30 MINUTES TO LIVE!
Joe Kenmore heard the airlock close with a sickening wheeze and then a clank. In desperation he turned toward Haney. "My God, we've been locked out!"
Through the transparent domes of their space helmets, Joe could see a look of horror and disbelief pass across Haney's face. But it was true! Joe and his crew were locked out of the Space Platform.
Four thousand miles below circled the Earth. Under Joe's feet rested the solid steel hull of his home in outer space. But without tools there was no hope of getting back inside. Joe looked at his oxygen meter. It registered thirty minutes to live.
Space Tug by Murray Leinster is an independent sequel to the author's popular Space Platform, which is also available in a POCKET BOOK edition. Both books were published originally 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)
[A] Published in a POCKET BOOK edition.
Pocket Books, Inc. New York, N. Y.
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.
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Shasta edition published November, 1953
POCKET BOOK edition published January, 1955 1st printing November, 1954
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. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 53-7292. Printed in the U. S. A.
Transcriber's Note No evidence has been found that the copyright of this book has been renewed.
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Notice: POCKET BOOK editions are published in the United States by Pocket Books, Inc., in Canada by Pocket Books of Canada, Ltd. 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.
To Joan Patricia Jenkins
To the world at large, of course, it was just another day. A different sort entirely at different places on the great, round, rolling Earth, but nothing out of the ordinary. It was Tuesday on one side of the Date Line and Monday on the other. It was so-and-so's wedding anniversary and so-and-so's birthday and another so-and-so would get out of jail today. It was warm, it was cool, it was fair, it was cloudy. One looked forward to the future with confidence, with hope, with uneasiness or with terror according to one's temperament and one's geographical location and past history. To most of the human race this was nothing whatever but just another day.
But to Joe Kenmore it was a most particular day indeed. Here, it was the gray hour just before sunrise and already there were hints of reddish colorings in the sky. It was chilly, and somehow the world seemed still and breathless. To Joe, the feeling of tensity marked this morning off from all the other mornings of his experience.
He got up and began to dress, in Major Holt's quarters back of that giant steel half-globe called the Shed, near the town of Bootstrap. He felt queer because he felt so much as usual. By all the rules, he should have experienced a splendid, noble resolution and a fiery exaltation, and perhaps even an admirable sensation of humility and unworthiness to accomplish what was expected of him today. And, deep enough inside, he felt suitable emotion. But it happened that he couldn't take time to feel things adequately today.
He was much more aware that he wanted some coffee rather badly, and that he hoped everything would go all right. He looked out of the windows at empty, dreary desert under the dawn sky. Today was the day he'd be leaving on a rather important journey. He hoped that Haney and the Chief and Mike weren't nervous. He also hoped that nobody had gotten at the fuel for the pushpots, and that the slide-rule crew that had calculated everything hadn't made any mistakes. He was also bothered about the steering-rocket fuel, and he was uncomfortable about the business of releasing the spaceship from the launching cage. There was, too, cause for worry in the take-off rockets—if the tube linings had shrunk there would be some rather gruesome consequences—and there could always be last-minute orders from Washington to delay or even cancel everything.
In short, his mind was full of strictly practical details. He didn't have time to feel noble aspirations or sensations of high destiny. He had a very tricky and exacting job ahead of him.
The sky was growing lighter outside. Stars faded in a paling blue and the desert showed faint colorings. He tied his necktie. A deep-toned keening set up off to the southward, over the sere and dreary landscape. It was a faraway noise, something like the lament of a mountain-sized calf bleating for its mother. Joe took a deep breath. He looked, but saw nothing. The noise, though, told him that there'd been no cancellation of orders so far. He mentally uncrossed one pair of fingers. He couldn't possibly cross fingers against all foreseeable disasters. There weren't enough fingers—or toes either. But it was good that so far the schedule held.
He went downstairs. Major Holt was pacing up and down the living room of his quarters. Electric lights burned, but already the windows were brightening. Joe straightened up and tried to look casual. Strictly speaking, Major Holt was a family friend who happened also to be security officer here, in charge of protecting what went on in the giant construction Shed. He'd had a sufficiently difficult time of it in the past, and the difficulties might keep on in the future. He was also the ranking officer here and consequently the immediate boss of Joe's enterprise. Today's affair was still highly precarious. The whole thing was controversial and uncertain and might spoil the career of somebody with stars on his collar if it should fail. So nobody in the high brass wanted the responsibility. If everything went well, somebody suitable would take the credit and the bows. Meanwhile Major Holt was boss by default.
He looked sharply at Joe. "Morning."
"Good morning, sir," said Joe. Major Holt's daughter Sally had a sort of understanding with Joe, but the major hadn't the knack of cordiality, and nobody felt too much at ease with him. Besides, Joe was wearing a uniform for the first time this morning. There were only eight such uniforms in the world, so far. It was black whipcord, with an Eisenhower jacket, narrow silver braid on the collar and cuffs, and a silver rocket for a badge where a plane pilot wears his wings. It was strictly practical. Against accidental catchings in machinery, the trousers were narrow and tucked into ten-inch soft leather boots, and the wide leather belt had flat loops for the attachment of special equipment. Its width was a brace against the strains of acceleration. Sally had had much to do with its design.
But it hadn't yet been decided by the Pentagon whether the Space Exploration Project would be taken over by the Army or the Navy or the Air Corps, so Joe wore no insignia of rank. Technically he was still a civilian.
The deep-toned noise to the south had become a howl, sweeping closer and trailed by other howlings.
"The pushpots are on the way over, as you can hear," said the major detachedly, in the curious light of daybreak and electric bulbs together. "Your crew is up and about. So far there seems to be no hitch. You're feeling all right for the attempt today?"
"If you want the truth, sir, I'd feel better with about ten years' practical experience behind me. But my gang and myself—we've had all the training we can get without an actual take-off. We're the best-trained crew to try it. I think we'll manage."
"I see," said the major. "You'll do your best."
"We may have to do better than that," admitted Joe wrily.
"True enough. You may." The major paused. "You're well aware that there are—ah—people who do not altogether like the idea of the United States possessing an artificial satellite of Earth."
"I ought to know it," admitted Joe.
The Earth's second, man-constructed moon—out in space for just six weeks now—didn't seem nowadays like the bitterly contested achievement it actually was. From Earth it was merely a tiny speck of light in the sky, identifiable for what it was only because it moved so swiftly and serenely from the sunset toward the east, or from night's darkness into the dawn-light. But it had been fought bitterly before it was launched. It was first proposed to the United Nations, but even discussion in the Council was vetoed. So the United States had built it alone. Yet the nations which objected to it as an international project liked it even less as a national one, and they'd done what they could to wreck it.
The building of the great steel hull now out there in emptiness had been fought more bitterly, by more ruthless and more highly trained saboteurs, than any other enterprise in history. There'd been two attempts to blast it with atomic bombs. But it was high aloft, rolling grandly around the Earth, so close to its primary that its period was little more than four hours; and it rose in the west and set in the east six times a day.
Today Joe would try to get a supply ship up to it, a very small rocket-driven cargo ship named Pelican One. The crew of the Platform needed food and air and water—and especially the means of self-defense. Today's take-off would be the first attempt at a rocket-lift to space.
"The enemies of the Platform haven't given up," said the major formidably. "And they used spectroscopes on the Platform's rocket fumes. Apparently they've been able to duplicate our fuel."
Major Holt went on: "For more than a month Military Intelligence has been aware that rockets were under construction behind the Iron Curtain. They will be guided missiles, and they will carry atom bomb heads. One or more may be finished any day. When they're finished, you can bet that they'll be used against the Platform. And you will carry up the first arms for the Platform. Your ship carries half a dozen long-range interceptor rockets to handle any attack from Earth. It's vitally important for them to be delivered."
"They'll attack the Platform?" demanded Joe angrily. "That's war!"
"Not if they deny guilt," said the major ironically, "and if we have nothing to gain by war. The Platform is intended to defend the peace of the world. If it is destroyed, we won't defend the peace of the world by going to war over it. But while the Platform can defend itself, it is not likely that anyone will dare to make war. So you have a very worthwhile mission. I suggest that you have breakfast and report to the Shed. I'm on my way there now."
Joe said, "Yes, sir."
The major started for the door. Then he stopped. He hesitated, and said abruptly, "If my security measures have failed, Joe, you'll be killed. If there has been sabotage or carelessness, it will be my fault."
"I'm sure, sir, that everything anybody could do—"
"Everything anybody can do to destroy you has been done," said the major grimly. "Not only sabotage, Joe, but blunders and mistakes and stupidities. That always happens. But—I've done my best. I suspect I'm asking your forgiveness if my best hasn't been good enough."
Then, before Joe could reply, the major went hurriedly away.
Joe frowned for a moment. It occurred to him that it must be pretty tough to be responsible for the things that other men's lives depend on—when you can't share their danger. But just then the smell of coffee reached his nostrils. He trailed the scent. There was a coffeepot steaming on the table in the dining-room. There was a note on a plate.
_Good luck. I'll see you in the Shed.
Joe was relieved. Sally Holt had been somewhere around underfoot all his life. She was a swell girl, but he was grateful that he didn't have to talk to her just now.
He poured coffee and looked at his watch. He went to the window. The faraway howling was much nearer, and dawn had definitely arrived. Small cloudlets in a pale blue sky were tinted pinkish by the rising sun. Patches of yucca and mesquite and sage out beyond the officers' quarters area stretched away to a far-off horizon. They were now visibly different in color from the red-yellow earth between them, and cast long, streaky shadows. The cause of the howling was still invisible.
