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.

Joe sat on the porch of Major Holt's quarters in the area next to the Shed. It was about eight-thirty, and dark, but there was a moon. And Joe had come to realize that his personal disappointment was only his personal disappointment, and that he hadn't any right to make a nuisance of himself about it. Therefore he didn't talk about the thing nearest in his mind, but something else that was next nearest or farther away still. Yet, with the Shed filling up a full quarter of the sky, and a gibbous moon new-risen from the horizon, it was not natural for a young man like Joe to speak purely of earthly things.

"It'll come," he said yearningly, staring at the moon. "If the Platform gets up day after tomorrow, it's going to take time to ferry up the equipment it ought to have. But still, somebody ought to land on the moon before too long."

He added absorbedly: "Once the Platform is fully equipped, it won't take many rocket pay loads to refill a ship's tanks at the Platform, before it can head on out."

Mathematically, a rocket ship that could leave the Platform with full fuel tanks should have fuel to reach the moon and land on it, and take off again and return to the Platform. The mathematical fact had a peculiar nagging flavor. When a dream is subjected to statistical analysis and the report is in its favor, a dreamer's satisfaction is always diluted by a subconscious feeling that the report is only part of the dream. Everybody worries a little when a cherished dream shows a likelihood of coming true. Some people take firm steps to stop things right there, so a romantic daydream won't be spoiled by transmutation into prosaic fact. But Joe said doggedly: "Twenty ferry trips to pile up fuel, and the twenty-first ship should be able to refuel and go on out. And then somebody will step out on the moon!"

He was disappointed now. He wouldn't be the one to do it. But somebody would.

"You might try for the ferry service," said Sally uneasily.

"I will," said Joe grimly, "but I won't be hoping too much. After all, there are astronomers and physics sharks and such things, who'll be glad to learn to run rockets in order to practice their specialties out of atmosphere."

Sally said mournfully: "I can't seem to say anything to make you feel better!"

"But you do," said Joe. He added grandiloquently, "But for your unflagging faith in me, I would not have the courage to bear the burdens of everyday life."

She stamped her foot.

"Stop it!"

"All right." But he said quietly, "You are a good kid, Sally. You know, it's not too bright of me to mourn."

She drew a deep breath.

"That's better! Now, I want----"

There was a gangling figure walking down the concrete path between the trim, monotonous cottages that were officers' quarters at the Shed.

Joe said sharply: "That's Haney! What's he doing here?" He called, "Haney!"

Haney's manner took on purpose. He came across the grass--the lawns around the officers' quarters contained the only grass in twenty miles.

"Hiya," said Haney uncomfortably. He spoke politely to Sally. "Hiya. Uh--you want to get in on the party, Joe?"

"What kind?"

"The party Mike was talkin' about," said Haney. "He's set it up. He wants me to get you and a kinda--uh--undercover tip-off to Major Holt."

Joe stirred. Sally said hospitably: "Sit down. You've noticed that my father gave you full security clearance, so you can go anywhere?"

Haney perched awkwardly on the edge of the porch.

"Yeah. That's helped with the party. It's how I got here, as far as that goes. Mike's on top of the world."

"Shoot it," said Joe.

"Y'know he's been pretty bitter about things," said Haney carefully. "He's been sayin' that little guys like him ought to be the spacemen. There's half a dozen other little guys been working on the Platform too. They can get in cracks an' buck rivets an' so on. Useful. He's had 'em all hopped up on the fact that the Platform coulda been finished months ago if it'd been built for them, an' they could get to the moon an' back while full-sized guys couldn't an' so on. Remember?"

"I remember," said Sally.

"They've all been beefin' about it," explained Haney. "People know how they feel. So today Mike went and talked to one or two of 'em. An' they started actin' mysterious, passin' messages back an' forth an' so on. Little guys, actin' important. Security guys wouldn't notice 'em much. Y'don't take a guy Mike's size serious, unless you know him. Then he's the same as anybody else. So the security guys didn't pay any attention to him. But some other guys did. Some special other guys. They saw those little fellas actin' like they were cookin' up somethin' fancy. An' they bit."

"Bit?" asked Sally.

"They got curious. So Mike an' his gang got confidential. An' they're going to have help sabotagin' the Platform when the next shift changes. The midgets gettin' even for bein' laughed at, see? They're pretending their plan is that when the Platform's sabotaged--not smashed, but just messed up so it can't take off--the big brass will let 'em take a ferry rocket up in a hurry, an' get it in orbit, an' use it for a Platform until the big Platform can be mended an' sent up. Once they're up there, there's no use tryin' to stop the big Platform. So it can go ahead."

