The leader climbed sharply in a bank to the left, and the two others followed close behind. Their jet streams cut off at very near the same time. Before their speed slowed to stalling, the rotors unfolded from the canopy hump and beat the air viciously, the steam wisping back in brief fingers.
Under power again, they dipped playfully in tightening circles toward the plot-mottled earth. The fields expanded beneath them, and the leader brought up and hovered over a farm road whose dust already stirred in the disturbed air.
They settled as one in the rolling dust clouds from which emerged a coveralled figure who had driven the battered pickup truck to meet them.
“Y’sure got back in a rush,” he addressed the major, who was just jumping from the plastiglas cabin.
The major nodded and put his attention on seeing that the general descended safely. He then indicated the farmer.
“He’s the one,” the major said.
The general grunted socially.
Taking the opening, the farmer said, “Out there in the wheat, general.” His tone carried eager importance. “My kid saw the light come down this morning feedin’ the chickens. I felt the ground jump, too. Called the sheriff, first off.”
“All right, you were a hero,” said the general shortly. “Now, Grant, will you take me to it? I can’t mess around here all day.”
The party of six men, two of them technicians, waded into the field from the road. The farmer remained to watch, frowning.
When they had progressed well into the wheat, he shouted after them ruefully, “And watch where you’re steppin’, too!”
The group paused on the rim of newly gouged earth, clods and dirt that had splashed from the center of the crater. It was nearly four feet deep. The man the major had left on guard had uncovered more of the blackened object, which lay three-quarters exposed and showed a warped but cylindrical shape.
“Let’s have a counter on it,” the general ordered.
A technician slid into the crater and swept the metal with his instrument. The needle swung far over and stuck.
To the other technician the general said, “Get a chunk for verification of the alloy.” He kicked a small avalanche of dirt down the crater side and turned back to the road, adding, “Although I don’t know why the formality. Even a cadet could see that’s an atomjet reactor, beat up as it is.”
The major absorbed the jibe without comeback. An hour ago he had informed the general of his indecision over the object’s identity, though he had suspected it to be the reactor.
“We may find more when we get it examined in the shop,” the general mused, swishing by the wheat. “But at least we know they do come down some place, and it wasn’t flash fusion. On this one, anyway.”
“What do you think about instituting a search of this vicinity for other parts, general?”
The officer growled negatively. “Obviously, the reactor was the only part not vaporized in the fall--because of its construction.”
“That’s assuming the ship entered the atmosphere at operational velocity and not less than free fall,” the major qualified.
“How can anyone assume free fall? Way outside probability.”
“Yes, sir, but there are degrees of velocity involved. He could have used reverse thrust and entered at a relatively slow speed.”
“All right, all right--let’s say possible, then. Pull off your search if you want to. I’m in this thing so deep now, I’ll try anything to get going. I’ve got Congress ready to investigate, and some senator yesterday put pressure on to cancel the United Nuclear contract. I’ll try anything at this point, Grant!”
The big man’s voice had risen to anger, but Major Grant Reis had not missed the vocal breaking in the last syllables.
“I’m First Lieutenant Ashley and I’ve an appointment to see General Morrison.”
The adjutant said, “Sorry, but you’ll have to wait a little longer. The general’s unexpectedly busy.”
“My appointment was over an hour ago.”
“Another half-hour and you can go in.”
“Another half-hour and I’ll go.”
“It’s your bar.”
The lieutenant plopped back into a chair just as Grant strode swiftly past the adjutant’s desk from the private office.
“Major,” the adjutant asked, “how long is the general going to be tied up? He won’t let me in the conference and the lieutenant here is supposed to see him.”
Grant paused at the opposite door and pointing two thumb-and-forefinger guns at his head exploded them. The adjutant groaned understandingly. Even the first lieutenant caught on.
“Major, it’s pretty important,” the waiting officer said, standing again. Grant shifted his attention.
“Look, lieutenant--” Grant bottled the sarcasm behind his suddenly lax mouth. He saw a first lieutenant’s uniform, but it bulged aesthetically; and he saw a first lieutenant’s cap and bar, but it sat rakishly on puffed-up brown curls.
“If you’ll just look at these papers, major, you’ll understand. I stratoed in from the Pentagon this morning,” she said crisply.
Though it was Grant’s turn to say something, he found too much of his concentration on her challenging brown eyes and the efficient down-sweep of her half-pouting mouth, plus a nub of a nose that pointed proudly upwards with the tilt of her head. In a temporary defensive maneuver, Grant took the papers handed him.
