Operation Outer Space - Murray Leinster - ebook

Jed Cochrane tried to be cynical as the helicab hummed softly through the night over the city. The cab flew at two thousand feet, where lighted buildings seemed to soar toward it from the canyons which were streets. There were lights and people everywhere, and Cochrane sardonically reminded himself that he was no better than anybody else, only he'd been trying to keep from realizing it. He looked down at the trees and shrubbery on the roof-tops, and at a dance that was going on atop one of the tallest buildings. All roofs were recreation-spaces nowadays. They were the only spaces available. When you looked down at a city like this, you had cynical thoughts. Fourteen million people in this city. Ten million in that. Eight in another and ten in another still, and twelve million in yet another ... Big cities. Swarming millions of people, all desperately anxious—so Cochrane realized bitterly—all desperately anxious about their jobs and keeping them...

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Jed Cochrane tried to be cynical as the helicab hummed softly through the night over the city. The cab flew at two thousand feet, where lighted buildings seemed to soar toward it from the canyons which were streets. There were lights and people everywhere, and Cochrane sardonically reminded himself that he was no better than anybody else, only he'd been trying to keep from realizing it. He looked down at the trees and shrubbery on the roof-tops, and at a dance that was going on atop one of the tallest buildings. All roofs were recreation-spaces nowadays. They were the only spaces available. When you looked down at a city like this, you had cynical thoughts. Fourteen million people in this city. Ten million in that. Eight in another and ten in another still, and twelve million in yet another ... Big cities. Swarming millions of people, all desperately anxious—so Cochrane realized bitterly—all desperately anxious about their jobs and keeping them.

"Even as me and I," said Cochrane harshly to himself. "Sure! I'm shaking in my shoes right along with the rest of them!"

But it hurt to realize that he'd been kidding himself. He'd thought he was important. Important, at least, to the advertising firm of Kursten, Kasten, Hopkins and Fallowe. But right now he was on the way—like a common legman—to take the moon-rocket to Lunar City, and he'd been informed of it just thirty minutes ago. Then he'd been told casually to get to the rocket-port right away. His secretary and two technical men and a writer were taking the same rocket. He'd get his instructions from Dr. William Holden on the way.

A part of his mind said indignantly, "Wait till I get Hopkins on the phone! It was a mixup! He wouldn't send me off anywhere with the Dikkipatti Hour depending on me! He's not that crazy!" But he was on his way to the space-port, regardless. He'd raged when the message reached him. He'd insisted that he had to talk to Hopkins in person before he obeyed any such instructions. But he was on his way to the space-port. He was riding in a helicab, and he was making adjustments in his own mind to the humiliation he unconsciously foresaw. There were really three levels of thought in his mind. One had adopted a defensive cynicism, and one desperately insisted that he couldn't be as unimportant as his instructions implied, and the third watched the other two as the helicab flew with cushioned booming noises over the dark canyons of the city and the innumerable lonely lights of the rooftops.

There was a thin roaring sound, high aloft. Cochrane jerked his head back. The stars filled all the firmament, but he knew what to look for. He stared upward.

One of the stars grew brighter. He didn't know when he first picked it out, but he knew when he'd found it. He fixed his eyes on it. It was a very white star, and for a space of minutes it seemed in no wise different from its fellows. But it grew brighter. Presently it was very bright. It was brighter than Sirius. In seconds more it was brighter than Venus. It increased more and more rapidly in its brilliance. It became the brightest object in all the heavens except the crescent moon, and the cold intensity of its light was greater than any part of that. Then Cochrane could see that this star was not quite round. He could detect the quarter-mile-long flame of the rocket-blast.

It came down with a rush. He saw the vertical, stabbing pencil of light plunge earthward. It slowed remarkably as it plunged, with all the flying aircraft above the city harshly lighted by its glare. The space-port itself showed clearly. Cochrane saw the buildings, and the other moon-rockets waiting to take off in half an hour or less.

The white flame hit the ground and splashed. It spread out in a wide flat disk of intolerable brightness. The sleek hull of the ship which still rode the flame down glinted vividly as it settled into the inferno of its own making.

