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.

Nobody could have gone through the changes of emotion Joe had experienced that morning and remained quite matter-of-fact. Seeing a dead man who had more or less deliberately killed himself so that he wouldn't have to kill Joe--for one--had its effect. Knowing that it was certainly possible the man hadn't killed himself in time had another. Being checked over for radiation burns which would mean that he'd die quite comfortably within three or four days, and then learning that no burns existed, was something of an ordeal. And Sally--of course her feelings shouldn't have been as vivid as his own, but the fact that she'd been scared for him held some significance. When, on top of all the rest, he went into the Space Platform for the first time, Joe was definitely keyed up.

But he talked technology. He examined the inner skin and its lining before going beyond the temporary entrance. The plating of the Platform was actually double. The outer layer was a meteor-bumper against which particles of cosmic dust would strike and explode without damage to the inner skin. They could even penetrate it without causing a leak of air. Inside the inner skin there was a layer of glass wool for heat insulation. Inside the glass wool was a layer of material serving exactly the function of the coating of a bulletproof gasoline tank. No meteor under a quarter-inch size could hope to make a puncture, even at the forty-five-mile-per-second speed that is the theoretical maximum for meteors. And if one did, the selfsealing stuff would stop the leak immediately. Joe could explain the protection of the metal skins. He did.

"When a missile travels fast enough," he said absorbedly, "it stops acquiring extra puncturing ability. Over a mile a second, impact can't be transmitted from front to rear. The back end of the thing that hits has arrived at the hit place before the shock of arrival can travel back to it. It's like a train in a collision which doesn't stop all at once. A meteor hitting the Platform will telescope on itself like the cars of a railroad train that hits another at full speed."

Sally listened enigmatically.

"So," said Joe, "the punching effect isn't there. A meteor hitting the Platform won't punch. It'll explode. Part of it will turn to vapor--metallic vapor if it's metal, and rocky vapor if it's stone. It'll blow a crater in the metal plate. It'll blow away as much weight of the skin as it weighs itself. Mass for mass. So that weight for weight, pea soup would be just as effective armor against meteors as hardened steel."

Sally said: "Dear me! You must read the newspapers!"

"The odds figure out, the odds are even that the Platform won't get an actual meteor puncture in the first twenty thousand years it's floating round the Earth."

"Twenty thousand two seventy, Joe," said Sally. She was trying to tease him, but her face showed a little of the strain. "I read the magazine articles too. In fact I sometimes show the tame article writers around, when they're cleared to see the Platform."

Joe winced a little. Then he grinned wryly.

"That cuts me down to size, eh?"

She smiled at him. But they both felt queer. They went on into the interior of the huge space ship.

"Lots of space," said Joe. "This could've been smaller."

"It'll be nine-tenths empty when it goes up," said Sally. "But you know about that, don't you?"

Joe did know. The reasons for the streamlining of rockets to be fired from the ground didn't apply to the Platform. Not with the same urgency, anyhow. Rockets had to burn their fuel fast to get up out of the dense air near the ground. They had to be streamlined to pierce the thick, resisting part of the atmosphere. The Platform didn't. It wouldn't climb by itself. It would be carried necessarily at slow speed up to the point where jet-motors were most efficient, and then it would be carried higher until they ceased to be efficient. Only when it was up where air resistance was a very small fraction of ground-level drag would its own rockets fire. It wouldn't gain much by being shaped to cut thin air, and it would lose a lot. For one thing, the launching process planned for the Platform allowed it to be built complete so far as its hull was concerned. Once it got out into its orbit there would be no more worries. There wouldn't be any gamble on the practicability of assembling a great structure in a weightless "world."

The two of them--and the way they both felt, it seemed natural for Joe to be helping Sally very carefully through the corridors of the Platform--the two of them came to the engine room. This wasn't the place where the drive of the Platform was centered. It was where the service motors and the air-circulation system and the fluid pumps were powered. Off the engine room the main gyros were already installed. They waited only for the pilot-gyros to control them as a steering engine controls an Earth ship's rudder. Joe looked very thoughtfully at the gyro assembly. That was familiar, from the working drawings. But he let Sally guide him on without trying to stop and look closely.

She showed him the living quarters. They centered in a great open space sixty feet long and twenty wide and high. There were bookshelves, and two balconies, and chairs. Private cabins opened from it on different levels, but there were no steps to them. Yet there were comfortable chairs with straps so that when a man was weightless he could fasten himself in them. There were ash trays, ingeniously designed to look like exactly that and nothing else. But ashes would not fall into them, but would be drawn into them by suction. There was unpatterned carpet on the floor and on the ceiling.

