"Okay. Shut up it is!" Ramos answered him.
So they stayed silent until they couldn't stand that, either. Everything was getting on their nerves.
Their next asteroids were mere chips a foot long--core fragments of the planet, heavy metals that had sunk deep. No crust material of any normally formed world could ever show such wealth. It gleamed with a pale yellow shine, and made Ramos' sunken eyes light up with an ancient fever, until he remembered, and until Nelsen said: "Not for the gold, anymore, pal. Common, out here. So it's almost worthless, everywhere. Not much use as an industrial metal. But the osmium and uranium alloyed with it are something else. One hunk for each of our nets. Too bad there isn't more."
The uranium was driving their radiation-counters wild.
"Could we drag it, if there was more?" Ramos growled. "With just sun-power on these lousy shoulder-ionics?"
Everything was going sour, even Ramos. After a long deceleration they were afraid to draw any more power for propulsion from their weakened batteries. They needed the remaining current for the moisture-reclaimers and the pumps of the air-restorers--a relatively much lighter but vital drain. The sunlight was weak way out here. Worse, the solar thermocouples to power the ionics were almost shot. They tried to fix them up, succeeding a little, but using far more time than they had expected. Meanwhile, the changed positions of the various large asteroids, moving in their own individual orbits, lost them any definite idea of where the Kuzaks' supply post was, and the dizzying distance to Pallas, with only half-functioning ionics to get them there, fuddled them in their inexperience.
Soon their big hope was that some reasonable asteroid-hoppers would come within the few thousand mile range of their weakened transmitters. Then they could call, and be picked up.
Mostly to keep themselves occupied, they hunted paymetal, taking only the very best that they could find, to keep the towage mass down. Right from the start they cut their food ration--a good thing, because one month went, and then two, as near as they could figure. Cripes, how much longer could they last?
Often they actually encouraged their minds to create illusions. Frank would hold his body stiff, and look at the stars. After a while he would get the soothing impression that he was swimming on his back in a lake, and was looking up at the night sky.
Mostly, they were out of the regular radio channels. But sometimes, because of the movement of distant bubb clusters that must be kept in touch, they heard music and news briefly, again. They heard ominous reports from the ever more populous Earth. Now it was about areas of ocean to become boundaried and to be "farmed" for food. Territorial disputes were now extending far beyond the land. Once more, the weapons were being uncovered. Of course there were repercussions out here. Ceres Station was beaming pronouncements, too--rattling the saber.
Nelsen and Ramos listened avidly because it was life, because it was contact with lost things, because it was not dead silence.
Their own tribulations deepened.
"Cripes but my feet stink!" Ramos once laughed. "They must be rotten. They're sore, and they itch something awful, and I can't scratch them, or change my socks, even. The fungus, I guess. Just old athlete's foot."
"The stuff is crawling up my legs," Nelsen growled.
They knew that the Kuzaks, maybe Two-and-Two, Reynolds, Gimp, Storey, must be trying to call them. They kept listening in their helmet-phones. But this time Frank Nelsen knew that he'd gotten himself a real haystack of enormity in which to double for a lost needle. The slender beams could comb it futilely and endlessly, in the hope of a fortunate accident. Only once they heard, "Nelsen! Ra..." The beam swept on. It could have been Joe Kuzak's voice. But inevitably, somewhere, there had to be a giving up point for the searchers.
"This is where I came in," Nelsen said bitterly. "Damn these beam systems that are so delicate and important!"
They did pick up the voices of scattered asteroid-hoppers, talking cautiously back and forth to each other, far away. "... Got me pinpointed, Ed? Coming in almost empty, this trip. Not like the last... Stake me to a run into Pallastown...?" Most of such voices sounded regular, friendly.
Once they heard wild laughter, and what could have been a woman's scream. But it could have been other things, too.
On another occasion, they almost believed that they had their rescue made. Even their worn-out direction and distance finders could place the ten or so voices as originating not much over a hundred miles away. But they checked their trembling enthusiasm just in time. That was sheerest luck. The curses, and the savage, frightened snarls were all wrong. "If we don't catch us somebody, soon..."
