling small town with white-painted barracks and a business section and an obvious, carefully designed recreation area that nobody would ever use. The plane was making a great half-circle. The motor noise dimmed as Joe became absorbed in his anticipation of seeing the Space Platform and having a hand in its building.
The co-pilot said sharply: "Hold everything!"
Joe jerked his head around. The co-pilot had his hand on the wheel release. His face was tense.
"It don't feel right," he said very, very quietly. "Maybe I'm crazy, but there was that sandy-haired guy who put his hand up in the wheel well back at that last field. And this don't feel right!"
The plane swept on. The airfield passed below it. The co-pilot very cautiously let go of the wheel release, which when pulled should let the wheels fall down from their wells to lock themselves in landing position. He moved from his seat. His lips were pinched and tight. He scrabbled at a metal plate in the flooring. He lifted it and looked down. A moment later he had a flashlight. Joe saw the edge of a mirror. There were two mirrors down there, in fact. One could look through both of them into the wheel well.
The co-pilot made quite sure. He stood up, leaving the plate off the opening in the floor.
"There's something down in the wheel well," he said in a brittle tone. "It looks to me like a grenade. There's a string tied to it. At a guess, that sandy-haired guy set it up like that saboteur sergeant down in Brazil. Only—it rolled a little. And this one goes off when the wheels go down. I think, too, if we belly-land——Better go around again, huh?"
The pilot nodded. "First," he said evenly, "we get word down to the ground about the sandy-haired guy, so they'll get him regardless."
He picked up the microphone hanging above and behind him and began to speak coldly into it. The transport plane started to swing in wide, sweeping circles over the desert beyond the airport while the pilot explained that there was a grenade in the nose wheel well, set to explode if the wheel were let down or, undoubtedly, if the ship came in to a belly landing.
Joe found himself astonishingly unafraid. But he was filled with a pounding rage. He hated the people who wanted to smash the pilot gyros because they were essential to the Space Platform. He hated them more completely than he had known he could hate anybody. He was so filled with fury that it did not occur to him that in any crash or explosive landing that would ruin the gyros, he would automatically be killed.
The pilot made an examination down the floor-plate hole, with a flashlight to see by and two mirrors to show him the contents of a spot he could not possibly reach with any instrument. Joe heard his report, made to the ground by radio.
"It's a grenade," he said coldly. "It took time to fix it the way it is. At a guess, the ship was booby-trapped at the time of its last overhaul. But it was arranged that the booby trap had to be set, the trigger cocked, by somebody doing something very simple at a different place and later on. We've been flying with that grenade in the wheel well for two weeks. But it was out of sight. Today, back at the airfield, a sandy-haired man reached up and pulled a string he knew how to find. That loosened a slipknot. The grenade rolled down to a new position. Now when the wheel goes down the pin is pulled. You can figure things out from that."
It was an excellent sabotage device. If a ship blew up two weeks after overhaul, it would not be guessed that the bomb had been placed so long before. Every search would be made for a recent opportunity for the bomb's placing. A man who merely reached in and pulled a string that armed the bomb and made it ready for firing would never be suspected. There might be dozens of planes, now carrying their own destruction about with them.
The pilot said into the microphone: "Probably...." He listened. "Very well, sir."
He turned away and nodded to the co-pilot, now savagely keeping the ship in wide, sweeping circles, the rims of which barely touched the farthermost corner of the airport on the ground below.
"We've authority to jump," he said briefly. "You know where the chutes are. But there is a chance I can belly-land without that grenade blowing. I'm going to try that."
The co-pilot said angrily: "I'll get him a chute." He indicated Joe, and said furiously, "They've been known to try two or three tricks, just to make sure. Ask if we should dump cargo before we crash-land!"
The pilot held up the microphone again. He spoke. He listened.
"Okay to dump stuff to lighten ship."
"You won't dump my crates," snapped Joe. "And I'm staying to see you don't! If you can ride this ship down, so can I!"
The co-pilot got up and scowled at him.
"Anything I can move out, goes. Will you help?"
Joe followed him through the door into the cargo compartment.
The space there was very considerable, and bitterly cold. The crates from the Kenmore plant were the heaviest items of cargo. Other objects were smaller. The co-pilot made his way to the rear and pulled a lever. Great, curved doors opened at the back of the plane. Instantly there was such a bellowing of motors that all speech was impossible. The co-pilot pulled out a clip of colored-paper slips and checked one with the nearest movable parcel. He painstakingly made a check mark and began to push the box toward the doors.
