Space Platform, Murray Leinster, 1953. Note: The copyright for this book has expired in the United States and was not renewed, thus, Space Platform now resides in the public domain.

For an instant, in mid-air, Joe was incongruously aware of all the noises in the Shed. The murky, girdered ceiling still three hundred feet above him. The swelling, curving, glittering surface of steel underneath. Then he struck. He landed beside the lean man, with his left arm outstretched to share his impetus with him. Alone, he would have had momentum enough to carry himself up the slope down which the man had begun to descend. But now he shared it. The two of them toppled forward together. Their arms were upon the flat surface, while their bodies dangled. The feel of gravity pulling them slantwise and downward was purest nightmare.

But then, as Joe's innards crawled, the same stocky man who had knocked the lean man back was dragging frantically at both of them to pull them to safety.

Then there were two men pulling. The stocky man's face was gray. His horror was proof that he hadn't intended murder. The man who'd put down his welding torch pulled. The man who'd been climbing the ladder put his weight to the task of getting them back to usable footing. They reached safety. Joe scrambled to his feet, but he felt sick at the pit of his stomach. The stocky man began to shake horribly. The lanky one advanced furiously upon him.

"I didn' mean to keel you, Haney!" the dark one panted.

The lanky one snapped: "Okay. You didn't. But come on, now! We finish this----"

He advanced toward the workman who had so nearly caused his death. But the other man dropped his arms to his sides.

"I don' fight no more," he said thickly. "Not here. You keel me is okay. I don' fight."

The lanky man--Haney--growled at him.

"Tonight, then, in Bootstrap. Now get back to work!"

The stocky man picked up his tools. He was trembling.

Haney turned to Joe and said ungraciously: "Much obliged. What's up?"

Joe still felt queasy. There is rarely any high elation after one has risked his life for somebody else. He'd nearly plunged two hundred feet to the floor of the Shed with Haney. But he swallowed.

"I'm looking for Chief Bender. You're Haney? Foreman?"

"Gang boss," said Haney. He looked at Joe and then at Sally who was holding convulsively to the upright Joe had put her hand on. Her eyes were closed. "Yeah," said Haney. "The Chief took off today. Some kind of Injun stuff. Funeral, maybe. Want me to tell him something? I'll see him when I go off shift."

There was an obscure movement somewhere on this part of the Platform. A tiny figure came out of a crevice that would someday be an air lock. Joe didn't move his eyes toward it. He said awkwardly: "Just tell him Joe Kenmore's in town and needs him. He'll remember me, I think. I'll hunt him up tonight."

"Okay," said Haney.

Joe's eyes went to the tiny figure that had come out from behind the plating. It was a midget in baggy, stained work garments like the rest of the men up here. He wore a miniature welding shield pushed back on his head. Joe could guess his function, of course. There'd be corners a normal-sized man couldn't get into, to buck a rivet or weld a joint. There'd be places only a tiny man could properly inspect. The midget regarded Joe without expression.

Joe turned to the hoist to go down to the floor again. Haney waved his hand. The midget lifted his, in grave salutation.

The hoist dropped down the shaft. Sally opened her eyes.

"You--saved that man's life, Joe," she said unsteadily. "But you scared me to death!"

Joe tried to ignore the remark, but he still seemed to feel slanting metal under him and a drop of two hundred feet below. It had been a nightmarish sensation.

"I didn't think," he said uncomfortably. "It was a crazy thing to do. Lucky it worked out."

Sally glanced at him. The hoist still dropped swiftly. Levels of scaffolding shot upward past them. If Joe had slipped down that rolling curve of metal, he'd have dropped past all these. It was not good to think about. He swallowed again. Then the hoist checked in its descent. It stopped. Joe somewhat absurdly helped Sally off to solid ground.

"It--looks to me," said Sally, "as if you're bound to make me see somebody killed. Joe, would you mind leading a little bit less adventurous life for a while? While I'm around?"

He managed to grin. But he still did not feel right.

"Nothing I can do until I can look at the plane," he said, changing the subject, "and I can't find the Chief until tonight. Could we sightsee a little?"

She nodded. They went out from under the intricate framework that upheld the Platform. They went, in fact, completely under that colossal incomplete object. Sally indicated the sidewall.

"Let's go look at the pushpots. They're fascinating!"

