Pierce's clear voice said the standard words over the murmur and shuffle of feet. "No unfairness having been observed, when called to give testimony you can then say that he shot in self-defense and under duress."
A low wail of sirens was heard.
"Who was that character?" Pierce asked later, sitting beside the table while a surgeon patiently pieced together the three or four shattered pieces of Bryce's collarbone and fastened them with ingenious plastic bolts.
Bryce absently watched the process in a large tilted mirror slung overhead. Medicine bored him. "J. H. Beldman, member of the Board of Directors," he explained, and for the benefit of the policeman standing beside the door he added, "Bad tempered as they come." He looked into the mirror uneasily, trying to focus on his face.
His clothes were being cleaned of blood and dried somewhere. When the doctor had finished sewing and patching Bryce showered and dressed in a small dressing room beside the emergency ward, where he found his clothes hanging neatly in a drying closet.
As he finished a man in plain clothes entered and dismissed the cop with a word, and handed Bryce a printed notice and his magnomatic; "You're clear," he said, leaving again with a friendly half salute. "No charges." The police had already recorded the testimony of the witnesses and inspected the weapons used. It had been a fair duel and the survivor was clear with a standard case for self-defense. The printed notice called him to testify at the coroner's inquest into the death of J. H. Beldman during the next Saturday, but there would be no charges and no investigation.
There would be no trouble from Beldman, but who else knew what he had known, that Bryce Carter was responsible for the corruption of UT? How had he learned it? If someone else knew, there was going to be trouble.
Coming out of the emergency ward, he checked his watch.
One-fifteen. Too late to find Sheila Wesley still at Geiger's Counter. But he knew he could see her another day--and with a good story to explain why he had not turned up the first time.
They ate at the nearest stand and went back to work. Trying to write was almost impossible, and even using his left hand for minor tasks was difficult. In spite of quick healing of muscle and flesh from the amino and nucleic acid powders the doctor had packed in, the shoulder ached with a tightness that spoiled his coordination. He shifted to writing clumsily with his right hand.
After twenty minutes he abandoned the pretense of working and began thoughtfully doing practice draws with his right hand. It was stiff and clumsy, and there was no holster in his right pocket to make grasping easy. The second time the maggy caught on his pocket edge and slipped from his hand he left it on the rug where it had fallen, sitting looking at it thoughtfully for a moment. Today was the day he would meet Orillo.
"How well can you handle a four tube cabin cruiser?"
"Line of sight only. I'm no navigator," Pierce responded.
Bryce said soberly, realizing what he had decided, "This is a good day to have a bodyguard who's a good shot. I have an appointment to meet a friend--and I'm not sure he's a friend."
"I shoot," Pierce said, writing at one of the letters he had been set to. "Happy to oblige. Shall I wear my bulletproof clothes?"
"You could do with something like that," Bryce said soberly.
Pierce looked up from the letters. "Would this be the man behind all these bullets, and you're meeting him in space?"
"In armor plated tanks with heavy artillery?"
"No light and heavy cruisers. No marines?"
"Just you." Bryce was smiling at Pierce's mock astonishment. He knew that the kid didn't care in the slightest where Bryce led him as long as there was a fight at the end of it, and he left it to Bryce to choose the odds.
The odds might be even enough. Orillo himself, if he came with murder as his intention, would bring no helpers for witnesses, and he would expect Bryce to bring none. Or if he had hired assassins, he would not come himself, and they would not know who had hired them, but they would have been told to expect one man only.
The secrecy of any meeting in space is practically absolute. If there is one thing which space has plenty of, it's distance--distance enough to lose things in, distance enough to hide in, distance enough so that even if you know where something is by all the figures of its coordinates, if it's smaller than a planet you can't find it even when you are there. To put it crudely, what space has is space. And finding something that doesn't want to be found in space is like looking for a missing germ in the Atlantic.
He had the coordinates of the beacon he had chosen for his appointment point and the robot pilot took him to that area with automatic precision. But once there he had to cruise manually back and forth three times through the perpendicular plane of Earth's equator before picking up the radar pip of the buoy, which was set to broadcast its presence by a circular sweep of radar pulses on a flat plane corresponding to the Earth equatorial average.
