Jordan shook his head.
"Why didn't somebody tell me about this?"
"I sent you a ten page memo about it last week," objected Clements, somewhat aggrieved. "Gave you the whole story with extrapolations."
"Memo! You know I never read memos! I ought to fire you ... I would if I could ... you ... you 'appointee.'"
Clements shook his head warningly. "Better not, chief. You'll need me for the briefing."
"Briefing? What briefing?"
"The briefing. You're scheduled to testify before the committee tomorrow afternoon at three."
Senator Darius: Mr. Jordan, will you please state whether or not there is a satellite body known as '58 Beta?
Mr. Jordan: Yes, sir, there is.
Senator D: Will you describe its present orbit?
Mr. J: I'd be glad to, Senator. It now has a perigee slightly below 110 miles and an apogee of about 400 miles. The last perigee occurred 400 miles last of the Seychelles Islands about 35 minutes ago. Roughly its present position is about 250 miles above Manus Island.
Senator D: When do you expect it to enter the atmosphere for the final plunge to its death?
Mr. J: (bridling) Well, Senator, we in the Secretariat don't usually refer to such an occurrence in exactly those terms. It's really just a problem in celestial mechanics to us, and ...
Senator D: (glaring) Your administrative assistant testified a few moments ago, sir, that '58 Beta has had a life of 185 years. Will you kindly explain to the committee how anything which has had a life can end in anything but death?
Mr. J: I ... uh ... I believe I appreciate your point of view, Senator. '58 Beta experiences a very steep re-entry at each perigee. According to our computers it will disintegrate on the 82nd or 83rd revolution following that of 2:48 Greenwich crossing this afternoon.
Senator D: Tell us, Mr. Jordan ... how many revolutions about the Mother Planet has '58 Beta made since its launching?
Mr. J: (hastily working his slide rule) Upwards of eight hundred thousand, I should say. I can provide you with an exact figure if you wish.
Senator D: That won't be necessary, Mr. Jordan. Eight hundred thousand, give or take a few paltry thousand, is close enough. Eight hundred thousand endless, lonely revolutions about an unthinking, uncaring, ungrateful world is quite enough. Quite enough, Mr. Jordan. Now sir; (squinting over his glasses) what do you think is the proper action to be taken in the matter of retrieving this historic satellite from its orbit so that it may be preserved as a living memorial to the gallant efforts of those early pioneers ... those brave and intrepid men of Cape Canaveral ... to stand forevermore as a beacon and a challenge to our school children, to our students, our aspirants for candidacy to the Space Academy and to our citizens for all time to come?
Mr. J: Nothing, Senator.
Senator D: (aghast) Am I to understand, Mr. Jordan, that you are suggesting that this symbol, this quintessence of an historic and magnificent era in mankind's history ... this unique and precious object ... should be allowed to destroy itself and be lost forever?
Mr. J: (squirming) Senator, there are dozens of those things up there. Every year one or two burns up. They have no usefulness. They're a menace to navigation. I ...
Senator D: (interrupting loudly) Mr. Jordan, what was the date of your appointment to your present position?
Mr. J: April 11, 2138.
Senator D: Do you consider yourself fully qualified to hold this august position?
Mr. J: (tight lipped) Senator, I am a graduate of the Administrative Academy, the Logistics Staff School, and I have 31 years seniority in my department. Furthermore ...
Senator D: (banging his gavel) Mr. Jordan, please! Try to remember where you are! We had enough trouble yesterday with witnesses before this committee. There will be no more of it. And Mr. Jordan, while it may be true that your technical qualifications for serving in your present position may be adequate, it is clear to me and, I am sure, apparent to other members of this committee that your feeling for history and the relation of this problem to the destiny of the human race leave much to be desired. And, Mr. Jordan, may I emphasize ... these are the things that count in the long, long haul!
Jordan sat limply at his desk, his hands hanging loosely at his sides. "It's unbelievable," he muttered dully. "Where did this man Darius come from?"
"It doesn't matter much," Clements answered unsympathetically. "It's where he is now that counts."
Jordan shook his head.
"There has to be a way out. A clean, quick way out."
After a moment's thought Clements said, "Isn't there a regulation about orbital debris?"
Jordan nodded dully. "Someplace. Number 710.1, I think. Hasn't been invoked in years. Once they stopped using chemical fuels, we stopped having wrecks."
"Still," Clements went on more eagerly, "Beta's really a piece of debris, isn't it? It's not working or transmitting or whatever it was supposed to do, is it?"
"No." Jordan shrugged impatiently. "But, good grief, this thing isn't debris. Debris is ... is big chunks of things; broken up space stations, or ... or nuclear engines and things like that."
