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.

Major Holt wasn't to be found when Joe got out to the Shed. And he wasn't in the house in the officers'-quarters area behind it. There was only the housekeeper, who yawned pointedly as she let Joe in. Sally was presumably long since asleep. And Joe didn't know any way to get hold of the Major. He assured himself that Braun was a good guy--if he weren't he wouldn't have insisted on taking a licking before he apologized--and he hadn't said there was any hurry. Tomorrow, he'd said. So Joe uneasily let himself be led to a room with a cot, and he was asleep in what seemed seconds. But just the same he was badly worried.

In fact, next morning Joe woke at a practically unearthly hour with Braun's message pounding on his brain. He was downstairs waiting when the housekeeper appeared. She looked startled.

"Major Holt?" he asked.

But the Major was gone. He must have done with no more than three or four hours' sleep. There was an empty coffee cup whose contents he'd gulped down before going back to the security office.

Joe trudged to the barbed-wire enclosure around the officers'-quarters area and explained to the sentry where he wanted to go. A sleepy driver whisked him around the half-mile circle to the security building and he found his way to Major Holt's office.

The plain and gloomy secretary was already on the job, too. She led him in to face Major Holt. He blinked at the sight of Joe.

"Hm.... I have some news," he observed. "We back-tracked the parcel that exploded when it was dumped from the plane."

Joe had almost forgotten it. Too many other things had happened since.

"We've got two very likely prisoners out of that affair," said the Major. "They may talk. Also, an emergency inspection of other transport planes has turned up three other grenades tucked away in front-wheel wells. Ah--CO2 bottles have turned out to have something explosive in them. A very nice bit of work, that! The sandy-haired man who fueled your plane--ah--disappeared. That is bad!"

Joe said politely: "That's fine, sir."

"All in all, you've been the occasion of our forestalling a good deal of sabotage," said the Major. "Bad for you, of course.... Did you find the men you were looking for?"

"I've found them, but--."

"I'll have them transferred to work under your direction," said the Major briskly. "Their names?"

Joe gave the names. The Major wrote them down.

"Very good. I'm busy now----"

"I've a tip for you," said Joe. "I think it should be checked right away. I don't feel too good about it."

The Major waited impatiently. And Joe explained, very carefully, about the fight on the Platform the day before, Braun's insistence on finishing the fight in Bootstrap, and then the tip he'd given Joe after everything was over. He repeated the message exactly, word for word.

The Major, to do him justice, did not interrupt. He listened with an expression that varied between grimness and weariness. When Joe ended he picked up a telephone. He talked briefly. Joe felt a reluctant sort of approval. Major Holt was not a man one could ever feel very close to, and the work he was in charge of was not likely to make him popular, but he did think straight--and fast. He didn't think "hot" meant "significant," either. When he'd hung up the phone he said curtly: "When will your work crew get here?"

"Early--but not yet," said Joe. "Not for some time yet."

"Go with the pilot," said the Major. "You'd recognize what Braun meant as soon as anybody. See what you see."

Joe stood up.

"You--think the tip is straight?"

"This isn't the first time," said Major Holt detachedly, "that a man has been blackmailed into trying sabotage. If he's got a family somewhere abroad, and they're threatened with death or torture unless he does such-and-such here, he's in a bad fix. It's happened. Of course he can't tell me! He's watched. But he sometimes finds an out."

Joe was puzzled. His face showed it.

"He can try to do the sabotage," said the Major precisely, "or he can arrange to be caught trying to do it. If he's caught--he tried; and the blackmail threat is no threat at all so long as he keeps his mouth shut. Which he does. And--ah--you would be surprised how often a man who wasn't born in the United States would rather go to prison for sabotage than commit it--here."

Joe blinked.

"If your friend Braun is caught," said the Major, "he will be punished. Severely. Officially. But privately, someone will--ah--mention this tip and say 'thanks.' And he'll be told that he will be released from prison just as soon as he thinks it's safe. And he will be. That's all."

He turned to his papers. Joe went out. On the way to meet the pilot who'd check on his tip, he thought things over. He began to feel a sort of formless but very definite pride. He wasn't quite sure what he was proud of, but it had something to do with being part of a country toward which men of wholly different upbringing could feel deep loyalty. If a man who was threatened unless he turned traitor, a man who might not even be a citizen, arranged to be caught and punished for an apparent crime against a country rather than commit it--that wasn't bad. There can be a lot of things wrong with a nation, but if somebody from another one entirely can come to feel that kind of loyalty toward it--well--it's not too bad a country to belong to.

