So here was another force of Frank Nelsen's desperation.
He made up his mind--which perhaps just then was a bit mad.
With outward calm he returned to camp, slept, worked, slept and worked again. He decided that there was no help to be had from Lester, who was still no man of action. Better to work alone, anyway.
Fortunately, on the Moon, it was easy to call deadly forces to one's aid. Something as simple as possible, the trick should be. Of course all he wanted to do was to get the upper hand on Rodan and Dutch, take over the camp, get the missing parts of his radio and Archer, borrow the solar tractor, and get out of here. To Serenitatis Base--Serene.
His only preparation was to sharpen the edges of a diamond-shaped trowel used at the diggings, with a piece of pumice. Then he waited.
Opportunity came near sundown, after a shift. Rodan, Dutch, and he had come into the supply and shop dome, through its airlock. Lester and Helen--these two introverts had somehow discovered each other, and were getting along well together--were visible through the transparent wall, lingering at the diggings.
Nelsen saw Rodan and Dutch unlatch the collars of their helmets, preparatory for removing them, as they usually did if they stayed here a while, to pack new artifacts or stow tools. Nelsen made as if to unlatch his collar, too. But if he did it, the gasket would be unsealed, and his helmet would no longer be airtight.
Now!--he told himself. Or would it be better to wait fourteen more Earth-days, till another lunar dawn? Hell no--that would be chickenish procrastination. Rodan and Dutch were a good ten feet away from him--he was out of their reach.
With the harmless-looking trowel held like a dagger, he struck with all his might at the stellene outer wall of the dome, and then made a ripping motion. Like a monster gasping for breath, the imprisoned air sighed out.
Taking advantage of the moment when Rodan's and Dutch's hands moved in life-saving instinct to reseal their collars, Frank Nelsen leaped, and then kicked twice, as hard as he could, in rapid succession. At Dutch's stomach, first. Then Rodan's.
They were down--safe from death, since they had managed to re-latch their collars. But with a cold fury that had learned to take no chances with defeat, Nelsen proceeded to kick them again, first one and then the other, meaning to make them insensible.
He got Dutch's pistol. He was a shade slow with Rodan. "You won't get anything that is mine!" he heard Rodan grunt.
Frank managed to deflect the automatic's muzzle from himself. But Rodan moved it downward purposefully, lined it up on a box marked dynamite, and fired.
Nelsen must have thrown himself prone at the last instant, before the ticklish explosive blew. He saw the flash and felt the dazing thud, though most of the blast passed over him. Results far outstripped the most furious intention of his plan, and became, not freedom, but a threat of slow dying, an ordeal, as the sagging dome was torn from above him, and supplies, air-restorer equipment, water and oxygen flasks, the vitals and the batteries of the solar-electric plant--all for the most part hopelessly shattered--were hurled far and wide, along with the relics from Mars. The adjacent garden and quarters domes were also shredded and swept away.
Dazed, Nelsen still got Rodan's automatic, picked himself up, saw that Dutch and Rodan, in armor, too, had apparently suffered from the explosion no worse than had he. He glanced at the hole in the lava rock, still smoking in the high vacuum. Most of the force of the blast had gone upward. He looked at Helen's toppled tomatoes and petunias--yes, petunias--where the garden dome had been. Oddly, they didn't wilt at once, though the little water in the hydroponic troughs was boiling away furiously, making frosty rainbows in the slanting light of the sun. Fragments of a solar lamp, to keep the plants growing at night, lay in the shambles.
Rodan and Dutch were pretty well knocked out from Frank Nelsen's footwork. Now Dave Lester and Helen Rodan came running. Lester's face was all stunned surprise. Helen was yelling.
"I saw you do it--you--murderer!"
When she kneeled beside her father, Frank got her gun, too. He felt an awful regret for a plan whose results far surpassed his intentions, but there was no good in showing it, now. Someone had to be in command in a situation which already looked black.
"Frank--I didn't suppose--" Lester stammered. "Now--what are we going to do?"
"All that we can do--try to get out of here!" Frank snapped back at him.
With some shreds of stellene, he tied Dutch's arms behind his back, and lashed his feet together. Then he pulled Helen away from Rodan.