He found it no later than expected, which was over an hour early, on the principle that he who arrives first finds no ambush.
He left Pierce with certain instructions and floated from the ship to the familiar globe that spun so placidly on the anchoring rod that attached it to the controlling buoy. The buoy was powered strongly enough to have controlled the orbits of fifty such globes without strain. Buoys of that type were just beginning to be popular in the Belt.
Once inside he opened his faceplate, looking around with the same pleasure he always felt on his visits here. It was like being back at the Belt for a time. After the raw harshness of the moon and the artificial luxuries of its cities, after the agoraphobic vastness of Earth's giant surface, to be within this little close-knit familiar world was soothing and relaxing. It was a green glade of leaves and branches, greenness underfoot and overhead, a brown metal cliff with vines and a door to his left, a larger brown metal cliff like the round head of a barrel with doors in it to his right, and a circular silver door in the center. Behind the small right hand cliff was the small amount of regulating machinery required, behind the doors of the larger cliff was a small kitchen, and convertible study-bedrooms. Behind the silver door was a corridor leading to the airlock and space. It was forty feet from cliff to cliff, and from the growing greenery underfoot to the growing greenery overhead, as spacious as a wide glade in the woods of Earth.
He picked his way among the vines and shrubs to a carpetlike patch of green moss and sat down comfortably to wait. Pierce had drawn the ship off beyond detector range by now, and it would seem to any ship approaching that he had not yet arrived.
It was peaceful there, no breeze stirred the leaves. Twenty feet above, fixed in the air on clear spokes of lucite, the crystal globe that was the sun for this small world gave forth its warming flood of light, sunlight borrowed from the sunlight outside and led in on the lucite spokes.
He had an interest in its manufacture, and had anchored his globe here as a commercial sample of a spaceglobe for the viewing of likely settlers. It was slightly better and more compact, since it was a newer model, contained in an ovoid hull that was only forty-six by sixty-six feet, but in essence it was like any of the farms and homes of the asteroid belt, and there was nothing like it on any planet in the universe.
Behind the silver door a bell rang suddenly. A spaceship was approaching.
It was still early. They would see the globe alone and assume that Bryce had not yet arrived. The spaceship itself might be armed illegally, but those within would not blast the globe without checking its interior. Bryce glanced up at the silver door in the cliff and arranged his position so as to be lounging on one elbow, with his gun hand lying relaxed under a thin curtain of leaves. The magnomatic was pointing up towards the corridor door.
There were a few tall bushes between the base of the cliff and himself, but the silver central door was five feet up a flight of steps and in clear view.
Four flights of steps radiated away from the circular door to the hull, like spokes from an axle, all of them leading "down" to the inside surface of the globe. As he waited he heard the faint clang of magnetic soles hitting the metal of the airlock, and then the door chimes that announced that the airlock was being used. Someone was coming in.
He could follow their actions in his mind, timing them. Now they would be floating in the vestibule, facing a circular wall with a door, the wall spinning silently and rapidly, and the door in its center turning slowly end over end. The door marked the axis of rotation. There was a turning bar with handles running through the center of the airlock. They would float up to that and grip it to pick up spin, until the vestibule seemed to be rotating around them and only the circular wall and the central door seemed to be steady. Beyond it would be the corridor, and then the silver door.
The door in the cliff dilated silently. Two spacesuited men stood in it.
It was incredible that he had let them come in without seeing the door open. In the first split second he saw that neither of them was Orillo. In the second instant he saw that no weapons were visible, but that one stood slightly behind the other and his right arm was hidden.
They had happened to come to the entrance at an angle to his orientation, almost at right angles, and they would be confused for a moment, before they identified his shape, for to their orientation if they used Earth-thought for it, he would seem to be leaning head downward on an almost vertical slope. He took advantage of the lag to move his gun under its curtain of leaves and get the sights lined on them.