But Joe cared nothing for that. He stared skyward, searching. And he saw what he looked for.
There was a small bright sliver of sunlight high aloft. It moved slowly toward the east. It showed the unmistakable glint of sunshine upon polished steel. It was the artificial satellite—a huge steel hull—which had been built in the gigantic Shed from whose shadow Joe looked upward. It was the size of an ocean liner, and six weeks since some hundreds of pushpots, all straining at once, had gotten it out of the Shed and panted toward the sky with it. They'd gotten it twelve miles high and speeding eastward at the ultimate speed they could manage. They'd fired jato rockets, all at once, and so pushed its speed up to the preposterous. Then they'd dropped away and the giant steel thing had fired its own rockets—which made mile-long flames—and swept on out to emptiness. Before its rockets were consumed it was in an orbit 4,000 miles above the Earth's surface, and it hurtled through space at something over 12,000 miles an hour. It circled the Earth in exactly four hours, fourteen minutes, and twenty-two seconds. And it would continue its circling forever, needing no fuel and never descending. It was a second moon for the planet Earth.
But it could be destroyed.
Joe watched hungrily as it went on to meet the sun. Smoothly, unhurriedly, serenely, the remote and twinkling speck floated on out of sight. And then Joe went back to the table and ate his breakfast quickly. He wolfed it. He had an appointment to meet that minute speck some 4,000 miles out in space. His appointment was for a very few hours hence.
He'd been training for just this morning's effort since before the Platform's launching. There was a great box swinging in twenty-foot gimbal rings over in the Shed. There were motors and projectors and over two thousand vacuum tubes, relays and electronic units. It was a space flight simulator—a descendant of the Link trainer which once taught plane pilots how to fly. But this offered the problems and the sensations of rocketship control, and for many hours every day Joe and the three members of his crew had labored in it. The simulator duplicated every sight and sound and feeling—all but heavy acceleration—to be experienced in the take-off of a rocketship to space. The similitude of flight was utterly convincing. Sometimes it was appallingly so when emergencies and catastrophes and calamities were staged in horrifying detail for them to learn to respond to. In six weeks they'd learned how to handle a spaceship so far as anybody could learn on solid ground—if the simulator was correctly built. Nobody could be sure about that. But it was the best training that could be devised.
In minutes Joe had finished the coffee and was out of Major Holt's quarters and headed for the Shed's nearest entrance. The Shed was a gigantic metal structure rising out of sheer flat desert. There were hills to the westward, but only arid plain to the east and south and north. There was but one town in hundreds of miles and that was Bootstrap, built to house the workmen who'd built the Platform and the still invisible, ferociously howling pushpots and now the small supply ships, the first of which was to make its first trip today.
The Shed seemed very near because of its monstrous size. When he was actually at the base of its wall, it seemed to fill half the firmament and more than half the horizon. He went in, and felt self-conscious when the guard's eyes fell on his uniform. There was a tiny vestibule. Then he was in the Shed itself, and it was enormous.
There were acres of wood-block flooring. There was a vast, steel-girdered arching roof which was fifty stories high in the center. All this size had been needed when the Space Platform was being built. Men on the far side were merely specks, and the rows of windows to admit light usually did no more than make a gray twilight inside. But there was light enough today. To the east the Shed's wall was split from top to bottom. A colossal triangular gore had been loosened and thrust out and rolled aside, and a doorway a hundred and fifty feet wide let in the sunshine. Through it, Joe could see the fiery red ball which was the sun just leaving the horizon.
But there was something more urgent for him to look at. Pelican One had been moved into its launching cage. Only Joe, perhaps, would really have recognized it. Actually it was a streamlined hull of steel, eighty feet long by twenty in diameter. There were stubby metal fins—useless in space, and even on take-off, but essential for the planned method of landing on its return. There were thick quartz ports in the bow-section. But its form was completely concealed now by the attached, exterior take-off rockets. It had been shifted into the huge cradle of steel beams from which it was to be launched. Men swarmed about it and over it, in and out of the launching cage, checking and rechecking every possible thing that could make for the success of its flight to space.
The other three crew-members were ready—Haney and Chief Bender and Mike Scandia. They were especially entitled to be the crew of this first supply ship. When the Platform was being built, its pilot-gyros had been built by a precision tool firm owned by Joe's father. He'd gone by plane with the infinitely precise apparatus to Bootstrap, to deliver and install it in the Platform. And the plane was sabotaged, and the gyros were ruined. They'd consumed four months in the building, and four months more for balancing with absolute no-tolerance accuracy. The Platform couldn't wait so long for duplicates. So Joe had improvised a method of repair. And with Haney to devise special machine-tool setups and the Chief to use fanatically fine workmanship, and Mike and Joe aiding according to their gifts, they'd rebuilt the apparatus in an impossibly short time. The original notion was Joe's, but he couldn't have done the job without the others.
And there had been other, incidental triumphs by the team of four. They were not the only ones who worked feverishly for the glory of having helped to build the Earth's first artificial moon, but they had accomplished more than most. Joe had even been appointed to be an alternate member of the Platform's crew. But the man he was to have substituted for recovered from an illness, and Joe was left behind at the Platform's launching. But all of them had rated some reward, and it was to serve in the small ships that would supply the man-made satellite.
Now they were ready to begin. The Chief grinned exuberantly as Joe ducked through the bars of the launching cage and approached the ship. He was a Mohawk Indian—one of that tribe which for two generations had supplied steel workers to every bridge and dam and skyscraper job on the continent. He was brown and bulky and explosive. Haney looked tense and strained. He was tall and lean and spare, and a good man in any sort of trouble. Mike blazed excitement. Mike was forty-one inches high and he was full-grown. He had worked on the Platform, bucking rivets and making welds and inspections in places too small for a normal-sized man to reach. He frantically resented any concessions to his size and he was as good a man as any. He simply was the small, economy size.
"Hiya, Joe," boomed the Chief. "All set? Had breakfast?"
Joe nodded. He began to ask anxious questions. About steering-rocket fuel and the launching cage release and the take-off rockets and the reduction valve from the air tanks—he'd thought of that on the way over—and the short wave and loran and radar. Haney nodded to some questions. Mike said briskly, "I checked" to others.
The Chief grunted amiably, "Look, Joe! We checked everything last night. We checked it again this morning. I even caught Mike polishing the ejection seats, because there wasn't anything else to make sure of!"
Joe managed a smile. The ejection seats were assuredly the most unlikely of all devices to be useful today. They were supposedly life-saving devices. If the ship came a cropper on take-off, the four of them were supposed to use ejection-seats like those supplied to jet pilots. They would be thrown clear of the ship and ribbon-parachutes might open and might let them land alive. But it wasn't likely. Joe had objected to their presence. If a feather dropped to Earth from a height of 600 miles, it would be falling so fast when it hit the atmosphere that it would heat up and burn to ashes from pure air-friction. It wasn't likely that they could get out of the ship if anything went wrong.
Somebody marched stiffly toward the four of them. Joe's expression grew rueful. The Space Project was neither Army nor Navy nor Air Corps, but something that so far was its own individual self. But the man marching toward Joe was Lieutenant Commander Brown, strictly Navy, assigned to the Shed as an observer. And there were some times when he baffled Joe. Like now.
He halted, and looked as if he expected Joe to salute. Joe didn't.
Lieutenant Commander Brown said, formally: "I would like to offer my best wishes for your trip, Mr. Kenmore."
"Thanks," said Joe.
Brown smiled distantly. "You understand, of course, that I consider navigation essentially a naval function, and it does seem to me that any ship, including a spaceship, should be manned by naval personnel. But I assuredly wish you good fortune."
"Thanks," said Joe again.
Brown shook hands, then stalked off.
Haney rumbled in his throat. "How come, Joe, he doesn't wish all of us good luck?"
"He does," said Joe. "But his mind's in uniform too. He's been trained that way. I'd like to make a bet that we have him as a passenger out to the Platform some day."
"Heaven forbid!" growled Haney.
There was an outrageous tumult outside the wide-open gap in the Shed's wall. Something went shrieking by the doorway. It looked like the magnified top half of a loaf of baker's bread, painted gray and equipped with an air-scoop in front and a plastic bubble for a pilot. It howled like a lost baby dragon, its flat underside tilted up and up until it was almost vertical. It had no wings, but a blue-white flame spurted out of its rear, wobbling from side to side for reasons best known to itself. It was a pushpot, which could not possibly be called a jet plane because it could not possibly fly. Only it did. It settled down on its flame-spouting tail, and the sparse vegetation burst into smoky flame and shriveled, and the thing—still shrieking like a fog-horn in a tunnel—flopped flat forward with a resounding clank! It was abruptly silent.
But the total noise was not lessened. Another pushpot came soaring wildly into view, making hysterical outcries. It touched and banged violently to earth. Others appeared in the air beyond the construction Shed. One flopped so hard on landing that its tail rose in the air and it attempted a somersault. It made ten times more noise than before—the flame from its tail making wild gyrations—and flopped back again with a crash. Two others rolled over on their sides after touching ground. One ended up on its back like a tumble-bug, wriggling.
They seemed to land by hundreds, but their number was actually in dozens. It was not until the last one was down that Joe could make himself heard. The pushpots were jet motors in frames and metal skin, with built-in jato rocket tubes besides their engines. On the ground they were quite helpless. In the air they were unbelievably clumsy. They were actually balanced and steered by vanes in the blasts of their jets, and they combined the absolute maximum of sheer thrust with the irreducible minimum of flyability.
Crane-trucks went out to pick them up. Joe said anxiously, "We'd better check our flight plan again. We have to know it absolutely!"