"Hold her, Les," he ordered. "Maybe I overplayed my hand, but just the same, I still think I'm the best to say what's to be done and maybe get us out of a jam, and I can't have Helen or Rodan or anybody else doing any more cockeyed things to screw matters up even worse than they are."
Nelsen trussed Rodan up, too, then searched Rodan's thigh pouch and found a bunch of keys.
"You come along with me, Les and Helen," he said. "First we'll find out what we've got left to work with."
He investigated the rocket. That the blast had toppled it over, wasn't the worst. When he unlocked its servicing doors, he found that Rodan had removed a vital part from the nuclear exciters of the motors. His and Lester's blastoff drums were still in the freight compartment, but the ionics and air-restorers had been similarly rendered unworkable. Their oxygen and water flasks were gone. Only their bubbs were intact, but there was nothing with which to inflate them.
When Frank examined the sun-powered tractor, he found that tiny platinum plates had been taken from the thermocouple units. It was clear that, with paranoid thoroughness, Rodan had concentrated all capacity to move from the camp's vicinity in himself. He had probably locked up the missing items in the supply dome, and now the exploding dynamite had ruined them.
Exploring the plain, Nelsen even found quite a few of the absent parts, all useless. Only one oxygen flask and one water flask remained intact. Here was a diabolical backfiring of schemes, all around.
Returning to Rodan and Dutch, he examined their Archers through their servicing ports. Rodan's was as the manufacturer intended it. But Dutch's was jimmied the same as his and Lester's.
Nelsen swung Helen around to face him, and unlatched a port at her Archer's shoulder.
"He put even you on a short string, kid," he pronounced bitterly, after a moment. "Well, at least we can give you his nuclear battery for a while, and let him have his chemical cell back."
Helen seemed about to attack him. But then her look wavered; confusion and pain came into her face.
Nelsen was aware that he was doing almost all of the talking, but maybe this had to be.
"So we've got a long walk," he said. "Toward the Tovie settlement. In Archers of mostly much-reduced range. Whose fault the situation is, can't change anything a bit. This is a life-or-death proposition, with lasting-time the most important factor. So let's get started. Has anybody got any suggestions to increase our chances?"
Both Rodan and Dutch had come to. Rodan said nothing. His look was pure poison.
Dutch sneered. "Smart damn kid you are, huh, Nelsen? You think! Wait till you and your mumblin' crackpot pal get out there! I'll watch both of you go bust, squirt!"
Lester seemed not to hear these remarks. "All that gypsum, Frank," he said. "The water-and-oxygen mineral. But this is for real. There's no gimmick--no energy-source--to release it and save us..."
Frank Nelsen untied Rodan's and Dutch's feet, and, at pistol point, ordered them to move out ahead. From the charts he knew the bearing--straight toward the constellation Cassiopeia, at this hour, across an arm of Mare Nova, then along a pass that cut through the mountains. Eight hundred hopeless miles...! Well, how did he know, really? How much could a human body take? How fast could they go? How long would the chemical batteries actually last? What breaks might appear?
They loped along, even Rodan hurrying. They made a hundred miles in the hours before darkness. With just Helen's shoulder lamp showing the way, they continued onward through the mountains.
Was there truly much to tell, in that slow, losing struggle? Nelsen attached the oxygen flask to his air system for a while, relieving the drain on his battery. Then he gave the flask to Lester. Later he began to move the nuclear battery around to all the Archers, to conserve all of the other batteries a little. Soon they filled the drinking-water tanks of their armor, so that they could discard the flask, whose slight weight seemed to have tripled.
After twenty hours, the power of the chemical batteries began to wane. David Lester, hovering close to Helen, muttered to himself, or to her. Rodan, still marching quite strongly, retreated into an unreality of his own.
"Have another scotch on the rocks, Ralph," he said genially. "I knew I'd make it... Nobel Prize... Oh, you have no idea what I went through... Most of my staff dead... But it's over, now, Ralph... Another good, stomach-warming scotch..."
"Damn, loony squirt's crackin' up!" Dutch screamed suddenly.
He began to run, promptly falling into a volcanic crack, the bottom of which couldn't even be found with the light. Fortunately he wasn't wearing the nuclear battery just then.
Somehow, Lester remained cool. It was as if, with everyone else scared, too, and nobody to show superior courage, he had found himself.
