Copyright 1977 by Henry Melton


She winced. Another interruption.

She canceled the radiation dosimeter display and reached for the com switch. Something had to be up. With the Callisto breakoff only hours away, it wouldn't be like Jeb to call and gab. Or to have her hold his hand either. She killed the angry flashing in the center of her control panel and the com screen lit.

"Simms!" Yes, it was a most businesslike bellow. "Simms, we have a blip in the prohibited cone."

So, she thought. It was serious. With breakoff so close, the cone of space that the superpowerful pressor beam would occupy had better be clear of all ships. That is, unless the ship wanted to be violently ejected from the solar system when the beam, that was now shifting the orbit of the Jovian moon Callisto, focused all of its cosmic tide of energy into a paltry few tons of ship.

Jeb Pearce, Duty Boss in charge of the beam-switching operation, continued. "Now, it could just be a cometary object from outsystem. The orbit is compatible with that. But it could be a freelancer coming in from Saturn/Trojan/A."

He looked off-screen to the left, squinting to read something. "Hod's best data as yet gives a density of about .35, and he gets spatially coherent reflections off it. Polished hull metal, I just bet! And if it is still in the red zone five hours from now -- kerzongo, no more blip this side of Pluto! Susan, I want you to go out and take a look. The orbit has been transferred to your ship's memory. Get going."

Susan Simms smiled at him. "Watch that beam of yours! I would like to make it back to the fleet by mealtime."

He still frowned. "Don't count on it. That blip's a long way out there. Don't worry about the beam. I can and will make dead sure that you are out of the way before breakoff. But a shutdown won't look good on either of our records."

"Roger, Jeb. I'll see you when I get back."

He finally smiled, just a bit. "Thanks, Susan. Make it a quick trip. The schedule is getting tight."

Susan Simm's ship, the JSPS-453, also called The Flying Yo-Yo broke the few dynes of force that tied the ships of the Jovian Satellite Project Fleet into one flexible organism. The weak tractor-pressor beam array that made her ship one nodule of matter among many in the three-dimensional force web winked out.

Susan overrode the Yo-Yo's brain as it automatically tried to find a safe, conservative flight path. Time was too short for that. The mighty beam that was nudging Callisto out of its age-old orbit by stealing momentum from Mars could not he allowed to intersect Jupiter, not without disaster. It could easily vaporize the beam projector and a hundred ships around it. And in all of the crowded solar System, there was only the one prohibited cone of space down which the active beam could be safely channeled. Nothing could change Callisto's orbit any faster, so its eclipse was her deadline.

She brushed back her hair. One figure on the optimum flight path caught her attention. Closest approach to Jupiter was four gigameters. Her thoughts skipped back to the radiation dosages she had been reviewing.

Four gigameters. Too far into the radiation for comfort. More radiation was what she didn't need.

But if that was a stranded ship out there ....

She accepted the distance. One button, and she was underway.

The extra radiation would force her decision that much sooner. Should she have the child? She would have to leave space ...

Her eyes went to the exterior viewscreen. The massive, brightly colored atmosphere of Jupiter was directly ahead, tied to her ship by her ship's powerful tractor beam.

She loved conning a beam ship. All of the good Pilots felt the same, and the pet names of their ships showed it: Tarzan, Trapeze Artist, The Great Polanski. Her tiny ship home was her home. Were she to leave it for Earth and a child, what would she do? Could she stand the change, becoming a single mother, alone on Earth, so far from the life that she had made her own?

It had been different before, when David had been with her. They had intended to take an extended leave in a few years and have a child on Earth. When the child was grown and trained, they expected to come back to space and run one of the many shuttle routes.

David had been a Khedourist. That a life fully employed in space would prevent him from having the child that was the central point in the Khedourist philosophy was one of the contradictions with which he had been forced to live. He had learned to be happy in the waiting.

The beam ship was silent in its pull toward the planet. She had to build velocity directly toward it in this first part of the course. She welcomed the quiet. Lately, she had much to think about.

Yo-Yo bobbled in its flight path. With a bleep of warning, it unlatched from Jupiter and started to look for another mass. Susan reached out and canceled its flight volition. Yo-Yo didn't like the radiation any better than she did. She would have to program the flight manually.

