It hardly mattered what else they said. Maybe it was fifteen hours later that Frank Nelsen found himself walking along a stellene-covered causeway, looking for Left Foot Gimp Hines. He had memories of a tiny room, very neat and compact, with even a single huge rose in a vase on the bed table. But the time had a fierce velvet-softness that tried to draw him to it forevermore. It was like the grip of home, and the lost Earth, and the fear that he would chicken out and return.
He found Gimp, who seemed worried. "You might get stuck, here, on account of Rodan," he said. "Even I might. We'd better go see."
Nelsen had bitter, vengeful thoughts of Rodan being set at liberty--with himself the culprit.
The official at the police building was an American--a gruff one, but human. "I got the dope from the girl, Nelsen," he said. "And from Lester. You're lucky. Rodan confessed to a murder--another employee--just before he hired you. Apparently just before he made his discovery. He was afraid that the kid would try to horn in. Oh, he's not insane--not enough to escape punishment, anyhow. Here the official means of execution is simple exposure to the vacuum. Now, if you want to leave Serene, you'd better do so soon, before somebody decides to subpoena you as a witness..."
Frank felt a humbled wonder. Was Rodan really accountable, or was it the Moon and space, working on people's emotions?
Leaving the building, Frank and Gimp found Dave Lester and Helen Rodan entering. They talked for a moment. Then Lester said: "Helen's had lots of trouble. And we're in love. What do we do, guys?"
"Dunno--get married?" Nelsen answered, shrugging. "It must happen here, too. Oh, I get it--living costs, off the Earth, are high. Well--I've got what Helen's father paid me. Of course I have to replace the missing parts of my equipment. But I'll loan you five hundred. Wish it could be more."
"Shucks, I can do better," Gimp joined in. "Pay us sometime, when you see us."
"I--I don't know..." Lester protested worriedly, like an honest man.
But Gimp and Frank were already shelling out bills, like vagabonds who happened to be flush.
"Poor simpletons," Gimp wailed facetiously afterwards, when they had moved out of earshot. "Even here, it happens. But that's worse. And if her Daddy had stayed human, she might almost have been an heiress... Well, come on, Frank. I've got my space gear out of hock, and my tractor sold. And an old buddy of ours is waiting for us at a repair and outfitting shop near the space port. I hope we didn't jump the gun, assuming you want to get out into the open again, too?"
"You didn't," Nelsen answered. "You sure you don't want to look at Rodan's site--see if we can find any more Martian stuff?"
Gimp looked regretful for a second. "Uh-uh--it's jinxed," he said.
Ramos, scarred, somewhat, along the neck and left cheek, and a bit stiff of shoulder, was rueful but very eager. Frank's gutted gear was out of the blastoff drum, and spread around the shop. Most of it was already fixed. Ramos had been helping.
"Well, Frankie--here's one loose goose who is really glad to be leaving Luna," he said. "Are the asteroids all right with you for a start?"
"They are," Nelsen told him.
"Passing close to Mars, which is lined up orbitally along our route," Gimp put in. "Did you beam Two-and-Two and Charlie on Venus?"
"Uh-huh--they're just kind of bored," Ramos said. "I even got Storey at the Martian Survey Station. But he's going out into those lousy thickets, again. Old Paul, in Jarviston, sounds the same. Can't get him right now--North America is turned away... I couldn't pinpoint the Kuzaks in the Belt, but that's not unusual."
"I'll finance a load of trade stuff for them," Gimp chuckled. "We ought to be able to move out in about five hours, eh?"
"Should," Ramos agreed. "Weapons--we might need 'em this trip--and everything else is about ready."
"So we'll get a good meal, and then buy our load," Frank enthused.
He felt the texture of his deflated bubb. The hard lines of deep-space equipment quickened his pulses. He forgot the call of Earth. He felt as free and easy as a hobo with cosmic dust in his hair.