He headed across the floor to the flight data board. He passed the hull of another ship like his own, which was near completion, and the bare skeletons of two others which needed a lot of work yet. They'd been begun at distant plants and then hauled here on monstrous trailers for completion. The wooden mockup of the design for all the ships—in which every possible arrangement of instruments and machinery had been tested out—lay neglected by the Shed wall.
The four stood before the flight data board. It listed the readings every instrument should show during every instant of the flight. The readings had been calculated with infinite care, and Joe and the others needed to know them rather better than they knew their multiplication tables. Once they started out, they wouldn't have time to wonder if everything was right for the time and place. They needed to know.
They stood there, soaking up the information the board contained, forming mental pictures of it, making as sure as possible that any one of them would spot anything wrong the instant it showed up, and would instantly know what had to be done about it.
A gigantic crane-truck came in through the wide doorway. It dangled a pushpot. It rolled over to the launching cage in which the spaceship lay and set the unwieldy metal object against that cage. There was a clank as the pushpot caught hold of the magnetic grapples. The crane went out again, passing a second crane carrying a second pushpot. The second beetle-like thing was presented to the cage. It stuck fast. The crane went out for more.
Major Holt came across the floor of the Shed. It took him a long time to walk the distance from the Security offices to the launching cage. When he got there, he looked impatiently around. His daughter Sally came out of nowhere and blew her nose as if she'd been crying, and pointed to the data board. The major shrugged his shoulders and looked uneasily at her. She regarded him with some defiance. The major spoke to her sternly. They waited.
The cranes brought in more pushpots and set them up against the steel launching cage. The ship had been nearly hidden before by the rocket tubes fastened outside its hull. It went completely out of sight behind the metal monsters banked about it.
The major looked at his watch and the group about the data board. They moved away from it and back toward the ship. Joe saw the major and swerved over to him.
"I have brought you," said the major in an official voice, "the invoice of your cargo. You will deliver the invoice with the cargo and bring back proper receipts."
"I hope," said Joe.
"We hope!" said Sally in a strained tone. "Good luck, Joe!"
"There is not much to say to you," said the major without visible emotion. "Of course the next crew will start its training immediately, but it may be a month before another ship can take off. It is extremely desirable that you reach the Platform today."
"Yes, sir," said Joe wrily. "I have even a personal motive to get there. If I don't, I break my neck."
The major ignored the comment. He shook hands formally and marched away. Sally smiled up at Joe, but her eyes were suddenly full of tears.
"I—do hope everything goes all right, Joe," she said unsteadily. "I—I'll be praying for you."
"I can use some of that, too," admitted Joe.
She looked at her hand. Joe's ring was on her finger—wrapped with string on the inside of the band to make it fit. Then she looked up again and was crying unashamedly.
"I—will," she repeated. Then she said fiercely, "I don't care if somebody's looking, Joe. It's time for you to go in the ship."
He kissed her, and turned and went quickly to the peculiar mass of clustered pushpots, touching and almost overlapping each other.
He ducked under and looked back. Sally waved. He waved back. Then he climbed up the ladder into Pelican One's cabin. Somebody pulled the ladder away and scuttled out of the cage.
The others were in their places. Joe slowly closed the door from the cabin to the outer world. There was suddenly a cushioned silence about him. Out the quartz-glass ports he could see ahead, out the end of the cage through the monstrous doorway to the desert beyond. Overhead he could see the dark, girder-lined roof of the Shed. On either side, though, he could see only the scratched, dented, flat undersides of the pushpots ready to lift the ship upward.
"You can start on the pushpot motors, Haney," he said curtly.
Joe moved to his own, the pilot's seat. Haney pushed a button. Through the fabric of the ship came the muted uproar of a pushpot engine starting. Haney pushed another button. Another. Another. More jet engines bellowed. The tumult in the Shed would be past endurance, now.
Joe strapped himself into his seat. He made sure that the Chief at the steering-rocket manual controls was fastened properly, and Mike at the radio panel was firmly belted past the chance of injury.
Haney said with enormous calm, "All pushpot motors running, Joe."
"Steering rockets ready," the Chief reported.
"Radio operating," came from Mike. "Communications room all set."
Joe reached to the maneuver controls. He should have been sweating. His hands, perhaps, should have quivered with tension. But he was too much worried about too many things. Nobody can strike an attitude or go into a blue funk while they are worrying about things to be done. Joe heard the small gyro motors as their speed went up. A hum and a whine and then a shrill whistle which went up in pitch until it wasn't anything at all. He frowned anxiously and said to Haney, "I'm taking over the pushpots."
Haney nodded. Joe took the over-all control. The roar of engines outside grew loud on the right-hand side, and died down. It grew thunderous to the left, and dwindled. The ones ahead pushed. Then the ones behind. Joe nodded and wet his lips. He said: "Here we go."
There was no more ceremony than that. The noise of the jet motors outside rose to a thunderous volume which came even through the little ship's insulated hull. Then it grew louder, and louder still, and Joe stirred the controls by ever so tiny a movement.
Suddenly the ship did not feel solid. It stirred a little. Joe held his breath and cracked the over-all control of the pushpots' speed a tiny trace further. The ship wobbled a little. Out the quartz-glass windows, the great door seemed to descend. In reality the clustered pushpots and the launching cage rose some thirty feet from the Shed floor and hovered there uncertainly. Joe shifted the lever that governed the vanes in the jet motor blasts. Ship and cage and pushpots, all together, wavered toward the doorway. They passed out of it, rocking a little and pitching a little and wallowing a little. As a flying device, the combination was a howling tumult and a horror. It was an aviation designer's nightmare. It was a bad dream by any standard.
But it wasn't meant as a way to fly from one place to another on Earth. It was the first booster stage of a three-stage rocket aimed at outer space. It looked rather like—well—if a swarm of bumblebees clung fiercely to a wire-gauze cage in which lay a silver minnow wrapped in match-sticks; and if the bees buzzed furiously and lifted it in a straining, clumsy, and altogether unreasonable manner; and if the appearance and the noise together were multiplied a good many thousands of times—why—it would present a great similarity to the take-off of the spaceship under Joe's command. Nothing like it could be graceful or neatly controllable or even very speedy in the thick atmosphere near the ground. But higher, it would be another matter.
It was another matter. Once clear of the Shed, and with flat, sere desert ahead to the very horizon, Joe threw on full power to the pushpot motors. The clumsy-seeming aggregation of grotesque objects began to climb. Ungainly it was, and clumsy it was, but it went upward at a rate a jet-fighter might have trouble matching. It wobbled, and it swung around and around, and it tipped crazily, the whole aggregation of jet motors and cage and burden of spaceship as a unit. But it rose!
The ground dropped so swiftly that even the Shed seemed to shrivel like a pricked balloon. The horizon retreated as if a carpet were hastily unrolled by magic. The barometric pressure needles turned.
"Communications says our rate-of-climb is 4,000 feet a minute and going up fast," Mike announced. "It's five.... We're at 17,000 feet ... 18,000. We should get some eastward velocity at 32,000 feet. Our height is now 21,000 feet...."
There was no change in the feel of things inside the ship, of course. Sealed against the vacuum of space, barometric pressure outside made no difference. Height had no effect on the air inside the ship.
At 25,000 feet the Chief said suddenly: "We're pointed due east, Joe. Freeze it?"
"Right," said Joe. "Freeze it."
The Chief threw a lever. The gyros were running at full operating speed. By engaging them, the Chief had all their stored-up kinetic energy available to resist any change of direction the pushpots might produce by minor variations in their thrusts. Haney brooded over the reports from the individual engines outside. He made minute adjustments to keep them balanced. Mike uttered curt comments into the communicator from time to time.
At 33,000 feet there was a momentary sensation as if the ship were tilted sharply. It wasn't. The instruments denied any change from level rise. The upward-soaring complex of flying things had simply risen into a jet-stream, one of those wildly rushing wind-floods of the upper atmosphere.
"Eastern velocity four hundred," said Mike from the communicator. "Now four-twenty-five.... Four-forty."
There was a 300-mile-an-hour wind behind them. A tail-wind, west to east. The pushpots struggled now to get the maximum possible forward thrust before they rose out of that east-bound hurricane. They added a fierce push to eastward to their upward thrust. Mike's cracked voice reported 500 miles an hour. Presently it was 600.
At 40,000 feet they were moving eastward at 680 miles an hour. A jet-motor cannot be rated except indirectly, but there was over 200,000 horsepower at work to raise the spacecraft and build up the highest possible forward speed. It couldn't be kept up, of course. The pushpots couldn't carry enough fuel.
But they reached 55,000 feet, which is where space begins for humankind. A man exposed to emptiness at that height will die just as quickly as anywhere between the stars. But it wasn't quite empty space for the pushpots. There was still a very, very little air. The pushpots could still thrust upward. Feebly, now, but they still thrust.
Mike said: "Communications says get set to fire jatos, Joe."
"Right!" he replied. "Set yourselves."
Mike flung a switch, and a voice began to chatter behind Joe's head. It was the voice from the communications-room atop the Shed, now far below and far behind. Mike settled himself in the tiny acceleration-chair built for him. The Chief squirmed to comfort in his seat. Haney took his hands from the equalizing adjustments he had to make so that Joe's use of the controls would be exact, regardless of moment-to-moment differences in the thrust of the various jets.
"We've got a yaw right," said the Chief sharply. "Hold it, Joe!"
Joe waited for small quivering needles to return to their proper registrations.
"Back and steady," said the Chief a moment later. "Okay!"
The tinny voice behind Joe now spoke precisely. Mike had listened to it while the work of take-off could be divided, so that Joe would not be distracted. Now Joe had to control everything at once.
