MacNamara ambled across the loading ramp, savoring the dry, dusty air that smelled unmistakable of spaceship. He half-consciously separated the odors; the sweet, volatile scent of fuel, the sharp aroma of lingering exhaust gases from early morning test-firing, the delicate odor of silicon plastic which was being stowed as payload. He shielded his eyes against the sun, watching as men struggled with the last plastic girders to be strapped down, high above the dazzling ground of White Sands. The slender cargo doors stood open around Valier’s girth, awaiting his own personal O.K.
This flight would be the fourth for Major Edward MacNamara; as he neared the great, squatting shock absorbers he could feel the tension begin to knot his stomach. He had, of course, been overwhelmed by the opportunity to participate in Operation Doughnut. The fact that he had been one of the best mechanical engineers in the Air Force never occurred to him at the time. He was a pilot, and a good one, but he had languished as C.O. of a maintenance squadron for nearly two years before he was given another crack at glory. Now, he wasn’t at all sure he was happy with the transition. They needed master mechanics for Operation Doughnut, but he felt they should be left on the ground when the towering supply rockets lifted.
He stopped, leaning against scaffolding as he saw a familiar figure turn toward him. He cupped his hands before his face.
“Hey, douse that butt! Can’t you ... oh, Mac!” The commanding voice trailed off in a chuckle. Better to clown his way through the inspection, MacNamara thought, than to let Ruiz notice his nervousness. The co-pilot, Ruiz, walked toward him, still smiling. “One of these days, boy, you gonna go too far. Thought you were a real, eighteen carat saboteur.” He clapped MacNamara on the shoulder and gazed aloft. “Good day for it. No weather, no hangover, no nothing.”
“Yeah. You know, Johnny, I’ve been thinking about a modification for our breathing oxy.” He sniffed appreciatively.
“Put a little dust in it, a few smells. That stuff we breathe is just too sanitary!”
“I know what you mean. I sure begin to crave this filthy, germ-filled air after a few hours out there.” They both smiled at the thought, then turned to the business at hand.
“By the way, Johnny, what’re you doing out so early? Didn’t expect to see you cabbies before ten.”
“I donno,” the bronzed Ruiz replied. “Went to bed early, woke up at six and couldn’t drop off again. And here I am. Carl ought to be along around nine-thirty. Thought I’d help you preflight, if you want me to.”
“Sure.” He wanted nothing of the sort, but had the tact not to say so.
Edward MacNamara was as familiar with the Valier as he was with the tip of his nose. He had been on the scene when Dan Burke test-hopped the third stage, had made improvements and re-routing jobs, and had memorized every serial number of every bearing that went into Valier. As Flight Engineer, he was supposed to.
With Johnny Ruiz helping a little and hindering a little, he finished his tour of the cargo sections and grinned his approval to a muscular loading technician. “They can button her up, sergeant. I couldn’t do a better job myself.” It was a compliment of the highest order, and they both knew it.
Riding the tiny lift down to ground level, MacNamara stopped them every ten feet or so to circle the catwalks. He noticed Ruiz’s impatience about halfway down. “No hurry, Johnny. I don’t want another Wyld on our hands.” He knew he shouldn’t have said it, but it slipped out anyway. Everyone tried to forget the Wyld disaster, particularly the flight personnel. The Wyld, one of the first ships to be built, had made only two orbits before being destroyed. Observers stated that a cargo hatch had somehow swung open when the Wyld was only a thousand feet in the air. At any rate, the pilot reported damage to one second-stage fin and tried to brake his way down. The Wyld settled beautifully, tilted, then fell headlong. The resultant explosion caused such destruction that, had there not been a number of men in orbit and waiting for supplies, the project might have been halted, “temporarily.” It was generally conceded that a more thorough preflight could have prevented the Wyld’s immolation.
Ruiz was noticeably quieter during the remainder of the inspection. The external check completed, MacNamara strapped a small flashlight to his wrist and began the internal inspection, jokingly called the autopsy.
An hour and over a hundred and fifty feet later, MacNamara wheezed as he swung over the bulkhead at the base of Valier’s third and top stage. His aching limbs persuaded him to take a breather. After all, his complete inspection of the day before really made a final preflight unnecessary, and passing near the frigid oxygen tanks was a day’s work in itself. He listened to the innumerable noises around and below him. The clicks and hums near him meant that Ruiz, having given up following him, was checking out the flight controls, with power on only in the top stage. From below came a vibrational rushing noise, nearly subsonic, which told him of the fueling operation. He thought of the electrical relays governing the fuel input and shuddered. He violently disliked the idea of having hot wires near fuel of any kind, and rocket fuel in particular.
MacNamara swept his light over his wrist watch. Fifteen after. Logan should be along soon, he thought, and hastened to finish checking the conduits, servos, pumps and hydraulic actuators below the cabin level. This done, he crawled up the final ladder to the cabin, or “dome.”
“Well,” cried a cheerful voice, “if it isn’t our grimy Irishman.”
MacNamara shook the sweat from his brow and muttered, “Irishman, is it? How about ‘Logan’? That’s a good Scandinavian name.”
