"They talked about how the government had been pouring billions and billions of dollars into space, while overpopulation produced crying needs in America's back yard," Chung said. "We know that much, even in the Belt. We know the appropriations are due to be cut, now the Essjays are in. So what?"
"We don't need a subsidy any longer," Blades remarked. "It'd help a lot, but we can get along without if we have to, and personally, I prefer that. Less government money means less government control."
"Sure," Avis said. "There was more than that involved, however. The Essjays were complaining about the small return on the investment. Not enough minerals coming back to Earth."
"Well, for Jupiter's sake," Blades exclaimed, "what do they expect? We have to build up our capabilities first."
"They even said, some of them, that enough reward never would be gotten. That under existing financial policies, the Belt would go in for its own expansion, use nearly everything it produced for itself and export only a trickle to America. I had to explain to several of my parents' friends that I wasn't really a socially irresponsible capitalist."
"Is that all the information you have?" Chung asked when she fell silent.
"I ... I suppose so. Everything was so vague. No dramatic events. More of an atmosphere than a concrete thing."
"Still, you confirm my own impression," Chung said. Blades jerked his undisciplined imagination back from the idea of a Thing, with bug eyes and tentacles, cast in reinforced concrete, and listened as his partner summed up: "The popular feeling at home has turned against private enterprise. You can hardly call a corporate monster like Systemic Developments a private enterprise! The new President and Congress share that mood. We can expect to see it manifested in changed laws and regulations. But what has this got to do with a battleship parked a couple of hundred kilometers from us?"
"If the government doesn't want the asterites to develop much further--" Blades bit hard on his pipestem. "They must know we have a caviar mine here. We'll be the only city in this entire sector."
"But we're still a baby," Avis said. "We won't be important for years to come. Who'd have it in for a baby?"
"Besides, we're Americans, too," Chung said. "If that were a foreign ship, the story might be different--Wait a minute! Could they be thinking of establishing a new base here?"
"The Convention wouldn't allow," said Blades.
"Treaties can always be renegotiated, or even denounced. But first you have to investigate quietly, find out if it's worth your while."
"Hoo hah, what lovely money that'd mean!"
"And lovely bureaucrats crawling out of every file cabinet," Chung said grimly. "No, thank you. We'll fight any such attempt to the last lawyer. We've got a good basis, too, in our charter. If the suit is tried on Ceres, as I believe it has to be, we'll get a sympathetic court as well."
"Unless they ring in an Earthside judge," Avis warned.
"Yeah, that's possible. Also, they could spring proceedings on us without notice. We've got to find out in advance, so we can prepare. Any chance of pumping some of those officers?"
"'Fraid not," Avis said. "The few who'd be in the know are safely back on shipboard."
"We could invite 'em here individually," said Blades. "As a matter of fact, I already have a date with Lieutenant Ziska."
"What?" Avis' mouth fell open.
"Yep," Blades said complacently. "End of the next watch, so she can observe the Pallas arriving. I'm to fetch her on a scooter." He blew a fat smoke ring. "Look, Jimmy, can you keep everybody off the porch for a while then? Starlight, privacy, soft music on the piccolo--who knows what I might find out?"
"You won't get anything from her," Avis spat. "No secrets or, or anything."
"Still, I look forward to making the attempt. C'mon, pal, pass the word. I'll do as much for you sometime."
"Times like that never seem to come for me," Chung groaned.
"Oh, let him play around with his suicide blonde," Avis said furiously. "We others have work to do. I ... I'll tell you what, Jimmy. Let's not eat in the mess tonight. I'll draw our rations and fix us something special in your cabin."
