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Chapter 1

He was more alone than anyone had ever been before. He was alone, and he was dead.

His heart beat. His eyes saw, and his ears heard, and he felt. And yet, thought Kirk Hammond, he was a dead man and already in his tomb, this spheroid of magnesium and steel, this bubble of air and light flying silently out into the deeps of space, the vast and illimitable oceans of night.

It was funny. It was so funny that the sun and moon and stars were screaming with soundless laughter. A great nation had aspired, and many hundreds of brilliant men had worried and sweated, and many millions of dollars had been spent, and all of it just to give Kirk Hammond a funeral liked nobody had ever had before.

He laughed about it.

He sobbed.

The radio was buzzing, the last thin thread of coded sounds that still bound him to Earth. Soon, very soon, that umbilical cord of sound that tied him to his birth-world would break, and he would be dead to Earth.

"Canaveral to Explorer Nineteen, 17:44. The President announces award of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Kirk Hammond. The President adds, "With it goes a nation's thanks to its hero! End message."

That's fine, thought Hammond. I'm a hero. Five got a medal. They might as well have called it a posthumous award. That's what it is.

The radio buzzed again, almost at once.

"Canaveral to Explorer Nineteen, 17:47. World-wide gatherings are praying for you, Hammond, Every church, every creed, is holding special prayer services. End of message"

Prayers for the dead, he thought dully. That was nice of them. Very nice.

He could imagine the great wave of emotion sweeping around the world, the horror and pity at his fate. Those people didn't know him. Until the firing of Explorer Nineteen they had never heard of him. But now that he was trapped by a doom unlike any that had ever befallen a man before, their emotions would be real enough.

Hammond was tired. For more than a hundred hours he had been sitting strapped into his chair in this little sphere, and his body was cramped and numb. His mind was numb, too. He had had too much, in too short a time. The shock of the first firing. The blackout. The coming to, the struggle to breathe, to think, to raise his hand to the radio key and send back the signal that he still lived. The fear, and the gasping, and the tearing at his entrails, and then the thunder of God when the second stage of the rocket let go and hurled him into complete unconsciousness. He had come out of that shaken and sick, but with nothing inside him broken. And then had come the tensest wait of all, the waiting for the third stage to fire, the one that would hurl the little spherical shell of Hammond's satellite into its pre-calculated orbit. An orbit that would carry Kirk Hammond, first of all men, out around the Moon and back again to Earth.

Since years before, since 1957 and the first Russian Sputnik, they had been sending up satellites. First, in orbit around the Earth, unmanned ones to begin with and then when the ejection-escape mechanism had been perfected, with a man inside. Then the first unmanned satellite had been sent out in an orbit around the Moon. Now a man was going out, not to land upon the Moon but to fly out around it and back again and to land—if the ejection gimmick worked!—safe and alive on Earth. And Hammond was the man, the man who had waited tautly for that third stage to fire as he whirled up high over Earth in the steep trajectory.

Too soon! He had known from the very instant that the third stage exploded that something had gone wrong with the timer-relays, that the third stage had fired too soon. It had happened before, when satellites were launched. The curve was too steep, and the orbit was all wrong. Explorer Nineteen would not come nearly as close to the Moon as planned. It would be far enough to keep clear of the Moon's gravitational pull. And that meant . . . .

It meant that the satellite would not swing around the Moon at all but would pass it, and would go on, and on, and on.

The radio buzzed again.

"Canaveral to Explorer Nineteen, 18:02. Your hourly report is two minutes overdue. Please give your readings. End message"

Hammond smiled mirthlessly. That was John Willing. He could imagine Willing down there in Communications, sweating blood, keeping up a pretense with him, trying to pretend to him that everything was still routine, trying to keep his mind off the other thing. He switched on and tapped out the figures that he read off the meters, the dust-density, radiation, temperature sunside and darkside. Before he continued, he turned for a look back. The aluminum frame of the ejection seat, the seat in which he had been doubled for all these hours, swiveled easily in gimbals and he looked back through the Number Four filter-glass port.

A gigantic shadowed skullface glared at him, filling much of the star-decked black firmament. It was a little off to his right and he could not see that it was any smaller than an hour before, but he knew it was. The Moon would get smaller and smaller as Explorer Nineteen went on away from it, but after a certain point he would not be alive to see its diminishing. He looked beyond it to Earth. It was nothing but a biggish fuzzy greenish globe. He tried again to think how great a thing it was to be first of men to go out this far from it.

He tried, and he couldn't, it wouldn't work, and oh God why had he ever left? A man had to die sometime but nobody had ever died this way, alone in the dark lifeless emptiness a million miles from all his kind. A warm and passionate awareness of Earth, of all its ways that he had always taken for granted, arose in Hammond. Soft rain in spring nights, old trees beside a sleeping farm, the crude, brassy, surging human noises of a big city street, the wash and roll of the sea, the ways of winds and waves and birds. You had so much when you were living, that you never thought about until you were dead. Could the dead think? One of them could. Kirk Hammond could.

He clenched his fist and made his fingers stop their trembling before he sent the last sentences of his report, giving his visual reactions. The answer came quickly.

