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.

There was nobody in the world to whom the Space Platform was meaningless. To Joe and a great many people like him, it was a dream long and stubbornly held to and now doggedly being made a reality. To some it was the prospect of peace and the hope of a quiet life: children and grandchildren and a serene look forward to the future. Some people prayed yearningly for its success, though they could have no other share in its making. And of course there were those men who had gotten into power and could not stay there without ruthlessness. They knew what the Platform would mean to their kind. For, once world peace was certain, they would be killed by the people they ruled over. So they sent grubby, desperate men to wreck it at any cost. They were prepared to pay for or to commit any crime if the Space Platform could be smashed and turmoil kept as the norm of life on Earth.

And there were the people who were actually doing the building.

Joe rode a bus into Bootstrap that night with some of them. The middle shift--two to ten o'clock--was off. Fleets of busses rolled out from the small town twenty miles away, their headlights making a procession of paired flames in the darkness. They rolled into the unloading area and disgorged the late shift--ten to six--to be processed by security and admitted to the Shed. Then, quite empty, the busses went trundling around to where Joe waited with the released shift milling around him.

The busses stopped and opened their doors. The waiting men stormed in, shoving zestfully, calling to each other, scrambling for seats or merely letting themselves be pushed on board. The bus Joe found himself on was jammed in seconds. He held on to a strap and didn't notice. He was absorbed in the rapt contemplation of his idea for the repair of the pilot-gyros. The motors could be replaced easily enough. The foundation of his first despair had been the belief that everything could be managed but one thing; that the all-important absolute accuracy was the only thing that couldn't be achieved. Getting that accuracy, back at the plant, had consumed four months of time. Each of the gyros was four feet in diameter and weighed five hundred pounds. Each spun at 40,000 r.p.m. It had to be machined from a special steel to assure that it would not fly to pieces from sheer centrifugal force. Each was plated with iridium lest a speck of rust form and throw it off balance. If the shaft and bearings were not centered exactly at the center of gravity of the rotors--five hundred pounds of steel off balance at 40,000 r.p.m. could raise the devil. They could literally wreck the Platform itself. And "exactly at the center of gravity" meant exactly. There could be no error by which the shaft was off center by the thousandth of an inch, or a ten-thousandth, or even the tenth of a ten-thousandth. The accuracy had to be absolute.

Gloating over the solution he'd found, Joe could have hugged himself. Hanging to a strap in the waiting bus, he saw another bus start off with a grinding of gears and a spouting of exhaust smoke. It trundled to the highway and rolled away. Another and another followed it. Joe's bus fell in line. They headed for Bootstrap in a convoy, a long, long string of lighted vehicles running one behind the other.

It was dark outside. The Shed was alone, for security. It was twenty miles from the town where its work force slept and ate and made merry. That was security too. One shift came off, and went through a security check, and during that time the Shed was empty save for the security officers who roamed it endlessly, looking for trouble. Sometimes they found it. The shift coming on also passed through a security check. Nobody could get into the Shed without being identified past question. The picture-badge stage was long since passed on the Space Platform job. Security was tight!

The long procession of busses rolled through the night. Outside was dark desert. Overhead were many stars. Inside the jammed bus were swaying figures crowded in the aisle, and every seat was filled. There was the smell of sweat, and oil, and tobacco. Somebody still had garlic on his breath from lunch. There was the noise of many voices. There was an argument two seats up the aisle. There was the rumble of the motor, and the peculiar whine of spinning tires. Men had to raise their voices to be heard above the din.

A swaying among the crowded figures more pronounced than that caused by the motion of the bus caught Joe's eye. Somebody was crowding his way from the back toward the front. The aisle was narrow. Joe clung to his strap, thinking hard and happily about the rebalancing of the gyros. There could be no tolerance. It had to be exact. There had to be no vibration at all....

Figures swayed away from him. A hand on his shoulder.


He swung around. It was the lean man, Haney, whom he'd kept from being knocked off the level place two hundred feet up.

Joe said: "Hello."

"I thought you were big brass," said Haney, rumbling in his ear. "But big brass don't ride the busses."

"I'm going in to try to hunt up the Chief," said Joe.

Haney grunted. He looked estimatingly at Joe. His glance fell to Joe's hands. Joe had been digging further into the crates, and afterward he'd washed up, but packing grease is hard to get off. When mixed with soot and charcoal it leaves signs. Haney relaxed.

"We mostly eat together," he observed, satisfied that Joe was regular because his hands weren't soft and because mechanic's soap had done an incomplete job on them. "The Chief's a good guy. Join us?"

