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   Chapter 3 No.3

Space Tug By Murray Leinster Characters: 38123

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Making actual contact with the platform was not a matter for instruments and calculations. It had to be done directly-by hand, as it were. Joe watched out the ports and played the controls of the steering jets with a nerve-racked precision. His task was not easy.

Before he could return to the point of rendezvous, the blinding sunlight on the Platform took on a tinge of red. It was the twilight-zone of the satellite's orbit, when for a time the sunlight that reached it was light which had passed through Earth's atmosphere and been bent by it and colored crimson by the dust in Earth's air. It glowed a fiery red, and the color deepened, and then there was darkness.

They were in Earth's shadow. There were stars to be seen, but no sun. The Moon was hidden, too. And the Earth was a monstrous, incredible, abysmal blackness which at this first experience of its appearance produced an almost superstitious terror. Formerly it had seemed a distant but sunlit world, flecked with white clouds and with sprawling differentiations of color beneath them.

Now it did not look like a solid thing at all. It looked like a hole in creation. One could see ten thousand million stars of every imaginable tint and shade. But where the Earth should be there seemed a vast nothingness. It looked like an opening to annihilation. It looked like the veritable Pit of Darkness which is the greatest horror men have ever imagined, and since those in the ship were without weight it seemed that they were falling into it.

Joe knew better, of course. So did the others. But that was the look of things, and that was the feeling. One did not feel in danger of death, but of extinction-which, in cold fact, is very much worse.

Lights glowed on the outside of the Platform to guide the supply ship to it. There were red and green and blue and harsh blue-white electric bulbs. They were bright and distinct, but the feeling of loneliness above that awful appearance of the Pit was appalling. No small child alone at night had ever so desolate a sensation of isolation as the four in the small ship.

But Joe painstakingly played the buttons of the steering-rocket control board. The ship surged, and turned, and surged forward again. Mike, at the communicator, said, "They say slow up, Joe."

Joe obeyed, but he was tense. Haney and the Chief were at other portholes, looking out. The Chief said heavily, "Fellas, I'm going to admit I never felt so lonesome in my life!"

"I'm glad I've got you fellows with me!" Haney admitted guiltily.

"The job's almost over," said Joe.

The ship's own hull, outside the ports, glowed suddenly in a light-beam from the Platform. The small, brief surges of acceleration which sent the ship on produced tremendous emotional effects. When the Platform was only one mile away, Haney switched on the ship's searchlights. They stabbed through emptiness with absolutely no sign of their existence until they touched the steel hull of the satellite.

Mike said sharply: "Slow up some more, Joe."

He obeyed again. It would not be a good idea to ram the Platform after they had come so far to reach it.

They drifted slowly, slowly, slowly toward it. The monstrous Pit of Darkness which was the night side of Earth seemed almost about to engulf the Platform. They were a few hundred feet higher than the great metal globe, and the blackness was behind it. They were a quarter of a mile away. The distance diminished.

A thin straight line seemed to grow out toward them. There was a small, bulb-like object at its end. It reached out farther than was at all plausible. Nothing so slender should conceivably reach so far without bending of its own weight. But of course it had no weight here. It was a plastic flexible hose with air pressure in it. It groped for the spaceship.

The four in the ship held their breaths.

There was a loud, metallic clank!

Then it was possible to feel the ship being pulled toward the Platform by the magnetic grapple. It was a landing-line. It was the means by which the ship would be docked in the giant lock which had been built to receive it.

As they drew near, they saw the joints of the plating of the Platform. They saw rivets. There was the huge, 30-foot doorway with its valves swung wide. Their searchlight beam glared into it. They saw the metal floor, and the bulging plastic sidewalls, restrained by nets. They saw the inner lock-door. It seemed that men should be visible to welcome them. There were none.