Joe said dubiously: "I think I see...."

"Mike and his gang of little guys are bein' saps--on purpose. If anybody's goin' to pull some fast stuff, next shift change--that's the time everybody's got to! Last chance! Mike and his gang don't know what's gonna happen, but they sure know when! They're invitin' the real saboteurs to make fools of 'em. And what'll happen?"

Joe said drily: "The logical thing would be to feel sorry for the big guys who think they're smarter than Mike."

"Uh-huh," said Haney, deadly serious. "Mike's story is there's half a dozen rocket tubes already loaded. They're goin' to fire those rockets between shifts. The Platform gets shoved off its base an' maybe dented, and so on. Mike's gang say they got the figures to prove they can go up in a ferry rocket an' be a Platform, and the big brass won't have any choice but to let 'em."

Sally said: "I don't think they know how the big brass thinks."

Haney and Joe said together, "No!" and Joe added: "Mike's not crazy! He knows better! But it's a good story for somebody who doesn't know Mike."

Haney said in indignation: "I came out here to ask the Major to help us. The Chief's gettin' a gang together, too. There's some Indians of his tribe that work here. We can count on them for plenty of rough stuff. And there's Joe and me. The point is that Mike's stunt makes it certain that everything busts loose at a time we can know in advance. If the Major gives us a free hand, and then in the last five minutes takes his own measures--so they can't leak out ahead of time and tip off the gangs we want to get--we oughta knock off all the expert saboteurs who know the weak spots in the Platform. For instance those who know that thermite in the gyros would mess everything up all over again."

Joe said quietly: "But Major Holt has to be told well in advance about all this! That's absolute!"

"Yeah," agreed Haney. "But also he has got to keep quiet--not tell anybody else! There've been too many leaks already about too many things. You know that!"

Joe said: "Sally, see if you can get your father to come here and talk. Haney's right. Not in his office. Right here."

Sally got up and went inside the house. She came back with an uneasy expression on her face.

"He's coming. But I couldn't very well tell him what was wanted, and--I'm not sure he's going to be in a mood to listen."

When the Major arrived he was definitely not in a mood to listen. He was a harried man, and he was keyed up to the limit by the multiplied strain due to the imminence of the Platform's take-off. He came back to his house from a grim conference on exactly the subject of how to make preparations against any possible sabotage incidents--and ran into a proposal to stimulate them! He practically exploded. Even if provocation should be given to saboteurs to lure them into showing their hands, this was no time for it! And if it were, it would be security business. It should not be meddled in by amateurs!

Joe said grimly: "I don't mean to be disrespectful, sir, but there's a point you've missed. It isn't thinkable that you'll be able to prevent something from being tried at a time the saboteurs pick. They've got just so much time left, and they'll use it! But Mike's plan would offer them a diversion under cover of which they could pull their own stuff! And besides that, you know your office leaks! You couldn't set up a trick like this through security methods. And for a third fact, this is the one sort of thing no saboteur would expect from your security organization! We caught the saboteurs at the pushpot field by guessing at a new sort of thinking for sabotage. Here's a chance to catch the saboteurs who'll work their heads off in the next twenty-four hours or so, by using a new sort of thinking for security!"

Major Holt was not an easy man to get along with at any time, and this was the worst of all times to differ with him. But he did think straight. He stared furiously at Joe, growing crimson with anger at being argued with. But after he had stared a full minute, the angry flush went slowly away. Then he nodded abruptly.

"There you have a point," he said curtly. "I don't like it. But it is a point. It would be completely the reverse of anything my antagonists could possibly expect. So I accept the suggestion. Now--let us make the arrangements."

He settled down for a quick, comprehensive, detailed plan. In careful consultation with Haney, Joe worked it out. The all-important point was that the Major's part was to be done in completely unorthodox fashion. He would take measures to mesh his actions with those of Mike, the Chief, Haney, and Joe. Each action the Major took and each order he gave he would attend to personally. His actions would be restricted to the last five minutes or less before shift-change time. His orders would be given individually to individuals, and under no circumstances would he transmit any order through anybody else. In every instance, his order would be devised to mean nothing intelligible to its recipient until the time came for obedience.