Blastoff from Serene's port, even with three heavily loaded trader rockets, was comparatively easy and inexpensive.
Out in orbit, three reunited Bunch members inflated and rigged their bubbs. For Nelsen it seemed an old, splendid feeling. They lashed the supplies from the trader rockets into great bundles that they could tow.
Before the rockets began to descend, the trio of beautiful, fragile rings, pushed by ions streaming from their centers, started to accelerate.
"It's the life of Reilly, Paul," Ramos was beaming back to Jarviston, Minnesota, not many hours after Frank Nelsen, Gimp Hines and he started out from the Moon, with their ultimate destination--after the delivery of their loads of supplies to the Kuzaks--tentatively marked in their minds as Pallastown on Pallas, the Golden Asteroid.
Ramos was riding a great bale, drawn by his spinning and still accelerating ring, to the hub of which it was attached by a thin steel cable, passed through a well-oiled swivel bolt. One of his booted feet was hooked under a bale lashing, to keep him from drifting off in the absence of weight. He held a rifle casually, but at alert, across his knees. Its needle-like bullets were not intended to kill. They were tiny rockets that could flame during the last second of a long flight, homing in on a target by means of a self-contained and marvelously miniaturized radar guidance system. Their tips were anesthetic.
The parabolic antenna mounted on the elbow of Ramos' Archer, swung a tiny bit, holding the beam contact with Paul Hendricks automatically, after it was made. Yet Ramos kept his arm very still, to avoid making the slender beam swing wide. Meanwhile, he was elaborating on his first statement: "... Not like before. No terrestrial ground-to-orbit weight problem to beat, this trip, Paul. And we've got some of about everything that the Moon could provide, thanks to Gimp, who paid the bill. Culture steak in the shadow refrigerators. That's all you need, Out Here, to keep things frozen--just a shadow... We've got hydroponic vegetables, tinned bread, chocolate, beer. We've got sun stoves to cook on. We've got numerous luxury items not meant for the stomach. We're living high for a while, anyhow. Of course we don't want to use up too much of the fancy stuff. Tell Otto Kramer about us..."
Frank Nelsen and Gimp Hines, who were riding the rigging of their respective bubbs, which were also hauling big bales of supplies, were part of the trans-spatial conversation, too. There was enough leakage from Ramos' tightened beam, here at its source, for them to hear what he said.
But when, after a moment, Paul Hendricks answered from the distance, "Easy with the talk, fella--overinterested people might be listening," they suddenly forgot their own enthusiasms. They realized. Their hides tingled unpleasantly.
Ramos' dark face hardened. Still he spoke depreciatingly. "Shucks, Paul, this is a well-focused beam. Besides it's pointing Earthward and sunward; not toward the Belt, where most of the real mean folks are..." But he sounded defensive, and very soon he said, "'Bye for now, Paul."
A little later, Frank Nelsen contacted Art Kuzak, out in the Asteroid Belt, across a much greater stretch of space. He thought he was cautious when he said, "We're riding a bit heavy--for you guys..." But after the twenty minute interval it took to get an answer back over ten light-minutes of distance traversed twice--186,000 miles for every second, spanned by slender threads of radio energy which were of low-power but of low-loss low-dispersal, too, explaining their tremendous range--Art Kuzak's warning was carefully cryptic, yet plain to Nelsen and his companions.
"Thanks for all the favors," he growled dryly. "Now keep still, and be real thoughtful, Frankie Boy. That also goes for you other two naive boneheads..."
Open space, like open, scarcely touched country, had produced its outlaws. But the distances were far greater. The pressures of need were infinitely harsher.
"Yeah, there's a leader named Fessler," Gimp rasped, with his phone turned low so that only his companions could hear him. "But there are other names... Art's right. We'd better keep our eyes open and our mouths shut."
