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.

On the day of the take-off there were a number of curious side-effects from the completion of the Space Platform. There was a very small country on the other side of the world which determined desperately to risk its existence on the success of the Platform's flight. It had to choose between abject submission to a powerful neighbor, or the possibility of a revolution in which its neighbor's troops would take on the semblance of citizens for street-fighting purposes. If the Platform got aloft, it could defy its neighbor. And in a grim gamble, it did.

There was also a last-ditch fight in the United Nations, wherein the Platform was denounced and a certain block of associated countries issued an ultimatum, threatening to bolt the international organization if the Platform went aloft. And again there had to be a grim gamble. If the Platform did not take to space and so furnish ultimately a guarantee of peace, the United Nations would face the alternatives of becoming a military alliance for atomic war, or something less than an international debating society.

Of course there were less significant results. There were already fourteen popular songs ready for broadcast, orchestrated and rehearsed with singers ready to saturate the ears of the listening public. They ranged from We've Got a Warship in the Sky, which was more or less jingoistic, to a boy-and-girl melody entitled We'll Have a Moon Just for Us Two. The latter tune had been stolen from a hit of four years before, which in turn had been stolen from a hit of six years before that, and it had been stolen from a still earlier bit of Bach, so it was a rather pretty melody.

And of course there was a super-colossal motion picture epic in color and with musical numbers, champing in its film cans for simultaneous first-run showings in eight different key cities. It was titled To the Stars, and three separate endings had been filmed, of which the appropriate one would of course be used in the eight separate world premières. One ending had the Platform fail due to sabotage, and the hero--played by an actor who had interrupted his seventh honeymoon to play the part--splendidly prepared to build it all over again. The second ending closed with the Platform headed for Alpha Centaurus--which was hardly the intention of anybody outside of filmdom. The third ending was secret, but it was said that hard-boiled motion-picture executives had cried like babies when it was thrown on preview screens.

These, of course, were merely sidelights. They were not very important in the Shed. There, work went on at a feverish rate although there was no longer any construction work to be done. In theory, therefore, the members of welders and pipe-fitters and steel-construction and electrical and other unions should have retired gracefully to Bootstrap. Members of building-maintenance and rigging and wrecking and other assorted unions should have been gathered together in far cities, screened by security, and brought to Bootstrap and paid overtime to pull up wood-block flooring and unbolt and jack out the proper sections of the Shed's eastern wall.

But if there had been anything of that sort tried, it would have produced bloodshed. The men who'd built the Platform were going to see it depart this Earth or else. They'd never have a second chance. It would work the first time or it wouldn't work at all.

So the Platform was made ready for its take-off by the men who had made it. A gigantic section--two full gores--of the Shed's wall was unbolted in two pieces, and each piece thrust outward at the top and bottom, so that they were offset from the rest of the huge half-globe. There were hundreds of wheels at their bottom which for the first time touched the sixteen lines of rails laid with unbelievable solidity around the outside of the Shed. And then the monstrous sections were rolled aside. A vast opening resulted, and morning sunlight smote for the first time mankind's very first space craft.

Joe saw the sunlight strike, and his first sensation was of disappointment. The normal shape of the Platform was ungainly, but now it was practically hidden by the solid-fuel rockets which would consume themselves in their firing. Also, the floor of the Shed looked strange. It was littered with the clumsy shapes of pushpots, trucked to this place in an unending stream all night long. A very young lieutenant from the pushpot airfield hunted up Joe and assured him that every drop of fuel in every pushpot's tanks had been tested twice--once in the storage tanks, and again in the pushpots. Joe thanked him very politely.

There was no longer any scaffolding. There were no trucks left except two gigantic cranes, which could handle the pushpots like so many toys. And the effect of sunlight pouring into the Shed seemed strange indeed.

Outside, there were carpenters hammering professionally upon a hasty grandstand of timber. Most of the carpenters would have been handier with rivet guns or welding torches, but it would have been indiscreet to comment. As fast as a final timber was spiked in place, somebody hastily wound it with very tawdry bunting. Men were stringing wires to the grandstand, and other men were setting up television and movie cameras. Two Security men grimly stood by each camera amid a glittering miscellany of microphones.