The airlock swallowed them. They touched against something solid. There were more clankings. They seemed to crunch against the metal floor-magnetic flooring-grapples. Then, in solid contact with the substance of the Platform, they heard the sounds of the great outer doors swinging shut. They were within the artificial satellite of Earth. It was bright in the lock, and Joe stared out the cabin ports at the quilted sides. There was a hissing of air, and he saw a swirling mist, and then the bulges of the sidewall sagged. The air pressure gauge was spinning up toward normal sea-level air pressure.

Joe threw the ready lever of the steering rockets to Off. "We're landed."

There was silence. Joe looked about him. The other three looked queer. It would have seemed natural for them to rejoice on arriving at their destination. But somehow they didn't feel that they had.

Joe said wrily, "It seems that we ought to weigh something, now we've got here. So we feel queer that we don't. Shoes, Mike?"

Mike peeled off the magnetic-soled slippers from their place on the cabin wall. He handed them out and opened the door. A biting chill came in it. Joe slipped on the shoe-soles with their elastic bands to hold them. He stepped out the door.

He didn't land. He floated until he reached the sidewall. Then he pulled himself down by the netting. Once he touched the floor, his shoes seemed to be sticky. The net and the plastic sidewalls were, of course, the method by which a really large airlock was made practical. When this ship was about to take off again, pumps would not labor for hours to pump the air out. The sidewalls would inflate and closely enclose the ship's hull, and so force the air in the lock back into the ship. Then the pumps would work on the air behind the inflated walls-with nets to help them draw the wall-stuff back to let the ship go free. The lock could be used with only fifteen minutes for pumping instead of four hours.

The door in the back of the lock clanked open. Joe tried to walk toward it. He discovered his astounding clumsiness. To walk in magnetic-soled shoes in weightlessness requires a knack. When Joe lifted one foot and tried to swing the other forward, his body tried to pivot. When he lifted his right foot, he had to turn his left slightly inward. His arms tried to float absurdly upward. When he was in motion and essayed to pause, his whole body tended to continue forward with a sedate toppling motion that brought him down flat on his face. He had to put one foot forward to check himself. He seemed to have no sense of balance. When he stood still-his stomach queasy because of weightlessness-he found himself tilting undignifiedly forward or back-or, with equal unpredictability, sidewise. He would have to learn an entirely new method of walking.

A man came in the lock, and Joe knew who it was. Sanford, the senior scientist of the Platform's crew. Joe had seen him often enough on the television screen in the Communications Room at the Shed. Now Sanford looked nerve-racked, but his eyes were bright and his expression sardonic.

"My compliments," he said, his voice tight with irony, "for a splendidly futile job well done! You've got your cargo invoice?"

Joe nodded. Sanford held out his hand. Joe fumbled in his pocket and brought out the yellow sheet.

"I'd like to introduce my crew," said Joe. "This is Haney, and Chief Bender, and Mike Scandia." He waved his hand, and his whole body wobbled unexpectedly.

"We'll know each other!" said Sanford sardonically. "Our first job is more futility-to get the guided missiles you've brought us into the launching tubes. A lot of good they'll do!"

A huge plate in the roof of the lock-but it was not up or down or in any particular direction-withdrew itself. A man floated through the opening and landed on the ship's hull; another man followed him.

"Chief," said Joe, "and Haney. Will you open the cargo doors?"

The two swaying figures moved to obey, though with erratic clumsiness. Sanford called sharply: "Don't touch the hull without gloves! If it isn't nearly red-hot from the sunlight, it'll be below zero from shadow!"

Joe realized, then, the temperature effects the skin on his face noticed. A part of the spaceship's hull gave off heat like that of a panel heating installation. Another part imparted a chill.

Sanford said unpleasantly, "You want to report your heroism, eh? Come along!"

He clanked to the doorway by which he had entered. Joe followed, and Mike after him.

They went out of the lock. Sanford suddenly peeled off his metal-soled slippers, put them in his pocket, and dived casually into a four-foot metal tube. He drifted smoothly away along the lighted bore, not touching the sidewalls. He moved in the manner of a dream, when one floats with infinite ease and precision in any direction one chooses.

