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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. "Oneof 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.