"Two-and-Two's back in Jarviston, then?" Nelsen demanded.
"No--not anymore--just gimme breath," Hines went on. "He and Charlie had figured another destination of opportunity--Mercury, the planet nearest the sun, everlasting frozen night on one side, eternal, zinc-melting sunshine on the other. But there's the fringe zone between the two--the Twilight Zone. If you can live under stellene, you've got a better place there than Mars might have been. Colonists are going there, to quit the Earth, to get away from it all. Two-and-Two was about to leave for Mercury, when I last spoke to him. By now he's probably almost there. And even under the most favorable conditions, Mercury is hard to beam--too much solar magnetic interference."
"That poor sap," Nelsen gruffed.
"It probably isn't that bad, anymore," Hines commented. "Sometime I might go to Mercury, myself--when I get good and sick of sitting on my tail, here--when I always was a man of action! Mercury does have possibilities--plenty of solar power, certainly; plenty of frozen atmosphere on the dark face. Interesting, Frank... Oh, hell, I forgot--there's a letter here for you. And a package. Just arrived... I'll scram, now. Got to go down to the quays. Hold the fort, here, will you?"
Gimp Hines grinned as he left.
Nelsen was glad to be alone. The lonesomeness of the Big Vacuum was getting grimed into him. When he saw the return name and address on the package, and the two hundred-ten dollar postage sticker, he thought, Cripes--that poor kid--what did I start? Then the awful wave of nostalgia for Jarviston, Minnesota, hit him, as he fumbled to open the microfilmed letter capsule, and put it in the viewer.
"Hello, Frank--it has to be that, doesn't it, and not Mr. Nelsen, since you've sent me this miraculous bracelet--which I don't dare wear very much, since I don't want to lose an arm to some international--or even interstellar--jewel thief! It makes me feel like the Queen of Something--certainly not Serene, since it implies calmness and repose, which I certainly don't feel--no offense to our Miss Sands, whom I admire enormously. In a very small way I am repaying to you in kind--an item which I made, myself, and which I know that some spacemen use inside their Archers. You see, we are all informed in details. Paul, Otto, Chippie Potter and his dog, and other characters whom you won't remember, send their best greetings. Oh, I've got Stardust fever, too, but I'll yield to my folks' wishes and wait, and learn a profession that will be of some use Out There. May you wear what I'm sending in good health, safety and fortune. Send no more staggering gifts, please--I couldn't stand it--but please do write. Tell me how it really is in the Belt. You simply don't realize how much--"
Nance Codiss' missive rattled along, and the scrawled words got to be like small, happy bells inside Nelsen's skull. His crooked grin came out; he unpacked the sweater--creylon wool, very warm, bright red, a bit crude in workmanship here and there--but imagine a girl bothering, these days! He donned the garment and decided it fit fine.
Then he tried to write a letter: "Hi, Nance! I've just put it on--first time--beautiful! It'll stay right with me. Thanks. Talk about being staggered..."
There he bogged down, some, wondering how much she had changed, wondering just what he ought to say to her, and who these characters that he wouldn't remember, might be. Cripes, how old was she, now? Seventeen? He ended up taking her at her word. He described Pallastown rather heavy-handedly, and bought some microfilm postcards to go along with his missive, as soon as he went out to mail it.
But a few hours later, from deep in space, he looked back at the Town, shining in the distance, and in the blue mood of thinking about Charlie Reynolds, Mitch Storey, and Two-and-Two, he wondered how much longer it, or Nance, or anything else, could last. Then he glanced down at the bright sweater, and chuckled...
Unexpectedly, Ramos remained an active member of KRNH Enterprises for over a year. But the end had to come. "I told Art I'd let my dough ride, Frank," he said to Nelsen in the lounge of Post One. "I'll only draw enough earnings to build me a real, deep-space bubb, nuclear-propelled, and with certain extra gadgets. A few guys have tried to follow the unmanned, instrumented rockets, out to the system of Saturn. Nobody got back, yet. I think I know what they figured wrong. The instruments showed--well, skip it... I'm going into Town to prepare. It'll take quite a while, so I'll have some fun, too."
