With over an hour to go before he needed to start braking for his landing on Luna, Pete Dudley sat at the controls of the rocket freighter and tried to think of anything else that needed checking after his spinning the ship. He drummed absently with the fingers of his right hand upon the buckle of the seat strap which restrained him from floating out of the padded acceleration seat.
“Let’s see, tail’s right out there in front. I got the angle perfect. Guess everything’s okay.”
He noticed his fingers drumming, and stopped.
“Cut that out!” he told himself. “Get nervous now and Jack’ll be sending some other vacuum on the next Mars run. There’s Ericsson dead center in the screen, waiting for you to plop down beside the domes. You couldn’t miss a crater that size if you tried.”
He leaned back and stared speculatively at the curving tip of the Lunar Rockies that ended in one of the largest craters on the far side of Luna. His eyes squinted slightly and there was a crease between them, as if he spent much time peering into instruments. There were deeper lines beside his mouth, but the thin lips and pointed chin neutralized that evidence of frequent smiling.
“Are we nearly there?”
Dudley’s brown eyes opened so wide that the whites gleamed in the dim light from his instruments. Then he shut them tightly and shook his head quickly.
He had thought he heard a woman’s voice, and of course he couldn’t have. Freight rockets were checked out of Terran spaceports with only a pilot aboard. A lonely job for a man, but it was really only a way of keeping in practice. He made six round trips to Luna a year, but the big one was the three-month kick to Mars.
Then he smelled the perfume, so out of place in the machine-crowded compartment. He turned around slowly.
She stood with one hand gripping the lead of a computing machine to keep her feet on the deck. Dudley stared her up and down two or three times before he realized his mouth hung open.
Slim and about five-feet-four, she looked like a nice little girl making her first disastrous experiments with adult make-up. The slack suit of deep blue, revealing a soft white blouse at the neck of the jacket, was in the best of taste, but her heavy application of lipstick was crude.
And her hair isn’t naturally ash-blonde, Dudley thought. Yet she looks like such a kid. Not pretty, but she might be in a few years.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded harshly.
For a second, her eyes were scared. Then the expression was supplanted by a hard, make-believe confidence, leaving him merely with a fading sense of shame at his tone.
“Same as you,” she said boldly. “Going to Luna.”
Dudley snorted. “Then relax,” he growled, “because I can’t stop you now. Where the devil did you spend the last thirty-six hours?”
She tried a grin. “In the little room where the things are that pump the air. I sneaked in the galley once, when you were asleep. Did you miss anything?”
“No,” he admitted, thinking back.
“See? I’m not enough trouble to be noticed!”
Dudley eyed her sourly. There was trouble behind this somewhere, he was willing to bet, or else why had she stowed away? Running from a family fight? When the port checkers at Ericsson saw her--!
“How old are you, kid?” he asked.
The answer was too pat and quickly given. Even the girl seemed to realize that, and she continued talking. “My name’s Kathi Foster. You’re the next Mars pilot, according to the schedule, aren’t you?”
“What about it?”
She let go of the cable and pushed her weightless body across the control room to his chair.
“What’s it like on Mars?” she asked breathlessly.
What does she expect me to tell her? Dudley wondered cynically. That the whole population of the colony is only about four thousand? That they still live mostly on hope, dreams, and regular rocket service? That every one of them represents such a fantastic transportation expense that the Commission only sends top-notch people?
“It’s pretty tough,” he said.
She hesitated over his unhelpful reply, then plunged ahead.
“How about taking me along to see for myself?”
Dudley smiled with one corner of his mouth.
“You’re not going anywhere except back to Terra on the next rocket,” he predicted flatly. “And I hope your father still has enough hair on his head to own a hair-brush!”
“My father is dead.”
“Then your--.” He paused as she shook her head. “Well, don’t you have any family? Jobs on Luna are ... limited. The settlements just aren’t very big. You’re better off down home.”
Kathi’s half-defiant, half-wheedling mask cracked. Her over-painted lips twitched.
“What do you know about where I’m better off? If you knew the kind of family I have--.”
“Oh, calm down!” grunted Dudley, somewhat discomforted by the sight of tears spilling from her blue eyes. “Things are never as bad as you think when you’re just a ... when you’re young. When we land, we can say you got left aboard by mistake. They’ll just send you back without any trouble.”
“Like hell they will! I won’t go!”
Dudley stared hard at her, until she dropped her gaze.
“You don’t understand,” she said more quietly. “I ... my family has been kicking me around the law courts all my life just because my grandfather left me his money. They’re all trying to get their hands on it, or on me to back up their claims. Do you realize I’m eight--I’m twenty-one and I never lived a happy day in my life? I’d rather die than go back!”