“How about Logan? He’s great, as usual. Just look at me, Mac. What a specimen!” Logan, the inevitable optimist, bounced out of his acceleration couch and spread his arms wide as if to show the world what a superman he, Carl Logan, was. The gesture and its intimations made MacNamara smile. Logan wasn’t much over five feet tall, and his flight suit made him look like a bald pussycat. His small physique covered a fantastic set of reflexes, however, and Logan’s sense of humor was a quality of utmost importance. He hadn’t an enemy in the world. His enemy was out of this world by definition; Logan wanted to conquer space and, so far, was doing just that.
“O.K., O.K. Laugh. Just remember this, Gargantua; I may not be tall, but I sure am skinny.” MacNamara smiled again, nodding agreement. “Well, don’t everybody talk at once. How is she, Mac?”
“With luck,” answered MacNamara, “we might get ten feet off the turf.” He paused for effect. “Seriously, Carl, she never looked better. You could take her up right now. Say, where’s Johnny? I thought you’d just be checking in to the medics; looks like everybody’s early today.”
“He’s probably over in some corner, making out his will. He was down below a while ago with a face a mile long.”
Probably, thought Mac, he’s still thinking about the Wyld. Why did I have to bring that up? Aloud, he said, “I ought to check the ground crew. Did you bring the forms?”
“Nope. Just my magnificent self. If anything had gone astray, they’d have told you.”
“All the same, I think I’ll go down and question the troops. Don’t leave without me.” He clambered out onto the catwalk, leaving the air lock open. The sun was riding higher every minute. In a little over an hour, he’d be a thousand miles away--vertically. The knot in his stomach began to form again. He wasn’t scared, exactly; he kept telling himself “excited” was a nicer word.
The inspection forms signed, Mac held a short interrogation with the crew chief. The grizzled lieutenant, commissioned because of his long experience and responsibilities, gave Valier a clean bill of health. Each engine of the booster stage had been fired separately, before dawn. A cubic foot of mercury seemed to roll from Mac’s shoulders as he saw Logan and Ruiz lounging at the bottom of the lift; there wasn’t anything to worry about. He recalled feeling the tension before the other three flights, then chided himself. Ya, ya, scared-y cat. Well, why not? It’s a helluva risk every time you make a shot, in spite of all the propaganda. Hooey; if you didn’t know everything’s O.K., you wouldn’t be getting ready to make the shot. Yeah, but you never can tell----He stopped his inward battle and forced some spring into his step as he moved toward Logan and Ruiz.
“I’ve tried my best to abort this big bug, but I can’t find anything amiss.”
“That’s Granny MacNamara for you,” jibed Logan. “Always trying to find fault.” He winked at Ruiz and rubbed his hands together. “Well--tennis, anyone?”
Mac knew without asking that Logan, for all his apparent indifference, had painstakingly gone over every phase of the flight, checking distribution, radar, final instructions from Operations, weather, et al. Ruiz, as usual, watched and took notes as Logan gathered data.
At minus fifteen minutes, the trio was in the dome, checking personal equipment, while outside, the scaffolding ponderously slid away, section by section.
There was little time for soliloquies of to go, or not to go; within the quarter-hour, Captain Ruiz and Majors MacNamara and Logan would be in readiness for the final count-down. With the emergency bail-out equipment checked, the men busied themselves on another continuity test of the myriad circuits spread like a human neural system throughout the ship. All relays, servo systems and instrument leads were in perfect condition as expected, and the trio was settled comfortably in acceleration couches with minutes to spare.
Logan contacted Ground Control a few seconds after the minus-three minute signal, informing all and sundry that Gridley could fire when ready. MacNamara sighed, thinking that if Logan’s humor wasn’t exactly original, it was surely tenacious.
The ship was brought to dim half-life at minus one minute by Logan’s agile fingers, and as the final countdown rasped in his headset, Mac felt his innards wrestle among themselves.
Valier bellowed her enthusiasm suddenly, lifting her eight thousand-odd tons from the ground almost instantly. Inside, her occupants grimaced helplessly as they watched various instruments guide tiny pointers across calibrated faces. Mac’s throat mike threatened to crush his Adam’s apple, weighing five times its usual few ounces. Of his senses, sound was the one that dominated him; an intolerable, continuous explosion from the motors racked his mind like tidal waves of formic acid. He forced himself to overcome the numbness which his brain cast up to defend itself. Then, as quickly as it had begun, Valier fell deafeningly silent; that meant Mach 1 was passed.
It was an eternity before stage one separated. The loss of the empty hulk was hardly felt as Valier streaked high over the Texas border. Ruiz, watching the radarscope, saw Lubbock slide into focus miles below. Next stop, Fort Worth, he thought. I used to drive that in five hours. The jagged line of the caprock told him they were well on their way to Fort Worth already.
The altimeter showed slightly over forty-two miles when stage two detached itself. Logan, in constant contact with White Sands, was informed that they were tracking perfectly as Valier arrowed over central Texas toward rendezvous at the doughnut. The exhausted lower stages were forgotten now; only the second stage was of any concern anyway. The radar boys tracked it all the way down, ready to detonate it high in the air if its huge ‘chutes wafted it near any inhabited community.
