Along the highway there were arrows and signs. When the trucks had labored to the top of a ridge, the spaceport installations came into view all at once: Barbed-wire fences, low, olive-drab gate buildings, guidance tower, the magnesium dome of a powerhouse reactor, repair and maintenance shops, personnel-housing area carefully shielded against radiation by a huge stellene bubble, sealed and air-conditioned, with double-doored entrances and exits. Inside it were visible neat bungalows, lawns, gardens, supermarket, swimming pools, swings, a kid's bike left casually here or there.
The first sunshine glinted on the two rockets and their single, attendant gantry tower, waiting on the launching pad. The rockets were as gaunt as sharks. They might almost have been natural spires on the Moon, or ruined towers left by the extinct beings of Mars. At first they were impersonal and expected parts of the scene, until the numbers, ceramic-enamelled on their striped flanks, were noticed: GO-11 and GO-12.
"They're us--up the old roller coaster!" Charlie Reynolds shouted.
Then everybody was checking his blastoff ticket, as if he didn't remember the number primly typed on it. Frank Nelsen had GO-12. GO--Ground-to-Orbit. But it might as well mean go! glory, or gallows, he thought.
The trucks reached the gate. The Bunch met the bored and cynical reception committee--a half-dozen U.S.S.F. men in radiation coveralls.
Each of the Bunch held his blastoff ticket, his space-fitness and his equipment-inspection cards meekly in sweaty fingers. It was an old story--the unknowing standing vulnerable before the knowing and perhaps harsh.
Nelsen guessed at some of the significance of the looks they all received: Another batch of greenhorns--to conquer and develop and populate the extra-terrestrial regions. They all come the same way, and look alike. Poor saps...
Frank Nelsen longed to paste somebody, even in the absence of absolute impoliteness.
The blastoff drums were already being lifted off the trucks, weighed, screened electronically, and moved toward a loading elevator on a conveyor. The whole process was automatic.
"Nine men--ten drums--how come?" one of the U.S.S.F. people inquired.
"A spare. Its GO carriage charge is paid," Reynolds answered.
He got an amused and tired smirk. "Okay, Sexy--it's all right with us. And I hope you fellas were smart enough not to eat any breakfast. Of course we'd like to have you say--tentatively--where you'll be headed, on your own power, after we toss you Upstairs. Toward the Moon, huh, like most fledglings say? It helps a little to know. Some new folks start to scream and get lost, up there. See how it is?"
"Sure--we see--thanks. Yes--the Moon." This was still Charlie Reynolds talking.
"No problem, then, Sexy. We mean to be gentle. Now let's move along, in line. Never mind consulting wristwatches--we've got over four hours left. Final blood pressure check, first. Then the shot, the devil-killer, the wit-sharpener. And try to remember some of what you're supposed to have learned. Relax, don't talk too much, and try not to swallow any live butterflies."
The physician, looking them over, shook his head and made a wry face of infinite sadness, when he came to Gimp and Lester, but he offered no comment except a helpless shrug.
The U.S.S.F. spokesman was still with them. "All right--armor up. Let's see how good you are at it."
They scrambled to it grimly, and still a little clumsily. Gimp Hines had, of course, long ago tailored his Archer to fit that shrunken right leg. Then they just sat around in the big locker room, trying to get used to being enclosed like this, much of the time, checking to see that everything was functioning right, listening to the muffled voices that still reached them from beyond their protecting encasement. They could still have conversed, by direct sound or by helmet-radio, but the devil-killer seemed to subdue the impulse, and for a while caused a dreaminess that shortened the long wait...
"Okay--time to move!"
Heavy with their Archies, they filed out into desert sun-glare that their darkened helmets made feeble. They arose in the long climb of the gantry elevator and split into two groups, for the two rockets, according to their GO numbers. It didn't seem to matter, now, who went with whom. Each man had his own private sweating party. The padded passenger compartments were above the blastoff drum freight sections.