Out here, the needs could get truly primitive. Oxygen, water, food, repair parts for vital equipment. Cannibalism and blood-drinking could also be part of blunt necessity.
Nelsen and Ramos were fortunate. Twenty miles off was a haze against the stars--a cluster of small mesoderm fragments. Drawing power for their shoulder-ionics from their almost spent nuclear batteries, they glided toward the cluster, and got into its midst, doubling themselves up to look as much like the other chunks as possible. They were like hiding rats for hours, until long after the distant specks moved past.
While he waited, Frank Nelsen's mind fumbled back to the lost phantom of Jarviston, Minnesota, again. To a man named Jig Hollins who had got married, stayed home. Yellow? Hell...! Nelsen imagined the comforts he might have had in the Space Force. He coaxed up a dream girl--blonde, dark, red-headed--with an awful wistfulness. He thought of Nance Codiss, the neighbor kid. He fumbled at the edge of a vast, foggy vision, where the wanderlust and spacelust of a man, and needs of the expanding race, seemed to blend with his home-love and love-love, and to become, impossibly, a balanced unit...
Later--much later--he heard young, green asteroid-hoppers yakking happily about girls and about how magnificent it was, out here.
"Haw-haw," he heard Ramos mock.
"Yeah," Nelsen said thickly. "Lucky for them that they aren't near us--being careless with their beams, that way..."
Frank Nelsen sneered, despising these innocent novices, sure that he could have beaten and robbed them without compunction. That far he had come toward understanding the outlaws, the twisted men of the Belt.
Ramos and he seemed to go on for an indefinite period longer. In a sense, they toughened. But toward the last they seemed to blunder slowly in the mind-shadows of their weakening body forces. They had a little food left, and water from the moisture-reclaimers. At zero-gravity, where physical exertion is slight, men can get along on small quantities of food. The sweetish, starchy liquid that they could suck through a tube from the air-restorers--it was a by-product of the photosynthetic process--might even have sustained them for a considerable interval.
But the steady weakening of their nuclear batteries was another matter. The pumps of their air-restorers and moisture-reclaimers were dependent on current. Gradually the atmosphere they breathed was getting worse. But from reports they had read and TV programs they had seen long ago, they found themselves another faint hope, and worked on it. With only solar power--derived through worn-out thermocouple units--to feed their uncertain ionics, they could change course only very slowly, now.
Yet maybe they had used up their bad luck. At last they came to a surface-fragment a couple of hundred yards long. They climbed over its edge. The thin sunshine hit dried soil, and something like corn-stubble in rows. Ahead was a solid stone structure, half flattened. Beside it a fallen trunk showed its roots. Vegetation was charred black by the absolute dryness of space. There was a fragment of a road, a wall, a hillside.
Here, there must have been blue sky, thin, frosty wind. The small, Mars-sized planet had been far from the sun. Yet perhaps the greenhouse effect of a high percentage of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere and the radioactive heat of its interior had helped warm it. At least it had been warm enough to evolve life of the highest order, eons ago.
Poof had gone the blue sky and this whole world, all in a moment, the scattered pieces forming the asteroids. Accident? More likely it was a huge, interplanetary missile from competing Mars. The Martians had died, too--as surely, though less spectacularly. Radioactive poison, perhaps... Here, there had been an instant of unimaginable concussion, and of swift-passing flame. The drying out was soon ended. Then, what was left had been preserved in a vacuum through sixty millions of years.
Frank Nelsen had glimpsed ancient Mars, preserved on the Moon. Now he glimpsed its opponent culture, about which more was generally known.
"It's real," Ramos grunted. "Hoppers find surface-fragments like this, quite often."
Nelsen hardly cared about the archeological aspects just then. Excitement and hope that became certainty, enlivened his dulled brain.
"An energy source," he grated joyfully. "The Big Answer to Everything, out here! And it's always self-contained in their buildings..."
They pushed the collapsed and blackened thing with the slender bones, aside. They crept into the flat, horizontal spaces of the dwelling--much more like chinks than the rooms that humans would inhabit. They shoved away soft, multi-colored fabrics spun from glass-wool, a metal case with graduated dials and a lens, baubles of gold and glinting mineral.