"Sure!" said Joe. "And thanks."

A brittle voice sounded somewhere around Haney's knees. Joe looked down, startled. The midget he'd seen up on the Platform nodded up at him. He'd squirmed through the press in Haney's wake. He seemed to bristle a little out of pure habit. Joe made room for him.

"I'm okay," said the midget pugnaciously.

Haney made a formal introduction.

"Mike Scandia." He thumbed at Joe. "Joe Kenmore. He's eating with us. Wants to find the Chief."

There had been no reference to the risk Joe had run in keeping Haney from a two-hundred-foot fall. But now Haney said approvingly: "I wanted to say thanks anyhow for keeping your mouth shut. New here?"

Joe nodded. The noise in the bus made any sort of talk difficult. Haney appeared used to it.

"Saw you with--uh--Major Holt's daughter," he observed again. "That's why I thought you were brass. Figured one or the other'd tell on Braun. You didn't, or somebody'd've raised Cain. But I'll handle it."

Braun would be the man Haney had been fighting. If Haney wanted to handle it his way, it was naturally none of Joe's business. He said nothing.

"Braun's a good guy," said Haney. "Crazy, that's all. He picked that fight. Picked it! Up there! Coulda been him knocked off--and I'd ha' been in a mess! I'll see him tonight."

The midget said something biting in his peculiarly cracked and brittle voice.

The bus rolled and rolled and rolled. It was a long twenty miles to Bootstrap. The desert outside the bus windows was utterly black and featureless, but once a convoy of trucks passed, going to the Shed.

Presently, though, lights twinkled in the night. Again the bus slowed, in column with the others. Then there were barrackslike buildings, succeeding each other, and then there was a corner and suddenly the outside was ablaze with light. The busses drew up to the curb and stopped, and everybody was immediately in a great hurry to get out, shoving unnecessarily, and Joe let himself be carried along by the crowd.

He found himself on the sidewalk with bright neon signs up and down the street. He was in the midst of the crowd which was the middle shift released. It eddied and dispersed without seeming to lessen. Most of the figures in sight were men. There were very, very few women. The neon signs proclaimed that here one could buy beer, and that this was Fred's Place, and that was Sid's Steak Joint. Bowling. Pool. A store--still open for this shift's trade--sold fancy shirts and strictly practical work clothes and highly eccentric items of personal adornment. A movie house. A second. A third. Somewhere a record shop fed repetitious music to the night air. There was movement and crowding and jostling, but the middle of the street was almost empty save for the busses. There were some bicycles, but practically no other wheeled traffic. After all, Bootstrap was strictly a security town. A man could leave whenever he chose, but there were formalities, and personal cars weren't practical.

"Chief'll be yonder," said Haney in Joe's ear. "Come along."

They shouldered their way along the sidewalk. The passers-by were of a type--construction men. Somebody here had taken part in the building of every skyscraper and bridge and dam put up in Joe's lifetime. They could have been kept away from the Space Platform job only by a flat refusal by security to let them be hired.

Haney and Joe moved toward Sid's Steak Joint, with Mike the midget marching truculently between them. Men nodded to them as they passed. Joe marshaled in his mind what he was going to tell the Chief. He had a trick for fixing the pilot-gyros. A speck of rust would spoil them, and they had been through a plane crash and a fire and explosions, but his trick would do, in ten days or less, what the plant back home had needed four months to accomplish. The trick was something to gloat over.

Into Sid's Steak Joint. A juke box was playing. Over in a booth, four men ate hungrily, with a slot TV machine in the wall beside them showing wrestling matches out in San Francisco. A waiter carried a huge tray from which steam and fragrant odors arose.

There was the Chief, dark and saturnine to look at, with his straight black hair gleaming in the light. He was a Mohawk, and he and his tribe had taken to steel construction work a long time back. They were good. There were not many big construction jobs on which the Chief's tribesmen were not to be found working. Forty of them had died together in the worst construction accident in history, when a bridge on its way to completion collapsed in the making, but there were a dozen or more at work on the Space Platform now. The Chief had essayed machine-tool work at the Kenmore plant, and he'd been good. He'd pitched on the plant baseball team, and he'd sung bass in the church choir, but there had been nobody else around who talked Indian, and he'd gotten lonely. At that, though, he'd left because the Space Platform began and wild horses couldn't have kept him away from a job like that!

He'd held a table for Haney and Mike, but his eyes widened when he saw Joe. Then he grinned and almost upset the table to stand up and greet him.

"Son-of-a-gun!" he said warmly. "What you doin' here?"

