Don Mathers said slowly, "Well, if we're not married, let me decide when I want another bottle of the grape, eh?"
Dian flushed. "Sorry, Don."
The headwaiter approached bearing another magnum of vintage wine. He beamed at Don Mathers. "Having a good time, sir?"
"Okay," Don said shortly. When the other was gone he downed a full glass, felt the fumes almost immediately.
He said to Dian, "I haven't been avoiding you, Di. We just haven't met. The way I remember, the last time we saw each other, back on Earth, you gave me quite a slap in the face. The way I remember, you didn't think I was hero enough for you." He poured another glass of the champagne.
Di's face was still flushed. She said, her voice low, "I misunderstood you, Don. Even after your brilliant defeat of that Kraden cruiser, I still, I admit, think I basically misunderstood you. I told myself that it could have been done by any pilot of a Scout, given that one in a million break. It just happened to be you, who made that suicide dive attack that succeeded. A thousand other pilots might also have taken the million to one suicide chance rather than let the Kraden escape."
"Yeah," Don said. Even in his alcohol, he was surprised at her words. He said gruffly, "Sure anybody might've done it. Pure luck. But why'd you change your mind about me, then? How come the switch of heart?"
"Because of what you've done since, darling."
He closed one eye, the better to focus.
He recognized the expression in her eyes. A touch of star gleam. That little girl back on Earth, the receptionist at the Interplanetary Lines building, she'd had it. In fact, in the past few months Don had seen it in many feminine faces. And all for him.
Dian said, "Instead of cashing in on your prestige, you've been devoting yourself to something even more necessary to the fight than bringing down individual Kraden cruisers."
Don looked at her. He could feel a nervous tic beginning in his left eyebrow. Finally, he reached for the champagne again and filled his glass. He said, "You really go for this hero stuff, don't you?"
She said nothing, but the star shine was still in her eyes.
He made his voice deliberately sour. "Look, suppose I asked you to come back to my apartment with me tonight?"
"Yes," she said softly.
"And told you to bring your overnight bag along," he added brutally.
Dian looked into his face. "Why are you twisting yourself, your inner-self, so hard, Don? Of course I'd come--if that's what you wanted."
"And then," he said flatly, "suppose I kicked you out in the morning?"
Dian winced, but she kept her eyes even with his, her own moist now. "You forget," she whispered. "You have been awarded the Galactic Medal of Honor, the bearer of which can do no wrong."
"Oh, God," Don muttered. He filled his glass, still again, motioned to a nearby waiter.
"Yes, sir," the waiter said.
Don said, "Look, in about five minutes I'm going to pass out. See that I get back to my hotel, will you? And that this young lady gets to her home. And, waiter, just send my bill to the hotel too."
The other bowed. "The owner's instructions, sir, are that Captain Mathers must never see a bill in this establishment."
Dian said, "Don!"
He didn't look at her. He raised his glass to his mouth and shortly afterward the fog rolled in again.
When it rolled out, the unfamiliar taste of black coffee was in his mouth. He shook his head for clarity.
He seemed to be in some working class restaurant. Next to him, in a booth, was a fresh-faced Sub-lieutenant of the--Don squinted at the collar tabs--yes, of the Space Service. A Scout pilot.
Don stuttered, "What's ... goin' ... on?"
The pilot said apologetically, "Sub-lieutenant Pierpont, sir. You seemed so far under the weather, I took over."
"Oh, you did, eh?"
"Well, yes, sir. You were, well, reclining in the gutter, sir. In spite of your, well, appearance, your condition, I recognized you, sir."
"Oh." His stomach was an objecting turmoil.
The Lieutenant said, "Want to try some more of this coffee now, sir? Or maybe some soup or a sandwich?"
Don groaned. "No. No, thanks. Don't think I could hold it down."
The pilot grinned. "You must've thrown a classic, sir."
"I guess so. What time is it? No, that doesn't make any difference. What's the date?"
Pierpont told him.
It was hard to believe. The last he could remember he'd been with Di. With Di in some nightclub. He wondered how long ago that had been.
He fumbled in his clothes for a smoke and couldn't find one. He didn't want it anyway.
He growled at the Lieutenant, "Well, how go the One Man Scouts?"
Pierpont grinned back at him. "Glad to be out of them, sir?"
Pierpont looked at him strangely. "I don't blame you, I suppose. But it isn't as bad these days as it used to be while you were still in the Space Service, sir."
Don grunted. "How come? Two weeks to a month, all by yourself, watching the symptoms of space cafard progress. Then three weeks of leave, to get drunk in, and then another stretch in space."
The pilot snorted deprecation. "That's the way it used to be." He fingered the spoon of his coffee cup. "That's the way it still should be, of course. But it isn't. They're spreading the duty around now and I spend less than one week out of four on patrol."
Don hadn't been listening too closely, but now he looked up. "What'd'ya mean?"
Pierpont said, "I mean, sir, I suppose this isn't bridging security, seeing who you are, but fuel stocks are so low that we can't maintain full patrols any more."
There was a cold emptiness in Don Mathers' stomach.
He said, "Look, I'm still woozy. Say that again, Lieutenant."
The Lieutenant told him again.
Don Mathers rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth and tried to think.
He said finally, "Look, Lieutenant. First let's get another cup of coffee into me, and maybe that sandwich you were talking about. Then would you help me to get back to my hotel?"
By the fourth day, his hands weren't trembling any longer. He ate a good breakfast, dressed carefully, then took a hotel limousine down to the offices of the Mathers, Demming and Rostoff Corporation.
