Down Went McGinty
By FOX HOLDEN
McGinty’s first love was Moon-shaped;
gutted and inhumanly beautiful. And it served
him well all the days of his short life.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
I guess you could say I hated Kolomar. Not with the same hatred I had for the Comrades, but I hated him. There were the obvious reasons—he’d beat me out of my general’s star, and got the top job with Security that I’d been promised for the last five years. It was because of him that I was still stuck with the command of a second-rate satellite. But there was an even more obvious reason, and it was the same one everybody else had.
Kolomar had the authority, both above and below the 120-mile limit, that went with being Director-General of the FBSI. He took that to mean head cop, and judge and jury as well.
There are a lot of ways of handling authority.
You could be human. Or you could be like Kolomar. And if you were like him, you never made any mistakes: you’d go to the end of the Universe if you had to, and when you wound up a case, the front office would always have a gold star waiting for your report card. The only thing good anybody else would have to say for you was that at least, you were on the right side and not pitching on the Comrades’ team.
He was towering over me now as I knelt in front of the wrecked safe; he couldn’t have missed the look in my eyes, but it was like shooting a pistol at an atomic screen. I might as well have kept looking at the thing in my hand that I’d just picked up off the deck.
He towered over me, that sour face of his hard as rock, and only the cold blue eyes showing that he was two jumps ahead of me; that he understood all about the thing in my hand, and that I wasn’t as innocent about it as I was trying to make him think.
“Mark it Exhibit 1,” he rattled, “and add the name of the man to whom it belongs.”
I straightened up. I tossed the good luck piece to my desk; it was like any ordinary good luck charm—a century-old 1900 50-cent piece—and under the satellite’s one-third G it just floated down to the desk top like a leaf falling off a tree.
“How do I know whose it is?” I bluffed. “I’m boss of sixty men here, Kolomar. Besides the twenty that come up every week on the supply shuttle. And they’re a different twenty each time at that—”
He stared me straight down.
“How long have you been here, Colonel Kenton? Ten years, isn’t it?”
I didn’t answer him. He knew. He’d been a shuttle-lieutenant when I’d first arrived on the satellite. He had a brother who was floor leader of the Senate. It was ten years later, and now he was Director-General of the Federal Bureau of Space Investigation. I was still a colonel. My brother was a schoolteacher.
“The crews here still have to sign contracts for five-year tricks. You’ve known two full crews, and whoever did this—” he turned his close-cropped head and nodded at the gaping Top Secret file in the blown safe “—is obviously a member of the crew you’ve got now. You know it; I know it. You’ve got a reputation, Kenton, for getting to know your men. They say you know ’em as if they were your own brothers in six months’ time.”
He didn’t bother making it a verbal accusation.
“I could only—I couldn’t even make a bad guess as to whose it is, sir.”
“You’ve got twenty-four hours to make a good one. I want him by 1700, Earth-Standard, tomorrow. That’s an order.”
Then he just turned around, the light of the cold cathodes glittering off his shoulder insignia and the silver trim on his black leatherite space tunic, and left my office cubicle the way he’d come. Fast. Murderous. Accusing.
If he had to go to Hell and back to win, he would.
I waited until Control signalled that he’d got back aboard his official shuttle and blasted into a return orbit, and then I buzzed for my execs, Haliburton, Knight and Loftus.
Even a second rate satellite of a second rate power has three execs, although I guess a lot of people back home think it’s a one man show, putting in time to save national face while the grade A job—the one with the big red star on the side—circles Earth five hundred miles further out doing all the “important” work. The one that beat us up here by ten years. The one owned by the government which said we could put up a satellite of our own if we wanted to, but suggested just how big it would be, just what equipment it would and wouldn’t carry, how far up it’d circle, how big a crew it would have.
Suggested, you know, the way they do when treaties are drawn up around the New-U.N. conference tables. It never says in the treaties what will happen if certain agreements aren’t adhered to. It doesn’t say who has “the edge,” as McGinty calls it; it doesn’t carefully point out who was firstest with the mostest. It doesn’t have to.