It was not an easy scheme for the Major to bind himself to. It ran counter to every principle of military thinking save one, which was that it was a good idea to outguess the enemy. At the end he said detachedly: "This is distinctly irregular. It is as irregular as anything could possibly be! But that is why I have agreed to it. It will be at least--unexpected--coming from me!"

Then he smiled without mirth and nodded to Joe and to Haney, and went striding away down the concrete walk to where his car waited.

Haney left a moment later to carry the list of arrangements to the Chief and to Mike. And Joe went into the Shed to do his part.

There was little difference in the appearance of the Shed by night. In the daytime there were long rows of windows in the roof, which let in a vague, dusky, inadequate twilight. At night those windows were shuttered. This meant that the shadows were a little sharper and the contrasts of light and shade a trifle more abrupt. All other changes that Joe could see were the normal ones due to the taking down of scaffolding and the fastening up of rocket tubes. It was clear that the shape of the Platform proper would be obscure when all its rocket tubes were fast in place.

Joe went to look at the last pushpots, and they were ready to be taken over to their own field for their flight test before use. There were extras, anyhow, beyond the number needed to lift the Platform. He found himself considering the obvious fact that after the Platform was aloft, they would be used to launch the ferry rockets, too.

Then he moved toward the center of the Shed. A whole level of scaffolding came apart and its separate elements were bundled together as he watched. Slings lowered the bundles down to waiting trucks which would carry them elsewhere. There were mixing trucks still pouring out their white paste for the lining of the rocket tubes, and their product went up and vanished into the gaping mouths of the giant wire-wound pipes.

Presently Joe went into the maze of piers under the Space Platform itself. He came to the temporary stairs he had reason to remember. He nodded to the two guards there.

"I want to take another look at that gadget we installed," he said.

One of the guards said good-naturedly: "Major Holt said to pass you any time."

He ascended and went along the curious corridor--it had handgrips on the walls so a man could pull himself along it when there was no weight--and went to the engine room. He heard voices. They were speaking a completely unintelligible language. He tensed.

Then the Chief grinned at him amiably. He was in the engine room and with him were no fewer than eight men of his own coppery complexion.

"Here's some friends of mine," he explained, and Joe shook hands with black-haired, dark-skinned men who were named Charley Spotted Dog and Sam Fatbelly and Luther Red Cow and other exotic things. The Chief said exuberantly, "Major Holt told the guards to let me pass in some Indian friends, so I took my gang on a guided tour of the Platform. None of 'em had ever been inside before. And----"

"I heard you talking Indian," said Joe.

"You're gonna hear some more," said the Chief. "We're the first war party of my tribe in longer'n my grandpa woulda thought respectable!"

Joe found it difficult to restrain a smile. The Chief took him off to one side.

"Fella," he said kindly, "it bothers you, this business, because it ain't organized. That's what this world needs, Joe. Everything figured out by slide rules an' such--it's civilized, but it ain't human! What everybody oughta be is a connoisseur of chaos, like me. Quit worryin' an' get outside and pick up that security guy the Major was gonna send to meet you!"

He gave Joe an amiable shove and rejoined his fellow Mohawks, each of whom, Joe noticed suddenly, had somewhere on his person a twelve-inch Stillson wrench or a reasonable facsimile to serve as a substitute tomahawk. They grinned at him as he departed.

At the bottom of the flight of narrow wooden steps there was a third security man. He greeted Joe.

"Major Holt told me to pick you up," he observed.

Joe walked to one side with him. Major Holt had promised to send a first-class man to meet Joe at this place, with orders to take instructions from Joe. Joe said curtly: "You're to snag as many Security men as you can, place them more or less out of sight under the Platform here, and tell them to turn off their walkie-talkies and wait. No matter what happens, they're to wait right here until they're needed, right here!"

He looked harassedly around him. The Security man nodded and moved casually away. This was close timing. Something made Joe look up. He saw the catwalk gallery nearly overhead. The expected guard was there. Haney, though, was with him. There was nothing else in sight. Not yet. But Haney was on the job. Joe saw a Security man step out of sight in the scaffolding. He saw his own assigned security man speak to another, who wandered casually toward the Platform's base.

Minutes passed. Only Joe could have noticed, because he was watching for it. There were eight or nine Security men posted within call. They had their walkie-talkies turned off and would be subject only to his orders if an emergency arose.

Gongs began to ring all around the edge of the Shed. They set up a horrendous clanging. This was not an alarm, but simply the notice of change-of-shift time.

