Mercy Flight

by Mack Reynolds



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Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Planet Stories July 1951. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

The phone rang and Ed Kerry wasn’t doing anything so he picked it up and said, “Yeah?”

He said yeah a few more times, his eyes widening infinitesimally each time, and finally wound up with, “Okay, Bunny.”

He hung up and said, “That was Bunny, up in Oneonta. She says a guy is coming in from Luna with a kid for emergency hospitalization, radiation burns or something.”

Jake was sitting back in his swivel chair, his feet on the desk and his hands clasped behind his head. He growled, “That’s the trouble with women in this game; they’ve got no story sense. She phones all the way from Oneonta on a story that’s been run a hundred times. Every time somebody gets good and sick up on Luna they bring ’em to Earth for treatment.” He shrugged. “Okay, so it’s a kid this time. Do up about a stick of it, Kerry, and we’ll put it on page three if you can work it into a tearjerker.”

Ed Kerry said, “You didn’t let me finish, Jake. Something’s wrong with this guy’s radio.”

Somebody on the rewrite desk said, “Something wrong with his radio? He’s gotta have his radio or he can’t come in.”

Jake took his feet from the desk and sat up. “What’d’ ya mean, something’s wrong with his radio?”

“Bunny said he’s calling for his landing instructions but they can’t get anything back to him. He’s just reached Brennschluss and he’s in free fall now; it’ll be four days before he gets here. That’s the way they work it⁠—he’s supposed to get in touch with the spaceport he wants to land at, and.⁠ ⁠…”

“I know how they work it,” Jake growled. “See if there’s anything on the last newswire from Luna about him.”

* * * * *

Phil Mooney flicked his set on again and repeated carefully, “Calling Oneonta Spaceport. Phil Mooney Outbound Luna, Calling Oneonta Spaceport. Come in Oneonta.”

Calling Phil Mooney. Calling Phil Mooney. Oneonta Spaceport Calling Phil Mooney. Come in Mooney.

He cast a quick glance back at the child, strapped carefully in the metal bunk. She was unconscious now, possibly as a result of the acceleration in leaving Luna. He’d had to reach a speed of approximately two miles per second to escape Earth’s satellite, and that had called for more G’s acceleration than Lillian’s sick body could bear. His lips thinned back over his teeth; it would be even worse when they came in for landing and he had to brake against Earth’s gravity.

He switched on the set again to give it another try. Instructions were to contact the spaceport at which you planned to land as soon as possible. There was plenty of time, of course, but the sooner the better.

He said, “Calling Oneonta Spaceport. This is Phil Mooney, Luna, Calling Oneonta. Come in Oneonta.”

Calling Phil Mooney. Calling Phil Mooney. Oneonta Spaceport Calling Phil Mooney. Come in Mooney.

* * * * *

Ed Kerry came back to the city room with a sheet of yellow paper that he’d torn off the radiotype.

He said, “Here it is, Jake. This kid⁠—her name is Lillian Marshall⁠—is the only survivor of an explosion at that nuclear-fission laboratory they had on the dark side. Her old man and her mother were working under this Professor Deems; both of them killed.”

His eyes went on scanning the story. “Evidently this Phil Mooney runs an unscheduled spaceline. Anyway, he blasted off to rush the kid to an earth hospital.”

Jake took the dispatch and scowled at it. “Kerry,” he growled, “see what we got on this Phil Mooney in the morgue.” He rubbed the end of his nose thoughtfully. “They’ll probably pick him up all right when he gets nearer.”

Somebody on rewrite said, “It doesn’t make any difference how far he is; they should be able to reach him even if he was halfway to Mars. Something’s wrong with his set.”

* * * * *

He decided to try one of the other spaceports. As a matter of fact, it made very little difference at which of them he landed. There’d be suitable hospital facilities within reasonable distance of any spaceport. He was three days out now, and, according to spaceways custom, had to let them know he was coming in. It wasn’t like landing an airplane⁠—they want plenty of time to prepare for a spacecraft’s arrival.

He said, “Calling New Albuquerque Spaceport. Calling New Albuquerque Spaceport. Phil Mooney, Luna, Calling New Albuquerque. Please come in New Albuquerque.”

Calling Phil Mooney. Calling Phil Mooney. New Albuquerque Spaceport Calling Phil Mooney. We are receiving you perfectly. Come in Mooney.

He tried once more.

“Calling New Albuquerque Spaceport. Calling New Albuquerque Spaceport. Please come in New Albuquerque. Emergency. Repeat Emergency. Please come in New Albuquerque.”

Calling Phil Mooney. Calling Phil Mooney. We are receiving you perfectly, Mooney. Come in Mooney.

* * * * *

Kitty Kildare took up her notes and prepared to make her way back to her own tiny office.

