They all crowded around heavy Otto Kramer and his basket--all except Frank Nelsen and Paul Hendricks, and Eileen Sands who made the ancient typewriter click in the little office-enclosure, as she typed up the order list that Nelsen would mail out with a bank draft in the morning.
Nelsen had a powerful urge to talk to the old man who was his long-time friend, and who had said little all during the session, though he knew more about space travel than any of them--as much as anybody can know without ever having been off the Earth.
"Hey, Paul," Frank called in a low tone, leaning his elbows across a workbench.
"Nothing," Frank Nelsen answered with a lopsided smile.
But he felt that that was the right word, when your thoughts and feelings became too huge and complicated for you to express with any ease.
Grandeur, poetry, music--for instance, the haunting popular song, Fire Streak, about the burial of a spaceman--at orbital speed--in the atmosphere of his native planet. And fragments of history, such as covered wagons. All sorts of subjects, ideas and pictures were swirling inside his head. Wanting to sample everything in the solar system... Home versus the distance, and the fierce urge to build a wild history of his own... Gentleness and lust to be fulfilled, sometime. There would be a girl... And there were second thoughts to twist your guts and make you wonder if all your savage drives were foolish. But there was a duty to be equal to your era--helping to give dangerously crowded humanity on Earth more room, dispersal, a chance for race survival, if some unimaginable violence were turned loose...
He thought of the names of places Out There. Serenitatis Base--Serene--on the Moon. Lusty, fantastic Pallastown, on the Golden Asteroid, Pallas... He remembered his parents, killed in a car wreck just outside of Jarviston, four Christmases ago. Some present!... But there was one small benefit--he was left free to go where he wanted, without any family complications, like other guys might have. Poor Dave Lester. How was it that his mother allowed him to be with the Bunch at all? How did he work it? Or was she the one that was right?...
Paul Hendricks had leaned his elbows on the workbench, too. "Sure--nothing--Frank," he said, and his watery eyes were bland.
The old codger understood. Neither of them said anything for a minute, while the rest of the Bunch, except Eileen who was still typing, guzzled Pepsi and beer, and wolfed hotdogs. There was lots of courage-lifting noise and laughter.
Ramos said something, and Jig Hollins answered him back. "Think there'll be any girls in grass skirts out in the Asteroid Belt, Mex?"
"Oh, they'll arrive," Ramos assured him.
Nelsen didn't listen anymore. His and Paul's attention had wandered to the largest color photo thumbtacked to the wall, above the TV set, and the shelf of dog-eared technical books. It showed a fragile, pearly ring, almost diaphanous, hanging tilted against spatial blackness and pinpoint stars. Its hub was a cylindrical spindle, with radial guys of fine, stainless steel wire. It was like the earliest ideas about a space station, yet it was also different. To many--Frank Nelsen and Paul Hendricks certainly included--such devices had as much beauty as a yacht under full sail had ever had for anybody.
Old Paul smirked with pleasure. "It's a shame, ain't it, Frank--calling a pretty thing like that a 'bubb'--it's an ugly word. Or even a 'space bubble.' Technical talk gets kind of cheap."
"I don't mind," Frank Nelsen answered. "Our first one, here, could look just as nice--inflated, and riding free against the stars."
He touched the crinkly material, draped across its wooden support.
"It will," the old man promised. "Funny--not so long ago people thought that space ships would have to be really rigid--all metal. So how did they turn out? Made of stellene, mostly--an improved form of polyethylene--almost the same stuff as a weather balloon."
"A few millimeters thick, light, perfectly flexible when deflated," Nelsen added. "Cut out and cement your bubb together in any shape you choose. Fold it up firmly, like a parachute--it makes a small package that can be carried up into orbit in a blastoff rocket with the best efficiency. There, attached flasks of breathable atmosphere fill it out in a minute. Eight pounds pressure makes it fairly solid in a vacuum. So, behold--you've got breathing and living room, inside. There's nylon cording for increased strength--as in an automobile tire--though not nearly as much. There's a silicone gum between the thin double layers, to seal possible meteor punctures. A darkening lead-salt impregnation in the otherwise transparent stellene cuts radiation entry below the danger level, and filters the glare and the hard ultra-violet out of the sunshine. So there you are, all set up."
