He hadn’t gotten any work done that morning. He’d spent most of the time pacing the floor of his small back office, and the rest of it at the window--hands clasped behind his somewhat bowed back--staring up into the cloudless sky.
At ten-forty, the intercom buzzed. He snapped the switch.
“I’ve got those figures, Mr. Lake. We have nine--”
“Maybe you’d better come in and tell me personally, Lucy.”
“All right, Mr. Lake.”
The intercom snapped off and a few moments later a girl entered the office--if the prim little wisp that was Lucy Crane could be so generously classified.
Joshua Lake stared at the elongated bun of black hair on the top of her head as she came toward his desk. There was an odd streak of rich imagination in Joshua Lake and he always felt Lucy Crane’s bun was a symbol of disapproval. “Sit down, Lucy. You use up too much energy.”
“I try to do my job, Mr. Lake.”
“You do that--and more. What are the figures, Lucy?”
“We’re in desperate shape. We have nine thousand, four hundred and twenty dollars in the payroll account. That leaves it over five thousand short. There is only about two thousand in General Disbursements, but that isn’t enough to cover invoices due tomorrow. I’m afraid--”
“Don’t be afraid, Lucy. That’s negative. If we waste our time sitting around shivering, we won’t make any progress at all.”
“I didn’t mean it that way, Mr. Lake. I’m not shivering. I was merely stating that we haven’t got enough money.”
“Then I’ll go to the bank and get some more.”
“Of course, Mr. Lake. Is that all?”
“Yes, that’s all, Lucy. You run on to lunch.”
“You aren’t going out?”
“No. I’m not hungry today.”
Her bun bobbed in disapproval as she left the office. Joshua Lake stared at the closed door and sighed. Lucy knew exactly how things were. She wasn’t one to be fooled. But Joshua hoped the rest of the personnel were not so perceptive. The engineers and the draftsmen particularly. They could all walk out at noon and be working somewhere else by one o’clock, what with the huge current industrial demand.
He walked again to the window; an old man; bone-weary, with the weight of his sixty-odd years bending his shoulders like a brick-carrier’s hod.
“Then I’ll go to the bank and get some more.“ He hadn’t even fooled himself this time. His chances at the bank were nil. Less than nil. His very presence there could tip the balance of their decision. Loans could be called; the doors locked before nightfall.
At the window, he lowered his eyes from the sky and looked to the gate that led into the horseshoe sweep of low buildings and back to the great, bulking hangar where precious work was being done.
A man and his dream, Lake mused.
He could see only the back of the sign hanging over the gate, but he was quite familiar with the other side. Lake Interstellar Enterprises in bold, brave letters; and in the lower right-hand corner--barely discernible--Joshua Lake--President.
A visitor looking closely at the sign could see that it had been done over--that a discarded legend lay beneath a coat of white paint. The old name of the firm was still faintly visible: Lake and Gorman--Castings and Extrusions.
It wasn’t difficult for Joshua to conjure up Lee Gorman’s craggy, hostile face. Nor his words. Lee had a voice like gravel being ground to powder. A voice to remember...
“Of course I won’t go along with this damn-fool idea of yours! Turn a perfectly sound, entrenched business into a blue-sky factory? You’ve gone crazy, Joshua.”
“But it’s feasible, Lee! Entirely feasible. All we need is a little imagination. I’ve investigated. I’ve hired the best brains in the world. I have all the necessary preliminary data. A rocket can be built that will take three men to the Moon and bring them back!”
“That’s idiocy, Joshua!”
“Don’t you believe it can be done?”
“I don’t care whether it can be done or not!”
“But open your eyes, man! This is an age of development. An era of movement. We’re on the threshold of the big tomorrow, and we can’t let it pass us by! We can’t let the honor and the glory go to others while we sit on our hands and hoot from the gallery! Come alive, Lee! The world is passing us!”
“I don’t want honor and glory. All I want is a sound going business. Suppose we could put a rocket on the Moon and bring it back? Where would that leave us? Broke and famous. And laughed at probably in the bargain.”