“Yeah, sure,” said Dudley. “What did you really do to make you so scared of going back? Smack up grandpop’s helicopter, maybe, or flunk out of school?”
“No, I got sick and tired of being shoved around. I wanted to get away someplace where I could be myself.”
“Why didn’t you buy a ticket on a passenger rocket, if you had such an urge to visit Luna?”
“My aunts and uncles and cousins have all my money tied up in suits.”
He leaned back by pushing the edge of the control desk.
“Pretty fast with the answers, aren’t you?” he grinned. “I wonder what you’ll think up for the spaceport police when they ask you?”
“You don’t believe--,” she began.
He shook his head and to avoid further argument he picked up his sliderule, muttering something about checking his landing curve. Actually, he was not as convinced as he pretended that her story was all lies.
But what the hell? he thought. I have my own troubles without worrying because some blonde little spiral thinks she can go dramatic over a family spat. She’d better learn that life is full of give and take.
“You better get attached to something around here,” he warned her when the time came for serious deceleration.
“I ... I could go back where I was,” she stammered. He suddenly realized that for the past hour she had silently accepted his ignoring her. She asked now, “What happens next?”
“We cut our speed and come down on the tail as near to the domes of the Ericsson settlement as possible without taking too much of a chance. Then I secure everything for the towing.”
“Towing? I’m sorry; I never read much about the moon rockets.”
“Natural enough,” Dudley retorted dryly. “Anyway, they send out big cranes to lower the rocket to horizontal so they can tow it on wheels under one of the loading domes. Handling cargo goes a lot faster and safer that way. Most of the town itself is underground.”
He began warming up his tele-screen prior to asking the spaceport for observation of his approach. Kathi grabbed his elbow.
“Of course I’m going to talk with them,” he answered her startled question.
“Can they see me here behind you?”
“I guess so. Maybe not too clear, but they’ll see somebody’s with me. What’s the difference? It’ll just save them a shock later.”
“Why should they see me at all? I can hide till after you leave the ship, and--.”
“Fat chance!” grunted Dudley. “Forget it.”
“Please, Dudley! I--I don’t want to get you in any trouble, for one thing. At least, let me get out of sight now. Maybe you’ll change your mind before we land.”
He looked at her, and the anxiety seemed real enough. Knowing he was only letting her postpone the unpleasantness but reluctant to make her face it, he shrugged.
“All right, then! Go somewhere and wipe that stuff off your face. But stop dreaming!”
He waited until she had disappeared into one or another of the tiny compartments behind the control room, then sent out his call to the Lunar settlement.
The problem did not affect his landing; in fact, he did better than usual. His stubby but deft fingers lacked their ordinary tendency to tighten up, now that part of his mind was rehearsing the best way to explain the presence of an unauthorized passenger.
In the end, when he had the rocket parked neatly on the extremities of its fins less than a quarter of a mile from one of the port domes, he had not yet made up his mind.
“Nice landing, Pete,” the ground observer told him. “Buy you a drink later?”
“Uh ... yeah, sure!” Dudley answered. “Say, is Jack Fisher anywhere around?”
“Jack? No, I guess he’s gone bottom level. We’re having ‘night’ just now, you know. Why? What do you want a cop for?”
Suddenly, it was too difficult.
If she could hide as long as she did, she could have done it all the way, he told himself.
“Oh, don’t wake him up if he’s asleep,” he said hastily. “I just thought I’d have dinner with him sometime before I leave.”
He waited sullenly while the great self-propelled machines glided out over the smooth floor of the crater toward the ship, despising himself for giving in.
Well, I just won’t know anything about her, he decided. Let her have her little fling on Luna! It won’t last long.
He closed the key that would guard against accidental activation of the controls and, enjoying the ability to walk even at one-sixth his normal weight, went about securing loose objects. When the space-suited figures outside signaled, he was ready for the tilt.
Once under the dome, he strode out through the airlock as if innocent of any thought but getting breakfast. He exchanged greetings with some of the tow crew, turned over his manifesto to the yawning checker who met him, and headed for the entrance of the tunnel to the main part of the settlement.
Only when he had chosen a monorail car and started off along the tunnel toward the underground city a mile away did he let himself wonder about Kathi Foster.
“Her problem now,” he muttered, but he felt a little sorry for her despite his view that she needed to grow up.
Later in the “day,” he reported to transportation headquarters.
“Hiya, Pete!” grinned Les Snowdon, chief of the section. “All set for the Ruby Planet?”
Dudley grimaced. “I suppose so,” he said. “Left my locker mostly packed, except for what I’ll need for a couple of days. When do we go out and who’s the crew?”
“Jarkowski, Campiglia, and Wells. You have three days to make merry and one to sober up.”
“I sober fast,” said Dudley.
