Reclining in another lawn chair beside his was Nance, her eyes closed, her face thin and pale. He was frightened--until he remembered, somehow, that she was nearly as well as he was. Beyond her was a doorway, leading into what seemed a small, modern kitchen. There was a passage to a small, neat garden, where Earthly vegetables and flowers grew. It was ceiled with stellene; its walls were solid rock. Looking up through the transparent roof above him, he saw how a thin mesh of fuzzy tendrils and whorls masked this strange Shangri-la.
Nelsen closed his eyes, and thought back. Now he remembered most of what he had been told. "Mitch!" he called quietly, so as not to awaken Nance. "Hey, Mitch...! Selma...!"
Mitch Storey was there in a moment--dressed in dungarees and work shirt like he used to be, but taller, even leaner, and unsmiling.
Nelsen got up. "Thanks, Mitch," he said.
Their voices stayed low and intense.
"For nothing, Frank. I'm damned glad to see you, but you still shouldn't have come nosing. 'Cause--I told you why. Looking for you, Huth burned out more than five square miles. And if folks get too smart and too curious, it won't be any good for what's here..."
Nelsen felt angry and exasperated. But he had a haunting thought about a lanky colored kid in Jarviston, Minnesota. A guy with a dream--or perhaps a prescient glimpse of his own future.
"What's a pal supposed to do?" he growled. "For a helluva long time you've answered nobody--though everyone in the Bunch must have tried beaming you."
"Sure, Frank... Blame, from me, would be way out of line. I heard you guys lots of times. But it was best to get lost--maybe help keep the thickets like they are for as long as possible... A while back, I began picking up your voice in my phones again. I figured you were heading for trouble when you kept coming with your girl to that same hill. So I was around, like I told you before... Sorry I had to hit you and give you the needle, but you were nuts--gone with Syrtis. Getting you back here, without Huth spotting the old heli I picked up once at a deserted settlers' camp was real tough going. I had to land, hide it and wait, four or five times. And you were both plenty sick. But there are a few medical gimmicks I learned from the thickets--better than those at the Station."
"You've done all right for yourself here, haven't you, Mitch?" Nelsen remarked with a dash of mockery. "All the modern conveniences--in the middle of the forbidden wilds of Syrtis Major."
"Sure, Frank--'cause maybe I'm selfish. Though it's just stuff the settlers left behind. Anyway, it wasn't so good at the start. I was careful, but I got the fever, too. Light. Then I fell--broke my leg--out there. I thought sure I was finished when they got hold of me. But I just lay there, playing on my mouth organ--an old hymn--inside my helmet. Maybe it was the music--they must have felt the radio impulses of my tooting before. Or else they knew, somehow, that I was on their side--that I figured they were too important just to disappear and that I meant to do anything I could, short of killing, to keep them all right... Nope, I wouldn't say that they were so friendly, but they might have thought I'd be useful--a guinea-pig to study and otherwise. For all I know, examining my body may have helped them improve their weapons... Anyhow--you won't believe this--'cause it's sort of fantastic--but you know they work best with living tissue. They fixed that leg, bound it tight with tendrils, went through the steel cloth of my Archer with hollow thorns. The bone knit almost completely in four days. And the fever broke. Then they let me go. Selma was already out looking for me. When I found her, she had the fever, too. But I guess we're immune now."
Storey's quiet voice died away.
"What are you going to do, Mitch? Just stay here for good?"
"What else--if I can? This is better than anything I remember. Peaceful, too. If they study me, I study them--not like a real scientist--but by just having them close around. I even got to know some of their buzzing talk. Maybe I'll have to be their ambassador to human folks, sometime. They are from the planets of the stars, Frank. Sirius, I think. Tough little spores can be ejected from one atmosphere, and drift in space for millions of years... They arrived after the first Martians were extinct. Now that you're here, Frank, I wish you'd stay. But that's no good. Somebody lost always makes people poke around."
Nelsen might have argued a few points. But for one thing, he felt too tired. "I'll buy it all, your way, Mitch," he said. "I hope Nance and I can get out of here in a couple more days. Maybe I shouldn't have run out on the Belt. Can't run--thoughts follow you. But now--dammit--I want to go home!"
"That's regular, Frank. 'Cause you've got Syrtis. Chronic, now--intermittent. But it'll fade. Same with your girl. Meanwhile, they won't let you go Earthside, but you'll be okay. I'll fly you out, close enough to the Station to get back, any morning before daylight, that you pick... Only, you won't tell, will you, Frank?"