"Canaveral to Explorer Nineteen, 18:24. Report received. Do not lose hope, Hammond. Staff astronomers state that there is a chance unknown gravitational factors might bring you back into orbit. End message."

Hammond smiled a crooked smile again. He touched the key rapidly.

"Explorer Nineteen to Canaveral, 18:33. Don't feel you have to cheer me up, Willing. I learned my astrogation at Base too well. I've calculated the orbit of this satellite and it's going a long way before it comes back again. End message."

A long way, yes. The calculations, the frantic figures on the sheets that had slowly spelled out his doom to him, were still on his lap. With the cold finality of mathematics, they told what would happen to him. Explorer Nineteen was go far out beyond the Moon, very far. Its orbit would be a vastly elongated ellipse and that meant that somewhere out there it would turn and fall back and take up a far-swinging orbit around the Sun like that of a periodic comet. Once in a century or so it might come comparatively near to Earth.

Once in a century . . . Hammond's air-supply, not to mention water and food, had been calculated for a six-day swing out around the Moon and back again. And the six days were almost gone. He looked down at the actuating lever of the ejection-seat, the gadget that had been meant to bring him safely down by parachute when Explorer Nineteen returned to Earth. It would never be used, now. He was not going to return to Earth.

"Canaveral to Explorer Nineteen, 18:55. Your call is weaker but we can still work you. Are your batteries fading? Any message? End message."

Yes, Hammond thought, he had a message for them. He wanted to send it, to shout it, to scream it. He wanted to tell them to get him out of this neat, glittering little tomb, to get him back to Earth, somehow, anyhow. But there was no somehow. No help could reach him. There just wasn't any way. Someday, in the future, there might be manned rocket-ships that could do it, but not now. All the peoples of Earth could do, now, was to watch and listen helplessly as Explorer Nineteen bore him inexorably away into the darkness and the death.

Hammond felt panic rising in him fast. He must not let it master him. It would not help one little bit for him to sob his guts out over the radio. He had asked for this job, and he had known it was dangerous, and he might as well end up like a man and not a crybaby.

But he distrusted himself. Sooner or later hysteria might get the best of him, and start him to screaming across the void.

With sudden decision, Hammond tapped the key.

"Explorer Nineteen to Canaveral. Yes, my batteries are about gone. This will be my last contact. Don't let this accident stop you in the future. Good luck to all the guys who follow me. End message."

And as he finished, Hammond convulsively wrenched off the shielding and smashed at the tubes with a blind, quivering blow of his fist. Then he sat shaking. The batteries were not dead, but the radio was. No more talking back and forth. No danger now of breaking down and bawling and making a spectacle of himself. Back there on Earth, they'd think it a heroic last message. They wouldn't know that dread of panic had dictated it.

He was alone now. Really alone.

He looked through the port in front of him, at the glittering chains of stars. He was going to die out here where no man had ever died before. Well, there was a certain distinction in that.

Hammond felt very tired. It was odd, that with death looming you could still feel fatigue. But he did. He had sat in the cramped seat here inside the satellite for more than a hundred hours, and his body ached, and his brain felt numb. He had come a long way from the boy in an Ohio town who had yelled in excitement at the news of the first Sputnik. Had it been worth it, the struggle through Tech, the grinding nights of study, the planning and the toil, just for this?

He tried to imagine what they'd be saying about him back on Earth now. Thank God he had no one back there to grieve too deeply. The death of his parents in that auto-crash a few years ago was one reason, he knew, why Willing had picked him out of the final group of volunteers. But what was Willing saying, what were the crowds saying, the radio and TV announcers? It didn't matter. When he broke the radio, when he severed his last link with Earth, Earth and its people had somehow ceased to matter any more.

He was Kirk Hammond, alone in the universe and soon to die.

How soon?

Hammond studied the gauges of the oxygenator. He had less than two hours' oxygen left, even counting the small supply in the ejection-gimmick's tank. He wished he had even less time. He was afraid, terribly afraid, of going mad before he died.

"But why wait?"

It was as though a voice had spoken inside his tired brain. Why wait for the inevitable torture of asphyxiation? All he had to do was to open the hatch and the airless cold of space would end it all for him with merciful painlessness.

Hammond laid his hand on the heavy dogs of the hatch. So this was forgivable, this escape from madness and strangulation?

All of a sudden, in his brain the blind will to live frantically suggested impossible hopes.

"Don't do it! Don't open the hatch! Maybe the satellite will still turn back—maybe someone will come in a rocket—maybe—"

Crazy, impossible, he knew those hopes to be. It was only his subconscious putting up a last fight against his reason. Hammond fought down the clamorous voices. He had to do this thing quickly, or he would not do it at all. He began un-dogging the hatch with nervous haste.

The hatch went pung! and opened a tiny crack. Air started to whistle out of it in a needle-like jet. Hammond opened it no further, for to do so would mean an explosive decompression. He sat back, his shoulders sagging. He had come a long way and he was very tired.

He suddenly felt an awful and agonizing sensation of cold invade his whole body. This death was not as painless as he had expected!

That was his last thought.

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