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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSpace Platform - Chapter 9
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Space Platform - Chapter 9 Post by :ANDROIDTECH Category :Long Stories Author :Murray Leinster Date :May 2012 Read :1173

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Space Platform - Chapter 9

It was not, however, the crack of doom. When Joe stared out the window by the head of his cot, he saw gray-red dawn breaking over the landing field. There were low, featureless structures silhouetted against the sunrise. As the crimson light grew brighter, Joe realized that the angular shapes were hangars. Improbable crane poles loomed above them. One was in motion, handling something he could not make out, but the noise that had awakened him was less, now. It seemed to circle overhead, and it had an angry, droning, buzzing quality that was not natural in any motor he had ever heard before.

Joe shivered, standing at the window. It was cold and dank in the dawn light at this altitude, but he wanted to know what that completely unbelievable roar had been. A crane beam by the hangars tilted down, slowly, and then lifted as if released of a great weight. The light was growing slowly brighter. Joe saw something on the ground. Rather, it was not quite on the ground. It rested on something on the ground.

Suddenly that unholy uproar began again. Something moved. It ran heavily out from the masking dark of the hangars. It picked up speed. It acquired a reasonable velocity--forty or fifty miles an hour. As it scuttled over the dimly lighted field, it made a din like all the boiler factories in the world and all the backfiring motors in creation trying to drown each other's noise out--and all of them being very successful.

It was a pushpot. Joe recognized it with incredulity. It was one of those utterly ungainly creations that were built around one half of the sidewall of the Shed. In shape, its upper part was like the top half of a loaf of bread. In motion, here, it rested on some sort of wheeled vehicle, and it was reared up like an indignant caterpillar, and a blue-white flame squirted out of its tail, with coy and frolicsome flirtings from side to side.

The pushpot lifted from the vehicle on which it rode, and the vehicle put on speed and got away from under it with frantic agility. The vehicle swerved to one side, and Joe stared with amazed eyes at the pushpot, some twenty feet aloft. It had a flat underside, and a topside that still looked to him like the rounded top half of a loaf of baker's bread. It hung in the air at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and it howled like a panic-stricken dragon--Joe was getting his metaphors mixed by this time--and it swung and wobbled and slowly gained altitude, and then suddenly it seemed to get the knack of what it was supposed to do. It started to circle around, and then it began abruptly to climb skyward. Until it began to climb it looked heavy and clumsy and wholly unimpressive. But when it climbed, it really moved!

Joe found his head out the window, craning up to look at it. Its unearthly din took on the indignant quality of an irritated beehive. But it climbed! It went up without grace but with astonishing speed. And it was huge, but it became lost in the red-flecked dawn sky while Joe still gaped.

Joe flung on his clothes. He went out the door through resonant empty corridors, hunting for somebody to tell him something. He blundered into a mess hall. There were many tables, but the chairs around them were pushed back as if used and then left behind by people in a hurry to be somewhere else. There were exactly two people still visible over in a corner.

Another din like the wailing of a baby volcano with a toothache. It began, and moved, and went through the series of changes that ended in a climbing, droning hum. Another. Another. The launching of pushpots for their morning flight was evidently getting well under way.

Joe hesitated in the nearly empty mess hall. Then he recognized the two seated figures. They were the pilot and co-pilot, respectively, of the fateful plane that had brought him to Bootstrap.

He went over to their table. The pilot nodded matter-of-factly. The co-pilot grinned. Both still wore bandages on their hands, which would account for their remaining here.

"Fancy seeing you!" said the co-pilot cheerfully. "Welcome to the Hotel de Gink! But don't tell me you're going to fly a pushpot!"

"I hadn't figured on it," admitted Joe. "Are you?"

"Perish forbid," said the co-pilot amiably. "I tried it once, for the devil of it. Those things fly with the grace of a lady elephant on ice skates! Did you, by any chance, notice that they haven't got any wings? And did you notice where their control surfaces were?"

Joe shook his head. He saw the remnants of ham and eggs and coffee. He was hungry.

There was the uproar to be expected of a basso-profundo banshee in pain. Another pushpot was taking off.

"How do I get breakfast?" he asked.

The co-pilot pointed to a chair. He rapped sharply on a drinking glass. A door opened, he pointed at Joe, and the door closed.