This is peace, Comrade. Just don’t get egg on your face.
It was a couple of minutes before my execs walked in. I was still standing, still looking down at the ancient good luck piece on my desk when they did. Major Haliburton, Meteorology detail; Major Knight, Astronomical; Lieutenant Loftus, Records and Research.
Only the personnel. Nothing else of a military nature ever found its way into the treaty. Strangely enough, it had somehow never even been mentioned.
“Take the weight off your feet. Rest, smoke, and hold onto your heads. Look at the safe; no, I didn’t do it. Followed Procedure Eighteen dash whatever-the-hell-it-is, called Kolomar’s headquarters; he came in person. Just blasted off. Now you know. I don’t have to tell you what was in that top file.”
Short, stocky, red-headed Loftus, the youngest of the three was the first to open up. Haliburton had his tall, starved-looking frame still half in and half out of his plasti-foam chair; Knight’s beefy face was still kind of blank, as though he hadn’t quite yet taken it all in. Well, they knew me. I was short and sweet, always answered questions, and tried never to bore people. Too lax, some people liked to say. But still here after ten years.
“The—microstats, Ken?” Loftus was half-asking, half-saying.
“Yeah. And this.” I picked up the good luck piece, tossed it to him. He took one look, passed it to the others. “Kolomar gives me twenty-four hours to give him the man who owns it. It was dropped in front of the safe. The only clue, if you can call it a clue. But to Kolomar’s traffic-ticket mind, it’s automatic evidence of guilt. And he’d fly clear to Aldebaran to prove it. O.K., questions.”
It was silent in the little cubicle for a second or so. I didn’t hurry them; I wanted it to sink in, and they’d need some time. I audioed my orderly room, told the sergeant on duty to black the office out to the rest of the installation for the next ten minutes.
Then after a minute or so Knight looked up from the good luck piece, and a soft voice that didn’t match his beefy build simply said, “McGinty’s,” in that half-statement, half-question way Loftus had used.
“Nuts,” Haliburton said. And “nuts” from Haliburton was like “god-damn nonsense” from anybody else who wasn’t quite the scholarly type Haliburton was. He didn’t look like a Spaceman or have the breezy talk of one, but he sure knew his meteorology. The Comrades at least let us figure out weather reports.
“Doesn’t make sense; I second the nuts,” Loftus said. “What the hell would McGinty, McGinty of all people, do with stuff like—like that? Unless—”
“Eight years and still a maintenance-tech third. They don’t get much beer money,” Knight said half to the rest of us and half to the plastalloy deck. “He—”
Haliburton laughed a funny, halting little chuckle. “That’s ridiculous. McGinty likes his beer, his accordion, his science-fiction and hates cheap women. If possible, he hates the very sight of a Comrade to an even greater extent. We all know McGinty. Our 21st Century Gunga Din, gentlemen. Not a latter-day Quisling.”
There was a quiet second. Then Loftus said,
“We’ve all seen him walk that thing across his knuckles a thousand times.”
“Maybe a plant,” Knight said.
“He’d say that, of course,” Loftus answered. “But—”
“Hold it a minute,” Haliburton broke in again. “Question, Ken.”
“Now we’re getting places,” I said. “Shoot.”
“Granting for the moment that that big Irishman, unhappy and moody as he sometimes gets when he recalls his failure to qualify for a degree in science, might have the sudden desire to take it out on the world, to sell us out. Might even have, at the moment, the spark of genius it would take to make off with those microstats. Only how the devil would he know they even existed, much less were even in duplicate copy and on file here?”
That was the nub of it, of course. Aside from myself and the three men before me, it was impossible that any other man in the station, or any man crewing a shuttle could know of the Pentagon’s plan to get a full-sized, full-rigged satellite into Space, with real Military, which would leave the Comrades screaming about a busted treaty, but powerless to do anything about it. No, it wouldn’t give us the edge, but at least it would put us on a par, and after twenty years of being second-rate, that at least would be some thing.