The borders were marked CONFIDENTIAL and the attached signatures would have impressed even the general. The subject--he might have expected--ATOMJET PATROL LOSSES.
“Er ... look, lieutenant-- What was it?” Grant glanced down at the papers.
“First Lieutenant Bridget Ashley.”
“Look, Lieutenant Ashley, the general’s been getting nothing but troubles all day. For your sake and his sake, I suggest you come back tomorrow, huh?” Grant handed back the papers and put a hand on her elbow, but she jerked back.
“Major, I’ve been given a great deal of responsibility in this assignment,” she flared, “and it’s important for me to get work started at once. I was led to understand these patrol losses constituted a fairly urgent matter.”
Grant glanced ominously toward the general’s door. “Lieutenant, I’m trying to explain to you that it’s in your best interests to take this up with him tomorrow. I’m one of his aides and I know him. I realize you’re authorized to see him today, but--”
“Then I’ll wait.” She reseated herself and emphatically crossed her legs--a motion not escaping Grant’s notice.
The adjutant and Grant mutually shrugged at each other, and Grant headed outside, saying over his shoulder, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
As it developed, it was far more than a minute; but whatever it was, when Grant returned she was gone. The major looked at the adjutant, and the adjutant indicated the general’s door with an apprehensive nod. Grant bit his lip and entered the private office.
He had expected to hear the general’s bass raging, but through the inner door came the strident tones of the lieutenant’s modulating contralto. He had expected to see the general towering over the girl’s shrinking figure, but as he entered she was bent earnestly in the middle, and the top of her torso inclined toward General Morrison, who had tilted as far back as his swivel chair would permit.
“ ... So, if you haven’t isolated any mechanical causation, how can you be sure it’s mechanical?” she was laying it on. “And if you’re not sure it’s mechanical, how can you suggest there’s no possibility of psychological causation? The authorities that sent me here have not only considered the possibility, they feel it’s quite probable. All I am requesting, sir, is immediate implementation of my authority so your investigation can be broadened. It’s really to your benefit that--”
Grant said, “Lieutenant Ashley.”
“ ... My work be started at once so as to catch up on what findings you have obtained in the--”
Grant shouted, “Lieutenant Ashley!”
“ ... Investigation so far in the mechanical aspects. It’s not unlikely that a combining factor, both psychological and mechanical--”
Grant yelled, “LIEUTENANT ASHLEY!!”
“Yes, sir, major.”
“Would you please wait in the outer office for just a moment?”
“For just a moment, lieutenant.”
Grant waited until the door closed before he tried communication with the general. The officer still teetered in his chair, his eyes bulging from his reddened face.
“They sent me a shape,” he sputtered. “That I could take. Shapes I don’t mind, even with authority. But this one-- You know where she’s from, Grant?”
Grant sighed hopelessly.
“She’s from syk,” the general was beginning to roar, “with a blank check of authority from Washington. She stood there and called the losses pilot-error. My pilots, Grant, the ones I trained!”
“Just a possibility, she meant,” soothed Grant.
“Possibility, hell! With that attitude around Mojave we’ll never get anywhere in this investigation.” He untilted with a crash. “I want her kept away from me, do you hear? Give her anything she wants--but appointments with me. I’ve got United Nuclear here for stress tests, coolant analyses, radiation metering in the morning just as a start, and I’m not going to have that shape around fusing up the works.”
“I’ll see what I can do, sir.”
“You’re right you will. I’m putting Colonel Sorenson in as G-2, and you’re going to be the new Syk Coördinator for the duration of this investigation!”
“You heard me.”
“It couldn’t be that bad, general,” Grant grumbled.
The general stood up from his desk. “No, you’ll relay any data she may turn up to me, and you’ll see she gets what supplies and personnel she may need. Look, Washington thinks we need her, so I take orders. And so do you, Grant. I’ll have a special order out this afternoon.”
“Yes, sir,” Grant saluted and wheeled, grinding his molars.
With dubious explanations, Grant managed to steer Lieutenant Ashley toward the Officers’ Club. What excuses he gave her evidently had some effect; after the first fifty yards across the drill ground she steered easily, though still under vocal protest.
A drink, and Grant felt he could face the future. They sat in a plastiweave booth, one against the far wall that overlooked through a curved window the blasting circle.
So wrapped up with his own feelings, Grant had been unaware of his companion’s. Her face had paled, and she stirred her drink absently. The reflections in her eyes were over-bright with moisture.