"Breakfast coming up," said the co-pilot. "Look! I know you're Joe Kenmore. I'm Brick Talley and this is Captain--no less than Captain!--Thomas J. Walton. Impressed?"

"Very much," said Joe. He sat down. "What about the control surfaces on pushpots?"

"They're in the jet blast!" said the co-pilot, now identified as Brick Talley. "Like the V Two rockets when the Germans made 'em. Vanes in the exhaust blast, no kidding! Landing, and skidding in on their tails like they do, they haven't speed enough to give wing flaps a grip on the air, even if they had wings to put wing flaps on. Those dinkuses are things to have bad dreams about!"

Again, a door opened and a man in uniform with an apron in front came marching in with a tray. There was tomato juice and ham and eggs and coffee. He served Joe briskly and marched out again.

"That's Hotel de Gink service," said Talley. "No wasted motion, no sloppy civilities. He was about to eat that himself, he gave it to you, and now he'll cook himself a double portion of everything. What are you doing here, anyhow?"

Joe shrugged. It occurred to him that it would neither be wise nor creditable to say that he'd been sent here to split up a target at which saboteurs might shoot.

"I guess I'm attached for rations," he observed. "There'll be orders along about me presently, I suppose. Then I'll know what it's all about."

He fell to on his breakfast. The thunderous noises of the pushpots taking off made the mess hall quiver. Joe said between mouthfuls: "Funny way for anything to take off, riding on--it looked like a truck."

"It is a truck," said Talley. "A high-speed truck. Fifty of them specially made to serve as undercarriages so pushpot pilots can practice. The pushpots are really only expected to work once, you know."

Joe nodded.

"They aren't to take off," Talley explained. "Not in theory. They hang on to the Platform and heave. They go up with it, pushing. When they get it as high as they can, they'll shoot their jatos, let go, and come bumbling back home. So they have to practice getting back home and landing. For practicing it doesn't matter how they get aloft. When they get down, a big straddle truck on caterpillar treads picks them up--they land in the doggonedest places, sometimes!--and brings 'em back. Then a crane heaves them up on a high-speed truck and they do it all over again."

Joe considered while he ate. It made sense. The function of the pushpots was to serve as the first booster stage of a multiple-stage rocket. Together, they would lift the Platform off the ground and get it as high as their jet motors would take it traveling east at the topmost speed they could manage. Then they'd fire their jatos simultaneously, and in doing that they'd be acting as the second booster stage of a multiple-stage rocket. Then their work would be done, and their only remaining purpose would be to get their pilots back to the ground alive, while the Platform on its own third stage shot out to space.

"So," said Talley, "since their pilots need to practice landings, the trucks get them off the ground. They go up to fifty thousand feet, just to give their oxygen tanks a chance to conk out on them; then they barge around up there a while. The advanced trainees shoot off a jato at top speed. It's gauged to build them up to the speed they'll give the Platform. And then if they come out of that and get back down to ground safely, they uncross their fingers. A merry life those guys lead! When a man's made ten complete flights he retires. One flight a week thereafter to keep in practice only, until the big day for the Platform's take-off. Those guys sweat!"

"Is it that bad?"

The pilot grunted. The co-pilot--Talley--spread out his hands.

"It is that bad! Every so often one of them comes down untidily. There's something the matter with the motors. They've got a little too much power, maybe. Sometimes--occasionally--they explode."

"Jet motors?" asked Joe. "Explode? That's news!"

"A strictly special feature," said Talley drily. "Exclusive with pushpots for the Platform. They run 'em and run 'em and run 'em, on test. Nothing happens. But occasionally one blows up in flight. Once it happened warming up. That was a mess! The field's been losing two pilots a week. Lately more."

"It doesn't sound exactly reasonable," said Joe slowly. He put a last forkful in his mouth.

"It's also inconvenient," said Talley, "for the pilots."

The pilot--Walton--opened his mouth.

"It'd be sabotage," he said curtly, "if there was any way to do it. Four pilots killed this week."

He lapsed into silence again.

Joe considered. He frowned.

A pushpot, outside the building, hysterically bellowed its way across the runway and its noise changed and it was aloft. It went spiraling up and up. Joe stirred his coffee.

There were thin shoutings outside. A screaming, whistling noise! A crash! Something metallic shrieked and died. Then silence.