"Rig your hub and guy wires," old Paul carried on, cheerfully. "Attach your sun-powered ionic drive, set up your air-restorer, spin your vehicle for centrifuge-gravity, and you're ready to move--out of orbit."
They laughed, because getting into space wasn't as easy as they made it sound. The bubbs, one of the basic inventions that made interplanetary travel possible, were, for all their almost vagabondish simplicity, still a concession in lightness and compactness for atmospheric transit, to that first and greatest problem--breaking the terrific initial grip of Earth's gravity from the ground upward, and gaining stable orbital speed. Only a tremendously costly rocket, with a thrust greater than its own weight when fully loaded, could do that. Buying a blastoff passage had to be expensive.
"Figuring, scrounging, counting our pennies, risking our necks," Nelsen chuckled. "And maybe, even if we make it, we'll be just a third-rate group, lost in the crowd that's following the explorers... Just the same, I wish you could plan to go, too, Paul."
"Don't rub it in, kid. But I figure on kicking in a couple of thousand bucks, soon, to help you characters along."
Nelsen felt an embarrassed lift of hope.
"You shouldn't, Paul," he advised. "We've overrun and taken possession of your shop--almost your store, too. You've waived any profit, whenever we've bought anything. That's enough favors."
"My dough, my pleasure... Let's each get one of Reynolds' beers and hotdogs, if any are left..."
Later, when all the others had gone, except Gimp Hines, they uncovered the Archer, which everyone else had tried. Paul got into it, first. Then Nelsen took his turn, sitting as if within an inclosed vault, hearing the gurgle of bubbles passing through the green, almost living fluid of the air-restorer capsule. Chlorophane, like the chlorophyl of green plants, could break up exhaled carbon dioxide, freeing the oxygen for re-breathing. But it was synthetic, far more efficient, and it could use much stronger sunlight as an energy source. Like chlorophyl, too, it produced edible starches and sugars that could be imbibed, mixed with water, through a tube inside the Archer's helmet.
Even with the Archer enclosing him, Nelsen's mind didn't quite reach. He had learned a lot about space, but it remained curiously inconceivable to him. He felt the frost-fringed thrill.
"Now we know--a little," he chortled, after he stood again, just in his usual garb.
It was almost eight o'clock. Gimp Hines hadn't gone to supper, or to celebrate decision on one of the last evenings of any kind of freedom from work. He couldn't wait for that... Under fluorescent lights, he was threading wire through miniature grommets, hurrying to complete the full-size ionic drive. He said, "Hi, Frank," and let his eyes drop, again, into absorption in his labors. Mad little guy. Tragic, sort of. A cripple...
"I'll shove off, Paul," Nelsen was saying in a moment.
Out under the significant stars of the crisp October night, Nelsen was approached at once by a shadow. "I was waiting for you, Frank. I got a problem." The voice was hoarse sorrow--almost lugubrious comedy.
"Math again, Two-and-Two? Sure--shoot."
"Well--that kind is always around--with me," Two-and-Two Baines chuckled shakily. "This is something else--personal. We're liable--honest to gosh--to go, aren't we?"
"Some of us, maybe," Nelsen replied warily. "Sixty thousand bucks for the whole Bunch looks like a royal heap of cabbage to me."
"Split among a dozen guys, it looks smaller," Two-and-Two persisted. "And you can earn royal dough on the Moon--just for example. Plenty to pay back a loan."
"Still, you don't pick loans off trees," Nelsen gruffed. "Not for a shoestring crowd like us. We look too unsubstantial."
"Okay, Frank--have that part your way. I believe there still is a good chance we will go. I want to go. But I get to thinking. Out There is like being buried in millions of miles of nothing that you can breathe. Can a guy stand it? You hear stories about going loopy from claustrophobia and stuff. And I got to think about my mother and dad."
"Uh-huh--other people could be having minor second thoughts--including me," Frank Nelsen growled.
