Operation: Outer Space
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Operation: Outer Space, by William FitzgeraldJenkins
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Title: Operation: Outer Space
Author: William Fitzgerald Jenkins
Release Date: May 10, 2006 [eBook #18361]
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK OPERATION: OUTER SPACE***
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OPERATION: OUTER SPACE
by Murray Leinster
Jed Cochrane tried to be cynical as the helicabhummed softly through the night over the city. The cabflew at two thousand feet, where lighted buildings seemedto soar toward it from the canyons which were streets.There were lights and people everywhere, and Cochranesardonically reminded himself that he was no better thananybody else, only he'd been trying to keep from realizingit. He looked down at the trees and shrubbery on theroof-tops, and at a dance that was going on atop oneof the tallest buildings. All roofs were recreation-spacesnowadays. They were the only spaces available. When youlooked 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 millionin yet another ... Big cities. Swarming millions ofpeople, all desperately anxious—so Cochrane realizedbitterly—all desperately anxious about their jobs andkeeping them.
"Even as me and I," said Cochrane harshly to himself."Sure! I'm shaking in my shoes right along with the restof them!"
But it hurt to realize that he'd been kidding himself.He'd thought he was important. Important, at least, tothe advertising firm of Kursten, Kasten, Hopkins andFallowe. But right now he was on the way—like a commonlegman—to take the moon-rocket to Lunar City,and he'd been informed of it just thirty minutes ago. Thenhe'd been told casually to get to the rocket-port rightaway. His secretary and two technical men and a writerwere taking the same rocket. He'd get his instructionsfrom Dr. William Holden on the way.
A part of his mind said indignantly, "Wait till I getHopkins on the phone! It was a mixup! He wouldn'tsend me off anywhere with the Dikkipatti Hour dependingon me! He's not that crazy!" But he was on his way[Pg 6]to the space-port, regardless. He'd raged when the messagereached him. He'd insisted that he had to talk toHopkins in person before he obeyed any such instructions.But he was on his way to the space-port. He wasriding in a helicab, and he was making adjustmentsin his own mind to the humiliation he unconsciouslyforesaw. There were really three levels of thought inhis mind. One had adopted a defensive cynicism, andone desperately insisted that he couldn't be as unimportantas his instructions implied, and the third watched theother two as the helicab flew with cushioned boomingnoises over the dark canyons of the city and the innumerablelonely lights of the rooftops.
There was a thin roaring sound, high aloft. Cochranejerked 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 whenhe first picked it out, but he knew when he'd found it.He fixed his eyes on it. It was a very white star, andfor a space of minutes it seemed in no wise differentfrom its fellows. But it grew brighter. Presently it wasvery bright. It was brighter than Sirius. In seconds moreit was brighter than Venus. It increased more and morerapidly in its brilliance. It became the brightest object inall the heavens except the crescent moon, and the coldintensity of its light was greater than any part of that.Then Cochrane could see that this star was not quiteround. He could detect the quarter-mile-long flame of therocket-blast.
It came down with a rush. He saw the vertical, stabbingpencil of light plunge earthward. It slowed remarkablyas it plunged, with all the flying aircraft above thecity harshly lighted by its glare. The space-port itselfshowed clearly. Cochrane saw the buildings, and theother moon-rockets waiting to take off in half an houror less.
The white flame hit the ground and splashed. It spreadout in a wide flat disk of intolerable brightness. Thesleek hull of the ship which still rode the flame downglinted vividly as it settled into the inferno of its ownmaking.
Then the light went out. The glare cut off abruptly.There was only a dim redness where the space-port tarmachad been made incandescent for a little while. Thatglow faded—and Cochrane became aware of the enormous[Pg 7]stillness. He had not really noticed the rocket'sdeafening roar until it ended.
The helicab flew onward almost silently, with onlythe throbbing pulses of its overhead vanes making anysound at all.
"I kidded myself about those rockets, too," said Cochranebitterly to himself. "I thought getting to the moonmeant starting to the stars. New worlds to live on. I hada lot more fun before I found out the facts of life!"
But he knew that this cynicism and this bitterness cameout of the hurt to the vanity that still insisted everythingwas a mistake. He'd received orders which disillusionedhim about his importance to the firm and to the businessto which he'd given years of his life. It hurt to find out thathe was just another man, just another . Mostpeople fought against making the discovery, and some succeededin avoiding it. But Cochrane saw his own self-deceptionswith a savage clarity even as he tried to keepthem. He did not admire himself at all.
