Most of the guys still figured that Charlie Reynolds would solve their money problem. But in late November he had a bad moment. Out in front of Hendricks', he looked at his trim automobile. "It's a cinch I can't use it Out There," he chuckled ruefully and unprompted. Then he brightened. "Nope--selling it wouldn't bring one tenth enough, anyhow. I'll get what we need--just got to keep trying... I don't know why, but some so-called experts are saying that off-the-Earth enterprises have been overextended. That makes finding a backer a bit tougher than I thought."
"You ought to just take off on your own, Reynolds," Jig Hollins suggested airily. "I'll bet it's in your mind. The car would pay for that. Or since you're a full-fledged nuclear engineer, some company on the Moon might give you a three year contract and send you out free in a comfortable vehicle. Or wouldn't you like to be tied that long? I wouldn't. Maybe I could afford to be an independent, too. Tough on these shoestring boys, here, but is it our fault?"
Hollins was trying to taunt Reynolds. "You're tiresome, Jig," Reynolds said without heat. "Somebody's going to poke you sometime..."
Next morning, before going to classes at Tech, Frank Nelsen, with the possibility of bitter disappointment looming in his own mind, spotted Glen Tiflin, the switch blade tosser, standing on the corner, not quite opposite the First National Bank. Tiflin's mouth was tight and his eyes were narrowed.
Nelsen felt a tingle in his nerves--very cold.
"Hi--what cooks, Tif?" he said mildly.
"To you it's which?" Tiflin snapped.
Nelson led him on. "Sometimes I think of all the dough in that bank," he said.
"Yeah," Tiflin snarled softly. "That old coot, Charlie Reynolds' grandpa, sitting by his vault door. Too obvious, though--here. Maybe in another bank--in another town. We could get the cash we need. Hell, though--be cavalier--it's just a thought."
"You damned fool!" Nelsen hissed slowly.
It was harder than ever to like Tiflin for anything at all. But he did have that terrible, star-reaching desperation. Nelsen had quite a bit of it, himself. He knew, now.
"Get up to Tech, Tif," he said like an order. "If you have a chance, tell my math prof I might be a little late..."
That was how Frank Nelsen happened to face J. John Reynolds, who, in a question of progress, would still approve of galley slaves. Nelsen had heard jokes like that laughed about, around Jarviston. J. John, by reputation, was all hard business.
Nelsen got past his secretary.
"Young man--I hope you have something very special to say."
There was a cold, amused challenge in the old man's tone, and an implication of a moment of casual audience granted generously, amid mountains of more important affairs.
Nelsen didn't waver. The impulse to do what he was doing had come too suddenly for nervousness to build up. He hadn't planned what to say, but his arguments were part of himself.
"Mr. Reynolds--I'm Frank Nelsen, born here in Jarviston. Perhaps you know me on sight. I believe you are acquainted with Paul Hendricks, and you must have heard about our group, which is aiming at space, as people like ourselves are apt to be doing, these days. We've made fair progress, which proves we're at least earnest, if not dedicated. But unless we wait and save for years, we've come about as far as we can, without a loan. Judging from the success of previous earnest groups, and the development of resources and industries beyond the Earth, we are sure that we could soon pay you back, with considerable interest."
J. John Reynolds seemed to doze, hardly listening. But at the end his eyes opened, and sparks of anger--or acid humor--seemed to dance in them.
"I know very well what sort of poetic tomfoolery you are talking about, Nelsen," he said. "I wondered how long it would be before one of you--other than my grandson with his undiluted brass, and knowing me far too well in one sense, anyway--would have the gall to come here and talk to me like this. You'd probably be considered a minor, too, in some states. Dealing with you, I could even get into trouble."
Nelsen's mouth tightened. "I came to make a proposition and get an answer," he responded. "Thank you for your no. It helps clear the view."
"Hold on, Nelsen," J. John growled. "I don't remember saying no. I said 'gall,' intending it to mean guts. That's what young spacemen need, isn't it? They've almost got to be young, so legal viewpoints about the age at which competence is reached are changing. Oh, there is plenty of brass among your generation. But it fails in peculiar places. I was waiting for one place where it didn't fail. Charlie, my grandson, doesn't count. It has never taken him any courage to talk to me any way he wants."
This whole encounter was still dreamlike to Frank Nelsen.
"Then you are saying yes?"