Talley, the co-pilot, looked sick. Then he said: "Correction. It's been five pushpots exploded and five pilots killed this week. It's getting a little bit serious." He looked sharply at Joe. "Better drink your coffee before you go look. You won't want to, afterward."

He was right.

Joe saw the crashed pushpot half an hour later. He found that his ostensible assignment to the airfield for the investigation of sabotage was quaintly taken at face value there. A young lieutenant solemnly escorted him to the spot where the pushpot had landed, only ten feet from a hangar wall. The impact had carried parts of the pushpot five feet into the soil, and the splash effect had caved in the hangar wall-footing. There'd been a fire, which had been put out.

The ungainly flying thing was twisted and torn. Entrails of steel tubing were revealed. The plastic cockpit cover was shattered. There were only grisly stains where the pilot had been.

The motor had exploded. The jet motor. And jet motors do not explode. But this one had. It had burst from within, and the turbine vanes of the compressor section were revealed, twisted intolerably where the barrel of the motor was ripped away. The jagged edges of the tear testified to the violence of the internal explosion.

Joe looked wise and felt ill. The young lieutenant very politely looked away as Joe's face showed how he felt. But of course there were the orders that said he was a sabotage expert. And Joe felt angrily that he was sailing under false colors. He didn't know anything about sabotage. He believed that he was probably the least qualified of anybody that security had ever empowered to look into methods of destruction.

Yet, in a sense, that very fact was an advantage. A man may be set to work to contrive methods of sabotage. Another man may be trained to counter him. The training of the second man is essentially a study of how the first man's mind works. Then it can be guessed what this saboteur will think and do. But such a trained security man will often be badly handicapped if he comes upon the sabotage methods of a second man--an entirely different saboteur who thinks in a new fashion. The security man may be hampered in dealing with the second man's sabotage just because he knows too much about the thinking of the first.

Joe went off and scowled at a wall, while the young lieutenant waited hopefully nearby.

He was in a false position. But he could see that there was something odd here. There was a sort of pattern in the way the other sabotage incidents had been planned. It was hard to pick out, but it was there. Joe thought of the trick of booby-trapping a plane during its major overhaul, and then arming the traps at a later date.... A private plane had been fitted to deliver proximity rockets in mid-air when the transport ship flew past. There was the explosion of the cargo parcel which was supposed to contain requisition forms and stationery. And the attempt to smash the entire Platform by getting an atomic bomb into a plane and having a saboteur shoot the crew and then deliver the bomb at the Shed in an officially harmless aircraft....

The common element in all those sabotage tricks was actually clear enough, but Joe wasn't used to thinking in such terms. He did know, though, that there was a pattern in those devices which did not exist in the blowing up of jet motors from inside.

He scowled and scowled, racking his brains, while the young lieutenant watched respectfully, waiting for Joe to have an inspiration. Had Joe known it, the lieutenant was deeply impressed by his attempt at concentration on the problem it had not been Major Holt's intention for Joe to consider. When Joe temporarily gave up, the young lieutenant eagerly showed him over the whole field and all its workings.

In mid-morning another pushpot fell screaming from the skies. That made six pushpots and six pilots for this week--two today. The things had no wings. They had no gliding angle. Pointed up, they could climb unbelievably. While their engines functioned, they could be controlled after a fashion. But they were not aircraft in any ordinary meaning of the word. They were engines with fuel tanks and controls in their exhaust blast. When their engines failed, they were so much junk falling out of the sky.

Joe happened to see the second crash, and he didn't go to noon mess at all. He hadn't any appetite. Instead, he gloomily let himself be packed full of irrelevant information by the young lieutenant who considered that since Joe had been sent by security to look into sabotage, he must be given every possible opportunity to evaluate--that would be the word the young lieutenant would use--the situation.

But all the time that Joe followed him about, his mind fumbled with a hunch. The idea was that there was a pattern of thinking in sabotage, and if you could solve it, you could outguess the saboteur. But the trouble was to figure out the similarity he felt existed in--say--a private plane shooting rockets and overhaul mechanics planting booby traps and faked shippers getting bombs on planes--and come to think of it, there was Braun....

Braun was the key! Braun had been an honest man, with an honest loyalty to the United States which had given him refuge. But he had been blackmailed into accepting a container of atomic death to be released in the Shed. Radioactive cobalt did not belong in the Shed. That was the key to the pattern of sabotage. Braun was not to use any natural thing that belonged in the Shed. He was to be only the means by which something extraneous and deadly was to have been introduced.