Offered Grant: “The general has a lot on his mind.”
“Yeah,” she choked.
“The losses have upset him pretty bad.”
“I notice. Me, too.”
“Take a drink.”
She sipped one CC and said, “And syk upsets him.”
Grant smiled, “And shapes.”
“And I suppose the rank of first lieutenant makes him nervous.”
“No,” Grant chuckled, “he can take or leave that. It’s majors that get him.”
She smiled vaguely, so Grant followed up with: “What’s your background?”
“Psychometrics. Got a doctorate in it. I thought it might be valuable to the Air Force--at one time.” She sipped two CCs.
“I’ve a little syk background,” Grant said. She looked up in sudden interest. “Started to major in it until I ran up against some of the profs. If this is what syk produces, I decided, it’s not for me. Changed to engineering then. Unfortunately, the general knows about my record.”
“How did he take it out on you, parade duty?”
“Worse. He made me an aide.”
The girl leaned on an elbow and regarded him with her chin in her hand. “You bring his slippers?”
“As G-2, I did up until quarter of an hour ago. I’ve been promoted. Meet the Base Mojave Syk Coördinator.”
Putting her nose in her drink, she giggled softly. “What is it he wants coördinated, the syk or me?”
“You’re on bearing,” he laughed. “My name’s Grant.”
His hand went across the table, opened, and waited.
“Bridget,” she said, and her hand fell into his in a handshake which lingered slightly.
At Grant’s insistence they jeep-toured the base. To his surprise Bridget took interest in the installations, but asked most of her questions around the atomjet hangars.
“I’ve never seen one close,” she hinted.
Grant flashed his Security card at the guards and they went in. She strolled about the tapering, snub-winged craft, apparently inspecting it closely. Grant’s thought was that she felt she had to dramatize understanding something about Air Force rocketry.
After a short silence Bridget asked, “What is the compensating factor for the reactor’s being placed off the center of stability?”
Grant blinked. “What’s that again?”
She swung a pointed finger at the ship. “Naturally,” she interrupted, “the nose will float downward in the canal, hoisting the hot tubes out of the liquid at the end of the glide-ins. But you’ve got pilot, power plant, and wings frontside. How can you affect glide-ins at surface air density without nosing in?”
The major decided she must have been reading the latest confidential files. High-viscosity liquid landing canals constituted a subject recent enough to be Security and important enough not to be bandied about outside engineering and Base Mojave.
“Well, you see,” Grant cleared his throat, “there’re the fuel tanks along the back of the blast chamber, partly lead--”
“The tanks usually are nearly empty for glide-ins,” she reminded.
Grant frowned. “Yes, usually empty, but still a weight factor. Then there’s the automatic wing stabilizer that adjusts to the air speed and density and acts to pull up the nose--”
“O.K.,” she interrupted. “Now, would you lift me through the canopy, please? I’d like to sit inside a minute.”
“That’s out,” he said. “Only pilots and technicians.”
“All right, if you won’t, I’ll get up myself.” She marched over to the hangar wall and pulled over boarding steps, which were braced on three pivotal tires.
“Bridget, Security says pilots and mechanics.”
“And you’re forgetting why I’m here, and besides that you’re supposed to coördinate. Right now you’re uncoördinating.”
Before Grant’s eyes flashed the memory of her orders with the signatures at the bottom. She was already climbing the steps.
“Just don’t touch anything, that’s all,” he conciliated, following her up. Her seams were straight, he noted.
Bridget thudded into the narrow pilot’s seat and wiggled herself into a comfortable position.
“Awful crowded,” she smiled up at Grant.
“I hope you tore your nylons,” he groused.
“Now, if you’ll just explain these gadgets,” she said, moving her hand over the panel embedded with digit-rimmed dials.
“Hands off, please.”
“By your reaction, I would say you don’t know what some of them are,” she counter-fired, and tossed her protruding bunch of curls.
Grant took the bait. He leaned into the canopy and with an over-stiffened index finger pointed forcefully at each gauge. For more than a quarter-hour this went on, with Bridget pitching questions--most of which he juggled.
She seemed to show more interest in the radar screen, the navigational equipment, and the communications system. About these, she milked Grant’s available knowledge until he felt like reaching down and throwing open the reactor valve and fuel switch.
“Lieutenant, if you don’t mind, my back is paralyzed. Let’s go back to the club and I’ll answer anything you want.”
“Just one more,” she coaxed. “This crosshair sight with the little black circle in the middle. How does that work again?”