The batteries waned further. The cold of the inky lunar night--much worse than that of interplanetary space, where there is practically always sunshine, began to bite through the insulation of the Archers, and power couldn't be wasted on the heating coils.
Worst was the need for rest. They all lay down at last, except Frank Nelsen, who moved around, clipping the nuclear battery into one Archer for a minute, to freshen the air, and then into another. It was the only trick--or gimmick--that they found. After a while, Lester made the rounds, while Nelsen rested.
They got a few more miles by swapping batteries in quick succession. But the accumulating carbon dioxide in the air they breathed, made them sleepier. They had to sit down, then lie down. Frank figured that they had come something over a quarter of the eight hundred miles. This was about the end of Frank Nelsen, would-be Planet Strapper from Jarviston, Minnesota. Well--his coffin would be a common one--an Archer Five... Somehow, he thought of a line from Kipling: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you..."
He tried to clip the nuclear battery back in Helen's armor, again. She might make the remaining five hundred-something miles, alone...! He just barely managed to accomplish it... There was still a little juice, from his chemical cell, feeding his helmet phone... Now, he thought he heard someone singing raucously one of those improvised doggerel songs of spacemen and Moonmen... Folklore, almost...
"If this goddam dust Just holds its crust, I'll get on to hell If my gear don't bust..."
"Hey!" Nelsen gurgled thickly into his phone. "Hey..." Then it was as if he sort of sank...
Hell was real, all right, because, with needles in his eyes and all through his body, Nelsen seemed to be goaded on by imps to crawl, in infinite weariness, through a hot steel pipe, to face Old Nick himself--or was it somebody he'd met before?
Maybe he asked, because he got an answer--from the grinning, freckled face bending over him, as he lay, armorless, on a sort of pallet, under the taut stellene roof of a Moontent.
"Sure Frankie--me, Gimp Hines, the itinerant trader and repairman of the lunar wilderness... What a switch--didn't think you'd goof! The Bunch--especially Two-and-Two--couldn't contact you. So I was sort of looking, knowing about where you'd be. Just made it in time. Les and the girl, and that ornery professor-or-whatever, are right here, too--still knocked out with a devil-killer. You've been out twenty hours, yourself. I'll fill you in on the news. Just shut up and drink up. Good Earth whiskey--a hundred bucks just to shoot a fifth into orbit."
Frank gulped and coughed. "Thanks, Gimp." His voice was like pumice.
"Shut up, I said!" Gimp ordered arrogantly. "About me--first. When I got to Serene, I could have convinced them I was worth a job. But I'm independent. I hocked my gear, bought some old parts, built myself a tractor and trailer, loaded it with water, oxygen, frozen vegetables, spare parts, cigarettes, pin-up pictures, liquor and so forth, and came travelling. I didn't forget tools. You'd be astonished by what you can sell and fix--and for what prices--out in the isolated areas, or what you can bring back. I even got a couple of emeralds as big as pigeon eggs. I'm getting myself a reputation, besides. What difference does just one good leg make--at only one-sixth Earth grav? You still hop along, even when you don't ride. And everywhere I go, I leave that left boot print behind in the dust, like a record that could last a thousand ages. I'm getting to be Left Foot, the legend."
Nelsen cleared his throat, found his voice. "Cocky, aren't you, Pal?" he chuckled. So another thing was happening in reverse from what most people had expected. Gimp Hines was finding a new, surer self, off the Earth.
"It's all right, Gimp," Nelsen added. "I figured that I saw your tracks and your tractor tread marks, up in the hills, just before I decided to break away from Rodan..."
Then he was telling the whole story.
"Yes, I was there," Gimp said at the end. "I missed you on the first pass, prospected for a couple of Earth-days, found a small copper deposit. High ground gave me a good position to receive short-wave messages--thought I heard your voices a couple of times. So I doubled back, and located what is left of Rodan's camp, and yours and Les' initialed blastoff drums, which I've brought along in my trailer. Lucky a trader needs an atom-powered tractor that can move at night. I followed your tracks, though going through rough country, you were screened from my radio calls until I was almost on you. Though on my first pass, when you were still in camp, I guess I could have reached you by bouncing a beam off a mountain top, had I known... Well, it doesn't matter, now. I'm out of stock, again, and full of money--got to head back to Serene... You were trying for the Tovie station, eh?"
