"Meanwhile, I'm slowly starving," said Barnsley.
"Just hang on for a couple of days. Now that we know where they are, they're in for a shock. One of these mornings, they're going to hear voices from all over their skies, demanding to know what kind of savages they are to have kidnapped you--and in their own language!"
Barnsley grinned into his improvised pillow as Sanchez signed off. Things would really work out after all. He was set for an immensely lucrative position; whether as ambassador, trade consultant, or colonial governor depended upon how well the experts bluffed the blubber-heads. Well, it seemed only his due for the risks he had taken.
"Omigosh!" he grunted, sitting up as he pictured the horde of Terran Colonial experts descending upon the planet. "I'll be the only one here that hasn't learned to speak the language!"
THE PLANET STRAPPERS.
By Raymond Z. Gallun I.
The Archer Five came in a big packing box, bound with steel ribbons and marked, This end up--handle with care. It was delivered at a subsidized government surplus price of fifty dollars to Hendricks' Sports and Hobbies Center, a store in Jarviston, Minnesota, that used to deal mostly in skin diving equipment, model plane kits, parts for souping up old cars, and the like. The Archer Five was a bit obsolete for the elegant U.S. Space Force boys--hence the fantastic drop in price from two thousand dollars since only last June. It was still a plenty-good piece of equipment, however; and the cost change was a real break for the Bunch.
By 4:30 that bright October afternoon, those members who were attending regular astronautics classes at Jarviston Technical College had gathered at Hendricks' store. Ramos and Tiflin, two wild characters with seldom-cut hair and pipe stem pants, who didn't look as if they could be trusted with a delicate unpacking operation, broke the Archer out with a care born of love, there in Paul Hendricks' big backroom shop, while the more stolid members--and old Paul, silent in his swivel chair--watched like hawks.
"So who tries it on first?" Ramos challenged. "Dumb question. You, Eileen--naturally."
Most Bunches have a small, hard, ponytailed member, dungareed like the rest.
Still kidding around, Ramos dropped an arm across Eileen Sands' shoulders, and got her sharp elbow jabbed with vigor into his stomach.
She glanced back in a feminine way at Frank Nelsen, a tall, lean guy of nineteen, butch-haircutted and snub featured. But he was the purposeful, studious kind, more an observer and a personal doer than a leader; he hadn't much time for the encouraging smiles of girls, and donning even an Archer Five now instead of within a few hours, didn't exactly represent his kind of hurry.
"I'll wait, Eileen," he said. Then he nodded toward Gimp Hines. That the others would also pick Gimp was evident at once. There were bravos and clapping, half for a joke.
"Think I won't?" Gimp growled, tossing his crutches on a workbench littered with scraps of color-coded wire, and hopping forward on the one leg that had grown to normal size. He sort of swaggered, Frank Nelsen noticed. Maybe the whole Bunch swaggered with him in a way, because, right now, he represented all of them in their difficult aim. Gimp Hines, with the nylon patch in his congenitally imperfect heart, and with that useless right underpinning, had less chance of taking part in space-development than any of them--even with all his talent for mechanics and electronics.
Two-and-Two (George) Baines, a large, mild person who was an expert bricklayer in his spare time, while he struggled to absorb the intricate math that spacemen are supposed to know--he used to protest that he could at least add two and two--bounced forward, saying, "I'll give yuh a hand, Gimp."
Mitch Storey, the lean colored kid with the passion for all plant life, and the specific urge to get somehow out to Mars, was also moving to help Gimp into the Archer. Gimp waved them off angrily, but they valeted for him, anyhow.
"Shucks, Gimp," Storey soothed. "Anybody needs assistance--the first time..."
They got his good leg, and what there was of the other, into the boots. They laced carefully, following all they had learned from books. They rolled the wire-braced silicone rubber body-section up over his torso, guided his arms into the sleeves, closed the zipper-sealers and centered the chest plate. While the others checked with their eyes, they inspected the nipples of the moisture-reclaimer and chlorophane air-restorer capsules. They lifted the helmet of clear, darkened plastic over his head, and dogged it to the gasket with the automatic turnbuckles. By then, Gimp Hines' own quick fingers, in the gloves, were busy snapping this and adjusting that. There was a sleepy hum of aerating machinery.