“I’ve got it, Jake,” she said breathlessly. Kitty was always breathless over any story carrying more pathos than a basketball score. “My column tomorrow’ll have them melting. Actually, I mean.”

Jake shuddered inwardly after she left.

Ed Kerry came up and drooped on the edge of the desk.

“Here’s the dope on this Phil Mooney, Jake,” he said. “He’s about thirty. Was in the last war and saw action when we had our space-forces storming New Petrograd. Did some fighting around the satellites, too. Piloted a one seater, got a couple of medals, but never really made big news.”

“Got any pix of him?”

Ed Kelly shook his head. “Like I said, he never really made the big news. Just one more of these young fellas that saw plenty of action and when the war was over was too keyed up to settle down to everyday life.”

Jake picked up the thin folder and riffled through the few clippings there. “What’s he doing now?” he growled.

“Evidently when the war ended he got one of these surplus freighters and converted it. Name of his company is Mooney Space Service; sounds impressive, but he’s the only one in it. Probably going broke; most of those guys are⁠—can’t make the grade against the competition of Terra-Luna Spaceways and the other big boys with the scheduled flights.”

The city editor scratched the end of his nose speculatively. “Maybe we ought to have Jim do up an editorial on these unscheduled spacelines. Something along the line of how heroic some of these guys are; that sort of stuff. Do up the idea that they’re always ready, fair weather or foul, to make an emergency trip.⁠ ⁠…”

Kerry said, “There isn’t any weather, fair or foul, in space.”

Jake scowled at him. “You know what I mean, wise guy. Meanwhile, get some statements from some authorities.”

Ed Kerry said painfully, “What statements from what authorities?”

The city editor glared at him. “So help me, Ed. I’m going to stick you on obituaries. Any statements from any authorities. You know damn well what I mean. Get some doctor to beef about the fact there aren’t suitable hospitalization facilities on Luna. Get some president of one of these unscheduled spacelines to sound off about what a hero Mooney is and how much good these unscheduled spacelines are⁠—and that reminds me of something⁠—”

He yelled to a tall lanky reporter at the far end of the city room: “Hey, Ted. Get Bunny on the line up in Oneonta and tell her I said to look up some of these unscheduled spacelines guys and see if she can get a photograph of Phil Mooney from them. Maybe he’s got some buddies in Oneonta.”

* * * * *

There was one thing about being in free fall. You had lots of time to sit and think. Too much time, perhaps.

You had the time to think it all over. And over and over again.

There was the war which had torn you from the routine into which life had settled, from friends and relations and sweethearts, and thrown you into a one man space-fighter in which you sometimes stayed for weeks on end without communication with anyone, friend or foe.

There had probably been no equivalent situation in the history of past warfare to the one man space-scouts. The nearest thing to them might have been the flyers of 1914, in the first World War⁠—but, of course, they were up there alone only for hours at a time, not weeks.

“You develop self-reliance, men,” was the way the colonel had put it. “You develop self-reliance, or you’re sunk.

“You’re in space by yourself, alone. You can’t use your radio or they can locate you. If something happens, some emergency, or some contact with the enemy, you’re on your own. You have to figure it out; there’s no superior officer to do your thinking; you’re the whole works.”

And the colonel had been right, of course. It was a matter of using your own wits, your own ability. Fighting in a space-scout was the work of an individual, not of a team. Perhaps it would be different someday in the future when machines and instruments had been developed further; but now it was an individualistic game, each man for himself.

And probably it was because of this training that he, Phil Mooney, was unable to get back into the crowd after the war had ended. He was an individualist who rebelled against working not only for but even with someone else.

He should have known better. Industry had reached beyond the point where one man goes out by himself and makes a fortune⁠—or even a living, he thought wryly. It’s the day of the big concerns, of tremendous trusts and cartels, who didn’t even have to bother with the task of squeezing out tiny competitors like himself. He was out before he started.

The Mooney Space Service. He snorted in self deprecation.

Oh, well.

He pulled himself erect and made his way to the bunk. The kid was awake. He grinned down at her and said, “How’s it going, Lillian?”

Her eyes seemed glazed, even worse than they’d been yesterday, but she tried to smile back at him. “All right,” she whispered, her child’s voice so low he could hardly make it out. “Where’s mother.⁠ ⁠…”

Phil Mooney held a finger to his lips. “Maybe you’d better not talk too much, Lillian. Your mother and father are⁠ ⁠… they’re all right. The thing now is to get you to the hospital and make you well again. Understand?”

* * * * *

Kitty Kildare was saying indignantly, “What’s this about no insurance on Luna?”

“Use your head, Kitty,” Jake grunted. “What company’d be crazy enough to insure anybody working on Luna? By the way, that was a good piece on Mooney and the Marshall kid.”

“Did you read it?” Kitty Kildare was pleased.

He shuddered. “No, but the letters have been pouring in. Maybe you ought to do another. Take it from some other angle this time.”

“That’s why I wanted to know about the insurance. Do you realize that this child, this poor, sick, defenseless child, is penniless? Actually, I mean. Bad enough that her parents have left her an orphan, but, Jake, that child is penniless.”

“All right, all right,” he told her, “work on that for tomorrow’s column.”

Ed came up with another radiotype report, just as Kitty was leaving. “This guy Mooney’s calling all the other spaceports now, Jake. Evidently he’s getting desperate; he’s only two days out. And by the way, here’s a new angle. This guy Harry Marshall, the kid’s father, was a wartime buddy of Phil Mooney; they went to cadet school or something together.”

Jake growled thoughtfully, “He hasn’t got a chance, but it makes a tremendous story. Get somebody to rig up a set in the radiotype room, Ed, and we’ll see if we can listen in.”

* * * * *

There was a desperate, tense, taut inflection in his voice now.

“Calling New Albuquerque Spaceport or Oneonta Spaceport. Phil Mooney calling any Earth spaceport. Phil Mooney Calling Oneonta, New Albuquerque, Casablanca, Mukden, any Earth spaceport. Emergency. Emergency. Request landing instructions. Have Lillian Marshall, eight years old, needing immediate medical care, aboard. Please come in any Earth Spaceport.”

Calling Phil Mooney. New Albuquerque calling Phil Mooney. Ambulance waiting on grounds. Receiving you perfectly. Come in.⁠ ⁠…

Calling Phil Mooney. Casablanca Spaceport Calling Phil.⁠ ⁠…

Calling Phil Mooney. Mukden Spaceport Calling.⁠ ⁠…

Calling Phil Mooney. Oneonta Spaceport Calling Phil Mooney.⁠ ⁠…

* * * * *

Ed Kerry looked up over the set in the radiotype room at the city editor. He wet his lips carefully and said, “He’s only got one day now. They’ve got to pick him up in hours or he’s sunk.”

Jake said, “I never did understand how that works. Why can’t he land himself? I know he can’t, but why?”

The reporter shrugged. “I don’t quite get it either, but evidently the whole operation is pretty delicate stuff. They bring him down with radar, somehow or other. It’s not like landing an airplane. Landing a spacecraft is done from the ground up⁠—not from the spacecraft down. The pilot has comparatively little to do about it. At least, that’s the way it is with nine ships out of ten.”

The set began to blare again, and they both listened tensely. It was Phil Mooney.

“Listen, you guys down there. If you’re sitting around playing craps or something, I’m going to have a few necks to break when I get down.”

The two newspapermen stared at each other over the set. Ed Kerry ran his tongue over his lips again.

The strained tone had gone from the voice of the space-pilot now and had been replaced by one of hopelessness. He said, “I don’t know who I think I’m kidding. I know darn well that something’s wrong with my receiver and I can’t find out what it is. Maybe my sender is off too, for all I know. All I can pick up is some girl singing something about white roses. White roses, yet! I want landing instructions and I get white roses.”

Ed Kerry jerked his head up and snapped, “Holy jumping hell, he’s able to pick some commercial station!”

Jake came to his feet, stuck his neck out of the door and yelled at the top of his voice, “Phil Mooney is receiving some commercial station! Some dame singing something about white roses! Check every station in the city! Find out if any of them are broadcasting some dame singing about white roses.”

* * * * *

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this program for an emergency situation. Undoubtedly, you have heard on your newscasts and have read in your papers of the tragic case of Lillian Marshall, child victim of an atomic explosion on Luna which orphaned her and necessitated her immediate flight to an Earth hospital.

For the past three days the spacecraft carrying her, piloted by war hero Phillip Mooney, has been having trouble with its radio. Due to circumstances surrounding landing of spacecraft, the two have been given up as lost in spite of the fact that almost hourly it has been possible to receive messages from Mooney.

It is now revealed that he is able to pick up this program on the Interplanetary Broadcasting System network. We are not sure which of the nearly two thousand stations of our system he is receiving, but we will now attempt to reach Phillip Mooney with relayed messages from the Oneonta Spaceport where expert medical care is awaiting little Lillian Marshall.

Come in Oneonta.

* * * * *

Calling Phil Mooney. Calling Phil Mooney. Come in, Phil. This is Oneonta Spaceport, relaying through the Interplanetary Broadcasting System. Come in, Phil.

“Phil Mooney, calling Oneonta. I’m getting you, Oneonta. Come in, Oneonta. Over.”