Ramos' eyes twinkled with a secret triumph--before the fact.
"You don't argue a fighting rooster out of fighting," Nelsen laughed. "Besides, it wouldn't be Destiny--or any fun--to succeed. So accept the complimentary comparison--if it fits--which maybe it doesn't, you egotistical bonehead. Good luck--buena suerte, amigo. I'll look you up in Town, if I get a chance..."
Nelsen was always busy to the gills. Progress was so smooth for another couple of years, that the hunch of Big Trouble building up, became a gnawing certainty in his nerves.
Of course there were always the Jolly Lads to watch out for--the extreme individualists, space-twisted and wild. Robbing and murdering could seem easier than digging. Take your loot into Pallastown--who knew you hadn't grubbed it, yourself? Sell it. Get the stink blown off you--forget some terrible things that had happened to you. Have yourself a time. Strike Out again. Repeat...
Nelsen knew that, through the months, he had killed defensively at least twice. Once, with a long-range homing bullet--weapons sanctioned by pious and cautious international agreement, were more lethal, now, to match the weapons of the predatory. Once by splitting a helmet with a rifle barrel. When he was out alone, exploring a new post site on a small asteroid, a starved Tovie runaway had jumped him. Maybe he should regret the end of that incident.
Trips to Pallastown were increasingly infrequent. But there was one time when he almost had come specially to see Ramos' new bubb, still under wraps, supposedly. Well--that erratic character had it out on a long test run. Damn him! As usual, time was crowding Nelsen. He had to get back on the job. He had just a couple of hours left.
He wrote a letter to Nance Codiss, answering one of hers--funny, he'd never yet tried to contact her vocally. Being busy, being cautious about using a beam--these were good reasons. Now there was hardly enough spare time to reach twice across the light-minutes. Maybe the real truth was that men got strangely shy in the silences of the Belt.
"Dear Nance: You seem to be making fine headway in your new courses. All the good words, for that..."
There were plenty of good words, but he didn't put many of them down. He didn't know if the impulse to write Darling, was just his own loneliness, which any girl with a kind word would have filled. He didn't know her, or that part of himself, very well. He kept remembering her as she had been. Then he'd realize that memory wasn't a stable thing to hang onto. Everything changed--how well he had learned that! She was older, now, intelligent, and at school again, studying some kind of medical laboratory technology. Certainly she had become more sophisticated and elusive--her gay letters were just a superficial part of what she must be. And certainly there were dates and boyfriends, and all the usual phases of getting out of step with a mere recollection, like himself. Nelsen had some achy emotions. Should he ask for her picture? Should he send one of himself?
He just scribbled on, ramblingly, as usual. Yep, in a new Archer Seven, you could undo a few clamps, pull a foot up out of a boot, and actually change your socks... Inconsequential nonsense like that. He ended by telling her not to worry about any knicknacks he might send--that they came easy, out here. He microposted the letter, and mailed a square of soft glass-silk of many colors.
Then he pronounced a few cuss words, laughed at himself for getting so serious, shrugged, and with the casualness of hopper with his pockets loaded, moved toward the rec area, which was some distance off.
It was night over this part of rapidly growing Pallastown. Moving along a lighted causeway, he saw the man with the shovel teeth. Glory, had he managed to survive so long? His mere presence, here, seemed like a signal of the end of peace. Nelsen and Ramos used to practice close-contact tactics at zero-G, in space. So Nelsen didn't even wait for the man to notice him. He leaped, and sped like an arrow, thudding into the guy's stomach with both of his boot heels. Shovel Teeth was hurled fifty yards backward, Nelsen hurtling with him all the way. Unless Nelsen wanted to kill him, there wasn't any more to do. Partial revenge.
He wasn't worried about anybody except the guy's Jolly Lad henchmen. There was nobody close by. Now he did a quick fade, sure that nobody had seen who he was, during the entire episode. No use to call the cops--there were too many uncertainties about the setup in wild, polyglot Pallastown. Nelsen moved on to the rec area.