The motors of stage three blasted for a carefully calculated few seconds, then cut out automatically. With the destitution of his weight, Mac felt his spirits soar also. They were almost in orbit, now, climbing at a slight angle with a velocity sufficient to carry them around Earth forever, a streamlined, tiny satellite.
After the first few moments of disorientation, rocket crews found that a weightless condition gave them, ambiguously, a buoyant feeling. Only the doughnut crew had really adapted to this condition, living as they did without the effects of gravity for hours at a time every day. The temporary “housing” was rotated for comfort of the crews during rest periods, but while moving the plates and girders of the giant doughnut into place, they had no such luxuries. For these men, weightlessness became an integral part of their activities, but the rocket crews were subjected to this phenomenon only during the few hours needed to rendezvous, unload the cargo, and coast back after another initial period of acceleration.
Hence, Mac felt a strange elation when he tapped his fingers on the arm of his couch and saw his arm float upward, due to reaction from the tap.
Against all regulations, Logan unstrapped himself and motioned his comrades to do the same. This unorthodox seventh-inning stretch was prohibited because it left the pilot’s arm-rest controls without an operator, hence could prove disastrous if, through some malfunction, the ship should veer off course.
The autopilot functioned perfectly, however, and Logan trusted it to the point of insouciance. The three men lounged in midair, grinning foolishly as they “swam” about the tiny cabin. No more satisfying stretch was ever enjoyed.
A few minutes of this was enough. Ruiz was the first to gingerly pull himself into his couch and his companions followed. Not a word had passed between them, since they were at all times in contact with monitor stations spaced across the world below. The first time they had enjoyed this irregular horseplay, on the second trip, Logan had made the mistake of saying, “Race you to the air lock!”, and was hard put to explain those words. Nor could Logan switch to “intercom only,” since a sudden radio silence would create anxiety below. Only their heavy breathing would indicate unusual activity to Earthside.
They were nearing the intercept point, a thousand miles above the Atlantic, when they realized their predicament.
“I’m in a fix, Carl,” said Ruiz, meaning that he had tentatively fixed a position of intercept. “Correct our elevation; we’re point-nine degrees high.”
“Right-o. Correction in five seconds from my mark--mark!”
For slight corrections in the flight path, small steering motors were utilized. These motors were located near the rear lip of Valier’s conical cargo section on retractable booms. Extension of the motors with no resultant air friction gave a longer pivot arm and consequently better efficiency. Mac pressed the “Aux. Steer” stud and immediately three amber lights winked on in their respective instrument consoles.
Carl Logan fired the twelve o’clock motor briefly--only it didn’t fire. The change in momentum wouldn’t be much in any case, but it was always perceptible by feel and by instrument. There was no change.
Logan tried the firing circuit again, and again. Still Valier streaked along, now miles above the intended point of intercept. By this time, the embryo space station was quite near, sailing along in the ‘scope beneath them. It slowly moved toward the top of the ‘scope, passing Valier in its slightly higher relative velocity.
“We’ve got troubles, Mac--find ‘em!” Logan had finally lost the devil-may-care attitude, but that fact was small consolation to MacNamara.
“Keep your mitts off those firing studs, Carl,” he growled, unstrapping himself quickly. The malfunction was definitely in the auxiliary motor setup, he thought. A common trouble? It wouldn’t pay to find out. If the other motors fired, it would only throw them farther off-course. If worst came to worst, they could roll Valier over and use the six o’clock auxiliary; there was a small arc through which the motors could turn on their mounts. But the trouble was unknown, and they might end up rifling or pinwheeling if they didn’t let bad enough alone.
During his mental trouble-shooting, Mac was busily worming his bulk into a balloonish-looking suit identical to those worn by the doughnut’s construction crew. Ruiz gave him some aid, helping him thrust his arms past the spring-folded elbow joints. For some reason, the legs gave less trouble. Within a fumbling few moments, he was ready for work.
He glanced at Logan through his visor, feeling a vicious pleasure over the beads of sweat on Logan’s forehead. Time he sweated a little, thought the mechanic.
A final check of his headset followed, after which Mac oozed into the Lilliputian air lock at the bottom, now rear, wall of the cabin. He nodded to Ruiz, who secured the air lock, then adjusted his suit control to force a little pressure into his suit. Gradually the suit became livable. Then he cracked the other air-lock valve and allowed pressure to leak out around him.
His suit puffed out with soft popping noises and Mac heard the last vestige of air hiss out of the chamber. He found the hatchway too tight for comfort and had a moment of fear when his tool pack caught in the orifice, wedging him neatly. He could hear Logan and Ruiz through his earphones, explaining their plight to Ground Control. They wanted to know why in blue blazes Valier hadn’t contacted the doughnut when it came within range, and Logan had no defense save preoccupation with his own plight. Belatedly, Ruiz made radio contact with the doughnut, which was still well within range. All this time, Mac busied himself with his inspection light, tracing the electrical leads to the small, turbine operated auxiliary motor fuel pumps.