Asteroid miners who had had poor luck, or who had been forced to kill to win even the breath of life; colonists who had left Mars after terrible misfortunes, there; adventurers soured and maddened by months in a vacuum armor, smelling the stench of their own unwashed bodies; men flush with gains, and seeking merely to relieve the tensions of their restrained, artificial existences in a wild spree; refugees from rigid Tovie conformism--all these composed the membership of the wandering, robbing, hijacking bands, which, though not numerous, were significant. Once, most of these men had been reasonably well-balanced individuals, easily lost in a crowd. But the Big Vacuum could change that.
Ramos, Hines, and Nelsen had heard the stories. Now, their watchfulness became almost exaggerated. They felt their inexperience. They made no more radio beam contacts. One of them was always on lookout, clutching a rifle, peering all around, glancing every few seconds at the miniaturized radar screen set inside the collar of his helmet. But the spherical sky remained free of any unexplained blip or luminous speck. Fragments of conversations picked up in their phones--widely separated asteroid-miners talking to each other, for the most part--obviously came from far away. There was a U.S.S.F. bubb cruising a few million miles off. Otherwise, the enormous emptiness was safely and perversely empty, all around.
They kept accelerating. For a planned interval, they enjoyed all the good things. They found that masculine guardedness and laziness went well together. They ate themselves full. Like Mitch Storey had once done, they all started hydroponic gardens inside their bubbs. In the pleasant, steamy sun-warmth of those stellene interiors, they bounced back and forth from elastic wall to elastic wall, with gravity temporarily at zero because they had stopped the spin of their bubbs. Thus they loosened their muscles, worked up a sweat. Afterwards they dozed, slept, listened to beamed radio music or taped recordings of their own. They smiled at pin-up pictures, read microfilmed books through a viewer, looked at the growing plants around them.
There was an arrogance in them, because they had succeeded in bringing so much of home out here. There was even a mood like that of a lost, languid beach in the tropics. And how was that possible, with only a thin skin of stellene between them and frigid nothing?
Ramos said just about what he had said--long ago, it seemed, now. "Nuts--the Big Vacuum ain't so tough." But he amended quickly, "Yeah, I know, Frank--don't scowl. When you aren't looking, it can up and kill you. Like with my Uncle Jose, only worse. He was a powder monkey in Mexico. It got so he thought dynamite was his friend. Well, there wasn't even anything to put in his coffin..."
The luxurious interlude passed, and they reverted mostly to Spartan meals of space-gruel, except for some fresh-grown lettuce. Mars became an agate bead, then a hazy sphere with those swirled, almost fluid markings, where the spores of a perhaps sentient vegetable life followed the paths of thin winds, blowing equatorward from the polar caps of hoarfrost.
The three stellene rings bumped lightly on the ten mile chunk of captured asteroidal rock and nickel-iron that was Phobos, Mars' nearer moon. Gravitation was almost nil. There was no need, here, for rockets, to land or take off. The sun-powered ionics were more than enough.
A small observatory, a U.N.-tended between ground-and-orbit rocket port, and a few hydroponic garden domes nestled in the jaggedness were about all that Phobos had--other than the magnificent view of the Red Planet, below.
Gimp Hines' freckled face shone in the ruddy light. "I'm going down," he declared. "Just for a few days, to look around near the Survey Station. You guys?"
Ramos shrugged, almost disinterested. "People have been there--some still are. And what good is poking around the Station? But who wants to goof up, going into the thickets? Others have done that, often enough. Me for Pallastown, and maybe lots farther, pal."
Frank Nelsen wasn't that blase. On the Moon, he had seen some of the old Mars of advanced native technology, now long extinct. But there was also the recent Mars of explorers and then footloose adventurers, wondering what they could find to do with this quiet, pastel-tinted world of tremendous history. Then had come the colonists, with their tractors and their rolls of stellene to make sealed dwellings and covered fields in that thin, almost oxygenless atmosphere.
