"So much so that Earth's industry is switching back to petroleum and coal. Every ounce of radioactives is needed by the Fleet. Even so, it's just a matter of time."
Don Mathers pursed his lips. "I didn't know it was that bad."
The Commodore smiled sourly at him. "I'm afraid I'm being a wet blanket thrown over your big bust of a celebration, Captain. Tell me, how does it feel to hold the system's highest award?"
Don shook his head, marveling. "Fantastic, sir. Of course, like any member of the services I've always known of the Medal of Honor, but ... well, nobody ever expects to get it." He added wryly, "Certainly not while he's still alive and in health. Why, sir, do you realize that I haven't been able to spend one unit of money since?" There was an element of awe in his voice. "Sir, do you realize that not even a beggar will take currency from me?"
The Commodore nodded in appreciation. "You must understand the position you occupy, Captain. Your feat was inspiring enough, but that's not all of it. In a way you combine a popular hero with an Unknown Soldier element. Awarding you the Galactic Medal of Honor makes a symbol of you. A symbol representing all the millions of unsung heroes and heroines who have died fighting for the human species. It's not a light burden to carry on your shoulders, Captain Mathers. I would imagine it a very humbling honor."
"Well, yes, sir," Don said.
The Commodore switched his tone of voice. "That brings us to the present, and what your next assignment is to be. Obviously, it wouldn't do for you to continue in a Scout. Big brass seems to be in favor of using you for morale and ..."
Don Mathers cleared his throat and interrupted. "Sir, I've decided to drop out of the Space Service."
"Drop out!" The other stared at Mathers, uncomprehending. "We're at war, Captain!"
Don nodded seriously. "Yes, sir. And what you just said is true. I couldn't be used any longer in a Scout. I'd wind up selling bonds and giving talks to old ladies' clubs."
"Well, hardly that, Captain."
"No, sir, I think I'd really be of more use out of the services. I'm tendering my resignation and making arrangements to help in the developing of Callisto and the other Jupiter satellites."
The Commodore said nothing. His lips seemed whiter than before.
Don Mathers said doggedly, "Perhaps my prestige will help bring volunteers to work the new mines out there. If they see me, well, sacrificing, putting up with the hardships ..."
The Commodore said evenly, "Mr. Mathers, I doubt if you will ever have to put up with hardships again, no matter where you make your abode. However, good luck. You deserve it."
Outside headquarters, Don Mathers summoned a cab and dialed his hotel. On the way over, he congratulated himself. It had gone easier than he had expected, really. Although, come to think of it, there wasn't a damn thing that the brass could do.
He had to laugh to himself.
Imagine if he'd walked in on the Commodore a month ago and announced that he was going to drop out of the Space Service. He would have been dropped all right, all right. Right into the lap of a squadron of psycho experts.
At the hotel he shucked his uniform, an action which gave him considerable gratification, and dressed in one of the score of civilian costumes that filled his closets to overflowing. He took pleasure in estimating what this clothing would have cost in terms of months of Space Service pay for a Sub-lieutenant or even a Captain. Years, my boy, years.
He looked at himself in the dressing-room mirror with satisfaction, then turned to the autobar and dialed himself a stone-age-old Metaxa. He'd lost his taste for the plebian tequila in the last few days.
He held the old Greek brandy to the light and wondered pleasurably what the stuff cost, per pony glass. Happily, he'd never have to find out.
He tossed the drink down and whistling, took his private elevator to the garages in the second level of the hotel's basement floors. He selected a limousine and dialed the Interplanetary Lines building.
He left the car at the curb before the main entrance, ignoring all traffic regulations and entered the building, still whistling softly and happily to himself. He grinned when a small crowd gathered outside and smiled and clapped their hands. He grinned and waved to them.
A receptionist hurried to him and he told her he wanted to see either Mr. Demming or Mr. Rostoff, and then when she offered to escort him personally he noticed her pixie-like cuteness and said, "What're you doing tonight, Miss?"
Her face went pale. "Oh, anything, sir," she said weakly.
He grinned at her. "Maybe I'll take you up on that if I'm not too busy."
He had never seen anyone so taken aback. She said, all flustered, "I'm Toni. Toni Fitzgerald. You can just call this building and ask for me. Any time."
"Maybe I'll do that," he smiled. "But now, let's see Old Man Demming."
That took her back too. Aside from being asked for a date--if asked could be the term--by the system's greatest celebrity, she was hearing for the first time the interplanetary tycoon being called Old Man Demming.