The roar of the pushpots outside the ship had long since lost the volume and timbre of normal atmosphere. Not much sound could be transmitted by the near-vacuum outside. But the jet motors did roar, and the sound which was not sound at such a height was transmitted by the metal cage as so much pure vibration. The walls and hull of the spaceship picked up a crawling, quivering pulsation and turned it into sound. Standing waves set up and dissolved and moved erratically in the air of the cabin. Joe's eardrums were strangely affected. Now one ear seemed muted by a temporary difference of air pressure where a standing wave lingered for a second or two. Then the other eardrum itched. There were creeping sensations as of things touching one and quickly moving away.
Joe swung a microphone into place before his mouth.
"All set," he said evenly. "Brief me."
The tinny voice said:
"You are at 65,000 feet. Your curve of rate-of-climb is flattening out. You are now rising at near-maximum speed, and not much more forward velocity can be anticipated. You have an air-speed relative to surface of six-nine-two miles per hour. The rotational speed of Earth at this latitude is seven-seven-eight. You have, then, a total orbital speed of one-four-seven-oh miles per hour, or nearly twelve per cent of your needed final velocity. Since you will take off laterally and practically without air resistance, a margin of safety remains. You are authorized to blast."
"Ten seconds. Nine ... eight ... seven ... six ... five ... four ... three ... two ... one...."
He stabbed the master jato switch. And a monstrous jato rocket, built into each and every one of the pushpots outside, flared chemical fumes in a simultaneous, gigantic thrust. A small wire-wound jato for jet-assisted-take-off will weigh a hundred and forty pounds and deliver a thousand pounds of thrust for fourteen seconds. And that is for rockets using nonpoisonous compounds. The jatos of the pushpots used the beryllium-fluorine fuel that had lifted the Platform and that filled the take-off rockets of Joe's ship. These jatos gave the pushpots themselves an acceleration of ten gravities, but it had to be shared with the cage and the ship. Still....
Joe felt himself slammed back into his seat with irresistible, overwhelming force. The vibration from the jets had been bad. Now he didn't notice it. He didn't notice much of anything but the horrible sensations of six-gravity acceleration.
It was not exactly pain. It was a feeling as if a completely intolerable and unbearable pressure pushed at him. Not only on the outside, like a blow, but inside too, like nothing else imaginable. Not only his chest pressed upon his lungs, but his lungs strained toward his backbone. Not only the flesh of his thighs tugged to flatten itself against his acceleration-chair, but the blood in his legs tried to flow into and burst the blood-vessels in the back of his legs.
The six-gravity acceleration seemed to endure for centuries. Actually, it lasted for fourteen seconds. In that time it increased the speed of the little ship by rather more than half a mile per second, something over 1,800 miles per hour. Before, the ship had possessed an orbital speed of a shade over 1,470 miles an hour. After the jato thrust, it was traveling nearly 3,400 miles per hour. It needed to travel something over 12,000 miles per hour to reach the artificial satellite of Earth.
The intolerable thrust ended abruptly. Joe gasped. But he could allow himself only a shake of the head to clear his brain. He jammed down the take-off rocket firing button. There was a monstrous noise and a mighty surging, and Haney panted, "Clear of cage...."
And then they were pressed fiercely against their acceleration chairs again. The ship was no longer in its launching cage. It was no longer upheld by pushpots. It was free, with its take-off rockets flaming. It plunged on up and out. But the acceleration was less. Nobody can stand six gravities for long. Anybody can take three—for a while.
Joe's body resisted movement with a weight of four hundred and fifty pounds, instead of a third as much for normal. His heart had to pump against three times the normal resistance of gravity. His chest felt as if it had a leaden weight on it. His tongue tried to crowd the back of his mouth and strangle him. The sensation was that of a nightmare of impossible duration. It was possible to move and possible to see. One could breathe, with difficulty, and with titanic effort one could speak. But there was the same feeling of stifling resistance to every movement that comes in nightmares.
But Joe managed to keep his eyes focused. The dials of the instruments said that everything was right. The tinny voice behind his head, its timbre changed by the weighting of its diaphragm, said: "All readings check within accuracy of instruments. Good work!"
Joe moved his eyes to a quartz window. The sky was black. But there were stars. Bright stars against a black background. At the same instant he saw the bright white disks of sunshine that came in the cabin portholes. Stars and sunshine together. And the sunshine was the sunshine of space. Even with the polarizers cutting off some of the glare it was unbearably bright and hot beyond conception. He smelled overheated paint, where the sunlight smote on a metal bulkhead. Stars and super-hot sunshine together....
It was necessary to pant for breath, and his heart pounded horribly and his eyes tried to go out of focus, but Joe Kenmore strained in his acceleration-chair and managed to laugh a little.
"We did it!" he panted. "In case you didn't notice, we're out of—the atmosphere and—out in space! We're—headed to join the Space Platform!"
The pressure of three gravities continued. Joe's chest muscles ached with the exertion of breathing over so long a period. Six gravities for fourteen seconds had been a ghastly ordeal. Three gravities for minutes built up to something nearly as bad. Joe's heart began to feel fatigue, and a man's heart normally simply doesn't ever feel tired. It became more and more difficult to see clearly.
But he had work to do. Important work. The take-off rockets were solid-fuel jobs, like those which launched the Platform. They were wire-wound steel tubes lined with a very special refractory, with unstable beryllium and fluorine compounds in them. The solid fuel burned at so many inches per second. The refractory crumbled away and was hurled astern at a corresponding rate—save for one small point. The refractory was not all exactly alike. Some parts of it crumbled away faster, leaving a pattern of baffles which acted like a maxim silencer on a rifle, or like an automobile muffler. The baffles set up eddies in the gas stream and produced exactly the effect of a rocket motor's throat. But the baffles themselves crumbled and were flung astern, so that the solid-fuel rockets had always the efficiency of gas-throated rocket motors; and yet every bit of refractory was reaction-mass to be hurled astern, and even the steel tubes melted and were hurled away with a gain in acceleration to the ship. Every fraction of every ounce of rocket mass was used for drive. No tanks or pumps or burners rode deadhead after they ceased to be useful.
But solid-fuel rockets simply can't be made to burn with absolute evenness as a team. Minute differences in burning-rates do tend to cancel out. But now and again they reinforce each other and if uncorrected will throw a ship off course. Gyros can't handle such effects. So Joe had to watch his instruments and listen to the tinny voice behind him and steer the ship against accidental wobblings as the Earth fell away behind him.
He battled against the fatigue of continuing to live, and struggled with gyros and steering jets to keep the ship on its hair-line course. He panted heavily. The beating of his heart became such a heavy pounding that it seemed that his whole body shook with it. He had to do infinitely fine precision steering with hands that weighed pounds and arms that weighed scores of pounds and a body that had an effective weight of almost a quarter of a ton.
And this went on and went on and on for what seemed several centuries.
Then the voice in the speaker said thickly: "Everything is in the clear. In ten seconds you can release your rockets. Shall I count?"
Joe panted, "Count!"
The mechanical voice said, "Seven ... six ... five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... cut!"
Joe pressed the release. The small, unburnt stubs of the take-off rockets went hurtling off toward emptiness. They consumed themselves as they went, and they attained an acceleration of fifty gravities once they were relieved of all load but their own substance. They had to be released lest one burn longer than another. It was also the only way to stop acceleration by solid-fuel rockets. They couldn't be extinguished. They had to be released.
From intolerably burdensome heaviness, there was abruptly no weight at all in the ship. Joe's laboring heart beat twice with the violence the weight had called for, though weight had ended. It seemed to him that his skull would crack open during those two heart-beats. Then he lay limply, resting.
There was a completely incredible stillness, for a time. The four of them panted. Haney was better off than Joe, but the Chief was harder hit. Mike's small body had taken the strain best of all, and he would use the fact later in shrill argument that midgets were designed by nature to be the explorers of space for their bulkier and less spaceworthy kindred.
The ending of the steady, punishing drag was infinitely good, but the new sensation was hardly pleasant. They had no weight. It felt as if they and the ship about them were falling together down an abyss which must have a bottom. Actually, they were falling up. But they felt a physical, crawling apprehension—a cringing from an imaginary imminent impact.
They had expected the sensation, but it was not the better for being understood. Joe flexed and unflexed his fingers slowly. He stirred and swallowed hastily. But the feeling persisted. He unstrapped himself from his seat. He stood up—and floated to the ceiling of the cabin. But there was of course no ceiling. Every way was up and every way was down. His stomach cramped itself in a hard knot, in the instinctive tensity of somebody in free fall.
He fended himself from the ceiling and caught at a hand-line placed there for just this necessity to grip something. In his absorption, he did not notice which way his heels went. He suddenly noticed that his companions, with regard to him, were upside down and staring at him with wooden, dazed expressions on their faces.
He tried to laugh, and gulped instead. He pulled over to the quartz-glass ports. He did not put his hand into the sunlight, but shifted the glare shutters over those ports which admitted direct sunshine. Some ports remained clear. Through one of them he saw the Earth seemingly at arm's length somewhere off. Not up, not down. Simply out from where he was. It filled all the space that the porthole showed. It was a gigantic mass of white, fleecy specks and spots which would be clouds, and between the whiteness there was a muddy dark greenish color which would be the ocean. Yet it seemed to slide very, very slowly past the window.
He saw a tanness between the clouds, and it moved inward from the edge of his field of view. He suddenly realized what it was.
"We've just about crossed the Atlantic," he said in a peculiar astonishment. But it was true the ship had not been aloft nearly as much as half an hour. "Africa's just coming into sight below. We ought to be about 1,200 miles high and still rising fast. That was the calculation."