Joe had a security guard with him this time, instead of Sally, as he went across the vast, arc-lit interior of the Shed and past the shimmering growing monster that was the Platform. He went all the way to the great swinging doors that let in materials trucks. And there were guards there, and they checked each driver very carefully before they admitted his truck. But somehow it wasn't irritating. It wasn't scornful suspicion. There'd be snide and snappy characters in the Security force, of course, swaggering and throwing their weight about. But even they were guarding something that men--some men--were willing to throw away their lives for.

Joe and his guard reached one of the huge entrances as a ten-wheeler truck came in with a load of shining metal plates. Joe's escort went through the opening with him and they waited outside. The sun had barely risen. It looked huge but very far away, and Joe suddenly realized why just this spot had been chosen for the building of the Platform.

The ground was flat. All the way to the eastern horizon there wasn't even a minor hillock rising above the plain. It was bare, arid, sun-scorched desert. It was featureless save for sage and mesquite and tall thin stalks of yucca. But it was flat. It could be a runway. It was a perfect place for the Platform to start from. The Platform shouldn't touch ground at all, after it was out of the Shed, but at least it wouldn't run into any obstacles on its way toward the horizon.

A light plane came careening around the great curved outer surface of the Shed. It landed and taxied up to the door. It swung smartly around and its side door opened. A bandaged hand waved at Joe. He climbed in. The pilot of this light, flimsy plane was the co-pilot of the transport of yesterday. He was the man Joe had helped to dump cargo.

Joe climbed in and settled himself. The small motor pop-popped valiantly, the plane rushed forward over hard-packed desert earth, and went swaying up into the air.

The co-pilot--pilot now--shouted cheerfully above the din: "Hiya. You couldn't sleep either? Burns hurt?"

Joe shook his head.

"Bothered," he shouted in reply. Then he added, "Do I do something to help, or am I along just for the ride?"

"First we take a look," the pilot called over the motor racket. "Two kilometers due north of the Shed, eh?"

"That's right."

"We'll see what's there," the pilot told him.

The small plane went up and up. At five hundred feet--nearly level with the roof of the Shed--it swung away and began to make seemingly erratic dartings out over the spotty desert land, and then back. Actually, it was a search pattern. Joe looked down from his side of the small cockpit. This was a very small plane indeed, and in consequence its motor made much more noise inside its cabin than much more powerful engines in bigger ships.

"Those burns I got," shouted the pilot, staring down, "kept me awake. So I got up and was just walking around when the call came for somebody to drive one of these things. I took over."

Back and forth, and back and forth. From five hundred feet in the early morning the desert had a curious appearance. The plane was low enough for each smallest natural feature to be visible, and it was early enough for every shrub or hummock to cast a long, slender shadow. The ground looked streaked, but all the streaks ran the same way, and all were shadows.

Joe shouted: "What's that?"

The plane banked at a steep angle and ran back. It banked again. The pilot stared carefully. He reached forward and pushed a button. There was a tiny impact underfoot. Another steep banking turn, and Joe saw a puff of smoke in the air.

The pilot shouted: "It's a man. He looks dead."

He swung directly over the small prone object and there was a second puff of smoke.

"They've got range finders on us from the Shed," he called across the two-foot space separating him from Joe. "This marks the spot. Now we'll see if there's anything to the hot part of that tip."

He reached over behind his seat and brought out a stubby pole like a fishpole with a very large reel. There was also a headset, and something very much like a large aluminum fish on the end of the line.

"You know Geiger counters?" called the pilot. "Stick on these headphones and listen!"

Joe slipped on the headset. The pilot threw a switch and Joe heard clickings. They had no pattern and no fixed frequency. They were clickings at strictly random intervals, but there was an average frequency, at that.

"Let the counter out the window," called the pilot, "and listen. Tell me if the noise goes up."

Joe obeyed. The aluminum fish dangled. The line slanted astern from the wind. It made a curve between the pole and the aluminum plummet, which was hollow in the direction of the plane's motion. The pilot squinted down and began to swing in a wide circle around the spot where an apparently dead man had been sighted, and above which puffs of smoke now floated.

Three-quarters of the way around, the random clickings suddenly became a roar.

Joe said: "Hey!"

The pilot swung the plane about and flew back. He pointed to the button he'd pushed.

"Poke that when you hear it again."