Intercept point was 63 gigameters out beyond Jupiter, 93 gigameters from the fleet. She had only 253 minutes to get there, take care of the problem, and get out of the way.

Figure 20 minutes for the inspection, and another 10 if she had to move the object, plus, to be safe, another 5 to get clear. That left only 218 minutes. For a standard flight, that would mean 109 accelerating and another 109 decelerating. Estimate some loss because of the maneuver near Jupiter and hope that it can be done in 100-minute laps.

Two hundred and fifty gravities. That was a lot of push, especially for a singleship. She checked her energy accumulator.

There was no way that she could handle 400 minutes of 250 g's. Getting out there was no problem, but the trip home was going to take a bit longer -- no 250-g sprints then.

There was no time to waste. Yo-Yo had been pulling along at a leisurely 100 g's. It was time for something more fancy. She settled herself into the control couch. She double-checked; everything vital had to be within reach. Enough of the ship's acceleration would leak through the beam's imbalance to keep her under several gravities.

A push-pull was about the only way that she could get the sideways vector she needed. There weren't any usable anchor masses fore or aft.

A hefty tractor beam flashed towards Callisto. A similarly-powered pressor beam lanced down into Jupiter. It was wasteful of energy, but it was the only way to get there from here. The Flying Yo-Yo moved out.

She babied the verniers, trying to get maximum speed out of the poor mass configuration. The semicompensated fore section of the ship groaned under the massive forces. It had been years since she had tried to push-pull with such high magnitude accelerations.

Years, she mused. Two years in fact. Her mind shied from the thought. No time for that now!

But the memory was deep. She would never forget.

When she had met David, she spent the first few hours trying to reconcile this quiet, cheerful, thoughtful man with his reputation.

Was this really the singleship pilot who became a system-wide sensation, when he ducked down close to the outer edge of the Jovian radiation belt and push-pulled himself to nearly 10 percent of the speed of light in a bound orbit, circumnavigating Jupiter at the last in 31 minutes and 9 seconds? All she could get from him was a sad smile and a tale of the trials and tribulations of a pilot who had tried a silly stunt without official permission. The Fleet Captain had not been happy with the damage done to the ship. Under 9000g's, the fore section of David's ship had flowed like heated wax.

Susan grew to know him as a serious and gentle man who saved his violence for the control console of his ship. That gentleness, more than anything else, was what had drawn them together. Their easy friendship as singleship pilots of the Jovian fleet quickly turned to romance. Childbirth was forbidden in all of the Great Terraforming Fleet of the planet Earth, but marriage never was.

Their first months blazed like the sun in her memory, and that early love had mellowed gracefully into a bond of common thoughts and firm mutual respect. Their love never stopped growing.

They planned their future, thinking of the time when they would return to Earth and have their fertility restored. Her David had been a Khedourist. He took seriously that dictum: Let each person make the next generation better than his own. Their children would be an asset to their world.

The happiest times of her life were spent off duty in the dwelling formed by locking the hatches of Tom Swift, David's ship, and The Flying Yo-Yo together. It was home.

They had met while the fleet was still scouting and preparing for the job of removing the terraformable, giant moons to sunward solar orbits, far from Jupiter's fatal radiation belt.

Their marriage lasted until the Hera operation.

She had been in a slow orbit around Hestia when David called.

When the signal arrived, via the fleet relay, she knew that he had finished his job on Hera.

The nature of their jobs was changing as the Jovian project proceeded. She remembered the scores of asteroid-sized moonlets that they had towed from that gravity well with their singleships. All of the small stuff was gone now. Only the real moons, those known from pre-space times, were left.

And those were massive. It took far more than a little singleship to budge one of them. At first, the Fleet Captain had tried an array of heavy transports; working in concert. She and David had been among the loudest to cheer when the attempt was judged inefficient and unsafe, and a heavier beam ship was ordered from Earth's factories. They had been forced to team up to handle one of the transports, and it had put their marital harmony to its strongest test. The physical grind was nothing compared to the mental strain that was inevitable when one singleship pilot had to watch another con the ship. If they had enjoyed it, they wouldn't have been singleship pilots. When the super beamship Steamboat arrived, they had been relieved to go back to what they liked best.