Then the light went out. The glare cut off abruptly. There was only a dim redness where the space-port tarmac had been made incandescent for a little while. That glow faded—and Cochrane became aware of the enormous stillness. He had not really noticed the rocket's deafening roar until it ended.

The helicab flew onward almost silently, with only the throbbing pulses of its overhead vanes making any sound at all.

"I kidded myself about those rockets, too," said Cochrane bitterly to himself. "I thought getting to the moon meant starting to the stars. New worlds to live on. I had a lot more fun before I found out the facts of life!"

But he knew that this cynicism and this bitterness came out of the hurt to the vanity that still insisted everything was a mistake. He'd received orders which disillusioned him about his importance to the firm and to the business to which he'd given years of his life. It hurt to find out that he was just another man, just another expendable. Most people fought against making the discovery, and some succeeded in avoiding it. But Cochrane saw his own self-deceptions with a savage clarity even as he tried to keep them. He did not admire himself at all.

The helicab began to slant down toward the space-port buildings. The sky was full of stars. The earth—of course—was covered with buildings. Except for the space-port there was no unoccupied ground for thirty miles in any direction. The cab was down to a thousand feet. To five hundred. Cochrane saw the just-arrived rocket with tender-vehicles running busily to and fro and hovering around it. He saw the rocket he should take, standing upright on the faintly lighted field.

The cab touched ground. Cochrane stood up and paid the fare. He got out and the cab rose four or five feet and flitted over to the waiting-line.

He went into the space-port building. He felt himself growing more bitter still. Then he found Bill Holden—Doctor William Holden—standing dejectedly against a wall.

"I believe you've got some orders for me, Bill," said Cochrane sardonically. "And just what psychiatric help can I give you?"

Holden said tiredly:

"I don't like this any better than you do, Jed. I'm scared to death of space-travel. But go get your ticket and I'll tell you about it on the way up. It's a special production job. I'm roped in on it too."

"Happy holiday!" said Cochrane, because Holden looked about as miserable as a man could look.

He went to the ticket desk. He gave his name. On request, he produced identification. Then he said sourly:

"While you're working on this I'll make a phone-call."

He went to a pay visiphone. And again there were different levels of awareness in his mind—one consciously and defensively cynical, and one frightened at the revelation of his unimportance, and the third finding the others an unedifying spectacle.

He put the call through with an over-elaborate confidence which he angrily recognized as an attempt to deceive himself. He got the office. He said calmly:

"This is Jed Cochrane. I asked for a visiphone contact with Mr. Hopkins."

He had a secretary on the phone-screen. She looked at memos and said pleasantly:

"Oh, yes. Mr. Hopkins is at dinner. He said he couldn't be disturbed, but for you to go on to the moon according to your instructions, Mr. Cochrane."

Cochrane hung up and raged, with one part of his mind. Another part—and he despised it—began to argue that after all, he had better wait before thinking there was any intent to humiliate him. After all, his orders must have been issued with due consideration. The third part disliked the other two parts intensely—one for raging without daring to speak, and one for trying to find alibis for not even raging. He went back to the ticket-desk. The clerk said heartily:

"Here you are! The rest of your party's already on board, Mr. Cochrane. You'd better hurry! Take-off's in five minutes."

Holden joined him. They went through the gate and got into the tender-vehicle that would rush them out to the rocket. Holden said heavily:

"I was waiting for you and hoping you wouldn't come. I'm not a good traveller, Jed."

The small vehicle rushed. To a city man, the dark expanse of the space-port was astounding. Then a spidery metal framework swallowed the tender-truck, and them. The vehicle stopped. An elevator accepted them and lifted an indefinite distance through the night, toward the stars. A sort of gangplank with a canvas siderail reached out across emptiness. Cochrane crossed it, and found himself at the bottom of a spiral ramp inside the rocket's passenger-compartment. A stewardess looked at the tickets. She led the way up, and stopped.

"This is your seat, Mr. Cochrane," she said professionally. "I'll strap you in this first time. You'll do it later."

Cochrane lay down in a contour-chair with an eight-inch mattress of foam rubber. The stewardess adjusted straps. He thought bitter, ironic thoughts. A voice said:

"Mr. Cochrane!"