A scooter was not exactly the ideal steed for a knight to convey his lady. It amounted to little more than three saddles and a locker, set atop an accumulator-powered gyrogravitic engine, sufficient to lift you off an asteroid and run at low acceleration. There were no navigating instruments. You locked the autopilot's radar-gravitic sensors onto your target object and it took you there, avoiding any bits of debris which might pass near; but you must watch the distance indicator and press the deceleration switch in time. If the 'pilot was turned off, free maneuver became possible, but that was a dangerous thing to try before you were almost on top of your destination. Stereoscopic vision fails beyond six or seven meters, and the human organism isn't equipped to gauge cosmic momenta.
Nevertheless, Ellen was enchanted. "This is like a dream," her voice murmured in Blades' earplug. "The whole universe, on every side of us. I could almost reach out and pluck those stars."
"You must have trained in powered spacesuits at the Academy," he said for lack of a more poetic rejoinder.
"Yes, but that's not the same. We had to stay near Luna's night side, to be safe from solar particles, and it bit a great chunk out of the sky. And then everything was so--regulated, disciplined--we did what we were ordered to do, and that was that. Here I feel free. You can't imagine how free." Hastily: "Do you use this machine often?"
"Well, yes, we have about twenty scooters at the Station. They're the most convenient way of flitting with a load: out to the mirrors to change accumulators, for instance, or across to one of the companion rocks where we're digging some ores that the Sword doesn't have. That kind of work." Blades would frankly rather have had her behind him on a motorskimmer, hanging on as they careened through a springtime countryside. He was glad when they reached the main forward air lock and debarked.
He was still gladder when the suits were off. Lieutenant Ziska in dress uniform was stunning, but Ellen in civvies, a fluffy low-cut blouse and close-fitting slacks, was a hydrogen blast. He wanted to roll over and pant, but settled for saying, "Welcome back" and holding her hand rather longer than necessary.
With a shy smile, she gave him a package. "I drew this before leaving," she said. "I thought, well, your life is so austere--"
"A demi of Sandeman," he said reverently. "I won't tell you you shouldn't have, but I will tell you you're a sweet girl."
"No, really." She flushed. "After we've put you to so much trouble."
"Let's go crack this," he said. "The Pallas has called in, but she won't be visible for a while yet."
They made their way to the verandah, picking up a couple of glasses enroute. Bless his envious heart, Jimmy had warned the other boys off as requested. I hope Avis cooks him a Cordon Bleu dinner, Blades thought. Nice kid, Avis, if she'd quit trying to ... what? ... mother me? He forgot about her, with Ellen to seat by the rail.
The Milky Way turned her hair frosty and glowed in her eyes. Blades poured the port with much ceremony and raised his glass. "Here's to your frequent return," he said.
Her pleasure dwindled a bit. "I don't know if I should drink to that. We aren't likely to be back, ever."
"Drink anyway. Gling, glang, gloria!" The rims tinkled together. "After all," said Blades, "this isn't the whole universe. We'll both be getting around. See you on Luna?"
He wondered if he was pushing matters too hard. She didn't look at ease. "Oh, well," he said, "if nothing else, this has been a grand break in the monotony for us. I don't wish the Navy ill, but if trouble had to develop, I'm thankful it developed here."
"How's the repair work progressing? Slowly, I hope."
"I don't know."
"You should have some idea, being in QM."
"No supplies have been drawn."
"What's the matter?" Ellen sounded alarmed.
"Huh?" A fine conspirator I make, if she can see my emotions on me in neon capitals! "Nothing. Nothing. It just seemed a little strange, you know. Not taking any replacement units."
"I understand the work is only a matter of making certain adjustments."
"Then they should've finished a lot quicker, shouldn't they?"
"Please," she said unhappily. "Let's not talk about it. I mean, there are such things as security regulations."
Blades gave up on that tack. But Chung's idea might be worth probing a little. "Sure," he said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry." He took another sip as he hunted for suitable words. A beautiful girl, a golden wine ... and vice versa ... why couldn't he simply relax and enjoy himself? Did he have to go fretting about what was probably a perfectly harmless conundrum?... Yes. However, recreation might still combine with business.