"You don't get what I mean, Frank. Sure I'm scared some--but I'm gonna try to go. Well, here's my point. I'm strong, willing, not too clumsy. But I'm no good at figuring what to do. So, Out There, in order to have a reasonable chance, I'll have to be following somebody smart. I thought I'd fix it now--beforehand. You're the best, Frank."
Nelsen felt the scared earnestness of the appeal, and the achy shock of the compliment. But in his own uncertainty, he didn't want to be carrying any dead weight, in the form of a dependent individual.
"Thanks, Two-and-Two," he said. "But I can't see myself as any leader, either. Talk about it to me tomorrow, if you still feel like it. Right now I want to sweat out a few things for myself--alone."
"Of course, Frankie." And Two-and-Two was gone.
Frank Nelsen looked upward, over the lighted street. There was no Moon--site of many enterprises, these days--in the sky, now. Old Jupiter rode in the south. A weather-spotting satellite crept across zenith, winking red and green. A skip glider, an orbit-to-ground freight vehicle, possibly loaded with rich metals from the Belt, probably about to land at the New Mexico spaceport far to the west, moved near it. Frank felt a deliciously lonesome chill as he walked through the business section of Jarviston. From somewhere, dance music lilted.
In front of Lehman's Drug Store he looked skyward again, to see a dazzling white cluster, like many meteors, falling. The gorgeous display lasted more than a second.
"Good heavens, Franklin Nelsen--what was that?"
He looked down at the slight, aging woman, and stiffened slightly. Miss Rosalie Parks had been his Latin teacher in high school. Plenty of times she used to scold him for not having his translations of Caesar worked out. A lot she understood about a fella who had to spend plenty of time working to support himself, while attending school!
"Good evening, Miss Parks," he greeted rather stiffly. "I think it was that manned weather satellite dumping garbage. It hits the atmosphere at orbital velocity, and is incinerated."
She seemed to be immensely pleased and amused. "Garbage becoming beauty! That is rather wonderful, Franklin. I'll remember. Thank you and good night."
She marched off with the small purchase she had made, in the direction opposite his own.
He got almost to the house where he had his room, when there was another encounter. But it was nothing new to run into Nancy Codiss, the spindly fifteen-year-old next door. He had a sudden, unbelievably expansive impulse.
"Hi, Nance," he said. "I didn't get much supper. Let's go down to Lehman's for a hamburger and maybe a soda."
They didn't talk very much, walking down, waiting for their orders, or eating their hamburgers. But she wasn't as spindly as he used to think. And her dark hair, even features and slim hands were nicer than he recalled.
"I hear you fellas got your space-armor sample, Frank."
"Yep--we did. We're ordering more."
Her expression became speculative. Her brown eyes lighted. "I've been wondering if I should look Outward, too. Whether it makes sense--for a girl."
"Could be--I've heard."
Their conversation went something like that, throughout, with long silences. Finally she smiled at him, very brightly.
"The Junior Fall dance is in two weeks," she said. "But I guess you'll be too busy to be interested?"
"'Guess' just isn't the word, Nance. I regret that--truly."
He looked and sounded as though he meant it. In some crazy way, it seemed that he did mean it.
He walked her home. Then he went to the next house, and up to his rented room. He showered, and for once climbed very early into bed, feeling that he must have nightmares. About strange sounds in the thin winds, over the mysterious thickets of Mars. Or about some blackened, dried-out body of a sentient being, sixty million years dead, floating free in the Asteroid Belt. A few had been found. Some were in museums.
Instead, he slept the dreamless sleep of the just--if there was any particular reason for him to consider himself just.
Gimp Hines put the finishing touches on the first full-scale ionic during that next week. The others of the Bunch, each working when he could, completed cementing the segments of the first bubb together.
On a Sunday morning they carried the bubb out into the yard behind the store and test inflated the thirty-foot ring by means of a line of hose from the compressor in the shop. Soapsuds dabbed along the seams revealed a few leaks by its bubbling. These were fixed up.