In a recess in the masonry, ribboned with glazed copper strips that led to clear globes and curious household appliances, they found what they wanted. Six little oblong boxes bunched together. Their outsides were blue ceramic.
Frank Nelsen and Miguel Ramos began to work gingerly, though the gloves of their old Archer Threes were insulated. Here, sixty million years of stopped time had made no difference to these nuclear batteries, that, because of the universal character of physical laws, almost had to be similar in principle to their own. They had almost known that it would make no difference. There had been no drain of power through the automatic safety switches.
"DC current, huh?" Ramos said, breathing hard of the rotten air in his helmet.
"Yeah--gotta be," Frank answered quickly. "Same as from a thermocouple. Voltage about two hundred. Lots of current, though. Hope these old ionics'll take it."
"We can tap off lower, if we have to... Here--I'll fix you, first... Grab this end..."
They had a sweating two hours of rewiring to get done.
With power available, they might even have found a way to distill and collect the water, usually held in the form of frost, deep-buried in the soil of any large surface-fragment. They might have broken down some of the water electrolytically, to provide themselves with more oxygen to breathe. But perhaps now such efforts were not necessary.
When they switched in the new current, the pumps of their equipment worked better at once. The internal lights of their air-restorers could be used again, augmenting the action of the pale sunshine on the photosynthetic processes of the chlorophane. The air they breathed improved immediately. They tested the power on the shaky ionics, and got a good thrust reaction.
"We can make it--I think," Frank Nelsen said, speaking low and quick, and with the boldness of an enlivened body and brain. "We'll shoot up, out of the Belt entirely, then move parallel to it, backwards--contrary to its orbital flow, that is. But being outside of it, we won't chance getting splattered by any fragments. Probably avoid some slobs, too. We'll decelerate, and cut back in, near Pallas. There'll be a way to find the Kuzak twins."
Ramos chuckled recklessly. "Let's not forget to pack these historical objects in our nets. Especially that camera, or whatever it is. Money in the bank at last, boy..."
But after they set out, it wasn't long before they knew that two people were following them. There was no place to hide. And a mocking voice came into their phones.
"Hey, Nelsen... Oh, Mex... Wait up... I've been looking for you for over three months..."
They tried first to ignore the hail. They tried to speed up. But their pursuers still had better propulsion. Nelsen gritted his teeth. He felt the certainty of disaster closing in.
"There's just two of them--so far," Ramos hissed. "Maybe here's our chance, Frank, to really smear that rat!" Ramos' eyes had a battlelight. "All right, Tiflin--approach. These guns are lined up and loaded."
"Aw--is that friendship, Mex?" the renegade seemed to wheedle. But insolently, he and his larger companion came on.
"Toss us your pistols," Ramos commanded, as they drifted close, checking speed.
Tiflin flashed a smirk that showed that his front teeth were missing. "Honest, Mex--do you expect us to do that? Be cavalier--I haven't even got a pistol, right now. Neither has Igor, here. Come look-see... Hi, Frankie!"
"Just stay there," Nelsen gruffed.
Tiflin cocked his head inside the helmet of a brand-new Archer Six, in a burlesqued pose for inspection. He looked bad. His face had turned hard and lean. There were scars on it. The nervous, explosive-tempered kid, who couldn't have survived out here, had been burned out of him. For a second, Nelsen almost thought that the change could be for the good. But it was naive to hope that that could happen. Glen Tiflin had become passive, yielding, mocking, with an air of secret knowledge withheld. What did an attitude like that suggest? Treachery, or, perhaps worse, a kind of poised--and poisonous--mental judo?
Nelsen looked at the other man, who wore a Tovie armor. Tall, starvation-lean. Horse-faced, with a lugubrious, bumpkinish smile that almost had a whimsical appeal.
"Honest--I just picked up Igor--which ain't his real name--in the course of my travels," Tiflin offered lightly. "He used to be a comic back in Eurasia. He got bored with life on Ceres, and sort of tumbled away."