There was a marked change in the noises overhead. A crane pulled back. Hammerings dwindled and stopped. There were the sounds of pipes, combined to form the scaffolds, being taken apart for removal. A sling-load of pipe touched the floor and stayed there. The crane's internal-combustion motor stopped. Its operator stepped down to the floor and headed for the exit. Hoists descended and men moved across the floor. Other men scrambled down ladders. The floor became dotted with figures moving toward the doors through which men went out to get on the busses for Bootstrap.

Nothing happened. More long minutes passed. The shift brought out by the busses was going through the check-over process in the incoming screen room. Joe knew that Major Holt had, within the past five minutes, gathered together a tight-knit bunch of armed security men to be available for anything that might turn up. The men doing the normal shift-change screening were shorthanded in consequence.

The floor next to the exits became crowded, but the central area of the floor was cleared. One truck was stalled at the swing-up truck doors. Its driver ground the starter insistently.

Suddenly there was a high-pitched yell away up on the Platform. Then there was a shot. Its echoes rang horribly in the resonant interior of the Shed. Joe's own special security man hurried to him, his face tense.

"What about that?"

"Hold everything," said Joe grimly. "That's taken care of."

It was. That was Mike's gang--miniature humans popping out of hiding to offer battle with missiles carefully prepared beforehand against their alleged associates in sabotage. One of the associates had drawn a gun and fired. But Mike's gang had help. Out of small air locks devised to make the Platform's skin accessible to its crew on every side--provided they wore space suits--dark-skinned men appeared.

The security man's walkie-talkie under his shoulder made a buzzing sound. He reached for it.

"Forget it!" snapped Joe. "That's not for you! You've got your orders! Stay here!"

There was a sudden growling uproar where men were crowding to get out of the Shed. Thick, billowing smoke appeared. There was a crashing explosion. The men eddied and milled crazily.

The motor of the stalled truck caught. It moved toward the door, which opened, swinging up and high. Two trucks came roaring in. They raced for the Platform. And as they raced inside, their camouflaged loads clattered off and men showed instead. The guards by the doorway began to shoot.

"That's what we've got to stop!" snapped Joe.

He began to run, his pistol out. There was suddenly a small army--gathered by his orders--which materialized in the dim space under the Platform. It raced to guard against this evidently well-planned invasion.

The harsh, tearing rattle of a machine gun sounded from somewhere high up. Joe knew what it was. Mike's whole scheme had been intended to force all sabotage efforts to take place at a single instant. Part of the preparation was authority for Haney to drag in two machine guns from an outer watching-post and mount them to cover the interior of the Shed when the general attack began.

Those machine guns were shooting at the trucks. Splinters sprang up from the wood-block floor. Then, abruptly, one of the trucks vanished in a monstrous, actinic flash of blue-white flame and a roar so horrible that it was not sound but pure concussion. The other truck keeled over and crashed from the blast, but did not explode. Men jumped from it. There must have been screamed orders, but Joe could hear nothing at all. He only saw men waving their arms, and others seized things from the toppled load and rushed toward him, and he began to shoot as he ran to meet them.

Now, belatedly, the sirens of the Shed screamed their alarm, and choppy yappings set up as the siren wails rose in pitch. Over by the exit pistols cracked. Something fell with a ghastly crash not ten feet from where Joe ran. It was a man's body, toppled from somewhere high up on the structure that was the most important man-made thing in all the world. A barbaric war whoop sounded among the echoes of other tumult.

A Security man shot, and one of the running figures toppled and slid, his burden--which must certainly be a bomb--rolling ridiculously. There had been two trucks that plunged through the swing-up door. They had raced for the spaces under the Platform at the exact time when the floor would be clear, because all work had stopped. Under the Platform, the trucks were to have been detonated. At the very least, they would have rent and torn it horribly. They might have broken its back. And surely one truck should have made it. But there should not have been machine guns ready trained to shoot. Now the load of desperate men from the overturned survivor scurried for the Platform with parts of its cargo. If they could fight their way inside the Platform, they could blast its hull open, or demolish its controls or shatter its air pumps and its gyros and turn its air tanks into sieves. Anything that could be damaged would delay the take-off and so expose the Platform to further and perhaps more successful attack.

