"Settled, then?" Art asked.
"Here, it is," Ramos answered, and Nelsen nodded.
It would have been rough going for them to try to sleep in beds. They had lost the habit. They slept inside their new Archer Fives.
Afterwards they painted their armor a dark grey, like chunks of mesoderm stone. They did likewise to the two bundles in which they wrapped their relics.
They were as careful as possible to get away from the post without being observed, visually or by radar. But of course you could never be sure.
Huddled up to resemble stray fragments, they curved out of the Belt--toward the Pole Star, north of its orbital plane. Moving in a parallel course, they proceeded toward Pallastown. The only thing that would seem odd was that they were moving contrary to the general orbital rotation of most of the permanent bodies of the solar system. Of course they and their bundles might have been stray meteors from deep in space.
Four watchful, armored figures seemed to notice the peculiarity of their direction, and to become suspicious. These figures seemed too wary for honesty as they approached. They got within twenty-five miles.
Even without the memory that Tiflin might make guesses about what they meant to do, Nelsen and Ramos would have taken no chances. They had to be brutal. Homing darts pierced armor. The four went to sleep.
The asteroid, Pallas, was a chunk of rich core material, two hundred-some miles in its greatest dimension. It had a mottled, pinkish shine, partly from untarnished lead, osmium, considerable uranium, some iron, nickel, silver, copper. The metals were alloyed, here; almost pure, there. There was even a little rock. But thirty-five percent of Pallas' roughly spherical mass was said to be gold.
Gold is not rare at the cores of the worlds, to which most of the heavy elements must inevitably sink, during the molten stage of planetary developments. On Earth it must be the same, though who could dig three thousand miles into a zone of such heat and pressure? But the asteroid world had exploded. Pallas was an exposed and cooled piece of its heart.
Pallas had a day of twenty-four hours because men, working with great ion jets angling toward the stars, had adjusted its natural rate of rotation for their own convenience to match the terrestrial. A greater change was Pallastown.
Frank Nelsen and Miguel Ramos made the considerable journey to it without further incident. Because he was tense with hurry, Nelsen's impressions were superficial: Something like Serene, but bigger and more fantastic. A man weighed only a few ounces, here. Spidery guidance towers could loom impossibly high. There were great storage bins for raw metal brought in from all over the Belt. There were rows of water tanks. As on the Moon, the water came mostly from gypsum rock or occasionally from soil frost, both found on nearby crustal asteroids. Beyond the refineries bulged the domes of the city itself, housing factories, gardens, recreation centers, and sections that got considerably lost and divergent trying to imitate the apartment house areas of Earth.
Frank Nelsen's wonder was hurried and dulled.
Gimp Hines and David Lester were waiting inside the stellene reception dome when Nelsen and Ramos landed lightly at the port on their own feet, with no more braking assistance than their own shoulder-ionics.
Greetings were curiously breathless yet casual, but without any backslapping.
"We'd about given you two up," Gimp said. "But an hour ago Joe Kuzak beamed me, and said you'd be along with some museum stuff... Les lives here, now, working with the new Archeological Institute."
"Hi-hi--good to see you guys," Ramos said.
"Likewise. Hello, Les," Frank put in.
While Frank was gripping David Lester's limp, diffident hand, which seemed almost to apologize for his having come so far from home, Gimp teased a little. "So you latched onto Art Kuzak, too. Or was it the other way around?"
Frank's smile was lopsided. "I didn't analyze motives. Art's a pretty good guy. I suppose we just wanted to help Joe and him out. Or maybe it was instinct. Anyhow, what's wrong with latching onto--or being latched onto by--somebody whom you feel will get himself and you ahead, and make you both a buck?"
"Check. Not a darn thing," Gimp laughed. "Now let's go to my hotel and have a look at what you brought in. Did you really examine it, yet?"
"Some--on the way. Not very much," Ramos said. "There's a camera."
In the privacy of Gimp's quarters, the bundles were opened; the contents, some of them dried and gruesome, all of them rather wonderful, were exposed.
David Lester and Gimp Hines were both quietly avid. Lester knew the most about these things, but Gimp's hands, on the strange camera, were more skillful. The cautious scrutiny of dials and controls marked with cryptic numerals and symbols, and the probing of detail parts and their functions, took about an hour.
"What do you think, Les?" Gimp asked.