"No--I promise--if you think secrecy makes any difference. Otherwise--thanks for everything... By the way--do you ever listen in on outside news?"
"Enough. Still quiet... And a fella named Miguel Ramos--with nerve-controlled clamps for hands--got a new, special bubb and took off for Pluto."
"No! Damn fool... Almost as loony as you are, Mitch."
"Less... Wake up, Nance. Dinner... Chicken--raised right here..."
That same afternoon, Frank Nelsen and Nance Codiss sat in the garden. "If I blur, just hold me tight, Frankie," she said. "Everything is still too strange to quite get a grip on--yet... But I'm not going home, Frank--not even when it is allowed. I set out--I'm sticking--I'm not turning tail. It's what people have got to do--in space more than ever..."
Even when the seizure of fever came, and the sweat gathered on her lips, and her eyes went wild, she gritted her teeth and just clung to him. She had spunk--admirable, if perhaps destructive. "Love yuh," Frank kept saying. "Love yuh, Sweetie..."
Two days later, before the frigid dawn, they saw the last of Mitch Storey and his slender, beautiful wife with her challenging brown eyes.
"Be careful that you do right for Mitch and--these folks," she warned almost commandingly as the old heli landed in the desert a few miles from the Station. "What would you do--if outsiders came blundering into your world by the hundreds, making trails, killing you with fire? At first, they didn't even fight back."
The question was ancient but valid. In spite of his experiences, Nelsen agreed with the logic and the justice. "We'll make up a story, Selma," he said solemnly.
Mitch looked anxious. "Human people will find a way, won't they, Frank?" he asked. "To win, to come to Mars and live, I mean--to change everything. Sure--some will be sympathetic. But when there's practical pressure--need--danger--economics...?"
"I don't know, Mitch," Nelsen answered in the same tone as before. "Your thickets do have a pretty good defense."
But in his heart he suspected that fierce human persistence couldn't be stopped--as long as there were humans left. Mitch and his star folk couldn't withdraw from the mainstream of competition--inherent in life--that was spreading again across the solar system. They could only stand their ground, take their fearful chances, be part of it.
One of the last things Mitch said, was, "Got any cigarettes, Frank? Selma likes one, once in a while."
"Sure. Three packs here inside my Archer. Mighty small hospitality gift, Mitch..."
After the 'copter drifted away, it seemed that a curtain drew over Nelsen's mind, blurring the whole memory. It was as though they had planned that. It was almost as though Mitch, and Selma, as he had just seen them, were just another mind-fantasy of the Heebie-Jeebie Planet, created by its present masters.
"Should we believe it?" Nance whispered.
"My cigarettes are gone," Frank told her.
At the Survey Station they got weary looks from Ed Huth. "I guess I picked a wrong man, Nelsen," he said.
"It looks as though you did, Ed," Frank replied. "I'm really sorry."
They got worse hell from a little doctor from Italy, whose name was Padetti. They were asked a lot of questions. They fibbed some, but not entirely.
"We sort of blanked out, Doctor," Nance told him. "I suppose we spent most of our time in the desert, living in our Archers. There were the usual distorted hallucinations of Syrtis Fever. A new strain, I suspect... Four months gone? Oh, no...!"
She must have had a time evading his questions for the next month, while she worked, again, in the lab. Maybe he did divine half of the truth, at last. Maybe he even was sympathetic toward the thickets that he was trying to defeat.
Nelsen wasn't allowed to touch another helicopter. During that month, between brief but violent seizures of the fever, he was employed as a maintenance mechanic.
Then the news came. There had been an emergency call from Pallastown. Rescue units were to be organized, and rocketed out in high-velocity U.N.S.F. and U.S.S.F bubbs. There had been sabotage, violence. The Town was three-quarters gone, above the surface. Planned attack or--almost worse--merely the senseless result of space-poisoned men kicking off the lid in a spree of hell-raising humor and fun?
Nelsen was bitter. But he also felt the primitive excitement--almost an eagerness. That was the savage paradox in life.
"You still have the dregs of Syrtis Fever," a recruiting physician told him. "But you know the Belt. That makes a big difference... All right--you're going..."
Nance Codiss didn't have that experience. Her lab background wasn't enough. So she was stuck, on Mars.
