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   Chapter 6 No.6

Space Tug By Murray Leinster Characters: 33277

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A good deal of that landing remained confused in Joe's mind. While it was going on he was much too busy to be absorbing impressions. When he landed, he was as completely exhausted as anybody wants to be. It was only during the next day that he even tried to sort out his recollections.

Then he woke up suddenly, with a muffled roaring going on all about him. He blinked his eyes open and listened. Presently he realized what the noise was, and wondered that he hadn't realized before. It was the roaring of the motors of a multi-engined plane. He knew, without remembering the details at the moment, that he and the other three were on a plane bound across the Pacific for America. He was in a bunk-and he felt extraordinarily heavy. He tried to move, and it was an enormous effort to move his arm. He struggled to turn over, and found straps holding his body down.

He fumbled at them. They had readily releasable clasps, and he loosened them easily. After a bit he struggled to sit upright. He was horribly heavy or horribly weak. He couldn't tell which. And each separate muscle in his whole body ached. Twinges of pain accompanied every movement. He sat up, swaying a little with the slow movements of the plane, and gradually, things came back.

The landing in the ribbon-chute. They'd come down somewhere on the west coast of India, not too far from the sea. He remembered crashing into the edge of a thin jungle and finding the Chief, and the two of them searching out Haney and stumbling to open ground. After laying out a signal for air searchers, they went off into worn-out slumber while they waited.

He remembered that there'd been a patrol of American destroyers in the Arabian Sea, as everywhere under the orbit of the Platform. Their radar had reported the destruction of one space ship and the frantic diving of the other, its division into two parts, and then the tiny objects, which flew out from the smaller cabin section, which had descended as only ejection-seat parachutes could possibly have done. Two destroyers steamed onward underneath those drifting specks, to pick them up when they should come down. But the other nearby destroyers had other business in hand.

The two trailing destroyers reached Goa harbor within hours of the landing of the four from space. A helicopter found the first three of them within hours after that. They were twenty miles inland and thirty south from Goa. Mike wasn't located until the next day. He'd been shot out of the ship's cabin earlier and higher; he was lighter, and he'd floated farther.

But things-satisfying things-had happened in the interval. Sitting almost dizzily on the bunk in the swiftly roaring plane while blood began sluggishly to flow through his body, Joe remembered the gleeful, unofficial news passed around on the destroyers. They waited for Mike to be brought in. But they rejoiced vengefully.

The report was quite true, but it never reached the newspapers. Nobody would ever admit it, but the rockets aimed at the returning space ships had been spotted by Navy radar as they went up from the Arabian Sea. And the ships of the radar patrol couldn't do anything about the rockets, but they could and did converge savagely upon the places from which they had been launched. Planes sped out to spot and bomb. Destroyers arrived.

Somewhere there was a navy department that could write off two modern submarines with rocket-launching equipment, last heard from west of India. American naval men would profess bland ignorance of any such event, but there were acres of dead fish floating on the ocean where depth-bombs had hunted down and killed two shapes much too big to be fish, which didn't float when they were killed and which would never report back how they'd destroyed two space ships. There'd be seagulls feasting over that area, and there'd be vague tales about the happening in the bazaars of Hadhramaut. But nobody would ever admit knowing anything for certain.

But Joe knew. He got to his feet, wobbling a little bit in the soaring plane. He ached everywhere. His muscles protested the strain of holding him erect. He held fast, summoning strength. Before his little ship broke up he'd been shaken intolerably, and his body had weighed half a ton. Where his safety-belt had held him, his body was one wide bruise. There'd been that killing acceleration when the ship split in two. The others-except Mike-were in as bad a case or worse. Haney and the Chief were like men who'd been rolled down Mount Everest in a barrel. All of them had slept for fourteen hours straight before they even woke up for food. Even now, Joe didn't remember boarding this plane or getting into the bunk. He'd probably been carried in.

