"So that's the way it goes," Charlie Reynolds commented profoundly. "We reach out for strangeness. Then we try to make it as familiar as home."
"Stew, warmed in the cans, too," Ramos declared. "Enough for a light one-time-around. I brought the stew along. Hope you birds remember. Then we're back on dehydrates. Hell, except for that weight problem and consequent cost of stuff from Earth, we'd have it made, Out Here. The Big Vacuum ain't so tough--no storms in it, even, to tear our bubbs apart. I guess we won't ever have a bigger adventure than finding out for ourselves that we can get along with space."
"If we had a beef roast, we'd put it in a sealed container of clear plastic," Gimp laughed. "Set it turning, outside the bubb, on a swiveled tether wire. It would rotate for hours like on a spit--almost no friction. Rig some mirrors to concentrate the sun's heat. Space Force men do things like that."
"Shut up--I'm getting hong-gry!" Art Kuzak roared.
Ramos poured the coffee in the thin magnesium cups that each of the Bunch had brought. Their squeeze bottles, for zero-G drinking, were not necessary, here. Their skimpy portions of stew were spooned on magnesium plates. Knife and fork combinations were brought out. An apple puree which had been powder, followed the stew. Brunch was soon over.
"That's all for now, folks," Ramos said ruefully.
Tiflin snaked a cigarette out from inside the collar of his Archer.
"Hey!" Reynolds said mildly. "Oxygen, remember? Shouldn't you ask our host, first?"
Ramos had eased up on ribbing Tiflin months ago. "It's okay," he said. "The air-restorers are new."
But Tiflin's explosive nerves, under strain for a long time, didn't take it. He threw down the unlighted fag. He snicked his switch blade from a thigh pocket. For an instant it seemed that he would attack Reynolds. Then the knife flew, and penetrated the thin, taut wall, to its handle. There was a frightening hiss, until the sealing gum between the double layers, cut off the leak.
The Kuzaks had Tiflin helpless and snarling, at once.
"Get a patch, somebody--fix up the hole," Joe, the mild one, growled. "Tiflin--me and my brother helped you. Now we're gonna sit on you--just to make sure your funny business doesn't kill us all. Try anything just once, and we'll feed you all that vacuum--without an Archer. If you're a good boy, maybe you'll live to get dumped on the Moon as we pass by."
"Nuts--let's give this sick rat to the Space Force right now." Art Kuzak hissed. "Here comes their patrol bubb."
The glinting, transparent ring with the barred white star was passing at a distance.
"All is well with you novices?" The enquiring voice was a gruff drawl, mingled with crunching sounds of eating--perhaps a candy bar.
"No!" Tiflin whispered, pleading. "I'll watch myself!"
The United Nations patrol was out, too, farther off. Another, darker bubb, with other markings, passed by, quite close. It had foreign lines, more than a bit sinister to the Bunch's first, startled view. It was a Tovie vehicle, representing the other side of the still--for the most part--passively opposed forces, on Earth, and far beyond. But through the darkened transparency of stellene, the armored figures--again somewhat sinister--only raised their hands in greeting.
In a minute, Frank Nelsen emerged from Ramos' ring. Floating free, he stabilized himself, fussed with the radio antenna of his helmet-phone for a moment, making its transmission and reception directional. On the misty, shrinking Earth, North America was visible.
"Frank Nelsen to Paul Hendricks," he said. "Frank Nelsen to Paul Hendricks..."
Paul was waiting, all right. "Hello, Frankie. Some of the guys talked already--said you were asleep."
"Hi, Paul--yeah! Terra still looks big and beautiful. We're okay. Amazing, isn't it, how just a few watts of power, beamed out in a thin thread, will reach this far, and lots farther? Hey--will you open and shut your front door? Let's hear the old customer's bell jingle... Best to you, to J. John, to Nance Codiss, Miss Parks--everybody..."