"I'm not an expert, yet," Lester answered. "But as far as I know, this is the first undamaged camera that has yet been found. That makes it unique. Of course by now, hoppers are bringing in quite a lot of artifacts from surface-asteroids. But there's not much in the way of new principle for our camera manufacturers to buy. Lens systems, shutters, shock mountings, self-developing, integral viewing, projecting and sonic features, all turn out to be similar to ours. It's usually that way with other devices, too. It's as if all their history, and ours, were parallel."
"Well, dammit--let's see what the thing can show!" Ramos gruffed.
In the darkened room, the device threw a rectangle of light on the wall. Then there was shape, motion, and color, kept crystallized from sixty million years before. A cloud, pinked by sunrise, floating high in a thin, expanded atmosphere. Did clouds everywhere in the universe always look much the same? Wolfish, glinting darts, vanishing away. Then a mountainside covered with spiny growths that, from a distance, seemed half cactus and half pine. A road, a field, a dull-hued cylinder pointing upward. Shapes of soft, bluish grey, topped like rounded roofs, unfolding out of a chink, and swaying off in a kind of run--with little clinkings of equipment, for there were sounds, too. Two eyelike organs projecting upward, the pupils clear and watchful. A tendril with a ridged, dark hide, waving what might have been a large, blue flower, which was attached to the end of a metal tube by means of a bit of fibre tied in a granny knot. A sunburst of white fire in the distance...
It could have gone on, perhaps for many hours. Reality, with every detail sharp. Parallels with Earthly life. Maybe even sentiment was there, if you only knew how it was shown. But in the differences you got lost, as if in a vivid dream that you couldn't fully understand. Though what was pictured here was certainly from the last beautiful days of a competing planet.
Frank Nelsen's mouth often hung open with fascination. But his own realities kept intruding. They prodded him.
"I hate to break this off," he said. "But a lot of asteroid-hoppers are out at the post, waiting for Ramos and me to bring stuff back. It's a long ride through a troubled region. There's plenty to get arranged beforehand... So first, what do we do to realize some quick funds out of these relics?"
Hines terminated the pictured sequence. "Frank--Ramos--I'd keep this camera," he said urgently. "It's a little bit special, at least. History is here, to be investigated. Offers--bids--could come up. Okay--I'm talking about dough, again. Still, who wants to detach himself, right away, from something pretty marvelous, by selling it? I'd dump most of the other things. Getting a loan--the hock-shop approach--is no good... Am I telling it right, Les?"
Lester nodded. "More of the same will be brought in. Prices will drop. Archeological Survey has a buying service for museums back home. I've been working for them for a month. I don't claim to love them entirely, but they'll give you the safest break. You should get enough, for your purposes, without the camera. With a load like this, you can see Doc Linford, the boss, any time."
"Right now, then," Frank said.
"Hey, you impolite slobs!" Ramos laughed. "When do you consult me, co-discoverer and -owner? Awright, skip it--you're the Wizards of Oz. I'll just grab out a few items for my Ma and the kids, and maybe a girl or two I'll meet someplace. You guys might as well do the same."
He took some squares of fabric, silken-soft, though spun from fibre of colored glass. And some wheeled devices, which might have been toys. Lester and Hines picked up only token pieces of the fabric. Frank took a three inch golden ring that glinted with mineral. Except that it looked decorative, he had no idea of its original purpose.
The broken, fine-boned mummy and the other items were appraised and bought in a large room across the city. It was already cluttered with queer fossils and objects. The numbers printed on the two equal checks, and on the cash in their hands, still looked slightly mythical to Nelsen and Ramos, to whom a thousand dollars had seemed a fortune.
Later, at the U.S.S.F. headquarters, he was prepared to argue grimly. Words were in his mind: A vital matter of supply... Without an escort, we'll still have to try to get through, alone. You have been informed, therefore, if anything happens, you will be responsible...
He didn't have to say anything like this. They knew. Maybe an old bitterness had made him misjudge the U.S.S.F. A young colonel smiled tiredly.
"This has been happening," he said. "We have limited facilities for this purpose. The U.N.S.F. even less. However, an escort is due in, now. We can move out again, with you, in seven hours."
"Thank you, sir," Nelsen responded.
Gimp Hines had the better part of the supplies to be purchased already lined up at the warehouses.
Nelsen counted the money he had left. "Figuring losses and gains, I have no idea how much I owe J. John--if anything," he laughed. "So I'll make it a grand--build up my ego... But we owe old Paul more than dough."
"All right, I'm another idiot--I'll mail J. John a similar draft," Ramos gruffed. "Paul's a problem. He can use money, but he never lived for it. And you can't buy a friend. We'll have to rig something."