Nelsen had been pestering her to marry him. Now, in a corner of the crowded lounge, he tried again.
She shook her head. "You'd still have to leave me, Frank," she told him. "Because that's the way strong people have to be--when there's trouble to be met. Let's wait. Let's know a little better where we're at--please, darling. I'll be all right. Contact me when you can..."
Her tone was low and tender and unsteady. He hugged her close.
Soon, he was aboard a GO-rocket, shooting up to Phobos to join the assembling rescue team. He wondered if this was the beginning of the end...
Frank Nelsen missed the first shambles at Pallastown, of course, since even at high speed, the rescue unit with which he came did not arrive until days after the catastrophe.
There had been hardly any warning, since the first attack had sprung from the sub-levels of the city itself.
A huge tank of liquid oxygen, and another tank of inflammable synthetic hydrocarbons to be used in the manufacture of plastics, had been simultaneously ruptured by charges of explosive, together with the heavy, safety partition between them. The resulting blast and fountain of fire had jolted even the millions of tons of Pallas' mass several miles from its usual orbit.
The sack of the town had begun at once, from within, even before chunks of asteroid material, man-accelerated and--aimed, had begun to splatter blossoms of incandescence into the confusion of deflating domes and dying inhabitants. Other vandal bands had soon landed from space.
The first hours of trying to regain any sort of order, during the assault and after it was finally beaten off, must have been heroic effort almost beyond conception. Local disaster units, helped by hoppers and citizens, had done their best. Then many had turned to pursuit and revenge.
After Nelsen's arrival, his memory of the interval of acute emergency could have been broken down into a series of pictures, in which he was often active.
First, the wreckage, which he helped to pick up, like any of the others. Pallastown had been like froth on a stone, a castle on a floating, golden crag. It had been a flimsy, hastily-built mushroom city, with a beautiful, tawdry splendor that had seemed out of place, a target shining for thousands of miles.
Haw, haw...! Nelsen could almost hear the coarse laughter of the Jolly Lads, as they broke it up, robbed it, raped it--because they both sneered at its effeteness, and missed what it represented to them... Nelsen remembered very well how a man's attitudes could be warped while he struggled for mere survival in an Archer drifting in space.
Yet even as he worked with the others, to put up temporary domes and to gather the bloated dead, the hatred arose in him, and was strengthened by the fury and grief in the grim, strong faces around him. To exist where it was, Pallastown could not be as soft as it seemed. And to the hoppers--the rugged, level-headed ones who deserved the name--it had meant much, though they had visited it for only a few days of fun, now and then.
The Jolly Lads had been routed. Some must have fled chuckling and cursing almost sheepishly, like infants the magnitude of whose mischief has surpassed their intention, and has awed and frightened them, at last. They had been followed, even before the various late-coming space forces could get into action.
Nelsen overheard words that helped complete the pictures: "I'll get them... They had my wife..."
"This was planned--you know where..."
It was planned, all right. But if Ceres, the Tovie colony, had actually been the instigator, there was evidence that the scheme had gotten out of hand. The excitement of destruction had spread. Stories came back that Ceres had been attacked, too.
"I killed a man, Frank--with this pre-Asteroidal knife. He was after Helen and my son..."
This was timid David Lester talking, awed at himself, proud, but curiously ashamed. This made another picture. By luck the Lesters lived in the small above-the-surface portion of Pallastown that had not been seriously damaged.
Frank Nelsen also killed, during a trip to Post One of the KRNH Enterprises, to get more stellene and other materials to expand the temporary encampments for the survivors. He killed two fleeing men coldly and at a distance, because they did not answer his hail. The shreds of their bodies and the loot they had been carrying were scattered to drift in the vacuum, adding another picture of retribution to thousands like it.
Belt Parnay was the name of the leader whom everybody really wanted to get. Belt Parnay--another Fessler, another Fanshaw. That was a curious thing. There was another name and face; but as far as could be told, the personality was very similar. It was as if, out of the darker side of human nature, a kind of reincarnation would always take place.
They didn't get Parnay. Inevitably, considering the enormity of space, many of the despoilers of Pallastown escaped. The shrewdest, the most experienced, the most willing to shout and lead and let others do the dangerous work, had the advantage. For they also knew how to run and hide and be prudently quiet. Parnay was one of these.
Some captives were recovered. Others were found, murdered. Fortunately, Pallastown was still largely a man's city. But pursuit and revenge still went on...