There were more pistol shots. A group of men fought their way out of the incoming screening rooms and raced for the center of the Shed. (Later, it would be found they had slabs of explosive inside their garments, and detonation caps to set them off.) Somewhere another door opened, and Security men came out with flickering pistols, Major Holt leading them. He had started out to fight off the truck-borne attack, but he was bound to be too late. Joe's followers were trying to take care of that. The scuttling men from the incoming rooms were Major Holt's first prey. They were shot as they ran.

Joe stumbled and fell and he heard guns crackling. As he scrambled up he pitched into a running figure that snarled as Joe hit him. And then he was fighting for his life.

This was under the Platform and in the middle of confusion many times confounded. Joe caught a wrist that held a gun. He knew his assailant had a bomb slung over one shoulder and right now had one hand free for combat. Joe instinctively tried to batter his enemy with his own pistol, instead of pushing the muzzle against the man's body and pulling the trigger. He struck a flailing blow, and his hand and the weapon struck a metal brace. The blow cut his knuckles and paralyzed his fingers. Despairingly he felt the pistol slipping from his grasp. Then his assailant brought up his knee viciously, but it hit Joe's thigh instead of his groin, and Joe flung his weight furiously forward and they toppled to the ground together.

There was fighting all around him. The machine guns rasped again--there was a burst of tracer-bullet fire. The panicked men by the exit tried to surge out through the swinging doors. But the tracers marked a line they must not cross. They checked. Once a gun flashed so close by Joe's eyes that it blinded him. And once somebody fell over both himself and his antagonist, who writhed like an eel possessed of desperate strength past belief.

Joe could really know only his private part in the struggle down in the murky tangle of the scaffold base. But there was fighting up on the Platform itself. A savagely grinning Mohawk wrestled furiously with a man on one of the rocket tubes. An incendiary device in the saboteur's pocket ignited, and it flamed red-hot and he screamed as it burned its way out of his garments. The Mohawk flung the man fiercely clear, to crash horribly on the far-distant floor, and then kicked the incendiary off. It fell after the man and hit and burst, and it was thermite which surrounded itself with a column of acrid smoke from seared wood blocks.

There was fighting by the exit doors. There was an ululating uproar in the incoming screening room, and a war whoop from the top of the Platform. A saboteur tried to crawl into an air-lock entrance, and he got his head and shoulders in, but a copper-skinned Indian held his forehead still and chopped down with the side of his hand on that man's neck. Underneath the Platform was panting chaos, with pistol shots and hand-to-hand struggles everywhere. The force Joe had gathered fought valiantly, but four invaders got to the foot of the wooden steps, where there were two guards. Then there were only two saboteurs left to scramble desperately up the steps over the dead guards' bodies and head toward the Platform door, but the Chief appeared swinging a twelve-inch Stillson. He let it go, precisely like a skillfully flung tomahawk, and leaped down sixteen steps squarely onto the body of the other man. A gun flashed, but then there was only squirming struggle on the floor.

Mike the midget, inside the Platform, found one bloodied, panting, sobbing man who somehow had gotten inside. And Mike brought down a spanner from a ladder step, and swarmed upon his half-conscious victim, and hit him again, and then stayed on guard until somebody arrived who was big enough to carry the saboteur away.

And all this while, Joe struggled with only one man. It was a horrible struggle, because the man had a bomb and he might manage to set it off or it might go off of itself. It was a ghastly struggle, because the man had the strength and desperation of a maniac--and practiced the tactics. Joe pounded the hand that held the gun upon the floor, and it hit something and exploded smokily and fell clear. But that made things worse. While struggling to kill Joe with the revolver, his antagonist had had only five fingers with which to gouge out Joe's eyes or tear away his ears or rend his flesh. But with no pistol he had ten, and he fought like a wild beast. He even breathed like an animal. He began to pant--thick, guttural pantings that had the quality of hellish hate. And then there was a surging of bodies--Major Holt's reserve was arriving very late in the center of the Shed--and then a struggling group trampled all over the pair who squirmed and fought on the ground, and a heavy boot jammed down Joe's head and he felt teeth sink in his throat. They dug into his flesh, worrying and tearing....

Joe used his knee in a frenzy of revulsion--used his knee as the other man had tried to use his in the first instant of battle. The man beneath him screamed as an animal would scream, and Joe jerked his bleeding throat free. In hysterical horror he pounded his antagonist's head on the floor until the man went limp....

And then he heard a grim voice saying: "Quit it or you get your head blown off! Quit it----" And Joe panted: "It's about time you guys got here! This man came in on that truck. Watch out for that bomb he's got slung on him...."