That was it! Somebody was devising ingenious ways to get well-known destructive devices into places where they did not belong, but where they would be effective. Rockets. Bombs. Even radioactive cobalt dust. All were perfectly well-known means of destruction. The minds that planned those tricks said, in effect: "These things will destroy. How can we get them to where they will destroy something?" It was a strict pattern.

But the pushpot sabotage--and Joe was sure it was nothing else--was not that sort of thing. Making motors explode.... Motors don't explode. One couldn't put bombs in them. There wasn't room. The explosions Joe had seen looked as if they'd centered in the fire basket--technically the combustion area--behind the compressor and before the drive vanes. A jet motor whirled. Its front vanes compressed air, and a flame burned furiously in the compressed air, which swelled enormously and poured out past other vanes that took power from it to drive the compressor. The excess of blast poured out astern in a blue-white flame, driving the ship.

But one couldn't put a bomb in a fire basket. The temperature would melt anything but the refractory alloys of which a jet motor has to be built. A bomb placed there would explode the instant a motor was started. It couldn't resist until the pushpot took off. It couldn't....

This was a different kind of sabotage. There was a different mind at work.

In the afternoon Joe watched the landings, while the young lieutenant followed him patiently about. A pushpot landing was quite unlike the landing of any other air-borne thing. It came flying down with incredible clumsiness, making an uproar out of all proportion to its landing speed. Pushpots came in with their tail ends low, crudely and cruelly clumsy in their handling. They had no wings or fins. They had to be balanced by their jet blasts. They had to be steered the same way. When a jet motor conked out there was no control. The pushpot fell.

He carefully watched one landing now. It came down low, and swung in toward the field, and seemed to reach its stern down tentatively to slide on the earth, and the flame of its exhaust scorched the field, and it hesitated, pointing up at an ever steeper angle--and it touched and its nose tilted forward--and leaped up as the jet roared more loudly, and then touched again....

The goal was for pushpots to touch ground finally with the whole weight of the flying monstrosity supported by the vertical thrust of the jet, and while it was moving forward at the lowest possible rate of speed. When that goal was achieved, they flopped solidly flat, slid a few feet on their metal bellies, and lay still. Some hit hard and tried to dig into the earth with their blunt noses. Joe finally saw one touch with no forward speed at all. It seemed to try to settle down vertically, as a rocket takes off. That one fell over backward and wallowed with its belly plates in the air before it rolled over on its side and rocked there.

The last of a flight touched down and flopped, and the memory of the wreckage had been overlaid by these other sights and Joe could think of his next meal without aversion. When it was evening-mess time he went doggedly back to the mess hall. There was a sort of itchy feeling in his mind. He knew something he didn't know he knew. There was something in his memory that he couldn't recall.

Talley and Walton were again at mess. Joe went to their table. Talley looked at him inquiringly.

"Yes, I saw both crashes," said Joe gloomily, "and I didn't want any lunch. It was sabotage, though. Only it was different in kind--it was different in principle--from the other tricks. But I can't figure out what it is!"

"Mmmmmm," said Talley, amiably. "You'd learn something if you could talk to the Resistance fighters and saboteurs in Europe. The Poles were wonderful at it! They had one chap who could get at the tank cars that took aviation gasoline from the refinery to the various Nazi airfields. He used to dump some chemical compound--just a tiny bit--into each carload of gas. It looked all right, smelled all right, and worked all right. But at odd moments Hitler's planes would crash. The valves would stick and the engine'd conk out."

Joe stared at him. And it was just as simple as that. He saw.

"The Nazis lost a lot of planes that way," said Talley. "Those that didn't crash from stuck valves in flight--they had to have their valves reground. Lost flying time. Wonderful! And when the Nazis did uncover the trick, they had to re-refine every drop of aviation gas they had!"

Joe said: "That's it!"

"That's it? And _it is what?"

Then Joe said disgustedly: "Surely! It's the trick of loading CO_2 bottles with explosive gas, too! Excuse me!"

He got up from the table and hurried out. He found a phone booth and got the Shed, and then the security office, and at long last Major Holt. The Major's tone was curt.

"Yes?... Joe?... The three men from the affair of the lake were tracked this morning. When they were cornered they tried to fight. I am afraid we'll get no information from them, if that's what you wanted to know."

