They all knew then, for sure, what had happened. Right now, Glen Tiflin was wandering alone, somewhere, cursing and suffering. As likely as not, he'd start hitchhiking across the country, to try to get away from himself... Somewhere the test instruments--which had seemed so lenient--had tripped him up, spotting the weakness that he had tried to fight. Temper, nerves--emotional instability. So there was no green card for Tif, to whom space was a kind of Nirvana...
The Bunch worked on with their preparations. Things got done all right, but the fine edge of enthusiasm had dulled. Jig Hollins flung his usual remarks, with their derisive undertone, around for a couple of weeks. Then he came into the shop with a girl who had a pretty, rather blank face, and a mouth that could twist with stubborn anger.
"Meet Minnie," Jig said loudly. "She is one reason why I have decided that I've had enough of this kid stuff. I gave it a whirl--for kicks. But who, with any sense, wants to go batting off to Mars or the Asteroids? That's for the birds, the crackpots. Wife, house, kids--right in your own home town--that's the only sense there is. Minnie showed me that, and we're gonna get married!"
The Bunch looked at Jig Hollins. He was swaggering. He was making sour fun of them, but in his eyes there were other signs, too. A pleading: Agree with me--back me up--quit! Don't see through me--it's not so, anyhow! Don't say I'm hiding behind a skirt... Above all, don't call me yellow! I'm not yellow, I tell you! I'm tough Jig Hollins! You're the dopes!...
Frank Nelsen spoke for the others. "We understand, Jig. We'll be getting you a little wedding present. Later on, maybe we'll be able to send you something really good. Best of luck..."
They let Jig Hollins and his Minnie go. They felt their contempt and pity, and their lifting, wild pride. Maybe Jig Hollins, wise guy and big mouth, boosted their own selves quite a bit, by contrast.
"Poor sap," Joe Kuzak breathed. "Who's he kidding--us or himself, or neither...?"
Soon Eileen began to show symptoms: Sighs. A restlessness. Sudden angry pouts that would change as quickly to the secret smiles of reverie, while she hummed a soft tune to herself, and rose on her toes, dancing a few steps. Speculative looks at Nelsen, or the other guys around her. Maybe she envied men. Her eyes would narrow thoughtfully for a second. Then she might look scared and very young, as if her thoughts frightened her. But the expression of determined planning would return.
After about ten days of this, Gimp asked, "What's with you, Eileen? You don't usually say much, but now there must be something else."
She tossed down a fistful of waste with which she had been wiping her hands--she had been cementing segments of the last of the ten bubbs they would make--more than they needed, now, but spares might be useful.
"Okay, all," she said briskly. "You should hear this, without any further delay. I'm clearing out, too. Reasons? Well--at least since Tif flunked his emotional I've been getting the idea that possibly I've been playing on a third-rate team. No offense, please--I don't really believe it's so, and if it isn't so you're tough enough not to be hurt. Far worse--I'm a girl. So why am I trying to do things in a man's way, when there are means that are made for me? I'm all of twenty-two. I've got nobody except an aunt in Illinois. Meanwhile, out in New Mexico, there's a big spaceport, and a lot of the right people who can help me. I'll bet I can get where you want to go, before you do. Tell Mr. J. John Reynolds that he can have my equipment--most of which he paid for. But perhaps I'll still be able to give him his ten percent."
"Eileen! Cripes, what are you talking about?" This was Ramos yelping, as if the clown could be hurt, after all.
"I don't mean anything so bad, Fun Boy," she said more gently. "Lots of men are remarkably chivalrous. But no arguments. Now that I have declared my intentions, I'll pick up and pull out of here this minute--taking some pleasant memories with me, as well as a space-fitness card. You're all good, plodding joes--honest. But there'll be a plane west from Minneapolis tomorrow."
She was getting into her blazer. Even Ramos saw that arguments would be futile. Frank Nelsen's throat ached suddenly, as if at sins of omission. But that was wrong. Eileen Sands was too old for him, anyhow.
"So long, you characters," she said. "Good luck. Don't follow me outside. Maybe I'll see you, someplace."
"Right, Eileen--we'll miss yuh," Storey said. "And we better sure enough see you that someplace!"
There were ragged shouts. "Good luck, kid. So long, Eileen..."
She was gone--a small, scared, determined figure, dressed like a boy. On her wrist was a watch that might get pawned for a plane ticket.
Ramos was unbelievably glum for days. But he worked harder building air-restorers than most of the Bunch had ever worked before. "We're hardcore, now--we'll last," he would growl. "Final, long lap--March, April and May--with no more interruptions. In June, when our courses at Tech are finished, we'll be ready to roll..."