"It's going to feel queer," said Sally, oddly quiet, "when all this is out in space, but it will look fairly normal. I think that's important. This room will look like a big private library more than anything else. One won't be reminded every second, by everything he sees, that he's living in a strictly synthetic environment. He won't feel cramped. If all the rooms were small, a man would feel as if he were in prison. At least this way he can pretend that things are normal."

Her mind was not wholly on her words. She'd been frightened for Joe. And he was acutely aware of it, because he felt a peculiar after-effect himself.

"Normal," he said drily, "except that he doesn't weigh anything."

"I've worried about that," said Sally. "Sleeping's going to be a big problem."

"It'll take getting used to," Joe agreed.

There was a momentary pause. They were simply looking about the great room. Sally stirred uneasily.

"Tell me what you think," she said. "You've been in an elevator that started to drop like a plummet. When the Platform is orbiting it'll be like that all the time, only worse. No weight. Joe, if you were in an elevator that seemed to be dropping and dropping and dropping for hours on end--do you think you could go to sleep?"

Joe hadn't thought about it. And he was acutely conscious of Sally, just then, but the idea startled him.

"It might be hard to adjust to," he admitted.

"It'll be hard to adjust to, awake," said Sally. "But getting adjusted to it asleep should be worse. You've waked up from a dream that you're falling?"

"Sure," said Joe. Then he whistled. "Oh-oh! I see! You'd drop off to sleep, and you'd be falling. So you'd wake up. Everybody in the Platform will be falling around the Earth in the Platform's orbit! Every time they doze off they'll be falling and they'll wake up!"

He managed to think about it. It was true enough. A man awake could remind himself that he only thought and felt that he was falling, and that there was no danger. But what would happen when he tried to sleep? Falling is the first fear a human being ever knows. Everybody in the world has at one time waked up gasping from a dream of precipices down which he plunged. It is an inborn terror. And no matter how thoroughly a man might know in his conscious mind that weightlessness was normal in emptiness, his conscious mind would go off duty when he went to sleep. A completely primitive subconscious would take over then, and it would not be satisfied. It might wake him frantically at any sign of dozing until he cracked up from sheer insomnia ... or else let him sleep only when exhaustion produced unconsciousness rather than restful slumber.

"That's a tough one!" he said disturbedly, and noticed that she still showed signs of her recent distress. "There's not much to be done about it, either!"

"I suggested something," said Sally, "and they built it in. I hope it works!" she explained uncomfortably. "It's a sort of blanket with a top that straps down, and an inflatable underside. When a man wants to sleep, he'll inflate this thing, and it will hold him in his bunk. It won't touch his head, of course, and he can move, but it will press against him gently."

Joe thought over what Sally had just explained. He noticed that they were quite close together, but he put his mind on her words.

"It'll be like a man swimming?" he asked. "One can go to sleep floating. There's no sensation of weight, but there's the feeling of pressure all about. A man might be able to sleep if he felt he were floating. Yes, that's a good idea, Sally! It'll work! A man will think he's floating, rather than falling!"

Sally flushed a little.

"I thought of it another way," she said awkwardly. "When we go to sleep, we go way back. We're like babies, with all a baby's fears and needs. It might feel like floating. But--I tried one of those bunks. It feels like--it feels sort of dreamy, as if someone were--holding one quite safe. It feels as if one were a baby and--beautifully secure. But of course I haven't tried it weightless. I just--hope it works."

As if embarrassed, she turned abruptly and showed him the kitchen. Every pan was covered. The top of the stove was alnico-magnet strips, arranged rather like the top of a magnetic chuck. Pans would cling to it. And the covers had a curious flexible lining which Joe could not understand.

"It's a flexible plastic that's heatproof," said Sally. "It inflates and holds the food down to the hot bottom of the pan. They expected the crew to eat ready-prepared food. I said that it would be bad enough to have to drink out of plastic bottles instead of glasses. They hung one of these stoves upside down, for me, and I cooked bacon and eggs and pancakes with the cover of the pan pointing to the floor. They said the psychological effect would be worth while."

Joe was stirred. He followed her out of the kitchen and said warmly--the more warmly because these contributions to the Space Platform came on top of a personal anxiety on his own account: "You must be the first girl in the world who thought about housekeeping in space!"