He turned his head. There was Babs Deane, his secretary, with her eyes very bright. She regarded him from a contour-chair exactly opposite his. She said happily:

"Mr. West and Mr. Jamison are the science men, Mr. Cochrane. I got Mr. Bell as the writer."

"A great triumph!" Cochrane told her. "Did you get any idea what all this is about? Why we're going up?"

"No," admitted Babs cheerfully. "I haven't the least idea. But I'm going to the moon! It's the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me!"

Cochrane shrugged his shoulders. Shrugging was not comfortable in the straps that held him. Babs was a good secretary. She was the only one Cochrane had ever had who did not try to make use of her position as secretary to the producer of the Dikkipatti Hour on television. Other secretaries had used their nearness to him to wangle acting or dancing or singing assignments on other and lesser shows. As a rule they lasted just four public appearances before they were back at desks, spoiled for further secretarial use by their taste of fame. But Babs hadn't tried that. Yet she'd jumped at a chance for a trip to the moon.

A panel up toward the nose of the rocket—the upper end of this passenger compartment—glowed suddenly. Flaming red letters said, "Take-off, ninety seconds."

Cochrane found an ironic flavor in the thought that splendid daring and incredible technology had made his coming journey possible. Heroes had ventured magnificently into the emptiness beyond Earth's atmosphere. Uncountable millions of dollars had been spent. Enormous intelligence and infinite pains had been devoted to making possible a journey of two hundred thirty-six thousand miles through sheer nothingness. This was the most splendid achievement of human science—the reaching of a satellite of Earth and the building of a human city there.

And for what? Undoubtedly so that one Jed Cochrane could be ordered by telephone, by somebody's secretary, to go and get on a passenger-rocket and get to the moon. Go—having failed to make a protest because his boss wouldn't interrupt dinner to listen—so he could keep his job by obeying. For this splendid purpose, scientists had labored and dedicated men had risked their lives.

Of course, Cochrane reminded himself with conscious justice, of course there was the very great value of moon-mail cachets to devotees of philately. There was the value of the tourist facilities to anybody who could spend that much money for something to brag about afterward. There were the solar-heat mines—running at a slight loss—and various other fine achievements. There was even a nightclub in Lunar City where one highball cost the equivalent of—say—a week's pay for a secretary like Babs. And—

The panel changed its red glowing sign. It said: "Take-off forty-five seconds."

Somewhere down below a door closed with a cushioned soft definiteness. The inside of the rocket suddenly seemed extraordinarily still. The silence was oppressive. It was dead. Then there came the whirring of very many electric fans, stirring up the air.

The stewardess' voice came matter-of-factly from below him in the upended cylinder which was the passenger-space.

"We take off in forty-five seconds. You will find yourself feeling very heavy. There is no cause to be alarmed. If you observe that breathing is oppressive, the oxygen content of the air in this ship is well above earth-level, and you will not need to breathe so deeply. Simply relax in your chair. Everything has been thought of. Everything has been tested repeatedly. You need not disturb yourself at all. Simply relax."

Silence. Two heart-beats. Three.

There was a roar. It was a deep, booming, numbing roar that came from somewhere outside the rocket's hull. Simultaneously, something thrust Cochrane deep into the foam-cushions of his contour-chair. He felt the cushion piling up on all sides of his body so that it literally surrounded him. It resisted the tendency of his arms and legs and abdomen to flatten out and flow sidewise, to spread him in a thin layer over the chair in which he rested.

He felt his cheeks dragged back. He was unduly conscious of the weight of objects in his pockets. His stomach pressed hard against his backbone. His sensations were those of someone being struck a hard, prolonged blow all over his body.

It was so startling a sensation, though he'd read about it, that he simply stayed still and blankly submitted to it. Presently he felt himself gasp. Presently, again, he noticed that one of his feet was going to sleep. He tried to move it and succeeded only in stirring it feebly. The roaring went on and on and on....

The red letters in the panel said: "First stage ends in five seconds."

By the time he'd read it, the rocket hiccoughed and stopped. Then he felt a surge of panic. He was falling! He had no weight! It was the sensation of a suddenly dropping elevator a hundred times multiplied. He bounced out of the depression in the foam-cushion. He was prevented from floating away only by the straps that held him.