Post One was intact. Art Kuzak had surrounded it with a cordon of tough and angry asteroid-hoppers. It was the same with the other posts, except Five and Nine, which were wiped out.
"Back at last, eh, Nelsen?" Art roared angrily, as soon as Frank had entered his office.
"A fact we should accept, not discuss," Nelsen responded dryly. "You know the things we need."
"Um-hmm--Nelsen. To rescue and restore Pallastown--when it's pure nonsense, only inviting another assault! When we know that dispersal is the only answer. The way things are, everywhere, the whole damned human race needs to be dispersed--if some of it is to survive!"
It made another picture--Art Kuzak, the old friend, gone somewhat too big for his oversized britches, perhaps... No doubt Art had had to put aside some grandiose visions, considering the turn that events had taken: Whole asteroids moved across the distance, and put into orbit around the Earth, so that their mineral wealth could be extracted more conveniently. Space resorts established for tourists; new sports made possible by zero-gravity, invented and advertised. Art Kuzak had the gift of both big dreaming and of practice. He'd talked of such things, before.
Nelsen's smirk was wry. "Dispersal for survival. I agree," he said. "When they tried to settle Mars, it was being mentioned. Also, long before that. Your wisdom is not new, Art. It wasn't followed perhaps because people are herding animals by instinct. Anyhow, our side has to hold what it has really got--one-fourth of Pallastown above the surface, and considerably more underground, including shops, installations, and seventy per cent of its skilled inhabitants, determined to stay in the Belt after the others were killed or wounded, or ran away. Unless you've quit claiming to be a practical man, Art, you'll have to go along with helping them. You know what kind of materials and equipment are needed, and how much we can supply, better than I do. Or do I have to withdraw my fraction of the company in goods? We'll take up the dispersal problem as soon as possible."
Art Kuzak could only sigh heavily, grin a lopsided grin, and produce. Soon a great caravan of stuff was on the move.
There was another picture: Eileen Sands, the old Queen of Serene in a not-yet-forgotten song, sitting on a lump of yellow alloy splashed up from the surface of Pallas, where a chunk of mixed metal and stone had struck at a speed of several miles per second, fusing the native alloy and destroying her splendid Second Stop utterly in a flash of incandescence. Back in Archer, she looked almost as she used to look at Hendricks'. Her smile was rueful.
"Shucks, I'm all right, Frank," she said. "Even if Insurance, with so many disaster-claims, can't pay me--which they probably still can. The boys'll keep needing entertainment, if it's only in a stellene space tent. They won't let me just sit... For two bits, though, I'd move into a nice, safe orbit, out of the Belt and on the other side of the sun from the Earth, and build myself a retreat and retire. I'd become a spacewoman, like I wanted to, in the first place."
"I'll bet," Nelsen joshed. "Otherwise, what have you heard and seen? There's a certain fella..."
Right away, she thought he meant Ramos. "The damfool--why ask me, Frank?" she sniffed, her expression sour and sad. "How long has he been gone again, now? As usual he was proposing--for the first few days after he set out. After that, there were a few chirps of messages. Then practically nothing. Anyway, how long does it take to get way out to Pluto and back, even if a whole man can have the luck to make it. And is there much more than half of him left...? For two bits I'd--ah--skip it!"
Nelsen smiled with half of his mouth. "I wanted to know about Ramos, too, Eileen. Thanks. But I was talking about Tiflin."
"Umhmm--you're right. He and Pal Igor were both around at my place about an hour before we were hit. I called him something worse than a bad omen. He was edgy--almost like he used to be. He said that, one of these days--be cavalier--I was going to get mine. He and Igor eeled away before my customers could break their necks."
Nelsen showed his teeth. "Thanks again. I wondered," he said.
He stayed in Pallastown until, however patched it looked, it was functioning as the center of the free if rough-and-tumble part of the Belt once more--though he didn't know for how long this would be true. Order of one kind had been fairly restored. But out of the disaster, and something very similar on Ceres, the thing that had always been most feared had sprung. It was the fact of opposed organized might in close proximity in the region between Pallas and Ceres. Again there was blaming and counter-blaming, about incidents the exact sources of which never became clear. What each of the space forces, patrolling opposite each other, had in the way of weapons, was of course no public matter, either; but how do you rate two inconceivables? Nor did the threat stay out in the vastness between the planets.