"It even smells right, in here," Gimp growled muffledly, trying to be nonchalant.
There was loud laughter and clapping. Ramos whistled piercingly, with two fingers. The huge Kuzak twins, Art and Joe--both had football scholarships at Tech--gave Indian yells. Eileen Sands clasped her hands over her head and went up on her toes like the ballet dancer she had once meant to be. Old Paul, in his chair, chortled, and slapped his arm. Even little David Lester said "Bravo!" after he had gulped. The applause wasn't entirely facetious.
Gimp's whole self had borrowed hard lines and an air of competence from the Archer Five. For a second he looked like somebody who could really cross millions of miles. There was a tiny, solar-powered ionic-propulsion unit mounted on the shoulders of the armor, between the water-tank and the beam-type radio transmitter and receiver. A miniaturized radar sprouted on the left elbow joint. On the inside of the Archer's chest plate, reachable merely by drawing an arm out of a sleeve, emergency ration containers were racked. In the same place was a small airlock for jettisoning purposes and for taking in more supplies.
"What do yuh know--toilet facilities, yet!" Ramos chirped with spurious naivete, and there were guffaws which soon died out. After all, this was a serious occasion, and who wanted to be a jerk? Now that the price had been shoved down into the ground, they could probably get their Archer Fives--their all-important vacuum armor. They were one more hurdle nearer to the stars.
Two regular members of the Bunch hadn't yet shown up. Ten were present, including Gimp in the Archie. All were different. Each had a name.
But Frank Nelsen figured that numbers, names, and individual variations didn't count for much, just then. They were a crowd with an overall personality--often noisy, sometimes quiet like now, always a bit grim to sustain their nerve before all they had to learn in order to reduce their inexperienced greenness, and before the thought of all the expensive equipment they had to somehow acquire, if they were to take part in the rapid adaptation of the solar system to human uses. Most of all, their courage was needed against fear of a region that could be deadly dangerous, but that to them seemed wonderful like nothing else.
The shop smelled of paint, solvent and plastic, like most any other. Gimp, sitting in the Archer, beside the oil-burning stove, didn't say any more. He forgot to play tough, and seemed to lose himself in a mind-trip Out There--probably as far as he would ever get. His face, inside the helmet, now looked pinched. His freckles were very plain in his paled cheeks. Gimp was awed.
So was everybody else, including Paul Hendricks, owner of the Hobby Center, who was approaching eighty and was out of the running, though his watery blue eyes were still showing the shine of boyhood, right now.
Way back, Paul Hendricks used to barnstorm county fairs in a wood-and-fabric biplane, giving thrill rides to sports and their girls at five dollars a couple, because he had been born sixty years too soon.
Much later in his spotty career, he had started the store. He had also meant to do general repair work in the backroom shop. But in recent years it had degenerated into an impromptu club hall, funk hole, griping-arguing-and-planning pit, extracurricular study lab and project site for an indefinite horde of interplanetary enthusiasts who were thought of in Jarviston as either young adults of the most resourceful kind--for whom the country should do much more in order to insure its future in space--or as just another crowd of delinquents, more bent on suicide and trouble-making than any hot rod group had ever been. Paul Hendricks was either a fine, helpful citizen--among so many who were disinterested and preoccupied--or a corrupting Socrates who deserved to drink hemlock.
Frank Nelsen knew all this as well as most. He had been acquainted with Paul ever since, at the age of seven, he had come into the store and had tried to make a down payment on a model building kit for a Y-71 ground-to-orbit freight rocket--clearly marked $49.95 in the display window--with his fortune of a single dime. Frank had never acquired a Y-71 kit, but he had found a friend in Paul Hendricks, and a place to hang around and learn things he wanted to know. Later on, as now, he had worked in the store whenever he had some free time.
Frank leaned against a lathe, watching the others, the frosty thrill and soul-searching hidden inside himself. Maybe it was hard to guess what Eileen Sands, standing near, was thinking, but she was the firm kind who would have a definite direction. Perhaps unconsciously, she hummed a tune under her breath, while her feet toyed with graceful steps. No doubt, her mind was also on the Big Vacuum beyond the Earth.