It was not a conspicuously sane operation. So near the ground, the plane tended to waver. The air was distinctly bumpy. To push a massive box out a doorway, so it would tumble down a thousand feet to desert sands, was not so safe a matter as would let it become tedious. But Joe helped. They got the box to the door and shoved it out. It went spinning down. The co-pilot hung onto the doorframe and watched it land. He chose another box. He checked it. And another. Joe helped. They got them out of the door and dropping dizzily through emptiness. The plane soared on in circles. The desert, as seen through the opened clamshell doors, reeled away astern, and then seemed to tilt, and reeled away again. Joe and the co-pilot labored furiously. But the co-pilot checked each item before he jettisoned it.
It was a singularly deliberate way to dump cargo to destruction. A metal-bound box. Over the edge of the cargo space floor. A piece of machinery, visible through its crate. A box marked Instruments. Fragile. Each one checked off. Each one dumped to drop a thousand feet or more. A small crated dynamo. This item and that. A crate marked Stationery. It would be printed forms for the timekeepers, perhaps. But it wasn't.
It dropped out. The plane bellowed on. And suddenly there was a burst of blue-white flame on the desert below. The box that should have contained timecards had contained something very much more explosive. As the plane roared on—rocking from the shock wave of the explosion—Joe saw a crater and a boiling cloud of smoke and flying sand.
The co-pilot spoke explosively and furiously, in the blasting uproar of the motors. He vengefully marked the waybill of the parcel that had exploded. But then they went back to the job of dumping cargo. They worked well as a team now. In no more than minutes everything was out except the four crates that were the gyros. The co-pilot regarded them dourly, and Joe clenched his fists. The co-pilot closed the clamshell doors, and it became possible to hear oneself think again.
"Ship's lighter, anyhow," reported the co-pilot, back in the cabin. "Tell 'em this is what exploded."
The pilot took the slip. He plucked down the microphone—exactly like somebody picking up an interoffice telephone—and reported the waybill number and description of the case that had been an extra bomb. The ship carrying the pilot gyros had been booby-trapped—probably with a number of other ships—and a bomb had been shipped on it, and a special saboteur with a private plane had shot at it with rockets. The pilot gyros were critical devices. They had to be on board the Platform when it took off, and they took months to make and balance. There had been extra pains taken to prevent their arrival!
"I'm dumping gas now," said the pilot into the microphone, "and then coming in for a belly landing."
The ship flew straightaway. It flew more lightly, and it bounced a little. When gas is dumped one has to slow to not more than one hundred and seventy-five knots and fly level. Then one is supposed to fly five minutes after dumping with the chutes in the drain position—and even then there is forty-five minutes of flying fuel still in the tanks.
The ship swept around and headed back for the now far-distant field. It went slowly lower and lower and lower until it seemed barely to skim the minor irregularities in the ground. And low like this, the effect of speed was terrific.
The co-pilot thought of something. Quickly he went back into the cargo space. He returned with an armful of blankets. He dumped them on the floor.
"If that grenade does go!" he said sourly.
Joe helped. In the few minutes before Bootstrap loomed near, they filled the bottom of the cabin with blankets. Especially around the pilots' chairs. And there was a mound of blanketing above the actual place where the grenade might be. It made sense. Soft stuff like blankets would absorb an explosion better than anything else. But the pilot thought the grenade might not blow.
"Hold fast!" snapped the pilot.
The wing flaps were down. That slowed the ship a little. It had been lightened. That helped. They went in over the edge of the field less than man-height high. Joe found his hands closing convulsively on a handgrip. He saw a crash wagon starting out from the side of the runway. A fire truck started for the line the plane followed.
Four feet above the rushing sand. Three. The pilot eased back the stick. His face was craggy and very grim and very hard. The ship's tail went down and dragged. It bumped. Then the plane careened and slid and half-whirled crazily, and then the world seemed to come to an end. Crashes. Bangs. Shrieks of torn metal. Bumps, thumps and grindings. Then a roaring.
Joe pulled himself loose from where he had been flung—it seemed to him that he peeled himself loose—and found the pilot struggling up, and he grabbed him to help, and the co-pilot hauled at them both, and abruptly all three of them were in the open air and running at full speed away from the ship.
The roar abruptly became a bellowing. There was an explosion. Flames sprouted everywhere. The three men ran stumblingly. But even as they ran, the co-pilot swore.
"We left something!" he panted.
Joe heard a crescendo of booming, crackling noises behind. Something else exploded dully. But he should be far enough away by now.