By late afternoon the Bunch had folded up the bubb again, and were simulating its practice launching from a ground-to-orbit rocket--as well as can be done on the ground with a device intended only for use in a state of weightlessness, when the operators are supposed to be weightless, too. The impossibility of establishing such conditions produced some ludicrous results: The two Kuzaks diving with a vigor, as if from a rocket airlock, hitting the dirt with a thud, scrambling up, opening and spreading the great bundle, attaching the air hose. Little Lester hopping in to help fit wire rigging, most of it still imaginary. A friendly dog coming over to sniff, with a look of mild wonder in his eyes.
"Laugh, you leather-heads!" Art Kuzak roared at the others. He grinned, wiping his muddy face. "We've got to learn, don't we? Only, it's like make-believe. Hell, I haven't played make-believe since I was four! But if we keep doing it here, all the kids and townspeople will be peeking over the fence to see how nuts we've gone."
This was soon literally true. In some embarrassment, the Bunch rolled up their bubb and lugged it into the shop.
"I can borrow a construction compressor unit on a truck," Two-and-Two offered. "And there's a farm I know..."
A great roll of stellene tubing, to have a six-feet six-inch inside diameter when inflated, was delivered on Monday. Enough for three bubbs. The Archer Fives were expected to be somewhat delayed, due to massive ordering. But small boxes of parts and raw stock for the ionics had begun to arrive, too. Capacitors, resistors, thermocouple units. Magnesium rods for Storey or Ramos or the Kuzaks to shape in a lathe. Sheet aluminum to be spun and curved and polished. With Eileen Sands helping, Gimp Hines would do most of that.
So the real work began. Nobody in the Bunch denied that it was a grind. For most, there were those tough courses at Tech. And a job, for money, for sustenance. And the time that must be spent working for--Destiny. Sleep was least important--a few hours, long after midnight, usually.
Frank Nelsen figured that he had it relatively easy--almost as easy as the Kuzak twins, who, during football season, were under strict orders to get their proper sack time. He worked at Hendricks'--old Paul didn't mind his combining the job with his labors of aspiration. Ramos, the night-mechanic, Tiflin, the car-washer, and Two-and-Two Baines, the part-time bricklayer, didn't have it so easy. Eileen, a first-rate legal typist employed for several hours a day by a partnership of lawyers, could usually work from notes, at the place where she lived.
Two-and-Two would lift a big hand facetiously, when he came into the shop. Blinking and squinting, he would wiggle his fingers. "I can still see 'em--to count!" he would moan. "Thanks, all you good people, for coaching me in my math."
"Think nothing of it," Charlie Reynolds or David Lester, or most any of the others, would tell him. Two-and-Two hadn't come near Frank Nelsen very much, during the last few days, though Frank had tried to be friendly.
Lester was the only one without an activity to support himself. But he was at the shop every weekday, six to ten p.m., cementing stellene with meticulous care, while he muttered and dreamed.
The Bunch griped about courses, jobs, and the stubbornness of materials, but they made progress. They had built their first bubb and ionic. The others would be easier.
Early in November, Nelsen collected all available fresh capital, including a second thousand from Paul Hendricks and five hundred from Charlie Reynolds, and sent it in with new orders.
That about exhausted their own finances for a long time to come. Seven bubbs, minus most of even their simpler fittings, and five ionics, seemed as much as they could pay for, themselves. Charlie Reynolds hadn't yet lined up a backer.
"We should have planned to outfit one guy completely," Jig Hollins grumbled on a Sunday afternoon at the shop. "Then we could have drawn lots about who gets a chance to use the gear. That we goofed there is your fault, Reynolds. Or--your Grandpappy didn't come through, huh?"
Charlie met Hollins' sneering gaze for a moment. "Never mind the 'Grandpappy', Jig," he said softly. "I knew that chances weren't good, there. However, there are other prospects which I'm working on. I remember mentioning that it might take time. As for your other remarks, what good is equipping just one person? I thought that this was a project for all of us."
"I'm with Charlie," Joe Kuzak commented.
"Don't fight, guys--we've got to figure on training, too," Ramos laughed. "I've got the problem of an expensive training centrifuge about beat. Out at my old motor scooter club. Come on, Charlie--you, too, Jig--get your cars and let's go! It's only seven miles, and we all need a break."
