At last she was on the gangplank, entering the mouth of the spaceship--and nothing could ever stop her now. Not unless she broke down completely in front of all these hurrying, Moon-bound passengers, in plain sight of the scattered crowd which clustered on the other side of the space-field barriers. Even that possibility was denied her when two gently insistent middle-aged ladies indicated she was blocking the way...
Somehow, dizzily, she was at her seat, led there by a smiling, brown-clad stewardess; and her azure-tipped fingers were clutching at the pearl-gray plasta-leather of the chair arm. Her eyes, the azure of her nails, the azure (so she had been told) of Earth seen from interplanetary space, grew hot. She closed them, and for a moment gave herself up to an almost physical yearning for the Toluca Lake house--the comfort, the safety, the--the sanity of it.
Stubbornly she forced herself back to reality. At any moment Jack, dark-eyed and scrappy, might come swinging down the long, shining aisle. Jack--Captain Jack McHenry, if you please--must not know, yet, what she was doing to patch up their marriage.
She turned her face away from the aisle, covered her cheek with her hand to hide it. Her gaze went out through the ray-proof glass port to the field, to the laboring beetle of a red tractor bearing the gangway on its busy back, to the low, blast-proof administration building. When her gaze came to the tall sign over the entrance, she hurried it past; it was too late to think about that now, the square, shouting type that read:
HAVE YOU PASSED YOUR PHYSICAL EXAMINATION?
Avoiding It May Cost Your Life!
“May I see your validation, please?”
Marcia McHenry stiffened. Had she read the sign aloud? She turned startled eyes up to the smiling stewardess, who was holding out a well-groomed hand. Marcia responded weakly to the smile, overcame a sudden urge to blurt out that she had no validation--not her own, anyway. But her stiff fingers were already holding out the pink card with Nellie Foster’s name on it.
“You’re feeling well, Mrs. Foster?”
Feeling well? Yes, of course. Except for the--usual sickness. But that’s so very normal ... Her numb lips moved. “I’m fine,” she said.
Miss Eagen (which, her neat lapel button attested, was her name) made a penciled frown as lovely as her machined smile. “Some day,” she told Marcia, “we won’t have to ask the passengers if they’re well. It’s so easy to come aboard on someone else’s validation, and people don’t seem to realize how dangerous that is.”
As Miss Eagen moved to the next seat, Marcia shrank into a small huddle, fumbling with the card until it was crammed shapeless into her purse. Then from the depths of her guilt came rebellion. It was going to be all right. She was doing the biggest thing she’d ever done, and Jack would rise to the occasion, and it would be all right.
It had to be all right...
After this--if this didn’t work--there just would be nothing else she could do. She wasn’t a scheming woman. No one would ever know how difficult it had been for her to think up the whole plan, to find Nellie Foster (someone Jack had never met) and to persuade Nellie to register for the trip and take the physical for her. She’d had to lie to Nellie, to make Nellie think she was brave and adventurous, and that she was just doing it to surprise Jack.
Oh, he’d be surprised, all right.
The flash walls on the field were being raised to keep the blow-by from the ship’s jets from searing the administration building and the area beyond. Marcia realized with crushing suddenness that the ship was about to blast off in seconds. She half-rose, then sank back, biting her lip. Silly ... Jack had said that--her fear of space was silly. He’d said it during the quarrel, and he’d roared at her, “And that’s why you want me to come back--ground myself, be an Earth-lubber--so I can spare you the anguish of sitting home wondering if I’ll come back alive!”
And then he’d been sorry he’d shouted, and he sat by her, taking her chin in his hand. “Marcia, Marcia,” he’d said gently, “you’re so silly! It’s been nineteen whole years since your father died in the explosion of a Moon-rocket. Rocket motors just don’t explode any more, honey! Ships travel to the Moon and back on iron-clad, mathematical orbits that are figured before the ship puffs a jet--”
“The Elsinore?” She’d said it viciously, to taunt him, and something in her had been pleased at the dull flush that rose to his face. Everyone knew about the Elsinore, the 500-foot Moon-ferry that almost missed the Moon.
“That,” he said bitterly, “was human damnfoolishness botching up the equations. Too many lobbyists have holdings on the Moon and don’t want to risk not being able to go there in a hurry. So they haven’t passed legislation to keep physically unfit people off spaceships. One of the passengers got aboard the Elsinore on somebody else’s validation--which meant that nobody knew he was taking endocrine treatments to put hair on his brainless head and restore his--Oh, the Jaywalker!” Jack spat in disgust. “Anyway, he was the kind of idiot who never realizes that certain glandular conditions are fatal in free fall.”
Even now she distinctly recalled the beginnings of the interplanetary cold that always seeped into the warm house when he talked about space, when he was about to leave her for it. And this time it was worse than ever before.
He went on remorselessly, “Once the Elsinore reached the free-fall flight, where power could be shut off, the skipper had to put the ferry into an axial spin under power, creating artificial gravity to save the worthless life of that fool. So of course he lost his trajectory, and had to warp her in as best he could, without passing the Moon or crashing into it. And of course you’re not listening.”