With his body stiff as a stick, Igor toppled forward, his mouth gaping in dismay. He turned completely over, his great boots kicking awkwardly. His angular elbows flapped like crow-wings. He righted himself, looked astonished, then beatifically self-approving. He burped delicately, patted his chest plate, then sniffed in sad protest at the leveled pistols.
Now Nelsen and Ramos cast off the loaded nets they had been towing, and closed in on this strange pair. Nelsen did the searching, while Ramos pointed the guns.
"Haven't even got my shiv anymore, Frankie," Tiflin remarked, casually. "Threw it at a guy named Fessler, once. Missed by an inch. Guess it's still going--round and round the sun, for millions of years. Longest knife throw there ever was."
"Fessler!" Frank snapped. "Now we're getting places, you S.O.B.! The funny character that robbed and dumped Ramos and me, I'll bet. Probably with your help! You know him, huh?"
"Knew--for a while--past tense," Tiflin chuckled wickedly. "Nope--it wasn't me that stripped off his armor in space. He wasn't even around, anymore, when you beauties got caught. They come and they go."
"But you were around, Tiflin!"
"Maybe not. Maybe I was twenty million miles off."
"Like hell!" Nelsen gritted his teeth, grabbed Tiflin's shoulder, and swung his gloved fist as hard as he could against the thin layer of rubber and wire over Tiflin's stomach. He struck three times.
"Damn you!" Nelsen snarled. "I promised myself I'd get you good, Tiflin! Now tell us what else you and your friends are cooking for us, or by the Big Silence, you'll be a drifting, explosively decompressed mummy!"
Frank Nelsen didn't know till now, after exerting himself, how weak privations had made him. He felt dizzy.
Tiflin's eyes had glazed slightly, as he and Frank did a slow roll, together. He gasped. But that insulting smirk came back.
"Haven't had your Wheaties lately, have you, Frank? Go ahead--hit, knock yourself out. You, too, Mex. I've been slugged before, by big men, in shape...! Could be I'm not cooking anything. Except I notice that you two have found yourselves some very interesting local objects of ancient history, worth a little money. Also, some good, raw metal... Well, I suppose you want to get the load and yourselves to the famous twins, Art and Joe. That's easy--with luck. Though the region is a trifle disturbed, right now. But I can tell you where they are. You won't have to fiddle around, hunting."
"Here, hold these guns, Frank. Lemme have a couple of pokes at the slob," Ramos snapped.
"Aw-right, aw-right--who's asking you guys to believe me?" Tiflin cut in. "I'll beam the twins for you--since I'd guess your transmitter won't reach. You can listen in, and talk back through my set. Okay?"
"Let's see what happens--just for kicks," Ramos said softly. "If you're calling some friends to come and get us, or anything, Tif--well, you've had it!"
They watched Tiflin spin and focus the antenna. "Kuzak... Kuzak... Kuzak... Kuzak..." he said into his phone. "Missing boys alive and coming to you. Mex and old Guess Which... Kicking and independent, but very hungry, I think... Put on the coffee pot, you storekeepers... Kuzak... Kuzak... Kuzak... Talk up, Frank and Miguel. Your voices will relay through my phone..."
"Hi, Art and Joe--it's us," Ramos almost apologized.
"Yeah--we don't quite know yet what Tiflin is pulling. But here we are--if it's you we're talking to..."
There was the usual long wait as impulses bridged the light-minutes.
Then Art Kuzak's voice snarled guardedly. "I hear you, Ram and Nel. Come in, if you can...! Tif, you garbage! Someday...! This is all. This is all..." The message broke off.
Tiflin smirked. "Third quadrant of the Belt," he said, giving a position in space almost like latitude and longitude on Earth. "About twenty minutes of the thirty-first degree. Three degrees above median orbital plane. Approximately two hundred hours from here. Can Igor and I leave you, now, or do you want us to escort you in?"
"We'll escort you," Ramos said.
So it was, until, near the end of a long ride, a cluster of bubbs was in view in the near distance, and Ramos and Nelsen could contact Art Kuzak themselves.