"Helmets secure? Air-restorer systems on? Phones working? Answer roll call if you hear me. Baines, George?"
"Here!" Two-and-Two responded, loud and plain in Frank Nelsen's phone, from the other rocket.
One by one the names were called... "Kuzak, Arthur?... Kuzak, Joseph?..."
"Okay--the Mystic Nine, eh? Lash down!"
They lay on their backs on the padded floors, and fastened the straps. Gimp Hines, next to Frank, seemed to have discarded his crutches, somewhere.
The inspector swaggered around among them, jerking straps, and tapping shoulders and buttocks straight on the floor padding with a boot toe.
"All right--not good, not too bad. Ease off--shut your eyes, maybe. The next twenty minutes are ours. The rest are yours, except for orders. I hope you remember your jump procedures. Also that there are a lot of wooden nickels Upstairs--in orbit, on the Moon, anyplace. We'll call some of your shots from the ground. Good luck--and Glory help you..."
The growl in their phones died away with the muffled footsteps. Doors closed on their gaskets and were dogged, automatically.
Then it was like waiting five minutes more, inside a cannon barrel. There was a buzzing whisper of nuclear exciters. The roar of power cut in. A soft lurch told that the rockets were off the ground--fireborne. The pressure of acceleration mounted. You closed your eyes to make the blackness seem natural, instead of a blackout in your optic nerves, and the threadiness of your mind seem like sleep. But you felt smothered, just the same. Somebody grunted. Somebody gave a thick cry.
Frank Nelsen had the strange thought that, by his body's mounting velocity, enough kinetic energy was being pumped into it to burn it to vapor in an instant, if it ever hit the air. But it was the energy of freedom from gravity, from the Earth, from home--for adventure. Freedom to wander the solar system, at last! He tried, still, to believe in the magnificence of it, as the thrust of rocket power ended, and the weightlessness of orbital flight came dizzily.
He didn't consciously hear the order to leave the orbiting GO-12, which was moving only about five hundred feet from it's companion, GO-11. But, like most of the others, he worked his way with dogged purpose through what seemed a fuzzy nightmare.
The doors of the passenger compartments had opened; likewise the blastoff drums had been ejected automatically, and were orbiting free.
Maybe it was Gimp who moved ahead of him. Looking out, Frank saw what was certainly Ramos, already straddling a drum marked with a huge red M.R., riding it like a jaunty troll on a seahorse. He saw the Kuzaks dive for their initialled drums, big men not yet as apt in this new game as in football, but grimly determined to learn fast. The motion was all as silent as a shadow.
Then Frank jumped for his own drum, and found himself turning slowly end-over-end, seeing first the pearl-mist curve that was the Earth, then the brown-black, chalk-smeared sky, with the bright needle points and the corona-winged sun in it. Instinct made him grab futilely outward, for the sense of weightlessness was the same as endless fall. He was falling, around the Earth, his forward motion exactly balancing his downward motion, in a locked ellipse, a closed trajectory.
His mind cleared very fast--that must have been another phase of the devil-killer shot coming into action. Controlling panic, he relocated his drum, marked by a splashed red F.N., set his tiny shoulder ionic in operation, and reached back to move its flexible guide, first to stop his spin, then to produce forward motion. He got to the drum, and just clung to it for a moment.
But in the next instant he was looking into the embarrassed, anguished face of a person, who, like a drowning man, had come to hang onto it for dear life, too.
"Frank, I--I even dirtied myself..."
"So what? Over there is your gear, Two-and-Two--go get it!" Frank shouted into his phone, the receiver of which was now full of sounds--a moaning grunt, a vast hiccuping, shouts, exhortations.
"Easy, Les," Reynolds was saying. "Can you reach a pill from the rack inside your chest plate, and swallow it? Just float quietly--nothing'll happen. We've got work to do for a few minutes... We'll look after you later... Cripes, Mitch--he can't take it. Jab the knockout needle right through the sleeve of his Archer, like we read in the manuals. The interwall gum will seal the puncture..."