"What else could we do?"
"I see what you mean, Frank. If you could have made it, and missed getting shot by some trigger-happy guard--where a frontier isn't even supposed to exist--they probably would have held you for a while, and then let you go."
"About the rest of the Bunch?" Frank Nelsen prompted.
"The Kuzaks got to the Belt okay--though they had to fight off some rough and humorous characters. Storey reached his Mars. Charlie Reynolds and Two-and-Two got to Venus, and hooked up with the exploring expedition. Tiflin? Who knows?"
"Ah--a real disappointing case, Frank. Darn wild idiot who ought to be probing the farther reaches of the solar system, got himself a job in a chemical plant in Serene. A synthesizing retort exploded. He was burned pretty bad. Just out of the hospital when I last left. It was on account of a woman that he was on the Moon at all."
"Eileen, the Queen of Serene? Gimp!--is that so, too?"
"Yep--sort of. Our Eileen. Back in Jarviston, Ramos found out that she was there. She's a good kid. Even admits that she hasn't got much competition, on a mostly--yet--masculine world... Well, I guess we start rolling, eh? I didn't want to jolt any of you poor sick people, so I camped. Let's get you all into Archers, for which I have a few spare parts left. Then, after we roll up this sealed, air-conditioned tent of a familiar material, we can be on our way."
"Just let's watch Rodan--that's all," Frank Nelsen warned.
"Sure--we'll keep him good and dopey with a tranquilizer..."
They aroused Dave Lester and Helen Rodan, helped them armor up, explained briefly what the situation was, stuffed Xavier Rodan into his Archer, and climbed with him into the sealable cab of the tractor. Here they could all remove their helmets.
After several hours of bumping over rugged country, with the tractor's headlights blazing through the star-topped blackness, they reached a solid trail over a mare. Then they could zip along, almost like on a highway. There were other rough stretches, but most of the well selected route was smooth. Half the time, Nelsen drove, while Gimp rested or slept. They ate spaceman's gruel, heated on a little electric stove. And after a certain number of hours, they climbed over the side of the Moon, and made their own sunrise. After that, the going seemed easier.
Gimp and Frank were just about talked out, by then. Helen Rodan looked after her slumbering father. Otherwise, she and Lester seemed wrapped up in each other. Frank hardly listened to the few words they exchanged. They kept peering eagerly and worriedly along the trail, that wound past fantastic scenery.
Nelsen was eager and tense, himself. Serene, he was thinking with gratitude. Back to some of civilization. Back to freedom--if there wasn't too much trouble on account of all that had happened. Speeding along, they passed the first scattered domes, a hydroponic garden, an isolated sun-power plant.
It was another hour before they reached the checking-gate of one of the main airlocks. Frank Nelsen didn't try any tricks before the white-armored international guards.
"There have been some difficulties," he said. "I think you will want all of our names."
"I am Helen Rodan," Helen interrupted. "My father, Xavier Rodan, here, is sick. He needs a hospital. I will stay with him. These are our friends. They brought us all the way from Far Side."
Within the broad airlock compartment, Lester also got down from the tractor. "I'll stay, too," he said. "Go ahead, Frank. You and Gimp have had enough."
"A moment," gruffed one of the guards with a slight accent. "We shall say who shall do what--passing this lock. Difficulties? Very well. Names, and space-fitness cards, please, from everybody. And where you will be staying, here in Serene..."
Gimp and Frank got permission to pass the lock after about fifteen minutes. Without Helen and Les agreeing to stay, it might have been tougher. They spoke their thanks. For the time being, Frank was free to breathe open air under big, stellene domes. But he didn't know in what web of questioning and accusation he might soon be entangled.
Looking back to his first action against Rodan--with a sharpened trowel that had pierced the wall of a stellene dome--eventually leading up to Dutch's death, and very nearly precipitating his own demise and that of his other companions, he wondered if it wouldn't be regarded as criminal. Now he wasn't absolutely sure, himself, that it hadn't been criminal--or Moonmad. Yet he didn't hate Xavier Rodan any less.
"The S.O.B. might just get sent to a mental hospital--at the worst," Gimp growled loyally. "Well, come on, Frank--let's forget it, ditch our Archies at the Hostel, get a culture steak, and look around to see what you've missed..."