He turned to look, and he saw blackening wreckage immersed in roaring flames. The flames were monstrous. They rose sky-high, it seemed—more flames than forty-five minutes of gasoline should have produced. As he looked, something blew up shatteringly, and fire raged even more furiously. Of course in such heat the delicately adjusted gyros would be warped and ruined even if the crash hadn't wrecked them beforehand. Joe made thick, incoherent sounds of rage.
The plane was now an incomplete, twisted skeleton, licked through by flames. The crash wagon roared to a stop beside them.
"Anybody hurt? Anybody left inside?"
Joe shook his head, unable to speak for despairing rage. The fog wagon roared up, already spouting mist from its nozzles. Its tanks contained water treated with detergent so that it broke into the finest of droplets when sprayed at four hundred pounds pressure. It drenched the burning wreck with that heavy mist, in which a man would drown. No fire could possibly sustain itself. In seconds, it seemed, there were only steam and white vapor and fumes of smoldering substances that gradually lessened.
But then there was a roaring of motorcycles racing across the field with a black car trailing them. The car pulled up beside the fog wagon, then sped swiftly to where Joe was coming out of wild rage and sinking into sick, black depression. He'd been responsible for the pilot gyros and their safe arrival. What had happened wasn't his fault, but it was not his job merely to remain blameless. It was his job to get the gyros delivered and set up in the Space Platform. He had failed.
The black car braked to a stop. There was Major Holt. Joe had seen him six months before. He'd aged a good deal. He looked grimly at the two pilots.
"What happened?" he demanded. "You dumped your fuel! What burned like this?"
Joe said thickly: "Everything was dumped but the pilot gyros. They didn't burn! They were packed at the plant!"
The co-pilot suddenly made an incoherent sound of rage. "I've got it!" he said hoarsely. "I know——"
"What?" snapped Major Holt.
"They—planted that grenade at the—major overhaul!" panted the co-pilot, too enraged even to swear. "They—fixed it so—any trouble would mean a wreck! And I—pulled the fire-extinguisher releases just as we hit! For all compartments! To flood everything with CO2! But it wasn't CO2! That's what burned!"
Major Holt stared sharply at him. He held up his hand. Somebody materialized beside him. He said harshly: "Get the extinguisher bottles sealed and take them to the laboratory."
A man went running toward the wreck. Major Holt said coldly: "That's a new one. We should have thought of it. You men get yourselves attended to and report to Security at the Shed."
The pilot and co-pilot turned away. Joe turned to go with them. Then he heard Sally's voice, a little bit wobbly: "Joe! Come with us, please!"
Joe hadn't seen her, but she was in the car. She was pale. Her eyes were wide and frightened.
Joe said stiffly: "I'll be all right. I want to look at those crates——"
Major Holt said curtly: "They're already under guard. There'll have to be photographs made before anything can be touched. And I want a report from you, anyhow. Come along!"
Joe looked. The motorcycles were abandoned, and there were already armed guards around the still-steaming wreck, grimly watching the men of the fog wagon as they hunted for remaining sparks or flame. It was noticeable that now nobody moved toward the wreck. There were figures walking back toward the edge of the field. What civilians were about, even to the mechanics on duty, had started out to look at the debris at close range. But the guards were on the job. Nobody could approach. The onlookers went back to their proper places.
"Please, Joe!" said Sally shakily.
Joe got drearily into the car. The instant he seated himself, it was in motion again. It went plunging back across the field and out the entrance. Its horn blared and it went streaking toward the town and abruptly turned to the left. In seconds it was on a broad white highway that left the town behind and led toward the emptiness of the desert.
But not quite emptiness. Far, far away there was a great half-globe rising against the horizon. The car hummed toward it, tires singing. And Joe looked at it and felt ashamed, because this was the home of the Space Platform, and he hadn't brought to it the part for which he alone was responsible.
Sally moistened her lips. She brought out a small box. She opened it. There were bandages and bottles.
"I've a first-aid kit, Joe," she said shakily. "You're burned. Let me fix the worst ones, anyhow!"
Joe looked at himself. One coat sleeve was burned to charcoal. His hair was singed on one side. A trouser leg was burned off around the ankle. When he noticed, his burns hurt.
Major Holt watched her spread a salve on scorched skin. He showed no emotion whatever.
"Tell me what happened," he commanded. "All of it!"
Somehow, there seemed very little to tell, but Joe told it baldly as the car sped on. The great half-ball of metal loomed larger and larger but did not appear to grow nearer as Sally practiced first aid. They came to a convoy of trucks, and the horn blared, and they turned out and passed it. Once they met a convoy of empty vehicles on the way back to Bootstrap. They passed a bus. They went on.