Joe and Mike did not share his talent. Joe launched himself after Sanford, and for perhaps 20 or 30 feet the lighted aluminum sidewall of the tube sped past him. Then his shoulder rubbed, and he found himself skidding to an undignified stop, choking the bore. Mike thudded into him.

"I haven't got the hang of this yet," said Joe apologetically.

He untangled himself and went on. Mike followed him, his expression that of pure bliss. He was a tiny man, was Mike, but he had the longings and the ambitions of half a dozen ordinary-sized men in his small body. And he had known frustration. He could prove by mathematics that space exploration could be carried on by midgets at a fraction of the cost and risk of the same job done by normal-sized men. He was, of course, quite right. The cabins and air and food supplies for a spaceship's crew of midgets would cost and weigh a fraction of similar equipment for six-footers. But people simply weren't interested in sending midgets out into space.

But Mike had gotten here. He was in the Space Platform. There were full-sized men who would joyfully have changed places with him, forty-one inch height and all. So Mike was blissful.

The tube ended and Joe bounced off the wall that faced its end. Sanford was waiting. He grinned with more than a hint of spite.

"Here's our communications room," he said. "Now you can talk down to Earth. It'll be relayed, now, but in half an hour you can reach the Shed direct."

He floated inside. Joe followed cautiously. There was another crew member on duty there. He sat before a group of radar screens, with thigh grips across his legs to hold him in his chair. He turned his head and nodded cheerfully enough.

"Here!" snapped Sanford.

Joe clambered awkwardly to the seat the senior crew member pointed out. He made his way to it by handholds on the walls. He fumbled into the chair and threw over the curved thigh grips that would hold him in place.

Suddenly he was oriented. He had seen this room before-before the Platform was launched. True, the man at the radar screens was upside-down with reference to himself, and Sanford had hooked a knee negligently around the arm of a firmly anchored chair with his body at right angles to Joe's own, but at least Joe knew where he was and what he was to do.

"Go ahead and report," said Sanford sardonically. "You might tell them that you heroically destroyed the rockets that attacked us, and that your crew behaved splendidly, and that you have landed in the Space Platform and the situation is well in hand. It isn't, but it will make nice headlines."

Joe said evenly, "Our arrival's been reported?"

"No," said Sanford, grinning. "Obviously the radar down on Earth-shipboard ones on this hemisphere, of course-have reported that the Platform still exists. But we haven't communicated since the bombs went off. They probably think we had so many punctures that we lost all our air and are all wiped out. They'll be glad to hear from you that we aren't."

Joe threw a switch, frowning. This wasn't right. Sanford was the senior scientist on board and hence in command, because he was best-qualified to direct the scientific observations the Platform was making. But there was something specifically wrong.

The communicator hummed. A faint voice sounded. It swelled to loudness. "Calling Space Platform! Calling Space Platform! CALLING SPACE PLATFORM!" Joe turned down the volume. He said into the microphone:

"Space Platform calling Earth. Joe Kenmore reporting. We have made contact with the Platform and completed our landing. Our cargo is now being unloaded. Our landing rockets had to be expended against presumably hostile bombs, and we are now unable to return to Earth. The ship and the Platform, however, are unharmed. I am now waiting for orders. Report ends."

He turned away from the microphone. Sanford said sharply, "Go on! Tell them what a hero you are!"

"I'm going to help unload my ship," Joe said shortly. "You report what you please."

"Get back at that transmitter!" shouted Sanford furiously. "Tell 'em you're a hero! Tell 'em you're wonderful! I'll tell 'em how useless it is!"

Joe saw the other man in the room, the man at the radar screens, shake his head. He got up and fumbled his way along the wall to the door. Sanford shouted after him angrily.

Joe went out, found the four-foot tunnel, and floated not down but along it back to the unloading lock. Wordlessly, he set to work to get the cargo out of the cargo hold of the spaceship.