The clickings.... They roared. Joe pushed the button. He felt the tiny impact.

"Once more," said the pilot.

He swung in nearer where the dead man lay. Joe had a sickening idea of who the dead man might be. A sudden rush of noise in the headphones and he pushed the button again.

"Reel in now!" shouted the pilot. "Our job's done."

Joe reeled in as the plane winged steadily back toward the Shed. There were puffs of smoke floating in the air behind. They had been ranged on at the instant they appeared. Somebody back at the Shed knew that something that needed to be investigated was at a certain spot, and the two later puffs of smoke had said that radioactivity was notable in the air along the line the two puffs made. Not much more information would be needed. The meaning of Braun's warning that his tip was "hot" was definite. It was "hot" in the sense that it dealt with radioactivity!

The plane dipped down and landed by the great doors again. It taxied up and the pilot killed the motor.

"We've been using Geigers for months," he said pleasedly, "and never got a sign before. This is one time we were set for something."

"What?" asked Joe. But he knew.

"Atomic dust is one good guess," the pilot told him. "It was talked of as a possible weapon away back in the Smyth Report. Nobody's ever tried it. We thought it might be tried against the Platform. If somebody managed to spread some really hot radioactive dust around the Shed, all three shifts might get fatally burned before it was noticed. They'd think so, anyhow! But the guy who was supposed to dump it opened up the can for a look. And it killed him."

He climbed out of the plane and went to the doorway. He took a telephone from a guard and talked crisply into it. He hung up.

"Somebody coming for you," he said amiably. "Wait here. Be seeing you."

He went out, the motor kicked over and caught, and the tiny plane raced away. Seconds later it was aloft and winging southward.

Joe waited. Presently a door opened and something came clanking out. It was a tractor with surprisingly heavy armor. There were men in it, also wearing armor of a peculiar sort, which they were still adjusting. The tractor towed a half-track platform on which there were a crane and a very considerable lead-coated bin with a top. It went briskly off into the distance toward the north.

Joe was amazed, but comprehending. The vehicle and the men were armored against radioactivity. They would approach the dead man from upwind, and they would scoop up his body and put it in the lead-lined bin, and with it all deadly radioactive material near him. This was the equipment that must have been used to handle the dud atom bomb some months back. It had been ready for that. It was ready for this emergency. Somebody had tried to think of every imaginable situation that could arise in connection with the Platform.

But in a moment a guard came for Joe and took him to where the Chief and Haney and Mike waited by the still incompletely-pulled-away crates. They had some new ideas about the job on hand that were better than the original ones in some details. All four of them set to work to make a careful survey of damage--of parts that would have to be replaced and of those that needed to be repaired. The discoveries they made would have appalled Joe earlier. Now he merely made notes of parts necessary to be replaced by new ones that could be had within the repair time for rebalancing the rotors.

"This is sure a mess," said Haney mournfully, as they worked. "It's two days just getting things cleaned up!"

The Chief eyed the rotors. There were two of them, great four-foot disks with extraordinary short and stubby shafts that were brought to beautifully polished conical ends to fit in the bearings. The bearings were hollowed to fit the shaft ends, but they were intricately scored to form oil channels. In operation, a very special silicone oil would be pumped into the bearings under high pressure. Distributed by the channels, the oil would form a film that by its pressure would hold the cone end of the bearing away from actual contact with the metal. The rotors, in fact, would be floated in oil just as the high-speed centrifuge the Chief had mentioned had floated on compressed air. But they had to be perfectly balanced, because any imbalance would make the shaft pierce the oil film and touch the metal of the bearing--and when a shaft is turning at 40,000 r.p.m. it is not good for it to touch anything. Shaft and bearing would burn white-hot in fractions of a second and there would be several devils to pay.

"We've got to spin it in a lathe," said the Chief profoundly, "to hold the chucks. The chucks have got to be these same bearings, because nothing else will stand the speed. And we got to cut out the bed plate of any lathe we find. Hm. We got to do our spinning with the shaft lined up with the earth's axis, too."

Mike nodded wisely, and Joe knew he'd pointed that out. It was true enough. A high-speed gyro could only be run for minutes in one single direction if its mount were fixed. If a precisely mounted gyro had its shaft pointed at the sun, for example, while it ran, its axis would try to follow the sun. It would try not to turn with the earth, and it would wreck itself. They had to use the cone bearings, but in order to protect the fine channellings for oil they'd have to use cone-shaped shims at the beginning while running at low speed. The cone ends of the shaft would need new machining to line them up. The bearings had to be fixed, yet flexible. The----

They had used many paper napkins the night before, merely envisioning these details. New problems turned up as the apparatus itself was being uncovered and cleaned.

They worked for hours, clearing away soot and charred material. Joe's list of small parts to be replaced from the home plant was as long as his arm. The motors, of course, had to be scrapped and new ones substituted. Considering their speed--the field strength at operating rate was almost imperceptible--they had to be built new, which would mean round-the-clock work at Kenmore.

A messenger came for Joe. The security office wanted him. Major Holt's gloomy secretary did not even glance up as he entered. Major Holt himself looked tired.

"There was a man out there," he said curtly. "I think it is your friend Braun. I'll get you to look and identify."

Joe had suspected as much. He waited.

"He'd opened a container of cobalt powder. It was in a beryllium case. There was half a pound of it. It killed him."

"Radioactive cobalt," said Joe.

"Definitely," said the Major grimly. "Half a pound of it gives off the radiation of an eighth of a ton of pure radium. One can guess that he had been instructed to get up as high as he could in the Shed and dump the powder into the air. It would diffuse--scatter as it sifted down. It would have contaminated the whole Shed past all use for years--let alone killing everybody in it."

Joe swallowed.

"He was burned, then."

"He had the equivalent of two hundred and fifty pounds of radium within inches of his body," the Major said unbendingly, "and naturally it was not healthy. For that matter, the container itself was not adequate protection for him. Once he'd carried it in his pocket for a very few minutes, he was a dead man, even though he was not conscious of the fact."

Joe knew what was wanted of him.

"You want me to look at him," he said.

The Major nodded.

"Yes. Afterward, get a radiation check on yourself. It is hardly likely that he was--ah--carrying the stuff with him last night, in Bootstrap. But if he was--ah--you may need some precautionary treatment--you and the men who were with you."

Joe realized what that meant. Braun had been given a relatively small container of the deadliest available radioactive material on Earth. Milligrams of it, shipped from Oak Ridge for scientific use, were encased in thick lead chests. He'd carried two hundred and fifty grams in a container he could put in his pocket. He was not only dead as he walked, under such circumstances. He was also death to those who walked near him.

"Somebody else may have been burned in any case," said the Major detachedly. "I am going to issue a radioactivity alarm and check every man in Bootstrap for burns. It is--ah--very likely that the man who delivered it to this man is burned, too. But you will not mention this, of course."

He waved his hand in dismissal. Joe turned to go. The Major added grimly: "By the way, there is no doubt about the booby-trapping of planes. We've found eight, so far, ready to be crashed when a string was pulled while they were serviced. But the men who did the booby-trapping have vanished. They disappeared suddenly during last night. They were warned! Have you talked to anybody?"

"No sir," said Joe.

"I would like to know," said the Major coldly, "how they knew we'd found out their trick!"

Joe went out. He felt very cold at the pit of his stomach. He was to identify Braun. Then he was to get a radiation check on himself. In that order of events. He was to identify Braun first, because if Braun had carried a half-pound of radioactive cobalt on him in Sid's Steak Joint the night before, Joe was going to die. And so were Haney and the Chief and Mike, and anybody else who'd passed near him. So Joe was to do the identification before he was disturbed by the information that he was dead.

He made the identification. Braun was very decently laid out in a lead-lined box, with a lead-glass window over his face. There was no sign of any injury on him except from his fight with Haney. The radiation burns were deep, but they'd left no marks of their own. He'd died before outer symptoms could occur.

Joe signed the identification certificate. He went to be checked for his own chances of life. It was a peculiar sensation. The most peculiar was that he wasn't afraid. He was neither confident that he was not burned inside, nor sure that he was. He simply was not afraid. Nobody really ever believes that he is going to die--in the sense of ceasing to exist. The most arrant coward, stood before a wall to be shot, or strapped in an electric chair, finds that astoundingly he does not believe that what happens to his body is going to kill him, the individual. That is why a great many people die with reasonable dignity. They know it is not worth making too much of a fuss over.

But when the Geiger counters had gone over him from head to foot, and his body temperature was normal, and his reflexes sound--when he was assured that he had not been exposed to dangerous radiation--Joe felt distinctly weak in the knees. And that was natural, too.

He went trudging back to the wrecked gyros. His friends were gone, leaving a scrawled memo for him. They had gone to pick out the machine tools for the work at hand.