"Hell, no, chief," yelled Clements, jumping to his feet. "This is debris, pure and simple. That's your answer!"
Jordan's eyes slowly brightened.
"Clem, maybe you're right. Regulation 710.1 says that any orbital debris constituting a demonstrable menace to navigation may be destroyed at the discretion of this office." He brushed his hands together with finality. "That should do it."
Suddenly Clements' enthusiasm degenerated to a faint smile.
"I've just got to wondering, chief. Do we dare go right ahead with this?"
Amos Jordan's eyes took on a piercing glitter of command.
"This is our job, Clements. We should have done it long ago. Get Statistical and have them find out how much boogie time is consumed in plugging that silly thing into every takeoff problem. Multiply that by all the launch stations. Convert it into man-hours per year and make that into a dollar figure. That always scares the wits out a Congressman. They'll knuckle under...."
He paused and cocked an ear toward the door. A faint hubbub was now percolating through from the receptionist's lobby. It grew louder. Suddenly the door opened, letting in a roaring babble, as Geraldine ... the usually poker-faced secretary ... leaped through and slammed it shut again. Her eyes, behind their thick lenses, were round and a little wild.
"It's General Criswell and Admiral Flack," she panted. "They insist on seeing you." She gasped for breath and added, as though she could not quite believe her own words, "And ... and ... oh, Mr. Jordan; they're quarreling!"
Jordan said, "Quarreling? Two staff men quarreling?" He looked uncertainly at Clements. "I thought there was a regulation against that?"
Clements gave a palms up shrug.
"Well, there is," snapped Jordan. "Has something to do with interservice unity or something ... been on the books for years. Send them in, Gerry."
Tentatively she opened the door and almost had time to gesture before being bowled over by the visitors.
Admiral Flack had the advantage of volume, and Jordan got his message first.
"Jordan," he roared in true bullhorn style, "I want to make one thing clear! '58 Beta was Navy through and through! Start to finish! She's got salt water on her, and she's going to be pulled out of orbit and that's that!"
"Navy through and through, hell!" sneered General Criswell. "A fine botch you made of it, too! How many times did you try before you slung that thing up there? How many goofs were there afterward? The Dodgers are in last place, and they've got five pitchers who could have done it without warming up."
"Watch your mouth, Criswell," advised Admiral Flack, tightlipped. "There's considerable tonnage of Air Force hardware under water, too. Maybe the Russians beat us, and maybe von Braun got lucky, but ours is still there, Mac! Just remember that!"
"You people have fetishes," stormed the General. "You even keep Admirals' hats and hang them on pegs. Who wants your hat, you pack rat? Where would we ever keep all the junk you people want to save?" He shuddered. "Good God! Hats!"
"That's ... just ... about ... all ... I'm ... going ... to ... take," Admiral Flack said, spelling out the entire sentence. He stared furiously at the General. "Don't think we don't know that once '58 Beta is down it'll be your precious damned '61 Epsilon that's in the oldest orbit. I'll bet you fly boys will break your silly backs trying to recover that one when its time comes."
Jordan pounded his desk. "Gentlemen, shut up!"
Appalled by this exhibition of low level civilian effrontery, they both did so without really meaning to.
"Gentlemen," Jordan announced firmly in the almost uncanny silence, "the entire problem is solved as of now. '58 Beta constitutes a demonstrable menace to navigation. Under the authority vested in this office I will issue instructions to have it picked up by a salvage ship tomorrow. Once it's brought down you may claim it if you like and do with it what you please."
Admiral Flack shot a look of pure triumph at General Criswell. The General, however, was not paying attention. He was looking, almost with an expression of pity, at Amos Jordan.
"I'm afraid, Mr. Jordan," he said slowly, "that you don't fully realize the implications of such an act at this time. It may be within your jurisdiction to salvage and all that, but I believe that the decision whether to salvage now rests with the legislature. I would hesitate to act without securing high ... very high concurrence in this matter."
"Criswell, you're an idiot! A chicken hearted idiot! On top of that you haven't any business telling Jordan ... ah, Mr. Jordan what he can and can't do."
Criswell glared icily at Flack.
"A mere suggestion," he gritted and stalked out.
Admiral Flack paused and bestowed a warm smile upon Amos Jordan before hurrying out the door after the General. As the door closed Jordan heard the contest break out afresh in the lobby.
That was only the beginning. The general population, eager for a silly season diversion, chose sides with religious fervor. Congress went into emergency session. Newspapers drew their lines and fought ferociously. Student riots began on the second day and sympathy strikes on the third.