Joe finished drearily: "The pilots did everything anybody could. Even checked off the packages as they were dumped. We reported the one that blew up."
Major Holt said uncompromisingly: "Those were orders. In a sense we've gained something even by this disaster. The pilots are probably right about the plane's having been booby-trapped after its last overhaul, and the traps armed later. I'll have an inspection made immediately, and we'll see if we can find how it was done.
"There's the man you think armed the trap on this plane. An order for his arrest is on the way now. I told my secretary. And—hm.... That CO_2——"
"I didn't understand that," said Joe drearily.
"Planes have CO_2 bottles to put fires out," said the Major impatiently. "A fire in flight lights a red warning light on the instrument panel, telling where it is. The pilot pulls a handle, and CO_2 floods the compartment, putting it out. And this ship was coming in for a crash landing so the pilot—according to orders—flooded all compartments with CO_2. Only it wasn't."
Sally said in horror: "Oh, no!"
"The CO_2 bottles were filled with an inflammable or an explosive gas," said her father, unbending. "Instead of making a fire impossible, they made it certain. We'll have to watch out for that trick now, too."
Joe was too disheartened for any emotion except a bitter depression and a much more bitter hatred of those who were ready to commit any crime—and had committed most—in the attempt to destroy the Platform.
The Shed that housed it rose and rose against the skyline. It became huge. It became monstrous. It became unbelievable. But Joe could have wept when the car pulled up at an angular, three-story building built out from the Shed's base. From the air, this substantial building had looked like a mere chip. The car stopped. They got out. A sentry saluted as Major Holt led the way inside. Joe and Sally followed.
The Major said curtly to a uniformed man at a desk: "Get some clothes for this man. Get him a long-distance telephone connection to the Kenmore Precision Tool Company. Let him talk. Then bring him to me again."
He disappeared. Sally tried to smile at Joe. She was still quite pale.
"That's Dad, Joe. He means well, but he's not cordial. I was in his office when the report of sabotage to your plane came through. We started for Bootstrap. We were on the way when we saw the first explosion. I—thought it was your ship." She winced a little at the memory. "I knew you were on board. It was—not nice, Joe."
She'd been badly scared. Joe wanted to thump her encouragingly on the back, but he suddenly realized that that would no longer be appropriate. So he said gruffly: "I'm all right."
He followed the uniformed man. He began to get out of his scorched and tattered garments. The sergeant brought him more clothes, and he put them on. He was just changing his personal possessions to the new pockets when the sergeant came back again.
"Kenmore plant on the line, sir."
Joe went to the phone. On the way he discovered that the banging around he'd had when the plane landed had made a number of places on his body hurt.
He talked to his father.
Afterward, he realized that it was a queer conversation. He felt guilty because something had happened to a job that had taken eight months to do and that he alone was escorting to its destination. He told his father about that. But his father didn't seem concerned. Not nearly so much concerned as he should have been. He asked urgent questions about Joe himself. If he was hurt. How much? Where? Joe was astonished that his father seemed to think such matters more important than the pilot gyros. But he answered the questions and explained the exact situation and also a certain desperate hope he was trying to cherish that the gyros might still be repairable. His father gave him advice.
Sally was waiting again when he came out. She took him into her father's office, and introduced him to her father's secretary. Compared to Sally she was an extraordinarily plain woman. She wore a sorrowful expression. But she looked very efficient.
Joe explained carefully that his father said for him to hunt up Chief Bender—working on the job out here—because he was one of the few men who'd left the Kenmore plant to work elsewhere, and he was good. He and the Chief, between them, would estimate the damage and the possibility of repair.
Major Holt listened. He was military and official and harassed and curt and tired. Joe'd known Sally and therefore her father all his life, but the Major wasn't an easy man to be relaxed with. He spoke into thin air, and immediately his sad-seeming secretary wrote out a pass for Joe. Then Major Holt gave crisp orders on a telephone and asked questions, and Sally said: "I know. I'll take him there. I know my way around."
Her father's expression did not change. He simply included Sally in his orders on the phone.
He hung up and said briefly: "The plane will be surveyed and taken apart as soon as possible. By the time you find your man you can probably examine the crates. I'll have you cleared for it."
His secretary reached in a drawer for order forms to fill out and hand him to sign. Sally tugged at Joe's arm. They left.