Handling objects in weightlessness which on Earth would be heavy was an art in itself. Two men could move tons. It needed only one man to start a massive crate in motion. However, one had either to lift or push an object in the exact line it was to follow. To thrust hard for a short time produced exactly the same effect as to push gently for a longer period. Anything floated tranquilly in the line along which it was moved. The man who had to stop it, though, needed to use exactly as much energy as the man who sent it floating. He needed to check the floating thing in exactly the same line. If one tried to stop a massive shipment from one side, he would topple into it and he and the crate together would go floundering helplessly over each other.

The Chief had gone off to help maneuver two-ton guided missiles into launching tubes. One crew member remained with Haney, unloading things that would have had to be handled with cranes on Earth. Joe found himself needed most in the storage chamber. A crate floated from the ship to the crewman. Standing head downward, he stopped its original movement, braced himself, and sent it floating to Joe. He braced himself, stopped its flight, and very slowly-to move fast with anything heavy in his hands would pull his feet from the floor-set it on a stack of similar objects which would presently be fastened in place.

Everything had to be done in slow motion, or one would lose his footing. Joe worked painstakingly. He gradually began to understand the process. But the muscles of his stomach ached because of their continuous, instinctive cramp due to the sensation of unending fall.

Mike floated through the hatchway from the lock. He twisted about as he floated, and his magnetized soles clanked to a deft contact with the wall. He said calmly: "That guy Sanford has cracked up. He's potty. If this were jail he'd be stir-crazy. He's yelling into the communicator now that we'll all be dead in a matter of days, and the rocket missiles we brought up won't help. He's nasty about it, too!"

Haney called from the cargo space of the ship in the lock: "All empty here! We're unloaded."

There were sounds as he closed the cargo doors. Haney, followed by the Chief, came into view, floating as Mike had done. But he didn't land as skillfully. He touched the wall on his hands and knees and bounced away and tried helplessly to swim to a hand-hold. It would have been funny except that Joe was in no mood for humor.

Mike whipped off his belt and flipped the end of it to Haney. He caught it and was drawn gently to the wall. Haney's shoes clicked to a hold. The Chief landed more expertly.

"We need wings here," he said ruefully. "You reported, Joe?"

Joe nodded. He turned to Brent, the crew member who'd been unloading. He knew him too, from their two-way video conversations.

"Sanford does act oddly," he said uncomfortably. "When he met me in the lock he said our coming was useless. He talked about the futility of everything while I reported. He sounds like he sneers at every possible action as useless."

"Most likely it is," Brent said mildly. "Here, anyhow. It does look as if we're going to be knocked off. But Sanford's taking it badly. The rest of us have let him act as he pleased because it didn't seem to matter. It probably doesn't, except that he's annoying."

Mike said truculently, "We won't be knocked off! We've got rockets of our own up here now! We can fight back if there's another attack!"

Brent shrugged. His face was young enough, but deeply lined. He said as mildly as before: "Your landing rockets set off four bombs on the way from Earth. You brought us six more rocket missiles. How many bombs can we knock down with them?"

Joe blinked. It was a shock to realize the facts of life in an artificial satellite. If it could be reached by bombs from Earth, the bombs could be reached by guided missiles from the satellite. But it would take one guided missile to knock down one bomb-with luck.

"I see," said Joe slowly. "We can handle just six more bombs from Earth."

"Six in the next month," agreed Brent wrily. "It'll be that long before we get more. Somebody sent up four bombs today. Suppose they send eight next time? Or simply one a day for a week?"

Mike made an angry noise. "The seventh bomb shot at us knocks us out! We're sitting ducks here too!"

Brent nodded. He said mildly:

"Yes. The Platform can't be defended against an indefinite number of bombs from Earth. Of course the United States could go to war because we've been shot at. But would that do us any good? We'd be shot down in the war."

Joe said distastefully, "And Sanford's cracked up because he knows he's going to be killed?"