"Yeah--we will," Gimp said. "Couple of times I forgot J. John. But I lost my shirt on those loads that were lifted off you boneheads. The Kuzaks reimbursed me for half. Do you two want to cover the other half? Aw--forget it! Who's got time to figure all this? That old coot doped himself out a nice catch-dollar scheme, making us promise. Or was it a leg pull on a highly elusive proposition, where big sums and the vastness of space seem to match? Hell--I'm getting mixed up again..."
Dave Lester had wandered off embarrassedly, there in the warehouse. But now he returned, clearing his throat for attention.
"Fellas," he said. "Helen and I want you to come out to our apartment, now, for dinner."
"Shucks, that's swell, Les," Ramos responded, suddenly curious.
"Here, also," Nelsen enthused.
"Sure," Gimp said. But his smile thinned.
In this gravity, going to Lester's place was a floating glide rather than a walk. Along a covered causeway, into a huge dome, up a wall with handholds, onto a wispy balcony. Nelsen and Ramos brought liquor and roses.
Much of what followed was painful and familiar--in a fantastic setting. Two young people, recently married, struggling with problems that they hadn't been able to plan for very well.
While his wife was out of earshot, Lester put his hand on the back of a chair constructed entirely of fine golden wire--later it developed that he had made it, do-it-yourself fashion, to be economical--and seemed more intent on holding it down than to rest his hand.
"Gimp... Frank..." he began nervously. "You helped Helen and me to get married and get set up out here. The Archeological Institute paid our way to Pallastown. But there were other expenses... Her--my father-in-law, died by his own hand while still awaiting trial... Everything he owned is still tied up... Now, well--you know human biology... I hope you can wait a little longer for us to begin paying back your loan..."
Nelsen had a vagrant thought about how money now had to stand on its own commercial value, rather than rely on the ancient witchcraft of a gold standard. Then he almost suspected that Lester was being devious and clever. But he knew the guy too well.
"Cripes, Les!" he burst out almost angrily. "How about your services, just now, as an archeological consultant? If you won't consider that we might have meant to make you a gift. Pretty soon you'll have us completely confused!"
"What a topic for an evening of fun," Gimp complained. "Hey, Helen--can I mix the drinks?"
"Yes--of course, Mr. Hines. I'll get you the things," she said with apology in her eyes and voice, as if fussy celebrities had descended on her small, unsettled, and poor household.
"On the Moon you were a swell cook, Helen," Frank reminded her.
She flashed a small smile. "It was different, there. Things weighed something, and stayed in place. Here--just breathe hard and you have a kitchen accident. Besides, I had a garden. We'd like one here, but there's no room... And in the market..."
"Shucks--it's new here to us, too," Ramos soothed. "Riding an Archer in space, at zero-G, is different from this..."
Things were a bit less strained, after that, through the skimpy meal, with its special devices, unique to the asteroids and their tiny gravity. Clamps to fasten plates to tables and victuals to plates. Drinking vessels that were half-squeeze bottles. Such equipment was now available in what might once have been called a dime store--but with another price-level.
The visitors made a game of being awkward and inept, together. It was balm for Helen's sensitivity.
"Somebody's got to keep the camera for us, Mex," Frank Nelsen said presently.
"Yeah--I know. Les'll do it for us," Ramos answered. "He's the best, there. He can run through all the pictures--make copies with an ordinary camera... See if he can market them. Twenty percent ought to be about right for his cut."
Lester tried to interrupt, but Frank got ahead of him. "We owe Gimp for those loads we lost. Got to cut him into this, as a consultant. You'll be around Pallastown for a while, helping out with this end of the Twin's enterprises, won't you, Gimp?"
Hines grinned. "Probably. Glad you slobs got memories. Glad to be of assistance, anytime. Les is no louse--he'll help old friends. I'll bring him the camera, out of the safe at my hotel, as soon as we leave here..."
Lester smiled doubtfully, and then happily. That was how they worked the fabulous generosity of spacemen in the chips on him.
Nelsen, Ramos and Hines escaped soon after that.
"Three hours left. I guess you guys want to get lost--separately," Gimp chuckled. "I'll say so long at the launching catapults, later. I've got some tough guards, fresh from the Moon, who will go along with you. Art and Joe need them..."
Frank Nelsen wandered alone in the recreation area. He heard music--Fire Streak, Queen of Serene... He searched faces, looking for an ugly one with shovel teeth. He thought, with an achy wistfulness, of a small hero-worshipping girl named Jennie Harper, at Serene.