That was about how it turned out. Near the end of May, the Bunch lined up in the shop, the ten blastoff drums they had made, including two spares. The drums were just large tubes of sheet magnesium, in which about everything that each man would need was compactly stowed: Archer Five, bubb, sun-powered ionic drive motor, air-restorer, moisture-reclaimer, flasks of oxygen and water, instruments, dehydrated foods, medicines, a rifle, instruction manuals, a few clothes, and various small, useful items. Everything was cut to minimum, to keep the weight down. The lined up drums made a utilitarian display that looked rather grim.
The gear was set out like this, for the safety inspectors to look at during the next few days, and provide their stamp of approval.
The blastoff tickets had also been purchased--for June tenth.
"Well, how do you think the Bunch should travel to New Mexico, Paul?" Frank Nelsen joshed.
"Like other Bunches, I guess," Paul Hendricks laughed. "A couple of moving vans should do the trick..."
On June first, ten days before blastoff, David Lester came back to the shop, sheepishness, pleasure and worry showing in his face.
"I cleared up matters at home, guys," he said. "And I went to Minneapolis and obtained one of these." He held up the same kind of space-fitness card that the others had.
"The tests are mostly passive," he explained further. "Anybody can be whirled in a centrifuge, or take a fall. That is somewhat simpler, in its own way, than clinging to a careening motor scooter. Though I do admit that I was still almost rejected...! So, I'll join you, again--if I'm permitted? I understand that my old gear has been completed, as a spare? Paul told me. Of course I'm being crusty, in asking to have it back, now?"
"Uh-uh, Les--I'm sure that's okay," Ramos grunted. "Right, fellas?"
The others nodded.
A subdued cheerfulness seemed to possess Lester, the mamma's boy, as if he had eased and become less introverted. The Bunch took him back readily enough, though with misgivings. Still, the mere fact that a companion could return, after defeat, helped brace their uncertain morale.
"I'll order you a blastoff ticket, Les," Frank Nelsen said. "In one of the two GOs--ground-to-orbit rockets--reserved for us. The space is still there..."
David Lester had won a battle. He meant to win through, completely. Perhaps some of this determination was transmitted to the others. Two-and-Two Baines, for example, seemed more composed.
There wasn't much work to do during those last days, after the equipment had been inspected and approved, the initials of each man painted in red on his blastoff drum, and all the necessary documents put in order.
Mitch Storey rode a bus to Mississippi, to say goodbye to his folks. The Kuzaks flew to Pennsylvania for the same reason. Likewise, Gimp Hines went by train to Illinois. Ramos rode his scooter all the way down to East Texas and back, to see his parents and a flock of younger brothers and sisters. When he returned, he solemnly gave his well-worn vehicle to an earnest boy still in high school.
"No dough," Ramos said. "I just want her to have a good home."
Those of the Bunch who had families didn't run into any serious last minute objections from them about their going into space. Blasting out was getting to be an accepted destiny.
There was a moment of trouble with Two-and-Two Baines about a kid of eight years named Chippie Potter, who had begun to hang around Hendricks' just the way Frank Nelsen had done, long ago. But more especially, the trouble was about Chippie's fox terrier, Blaster.
"The lad of course can't go along with us, Out There, on account of school and his Mom," Two-and-Two said sentimentally, on one of those final evenings. "So he figures his mutt should go in his place. Shucks, maybe he's right! A lady mutt first made it into orbit, ahead of any people, remember? And we ought to have a mascot. We could make a sealed air-conditioned box and smuggle old Blaster. Afterwards, he'd be all right, inside a bubb."
"You try any stunt like that and I'll shoot you," Frank Nelsen promised. "Things are going to be complicated enough."
"You always tell me no, Frank," Two-and-Two mourned.
"I know something else," said Joe Kuzak--he and his tough twin had returned to Jarviston by then, as had all the others who had visited their homes. "There's a desperate individual around, again. Tiflin. He appealed his test--and lost. Kind of a good guy--someways..."
The big Kuzaks, usually easy and steady and not too comical, both had a certain kind of expression, now--like amused and secretive gorillas. Frank wasn't sure whether he got the meaning of this or not, but right then he felt sort of sympathetic to Tiflin, too.
"I didn't hear anything; I won't say or do anything," he laughed.
Afterwards, under the pressure of events, he forgot the whole matter.
It would take about thirty-six hours to get to the New Mexico spaceport. Calculating accordingly, the Bunch hoisted their gear aboard two canvas-covered trucks parked in the driveway beside Hendricks', just before sundown of their last day in Jarviston.
People had begun to gather, to see them off. Two-and-Two's folks, a solid, chunky couple, looking grave. David Lester's mother, of course, seeming younger than the Bunch remembered her. Make-up brought back some of her good-looks. She was more Spartan than they had thought, too.