Brent said earnestly. "Oh, no! He's a good scientist! But he's always had a brilliant mind. Poor devil, he's never failed at anything in all his life until now! Now he has failed. He's going to be killed, and he can't think of any way to stop it. His brains are the only things he's ever believed in, and now they're no good. He can't accept the idea that he's stupid, so he has to beli

eve that everything else is. It's a necessity for him. Haven't you known people who had to think everybody else was stupid to keep from knowing that they were themselves?"

Joe nodded. He waited.

"Sanford," said Brent earnestly, "simply can't adjust to the discovery that he's no better than anybody else. That's all. He was a nice guy, but he's not used to frustration and he can't take it. Therefore he scorns everything that frustrates him-and everything else, by necessity. He'll be scornful about getting killed when it happens. But waiting for it is becoming intolerable to him."

He looked at his watch. He said apologetically, "I'm the crew psychologist. That's why I speak so firmly. In five minutes we're due to come out of the Earth's shadow into sunshine again. I'd suggest that you come to watch. It's good to look at."

He did not wait for an answer. He led the way. And the others followed in a strange procession. Somehow, automatically, they fell into single file, and they moved on their magnetic-soled slippers toward a passage tube in one wall. Their slipper soles clanked and clicked in an erratic rhythm. Brent walked with the mincing steps necessary for movement in weightlessness. The others imitated him. Their hands no longer hung naturally by their sides, but tended to make extravagant gestures with the slightest muscular impulse. They swayed extraordinarily as they walked. Brent was a slender figure, and Joe was more thick-set, and Haney was taller, and lean. The burly Chief and the forty-one inch figure of Mike the midget followed after them. They made a queer procession indeed.

Minutes later they were in a blister on the skin of the Platform. There were quartz glass ports in the sidewall. Outside the glass were metal shutters. Brent served out dense goggles, almost black, and touched the buttons that opened the steel port coverings.

They looked into space. The dimmer stars were extinguished by the goggles they wore. The brighter ones seemed faint and widely spaced. Beneath their feet as they held to handrails lay the featureless darkness of Earth. But before them and very far away there was a vast, dim arch of deepest red.

It was sunlight filtered through the thickest layers of Earth's air. It barely outlined the curve of that gigantic globe. As they stared, it grew brighter. The artificial satellite required little more than four hours for one revolution about its primary, the Earth. To those aboard it, the Earth would go through all its phases in no longer a time. They saw now the thinnest possible crescent of the new Earth. But in minutes-almost in seconds-the deep red sunshine brightened to gold. The hair-thin line of light widened to a narrow ribbon which described an eight-thousand-mile half-circle. It brightened markedly at the middle. It remained red at its ends, but in the very center it glowed with splendid flame. Then a golden ball appeared, and swam up and detached itself from the Earth, and the on-lookers saw the breath-taking spectacle of all of Earth's surface seemingly being born of the night.

As if new-created before their eyes, seas and lands unfolded in the sunlight. They watched flecks of cloud and the long shadows of mountains, and the strangely different colorings of its fields and forests.

As Brent had told them, it was good to watch.

It was half an hour later when they gathered in the kitchen of the Platform. The man who had been loading launching tubes now briskly worked to prepare a meal on the extremely unusual cooking-devices of a human outpost in interplanetary space.

The food smelled good. But Joe noticed that he could smell growing things. Green stuff. It was absurd-until he remembered that there was a hydroponic garden here. Plants grew in it under sunlamps which were turned on for a certain number of hours every day. The plants purified the Platform's air, and of course provided some fresh and nourishing food for the crew.

They ate. The food was served in plastic bowls, with elastic thread covers through which they could see and choose the particular morsels they fancied next. The threads stretched to let through the forks they ate with. But Brent used a rather more practical pair of tongs in a businesslike manner.

They drank coffee from cups which looked very much like ordinary cups on Earth. Joe remembered suddenly that Sally Holt had had much to do with the design of domestic science arrangements here. He regarded his cup with interest. It stayed in its saucer because of magnets in both plastic articles. The saucer stayed on the table because the table was magnetic, too. And the coffee did not float out to mid-air in a hot, round brownish ball, because there was a transparent cover over the cup. When one put his lips to the proper edge, a part of the cover yielded as the cup was squeezed. The far side of the cup was flexible. One pressed, and the coffee came into one's lips without the spilling of a drop.