Joe stood up, doggedly, until enough strength came to him to justify his sitting down again. He began to dress. It was astonishing how many places about his body were sore to the touch. It was startling how heavy his arms and legs felt, and how much of an effort even sitting erect was. But he began to remember Mike's adventure, and managed to grin feebly. It was the only thing worth a smile in all the things that had happened.

Because Mike's landing had been quite unlike the others. Joe and the Chief landed near the edge of a jungle. Haney landed in a canebrake. But Mike came floating down from the sky, swaying splendidly, into the estate of a minor godling.

He was relatively unharmed by the shaking-up he'd had. The strength of muscles depends on their cross-section, but their weight depends on their volume. The strength of a man depends on the square of his size, but his weight on the cube. So Mike had taken the deceleration and the murderous vibration almost in his stride. He floated longer and landed more gently than the rest.

Joe grinned painfully at the memory of Mike's tale. He'd come on board the rescue destroyer in a towering, explosive rage. When his ribbon-parachute let him down out of the sky, it deposited him gently on ploughed fields not far from a small and primitive Hindu village. He'd been seen to descend from the heavens. He was a midget-not as other men-and he was dressed in a space suit with glittering metal harness.

The pagan villagers greeted him with rapture.

When the searching-party found Mike, they were just in time to prevent a massacre-by Mike. Adoring natives had seized upon him, conveyed him in high state to a red mud temple, seemingly tried to suffocate him with evidences of their pride and joy at his arrival, and dark-skinned maidens were trying hopefully to win his approval of their dancing. But the rescue-party found him with a club in his hand and blood in his eye, setting out furiously to change the tone of his reception.

Joe still didn't know all the details, but he tried to concentrate on what he did know as he put his uniform on again. He didn't want to think how little it meant, now. The silver space ship badge didn't mean a thing, any more. There weren't any more space ships. The Platform wasn't a ship, but a satellite. There'd never been but two ships. Both had ceased to exist.

Joe walked painfully forward in the huge, roaring plane. The motors made a constant, humming thunder in his ears. It was not easy to walk. He held on to handholds as he moved. But he progressed past the bunk space. And there was Mike, sitting at a table and stuffing himself with good honest food. There was a glass port beside him, and Joe caught a glimpse of illimitable distances filled with cloud and sky and sea.

Mike nodded. He didn't offer to help Joe walk. That wouldn't have been practical. He waited until Joe sank into a seat opposite.

"Good sleep?" asked Mike.

"I guess so," said Joe. He added ruefully, "It hurts to nod, and I think it would hurt worse to shake my head. What's the matter with me, Mike? I didn't get banged up in the landing!"

"You got banged up before you landed," said Mike. "Worse than that, you spent better than six weeks out of gravity, where in an average day you took less actual exercise than a guy in bed with two broken legs!"

Joe eased himself back into his chair. He felt about 600 years old. Somebody poked a head into view and withdrew it. Joe lifted his arm and regarded it.

"Weighty! I guess you're right, Mike."

"I know I'm right!" said Mike. "If you spent six weeks in bed you'd expect to feel wobbly when you tried to walk. Up on the Platform you didn't even use energy to stand up! We didn't realize it, but we were living like invalids! We'll get our strength back, but next time we'll take measures. Huh! Take a trip to Mars in free fall, and by the time a guy got there his muscles'd be so flabby he couldn't stand up in half-gravity! Something's got to be done about that, Joe!"

Joe said sombrely, "Something's got to be done about space ships before that comes up again!"

Somebody appeared with a tray. There was food on it. Smoking hot food. Joe looked at it and knew that his appetite, anyhow, was back to Earth normal.

"Thanks!" he mumbled appreciatively, and attacked the food.

Mike drank his coffee. Then he said, "Joe, do you know anything about powder metallurgy?"

Joe shrugged. It hurt. "Powder metallurgy? Yes, I've seen it used, at my father's plant. They've made small precision parts with it. Why?"

"D'you know if anybody ever made a weld with it?" asked Mike.

Joe chewed. Then he said:

"I think so. Yes. At the plant they did. They had trouble getting the surfaces properly cleaned for welding. But they managed it. Why?"