Just then the order came, maddeningly calm and hard above the other sounds in Frank's phone: "All novices disembarked from GOs-11 and -12 must clear four-hundred mile take-off orbital zone for other traffic within two hours."
At once Frank was furiously busy, working the darkened stellene of his bubb from the drum, letting it spread like a long wisp of silvery cobweb against the stars, letting it inflate from the air-flasks to a firm and beautiful circle, attaching the rigging, the fine, radial spokewires--for which the blastoff drum itself now formed the hub. To the latter he now attached his full-size, sun-powered ionic motor. Then he crept through the double sealing flaps of the airlock, to install the air-restorer and the moisture-reclaimer in the circular, tunnel-like interior that would now be his habitation.
He wasn't racing anything except time, but he had worked as fast as he could. Still, Gimp Hines had finished rigging his bubb, minutes ahead of Frank, or anybody else. On second thought, maybe this was natural enough. Here, where there was no weight, his useless leg made no difference--as the space-fitness examiners must have known. Besides, Gimp had talented fingers and a keen mechanical sense, and had always tried harder than anybody.
Ramos was almost as quick. Frank wasn't much farther behind. The Kuzaks were likewise doing all right. Two-and-Two was trailing some, but not very badly.
"Spin 'em!" Gimp shouted. "Don't forget to spin 'em for centrifuge-gravity and stability!"
And so they did, each gripping the rigging at their bubb rims, and using the minute but accumulative thrust of the shoulder ionics of their Archers, to provide the push. The inflated rings turned like wheels with perfect bearings. In the all but frictionless void, they could go on turning for decades, without additional impetus.
"We've made it--we're Out Here--we're all right!" Ramos was shouting with a fierce exultation.
"Shut up, Ramos!" Frank Nelsen yelled back. "Don't ever say that, too soon. Look around you!"
Storey and Reynolds were still struggling with their bubbs. They had been delayed by trying to quiet Dave Lester, who now floated in a drugged stupor, lashed to his blastoff drum.
Slowly, pushed by their shoulder ionics, Gimp, Ramos and Frank Nelsen drifted over to see what they could do for Lester.
He was vaguely conscious, his eyes were glassy, his mouth drooled watery vomit.
"What do you want us to do, Les?" Frank asked gently. "We could put you back in one of the rockets. You'd be brought back to the spaceport, when they are guided back by remote control."
"I don't know!" Lester wailed in a hoarse voice. "Fellas--I don't know! A little falling is all right... But it goes on all the time. I can't stand it! But if I'm sent back--I can't ever live with myself!..."
Frank felt the intense anguish of trying to decide somebody else's quandary that might be a life or death matter which would surely involve them all. Damn, weak-kneed kid! How had he ever gotten so far?
"We should have set up his bubb first, put him inside, and spun it to kill that sense of fall!" Gimp said. "We'll do it, now! He should be all right. He did pass his space-fitness tests, and the experts ought to know."
With the three of them at it, and with the Kuzaks joining them in a moment, the job was quickly finished.
Meanwhile, the sharp, commanding voice of Ground Control sounded in their phones, again: "GOs-11 and -12 returning to port. Is all in order among delivered passengers? Sound out if true. Baines, George?..."
David Lester's name was called just before Frank Nelsen's, and he managed to say, "In order!" almost firmly, creating a damnable illusion, Frank thought. But for a moment, mixed with his anger, Frank felt a strange, almost paternal gentleness, too.
At the end of the roll call, the doors of the GO rockets closed. Stubby wings, useful for the ticklish operation of skip-glide deceleration and re-entry into the atmosphere, slid out of their sheaths. Little, lateral jets turned the vehicles around. Their main engines flamed lightly; losing speed, they dipped in their paths, beginning to fall.
