- Author: Murray Leinster
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OPERATION: OUTER SPACE by Murray Leinster
[Pg 5]CHAPTER ONE
Jed Cochrane tried to be cynical as the helicab hummed softly through the night over the city. The cab flew at two thousand feet, where lighted buildings seemed to soar toward it from the canyons which were streets. There were lights and people everywhere, and Cochrane sardonically reminded himself that he was no better than anybody else, only he'd been trying to keep from realizing it. He looked down at the trees and shrubbery on the roof-tops, and at a dance that was going on atop one of the tallest buildings. All roofs were recreation-spaces nowadays. They were the only spaces available. When you looked down at a city like this, you had cynical thoughts. Fourteen million people in this city. Ten million in that. Eight in another and ten in another still, and twelve million in yet another ... Big cities. Swarming millions of people, all desperately anxious—so Cochrane realized bitterly—all desperately anxious about their jobs and keeping them.
"Even as me and I," said Cochrane harshly to himself. "Sure! I'm shaking in my shoes right along with the rest of them!"
But it hurt to realize that he'd been kidding himself. He'd thought he was important. Important, at least, to the advertising firm of Kursten, Kasten, Hopkins and Fallowe. But right now he was on the way—like a common legman—to take the moon-rocket to Lunar City, and he'd been informed of it just thirty minutes ago. Then he'd been told casually to get to the rocket-port right away. His secretary and two technical men and a writer were taking the same rocket. He'd get his instructions from Dr. William Holden on the way.
A part of his mind said indignantly, "Wait till I get Hopkins on the phone! It was a mixup! He wouldn't send me off anywhere with the Dikkipatti Hour depending on me! He's not that crazy!" But he was on his way[Pg 6] to the space-port, regardless. He'd raged when the message reached him. He'd insisted that he had to talk to Hopkins in person before he obeyed any such instructions. But he was on his way to the space-port. He was riding in a helicab, and he was making adjustments in his own mind to the humiliation he unconsciously foresaw. There were really three levels of thought in his mind. One had adopted a defensive cynicism, and one desperately insisted that he couldn't be as unimportant as his instructions implied, and the third watched the other two as the helicab flew with cushioned booming noises over the dark canyons of the city and the innumerable lonely lights of the rooftops.
There was a thin roaring sound, high aloft. Cochrane jerked his head back. The stars filled all the firmament, but he knew what to look for. He stared upward.
One of the stars grew brighter. He didn't know when he first picked it out, but he knew when he'd found it. He fixed his eyes on it. It was a very white star, and for a space of minutes it seemed in no wise different from its fellows. But it grew brighter. Presently it was very bright. It was brighter than Sirius. In seconds more it was brighter than Venus. It increased more and more rapidly in its brilliance. It became the brightest object in all the heavens except the crescent moon, and the cold intensity of its light was greater than any part of that. Then Cochrane could see that this star was not quite round. He could detect the quarter-mile-long flame of the rocket-blast.
It came down with a rush. He saw the vertical, stabbing pencil of light plunge earthward. It slowed remarkably as it plunged, with all the flying aircraft above the city harshly lighted by its glare. The space-port itself showed clearly. Cochrane saw the buildings, and the other moon-rockets waiting to take off in half an hour or less.
The white flame hit the ground and splashed. It spread out in a wide flat disk of intolerable brightness. The sleek hull of the ship which still rode the flame down glinted vividly as it settled into the inferno of its own making.
Then the light went out. The glare cut off abruptly. There was only a dim redness where the space-port tarmac had been made incandescent for a little while. That glow faded—and Cochrane became aware of the enormous[Pg 7] stillness. He had not really noticed the rocket's deafening roar until it ended.
The helicab flew onward almost silently, with only the throbbing pulses of its overhead vanes making any sound at all.
"I kidded myself about those rockets, too," said Cochrane bitterly to himself. "I thought getting to the moon meant starting to the stars. New worlds to live on. I had a lot more fun before I found out the facts of life!"
But he knew that this cynicism and this bitterness came out of the hurt to the vanity that still insisted everything was a mistake. He'd received orders which disillusioned him about his importance to the firm and to the business to which he'd given years of his life. It hurt to find out that he was just another man, just another expendable. Most people fought against making the discovery, and some succeeded in avoiding it. But Cochrane saw his own self-deceptions with a savage clarity even as he tried to keep them. He did not admire himself at all.
The helicab began to slant down toward the space-port buildings. The sky was full of stars. The earth—of course—was covered with buildings. Except for the space-port there was no unoccupied ground for thirty miles in any direction. The cab was down to a thousand feet. To five hundred. Cochrane saw the just-arrived rocket with tender-vehicles running busily to and fro and hovering around it. He saw the rocket he should take, standing upright on the faintly lighted field.
The cab touched ground. Cochrane stood up and paid the fare. He got out and the cab rose four or five feet and flitted over to the waiting-line.
He went into the space-port building. He felt himself growing more bitter still. Then he found Bill Holden—Doctor William Holden—standing dejectedly against a wall.
"I believe you've got some orders for me, Bill," said Cochrane sardonically. "And just what psychiatric help can I give you?"