But what is there about a dangerous dream? When it is far out of reach, it has a safe, romantic appeal. Bring its fulfillment a little closer, and its harsh aspects begin to show. You get a kick out of that, but you begin to wonder nervously if you have the guts, the stamina, the resistance to loneliness and complete strangeness.
Looking at a real Archie--with a friend inside it, even--did this to Frank Nelsen. But he could see similar reactions in some of the others.
Mitch Storey sat, bent forward, on a box, staring at his big, sepia hands, in which he tossed back and forth a tiny, clear capsule containing a fuzzy fragment of vegetation from Mars. He had bought this sealed curio from Paul a year ago for fifty dollars--souvenirs that came from so far were expensive. And now, in view of what was happening to hopeful colonists of that once inhabited and still most Earth-like other planet, ownership of such a capsule on Earth seemed about to be banned, not only by departments of agriculture, but by bodies directly concerned with public safety.
Did the color photographs of Mars, among all the others that the Bunch had thumbtacked to the shop walls, still appeal as strongly to Mitch? Did he still want to go out to that world of queer, swirled markings, like the fluid flow in the dregs of a paper coffee cup? Mitch would--more so than ever. He had plant life in his soul, maybe from wandering in the swamps near his home in Mississippi. He had been supporting himself here at school by fixing gardens. If it was plant life of a different, dangerous sort, with other billions of years of development behind it, that just made the call stronger. Mitch just sat and thought, now, the mouth organ he seldom played sagging forward in his frayed shirt pocket.
Ramos--Miguel Ramos Alvarez--only stood with his black-visored cap pushed back on his head, and a cocky smirk of good humor on his mouth. Reckless Ramos, who went tearing around the country in an ancient motor scooter, decorated with squirrel tails and gaudy bosses, would hardly be disturbed by any risky thing he wanted to do. The thumbtacked pictures of the systems of far, cold Jupiter and Saturn--Saturn still unapproached, except by small, instrumented rockets--would be the things to appeal to him.
The Kuzak twins stood alertly, as if an extra special homecoming football game was in prospect. But they weren't given to real doubts, either. From their previous remarks it was clear that the asteroids, those fragments of an exploded and once populated world, orbiting out beyond Mars, would be for them. Osmium, iridium, uranium. The rich, metallic guts of a planet exposed for easy mining. Thousands of prospectors, hopeful characters, and men brutalized by the life in space, were already drifting around in the Asteroid Belt.
Two-and-Two Baines wore a worried, perplexed expression. He was a massive, rather lost young man who had to keep up with the times, and with his companions, and was certainly wondering if he was able.
Little David Lester, the pedant, the mother's boy, who looked eighteen but was probably older, pouted, and his heavy lips in his thin face moved. "Cores," Nelsen heard him whisper. He had the habit of talking to himself. Frank knew his interests. Drill cores withdrawn from the strata of another planet, and inspected for fossils and other evidences of its long history, was what he probably meant. Seeing Gimp in the Archie had set off another scientific reverie in his head. He was a whizz in any book subject. Maybe he had the brains to be a great investigator of the past, in the Belt or on Mars, if his mind didn't crack first, which seemed sure to happen if he left Earth at all.
But it was Glen Tiflin's reactions that were the strangest. He had his switch blade out, and was tossing it expertly against a wall two-by-four, in which it stuck quivering each time. This seemed his one skill, his pride, his proof of manhood. And he wanted to get into space like nobody else around, except maybe Gimp Hines. It wasn't hard to sense how his head worked--the whole Bunch knew.
Tiflin's face seemed to writhe, now, with self-doubt and truculence; his eyes were on the photos of the heroes, beginning way back; Goddard. Von Braun. Clifford, who had first landed on the far side of the Moon. LaCrosse, who had reached Mercury, closest to the sun. Vasiliev, who had just come back from the frozen moons of Jupiter, scoring a triumph for the Tovies--somebody had started calling them that, a few years ago--up in high Eurasia, the other side of an ideological rift that still threatened the ever more crowded and competitive Earth, though mutual fear had so far kept the flare ups within limits. Bannon, whose expedition was even now exploring the gloomy cellar of Venus' surface, smothered in steam, carbon dioxide and poisonous formaldehyde.