But their hopes to find peace and isolation from the crowded and troubled Earth by science and hard work even in so harsh a place, had come into conflict with a third Mars that must have begun soon after the original inhabitants had been destroyed. Though maybe it had had its start, billions of years before, on the planets of another star. The thickets had seemed harmless. Was this another, different civilization, that had risen at last in anger, using its own methods of allergy, terrible repellant nostalgia, and mental distortions?
Frank felt the call of mystery which was half dread. But then he shrugged. "Uh-uh, Gimp. I'd like to go down, too. But the gravity is twice that of the Moon--getting up and down isn't so easy. Besides, once when I made a stopover in space, after a nice short hop, I got into trouble. I'll pass this one up. I'd like to talk to Mitch Storey, though."
They all tried to reach him, beaming the Survey Station at the edge of Syrtis Major, the great equatorial wedge of blue-green growths on the floor of a vanished ocean, first.
"Mitchell Storey is not around right now," a young man's voice informed them. "He wandered off again, three days ago. Does it often... No--we don't know where to reach him..."
Widening their beams over the short range of considerably less than four thousand miles, they tried to call Mitch directly. No luck. Contact should have been easy. But of course he could be wandering with his Archer helmet-phone turned off.
Considering the reputation of Mars, Nelsen was a bit worried. But he had a perhaps treacherous belief that Mitch was special enough to take care of himself.
Ramos was impatient. "We'll hook old Mitch on our party line, sometime, Frank," he said. "Right now we ought to get started. Space is still nice and empty ahead, toward the Kuzaks and Pallastown. That condition might not last... Gimp, are you honest-to-gosh set on going down to this dried-up, museum-world?"
"Umhmm. See you soon, though," Gimp answered, grinning. "I'll leave my bubb and my load of supplies up here on Phobos. Be back for it probably in a week. And there'll be a freight-bubb cluster, or something, for me to join up with, and follow you Out..."
Nelsen and Ramos left Gimp Hines before he boarded the winged skip-glide rocket that would take him below. Parting words flew back and forth. "See you... Take care... Over the Milky Way, suckers..."
Then they were standing off from Mars and its two moons. During the next several Earth-days of time, they accelerated with all the power that their bubb ionics could wring out of the sunshine, weakened now, with distance. They knew about where to find the Kuzaks. But contact was weeks off. When they were close enough, they could radio safely, checking the exact position of Art's and Joe's supply post. And they knew enough to steer clear of Ceres, the largest Asteroid, which was Tovie-occupied. All the signs were good. They were well-armed and watchful. They should have made the trip without trouble.
Ahead, dim still with distance, but glinting with a pinkish, metallic shine which made it much brighter than it would otherwise have been, was Pallas, which Ramos watched like a beacon.
"Eldorado," he said once, cockily, as if he remembered something from the Spanish part of his background.
They got almost three-quarters across that unimaginable stretch of emptiness before there was a bad sign. It was a catcall--literally--in their helmet phones. "Meow!" It was falsely plaintive and innocuous. It was a maliciously childish promise of trouble.
A little later, there was a chuckle. "Be cavalier, fellas. Watch yourselves. I mean it." The tone had a strange intensity.
Ramos was on lookout, then, with eyes, radar and rifle. But the spoken message had been too brief to get a fix on the direction of its radio waves.
Ramos stiffened. With his phone power turned very low, he said, "Frank--lots of people say 'Be cavalier', nowadays. But that includes one of the old Bunch. The voice might match, too."
"Uh-huh--Tiflin, the S.O.B.," Nelsen growled softly.
For ten hours, nothing else happened. Then there were some tiny radar-blips, which could have indicated meteors. Nelsen and Ramos changed the angle of the ion guides of their ionic motors to move their bubbs from course, slightly, and dodge. During the first hour, they were successful. But then there were more blips, in greater numbers.
Fist-sized chunks flicked through their vehicles almost simultaneously. Air puffed out. Their rings collapsed under them--the sealer was no good for holes of such size. At once, the continued spin of the bubbs wound them, like limp laundry, into knots.