The Major's manner seemed to disapprove of Joe as expressing curiosity. His words meant, of course, that the three would-be murderers had been fatally shot.

Joe said carefully: "That wasn't what I called about, sir. I think I've found out something about the pushpots. How they're made to crash. But my hunch needs to be checked."

The Major said briefly: "Tell me."

Joe said: "All the tricks but one, that were used on the plane I came on, were the same kind of trick. They were all arrangements for getting regular destructive items--bombs or rockets or whatever--where they could explode and smash things. The saboteurs were adding destructive items to various states of things. But there was one trick that was different."

"Yes?" said the Major, on the telephone.

"Putting explosive gas in the CO_2 bottles," said Joe painstakingly, "wasn't adding a new gadget to a situation. It was changing something that was already there. The saboteurs took something that belonged in a plane and changed it. They did not put something new into a plane--or a situation--that didn't belong there. It was a special kind of thinking. You see, sir?"

The Major, to do him justice, had the gift of listening. He waited.

"The pushpots," said Joe, very carefully, "naturally have their fuel stored in different tanks in different places, as airplanes do. The pilots switch on one tank or another just like plane pilots. In the underground storage and fueling pits, where all the fuel for the pushpots is kept in bulk, there are different tanks too. Naturally! At the fuel pump, the attendant can draw on any of those underground tanks he chooses."

The Major said curtly: "Obviously! What of it?"

"The pushpot motors explode," said Joe. "And they shouldn't. No bomb could be gotten into them without going off the instant they started, and they don't blow that way. I make a guess, sir, that one of the underground storage tanks--just one--contains doctored fuel. I'm guessing that as separate tanks in a pushpot are filled up, one by one, _one is filled from a particular underground storage tank that contains doctored fuel. The rest will have normal fuel. And the pushpot is going to crash when that tank, and only that tank, is used!"

Major Holt was very silent.

"You see, sir?" said Joe uneasily. "The pushpots could be fueled a hundred times over with perfectly good fuel, and then one tank in one of them would explode when drawn on. There'd be no pattern in the explosions...."

Major Holt said coldly: "Of course I see! It would need only one tank of doctored fuel to be delivered to the airfield, and it need not be used for weeks. And there would be no trace in the wreckage, after the fire! You are telling me there is one underground storage tank in which the fuel is highly explosive. It is plausible. I will have it checked immediately."

He hung up, and Joe went back to his meal. He felt uneasy. There couldn't be any way to make a jet motor explode unless you fed it explosive fuel. Then there couldn't be any way to stop it. And then--after the wreck had burned--there couldn't be any way to prove it was really sabotage. But the feeling of having reported only a guess was not too satisfying. Joe ate gloomily. He didn't pay much attention to Talley. He had that dogged, uncomfortable feeling a man has when he knows he doesn't qualify as an expert, but feels that he's hit on something the experts have missed.

Half an hour after the evening mess--near sunset--a security officer wearing a uniform hunted up Joe at the airfield.

"Major Holt sent me over to bring you back to the Shed," he said politely.

"If you don't mind," said Joe with equal politeness, "I'll check that."

He went to the phone booth in the barracks. He got Major Holt on the wire. And Major Holt hadn't sent anybody to get him.

So Joe stayed in the telephone booth--on orders--while the Major did some fast telephoning. It was comforting to know he had a pistol in his pocket, and it was frustrating not to be allowed to try to capture the fake security officer himself. The idea of murdering Joe had not been given up, and he'd have liked to take part personally in protecting himself. But it was much more important for the fake security man to be captured than for Joe to have the satisfaction of attempting it himself.

As a matter of fact, the fake officer started his getaway the instant Joe went to check on his orders. The officer knew they'd be found faked. It had not been practical for him to shoot Joe down where he was. There were too many people around for this murderer to have a chance at a getaway.

But he didn't get away, at that. Twenty minutes later, while Joe still waited fretfully in the phone booth, the phone bell rang and Major Holt was again on the wire. And this time Joe was instructed to come back to the Shed. He had exact orders whom to come with, and they had orders which identified them to Joe.

Some eight miles from the airfield--it was just dusk--Joe came upon a wrecked car with motorcycle security guards working on it. They stopped Joe's escort. Joe's phone call had set off an alarm. A plane had spotted this car tearing away from the airfield, and motorcyclists were guided in pursuit by the plane. When it wouldn't stop--when the fake Security officer in it tried to shoot his way clear--the plane strafed him. So he was dead and his car was a wreck, and the motorcycle men were trying to get some useful information from his body and the car.