He continued to check over the wreckage, thinking with a detached compassion of that poor devil Braun who was the victim of men who hated the idea of the Space Platform and what it would mean to humanity. Men of that kind thought of themselves as superior to humanity, and of human beings as creatures to be enslaved. So they arranged for planes to crash and burn and for men to be murdered, and they practiced blackmail--or rewarded those who practiced it for them. They wanted to prevent the Platform from existing because it would keep them from trying to pull the world down in ruins so they could rule over the wreckage.

Joe--who had so recently thought it likely that he would die--considered these actions with an icy dislike that was much deeper than anger. It was backed by everything he believed in, everything he had ever wanted, and everything he hoped for. And anger could cool off, but the way he felt about people who would destroy others for their own purposes could not cool off. It was part of him. He thought about it as he worked, with all the noises of the Shed singing in his ears.

A voice said: "Joe."

He started and turned. Sally stood behind him, looking at him very gravely. She tried to smile.

"Dad told me," she said, "about the check-up that says you're all right. May I congratulate you on your being with us for a while?--on the cobalt's not getting near you?--or the rest of us?"

Joe did not know exactly what to say.

"I'm going inside the Platform," she told him. "Would you like to come along?"

He wiped his hands on a piece of waste.

"Naturally! My gang is off picking out tools. I can't do much until they come back."

He fell into step beside her. They walked toward the Platform. And it was still magic, no matter how often Joe looked at it. It was huge beyond belief, though it was surely not heavy in proportion to its size. Its bright plating shone through the gossamer scaffolding all about it. There was always a faint bluish mist in the air, and there were the marsh-fire lights of welding torches playing here and there. The sounds of the Shed were a steady small tumult in Joe's ears. He was getting accustomed to them, though.

"How is it you can go around so freely?" he asked abruptly. "I have to be checked and rechecked."

"You'll get a full clearance," she told him. "It has to go through channels. Me--I have influence. I always come in through security, and I have the door guards trained. And I do have business in the Platform."

He turned his head to look at her.

"Interior decoration," she explained. "And don't laugh! It isn't prettifying. It's psychology. The Platform was designed by engineers and physicists and people with slide rules. They made a beautiful environment for machinery. But there will be men living in it, and they aren't machines."

"I don't see----"

"They designed the hydroponic garden," said Sally with a certain scorn. "They calculated very neatly that eleven square feet of leaf surface of a pumpkin plant will purify all the air a resting man uses, and so much more will purify the air a man uses when he's working hard. So they designed the gardens for the most efficient production of the greatest possible leaf surface--of pumpkin plants! They figured food would be brought up by the tender rockets! But can you imagine the men in the Platform, floating among the stars, living on dehydrated food and stuffing themselves hungrily with pumpkins because that is the only fresh food they have?"

Joe saw the irony.

"They're thinking of mechanical efficiency," said Sally indignantly. "I don't know anything about machinery, but I've wasted an awful lot of time at school and otherwise if I don't know something about human beings! I argued, and the garden now isn't as mechanically efficient, but it'll be a nice place for a man to go into. He won't smell pumpkin plants all the time, either. I've even gotten them to include some flowers!"

They were very near the Platform. And it was very near to completion. Joe looked at it hungrily, and he felt a great sense of urgency. He tried to strip away the scaffolding in his mind and see it floating proudly free in emptiness, with white-hot sunshine glinting from it, and only a background of unwinking stars.

Sally's voice went on: "And I've really put up an argument about the living quarters. They had every interior wall painted aluminum! I argued that in space or out of it, where people have to live, it's housekeeping. This is going to be their home. And they ought to feel human in it!"

They passed into one of the openings in the maze of uprights. All about them there were trucks, and puffing engines, and hoists. Joe dragged Sally aside as a monstrous truck-and-trailer came from where it had delivered some gigantic item of interior use. It rumbled past them, and she led the way to a flight of temporary wooden stairs with two security guards at the bottom. Sally talked severely to them, and they grinned and waved for Joe to go ahead. He went up the steps--which would be pulled down before the Platform's launching--and went actually inside the Space Platform for the first time.

It was a moment of extreme vividness for him. Within the past hour he'd come to think detachedly of the possibility of death for himself, and then had learned that he would live for a while yet. He knew that Sally had been scared on his account, and that her matter-of-fact manner was partly assumed. She was at least as much wrought up as he was.

And this was the first time he was going into what would be the first space ship ever to leave the Earth on a non-return journey.