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.

Nevertheless, the afternoon began splendidly. Joe dunked the bottled soft drinks in the lake to cool. Then he and Sally ate and talked and laughed. Joe, in particular, had more than the usual capacity for enjoyment today. He'd been through twenty-four hours of turmoil but now things began to look better. And there was the arrangement with Sally, which had a solid satisfactoriness about it. Sally was swell! If she'd been homely, Joe would have liked her just the same--to talk to and to be with. But she was pretty--and she was wearing his ring. She'd wrapped some string around the inside of the band to make it fit.

The only trouble was that Joe was occasionally conscious of the heavy weight in his right-hand coat pocket.

But they spent at least an hour in contented, satisfying, meaningless loafing that nobody can describe but that everybody likes to remember afterward. From time to time Joe looked ashore, when the weight in his pocket reminded him of danger.

But he didn't look often enough. He was pulling the chilled soft-drink bottles out of the lake when he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. He whirled, his hand in his pocket....

It was the Chief, with Haney and Mike the midget. They were striding across the rocky small peninsula.

Haney called sharply: "Everything okay?"

"Sure!" said Joe. "Everything's fine! What's the matter?"

"Mike had a hunch," said the Chief. "And--uh--I remembered I worked on the job when this dam was built twelve-fifteen years ago." He looked about him. "It looked different then."

Then he caught Joe's eye and jerked his head almost imperceptibly to one side. Joe caught the signal.

"I'll see about some more soft drinks," he said. "Come help me fish up the bottles."

Sally smiled at the other two. She was already inspecting the lunch basket.

"We still have some sandwiches," she said hospitably, "and some cake."

Haney came forward awkwardly. Mike advanced toward her with something of truculence. Joe knew what was in his mind. If Sally treated him like a freak.... But Joe knew with deep satisfaction that she wouldn't. He went down to the water's edge.

"What's up, Chief?" he asked in a low tone.

"Mike hadda hunch," rumbled the Chief. "Somebody tried to smash the stuff you brought. They did. But we started gettin' set to mend it. So what would they do? Polish us off. If they were set to atom-dust the whole Shed an' everybody in it, they wouldn't stop at four more murders."

Joe fished for a pop bottle.

"Mike said something like that back at the Shed," he observed.

"Yeah. But you were the one who figured things out. You'd be first target. Haney and Mike and me--we'd be hard to knock off in a crowd in Bootstrap. But you and her headed off by y'selves. Mike figured you mightn't be safe. So we checked."

Joe brought up one bottle and then another.

"We're all right. Haven't seen a soul."

"Don't mean a soul hasn't seen you," growled the Chief. "A car left Bootstrap less than twenty minutes behind you. There were three guys in it. It's parked down below the dam, outa sight. We saw it. And when we came up, careful, we spotted three guys hidin' out behind the rocks yonder. They look to me like they're waiting for somebody to go strolling back from the shoreline, so's--uh--maybe folks out at the powerhouse can't see 'em. That'd be you and her, huh?"

Joe went cold. Not for himself. For Sally.

"There's nobody else around," said the Chief. "Who'd they be waiting for but you two? Suppose they got a chance to kill you. They'd take the car keys. They'd drop your two bodies somewheres Gawdknowswhere. There'd be considerable of a hunt for you two. Major Holt would be upset plenty. Security might get loosened up. There might be breaks for guys who wanted to do a little extra sabotage--besides maybe hamperin' the repairin' of the pilot-gyros. Then they could try for Haney and Mike and me."

Joe said coldly: "I've got a pistol and so has Sally. Shall we take those pistols and go ask those three if they want to start something?"

The Chief snorted.

"Use sense! It's good you got the pistols, though. I snagged a twenty-two rifle from a shooting gallery. It was all I could get in a hurry. But go huntin' trouble? Fella, I want to see that Platform go up! I'll take care of things now. Good layout here. They got to come across the open to get near. Don't say anything to Sally. But we'll keep our eyes open."

Joe nodded. He carried the chilled, dripping bottles back to where Haney solemnly ate a sandwich, sitting crosslegged with his back to the lake and regarding the shore. The Chief dragged a .22 repeating rifle from inside his belt, where it had hung alongside his thigh. He casually strolled over to Mike and dropped the rifle.

