The transportation magnate wiggled a disgustingly fat finger at him, "I'll arrange for that part of it."
Don Mathers goggled him. He blurted finally, "Like hell you will. There's not enough money in the system to fiddle with the awarding of the Medal of Honor. There comes a point, Demming, where even your dough can't carry the load."
Demming settled back in his chair, closed his eyes and grunted, "Tell him."
Max Rostoff took up the ball. "A few days ago, Mr. Demming and I flew in from Io on one of the Interplanetary Lines freighters. As you probably know, they are completely automated. We were alone in the craft."
"So?" Without invitation, Don Mathers leaned forward and dialed himself another tequila. He made it a double this time. A feeling of excitement was growing within him, and the drinks he'd had earlier had worn away. Something very big, very, very big, was developing. He hadn't the vaguest idea what.
"Lieutenant, how would you like to capture a Kraden light cruiser? If I'm not incorrect, probably Miro class."
Don laughed nervously, not knowing what the other was at but still feeling the growing excitement. He said, "In all the history of the war between our species, we've never captured a Kraden ship intact. It'd help a lot if we could."
"This one isn't exactly intact, but nearly so."
Don looked from Rostoff to Demming, and then back. "What in the hell are you talking about?"
"In your sector," Rostoff said, "we ran into a derelict Miro class cruiser. The crew--repulsive creatures--were all dead. Some thirty of them. Mr. Demming and I assumed that the craft had been hit during one of the actions between our fleet and theirs and that somehow both sides had failed to recover the wreckage. At any rate, today it is floating, abandoned of all life, in your sector." Rostoff added softly, "One has to approach quite close before any signs of battle are evident. The ship looks intact."
Demming opened his eyes again and said, "And you're going to capture it."
Don Mathers bolted his tequila, licked a final drop from the edge of his lip. "And why should that rate the most difficult decoration to achieve that we've ever instituted?"
"Because," Rostoff told him, his tone grating mockery, "you're going to radio in reporting a Miro class Kraden cruiser. We assume your superiors will order you to stand off, that help is coming, that your tiny Scout isn't large enough to do anything more than to keep the enemy under observation until a squadron arrives. But you will radio back that they are escaping and that you plan to attack. When your reinforcements arrive, Lieutenant, you will have conquered the Kraden, single-handed, against odds of--what would you say, fifty to one?"
Don Mathers' mouth was dry, his palms moist. He said, "A One Man Scout against a Miro class cruiser? At least fifty to one, Mr. Rostoff. At least."
Demming grunted. "There would be little doubt of you getting the Galactic Medal of Honor, Lieutenant, especially since Colin Casey is dead and there isn't a living bearer of the award. Max, another drink for the Lieutenant."
Don said, "Look. Why? I think you might be right about getting the award. But why, and why me, and what's your percentage?"
Demming muttered, "Now we get to the point." He settled back in his chair again and closed his eyes while his secretary took over.
Max Rostoff leaned forward, his wolfish face very serious. "Lieutenant, the exploitation of the Jupiter satellites is in its earliest stages. There is every reason to believe that the new sources of radioactives on Callisto alone may mean the needed power edge that can give us the victory over the Kradens. Whether or not that is so, someone is going to make literally billions out of this new frontier."
"I still don't see ..."
"Lieutenant Mathers," Rostoff said patiently, "the bearer of the Galactic Medal of Honor is above law. He carries with him an unalienable prestige of such magnitude that ... Well, let me use an example. Suppose a bearer of the Medal of Honor formed a stock corporation to exploit the pitchblende of Callisto. How difficult would it be for him to dispose of the stock?"
Demming grunted. "And suppose there were a few, ah, crossed wires in the manipulation of the corporation's business?" He sighed deeply. "Believe me, Lieutenant Mathers, there are an incredible number of laws which have accumulated down through the centuries to hamper the business man. It is a continual fight to be able to carry on at all. The ability to do no legal wrong would be priceless in the development of a new frontier." He sighed again, so deeply as to make his bulk quiver. "Priceless."
Rostoff laid it on the line, his face a leer. "We are offering you a three-way partnership, Mathers. You, with your Medal of Honor, are our front man. Mr. Demming supplies the initial capital to get underway. And I ..." He twisted his mouth with evil self-satisfaction. "I was present when the Kraden ship was discovered, so I'll have to be cut in. I'll supply the brains."
Demming grunted his disgust, but added nothing.