“Nothing of the kind. We could write our own ticket. We’d control the gateway to the greatest mineral deposits within reach of Man! Think of it, Lee. Use your imagination.”
“I won’t go along with you, Joshua. That’s all there is to it.”
More of the same; days of it, and finally: “You can have the customers then, Lee. I’ll keep the plant--the physical properties.”
“But that’s not fair.”
“Perhaps not, but it’s legal.”
“How can I service them--from my basement?”
“I offered you an alternative only a fool would have turned down--”
“That only a fool would accept!”
“--so now I’m going ahead and nothing can stop me. I’ve got a dream, man--a dream of a big tomorrow. I’m going to make that dream come true.”
“Name it right, Joshua. You’ve got an obsession.”
The end of Lake and Gorman...
Joshua turned from the window, then paused and looked again into the sky. The Moon was up, a round, white will-o’-the-wisp in the clear blue afternoon sky. He stared at it and the old feeling of affinity swept over him, stronger than ever. The Moon was, for him, both a goal and a tonic. Sight of its illusive form could always sweep away his doubts; straighten his shoulders.
The intercom buzzed. Joshua went over and snapped it. “Yes?”
“Mr. Coving to see you, sir.”
“Send him in.”
Rayburn Coving was probably the best rocket-fuel man in the world. He had a little of his sandy hair left, not much, and his forehead was permanently creased from frowning. “I’m afraid that new benzoic derivative is a failure, Chief. It piles up corrosion in the tubes too fast. They’d be clogged halfway through the trip.”
One hundred and twenty thousand dollars up the spout. Joshua sighed. “Well, I suppose the chance of success was worth it. The added power in relatively smaller space would have solved so many other problems.”
“I’m sorry it failed.”
Joshua smiled. “To paraphrase a certain American inventor--we’re finding any number of ways you can’t go to the Moon. What now, Coving?”
“Back to the old method--and the other problems. None of them are insurmountable, though. A little more time--”
“Yes--a little more time.” Joshua grimaced inwardly. He was talking to Coving as though they had years--not as though their time had run out. He was even in debt for Coving’s labor; overdrawn on it without enough money to pay.
The moment of weakness--of deep-down weariness--passed. Joshua Lake stiffened as he had stiffened so many times before. As he had stiffened when Zornoff’s alloys had flunked out and the first trip to the bank had been made necessary. The first trip to the bank. Joshua smiled wryly. The bank people had been cordial then. Even servile. Later it had been different. Now--
“You were saying, Mr. Lake--?”
“Have you seen Morton lately? What’s the latest on the radar relay equipment?”
“No major bugs, I think. It’s coming along famously.”
“Good!” For two hundred odd thousand it certainly should, Joshua felt. “Let me know how you make out, Coving.”
“I will, Chief. I’ll get the order in for the new chemicals immediately.”
“Eh--oh, yes. Do that. Do that by all means.”
Coving left. Joshua Lake put his head against the back rest of the chair and closed his eyes. He dozed, drifting into a haze from weariness. It’s been so long--so very long. Seven years--eight--ten. Ten years. Good heavens! Was it possible? It didn’t seem that long. Ten years to make a dream succeed.
Joshua slept and again--as in the past--his rest was plagued with visions. The torment of his days took many forms in an alert subconscious too taut to relax. He had seen before him mountains too steep to cross--chasms too deep and wide to bridge. Often, when a great problem was solved, he would look back, nights later, to see the mountain or the chasm from the other side.
Now his vision was different. No mountain before him, but a face--the stern craggy face of an obstacle in his path.
The face was of clay--yet it lived. The eyes were cold, disdainful. And a weird, green creation of Joshua’s own mind was sketching Gorman in the numbers, signs, and symbols of a rocket that would never reach the Moon.
Joshua awoke with a start and found Lucy bending over him. “You didn’t answer the buzzer, Mr. Lake. I was worried.”
“I must have dozed off, Lucy. Sorry.”
“I’m going home now--if there’s nothing else.”
“Nothing else. I’m going home myself. Good night.”