"You said you felt like target practice," he remarked blandly. "Here's your armament. Any more sandwiches, ma'am?"

Sally smilingly passed him the last. She left the top of the basket open. The pistol that had been there was gone. Then Sally's eyes met Joe's and she was aware that his three friends had not come here merely to crash a picnic. But she took it in stride. It was an additional reason for Joe to approve of Sally.

"Me," said the Chief largely, "I'm goin' to swim. I haven't had any more water around me than a shower bath for so long that I crave to soak and splash. I'll go yonder and dunk myself."

He wandered off, taking bites from the sandwich as he went. He vanished. Haney leaned back against a sapling, his eyes roving about the shoreline and the rocks and brush behind it.

Mike was talking in his crackling, high-pitched voice.

"But just the same it's crazy! Fighting sabotage when we little guys could take over in a week and make sabotage just plain foolish! We could do the whole job while the saboteurs weren't looking!"

Sally said with interest: "Have you got the figures? Were they ever passed on?"

"I spent a month's pay once," said Mike sardonically, "hiring a math shark to go over them. He found one mistake. It raised the margin of what we could do!"

Sally answered: "Joe! Listen to this! Mike says he has the real answer to sabotage, and, in a way, to space-travel! Listen!"

Joe dropped to the ground.

"Shoot it," he said.

He was grimly alert, just the same. There were men waiting for them to start back to the car. These saboteurs were armed, and they intended to murder Sally and himself. Joe's jaws clamped tautly shut at the grim ideas that came into his mind.

But Mike was beginning to speak.

"Forget about the Platform a minute," he said, standing up to gesticulate, because he was only three and a half feet high. "Just figure on a rocket straight to the moon. With old-style rockets they'd a' had to have a mass ratio of a hundred and twenty to one. You'd have to burn a hundred and twenty tons of old-style fuel to land one ton on the moon. Now it could be done with sixty, and when the Platform's up, that figure'll drop again! Okay! You're gonna land a man on the moon. He weighs two hundred pounds. He uses up twenty pounds of food and drink and oxygen a day. Give him grub and air for two months--twelve hundred pounds. A cabin seven feet high and ten feet across. Sixteen hundred pounds, counting insulation an' braces for strength. That makes a pay load of a ton an' a half, and you'd have to burn a hundred an' eighty tons of fuel--old-style--to take it to the moon, and another hundred an' twenty for every ton the rocket ship weighed. You might get a man to the moon with a twelve-hundred-ton rocket--maybe. That's with the old fuels. He'd get there, an' he'd live two months, an' then he'd die for lack of air. With the new fuels you'd need ninety tons of fuel to carry the guy there, and sixty more for every ton the ship weighed itself. Call it six hundred tons for the rocket to carry one man to the moon."

Sally nodded absorbedly.

"I've seen figures like that," she agreed.

"But take a guy like me!" said Mike the midget bitterly. "I weigh forty-five pounds, not two hundred! I use four pounds of food and air a day. A cabin for me to live in would be four feet high an' five across. Bein' smaller, it wouldn't need so much bracing. You could do it for two hundred pounds. Three hundred for grub and air, fifty for me. Me on the moon supplied for two months would come to five-fifty pounds. Sixteen tons of fuel to get me to the moon direct! To carry the weight of the ship--it's smaller!--fifty tons maximum!"

"I--see...," said Sally, frowning.

He looked at her suspiciously, but there was no mockery in her face.

"It'd take a six-hundred-ton rocket to get a full-sized man to the moon," he said with sudden flippancy, "but a guy my size could do the same job of stranglin' in a fifty-ton job. Counting how much easier it'd be to get back, with atmosphere deceleration, I could make a trip, land, take observations, pick up mineral specimens, and get back--all in a sixty-ton rocket. That's just ten per cent of what it'd cost to take a full-sized man one way!"

He stamped his foot. Then he said coldly: "Haney, sittin' still you're a sittin' duck!"

The comment was just. Joe knew that Sally was on the lakeward side of this small island, and that there were impenetrable rocks between her and the mainland. But Haney sat crosslegged where he could watch the mainland, and he hadn't moved in a long while. If someone did intend to commit murder from a distance, Haney was offering a chance for a very fine target. He moved.