He looked again, and then drew himself across to the opposite porthole. He saw the blackness of space, which was not blackness because it was a carpet of jewels. They were infinite in number and variations in brightness, and somehow of vastly more colorings than one noticed from Earth.
He heard the Chief grunt, and Haney gulp. He was suddenly conscious that his legs were floating rather ridiculously in mid-air with no particular relationship to anything. He saw the Chief rise very cautiously, holding on to the arms of his seat.
"Better not look at the sun," said Joe, "even though I've put on the glare-shields."
The Chief nodded. The glare-shields would keep out most of the heat and a very great deal of the ultraviolet the sun gave off. But even so, to look at the sun directly might easily result in a retinal sunburn which could result in blindness.
The loudspeaker behind Joe's chair clattered. It had seemed muted by the weight of its diaphragm at three gravities. Now it blasted unintelligibly, with no weight at all. Mike threw a switch and took the message.
"Communications says radar says we're right on course, Joe," he reported nonchalantly, "and our speed's okay. We'll reach maximum altitude in an hour and thirty-six minutes. We ought to be within calculated distance of the Platform then."
"Good," said Joe abstractedly.
He strained his eyes at the Earth. They were moving at an extraordinary speed and height. It had been reached by just four human beings before them. The tannishness which was the coast of Africa crept with astonishing slowness toward the center of what he could see.
Joe headed back to his seat. He could not walk, of course. He floated. He launched himself with a fine air of confidence. He misjudged. He was floating past his chair when he reached down—and that turned his body—and fumbled wildly. He caught hold of the back as he went by, then held on and found himself turning a grandly dignified somersault. He wound up in a remarkably foolish position with the back of his neck on the back of the chair, his arms in a highly strained position to hold him there, and his feet touching the deck of the cabin a good five feet away.
Haney looked greenish, but he said hoarsely:
"Joe, don't make me laugh—not when my stomach feels like this!"
The feeling of weightlessness was unexpectedly daunting. Joe turned himself about very slowly, with his legs floating indecorously in entirely unintended kicks. He was breathing hard when he pulled himself into the chair and strapped in once more.
"I'll take Communications," he told Mike as he settled his headphones.
Reluctantly, Mike switched over.
"Kenmore reporting to Communications," he said briefly. "We have ended our take-off acceleration. You have our course and velocity. Our instruments read—"
He went over the bank of instruments before him, giving the indication of each. In a sense, this first trip of a ship out to the Platform had some of the aspects of defusing a bomb. Calculations were useful, but observations were necessary. He had to report every detail of the condition of his ship and every instrument-reading because anything might go wrong, and at any instant. Anything that went wrong could be fatal. So every bit of data and every intended action needed to be on record. Then, if something happened, the next ship to attempt this journey might avoid the same catastrophe.
Time passed. A lot of time. The feeling of unending fall continued. They knew what it was, but they had to keep thinking of its cause to endure it. Joe found that if his mind concentrated fully on something else, it jerked back to panic and the feel of falling. But the crew of the Space Platform—now out in space for more weeks than Joe had been quarter-hours—reported that one got partly used to it, in time. When awake, at least. Asleep was another matter.
They were 1,600 miles high and still going out and up. The Earth as seen through the ports was still an utterly monstrous, bulging mass, specked with clouds above vast mottlings which were its seas and land. They might have looked for cities, but they would be mere patches in a telescope. Their task now was to wait until their orbit curved into accordance with that of the Platform and they kept their rendezvous. The artificial satellite was swinging up behind them, and was only a quarter-circle about Earth behind them. Their speed in miles per second was, at the moment, greater than that of the Platform. But they were climbing. They slowed as they climbed. When their path intersected that of the Platform, the two velocities should be exactly equal.
Major Holt's voice came on the Communicator.
"Joe," he said harshly, "I have very bad news. A message came from Central Intelligence within minutes of your take-off. I—ah—with Sally I had been following your progress. I did not decode the message until now. But Central Intelligence has definite information that more than ten days ago the—ah—enemies of our Space Exploration Project—" even on a tight beam to the small spaceship, Major Holt did not name the nation everybody knew was most desperately resolved to smash space exploration by anybody but itself—"completed at least one rocket capable of reaching the Platform's orbit with a pay-load that could be an atomic bomb. It is believed that more than one rocket was completed. All were shipped to an unknown launching station."
"Not so good," said Joe.
Mike had left his post when Joe took over. Now he made a swooping dart through the air of the cabin. The midget showed no signs of the fumbling uncertainty the others had displayed—but he'd been a member of a midget acrobatic team before he went to work at the Shed. He brought himself to a stop precisely at a hand-hold, grinning triumphantly at the nearly helpless Chief and Haney.
Major Holt said in the headphones: "It's worse than that. Radar may have told the country in question that you are on the way up. In that case, if it's even faintly possible to blast the Platform before your arrival with weapons for its defense, they'll blast."
"I don't like that idea," said Joe dourly. "Anything we can do?"
Major Holt laughed bitterly. "Hardly!" he said. "And do you realize that if you can't unload your cargo you can't get back to Earth?"
"Yes," said Joe. "Naturally!"
It was true. The purpose of the pushpots and the jatos and the ship's own take-off rockets had been to give it a speed at which it would inevitably rise to a height of 4,000 miles—the orbit of the Space Platform—and stay there. It would need no power to remain 4,000 miles out from Earth. But it would take power to come down. The take-off rockets had been built to drive the ship with all its contents until it attained that needed orbital velocity. There were landing rockets fastened to the hull now to slow it so that it could land. But just as the take-off rockets had been designed to lift a loaded ship, the landing-rockets had been designed to land an empty one.
The more weight the ship carried, the more power it needed to get out to the Platform. And the more power it needed to come down again.
If Joe and his companions couldn't get rid of their cargo—and they could only unload in the ship-lock of the Platform—they'd stay out in emptiness.
The Major said bitterly: "This is all most irregular, but—here's Sally."
Then Sally's voice sounded in the headphones Joe wore. He was relieved that Mike wasn't acting as communications officer at the moment to overhear. But Mike was zestfully spinning like a pin-wheel in the middle of the air of the control cabin. He was showing the others that even in the intramural pastimes a spaceship crew will indulge in, a midget was better than a full-sized man. Joe said:
She said unsteadily. "I'm not going to waste your time talking to you, Joe. I think you've got to figure out something. I haven't the faintest idea what it is, but I think you can do it. Try, will you?"
"I'm afraid we're going to have to trust to luck," admitted Joe ruefully. "We weren't equipped for anything like this."
"No!" said Sally fiercely. "If I were with you, you wouldn't think of trusting to luck!"
"I wouldn't want to," admitted Joe. "I'd feel responsible. But just the same—"
"You're responsible now!" said Sally, as fiercely as before. "If the Platform's smashed, the rockets that can reach it will be duplicated to smash our cities in war! But if you can reach the Platform and arm it for defense, there won't be any war! Half the world would be praying for you, Joe, if it knew! I can't do anything else, so I'm going to start on that right now. But you try, Joe! You hear me?"
"I'll try," said Joe humbly. "Thanks, Sally."
He heard a sound like a sob, and the headphones were silent. Joe himself swallowed very carefully. It can be alarming to be the object of an intended murder, but it can also be very thrilling. One can play up splendidly to a dramatic picture of doom. It is possible to be one's own audience and admire one's own fine disregard of danger. But when other lives depend on one, one has the irritating obligation not to strike poses but to do something practical.
Joe said somberly: "Mike, how long before we ought to contact the Platform?"
Mike reached out a small hand, caught a hand-hold, and flicked his eyes to the master chronometer.
"Forty minutes, fifty seconds. Why?"
Joe said wrily, "There are some rockets in enemy hands which can reach the Platform. They were shipped to launchers ten days ago. You figure what comes next."
Mike's wizened face became tense and angry. Haney growled, "They smash the Platform before we get to it."
"Uh-uh!" said Mike instantly. "They smash the Platform when we get to it! They smash us both up together. Where'll we be at contact-time, Joe?"
"Over the Indian Ocean, south of the Bay of Bengal, to be exact," said Joe. "But we'll be moving fast. The worst of it is that it's going to take time to get in the airlock and unload our guided missiles and get them in the Platform's launching-tubes. I'd guess an hour. One bomb should get both of us above the Bay of Bengal, but we won't be set to launch a guided missile in defense until we're nearly over America again."
The Chief said sourly, "Yeah. Sitting ducks all the way across the Pacific!"
"We'll check with the Platform," said Joe. "See if you can get them direct, Mike, will you?"
Then something occurred to him. Mike scrambled back to his communication board. He began feverishly to work the computer which in turn would swing the tight-beam transmitter to the target the computer worked out, He threw a switch and said sharply, "Calling Space Platform! Pelican One calling Space Platform! Come in, Space Platform!..." He paused. "Calling Space Platform...."
Joe had a slide-rule going on another problem. He looked up, his expression peculiar.
"A solid-fuel rocket can start off at ten gravities acceleration," he said quietly, "and as its rockets burn away it can go up a lot higher than that. But 4,000 miles is a long way to go straight up. If it isn't launched yet—"
Mike snapped into a microphone: "Right!" To Joe he said, "Space Platform on the wire."
Joe heard an acknowledgment in his headphones. "I've just had word from the Shed," he explained carefully, "that there may be some guided missiles coming up from Earth to smash us as we meet. You're still higher than we are, and they ought to be starting. Can you pick up anything with your radar?"
The voice from the Platform said: "We have picked something up. There are four rockets headed out from near the sunset-line in the Pacific. Assuming solid-fuel rockets like we used and you used, they are on a collision course."