Outside, she said: "There's no use arguing with my father, Joe. He has a terrible job, and it's on his mind all the time. He hates being a Security officer, too. It's a thankless job—and no Security officer ever gets to be more than a major. His ability never shows. What he does is never noticed unless it fails. So he's frustrated. He's got poor Miss Ross—his secretary, you know—so she just listens to what he says must be done and she writes it out. Sometimes he goes days without speaking to her directly. But really it's pretty bad! It's like a war with no enemy to fight except spies! And the things they do! They've been known even to booby-trap a truck after an accident, so anybody who tries to help will be blown up! So everything has to be done in a certain way or everything will be ruined!"
She led him to an office with a door that opened directly into the Shed. In spite of his bitterness, Joe was morosely impatient to see inside. But Sally had to identify him formally as the Joe Kenmore who was the subject of her father's order, and his fingerprints had to be taken, and somebody had him stand for a moment before an X-ray screen. Then she led him through the door, and he was in the Shed where the Space Platform was under construction.
It was a vast cavern of metal sheathing and spidery girders, filled with sound and detail. It took him seconds to begin to absorb what he saw and heard. The Shed was five hundred feet high in the middle, and it was all clear space without a single column or interruption. There were arc lamps burning about its edges, and high up somewhere there were strips of glass which let in a pale light. All of it resounded with many noises and clanging echoes of them.
There were rivet guns at work, and there were the grumblings of motor trucks moving about, and the oddly harsh roar of welding torches. But the torch flames looked only like marsh fires, blue-white and eerie against the mass of the thing that was being built.
It was not too clear to the eye, this incomplete Space Platform. There seemed to be a sort of mist, a glamour about it, which was partly a veiling mass of scaffolding. But Joe gazed at it with an emotion that blotted out even his aching disappointment and feeling of shame.
It was gigantic. It had the dimensions of an ocean liner. It was strangely shaped. Partly obscured by the fragile-seeming framework about it, there was bright plating in swelling curves, and the plating reached up irregularly and followed a peculiar pattern, and above the plating there were girders—themselves shining brightly in the light of many arc lamps—and they rose up and up toward the roof of the Shed itself. The Platform was ungainly and it was huge, and it rested under a hollow metal half-globe that could have doubled for a sky. It was more than three hundred feet high, itself, and there were men working on the bare bright beams of its uppermost parts—and the men were specks. The far side of the Shed's floor had other men on it, and they were merely jerkily moving motes. You couldn't see their legs as they walked. The Shed and the Platform were monstrous!
Joe felt Sally's eyes upon him. Somehow, they looked proud. He took a deep breath.
She said: "Come on."
They walked across acres of floor neatly paved with shining wooden blocks. They moved toward the thing that was to take mankind's first step toward the stars. As they walked centerward, a big sixteen-wheel truck-and-trailer outfit backed out of an opening under the lacy haze of scaffolds. It turned clumsily, and carefully circled the scaffolding, and moved toward a sidewall of the Shed. A section of the wall—it seemed as small as a rabbit hole—lifted inward like a flap, and the sixteen-wheeler trundled out into the blazing sunlight. Four other trucks scurried out after it. Other trucks came in. The sidewall section closed.
There was the smell of engine fumes and hot metal and of ozone from electric sparks. There was that indescribable smell a man can get homesick for, of metal being worked by men. Joe walked like someone in a dream, with Sally satisfiedly silent beside him, until the scaffolds—which had looked like veiling—became latticework and he saw openings.
They walked into one such tunnel. The bulk of the Platform above them loomed overhead with a crushing menace. There were trucks rumbling all around underneath, here in this maze of scaffold columns. Some carried ready-loaded cages waiting to be snatched up by hoists. Crane grips came down, and snapped fast on the cages, and lifted them up and up and out of sight. There was a Diesel running somewhere, and a man stood and stared skyward and made motions with his hands, and the Diesel adjusted its running to his signals. Then some empty cages came down and landed in a waiting truck body with loud clanking noises. Somebody cast off the hooks, and the truck grumbled and drove away.
Sally spoke to a preoccupied man in shirt sleeves with a badge on an arm band near his shoulder. He looked carefully at the passes she carried, using a flashlight to make sure. Then he led them to a shaft up which a hoist ran. It was very noisy here. A rivet gun banged away overhead, and the plates of the Platform rang with the sound, and the echoes screeched, and to Joe the bedlam was infinitely good to hear. The man with the arm band shouted into a telephone transmitter, and a hoist cage came down. Joe and Sally stepped on it. Joe took a firm grip on her shoulder, and the hoist shot upward.