Snowdon shook his head in mock admiration. “Nevertheless,” he said, “the physical will be on the fourth morning from now. Don’t get in any fights over on Level C--or if you do, let the girl do the punching for you! A broken finger, my boy, and you’ll ruin the whole Martian schedule!”
“Ah, go on!” Dudley grinned, moving toward the door. “They can always stick you in there, and make you earn your pay again.”
“They’re still paying me for the things I did in the old days,” retorted Snowdon. “Until I get caught up, I’m satisfied to keep a little gravity under my butt. Oh ... by the way, your pal Jack Fisher left a call for you. Something about dinner tonight.”
Dudley thanked him and went off to contact Fisher. Then he returned to the pilots’ quarters for a shower and strolled along the corridors of the underground city to a lunch-room. Food and water were rationed on Luna, but not nearly as tightly as they would be for him during the next three months.
That night, he joined Fisher and his wife for dinner at The View, Ericsson’s chief center of escape from the drabness of Lunar life. It was the only restaurant, according to the boast of its staff, where one could actually dine under the stars.
“Sometimes I wish that dome wasn’t so transparent,” said Fisher. “Sit down, the girls will be back in a minute.”
Dudley eyed him affectionately. Fisher was head of the settlement’s small police force, but managed to look more like the proprietor of one of the several bars that flourished in the levels of the city just under the restaurant. He was heavy enough to look less than his six feet, and his face was as square as the rest of him. Dark hair retreated reluctantly from his forehead, and the blue eyes set peering above his pudgy cheeks were shrewd.
“Girls?” asked Dudley.
“We brought along a new arrival to keep you company,” said Fisher. “She works in one of the film libraries or something like that.”
Which means that’s as good an excuse as any for having her at Ericsson, thought Dudley. Anyway, I’m glad Jack is the sort to be realistic about things like bars and other ... recreation. There’d be more guys turning a little variable from too much time in space without some outlet.
“Here she comes with Myra,” said his host. “Name’s Eileen.”
Dudley smiled at Mrs. Fisher and was introduced to the red-haired girl with her. Eileen eyed him speculatively, then donned her best air of friendliness. The evening passed rapidly.
For the next few days, besides seeing the Fishers and looking up the men who were to be his crew, Dudley spent a lot of time with Eileen. There seemed to be little difficulty about her getting time off from whatever her official duties were. She showed him all the bars and movie theatres and other amusements that the underground city could boast, and Dudley made the most of them in spite of his recent visit to Terra. On the Mars-bound rocket, they would be lucky, if allowed one deck of cards and half a dozen books for the entertainment of the four of them.
It was on the “evening” of his third day that the specter haunting the back of his mind pushed forward to confront him. He had listened for gossip, but there had been no word of the discovery of an unauthorized arrival. Then, as he was taking Eileen to her underground apartment, he heard his name called.
There she was, with an escort of three young men he guessed to be operators of the machinery that still drilled out new corridors in the rock around the city. Somehow she had exchanged the black slack suit for a bright red dress that was even more daring than Eileen’s. In the regulated temperature, clothing was generally light, but Dudley’s first thought was that this was overdoing a good thing.
“May I have a word with you, Dudley?” Kathi asked, coming across the corridor while her young men waited with shifting feet and displeased looks.
Dudley glanced helplessly at Eileen, wondering about an introduction. He had never bothered to learn her last name, and he had no idea of what name Kathi was using. The redhead had pity on him.
“My door’s only a few yards down,” she said. “I’ll wait.”
She swept Kathi with a glance of amused confidence and walked away. It seemed to Dudley that she made sure the three young men followed her with their eyes; but then he was kicking off for Mars within twenty-four hours, so he could hardly object to that.
“Have you changed your mind?” demanded Kathi with a fierce eagerness.
“Not so loud!” hushed Dudley. “About what? And how did you get that rig?”
Had he been less dismayed at her presence, he might have remarked that the tight dress only emphasized her immaturity, but she gave him no time to say more.
“About Mars, Dudley. Can’t you take me? I’m afraid those illegitimate blood-suckers are going to send after me. They could sniff out which way a nickel rolled in a coal-bin.”
“Aren’t you just a shade young for that kind of talk?”
“I guess I’m a little frightened,” she admitted.
“You frighten me, too,” he retorted. “How are you ... I mean, what do you--?”
She tossed her blonde hair.
“There are ways to get along here, I found out. I didn’t get arrested this time, did I? So why can’t you take a chance with me to Mars?”
“Take an eclipse on that,” said Dudley with a flat sweep of his hand. “It’s just out of the question. For one thing, there are four of us going, and you can’t hide for the whole trip without somebody catching on.”
“All right,” she said quietly. “Why not?”
“What do you mean, ‘Why not?’”
“I’m willing to earn my passage. What if there are four of you?”