Paul Hendricks had gone for a walk. So Nelsen locked the shop, and they all tore off, out to the place, Ramos leading the way in his scooter. At the scooter club they found an ancient carnival device which used to be called a motordrome. It was a vertical wooden cylinder, like a huge, ironbound, straight sided cask, thirty feet high and wide, standing on its bottom.
Ramos let himself and the scooter through a massive, curved door--conforming to the curvature of the walls--at the base of the 'drome.
"Secure the latch bar of this door from the outside, fellas," he said. "Then go to the gallery around the top to watch."
Ramos started riding his scooter in a tight circle around the bottom of the 'drome. Increasing speed, he swung outward to the ramped juncture between floor and smooth, circular walls. Then, moving still faster, he was riding around the vertical walls, themselves, held there by centrifugal force. He climbed his vehicle to the very rim of the great cask, body out sideways, grinning and balancing, hands free, the squirrel tails flapping from his gaudily repainted old scooter.
"Come on, you characters!" he shouted through the noise and smoke. "You should try this, too! It's good practice for the rough stuff to come, when we blast out!... Hey, Eileen--you try it first--ride with me--then alone--when you get the hang of it!..."
This time she accepted. Soon she was riding by herself, smiling recklessly. Reynolds rode after that, then the Kuzaks. Like most of them, Frank Nelsen took the scooter up alone, from the start. He was a bit scared at first, but if you couldn't do a relatively simple stunt like this, how could you get along in space? He became surer, then gleeful, even when the centrifugal force made his head giddy, pushed his buttocks hard against the scooter's seat, and his insides down against his pelvis.
Storey, Hollins and Tiflin all accomplished it. Even Gimp Hines rode behind Ramos in some very wild gyrations, though he didn't attempt to guide the scooter, himself.
Then it was David Lester's turn. It was a foregone conclusion that he couldn't take the scooter up, alone. Palefaced, he rode double. Ramos was careful this time. But on the downward curve before coming to rest, the change of direction made Lester grab Ramos' arm at a critical instant. The scooter wavered, and they landed hard, even at reduced speed. Agile Ramos skipped clear, landing on his feet. Lester flopped heavily, and skidded across the bottom of the 'drome.
When the guys got to him, he was covered with friction burns, and with blood from a scalp gash. Ramos, Storey and Frank worked on him to get him cleaned up and patched up. Part of the time he was sobbing bitterly, more from failure, it seemed, than from his physical hurt. By luck there didn't seem to be any bones broken.
"Darn!" he choked in some infinite protest, beating the ground with his fists. "Damn--that's the end of it for me...! So soon... Pop..."
"I'll drive you to Doc Miller's, Les," Charlie Reynolds said briskly. "Then home. You other people better stay here..."
Charlie had a baffled, subdued look, when he returned an hour later. "I thought his mother would chew my ear, sure," he said. "She didn't. She was just polite. That was worse. She's small--not much color. Of course she was scared, and mad clean through. Know her?"
"I guess we've all seen her around," Nelsen answered. "Widow. Les was in one of my classes during my first high school year. He was a senior, then. They haven't been in Jarviston more than a few years. I never heard where they came from..."
Warily, back at the shop, the Bunch told Paul what had happened.
For once his pale eyes flashed. "You Bright Boys," he said. "Especially you, Ramos...! Well, I'm most to blame. I let him hang around, because he was so doggone interested. And driven--somehow. Lucky nothing too bad happened. Last August, when you romantics got serious about space, I made him prove he was over twenty-one..."
They sweated it out, expecting ear-burning phone calls, maybe legal suits. Nothing happened. Nelsen felt relieved that Lester was gone. One dangerous link in a chain was removed. Contempt boosted his own arrogant pride of accomplishment. Then pity came, and anger for the sneers of Jig Hollins. Then regret for a fallen associate.
The dozen Archers were delivered--there would be a spare, now. The Bunch continued building equipment, they worked out in the motordrome, they drilled at donning their armor and at inflating and rigging a bubb. Gimp Hines exercised with fierce, perspiring doggedness on a horizontal bar he had rigged in the back of the shop. He meant to compensate for his bad leg by improving his shoulder muscles.