"Are you doing anything about them?" asked Joe absurdly.
The voice said caustically: "Unfortunately, we've nothing to do anything with." It paused. "You, of course, can use the landing-rockets you still possess. If you fire them immediately, you will pass our scheduled meeting-place some hundreds of miles ahead of us. You will go on out to space. You may set up an orbit forty-five hundred or even five thousand miles out, and wait there for rescue."
Joe said briefly: "We've air for only four days. That's no good. It'll be a month before the next ship can be finished and take off. There are four rockets coming up, you say?"
"Yes." The voice changed. It spoke away from the microphone. "What's that?" Then it returned to Joe. "The four rockets were sent up at the same instant from four separate launching sites. Probably as many submarines at the corners of a hundred-mile square, so an accident to one wouldn't set off the others. They'll undoubtedly converge as they get nearer to us."
"I think," said Joe, "that we need some luck."
"I think," said the caustic voice, "that we've run out of it."
There was a click. Joe swallowed again. The three members of his crew were looking at him.
"Somebody's fired rockets out from Earth," said Joe carefully. "They'll curve together where we meet the Platform, and get there just when we do."
The Chief rumbled. Haney clamped his jaws together. Mike's expression became one of blazing hatred.
Joe's mind went rather absurdly to the major's curious, almost despairing talk in his quarters that morning, when he'd spoken of a conspiracy to destroy all the hopes of men. The firing of rockets at the Platform was, of course, the work of men acting deliberately. But they were—unconsciously—trying to destroy their own best hopes. For freedom, certainly, whether or not they could imagine being free. But the Platform and the space exploration project in general meant benefits past computing for everybody, in time. To send ships into space for necessary but dangerous experiments with atomic energy was a purpose every man should want to help forward. To bring peace on Earth was surely an objective no man could willingly or sanely combat. And the ultimate goal of space travel was millions of other planets, circling other suns, thrown open to colonization by humanity. That prospect should surely fire every human being with enthusiasm. But something—and the more one thought about it the more specific and deliberate it seemed to be—made it necessary to fight desperately against men in order to benefit them.
Joe swallowed again. It would have been comforting to be dramatic in this war against stupidity and malice and blindness. Especially since this particular battle seemed to be lost. One could send back an eloquent, defiant message to Earth saying that the four of them did not regret their journey into space, though they were doomed to be killed by the enemies of their country. It could have been a very pretty gesture. But Joe happened to have a job to do. Pretty gestures were not a part of it. He had no idea how to do it. So he said rather sickishly:
"The Platform told me we could fire our landing-rockets as additional take-off rockets and get out of the way. Of course we've got missiles of our own on board, but we can't launch or control them. Absolutely the only thing we can choose to do or not do is fire those rockets. I'm open to suggestions if anybody can think of a way to make them useful."
There was silence. Joe's reasoning was good enough. When one can't do what he wants, one tries to make what he can do produce the results he wants. But it didn't look too promising here. They could fire the rockets now, or later, or—
An idea came out of the blue. It wasn't a good idea, but it was the only one possible under the circumstances. There was just one distinctly remote possibility. He told the others what it was. Mike's eyes flamed. The Chief nodded profoundly. Haney said with some skepticism, "It's all we've got. We've got to use it."
"I need some calculations. Spread. Best time of firing. That sort of thing. But I'm worried about calling back in the clear. A beam to the Platform will bounce and might be picked up by the enemy."
The Chief grinned suddenly. "I've got a trick for that, Joe. There's a tribesman of mine in the Shed. Get Charley Red Fox to the phone, guy, and we'll talk privately!"
The small spaceship floated on upward. It pointed steadfastly in the direction of its motion. The glaring sunshine which at its take-off had shone squarely in its bow-ports, now poured down slantingly from behind. The steel plates of the ship gleamed brightly. Below it lay the sunlit Earth. Above and about it on every hand were a multitude of stars. Even the moon was visible as the thinnest of crescents against the night of space.
The ship climbed steeply. It was meeting the Platform after only half a circuit of Earth, while the Platform had climbed upward for three full revolutions. Earth was now 3,000 miles below and appeared as the most gigantic of possible solid objects. It curved away and away to mistiness at its horizons, and it moved visibly as the spaceship floated on.
Invisible microwaves flung arrowlike through emptiness. They traveled for thousands of miles, spreading as they traveled, and then struck the strange shape of the Platform. They splashed from it. Some of them rebounded to Earth, where spies and agents of foreign powers tried desperately to make sense of the incredible syllables. They failed.
There was a relay system in operation now, from spaceship to Platform to Earth and back again. In the ship Chief Bender, Mohawk and steelman extraordinary, talked to the Shed and to one Charley Red Fox. They talked in Mohawk, which is an Algonquin Indian language, agglutinative, complicated, and not to be learned in ten easy lessons. It was not a language which eavesdroppers were likely to know as a matter of course. But it was a language by which computations could be asked for, so that a very forlorn hope might be attempted with the best possible chances of success.
Naturally, none of this appeared in the look of things. The small ship floated on and on. It reached an altitude of 3,500 miles. The Earth was visibly farther away. Behind the ship the Atlantic with its stately cloud-formations was sunlit to the very edge of its being. Ahead, the edge of night appeared beyond India. And above, the Platform appeared as a speck of molten light, quarter-illuminated by the sun above it.
Spaceship and Platform moved on toward a meeting place. The ship moved a trifle faster, because it was climbing. The speeds would match exactly when they met. The small torpedo-shaped shining ship and the bulging glowing metal satellite floated with a seeming vast deliberation in emptiness, while the most gigantic of possible round objects filled all the firmament beneath them. They were 200 miles apart. It seemed that the huge Platform overtook the shining ship. It did. They were only 50 miles apart and still closing in.
By that time the twilight band of Earth's surface was nearly at the center of the planet, and night filled more than a quarter of its disk.
By that time, too, even to the naked eye through the ports of the supply-ship the enemy rockets had become visible. They were a thin skein of threads of white vapor which seemed to unravel in nothingness. The vapor curled and expanded preposterously. It could just be seen to be jetting into existence from four separate points, two a little ahead of the others. They came out from Earth at a rate which seemed remarkably deliberate until one saw with what fury the rocket-fumes spat out to form the whitish threads. Then one could guess at a three-or even four-stage launching series, so that what appeared to be mere pinpoints would really be rockets carrying half-ton atomic warheads with an attained velocity of 10,000 miles per hour and more straight up.
The threads unraveled in a straight line aimed at the two metal things floating in emptiness. One was small and streamlined, with inadequate landing-rockets clamped to its body and with stubby fins that had no possible utility out of air. The other was large and clumsy to look at, but very, very stately indeed in its progress through the heavens. They floated smoothly toward a rendezvous. The rockets from Earth came ravening to destroy them at the instant of their intersection.
The little spaceship turned slowly. Its rounded bow had pointed longingly at the stars. Now it tilted downward. Its direction of movement did not change, of course. In the absence of air, it could tumble indefinitely without any ill effect. It was in a trajectory instead of on a course, though presently the trajectory would become an orbit. But it pointed nose-down toward the Earth even as it continued to hurtle onward.
The great steel hull and the small spaceship were 20 miles apart. An infinitesimal radar-bowl moved on the little ship. Tight-beam waves flickered invisibly between the two craft. The rockets raged toward them.
The ship and the Platform were 10 miles apart. The rockets were now glinting missiles leaping ahead of the fumes that propelled them.
The ship and the Platform were two miles apart. The rockets rushed upward.... There were minute corrections in their courses. They converged....
Flames leaped from the tiny ship. Its landing-rockets spouted white-hot flame and fumes more thick and coiling than even the smoke of the bombs. The little ship surged momentarily toward the racing monsters. And then——
The rockets which were supposed to let the ship down to Earth flew free—flung themselves unburdened at the rockets which came with deadly intent to the meeting of the two Earth spacecraft.
The landing-rockets plunged down at forty gravities or better. They were a dwindling group of infinitely bright sparks which seemed to group themselves more closely as they dwindled. They charged upon the attacking robot things. They were unguided, of necessity, but the robot bombs had to be equipped with proximity fuses. No remote control could be so accurate as to determine the best moment for detonation at 4,000 miles' distance. So the war rockets had to be devised to explode when near anything which reflected their probing radar waves. They had to be designed to be triggered by anything in space.
And the loosed landing-rockets plunged among them.
They did not detonate all at once. That was mathematically impossible. But no human eye could detect the delay. Four close-packed flares of pure atomic fire sprang into being between the Platform and Earth. Each was brighter than the sun. For the fraction of an instant there was no night where night had fallen on the Earth. For thousands of miles the Earth glowed brightly.
Then there was a twisting, coiling tumult of incandescent gases, which were snatched away by nothingness and ceased to be.
Then there were just two things remaining in the void. One was the great, clumsy, shining Platform, gigantic in size to anything close by. The other was the small spaceship which had climbed to it and fought for it and defended it against the bombs from Earth.
The little ship now had a slight motion away from the Platform, due to the instant's tugging by its rockets before they were released.
It turned about in emptiness. Its steering-rockets spouted smoke. It began to cancel out its velocity away from the Platform, and to swim slowly and very carefully toward it.
Making actual contact with the platform was not a matter for instruments and calculations. It had to be done directly—by hand, as it were. Joe watched out the ports and played the controls of the steering jets with a nerve-racked precision. His task was not easy.
Before he could return to the point of rendezvous, the blinding sunlight on the Platform took on a tinge of red. It was the twilight-zone of the satellite's orbit, when for a time the sunlight that reached it was light which had passed through Earth's atmosphere and been bent by it and colored crimson by the dust in Earth's air. It glowed a fiery red, and the color deepened, and then there was darkness.