At that moment Joe really thought of Sally for the first time in a good two hours. She'd been anxious that living in the Platform should be as normal and Earth-like as possible. The total absence of weight would be bad enough. She believed it needed to be countered, as a psychological factor in staying sane, by the effect of normal-seeming chairs and normal-tasting food, and not too exotic systems for eating.

Joe asked Brent about it.

"Oh, yes," said Brent mildly. "It's likely we'd all have gone off the deep end if there weren't some familiar things about. To have to drink from a cup that one squeezes is tolerable. But we'd have felt hysterical at times if we had to drink everything from the equivalent of baby bottles."

"Sally Holt," said Joe, "is a friend of mine. She helped design this stuff."

"That girl has every ounce of brains that any woman can be trusted with!" Brent said warmly. "She thought of things that would never have occurred to me! As a psychologist, I could see how good her ideas were when she brought them up, but as a male I'd never have dreamed of them." Then he grinned. "She fell down on just one point. So did everybody else. Nobody happened to think of a garbage-disposal system for the Platform."

It came into Joe's mind that garbage-disposal was hardly a subject one would expect to be discussing in interplanetary space. But the Platform wasn't the same thing as a spaceship. A ship could jettison refuse and leave it behind, or store it during a voyage and dump it at either end. But the Space Platform would never land. It could roll on forever. And if it heaved out its refuse from airlocks-why-the stuff would still have the Platform's orbital speed and would follow it tirelessly around the Earth until the end of time.

"We dry and store it now," said Brent. "If we were going to live, we'd figure out some way to turn it to fertilizer for the hydroponic gardens. It's hardly worth while as things are. Even then, though, the problem of tin cans could be hopeless."

The Chief wiped his mouth deliberately. He had helped load four guided-missile launching tubes, and he had been brought up to date on the state of things in the Platform. He growled in a preliminary fashion and said, "Joe."

Joe looked at him.

"We brought up six two-ton guided missiles," said the Chief dourly. "We'll have warning of other bombs coming up. We can send these missiles out to intercept 'em. Six of 'em. They can get close enough to set off their proximity fuses, anyhow. But what are we going to do, Joe, if somebody flings seven bombs at us? We can manage six-maybe. But what'll we do with the one that's left over?"

"Have you any ideas?" asked Joe.

The Chief shook his head. Brent said mildly. "We've worked on that here in the Platform, I assure you. And as Sanford puts it quite soundly, about the only thing we can really do is throw our empty tin cans at them."

Joe nodded. Then he tensed. Brent had meant it as a rather mirthless joke. But Joe was astonished at what his own brain made of it. He thought it over. Then he said, "Why not? It ought to be a very good trick."

Brent stared at him incredulously. Haney looked solemnly at him. The Chief regarded Joe thoughtfully out of the corner of his eye. Then Mike shouted gleefully. The Chief blinked, and a moment later grunted wrathful unintelligible syllables of Mohawk, and then tried to pound Joe on the back and because of his want of weight went head over heels into the air between the six walls of the kitchen.

Haney said disgustedly, "Joe, there are times when a guy wants to murder you! Why didn't I think of that?"

But Brent was looking at the four of them with a lively, helpless curiosity. "Will you guys let me in on this?"

They told him. Joe began to explain it carefully, but the Chief broke in with a barked and impatient description, and then Mike interrupted to snap a correction. But by that time Brent's expression had changed with astonishing suddenness.

"I see! I see!" he said excitedly. "All right! Have you got space suits in your ship? We have them. So we'll go out and pelt the stars with garbage. I think we'd better get at it right now, too. In under two hours we'll be a fine target for more bombs, and it would be good to start ahead of time."

Mike made a gesture and went floating out of the kitchen, air-swimming to go get space suits from the ship. The grin on his small face threatened to cut his throat. Joe asked, "Sanford's in command. How'll he like this idea?"