"One more question," said Mike tensely. "How much Portland cement is used to make a cubic yard of concrete?"

"I wouldn't know," admitted Joe. "Why? What's all this about?"

"Haney and the Chief. Those two big apes have been kidding me-as long as they could stay awake-for what happened to me when I landed. Those infernal savages-" Mike seethed. "They got my clothes off and they had me smeared all over with butter and forty-'leven necklaces around my neck and flowers in my hair! They thought I was some kind of heathen god! Hanuman, somebody told me. The Hindu monkey-god!" He raged. "And those two big apes think it's funny! Joe, I never knew I knew all the words for the cussings I gave those heathen before our fellas found me! And Haney and the Chief will drive me crazy if I can't slap 'em down! Powder metallurgy does the trick, from what you told me. That's okay, then."

He stood up and stalked toward the front of the plane. Joe roused himself with an effort. He turned to look about him. Haney lay slumped in a reclining chair, on the other side of the plane cabin. His eyes were closed. The Chief lay limply in another chair. He smiled faintly at Joe, but he didn't try to talk. He was too tired. The return to normal gravity bothered him, as it did Joe.

Joe looked out the window. In neat, geometric spacing on either side of the transport there were fighter jets. There was another flight above and farther away. Joe saw, suddenly, a peeling-off of planes from the farther formation. They dived down through the clouds. He never knew what they went to look for or what they found. He went groggily back to his bunk in a strange and embarrassing weakness.

He woke when the plane landed. He didn't know where it might be. It was, he knew, an island. He could see the wide, sun-baked white of the runways. He could see sea-birds in clouds over at the edge. The plane trundled and lurched slowly to a stop. A service-truck came growling up, and somebody led cables from it up into the engines. Somebody watched dials, and waved a hand.

There was silence. There was stillness. Joe heard voices and footsteps. Presently he heard the dull booming of surf.

The plane seemed to wait for a very long time. Then there was a faint, faint distant whine of jets, and a plane came from the east. It was first a dot and then a vague shape, and then an infinitely graceful dark object which swooped down and landed at the other end of the strip. It came taxiing up alongside the transport ship and stopped.

An officer in uniform climbed out, waved his hand, and walked over to the transport. He climbed up the ladder and the pilot and co-pilot followed him. They took their places. The door closed. One by one, the jets chugged, then roared to life.

The officer talked to the pilot and co-pilot for a moment. He came down the aisle toward Joe. Mike the midget regarded him suspiciously.

The plane stirred. The newly arrived officer said pleasantly, "The Navy Department's sent me out here, Kenmore, to be briefed on what you know and to do a little briefing in turn."

The transport plane turned clumsily and began to taxi down the runway. It jolted and bumped over the tarmac, then lifted, and Joe saw that the island was nearly all airfield. There were a few small buildings and distance-dwarfed hangars. Beyond the field proper there was a ring of white surf. That was all. The rest was ocean.

"I haven't much briefing to do," admitted Joe.

Then he looked at the briefcase the other man opened. It had sheets and sheets of paper in it-hundreds, it seemed. They were filled with questions. He'd be called on to find answers for most of them, and to admit he didn't know the answers to the rest. When he was through with this questioning, every possible useful fact he knew would be on file for future use. And now he wrily recognized that this was part payment for the efficiency and speed with which the Navy had trailed them on their landing, and for the use of a transport plane to take them back to the United States.

"I'll try to answer what I can," he said cautiously. "But what're you to brief me about?"

"That you're not back on Earth yet," said the officer curtly, pulling out the first sheaf of questions. "Officially you haven't even started back. Ostensibly you're still on the Platform."

Joe blinked at him.

"If your return were known," continued the lieutenant, "the public would want to make heroes of you. First space travelers, and so on. They'd want you on television-all of you-telling about your adventures and your return. Inevitably, what happened to your ship would leak out. And if the public knew you'd been waylaid and shot down there'd be demands that the government take violent action to avenge the attack. It'd be something like the tumult over the sinking of the Maine, or the Lusitania-or even Pearl Harbor. It's much better for your return to be a secret for now."