He found no one he had ever seen before. In a joint he watched a girl with almost no clothes, do an incredible number of spinning somersaults in mid-air. He thought he ought to find himself a friend--then decided perversely, to hell with it.
He thought of the trouble on Earth, of Ceres, of Tiflin and Igor, of Fanshaw, the latest leader of the Asteroid Belt toughs--the Jolly Lads--that you heard about. He thought about how terribly vulnerable to attack Pallastown seemed, even with its encirclement of outriding guard stations. He thought of Paul Hendricks, Two-and-Two Baines, Charlie Reynolds, Otto Kramer, Mitch Storey, and Miss Rosalie Parks who was his old Latin teacher.
He thought of trying to beam some of them. But hell, they all seemed so long-lost, and he wasn't in the mood, now. He even thought about how it was, trying to give yourself a dry shave with a worn-out razor, inside an Archer. He thought that sometime, surely, perhaps soon, the Big Vacuum would finish him.
He wound up with a simple sentimental impulse, full of nostalgia and tenderness for things that seemed to stay steady and put. The way he felt was half-hearted apology for human moods in which murder would have been easy. He even had a strange envy for David Lester.
Into the synthetic cellulose lining of a small carton bought at a souvenir shop, he placed the sixty million-year old golden band with its odd arabesques and its glinting chips of mineral. Regardless of its mysterious intentional function, it could be a bracelet. To him, just then, it was only a trinket that he had picked up.
Before he wrapped and addressed the package, he put a note inside: "Hi, Nance Codiss! Thinking about you and all the neighbors. This might reach you by Christmas. Remember me? Frank Nelsen."
Postage was two hundred dollars, which seemed a trifle. And he didn't quite realize how like a king's ransom a gift like this would seem in Jarviston, Minnesota.
On leaving the post office, he promptly forgot the whole matter, as hard, practical concerns took hold of him, again.
At the loading quays, special catapults hurled the gigantic bales of supplies clear of Pallas. To the Kuzaks, this shipment would now have seemed small, but it was much larger than the loads Ramos and Nelsen had handled before. Gimp and Lester saw them off. Then they were in space, with extra ionics pushing the bales. The guard of six new men was posted. Nelsen wasn't sure that they'd be any good, or whether he could trust them all, but they looked eagerly alert. Riding a mile off was the Space Force patrol bubb.
All through the long journey--beam calls ahead were avoided for added safety--Nelsen kept wondering if he'd find the post in ruins, with what was left of Art and Joe drifting and drying. But nothing like that happened yet, and the shipment was brought through. Business with the asteroid-hoppers was started at once.
When there was a lull, Art Kuzak talked expansively in his office bubb: "Good work, Frank. Same to you, Ramos--except that I know you're itching with your own ideas, and probably won't be around long. Which is your affair... Never mind what anybody says about Venus, or any other place. The Belt, with its history, its metals, and its possibilities, is the best part of the solar system. Keep your defenses up, your line of communication covered, and you can't help but make money. There are new posts to set up, help to recruit and bring out, stellene plants and other factories to construct. There'll be garden bubbs, repair shops--everything. Time, work, and a little luck will do it. You listening, Frank?"
Nelsen got a bit cagy with Art, again. "Okay, Art--you seem like a formal fella. Mex and I joined up and helped out pretty much as informal company members. But as long as we've put in our dough, let's make it official, in writing and signed. The KRNH Enterprises--Kuzak, Ramos, Nelsen and Hines. The 'H' could also stand for Hendricks--Paul Hendricks."
"I like it that way, you suspicious slob," Art Kuzak chuckled.
So another phase began for Nelsen. Offices bored him. Amassing money, per se, meant little to him, except as a success symbol that came out of the life he had known. He figured that a man ought to be a success, even a rough-and-tumble romantic like Ramos, or Joe Kuzak. Or himself, with both distance and home engrained confusingly into his nature.
One thing that Nelsen was, was conscientious. He could choose and stick to a purpose for even longer than it seemed right for him.
Mostly, now, during the long grind of expansion, he was afield. Disturbances on Earth quieted for a while, as had always happened, so far. The Belt responded with relative peace. Tovie Ceres, the Big Asteroid, which, like the others, should have been open to all nations, but wasn't, kept mostly to its own affairs. There were only the constant dangers, natural, human, and a combination. There was always a job--a convoy to meet, a load of supplies to rush to a distant point, Jolly Lads to scare off. Reckless Ramos might be with Nelsen, or Joe Kuzak who usually operated separately, or a few guards, or several asteroid-hoppers, most of whom were tough and steady and good friends to know. Often enough, Nelsen was alone.