Joshua paused beside his car in the parking lot to stare at the lighted windows of the big hangar. The second shift had come on. They would work all night; then, tomorrow, they would line up with the others at the pay window. But there wouldn’t be any money. The next night the hangar windows would be dark.
He got into the car and drove home.
Myra was waiting for him. She took his hat. After he kissed her, she said, “Your eyes are red, dear. You’ve been working much too hard. Shall we have dinner in the patio?”
“That would be nice.”
Joshua had little to say during the meal, and Myra was quiet also--adjusting herself, as she had always done, to his mood. Finally, she said, “That will be all, Bertha. Leave the coffee pot.”
The maid left. A slight chill was coming in off the desert. Joshua shivered and said, “We’re through, Myra.”
“Through? I don’t understand.”
“The Moon trip. I can’t swing it. The money’s run out. There’s no place I can raise another dime.”
“But you’ve worked so hard--and so long! And you are so close to success.”
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but the rocket isn’t ready yet. Now it’s too late.”
They were silent for a time. Then Myra said, “In a way, I’m glad. You should have stopped long ago. You aren’t strong enough to stand this pace forever. Now we can go away--get a small place somewhere. That Moon rocket was killing you, Joshua.”
Joshua pondered the point. “Killing me? No, I don’t think so. I think it has been keeping me alive.”
“Don’t say that, dear! You make it sound so--so brutal! Year in and year out. Fighting disappointment--failure. Aging before my eyes while I sit here night after night!”
Fighting disappointment--failure. Yes. That was the kind of fight it had been. How many failures? The first big one had come six years before...
“Acceleration, Monsieur, must be achieved in the first two thousand miles of flight. After that, the speed of the ship remains constant. You follow me?” Tardeau, the half-mad French genius had explained it so logically. And Joshua had believed in him. That’s where you made your big gamble in a project of this kind. You selected your men and then believed in them. Others dissented, of course. There are always dissenters. And always points that could not be proven or disproven on the drawing boards or in the test pits...
“I follow you, Henri. The booster units will be in three sections.”
“Exactly, Msieu. The primary--ah, booster, as you say, breaks free at twelve miles. That one, and the secondary, we control with radar. We touch a button and Voila! they are free!”
“In case of the men in the ship blacking out, I think you said.”
“Exactly. But the third will be disengaged from within the ship and she will be free as a bird to fly to your most illusive Moon!”
“And the return?”
“There we have a much lighter ship, Monsieur. The smaller boosters will lift her easily. The return trip will be slower--much slower, but she will return!”
Michael Bernard was the dissenter. “The Frenchman’s crazy! Mad as a hatter, Chief.”
“You think it won’t work, then?”
“Too damn complicated. A dozen units of time and mechanism have to mesh perfectly. The odds are against that happening. After all, you’ve got to remember, what we’re attempting has never been done before.”
“But if it did work--?”
“It would be a beauty.”
“Better than your idea of a single booster?”
“If it worked--yes. The weight problem would be solved. Five men could ride the rocket. But--”
“Let’s try it, Mike. Let’s believe in our destiny.”
“Okay--you’re the boss. But destiny’s a hard thing to lay out and analyze on a drawing board.”
A man and his dream...
The radar equipment had failed. Burdened with the weight of exhausted booster sections, the rocket curved back into the clutches of gravity.
It crashed on the fringe of the Amazon jungles.
Five Moon pioneers dead. Three uninsured, dependent families. Joshua provided for them, but the critical newspapers overlooked that point. One editorial observed that Joshua Lake would get a rocket to the Moon and back if it took every able-bodied man in the country. The project would have died right there if Joshua had needed money. No bank in the nation would have loaned him a dime. Fortunately he was not yet broke. He started over.
At times he had wondered. But always, his faith had returned to buoy him up...
Joshua reached out and took Myra’s hand. He looked up into the sky. “You may be wrong, my dear. Possibly it’s the other way. A man’s ambition--” he smiled. “Lee called it an obsession once. A man’s dream can keep him alive.”
“But why does it have to be so hard? Why can’t one of the big corporations help you? They’ll profit from your success!”
