The Single Ship

by Alan Barclay

In the committee room at United Nations Military Headquarters on Moon Base a meeting was reaching its conclusion. There were empty coffee cups on the table and ash trays piled with cigarette stubs. Men in the uniforms of several nations, civilians mostly wearing spectacles, and neatly dressed, self-possessed stenographers were beginning to fold documents back into brief cases and button up uniforms or jackets and glance at wrist watches.

“Finally,” the chairman said, “it remains for Admiral Dickenson to select the man for the job.”

Everyone turned to look at Admiral Dickenson. So far this had been a technical discussion, and he was representing Advanced Fighter Group. He had therefore not said much up till this moment.

Dickenson was a gray-haired American officer, with a face someone had once described as having been carved out of teak with a dull ax.

“What sort of man do you want?” he growled.

“You know what we want, Admiral,” the chairman said. “The best you’ve got.”

Dickenson began flipping through the pages of a typed document.

“Our men are all good,” he said. “To get out into Fighter Group, stay there and continue to remain alive, they’ve got to be good.”

“The best, Admiral,” the chairman insisted.

Dickenson continued to turn the pages for a moment longer, then suddenly tossed the catalogue on the table. “I don’t have to look,” he told them with a sigh, “I know the man you want… I’ll give you Jason.”

“Jason?” someone asked. “Never heard of him… What’s his record?”

“Aged twenty-two—five kills to date.”

“Only five? But we want your top-line man!”

“He’s obviously inexperienced,” another officer protested.

“If you refuse him for this mission nobody will be better pleased than me,” Dickenson snapped. “He’s one of the most likeable boys we’ve got. But you ask me for the most suitable man to do this job, and I say Jason. I stick to that.”

“It’s Admiral Dickenson’s task to select the man,” the chairman interposed. “And he tells us Jason. Let us send for Jason.”

The committee picked up caps and files and papers, and dispersed. Some of them took the train across the plateau from Base into the lights and civilization of Moon City; others returned to their offices nearby.

Admiral Dickenson wrote an order and tossed it into his tray. It was picked up by a messenger, delivered to another office, recorded, and passed on to signals. Two hours later a radio man hammered it out with a host of other messages, orders, advice and information, all crammed together on the high-speed transmitter. It went out on a tight beam from a parabolic aerial carefully aimed towards a point many millions of miles out in space. The receiving aerial of Advanced Fighter Base picked up the whole stream of messages, drew them down into the interior of the rock and sorted them out.

Here the order hung fire for a week, for Lieutenant Jason was out on patrol. At the end of that time he returned, received his instructions, and soon found himself traveling back to Moon Base as passenger in a supply ship. When the transport touched down he got a lift in the ground-car over to Base, passed through the lock and was let loose among the maze of corridors and passages which burrowed into the side of the mountain.

He got a lift on a trolley along one of the main passages down as farts stores, and here he drew his kit, and changed from operational rig into uniform—a neat, almost-new, well-pressed black uniform, with the scarlet and yellow rocket flare above the breast pocket.

The stores N.C.O. watched him pull on his cap and give it a tilt to one side.

“All set to give the girls a treat, sir?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Sergeant. I’ve got to report to one of the big shots. This visit is business.”

“Whatever it is, I expect you’ll get a couple of days over at Moon City, sir,” the sergeant opined.

“I hope so. Meantime, I must find Admiral Dickenson, I.C. Fighter Personnel. How do I get to him?”

“He’ll be at Staff Headquarters. Go into the main corridor and thumb a lift on any trolley with a red circle on its front. Don’t take a yellow circle, else you’ll find yourself down in the dungeons among maintenance and we’ll have to send out search parties for you.”

Jason did as advised, and presently found himself at Staff Headquarters. He slid open a door marked Admiral Dickenson — Personnel, and came face to face with a young woman operating a typewriter —one of these good-looking, impeccably groomed, self-assured young women who invariably get jobs as personnel assistants to staff officers.

She for her part saw a medium-sized, rather thin, blue-eyed young man with fair wavy hair. For almost the first time in her life she had the experience of meeting a junior officer who looked neither bold nor shy, who neither called her Gorgeous nor Sis nor Babe. As a matter of fact, all Jason said was “I’m reporting to Admiral Dickenson— the name’s Jason.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” she said, with more warmth than she generally extended to junior officers. “Go right in.”

Jason went through the inner door and saluted the man at the desk. “Lieutenant Jason, sir,” he announced.

Dickenson put down his pen and leaned back in his chair.

“Take a seat, Jason,” he said, watching the young man appraisingly.

Jason sat down. He crossed one leg over the other and clasped his hands round his knee. Dickenson noted that he remained in that position without changing, entirely at his ease; no fidgeting, no twiddling of fingers or twitching of uniform. He looked the grim, hard-faced old admiral straight in the eye.

“Ha!” the old man grunted. “I’ve been looking up your record, Jason. I’ve selected you as a suitable officer to carry out a special task.” He paused to lift a questioning eyebrow at Jason.

“Thank you, sir,” Jason said. “I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Dickenson barked. “This isn’t the sort of thing one says thank you for. The first thing to be said about this job is that it’s strictly a matter of volunteering. You don’t have to take it if you feel disinclined. If you refuse, the fact won’t be noted in your records. You understand that?”

“Yes, sir.” His hands were still lightly clasped over his knee.

“The second thing is this—a whole lot of time, money and thought has been spent preparing this project and, therefore, if you know any reason why you might be unsuited to carry out your part, you must refuse the job. That’s an order. It’s the only order I shall give you in connection with this business. Now,” he continued, lifting the desk phone, “not to prolong the mystery, I’ll take you to see the project, rather than just talk about it—Hello!” he barked into the telephone, “Get me Admiral Hayes… Hello, Hayes, I’ve got Jason here. I’m taking him down to the hangar to show him round. Like to meet me there?… Good!”

He cradled the phone. “Come along,” he said.

The old man loped out of the room like a tiger. Jason, less acclimatised to Moon gravity, followed him more cautiously.

They went a good way along the main corridor then descended to a lower level by sliding down a pole. They passed into a huge ship-servicing hangar. Row upon row of scout ships, types Jason had come to know out in space, stood in lines. Mechanics swarmed over them. The place was full of the noise of riveting and the sizzle and snap of electric welding arcs. As Jason looked around an overalled man pushed past, carrying on his shoulder a complete motor assembly, a load which back on Earth he could never have lifted off the ground.

“Atomics and fuel tanks are installed elsewhere,” Dickenson explained. “That job has to be carried out under safety precautions. This way.”

He led the way diagonally across the hangar, ducking under a fuselage, and stepping over. stacks of rods and girders. They passed through a door into a smaller room.

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