Authors: 1908-2006 Jack Williamson,illus Robert Amundsen
Tags: #Science fiction, #Science fiction
This book made available by the Internet Archive.
Star Men Lost!
Jeff Stone looked up from left field.
"Three . . . two . . . one. . . ."
He finished the count-down in his head and eyed the sunny sky beyond the baseball park. First he saw a white cotton ball of cloud and then a jet plane floating down to land. The rocket taking off for the moon was late.
There it was! A distant spark of bright metal, it climbed fast on its own leaning tower of cloud. Jeff let out his breath. Like a little boy watching a candy machine but needing a dime, he stood dreaming about space and the star ships and his brother Ben.
Ben was older than Jeff, already 20 and a star ship
pilot. He had left the moon in his tiny four-man ship just six weeks ago to find the planets of a new star.
JeflF was tw^o years behind Ben, but now his own class had finished pilot training at Space School. He was a star man now, at home on a ten-day leave, waiting for his orders—waiting for his chance to catch up.
He had always been waiting. Ben had always been far ahead, not just in years. Ben was handsome, with fine blue eyes, curly hair, and a quick smile. Jeff was skinny and sometimes clumsy, always seeming to try too hard. He'd had to struggle for his marks, while Ben had easily led his class. Jeff had just made the baseball and basketball teams, while Ben was an athletic star.
Out in space, Jeff thought, things might be somehow different—
The sharp sound of bat against ball brought him back to the game. He saw the batter racing toward first and the ball in the air. He looked once at the ball and headed toward the spot where it would come down.
"Keep your eye on the ball!" the third base man hissed at him.
But Jeff didn't need to watch it. A ball in flight was like a ship in space. That was something he had learned in pilot training. A pilot had to have a sense of mass
and force and motion. He got into position under the ball and reached up with his glove.
"Watch it, Jeff-"
The ball thudded into his glove.
The third base man grinned at him as they walked off the field.
*'Okay, Jeff! You sure make it look easy."
Jeff didn't say that catching a ball was something like steering a star ship to land on a planet. These were old friends he had known before he had gone to Space School. The game was to welcome him home. He didn't want to show off—not too much.
"It's just an old trick of Ben's," he said. Then he saw his mother coming toward them and hurried to meet her.
Her face looked gray and her hands were shaking.
"Bad news, Jeff." Her voice was a dry whisper. "Ben's probe is missing."
Jeff felt as sick as his mother looked. He took her home and she gave him the tape the ferry had brought from the moon.
"It's from the admiral," she said. "Admiral Serov himself."
"He's like that," Jeff said. "They raised his rank because his job is so important, but he still tries to take
care of everything. He worries about every man and every probe."
At last, Jeff's numb fingers got the tape in place and started the player.
"To the parents of Star Man Ben Stone—"
The admiral's voice sounded solemn, and Jeff could hear the pain in it.
"I regret to inform you that your son is reported missing in space. He was the pilot of Flight A, which left the moon six weeks ago to explore the planets of the new star Topaz. His flight is now two weeks past due and there has been no report from Flight A.
"The Star Service is grateful to Star Man Ben Stone for all he has done, and grateful to his family for their sacrifice—"
His mother turned the player off. "I don't know what went wrong with my two boys." She sighed. "You both always seemed to be trying to break your silly necks, and now. . . ."
Her voice broke and she began to sob softly.
Jeff waited until his mother's crying stopped. Then he tried to explain, as Ben had tried before.
"But these star ship voyages are important. We must know more about our world. Pilots like Ben have to take their chances."
His mother's lips were set tight. He knew he wasn't getting through.
*'0f course the voyages are dangerous," he continued. "Ben knew that. Every flight is a risk. The stars are so far off we can't see their planets—if they have planets. We never know what we will find."
His mother's tired nod meant little.
"A third of our star voyages never come back," he told her. "Ben knew that. But he went anyhow."
"Why-" She choked. "Why did Ben go?"
"Because he's a pilot," Jeff said. "We talked about it while he was home. If one star voyage is lost, another goes out to make up for the loss."
His own eagerness began to wash away his worry.
"That's why we fly to the stars, Mom. Sure, some don't come back. But the lucky ones open the way to new planets—to new worlds for millions of people. That's why Ben went out."
"Can't they send a rescue ship?"
Of course! A rescue ship! It was not always possible, Jeff knew. But maybe his mother had something. "Let me call the moon base. Mom. Maybe there can be a rescue voyage."
Jeff stepped to the TV telephone screen. He had to wait for a channel to the moon. He was afraid, really,
of what the answer would be. Rescue ships were seldom sent. But Ben was his own brother. Perhaps, if Jeff himself were to pilot. . . .
A blue-green mark on the screen warned Jeff that the moon beam was coming through.
The picture of Space Admiral Serov came on the phone screen. He had been a pilot once, and he wore an empty sleeve. He had lost an arm in a star voyage accident. Even on the laser beam, Jeff's voice took more than a second to reach the moon. The reply took as long to come back. Jeff felt nervous.
"Sir, this is star pilot Jeff Stone. I ask permission to fly a rescue voyage to find Flight A—the men lost on the Topaz flight."
Waiting, Jeff heard his mother cry out, ''No, Jeff!"
The admiral's voice came back from the moon. "Request denied."
"But—sir!" Jeff caught his breath. "Star Man Ben Stone is my brother."
The admiral's face came alive on the screen. "Sorry, Stone." His voice turned softer. "You and your parents have my personal sympathy. But you know the reasons why we can't try a rescue."
The admiral paused, as if finished, but then continued. Jeff knew what he would say.