The hugeness of the Shed and the Platform grew even more apparent as the hoist accelerated toward the roof. The flooring seemed to expand. Spidery scaffold beams dropped past them. There were things being built over by the sidewall. Joe saw a crawling in-plant tow truck moving past those enigmatic objects. It was a tiny truck, no more than four feet high and with twelve-inch wheels. It dragged behind it flat plates of metal with upturned forward edges. They slid over the floor like sledges. Cryptic loads were carried on those plates, and the tow truck stopped by a mass of steel piping being put together, and began to unload the plates.
Then the hoist slowed abruptly and Sally winced a little. The hoist stopped.
Here—two hundred feet up—a welding crew worked on the skin of the Platform itself. The plating curved in and there was a wide flat space parallel to the ground. There was also a great gaping hole beyond. Though girders rose roofward even yet, this was as high as the plating had gone. That opening—Joe guessed—would ultimately be the door of an air lock, and this flat surface was designed for a tender rocket to anchor to by magnets. When a rocket came up from Earth with supplies or reliefs for the Platform's crew, or with fuel to be stored for an exploring ship's later use, it would anchor here and then inch toward that doorway....
There were half a dozen men in the welding crew. They should have been working. But two men battered savagely at each other, their tools thrown down. One was tall and lean, with a wrinkled face and an expression of intolerable fury. The other was squat and dark with a look of desperation. A third man was in the act of putting down his welding torch—he'd carefully turned it off first—to try to interfere. Another man gaped. Still another was climbing up by a ladder from the scaffold level below.
Joe put Sally's hand on the hoist upright, instinctively freeing himself for action.
The lanky man lashed out a terrific roundhouse blow. It landed, but the stocky man bored in. Joe had an instant's clear sight of his face. It was not the face of a man enraged. It had the look of a man both desperate and despairing.
Then the lanky man's foot slipped. He lost balance, and the stocky man's fist landed. The thin man reeled backward. Sally cried out, choking. The lanky man teetered on the edge of the flat place. Behind him, the plating curved down. Below him there were two hundred feet of fall through the steel-pipe maze of scaffolds. If he took one step back he was gone inexorably down a slope on which he could never stop.
He took that step. The stocky man's face abruptly froze in horror. The lanky man stiffened convulsively. He couldn't stop. He knew it. He'd go back and on over the rounded edge, and fall. He might touch the scaffolding. It would not stop him. It would merely set his body spinning crazily as it dropped and crashed again and again before it landed two hundred feet below.
It was horror in slow motion, watching the lean man stagger backward to his death.
Then Joe leaped.
For an instant, in mid-air, Joe was incongruously aware of all the noises in the Shed. The murky, girdered ceiling still three hundred feet above him. The swelling, curving, glittering surface of steel underneath. Then he struck. He landed beside the lean man, with his left arm outstretched to share his impetus with him. Alone, he would have had momentum enough to carry himself up the slope down which the man had begun to descend. But now he shared it. The two of them toppled forward together. Their arms were upon the flat surface, while their bodies dangled. The feel of gravity pulling them slantwise and downward was purest nightmare.
But then, as Joe's innards crawled, the same stocky man who had knocked the lean man back was dragging frantically at both of them to pull them to safety.
Then there were two men pulling. The stocky man's face was gray. His horror was proof that he hadn't intended murder. The man who'd put down his welding torch pulled. The man who'd been climbing the ladder put his weight to the task of getting them back to usable footing. They reached safety. Joe scrambled to his feet, but he felt sick at the pit of his stomach. The stocky man began to shake horribly. The lanky one advanced furiously upon him.
"I didn' mean to keel you, Haney!" the dark one panted.
The lanky one snapped: "Okay. You didn't. But come on, now! We finish this——"
He advanced toward the workman who had so nearly caused his death. But the other man dropped his arms to his sides.
"I don' fight no more," he said thickly. "Not here. You keel me is okay. I don' fight."
The lanky man—Haney—growled at him.
"Tonight, then, in Bootstrap. Now get back to work!"
The stocky man picked up his tools. He was trembling.
Haney turned to Joe and said ungraciously: "Much obliged. What's up?"
Joe still felt queasy. There is rarely any high elation after one has risked his life for somebody else. He'd nearly plunged two hundred feet to the floor of the Shed with Haney. But he swallowed.
"I'm looking for Chief Bender. You're Haney? Foreman?"
"Gang boss," said Haney. He looked at Joe and then at Sally who was holding convulsively to the upright Joe had put her hand on. Her eyes were closed. "Yeah," said Haney. "The Chief took off today. Some kind of Injun stuff. Funeral, maybe. Want me to tell him something? I'll see him when I go off shift."