Joe said wrily: "I don't think any of us want to be ridden around to have ticker-tape dumped on us. That part's all right. I'm sure the others will agree."

"Good! One more difficulty. We had two space ships. Now we have none. Our most likely enemies haven't only been building rockets, they've got a space fleet coming along. Intelligence just found out they're nearly ready for trial trips. They've been yelling to high heaven that we were building a space fleet to conquer the world. We weren't. They were. And it looks very much as if they may have beaten us."

The lieutenant got out the dreary mass of papers, intended to call for every conscious or unconscious observation Joe might have made in space. It was the equivalent of the interviews extracted from fliers after a bombing raid, and it was necessary, but Joe was very tired.

Wearily, he said, "Start your questions. I'll try to answer them."

They arrived in Bootstrap some forty-six hours after the crashing of their ship. Joe, at least, had slept nearly thirty of those hours. So while he was still wobbly on his feet and would be for days to come, his disposition was vastly improved.

There was nobody waiting on the airfield by the town of Bootstrap, but as they landed a black car came smoothly out and stopped close by the transport. Joe got down and climbed into it. Sally Holt was inside. She took both his hands and cried, and he was horribly embarrassed when the Chief came blundering into the car after him. But the Chief growled, "If he didn't kiss you, Sally, I'm going to kick his pants for him."

"He-he did," said Sally, gulping. "And I'm glad you're back, Chief. And Haney. And Mike."

Mike grinned as he climbed in the back too. Haney crowded in after him. They filled the rear of the car entirely. It started off swiftly across the field, swerving to the roadway that led to the highway out of Bootstrap to the Shed. It sped out that long white concrete ribbon, and the desert was abruptly all around them. Far ahead, the great round half-dome of the Shed looked like a cherry-pit on the horizon.

"It's good to be back!" said the Chie

f warmly. "I feel like I weigh a ton, but it's good to be back! Mike's the only one who was happier out yonder. He figures he belongs there. I got a story to tell you, Sally--"

"Chief!" said Mike fiercely. "Shut up!"

"Won't," said the Chief amiably. "Sally, this guy Mike--"

Mike went pale. "You're too big to kill," he said bitterly, "but I'll try it!"

The Chief grunted at him. "Quit being modest. Sally--"

Mike flung himself at the Chief, literally snarling. His small fist hit the Chief's face-and Mike was small but he was not puny. The "crack" of the impact was loud in the car. Haney grabbed. There was a moment's frenzied struggling. Then Mike was helplessly wrapped in Haney's arms, incoherent with fury and shame.

"Crazy fool!" grunted the Chief, feeling his jaw. "What's the matter with you? Don't you feel good?"

He was angry, but he was more concerned. Mike was white and raging.

"You tell that," he panted shrilly, "and so help me--"

"What's got into you?" demanded Haney anxiously. "I'd be bragging, I would, if I'd got a brainstorm like you did! That guy Sanford woulda wiped us all out--"

The Chief said angrily, between unease and puzzlement:

"I never knew you to go off your nut like this before! What's got into you, anyway?"

Mike gulped suddenly. Haney still held him firmly, but both Haney and the Chief were looking at him with worried eyes. And Mike said desperately: "You were going to tell Sally--"

The Chief snorted.

"Huh! You fool little runt! No! I was going to tell her about you opening up that airlock when Sanford locked us out! Sure I kidded you about what you're talking about! Sure! I'm going to do it again! But that's amongst us! I don't tell that outside!"

Haney made an inarticulate exclamation. He understood, and he was relieved. But he looked disgusted. He released Mike abruptly, rumbling to himself. He stared out the window. And Mike stood upright, an absurd small figure. His face worked a little.

"Okay," said Mike, with a little difficulty. "I was dumb. Only, Chief, you owe me a sock on the jaw when you feel like it. I'll take it."

He swallowed. Sally was watching wide-eyed.