The heavier moons had come up on the fleet's list and many jobs changed. She was mother hen to the ground crew doing the final testing and checking of the moon Hestia, prior to the scheduled moving time. David played the same role for the Hera ground crew.

He was happy to be finished, and his face showed it. "How soon will you be finished? Any chance of lunch tomorrow, at the fleet?"

She shook her head, "You may be finished with the groundwork, but your crew started two days before we did, too. I've still got a gaggle of geologists, in raptures over a chondrite cliff, and it looks like I am going to have to lift their dome off by brute force. I keep telling them that it will still be there after the move, but they don't listen. I doubt that I will be getting any sleep for another fifty hours. Sorry."

She went back to her interrupted calculations; the reply time through the fleet relay was better than six minutes.

He finally spoke, "It sounds like your geologists are just like every crew I've ever lifted. I sympathize. Do you mind if I come around and kibitz? I've got the next few days off. And I really don't like being so close to Goliath's beam. I wouldn't mind putting a couple of dozen gigameters and a planet in between me and it. What do you think?"

Susan didn't blame him for his caution. Goliath was to replace Steamboat as the prime mover of the Jovian fleet when the smaller Steamboat showed signs of strain as it first started to move Demeter. Goliath was a giant beamship. Hera was its first trial. The power of the beam had Susan and David both uneasy. Hestia would be next on the list, and when that time came, Susan intended to be far away.

She hit the transmit switch. "If you come here, I'll put you to work! Come at your own risk. I plan to break for lunch in another four hours, about."

She expected that he could make it in that short time although Hera was on the other side of the Jovian system, better than twenty gigameters away. She knew that he couldn't resist the challenge.

Ground crew called her before her husband's reply had time to arrive. She put a tractor beam on the surface and pulled Yo-Yo down into a closer and faster orbit. She held back a little, so that she could hear his answer before she went behind the moon and out of radio contact.

His voice broke the beginning static on the communications beam. "Good! I'll be there for lunch. Don't cook anything. The steaks will be on ..." Radio eclipse came. She turned off the com. He would understand her silence.

It was an hour later that the emergency call tripped her com unit. "General Emergency! General Emergency! This is Steamboat. We've got a fire ... an unstable beam ... no control..."

The broadcast signal, down in the lower radio frequencies, was cluttered with Jupiter's own radio static, but the message was readable. The strain of moving massive Demeter had been too much. When the time had come to release the moon into the care of the Asteroidal fleet, the beam would not de-power. The beam captain had redirected the beam into clear space and tried the emergency dumping procedure, only to have the equipment blow up in her face. No "fuse" had yet been developed that could reliably take the back-power of the heavier-class beams. Fire and confusion ruled the ship. The shouting could be heard clearly over the com officer's unsteady voice.

Susan made a quick call to her ground crew and punched in a rough course. Yo-Yo shoved off towards the injured ship.

Regular com traffic hands were alive with reports as the original call for help swept outward at the speed of light. All who could were dropping what they were doing and plotting intercepts. Advice abounded from those who couldn't. The space around Steamboat would he potentially lethal. The moon-moving beam was still active, sweeping space like the opposing beams of a rotating lighthouse.

David called on the general band. He would be there well ahead of anyone else. He had been traveling at high speed, and in roughly the right direction, when he caught the call. Susan was not surprised. Tom Swift was as much a part of him as his legs, and he always seemed to be able to get anywhere in the Jovian system faster than anyone else.

She allowed herself to worry about him, although there would be no danger if he were careful. A pressor beam only transferred power if there were masses in both halves of the bi-directional beam. Momentum was always conserved, and no momentum could be given a mass if there was nothing to receive the reaction. She listened carefully to the reports. The com officer on Steamboat gave his ship's speed of rotation.

She tapped that last item of data into Yo-Yo's brain. The answer was reassuring. Because of the speed of light limitations on the beam, any mass beyond a limit of about ten thousand kilometers would effectively not exist for the beam.

Evidently, her reasoning was duplicated elsewhere, for a general order came over the com: All ships were to keep that ten megameter distance except under the order of the rescue leader. As the first to arrive, that job fell to David. Susan changed her flight program minutely to designate the new stopping distance.