“It’s all so dull!” she had flared, and then, “How can I be interested in what some blundering space-jockey did?”
“Blun--Marcia, you really don’t realize what that skipper did was the finest piece of shiphandling since mankind got off the ground.”
“Was it?” she’d yawned. “Could you do it?”
“I--like to think I could,” he said. “I’d hate to have to try.”
She’d shrugged. “Then it can’t be very difficult, darling.”
She hadn’t meant to be so cruel. Or so stupid. But when they were quarreling, or when he talked that repugnant, dedicated, other-world garble, something always went cold and furious and--lonely inside her, and made her fight back unfairly.
After he’d gone--for good, he said--her anger had sustained her for a few weeks. Then, bleakly, she knew she’d go to the ends of Earth for Jack. Or even to the Moon...
Sitting rigid in the tense stillness of a rocket ship that was about to leap from Earth, Marcia started as an officer ducked his head into the passenger compartment from the pilot room’s deep glow. But it wasn’t Jack. The officer’s lips moved hurriedly as he counted over the seats. He ducked back out of sight. From the bulk-heads, the overhead, everywhere, came a deep, quiet rumble. Some of the passengers looked anxious, some excited, and some just leafed casually through magazines.
Now the brown-clad Miss Eagen was speaking from the head of the aisle.
“Those of you who haven’t been in a rocket before won’t find it much different from being in an airplane. At the same time--” She paused, quiet brown eyes solemn. “What you are about to experience is something that will make you proud to belong to the human race.”
That again! thought Marcia furiously; and then all emotion left her but cold, ravening fear as the rumble heightened. She tried to close her eyes, her ears against it, but her mind wouldn’t respond. She squirmed in her chair and found herself staring down at the field. It looked the way she felt--flat and pale and devoid of life, with a monstrous structure of terror squatting in it. The scene was abruptly splashed with a rushing sheet of flame that darkened the daytime sky. Then it was torn from her vision.
It was snatched away--the buildings, the trees, the roads surrounding the field seemed to pour in upon it, shrinking as they ran together. Roads dried up like parched rivers, thinning and vanishing into the circle of her horrified vision. A great, soft, uniform weight pressed her down and back; she fought it, but it was too big and too soft.
Now Earth’s surface was vague and Sun-splashed. Marcia’s sense of loss tore at her. She put up her hands, heavily, and pressed the glass as if she could push it out, push herself out, go back, back to Earth and solidity. Clouds shot by like bullets, fell away until they were snowflakes roiling in violet haze. Then, in the purling universe that had grown around the ship, Earth was a mystic circle, a shallow dish floating darkly and heavily below.
“We are now,” said Miss Eagen’s calm voice, “thirty-seven miles over Los Angeles.”
After that, there was scarcely room for thought--even for fear, though it lurked nearby, ready to leap. There was the ascent, the quiet, sleeplike ascent into space. Marcia very nearly forgot to breathe. She had been prepared for almost anything except this quality of peace and awe.
She didn’t know how long she had been sitting there, awestruck, spellbound, when she realized that she had to finish the job she’d started, and do it right now, this minute. It might already be too late ... she wished, suddenly, and for the very first time, that she’d paid more attention to Jack’s ramblings about orbits and turn-over points and correction blasts, and all that gobbledegook. She glanced outside again and the sky was no longer deep blue, but black. She pressed herself up out of the soft chair--it was difficult, because of the one-and-a-half gravities the ship was holding--and plodded heavily up the aisle. Miss Eagen was just rising from the chair in which she sat for the take-off.
“Yes, Mrs. Fos--why, what’s the matter?”
Seeing the startled expression on the stewardess’ face, Marcia realized she must be looking like a ghost. She put a hand to her cheek and found it clammy.
“Come along,” said Miss Eagen cheerfully. She put a firm arm around Marcia’s shoulder. “Just a touch of space-sickness. This way. That’s it. We’ll have you fixed up in a jiffy.”
“It isn’t s-space sickness,” said Marcia in a very small and very positive voice. She let herself be led forward, through the door and to the left, where there was a small and compact ship’s hospital.
“Now, now,” said Miss Eagen briskly, “just you lie down there, Mrs. Foster. Does it hurt any special place?”
Marcia lay down gratefully. She closed her eyes tightly and said, “I’m not Mrs. Foster. It doesn’t hurt.”
“You’re not--” Miss Eagen apparently decided to take one thing at a time. “How do you feel?”
“Scared,” said Marcia.
“Why, what--is there to be scared of?”
“Well, that’s no--You’re what?”
“I’m Mrs. McHenry. I’m Jack’s wife.”
There was such a long pause that Marcia opened her eyes. Miss Eagen was looking at her levelly. She said, “I’ll have to examine you.”
“I know. Go ahead.”
Miss Eagen did, swiftly and thoroughly. “You’re so right,” she breathed. She went to the small sink, stripping off her rubber gloves. With her back to Marcia, she said, “I’ll have to tell the captain, you know.”