"Right now," said Joe. "I'm looking for you. I've got a job for you."

The Chief, still grinning, shook his head.

"Not me, I'm here till the Platform's done."

"It's on the job," said Joe. "I've got to get a crew together to repair something I brought out here today and that got smashed in the landing."

The four of them sat down. Mike's chin was barely above the table top. The Chief waved to a waiter. "Steaks all around!" he bellowed. Then he bent toward Joe. "Shoot it!"

Joe told his story. Concisely. The pilot-gyros, which had to be perfect, had been especially gunned at by saboteurs. An attack with possibly stolen proximity-fused rockets. The plane was booby-trapped, and somebody at an airfield had had a chance to spring the trap. So it was wreckage. Crashed and burned on landing.

The Chief growled. Haney pressed his lips together. The eyes of Mike were burning.

"Plenty of that sabotage stuff," growled the Chief. "Hard to catch the so-and-sos. Smash the gyros and the take-off'd have to wait till new ones got made--and that's more time for more sabotage."

Joe said carefully: "I think it can be licked. Listen a minute, will you?"

The Chief fixed his eyes upon him.

"The gyros have to be rebalanced," said Joe. "They have to spin on their own center of gravity. At the plant, they set them up, spun them, and found which side was heavy. They took metal off till it ran smoothly at five hundred r.p.m. Then they spun it at a thousand. It vibrated. They found imbalance that was too small to show up before. They fixed that. They speeded it up. And so on. They tried to make the center of gravity the center of the shaft by trimming off the weight that put the center of gravity somewhere else. Right?"

The Chief said irritably: "No other way to do it! No other way!"

"I saw one," said Joe. "When they cleaned up the wreck at the airfield, they heaved up the crates with a crane. The slings were twisted. Every crate spun as it rose. But not one wobbled! They found their own centers of gravity and spun around them!"

The Chief scowled, deep in thought. Then his face went blank.

"By the holy mud turtle!" he grunted. "I get it!"

Joe said, with very great pains not to seem triumphant, "Instead of spinning the shaft and trimming the rotor, we'll spin the rotor and trim the shaft. We'll form the shaft around the center of gravity, instead of trying to move the center of gravity to the middle of the shaft. We'll spin the rotors on a flexible bearing base. I think it'll work."

Surprisingly, it was Mike the midget who said warmly, "You got it! Yes, sir, you got it!"

The Chief took a deep breath. "Yeah! And d'you know how I know? The Plant built a high-speed centrifuge once. Remember?" He grinned with the triumph Joe concealed. "It was just a plate with a shaft in the middle. There were vanes on the plate. It fitted in a shaft hole that was much too big. They blew compressed air up the shaft hole. It floated the plate up, the air hit the vanes and spun the plate--and it ran as sweet as honey! Balanced itself and didn't wobble a bit! We'll do something like that! Sure!"

"Will you work on it with me?" asked Joe. "We'll need a sort of crew--three or four altogether. Have to figure out the stuff we need. I can ask for anybody I want. I'm asking for you. You pick the others."

The Chief grinned broadly. "Any objections, Haney? You and Mike and me and Joe here? Look!"

He pulled a pencil out of his pocket. He started to draw on the plastic table top, and then took a paper napkin instead.

"Something like this----"

The steaks came, sizzling on the platters they'd been cooked in. The outside was seared, and the inside was hot and deliciously rare. Intellectual exercises like the designing of a machine-tool operation could not compete with such aromas and sights and sounds. The four of them fell to.

But they talked as they ate. Absorbed and often with their mouths full, frequently with imperfect articulation, but with deepening satisfaction as the steaks vanished and the method they'd use took form in their minds. It wouldn't be wholly simple, of course. When the rotors were spinning about their centers of gravity, trimming off the shaft would change the center of gravity. But the change would be infinitely less than trimming off the rotors' rims. If they spun the rotors and used an abrasive on the high side of the shaft as it turned....

"Going to have precession!" warned Mike. "Have to have a polishing surface. Quarter turn behind the cutter. That'll hold it."

Joe only remembered afterward to be astonished that Mike would know gyro theory. At the moment he merely swallowed quickly to get the words out.

"Right! And if we cut too far down we can plate the bearing up to thickness and cut it down again----"

"Plate it up with iridium," said the Chief. He waved a steak knife. "Man! This is gonna be fun! No tolerance you say, Joe?"

"No tolerance," agreed Joe. "Accurate within the limits of measurement."