Joe was lucky. Or perhaps Sally pulled wires. Anyhow, the two of them had a vantage point for which many other people would have paid astonishing sums. They waited where the circular ramp between the two skins of the Shed was broken by the removal of the doorway. They were halfway up the curve of the Shed's roof, at the edge of the great opening, and they could see everything, from the pushpot pilots as they were checked into their contraptions, to the sedate arrival of the big brass at the grandstand below.

There was a reverberant humming from the Shed now. It might have been the humming of wind blowing across its open section. Joe and Sally saw a grim knot of Security men escorting four crew members to a flight of wooden steps that led up to a lower air-lock door--Joe had reason to remember that door--and watched them enter and close the air lock behind them. Then the security men pulled away the wooden stairs and hauled them completely away. There were a very few highly trusted men making final inspections of the Platform's exterior. One of them was nearly on a level with Joe and Sally. Other men were already lowering themselves down on ropes that they later jerked free, but this last man on top did a very human thing. When he'd finished his check-up to the last least detail, he pulled something out of his hip pocket. It was a tobacco can full of black paint. There was a brush with it. He painted his name on the silvery plates of the Platform, "C. J. Adams, Jr.," and satisfiedly began his descent to the ground. His name would go up with the Platform and be visible for uncounted generations--if all went well. He reached the ground and walked away, contented.

The cranes began their task. Each one reached down deliberately and picked up a pushpot. They swung the pushpots to vertical positions and presented them precisely to the Platform's side. They clung there ridiculously. Magnetic grapples, of course. Joe and Sally, at the end of the corridor in the wall, could see the heads of the pushpot pilots in their plastic domes.

Music blared from behind the grandstand. The seats were being filled. But naturally, the least important personages were arriving first. There were women in costumes to which they had given infinite thought--and nobody looked at them except other women. There was khaki. There were gray business suits--slide-rule men, these, who had done the brain-work behind the Platform's design. Then black broadcloth. Politicians, past question. There is nothing less impressive from a height of two hundred feet than a pot-bellied man in black broadcloth walking on the ground.

There were men in uniforms which were not of the United States armed forces. They ran heavily to medals, which glittered. There were more arrivals, and more, and more. The newsreel and TV cameras nosed around.

The cranes worked methodically. They dipped, and deftly picked up a thing shaped like the top half of a loaf of bread. They swung that metal thing to the Platform's side. Each time it clung fast, like a snail or slug to the surface on which it crawls. Many pushpots clung even to the rocket tubes--the same tubes that would presently burn away and vanish. So Joe and Sally saw the pushpots in a new aspect: blunt metal slugs with gaping mouths which were their air scoops.

The tinny music from below cut off. Somebody began an oration. The men who had built the Platform were not interested in fine phrases, but this event was broadcast everywhere, and some people might possibly tune to the channels that carried the speakers and their orations rather than the channels that showed the huge, bleak, obscured shape of the monster that was headed either for empty space or pure disaster.

The speaker stopped, and another took his place. Then another. One man spoke for less than a minute, and the stands went wild! But the one who followed made splendid gestures. He talked and talked and talked. The cranes cleaned up the last of the waiting pushpots, and the Platform itself was practically invisible.

The cranes backed off and went away, clanking. The orator raised his voice. It made small echoes in the vast cavern that was the Shed. Somebody plucked the speaker's arm. He ended abruptly and sat down, wiping his forehead with a huge blue handkerchief.

There was a roar. A pushpot had started its motor. Another roar. Another. One by one, the multitude of clustering objects added to the din. In the open a single jet was appalling. Here, the noise became a sound which was no longer a sound. It became a tumult which by pure volume ceased to be anything one's ears could understand. It reached a peak and held there. Then, abruptly, all the motors slackened in unison, and then roared more loudly. The group controls within the Platform were being tested. Three--four--five times the tumult faded to the merely unbearable and went up to full volume again.

Joe felt Sally plucking at his arm. He turned, and saw a jet plane's underbelly, very close, and its swept-back wings. It was climbing straight up. Then he saw another jet plane streaking for the great dome's open door. It moved with incredible velocity. It jerked upward and climbed over the Shed's curve and was gone. But there were others and others and others.

