"Won't I?" Lance's hand darted inside his shirt. "Maybe this'll equalize us." He brought out the pistol he'd taken off the captain in the guardhouse. Sagen, Nordsen, and Carmody backed off from it.
"The Cosmos XII is still two-thirds fueled," Lance said. "And well-stocked on provisions. Besides, I'm a light eater in hyperspace--as who isn't? I intend to take that ship out again, and you're going to help me, gentlemen."
Lance flicked off the safety and waved the gun back and forth, to demonstrate what he meant.
Lance got his ship, using Colonel Sagen as both shield and go-between after he had first tied up the other two officers in a closet. He kept a close watch, of course, for the SSP's and their gas pellets; but apparently an alarm was not raised soon enough for the base police to hurl into action.
After having the colonel authorize a space clearance for him by contacting Traffic directly over the ship's mike, Lance finally released him.
The colonel scooted down the ladder. Lance gave him time to clear the pad, but little more; then he went to work pushing buttons on the manual desk. The Cosmos XII blasted loose from her moorings and soared aloft into space.
At five thousand miles above Earth's surface, Lance re-checked his tapes. Groombridge 34 was the only possible destination the autopilot could take him to. Somehow, he didn't mind taking one more look at the double-star system. He cut into hyperspace as quickly as he dared; then sat back and relaxed. That is, as much as any man could in hype.
When he reached Groombridge 34, all Lance did was pop out into normal space long enough to assure himself he had reached the proper checkpoint for turning back. The tapes were in good order, and there had been no hitches. Grunting, he threw in the switch-over and once more found himself plowing through hyperspace. Only this time, he was homeward bound.
If he were lucky, just real lucky, he told himself, there might be a Carolyn Sagen alive and waiting for him in whatever time-track he wound up in this time.
At last, he materialized again in the Solar System. Or some Solar System, anyhow. As far as he could tell, all the planets looked unchanged. It was just four weeks to the day, since his escape from World Two. This would be World Three. He had been gone eight weeks and two days from World One.
Lance cut the ecliptic at a different angle than before, and Terra was farther along in her journey around Sol. He needed a new landing trajectory. His eye swept his panel, to see if anything had been preset. There was no green flashing on the deck, where there should have been green.
Oh, well. There could have been cruisers waiting in space, too, to pot him with ship-to-ship missiles. He'd taken one chance, he could take another.
Lance opened a switch and called Base Traffic's frequency. "This is the Cosmos XII, Major Lance Cooper piloting. Just broke out of hype. Can you read me?"
He repeated the message for several minutes.
Finally, he got an answer. A startled voice whipped back at him through crackling static: "Cosmos XII, this is Traffic. Who did you say you were up there?"
Lance hardly knew whether he felt more like laughing or crying. He was fairly close to home, anyhow. They did have space traffic here. And being pretty much of an optimist, he also decided that it was a time-track where he had been known. Only being so long overdue, he had probably been given up for lost.
On this premise, he could visualize all the consternation and excitement now in progress downstairs; the personnel were likely falling all over each other in the stampede to pass the word around.
"I'm Major Lance Cooper," he announced over the mike.
There was a long pause.
"Repeat that, please."
"This is Lance Cooper, Major, Space Service. I'm up here in the Cosmos XII."
"B-b-but you can't be."
"Who says I can't. Say, what's the matter with you monkeys? I want to come in."
Another voice took over on the channel. "The lieutenant's right. You actually do sound like Cooper, whoever you are!"
Lance laughed openly. "I've lived with him all my life, why shouldn't I? You think I'm a ghost?"
"Well ... no. We know you're real. We're getting a blip from you. Only thing is--"
"Let's talk about it when I get down," Lance interrupted. "I need a program fast. Get those G.S. computers working and read me an orbit."
"And one more thing: Is Colonel Sagen around?"
"Not today, major. He had to fly to Luna."
"How about his daughter?"
Oh, no! Lance felt his heart almost stop. Had the big try been for nothing? He chanced a repeat.
"His daughter. Carolyn Sagen."
This time, he got results.
"Oh! You mean Hard-Head's daughter. The one who ... say, wasn't she all set to marry you?"
"You bet your last commendation ribbon she was. And she's going to! Hey!" Lance shouted. "Anything wrong with her? She's not sick or--"
The voice of the first operator at Traffic came back on. "The captain had to take off. No sir, major. She's not sick. We just don't know how she's gonna take this, is all."
"With bells on, Junior. Wedding bells! Get her out to meet me when I land, will you? And snap it up on that trajectory."
Again, the traffic crackled in Lance's ear. There seemed to be a great deal of excitement going on down there. And then the great night rim of Earth swung under him, blocking out further radio communication.
Presently, a relayed beam from Luna came in. The Luna spaceport read him a series of figures to punch into his autopilot. The new orbit would edge him in close enough to Terra, that he could pick up an assist from the G.A. system of his home base.
Lance rubbed his hands together in his joy. He was cooking on all burners, now. At last.
Six hours later, the Cosmos XII settled down in her landing cradle. Major Lance Cooper kicked open the air-lock door and began climbing down to solid ground.
It was just barely twilight. Ordinarily, there would have been long purplish shadows at the far ends of the field; but now the entire space base was flooded with lights. Were the beacons sweeping back and forth just to welcome him? It hardly seemed possible. Yet, the apron itself, was swarming with people. Here they came now! A whole mob racing towards him, and the noise of their swelling shouts preceded them, rolling forward like the breakers upon a shore.