"Yeah!" said Mike with fine irony, reverting to his topic. "I could show you plenty of figures! There are other guys like me! We've got as much brains as full-sized people! If the big brass had figured on us small guys, they coulda made the Platform the size of a four-family house an' it'd ha' been up in the sky right now, with guys like me running it. Guys my size could man the ferry rockets bringin' up fuel for storage, and four of us could take a six-hundred-ton rocket an' slide out to Mars an' be back by springtime--next springtime!--with all the facts and the photographs to prove 'em! By golly----"

Then he made a raging, helpless gesture.

"But that's just the big picture," he said bitterly. "Right now, right at this minute, we could make it easy to finish the Platform the way it's building in the Shed! There are ferry rockets building somewhere else. You know about them?"

Sally said apologetically: "Yes. I know there'll be smaller rocket ships going up to the Platform. They'll carry fuel and stores and exchanges for the crew. Yes, I know there are ferry rockets building."

"Those ferry rockets," said Mike sardonically, "carry four men, plus two replacements for the crew. They'll carry air for ten days. But put four of us small guys in a ferry rocket! We'd have air and grub for two months, almost! Pull out the pay load and put in a hydroponic garden and communicators and we'd be a Platform, right then! Send up another ferry rocket to join us, and it could bring guided missiles! The ferry rockets could be finished quicker than the Platform! Send up three ferry rockets with midgets as crews, an' we could weld 'em together and have a Space Platform in orbit and working--and what'd be the use of sabotaging the big Platform then? The job would be done! There'd be no sense sabotaging the big Platform because the little one could do anything the big one could! It'd be up there and working! But," he demanded bitterly, "do you think anybody'll do anything as sensible as that?"

His small features were twisted in angry rebellion. And he was quite right in all his reasoning. Mankind could have made the journey to the planets in a hurry, and it could have had its Space Platform in the sky much more quickly, if only it could have consented to be represented by people like Mike--who would have represented mankind very valiantly.

Sally said distressedly: "Oh, Mike, it's all true and I'm so sorry!"

And she meant it. Joe liked Sally especially right then, because she didn't patronize Mike, or try to reason him out of his heartbreak.

Then Haney said abruptly: "Somebody's spotted the Chief."

Joe mentally kicked himself. The Chief had said he was going to swim. Now--but only now--Joe looked to see what he was doing.

He was far out from shore, swimming unhurriedly to the powerhouse at the middle of the dam. He would reach it, and swing up the ladder that could just be seen going down the lake side of the dam's top, and he would explain the situation on shore. A telephone call to Bootstrap would bring security men rushing at eighty miles an hour, and parachute troopers a good deal faster. But even before they arrived the Chief would lead the powerhouse crew ashore armed with the shotguns they kept for shooting waterfowl in and out of season.

The men on shore might or might not consider the Chief's swim to be proof that he knew their intentions. They were probably discussing the matter in some agitation right now. But they couldn't know that the party on the semi-island was armed.

Suddenly Mike said crisply: "We're goin' to have visitors."

He lay down carefully on the ground, fifteen feet uphill from Sally, where he could look over the ridge. He snuggled the .22 target rifle professionally to his shoulder. He drew a bead.

Three men very casually strolled out of the brushwood on the shore. They moved nonchalantly toward the strand of rocks that led out to the picnic spot. They looked like anybody else from Bootstrap. Casual, rough work clothing.... Haney bent down and picked up four good throwing stones. His expression was pained.

Joe said: "We've got pistols, Haney, and Sally's a good shot."

The men came on. Their manner was elaborately casual. Joe stepped up into view.

"No visitors!" he called. "We don't want company!"

One of the men held his hand to his ear, as if not understanding. They came on. They made no threatening gestures.

Then Joe took his hand out of his pocket, the pistol Sally'd given him gripped tightly.

"I mean that!" he said harshly. "Stand back!"

One of the three spoke sharply. On that instant three snub-nosed pistols appeared. Bullets whined as the men hurtled forward. The purpose was not so much murder at this moment as the demoralizing effect of bullets flying overhead while the three assassins got close enough to do their bloody job with precision.