There was a sputter and a series of jerks. Then he had weight again as roarings began once more. This was not the ghastly continued impact of the take-off, but still it was weight—considerably greater weight than the normal weight of Earth. Cochrane wiggled the foot that had gone to sleep. Pins and needles lessened their annoyance as sensation returned to it. He was able to move his arms and hands. They felt abnormally heavy, and he experienced an extreme and intolerable weariness. He wanted to go to sleep.

This was the second-stage rocket-phase. The moon-rocket had blasted off at six gravities acceleration until clear of atmosphere and a little more. Acceleration-chairs of remarkably effective design, plus the pre-saturation of one's blood with oxygen, made so high an acceleration safe and not unendurable for the necessary length of time it lasted. Now, at three gravities, one did not feel on the receiving end of a violent thrust, but one did feel utterly worn out and spent. Most people stayed awake through the six-gravity stage and went heavily to sleep under three gravities.

Cochrane fought the sensation of fatigue. He had not liked himself for accepting the orders that had brought him here. They had been issued in bland confidence that he had no personal affairs which could not be abandoned to obey cryptic orders from the secretary of a boss he had actually never seen. He felt a sort of self-contempt which it would have been restful to forget in three-gravity sleep. But he grimaced and held himself awake to contemplate the unpretty spectacle of himself and his actions.

The red light said: "Second stage ends ten seconds."

And in ten seconds the rockets hiccoughed once more and were silent, and there was that sickening feeling of free fall, but he grimly made himself think of it as soaring upward instead of dropping—which was the fact, too—and waited until the third-stage rockets boomed suddenly and went on and on and on.

This was nearly normal acceleration; the effect of this acceleration was the feel of nearly normal weight. He felt about as one would feel in Earth in a contour-chair tilted back so that one faced the ceiling. He knew approximately where the ship would be by this time, and it ought to have been a thrill. Cochrane was hundreds of miles above Earth and headed eastward out and up. If a port were open at this height, his glance should span continents.

No.... The ship had taken off at night. It would still be in Earth's shadow. There would be nothing at all to be seen below, unless one or two small patches of misty light which would be Earth's too-many great cities. But overhead there would be stars by myriads and myriads, of every possible color and degree of brightness. They would crowd each other for room in which to shine. The rocket-ship was spiralling out and out and up and up, to keep its rendezvous with the space platform.

The platform, of course, was that artificial satellite of Earth which was four thousand miles out and went around the planet in a little over four hours, traveling from west to east. It had been made because to break the bonds of Earth's gravity was terribly costly in fuel—when a ship had to accelerate slowly to avoid harm to human cargo. The space platform was a filling station in emptiness, at which the moon-rocket would refuel for its next and longer and much less difficult journey of two hundred thirty-odd thousand miles.

The stewardess came up the ramp, moving briskly. She stopped and glanced at each passenger in each chair in turn. When Cochrane turned his open eyes upon her, she said soothingly:

"There's no need to be disturbed. Everything is going perfectly."

"I'm not disturbed," said Cochrane. "I'm not even nervous. I'm perfectly all right."

"But you should be drowsy!" she observed, concerned. "Most people are. If you nap you'll feel better for it."

She felt his pulse in a businesslike manner. It was normal.

"Take my nap for me," said Cochrane, "or put it back in stock. I don't want it. I'm perfectly all right."

She considered him carefully. She was remarkably pretty. But her manner was strictly detached. She said:

"There's a button. You can reach it if you need anything. You may call me by pushing it."

He shrugged. He lay still as she went on to inspect the other passengers. There was nothing to do and nothing to see. Travellers were treated pretty much like parcels, these days. Travel, like television entertainment and most of the other facilities of human life, was designed for the seventy-to-ninety-per-cent of the human race whose likes and dislikes and predilections could be learned exactly by surveys. Anybody who didn't like what everybody liked, or didn't react like everybody reacted, was subject to annoyances. Cochrane resigned himself to them.

The red light-letters changed again, considerably later. This time they said: "Free flight, thirty seconds."

They did not say "free fall," which was the technical term for a rocket coasting upward or downward in space. But Cochrane braced himself, and his stomach-muscles were tense when the rockets stopped again and stayed off. The sensation of continuous fall began. An electronic speaker beside his chair began to speak. There were other such mechanisms beside each other passenger-chair, and the interior of the rocket filled with a soft murmur which was sardonically like choral recitation.