"One reason is official policy. At one time we did send rescue voyages. We have found that the odds are too great. We have no ships or star men to waste."
The admiral didn't wait for Jeff. "Here's the other reason. We have no star ship ready. Your brother flew the last SP-9 in ser\'ice. The new SP-12 won't be ready in time for a rescue flight."
For a moment, Jeff felt hope. "But, sir, we do have a ship!" Excitement lifted his voice. "The old SP-y training ship. The one I flew at Space School to earn my rating. It was built for star flights. Let me take it to Topaz!"
The admiral frowned, shaking his head.
"The ship is out of date," he said. "It lacks proper power and control for X-space flight. It might take you to Topaz, but it probably would not get you back. Request denied."
"Sir—" But the hope was gone.
"Sorry, Star Man Stone," the admiral said. "Tell your parents I am truly sorry."
The screen went blank.
"I didn't mean for you to go." His mother's face was white. "I don't want that."
"I know. Mom," Jeff said quietly. "But I am going sometime, and what better time than now?"
Mrs. Stone put her arm around him. Jeff could feel her thin body trembling, and he knew she would never understand. He felt sorry for her, more than for Ben.
A few moments later, when Jeff's father got home, they again played the tape from the moon. The big 3-D screen across the end of the room, showed a film of Ben and his men the way they had looked on the moon, ready for the flight. They were all in their silver uniforms, with the silver needles crossed over their hearts. They grinned and waved before climbing into the slim bright star ship.
Jeff recognized them all. They had been Ben's friends at school—and his friends, too. Jim Ozaki had taught him boxing. Tony Mescalero had played cards with him. Whiz Miller had taught him to field and helped him make the baseball team.
On film, Ben waved again and sealed the air lock. The star ship was ready to go. A news man's face came on the screen.
"That was their last good-by," he said. "They flew from the moon to the X-space station, a million miles out. There they shifted into X-space drive, which is faster than light. Their goal was Topaz—a star so far from Earth that its light takes a thousand years to reach us."
The news man paused, looking very solemn.
"They gladly risked their lives to win the planets of Topaz for us—if Topaz has any planets. They gambled, and lost. No rescue effort can be made."
Jeff felt relieved when the news man stopped. His mother cried again. He left his parents sitting together in the living room, and went back to his room—the room he had once shared with Ben.
Ben's bed was there, by the tall glass case their father had built to hold Ben's prizes. The ribbons and cups he had won in swimming, in tennis, and golf. The silver key for high grades.
Jeff stood at the door a long time, just looking at those honors. He remembered all the bitter moments when Ben had beaten him. Sometimes he had hated Ben for being so good at everything—and for being so modest about how good he was, as if it really didn't matter. Now he was ashamed.
"Jeff!" His father was calling. "On the 3-D! News about Ben!"
"—Captain Marc Bon," a news man was saying. "Captain Bon is in charge of Sun Point, the space station where Ben Stone began his X-space flight to Topaz. Captain Bon has a message from Star Man Stone."
Captain Bon came on the screen. He wore the crossed silver needles of a star pilot.
"A radio message?" the news man asked.
"There's no radio between the stars," Captain Bon told the news man sharply. "If there were, a signal from the star we call Topaz would take a thousand years to get here."
"But you did get a message?"
"In a space capsule," the captain said, "that came back through X-space. The capsule had been partly fused and the message inside was partly destroyed. We can read only a few words."
"And what are those words, captain?"
"Queer kinds of life here. . . ." Captain Bon read slowly from a paper in his big brown hand. "Surprise attack . . . things we thought were friendly .\ . call them rock hoppers . . . station now under laser fire. . . ."
Captain Bon lowered the piece of paper. "That's all we can read. The rest of the message is too burned."
"What's a rock hopper?" the news man asked.
"Nobody knows," the captain said.
"What does this mean? What will the Star Service do?" •
"I don't know what the service can do." The captain frowned. "If the X-space station was destroyed, it means that Star Man Stone can't leave Topaz. We have no
more ships that can get there. Not till the new SP-i2*s are ready."
"Jeff!" He heard his mother calling. "Come talk to the moon."
Admiral Serov could be seen on the phone screen.
"Star Man Stone/' the admiral said, "have you heard about the message from your brother?"
Jeff quickly answered that he had.
The admiral continued. "His report has changed our decision against rescue flights. We see a danger that the queer kinds of life your brother reported may come back through X-space to harm Earth.
"Because of this report," the admiral went on, "we are acting on your idea that the old SP-y training ship could make the flight to Topaz. A crew has already been picked for it. You are on the list."
Jeff could not quite beheve what he heard.
"These orders are official, Star Man Stone," the admiral continued. "You will take the next ferry to the moon and report at once to the base here."
Jeff's parents went with him to the moon ferry. His father talked rapidly, asking question after question about the star flight. Jeff's mother remained silent.
A screaming sound pierced the quiet of the summer air. 'Air raid alarm," Jeff announced to his parents. "Just a practice."
'pae air taxi they were in lowered itself quickly to the ground. Jeff and his parents ran into a shelter, already filled with people.
Air raid alarms were quite frequent and Jeff, while in training, had even controlled one of them. The reason for them was that the X-space stations star men opened in space were two-way doors. Voyages went out through
them to find new worlds. Bigger ships followed to open space commerce. But there was always the danger that strange things from unknown worlds might try to break through the stations from the other side.
In spite of all the people in the shelter, it was terribly quiet. Then it came, as it always did—the all-clear horn.
JeE and his parents hurried back to the cab to go to the moon station. The ferry was due to lift in only 20 minutes. Jeff gripped his father's hand and kissed his mother quickly.