Joe went to the Major's house in the officers'-quarters area. The Major looked even more tired than before, but he nodded approvingly at Joe. Sally was there too, and she regarded Joe with a look which was a good deal warmer than her father's.

"You did very well," said the Major detachedly. "I don't have too high an opinion of the brains of anybody your age, Joe. When you are my age, you won't either. But whether you have brains or simply luck, you are turning out to be very useful."

Joe said: "I'm getting security conscious, sir. I want to stay alive."

The Major regarded him with irony.

"I was thinking of the fact that when you worked out the matter of the doctored pushpot fuel, you did not try to be a hero and prove it yourself. You referred it to me. That was the proper procedure. You could have been killed, investigating--it's clear that the saboteurs would be pleased to have a good chance to murder you--and your suspicions might never have reached me. They were correct, by the way. One storage tank underground was half-full of doctored fuel. Rather more important, another _was full, not yet drawn on."

The Major went on, without apparent cordiality: "It seems probable that if this particular sabotage trick had not been detected--it seems likely that on the Platform's take-off, all or most of the pushpots would have been fueled to explode at some time after the Platform was aloft, and before it could possibly get out to space."

Joe felt queer. The Major was telling him, in effect, that he might have kept the Platform from crashing on take-off. It was a good but upsetting sensation. It was still more important to Joe that the Platform get out to space than that he be credited with saving it. And it was not reassuring to hear that it might have been wrecked.

"Your reasoning," added the Major coldly, "was soundly based. It seems certain that there is not one central authority directing all the sabotage against the Platform. There are probably several sabotage organizations, all acting independently and probably hating each other, but all hating the Platform more."

Joe blinked. He hadn't thought of that. It was disheartening.

"It will really be bad," said the Major, "if they ever co-operate!"

"Yes, sir," said Joe.

"But I called you back from the airfield," the Major told him without warmth, "to say that you have done a good job. I have talked to Washington. Naturally, you deserve a reward."

"I'm doing all right, sir," said Joe awkwardly. "I want to see the Platform go up and stay up!"

The Major nodded impatiently.

"Naturally! But--ah--one of the men selected and trained for the crew of the Platform has been--ah--taken ill. In strict confidence, because of sabotage it has been determined to close in the Platform and get it aloft at the earliest possible instant, even if its interior arrangements are incomplete. So--ah--in view of your usefulness, I said to Washington that I believed the greatest reward you could be offered was--ah--to be trained as an alternate crew member, to take this man's place if he does not recover in time."

The room seemed to reel around Joe. Then he gulped and said: "Yes, sir! I mean--that's right. I mean, I'd rather have that, than all the money in the world!"

"Very well." The Major turned to leave the room. "You'll stay here, be guarded a good deal more closely than before, and take instructions. But you understand that you are still only an alternate for a crew member! The odds are definitely against your going!"

"That's--that's all right, sir," said Joe unsteadily. "That's quite all right!"

The Major went out. Joe stood still, trying to realize what all this might mean to him. Then Sally stirred.

"You might say thanks, Joe."

Her eyes were shining, but she looked proud, too.

"I put it in Dad's head that that was what you'd like better than anything else," she told him. "If I can't go up in the Platform myself--and I can't--I wanted you to. Because I knew you wanted to."

She smiled at him as he tried incoherently to talk. With a quiet maternal patience, she led him out on the porch of her father's house and sat there and listened to him. It was a long time before he realized that she was humoring him. Then he stopped short and looked at her suspiciously. He found that in his enthusiastic gesticulations he had been gesticulating with _her hand as well as his own.

"I guess I'm pretty crazy," he said ruefully. "Shooting off my mouth about myself up there in space.... You're pretty decent to stand me the way I am, Sally."

He paused. Then he said humbly: "I'm plain lucky. But knowing you and--having you like me reasonably much is pretty lucky too!"

She looked at him noncommittally.

He added painfully: "And not only because you spoke to your father and told him just the right thing, either. You're--sort of swell, Sally!"

She let out her breath. Then she grinned at him.

"That's the difference between us, Joe," she told him. "To me, what you just said is the most important thing anybody's said tonight."

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