The political end I didn’t know much about, conference table double-talk that would invalidate a treaty that hadn’t been morally valid in the first place, but had been agreed to by interests instead of by the people they allegedly represented. It had always been a shade too fast for me to follow. All I knew was that even though first-rate powers could command more resources to do a job than second-rate ones, intellectually free scientists could always come up with smarter answers than those whose inventiveness had been stifled by the demands and limitations of a police state, however all-powerful militarily and politically.
Brains are brains; both sides have ’em. It’s what you’re motivated to do with them that counts. That, and the importance attached by people to the product of those brains.
Twenty years ago, the Comrades had really gotten motivated. After they got what they wanted, they forgot about motivation and sat back to let the newest Hundred-Year Plan take care of the rest.
Twenty years ago, somebody on our side was short four billion bucks’ worth of preventive medicine.
Now, after a couple of decades second-besting it, our side wanted to make up for lost time.
It was supposed to be a coup d’etat sort of thing, a fast shuffle, both at the conference tables and out here in Space. Now you see it, now you don’t.
As topkick on the Space end of it I was supposed to know what was going on; me, and my execs, down to the day, the hour and the split second. But only the four of us. And none of us, studying those damned plans night after night for the last two months, had ever let the things further than arm’s reach away from the safe in my office. They’d never been out of it except in our collective presence.
So I’d come on duty from my sleeping quarters that morning and relieved Loftus, whose week it was for the late duty behind my desk. Things had been Space-shape then. And as I’d told Kolomar when he got up from Earthside after my frantic triple-E signal, I’d only been out of that office for about twenty minutes from the time I’d taken over from Loftus to the moment I’d triple-E’d FBSI. There’d been a breakdown in the water-recovery plant. Nothing serious, but regulations said I had to be on hand personally to supervise any major maintenance.
While I was gone the door to my office was automatically sono-sealed. And I had the key.
When I came back it was gaping open, and the safe was still smoking. My orderly room duty sergeant was sprawled across his desk, a nasty bluish lump on his forehead. When I finally brought him around he could hardly remember his name, let alone who or what had hit him.
Loftus’ young, impatient voice snapped me out of my back tracking.
“—couldn’t have known, of course,” he was saying, answering Haliburton. “Neither McGinty nor anybody else. And that—that sort of narrows things down, doesn’t it?” He threw a nervous look at Haliburton and Knight and at me, compressed his lips in a straight little line, and fumbled self-consciously for a cigarette.
“That’s just as ridiculous,” Haliburton said. “If any one of the four of us was attempting to outwit the other three, the planting of McGinty’s talisman would be a little stupid, wouldn’t it?”
I tried to stop walking back and forth; I tried to think about McGinty instead of wondering who I was sorest at, Kolomar or the Comrades. Patrick Michael McGinty, maintenance technician third class, as simple and straightforward as they come. He’d play that beat-up accordion for the sixty of us to make us smile and think about home, while he listened to the music by himself and thought his own thoughts.
Either that, on his own time, or good naturedly griping on the job about what slow pokes all scientists were, especially the Comrades, who with all their big muscles still hadn’t got a workable Moon-landing ship together. Our side could build one, McGinty would tell you—”Sure, an’ it’s a bunch o’ misers we are, or we’d be a-wadin’ the canals o’ Mars by now,” he’d tell you, and sometimes made you half believe it.
McGinty was just a tech-third, but he was an honest-to-God Spaceman, maybe even more than the rest of us. “The further out y’go, the more th’ edge y’got—an’ leave all the other dir-rty business behind besides!”
He’d play that accordion of his and just look out a port hole at the stars while he did it. And when he did you could sort of link up that science degree disappointment, that scolding of the scientists for their “slowness,” that business about the misers and the canals of Mars, and the watching out the port hole as he played.
A brawny, rough-and-ready spaceman, yes.
A spy and a thief of top-secret documents, no.
No, and good luck piece be damned.
I looked hard at my three execs.
“Kolomar gave me twenty-four hours,” I said. “Whatever we do, we’ve got to do it without spilling the beans around ears that aren’t supposed to hear. You know how scuttlebut races through a crew. Kolomar on one side of us—” I saw Knight wince, “—and the Comrades on the other. Mr. X in between.”