"Permit me to daydream," he said, leaning close to her. "The Navy's going to establish a new base here, and the Altair will be assigned to it."
"Daydream indeed!" she laughed, relieved to get back to a mere flirtation. "Ever hear about the Convention of Vesta?"
"Treaties can be renegotiated," Blades plagiarized.
"What do we need an extra base for? Especially since the government plans to spend such large sums on social welfare. They certainly don't want to start an arms race besides."
Blades nodded. Jimmy's notion did seem pretty thin, he thought with a slight chill, and now I guess it's completely whiffed. Mostly to keep the conversation going, he shrugged and said, "My partner--and me, too, aside from the privilege of your company--wouldn't have wanted it anyhow. Not that we're unpatriotic, but there are plenty of other potential bases, and we'd rather keep government agencies out of here."
"Can you, these days?"
"Pretty much. We're under a new type of charter, as a private partnership. The first such charter in the Belt, as far as I know, though there'll be more in the future. The Bank of Ceres financed us. We haven't taken a nickel of federal money."
"Is that possible?"
"Just barely. I'm no economist, but I can see how it works. Money represents goods and labor. Hitherto those have been in mighty short supply out here. Government subsidies made up the difference, enabling us to buy from Earth. But now the asterites have built up enough population and industry that they have some capital surplus of their own, to invest in projects like this."
"Even so, frankly, I'm surprised that two men by themselves could get such a loan. It must be huge. Wouldn't the bank rather have lent the money to some corporation?"
"To tell the truth, we have friends who pulled wires for us. Also, it was done partly on ideological grounds. A lot of asterites would like to see more strictly home-grown enterprises, not committed to anyone on Earth. That's the only way we can grow. Otherwise our profits--our net production, that is--will continue to be siphoned off for the mother country's benefit."
"Well," Ellen said with some indignation, "that was the whole reason for planting asteroid colonies. You can't expect us to set you up in business, at enormous cost to ourselves--things we might have done at home--and get nothing but 'Ta' in return."
"Never fear, we'll repay you with interest," Blades said. "But whatever we make from our own work, over and above that, ought to stay here with us."
She grew angrier. "Your kind of attitude is what provoked the voters to elect Social Justice candidates."
"Nice name, that," mused Blades. "Who can be against social justice? But you know, I think I'll go into politics myself. I'll organize the North American Motherhood Party."
"You wouldn't be so flippant if you'd go see how people have to live back there."
"As bad as here? Whew!"
"Nonsense. You know that isn't true. But bad enough. And you aren't going to stick in these conditions. Only a few hours ago, you were bragging about the millions you intend to make."
"Millions and millions, if my strength holds out," leered Blades, thinking of the alley in Aresopolis. But he decided that that was then and Ellen was now, and what had started as a promising little party was turning into a dismal argument about politics.
"Let's not fight," he said. "We've got different orientations, and we'd only make each other mad. Let's discuss our next bottle instead ... at the Coq d'Or in Paris, shall we say? Or Morraine's in New York."
She calmed down, but her look remained troubled. "You're right, we are different," she said low. "Isolated, living and working under conditions we can hardly imagine on Earth--and you can't really imagine our problems--yes, you're becoming another people. I hope it will never go so far that--No. I don't want to think about it." She drained her glass and held it out for a refill, smiling. "Very well, sir, when do you next plan to be in Paris?"
An exceedingly enjoyable while later, the time came to go watch the Pallas Castle maneuver in. In fact, it had somehow gotten past that time, and they were late; but they didn't hurry their walk aft. Blades took Ellen's hand; and she raised no objection. Schoolboyish, no doubt--however, he had reached the reluctant conclusion that for all his dishonorable intentions, this affair wasn't likely to go beyond the schoolboy stage. Not that he wouldn't keep trying.
As they glided through the refining and synthesizing section, which filled the broad half of the asteroid, the noise of pumps and regulators rose until it throbbed in their bones. Ellen gestured at one of the pipes which crossed the corridor overhead. "Do you really handle that big a volume at a time?" she asked above the racket.