Grant straightened up and carefully massaged the small of his back. “It’s for precise manual navigation if you need it. You sit up straight and sight through it.”
“And what do you sight at?”
“A star, of course.”
“Put it in the little black circle?”
“An A for you. Then you snap in Automatic Navigational and you’re in business. Or you can navigate manually by using Gyroscopic Navigational if you want.”
“I’m ready to get out now.” Bridget lifted her hands where Grant stood on the platform of the boarding device.
Back or no back, Grant couldn’t resist the opportunity. He pulled her by the hands to where she was leaning out the opened canopy, then he stooped and grabbed her under the arms and swung her up. For a moment her soft hair brushed his ear, and a light scent from her neck suggested he keep her pliant form close to him a little longer than necessary.
He planted her next to the steps, and she muttered an uninspired thank you. But halfway down, she halted and turned.
“It’s much easier asking me out dancing, Grant,” she smiled impishly, and clacked across the hangar floor toward the jeep.
By the next morning arrangements for a small staff and office space had swiftly gone through. Working through lunch, Bridget had the office set up and the staff briefed and researching when Grant returned from dining with the general.
“You’re just in time,” she said, looking up from an already cluttered desk. “I’m ready now to scan through any G-2 you have on atomjet operation in your Mojave files.”
Grant bristled. “These files are under the general’s nose, and I don’t think he’d appreciate--” He broke off when he observed Bridget tapping her pencil and frowning at him impatiently.
With a degree of diplomacy he had to admire, Grant lifted the non-technical files from the general’s office and furtively smuggled them out in his brief case.
“Don’t take all day,” he warned, handing them to Bridget. “Part of my job is keeping the general neutral about you, and not against.”
Bridget jumped up and drew another chair up to her desk. “How about scanning with me? That’ll get the files back faster. Here, take these on pilot training.”
The files repulsed him less than Bridget attracted him, and he sat down promptly. “And what do I look for, psychologically significant portions, is that it?”
“Even psychologically insignificant portions, major, if you please.”
Grant began to read. As he scanned the copies of directives, reports, operations logs, and procedures the process became automatic, and part of his consciousness turned contemplative.
Three months ago he would have considered the situation in which he now found himself a future development out of the question. Mojave had brimmed with optimism and pride and accomplishment and eagerness. Base Mojave loomed vital in national defense, constituted a main element of national scientific pride.
From the dusty desert stretches the sprawling, efficient base had taken shape while United Nuclear had yet to assemble an atomjet. The schedules came out perfectly, and the first single-manned fusion-propulsed rocketplane thundered off the corporation proving grounds and glided into Base Mojave as planned. Designed for patrol of the mesosphere, the ships were to have gained for the West control of near-Earth space, besides affording superior observation posts for Eastern developments and activity of a space nature.
Training of the pilots had lasted thirty weeks and went by without a casualty or serious damage. Testing and re-testing of the electronics brought out no flaws. Stress and thermal analyses held up under all conditions imposed.
The losses began after the third week of patrol. UNR-6 failed to return to base--with no hint of the cause, with no communication from the pilot. That one was hushed up by the base PR officer, but news of the second reached the press. During the fifth week, UNR-2 never returned for its glide-in, and, of course, the first loss came out at that time, too.
General Morrison worked with the pilots and engineers steadily on the problem with apparent good results--for a month. Then UNR-9 vanished.
Lately the orders had been for patrol over the States, and it was presumed UNR-9 would have made an appearance somewhere had it been in trouble. That’s why the Dakota farmer’s report had been investigated so swiftly.
As of now, the situation had become one patrol a day with reluctant pilots, Congress sending a committee to the base, a taxpayers’ injunction against the Air Force rocketplane operation, and United Nuclear men experimenting hourly with robot-piloted atomjets at all altitudes below four hundred miles.
Plus the syk research, naturally.
Bridget’s ash tray spilled over with right-angled cigarette butts, half-burned. Grant studied her as she read through the files intently although her eyes rolled his way briefly on occasion. She faced him with an unexpected snap of the head.
“Just looking,” Grant explained.
“Then just look for a pilot’s manual. It’s been mentioned and I haven’t seen one around. Would you mind?”
Grant opened his mouth to inform her a pilot’s manual for the atomjet was classified secret, but caught himself before he could verbalize the protest. He shrugged and planned more strategy for invading the general’s files.
The only things he could be grateful for so far were Bridget’s beauty and the fact the staff had not realized he was her adjutant.