“If we put the arm on McGinty,” Knight said in that soft voice of his, his beefy face unnaturally white, “Kolomar won’t give him a chance. Be sending an innocent man into God-knows-what just to stall for our own skins. And when Kolomar found out it wasn’t McGinty, he’d keep right on going, right on to the end of Space itself.”
Whatever Knight might’ve said next never got out. The top-urgent signal on my video panel blinked like crazy. If they’d got through my sergeant and the orders I’d given him, they must want me for real, so I answered.
It was Control. The face on the video belonged to the captain in charge. The voice on the audio echoed the all-hell look on the face.
The voice said one of our Moon-orbit rigs—an L-8, incapable of course of a landing but rigged up out of thin aluminum structural beams with a couple of small rocket motors, fuel tanks, and personal space for strictly observational work—had just blasted clear of our own orbit and was headed Moonwards.
“So what the hell, captain—”
“McGinty’s flying it, sir,” the voice said. “Unscheduled. All by himself.”
My three execs just sat where they were for maybe a full second, mute, their faces immobilized into unintelligent expressions. It seemed that it took me an hour to snap out of it, yet I was moving before they were … toward my Earth-communications panel.
Then the three of them were up and starting for the door.
“Hold it!” I hollered, and pointed at the miniature Earth-scanner in the bulkhead above my desk. It was only about a quarter the size of the one in Meteorology, but it still gave me a full view of Earth, silently rolling there in its black frame of Space. They caught on. There was still about ten minutes left of the sixty minutes we had over our own part of the world. Ten minutes more, and we would have been on the other half of our two-hour trip around, and unable to contact home for over an hour.
I fumbled the switch open that put me straight through on a tight, direct 3-E band to the Pentagon. I was talking to Kolomar within less than two minutes.
He didn’t move a muscle while I told him what had happened. But he made the grimmest picture my Earth-video had ever framed.
“You’ll effect pursuit at once, Kenton. Take what armament your maintenance can fabricate. If he is simply attempting escape, he’ll find there’s not far he can go. Since he is an inexperienced pilot, you should be able to overhaul him with little difficulty. However, the more logical probability is that he’s defecting to them. He undoubtedly has the microstats in his possession, and will rendezvous with one of their own orbit craft. It will be your responsibility to destroy him before that rendezvous can be completed.”
“But sir, there’s no way of being sure—”
My protest was completely lost to a cut contact and a dead screen.
I muttered something and began a half-hearted attempt to contact McGinty. Between signals I scrawled a fast note and handed it to Knight. It told him to order an L-8 ready with an extra rocket unit bolted onto its stern someplace. For the extra power, he’d need a set of transition coordinates for a modified orbit, but that would be up to his department.
The note said for Haliburton to take care of having maintenance rig up a couple of hydrazine torpedoes of some kind. Hell, we weren’t even allowed pistols up here, and Kolomar had just said “destroy him.” More official double-talk. But, sometimes a maintenance crew was good for something a little better than keeping the rust off door knobs. It was a pretty old rule-of-thumb in Space—if you haven’t got it, make it.
And right now, the responsibility for those stats was mine. All mine.
I kept Loftus with me, and kept trying to raise McGinty. The chances were he wouldn’t answer, of course. But there was nothing else to do until Haliburton and Knight buzzed me that they had everything ready.
“Guess you’d better forget it,” Loftus said.
I nodded, tried a final signal pattern, and then quit trying.
I looked into Loftus’ young face. It wasn’t hard to read.
“Go ahead and say it,” I told him.
He looked up, and his mouth twisted into a cynical smile.
“We all fall for happy accordion music and an Irish brogue. All fall for a guy because he appeals to what there is inside people like us that says some guys you can always trust. Maybe, Ken, we deserve to be second-raters.”
“Maybe,” I said. Only I was thinking about men like Kolomar. About right and wrong, success and failure, always in terms of physical size, physical strength. Whomp me and I’ll whomp you back harder. Twenty-first century civilization—still the spoiled brats of a half century ago. “Maybe we do,” I said, and wondered if we always would.