These were the fighter ships of the jet-plane guard. For months on end they had flown above the Shed, protecting it. Now they were going aloft to relieve the present watchers. They were rising to spread out as an interceptor screen for hundreds of miles in every direction, in case somebody should be so foolish as to try again the exploit of the night before. They would not see the monster in the Shed again. So in a single line which reached to the horizon, they made this roaring run for the one last glimpse which was their right. Joe saw tiny specks come streaking down out of the sky to queue up for this privileged view of the Platform before it rose.

Suddenly they were gone, and Joe felt that tingling sense of pride which never comes from the sensation of sharing in mere power or splendor or pompous might, but is so certain when the human touch modifies magnificence.

And then the roaring of the pushpot engines achieved an utterly impossible volume. The whole interior of the Shed was misty now, but shining in the morning light.

And the Platform moved.

At first it was a mere stirring. It turned ever so slightly to one side, pivoting on the ways that had supported it during building. It turned back and to the other side. The vapor thickened. From each jet motor a blast of blue-white flame poured down, and the moisture in the earth was turning into steam and stray wood-blocks into acrid smoke. The Platform turned precisely and exactly back to its original position, and Joe's heart pounded in his throat, because he knew that the turning had been done with the gyros, and they had been handled by the pilot-gyros for which he was responsible.

Then the Platform moved again. It lifted by inches and swayed forward. It checked, and lurched again, and went staggering toward the great opening before it. A part of its base gouged a deep furrow in the earthen floor.

The noise increased from the incredible to the inconceivable. It seemed as if all the thunders since time began had returned to bellow because the Platform moved.

And it floated and bumped out of the Shed. It staggered toward the east. Its keel was perhaps, at this point, as much as three feet above the ground, but the jet-motors cast up blinding clouds of dust and smoke and even those afoot could not be sure.

There was confusion. The smoke and vapor splashed out in every possible direction. Joe saw frantic movement, and he realized that the uniforms and the frock coats were scrambling to escape the fumes. The khaki-tinted specks which were men seemed to run. The frock coats ran. The carefully-thought-out brighter specks which were women ran gasping and choking from the smoke. One stout figure toppled, scrambled up, and scuttled frantically for safety.

But the Platform was in motion now. It was a hundred yards beyond the Shed wall. Two hundred. Three.... It slowly gathered speed. A half-mile from the Shed it was definitely clear of the ground. It left a trail of scorched, burnt desert behind....

It moved almost swiftly, now. Two miles from the Shed it was fifteen feet above the earth. Three miles, and a clear strip of sunlight showed beneath it. And it was still accelerating. At four miles and five and six....

It was aloft, climbing with seemingly infinite slowness, with all the hundreds of straining, thrusting, clumsy pushpots clinging to it and pushing it ever ahead and upward.

It went smoothly toward the east. It continued to gain speed. It did not seem to dip toward the horizon at all. It went on and on, dwindling from a giant to a spot and then to a little dark speck in the sky that still went on and on until even Joe could not pretend to himself that he still saw it. Even then there was probably a tiny droning noise in the air, but nobody who had watched the take-off could possibly hear it.

Then Joe looked at Sally and she at him. And Joe was grinning like an ape with excitement and relief and triumph which was at once his own and that of all his dreams. Sally's eyes were shining and exultant. She hugged him in purest exuberance, crying that the Space Platform was up, was up, was up....

* * * * *

At sundown they were waiting on the porch of the Major's quarters behind the Shed. The Major was there, and Haney and the Chief and Mike and Joe. The Major's whole look had changed. He seemed to have shrunk, and he looked more tired than any man should ever be allowed to get. But his job was done, and the reaction was enough to explain everything. He sat in an easy chair with a glass beside him, and he looked as if nothing on earth could make him move a finger. But nevertheless he was waiting.

Sally came out with a tray. She gravely passed around the glasses and the cakes that went with them. Then she sat down on the porch steps beside Joe. She looked at him and nodded in friendly fashion. And Joe was inordinately approving of Sally, but he felt awkward at showing it too plainly in her father's presence.

Mike said defiantly: "But still it woulda been easier to get it up there if it'd been built for guys like me!"

Nobody contradicted him. He was right. Anyhow every one of them felt too much relaxed and relieved to enter into argument.

Haney said dreamily: "Everything broke right. Everything! They got in a jet stream like they expected, and it gave 'em three hundred miles extra east-speed. They were eight miles up when the pushpots fired their jatos, an' twelve miles up when the pushpots let go--they musta near broke their pilots' necks when they caught their motors again! And the Platform's rockets fired just right, makin' flames a mile long, an' they were goin' then--what were they makin'?"