A stone whizzed by Joe--Haney had thrown it--and the small target rifle in Mike's hands coughed twice. Joe held his fire. He had only six bullets and three targets to hit. With a familiar revolver he'd have started shooting now, but thirty yards is a long range with a strange pistol at a moving target.

One of the three killers stumbled and crashed to the ground. A second seemed suddenly to be grinning widely on one side of his face. A .22 bullet had slashed his cheek. The third ran head on into a rock thrown by Haney. It knocked the breath out of him and his pistol fell from his hand.

Joe fired deliberately at the widely grinning man and saw him spin around. Mike's target rifle spat again and the man Joe had hit wheeled and ran heavily, making incoherent yells. The one who'd tumbled scrambled to his feet and fled, hopping crazily, favoring one leg. Deserted, the third man turned and ran too, still doubled over and still gasping.

Mike's voice crackled. He was in a towering rage because of the way the target rifle shot. It threw high and to the right. The shooting gallery paid off in cigarettes for high scores--so the guns didn't shoot straight.

Until this moment Joe had been relatively calm, because he had something to do. But just then he heard Sally say "Oh!" in a queer voice. He whirled. Unknown to him, she had not been waiting under cover, but standing with her pistol out and ready. And her face was very white, and she was plucking at her hair. A strand came away in her fingers. A bullet had clipped it just above her shoulder.

Then Joe went sick ... weak ... trembling, and he disgraced himself by half-hysterically grabbing Sally and demanding to know if she was hurt, and raging at her for exposing herself to fire, while his throat tried to close and shut off his breath from horror.

There came loud pop-pop-popping noises. With the peculiar reverberation of sound over water, two motorcycles started from the powerhouse along the crest of the dam. They streaked for the shore carrying five men, one of whom was the Chief, with a red-checked tablecloth about his middle, brandishing a fire axe in default of other weapons.

The danger was over.

But the assassins couldn't be followed immediately. They still had at least two pistols. Eight men and a girl, counting Mike, with an armament of only two pistols, a .22 rifle, two shotguns and a fire axe were not a properly equipped posse to hunt down killers. Also by now it was close to sunset.

So the victors did the sensible thing. Joe and Sally and Haney and the Chief--his clothes retrieved--plus Mike headed back for Bootstrap. Joe and Sally rode in the Major's black car, and the other three in the jalopy they'd rented for the afternoon. On the way into the canyon below the dam, they stopped at the parked car their would-be assassins had come in. They removed its distributor and fan belt. The other men returned to the powerhouse with their shotguns and the fire axe, and telephoned to Bootstrap. The three gunmen who had planned murder became fugitives, with no means of transportation but their legs. They had a good many thousand square miles of territory to hide in, but it wasn't likely that they had food or any competence to find it in the wilds. Two were certainly hurt. With dogs and planes and organization, it should be possible to catch them handily, come morning.

So Joe and Sally drove back to Bootstrap with the other car following closely through all the miles that had to be covered in the dark. Halfway back, they met a grim search party in cars, heading for the dam to begin their man hunt in the morning. After that, Joe felt better. But his teeth still tended to chatter every time he thought of Sally's startled, scared expression as she pulled away a lock of her hair that had been severed by a bullet.

When they got back to the Shed, Major Holt looked tired and old. Sally explained breathlessly that her danger was her own fault. Joe'd thought she was safely under cover....

"It was my fault," said the Major detachedly. "I let you go away from the Shed. I do not blame Joe at all."

But he did not look kindly. Joe wet his lips, ready to agree that any disgrace he might be subjected to was justified, since he had caused Sally to be shot at.

"I blame myself a great deal, sir," he said grimly. "But I can promise I'll never take Sally away from safety again. Not until the Platform's up and there's no more reason for her to be in danger."

The Major said remotely: "I shall have to arrange for more than that. I shall put you in touch with your father by telephone. You will explain to him, in detail, exactly how the repair of your apparatus is planned. I understand that the gyros can be duplicated more quickly by the method you have worked out?"