They swung their eyes around the circle and saw him. "Mister Carter?" asked the foremost one. Their faceplates were still closed, and their voices slightly distorted by transmission through the helmet speaker, but he could hear a note of surprise. As the first one spoke the second one moved his hidden arm slightly, as if he were holding something.
Bryce did not tighten his finger on the trigger. These could be mere innocent sight-seers. The position of his head, almost upside down relative to theirs, was probably confusing them, though almost certainly they had studied trimensional photographs of him. At any rate they probably were aware that they were standing like targets in the corridor doorway and would be in no mood to postpone action.
"Take off your helmets, gentlemen, make yourselves at home." It was a partial admission that he was the man they wanted, but not certain enough for a decision. He saw the shoulder-twitch that meant that the second one's hidden hand jerked in a moment of uncertainty, and he thought he saw something glitter under the first one's arm--the old trick of shooting from under a friend's screening arm....
"Mr. Bryce Carter?" the foremost one was asking again.
Bryce smiled. "No, Pierce," he said. He had turned on the two-way speaker and tuned it to the ship as he came in.
Immediately the voice came in the corridor behind them. "Stand still. You're covered."
There was no chance that anyone could genuinely be behind them, but the rear one whirled and snapped a startled shot into the darkened corridor, and the other leaped sidewise down from the doorway, drawing his gun with blurred speed, and leveling on Bryce as his feet left contact with the sill. He was falling slowly, almost floating, and it should have been an easy shot, except for something he had obviously forgotten, or he never would have leaped.
Bryce disregarded him as a danger, and threw three shots at the other, who still stood startled and off balance in the corridor, firing three with his inexperienced right hand to make sure of placing even one. The figure dropped out of sight in the corridor.
In the flick of time that Bryce's eyes had been away from the falling one, the path of the man's leap had begun to curve strangely, until now he seemed to be floating in a curve, flying sidewise and upward, faster and faster as he approached the hull. The rule of conservation of momentum was having its way. To the man's dizzied eyes, as he tried to keep Bryce within his sights long enough to fire, it must have seemed that the ground began inexplicably to turn and slide by, that suddenly the whole shell was turning around him like a big wheel, carrying his target up the wall and over his head.
He was almost to the sliding ground when a bush caught at his feet and yanked them from under him with a crackling of branches, and the bottom tread of a flight of stairs swung at his head like a gigantic club. Among the sudden splintering of branches and snapping of vines was a crunching thud which sounded final.
To anyone within a globe, it did not ordinarily appear to be spinning, the only sign it was, was the comfortable pseudo-gravity for anyone standing on hull level. But to those who approached the ground from the lighter G corridor, the stairs were necessary--stairs whose treads were oddly dipped in the middle in a shallow U. By bracing against one side of the U coming down, and on the other going up, one invisibly picked up enough speed to match the speed of the ground level. Jumping was the equivalent of jumping out of a moving car at forty feet a second, the sixteen feet a second, half of the corridor plus an extra thirty feet a second spin, the side slip speed of an eighteen foot drop where it had looked like five.
It was probably these added extra distances in the air, Bryce decided, that sometimes made the bird flights look so bewilderingly variable in speed and direction. He had not thought before how difficult it would be to plot a straight course from one side of the globe to the other.
He waited for a sign of motion, his magnomatic ready, looking up at the gunman lying overhead, forty feet away on the other side of the globe. The limp figure was unmoving, it looked badly tangled in vines, and its gun was gone. There was no need to shoot, but he wondered suddenly, if he had, what kind of a curve would the bullet have followed?
There was no sound from the other, but Bryce hesitated to climb the stairs and put his head above floor level of the corridor. A voice might give the other direction for a snap shot if that was what he was waiting for. Bryce chanced speaking.
"I've got this one, Pierce. How's the other?"
The televiewer in the entrance hall replied, "Lying on his back with his gun five feet away. You all right?"
"Yes." Bryce walked around the circumference of the globe and searched in the vines for the missing weapon of number one. The body in the spacesuit nearby was quite definitely a corpse. He saw the gun glittering a little further on and picked it up, wiping off leaf pulp on a clean patch of moss. It was a heavy duty police pacifier, a distance stunner, adjusted to a narrow beam.