Fleet HQ called designating com channels: Tom Swift on one, Fleet telescope reports on another, Steamboat on a third. As they came in, she set her com to scan them selectively. It was best to have all of the little details taken care of. She would be among the first half-dozen ships there, and she was sure that David would be using her. This was not the first emergency that she and her husband had teamed up to handle. They were the best.

On the rebroadcast relay, David's voice reported being within visual sighting distance of Steamboat, but well off-axis of the beam path. He was going in closer.

A scream echoed in Susan's cabin as the com switched to Steamboat.

"I've got to get out of here! The beam is unstable! It'll blow!"

"Hey! Johnson! Get away!"

"Don't you understand! Abie's dead. I won't let it get me, too!"

"Johnson, Galta, stop him before he opens the hatch. We've got to keep our space clean of matter while the beam is still hot!"

Susan could hear a fight, a thud, and then a clang. People on Steamboat shouted, but she could not make out what they were saying.

The com switched to the abrupt calm of a single quiet voice, the Fleet telescope spotter. "Hey, I see him! He is tumbling. He must have on the emergency suit." In a cool monologue, the man at the telescope described the uncontrolled path of the man in the highly reflective suit. He plotted the man's path by eye and predicted what would happen. The man had left the rotating system of his ship, but the ship still moved beneath him.

The rogue beam swept up and caught the man in its grip.

For a half-second, nothing happened. But then the voice on the com halted in, mid-word. His voice was quieter when he continued.

The entrance of the man's mass into the beam must have coincided with an instability in Steamboat's ruined system. An electric-blue flash of superheated plasma streamed from the open hatchway of the huge metallic cylinder. The devastating beam of force wavered as the ship shook with the force of the explosion. A second luminous blast kicked the heavy ship into another rotation, sweeping the fading beam across one tiny, ill-fated singleship.

The edge of the sweeping beam sliced across Tom Swift like an ax.

The voice on the com spoke quietly as it described the trajectories of the two masses, streaking in opposite directions from the wreck of Steamboat. It did not describe the crumpled and spinning singleship tumbling down toward the great gas giant, nor the fragmented mass of plastic, cloth, and flesh that had once been a man.

Confusion reigned again on the com bands as pilots broke their instructed radio allocations to find out what had happened.

Susan did not understand. She thought that someone had said that ... but no, that couldn't be!

David was in trouble. She needed his orbit. She overrode the automatic com scan and checked the likely frequencies. Finally, through the confusion, somebody called for orbital parameters on Tom Swift.

But before the reply came, a commanding voice preempted the band. He called for quiet and asked for Susan Simms to report. Her regular com chimed her personal call. On the adjacent band, still another voice asked Susan Simms to please call Fleet Com Officer and report. The request was firm, insistent.

She reset the com to reject entirely the powerful fleet rebroadcaster system. Instead, she manually tracked the weak signals coming from the rescue ships themselves. Their voices were low and solemn as they described the molten wreck of Steamboat. But the orbital parameters on Tom Swift finally came.

It didn't look good: Tom Swift would penetrate the radiation belt in fifty minutes. Susan waited impatiently for a follow-up as she hurriedly tried to punch in the new orbit. She kept making errors. Her mind wouldn't click right. Didn't they know that the radiation in the belt could be fatal? No rescue attempt was being mentioned. Nobody talked about it. David's beam generator was out. Couldn't they see that? His whole electrical system was likely fried. That would explain his radio silence. Wasn't anybody going to save David? He would die in the radiation belt!

If no one could spare the time to save a man's life, she would have to do it alone. Angrily she stabbed at the controls.

Yo-Yo spoke numbers. There were ship stress limitations, near-lethal residual cabin gravities, energy use limits -- the brutal math of forces, matter and time.

She could not, it told her, reach him and stay out of the higher radiation regions herself.

But there was no question. She set the new course.

Her powered orbit dipped deep into the deadly accumulation of particles that had been growing there in that star-sized magnetic bottle for billions of years. Soon, she pulled beneath the falling derelict.

With tight precision, she aligned the two tiny ships with the boiling, swirling surface of the greatest planet of the system. A double-beam lanced out. The pressor forces shoved, killing the downward plunge of Tom Swift in one short burst of raw compulsion. Tom Swift fell outward from the deadly aura.