The Chief beamed. The Platform was a challenge to all of humanity. The pilot gyro was essential to the functioning of the Platform. To provide that necessity against impossible obstacles was a challenge to the four who were undertaking it.

"Some fun!" repeated the Chief, blissfully.

They ate their steaks, talking. They consumed huge slabs of apple pie with preposterous mounds of ice cream on top, still talking urgently. They drank coffee, interrupting each other to draw diagrams. They used up all the paper napkins, and were still at it when someone came heavily toward the table. It was the stocky man who had fought with Haney on the Platform that day. Braun.

He tapped Haney on the shoulder. The four at the table looked up.

"We hadda fight today," said Braun in a queer voice. He was oddly pale. "We didn't finish. You wanna finish?"

Haney growled.

"That was a fool business," he said angrily. "That ain't any place to fight, up on the job! You know it!"

"Yeah," said Braun in the same odd voice. "You wanna finish it now?"

Haney said formidably: "I'm not dodgin' any fight. I didn't dodge it then. I'm not dodgin' it now. You picked it. It was crazy! But if you got over the craziness----"

Braun smiled a remarkably peculiar smile. "I'm still crazy. We finish, huh?"

Haney pushed back his chair and stood up grimly. "Okay, we finish it! You coulda killed me. I coulda killed you too, with that fall ready for either of us."

"Sure! Too bad nobody got killed," said Braun.

"You fellas wait," said Haney angrily to Joe and the rest. "There's a storeroom out back. Sid'll let us use it."

But the Chief pushed back his chair.

"Uh-uh," he said, shaking his head. "We're watchin' this."

Haney spoke with elaborate courtesy: "You mind, Braun? Want to get some friends of yours, too?"

"I got no friends," said Braun. "Let's go."

The Chief went authoritatively to the owner of Sid's Steak Joint. He paid the bill, talking. The owner of the place negligently jerked his thumb toward the rear. This was not an unparalleled request--for the use of a storeroom so that two men could batter each other undisturbed. Bootstrap was a law-abiding town, because to get fired from work on the Platform was to lose a place in the most important job in history. So it was inevitable that the settlement of quarrels in private should become commonplace.

The Chief leading, they filed through the kitchen and out of doors. The storeroom lay beyond. The Chief went in and switched on the light. He looked about and was satisfied. It was almost empty, save for stacked cartons in one corner. Braun was already taking off his coat.

"You want rounds and stuff?" demanded the Chief.

"I want fight," said Braun thickly.

"Okay, then," snapped the Chief. "No kickin' or gougin'. A man's down, he has a chance to get up. That's all the rules. Right?"

Haney, stripping off his coat in turn, grunted an assent. He handed his coat to Joe. He faced his antagonist.

It was a curious atmosphere for a fight. There were merely the plank walls of the storeroom with a single dangling light in the middle and an unswept floor beneath. The Chief stood in the doorway, scowling. This didn't feel right. There was not enough hatred in evidence to justify it. There was doggedness and resolution enough, but Braun was deathly white and if his face was contorted--and it was--it was not with the lust to batter and injure and maim. It was something else.

The two men faced each other. And then the stocky, swarthy Braun swung at Haney. The blow had sting in it but nothing more. It almost looked as if Braun were trying to work himself up to the fight he'd insisted on finishing. Haney countered with a roundhouse blow that glanced off Braun's cheek. And then they bore in at each other, slugging without science or skill.

Joe watched. Braun launched a blow that hurt, but Haney sent him reeling back. He came in doggedly again, and swung and swung, but he had no idea of boxing. His only idea was to slug. He did slug. Haney had been peevish rather than angry. Now he began to glower. He began to take the fight to Braun.

He knocked Braun down. Braun staggered up and rushed. A wildly flailing fist landed on Haney's ear. He doubled Braun up with a wallop to the midsection. Braun came back, fists swinging.

Haney closed one eye for him. He came back. Haney shook him from head to foot with a chest blow. He came back. Haney split his lip and loosened a tooth. He came back.

The Chief said sourly: "This ain't a fight. Quit it, Haney! He don't know how!"

Haney tried to draw away, but Braun swarmed on him, striking fiercely until Haney had to floor him again. He dragged himself up and rushed at Haney--and was knocked down again. Haney stood over him, panting furiously.

"Quit it, y'fool! What's the matter with you?"

Braun started to get up again. The Chief interfered and held him, while Haney glared.

"He ain't going to fight any more, Braun," pronounced the Chief firmly. "You ain't got a chance. This fight's over. You had enough."

Braun was bloody and horribly battered, but he panted: "He's got enough?"