The squeak of hinges and the jingling came through, clear and nostalgically.
"Come on, Frank," Two-and-Two urged. "Other guys would like to talk to Paul... Hey, Paul--maybe you could get my folks down to the store to say hello to me on your transmitter. And I guess Les would appreciate it if you got his mother..."
When the talk got private, Frank went to Mitch Storey's bubb.
"I wanted to show you," Mitch said. "I brought seeds, and these little plastic tubes with holes in them, that you can string around inside a bubb. The weight is next to nothing. Put the seeds in the tubes, and water with plant food in solution. The plants come up through the holes. Hydroponics. Gotta almost do it, if I'm going way out to Mars without much supplies. Maybe, before I get there, I'll have even ripe tomatoes! 'Cause, with sun all the time, the stuff grows like fury, they say. I'll have string beans and onions and flowers, anyhow! Helps keep the air oxygen-fresh, too. Wish I had a few bumble bees! 'Cause now I'll have to pollenate by hand..."
Nope--Mitch couldn't get away from vegetation, even in space.
The Planet Strappers soon established a routine for their journey out as far as the Moon. There were watches, to be sure that none of the bubbs veered, while somebody was asleep or inattentive. Always at hand were loaded rifles, because you never knew what kind of space-soured men--who might once have been as tame as neighbors going for a drive on Sundays with their families--might be around, even here.
Neither Kuzak slept, if the other wasn't awake. They were watching Tiflin, whose bubb rode a little ahead of the others. He was ostracized, more or less.
Everybody took to Ramos' kind of exercise, bouncing around inside a bubb--even Lester, who was calmer, now, but obviously strained by the vast novelty and uncertainty ahead.
"I gave you guys a hard time--I'm sorry," he apologized. "But I hope there won't be any more of that. The Bunch will be breaking up, soon, I guess--going here and there. And if I get a job at Serenitatis Base, I think I'll be okay."
Frank Nelsen hoped that he could escape any further part of Lester, but he wasn't sure that he had the guts to desert him.
It wasn't long before the ionics were shut off. Enough velocity had been attained. Soon, the thrust would be needed in reverse, for braking action, near the end of the sixty hour journey into a circumlunar orbit.
Sleep was a fitful, dream-haunted thing. Food was now mostly a kind of gruel, rich in starches, proteins, fats and vitamins--each meal differently flavored, up to the number of ten flavors, in a manufacturer's attempt to mask the sameness. Add water to a powder--heat and eat. The spaceman's usual diet, while afield...
One of the functions of the moisture-reclaimers was a rough joke, or a squeamishness. A man's kidneys and bowels functioned, and precious water molecules couldn't be wasted, here in the dehydrated emptiness. But what difference did it really make, after the sanitary distillation of a reclaimer? Accept, adjust...
Decision about employment or activity in the immediate future, was one thing that couldn't be dismissed. And announcements, beamed from the Moon, emphasized it: "Serenitatis Base, seventeenth month-day, sixteenth hour. (There was a chime) Lunar Projects Placement is here to serve you. Plastics-chemists, hydroponics specialists, machinists, mechanics, metallurgists, miners, helpers--all are urgently needed. The tax-free pay will startle you. Free subsistence and quarters. Here at Serene, at Tycho Station or at a dozen other expanding sites..."
Charlie Reynolds sat with Frank Nelsen while he listened. "The lady has a swell voice," said Charlie. "Otherwise, it sounds good, too. But I'm one that's going farther. To Venus--just being explored. All fresh, and no man-made booby traps, at least. Maybe they'll even figure out a way to make it rotate faster, give it a reasonably short day, and a breathable atmosphere--make a warmer second Earth out of it... Sometimes, when you jump farther, you jump over a lot of trouble. Better than going slow, with the faint-hearts. Their muddling misfortunes begin to stick to you. I'd rather be Mitch, headed for heebie-jeebie Mars, or the Kuzaks, aiming for the crazy Asteroid Belt."
