"If you want to call it that, yes," Tarnhorst said. "Anything that has anything to do with operations in space requires that sort of experience--and there are very few jobs out here that can avoid having anything to do with space. Space is only a few kilometers away." The expression on his face showed that he didn't much care for the thought.
"I don't see that that's so bad," Danley said. "Going out there isn't something for the unexperienced. A man who doesn't know what he's doing can get himself killed easily, and, what's worse, he's likely to take others with him."
"You speak, of course, from experience," Tarnhorst said with no trace of sarcasm. "I accept that. By not allowing inexperienced persons in critical areas, the Belt Companies are, at least indirectly, looking out for the welfare of the people. But we mustn't delude ourselves into thinking that that is their prime objective. These Belt Companies are no better than the so-called 'industrial giants' of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The government here is farcical. The sole job is to prevent crime and to adjudicate small civil cases. Every other function of proper government--the organization of industry, the regulation of standards the subsidizing of research, the control of prices, and so on--are left to the Belt Companies or to the people. The Belt Cities are no more than what used to be called 'company towns'."
"I understand that," Danley said. "But they seem to function fairly smoothly."
Tarnhorst eyed him. "If, by, 'smoothly functioning', you mean the denial of the common rights of human freedom and dignity yes. Oh, they give their sop to such basic human needs as the right of every individual to be respected--but only because Earth has put pressure on them. Otherwise, people who, through no fault of their own, were unable to work or get 'space experience' would be unable to get jobs and would be looked down upon as pariahs."
"You mean there are people here who have no jobs? I wouldn't think that unemployment would be a problem out here."
"It isn't," said Tarnhorst, "yet. But there are always those unfortunates who are psychologically incapable of work, and society must provide for them. The Belt Cities provide for a basic education, of course. As long as a person is going to school, he is given a stipend. But a person who has neither the ability to work nor the ability to study is an outcast, even though he is provided for by the companies. He is forced to do something to earn what should be his by right; he is given menial and degrading tasks to do. We would like to put a stop to that sort of thing, but we ... ah ... have no ... ah ... means of doing so." He paused, as though considering whether he had said too much.
"The problem at hand," he went on hurriedly, "is the death curve. When this technique for taking the rocks to the smelters was being worked out, the death rate was--as you might imagine--quite high. The Belt Companies had already been operating out here for a long time before the stony meteorites were mined commercially. At first, the big thing was nickel-iron. That's what they came here to get in the beginning. That's where most of the money still is. But the stony asteroids provide them with their oxygen.
"This anchor-setting technique was worked out at a time when the Belt Companies were trying to find ways to make the Belt self-sufficient. After they got the technique worked out so that it operated smoothly, the death rate dropped 'way down. It stayed down for a little while, and then began to rise again. It has nearly reached an all-time high. Obviously, something is wrong, and we have to find out what it is."
Danley scratched ruminatively behind his right ear and wished he'd had the opportunity to study history. He had been vaguely aware, of the broad outlines, but the details had never been brought to his attention before. "Suppose Alhamid is trying to hide something," he said after a moment. "What would it be, do you think?"
Tarnhorst shrugged and spread his hands. "What could it be but some sort of money-saving scheme? Inferior materials being used at a critical spot, perhaps. Skimping on quality or quantity. Somewhere, somehow, they are shaving costs at the risk of the workers' lives. We have to find out what it is."
Peter Danley nodded. You don't mean "we," Danley thought to himself. I am the one who's going to have to go out there and find it, while you sit here safe. He felt that there was a pretty good chance that these Belt operators might kill him to keep him from finding out what it was they were saving money on.
Aloud, he said: "I'll do what I can, Mr. Tarnhorst."
Tarnhorst smiled. "I'm certain you will. That's why I needed someone who knows more about this business than I."
"And when we do find it--what then?"
"Then? Why, then we will force them to make the proper changes or there will be trouble."
Georges Alhamid heard the whole conversation early the next morning. The governor himself brought the recording over to his office.
"Do you think he knew he was being overheard?"
The governor shrugged. "Who knows. He waltzed all around what he was trying to say, but that may have been just native caution. Or he may not want Danley to know what's on his mind."
"How could he bring Danley out here without telling him anything beforehand?" Alhamid asked thoughtfully. "Is Danley really that ignorant, or was the whole conversation for our ears?"
"I'm inclined to think that Danley really didn't know. Remember, George, the best way to hold down the ones below you is to keep them from gaining any knowledge, to keep data out of their hands--except for the carefully doctored data you want them to have."