They were in Earth's shadow. There were stars to be seen, but no sun. The Moon was hidden, too. And the Earth was a monstrous, incredible, abysmal blackness which at this first experience of its appearance produced an almost superstitious terror. Formerly it had seemed a distant but sunlit world, flecked with white clouds and with sprawling differentiations of color beneath them.
Now it did not look like a solid thing at all. It looked like a hole in creation. One could see ten thousand million stars of every imaginable tint and shade. But where the Earth should be there seemed a vast nothingness. It looked like an opening to annihilation. It looked like the veritable Pit of Darkness which is the greatest horror men have ever imagined, and since those in the ship were without weight it seemed that they were falling into it.
Joe knew better, of course. So did the others. But that was the look of things, and that was the feeling. One did not feel in danger of death, but of extinction—which, in cold fact, is very much worse.
Lights glowed on the outside of the Platform to guide the supply ship to it. There were red and green and blue and harsh blue-white electric bulbs. They were bright and distinct, but the feeling of loneliness above that awful appearance of the Pit was appalling. No small child alone at night had ever so desolate a sensation of isolation as the four in the small ship.
But Joe painstakingly played the buttons of the steering-rocket control board. The ship surged, and turned, and surged forward again. Mike, at the communicator, said, "They say slow up, Joe."
Joe obeyed, but he was tense. Haney and the Chief were at other portholes, looking out. The Chief said heavily, "Fellas, I'm going to admit I never felt so lonesome in my life!"
"I'm glad I've got you fellows with me!" Haney admitted guiltily.
"The job's almost over," said Joe.
The ship's own hull, outside the ports, glowed suddenly in a light-beam from the Platform. The small, brief surges of acceleration which sent the ship on produced tremendous emotional effects. When the Platform was only one mile away, Haney switched on the ship's searchlights. They stabbed through emptiness with absolutely no sign of their existence until they touched the steel hull of the satellite.
Mike said sharply: "Slow up some more, Joe."
He obeyed again. It would not be a good idea to ram the Platform after they had come so far to reach it.
They drifted slowly, slowly, slowly toward it. The monstrous Pit of Darkness which was the night side of Earth seemed almost about to engulf the Platform. They were a few hundred feet higher than the great metal globe, and the blackness was behind it. They were a quarter of a mile away. The distance diminished.
A thin straight line seemed to grow out toward them. There was a small, bulb-like object at its end. It reached out farther than was at all plausible. Nothing so slender should conceivably reach so far without bending of its own weight. But of course it had no weight here. It was a plastic flexible hose with air pressure in it. It groped for the spaceship.
The four in the ship held their breaths.
There was a loud, metallic clank!
Then it was possible to feel the ship being pulled toward the Platform by the magnetic grapple. It was a landing-line. It was the means by which the ship would be docked in the giant lock which had been built to receive it.
As they drew near, they saw the joints of the plating of the Platform. They saw rivets. There was the huge, 30-foot doorway with its valves swung wide. Their searchlight beam glared into it. They saw the metal floor, and the bulging plastic sidewalls, restrained by nets. They saw the inner lock-door. It seemed that men should be visible to welcome them. There were none.
The airlock swallowed them. They touched against something solid. There were more clankings. They seemed to crunch against the metal floor—magnetic flooring-grapples. Then, in solid contact with the substance of the Platform, they heard the sounds of the great outer doors swinging shut. They were within the artificial satellite of Earth. It was bright in the lock, and Joe stared out the cabin ports at the quilted sides. There was a hissing of air, and he saw a swirling mist, and then the bulges of the sidewall sagged. The air pressure gauge was spinning up toward normal sea-level air pressure.
Joe threw the ready lever of the steering rockets to Off. "We're landed."
There was silence. Joe looked about him. The other three looked queer. It would have seemed natural for them to rejoice on arriving at their destination. But somehow they didn't feel that they had.
Joe said wrily, "It seems that we ought to weigh something, now we've got here. So we feel queer that we don't. Shoes, Mike?"
Mike peeled off the magnetic-soled slippers from their place on the cabin wall. He handed them out and opened the door. A biting chill came in it. Joe slipped on the shoe-soles with their elastic bands to hold them. He stepped out the door.
He didn't land. He floated until he reached the sidewall. Then he pulled himself down by the netting. Once he touched the floor, his shoes seemed to be sticky. The net and the plastic sidewalls were, of course, the method by which a really large airlock was made practical. When this ship was about to take off again, pumps would not labor for hours to pump the air out. The sidewalls would inflate and closely enclose the ship's hull, and so force the air in the lock back into the ship. Then the pumps would work on the air behind the inflated walls—with nets to help them draw the wall-stuff back to let the ship go free. The lock could be used with only fifteen minutes for pumping instead of four hours.
The door in the back of the lock clanked open. Joe tried to walk toward it. He discovered his astounding clumsiness. To walk in magnetic-soled shoes in weightlessness requires a knack. When Joe lifted one foot and tried to swing the other forward, his body tried to pivot. When he lifted his right foot, he had to turn his left slightly inward. His arms tried to float absurdly upward. When he was in motion and essayed to pause, his whole body tended to continue forward with a sedate toppling motion that brought him down flat on his face. He had to put one foot forward to check himself. He seemed to have no sense of balance. When he stood still—his stomach queasy because of weightlessness—he found himself tilting undignifiedly forward or back—or, with equal unpredictability, sidewise. He would have to learn an entirely new method of walking.
A man came in the lock, and Joe knew who it was. Sanford, the senior scientist of the Platform's crew. Joe had seen him often enough on the television screen in the Communications Room at the Shed. Now Sanford looked nerve-racked, but his eyes were bright and his expression sardonic.
"My compliments," he said, his voice tight with irony, "for a splendidly futile job well done! You've got your cargo invoice?"
Joe nodded. Sanford held out his hand. Joe fumbled in his pocket and brought out the yellow sheet.
"I'd like to introduce my crew," said Joe. "This is Haney, and Chief Bender, and Mike Scandia." He waved his hand, and his whole body wobbled unexpectedly.
"We'll know each other!" said Sanford sardonically. "Our first job is more futility—to get the guided missiles you've brought us into the launching tubes. A lot of good they'll do!"
A huge plate in the roof of the lock—but it was not up or down or in any particular direction—withdrew itself. A man floated through the opening and landed on the ship's hull; another man followed him.
"Chief," said Joe, "and Haney. Will you open the cargo doors?"
The two swaying figures moved to obey, though with erratic clumsiness. Sanford called sharply: "Don't touch the hull without gloves! If it isn't nearly red-hot from the sunlight, it'll be below zero from shadow!"
Joe realized, then, the temperature effects the skin on his face noticed. A part of the spaceship's hull gave off heat like that of a panel heating installation. Another part imparted a chill.
Sanford said unpleasantly, "You want to report your heroism, eh? Come along!"
He clanked to the doorway by which he had entered. Joe followed, and Mike after him.
They went out of the lock. Sanford suddenly peeled off his metal-soled slippers, put them in his pocket, and dived casually into a four-foot metal tube. He drifted smoothly away along the lighted bore, not touching the sidewalls. He moved in the manner of a dream, when one floats with infinite ease and precision in any direction one chooses.
Joe and Mike did not share his talent. Joe launched himself after Sanford, and for perhaps 20 or 30 feet the lighted aluminum sidewall of the tube sped past him. Then his shoulder rubbed, and he found himself skidding to an undignified stop, choking the bore. Mike thudded into him.
"I haven't got the hang of this yet," said Joe apologetically.
He untangled himself and went on. Mike followed him, his expression that of pure bliss. He was a tiny man, was Mike, but he had the longings and the ambitions of half a dozen ordinary-sized men in his small body. And he had known frustration. He could prove by mathematics that space exploration could be carried on by midgets at a fraction of the cost and risk of the same job done by normal-sized men. He was, of course, quite right. The cabins and air and food supplies for a spaceship's crew of midgets would cost and weigh a fraction of similar equipment for six-footers. But people simply weren't interested in sending midgets out into space.
But Mike had gotten here. He was in the Space Platform. There were full-sized men who would joyfully have changed places with him, forty-one inch height and all. So Mike was blissful.
The tube ended and Joe bounced off the wall that faced its end. Sanford was waiting. He grinned with more than a hint of spite.
"Here's our communications room," he said. "Now you can talk down to Earth. It'll be relayed, now, but in half an hour you can reach the Shed direct."
He floated inside. Joe followed cautiously. There was another crew member on duty there. He sat before a group of radar screens, with thigh grips across his legs to hold him in his chair. He turned his head and nodded cheerfully enough.
"Here!" snapped Sanford.
Joe clambered awkwardly to the seat the senior crew member pointed out. He made his way to it by handholds on the walls. He fumbled into the chair and threw over the curved thigh grips that would hold him in place.
Suddenly he was oriented. He had seen this room before—before the Platform was launched. True, the man at the radar screens was upside-down with reference to himself, and Sanford had hooked a knee negligently around the arm of a firmly anchored chair with his body at right angles to Joe's own, but at least Joe knew where he was and what he was to do.
"Go ahead and report," said Sanford sardonically. "You might tell them that you heroically destroyed the rockets that attacked us, and that your crew behaved splendidly, and that you have landed in the Space Platform and the situation is well in hand. It isn't, but it will make nice headlines."
Joe said evenly, "Our arrival's been reported?"