There was an obscure movement somewhere on this part of the Platform. A tiny figure came out of a crevice that would someday be an air lock. Joe didn't move his eyes toward it. He said awkwardly: "Just tell him Joe Kenmore's in town and needs him. He'll remember me, I think. I'll hunt him up tonight."
"Okay," said Haney.
Joe's eyes went to the tiny figure that had come out from behind the plating. It was a midget in baggy, stained work garments like the rest of the men up here. He wore a miniature welding shield pushed back on his head. Joe could guess his function, of course. There'd be corners a normal-sized man couldn't get into, to buck a rivet or weld a joint. There'd be places only a tiny man could properly inspect. The midget regarded Joe without expression.
Joe turned to the hoist to go down to the floor again. Haney waved his hand. The midget lifted his, in grave salutation.
The hoist dropped down the shaft. Sally opened her eyes.
"You—saved that man's life, Joe," she said unsteadily. "But you scared me to death!"
Joe tried to ignore the remark, but he still seemed to feel slanting metal under him and a drop of two hundred feet below. It had been a nightmarish sensation.
"I didn't think," he said uncomfortably. "It was a crazy thing to do. Lucky it worked out."
Sally glanced at him. The hoist still dropped swiftly. Levels of scaffolding shot upward past them. If Joe had slipped down that rolling curve of metal, he'd have dropped past all these. It was not good to think about. He swallowed again. Then the hoist checked in its descent. It stopped. Joe somewhat absurdly helped Sally off to solid ground.
"It—looks to me," said Sally, "as if you're bound to make me see somebody killed. Joe, would you mind leading a little bit less adventurous life for a while? While I'm around?"
He managed to grin. But he still did not feel right.
"Nothing I can do until I can look at the plane," he said, changing the subject, "and I can't find the Chief until tonight. Could we sightsee a little?"
She nodded. They went out from under the intricate framework that upheld the Platform. They went, in fact, completely under that colossal incomplete object. Sally indicated the sidewall.
"Let's go look at the pushpots. They're fascinating!"
She led the way. The enormous spaciousness of the Shed again became evident. There was a catwalk part way up the inward curving wall. Someone leaned on its railing and surveyed the interior of the Shed. He would probably be a security man. Maybe the fist fight up on the Platform had been seen, or maybe not. The man on the catwalk was hardly more than a speck, and it occurred to Joe that there must be other watchers' posts high up on the outer shell where men could search the sunlit desert outside for signs of danger.
But he turned and looked yearningly back at the monstrous thing under the mist of scaffolding. For the first time he could make out its shape. It was something like an egg, but a great deal more like something he couldn't put a name to. Actually it was exactly like nothing in the world but itself, and when it was out in space there would be nothing left on Earth like it.
It would be in a fashion a world in itself, independent of the Earth that made it. There would be hydroponic tanks in which plants would grow to purify its air and feed its crew. There would be telescopes with which men would be able to study the stars as they had never been able to do from the bottom of Earth's ocean of turbulent air. But it would serve Earth.
There would be communicators. They would pick up microwave messages and retransmit them to destinations far around the curve of the planet, or else store them and retransmit them to the other side of the world an hour or two hours later.
It would store fuel with which men could presently set out for the stars—and out to emptiness for nuclear experiments that must not be made on Earth. And finally it would be armed with squat, deadly atomic missiles that no nation could possibly defy. And so this Space Platform would keep peace on Earth.
But it could not make good will among men.
Sally walked on. They reached the mysterious objects being manufactured in a row around half the sidewall of the Shed. They were of simple design and, by comparison, not unduly large. The first objects were merely frameworks of metal pipe, which men were welding together unbreakably. They were no bigger than—say—half of a six-room house. A little way on, these were filled with intricate arrays of tanks and piping, and still farther—there was a truck and hoist unloading a massive object into place right now—there were huge engines fitting precisely into openings designed to hold them. Others were being plated in with metallic skins.
At the very end of this assembly line a crane was loading a finished object onto a flat-bed trailer. As it swung in the air, Joe realized what it was. It might be called a jet plane, but it was not of any type ever before used. More than anything else, it looked like a beetle. It would not be really useful for anything but its function at the end of Operation Stepladder. Then hundreds of these ungainly objects would cluster upon the Platform's sides, like swarming bees. They would thrust savagely up with their separate jet engines. They would lift the Platform from the foundation on which it had been built. Tugging, straining, panting, they would get it out of the Shed. But their work would not end there. Holding it aloft, they would start it eastward, lifting effortfully. They would carry it as far and as high and as fast as their straining engines could work. Then there would be one last surge of fierce thrusting with oversize jato rockets, built separately into each pushpot, all firing at once.