The helicab began to slant down toward the space-portbuildings. The sky was full of stars. The earth—of course—wascovered with buildings. Except for the space-portthere was no unoccupied ground for thirty miles in any direction.The cab was down to a thousand feet. To fivehundred. Cochrane saw the just-arrived rocket with tender-vehiclesrunning busily to and fro and hovering around it.He saw the rocket he should take, standing upright on thefaintly lighted field.
The cab touched ground. Cochrane stood up and paidthe fare. He got out and the cab rose four or five feetand flitted over to the waiting-line.
He went into the space-port building. He felt himselfgrowing more bitter still. Then he found Bill Holden—DoctorWilliam Holden—standing dejectedly against awall.
"I believe you've got some orders for me, Bill," saidCochrane sardonically. "And just what psychiatric helpcan I give you?"
Holden said tiredly:
"I don't like this any better than you do, Jed. I'mscared to death of space-travel. But go get your ticketand I'll tell you about it on the way up. It's a specialproduction job. I'm roped in on it too."
"Happy holiday!" said Cochrane, because Holdenlooked about as miserable as a man could look.[Pg 8]
He went to the ticket desk. He gave his name. Onrequest, 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 differentlevels of awareness in his mind—one consciouslyand defensively cynical, and one frightened at the revelationof his unimportance, and the third finding the othersan unedifying spectacle.
He put the call through with an over-elaborate confidencewhich he angrily recognized as an attempt to deceivehimself. He got the office. He said :
"This is Jed Cochrane. I asked for a visiphone contactwith Mr. Hopkins."
He had a secretary on the phone-screen. She looked atmemos and said pleasantly:
"Oh, yes. Mr. Hopkins is at dinner. He said he couldn'tbe disturbed, but for you to go on to the moon accordingto your instructions, Mr. Cochrane."
Cochrane hung up and raged, with one part of hismind. Another part—and he despised it—began to arguethat after all, he had better wait before thinking there wasany intent to humiliate him. After all, his orders musthave been issued with due consideration. The third partdisliked the other two parts intensely—one for raging withoutdaring to speak, and one for trying to find alibis fornot even raging. He went back to the ticket-desk. Theclerk said heartily:
"Here you are! The rest of your party's already onboard, Mr. Cochrane. You'd better hurry! infive minutes."
Holden joined him. They went through the gate andgot into the tender-vehicle that would rush them out tothe 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 darkexpanse of the space-port was astounding. Then a spiderymetal framework swallowed the tender-truck, and them.The vehicle stopped. An elevator accepted them and liftedan indefinite distance through the night, toward the stars. Asort of gangplank with a canvas siderail reached outacross emptiness. Cochrane crossed it, and found himselfat 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-inchmattress of foam rubber. The stewardess adjustedstraps. 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 acontour-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 getany idea what all this is about? Why we're going up?"
"No," admitted Babs cheerfully. "I haven't the leastidea. But I'm going to the moon! It's the most wonderfulthing that ever happened to me!"
Cochrane shrugged his shoulders. Shrugging was notcomfortable in the straps that held him. Babs was a goodsecretary. She was the only one Cochrane had ever hadwho did not try to make use of her position as secretaryto the producer of the Dikkipatti Hour on television.Other secretaries had used their nearness to him to wangleacting or dancing or singing assignments on otherand lesser shows. As a rule they lasted just four publicappearances before they were back at desks, spoiled forfurther secretarial use by their taste of fame. But Babshadn't tried that. Yet she'd jumped at a chance for atrip to the moon.
A panel up toward the nose of the rocket—the upperend of this passenger compartment—glowed suddenly.Flaming red letters said, ", ninety seconds."
Cochrane found an ironic flavor in the thought thatsplendid daring and incredible technology had made hiscoming journey possible. Heroes had ventured magnificentlyinto the emptiness beyond Earth's atmosphere. Uncountablemillions of dollars had been spent. Enormousintelligence and infinite pains had been devoted to makingpossible a journey of two hundred thirty-six thousandmiles through sheer nothingness. This was the most splendidachievement of human science—the reaching of asatellite of Earth and the building of a human city there.
And for what? Undoubtedly so that one Jed Cochranecould 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 hisjob by obeying. For this splendid purpose, scientists hadlabored and dedicated men had risked their lives.
Of course, Cochrane reminded himself with consciousjustice, of course there was the very great value of moon-mailcachets to devotees of philately. There was the valueof the tourist facilities to anybody who could spend thatmuch money for something to brag about afterward.There were the solar-heat mines—running at a slight loss—andvarious other fine achievements. There was evena in Lunar City where one highball cost theequivalent of—say—a week's pay for a secretary likeBabs. And—
The panel changed its red glowing sign. It said: