The Finding of Haldgren
A Complete Novelette
By Charles Willard Diffin
Chet Ballard answers the pinpoint of light that from the craggy desolation of the moon stabs out man's old call for help.
The beasts fell into the pit beyond; their screams rang horribly as they fell.
The venerable President of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale had been speaking. He paused now to look out over the sea of faces that filled the great hall in serried waves. He half turned that he might let his eyes pass over the massed company on the platform with him. The Stratosphere Control Board—and they had called in their representatives from the far corners of Earth to hear the memorable words of this aged man.
From the waiting audience came no slightest sound; the men and women were as silent as that other audience listening and watching in every hamlet of the world, wherever radio and television reached. Again the figure of the President was drawn erect; the scanty, white hair was thrown back from his forehead; he was speaking:
" ... And this vast development has come within the memory of one man. I, speaking to you here in this year of 1974, have seen it all come to pass. And now I am overwhelmed with the wonder of it, even as I was when those two Americans first flew at Kittyhawk.
"I, myself, saw that. I saw with these eyes the first crude engine-bearing kites; I saw them from 1914 to 1918 tempered and perfected in the furnace of war; I saw the coming of detonite and the beginning of our air-transport of to-day. And always I have seen brave men—men who smiled grimly as they took those first crude controls in their hands; who laughed and waved to us as they took off in the 'flying coffins' of the great war; who had the courage to dare the unknown dangers of the high levels and who first threw their ships through the Repelling Area and blazed the air-trails of a new world.
"And to-day I, who have seen all this, stand before you and say: 'Thank God that the spirit of brave men goes on!'
"It has never ended—that adventurer strain—that race of Viking men. We have two of them here to-night. The whole world is pausing this instant wherever men are on land or water or air to do honor to these two.
"They do not know why they are here. They have been summoned by the Stratosphere Control Board which has delegated to me the honor of making the announcement."
The tall figure was commandingly erect; for an instant the fire of youth had returned to him.
"Walter Harkness!" he called. "Chester Bullard! Stand forth that the eyes of the world may see!"
Two men arose from among the members of the Board and came hesitantly forward. Strongly contrasting was the darkly handsome face of Harkness, man of wealth and Pilot of the Second Class, and the no less pleasing features of Chet Bullard, Master Pilot of the World. For Bullard's curling hair was as golden as the triple star upon his chest that proclaimed his standing to the world and all the air above.
The speaker was facing them; he turned away for a moment that he might bow to a girl who was still seated next to the chair where Walt Harkness had been.
"To Mrs. Harkness," he said, "who, until one month ago, was Mademoiselle Delacouer of our own beloved France, I shall have something further to say. She, too, has been summoned by the Board, but, for now, I address these two."
Again he was facing the two men; and now he was speaking directly to them:
"Pilot Harkness and Master Pilot Bullard, for you the world has been forced to create a new honor, a new mark of the world's esteem. For you two have done what never men have done before. We who have preceded you have subdued the air; but you, gentlemen, you—the first of all created beings to do so—have conquered space.
"And to you, because of your courage; because of your dauntless pioneer spirit; because of the unconquerable will that drove you and the inventive genius that made it possible—because all these have set you above us more ordinary men, since they have made you the first men to fly through space—it is my privilege now to show you the honor in which you are held by the whole world."
The firm voice quavered; for a moment the old hands trembled as they lifted a blazing gem from its velvet case.
"Chester Bullard, Master Pilot, on behalf of the Stratosphere Control Board I bestow upon you—"
Every radiophone in the world must have echoed that sharp command; every television screen must have shown to a breathless audience the figure whose blond hair was awry, whose lean face was afire with protest, as Chet Bullard sprang forward with upraised hand.
"You're wrong—dead wrong! You're making a mistake. I can't accept that!"
The master pilot's voice was raised in earnest protest. He seemed, for the moment, unaware of the thousands of eyes that were upon him; heedless of the gasp of amazement that swept sibilantly over the vast audience like a hissing wave breaking upon the beach. And then his face flushed scarlet, though his eyes still held steadily upon the startled countenance of the man who stood transfixed, while the jewel in his hand took the light of the nitron illuminators above and shot it back in a glory of rainbow hues.
From the seated group on the platform a man came forward. Commander of the Air, this iron-gray man; he was head of the Stratosphere Control Board, supreme authority on all matters that concerned the air levels of the whole world; Commander-in-Chief of all men who laid hands on the controls of a ship. He spoke quietly now, and Chet Bullard, at his first word, snapped instantly to salute, then stood silently waiting.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded the voice of authority. The voice seemed soft, almost gentle, yet each syllable carried throughout the hall with an unmistakable hint of the hardness of a steelite shell beneath the words.
"The eyes of the world are upon us here; the whole world is gathered to do you honor. Is it possible that you are refusing that which we offer? Why? You will speak, please!"
And Chet Bullard, standing stiffly at attention before his commander, spoke in a tone rendered almost boyish by embarrassment.
"I can't accept, sir. Pilot Harkness will bear me out in this. You would decorate us for being the first to navigate space; but we are not the first."
"Continue!" ordered the quiet voice as Chet paused. "You refer to Haldgren, probably."
"To Pilot Haldgren, sir."
"This is absurd! Haldgren was lost. It is supposed that he fell back into the sea, or struck some untraveled part of Earth."
"I have checked over his data, sir. It is my opinion that he did not fall; his figures indicate that he must have thrown his ship beyond the gravitational influence of Earth."
The Commander eyed the master pilot coldly. "And because you think that your conclusions are more accurate than those of my own investigating committee, you refuse this honor!
"Attention!" he snapped sharply. "The entire Service of Air is being rendered ridiculous by your conduct! I command you to accept this decoration."
"You are exceeding your authority, sir. I refuse!"
Suddenly the frozen quiet of the Commander's face was flushed red with rage. "Give me that insignia!" he demanded, and pointed to the triple star on Chet Bullard's breast. "Your commission is revoked!"
To the last breathless spectator in the farthest end of the great hall the white pallor of Chet Bullard's face must have been apparent. One hand moved toward the emblem on his