“What was it McGinty was always saying?” Loftus asked quietly. “Something about—’the further out y’go, the more th’ edge y’got—an’ leave all the other dir-rty business behind besides.'”
“Your brogue smells, kid. But that’s about the way it went.”
“Somehow, I never thought he meant it, this way. Thought he had something else in mind. The way he always looked out the port when he played. At the stars.”
“I know, I know,” I snapped. “Can it, can it.”
Loftus shut up, but I knew what he meant, had known it before he said it, because I’d felt that way about McGinty for a long time, myself. McGinty played accordion music because it was something a little better than the canned stuff we could get on our radios. He had tried for that science degree because he’d wanted to make himself a little better, if he could. He griped about how “slow” the scientists were, griped about the “misers” we had in our politics. Just as a reaction against a state of affairs that he thought might be made a little better. It had always seemed to me that in McGinty’s simple philosophy, if you could just get started making things a little better here and there, pretty soon, a lot of things would be a lot better everywhere. Not second-rate.
I drummed my fingers on the communications panel, watching Loftus and waiting for either Knight or Haliburton to buzz me that things were set. I started to get up and that was when my video signal started its nervous blinking. In a single movement I had it switched on. It framed McGinty’s big red face.
He was drunk, and his blue eyes were blazing the way they always blazed, drunk or sober.
“Y’been a’callin’ me, Colonel? Well here I am! Lookin’ fer these, I’ll bet!” He waved a huge gauntleted paw in front of the screen. It clutched the thin plastisheen envelope that contained the microstats.
Loftus was out of his chair in an instant, crowding the video next to me and triggering a desk recorder into action at the same time.
“Look, you crazy fool,” I bellowed. “I’m not going to ask you what or why, McGinty, not now. But we’re coming out after you, and you’d better be turned around and headed back this way by the time we’ve started.”
“Yi, yi, Colonel! Kolomar’s a-burnin’ is ‘e? Ha!” McGinty’s red beard bristled, and brick-red hair straggled down into snapping eyes. “He’s a slow-poke like a-a-ll the rest of ’em! Only I’ve got me a deal, Kenny me b’y!”
“McGinty, for God’s sake! Kolomar’ll hunt you to the end of Time!”
“Will ‘e, now!”
“There’s nothing he won’t do or can’t get done to see you in the death chamber, McGinty. No matter where you go or whom you meet—”
“Sure, an’ y’wouldn’t be a’kiddin’ now, Colonel, would ye? No, y’wouldn’t kid McGinty! Ye’re not the blarneyin’ type, Colonel! Well, come along, then. You take the high road an’ I’ll take the low—” Singing, suddenly, singing like a drunken madman, and then the screen went blank.
As it did, Haliburton buzzed.
“Ready Ken,” he said.
And Loftus and I headed for the landing nets and a taxi berth.
Because he was blasting all the way, it would take McGinty slightly more than twenty-two hours to get from the satellite into an orbit around the Moon. The regular way, blast and drift, it takes about seventy-one. But McGinty was in a hurry.
There was no knowing how soon before that twenty-two hours he would be meeting the Comrades. Nor was there any way of knowing if McGinty intended to break his orbit when he neared the Moon and head on out into Space. That way he’d end up a derelict with his fuel exhausted, smothered when his air was used up, and lost forever. Something began picking at the back of my mind, but I didn’t have time to play with it.
With the extra rocket motor Knight had had jury-rigged to the stern of our L-8, there was a chance we could overtake McGinty an hour or so before he entered a lunar orbit, if that’s what he was going to do. And if we’d been able to crowd on enough fuel.
Or, if he just kept on going, we were certain to overhaul him—and that was why neither of those two angles made much sense. From a practical point of view, anyway.
“It’s a rendezvous set-up for certain,” Knight said. He was strapped in the bow astrodome seat, working with the L-8’s two-inch refractor.