"Sally," said Mike bitterly, "I'm a bigger fool than I look. I thought the Chief was going to tell you what happened when I landed. I-I floated down in a village over there in India, and those crazy savages'd never seen a parachute, and they began to yell and make gestures, and first thing I knew they had a sort of litter and were piling me in it, and throwing flowers all over me, and there was a procession--"

Sally listened blankly. Mike told the tale of his shame with the very quintessence of bitter resentment. When he got to his installation in a red-painted mud temple, and the reverent and forcible removal of his clothes so he could be greased with butter, Sally's lips began to twitch. At the picture of Mike in a red loincloth, squirming furiously while brown-skinned admirers zestfully sang his praises, howling his rage while they celebrated some sort of pious festival in honor of his arrival, Sally broke down and laughed helplessly.

Mike stared at her, aghast. He felt that he'd hated the Chief when he thought the Chief was going to tell the tale on him as a joke. He'd told it on himself as a penance, in the place of the blow he'd given the Chief and which the Chief wouldn't return. To Mike it was still tragedy. It was still an outrage to his dignity. But Sally was laughing. She rocked back and forth next to Joe, helpless with mirth.

"Oh, Mike!" she gasped. "It's beautiful! They must have been saying such lovely, respectful things, while you were calling them names and wanting to kill them! They'd have been bragging to each other about how you were-visiting them because they'd been such good people, and-this was the reward of well-spent lives, and you-you--"

She leaned against Joe and shook. The car went on. The Chief chuckled. Haney grinned. Joe watched Mike as this new aspect of his disgrace got into his consciousness. It hadn't occurred to Mike, before, that anybody but himself had been ridiculous. It hadn't occurred to him, until he lost his temper, that Haney and the Chief would ride him mercilessly among themselves, but would not dream of letting anybody outside the gang do so.

Presently Mike managed to grin a little. It was a twisty grin, and not altogether mirthful.

"Yeah," he said wrily. "I see it. They were crazy too. I should've had more sense than to get mad." Then his grin grew a trifle twistier. "I didn't tell you that the thing that made me maddest was when they wanted to put earrings on me. I grabbed a club then and-uh-persuaded them I didn't like the idea."

Sally chortled. The picture of the small, truculent Mike in frenzied revolt with a club against the idea of being decked with jewelry.... Mike turned to the two big men and shoved at them imperiously.

"Move over!" he growled. "If you two big lummoxes had dropped in on those crazy goofs instead of me, they'd've thought you were elephants and set you to work hauling logs!"

He squirmed to a seat between them. He still looked ashamed, but it was shame of a different sort. Now he looked as if he wished he hadn't mistrusted his friends for even a moment. And he included Sally.

"Anyhow," he said suddenly in a different tone, "maybe it did do some good for me to get all worked up! I got kind of frantic. I figured somebody'd made a fool of me, and I was going to put something over on you."

"Mike!" said Sally reproachfully.

"Not like you think, Sally," said Mike, grinning a little. "I made up my mind to beat these lummoxes at their own game. I asked Joe about my brainstorm in the plane. He didn't know what I was driving at, but he said what I hoped was so. So I'm telling you-and," he added fiercely, "if it's any good everybody gets credit for it, because all of us four-even two big apes who try kidding-are responsible for it!"

He glared at them. Joe asked. "What is it, Mike?"

"I think," said Mike, "I think I've got a trick to make space ships quicker than anybody ever dreamed of. Joe says you can make a weld with powder metallurgy. And I think we can use that trick to make one-piece ships-lighter and stronger and tighter-and fast enough to make your head swim! And you guys are in on it!"

The black car braked by the entrance to the Security offices outside the Shed. It looked completely deserted. There was only a skeleton force here since the Platform had been launched three months before. There was almost nobody to be seen, but Mike pressed his lips pugnaciously together as they got out of the car and went inside.

The four of them, with Sally, went along the empty corridors to the major's office. He was waiting for them. He shook hands all around. But it was not possible for Major Holt to give an impression of cordiality.