"I know," Alhamid said. "History isn't exactly a popular subject on Earth." He tapped his fingers gently on the case of the playback and looked at it as if he were trying to read the minds of the persons who had spoken the words he had just heard.
"I really think he believed that his nullifying equipment was doing its job," the governor continued. "He wouldn't have any way of knowing we could counteract it."
Alhamid shrugged. "It doesn't matter much. We still have to assume that he's primarily out to bring the Belt Cities under Earth control. To do that, all he'd have to do is find something that could be built up into a scandal on Earth."
"Not, all, George," the governor said. "It would take a lot more than that alone. But it would certainly be a start in the right direction."
"One thing we do know," Alhamid said, "is that nobody on Earth will allow any action against the Belt unless popular sentiment is definitely against us. As long as we are apparently right-thinking people, we're all right. I wonder why Tarnhorst is so anxious to get us under the thumb of the People's Congress? Is it purely that half-baked idealism of his?"
"Mostly. He has the notion that everybody has a right to be accorded the respect of his fellow man, and that that right is something that every person is automatically given at birth, not something he has to earn. What gave him his particular gripe against us, I don't know, but he's been out to get us ever since his trip here three years ago."
"You know, Larry," Alhamid said slowly, "I'm not quite sure which is harder to understand: How a whole civilization could believe that sort of thing, or how a single intelligent man could."
"It's a positive feedback," the governor said. "That sort of thing has wrecked civilizations before and will do it again. Let's not let it wreck ours. Are you ready for the conference with our friend now?"
Georges Alhamid looked at the clock on the wall. "Ready as I'll ever be. You'd better scram, Larry. We mustn't give Mr. Tarnhorst the impression that there's some sort of collusion between business and government out there in the Belt."
"Heaven forfend! I'll get."
When he left, the governor took the playback with him. The recording would have to be filed in the special secret files.
Captain St. Simon eased his spaceboat down to the surface of Pallas and threw on the magnetic anchor which held the little craft solidly to the metal surface of the landing field. The traffic around Pallas was fairly heavy this time of year, since the planetoid was on the same side of the sun as Earth, and the big cargo haulers were moving in and out, loading refined metals and raw materials, unloading manufactured goods from Earth. He'd had to wait several minutes in the traffic pattern before being given clearance for anchoring.
He was already dressed in his vacuum suit, and the cabin of the boat was exhausted of its air. He checked his control board, making sure every switch and dial was in the proper position. Only then did he open the door and step out to the gray surface of the landing field. His suitcase--a spherical, sealed container that the Belt men jokingly referred to as a "bomb"--went with him. He locked the door of his boat and walked down the yellow-painted safety lane toward the nearest air lock leading into the interior of the planetoid.
He lifted his feet and set them down with precision--nobody but a fool wears glide boots on the outside. He kept his eyes moving--up and around, on both sides, above, and behind. The yellow path was supposed to be a safety lane, but there was no need of taking the chance of having an out-of-control ship come sliding in on him. Of course, if it was coming in really fast, he'd have no chance to move; he might not even see it at all. But why get slugged by a slow one?
He waited outside the air-lock door for the green light to come on. There were several other space-suited figures around him, but he didn't recognize any of them. He hummed softly to himself.
The green light came on, and the door of the air lock slid open. The small crowd trooped inside, and, after a minute, the door slid shut again. As the elevator dropped, St. Simon heard the familiar whoosh as the air came rushing in. By the time it had reached the lower level, the elevator was up to pressure.
On Earth, there might have been a sign in such an elevator, reading: DO NOT REMOVE VACUUM SUITS IN ELEVATOR. There was no need for it here; every man there knew how to handle himself in an air lock. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have been there.
After he had stepped out of the elevator, along with the others, and the door had closed behind him, St. Simon carefully opened the cracking valve on his helmet. There was a faint hiss of incoming air, adjusting the slight pressure differential. He took off his helmet, tucked it under his arm, and headed for the check-in station.
He was walking down the corridor toward the checker's office when a hand clapped him on the shoulder. "Bless me if it isn't St. Simon the Silent! Long time no, if you'll pardon the cliche, see!"
St. Simon turned, grinning. He had recognized the voice. "Hi, Kerry. Good to see you."