Brent hesitated. "I'm afraid," he said regretfully, "he won't like it. If you solve a problem he gave up, it will tear his present adjustment to bits. He's gone psychotic. I think, though, that he'll allow it to be tried while he swears at us for fools. He's most likely to react that way if you suggest it."

"Then," agreed Joe, "I suggest it. Chief--"

The Chief raised a large brown hand.

"I got the program, Joe," he said. "We'll all get set."

And Joe went floating unhappily through passage-tubes to the control room. He heard Sanford's voice, sardonic and mocking, as he reached the communications room door.

"What do you expect?" Sanford was saying derisively. "We're clay pigeons. We're a perfect target. We've just so much ammunition now. You say you may send us more in three weeks instead of a month. I admire your persistence, but it's really no use! This is all a very stupid business...."

He felt Joe's presence. He turned, and then sharply struck the communicator switch with the heel of his hand. The image on the television screen died. The voice cut off. He said blandly: "Well?"

"I want," said Joe, "to take a garbage-disposal party out on the outside of the Platform. I came to ask for authority."

Sanford looked at him in mocking surprise.

"To be sure it seems as intelligent as anything else the human race has ever done," he observed. "But why does it appeal to you as something you want to do?"

"I think," Joe told him, "that we can make a defense against bombs from Earth with our empty tin cans."

Sanford raised his eyebrows.

"If you happen to have a four-leaf clover with you," he said in fine irony, "I'm told they're good, too."

His eyes were bright and scornful. His manner was feverishly derisive. Joe would have done well to let it go at that. But he was nettled.

"We set off the last bombs," he said doggedly, "by shooting our landing rockets at them. They didn't collide with the bombs. They simply touched off the bombs' proximity fuses. If we surround the Platform with a cluster of tin cans and such things, they may do as well. Things we throw away won't drop to Earth. Ultimately, they'll actually circle us, like satellites themselves. But if we can get enough of them between us and Earth, any bombs that come up will have their proximity fuses detonated by the floating trash we throw out."

Sanford laughed.

"We might ask for aluminum-foil ribbon to come up in the next supply ship," said Joe. "We could have masses of that, or maybe metallic dust floating around us."

"I much prefer used tin cans," said Sanford humorously. "I'll take the watch here and let everybody go out with you. By all means we must defend ourselves. Forward with the garbage! Go ahead!"

His eyes were almost hysterically scornful as he waited for Joe to leave. Joe did not like it at all, but there was nothing to do but get out.

He found the Chief with a net bag filled with emptied tin cans. Haney had another. There were two more, carried by members of the Platform's four-man crew. They were donning their space suits when Joe came upon them. Mike was grotesque in the cut-down outfit built for him. Actually, the only difference was in the size of the fabric suit and the length of the arms and legs. He could carry a talkie outfit with its batteries, and the oxygen tank for breathing as well as anybody, since out here weight did not count at all. There were plastic ropes, resistant to extremes of temperature.

Joe got into his own space suit. It was no such self-contained space craft in itself as the fantastic story tellers dreamed of. It was not much more than an altitude suit, aluminized to withstand the blazing heat of sunshine in emptiness, and with extravagantly insulated soles to the magnetic boots. In theory, there simply is no temperature in space. In practice, a metal hull heats up in sunshine to very much more than any record-hot-day temperature on Earth. In shadow, too, a metal hull will drop very close to minus 250 degrees Centigrade, which is something like 400 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. But mainly the space boots were insulated against the almost dull-red-heat temperatures of long-continued sunshine.

A crewman named Corey moved into an airlock with one of the bags of empty tin cans. Brent watched in a routine fashion through a glass in the lock-door. The pumps began to exhaust the air from the airlock. Corey's space suit inflated visibly. Presently the pump stopped. Corey opened the outer door. He went out, paying plastic rope behind him. An instant later he reappeared and removed the rope. He'd made his line fast outside. He closed the outer lock-door. Air surged into the lock and Haney crowded in. Again the pumping. Then Haney went out, and was anchored to the Platform not only by his magnetic boots but by a rope fastened to a hand-hold. Brent went out. Mike. Joe came next.