"No," he said. "Didn't I explain before? The pipe's thick because it's so heavily armored."
"I'm glad you don't use that dreadful word 'cladded.' But why the armor? High pressure?"
"Partly. Also, there's an inertrans lining. Jupiter gas is hellishly reactive at room temperature. The metallic complexes especially; but think what a witch's brew the stuff is in every respect. Once it's been refined, of course, we have less trouble. That particular pipe is carrying it raw."
They left the noise behind and passed on to the approach control dome at the receptor end. The two men on duty glanced up and immediately went back to their instruments. Radio voices were staccato in the air. Blades led Ellen to an observation port.
She drew a sharp breath. Outside, the broken ground fell away to space and the stars. The ovoid that was the ship hung against them, lit by the hidden sun, a giant even at her distance but dwarfed by the balloon she towed. As that bubble tried ponderously to rotate, rainbow gleams ran across it, hiding and then revealing the constellations. Here, on the asteroid's axis, there was no weight, and one moved with underwater smoothness, as if disembodied. "Oh, a fairy tale," Ellen sighed.
Four sparks flashed out of the boat blisters along the ship's hull. "Scoopships," Blades told her. "They haul the cargo in, being so much more maneuverable. Actually, though, the mother vessel is going to park her load in orbit, while those boys bring in another one ... see, there it comes into sight. We still haven't got the capacity to keep up with our deliveries."
"How many are there? Scoopships, that is."
"Twenty, but you don't need more than four for this job. They've got terrific power. Have to, if they're to dive from orbit down into the Jovian atmosphere, ram themselves full of gas, and come back. There they go."
The Pallas Castle was wrestling the great sphere she had hauled from Jupiter into a stable path computed by Central Control. Meanwhile the scoopships, small only by comparison with her, locked onto the other balloon as it drifted close. Energy poured into their drive fields. Spiraling downward, transparent globe and four laboring spacecraft vanished behind the horizon. The Pallas completed her own task, disengaged her towbars, and dropped from view, headed for the dock.
The second balloon rose again, like a huge glass moon on the opposite side of the Sword. Still it grew in Ellen's eyes, kilometer by kilometer of approach. So much mass wasn't easily handled, but the braking curve looked disdainfully smooth. Presently she could make out the scoopships in detail, elongated teardrops with the intake gates yawning in the blunt forward end, cockpit canopies raised very slightly above.
Instructions rattled from the men in the dome. The balloon veered clumsily toward the one free receptor. A derricklike structure released one end of a cable, which streamed skyward. Things that Ellen couldn't quite follow in this tricky light were done by the four tugs, mechanisms of their own extended to make their tow fast to the cable.
They did not cast loose at once, but continued to drag a little, easing the impact of centrifugal force. Nonetheless a slight shudder went through the dome as slack was taken up. Then the job was over. The scoopships let go and flitted off to join their mother vessel. The balloon was winched inward. Spacesuited men moved close, preparing to couple valves together.
"And eventually," Blades said into the abrupt quietness, "that cargo will become food, fabric, vitryl, plastiboard, reagents, fuels, a hundred different things. That's what we're here for."
"I've never seen anything so wonderful," Ellen said raptly. He laid an arm around her waist.
The intercom chose that precise moment to blare: "Attention! Emergency! All hands to emergency stations! Blades, get to Chung's office on the double! All hands to emergency stations!"
Blades was running before the siren had begun to howl.
Rear Admiral Barclay Hulse had come in person. He stood as if on parade, towering over Chung. The asterite was red with fury. Avis Page crouched in a corner, her eyes terrified.
Blades barreled through the doorway and stopped hardly short of a collision. "What's the matter?" he puffed.
"Plenty!" Chung snarled. "These incredible thumble-fumbed oafs--" His voice broke. When he gets mad, it means something!