He climbed to the corridor and collected the other weapon. It was a police pacifier too. They had not meant direct murder then, but only to stun him and deliver him to Orillo, C. O. D.
"How are you doing with their ship?" Bryce asked, "Is it armed?" Armament for spaceships was illegal, and careful official inspection made it rare.
"I didn't wait to see," Pierce's voice came apologetically after a pause in which some background noise sounding like a crash came over the televiewer speaker. "It started swinging around when I came in sight, so I just rammed it with that pretty ornamental nose spike. I'm backing off now with the forward braking jets."
"Then whoever's inside is probably either spacefrozen or cooked. Jockey that ship around on the spike and give her a four minute shove toward Earth, then push that button that collapses the ornamental vanes on the spike and let it pull loose when you start braking. I don't want any ship hulks floating around here."
"Go slow on those braking jets when you pull loose. The back wash could touch your hull."
Pierce returned and came in to help Bryce drag the corpses through the airlock and into space.
They braced against the silver curve of the floating spaceship and gave the body a combined strong shove towards Earth. Spinning slowly end over end it dwindled into a dark speck against the glowing orb of Earth, destined to be a meteorite and make a small bright streak in the Earth sky several days later.
When the tubes conk out, the fuel runs down, The cold creeps in to where I lie.
Pierce was reciting as they went back into the globe for the second corpse.
I'll take the meteor's trail--go home to Earth And make a Viking's funeral in the sky.
"This is too easy," Bryce complained as they watched the second corpse fade from sight. "The trouble is, in space all corpses are delicti. It's an incentive. Launch your enemies."
"Gaucho country did all right under that system," Pierce said somberly, "and so did the American frontier." He floated motionless, a spacesuited figure turned toward the gray-green misted globe of Earth that shone against the black star-sprinkled sky as if he could have reached out and touched it. The sun caught the planet on its day hemisphere and reflected brilliantly from a shadowy blue glaze of water that was the Mediterranean, turning half of it to white fire.
Bryce's earphones picked up Pierce's voice again. "Frontier-born nations always look back and say that the first years were the best."
The words caught at something Bryce had felt before. He looked at Earth hanging splendidly in space. It was beautiful and he was fond of it, but--He said, "I don't think we'll ever go back." Nor would mankind itself. Never again--through all conquests from this point in time--would mankind go back down into the mesh of gravity to be a thin film over the surface of a planet.
"Give old Earth a smile, Bryce, we've hatched."
For a moment longer Bryce hung, watching Earth turning below. The management of UT was down there. He'd be damned if he'd let them get away with thinking they could tell him what to do, or tell the Belt where a line should be extended and a colony planted. The belt was his country, not theirs. Space belonged to the people who lived in it.
"No taxation without representation," Pierce said irrelevantly, as if he had been reading Bryce's thoughts. They jetted back to the ship and into the spacelock.
"Frontier country--" Bryce said as he stepped into the cubical of the revolving door. Gently tightening elastic bands drew him into position within the man-shaped mold. "What's a frontier on your terms, Roy?" When he was in place the other half of the rubbery, air-excluding mold closed on him and the airtight cylinder rotated, delivering him into the interior of the ship. He pushed the button impatiently to have it revolve back for Pierce, but it remained obstinately open, its servo refusing to close on a mold full of air and rotate air back for release into space.
Bryce remembered then. This was something he didn't have to bother with when he flew alone, for when going in or out he was always in the door when it rotated; it never turned empty. Beside the door on a hook hung an inflated pressure suit, complete with gloves, boots, and helmet. Except for the absence of any sign of a head or face inside the dark translucence of the helmet it looked like a full-sized man. Bryce reached it down and placed it in the mold, and watched grinning as the mold closed and the door rotated, delivering the man-form to an equivalent hook in the spacelock. The doll was known by all spacemen as Hector Dimwitty, and every ship had one or two. There were a thousand yarns and jokes circulating about the adventures of the Hectors, most of them lewd, and a few of them true.