Don Mathers said slowly, looking down at the empty glass he was twirling in his fingers, "Look, we're up to our necks in a war to the death with the Kradens. In the long run it's either us or them. At a time like this you're suggesting that we fake an action that will eventually enable us to milk the new satellites to the tune of billions."
Demming grunted meaninglessly.
Don said, "The theory is that all men, all of us, ought to have our shoulders to the wheel. This project sounds to me like throwing rocks under it."
Demming closed his eyes.
Rostoff said, "Lieutenant, it's a dog-eat-dog society. If we eventually lick the Kradens, one of the very reasons will be because we're a dog-eat-dog society. Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Our apologists dream up some beautiful gobbledygook phrases for it, such as free enterprise, but actually it's dog-eat-dog. Surprisingly enough, it works, or at least has so far. Right now, the human race needs the radioactives of the Jupiter satellites. In acquiring them, somebody is going to make a tremendous amount of money. Why shouldn't it be us?"
"Why not, if you--or we--can do it honestly?"
Demming's grunt was nearer a snort this time.
Rostoff said sourly, "Don't be naive, Lieutenant. Whoever does it, is going to need little integrity. You don't win in a sharper's card game by playing your cards honestly. The biggest sharper wins. We've just found a joker somebody dropped on the floor; if we don't use it, we're suckers."
Demming opened his pig eyes and said, "All this is on the academic side. We checked your background thoroughly before approaching you, Mathers. We know your record, even before you entered the Space Service. Just between the three of us, wouldn't you like out? There are a full billion men and women in our armed forces, you can be spared. Let's say you've already done your share. Can't you see the potentialities in spending the rest of your life with the Galactic Medal of Honor in your pocket?"
It was there all right, drifting slowly. Had he done a more thorough job of his patrol, last time, he should have stumbled upon it himself.
If he had, there was no doubt that he would have at first reported it as an active enemy cruiser. Demming and Rostoff had been right. The Kraden ship looked untouched by battle.
That is, if you approached it from the starboard and slightly abaft the beam. From that angle, in particular, it looked untouched.
It had taken several circlings of the craft to come to that conclusion. Don Mathers was playing it very safe. This thing wasn't quite so simple as the others had thought. He wanted no slip-ups. His hand went to a food compartment and emerged with a space thermo which should have contained fruit juice, but didn't. He took a long pull at it.
Finally he dropped back into the position he'd decided upon, and flicked the switch of his screen.
A base lieutenant's face illuminated it. He yawned and looked questioningly at Don Mathers.
Don said, allowing a touch of excitement in his voice, "Mathers, Scout V-102, Sector A22-K223."
"Yeah, yeah ..." the other began, still yawning.
"I've spotted a Kraden cruiser. Miro class, I think."
The lieutenant flashed into movement. He slapped a button before him, the screen blinked, to be lit immediately again.
A gray-haired Fleet Admiral looked up from papers on his desk.
Don Mathers rapped, "Miro class Kraden in sector A22-K223, sir. I'm lying about fifty miles off. Undetected thus far--I think. He hasn't fired on me yet, at least."
The Admiral was already doing things with his hands. Two subalterns came within range of the screen, took orders, dashed off. The Admiral was rapidly firing orders into two other screens. After a moment, he looked up at Don Mathers again.
"Hang on, Lieutenant. Keep him under observation as long as you can. What're your exact coordinates?"
Don gave them to him and waited.
A few minutes later the Admiral returned to him. "Let's take a look at it, Lieutenant."
Don Mathers adjusted the screen to relay the Kraden cruiser. His palms were moist now, but everything was going to plan. He wished that he could take another drink.
The Admiral said, "Miro class, all right. Don't get too close, Lieutenant. They'll blast you to hell and gone. We've got a task force within an hour of you. Just hang on."
"Yes, sir," Don said. An hour. He was glad to know that. He didn't have much time in which to operate.
He let it go another five minutes, then he said, "Sir, they're increasing speed."
"Damn," the Admiral said, then rapid fired some more into his other screens, barking one order after another.
Don said, letting his voice go very flat, "I'm going in, sir. They're putting on speed. In another five minutes they'll be underway to the point where I won't be able to follow. They'll get completely clear."
The Admiral looked up, startled. "Don't be a fool."
"They'll get away, sir." Knowing that the other could see his every motion, Don Mathers hit the cocking lever of his flakflak gun with the heel of his right hand.
The Admiral snapped, "Let it go, you fool. You won't last a second." Then, his voice higher, "That's an order, Lieutenant!"