She led the way. The enormous spaciousness of the Shed again became evident. There was a catwalk part way up the inward curving wall. Someone leaned on its railing and surveyed the interior of the Shed. He would probably be a security man. Maybe the fist fight up on the Platform had been seen, or maybe not. The man on the catwalk was hardly more than a speck, and it occurred to Joe that there must be other watchers' posts high up on the outer shell where men could search the sunlit desert outside for signs of danger.

But he turned and looked yearningly back at the monstrous thing under the mist of scaffolding. For the first time he could make out its shape. It was something like an egg, but a great deal more like something he couldn't put a name to. Actually it was exactly like nothing in the world but itself, and when it was out in space there would be nothing left on Earth like it.

It would be in a fashion a world in itself, independent of the Earth that made it. There would be hydroponic tanks in which plants would grow to purify its air and feed its crew. There would be telescopes with which men would be able to study the stars as they had never been able to do from the bottom of Earth's ocean of turbulent air. But it would serve Earth.

There would be communicators. They would pick up microwave messages and retransmit them to destinations far around the curve of the planet, or else store them and retransmit them to the other side of the world an hour or two hours later.

It would store fuel with which men could presently set out for the stars--and out to emptiness for nuclear experiments that must not be made on Earth. And finally it would be armed with squat, deadly atomic missiles that no nation could possibly defy. And so this Space Platform would keep peace on Earth.

But it could not make good will among men.

Sally walked on. They reached the mysterious objects being manufactured in a row around half the sidewall of the Shed. They were of simple design and, by comparison, not unduly large. The first objects were merely frameworks of metal pipe, which men were welding together unbreakably. They were no bigger than--say--half of a six-room house. A little way on, these were filled with intricate arrays of tanks and piping, and still farther--there was a truck and hoist unloading a massive object into place right now--there were huge engines fitting precisely into openings designed to hold them. Others were being plated in with metallic skins.

At the very end of this assembly line a crane was loading a finished object onto a flat-bed trailer. As it swung in the air, Joe realized what it was. It might be called a jet plane, but it was not of any type ever before used. More than anything else, it looked like a beetle. It would not be really useful for anything but its function at the end of Operation Stepladder. Then hundreds of these ungainly objects would cluster upon the Platform's sides, like swarming bees. They would thrust savagely up with their separate jet engines. They would lift the Platform from the foundation on which it had been built. Tugging, straining, panting, they would get it out of the Shed. But their work would not end there. Holding it aloft, they would start it eastward, lifting effortfully. They would carry it as far and as high and as fast as their straining engines could work. Then there would be one last surge of fierce thrusting with oversize jato rockets, built separately into each pushpot, all firing at once.

Finally the clumsy things would drop off and come bumbling back home, while the Platform's own rockets flared out their mile-long flames--and it headed up for emptiness.

But the making of these pushpots and all the other multitudinous activities of the Shed would have no meaning if the contents of four crates in the wreckage of a burned-out plane could not be salvaged and put to use again.

Joe said restlessly: "I want to see all this, Sally, and maybe anything else I do is useless, but I've got to find out what happened to the gyros I was bringing here!"

Sally said nothing. She turned, and they moved across the long, long space of wood-block flooring toward the doorway by which they had entered. And now that he had seen the Space Platform, all of Joe's feeling of guilt and despondency came back. It seemed unbearable. They went out through the guarded door, Sally surrendered the pass, and Joe was again checked carefully before he was free to go.

Then Sally said: "You don't want me tagging around, do you?"

Joe said honestly: "It isn't exactly that, Sally, but if the stuff is really smashed, I'd--rather not have anybody see me. Please don't be angry, but--"

Sally said quietly: "I know. I'll get somebody to drive you over."

She vanished. She came back with the uniformed man who'd driven Major Holt. She put her hand momentarily on Joe's arm.

"If it's really bad, Joe, tell me. You won't let yourself cry, but I'll cry for you." She searched his eyes. "Really, Joe!"

He grinned feebly and went out to the car.

The feeling on the way to the airfield was not a good one. It was twenty-odd miles from the Shed, but Joe dreaded what he was going to see. The black car burned up the road. It turned to the right off the white highway, onto the curved short cut--and there was the field.

And there was the wreck of the transport plane, still where it had crashed and burned. There were still armed guards about it, but men were working on the wreck, cutting it apart with torches. Already some of it was dissected.

Joe went to the remains of the four crates.