"The sensation of weightlessness you now experience," said the voice soothingly, "is natural at this stage of your flight. The ship has attained its maximum intended speed and is still rising to meet the space platform. You may consider that we have left atmosphere and its limitations behind. Now we have spread sails of inertia and glide on a wind of pure momentum toward our destination. The feeling of weightlessness is perfectly normal. You will be greatly interested in the space platform. We will reach it in something over two hours of free flight. It is an artificial satellite, with an air-lock our ship will enter for refueling. You will be able to leave the ship and move about inside the Platform, to lunch if you choose, to buy souvenirs and mail them back and to view Earth from a height of four thousand miles through quartz-glass windows. Then, as now, you will feel no sensation of weight. You will be taken on a tour of the space platform if you wish. There are rest-rooms—."

Cochrane grimly endured the rest of the taped lecture. He thought sourly to himself: "I'm a captive audience without even an interest in the production tricks."

Presently he saw Bill Holden's head. The psychiatrist had squirmed inside the straps that held him, and now was staring about within the rocket. His complexion was greenish.

"I understand you're to brief me," Cochrane told him, "on the way up. Do you want to tell me now what all this is about? I'd like a nice dramatic narrative, with gestures."

Holden said sickly:

"Go to hell, won't you?"

His head disappeared. Space-nausea was, of course, as definite an ailment as seasickness. It came from no weight. But Cochrane seemed to be immune. He turned his mind to the possible purposes of his journey. He knew nothing at all. His own personal share in the activities of Kursten, Kasten, Hopkins and Fallowe—the biggest advertising agency in the world—was the production of the Dikkipatti Hour, top-talent television show, regularly every Wednesday night between eight-thirty and nine-thirty o'clock central U. S. time. It was a good show. It was among the ten most popular shows on three continents. It was not reasonable that he be ordered to drop it and take orders from a psychiatrist, even one he'd known unprofessionally for years. But there was not much, these days, that really made sense.

In a world where cities with populations of less than five millions were considered small towns, values were peculiar. One of the deplorable results of living in a world over-supplied with inhabitants was that there were too many people and not enough jobs. When one had a good job, and somebody higher up than oneself gave an order, it was obeyed. There was always somebody else or several somebodies waiting for every job there was—hoping for it, maybe praying for it. And if a good job was lost, one had to start all over.

This task might be anything. It was not, however, connected in any way with the weekly production of the Dikkipatti Hour. And if that production were scamped this week because Cochrane was away, he would be the one to take the loss in reputation. The fact that he was on the moon wouldn't count. It would be assumed that he was slipping. And a slip was not good. It was definitely not good!

"I could do a documentary right now," Cochrane told himself angrily, "titled 'Man-afraid-of-his-job.' I could make a very authentic production. I've got the material!"

He felt weight for a moment. It was accompanied by booming noises. The sounds were not in the air outside, because there was no air. They were reverberations of the rocket-motors themselves, transmitted to the fabric of the ship. The ship's steering-rockets were correcting the course of the vessel and—yes, there was another surge of power—nudging it to a more correct line of flight to meet the space platform coming up from behind. The platform went around the world six times a day, four thousand miles out. During three of its revolutions anybody on the ground, anywhere, could spot it in daylight as an infinitesimal star, bright enough to be seen against the sky's blueness, rising in the west and floating eastward to set at the place of sunrise.

There was again weightlessness. A rocket-ship doesn't burn its rocket-engines all the time. It runs them to get started, and it runs them to stop, but it does not run them to travel. This ship was floating above the Earth, which might be a vast sunlit ball filling half the universe below the rocket, or might be a blackness as of the Pit. Cochrane had lost track of time, but not of the shattering effect of being snatched from the job he knew and thought important, to travel incredibly to do something he had no idea of. He felt, in his mind, like somebody who climbs stairs in the dark and tries to take a step that isn't there. It was a shock to find that his work wasn't important even in the eyes of Kursten, Kasten, Hopkins and Fallowe. That he didn't count. That nothing counted ...

There was another dull booming outside and another touch of weight. Then the rocket floated on endlessly.