“I know. I’d rather ... tell him myself.”
“Thanks,” said Miss Eagen flatly. Marcia felt as if she’d been slapped. Miss Eagen dried her hands and crossed to an intercom. “Eagen to Captain.”
“Captain McHenry, could you come back to the hospital right away?”
“Not right away, Sue.” Sue! No wonder he had found it so easy to walk out! She looked at the trim girl with hating eyes. The intercom said, “You know I’ve got course-correction computations from here to yonder. Give me another forty minutes.”
“I think,” said Sue Eagen into the mike, “that the computations can wait.”
“The hell you do!” The red contact light on the intercom went out.
“He’ll be right here,” said Miss Eagen.
Marcia sat up slowly, clumsily. Miss Eagen did not offer to help. Marcia’s hands strayed to her hair, patted it futilely.
He came in, moving fast and purposefully, as always. “Sue, what in time do you think you--Marcia!“ His dark face broke into a delighted grin and he put his arms out. “You--you’re here--here, on my ship!”
“I’m pregnant, Jack,” she said. She put out a hand to ward him off. She couldn’t bear the thought of his realizing what she had done while he had his arms around her.
“You are? You--we--” He turned to Miss Eagen, who nodded once, her face wooden. “Just find it out?”
This time Miss Eagen didn’t react at all, and Marcia knew that she had to speak up. “No, Jack. I knew weeks ago.”
There was no describable change in his face, but the taut skin of his space-tanned cheek seemed, somehow, to draw inward. His eyebrow ridges seemed to be more prominent, and he looked older, and very tired. Softly and slowly he asked, “What in God’s name made you get on the ship?”
“I had to, Jack. I had to.”
“Had to kill yourself?” he demanded brutally. “This tears it. This ties it up in a box with a bloody ribbon-bow. I suppose you know what this means--what I’ve got to do now?”
“Spin ship,” she replied immediately, and looked up at him pertly, like a kindergarten child who knows she has the right answer.
“You said you could do it.”
“I can ... try,” he said hollowly. “But--why, why?”
“Because,” she said bleakly, “I learned long ago that a man grows to love what he has to fight for.”
“And you were going to make me fight for you and the child--even if the lives of a hundred and seventy people were involved?”
“You said you could handle it. I thought you could.”
“I’ll try,” he said wearily. “Oh, I’ll try.” He went out, dragging his feet, his shoulders down, without looking at her.
There was a stiff silence. Marcia looked up at Miss Eagen. “It’s true, you know,” she said. “A man grows to love the things he has to defend, no matter how he felt about them before.”
The stewardess looked at her, her face registering a strange mixture of detachment and wonder. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
Marcia’s patience, snapped. “You don’t have to look so superior. I know what’s bothering you. Well, he’s my husband, and don’t you forget it.”
Miss Eagen’s breath hissed in. Her eyes grew bright and she shook her head slightly. Then she turned on her heel and went to the intercom. Marcia thought for a frightened moment that she was going to call Jack back again. Instead she dialed and said, “Hospital to Maintenance. Petrucelli?”
“Come up with a crescent wrench, will you, Pet?”
Another stiff silence. A question curled into Marcia’s mind and she asked it. “Do you work on all these ships at one time or another?”
Miss Eagen did not beat around the bush. “I’ve been with Captain McHenry for three years. I hope to work with him always. I think he’s the finest in the Service.”
“He--th-thinks as well of you, no doubt.”
Petrucelli lounged in, a big man, easy-going, powerful. “What’s busted, muscles?”
“Bolt the bed to the bulkhead, Pet. Mrs. McHenry--I’m sorry, but you’ll have to get up.”
Marcia bounced resentfully off the cot and stood aside. Petrucelli looked at her, cocked an eyebrow, looked at Miss Eagen, and asked, “Jaywalker?”
“Please hurry, Pet.” She turned to Marcia. “I’ve got to explain to the passengers that there won’t be any free fall. Most of them are looking forward to it.” She went out.
Marcia watched the big man work for a moment. “Why are you putting the bed on the wall?”
He looked at her and away, quickly. “Because, lady, when we start to spin, that outside bulkhead is going to be down. Centrifugal force, see?” And before she could answer him he added, “I can’t talk and work at the same time.”
Feeling very much put-upon, Marcia waited silently until he was finished, and the bed hung ludicrously to the wall like a walking fly. She thanked him timidly, and he ignored it and went out.
Miss Eagen returned.
“That man was very rude,” said Marcia.
Miss Eagen looked at her coolly. “I’m sorry,” she said, obviously not meaning sorry at all.
Marcia wet her lips. “I asked you a question before,” she said evenly. “About you and the captain.”
“You did,” said Sue Eagen. “Please don’t.”
“And why not?”
“Because,” said Miss Eagen, and in that moment she looked almost as drawn as Jack had, “I’m supposed to be of service to the passengers at all times no matter what. If I have feelings at all, part of my job is to keep them to myself.”