She slumped in her seat. The job was done. She had saved him. Now, she had to get herself out of the belt. Almost carelessly, she told the computer what to do. She fainted from the stresses.

They picked up both ships speeding out from the radiation belt. Susan was quickly sent to the hospital center. What was left of David's body was carved from the wreckage and sent to the fleet's morgue.


Yo-Yo spoke to her, gently shaking her out of her bitter, dreaming thoughts. The decelerating course was rapidly bringing her closer to the enigmatic blip. Fleet control was still trying to initiate communications with the object, but with no luck. If it was a ship, as all of the detectors seemed to indicate, it was making no attempt to reply.

It was also in an unpowered orbit, which made no sense. Something was wrong somewhere.

Jeb, on fleet com, read her the list of findings accumulated by the superior instruments at Fleet HQ. The object was small -- less mass than a singleship. It looked small, from the radar and laser indications. The calculated density was small, implying vacant space in its interior. The hull was very definitely polished metal. It had to be a ship.

But ... why was it out there beyond the orbit of Jupiter without the slightest indication of propulsive power? Ships did not coast in free fall out in the depths of interplanetary space, not since tractor-pressor beams were invented. It was too easy to set up a constant acceleration. Power couldn't be the problem. Spaceflight was cheap, and even if the accumulator of a ship did run low, there was a whole solar system full of kinetic energy just waiting to be tapped.

"It has to be some type of equipment failure," Jeb said.

"I would tend to agree with you," she replied absently, "but I am forced to say 'wait and see'."

Susan was trying to get a visual while the object was still much too far away. Jeb wasn't saying anything, so she added the end-of-conversation code and killed her transmission. His image, which wouldn't show his reaction to her sign-off for another ten minutes, stared out at her patiently.

Too late, she regretted hitting the switch. Jeb had always been so patient with her, and she was always so abrupt with him. She could never open up with him as she had with David.

During their short time together. David had often surprised her with his detailed knowledge of her likes and fears.

She remembered the time Yo-Yo came out of the body shop after a brush with a small asteroidal rock, painted bright purple, her favorite color. She confided everything to him, and he remembered. He knew of her deadly fear of spiders, old food, and radiation. He knew her favorite room temperature, her favorite food, her favorite perfume. David knew how to quiet her fears, ease her nervous tension after a long day. With David alone in their cabin, she could be a little girl, allow herself to laugh, to cry, to be utterly senseless at the slightest excuse. He would be there, he would know. He would love, and never, never judge her.

The terrible aching loneliness rose within her, but she stifled it, firmly, quickly. She had a job to do.

The image of Jeb still waited. She wished that she had said some little, kind thing that would have relieved the coldness of her reply. Jeb was a good man, older than she, but they were as close as she let anyone be to her these days.

She condemned herself for her callousness and turned back to the job at hand.

The image grew rapidly on her screen.

The tiny, silent ship was spinning in the black void.

Susan squinted uselessly at the screen, trying to get a clearer look. Jeb had mentioned a rotation, but the fact hadn't registered then. Not a good sign.

She locked onto the unknown ship with very low power and pulled it closer. It was obviously not under power. It looked dead.

Details jumped out at her as it approached, turning in the weak sunlight. There was a window on the tiny, almost aerodynamically sleek thing. It reminded her of one of the old, old rockets Earth had known long ago. It had the same pointed nose, with no beam port of any kind. It even had fins, tiny ones near the blunt end.

It was like a dart, waiting for the target, lacking only the needle.

She wanted a closer look at that blackish window, framed in the shiny, bluish tinged hull. The com unit interrupted her movements. The screen lit, Jeb waiting impatiently. "Susan, you should be there now." She was shifting Yo-Yo meter by meter, trying to get a good look into that window. "Could you give me a quick first report? Breakoff is only forty minutes from now, and with the communications lag the sooner we decide what to do the better."

The black hole of a window rotated slowly into her view. The glass, or whatever the transparent medium was, had been pitted into a smooth frosting by micrometeorites. The ship must have been in space for ages to be so badly eroded.

She beamed a light into the opening. There was something behind the glass. She peered closer, and the obscured shape suddenly took recognizable form.

She gasped.

Jeb was still waiting for her reply. He cleared his throat, preparing to add something. She turned quickly to the com unit.