"I might. Do you foolishly imagine that my soul is so completely sour milk that in youth I couldn't feel the same drives that you feel, now, for the limited opportunity there was, then? But under some damnable pressure toward conformity, I took a desk job in a bank. I am now eighty-one years old... How much does your 'Bunch' need--at minimum, mind you--for the opportunity to ride in space-armor till the rank smell of their bodies almost chokes them, for developing weird allergies or going murdering mad, but, in the main, doing their best, anyway, pathfinding and building, if they've got the guts? Come on, Nelsen--you must know."
"Fifty thousand," Frank answered quickly. "There are still eleven in our group."
"Yes... More may quit along the way... Here is my proposition: I would make funds available for your expenses up to that amount--from my personal holdings, separate from this bank. The amount due from each individual shall be ten percent of whatever his gains or earnings are, off the Earth, over a period of ten years, but he will not be required to pay back any part of the original loan. This is a high-risk, high-potential profit arrangement for me--with an experimental element. I will ask for no written contract--only a verbal promise. I have found that people are fairly honest, and I know that, far in space, circumstances become too complicated to make legal collections very practical, anyway, even if I ever felt inclined to try them... Now, if--after I see your friends, whom you will send to me for an interview and to give me their individual word, also, I decide to make my proposition effective--will you, yourself, promise to abide by these terms?"
Nelsen was wary for a second. "Yes--I promise," he said.
"Good. I am glad you paused to think, Nelsen. I am not fabulously rich. But having more or less money hardly matters to me at this late date, so I am not likely to try to trap you. Yet there is still a game to play, and an outcome to watch--the future. Now get out of here before you become ridiculous by saying more than a casual thanks."
"All right--thanks. Thank you, sir..."
Nelsen felt somewhat numb. But a faint, golden glow was increasing inside his mind.
Tiflin hadn't gone up to Tech. He was still waiting on the street corner. "What the hell, Frank?" he said.
"I think we've got the loan, Tif. But he wants to see all of us. Can you go in there, be polite, say you're a Bunch member, make a promise, and--above all--avoid blowing your top? Boy--if you queer this...!"
Tiflin's mouth was open. "You kidding?"
Tiflin gulped, and actually looked subdued. "Okay, Frank. Be cavalier. Hell, I'd croak before I'd mess this up...!"
By evening, everybody had visited J. John Reynolds, including Charlie Reynolds and Jig Hollins. Nelsen got the backslapping treatment.
Charlie sighed, rubbed his head, then grinned with immense relief. "That's a load off," he said. "Glad to have somebody else fix it. Congrats, Frank. I wonder if Otto has got any champagne to go with the hotdogs...?"
Otto had a bottle--enough for a taste, all around. Eileen kissed Frank impulsively. "You ought to get real smart," she said.
"Uh-huh," he answered. "Now let's get some beer--more our speed."
But none of them overdid the beer either...
Just after New Year's they had eight bubbs completed, tested, folded carefully according to government manuals, and stowed in an attic they had rented over Otto's place. They had seven ionics finished and stored. More parts and materials were arriving. The air-restorers were going to be the toughest and most expensive to make. They were the really vital things to a spaceman. Every detail had to be carefully fitted and assembled. The chlorophane contained costly catalytic agents.
A winter of hard work was ahead, but they figured on a stretch of clear sailing, now. They didn't expect anyone to shake their morale, least of all a nice, soft-spoken guy in U.S.S.F. greys. Harv Diamond was the one man from Jarviston who had gotten into the Space Force. He used to hang around Hendricks'.
He dropped in on a Sunday evening, when the whole Bunch was in the shop. They were around him at once, like around a hero, shouting and questioning. There were mottled patches on his hands, and he wore dark glasses, but he seemed at ease and happy.
"There have been some changes in the old joint, huh, Paul?" he said. "So you guys are one of the outfits building its own gear... Looks pretty good... Of course you can get some bulky supplies cheaper on the Moon, because everything from Earth has to be boosted into space against a gravity six times as great as the lunar, which raises the price like hell. Water and oxygen, for instance. Peculiar, on the dry, almost airless Moon. But roasting water out of lunar gypsum rock is an easy trick. And oxygen can be derived from water by simple electrolysis."
"Hell, we know all that, Harv," Ramos laughed.
So Harv Diamond gave them the lowdown on the shortage of girls--yet--in Serenitatis Base, on the Moon. Just the same, it was growing like corn in July, and was already a pretty good leave-spot, if you liked to look around. Big vegetable gardens under sealed, stellene domes. Metal refineries, solar power plants, plastic factories and so forth, already in operation... But there was nothing like Pallastown, on little Pallas, out in the Asteroid Belt... Mars? That was the heebie-jeebie planet.
Gimp asked Harv how much leave he had on Earth.