He didn't go into a garishly splendid place, named The Second Stop. Thus, he didn't see its owner, whose identity he had already heard about, of course. Not that he wouldn't have liked to. But there wasn't any time to get involved in a long chat with a woman... Nor did he see the tall, skinny, horse-faced comic, known only as Igor, go through slapstick acrobatics that once would have been impossible...
By a round-about route he proceeded to the catapults, where Gimp Hines was waiting for him. They had been conversing just a short while ago.
"Did you drop in on Eileen?" Gimp asked right away.
"No. There'll be other occasions," Nelsen laughed. "Someday, if we live, she'll own all the joints in the solar system."
"Uh-huh--I'd bet on it... By the way, there's a grapevine yarn around. Somebody kicked Fanshaw--the Jolly Lad big-shot--in the belly. You, perhaps?"
"Don't listen to gossip," Nelsen said primly. "Are you serious about going to Mercury?"
"Of course. There are people to take over my office duties. I'll be on my way in a couple of weeks. I think you'd like to come along, Frank."
Nelsen felt an urge that was like a crying for freedom.
"Sure I would. But I'm bound to the wheel. Cripes, though--watch yourself, fella. Don't you get into a mess!"
"Hell--you're the mess specialist, Frank. Fanshaw isn't here for fun. And there's been that new trouble at home..."
A Tovie bubb, loaded with people, and a Stateside bubb, both in orbit around the Earth, had collided. No survivors. But there was plenty of blaming and counter-blaming. Another dangerous incident. Glory--with all the massed destructive power there was, could luck really last forever?
Frank Nelsen got back to Post One, okay. But later, riding in to Post Three, just in an Archer Six, with a couple of guards for company, he picked up a long-lost voice, falsely sweet, then savage at the end: "I'm a Jinx, aren't I, Frankie? A vulture. Nice and cavalier, you are. I bet you hoped I was dead. Okay--Sucker...!"
Tiflin didn't even answer when Nelsen tried to beam him.
Nelsen was able to save Post Three. The guards and most of the personnel were experienced and tough. They drove the Jolly Lads back and deflected some chunks of aimed and accelerated asteroid chips, with new defense rockets.
Joe Kuzak, at Post Seven, wasn't so lucky, though Frank had tipped him off. Half of the post was scattered and pirated. Six fellas and the wife of one of them--a Bunch from Baltimore--were just drying shreds that drifted in the wreckage. Big Joe, though he had a rocket chip through his chest, had been able to beat off the attackers, with the help of a few asteroid-hoppers and his novice crew which turned out to be more rugged than some people might have expected.
Frank got to them just as it was over--except for the cursing, the masculine tears of grief and rage, the promises of revenge. Luckily, none of the women had been captured.
Joe Kuzak, full of new antibiotics and coagulants, was still up and around. "So we knocked off a few of them, Frank," he said ruefully in his office bubb. "Several were in Tovie armor. Runaways, or agents? They're crowding us, boy. Hell, what a junk heap this post is going to be, to sort out..."
"Get to it," Nelsen commented.
"You've got something in mind?"
"Uh-huh. Coming in, I heard somebody address somebody else as Fan. Fanshaw, that would be. And I kind of remembered his voice, as he cracked out orders. He was with this group. I'm going after him."
"Good night...! I'll send some of my crowd along."
"Nope, Joe. They'd spot two or more guys. One, they won't even believe in. This is a lone-wolf deal. Besides, it's personal... Shucks--I don't even think there's a risk..."
There, he knew he exaggerated--especially as, huddled up to resemble a small asteroid-fragment, he followed the retreating specks. His only weapon was a rapid-fire launcher, using small rockets loaded only with chemical explosive. He felt a tingle all through him. Scare, all right.
Ahead, as he expected, he saw three stolen bubbs blossom out. There'd be a real pirates' party, like he'd seen, once. They'd have a lookout posted, of course. But the enormity of the Belt made them cocky. Who could ever really police very much of it? One other advantage was that Jolly Lads were untidy. Around the distant bubbs floated a haze of jettisoned refuse. Boxes, wrappings, shreds of stellene. Nelsen had figured on that.