That was Charlie, talking to him--Frank Nelsen--like an older brother. It made a sharp doubt in him, again. But then he grinned.
"Maybe I am a slow starter," he said. "The Moon is near and humble, but some say it's good training--even harsher than space. And I don't want to bypass and miss anything. Oh, hell, Charlie--I'll get farther, soon, too! But I really don't even know what I'll do, yet. Got to wait and see how the cards fall..."
Several hours before the rest of the Bunch curved into a slow orbit a thousand miles above the Moon, Glen Tiflin set the ionic of his bubb for full acceleration, and arced away, outward, perhaps toward the Belt.
"So long, all you dumb slobs!" his voice hissed in their helmet-phones. "Now I get really lost! If you ever cross my path again, watch your heads..."
Art Kuzak's flare of anger died. "Good riddance," he breathed. "How long will he last, alone? Without a space-fitness card, the poor idiot probably imagines himself a big, dangerous renegade, already."
Joe Kuzak's answering tone almost had a shrug in it. "Don't jinx our luck, twin brother," he said. "For that matter, how long will we last...? Mex, did you toss Tiflin back his shiv?"
"A couple of hours ago," Ramos answered mildly.
Everybody was looking down at the Moon, whose crater-pocked ugliness and beauty was sparsely dotted with the blue spots of stellene domes, many of them housing embryo enterprises that were trying to beat the blastoff cost of necessities brought from Earth, and to supply spacemen and colonists with their needs, cheaply.
The nine fragile rings were soon in orbit. One worker-recruiting rocket and several trader-rockets--much less powerful than those needed to achieve orbit around Earth--because lunar gravity was only one-sixth of the terrestrial--were floating in their midst. On the Moon it had of course been known that a fresh Bunch was on the way. Even telescopes could have spotted them farther off than the distance of their 240,000 mile leap.
Frank Nelsen's tongue tasted of brassy doubt. He didn't know where he'd be, or what luck, good or bad, he might run into, within the next hour.
The Kuzaks were palavering with the occupants of two heavily-loaded trader rockets. "Sure we'll buy--if the price is right," Art was saying. "Flasks of water and oxygen, medicines, rolls of stellene. Spare parts for Archies, ionics, air-restorers. Food, clothes--anything we can sell, ourselves..."
The Kuzaks must have at least a few thousand dollars, which they had probably managed to borrow when they had gone home to Pennsylvania to say goodbye.
Out here, free of the grip of any large sphere, there was hardly a limit to the load which their ionics could eventually accelerate sufficiently to travel tremendous distances. Streamlining, in the vacuum, of course wasn't necessary, either.
Now a small, sharp-featured man in an Archie, drifted close to Ramos and Frank, as they floated near their bubbs. "Hello, Ramos, hello, Nelsen," he said. "Yes--we know your names. We investigate, beforehand, down on terra firma. We even have people to snap photographs--often you don't even notice. We like guys with talent who get out here by their own efforts. Shows they got guts--seriousness! But now you've arrived. We are Lunar Projects Placement. We need mechanics, process technicians, administrative personnel--anything you can name, almost. Any bright lad with drive enough to learn fast, suits us fine. Five hundred bucks an Earth-week, to start, meals and lodging thrown in. Quit any time you want. Plenty of different working sites. Mines, refineries, factories, construction..."
"Serenitatis Base?" Ramos asked almost too quickly, Frank thought. And he sounded curiously serious. Was this the Ramos who should be going a lot farther than the Moon, anyway?
"Hell, yes, fella!" said the job scout.
"Then I'll sign."
"Excellent... You, too, guy?" The scout was looking at Frank. "And your other friends?"
"I'm thinking about it," Frank answered cagily. "Some of them aren't stopping on the Moon, as you can see."
Mitch Storey was lashing a few flasks of oxygen and water to the rim of his bubb, being careful to space them evenly for static balance. He didn't have the money to buy much more, even here.