Earth and our satellite rolled some twenty hours and two hundred twenty thousand miles behind us; we were tired, we were apprehensive and edgy. We’d been power-on all the way instead of blasting and drifting. But so had McGinty.
Knight had had McGinty’s L-8 in his lenses almost from the hour we’d blasted out. There were just three of us—myself, Knight and Loftus. I’d left Haliburton behind as second-in-command and to take care of Kolomar when he came up, as he had. Right now, he was only a couple of hours behind us in the L-8 I’d ordered Haliburton to have ready and waiting for him.
There hadn’t been anything else from McGinty. Not a flicker. And not a word either from the Comrades. Things should’ve been crackling about now. Their satellite had just rounded Earth’s illumination an hour or so before, and they should be throwing cover-up messages at us by the barrel, wanting to know what was the meaning of an uncleared orbital flight, and why hadn’t they been notified.
But not a word. At least not that Loftus had picked up on our own H-F. Maybe they were just going to play it straight—
“Hey, hey, here they are after all,” Loftus said suddenly. “All translated and everything. Give a listen.” He turned up the volume.
It was good cover-up, all right. Just as though they hadn’t known a thing about it. Just discovered it and wanted a fast explanation.
I hollered to Knight. “You actually see any of their rigs up ahead?”
“Two of ’em. Just starting on an intersect with McGinty.”
“Can we make it first, do you think?”
“Nip and tuck, skipper. Maybe. It’s almost as if it’s all a big surprise to ’em. They’re still way out in left field, maybe not quite as close as we are.”
Knight muttered something over the rasping voice on his H-F. “—ought to get an Academy Award—”
He was right. Their acting and their timing couldn’t have been more perfect except that they had had to gamble from the first on getting to McGinty before we did and still make things look all innocence. Maybe we could make them lose that one, anyway. You could be too clever.
But they were armed, and that hedged their gamble pretty convincingly. We had two clumsy jury-rigged torpedoes which might or might not hit whatever they were fired at.
The voice halted, and then it was up to me. I was supposed to be the one to make up the excuses, not Kolomar. I was the one who had to give “an immediate account of the untoward and unadvised action” of my L-8s. And Kolomar would let me sweat it out by myself.
“What’ll I tell ’em, Ken?”
“Tell ’em—oh, hell. Tell them one of our crew went Space-psycho, and that we’re doing all in our power to recover him and the rig he’s flying before any inconvenience can occur which might disturb the planned schedules of our esteemed Comrades of Space. One fairy tale’s as good as another.”
Loftus reworded the message as nice as pie, and then after a minute the H-F was quiet. For the record, things were fine. Of course, our Comrades were going to “assist” in the recovery of our wayward crewman—
“We’ll beat ’em, I think!” Knight was hollering.
“Any guns—” Loftus began. I answered that one myself.
“They’d ruin their own show,” I said. “A premature show of muscle would tip their hand. If they make it work this way, all we can ever do is accuse, but we won’t be able to prove a damn thing. And they’ll know what they want to know, and be ready for our quick little shuffle. They’ll be ready at those conference tables. If they miss this time, they’ll just try again later, another way.”
“It sure reads fine,” Loftus said. “But I wonder how soon they start shooting.”
We were both at the starboard port, watching. We could see McGinty’s L-8 out there, floating like a three-barrelled hour-glass, its tiny rocket bank glowing red against the blackness, one side a blinding white brightness in the sun.
The Moon hung like a chewed-up white basketball below the both of us, and you could see the greenish cast of Earthshine stretching out a little beyond the night shadow over the ridge of the lunar Appenines.
“How do you suppose they ever got wise to the microstats in the first place?” Loftus was asking.
“We’re still not sure they did. Or sure that he—or sure of anything,” I snapped back at him.
“But you think it’s McGinty all right, by this time. I mean—”
“I guess so,” I said.
He turned from the port and looked square at me. His youthful face was a strained, white thing, and if I saw a certain innocence in his young eyes, I saw something else, too. He was the strange kid-man combination you get in Space—just a youngster on the one side, and a latter-day wizard on the other. A head full of scientific answers down to the last decimal point—and full of that other stuff that makes a young man a very young man; the kind of stuff we older guys like to wish could be true, but know just can’t be.
