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Don Mathers snapped to attention, snapped a crisp salute to his superior, said, "Sub-lieutenant Donal Mathers reporting, sir."
The Commodore looked up at him, returned the salute, looked down at the report on the desk. He murmured, "Mathers, One Man Scout V-102. Sector A22-K223."
"Yes, sir," Don said.
The Commodore looked up at him again. "You've been out only five days, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir, on the third day I seemed to be developing trouble in my fuel injectors. I stuck it out for a couple of days, but then decided I'd better come in for a check." Don Mathers added, "As per instructions, sir."
"Ummm, of course. In a Scout you can hardly make repairs in space. If you have any doubts at all about your craft, orders are to return to base. It happens to every pilot at one time or another."
"However, Lieutenant, it has happened to you four times out of your last six patrols."
Don Mathers said nothing. His face remained expressionless.
"The mechanics report that they could find nothing wrong with your engines, Lieutenant."
"Sometimes, sir, whatever is wrong fixes itself. Possibly a spot of bad fuel. It finally burns out and you're back on good fuel again. But by that time you're also back to the base."
The Commodore said impatiently, "I don't need a lesson in the shortcomings of the One Man Scout, Lieutenant. I piloted one for nearly five years. I know their shortcomings--and those of their pilots."
"I don't understand, sir."
The Commodore looked down at the ball of his thumb. "You're out in space for anywhere from two weeks to a month. All alone. You're looking for Kraden ships whichpractically never turn up. In military history the only remotely similar situation I can think of were the pilots of World War One pursuit planes, in the early years of the war, when they still flew singly, not in formation. But even they were up there alone for only a couple of hours or so."
"Yes, sir," Don said meaninglessly.
The Commodore said, "We, here at command, figure on you fellows getting a touch of space cafard once in a while and, ah, imagining something wrong in the engines and coming in. But," here the Commodore cleared his throat, "four times out of six? Are you sure you don't need a psych, Lieutenant?"
Don Mathers flushed. "No, sir, I don't think so."
The Commodore's voice went militarily expressionless. "Very well, Lieutenant. You'll have the customary three weeks leave before going out again. Dismissed."
Don saluted snappily, wheeled and marched from the office.
Outside, in the corridor, he muttered a curse. What did that chairborne brass hat know about space cafard? About the depthless blackness, the wretchedness of free fall, the tides of primitive terror that swept you when the animal realization hit that you were away, away, away from the environment that gave you birth. That you were alone, alone, alone. A million, a million-million miles from your nearest fellow human. Space cafard, in a craft little larger than a good-sized closet! What did the Commodore know about it?
Don Mathers had conveniently forgotten the other's claim to five years' service in the Scouts.
He made his way from Space Command Headquarters, Third Division, to Harry's Nuevo Mexico Bar. He found the place empty at this time of the day and climbed onto a stool.
Harry said, "Hi, Lootenant, thought you were due for a patrol. How come you're back so soon?"
Don said coldly, "You prying into security subjects, Harry?"
"Well, gee, no Lootenant. You know me. I know all the boys. I was just making conversation."
"Look, how about some more credit, Harry? I don't have any pay coming up for a week."
"Why, sure. I got a boy on the light cruiser New Taos. Any spaceman's credit is good with me. What'll it be?"
Tequila was the only concession the Nuevo Mexico Bar made to its name. Otherwise, it looked like every other bar has looked in every land and in every era. Harry poured, put out lemon and salt.
Harry said, "You hear the news this morning?"
"No, I just got in."
"Colin Casey died." Harry shook his head. "Only man in the system that held the Galactic Medal of Honor. Presidential proclamation, everybody in the system is to hold five minutes of silence for him at two o'clock, Sol Time. You know how many times that medal's been awarded, Lootenant?" Before waiting for an answer, Harry added, "Just thirty-six times."
Don added dryly, "Twenty-eight of them posthumously."
"Yeah." Harry, leaning on the bar before his sole customer, added in wonder, "But imagine. The Galactic Medal of Honor, the bearer of which can do no wrong. Imagine. You come to some town, walk into the biggest jewelry store, pick up a diamond bracelet, and walk out. And what happens?"
Don growled, "The jewelry store owner would be over-reimbursed by popular subscription. And probably the mayor of the town would write you a letter thanking you for honoring his fair city by deigning to notice one of the products of its shops. Just like that."
"Yeah." Harry shook his head in continued awe. "And, imagine, if you shoot somebody you don't like, you wouldn't spend even a single night in the Nick."