"I'm very glad to see all of you back," he said curtly. "It didn't look like you'd make it. Joe, you will be able to reach your father by long-distance telephone as soon as you finish here. I-ah-thought it would not be indiscreet to tell him you had landed safely, though I did ask him to keep the fact to himself."

"Thank you, sir," said Joe.

"You answered most of the questions you needed to answer on the plane," added the major, grimly, "and now you may want to ask some. You know there is no ship for you. You know that the enemies of the Platform copied our rocket fuel. You know they've made rockets with it. You've met them! And Intelligence says they're building a fleet of space ships-not for space exploration, but simply to smash the Platform and get set for an ultimatum to the United States to backwater or be bombarded from space."

Mike said crisply: "How long before they can do it?"

Major Holt turned uncordial eyes upon him. "It's anybody's guess. Why?"

"We've been working something out," said Mike, firmly but in part untruthfully. He stood sturdily before the major's desk, which he barely topped. "The four of us have been working it out. Joe says they've done powder metallurgy welds, back at his father's plant. Joe and Haney and the Chief and me, we've been working out an idea."

Major Holt waited. His hands moved nervously on his desk. Joe looked at Mike. Haney and the Chief regarded him warily. The Chief cocked his head on one side.

"It'll take a minute to get it across," said Mike. "You have to think of concrete first. When you want to make a cubic yard of concrete, you take a cubic yard of gravel. Then you add some sand-just enough to fill in the cracks between the gravel. Then you put in some cement. It goes in the cracks between the grains of sand. A little bit of cement makes a lot of concrete. See?"

Major Holt frowned. But he knew these four. "I see, but I don't understand."

"You can weld metals together with powder-metallurgy powder at less than red heat. You can take steel filings for sand and steel turnings for gravel and powdered steel for cement-"

Joe jolted erect. He looked startledly at Haney and the Chief. And Haney's mouth was dropping open. A great, dreamy light seemed to be bursting upon him. The Chief regarded Mike with very bright eyes. And Mike sturdily, forcefully, coldly, made a sort of speech in his small and brittle voice.

Things could be made of solid steel, he said sharply, without rolling or milling or die-casting the metal, and without riveting or arc-welding the parts together. The trick was powder metallurgy. Very finely powdered metal, packed tightly and heated to a relatively low temperature-"sintered" is the word-becomes a solid mass. Even alloys can be made by mixing powdered metals. The process had been used only for small objects, but-there was the analogy to concrete. A very little powder could weld much metal, in the form of turnings and smaller bits. And the result would be solid steel!

Then Mike grew impassioned. There was a wooden mockup of a space ship in the Shed, he said. It was an absolutely accurate replica, in wood, of the ships that had been destroyed. But one could take castings of it, and use them for molds, and fill them with powder and filings and turnings, and heat them not even red-hot and there would be steel hulls in one piece. Solid steel hulls! Needing no riveting nor anything else-and one could do it fast! While the first hull was fitting out a second could be molded--

The Chief roared: "You fool little runt!" he bellowed. "Tryin' to give us credit for that! You got more sense than any of us! You worked that out in your own head--"

Haney rubbed his hands together. He said softly, "I like that! I do like that!"

Major Holt turned his eyes to Joe. "What's your opinion?"

"I think it's the sort of thing, sir, that a professional engineer would say was a good idea but not practical. He'd mean it would be a lot of trouble to get working. But I'd like to ask my father. They have done powder welding at the plant back home, sir."

Major Holt nodded. "Call your father. If it looks promising, I'll pull what wires I can."

Joe went out, with the others. Mike was sweating. All unconsciously, he twisted his hands one within the other. He had had many humiliations because he was small, but lately he had humiliated himself by not believing in his friends. Now he needed desperately to do something that would reflect credit on them as well as himself.

Joe made the phone call. As he closed the door of the booth, he heard the Chief kidding Mike blandly.

"Hey, Einstein," said the Chief. "How about putting that brain of yours to work on a faster-than-light drive?"