"No," said Sanford, grinning. "Obviously the radar down on Earth—shipboard ones on this hemisphere, of course—have reported that the Platform still exists. But we haven't communicated since the bombs went off. They probably think we had so many punctures that we lost all our air and are all wiped out. They'll be glad to hear from you that we aren't."
Joe threw a switch, frowning. This wasn't right. Sanford was the senior scientist on board and hence in command, because he was best-qualified to direct the scientific observations the Platform was making. But there was something specifically wrong.
The communicator hummed. A faint voice sounded. It swelled to loudness. "Calling Space Platform! Calling Space Platform! CALLING SPACE PLATFORM!" Joe turned down the volume. He said into the microphone:
"Space Platform calling Earth. Joe Kenmore reporting. We have made contact with the Platform and completed our landing. Our cargo is now being unloaded. Our landing rockets had to be expended against presumably hostile bombs, and we are now unable to return to Earth. The ship and the Platform, however, are unharmed. I am now waiting for orders. Report ends."
He turned away from the microphone. Sanford said sharply, "Go on! Tell them what a hero you are!"
"I'm going to help unload my ship," Joe said shortly. "You report what you please."
"Get back at that transmitter!" shouted Sanford furiously. "Tell 'em you're a hero! Tell 'em you're wonderful! I'll tell 'em how useless it is!"
Joe saw the other man in the room, the man at the radar screens, shake his head. He got up and fumbled his way along the wall to the door. Sanford shouted after him angrily.
Joe went out, found the four-foot tunnel, and floated not down but along it back to the unloading lock. Wordlessly, he set to work to get the cargo out of the cargo hold of the spaceship.
Handling objects in weightlessness which on Earth would be heavy was an art in itself. Two men could move tons. It needed only one man to start a massive crate in motion. However, one had either to lift or push an object in the exact line it was to follow. To thrust hard for a short time produced exactly the same effect as to push gently for a longer period. Anything floated tranquilly in the line along which it was moved. The man who had to stop it, though, needed to use exactly as much energy as the man who sent it floating. He needed to check the floating thing in exactly the same line. If one tried to stop a massive shipment from one side, he would topple into it and he and the crate together would go floundering helplessly over each other.
The Chief had gone off to help maneuver two-ton guided missiles into launching tubes. One crew member remained with Haney, unloading things that would have had to be handled with cranes on Earth. Joe found himself needed most in the storage chamber. A crate floated from the ship to the crewman. Standing head downward, he stopped its original movement, braced himself, and sent it floating to Joe. He braced himself, stopped its flight, and very slowly—to move fast with anything heavy in his hands would pull his feet from the floor—set it on a stack of similar objects which would presently be fastened in place.
Everything had to be done in slow motion, or one would lose his footing. Joe worked painstakingly. He gradually began to understand the process. But the muscles of his stomach ached because of their continuous, instinctive cramp due to the sensation of unending fall.
Mike floated through the hatchway from the lock. He twisted about as he floated, and his magnetized soles clanked to a deft contact with the wall. He said calmly: "That guy Sanford has cracked up. He's potty. If this were jail he'd be stir-crazy. He's yelling into the communicator now that we'll all be dead in a matter of days, and the rocket missiles we brought up won't help. He's nasty about it, too!"
Haney called from the cargo space of the ship in the lock: "All empty here! We're unloaded."
There were sounds as he closed the cargo doors. Haney, followed by the Chief, came into view, floating as Mike had done. But he didn't land as skillfully. He touched the wall on his hands and knees and bounced away and tried helplessly to swim to a hand-hold. It would have been funny except that Joe was in no mood for humor.
Mike whipped off his belt and flipped the end of it to Haney. He caught it and was drawn gently to the wall. Haney's shoes clicked to a hold. The Chief landed more expertly.
"We need wings here," he said ruefully. "You reported, Joe?"
Joe nodded. He turned to Brent, the crew member who'd been unloading. He knew him too, from their two-way video conversations.
"Sanford does act oddly," he said uncomfortably. "When he met me in the lock he said our coming was useless. He talked about the futility of everything while I reported. He sounds like he sneers at every possible action as useless."
"Most likely it is," Brent said mildly. "Here, anyhow. It does look as if we're going to be knocked off. But Sanford's taking it badly. The rest of us have let him act as he pleased because it didn't seem to matter. It probably doesn't, except that he's annoying."
Mike said truculently, "We won't be knocked off! We've got rockets of our own up here now! We can fight back if there's another attack!"
Brent shrugged. His face was young enough, but deeply lined. He said as mildly as before: "Your landing rockets set off four bombs on the way from Earth. You brought us six more rocket missiles. How many bombs can we knock down with them?"
Joe blinked. It was a shock to realize the facts of life in an artificial satellite. If it could be reached by bombs from Earth, the bombs could be reached by guided missiles from the satellite. But it would take one guided missile to knock down one bomb—with luck.
"I see," said Joe slowly. "We can handle just six more bombs from Earth."
"Six in the next month," agreed Brent wrily. "It'll be that long before we get more. Somebody sent up four bombs today. Suppose they send eight next time? Or simply one a day for a week?"
Mike made an angry noise. "The seventh bomb shot at us knocks us out! We're sitting ducks here too!"
Brent nodded. He said mildly:
"Yes. The Platform can't be defended against an indefinite number of bombs from Earth. Of course the United States could go to war because we've been shot at. But would that do us any good? We'd be shot down in the war."
Joe said distastefully, "And Sanford's cracked up because he knows he's going to be killed?"
Brent said earnestly. "Oh, no! He's a good scientist! But he's always had a brilliant mind. Poor devil, he's never failed at anything in all his life until now! Now he has failed. He's going to be killed, and he can't think of any way to stop it. His brains are the only things he's ever believed in, and now they're no good. He can't accept the idea that he's stupid, so he has to believe that everything else is. It's a necessity for him. Haven't you known people who had to think everybody else was stupid to keep from knowing that they were themselves?"
Joe nodded. He waited.
"Sanford," said Brent earnestly, "simply can't adjust to the discovery that he's no better than anybody else. That's all. He was a nice guy, but he's not used to frustration and he can't take it. Therefore he scorns everything that frustrates him—and everything else, by necessity. He'll be scornful about getting killed when it happens. But waiting for it is becoming intolerable to him."
He looked at his watch. He said apologetically, "I'm the crew psychologist. That's why I speak so firmly. In five minutes we're due to come out of the Earth's shadow into sunshine again. I'd suggest that you come to watch. It's good to look at."
He did not wait for an answer. He led the way. And the others followed in a strange procession. Somehow, automatically, they fell into single file, and they moved on their magnetic-soled slippers toward a passage tube in one wall. Their slipper soles clanked and clicked in an erratic rhythm. Brent walked with the mincing steps necessary for movement in weightlessness. The others imitated him. Their hands no longer hung naturally by their sides, but tended to make extravagant gestures with the slightest muscular impulse. They swayed extraordinarily as they walked. Brent was a slender figure, and Joe was more thick-set, and Haney was taller, and lean. The burly Chief and the forty-one inch figure of Mike the midget followed after them. They made a queer procession indeed.
Minutes later they were in a blister on the skin of the Platform. There were quartz glass ports in the sidewall. Outside the glass were metal shutters. Brent served out dense goggles, almost black, and touched the buttons that opened the steel port coverings.
They looked into space. The dimmer stars were extinguished by the goggles they wore. The brighter ones seemed faint and widely spaced. Beneath their feet as they held to handrails lay the featureless darkness of Earth. But before them and very far away there was a vast, dim arch of deepest red.
It was sunlight filtered through the thickest layers of Earth's air. It barely outlined the curve of that gigantic globe. As they stared, it grew brighter. The artificial satellite required little more than four hours for one revolution about its primary, the Earth. To those aboard it, the Earth would go through all its phases in no longer a time. They saw now the thinnest possible crescent of the new Earth. But in minutes—almost in seconds—the deep red sunshine brightened to gold. The hair-thin line of light widened to a narrow ribbon which described an eight-thousand-mile half-circle. It brightened markedly at the middle. It remained red at its ends, but in the very center it glowed with splendid flame. Then a golden ball appeared, and swam up and detached itself from the Earth, and the on-lookers saw the breath-taking spectacle of all of Earth's surface seemingly being born of the night.
As if new-created before their eyes, seas and lands unfolded in the sunlight. They watched flecks of cloud and the long shadows of mountains, and the strangely different colorings of its fields and forests.
As Brent had told them, it was good to watch.
It was half an hour later when they gathered in the kitchen of the Platform. The man who had been loading launching tubes now briskly worked to prepare a meal on the extremely unusual cooking-devices of a human outpost in interplanetary space.
The food smelled good. But Joe noticed that he could smell growing things. Green stuff. It was absurd—until he remembered that there was a hydroponic garden here. Plants grew in it under sunlamps which were turned on for a certain number of hours every day. The plants purified the Platform's air, and of course provided some fresh and nourishing food for the crew.
They ate. The food was served in plastic bowls, with elastic thread covers through which they could see and choose the particular morsels they fancied next. The threads stretched to let through the forks they ate with. But Brent used a rather more practical pair of tongs in a businesslike manner.
They drank coffee from cups which looked very much like ordinary cups on Earth. Joe remembered suddenly that Sally Holt had had much to do with the design of domestic science arrangements here. He regarded his cup with interest. It stayed in its saucer because of magnets in both plastic articles. The saucer stayed on the table because the table was magnetic, too. And the coffee did not float out to mid-air in a hot, round brownish ball, because there was a transparent cover over the cup. When one put his lips to the proper edge, a part of the cover yielded as the cup was squeezed. The far side of the cup was flexible. One pressed, and the coffee came into one's lips without the spilling of a drop.