Don said, "If you held the Medal of Honor, you wouldn't have to shoot anybody. Look, Harry, mind if I use the phone?"
"Go right ahead, Lootenant."
Dian Fuller was obviously in the process of packing when the screen summoned her. She looked into his face and said, surprised, "Why, Don, I thought you were on patrol."
"Yeah, I was. However, something came up."
She looked at him, a slight frown on her broad, fine forehead. "Again?"
He said impatiently, "Look, I called you to ask for a date. You're leaving for Callisto tomorrow. It's our last chance to be together. There's something in particular I wanted to ask you, Di."
She said, a touch irritated, "I'm packing, Don. I simply don't have time to see you again. I thought we said our goodbyes five days ago."
"This is important, Di."
She tossed the two sweaters she was holding into a chair, or something, off-screen, and faced him, her hands on her hips.
"No it isn't, Don. Not to me, at least. We've been all over this. Why keep torturing yourself? You're not ready for marriage, Don. I don't want to hurt you, but you simply aren't. Look me up, Don, in a few years."
"Di, just a couple of hours this afternoon."
Dian looked him full in the face and said, "Colin Casey finally died of his wounds this morning. The President has asked for five minutes of silence at two o'clock. Don, I plan to spend that time here alone in my apartment, possibly crying a few tears for a man who died for me and the rest of the human species under such extreme conditions of gallantry that he was awarded the highest honor of which man has ever conceived. I wouldn't want to spend that five minutes while on a date with another member of my race's armed forces who had deserted his post of duty."
Don Mathers turned, after the screen had gone blank, and walked stiffly to a booth. He sank onto a chair and called flatly to Harry, "Another tequila. A double tequila. And don't bother with that lemon and salt routine."
An hour or so later a voice said, "You Sub-lieutenant Donal Mathers?"
Don looked up and snarled. "So what? Go away."
There were two of them. Twins, or could have been. Empty of expression, heavy of build. The kind of men fated to be ordered around at the pleasure of those with money, or brains, none of which they had or would ever have.
The one who had spoken said, "The boss wants to see you."
"Who the hell is the boss?"
"Maybe he'll tell you when he sees you," the other said, patiently and reasonably.
"Well, go tell the boss he can go to the..."
The second of the two had been standing silently, his hands in his great-coat pockets. Now he brought his left hand out and placed a bill before Don Mathers. "The boss said to give you this."
It was a thousand-unit note. Don Mathers had never seen a bill of that denomination before, nor one of half that.
He pursed his lips, picked it up and looked at it carefully. Counterfeiting was a long lost art. It didn't even occur to him that it might be false.
"All right," Don said, coming to his feet. "Let's go see the boss, I haven't anything else to do and his calling card intrigues me."
At the curb, one of them summoned a cruising cab with his wrist screen and the three of them climbed into it. The one who had given Don the large denomination bill dialed the address and they settled back.
"So what does the boss want with me?" Don said.
They didn't bother to answer.
The Interplanetary Lines building was evidently their destination. The car whisked them up to the penthouse which topped it, and they landed on the terrace.
Seated in beach chairs, an autobar between them, were two men. They were both in their middle years. The impossibly corpulent one, Don Mathers vaguely recognized. From a newscast? From a magazine article? The other could have passed for a video stereotype villain, complete to the built-in sneer. Few men, in actuality, either look like or sound like the conventionalized villain. This was an exception, Don decided.
He scowled at them. "I suppose one of you is the boss," he said.
"That's right," the fat one grunted. He looked at Don's two escorts. "Scotty, you and Rogers take off."
They got back into the car and left.
The vicious-faced one said, "This is Mr. Lawrence Demming. I am his secretary."
Demming puffed, "Sit down, Lieutenant. What'll you have to drink? My secretary's name is Rostoff. Max Rostoff. Now we all know each other's names. That is, assuming you're Sub-lieutenant Donal Mathers."
Don said, "Tequila."
Max Rostoff dialed the drink for him and, without being asked, another cordial for his employer.
Don placed Demming now. Lawrence Demming, billionaire. Robber baron, he might have been branded in an earlier age. Transportation baron of the solar system. Had he been a pig he would have been butchered long ago; he was going unhealthily to grease.
Rostoff said, "You have identification?"
Don Mathers fingered through his wallet, brought forth his I.D. card. Rostoff handed him his tequila, took the card and examined it carefully, front and back.
Demming huffed and said, "Your collar insignia tells me you pilot a Scout. What sector do you patrol, Lieutenant?"
Don sipped at the fiery Mexican drink, looked at the fat man over the glass. "That's military information, Mr. Demming."