Decelerating, he draped a sheet of synthetic cellulose that he'd brought along, loosely over his armored shape. Then he drifted unobtrusively close. At a half-mile distance, he peered through the telescope sight of his launcher. The bubbs were close together. The lookout floated free. Him, he got first, with a careful, homing shot.
Immediately he fired a burst into each bubb, saw them collapse around their human contents. The men inside were like cats in limp bags, the exits of which could no longer be found. Calmly he picked the biggest lumps of struggling forms, and fired again and again, until there was no more motion left except an even rotation.
He soon located Fanshaw. His unarmored body was bloated and drying, his mouth gaped, his shovel teeth were exposed to the stars and the distant, naked sun. Nelsen had to think back to six dead young men and a girl, to keep from feeling lousy. Had Fanshaw been just another guy invading a region that was too big and terrible for humans?
With something like dread, Nelsen looked for Tiflin, too. But, of course, that worthy wasn't around.
Nelsen picked up some space-fitness cards. Quite a few nations were represented. Joe would have to turn in the cards to the respective authorities. Noting its drift course, Nelsen left the wreckage, and hurried back to Post Seven, before other Jolly Lads could catch up and avenge their pals.
"Fanshaw's groups will fight it out for a new leader, Joe," he said. "That should keep them busy, for a while..."
Succeeding months were quieter. But the Tovies had lost no advantage. They had Ceres, the biggest of the asteroids, and their colonies were moving in on more and more others that were still untouched, closing them, against all agreements, to any competition.
The new Archer Seven which Nelsen presently acquired, had a miniature TV screen set in its collar. Afield, he was able to pick up propaganda broadcasts from Ceres. They showed neat, orderly quarters, good food, good facilities, everything done by command and plan. He wondered glumly if that was better for men who were pitted against space. The rigid discipline sheltered them. They didn't have to think in a medium that might be too huge for their brains and emotions. Maybe it was more practical than rough-and-tumble individualism. He had a bitter picture of the whole solar system without a free mind in its whole extent--that is, if another gigantic blowup didn't happen first...
Nelsen didn't see Ramos' new bubb, nor did he see him leave for Saturn and its moons. The guy had avoided him, and gone secretive. But over a year later, the news reached Nelsen at Post Eight. A man named Miguel Ramos had got back, more dead than alive, after a successful venture, alone, to the immediate vicinity of the Ringed Planet. His vehicle was riddled. He was in a Pallastown hospital.
Frank Nelsen delegated his duties, and went to see Ramos. The guy seemed hardly more than half-conscious. He had no hands left. His legs were off at the knee. Frostbite. Only the new antibiotics he had taken along, had kept the gangrene from killing him. There was a light safety belt across his bed. But somehow he knew Nelsen. And his achievement seemed like a mechanical record fixed in his mind.
"Hi, Frank," he whispered hurriedly. "I figured it right. Out there, near Saturn, clusters of particles of frozen methane gas are floating free like tiny meteors. The instrumented rockets didn't run into them, and they were too light to show clearly on radar. But a bubb with a man in it is lots bigger, and can be hit and made like a sieve. That's what happened to those who went first. Their Archers were pierced too. I had mine specially armored, with a heavy helmet and body plating... The particles just got my gloves and my legs. Cripes, I got pictures--right from the rim of the Rings! And lots of data..."
Ramos showed the shadow of a reckless grin of triumph. Then he passed out.
Later, Nelsen saw the photographs, and the refrigerated box with the clear, plastic sides. Inside it was what looked like dirty, granular snow--frozen water. Which was all it was. Unless the fact that it was also the substance of Saturn's Rings made a difference.
Saturn--another of the great, cold, largely gaseous planets, where it would perhaps always be utterly futile for a man to try to land... Ramos, the little Mex who chased the girls. Ramos, the hero, the historical figure, now...
Cursing under his breath, Nelsen wandered vaguely to The Second Stop. There, he saw what probably every spaceman had dreamed of. Lucette of Paris swimming nude in a gigantic dewdrop--possible where gravity was almost nil. Music played. Beams of colored light swung majestically, with prismatic effects through the great, flattened, shimmering ovoid of water, while Lucette's motions completed a beautiful legend...