She said, "Oh, right this way, Captain Mathers."
Don said, "Mr. Mathers now, I'm afraid. I have new duties."
She looked up into his face. "You'll always be Captain Mathers to me, sir." She added, softly and irrelevantly, "My two brothers were lost on the Minerva in that action last year off Pluto." She took a deep breath, which only stressed her figure. "I've applied six times for Space Service, but they won't take me."
They were in an elevator now. Don said, "That's too bad, Toni. However, the Space Service isn't as romantic as you might think."
"Yes, sir," Toni Fitzgerald said, her soul in her eyes. "You ought to know, sir."
Don was somehow irritated. He said nothing further until they reached the upper stories of the gigantic office building. He thanked her after she'd turned him over to another receptionist.
Don Mathers' spirits had been restored by the time he was brought to the door of Max Rostoff's office. His new guide evidently hadn't even bothered to check on the man's availability, before ushering Mathers into the other's presence.
Max Rostoff looked up from his desk, wolfishly aggressive-looking as ever. "Why, Captain," he said. "How fine to see you again. Come right in. Martha, that will be all."
Martha gave the interplanetary hero one more long look and then turned and left.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Max Rostoff turned and snarled, "Where have you been, you rummy?"
He couldn't have shocked Don Mathers more if he'd suddenly sprouted a unicorn's horn.
"We've been looking for you for a week," Rostoff snapped. "Out of one bar, into another, our men couldn't catch up with you. Dammit, don't you realize we've got to get going? We've got a dozen documents for you to sign. We've got to get this thing underway, before somebody else does."
Don blurted, "You can't talk to me that way."
It was the other's turn to stare. Max Rostoff said, low and dangerously, "No? Why can't I?"
Don glared at him.
Max Rostoff said, low and dangerously, "Let's get this straight, Mathers. To everybody else, but Demming and me, you might be the biggest hero in the Solar System. But you know what you are to us?"
Don felt his indignation seeping from him.
"To us," Max Rostoff said flatly, "you're just another demi-buttocked incompetent on the make." He added definitely, "And make no mistake, Mathers, you'll continue to have a good thing out of this only so long as we can use you."
A voice from behind them said, "Let me add to that, period, end of paragraph."
It was Lawrence Demming, who'd just entered from an inner office.
He said, even his voice seemed fat, "And now that's settled, I'm going to call in some lawyers. While they're around, we conduct ourselves as though we're three equal partners. On paper, we will be."
"Wait a minute, now," Don blurted. "What do you think you're pulling? The agreement was we split this whole thing three ways."
Demming's jowls wobbled as he nodded. "That's right. And your share of the loot is your Galactic Medal of Honor. That and the dubious privilege of having the whole thing in your name. You'll keep your medal, and we'll keep our share." He growled heavily, "You don't think you're getting the short end of the stick, do you?"
Max Rostoff said, "Let's knock this off and get the law boys in. We've got enough paper work to keep us busy the rest of the week." He sat down again at his desk and looked up at Don. "Then we'll all be taking off for Callisto, to get things under way. With any luck, in six months we'll have every ounce of pitchblende left in the system sewed up."
There was a crowd awaiting his ship at the Callisto Spaceport. A crowd modest by Earth standards but representing a large percentage of the small population of Jupiter's moon.
On the way out, a staff of the system's best speech writers, and two top professional actors had been working with him.
Don Mathers gave a short preliminary talk at the spaceport, and then the important one, the one that was broadcast throughout the system, that night from his suite at the hotel. He'd been well rehearsed, and they'd kept him from the bottle except for two or three quick ones immediately before going on.
The project at hand is to extract the newly discovered deposits of pitchblende on these satellites of Jupiter.
He paused impressively before continuing.
It's a job that cannot be done in slipshod, haphazard manner. The system's need for radioactives cannot be overstressed.
In short, fellow humans, we must allow nothing to stand in the way of all out, unified effort to do this job quickly and efficiently. My associates and I have formed a corporation to manage this crash program. We invite all to participate by purchasing stock. I will not speak of profits, fellow humans, because in this emergency we all scorn them. However, as I say, you are invited to participate.
Some of the preliminary mining concessions are at present in the hands of individuals or small corporations. It will be necessary that these turn over their holdings to our single all-embracing organization for the sake of efficiency. Our experts will evaluate such holdings and recompense the owners.
Don Mathers paused again for emphasis.