The largest was bent askew by the force of the crash or an explosion, Joe didn't know which. The smallest was a twisted mass of charcoal. Joe gulped, and dug into them with borrowed tools.

The pilot gyros of the Space Platform would apply the torque that would make the main gyros shift it to any desired position, or else hold it absolutely still. They were to act, in a sense, as a sort of steering engine on the take-off and keep a useful function out in space. If a star photograph was to be made, it was essential that the Platform hold absolutely still while the exposure lasted. If a guided missile was to be launched, it must be started right, and the pilot gyros were needed. To turn to receive an arriving rocket from Earth....

The pilot gyros were the steering apparatus of the Space Platform. They had to be more than adequate. They had to be perfect! On the take-off alone, they were starkly necessary. The Platform couldn't hope to reach its orbit without them.

Joe chipped away charred planks. He pulled off flame-eaten timbers. He peeled off carbonized wrappings--but some did not need to be peeled: they crumbled at a touch--and in twenty minutes he knew the whole story. The rotor motors were ruined. The couplers--pilot-to-main-gyro connections--had been heated red hot and were no longer hardened steel; their dimensions had changed and they would no longer fit. But these were not disastrous items. They were serious, but not tragic.

The tragedy was the gyros themselves. On their absolute precision and utterly perfect balance the whole working of the Platform would depend. And the rotors were gashed in one place, and the shafts were bent. Being bent and nicked, the precision of the apparatus was destroyed. Its precision lost, the whole device was useless. And it had taken four months' work merely to get it perfectly balanced!

It had been the most accurate piece of machine work ever done on Earth. It was balanced to a microgram--to a millionth of the combined weight of three aspirin tablets. It would revolve at 40,000 revolutions per minute. It had to balance perfectly or it would vibrate intolerably. If it vibrated at all it would shake itself to pieces, or, failing that, send aging sound waves through all the Platform's substance. If it vibrated by the least fraction of a ten-thousandth of an inch, it would wear, and vibrate more strongly, and destroy itself and possibly the Platform. It needed the precision of an astronomical telescope's lenses--multiplied! And it was bent. It was exactly as useless as if it had never been made at all.

Joe felt as a man might feel if the mirror of the greatest telescope on earth, in his care, had been smashed. As if the most priceless picture in the world, in his charge, had been burned. But he felt worse. Whether it was his fault or not--and it wasn't--it was destroyed.

A truck rolled up and was stopped by a guard. There was talk, and the guard let it through. A small crane lift came over from the hangars. Its normal use was the lifting of plane motors in and out of their nacelles. Now it was to pick up the useless pieces of equipment on which the best workmen and the best brains of the Kenmore Precision Tool Company had worked unceasingly for eight calendar months, and which now was junk.

Joe watched, numbed by disaster, while the crane hook went down to position above the once-precious objects. Men shored up the heavy things and ran planks under them, and then deftly fitted rope slings for them to be lifted by. It was late afternoon by now. Long shadows were slanting as the crane truck's gears whined, and the slack took up, and the first of the four charred objects lifted and swung, spinning slowly, to the truck that had come from the Shed.

Joe froze, watching. He watched the second. The third did not spin. It merely swayed. But the fourth.... The lines up to the crane hook were twisted. As the largest of the four crates lifted from its bed, it twisted the lines toward straightness. It spun. It spun more and more rapidly, and then more and more slowly, and stopped, and began to spin back.

Then Joe caught his breath. It seemed that he hadn't breathed in minutes. The big crate wasn't balanced. It was spinning. It wasn't vibrating. It spun around its own center of gravity, unerringly revealed by its flexible suspension.

He watched until it was dropped into the truck. Then he went stiffly over to the driver of the car that had brought him.

"Everything's all right," he said, feeling a queer astonishment at his own words. "I'm going to ride back to the Shed with the stuff I brought. It's not hurt too much. I'll be able to fix it with a man or two I can pick up out here. But I don't want anything else to happen to it!"

So he rode back out to the Shed on the tailboard of the truck that carried the crates. The sun set as he rode. He was smudged and disheveled. The reek of charred wood and burnt insulation and scorched wrappings was strong in his nostrils. But he felt very much inclined to sing.

It occurred to Joe that he should have sent Sally a message that she didn't need to cry as a substitute for him. He felt swell! He knew how to do the job that would let the Space Platform take off! He'd tell her, first chance.

It was very good to be alive.