Two figures moved past Nelsen in the darkened interior. The first one was tall and lean. Then he saw the profile of a lean face with a bent nose, heard a mockingly apologetic "Oh-oh..." and didn't quite realize that this was Tiflin, the harbinger of misfortune, before it was too late to collar him. Nelsen followed as soon as he could push his way from the packed house. But pursuit was hopeless in the crowded causeway outside.
A few minutes later, he was in Eileen Sands' apartment. It was not his first visit. Eileen seldom danced or sang, anymore, herself. She was different, now. She wore an evening dress--soft blue, tasteful. Here, she was the cool, poised owner, the lady.
"Tiflin hasn't been around here for a long time, Frank," she was saying. "You know that his buddy entertained for me for a while. I have an interested nature, but Tiflin never gave me anything but wisecracks. There are lots of Tovies around--there's even a center for runaways. I don't ask questions of customers usually. And technically, all I can require of a comic is talent. This Igor had a certain kind. What is the difficulty now?"
Frank Nelsen looked at Eileen almost wearily for a second. "Just that Tiflin is somehow involved with most of the bad luck that I've ever had out here," he said, grimly. "And if Pallastown were destroyed, everybody but the Tovies might as well go home from the Belt. The timing seems to me to be about right. They'd risk it, feeling we're too scared to strike back at home. The Jolly Lads--who are international--could be encouraged to do the job for them."
Sudden hollows showed in Eileen's cheeks. "What are you going to do?" she asked.
"Nothing much for me to do," he answered. "I only happened to notice, while I was coming in to Pallas, that all the guard stations, extending way out, were quietly very alert. But is that enough? Well, if they can't cope with an attack, what good am I? We're vulnerable, here. I guess we just sit tight and wait."
She smiled faintly. "All right--let's. Sit, relax, converse. Stop being the Important Personage for a while, Frank."
"Look who's talking. Okay--what do you know that's new to tell?"
"A few things. I keep track of most everybody."
He took her slender hand, brown in his angular fist, that was pale from his space gloves. "Gimp, first," he said.
"Still on Mercury, with Two-and-Two. Two-and-Two was a bricklayer, a good beginning for a construction man. That seems to be paying off, as colonists move in. Gimp is setting up solar power stations."
"Encouraging information, for once. Here's a hard one--Jig Hollis. The real intelligent man who stayed home. I've envied him for years."
"Hmmm--yes, Frank. Intelligent, maybe--but he never quite believed it, himself. His wife stayed with him, even after he turned real sour and reckless. One night he hit a big oak tree with his car. Now, he is just as dead as if he had crashed into the sun at fifty miles per second. He couldn't take knowing that he was scared to do what he wanted."
"Hell!" Nelsen said flatly.
"Now who else should I gossip about?" Eileen questioned. "Oh, yes--Harv Diamond, hero of our lost youth, who got space fatigue. Well, he recovered and returned to active duty in the U.S.S.F. Which perhaps leaves me with just my own love life to confess." She smiled lightly. "Once there was a kid named Frankie Nelsen, who turned out to be a very conscientious jerk. Since then, there have been scads of rugged, romantic characters on all sides... You're going to ask about Miguel Ramos."
She paused, looked unhappy and tired. "The celebrity," she said. "Mashed up. But he'll recover--this time. I've seen him--sent him flowers, sat beside him. But what do you do with a clown like that? Lock him in the closet or look at him through a telescope? Goodbye--hello--goodbye. A kid with gaudy banners flying, if he lives to be forty--which he never will. They'll be giving him artificial hands and feet, and he'll be trying for Pluto. A friend. I guess I'm proud. That's all. Anything else you want to know?"
"Yeah. There was a cute little girl at Serene."
"Jennie Harper. She married one of those singing Moon prospectors. Somebody murdered them both--way out on Far Side."
Frank Nelsen's mouth twisted. "That's enough, pal," he said. "I better go do my sitting tight someplace else. Keep your Archer handy. Thanks, and see you..."