To Tiflin, as to the others, even such places were glamorous. But he wanted to be a big shot, too. It was like a compulsion. He was touchy and difficult. Three years back, he had been in trouble for breaking and entering. Maybe his worship of space, and his desire to get there and prove himself, were the only things that had kept him straight for so long--grimly attentive at Tech, and at work at his car-washing job, nights.
In his nervousness, now, he stuck a cigarette savagely between his lips, and lighted it with a quick, arrogant gesture, hardly slowing down the continuous toss and recovery of his knife.
This had begun to annoy big Art Kuzak. For one thing, Tiflin was doing his trick too close to the mass of crinkly, cellophane-like stuff draped over a horizontal wooden pole suspended by iron straps from the ceiling. The crinkly mass was one of the Bunch's major projects--their first space bubble, or bubb which they had been cutting and shaping with more care and devotion than skill.
"Cripes--put that damn shiv away, Tif!" Art snapped. "Or lose it someplace!"
Ramos, who was a part-time mechanic at the same garage where Tiflin worked, couldn't help taunting. "Yeah--smoking, too. Oh-oh. Using up precious oxygen. Better quit, pal. Can't do much of that Out There."
This was a wrong moment to rib Tiflin. He was in an instant flare. But he ground out the cigarette at once, bitterly. "What do you care what I do, Mex?" he snarled. "And as for you two Hunky Kuzaks--you oversized bulldozers--how about weight limits for blastoff? Damn--I don't care how big you are!"
In mounting rage, he was about to lash out with his fists, even at the two watchful football men. But then he looked surprised. With a terrible effort, he bottled up even his furious words.
The Bunch was a sort of family. Members of families may love each other, but it doesn't have to happen. For a second it was as if Ramos had Tiflin spitted on some barb of his taunting smile--aimed at Tiflin's most vulnerable point.
Ramos clicked his tongue. What he was certainly going to remark was that people who couldn't pass the emotional stability tests, just couldn't get a space-fitness card. But Ramos wasn't unkind. He checked himself in time. "No sweat, Tif," he muttered.
"Hey, Gimp--are you going to sit in that Archie all night?" Joe Kuzak, the easy-going twin, boomed genially. "How about the rest of us?"
"Yeah--how about that, Gimp?" Dave Lester put in, trying to sound as brash and bold as the others, instead of just bookish.
Two-and-Two Baines, still looking perplexed, spoke in a hoarse voice that sounded like sorrow. "What I wanna know is just how far this fifty buck price gets us. Guess we have enough dough left in the treasury to buy us each an Archer Five, huh, Paul?"
Paul Hendricks rubbed his bald head and grinned in a way that attempted to prove him a disinterested sideliner. "Ask Frank," he said. "He's your historian-secretary and treasurer."
Frank Nelsen came out of his attitude of observation enough to warn, "That much we've got, if we want as many as twelve Archies. And a little better than a thousand dollars more, left over from the prize money."
They had won twenty-five hundred dollars during the summer for building a working model of a sun-powered ionic drive motor--the kind useful for deep-space propulsion, but far too weak in thrust to be any good, starting from the ground. The contest had been sponsored by--of all outfits--a big food chain, Trans-Columbia. But this wasn't so strange. Everybody was interested in, or affected by, interplanetary travel, now.
On a workbench, standing amid a litter of metal chips and scraps of color-coded wire, was the Bunch's second ionic, full-size this time, and almost finished. On crossed arms it mounted four parabolic mirrors; its ion guide was on a universal joint. Out There, in orbit or beyond, and in full, spatial sunlight, its jetting ions would deliver ten pounds of continuous thrust.
"A thousand bucks--that's nowhere near enough," Two-and-Two mourned further. "Doggone, why can't we get blasted up off the Earth--that costs the most, all by itself--just in our Archies? They've got those little ionic drives on their shoulders, to get around with, after we're in orbit. Lots of asteroid hoppers live and ride only in their space suits. Why do they make us get all that other expensive equipment? Space bubbs, full-size ionics, lots of fancy instruments!"