Watching the rockets leave created a tingling sense of being left all alone, at an empty, breathless height from which you could never get down--a height full of dazzling, unnatural sunshine, that in moments would become the dreadful darkness of Earth's shadow.
"Hey--our spare drum--it'll drift off!" Ramos shouted.
The Kuzaks dived to retrieve the cylinder. Others followed. But there was a peculiar circumstance. The friction cover at one of its ends hung open. There was a trailing wisp of stellene--part of the bubb packed inside--and a thin, angry face with rather hysterical eyes, within the helmet of an Archer Five.
"Shhh--it ain't safe for me to come out yet," Glen Tiflin hissed threateningly. "Damn you all--if you dare queer me...!"
"Cripes--another Jonah!" Charlie Reynolds growled.
Frank Nelsen looked at the Kuzaks, floating near.
"Well--what could we do?" Joe Kuzak, the gentler twin, whispered. "He came back to Jarviston, to our rooming house, one night. We promised to help him a little. What are you going to do with a character nuts enough about space to armor up and stuff himself inside a blastoff drum? Of course he didn't come that way from home. There's that electronic check of drum contents at the gate of the port. But he was there on a visitor's pass, waiting--having hitchhiked all the way to here. After the electronic check, he figured on stowing away, while the drums were waiting to be loaded. The only thing we did to help was to take a little of the stuff out of the spare drum and stow it in our two drums, to leave him some room. We thought sure he'd be caught, quick. But you can see how he got away with it. Those U.S.S.F. boys at the port don't really give a damn who gets Out Here."
"Okay--I'll buy it," Reynolds sighed heavily. "Good luck with the stunt, Tif."
Tiflin only gave him a poisonous glare, as the nine fragile, gleaming rings, the drifting men and the spare drum, orbited on into the Earth's shadow, not nearly as dark as it might have been because the Moon was brilliant.
"We'd better rig the parabolic mirrors of the ionics to catch the first sunshine in about forty minutes, so we can start moving out of orbit," Ramos said. "We'll have to think of food, sometime, too."
"Food, yet--ugh!" Art Kuzak grunted.
Frank felt the fingers of spasm taking hold of his stomach. Most everybody was getting fall-sick, now, their insides not finding any up or down direction. But the guys wavered back to their bubbs. The shoulder ionics of their Archers, though normally sun-energized, could draw power from the small nuclear batteries of the armor during the rare moments when there could be darkness anywhere in solar space.
The Planet Strappers stood in the rigging of their fragile vehicles, setting the full-sized ionics to produce increased acceleration which would gradually push the craft beyond orbit. Joe Kuzak ran a steel wire from a pivot bolt at the hub of his ring, to tow Tiflin and his drum.
Then everybody crawled into their respective bubbs, most of them needing the centrifugal gravity to help straighten out their fall-sickness.
"My neck is swelling, too," Frank Nelsen heard Charlie Reynolds say. "Lymphatic glands sometimes bog down in the absence of weight. Don't worry if it happens to some of you. We know that it straightens out."
For a few minutes it seemed that they had a small respite in their struggle for adjustment to a fantastic environment.
"Well--I got cleaned up, some--that's better," Two-and-Two said. "But look at the fuzzy lights down on Earth. Hell, is it right for a fella to be looking down on the lights of Paris, Moscow, Cairo, and Rangoon--when he hasn't ever been any farther than Minneapolis?" Two-and-Two sounded fabulously befuddled.
David Lester started screaming again. They had left him alone and apparently unconscious, inside his ring, because all ionics, including his, had had to be set. Then, in the pressure of events, they had almost forgotten him.
"I'll go look," Frank Nelsen said.
Mitch Storey was there ahead of him. Mitch's helmet was off; his dark face was all planes and hollows in the moonlight coming through the thin, transparent walls of the vehicle. "Should we call the U.S.S.F. patrol, Frank?" he asked anxiously. "Have them take him off? 'Cause he sure can't stand another devil-killer."