"Not long, I guess," Harv laughed. "I've got to check back at the Force Hospital in Minneapolis tomorrow..."
But right away it was evident that his thoughts had been put on the wrong track. His easy smile faded. He gasped and looked kind of surprised. He hung onto Paul's old swivel chair, in which he was sitting, as if he was suddenly terribly afraid of falling. His eyes closed tight, and there was a funny gurgle in his throat.
The Bunch surrounded him, wanting to help, but he half recovered.
"Even a good Space Force bubb, manufactured under rigid government specifications, can tear," he said in a thick tone. "If some jerk, horsing around with another craft, bumps you even lightly. Compartmentation helps, but you can still be unlucky. I was fortunate--almost buttoned into my Archer Six, already. But did you ever see a person slowly swell up and turn purple, with frothy bubbles forming under the skin, while his blood boils in the Big Vacuum? That was my buddy, Ed Kraft..."
Lieutenant Harvey Diamond gasped. Huge, strangling hiccups came out of his throat. His eyes went wild. The Kuzaks had to hold him, while Mitch Storey ran to phone Doc Miller. A shot quieted Diamond somewhat, and an ambulance took him away.
That incident shook up the Bunch a little. A worse one came on a Tuesday evening, when not everybody was at the shop.
The TV was on, showing the interior of the Far Side, one of those big, comparatively luxurious tour bubbs that take rubbernecks that can afford it on a swing around the Moon. The Far Side was just coming into orbit, where tending skip gliders would take off the passengers for grounding at the New Mexico spaceport. Aboard the big bubb you could see people moving about, or sitting with drinks on curved benches. A girl was playing soft music on a tiny, lightweight piano.
There wasn't any sign of trouble except that the TV channel went dead for a second, until a stand by commercial with singing cartoon figures cut in.
But Frank Nelsen somehow put his hands to his head, as if to protect it.
Mitch Storey, with a big piece of stellene in his brown mitts, stood up very straight.
Gimp, at a bench, handed a tiny capacitor to Eileen, and started counting, slow and even. "One--two--three--four--five--"
"What's with you slobs?" Jig Hollins wanted to know.
"Dunno--we're nuts, maybe," Gimp answered. "Ten--eleven--twelve--"
Charlie Reynolds and Paul Hendricks were alert, too.
Then a big, white light trembled on the thin snow beyond the windows, turning the whole night landscape into weird day. The tearing, crackling roar was delayed. By the time the sound arrived, all of the stellene in the Far Side must have been consumed. It had no resistance to atmospheric friction at five miles per second, or faster. There were just the heavier metallic details left to fall and burn. Far off, there was a thumping crash that seemed to make the ground sag and recover.
"Here we go!" Charlie Reynolds yelled.
In his and Hollins' cars, they got to the scene of the fragment's fall, two miles out of town, by following a faint, fading glow. They were almost the first to reach the spot. Tiflin and Ramos, who had been working on their jobs, came with their boss, along with a trailing horde of cars from town.
Flashlights probed into the hot impact pit in the open field, where the frozen soil had seemed to splash like a liquid. Crumpled in the hole was a lump of half-fused sheet steel, wadded up like paper. It was probably part of the Far Side's central hub. Magnesium and aluminum, of which the major portions had certainly been made, were gone; they could never have endured the rush through the atmosphere.
Ramos got down into the pit. After a minute, he gave a queer cry, and climbed out again. His mitten smoked as he opened it, to show something.
"It must have been behind a heavy object," he said very seriously, not like his usual self at all. "That broke the molecular impact with the air--like a ceramic nose cone. Kept it from burning up completely."
The thing was a lady's silver compact, from which a large piece had been fused away. A bobbypin had gotten welded to it.
Old Paul Hendricks cursed. Poor Two-and-Two moved off sickly, with a palm clamped over his mouth.
Eileen Sands gasped, and seemed about to yell. But she got back most of her poise. Women have nursed the messily ill and dying, and have tended ghastly wounds during ages of time. So they know the messier side of biology as well as men.
Ramos gave the pathetic relic to a cop who was trying to take charge.
"Somebody must have goofed bad on the Far Side, for it to miss orbit like that," Ramos grated. "Or was something wrong, beforehand? Their TV transmitter went out--we were watching, too, at the garage... You can see the aurora--the Northern Lights... Those damn solar storms might have loused up instruments...! But who'll ever know, now...?"
The Kuzaks, who had been to an Athletic Association meeting at Tech, had grabbed a ride out with the stream of cars from town. Both looked grim. "No use hanging around here, Charlie," Art urged. "Let's get back to the shop."