"'Cause it isn't legal, otherwise," Mitch Storey pointed out. "'Cause new men are green--it isn't safe for them, otherwise--the Extra-Terrestrial Commission thinks. Got to have all the gear to get clearance. Travelling light isn't even legal in the Belt. You know that."
"Maybe we'll win us another prize," Ramos laughed, touching the crinkly substance of their first bubb, hanging like a deflated balloon over the ceiling pole.
Tiflin sneered. "Oh, sure, you dumb Mex. Too many other Bunches, now. Too much competition. Like companies starting up on the Moon not hiring ordinary help on Earth and shipping them out, anymore--saying contract guys don't stick. Nuts--it's because enough slobs save them the expense by showing up on their own... Or like most all of us trying to get into the Space Force. The Real Elite--sure. Only 25,000 in the Force, when there are over 200,000,000 people in the country to draw from. Just one guy from Jarviston--Harv Diamond--ever made it. Choosy? We can get old waiting for them to review our submitted personal data, only to have a chance to take their lousy tests!"
Joe Kuzak grinned. "So down with 'em--down with the worthy old U.S.S.F.! We're on our own--to Serenitatis Base on the Moon, to the Belt, Pallastown, and farther!"
Ramos still hovered near Eileen Sands. "What do you say, Sweetie?" he asked. "You haven't hardly made a comment."
Eileen remained tough and withdrawn. "I'm just listening while you smart male characters figure out everything," she snapped. "Why don't you become a listener, too, for a change, and go help Gimp out of that Archer?"
Ramos bowed elegantly, and obeyed the latter half of her suggestion.
"I have a premonition--a hunch," little Lester offered, trying to sound firm. "Our request for a grant from the Extra-Terrestrial Development Board will succeed. Because we will be as valuable as anybody, Out There. Then we will have money enough to buy the materials to make most of our equipment."
Joe Kuzak, the gentler twin, answered him. "You're right about one thing, Les. We'll wind up building most of our own stuff--with our own mitts...!"
Some noisy conversation about who should try the Archer next, was interrupted when the antique customer's bell over the street door of the store, jangled. There was a scrape of shoe soles, as the two previously absent members of the Bunch, Jig Hollins and Charlie Reynolds, arriving together by chance, came into the shop.
Jig (Hilton) Hollins was a mechanic out at the airport. He was lean, cocky, twenty-four, with a stiff bristle of blond hair. Like Charlie Reynolds, he added up what had just been happening, here, at a glance. Both were older than the others. They had regular jobs. Their educations were completed, except for evening supplementary courses.
"Well, the men have arrived," Jig announced.
Maybe Charlie Reynolds' faint frown took exception to this remark. He was the only one in a suit, grey and tasteful, with a subdued flash to match the kind of car he drove. Few held this against him, nor the fact that he usually spent himself broke, nor the further fact that J. John Reynolds, tight-fisted president of the Jarviston First National Bank, was his grandfather. Charlie was an engineer at the new nuclear powerhouse, just out of town. Charlie was what is generally known as a Good Guy. He was brash and sure--maybe too sure. He had a slight swagger, balanced by a certain benignancy. He was automatically the leader of the Bunch, held most likely to succeed in their aims.
"Hi, gang," he breezed. "Otto is bringing beer, Pepsi and sandwiches from his joint across the street. Special day--so it's on me. Time to relax--maybe unsnarl. Any new problems?"
"Still plenty of old ones," Frank Nelsen commented laconically.
"Has anybody suddenly decided to back out?" Charlie chuckled. "It's tiresome for me always to be asking that." He looked around, meeting carefully easy grins and grim expressions. "Nope--I guess we're all shaggy folk, bent on high and wild living, so far. So you know the only answer we can have."