The Kuzaks were preparing two huge bundles of supplies, which they intended to tow. Reynolds was also loading up a few things, with Two-and-Two helping him.
"I'm all set, Frank!" Two-and-Two shouted. "I'm going along with Charlie, maybe to crash the Venus exploration party!"
"Good!" Frank shouted back, glad that this large, unsure person had found himself a leader.
Now he looked at Gimp Hines, riding the spinning rim of his ring with his good and bad leg dangling, an expectant, quizzical, half-worried look on his freckled face.
But Dave Lester was more pathetic. He had stopped the rotation of his bubb. He looked down first at the pitted, jagged face of the Moon, with an expression in which rapture and terror may have been mingled, glanced with the hope of desperation toward the job scout, and then distractedly continued dismantling the rigging of his vehicle, as if to repack it in the blastoff drum for a landing.
"Hey--hold on, Les!" Two-and-Two shouted. "You gotta know where you're going, first!"
"Make up your mind, Nelsen," said the job scout, getting impatient. "We handle just about everything lunar--except in the Tovie areas. Without us, you're just a lost, fresh punk!"
But another man had approached from another lunar GO rocket, which had just appeared. He had a thin intellectual face, dark eyes, trap mouth, white hair, soft speech that was almost shy.
"I'm Xavier Rodan," he said. "I search out my own employees. I do minerals survey--for gypsum, bauxite--anything. And site survey, for factories and other future developments. I also have connections with the Selenographic Institute of the University of Chicago. It is all interesting work, but in a rather remote region, I'm afraid--the far side of the Moon. And I can pay only three hundred a week. Of course you can resign whenever you wish. Perhaps you'd be interested--Mr. Nelsen, is it?"
Frank had an impulse to jump at the chance--though there was a warning coming to him from somewhere. But how could you ever know? You would always have to go down to that devils' wilderness to find out.
"I'll try it, Mr. Rodan," he said.
"Selenography--that's one of my favorite subjects, sir!" David Lester burst out, making a gingerly leap across the horrible void of spherical sky--stars in all directions except where the Moon's bulk hung. "Could I--too?" His trembling mouth looked desperate.
"Very well, boy," Rodan said at last. "A hundred dollars for a week's work period."
Frank was glad that Lester had a place to go--and furious that he would probably have to nursemaid him, after all.
Gimp Hines kept riding the rim of his ring like a merry-go-round, his face trying to show casual humor and indifference over ruefulness and scare. "Nobody wants me," he said cheerfully. "It's just prejudice and poor imagination. Well--I don't think I'll even try to prove how good I am. Of course I could shoot for the asteroids. But I'd like to look around Serenitatis Base--some, anyway. Will fifty bucks get me and my rig down?"
"Talk to our pilot, Lame Fella," said the job scout. "But you must be suicidal nuts to be around here at all."
The others leapt to help Nelsen, Ramos, Gimp and Lester strip and pack their gear. Ramos' and Gimp's drums were loaded into the job scout's rocket. Nelsen's and Lester's went into Rodan's.
Gloved hands clasped gloved hands all around. The Bunch, the Planet Strappers, were breaking up.
"So long, you characters--see you around," said Art Kuzak. "It won't be ten years, before you all wind up in the Belt."
"Bring back the Mystery of Mars, Mitch!" Frank was saying.
"When you get finished Mooning, come to Venus, Lover Lad," Reynolds told Ramos. "But good luck!"
"Jeez--I'm gonna get sentimental," Two-and-Two moaned. "Luck everybody. Come on, Charlie--let's roll! I don't want to slobber!"
"I'll catch up with you all--watch!" Gimp promised.
"So long, Frank..."
"Yeah--over the Milky Way, Frankie!"
"Hasta luego, Gang." This was all Ramos, the big mouth, had to say. He wasn't glum, exactly. But he was sort of preoccupied and impatient.