Within forty minutes David Lester was showing him some pictures that a hopper had brought in from a vault in a surface-asteroid.
On the screen, great, mottled shapes moved through a lush forest. Thousands of tiny, flitting bat-like creatures--miniature pterodactyls of the terrestrial Age of Reptiles--hovered over a swamp, where millions of insects hung like motes in the light of the low sun. A much larger pterodactyl, far above, glided gracefully over a cliff, and out to sea, its long, beaked head turning watchfully.
"Hey!" Nelsen said mildly, as his jaded mind responded.
Lester nodded. "They were on Earth, too--as the Martians must have been--exploring and taking pictures, during the Cretaceous Period. Oh, but there's a perhaps even better sequence! Like the Martians, they had a world-wrecking missile, which they were building in space. Spherical. About six miles in diameter, I calculate. Shall I show you?"
"No... I think I'll toddle over to the offices, Les. Keep wearing those Archers, people. Glad the kid likes to play in his..."
Nelsen had donned his own Seven, with the helmet fastened across his chest by a strap. At the KRNH office, there was a letter, which luckily hadn't been sent out to Post Eight. The tone was more serious than that of any that Nance Codiss had sent before.
"Dear Frank: I'm actually coming your way. I'll be stopping to work at the Survey Station Hospital on Mars for two months en route..."
He read that far when he heard the sirens and saw the flashes of defending batteries that were trying to ward off missiles from Pallastown. He latched his helmet in place. He was headed for the underground galleries when the first impacts came. He saw four domes vanish in flashes of fire. Then he didn't run anymore. He had his small rocket launcher, from the office. If they ever came close enough... But of course they'd stay thousands of miles off. He got to the nearest fallen dome as fast as he could. Everybody had been in armor, but there were over a hundred dead. Emergency and rescue crews were operating efficiently.
He glanced around for indications. No explosive, chemical or nuclear, had yet been used. But there was the old Jolly Lad trick: Accelerate a chunk of asteroid-material to a speed of several miles per second by grasping it with your gloved hands, while the shoulder-ionic of your armor was at full power. Start at a great distance, aim your missile with your body, let it go... Impact would be sheer, blasting incandescence. A few hundred chunks of raw metal could finish Pallastown... Were these just crazy, wild slobs whooping it up, or real crud provided with a purpose and reward? Either way, here was the eternal danger to any Belt settlement.
Nelsen could have tried to reach an escape-exit into open space, but he helped with the injured while he waited for more impacts to come. There was another series of deflecting flashes from the defense batteries. Two more domes vanished... Then--somehow--nothing more. Evidently some of the attackers had been only half hearted, this time. Reprieve...
Almost four hundred people were dead. It could have been the whole Town. Then spreading disaster. All Nelsen's friends were okay. The Posts called in--okay, too. Nelsen waited three days. He wanted to help defend, if the attack was renewed. But now the U.N.S.F. was concentrating in the vicinity. For a while, things would be quiet, Out Here. Just the same, he felt kind of fed up. He felt as if the end of everything he knew had crept inevitably a little closer.
He beamed Mars--the Survey Station. He contacted Nance. He had known that she should have arrived already. He was relieved. He knew what the region between here and there could be like when there was trouble.
"It's me--Frank Nelsen--Nance," he said into his helmet-phone, as he stood beyond the outskirts of the Town, on the barren, glittering surface of Pallas. "I'm still wearing the sweater. Stay where you are. I've never been on Mars, either. But I'll be there, soon..."
His old uncertainties about talking to her evaporated now that he was doing it.
"For Pete's sake--Frank!" he heard her laugh happily, still sounding like the neighbor kid. "Gosh, it's good to hear you!"
He left for Post One, soon after that. Nowadays, it was almost a miniature of the ever more magnificent--if insecure--Pallastown. He kept thinking angrily of Art Kuzak, getting a little overstuffed, it seemed. The hunkie kid, the ex-football player who had become a big commercial and industrial baron of the Belt. Easy living. Cuties around. And poor twin Joe--just another stooge...
Nelsen went into the office, his fists clenched overdramatically. "I'm taking a leave, Art--maybe a long one," he said.