Finally the clumsy things would drop off and come bumbling back home, while the Platform's own rockets flared out their mile-long flames—and it headed up for emptiness.
But the making of these pushpots and all the other multitudinous activities of the Shed would have no meaning if the contents of four crates in the wreckage of a burned-out plane could not be salvaged and put to use again.
Joe said restlessly: "I want to see all this, Sally, and maybe anything else I do is useless, but I've got to find out what happened to the gyros I was bringing here!"
Sally said nothing. She turned, and they moved across the long, long space of wood-block flooring toward the doorway by which they had entered. And now that he had seen the Space Platform, all of Joe's feeling of guilt and despondency came back. It seemed unbearable. They went out through the guarded door, Sally surrendered the pass, and Joe was again checked carefully before he was free to go.
Then Sally said: "You don't want me tagging around, do you?"
Joe said honestly: "It isn't exactly that, Sally, but if the stuff is really smashed, I'd—rather not have anybody see me. Please don't be angry, but—"
Sally said quietly: "I know. I'll get somebody to drive you over."
She vanished. She came back with the uniformed man who'd driven Major Holt. She put her hand momentarily on Joe's arm.
"If it's really bad, Joe, tell me. You won't let yourself cry, but I'll cry for you." She searched his eyes. "Really, Joe!"
He grinned feebly and went out to the car.
The feeling on the way to the airfield was not a good one. It was twenty-odd miles from the Shed, but Joe dreaded what he was going to see. The black car burned up the road. It turned to the right off the white highway, onto the curved short cut—and there was the field.
And there was the wreck of the transport plane, still where it had crashed and burned. There were still armed guards about it, but men were working on the wreck, cutting it apart with torches. Already some of it was dissected.
Joe went to the remains of the four crates.
The largest was bent askew by the force of the crash or an explosion, Joe didn't know which. The smallest was a twisted mass of charcoal. Joe gulped, and dug into them with borrowed tools.
The pilot gyros of the Space Platform would apply the torque that would make the main gyros shift it to any desired position, or else hold it absolutely still. They were to act, in a sense, as a sort of steering engine on the take-off and keep a useful function out in space. If a star photograph was to be made, it was essential that the Platform hold absolutely still while the exposure lasted. If a guided missile was to be launched, it must be started right, and the pilot gyros were needed. To turn to receive an arriving rocket from Earth....
The pilot gyros were the steering apparatus of the Space Platform. They had to be more than adequate. They had to be perfect! On the take-off alone, they were starkly necessary. The Platform couldn't hope to reach its orbit without them.
Joe chipped away charred planks. He pulled off flame-eaten timbers. He peeled off carbonized wrappings—but some did not need to be peeled: they crumbled at a touch—and in twenty minutes he knew the whole story. The rotor motors were ruined. The couplers—pilot-to-main-gyro connections—had been heated red hot and were no longer hardened steel; their dimensions had changed and they would no longer fit. But these were not disastrous items. They were serious, but not tragic.
The tragedy was the gyros themselves. On their absolute precision and utterly perfect balance the whole working of the Platform would depend. And the rotors were gashed in one place, and the shafts were bent. Being bent and nicked, the precision of the apparatus was destroyed. Its precision lost, the whole device was useless. And it had taken four months' work merely to get it perfectly balanced!
It had been the most accurate piece of machine work ever done on Earth. It was balanced to a microgram—to a millionth of the combined weight of three aspirin tablets. It would revolve at 40,000 revolutions per minute. It had to balance perfectly or it would vibrate intolerably. If it vibrated at all it would shake itself to pieces, or, failing that, send aging sound waves through all the Platform's substance. If it vibrated by the least fraction of a ten-thousandth of an inch, it would wear, and vibrate more strongly, and destroy itself and possibly the Platform. It needed the precision of an astronomical telescope's lenses—multiplied! And it was bent. It was exactly as useless as if it had never been made at all.
Joe felt as a man might feel if the mirror of the greatest telescope on earth, in his care, had been smashed. As if the most priceless picture in the world, in his charge, had been burned. But he felt worse. Whether it was his fault or not—and it wasn't—it was destroyed.
A truck rolled up and was stopped by a guard. There was talk, and the guard let it through. A small crane lift came over from the hangars. Its normal use was the lifting of plane motors in and out of their nacelles. Now it was to pick up the useless pieces of equipment on which the best workmen and the best brains of the Kenmore Precision Tool Company had worked unceasingly for eight calendar months, and which now was junk.