"Girls will be going into space, won't they?" she asked, not looking at him. "If there are colonies on the other planets, they'll have to. And some day--to the stars...."

She stood quite still, and Joe wanted to do something about her and the world and the way he felt. The interior of the Platform was very silent. Somewhere far away where the glass-wool insulation was incomplete, the sound of workmen was audible, but the inner corridors of the Platform were not resonant. They were lined with a material to destroy reminders that this was merely a metal shell, an artificial world that would swim in emptiness. Here and now, Joe and Sally seemed very private and alone, and he felt a sense of urgency.

He looked at her yearningly. Her color was a little higher than usual. She was not just a nice kid, she was swell! And she was good to look at. Joe had noticed that before, but now with the memory of her fright because he'd been in danger, her worry because he might have been killed, he thought of her very absurd but honest offer to cry for him.

Joe found himself twisting at the ring on his finger. He got it off, and there was some soot and grease on it from the work he'd been doing. He knew that she saw what he was about, but she looked away.

"Look, Sally," he said awkwardly, "we've known each other a long time. I've--uh--liked you a lot. And I've got some things to do first, but----" He stopped. He swallowed. She turned and smiled at him. "Look," he said desperately, "what's a good way to ask if you'd like to wear this?"

She nodded, her eyes shining a little.

"That was a good way, Joe. I'd like it a lot."

There was an interlude, then, during which she very ridiculously cried and explained that he must be more careful and not risk his life so much! And then there was a faint, faint sound outside the Platform. It was the yapping sound of a siren, crying out in short and choppy ululations as it warmed up. Finally its note steadied and it wailed and wailed and wailed.

"That's the alarm," exclaimed Sally. She was still misty-eyed. "Everybody out of the Shed. Come on, Joe."

They started back the way they'd come in. And Sally looked up at Joe and grinned suddenly.

"When I have grandchildren," she told him, "I'm going to brag that I was the very first girl in all the world ever to be kissed in a space ship!"

But before Joe could do anything about the comment, she was out on the stairs, in plain view and going down. So he followed her.

The Shed was emptying. The bare wood-block floor was dotted with figures moving steadily toward the security exit. There was no hurry, because security men were shouting that this was not an alarm but a precautionary measure, and there was no need for haste. Each security man had been informed by the miniature walkie-talkie he wore. By it every guard could be told anything he needed to know, either on the floor of the Shed, or on the catwalks aloft or even in the Platform itself.

Trucks lined up in orderly fashion to go out the swing-up doors. Men came down from the scaffolds after putting their tools in proper between-shifts positions--for counting and inspection--and other men were streaming quietly from the pushpot assembly line. Except for the gigantic object in the middle, and for the fact that every man was in work clothes, the scene was surprisingly like the central waiting room of a very large railroad station, with innumerable people moving briskly here and there.

"No hurry," said Joe, catching the word from a security man as he passed it on. "I'll go see what my gang found out."

The trio--Haney and Mike and the Chief--were just arriving by the piles of charred but now uncovered wreckage. Sally flushed ever so slightly when she saw the Chief eye Joe's ring on her finger.

"Rest of the day off, huh?" said the Chief. "Look! We found most of the stuff we need. They're gonna give us a shop to work in. We'll move this stuff there. We're gonna have to weld a false frame on the lathe we picked, an' then cut out the bed plate to let the gyros fit in between the chucks. Mount it so the spinning is in the right line."

That would be with the axis of the rotors parallel to the axis of the earth. Joe nodded.

"We'll be able to get set up in the mornin'," added Haney, "and get started. You got the parts list off to the plant for your folks to get busy on?"

Sally said quickly: "He's sending that by facsimile now. Then----"

The Chief beamed in benign mockery. "What you goin' to do after that, Joe? If we got the rest of the day off----?"

Sally said hurriedly: "We were--he was going off on a picnic with me. To Red Canyon Lake. Do you really need to talk business--all afternoon?"

The Chief laughed. He'd known Sally, at least by sight, back at the Kenmore plant.

"No, ma'am!" he told her. "Just askin'. I worked on that Red Canyon dam job, years back. That dam that made the lake. It ought to be right pretty around there now. Okay, Joe. See you as soon as work starts up. In the mornin', most likely."

Joe started away with Sally. Mike the midget called hoarsely: "Joe! Just a minute!"