"I have made up a basket of sandwiches for you and your comrades, Lester," she said.
Otto Kramer was out with free hotdogs, beer and Pepsi, his face sad. J. John Reynolds, backer of the Bunch, had promised to come down, later. Chief of Police, Bill Hobard, was there, looking grim, as if he was half glad and half sorry to lose this passel of law-abiding but worrisome young eccentrics. There were various cynical and curious loafers around, too. There were Chippie Potter and his mutt--a more wistful and worshipping pair would have been hard to imagine.
Sophia Jameson, one of Charlie Reynolds' old flames, was there. Charlie had sold his car and given away his wardrobe, but he still managed to look good in a utilitarian white coverall.
"Well, we had a lot of laughs, anyway, you big ape!" Sophia was saying to Charlie, when Roy Harder, the mailman with broken-down feet, shuffled up, puffing.
"One for you, Reynolds," he said. "Also one for you, Nelsen. They just came--ordinarily I wouldn't deliver them till tomorrow morning. But you see how it is."
A long, white envelope was in Frank Nelsen's hands. In its upper left-hand corner was engraved: UNITED STATES SPACE FORCE RECRUITING SECTION WASHINGTON, D.C.
"Jeez, Frankie--Charlie--you made it--open 'em, quick!" Two-and-Two said.
Frank was about to do so. But everybody knew exactly what was inside such an envelope--the only thing that was ever so enclosed, unless you were already in the Force. An official summons to report, on such and such a date and such and such a place, for examination.
For a minute Frank Nelsen suffered the awful anguish of indecision over a joke of circumstance. Like most of the others, he had tried to get into the Force. He had given it up as hopeless. Now, when he was ready to move out on his own, the chance came. Exquisite irony.
Frank felt the lift of maybe being one of--well--the Chosen. To wear the red, black and silver rocket emblem, to use the finest equipment, to carry out dangerous missions, to exercise authority in space, and yet to be pampered, as those who make a mark in life are pampered.
"Que milagro!--holy cow!" Ramos breathed. "Charlie--Frankie--congratulations!"
Frank saw the awed faces around them. They were looking up to him and Charlie in a friendly way, but already he felt that he had kind of lost them by being a little luckier. Or was this all goof ball sentiment in his own mind, to make himself feel real modest?
So maybe he got sentimental about this impoverished, ragtag Bunch that, even considering J. John Reynolds' help, still were pulling themselves up into space almost literally by their own bootstraps. He had always belonged to the Bunch, and he still did. So perhaps he just got sore.
Charlie's and his eyes met for a second, in understanding.
"Thanks, Postman Roy," Charlie said. "Only you were right the first time. These letters shouldn't be delivered until your next trip around, tomorrow morning."
They both handed the envelopes back to Roy Harder.
The voices of their Bunch-mates jangled in a conflicting chorus.
"Ah--yuh damfools!" Two-and-Two bleated.
"Good for them!" Art Kuzak said, perhaps mockingly.
"Hey--they're us--they'll stay with us--shut up--didn't we lose enough people, already?" Gimp said.
Frank grinned with half of his mouth. "We always needed a name," he remarked. "How about The Planet Strappers? Hell--if the chairborne echelon of the U.S.S.F. is so slow and picky, let 'em go sit on a sunspot."
"I need some white paint and a brush, Paul," Ramos declared, running into the shop.
In a couple of minutes more, the name for the Bunch was crudely and boldly lettered on the sides of both trucks.
"Salute your ladies, shake hands with your neighbors, and then let's get moving," Charlie Reynolds laughed genially.
And so they did. Old Paul Hendricks, born too soon, blinked a little as he grinned, and slapped shoulders. "On your way, you lucky tramps...!"
There were quick movements here and there--a kiss, a touch of hands, a small gesture, a strained glance.
Frank Nelsen blew a kiss jauntily to Nance Codiss, the neighbor girl, who waved to him from the background. "So long, Frank..." He wondered if he saw a fierce envy showing in her face.
Miss Rosalie Parks, his high school Latin teacher, was there, too. Old J. John Reynolds appeared at the final moment to smile dryly and to flap a waxy hand.
"So long, sir... Thanks..." they all shouted as the diesels of the trucks whirred and then roared. J. John still had never been around the shop. It was only Frank who had seen him regularly, every week. It might have been impertinent for them to say that they'd make him really rich. But some must have hoped that they'd get rich, themselves.
Frank Nelsen was perched on his neatly packed blastoff drum in the back of one of the trucks, as big tires began to turn. Near him, similarly perched, were Mitch Storey, dark and thoughtful, Gimp Hines with a triumph in his face, Two-and-Two Baines biting his lip, and Dave Lester with his large Adam's apple bobbing.
