Evening shadows came across the spaceport in long strides. It was the one time of day when you could almost feel the world rotating. In the rays of the sinking sun, dusty palms round the spaceport looked like so many varnished cardboard props. By day, these palms seemed metal; by evening, so much papier mache. In the tropics, nothing was itself, merely fabric stretched over heat, poses over pulses.
The palms bowed stiffly as Scout Ship AX25 blasted up into the sky, peppering them with another spray of dust.
The three occupants of the ship were rocked back on their acceleration couches for only a few seconds. Then Allan Cunliffe got up, strolled casually over to the port and gazed out. Nobody would guess from his composed face that the ship had just embarked on a hazardous mission.
"At once you begin to live," he said, looking down at the world with a kind of pride.
His friend, Tyne Leslie, nodded in an attempt at agreement. It was the best, at the moment, that he could do. Joining Allan, he too looked out.
Already, he observed wonderingly, the mighty panorama of sunset was only a red stain on a carpet below them; Sumatra lay across the equator like a roasting fish on a spit. Outside: a starry void. In his stomach: another starry void.
At once you begin to live... But this was Tyne's first trip on the spy patrol; living meant extra adrenalin walloping through his heart valves, the centipede track of prickles over his skin, the starry void in the lesser intestine.
"It's the sort of feeling you don't get behind an office desk," he said. Chalk one up to the office desk, he thought.
Allan nodded, saying nothing. His silences were always positive. When the rest of the world was talking as it never had before, Allan Cunliffe remained silent. Certainly he had as many mixed feeling about the Rosks as anyone else on Earth: but he kept the lid on them. It was that quality as much as any other that had guaranteed a firm friendship between Allan and Tyne, long before the latter followed his friend's lead and joined the space Service.
"Let's get forward and see Murray," Allan said, clapping Tyne on the back. Undoubtedly he had divined something of the other's feelings.
The scout was small, one of the Bristol-Cunard 'Hynam' line, a three-berth job with light armament and Betson-Watson 'Medmenham X' accelerators. The third member of the team, its leader, was Captain Murray Mumford, one of the first men ever to set eyes on the Rosks, four years ago.
He grinned at the other two as they came into the cabin, set the autopilot, and turned round to face them.
"Luna in five and a fraction hours," he said. Once you had seen Murray, you would never forget him. Physically he was no more and no less than a superb specimen of broad-shouldered manhood. Five minutes with him convinced you that he had that extraordinary persuasive ability which, without a word being said, could convert potential rivals into admirers. Tyne, always sensitive to the currents of human feeling, was aware of this magnetic quality of Murray's; he distrusted it merely because he knew Murray himself was aware of it and frequently used it to his own advantage.
"Well, what's the picture?" he asked, accepting a mescahale from Allan, trying to appear at ease.
"With any luck, well have a pretty quiet job for your first live op," Murray replied, as they lit their mescahales. "The target area, as you know, is Luna Area 101. Luna Intelligence reports a new object outside one of the Roskian domes. It's small and immobile--so far, at any rate. It's outside a dome on the southern perimeter of Area 101, which means it is fairly accessible from our point of view."
"What's the state of light there now, Murray?" Allan asked.
"Sundown in Grimaldi, which contains Area 101, was four hours ago. Intelligence suspect the Rosks may be planning something under cover of darkness; we have imposed a lot of shipping restrictions on their Earth-Luna route lately. So our orders are to slip in from the night side and investigate--obviously without being seen, if possible. Just a quick look over, personal inspection in spacesuits. We should not be out of the ship for more than twenty minutes. Then we streak for home again, heroes all."
The starry void blossomed up again in Tyne's midriff. Action; this was what he feared and what he wanted. He looked at the lunar map Murray carelessly indicated. One small square of it, low in the third quadrant covering Grimaldi, had been shaded yellow. This was Area 101. Beside it, in the same yellow crayon, one word had been written: Rosk.
Tyne noticed Murray studying his face intently, and turned away. "World Government made a great mistake in allowing the Rosks a base away from Earth," he said.
"You were the diplomat when Allan and I were just squaddies in the Space Service," Murray said, smiling. "You tell us why Area 101 was conceded to them."
"The official reason given," Allan said, stepping in to back up his friend, "was that while we were being kind to aliens we could not expect a space-travelling race to be pinned to one planet; we were morally obliged to cede them a part of Grimaldi, so that they could indulge in Earth-Moon flight."
"Yes, that was the official face-saver," Tyne agreed. "Whenever it is beaten on any point of an agenda, World Government, the United Nations Council, declares itself 'morally obliged.' In actual fact, we had rings made round us. The Rosks are so much better at argument and debate than we are, that at first they could talk themselves into anything they wanted."
"And now the Space Service sorts out the results of the politicians' muddle," Murray said. It sounded slightly like a personal jibe; Tyne could not forget he had once been in politics; and in his present state of tension, he did not ignore the remark.
"You'd better ask yourself how fine a job the S.S. is doing, Murray. Human-Roskian relations have deteriorated to such an extent this last year, that if we get caught in Area 101, we may well precipitate a war."
"Spoken like a diplomat!" Murray exclaimed sarcastically.
The three of them spent most of the next four and a half hours reading, hardly speaking at all.
"Better look alert. Put your books away," Murray said suddenly, jumping up and returning to the cabin.
"Don't mind Murray; he often behaves like a muscle-bound Schoolmaster," Allan said laughing.
Not often, Tyne admitted to himself without bothering to contradict his friend aloud. Murray had drunk with them several times at the Merdeka Hotel in Sumatra; his manner then had been far from schoolmasterly. He thought of Murray knocking back carioka till the early horns, rising later to eat with a monstrous appetite, while Allan and Tyne beside him pushed away at the large unappetising breakfasts the hotel provided.
The immediate present eclipsed Tyne's thoughts as the great black segment of moon slid up at them. It was like falling into a smile-shaped hole. Radar-guided, the scout became a tiny, moving chip of a ship again, instead of a little world in its own right.
A few lights gleamed far ahead: Rosk lights, shining up from Area 101.
"Strap in!" Murray said, over the intercom. They were braking. As deceleration increased, it felt as if they plunging through water, then soup, then treacle, then wood. Then they weren't plunging at all. They were feather-light. With a bump, they stopped. They were down.
"All change; please have your alien identity cards ready!" said Allan. Tyne wondered how he was feeling, even as Allan smiled reassuringly at him.
Murray left the cabin, walking with something like a swagger. He was pleasantly excited. For him, this was the simple life, with no cares but the present one.
"The radar-baffle's on," he said. "No signs of alarm from our friends outside. Let's get into our suits as fast as possible."
They climbed into the spacesuits. The process took half an hour, during which Tyne sweated freely, wondering all the while if their ship had been sighted by Rosk lookouts. But there was no alternative. The spacesuit is a tool: a bulky, complex, hazardous, pernicketty tool for surviving where one is not meant to survive. It needs endless adjustment before it can be trusted. There was not a spacer in the system who did not hate spacesuits, or envy the Rosks their immeasurably superior variety.