"We'd better," Frank answered quickly.
But now Tiflin, having deserted his blastoff drum, was coming through the airlock flaps, too. He stepped forward gingerly, along the spinning, ring-shaped tunnel.
"Poor bookworm," he growled in a tone curiously soft for Glen Tiflin. "Think I don't understand how it is? And how do you know if he wants to get sent back?"
Mitch had removed Lester's helmet, too. Tiflin knelt. His arm moved with savage quickness. There was the crack of knuckles, in a rubberized steel-fabric space glove, against Lester's jaw. His hysterical eyes glazed and closed; his face relaxed.
For a second of intolerable fury, Frank wanted to tear Tiflin apart.
But Mitch half-grinned. "That might be an answer," he said.
They plopped where they were, and tried to rest until the orbiting cluster of rings emerged from Earth's shadow into blazing sunshine, again. Then Mitch and Frank returned to their own bubbs to check on the acceleration.
It was soon plain that Joe Kuzak's bubb, towing Tiflin's drum, would lag.
"Hell!" Art Kuzak snapped. "Get that character out here to help us inflate and rig his own equipment! We did enough for him! So if the Force notices that there are ten bubbs instead of nine, the extra is still just our spare... Hey--Tiflin!"
"Nuts--I'm looking after Pantywaist," Tiflin growled back.
"Awright," Art returned. "So we just cast your junk adrift! Come on, boy!" There was no kidding in the dry tone.
Tiflin snarled but obeyed.
Ions jetting from the Earthward hub-ends of the rotating rings, yielded their steady few pounds of thrust. The gradual outward spiral began.
"Cripes--I'm not sure I can even astrogate to the Moon," Two-and-Two was heard to complain.
"I'll check your ionic setting for you, Two-and-Two," Gimp answered him. "After that the acceleration should continue properly without much attention. So how about you and me taking first watch, while the others ease off a little...?"
Frank Nelsen crept carefully back into his own rotating ring, still half afraid that an armored knee or elbow might go right through the thin, yielding stellene. Prone, and with his helmet still sealed, he slipped into the fog which the tranquilizer now induced in his brain, while the universe of stars, Moon, sun and Earth tumbled regularly around him.
He dreamed of yelling in endless fall, and of climbing over metal-veined chunks of a broken world, where once there had been air, sea, desert and forest, and minds not unlike those of men, but in bodies that were far different. Gurgling thickly, he awoke, and snapped on his helmet phone to kill the utter silence.
Someone muttered a prayer in a foreign tongue: "... Nuestra Dama de Guadalupe--te pido, por favor... Tengo miedo--I'm scared... Pero pienso mas en ella--I think more of her. Mi chula, mi linda... My beautiful Eileen... Keep her--"
The prayer broke off, as if a switch was turned. It had been brash Ramos... Now there were only some fragments of harmonica music...
Frank slipped into the blur, again, awakening at last with Two-and-Two shaking his shoulder. "Hey, Frankie--we're five hours out, by the chronometers--look how small the Earth has got...! We're all gonna have brunch in Ramos' vehicle... Know what that goof ball Mex was doing, before? Stripped down to his shorts, and with the spin stopped for zero-G, he was bouncing back and forth from wall to wall inside his bubb! The sun makes it nice and warm in there. Think I might try it, myself, sometime. Shucks, I feel pretty good, now... Frankie, ain't you hungry?"
Frank felt limp as a rag, but he felt much better than before, and he could stand some nourishment. "Lead on, Two-and-Two," he said.
Ramos' bubb was spinning once more, but he was wearing just dungarees. The Bunch--the Planet Strappers--with only their helmets off, were crouched, evenly spaced, around the circular interior of the ring. Dave Lester was there, too--staring, but fairly calm, now. In this curious place, there was a delicious and improbable aroma of coffee--cooked by mirror-reflected sunlight on a tiny solar stove.