“Add it up yourself,” I said. I was looking over his shoulder and through the port again. There were other hour glasses out there now, further from McGinty than we were still, but not by much. And to our stern was another pin-point of winking red light and flashing whiteness. Kolomar. We were closing on McGinty’s L-8 fast now, and I started for the closet where we kept the suits. Loftus grabbed my arm.
“Not the torpedoes if we can help it, kid,” I said. “I’m going out when we pull above him. On a line. If I can grab onto any of the framework, maybe I can put his motors out of commission without blowing things apart. If I can, then maybe we can nudge him all the way around, and shove him all the way back if we have to.”
Loftus just turned away. He was watching the red-white flash in the blackness that was Kolomar’s rig. I knew what he was thinking, and I was glad he thought that way. Maybe, sometime, the youngsters could play things their way, and we’d have that something a “little better” that McGinty had always been hoping for.
And I guess Loftus knew the plan I outlined had less than a thousand-in-one chance of coming through. Even if I managed to break McGinty’s fuel lines some way, this “nudging” business I talked about was probably ninety per cent hokum. Even in an orbital state of comparative weightlessness there was still inertia to consider, and any direct contact we made with McGinty’s L-8 could cave in our bulging plasti-fabric fuel tanks. That, or split him wide open.
But I’d never be able to sleep again if I didn’t try something before Kolomar’s torpedoes, and I didn’t care what he saw me do.
I was all rigged out, standing by the airlock, about five hundred feet of line in one gauntlet and a reaction tube in the other, when Knight’s voice slurred in my helmet receivers.
“Ken—hold it! He’s busting the orbit! He’s going to—my God. Ken, he’s ditching her Moonside!”
I had a time getting over to the port Loftus was crowding. What Knight was saying was true. I made motions, and Loftus started helping me out of my cumbersome Space outfit while I watched.
We were just about dead center over the Moon itself, and McGinty had started drifting in what would have been a perfect, if wide, orbit around it. Continuing in it, he’d’ve circled the side opposite Earth, and then started back toward the orbit of our satellite. Either that, or, as we’d expected, broken from it and rendezvoused with one of the Comrades. Only it wasn’t working that way.
McGinty was breaking his orbit, all right, but not toward Space. He was going down. He had cut the stern rockets and was using his bow jets to slow himself enough to kill the velocity that had balanced him in his orbit. Slowly but as surely as politicians have two faces, Moon gravity would take over, pull him down, split him wide open on the jagged edge of Aristillus crater.
“He’s out of his head,” I heard Loftus saying. “Clean gone. An L-8 can’t land; an orbit rig can’t take even two Gs and hold together.”
McGinty was peeling off, falling.
We just stood at the port and watched. Knight kept him in the two-incher.
Falling in that lazy, gradual, ever-steepening airless glide until soon it would be straight up-and-down. The Moon just hung there, cold, bleak, waiting. Waiting to rip McGinty all to hell on the ragged peaks of its gutted, inhumanly beautiful terrain. A strange love affair had McGinty, through the satellite port as he played his accordion.
I was pulled out of it by the racket on the H-F receiver, and Loftus was clambering over to it as fast as I was.
“This is Kolomar,” the voice said. “Destroy him. Now. That’s an order, Kenton.”
Loftus looked at me. So did Knight.
I picked up a mobile mike, flicked it on.
“This is Kenton,” I said. “I don’t believe we received your message correctly, general. In fact I’m certain we didn’t! Over!”
“I said destroy him. And God help you, Kenton, if you can’t hear me!”
No, I hadn’t expected Kolomar to take anything back. He was still doing everything by the books.
Loftus acked him out, and then just stood there.
“Okay,” I said, “you heard him!”
“But he’s going to die anyway, Ken! Going to—”
“Damn it, fire those torpedoes!”
Loftus spun away from me, something shiny in his eyes, and started priming the two thin, long cylinders of hydrazine and HNO3 for the make-shift torpedo tubes that maintenance had installed.