Oh, oh! What was that in the far corner of the field? A big pile of crumpled metal, already rusted and ready for the bulldozers. Some poor devil had crashed his hype-ship. Lance wondered vaguely which of his buddies it had been. Then he shut it out of his mind.
A jeep swung out ahead of the advancing crowd and came speeding down the concrete. Brakes squealed; rubber tires bit in hard, and the vehicle plunged to a halt near him. Lance recognized Major Carmody in the driver's seat. Or another Major Carmody. What difference did it make? None, now that he was able to identify so very well the other figure in the jeep--a slight blond figure in a trench coat seated next to Carmody.
He saw her get out. He saw her commence walking towards him. But too slowly, he thought. And he was too paralyzed to move.
"Lance?" she called to him. "Is it you? Is it really you, darling?"
The girl's step almost faltered. Major Carmody's hand reached out, steadied her.
Something was wrong again. But what? He could not guess.
Lance came out of his paralysis. He began running towards her.
And in a moment, they were in each other's arms without caring why or how: Lance Cooper and the girl he loved. Kissing, hugging, unable to believe for a moment in each other's reality.
Then, Carolyn had to have breath and she drew apart for a moment. Then, she kissed him again. And Lance, for the first time, listened and made sense out of the welter of hysterical sobbing words that were pouring forth: "Darling, darling, darling Lance! I cried so much, and now it's all over. I don't care if you're not real. I love you, I love you! I don't care if you are somebody from another time-track like Major Carmody says! You're my Lance and you belong to me. It's you I love and want now; no matter how shameless I sound!... Yes, darling, it's you I want, not that poor broken thing we buried two months ago. Not the--"
Lance's feeling of impending horror was great, but not so great that he shrank from the question that now rose and beat and beat at his brain. The overwhelming question that had to be asked.
"Carolyn!" He held her so tight he thought for a moment he'd cracked her ribs. His half-shook gaze penetrated her retreating eyes, forcing her to meet him.
"Carolyn! What do you mean--it's me you want now, not that poor broken thing you buried? Tell me. TELL ME!"
"Don't you know, darling Lance? When you took off that night eight weeks ago, that night I kissed you good-by, your ship ... oh don't you comprehend?... Your ship, it--"
"Tell me, Carolyn!"
"Your ship, Lance, that's it over there--the wreckage of it! The Cosmos XII crashed on take-off that night, Lance. You were killed out-right. We buried you two days later."
THE BIG TOMORROW.
BY PAUL LOHRMAN.
There are certain rare individuals in this world who seem bereft of all common sense. These are the people who set their eyes upon an objective and immediately all intelligence, logic, good advice, unsolvable problems, and insurmountable obstacles go completely by the boards. The characters we refer to are obviously just plain stupid. What they want to do, just can't be done. The objectives they have in mind are unachievable and anyone with an ounce of brains can tell them so and give them good reasons. They are usually pretty sad cases and often land in the funny house. But then again, some of them go out and discover new worlds.
He hadn't gotten any work done that morning. He'd spent most of the time pacing the floor of his small back office, and the rest of it at the window--hands clasped behind his somewhat bowed back--staring up into the cloudless sky.
At ten-forty, the intercom buzzed. He snapped the switch.
"I've got those figures, Mr. Lake. We have nine--"
"Maybe you'd better come in and tell me personally, Lucy."
"All right, Mr. Lake."
The intercom snapped off and a few moments later a girl entered the office--if the prim little wisp that was Lucy Crane could be so generously classified.
Joshua Lake stared at the elongated bun of black hair on the top of her head as she came toward his desk. There was an odd streak of rich imagination in Joshua Lake and he always felt Lucy Crane's bun was a symbol of disapproval. "Sit down, Lucy. You use up too much energy."
"I try to do my job, Mr. Lake."
"You do that--and more. What are the figures, Lucy?"
"We're in desperate shape. We have nine thousand, four hundred and twenty dollars in the payroll account. That leaves it over five thousand short. There is only about two thousand in General Disbursements, but that isn't enough to cover invoices due tomorrow. I'm afraid--"
"Don't be afraid, Lucy. That's negative. If we waste our time sitting around shivering, we won't make any progress at all."
"I didn't mean it that way, Mr. Lake. I'm not shivering. I was merely stating that we haven't got enough money."
"Then I'll go to the bank and get some more."
"Of course, Mr. Lake. Is that all?"
"Yes, that's all, Lucy. You run on to lunch."
"You aren't going out?"
"No. I'm not hungry today."
Her bun bobbed in disapproval as she left the office. Joshua Lake stared at the closed door and sighed. Lucy knew exactly how things were. She wasn't one to be fooled. But Joshua hoped the rest of the personnel were not so perceptive. The engineers and the draftsmen particularly. They could all walk out at noon and be working somewhere else by one o'clock, what with the huge current industrial demand.
He walked again to the window; an old man; bone-weary, with the weight of his sixty-odd years bending his shoulders like a brick-carrier's hod.
"Then I'll go to the bank and get some more." He hadn't even fooled himself this time. His chances at the bank were nil. Less than nil. His very presence there could tip the balance of their decision. Loans could be called; the doors locked before nightfall.
At the window, he lowered his eyes from the sky and looked to the gate that led into the horseshoe sweep of low buildings and back to the great, bulking hangar where precious work was being done.
A man and his dream, Lake mused.
He could see only the back of the sign hanging over the gate, but he was quite familiar with the other side. Lake Interstellar Enterprises in bold, brave letters; and in the lower right-hand corner--barely discernible--Joshua Lake--President.