The five remaining rings--a wonderful sight, Frank thought--began to move out of orbit. Ships with sails set for far ports. No--mere ships of the sea were nothing, anymore. But would all of the Bunch survive?
Charlie Reynolds, the cool one, the most likely to succeed, waved jauntily and carelessly from his rotating, accelerating ring. Two-and-Two wagged both arms stiffly from his.
Mitch Storey's bubb, lightest loaded, was jumping ahead. But you could hear him playing Old Man River on his mouth organ, inside his helmet.
The Kuzaks' bubbs, towing massive loads, were accelerating slowest, with the ex-gridiron twins riding the rigging. But their rings would dwindle to star specks before long, too.
The job scout's rocket, carrying Ramos and Gimp, began to flame for a landing at Serene.
In the airtight cabin of Xavier Rodan's vehicle, Frank Nelsen and David Lester had read and signed their contracts and had received their copies.
Rodan didn't smile. "Now we'll go down and have a look at the place I'm investigating," he said.
Frank Nelsen's view of empire-building on the Moon was brief, all encompassing, and far too sketchy to be very satisfying, as Rodan--turned about in his universal-gimbaled pilot seat--spiralled his battered rocket down backwards, with the small nuclear jets firing forward in jerky, tooth-cracking bursts, to check speed further.
It was necessary to go around the abortive sub-planet that had always accompanied the Earth, almost once, to reduce velocity enough for a landing.
Thus, Nelsen glimpsed much territory--the splashed, irregular shape of Serenitatis, the international base on the mare, the dust sea of the same name; the radiating threads of trails and embryo highways, the ever-widening separation of isolated domes and scattered human diggings and workings faintly scratched in the lunar crust, as, at a still great height, Frank's gaze swept outward from the greatest center of human endeavor on the Moon.
It was much the same around Tycho Station, except that this base was smaller, and was built in a great, white-rayed crater, whose walls were pierced by tunnels for exit and entry.
The Tovie camp, glimpsed later, and only at the distant horizon, seemed not very different from the others, except for the misleading patterns of camouflage. That the Tovies should have an exclusive center of their own was not even legal, according to U.N. agreements. But facts were facts, and what did anyone do about them?
Frank was not very concerned with such issues just then, for there was an impression that was overpowering: The slightness of the intrusion of his kind on a two thousand-something miles-in-diameter globe of incredible desert, overlapping ring-walls, craters centered in radiating streaks of white ash, mountain ranges that sank gradually into dust, which once, two billion years ago, after probable ejection from volcanoes, had no doubt floated in a then palpable atmosphere. But now, to a lone man down there, they would be bleak plains stretching to a disconcertingly near horizon.
Frank Nelsen's view was one of fascination, behind which was the chilly thought: This is my choice; here is where I will have to live for a short while that can seem ages. Space looks tame, now. Can I make it all right? Worse--how about Lester?
Frank looked around him. Like Rodan, Lester and he had both pivoted around in their gimbaled seats--to which they had safety-strapped themselves--to face the now forward-pointing stern jets.
Rodan, looking more trap-mouthed than before, had said nothing further as he guided the craft gingerly lower. Lester was biting his heavy lip. His narrow chin trembled.
A faint whisper had begun. As far back as the 1940s, astronomers had begun to suspect that the Moon was, after all, not entirely airless. There would be traces of heavy gases--argon, neon, xenon, krypton, and volcanic carbon dioxide. It would be expanded far upward above the surface, because the feeble lunar gravity could not give it sufficient weight to compress it very much. So it would thin out much less rapidly with altitude than does the terrestrial atmosphere. From a density of perhaps 1/12,000th of Earth's sea level norm at the Moon's surface, it would thin to perhaps 1/20,000th at a height of eighty miles, being thus roughly equivalent in density to Earth's gaseous envelope at the same level! And at this height was the terrestrial zone where meteors flare!