Joe drew back. The midget's seamed face was very earnest. He said in his odd voice: "Here's something to think about. Somebody worked mighty hard to keep you from getting those gyros here. They might work hard to keep them from getting repaired. That's why we asked for a special shop to work in. It's occurred to me that a good way to stop these repairs would be to stop us. Not everybody would've figured out how to rebalance this thing. You get me?"

"Sure!" said Joe. "You three had better look out for yourselves."

Mike stared at him and grimaced.

"You don't get it," he said brittlely. "All right. I may be crazy, at that."

Joe rejoined Sally. The idea of a picnic was brand new to him, but he approved of it completely. They went to the small exit that led to the security building. They were admitted. There was remarkable calm and efficiency here, even though routine had been upset by the need to stop all work. As they went toward Major Holt's office, Joe heard somebody dictating in a matter-of-fact voice: "... this attempt at atomic sabotage was defeated outside the Shed, but it never had a chance of success. Geiger counters would have instantly shown any attempt to smuggle radioactive material into the Shed...."

Joe glanced sidewise at Sally.

"That's for a publicity release?" he asked.

She nodded.

"It's true, too. Nothing goes in or out of the Shed without passing close to a Geiger counter. Even radium-dial watches show up, though they don't set the sirens to screaming."

Joe said: "I'll get my order for new parts off on the facsimile machine."

But he had to get Major Holt's secretary to show him where to feed in the list. It would go east to the nearest facsimile receiver, and then be rushed by special messenger to the plant. Miss Ross gloomily set the machine and initialed the delivery requisition which was part of the document. It flashed through the scanning process and came out again.

"You and Sally," remarked Sally's father's secretary with a morose sigh, "can go and relax this afternoon. But there's no relaxation for Major Holt. Or for me."

Joe said unhopefully: "I'm sure Sally'd be glad if you came with us."

Major Holt's plain, unglamorous assistant shook her head.

"I haven't had a day off since the work began here," she said frowning. "The Major depends on me. Nobody else could do what I do! You're going to Red Canyon Lake?"

"Yes," agreed Joe. "Sally thought it might be pleasant."

"It's terribly dry and arid here," said Miss Ross sadly. "That's the only body of water in a hundred miles or more. I hope it's pretty there. I've never seen it."

She handed Joe back his original memo from the facsimile machine. An exact copy of his written list, in his handwriting, was now in existence more than fifteen hundred miles away, and would arrive at the Kenmore Precision Tool plant within a matter of hours. There could be no question of errors in transmission! It had to be right!

Sally came out, smiled at her father's secretary, and led Joe down to the entrance.

"I have the car," she said cheerfully, "and there'll be a lunch basket waiting for us at the house. I agreed that the lake was too cold for swimming, though. It is. Snow water feeds it. But it's nice to look at."

They went out the door, and the workers on the Platform were just beginning to pile into the waiting fleet of busses. But the black car was waiting, too. Joe opened the door and Sally handed him the key. She regarded the men swarming on the busses.

"There'll be bulletins all over Bootstrap," she observed, "saying that Braun tried to dust-bomb the Shed. They'll say that he may have carried the cobalt about with him, and so he may have burned other people--in a restaurant, a movie theater, anywhere--while he was carrying the dust and dying without knowing it. So everybody's supposed to report to the hospital for a check-up for radiation burns. Some people may really have them. But Dad thinks that since you weren't burned, Braun didn't carry it around. If anyone is burned, it'll be the person who brought the cobalt here to give him. And--well--he'll turn up because everybody does, and because he's burned he'll be asked plenty of questions."

Joe stepped on the starter. Then he pressed the accelerator and the car sped forward.

They stopped at the house in the officers'-quarters area on the other side of the Shed. Sally picked up the lunch basket that her father's housekeeper had packed on telephoned instructions. They drove away.

Red Canyon was eighty miles from the Shed, and the only way to get there was through Bootstrap, because the only highway away from the Shed led to that small, synthetic town. It was irritating, though they had no schedule, to find that the long line of busses was ahead of them on that twenty-mile stretch. The busses ran nose to tail and filled the road for a half-mile or more. It was not possible to pass so long a string of close-packed vehicles. There was just enough traffic in the opposite direction to make that impracticable.

They had to trail the line of busses as far as Bootstrap and crawl through the crowded streets. Once beyond the town they came to a security stop. Here Sally's pass was good. Then they went rolling on and on through an empty, arid, sun-baked terrain toward the hills to the west. It looked remarkably lonely. Joe thought for the first time about gas. He looked carefully at the fuel gauge. Sally shook her head.