"Who cares?" asked the Chief peacefully. "Plenty!"

"Six hundred from the pushpots," murmured Haney, frowning, "an' three hundred from the jet stream, and then there was the jatos that all let go at once, an' then there was eight hundred from the earth rotatin'----"

"They had ten per cent of their rockets unfired when they got into their orbit," said Mike authoritatively. "They were two thousand miles up when they passed over India and now they're four thousand miles up and the orbit's stable. This is their third round, isn't it?"

"Will be," said the Chief.

Joe and Sally sat watching the west. The Space Platform went around the Earth from west to east, like Earth's natural moon, but because of its speed it would rise in the west and set in the east six times in every twenty-four hours.

Major Holt spoke suddenly. The austerity had gone out of his manner with his energy. He said quietly: "You four--you gave me the worst scare I've ever had in my life. But do you realize that that sabotage attempt with the two truck-loads of explosive--do you realize that they'd have gotten the Platform if it hadn't been for that crazy trick you four planned, and the precautions we took because of it?"

Joe said depreciatingly: "It was just luck that they happened to pick the same time, and that Haney was up there with those machine-gunners at the right moment. It was good luck, but it was luck."

The Major said effortfully: "There are people called accident prones. Accidents happen all around them, and nobody knows why. You four--perhaps Joe especially--are not accident prones. You seem to be something antithetic to accidents. I would hesitate to credit your usefulness to your brains. Especially Joe's brains. I have known him too long. But--ah--Washington does not look at it in exactly the same way."

Sally touched Joe warningly. But her face was very bright and proud. Joe felt queer.

"Joe," said the Major tiredly, "was an alternate for membership in the Platform's crew. But for penicillin, or something of the sort that made a sick man get well quickly, Joe would be up there in the Platform's orbit now. His--ah--record in the instruction he did take was satisfactory. And--ah--all four of you were very useful in the last stages of the building of the Platform. Again Joe especially. His--ah--co-operation with higher authorities has produced--ah--very favorable comments. So it is felt that he should have some recognition. All of you, of course, but Joe especially. So----"

Joe felt himself going white.

"Joe," said the Major, "is to be offered an appointment as skipper of a ferry rocket, carrying supplies and crew reliefs to the Platform. His rocket will carry a crew of four, including himself. His--ah--recommendations for membership in his crew will have considerable weight."

There was a buzzing in Joe's ears. He wanted to cry and to dance, and especially right then he would have liked very much to kiss Sally. It would have been the only really appropriate way to express his emotions.

Mike said in a fierce, strained voice: "Joe! I can do anything a big elephant of a guy can do, and I only use a quarter of the grub and air! You've got to take me, Joe! You've got to!"

The Chief said benignly: "H'm.... I'm gonna be in charge of the engine room, an' Haney'll be bos'n--let Joe try to take off without us!--an' that don't leave you a rating, Mike, unless you're willin' to be just plain crew!"

Slowly Sally turned her face away from Joe and looked up.

Then they all saw it. A telescope, maybe, would have shown it as the thing they'd worked on and fought for. But it didn't look like that to the naked eye. It was just a tiny speck of incandescence gliding with grave deliberation across the sky. It was a sliver of sunlight, moving as they watched.

There were a good many millions of people watching it, just then, as it floated aloft in emptiness. To some it meant peace and hope and confidence of a serene old age and a life worth living for their children and their children's children. To some it was a fascinating technical achievement. To a few it meant that if wars had ended, and turmoil was no longer the norm of life on earth, this thing would be their destruction. But it meant something to everybody in the world. To the people who had been unable to do anything to help it except to pray for it, perhaps it meant most of all.

Joe said quietly: "We'll be going up there to visit it. All of us."

He realized that Sally's hand was tightly clasped in his. She said: "Me too, Joe?"

"Some day," said Joe, "you too."

He stood up to watch more closely. Sally stood beside him. The others came to look. They made a group on the lawn, as people were grouped everywhere in all the world to gaze up at it.

The Space Platform, a tiny sliver of sunshine, an infinitesimal speck of golden light, moved sedately across the deepening blue toward the east. Toward the night.