At first, KRNH just handled the usual supplies. But when factory and hydroponic equipment began to arrive, Joe Kuzak and Frank Nelsen might be out establishing a new post. There'd be green help, bubbing out from the Moon, to break in. Nelsen would see new faces that still seemed familiar, because they were like those of the old Bunch, as it had been. Grim, scared young men, full of wonder. But the thin stream of the adventurous was thickening, as more opportunities opened. Occasionally there was a young couple. Oh, no, you thought. Then--well, maybe. That is, if somebody didn't crack up, or get lymph node swellings that wouldn't reduce, and if you didn't have to try to play nursemaid.
Now and then Nelsen was in Pallastown--for business, for relief, for a bit of hell-raising; to see Gimp and the David Lesters. Pretty soon there was an heir in the Lester household. Red, healthy, and male. Cripes--Out Here, too? Okay--josh the parents along. The most wonderful boy in the solar system! Otherwise, matters, there, were much better than before. The camera was in a museum in Washington. The pictures it had contained were on TV, back home. Just another anti-war film, maybe. But impressive, and different. The earnings didn't change Nelsen's life much, nor Gimp's, nor Ramos'. But it sure helped the Lesters.
David Lester had resigned from Archeological Survey. He was getting actually sharp. He was doing independent research, and was setting up his own business in Belt antiques.
Frank Nelsen had another reason for coming to Pallastown. Afield, you avoided beam communication, nowadays, whenever you could. Someone might trace your beam to its source, and jump you for whatever you had. But Gimp Hines could tell Nelsen about the absent Bunch members and the old friends, while they both sat in the little KRNH office in Town.
"... Paul Hendricks is still the same, Frank. New bunch around him... Too bad we can't call him, now--because the Earth is on the far side of the sun. Mitch Storey just vanished into the Martian thickets, during one of his jaunts. Almost a year ago, now... I didn't see him when I stopped over on Mars, but he was back at the Station once, after that. Take it easy, Frank. They've looked with helicopters, and even on the ground; you couldn't do any more. I'll keep in touch, to see if anything turns up..."
After a minute, Nelsen relaxed, slightly. "Two-and-Two? I guess he's okay--with Charlie Reynolds looking after him?"
"Peculiar about Charlie," Gimp answered, looking awed and puzzled. "Got the news from old J. John, his granddad, when he acknowledged the receipt of our latest draft, by letter. Hold your hat. Charlie got himself killed... I'll dig the letter out of the file."
Nelsen sat up very straight. "Never mind," he said. "Just tell me more. Anything can happen."
"Our most promising member," Gimp mused. "He didn't get much. The Venus Expedition had to move some heavy equipment to the top of a mountain, to make some electrostatic tests before a storm. Charlie had just climbed down from the helicopter. A common old lightning bolt hit him. Somebody played Fire Streak on the bagpipes--inside a sealed tent--while they buried him. Otherwise, he didn't even get a proper spaceman's funeral. Venus' escape velocity is almost as high as Earth's. Boosting a corpse up into orbit, just for atmospheric cremation, would have been too much of a waste for the Expedition's rigid economy."
Nelsen had never really been very close to Charlie Reynolds, though he had liked the flamboyant Good Guy. Now, it was all a long ways back, besides. Nelsen didn't feel exactly grief. Just an almost mystical bitterness, a shock and an uncertainty, as if he could depend on nothing.
"So what about Two-and-Two?" he growled, remembering how he used to avoid any responsibility for the big, good-hearted lug; but now he felt surer about himself, and things seemed different.
"I guess the Expedition medic had to straighten him out with devil-killers," Hines answered. "He bubbed all the way back to Earth, alone, to see J. John about Charlie. I beamed him, there, before the Earth hid behind the sun. He was still pretty shaken up. Funny, too--Charlie's opportunity-laden Venus has turned out to be a bust, for two centuries, at least, unless new methods, which aren't in sight, yet, turn up. Sure--at staggering expense, and with efforts on the order of fantasy, reaction motors could be set up around its equator, to make it spin as fast as the Earth. Specially developed green algae have already been seeded all over the planet. They're rugged, they spread fast. But it will take the algae about two hundred years to split the carbon dioxide and give the atmosphere a breathable amount of free oxygen, to say nothing of cracking the poisonous formaldehyde."