Don Mathers flicked off his screen. He grimaced sourly and then descended on the Kraden ship, his flakflak gun beaming it. He was going to have to expend every erg of energy in his Scout to burn the other ship up to the point where his attack would look authentic, and to eliminate all signs of previous action.
The awarding of the Galactic Medal of Honor, as always, was done in the simplest of ceremonies.
Only the President and Captain Donal Mathers himself were present in the former's office in the Presidential Palace.
However, as they both knew, every screen in the Solar System was tuned into the ceremony.
Don Mathers saluted and stood to attention.
The President read the citation. It was very short, as Medal of Honor citations were always.
... for conspicuous gallantry far and beyond the call of duty, in which you single-handedly, and against unbelievable odds, attacked and destroyed an enemy cruiser while flying a Scout armed only with a short-beam flakflak gun ...
He pinned a small bit of ribbon and metal to Don Mathers' tunic. It was an inconspicuous, inordinately ordinary medal, the Galactic Medal of Honor.
Don said hoarsely, "Thank you, sir."
The President shook hands with him and said, "I am President of the United Solar System, Captain Mathers, supposedly the highest rank to which a man can attain." He added simply, "I wish I were you."
Afterwards, alone in New Washington and wanting to remain alone, Don Mathers strolled the streets for a time, bothered only occasionally when someone recognized his face and people would stop and applaud.
He grinned inwardly.
He had a suspicion already that after a time he'd get used to it and weary to death of it, but right now it was still new and fun. Who was the flyer, way back in history, the one who first flew the Atlantic in a propeller-driven aircraft? His popularity must have been something like this.
He went into O'Donnell's at lunch time and as he entered the orchestra broke off the popular tune they were playing and struck up the Interplanetary Anthem. The manager himself escorted him to his table and made suggestions as to the specialties and the wine.
When he first sat down the other occupants of the restaurant, men and women, had stood and faced him and applauded. Don flushed. There could be too much of a good thing.
After the meal, a fantastic production, Don finished his cigar and asked the head waiter for his bill, reaching for his wallet.
The other smiled. "Captain, I am afraid your money is of no value in O'Donnell's, not for just this luncheon but whenever you honor us." The head waiter paused and added, "in fact, Captain, I doubt if there is a restaurant in the Solar System where your money holds value. Or that there will ever be."
Don Mathers was taken aback. He was only beginning to realize the ramifications of his holding his Galactic Medal of Honor.
At Space Command Headquarters, Third Division, Don came to attention before the Commodore's desk and tossed the other a salute.
The Commodore returned it snappily and leaned back in his chair. "Take a seat, Captain. Nice to see you again." He added pleasantly, "Where in the world have you been?"
Don Mathers slumped into a chair, said wearily, "On a bust. The bust to end all busts."
The Commodore chuckled. "Don't blame you," he said.
"It was quite a bust," Don said.
"Well," the Commodore chuckled again, "I don't suppose we can throw you in the guardhouse for being A.W.O.L. Not in view of your recent decoration."
There was nothing to say to that.
"By the way," the Commodore said, "I haven't had the opportunity to congratulate you on your Kraden. That was quite a feat, Captain."
"Thank you, sir," Don added, modestly, "rather foolish of me, I suppose."
"Very much so. On such foolishness are heroic deeds based, Captain." The Commodore looked at him questioningly. "You must have had incredible luck. The only way we've been able to figure it was that his detectors were on the blink. That may be what happened."
"Yes, sir," Don nodded quickly. "That's the way I figure it. And my first blast must have disrupted his fire control or something."
The Commodore said, "He didn't get in any return fire at all?"
"A few blasts. But by that time I was in too close and moving too fast. Fact of the matter is, sir, I don't think they ever recovered from my first beaming of them."
"No, I suppose not," the Commodore said musingly. "It's a shame you had to burn them so badly. We've never recovered a Kraden ship in good enough shape to give our techs something to work on. It might make a basic difference in the war, particularly if there was something aboard that'd give us some indication of where they were coming from. We've been fighting this war in our backyard for a full century. It would help if we could get into their backyard for a change. It's problematical how long we'll be able to hold them off, at this rate."
Don Mathers said uncomfortably, "Well, it's not as bad as all that, sir. We've held them this far."
His superior grunted. "We've held them this far because we've been able to keep out enough patrol ships to give us ample warning when one of their task forces come in. Do you know how much fuel that consumes, Captain?"
"Well, I know it's a lot."