"Are you out o' your head?" demanded the Chief. "He ain't got a mark on him!"

"I ain't--got enough," panted Braun, "till he's got--enough!"

His breath was coming in soblike gasps, the result of body blows. It hadn't been a fight but a beating, administered by Haney. But Braun struggled to get up.

Mike the midget said brittlely: "You got enough, Haney. You're satisfied. Tell him so."

"Sure I'm satisfied," snorted Haney. "I don't want to hit him any more. I got enough of that!"

Braun panted: "Okay! Okay!"

The Chief let him get to his feet. He went groggily to his coat. He tried to put himself into it. Mike caught Joe's eye and nodded meaningfully. Joe helped Braun into the coat. There was silence, save for Braun's heavy, labored breathing.

He moved unsteadily toward the door. Then he stopped.

"Haney," he said effortfully, "I don't say I'm sorry for fighting you today. I fight first. But now I say I am sorry. You are good guy, Haney. I was crazy. I--got reason."

He stumbled out of the door and was gone. The four who were left behind stared at each other.

"What's the matter with him?" demanded Haney blankly.

"He's nuts," said the Chief. "If he was gonna apologize----"

Mike shook his head.

"He wouldn't apologize," he said brittlely, "because he thought you might think he was scared. But when he'd proved he wasn't scared of a beating--then he could say he was sorry." He paused. "I've seen guys I liked a lot less than him."

Haney put on his coat, frowning.

"I don't get it," he rumbled. "Next time I see him----"

"You won't," snapped Mike. "None of us will. I'll bet on it."

But he was wrong. The others went out of the storeroom and back into Sid's Steak Joint, and the Chief politely thanked the proprietor for the loan of his storeroom for a private fight. Then they went out into the neon-lighted business street of Bootstrap.

"What do we do now?" asked Joe.

"Where you sleeping?" asked the Chief hospitably. "I can get you a room at my place."

"I'm staying out at the Shed," Joe told him awkwardly. "My family's known Major Holt a long time. I'm staying at his house behind the Shed."

Haney raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

"Better get out there then," said the Chief. "It's midnight, and they might want to lock up. There's your bus."

A lighted bus was waiting by the curb. Its doors were open, but it was empty of passengers. Single busses ran out to the Shed now and then, but they ran in fleets at shift-change time. Joe went over and climbed aboard the bus.

"We'll turn up early," said the Chief. "This won't be a shift job. We'll look things over and lay out what we want and then get to work, eh?"

"Right," said Joe. "And thanks."

"We'll be there with our hair in braids," said Mike, in his cracked voice. "Now a glass of beer and so to bed. 'Night."

Haney waved his hand. The three of them marched off, the two huge figures of Haney and the Chief, with Mike trotting truculently between them, hardly taller than their knees. They were curiously colorful with all the many-tinted neon signs upon them. They turned into a diner.

Joe sat in the bus, alone. The driver was off somewhere. The sounds of Bootstrap were distinctive by night. Footsteps, and the jangling of bicycle bells, and voices, and a radio blaring somewhere and a record-shop loud-speaker somewhere else, and a sort of underriding noise of festivity.

There was a sharp rap on the glass by Joe's window. He started and looked out. Braun--battered, and bleeding from the corner of his mouth--motioned urgently for him to come to the door of the bus. Joe went.

Braun stared up at him in a new fashion. Now he was neither dogged nor fierce nor desperate to look at. Despite the beating he'd taken, he seemed completely and somehow frighteningly tranquil. He looked like somebody who has come to the end of torment and is past any feeling but that of relief from suffering.

"You--" said Braun. "That girl you were with today. Her pop is Major Holt, eh?"

Joe frowned, and reservedly said that he was.

"You tell her pop," said Braun detachedly, "this is hot tip. Hot tip. Look two kilometers north of Shed tomorrow. He find something bad. Hot! You tell him. Two kilometers."

"Y-yes," said Joe, his frown increasing. "But look here----"

"Be sure say hot," repeated Braun.

Rather incredibly, he smiled. Then he turned and walked quickly away.

Joe went back to his seat in the empty bus, and sat there and waited for it to start, and tried to figure out what the message meant. Since it was for Major Holt, it had something to do with security. And security meant defense against sabotage. And "hot" might mean merely significant, or--in these days--it might mean something else. In fact, it might mean something to make your hair stand on end when thought of in connection with the Space Platform.

Joe waited for the bus to take off. He became convinced that Braun's use of the word "hot" did not mean merely "significant." The other meaning was what he had in mind.

Joe's teeth tried to chatter.

He didn't let them.