Joe said: "Yes, sir. The balancing of the gyros can, which was the longest single job. But anything can be made quicker the second time. The patterns for the castings are all made, and the bugs worked out of the production process."

"You will explain that to your father," said the Major heavily. "Your father's plant will begin to duplicate these--ah--pilot-gyros at once. Meanwhile your--ah--work crew will start to repair the one that is here."

"Yes, sir."

"And," said the Major, "I am sending you to the pushpot airfield. I intend to scatter the targets the saboteurs might aim at. You are one of them. Your crew is another. From time to time you will confer with them and verify their work. If any of them should be--disposed of, you will be able to instruct others."

"It's really the other way about, sir," objected Joe. "The Chief and Haney are pretty good, and Mike's got brains----"

The Major moved impatiently.

"I am looking at this from a security standpoint," he said. "I am trying to make it plainly useless to attack the gyros again. Duplicates will be in production at your father's plant. There will be three men repairing the smashed ones. There will be another man in another place--and this will be you--who can instruct new workmen in the repair procedure if anything should happen. Thus there will have to be three separate successful coups if the pilot-gyros are not to be ready when the Platform needs them. Saboteurs might try one. Possibly two. But I think they will look for another weak spot to attack."

Joe did not like the idea of being moved away. He wanted to be on the job repairing the device that was primarily his responsibility. Besides, he had a feeling about Sally. If she were in danger, he wanted to be on hand.

"About Sally, sir----"

"Sally," said the Major tiredly, "is going to have to restrict herself to the point where she'll feel that jail would be preferable. But she will see the need for it. She will be guarded a good deal more carefully than before--and you may not know it, but she has been guarded rather well."

Joe saw Sally smiling ruefully at him. What the Major had said was unpleasant, but he was right. This was one of those arrangements that nobody likes, an irritating, uncomfortable, disappointing necessity. But such necessities are a part of every actual achievement. The difference between things that get done and things that don't get done is often merely the difference between patience and impatience with tedious details. This arrangement would mean that Joe couldn't see Sally very often. It would mean that the Chief and Haney and Mike would do the actual work of getting the gyros ready. It would take all the glamour out of Joe's contribution. These deprivations shouldn't be necessary. But they were.

"All right, sir," said Joe gloomily. "When do I go over to the field?"

"Right away," said the Major. "Tonight." Then he added detachedly: "Officially, the excuse for your presence there will be that you have been useful in uncovering sabotage methods. You have. After all, through you a number of planes that would have been blown up have now had their booby traps removed. I know you do not claim credit for the fact, but it is an excuse for keeping you where I want you to be for another reason entirely. So it will be assumed that you are at the pushpot field for counter-sabotage inspection."

The Major nodded dismissal with an indefinable air of irony, and Joe went unhappily out of his office. He telephoned his father at length. His father did not share Joe's disappointment at being removed to a place of safety. He undertook to begin the castings for an entire new set of pilot-gyros at once.

A little later Sally came out of her father's office.

"I'm sorry, Joe!"

He grinned unhappily.

"So am I. I don't feel very heroic, but if this is what has to be done to get the Platform out of the Shed and on the way up--it's what has to be done. I suppose I can phone you?"

"You can," said Sally. "And you'd better!"

They had talked a long time that afternoon, very satisfyingly and without any cares at all. Neither could have remembered much of what had been said. It probably was not earth-shaking in importance. But now there seemed to be a very great deal of other similar conversation urgently needing to be gone through.

"I'll call you!" said Joe.

Then somebody approached to take him to the pushpot airfield. They separated very formally under the eyes of the impersonal security officer who would drive Joe to his destination.

It was a tedious journey through the darkness. This particular security officer was not companionable. He was one of those conscientious people who think that if they keep their mouths shut it will make up for their inability to keep their eyes open. Socially he treated Joe as if he were a highly suspect person. It could be guessed that he treated everybody that way.

Joe went to sleep in the car.

He was only half-awake when he arrived, and he didn't bother to rouse himself completely when he was shown to a cubbyhole in the officers' barracks. He went to bed, making a half-conscious note to buy himself some clothes--especially fresh linen--in the morning.

Then he knew nothing until he was awaked in the early morning by what sounded exactly like the crack of doom.