Holden said tiredly:
"I don't like this any better than you do, Jed. I'm scared to death of space-travel. But go get your ticket and I'll tell you about it on the way up. It's a special production job. I'm roped in on it too."
"Happy holiday!" said Cochrane, because Holden looked about as miserable as a man could look.[Pg 8]
He went to the ticket desk. He gave his name. On request, he produced identification. Then he said sourly:
"While you're working on this I'll make a phone-call."
He went to a pay visiphone. And again there were different levels of awareness in his mind—one consciously and defensively cynical, and one frightened at the revelation of his unimportance, and the third finding the others an unedifying spectacle.
He put the call through with an over-elaborate confidence which he angrily recognized as an attempt to deceive himself. He got the office. He said calmly:
"This is Jed Cochrane. I asked for a visiphone contact with Mr. Hopkins."
He had a secretary on the phone-screen. She looked at memos and said pleasantly:
"Oh, yes. Mr. Hopkins is at dinner. He said he couldn't be disturbed, but for you to go on to the moon according to your instructions, Mr. Cochrane."
Cochrane hung up and raged, with one part of his mind. Another part—and he despised it—began to argue that after all, he had better wait before thinking there was any intent to humiliate him. After all, his orders must have been issued with due consideration. The third part disliked the other two parts intensely—one for raging without daring to speak, and one for trying to find alibis for not even raging. He went back to the ticket-desk. The clerk said heartily:
"Here you are! The rest of your party's already on board, Mr. Cochrane. You'd better hurry! Take-off's in five minutes."
Holden joined him. They went through the gate and got into the tender-vehicle that would rush them out to the rocket. Holden said heavily:
"I was waiting for you and hoping you wouldn't come. I'm not a good traveller, Jed."
The small vehicle rushed. To a city man, the dark expanse of the space-port was astounding. Then a spidery metal framework swallowed the tender-truck, and them. The vehicle stopped. An elevator accepted them and lifted an indefinite distance through the night, toward the stars. A sort of gangplank with a canvas siderail reached out across emptiness. Cochrane crossed it, and found himself at the bottom of a spiral ramp inside the rocket's passenger-compartment. A stewardess looked at the tickets. She led the way up, and stopped.[Pg 9]
"This is your seat, Mr. Cochrane," she said professionally. "I'll strap you in this first time. You'll do it later."
Cochrane lay down in a contour-chair with an eight-inch mattress of foam rubber. The stewardess adjusted straps. He thought bitter, ironic thoughts. A voice said:
He turned his head. There was Babs Deane, his secretary, with her eyes very bright. She regarded him from a contour-chair exactly opposite his. She said happily:
"Mr. West and Mr. Jamison are the science men, Mr. Cochrane. I got Mr. Bell as the writer."
"A great triumph!" Cochrane told her. "Did you get any idea what all this is about? Why we're going up?"
"No," admitted Babs cheerfully. "I haven't the least idea. But I'm going to the moon! It's the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me!"
Cochrane shrugged his shoulders. Shrugging was not comfortable in the straps that held him. Babs was a good secretary. She was the only one Cochrane had ever had who did not try to make use of her position as secretary to the producer of the Dikkipatti Hour on television. Other secretaries had used their nearness to him to wangle acting or dancing or singing assignments on other and lesser shows. As a rule they lasted just four public appearances before they were back at desks, spoiled for further secretarial use by their taste of fame. But Babs hadn't tried that. Yet she'd jumped at a chance for a trip to the moon.
A panel up toward the nose of the rocket—the upper end of this passenger compartment—glowed suddenly. Flaming red letters said, "Take-off, ninety seconds."
Cochrane found an ironic flavor in the thought that splendid daring and incredible technology had made his coming journey possible. Heroes had ventured magnificently into the emptiness beyond Earth's atmosphere. Uncountable millions of dollars had been spent. Enormous intelligence and infinite pains had been devoted to making possible a journey of two hundred thirty-six thousand miles through sheer nothingness. This was the most splendid achievement of human science—the reaching of a satellite of Earth and the building of a human city there.
And for what? Undoubtedly so that one Jed Cochrane could be ordered by telephone, by somebody's secretary, to go and get on a passenger-rocket and get to the moon. Go—having failed to make a protest because his boss[Pg 10] wouldn't interrupt dinner to listen—so he could keep his job by obeying. For this splendid purpose, scientists had labored and dedicated men had risked their lives.
Of course, Cochrane reminded himself with conscious justice, of course there was the very great value of moon-mail cachets to devotees of philately. There was the value of the tourist facilities to anybody who could spend that much money for something to brag about afterward. There were the solar-heat mines—running at a slight loss—and various other fine achievements. There was even a nightclub in Lunar City where one highball cost the equivalent of—say—a week's pay for a secretary like Babs. And—
The panel changed its red glowing sign. It said: "Take-off forty-five seconds."
Somewhere down below a door closed with a cushioned soft definiteness. The inside of the rocket suddenly seemed extraordinarily still. The silence was oppressive. It was dead. Then there came the whirring of very many electric fans, stirring up the air.
The stewardess' voice came matter-of-factly from below him in the upended cylinder which was the passenger-space.
"We take off in forty-five seconds. You will find yourself feeling very heavy. There is no cause to be alarmed. If you