"I'll call back later. Leave me alone for a minute!" She slapped the controls to silence and turned back to the tiny ship. She stared in growing horror at the face -- the dead face staring through the terribly old window.

There had been a large group there at David's funeral. The platform had the local tractor field turned down to a minimum for her, so that she could stand without the medic's help. She was still quite weak from radiation sickness.

Suited figures hovered quietly around Tom Swift, now shiny and unwarped after the efforts of the repairmen. But the work was cosmetic; the interior, the beam generator and accumulator were totally gone.

David, clad in a spacesuit to conceal most of the damage to his body, sat at the controls, a dead man -- master of a dead ship.

From some lost incident in centuries past there had grown the tradition of sending those who had lost their lives in the Terraforming Project to the stars. Humanity was denied starflight, but not so its honored dead.

Susan was in a daze. The malaise of radiation sickness and the effects of counteracting drugs only accentuated the loss and disorientation of her new widowhood. She was wrapped in isolation. The sympathy of her friends could not penetrate.

The ceremony was brief. David's virtues were celebrated, his faults forgotten. His spirit was consigned to heaven, and his body ...

Six men, properly suited against the vacuum, lifted the thick, thirty five meter long cylinder from the platform with small hand beams. They shoved it toward a precalculated place in space not far away.

The beam ship Goliath waited in the distance, near the center of the great disk of ships that made up the bulk of the Jovian fleet. Goliath was beaming Hera, tying the momentum of the planet Mars to that moon. The invisible beam was a great pillar of force, shooting up at right angles to the fleet

Tom Swift drifted into that beam, accelerating mildly as the force of the beam shoved the moon and the singleship at the same rate.

Breakoff approached. The beam captain signaled with a nod. The mighty beam shifted its direction a fraction of a degree, away from Hera.

Susan watched without comprehension. A hard, stubborn part of her refused to recognize what was happening. Bitterly, it blocked all emotion. It refused to acknowledge the team, the words.

A hundred seconds passed as the kink in the beam traveled out. It took another hundred for the information to return. Then -- it was only the mass of the singleship to balance the equation with the planet Mars. The nudge given Mars was multiplied in Tom Swift more than one hundred quadrillion fold. The singleship vanished, accelerating too rapidly for human eyes to follow.

David was gone, the dam within her cracked and broke. It was true. David was gone.

The World blurred before her. But ... No! It isn't fair! David!

She collapsed, curling up as she drifted to the floor. She did not want a world without him. Strong gentle hands helped her off of the platform. She paid them no attention. David was gone. And she had never said good-bye.


She didn't hear the com unit paging her. She stared into the face of the dead ... man.

All of the horror of David's loss came back to her at the sight of this other, prepared in death and given the same honors by his family and friends. His coffin spoke much of their regard. The expensive, finely wrought little ship was just large enough to hold him comfortably throughout the eons of interstellar flight. She could see no obvious indication of a motor. She could imagine it launched, like David's, into the void by some other means.

The dead face peered out through his window on the universe. Susan could see the upper part of the shirt that he wore. The fabric showed intricate hand-embroidery in brilliant blues and greens.

The face of the ... man was spotted with iridescent dust, silvery lines traced on the tips of his fur and around the large eyes. Eyes that would have been far too large on a human. The universe did contain others. So different, and yet so like Man.

The com unit was insistent, its jarring noises intruding unpleasantly. She tried to shake the sense of unreality that had come over her. She knew what Jeb wanted. She shouldn't have cut off her transmission. Jeb would know something big was up. He knew her too well.

What did she want to do?

Here was an alien. The first concrete proof that there were others out beyond Man's greatest barrier. The discovery would be hailed as a tremendous breakthrough in Man's knowledge of the universe. The body would be analyzed by the finest biologists of the solar system. The ship would be examined by every hard science that existed, tracing the unknown technologies that had gone into its construction. Perhaps the needed clues to a faster-than-light drive could be puzzled from the device.

The tiny ship with its occupant was a treasure house of knowledge -- a treasure house that would be plundered ruthlessly.

Once its discovery was made known, its fate would be assured. No matter what individuals might think, the good of the whole human race would be the determining factor.

Once the discovery was made known, there would be no turning back.