"Umhmm, Charlie," Art Kuzak, the tough, business-like twin, gruffed. "We can get the Archers, now. I think Frank has our various sizes noted down. Let everybody sign up that wants an Archie. Better hurry, though--there'll be a run on them now that they're being almost given away... List all the other stuff we need--with approximate purchase price, or cost of construction materials, attached. Sure--we'll be way short of funds. But we can start with the items we can make, ourselves, now. The point is not to lose time. New restrictions may turn up, and give us trouble, if we do. We'll have to ride our luck for a break."
"Hell--you know the lists are ready, Art," Frank Nelsen pointed out. "A bubb for everybody--or the stuff to make it. Full-scale ionic drives, air-restorers and moisture-reclaimers, likewise. Some of the navigation instruments we'll almost have to buy. Dehydrated food, flasks of oxygen and water, and blastoff drums to contain our gear, are all relatively simple. Worst, of course, is the blastoff price, from one of the spaceports. Who could be rich enough to have a ground-to-orbit nuclear rocket of his own? Fifteen hundred bucks--a subsidized rate at that--just to lift a man and a thousand pounds of equipment into orbit. Five thousand dollars, minimum per person, is what we're going to need, altogether."
Gimp Hines, who always acted as if he expected to get off the Earth, too, had yielded his position inside the Archer to Tiflin, and had hobbled close.
"The cost scares a guy who has to go to school, too, so he can pass the tests," he said. "Well, don't worry, Frank. A thousand dollars buys a lot of stellene for bubbs. And we can scratch up a few bucks of our own. I can find a hundred, myself, saved from my TV repair work, and my novelties business. Charlie, here, ought to be able to contribute a thousand. Same for you, Hollins. That'll buy parts and materials for some ionic motors, too."
"Oh, certainly, Gimp," Hollins growled.
But Charlie Reynolds grinned. "I can kick in that much, if I hold down a while," he said. "Maybe more, later. What we've got to have, however, is a loan. We can't expect a grant from the Board. Sure they want more people helping to develop resources in space, but they're swamped with requests. Let's not sweat, though. With a little time, I'll swing something... Hey, everybody! Proposition! I move that whoever wants an Archer put his name down for Frank. I further move that we have him order us a supply of stellene, and basic materials for at least three more ionic motors. I also suggest that everybody donate as much cash as he can, no matter how little, and as much time as possible for making equipment. With luck, and if we get our applications for space-fitness tests mailed to Minneapolis within a week, at least some of us should get off Earth by next June. Now, shall we sign for the whole deal?"
Art Kuzak hunched his shoulders and displayed white teeth happily. "I'm a pushover," he said. "Here I come. I like to see things roll."
"Likewise," said his brother, Joe. Their signatures were both small, in contrast to their size.
Ramos, fully clad in the Archer, clowned his way forward to write his name with great flourishes, his ball point clutched in a space glove.
Tiflin made a fierce, nervous scrawl.
Mitch Storey wrote patiently, in big, square letters.
Gimp chewed his lip, and signed, "Walter Hines," in a beautiful, austere script, with a touch as fine as a master scientist's. "I'll go along as far as they let me," he muttered.
"I think it will be the same--in my case," David Lester stammered. He shook so much that his signature was only a quavering line.
"For laughs," Eileen Sands said, and wrote daintily.
Two-and-Two Baines gulped, sighed, and made a jagged scribble, like the trail of a rocket gone nuts.
Jig Hollins wrote in swooping, arrogant circles, that came, perhaps, from his extra jobs as an advertising sky writer with an airplane.
Frank Nelsen was next, and Charlie Reynolds was last. Theirs were the most indistinctive signatures in the lot. Just ordinary writing.
"So here we all are, on a piece of paper--pledged to victory or death," Reynolds laughed. "Anyhow, we're out of a rut."
Nelsen figured that that was the thing about Charlie Reynolds. Some might not like him, entirely. But he could get the Bunch unsnarled and in motion.
Old Paul Hendricks had come back from waiting on some casual customers in the store.
"Want to sign, too, Paul?" Reynolds chuckled.
"Nope--that would make thirteen," Paul answered, his eyes twinkling. "I'll watch and listen--and maybe tell you if I think you're off beam."
"Here comes Otto with the beer and sandwiches," Ramos burst out.