"We've got Tiflin and his Tovie pal with us, Art," Frank Nelsen said. "They showed us the way, more or less because we made them. But Tif did give us the right position at the start. A favor, maybe. I don't know. And now he's saying, 'Be cavalier--it might be awkward for me to meet Art and Joe just at present.' Do you want to fix this character's wagon bad enough? Your customers could get mean--if he ever did them dirt."
"Just one thing I've got against Tiflin!" Art snarled back. "Every time I hear his voice, it means trouble. But I've never seen the crumb face-to-face since that Moonhop. Okay, let's not spoil my stomach. Turn him loose. It can't make much difference. Or maybe I'm sentimental about the old Bunch. He was our cracked, space-wild punk."
"Thanks, Art," Tiflin laughed.
In a minute he, and his comic, scarecrow pal who originated from the dark side of trouble, on Earth and out here, too, were fading against the stars.
Nelsen and Ramos, the long-lost, glided in, past some grim hoppers. A bubb and sweet air were around them once more. They shed their stinking Archer Threes. Hot showers--miraculous luxury--played over them. They rubbed disinfectant salves into their fungus-ridden hides.
Then there was a clean, white table, with plates, knives, forks. They had to treat their shrunken stomachs gently--just a little of everything--beer, steak, vegetables, fruit... Somewhere during the past, unmarked days Frank Nelsen had gotten to be twenty years old. Only twenty? Well--maybe this was his celebration.
Ramos and he told their story very briefly. Little time was wasted on congratulations for survival or talk of losses long past. The Kuzaks looked leaner and tougher, now, and there were plenty of present difficulties to worry them. Joe Kuzak hurried out to argue with the miners at the raw metal receiving bins and at the store bubbs. Art stayed to explain the present situation.
"Three big loads of supplies were shipped through to us from the Moon," he growled. "We did fine, trading for metal. We sent J. John Reynolds his percentage--a fair fraction of his entire loan. We sent old Paul five thousand dollars. But the fourth and fifth loads of trade stuff got pirated en route. When there's trouble on Earth, it comes out here, too. Ceres, colonized by our socialist Tovie friends of northern Eurasia, helps stir up the bums, who think up plenty of hell on their own. It's a force-out attempt aimed at us or at anybody who thinks our way. After two lost shipments, and a lot of new installations here at the Post, we're about broke, again. Worse, we've got the asteroid-hoppers expecting us to come through with pay for the new metal in their nets, and with stuff they need. Back home, some people used to raise hell about a trifle like a delayed letter. How about a spaceman's reaction, when what is delayed may be something to keep him alive? They could get really annoyed, and kick this place apart."
Art Kuzak blew air up past his pug nose, and continued. "Finance--here we go again, Frank!" he chuckled. "Gimp Hines is helping us. After Mars, he came here without trouble. He's in Pallastown, now, trying to raise some fast cash, and to rush supplies through from there, under Space Force guard. You know he's got a head for commerce as well as science. But our post, here, perhaps isn't considered secure enough to back a loan, anymore."
Art grinned wryly at Nelsen and Ramos. His hint was plain. He had seen the museum pieces that they had brought in.
"Should we, Frank?" Ramos chuckled after a moment.
"Possibly... We've got some collateral, Art. Lots more valuable per unit mass than any raw metal, I should think."
"So you might want to work for us?" Art inquired blandly.
"Not 'for'," Nelsen chuckled. "We might say 'with'."
"Okay, Cuties," Art laughed.
Joe Kuzak had just come back into the dwelling and office bubb.
"Don't let my twin sell you any rotten apples, fellas," he warned lightly. "He might be expecting you to transport your collateral to Pallastown. Naturally anybody trying to strangle this Post will be blocking the route. You might get robbed again. Also murdered."
Ramos' gaunt face still had its daring grin. "Frank and I know that," he said. "I'm past bragging. But we've had experience. Now, we might be smart enough to get through. A few more days out there won't hurt. How about it, Frank?"
"Ten hours sleep and breakfast," Frank said. "Then a little camouflage material, new weapons, a pair of Archers in condition--got any left?"
"Five in stock," Joe answered.