So that was how Frank Nelsen began to get acquainted with Serene--fifteen thousand population, much of it habitually transient; a town of vast aspirations, careful discipline, little spotless cubicles for living quarters, pay twenty dollars a day just for the air you breathe, Earth-beer twenty dollars a can, a dollar if synthesized locally. Hydroponic sunflowers, dahlias, poppies, tomatoes, cabbages, all grown enormous in this slight gravity. New chemical-synthesis plants, above ground and far below; metal refineries, shops making electronic and nuclear devices, and articles of fabric, glass, rubber, plastic, magnesium. A town of supply warehouses and tanks around a great space port; a town of a thousand unfinished enterprises, and as many paradoxes and inconveniencies. No water in fountains, water in toilets only during part of an Earth-day. English, French, Spanish, German, Greek and Arabic spoken, to mention a few of the languages. An astronomical observatory; a selenographic museum, already open, though less than half completed. And of course it was against the law not to work for more than seventy-two consecutive hours. And over the whole setup there seemed to hang the question: Can Man really live in space, or does his invasion of it signal his final downfall?
At a certain point, Nelsen gave up trying to figure out all of the aspects of Serene. Of course he and Gimp had one inevitable goal. There was a short walk, Gimp hopping along lightly; then there was an elevator ride downward, for the place, aggressively named The First Stop, was nestled cosily in the lava-rock underlying the dust of Mare Serenitatis.
It had an arched interior, bar, stage, blaring jukebox, tables, and a shoulder-to-shoulder press of tough men, held in curious orderliness in part by the rigid caution needed in their dangerous and artificial existences, in part by the presence of police, and in part perhaps by a kind of stored-up awe and tenderness for girls--all girls--who had been out of their lives for too long. In a way, it was a crude, tawdry joint; but it was not the place that Frank and Gimp--or even many of the others--had come to see.
Eileen Sands was there, dancing crazy, swoopy stuff, possible at lunar gravity, as Frank and Gimp entered. Her costume was no feminine fluff; cheesecake, of which she presumably didn't have much, was not on display, either. Dungarees, still? No, not quite. Slender black trousers, like some girls use for ballet practice, instead.
Maybe she wasn't terribly good, or sufficiently drilled, yet, in her routines. But she had a pert, appealing face, a quick smile; her hair was brushed close to her head. She was a cute, utterly bold pixy to remember smiling at you--just you--like a spirit of luck and love, far out in the thick silence.
Her caper ended. She was puffing and laughing and bowing--and maybe sweating, some, besides. The clapping was thunderous. She came out again and sang Fire Streak in a haunting, husky voice.
Meanwhile, a barman touched Frank's and Gimp's shoulders. "Hines and Nelsen? She has spotted you two. She wants to see you in her quarters."
"Hi, lads," she laughed. "Beer for old times?... You look like hell, Frank. Brief me on the missing chapter. You had everybody scared."
"Uh-uh--you first, Your Majesty," Nelsen chuckled in return.
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Well, I got here. There was a need. Somebody decided that I was the best available talent. This is the first step. Maybe I'll have my own spot--bigger and better. Or get back to my own regular self, working Out There with the men."
Maybe it was bad taste, but Nelsen felt like teasing. "Ever hear of a person named Miguel Ramos?"
That didn't bother her. She shrugged. "Still around, though I hope not for long, the buffoon! Who could ever put up with a show-off small boy like that for more than ten minutes? Besides, he's wasting himself. Why should he pick me for a bad influence...? Now, your chapter, Frank."
He told her the story, briefly.
At last she said, "Frank, you must be spiritually all jammed up. Gimp is set, I know..."
In a few minutes more, Eileen introduced him to a girl. Jennie Harper had large dark eyes, and a funny, achy sort of voice. Gimp disappeared discreetly with his date. Frank and Jennie sat at a table in a private booth, high up in the arches of The First Stop, and watched Eileen do another number.
Jennie explained herself. "I'm another one. I've got to go where the heroes go. That's me--Frankie, is it? So I'm here..."
She had a perfume. While he was Rodan's prisoner for two and a half months, there were special things that had driven him almost wild. Now he made hints, inevitably.
"I don't need Eileen to tell me you're a good guy, Frank," she said with a small, warm smile. "We're just entertainers. They wouldn't let us be anything else--here..."