A long time later, something touched the ship's outer hull. It was a definite, positive clanking sound. And then there was the gentlest and vaguest of tuggings, and Cochrane could feel the ship being maneuvered. He knew it had made contact with the space platform and was being drawn inside its lock.

There was still no weight. The stewardess began to unstrap the passengers one by one, supplying each with magnetic-soled slippers. Cochrane heard her giving instructions in their use. He knew the air-lock was being filled with air from the huge, globular platform. In time the door at the back—bottom—base of the passenger-compartment opened. Somebody said flatly:

"Space platform! The ship will be in this air-lock for some three hours plus for refueling. Warning will be given before departure. Passengers have the freedom of the platform and will be given every possible privilege."

The magnetic-soled slippers did hold one's feet to the spiral ramp, but one had to hold on to a hand-rail to make progress. On the way down to the exit door, Cochrane encountered Babs. She said breathlessly:

"I can't believe I'm really here!"

"I can believe it," said Cochrane, "without even liking it particularly. Babs, who told you to come on this trip? Where'd all the orders come from?"

"Mr. Hopkins' secretary," said Babs happily. "She didn't tell me to come. I managed that! She said for me to name two science men and two writers who could work with you. I told her one writer was more than enough for any production job, but you'd need me. I assumed it was a production job. So she changed the orders and here I am!"

"Fine!" said Cochrane. His sense of the ironic deepened. He'd thought he was an executive and reasonably important. But somebody higher up than he was had disposed of him with absent-minded finality, and that man's secretary and his own had determined all the details, and he didn't count at all. He was a pawn in the hands of firm-partners and assorted secretaries. "Let me know what my job's to be and how to do it, Babs."

Babs nodded. She didn't catch the sarcasm. But she couldn't think very straight, just now. She was on the space platform, which was the second most glamorous spot in the universe. The most glamorous spot, of course, was the moon.

Cochrane hobbled ashore into the platform, having no weight whatever. He was able to move only by the curious sticky adhesion of his magnetic-soled slippers to the steel floor-plates beneath him. Or—were they beneath? There was a crew member walking upside down on a floor which ought to be a ceiling directly over Cochrane's head. He opened a door in a side-wall and went in, still upside down. Cochrane felt a sudden dizziness, at that.

But he went on, using hand-grips. Then he saw Dr. William Holden looking greenish and ill and trying sickishly to answer questions from West and Jamison and Bell, who had been plucked from their private lives just as Cochrane had and were now clamorously demanding of Bill Holden that he explain what had happened to them.

Cochrane snapped angrily:

"Leave the man alone! He's space-sick! If you get him too much upset this place will be a mess!"

Holden closed his eyes and said gratefully:

"Shoo them away, Jed, and then come back."

Cochrane waved his hands at them. They went away, stumbling and holding on to each other in the eerie dream-likeness and nightmarish situation of no-weight-whatever. There were other passengers from the moon-rocket in this great central space of the platform. There was a fat woman looking indignantly at the picture of a weighing-scale painted on the wall. Somebody had painted it, with a dial-hand pointing to zero pounds. A sign said, "Honest weight, no gravity." There was the stewardess from the rocket, off duty here. She smoked a cigarette in the blast of an electric fan. There was a party of moon-tourists giggling foolishly and clutching at everything and buying souvenirs to mail back to Earth.

"All right, Bill," said Cochrane. "They're gone. Now tell me why all the not inconsiderable genius in the employ of Kursten, Kasten, Hopkins and Fallowe, in my person, has been mobilized and sent up to the moon?"

Bill Holden swallowed. He stood up with his eyes closed, holding onto a side-rail in the great central room of the platform.

"I have to keep my eyes shut," he explained, queasily. "It makes me ill to see people walking on side-walls and across ceilings."

A stout tourist was doing exactly that at the moment. If one could walk anywhere at all with magnetic-soled shoes, one could walk everywhere. The stout man did walk up the side-wall. He adventured onto the ceiling, where he was head-down to the balance of his party. He stood there looking up—down—at them, and he wore a peculiarly astonished and half-frightened and wholly foolish grin. His wife squealed for him to come down: that she couldn't bear looking at him so.

"All right," said Cochrane. "You're keeping your eyes closed. But I'm supposed to take orders from you. What sort of orders are you going to give?"