While Nelsen and Ramos were trying to untangle the mess, visible specks appeared in the distance. They fired at them. Then something slammed hard into the fleshy part of Nelsen's hip, penetrating his armor, and passing on out, again. The sealing gum in the Archer's skin worked effectively on the needle-like punctures, but the knockout drug had been delivered.
As his awareness faded, Nelsen fired rapidly, and saw Ramos doing the same--until his hand slapped suddenly at his side...
After that there was nothing, until, for a few seconds, Frank Nelsen regained a blurred consciousness. He was lying, unarmored, inside a bubb--perhaps his own, which had been patched and reinflated. All around him was loud laughter and talk, the gurgle of liquor, the smells of cooked meat, a choking concentration of tobacco smoke. Music blared furiously.
"Busht out shummore!" somebody was hollering. "We got jackpot--the whole fanshy works! I almost think I'm back in Sputtsberg--wherever hell that is... But where's the wimmin? Nothing but dumb, prissy pitchers! Not even good pitchers...!"
There were guys of all sizes, mostly young, some armored, some not. One with a pimply face stumbled near. Frank Nelsen choked down his fury at the vandalism. He had a blurred urge to find a certain face, and almost thought he succeeded. But everything, including his head, was a fuzzy jumble.
"Hey!" the pimply guy gurgled. "Hey--Boss! Our benefactors--they're half awake! You should shleep, baby greenhorns...!"
A large man with shovel teeth ambled over. Frank managed half to rise. He met the blow and gave some of it back. Ramos was doing likewise, gamely. Then Nelsen's head zeroed out again in a pyrotechnic burst...
He awoke to almost absolute silence, and to the turning of the whole universe around him. But of course it was himself that was rotating--boots over head. There was a bad smell of old sweat, and worse.
His hip felt numb from the needle puncture. In all except the most vital areas, those slim missiles would not usually cause death, or even serious injury; but soon the wound would ache naggingly.
First, Frank Nelsen hardly knew where he was. Then he understood that he was drifting free in space, in an armor. He thought it was his own until he failed to recognize the scuffed, grimy interior. Even the workshirt he was wearing wasn't the new blue one he had put on, it seemed only hours ago. It was a greasy grey.
Etched into the scratched plastic of the helmet that covered his head, he saw "Archer III--ser. no. 828211." And casually stuck into the gasketted rim of the collar, was a note, pencilled jaggedly on a scrap of paper: "Honest, Greenie, your a pal. All that nice stuff. Thanks a 1,000,000! Couple of my boys needed new Archies, bad. Thanks again. You and your buddie are not having so bad a brake. These old threes been all over hell. They will show you all about Asteroid hopping and mining. So will the load-hauling net and tools. Thanks for the little dough, too. Find your space fitness card in shirt pocket. We don't need it. Have lots of fun. Just remember me as The Stinker."
Frank Nelsen was quivering with anger and scare. He saw that a mended steel net, containing a few items, had got wrapped around him with his turning. He groped for the ion-guide of the ancient shoulder-ionic, and touched a control. Slowly his spin was checked. Meanwhile he untangled himself, and saw what must be Ramos, adrift like himself in a battered Archer Three, doing the same.
Gradually they managed to ion glide over to each other. Their eyes met. They were the butts of a prank that no doubt had been the source of many guffaws.
"Did you get a letter, too, Frank?" Ramos asked. For close communication, the old helmet-phones still worked okay.
"I did," Nelsen breathed. "Why didn't they just knock us off? Alive, we might tell on them."
"Not slow and funny enough, maybe," Ramos answered dolefully. "In these broken-down outfits, we might not live to tell. Besides, even with these notes for clues, who'd ever find out who they are, way out here?"
Nelsen figured that all this was probably the truth. In the Belt, life was cheap. Death got to be a joke.
"There was an ox of a guy with big teeth!" he hissed furiously. "Thought I saw Tiflin, too--the S.O.B.! Cripes, do I always land in the soup?"