But then he began to struggle with the long distance operator. It took minutes to get the plant, and then it took time to get to the point, because his father insisted on asking anxiously how he was and if he was hurt in any way. Personal stuff. But Joe finally managed to explain that this call dealt with the desperate need to do something about a space fleet.

His father said grimly, "Yes. The situation doesn't look too good right now, Joe."

"Try this on for size, sir," said Joe. He outlined Mike's scheme. His father interrupted only to ask crisp questions about the mockup of the tender, already in existence though made of wood. Then he said, "Go on, son!"

Joe finished. He heard his father speaking to someone away from the phone. Questions and answers, and then orders. His father spoke to him direct.

"It looks promising, Joe," said his father. "Right here at the plant we've got the gang that can do it if anybody can. I'm getting a plane and coming out there, fast! Get Major Holt to clear things for me. This is no time for red tape! If he has trouble, I'll pull some wires myself!"

"Then I can tell Mike it's good stuff?"

"It's not good stuff," said his father. "There are about forty-seven things wrong with it at first glance, but I know how to take care of one or two, and we'll lick the rest. You tell your friend Mike I want to shake him by the hand. I hope to do it tonight!"

He hung up, and Joe went out of the phone booth. Mike looked at him with yearning eyes. Joe lied a little, because Mike rated it.

"My father's on the way here to help make it work," he told Mike. Then he added untruthfully: "He said he thought he knew all the big men in his line, and where've you been that he hasn't heard of you?"

He turned away as the Chief whooped with glee. He hurried back to Major Holt as the Chief and Haney began zestfully to manhandle Mike in celebration of his genius.

The major held up his hand as Joe entered. He was using the desk phone. Joe waited. When he hung up, Joe reported. The major seemed unsurprised.

"Yes, I had Washington on the wire," he said detachedly. "I talked to a personal friend who's a three-star general. There will be action started at the Pentagon. When you came in I was arranging with the largest producers of powder-metallurgy products in the country to send their best men here by plane. They will start at once. Now I have to get in touch with some other people."

Joe gaped at him. The major moved impatiently, waiting for Joe to leave. Joe gulped. "Excuse me, sir, but-my father didn't say it was certain. He just thinks it can be made to work. He's not sure."

"I didn't even wait for that, something has to turn up to take care of this situation!" said the Major with asperity. "It has to! This particular scheme may not work, but if it doesn't, something will come out of the work on it! You should look at a twenty-five cent piece occasionally, Joe!"

He moved impatiently, and Joe went out. Sally was smiling in the outer office. There were whoopings in the corridor beyond. The Chief and Haney were celebrating Mike's brainstorm with salutary indignity, because if they didn't make a joke of it he might cry with joy.

"Things look better?"

"They do," said Joe. "If it only works...."

Then he hunted in his pocket. He found a quarter and examined it curiously. On one side he found nothing the major could have referred to. On the other side, though, just by George Washington's chin--

He put the quarter away and took Sally's arm.

"It'll be all right," he said slowly.

But there were times when it seemed in doubt. Joe's father arrived by plane at sunset of that same day, and he and three men from the Kenmore Precision Tool Company instantly closeted themselves with Mike in Major Holt's quarters. The powder metallurgy men turned up an hour later, and a three-star general from Washington. They joined the highly technical discussion.

Joe waited around outside, feeling left out of things. He sat on the porch with Sally while the moon rose over the desert and stars shone down. Inside, matters of high importance were being battled over with the informality and heat with which practical men get things settled. But Joe wasn't in on it. He said annoyedly, "You'd think my father'd have something to say to me, in all this mess! After all, I have been-well, I have been places! But all he said was, 'How are you, Son? Where's this Mike you talked about?'"

Sally said calmly, "I know just how you feel. You've made me feel that way." She looked up at the moon. "I thought about you all the time you were gone, and I-prayed for you, Joe. And now you're back and not even busy! But you don't-- It would be nice for you to think about me for a while!"

"I am thinking about you!" said Joe indignantly.

"Now what," said Sally interestedly, "in the world could you be thinking about me?"

He wanted to scowl at her. But he grinned instead.

* * *

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