They stood on the hull of the Space Platform, waiting in the incredible harsh sunshine of emptiness. The bright steel plates of the hull swelled and curved away on every hand. There were myriads of stars and the vast round bulk of Earth seemed farther away to a man in a space suit than to a man looking out a port. Where shadows cut across the Platform's irregular surface, there was utter blackness. Also there was horrible frigidity. Elsewhere it was blindingly bright. The men were specks of humanity standing on a shining metal hull, and all about them there was the desolation of nothingness.

But Joe felt strangely proud. The seventh man came out of the lock-door. They tied their plastic ropes together and spread out in a long line which went almost around the Platform. The man next to the lock was anchored to a steel hand-hold. The third man of the line also anchored himself. The fifth. The seventh. They were a straggling line of figures with impossibly elongated shadows, held together by ropes. They were peculiarly like a party of weirdly costumed mountaineers on a glacier of gleaming silver.

But no mountain climbers ever had a background of ten thousand million stars, peering up from below them as well as from overhead. Nor did any ever have a mottled greenish planet rolling by 4,000 miles beneath them, nor a blazing sun glaring down at them from a sky such as this.

In particular, perhaps, no other explorers ever set out upon an expedition whose purpose was to throw tin cans and dried refuse at all the shining cosmos.

They set to work. The space suits were inevitably clumsy. It was not easy to throw hard with only magnetism to hold one to his feet. It was actually more practical to throw straight up with an underhand gesture. But even that would send the tin cans an enormous distance, in time. There was no air to slow them.

The tin cans twinkled as they left the Platform's steel expanse. They moved away at a speed of possibly 20 to 30 miles an hour. They floated off in all possible directions. They would never reach Earth, of course. They shared the Platform's orbital speed, and they would circle the Earth with it forever. But when they were thrown away, their orbits were displaced a little. Each can thrown downward just now, for example, would always be between the Platform and the Earth on this side of its orbit. But on the other side of Earth it would be above the Platform. The Platform, in fact, became the center of a swarm, a cluster, a cloud of infinitesimal objects which would always accompany it and always be in motion with regard to it. Together, they should make up a screen no proximity fuse bomb could pierce without exploding.

Joe heard clankings, transmitted to his body through his feet.

"What's that?" he demanded sharply. "It sounds like the airlock!"

Voices mingled in his ears. The other walkie-talkies allowed everybody to speak at once. Most of them did. Then Joe heard someone laugh. It was Sanford's voice.

Sandford's aluminized, space-suited figure came clanking around the curve of the small metal world. The antenna of his walkie-talkie glittered above his head. He seemed to swagger against the background of many-colored stars.

Brent spoke quickly, before anyone else could question Sanford. His tone was mild and matter of fact, but Joe somehow knew the tension behind it.

"Hello, Sanford. You came out? Was it wise? Shouldn't there be someone inside the Platform?"

Sanford laughed again. "It was very wise. We're going to be killed, as you fellows know perfectly well. It's futile to try to avoid it. So very sensibly I've decided to spare myself the nuisance of waiting to be killed. I came out."

There was silence in the ear-phones of Joe's space suit radio. He heard his own heart beating loudly and steadily in the absolute stillness.

"Incidentally," said Sanford with almost hysterical amusement, "I fixed it so that none of us can get back in. It would be useless, anyhow. Everything's futility. So I've put an end to our troubles for good. I've locked us all out."

He laughed yet again. And Joe knew that in Sanford's madness it was perfectly possible for him to have done exactly what he said.

There were eight human beings on the Platform. All were now outside it, on its outer skin. They wore space suits with from half an hour to an hour's oxygen supply. They had no tools with which to break back into the satellite. And no help could possibly reach them in less than three weeks.

If they couldn't get back inside the Platform, Sanford, laughing proudly, had killed them all.

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