"The bossman with the teeth, I remember," Ramos grated. "Tiflin I don't know about. Could be... Hell, though--what now? I suppose we're going in about the same direction and at the same speed as before? Have to watch the sun and planets to make sure. Did they leave us any instruments? Meanwhile, we might try to decelerate. I'd like to get out to Pluto sometime, but not equipped like this."
"We'll check everything--see how bad off they left us," Nelsen said.
So that was what they did, after they had set their decrepit shoulder-ionics to slow them down in the direction of the Belt.
Each of their hauling nets contained battered chisels, hammers, saws for metal, a radiation counter, a beaten-up-looking pistol, some old position-finding instruments, including a wristwatch that had seen much better days to be used as a chronometer. There were also two large flasks of water and two month-supply boxes of dehydrated space-gruel--these last items obviously granted them from their own, now vanished stores. Here was weird generosity--or perhaps just more ghoulish fun to give them the feeble hope of survival.
Now they checked each other's Archer Threes as well as they could while they were being worn. No use even to try to communicate over any distance with the worn-out radio transmitters. The nuclear batteries were ninety-percent used up, which still left considerable time--fortunately, because they had to add battery power to the normally sun-energized shoulder-ionics, in order to get any reasonable decelerating effect out of them. Out here, unlike on the Moon at night, the air-restorers could also take direct solar energy through their windows. They needed current only for their pumps. But the green chlorophane, key to the freshening and re-oxygenation of air, was getting slightly pale. The moisture-reclaimers were--by luck--not as bad as some of the other vital parts.
Ramos touched his needled side. His wry grin showed some of his reckless humor. "It's not utterly awful, yet," he said. "How do you feel?"
Nelsen's hip hurt. And he found that he had an awful hangover from the knockout drug, and the slapping around he had received. "Bad enough," he answered. "Maybe if we ate something..."
They took small, sealed packets of dehydrated food in through their chest airlocks, unsleeved their arms, emptied the packets into plastic squeeze bottles from the utensil racks before them, injected water from the pipettes which led to their shoulder tanks, closed the bottles and let the powdered gruel swell as it reabsorbed moisture. The gruel turned out hot all by itself. For it was a new kind which contained an exothermic ingredient. They ate, in the absence of gravity, by squeezing the bottles.
"Guess we'll have to become asteroid-hoppers--miners--like the slob said," Nelsen growled. "Well--I did want to try everything..."
This was to become the pattern of their lives. But not right away. They still had an incomplete conception of the vast distances. They hurtled on, certainly decelerating considerably, for days, yet, before they were in the Belt. Even that looked like enormous emptiness.
And the brightened speck of Pallas was too far to one side. Tovie Ceres was too near on the other side--left, it would be, if they considered the familiar northern hemisphere stars of Earth as showing "up" position. The old instruments had put them off-course. Still, they had to bear even farther left to try to match the direction and the average orbital speed--about twelve miles per second--of the Belt. Otherwise, small pieces of the old planet, hurtling in another direction--and/or at a different velocity--than themselves, could smash them.
Maybe they thought that they would be located and picked up--the gang that had robbed and dumped them had found them easily enough. But there, again, was a paradox of enormity. Bands might wait for suckers somewhere beyond Mars. Elsewhere, there could be nobody for millions of miles.
They saw their first asteroid--a pitted, mesoderm fragment of nickel-iron from middle-deep in the blasted planet. It was just drifting slightly before them. So they had achieved the correct orbital speed. They ion-glided to the chunk, and began to search clumsily for worthwhile metal. It was fantastic that somebody had been there before them, chiselling and sawing out a greyish material, of which there was a little left that made the needles of their radiation counters swing wildly.
They got a few scraps of the stuff to put into the nets which they were towing.
"For luck," Ramos laughed. "Without it we'll never pay J. John."
"Shut up. Big deal," Nelsen snapped.