"Good to see me? Forsooth! Od's bodkins! Hast turned liar on top of everything else, Good Saint? Good to see me, indeed! 'From such a face and form as mine, the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination.' No, dear old holy pillar-sitter, no indeed! It may be a pleasure to hear my mellifluous voice--a pleasure I often indulge in, myself--but it couldn't possibly be a pleasure to see me!" And all the while, St. Simon was being pummeled heartily on the shoulder, while his hand was pumped as though the other man was expecting to strike oil at any moment.
His assailant was not a handsome man. Years before, a rare, fast-moving meteor had punched its way through his helmet and taken part of his face with it. He had managed to get back to his ship and pump air in before he lost consciousness. He had had to stay conscious, because the only thing that held the air in his helmet had been his hand pressed over the quarter-inch hole. Even so, the drop in pressure had done its damage. The surgeons had done their best to repair the smashed face, but Kerry Brand's face hadn't been much to look at to begin with. And the mottled purple of the distended veins and capillaries did little to improve his looks.
But his ruined face was a badge of honor, and Kerry Brand knew the fact as well as anyone.
Like St. Simon, Captain Brand was a professional anchor-setter. Most of the men who put in the necessary two years went on to better jobs after they had the required space experience. But there were some who liked the job and stuck with it. It was only these men--the real experts among the anchor-setting fraternity--who rated the title of "Captain". They were free-lancers who ran things pretty much their own way.
"Just going to the checker?" St. Simon asked.
Kerry Brand shook his head. "I've already checked in, old sanctus. And I'll give you three and one-seventh guesses who got a blue ticket."
St. Simon said nothing, but he pointed a finger at Brand's chest.
"A mild surmise, but a true one," said Brand. "You are, indeed, gazing upon Professor Kerry Brand, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.--that is to say, Borer of Asteroids, Master of Anchors, and Planetoid-hauler De-luxe. No, no; don't look sorry for me. Somebody has to teach the tadpoles How To Survive In Space If You're Not Too Stupid To Live--a subject upon which I am an expert."
"On Being Too Stupid To Live?" St. Simon asked gently.
"A touch! A distinct touch! You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humor, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself." He looked at the watch on his wrist. "Why don't you go ahead and check in, and then we'll go pub-crawling. I have it on good authority that a few thousand gallons of Danish ale were piped aboard Pallas yesterday, and you and I should do our best to reduce the surplus."
"Sounds good to me," said St. Simon agreeably. They started on toward the checker's office.
"Consider, my dear St. Simon," said Brand, "how fortunate we are to be living in an age and a society where the dictum, 'Those who can, do; those who can't, teach,' no longer holds true. It means that we weary, work-hardened experts are called in every so often, handed our little blue ticket, and given six months off--with pay--if we will only do the younger generation the favor of pounding a modicum of knowledge into their heads. During that time, if we are very careful, we can try to prevent our muscles from going to flab and our brains from corroding with ennui, so that when we again debark into the infinite sea of emptiness which surrounds us to pursue our chosen profession, we don't get killed on the first try. Isn't it wonderful?"
"Cheer up," said St. Simon. "Teaching isn't such a bad lot. And, after all, you do get paid for it."
"And at a salary! A Pooh-Bah paid for his services! I a salaried minion! But I do it! It revolts me, but I do it!"
The short, balding man behind the checker's desk looked up as the two men approached. "Hello, captain," he said as St. Simon stepped up to the desk.
"How are you, Mr. Murtaugh?" St. Simon said politely. He handed over his log book. "There's the data on my last ten. I'll be staying here for a few days, so there's no need to rush the refill requisition. Any calls for me?"
The checker put the log book in the duplicator. "I'll see if there are, captain." He went over to the autofile and punched St. Simon's serial number.
Very few people write to an anchor man. Since he is free to check in and reload at any of the major Belt Cities, and since, in his search for asteroids, his erratic orbit is likely to take him anywhere, it might be months or years before a written letter caught up with him. On the other hand, a message could be beamed to every city, and he could pick it up wherever he was. It cost money, but it was sure.
"One call," the checker said. He handed St. Simon a message slip.
It was unimportant. Just a note from a girl on Vesta. He promised himself that he'd make his next break at Vesta, come what may. He stuck the flimsy in his pocket, and waited while the checker went through the routine of recording his log and making out a pay voucher.
There was no small talk between himself and the checker. Mr. Murtaugh had not elected to take the schooling necessary to qualify for other than a small desk job. He had no space experience. Unless and until he did, there would be an invisible, but nonetheless real barrier between himself and any spaceman. It was not that St. Simon looked down on the man, exactly; it was simply that Murtaugh had not proved himself, and, therefore, there was no way of knowing whether he could be trusted or not. And since trust is a positive quality, lack of it can only mean mistrust.