Before he drove off, Jig Hollins tried to chuckle mockingly at everybody, especially Charlie Reynolds. "Time to think about keeping a nice safe job in the Jarviston powerhouse--eh, Reynolds? And staying near granddad?"
"We're supposed not to be children, Hollins," Charlie shot back at him from his car window. "We're supposed to have known long ago that these things happen, and to have adjusted ourselves to our chances."
"Ninnies that get scared first thing, when the facts begin to show!" Tiflin snarled. "Cripes--let's don't be like soft bugs under boards!"
"You're right, Tif," Frank Nelsen agreed, feeling that for once the ne'er-do-well--the nuisance--might be doing them all some good. Frank could feel how Tiflin shamed some of the quiver out of his own insides, and helped bring back pride and strength.
The Far Side disaster had been pretty disturbing, however. And next day, Thursday, the blue envelopes came to the members of the Bunch. A printed card with a typed-in date, was inside each: "Report for space-fitness tests at Space-Medicine Center, February 15th..."
"Just a couple of weeks!" Two-and-Two was moaning that night. "How'll I get through, with my courses only half-finished. You've gotta help me some more, people! With that stinking math...!"
So equipment building was almost suspended, while the Bunch crammed and sweated and griped and cursed. But maybe now some of them wouldn't care so very much if they flunked.
Two loaded automobiles took off for Minneapolis on the night before the ordeal. The Bunch put up at motels to be fresh the next morning. Maybe some of them even slept.
At the Center, there were more forms to fill out. Then complete physicals started the process. Next came the written part. Right off, Frank Nelsen knew that this was going a familiar way, which had happened quite often at Tech: Struggle through a tough course, hear dire promises of head-cracking questions and math problems in the final quiz. Then the switch--the easy letdown.
The remainder of the tests proceeded like assembly-line operations, each person taking each alone, in the order of his casual position in the waiting line.
First there was the dizzying, mind-blackening centrifuge test, to see if you could take enough Gs of acceleration, and still be alert enough to fit a simple block puzzle together.
Then came the free fall test, from the top of a thousand foot tower. A parachute-arrangement broke your speed at the bottom of the track. As in the centrifuge, instruments incorporated into the fabric of a coverall suit with a hood, were recording your emotional and bodily reactions. The medics wanted to be sure that your panic level was high and cool. Nelsen didn't find free fall very hard to take, either.
Right after that came the scramble to see how fast you could get into an Archer, unfold and inflate a bubb and rig its gear.
"That's all, Mister," the observer with the camera told Nelsen in a bored tone.
"Results will be mailed to your home within twelve hours--Mr. Nelsen," a girl informed him as she read his name from a printed card.
So the Bunch returned tensely to Jarviston, with more time to sweat out. Everybody looked at Gimp Hines--and then looked away. Even Jig Hollins didn't make any comments. Gimp, himself, seemed pretty subdued.
The small, green space-fitness cards were arriving at Jarviston addresses in the morning.
Near the end of the noon hour, Two-and-Two Baines was waving his around the Tech campus, having gone home to look, as of course everybody else who could, had also done. "Cripes!--Hi-di-ho--here it is!" he was yelling at the frosty sky, when Frank came with his own ticket.
The Kuzaks had theirs, and were calm about it. Eileen Sands' card was tucked neatly into her sweater pocket, as she joined those who were waiting for the others on the front steps of Tech's Carver Hall.
Ramos had to make a noise. "See what Santa brought the lady! But he didn't forget your Uncle Miguel, either--see! We're in, kid--be happy. Yippee!"
He tried to whirl her in some crazy dance, but Gimp was swinging along the slushy walk on his crutches. His grin was a mile wide. Mitch Storey was with him, looking almost as pleased.
"Guess legs don't count, Out There," Gimp was saying. "Or patched tickers, either, as long as they work good! I kind of figured on it... Hey--I don't want to ride anybody's shoulders, Ramos--cut it out...! We won't know about Charlie and Jig till tonight, when they come to Paul's from their jobs. But I don't think that there's any sweat for them, either... Only--where's Tif? He should be back by now from where he lives with his father..."
Tiflin didn't show up at Hendricks' at all that evening, or at his garage job either. Ramos phoned from the garage to confirm that.
"And he's not at home," Ramos added. "The boss sent me to check. His Old Man says he doesn't know where Tif is and cares less."
"Just leave Tif be," Mitch Storey said softly.
"Maybe that's best, at that," old Paul growled. "Only I hope the darned idiot doesn't cook himself up another jam..."