From Earth came the news of a gigantic, incandescent bubble, rising from the floor of the Pacific Ocean, and spreading in almost radioactivity-free waves and ripples, disrupting penned-in areas of food-producing sea, and lapping at last at far shores. Both sides disclaimed responsibility for the blast.
Everybody insisted hopefully that this latest danger would die down, too. Statesmen would talk, official tempers would be calmed, some new working arrangements would be made. But meanwhile, the old Sword of Damocles hung by a thinner hair than ever before. One trigger-happy individual might snap it for good. If not now, the next time, or the next. A matter of hours, days, or years. The mathematics of probabilities denied that luck could last forever. In this thought there was a sense of helplessness, and the ghost of a second Asteroid Belt.
Frank Nelsen might have continued to make himself useful in Pallastown, or he might have rejoined the Kuzaks, who had moved their mobile posts back into a safer zone on the other side of Pallas. But his instincts, now, all pointed along another course of action--the only course that seemed to make any sense just then.
He approached Art Kuzak at Post One. "About deployment," he began. "I've made up some sketches, showing what I'd like the factories to turn out. The ideas aren't new--now they'll spring up all around like thoughts of food in a famine. If anything will approach answering all problems, they will. And KRNH is as well able to put them into effect as anybody... So--unless you've got some better suggestions?"
Art Kuzak looked the sketches over shrewdly for half an hour.
"All right, Frank," he said after some further conversation. "It looks good enough. I'll chip in. Whether they're sucker bait or not, these things will sell. Only--could it be you're running away?"
"Perhaps," Nelsen answered. "Or following my nose--by a kind of natural compulsion which others will display, too. Two hundred of these to start. The men going with me will pay for theirs. I'll cover the rest of this batch: You'll be better than I am at figuring out prices and terms for later batches. Just on a hunch, I'll always want a considerable oversupply. Post One's shops can turn them out fast. All they are, mostly, is just stellene, arranged in a somewhat new way. The fittings--whatever can't be supplied now, can follow."
Fifty asteroid-hoppers, ten of them accompanied by wives, went with Nelsen as he started out with a loaded caravan toward an empty region halfway between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Everyone in the group was convinced by yearnings of his own.
Thinking of Nance Codiss, Nelsen planned to keep within beam range of the Red Planet. He had called Nance quite often. She was still working in the Survey Station hospital, which was swamped with injured from Pallastown.
Nelsen could tag all of the fierce drives in him with single words.
Home was the first. After all his years away from Earth, the meaning of the word would have been emphatic in him, even without the recurrent spasms of hot-cold weakness, which, though fading, still legally denied him the relief of going back to old familiar things. Besides, Earth seemed insecure. So he could only try to make home possible in space. Remembering his first trip, long ago, from the Moon to Mars, he knew how gentle the Big Vacuum could sometimes seem, with just a skin of stellene between it and himself. Home was a plain longing, too, in the hard, level eyes around him.
Love. Well, wasn't that part of the first item he had tagged?
Wanderlust. The adventurous distance drive--part of any wild-blooded vagabond male. Here in his idea, this other side of a human paradox seemed possible to answer, too. You could go anywhere. Home went with you. Your friends could go along, if they wished.
Freedom. In the billions of cubic miles could any system ever be big enough to pen you in, tell you what to think or do, as long as you hurt no one? Well--he thought not, but perhaps that remained to be seen.
Safety. Deployment was supposed to be the significant factor, there. And how could you make it any better than it was going to be now? Even if there were new dangers?
The future. There was no staying with the past. The Earth was becoming too small for its expanding population. It was a stifling, dangerous little world that, if the pressures were not relieved, might puff into fire and fragments at any moment during any year. And the era of prospecting and exploration in the Asteroid Belt seemed destined soon to come to an end, in any event.
Frank Nelsen's drives were very strong, after so much had passed around him for so long a time. Thus, maybe he became too idealistic and--at moments--almost fanatically believing, without enough of the saving grain of doubt and humor. The hoppers with him were much like himself--singly directed by what they had lacked for years.
The assembly operation was quickly accomplished, as soon as they were what they considered a safe distance from the Belt. On a greater scale, it was almost nothing more than the first task that Nelsen had ever performed in space--the jockying of a bubb from its blastoff drum, inflating it, rigging it, spinning it for centrifugal gravity, and fitting in its internal appointments.