The Mayo psychiatrist and the Yale psychologist had been in conference with Bridget for almost an hour. She had been giving them preliminary findings and the results of tests and interviews with the base pilots.
When they finally broke up, Bridget approached Grant with a there’s-something-I-want-from-you look. Grant nearly had a chance to offer lunch before she suggested it.
What she wanted from him came out over their aerated sherbet pie. By the time she finished, Grant’s dessert was beginning to taste like vitaminized space rations.
“Impossible,” he said, dabbing at sherbet spots on his trousers. “The general would react faster than to a red alert.”
“Your concern may be the general’s reactions, but mine’s not,” Bridget snapped. “I just want an objective engineering answer, yes or no.”
Grant threw up his hands. “O.K., O.K. With a live pilot, yes, you can get a TV transmitter in an atomjet with some doing. You’d have to jerk out the extra oxygen space and--”
“Wonderful! When can you have it for me?”
“Bridget, what I’m getting at, the general will take this as a slap at him and his pilots. We’ve had TV transmission from robotized atomjets dozens of times--”
“With no results.”
“With no results,” Grant admitted, “but that doesn’t mean that with a pilot you’ll necessarily get any, either.”
“No, but why hasn’t someone tried?” Bridget waited for him to answer a decent two seconds and then added, “The general, naturally.”
They left the base lunchroom in silence, Bridget pouting a lip-edge more than Grant. Before entering the office, Grant brought up a rebuttal.
“Another thing, no pilot is going to push up under those conditions, with you down there hoping something will happen.”
Bridget had her hand on the door, but instead of opening it, paused. “The pilot would have to trust me.” Her eyes darkened, widened, split Grant emotionally down the middle. He could understand, for an instant when he let himself, how a man could be inveigled to do anything for a woman.
“Yeah,” he said. “A pilot like that might be hard to find. I’ll see what I can do.”
As he walked toward the hangars, he heard the office door close softly behind him.
At the engineering conference after supper Grant had never seen General Morrison looking quite that old. The man was sustaining an overload of responsibility, and probably self-imposed guilt on top of it.
The mechanical engineers made their report, followed by the electronic engineers, followed by the physicist--all negative. But each group had a suspicion that another had overlooked something. Before it regressed to a high-school debate, the general bellowed the conference to order.
Grant was surprised at the twinge of emotion he experienced when he realized the general was not going to ask for a report from syk. Why should Grant care, anyway? The position meant nothing to him, Syk Coördinator.
It meant something to Bridget, though.
That General Morrison had not even checked for syk findings annoyed Grant, perhaps. Under the circumstances he was justified: nothing had yet come out, nothing that Bridget had told Grant, anyway. The general could not be aware of this. He assumed it. Maybe that’s what upset Grant.
“Then there’s this De-Meteor,” the general was saying. “I’ve always been suspicious of that gadget.”
An electronics man spoke up. “A Clary man checked them all, even used instrument flight to be certain. I was with him and counter-checked the radar high-speed scanners, the computers, and the course-alteration mechanism. I was convinced myself it would steer the ship out of any situation involving the approach of one or two penetrating meteors.”
General Morrison turned to the spatialogist. “What about the incidence of penetrating meteors in the mesosphere?”
“In average fall,” the man replied, “fairly low.”
“And the probability of encountering three at once along a given atomjet trajectory?”
“From what limited experiments we have made, the odds would be astronomical, I’d say.”
The general snorted. “Too great to account for three ships, anyway, is that it?” He soothed his forehead with his big hand. “All right, let’s make another check starting tomorrow morning. More robot-flight tests. Let’s have ships outside the mesosphere operation range. And I want reports on anything that looks like anything, understand?”
The group emitted a low groan. This was the fourth comprehensive check--grueling, close, meticulous, nerve-racking work.
From the rear came the voice of a courageous civilian mechanical engineer, “What about a check on the pilots?”
The sudden silence was like an electrical field. The base commander continued to shuffle up his notes and papers, but his neck crimsoned.
He’s not going to hear it, Grant thought.
“Conference dismissed!” the general ordered.
Three-four-five rings, and Bridget answered. The first word was a yawned “Lieutenant” and the next was an exhaled “Ashley.”
“Sorry to get you up, Bridget. This is Grant. Can you come down to Hangar Four?”
“What time is it?” she asked thickly.
“Three-fifteen. Will you come down here?”
“That’s not the point. A surprise. What we talked about the other day.”
Bridget’s interest picked up. “What we talked about? But I’ll have to dress and fix my face--”