Once the discovery was made known . . .

"Susan, please answer!" Jeb's voice was insistent. "We get your carrier, but no signal. Please report. I need to know quickly. If you have any doubts, shove it out of the beam path and a decision can be made later. If you need any help, just ask for it. But, whatever you do, let me know what is going on, and soon! Time is running short. Susan, please answer . . . !"

Time was running short. She wished that it wasn't Jeb. She could not lie to him. Even now, he must be making arrangements to dump the beam. He would he suspicious.

Emotions waged war within her. She knew the reason for her hesitation, but, still, she froze at the thought of turning this man over to scientists to carve up like a laboratory animal. What was her duty? What did humanity demand?

The com unit went silent. That was bad. Poor Jeb, what must he be thinking? He had trusted her to get him reliable information, and she had clamed up on him. He was stuck there with that beam and the safety of the fleet to worry about. He had told her before just how dangerous it was to shut down a large beam, forgetting that she had memories of David which would never let her forget just how dangerous. In a shutdown operation, Goliath would he no safer than Steamboat had been.

Her decision came in a flicker of peace. She looked down into that face. Your sleep will not be disturbed.

It was only a moment before doubts rose again, calling her a traitor to her race. Thoughts of right and wrong surged as a tide in her skull. So much could he gained from this tiny ship!

But the conviction held. This thing she was about to do was right. Perhaps the whole of humanity would condemn her, but here and now, for her it was right!

She banished the nagging voices of doubt and turned to the com unit. She soothed the furious lights with the touch of her hand. It was time for action.

"Jeb, I'm sorry that you had to wait so long for my report. I found the object, and it will be all right to go ahead and switch the beam as scheduled, I'll be outside the danger zone by then. I intend to leave it where it is. Salvage does not seem advisable to me at this time." She paused, "Jeb, trust me for now. I will give you a report on it later. That is all for now."

She had to add that last. The report stunk of deception. It was not like her, and Jeb could tell that blindfolded. She would know if it worked in another ten minutes.

Her attention was drawn back to that tiny blue dart. It was still tumbling, the heritage of eons of faint gravitational fields.

The com screen lit. Jeb stood at his control station. In the background, she could see the other people who were working to make the beam operation come off smoothly. Jeb's face was dark and solemn. Susan could not help noticing that several of the other workers had stopped their work to hear his words.

"Susan, I cannot buy your report as it stands. I am not going to kick some object out of the system with nothing more than your okay. Up until today, I thought I could trust you, but I just can't believe what you said."

His familiar voice held a hurt, and a firmness, that she had hoped she would be spared. Her eyes drifted to his desk. His hand rested on a thick file. The title shouted her name. It was her psychological profile. He made no move to hide it.

It was a shock, a sudden slap in the race by one . . . one she had thought loved her.

His words continued unrelentingly. "The beam is my responsibility. It is my decision to make, and I have to be sure of that decision! We have little more than a minute to clear this up. You are going to have to tell me enough about this object so that I can be sure of what I am doing. I am warning you now, unless your story is good, I will dump this beam."

The com unit switched modes, awaiting her reply.

She took the few seconds to finish her self-imposed duty, that of killing the random tumble of the tiny ship and aligning it toward the stars. In her own way she did the dead honor. And it helped to dull her pain.

She had been half-expecting a rejection to her first report. She did not lie well. And she had thought that she would know what to say next. But now the revelation that Jeb had pulled her file from beneath the heavily-secured privacy seals, just as though she were some dangerous criminal, shook her confidence. The file spelled out every twist and turn of her soul.

Had she so misjudged Jeb Pearce that what she had thought might be love was really only concern for a good pilot? Did he think so little of her that he could readily pull her soul from a shelf and spread it out on the table, like just another of his engineering diagrams, to solve his problems?

She didn't know, not anymore. And she had no time to figure another plan. She had intended to tell the truth. Almost.

"Jeb," she had her voice under careful control. "it is important to me that you go ahead with the breakoff. I am sorry I have gotten you upset. The situation hit me badly. The object is a one-man coffin, with an occupant. I don't know how it came to be here in this orbit, but it is old. Jeb. I don't want an archaeologist analyzing this man in his rest! It is probably 'an invaluable historical find', but, Jeb, please send him back into space where his family and friends sent him, Please do this for me.