"I'm not sure yet," said Holden thinly. "We are sent up here on a private job for Hopkins—one of your bosses. Hopkins has a daughter. She's married to a man named Dabney. He's neurotic. He's made a great scientific discovery and it isn't properly appreciated. So you and I and your team of tame scientists—we're on our way to the Moon to save his reason."

"Why save his reason?" asked Cochrane cynically. "If it makes him happy to be a crackpot—"

"It doesn't," said Holden, with his eyes still closed. He gulped. "Your job and a large part of my practice depends on keeping him out of a looney-bin. It amounts to a public-relations job, a production, with me merely censoring aspects that might be bad for Dabney's psyche. Otherwise he'll be frustrated."

"Aren't we all?" demanded Cochrane. "Who in hades does he think he is? Most of us want appreciation, but we have to be glad when we do our work and get paid for it! We—"

Then he swore bitterly. He had been taken off the job he'd spent years learning to do acceptably, to phoney a personal satisfaction for the son-in-law of one of the partners of the firm he worked for. It was humiliation to be considered merely a lackey who could be ordered to perform personal services for his boss, without regard to the damage to the work he was really responsible for. It was even more humiliating to know he had to do it because he couldn't afford not to.

Babs appeared, obviously gloating over the mere fact that she was walking in magnetic-soled slippers on the steel decks of the space platform. Her eyes were very bright. She said:

"Mr. Cochrane, hadn't you better come look at Earth out of the quartz Earthside windows?"

"Why?" demanded Cochrane bitterly. "If it wasn't that I'd have to hold onto something with both hands, in order to do it, I'd be kicking myself. Why should I want to do tourist stuff?"

"So," said Babs, "so later on you can tell when a writer or a scenic designer tries to put something over on you in a space platform show."

Cochrane grimaced.

"In theory, I should. But do you realize what all this is about? I just learned!" When Babs shook her head he said sardonically, "We are on the way to the Moon to stage a private production out of sheer cruelty. We're hired to rob a happy man of the luxury of feeling sorry for himself. We're under Holden's orders to cure a man of being a crackpot!"

Babs hardly listened. She was too much filled with the zest of being where she'd never dared hope to be able to go.

"I wouldn't want to be cured of being a crackpot," protested Cochrane, "if only I could afford such a luxury! I'd—"

Babs said urgently:

"You'll have to hurry, really! They told me it starts in ten minutes, so I came to find you right away."

"What starts?"

"We're in eclipse now," explained Babs, starry-eyed. "We're in the Earth's shadow. In about five minutes we'll be coming out into sunlight again, and we'll see the new Earth!"

"Guarantee that it will be a new Earth," Cochrane said morosely, "and I'll come. I didn't do too well on the old one."

But he followed her in all the embarrassment of walking on magnetic-soled shoes in a total absence of effective gravity. It was quite a job simply to start off. Without precaution, if he merely tried to march away from where he was, his feet would walk out from under him and he'd be left lying on his back in mid-air. Again, to stop without putting one foot out ahead for a prop would mean that after his feet paused, his body would continue onward and he would achieve a full-length face-down flop. And besides, one could not walk with a regular up-and-down motion, or in seconds he would find his feet churning emptiness in complete futility.

Cochrane tried to walk, and then irritably took a hand-rail and hauled himself along it, with his legs trailing behind him like the tail of a swimming mermaid. He thought of the simile and was not impressed by his own dignity.

Presently Babs halted herself in what was plainly a metal blister in the outer skin of the platform. There was a round quartz window, showing the inside of steel-plate windows beyond it. Babs pushed a button marked "Shutter," and the valves of steel drew back.

Cochrane blinked, lifted even out of his irritableness by the sight before him.

He saw the immensity of the heavens, studded with innumerable stars. Some were brighter than others, and they were of every imaginable color. Tiny glintings of lurid tint—through the Earth's atmosphere they would blend into an indefinite faint luminosity—appeared so close together that there seemed no possible interval. However tiny the appearance of a gap, one had but to look at it for an instant to perceive infinitesimal flecks of colored fire there, also.

Each tiniest glimmering was a sun. But that was not what made Cochrane catch his breath.