"Don't worry. Plenty of gas. Security takes care of that. When I said where we were going and that I wanted the car, Dad had everything checked. If I live through this, I'll bet I stay a fanatic about cautiousness all my life!"

Joe said distastefully: "I suppose it gets everybody. Mike--the midget, you know--called me back just now to suggest that the people who tried to spoil the gyros might try to harm the four of us to hinder their repair!"

"It's not just foolishness," Sally admitted. "The strain is pretty bad, especially when you know things. You've noticed that Dad's getting gray. That's strain. And Miss Ross is about as tense. Things leak out in the most remarkable way--and Dad can't find out how. Once there was a case of sabotage and he could have sworn that nobody had the information that permitted it but himself and Miss Ross. She had hysterics. She insisted that she wanted to be locked up somewhere so she couldn't be suspected of telling anybody anything. She'd resign tomorrow if she could. It's ghastly." Then she hesitated and smiled faintly: "In fact, so Dad wouldn't worry about me this afternoon----"

He took his eyes off the road to glance at her.


"I promised we wouldn't go swimming and----" Then she said awkwardly: "There are two pistols in the glove compartment. Dad knows you. So I promised you'd put one in your pocket up at the lake."

Joe drew a deep breath. She opened the glove compartment and handed him a pistol. He looked at it: .38, hammerless. A good safe weapon. He slipped it in his coat pocket. But he frowned.

"I was looking forward to--not worrying for a while," he said wryly. "But now I'll have to remember to keep looking over my shoulder all the time!"

"Maybe," said Sally, "you can look over my shoulder and I'll look over yours, and we can glance at each other occasionally."

She laughed, and he managed to smile. But the trace of a frown remained on his forehead.

Joe drove and drove and drove. Once they came to a very small town. It may have contained a hundred people. There were gas pumps and a restaurant and two or three general stores, which were certainly too many for the permanent residents. But there were cow ponies hitched before the stores, and automobiles were also in view. The ground here was slightly rolling. The mountains had grown to good-sized ramparts against the sky. Joe drove carefully down the single street, turning out widely once to dodge a dog sleeping placidly in an area normally reserved for traffic.

Finally they came to the foothills, and then the road curved and recurved as it wound among them. And two hours from Bootstrap they reached Red Canyon. They first saw the dam from downstream. It was a monstrous structure of masonry, alone in the mountains. From its top a plume of falling water jetted out.

"The dam's for irrigation," said Sally professionally, "and the Shed gets all its power from here. One of Dad's nightmares is that somebody may blow up this dam and leave Bootstrap and the Shed without power."

Joe said nothing. He drove on up the trail as it climbed the canyon wall in hairpin slants. It was ticklish driving. But then, quite suddenly, they reached the top of the canyon wall and the top of the dam and the level of the lake at once. Here there was a sheet of water that reached back among the barren hillsides for miles and miles. It twisted out of sight. There were small waves on its surface, and grass at its edge. There were young trees. The powerhouse was a small squat structure in the middle of the dam. Not a person was visible anywhere.

"Here we are," said Sally, when Joe stopped the car.

He got out and went around to open the door for her. But she was already stepping out with the lunch basket in her hand when he arrived. He reached for it, and she held on, and they moved companionably away from the car carrying the basket between them.

"There's a nice place," said Sally, pointing.

A small ridge of rock stretched out into the lake, and rose, and spread, and formed what was almost a miniature island some fifty feet across. There were some young trees on it. Sally and Joe climbed down the slope and out the rocky isthmus that connected it with the shore.

Sally let down the lunch box on a stone and laughed for no reason at all as the wind blew her hair. It was a cool wind from over the water. And Joe realized with a shock of surprise that the air felt different and smelled different when it blew over open water like this. Up to now he hadn't thought of the dryness of the air in Bootstrap and the Shed.

The lunch basket was tilted a little. Joe picked it up and settled it more solidly. Then he said: "Hungry?"

There was literally nothing on his mind at the moment but the luxurious, satisfied feeling of being off somewhere with grass and a lake and Sally, and a good part of the afternoon to throw away. It felt good. So he lifted the lid of the lunch basket.

There was a revolver there. It was the other one from the glove compartment of the car. Sally hadn't left it behind. Joe regarded it and said ironically: "Happy, carefree youth--that's us! Which are the ham sandwiches, Sally?"