Pierce's answer was in his earphones, "A frontier is where people go when they are young, broke, or have the cops after them."
"Right. Suppose I stake the broke, and loan them transport, and offer the fugitives unregistered safety to receive mail and to buy supplies?"
"You do that?" Pierce stepped out of the door and they took off their helmets.
"Yes, when I am my own man, not working for UT."
"If you do that, you bring in ten times as many of the broke who wanted to settle there, and--" Pierce took a long jump in understanding, saying softly, "They're dependent on you. Handcuffed to you and praying for your health and prosperity as long as you hold their loans and secrets, for with your death or bankruptcy, another man might come to your books to read the records of your loans, and demand payment, and give the secrets to the police or keep them for his blackmail. But to do it is to take a risk of murder or arrest, and a high cost in hard work and money. Why do you want to do this? What payment do you take?"
"They pay by being my men, grateful and ready to back me up when I want help later. They don't have to be grateful, for they know I can call any loan if the owner crosses me, and I've built a reputation for an occasional fit of irrational temper that is threat enough for anyone to avoid crossing me, without feeling that I have wanted to threaten or force them. As for the fugitives they pay enough by wanting the Belt to be organized as a nation independent of Earth, so that the hand of the law can't stretch out and drag them back, and they can become wealthy in open business, in the million chances for wealth that lie around them in the Belt. They don't know that they want this yet, but they will see it when it is told to them. I can't do any of this now--it's suspended for as long as I am part of UT and have to drag the dead weight of ten Earth-tied conservatives with me in every decision."
He stopped to set in the coordinates of the Moon for the robot pilot, but he found himself still wanting to talk. "Man has reached space--do you think he'll ever go back to the ground? In space he has gravity only when he wants it, and any weight of gravity he likes, depending on how fast he spins his house. And no gravity when he wants that. You see what that means to engineers in the advantage of building things? No weight in transportation, no weight in travel, limitless speed and almost no cost as long as he stays away from planet pulls. His house is in the sky, and when he steps out of it he can fly like a bird. And food. To grow food there is sunlight Earth never dreamed of. For heat and power there is sunlight to focus. Space is flooded with heat, irradiated with power-- "It's not child's play taming it, and those on the ground don't see it yet. But the next step of mankind is out into space, and it's never coming back."
Pierce, sitting in one of the shock tank armchairs, asked, "What part do you have in this?"
Bryce looked at him with a feeling almost of surprise, as if he had been called back from a long distance. "Me?" he laughed, a little awed by the immensity of the goal, and the ease of it.... "First President of the Belt and political boss for life. That's enough."
Enough to hold the solar system in the palm of his hand, if he chose. He who rules space, rules the planets. It was the first time he had ever mentioned his goal to anyone.
Roy Pierce asked, "What do I do about this 'friend' of yours who lays traps?"
The last attack had settled the question of who was behind the other attacks, and who had told Beldman, but Orillo would still be a useful pawn. All that was necessary was to evade his attempts at murder for a month or so until partnership tied them too close for murder.
Bryce explained some of that to Pierce, setting up a chess board to pass away the time until they arrived back at Moonbase City.
"What's my next assignment?" Pierce asked, when they were several moves into the game.
Bryce recalled a danger he had made no move to guard against. "The Board hired a psychologist, a mind hunter, to find out who's doing the undermining. He's one of the Manoba group. Remember the name, look it up and find out what their methods are, how to recognize them, and report back what to do about it."
"I'll take care of him," Roy Pierce said absently, moving his knight to threaten Bryce's bishop.
"No unnecessary trouble. Remember I have to keep my name clean." Bryce moved a pawn one step to cover the bishop and leave room for his other bishop to menace the knight.
"I'll be careful. There'll be no publicity. He won't get hurt," Pierce said, moving the knight into Bryce's second line where it threatened the king and a cornered castle. "Check." And he added, as if apologizing for having delayed his move, "I don't like to move until I'm sure what's going on."
The remark didn't seem to be suited to the game, as if he had referred to something else.