Murtaugh handed Captain St. Simon an envelope. "That's it, captain. Thank you."
St. Simon opened the envelope, took out his check--and a blue ticket.
Kerry Brand broke into a guffaw.
When the phone on his desk rang, Georges Alhamid scooped it up and identified himself.
"This is Larry, George," said the governor's voice. "How are things so far?"
"So far, so good," Alhamid said. "For the past week, Mr. Peter Danley has been working his head off, under the tutelage of two of the toughest, smartest anchor men in the business. But you should have seen the looks on their faces when I told them they were going to have an Earthman for a pupil."
The governor laughed. "I'll bet! How's he coming along?"
"He's learning. How are you doing with your pet?"
"I think I'm softening him, George. I found out what it was that got his goat three years ago."
"Sure. On Ceres, where he went three years ago, he was treated as if he weren't as good as a Belt man."
Alhamid frowned. "Someone was disrespectful?"
"No--that is, not exactly. But he was treated as if we didn't trust his judgment, as though we were a little bit afraid of him."
"Oh-ho! I see what you mean."
"Sure. We treated him just as we would anyone who hasn't proved himself. And that meant we were treating him the same way we treated our own 'lower classes', as he thought of them. I had Governor Holger get his Ceres detectives to trace down everything that happened. You can read the transcript if you want. There's nothing particularly exciting in it, but you can see the pattern if you know what to look for.
"I'm not even certain it was fully conscious on his part; I'm not sure he knew why he disliked us. All he was convinced of was that we were arrogant and thought we were better than he is. It's kind of hard for us to see that a person would be that deeply hurt by seeing the plain truth that someone else is obviously better at something than he is, but you've got to remember that an Earthman is brought up to believe that every person is just exactly as good as every other--and no better. A man may have a skill that you don't have, but that doesn't make him superior--oh, my, no!
"Anyway, I started out by apologizing for our habit of standing up all the time. I managed to plant the idea in his mind that the only thing that made him think we felt superior was that habit. I've even got him to the point where he's standing up all the time, too. Makes him feel very superior. He's learned the native customs."
"I get you," Alhamid said. "I probably contributed to that inferiority feeling of his myself."
"Didn't we all? Anyway, the next step was to take him around and introduce him to some of the execs in the government and in a couple of the Companies--I briefed 'em beforehand. Friendly chats--that sort of thing. I think we're going to have to learn the ancient art of diplomacy out here if we're going to survive, George.
"The crowning glory came this afternoon. You should have been there."
"I was up to here in work, Larry. I just couldn't take the time off to attend a club luncheon. Did the great man give his speech?"
"Did he? I should hope to crack my helmet he did! We must all pull together, George, did you know that? We must care for the widow and the orphan--and the needy, George, the needy. We must be sure to provide the fools, the idiots, the malingerers, the moral degenerates, and such useful, lovable beings as that with the necessities and the luxuries of life. We must see to it that they are respected and permitted to have their dignity. We must see to it that the dear little things are permitted the rights of a human being to hold his head up and spit in your eye if he wishes. We must see to it that they be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the Earth."
"They've already done that," Alhamid said caustically. "And they can have it. Let's just see that they don't replenish the Belt. So what happened?"
"Why, George, you'll never realize how much we appreciated that speech. We gave him a three-minute rising ovation. I think he was surprised to see that we could stand for three minutes under a one-gee pull in the centrifuge. And you should have seen the smiles on our faces, George."
"I hope nobody broke out laughing."
"We managed to restrain ourselves," the governor said.
"What's next on the agenda?"
"Well, it'll be tricky, but I think I can pull it off. I'm going to take him around and show him that we do take care of the widow and the orphan, and hope that he assumes we are as solicitous toward the rest of his motley crew. Wish me luck."
"Good luck. You may need it."
"Same to you. Take care of Danley."
"Don't worry. He's in good hands. See you, Larry."
There were three space-suited men on the bleak rocky ground near the north pole of Pallas, a training area of several square miles known as the North Forty. Their helmets gleamed in the bright, hard light from a sun that looked uncomfortably small to an Earthman's eyes. Two of the men were standing, facing each other some fifteen feet apart. The third, attached to them by safety lines, was hanging face down above the surface, rising slowly, like a balloon that has almost more weight than it can lift.