On the fourth Jordan got the big news break first, for a change. With growing caution he had been holding the situation unaided by the simple expedient of refusing to issue a salvage permit without which '58 Beta could not be touched. Clements brought the news at midnight, interrupting a tempestuous press conference.
He managed to get Jordan out of the milling lobby and into the office. "We've got trouble, chief," he began. "Ascension reports Beta out of orbit."
Jordan stared incredulously.
"Perturbed that badly already? Maybe something's wrong with their computers."
"Not perturbed, chief. Gone. It's just not there any more. It's been picked up ... no doubt about it."
Jordan's face purpled.
"I want a complete ground tracking report on that pebble for the last three revolutions. Fast!"
"I doubt if we can get it," said Clements dubiously. "Woomera only checks it occasionally to train radar operators. Perigee was south of Singapore on the last two passes, but so low I doubt if they got any clear sightings. It would be a waste of time."
Jordan wrung his hands. "You have something better?"
Clements sat for a minute with a faraway look in his eyes.
"Do we know anyone who can make Navy Operations toe the mark?"
"Of course. Why?"
Clements tapped his finger-tips together.
"Wouldn't it be interesting to filter the mission reports of all Navy ships that have been outside the atmosphere in, oh, say the last thirty-six hours?"
Jordan's eyes lit up like twin afterburners.
"They'll have it hidden like the British crown jewels, but...." He grabbed the phone. "Gerry? Have General Criswell paged and ask him to come to my office if possible." He chuckled triumphantly. "Criswell's on the Joint Security Service Board ... what an exercise for that gumshoe outfit!"
It took three hours for General Criswell's ferrets to obtain facsimiles of the reports needed. A sweating staff (borrowed from the cryptographic section to preserve secrecy) finally broke them down to three probables: a Lunar courier which had aborted and returned to base for no clean cut reason, an alleged training exercise in three body orbits with the instructors' seats inexplicably filled with nothing lower than the rank of Lieut. Commander and a sour smelling sortie out of Guantanamo labeled Operation Artifact.
Jordan remained sold on the latter for half an hour until fuel consumption and flight time log figures failed to correlate with an orbital flight, and the bottom fell out of the case. As it turned out it was the courier after all. Both the pilot and his commander refused to talk until presented with the alternative of court-martial proceedings.
Senator Darius: Now, Admiral, I'm going to put the question to you this way, just to see if I can get a straight answer. Did you or did you not issue orders to Lunar Courier G771 specifying in general substance that it was to retrieve satellite '58 Beta?
Admiral Flack: (hurt but proud) The Navy, sir, has a long record of gallantry, a tradition of derring do dating back to John Paul Jones ... a tradition we are all proud of and which we continue and will always continue....
Senator D: (with acid patience) Again, if I may put the question, Admiral. Did you or did you not issue the order?
Admiral F: (defiantly) '58 Beta is Navy property, sir! I am glad and proud to say that I issued the order to retrieve her.
Senator D: Aha! (to the recording secretary) Did you get that? And now, Admiral, will you explain to this committee why this action, in view of the exigencies of the present situation, didn't strike you as singularly high handed, not to say out of your jurisdiction?
Admiral F: (after a whispered consultation with an aide) Well, sir, there is a precedent. May I recall to your attention an incident recorded in Navy history about eighty years ago. An officer of flag rank, if my memory holds, in defiance of instructions and in a damaged ship, at great danger to himself and his crew, acting on an operational plan which had been scathingly disapproved by his superiors, went to the rescue ... the successful rescue ... of a three-man Lunar exploration party which had become lost near the south scarp of Sinus Iridum. The officer's name, I am almost certain, was Captain Steven Darius ... the Senator's grandfather, I believe ... an officer the Navy will never cease to honor.
Senator D: (shuffling papers, clearing throat, wiping glasses) Well, ah, yes Admiral ... I do recall something along those lines. Of course, this is different ... altogether different. But at the same time, sir, a most interesting parallel. The ... ah ... the committee will recess until two o'clock. You are excused, Admiral. And ... oh, yes ... if you're free, sir ... possibly you might join me at lunch?
"If I were you, chief," said Clements soothingly, "I would just stop worrying about your jurisdiction in this thing. Beta's out of orbit, and we no longer have a problem. How nice can things be?"
Jordan gritted his teeth and wadded up paper with an odd gesture, as though his fingers were encircling someone's neck.
"You will be sorry you said that," he said peevishly. "Whatever happens I'm going to assign it to you for action while I sit on the bench and cheer." He rang for Gerry. "What's happening now ... I haven't been out of here in three hours."