“Those aren’t such hot looking jobs, are they, Loftus,” I said. He looked up me, and that hot shine was still blazing in his eyes. “I hope you don’t have any trouble aiming with those homemade tubes.”
It took him a second, but he caught on.
The torpedoes missed McGinty’s falling rig by a good three hundred yards apiece.
I let Loftus take a look.
“What’s he doing?”
“Blasting like hell at the tail,” the young lieutenant said. “He’ll hit like one of those old-time ski jumpers! Between Aristillus and Autolycus, in that flat, open plain—”
I watched him hit.
And it was as Loftus said. He slewed onto the flat, dust-covered plain like a ski jumper, falling but going forward at a hell of a rate, probably using up the last of his fuel in a single, sustained, straight-ahead blast.
And then there was a flurry of dust maybe ten miles long. And after that, even with the ‘scope, you couldn’t see anything.
“Good try,” I heard myself saying.
“Might’ve made it!” Loftus said, hope ragged in his voice. “He just might’ve—”
“All alone, oxygen enough for almost two months if he cuts way down,” I heard Knight say softly.
But I was already calling Kolomar.
“Destroyed,” I said. And I wished I could’ve been lying to his teeth.
From the time Kolomar got back to Earth it took just two days for him, with maybe just a touch of help from his floor-leader brother, to pry the government loose from a half-billion bucks. It took him just twenty-four hours more to get the Pentagon to release plans for a Moon-landing ship that had been mouldering in a vault for the last fifteen years; plans that nobody’d known about since the day they were drawn, I guess; plans just waiting for that half-billion.
He had his toughest time with our own scientists. It was sort of the way McGinty had said. The thing would need weeks of study, months of testing, years to perfect, they told him.
He told them it was only going to take them a month to get it built.
I said I hated him and I do, but you have to give a Liberal-Democrat his due. As with every other job he tackled, when Kolomar wanted to move he knew where to go and he could move fast. And he had long practice at throwing his rank, and the rank that was always behind that. Right now, his job was to retrieve the microstats in McGinty’s wrecked L-8—before the Comrades. And he was going to do that job if he had to sandbag the President himself.
The project was farmed out to I don’t know how many of our biggest industries; all I ever heard was that it carried the highest work-priority any job had ever carried.
And the industries took it, triple-shift, day and night.
It still took longer than a month.
It took nine weeks. And then our shuttles were hauling up the parts, and extra crews were slamming them together as fast as they arrived in the satellite’s orbit. That was done in a matter of hours.
The Comrades bluffed around at doing the same thing, but all they could do was go through the motions. Take incentive away from anybody and you just can’t deliver.
They couldn’t. We did.
Funny thing too when you think it was due to the efforts of one of the most disliked of our men. Irony, maybe, but that’s the way things work out sometimes.
It was just ten weeks to the day after he crashed that I was bringing the first Moon-landing ship ever built down over the plain where McGinty’d smashed up. Kolomar was co-piloting right next to me.
Yes, we found the wrecked L-8 without much trouble.
Split wide open, lunar dust spilled all over its insides, and what was left of McGinty buried under a couple of feet of it. He hadn’t even put on a spacesuit.
Haliburton was with us this trip, and it was he who found the plastisheen envelope. Not so important, now.
It was young Loftus who found the note. Kolomar read it over my shoulder.
Dear Guys, Hope I didn’t smash her up so bad you couldn’t find this. When I busted open the safe and left my half-buck for you to find, I didn’t expect to get what I got, but Colonel Kenton always said General Kolomar would follow a thief anywhere in the Universe, and that’s how I had it figured, too. But anyhow, if you’re reading this, then you’ve made them build a real Ship that can land up here O.K., and so you’ve got the edge. And the further out you go, the more the edge you got. Try them Martian canals for me sometime, will you? And tell that sergeant I’m sorry I had to hit him so hard. Mc.
I looked up from the note, out through the twisted wreckage, and a hundred yards away at the first Moon-landing ship ever built.#ENGLISH