At the entrance to the inner sanctum the heavyset Scotty looked up at his approach. He said, "The boss has been looking for you, Mr. Mathers, but right now you ain't got no appointment, have you? Him and Mr. Rostoff is having a big conference. He says to keep everybody out."
"That doesn't apply to me, Scotty," Don snapped. "Get out of my way."
Scotty stood up, reluctantly, but barred the way. "He said it applied to everybody, Mr. Mathers."
Don put his full weight into a blow that started at his waist, dug deep into the other's middle. Scotty doubled forward, his eyes bugging. Don Mathers gripped his hands together into a double fist and brought them upward in a vicious uppercut.
Scotty fell forward and to the floor.
Don stood above him momentarily, watchful for movement which didn't develop. The hefty bodyguard must have been doing some easy living himself. He wasn't as tough as he looked.
Don knelt and fished from under the other's left arm a vicious-looking short-barrelled scrambler. He tucked it under his own jacket into his belt, then turned, opened the door and entered the supposedly barred office.
Demming and Rostoff looked up from their work across a double desk.
Both scowled. Rostoff opened his mouth to say something and Don Mathers rapped, "Shut up."
Rostoff blinked at him. Demming leaned back in his swivel chair. "You're sober for a change," he wheezed, almost accusingly.
Don Mathers pulled up a stenographer's chair and straddled it, leaning his arms on the back. He said coldly, "Comes a point when even the lowest worm turns. I've been checking on a few things."
Demming grunted amusement.
Don said, "Space patrols have been cut far below the danger point."
Rostoff snorted. "Is that supposed to interest us? That's the problem of the military--and the government."
"Oh, it interests us, all right," Don growled. "Currently, Mathers, Demming and Rostoff control probably three-quarters of the system's radioactives."
Demming said in greasy satisfaction, "More like four-fifths."
"Why?" Don said bluntly. "Why are we doing what we're doing?"
They both scowled, but another element was present in their expressions too. They thought the question unintelligent.
Demming closed his eyes in his porcine manner and grunted, "Tell him."
Rostoff said, "Look, Mathers, don't be stupid. Remember when we told you, during that first interview, that we wanted your name in the corporation, among other reasons, because we could use a man who was above law? That a maze of ridiculously binding ordinances have been laid on business down through the centuries?"
"I remember," Don said bitterly.
"Well, it goes both ways. Government today is also bound, very strongly, and even in great emergency, not to interfere in business. These complicated laws balance each other, you might say. Our whole legal system is based upon them. Right now, we've got government right where we want it. This is free enterprise, Mathers, at its pinnacle. Did you ever hear of Jim Fisk and his attempt to corner gold in 1869, the so-called Black Friday affair? Well, Jim Fisk was a peanut peddler compared to us."
"What's this got to do with the Fleet having insufficient fuel to ..." Don Mathers stopped as comprehension hit him. "You're holding our radioactives off the market, pressuring the government for a price rise which it can't afford."
Demming opened his eyes and said fatly, "For triple the price, Mathers. Before we're through, we'll corner half the wealth of the system."
Don said, "But ... but the species is ... at ... war."
Rostoff sneered, "You seem to be getting noble rather late in the game, Mathers. Business is business."
Don Mathers was shaking his head. "We immediately begin selling our radioactives at cost of production. I might remind you gentlemen that although we're supposedly a three-way partnership, actually, everything's in my name. You thought you had me under your thumb so securely that it was safe--and you probably didn't trust each other. Well, I'm blowing the whistle."
Surprisingly fast for such a fat man, Lawrence Demming's hand flitted into a desk drawer to emerge with a twin of the scrambler tucked in Don's belt.
Don Mathers grinned at him, even as he pushed his jacket back to reveal the butt of his own weapon. He made no attempt to draw it, however.
He said softly, "Shoot me, Demming, and you've killed the most popular man in the Solar System. You'd never escape the gas chamber, no matter how much money you have. On the other hand, if I shoot you ..."
He put a hand into his pocket and it emerged with a small, inordinately ordinary bit of ribbon and metal. He displayed it on his palm.
The fat man's face whitened at the ramifications and his hand relaxed to let the gun drop to the desk. "Listen, Don," he broke out. "We've been unrealistic with you. We'll reverse ourselves and split, honestly--split three ways."
Don Mathers laughed at him. "Trying to bribe me with money, Demming? Why don't you realize, that I'm the only man in existence who has no need for money, who can't spend money? That my fellow men--whom I've done such a good job of betraying--have honored me to a point where money is meaningless?"
Rostoff snatched up the fallen gun, snarling, "I'm calling your bluff, you gutless rummy."
Don Mathers said, "Okay, Rostoff. There's just two other things I want to say first. One--I don't care if I die or not. Two--you're only twenty feet or so away, but you know what? I think you're probably a lousy shot. I don't think you've had much practice. I think I can get my scrambler out and cut you down before you can finish me." He grinned thinly, "Wanta try?"
Max Rostoff snarled a curse and his finger whitened on the trigger.
Don Mathers fell sideward, his hand streaking for his weapon. Without thought there came back to him the long hours of training in hand weapons, in judo, in hand to hand combat. He went into action with cool confidence.
At the spaceport he took a cab to the Presidential Palace. It was an auto-cab, of course, and at the Palace gates he found he had no money on him. He snorted wearily. It was the first time in almost a year that he'd had to pay for anything.
Four sentries were standing at attention. He said, "Do one of you boys have some coins to feed into this slot? I'm fresh out."
A sergeant grinned, approached, and did the necessary.