Please accept this lie. She cut her transmission. She had done all that she could

The Flying Yo-Yo stood off some five hundred kilometers from the alien's coffin. Susan watched the speck of light, magnified on her screen. The time to act was fast approaching.

No word yet from the fleet on the breakoff. She really didn't expect any. Jeb had only seconds to make his decision.

She didn't know what to expect from him. The Jeb she had thought she knew would have been moved by her plea, but would that Jeb have pulled her file?

Yo-Yo counted off seconds for her as she watched. She risked all for this deed. She prayed that she was right. She had only her conscience to support her.

The count lasted forever. The memory of David waited with her.

The time arrived ... and the point of light that was the coffin from interstellar space became a line that flashed once across the black sky and was gone, returned to the outer void. It was done. Good-bye.

You people of other worlds. See us -- Terrans! We have returned your dead to their rest undefiled.

Another, meeker part of her said, Please do the same for us.

After some time, the com unit beeped. She froze the navigation console with her course half-plotted, a slow pull back to the fleet. Lights flashed, and Jeb's image formed on the screen. He was alone. His expression was grim. She tensed up defensively.

"Susan, I am going to scramble this signal to your ship's code. Would you please activate your unscrambler."

The screen broke up into a random whirl of light. She hit the proper control and the image reformed. She was suspicious. What did he want from her now?

Jeb paused for several seconds to make sure that she would have time to make the alteration. There was still an almost five-minute delay in their communication and he could not be immediately sure of what she did.

"Susan, I will be brief. You know that I pulled your file. As a commander with people's lives at stake, I felt that I had to do so. But as a friend, it was inexcusable. I will not expect your forgiveness.

"I have just completed the job of pulling a rather extensive set of strings. Immediately upon your arrival at the fleet, you are to be sent on detached duty. The official reason is for you to assist the Bolivar University archaeology department with your observations of the coffin."

Oh, no! She had hoped to put the investigation as long as possible. If they discovered her deception and realized it was an alien rather than a man, there would be enough outcry in the Assembly that a Project heavy beamship would he diverted to the task of dragging the speeding coffin back into the system. Jovian Fleet HQ surely had its course on file. Recovery would be expensive, but it could be done.

"But that is not the real reason." Something in his voice brought her attention back to his face. His eyes showed his pain. "Susan, not two hours ago, I had your file open. I felt like I had your very soul in my hands. Susan, I cannot wash my hands of the matter and forget what I saw. Not ever! I saw your radiation problem. It must have been a blow to you when you found out that you had received forty years' normal radiation dosage when you went in after David. Permanent legal sterility is only weeks away for you if you stay in space. And you are so young!" He halted. She could read the confused anger on his face. "I mean, you are a Khedourist! I know how much a child would mean to you."

The tears came in a rush. She could not stop them. He had put her darkest torment into words. What must she give up? Her life and usefulness in space, or the child whose training would be David's only stamp on the future? There was so much to lose!

"Susan, this detached duty will give you time to make your decisions without the deadline breathing down your neck. It was the best that I could come up with.

"There is another thing. I know that you still lied at the very last. I knew that when I made my decision to continue the breakoff. So we are both guilty of whatever it is that you have done. I have arranged a two week gap between your arrival on Earth and the time you report to the University. Bolivar has the finest historical records available. Your fleet rank should get you access to the records you will need. You will have to make your description, of what you said you saw airtight by then. I wish I could stop the investigation altogether, but it is out of my hands.

"You can expect a retrieval beam from the fleet in another thirty minutes. My calculations show that you don't have much energy left and the sooner we can get you down to Earth, the better."

It sounded like the end of what he had to say, but he did not kill his transmission. She looked at his face. Her own thoughts were incoherent.

There was too much to absorb at once. Suddenly, there was hope again.

"Susan?" His face was tormented, his voice was unsteady. "I am due an extended leave. If I can be forgiven, I would like to go with you. Please!" His hand reached out and killed his straining whisper. The screen went dark.

She was left alone in the silence of her singleship. Only the indicator light gave any illumination in the darkened, familiar cabin. Again, it was time for decision. But this time it was easy.


Three Coffins

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