Okay, Phil. Now this is it. We should have had you two hours ago, but we’ll make out all right. Your velocity is a little too high. Give it six more units on your Kingston valves. Get that? Over.

“Got it. Six more units on the Kingstons. Over.”

All right now. Switch on your remote control, Phil. We’ll take it from here. Stand by the coordinators.⁠ ⁠…

It was night, but a blaze of lights illuminated the Oneonta Spaceport. Hundreds of landcars stood on the parking lots, thousands of persons crowded the wire fence which kept all but port personnel from the field itself.

The old space-freighter sank easily to the apron and in seconds the rocket flames died. A surge of humanity ebbed over the field toward the craft.

Phil Mooney opened the pilot-compartment’s hatch and stuck his head out, blinking in surprise at the mob beneath him.

“I don’t know what this is all about,” he began, “but I’ve got a sick kid aboard. There’s supposed to be an ambulance.⁠ ⁠…”

Police wedged through the crowd, convoying a white-haired, white-jacketed man. He called up to the space-pilot, “We won’t need an ambulance, Mr. Mooney. I’ve already made arrangements for facilities here at the airport for immediate treatment.”

Phil Mooney made his way to the ground and scowled, still obviously startled by the swelling crowd.

“Who in kert are you?” he asked.

The other motioned for two assistants to enter the ship and bring out the child. “I’m Doctor Kern,” he said. “I’ll see.⁠ ⁠…”

“Doctor Adrian Kern, the radiation expert?” The pilot frowned worriedly. “See here, doctor, the Marshalls were friends of mine, and I’ve taken over the care of little Lillian, but I’m⁠—well, I’m afraid I couldn’t afford to pay you⁠ ⁠… I mean.⁠ ⁠…”

The famous doctor smiled at him. “I’ve been retained by the Interplanetary Golden Heart, Phil. You needn’t worry about my fee. Besides,” and he smiled easily, “I’m not going to accept any fee for this case. You see, I was listening to Marsha Malloy singing ‘Love of White Roses’ when your call came through. I believe it was the most poignant experience I have ever been through.”

A girl next to the doctor gushed, “I’m Bunny Davis, Mr. Mooney. The managing editor of our newspaper chain has authorized me to buy your story for five thousand. If you’ll just⁠—”

Phil Mooney blinked. “I⁠—I⁠—”

A heavyset man in a business suit grasped his hand and shook it with fervor, while flashbulbs went off blindingly. “Phil,” he said huskily, as though moved by deep emotion, “as president of the board of directors of Terra-Luna Spaceways, I wish to take this opportunity to offer you a full⁠—”

“Hey! Give us a smile, Phil,” a man on top of a television truck yelled.⁠ ⁠…

* * * * *

He was headed back for Luna the next day.

They’d been indignant, of course. There was Hollywood, and the television networks, and that Terra-Luna Spaceways guy who wanted to get in on all the publicity by offering him a vice-presidency. And the newspaper editors, and the magazine editors, and all the rest of them.

Approximately a billion persons had been tuned in to the Interplanetary network when the emergency landing instructions had been broadcast to him through that system. A billion persons had sat on the edge of their chairs, tensely, as his ship had been brought in.

He and little Lillian had received more publicity in the past twenty-four hours than anyone since Lindbergh.

And the child would be all right now. Before he’d left, checks totaling over a quarter of a million had come in for her. Donations from all over the Earth and from Mars and Venus and even some from the Jupiter satellites.

And offers of adoption. Thousands of them, from rich and poor⁠—even including Marsha Malloy, the video star who’d been singing that song, “Love of White Roses.”

Yes, Lillian would be all right. He wouldn’t have been able to pay for the medical care she’d needed; but now she had the most capable experts on Earth at her disposal.

They had been indignant when he blasted off again for Luna. They’d wanted to make a hero of him. This leaving on his part they interpreted as modesty⁠—which, come to think of it, would make him all the more of a hero.

Phil Mooney slipped a hand down to his set and flicked it on. He dialed over a dozen different stations. The news programs were all full of him and of Lillian. You’d think, to hear them, that he was the noblest, the most daring, the greatest man since Alexander the Great.

He grinned wryly. One of the reasons he’d been so anxious to leave was to get away before somebody thought to check his set to see what was wrong with it. Why, if anybody had found that it was actually in perfect shape, they’d probably have lynched him.

Yeah. The colonel had been right. In the space-forces you learned to be self-reliant. When you got in a bad spot, you figured it out yourself. You’re on your own; it’s you against everything and everybody. Anything goes.

His grin broadened. Maybe he wasn’t a hero⁠—the way they were all painting him; but at least Lillian was all right now, and no longer penniless the way her parents’ death had left her.

—And he wasn’t doing so badly himself.