“At least I had no competition in the fulfillment of my dream.”
They were silent for a time; then Myra said, “But now you can rest. We’ll go away. We don’t need much money. We’ll have a garden. You can lie in the sun.”
He laughed softly; not with humor; rather from a quiet, new-welling courage. “We’re talking as though it were all over--finished, done with. That isn’t right.”
She glanced at him quickly. “But you just said--”
“I know. But I didn’t really mean it that way. We aren’t through yet.”
“You know where you can raise--more money?”
“I know where it is. I’m going to see Lee Gorman tomorrow.”
“Lee Gorman! You aren’t serious.”
“There’s no place else to go.”
“You’ll be wasting your time, Joshua. He’ll--he’ll humiliate you.”
“He probably will. And I may not get the money. But there’s no place else to go.”
Tears came into Myra’s eyes. “Don’t do it, Joshua. Please don’t do it.”
“It won’t be as bad as you think, dear. I guess Lee is entitled to crow a little.”
Lee Gorman looked at the intercom on his desk as though it had snapped at him. “Who?” he barked. But there had been no mistake. Gorman sat in puzzled silence for a few moments. Then he said, “All right, show him in.”
Joshua Lake entered the office with his hat in one hand and a briefcase in the other. He paused halfway to Gorman’s desk. “You haven’t changed much, Lee.”
“You have,” Gorman answered. “You look like the devil.”
“I’ve been working hard.” Joshua Lake covered the intervening distance and stood before the desk. Gorman surveyed him coldly--up and down. Joshua looked around the office as Gorman sat silent, not inviting him to sit down.
“You’ve done very well, Lee. This is the first time I’ve seen your plant.”
“I’ve expanded a little since my basement days. You remember my basement days, don’t you Joshua?”
Joshua winced. “Yes, I remember.”
“And now you might tell me the purpose of this visit.”
“I came to you because I need money.”
Gorman’s eyes snapped open--wide. He opened his mouth to speak. He failed, tightened his throat and tried again. “You came here after what?”
“Money. I’m broke, Lee. I haven’t enough to meet my payroll.”
“You expect me to bail you out--clean up your debts--put you clear?”
“I came after more than that. Merely bailing me out wouldn’t help a bit. I need three hundred thousand to put my rocket in the air.”
Gorman collapsed gently back into his chair like a balloon mercifully relieved of some of its content. When he spoke, it was with a slow, controlled viciousness. “I’ve heard of guts, Joshua. I’ve heard of gall--plain unmitigated nerve. But this tops anything--why, man, you threw me out! You robbed me! You left me standing in the street with a bookful of names and addresses under my arm--nothing more. Now you come here and ask for money!”
“I’m glad you’ve done well, Lee. There was nothing personal in what I did. I’m glad you’ve gone on to even bigger things than we would have achieved together.”
“You’re glad I’ve done well! Why, you pious hypocrite! I ought to have you thrown through the window instead of merely ordering you out!”
“There is no reason why I should expect any better treatment, Lee. But I had to come here. You were my last hope. I had to ask.”
Joshua turned slowly from the desk. He had taken but three steps when Lee Gorman said, “Wait a minute. I’m curious. Are you really still at it--beating your brains out against that stone wall?”
“It’s my dream, Lee. I’ve got to be the first man to put a rocket on the moon.”
“But now you’re broke--washed up. What’s with the dream now?”
“I guess it’s finished.” Joshua turned and took another step; but Gorman was loath to let him go.
“Tell me,” Gorman said. “What have you got in that briefcase?”
“Progress reports. Plans. I wanted to show them to you.”
Gorman grinned. “All right. I’ve got a few minutes. Come and do it.”
Joshua Lake retraced his steps. He sat down in a chair next to Gorman’s desk. He laid his hat on the desk and snapped open the case.
“No,” Gorman said. “Stand here by my elbow. The chair is for people I meet on even terms.”
Joshua got obediently to his feet and placed himself as directed.
“And your hat,” Gorman added. “You’d better hold that. You might forget it when you leave.”