This is no time for quibbling. All must come in. If there are those who put private gain before the needs of the system, then pressures must be found to be exerted against them.
We will need thousands and tens of thousands of trained workers to operate our mines, our mills, our refineries. In the past, skilled labor here on the satellites was used to double or even triple the wage rates on Earth and the settled planets and satellites. I need only repeat, this is no time for personal gain and quibbling. The corporation announces proudly that it will pay only prevailing Earth rates. We will not insult our employees by "bribing" them to patriotism through higher wages.
There was more, along the same lines.
It was all taken very well. Indeed, with enthusiasm.
On the third day, at an office conference, Don waited for an opening to say, "Look, somewhere here on Callisto is a young woman named Dian Fuller. After we get me established in an office, I'd like her to be my secretary."
Demming looked up from some reports he was scanning. He grunted to Max Rostoff, "Tell him," and went back to the papers.
Max Rostoff, settled back into his chair. He said to the two bodyguards, stationed at the door, "Scotty, Rogers, go and make the arrangements to bring that damned prospector into line."
When they were gone, Rostoff turned back to Don Mathers. "You don't need an office, Mathers. All you need is to go back to your bottles. Just don't belt it so hard that you can't sign papers every time we need a signature."
Don flushed angrily, "Look, don't push me, you two. You need me. Plenty. In fact, from what I can see, this corporation needs me more than it does you." He looked scornfully at Demming. "Originally, the idea was that you put up the money. What money? We have fifty-one percent of the stock in my name, but all the credit units needed are coming from sales of stock." He turned to Rostoff. "You were supposed to put up the brains. What brains? We've hired the best mining engineers, the best technicians, to do their end, the best corporation executives to handle that end. You're not needed."
Demming grunted amusement at the short speech, but didn't bother to look up from his perusal.
Max Rostoff's face had grown wolfishly thin in his anger. "Look, bottle-baby," he sneered, "you're the only one that's vulnerable in this set-up. There's not a single thing that Demming and I can be held to account for. You have no beefs coming, for that matter. You're getting everything you ever wanted. You've got the best suite in the best hotel on Callisto. You eat the best food the Solar System provides. And, most important of all to a rummy, you drink the best booze and as much of it as you want. What's more, unless either Demming or I go to the bother, you'll never be exposed. You'll live your life out being the biggest hero in the system."
It was Don Mathers' turn to sneer. "What do you mean, I'm the only one vulnerable? There's no evidence against me, Rostoff, and you know it. Who'd listen to you if you sounded off? I burned that Kraden cruiser until there wasn't a sign to be found that would indicate it wasn't in operational condition when I first spotted it."
Demming grunted his amusement again.
Max Rostoff laughed sourly. "Don't be an ass, Mathers. We took a series of photos of that derelict when we stumbled on it. Not only can we prove you didn't knock it out, we can prove that it was in good shape before you worked it over. I imagine the Fleet technician would have loved to have seen the inner workings of that Kraden cruiser--before you loused it up."
Demming chuckled flatly. "I wonder what kind of a court martial they give a hero who turns out to be a saboteur."
He ran into her, finally, after he'd been on Callisto for nearly eight months. Actually, he didn't remember the circumstances of their meeting. He was in an alcoholic daze and the fog rolled out, and there she was across the table from him.
Don shook his head, and looked about the room. They were in some sort of night spot. He didn't recognize it.
He licked his lips, scowled at the taste of stale vomit.
He slurred, "Hello, Di."
Dian Fuller said, "Hi, Don."
He said, "I must've blanked out. Guess I've been hitting it too hard."
She laughed at him. "You mean you don't remember all the things you've been telling me the past two hours?" She was obviously quite sober. Dian never had been much for the sauce.
Don looked at her narrowly. "What've I been telling you for the past two hours?"
"Mostly about how it was when you were a little boy. About fishing, and your first .22 rifle. And the time you shot the squirrel, and then felt so sorry."
"Oh," Don said. He ran his right hand over his mouth.
There was a champagne bucket beside him, but the bottle in it was empty. He looked about the room for a waiter.
Dian said gently, "Do you really think you need any more, Don?"
He looked across the table at her. She was as beautiful as ever. No, that wasn't right. She was pretty, but not beautiful. She was just a damn pretty girl, not one of these glamour items.
Don said, "Look, I can't remember. Did we get married?"
Her laugh tinkled. "Married! I only ran into you two or three hours ago." She hesitated before saying further, "I had assumed that you were deliberately avoiding me. Callisto isn't that big."