So that was how the Bunch left Jarviston, on a June evening that smelled of fresh-cut hay and car fumes--home. Perhaps they had chosen this hour to go because the gathering darkness might soften their haunting suspicions of complete folly before an adventure so different from the life they knew--neat streets, houses, beds, Saturday nights, dances, struggling for a dream at Hendricks'--that even if they survived the change, the difference must seem a little like death.
Seeking the lifting thread of magical romance again, Frank Nelsen looked up at the ribbed canvas top of the truck. "Covered wagon," he said.
"Sure--Indians--boom-boom," Two-and-Two chuckled, brightening. "Wild West... Yeah--wild--that's a word I kind of like."
Up ahead, in the other truck, Ramos and Charlie Reynolds had begun to sing a funny and considerably ribald song. They made lots of lusty, primitive noise. When they were finished, Ramos, still in a spirit of humor, corned up an old Mexican number about disappointed love.
"Adios, Mujer-- Adios para siempre-- Adios..."
Ramos wailed out the last syllable with lugubrious emphasis.
"Always it's girls," Dave Lester managed to chuckle. "I still don't see how they expect to find many, Out There."
"If our Eileen has--or will--make it, she won't be the first--or last," Frank offered, almost mystically.
"Hey--I was right about the word, wild," Two-and-Two mused. "Yeah--we're all just plum-full of wanting to be wild. Not mean wild, mostly--constructive wild, instead. And, damn, we'll do it...! Cripes--we ought to come back to old Paul's place in June, ten years from now, and tell each other what we've accomplished."
"Damn--that's a fine idea, Two-and-Two!" David Lester piped up. "I'll suggest it to the other guys, first chance I get...!"
Of course it was another piece of callow whistling in the dark, but it was a buildup, too. Coming home at a fixed, future time, to compare glittering successes. Eldorados found and exploited, cities built, giant businesses established, hearts won, real manhood achieved past staggering difficulties. But they all had to believe it, to combat the icy sliver of dread concerning an event that was getting very near, now.
Mitch Storey sat with his mouth organ cupped in his hands. He began to make soft, musing chords, tried a fragment of Old Man River, shifted briefly to a spiritual, and wound up with some eerie, impromptu fragments, partly like the drums and jingling brass of old Africa, partly like a joyful battle, partly like a lonesome lament, and then, mysteriously like absolute silence.
Storey stopped, abashed. He grinned.
"Reaching for Out There, Mitch?" Frank Nelsen asked. "Music of your own, to tell about space? Got any words for it?"
"Nope," Mitch said. "Maybe it shouldn't have any words. Anyhow, the tune doesn't come clear, yet. I haven't been--There."
"Maybe some more of Otto's beer will help," Frank suggested. "Here--one can, each, to begin." For once, Frank had an urge to get slightly pie-eyed.
"High's a good word," he amended. "High and sky! Mars and stars!"
"Space and race, nuts and guts!" Lester put in, trying to belong, and be light-minded, like he thought the others were, instead of a scared, pedantic kid. He slapped the blastoff drum under him, familiarly, as if to draw confidence from its grim, cool lines.
The whole Bunch was quite a bit like that, for a good part of the night, shouting lustily back and forth between the two trucks, laughing, singing, wise-cracking, drinking up Otto Kramer's Pepsi and beer.
But at last, Gimp Hines, remembering wisdom, spoke up. "We're supposed to be under mild sedation--a devil-killer, a tranquilizer--for at least thirty hours. It's in the rules for prospective ground-to-orbit candidates. We're supposed to be sleeping good. Here goes my pill--down, with the last of my beer..."
Faces sobered, and became strained and careful, again. The guys on the trucks bedded down as best they could, among their gaunt equipment. Soon there were troubled snores from huddled figures that quivered with the motion of the vehicles. The mottled Moon rode high. Big tires whispered on damp concrete. Lights blinked past. The trucks curved around corners, growled up grades, highballed down. There were pauses at all-night drive-ins, coffees misguidedly drunk in a blurred, fur-tongued half wakefulness that seemed utterly bleak. Oh, hell, Frank Nelsen thought, wasn't it far better to be home in bed, like Jig Hollins?
At grey dawn, there was a breakfast stop, the two truck drivers and their relief man grinning cynically at the Bunch. Then there was more country, rolling and speeding past. Wakefulness was half sleep, and vice-versa. And the hours, through the day and another night, dwindled toward blastoff time, at eleven o'clock tomorrow morning.
When the second dawn came, the Bunch were all tautly and wearily alert again, peering ahead, across dun desert. There wasn't much fallout from the carefully developed hydrogen-fusion engines of the GO rockets, but maybe there was enough to distort the genes of the cacti a little, making their forms more grotesque.