Nelsen looked at the fifty-odd stellene rings that they had broken out of their containers--the others, still packed, were held in reserve. Those that had been freed glistened translucently in the sunlight. Nelsen had always thought that bubbs were beautiful. And these were still bubbs, but they were bigger, safer, more complicated.
A bantam-sized hopper named Hank Janns spoke from beside Nelsen as they floated near each other. "Pop--sizzle--and it's yours, Chief. A prefab, a house, a dwelling. A kitchen, a terrace, a place for a garden, a place for kids, even... With a few personal touches, you've got it made. Better than the house trailer my dad used to hook onto the jalopy when I was ten... My Alice likes it, too, Chief--that's the real signal! Tell your pals Kuzak that this is the Idea of the Century."
Frank Nelsen kind of thought so, too, just then. The first thing he did was to beam the Survey Station on Mars, like he was doing twice a week--to communicate more often would have courted the still dangerous chance of being pinpointed. For similar reasons he couldn't explain too clearly what his project was, but he hoped that he had gotten a picture of what it was like across to his girl.
"Come see for yourself, Nance," he said enthusiastically. "I'll arrange for a caravan from Post One to stop by on Phobos and pick you up. Also--there's my old question... So, what'll it be, Nance? Maybe we can feel a little surer of ourselves, now. We can work the rest out. Come and look, hang around--see how everything shakes down, if you'd rather."
He waited for the light-minutes to pass, before he could hear her voice. "Hello, Frank..." There was the same eager quaver. "Still pretty jammed, Frank... But we know about it here--from Art... Some of the Pallastown convalescents will be migrating your way... I'll wrangle free and come along... Maybe in about a month..."
He didn't know quite whether to take her at her word--or whether she was somehow hedging. In the Big Vacuum, the human mind seemed hard put, quite, to know itself. Distances and separations were too great. Emotions were too intense or too stunned. This much he had learned to understand. Perhaps he had lost Nance. But maybe, still--in some bleak, fatalistic way--it would be just as well in the end, for them both.
"Sure, Nance," he said gently. "I'll call again--the regular time..."
Right after that he was talking, over a much greater span, to Art Kuzak. "First phase about completed, Art... Finger to thumb--in spite of the troubles elsewhere. So let it roll...!"
Art Kuzak's reply had an undercurrent of jubilance, as if whatever he knew now was better than he had expected. "Second phase is en route. Joe will be along... Don't be surprised..."
Joe Kuzak's approach, a few hundred hours later, made a luminous cluster in the sky, like a miniature galaxy. It resolved itself into vast bales, and all of the stellene rings--storage and factory--of Post Three. Also there were over a hundred men and thirty-three wives. Many of them were Pallastown refugees.
Nelsen helped Joe through the airlock of the ring that he had hoped would be his and Nance's. "Bubbtown, huh, Frank?" Joe chuckled. "The idea is spreading faster than we had believed, and we aren't the only ones that have got it. The timing is just right. People are scared, fed up. Out Here--and on Earth, too... Most of the guys that are single in this crowd have girls who will be on the way soon. Some of the tougher space-fitness tests are being junked. We're even screening a small batch of runaways from Ceres--to be included in the next load. An experiment. But it should work out. They're just like anybody... Art is all of sudden sort of liberal--the way he gets when things seem to break right."
Everything went fine for quite a while. Art Kuzak was out playing his hunches, giving easy terms to those who couldn't pay at once.
"Might as well gamble," he growled from the distance. "Space and terrestrial forces are still poised. If we lose at all, we lose the whole works, anyway. So let's bring them from all around the Belt, from Earth, Venus and from wherever they'll come. Give them a place to work, or let them start their own deal. It all helps... You know what I hear? The Tovies are letting men do things by themselves. To hold their own in room as big as this, they have to. Their bosses are over a barrel. Just organized discipline ain't gonna work. A guy has to want things his own way..."
In a more general view, doubts were sneaking up on Frank Nelsen, though as far as KRNH was concerned, he had started the ball rolling. "We'll keep our fingers crossed," he said.
It was only a couple of Earth-days later that another member of the old Bunch showed up. "I had to bubb all the way from Mercury to Post One to get your location from Art, Frankie," he complained. "Cripes--why didn't anybody ever try to beam Gimp and me, anymore? Solar radiation ain't that hard to get past... So I had to come sneak a look for myself, to see what the Big Deal on the grapevine is."
"We left the back door unlatched for you, Two-and-Two," Nelsen laughed. "And you crept in quietly. Swell to see you."
Sitting showered and in fresh clothes on Frank Nelsen's sundeck, any changes in Two-and-Two Baines were less evident than one might have supposed. His eyes had a much surer, farther look. Otherwise he was still the same large hulk with much the same lugubrious humor.
"Mercury's okay, Frankie," he said. "About four thousand people are living in the Twilight Zone, already. I could show you pictures, but I guess you know. Whole farms and little towns under stellene. Made me some dough doing lots of the building. Could have been more, but who cares? Oh, Gimp'll be along out here sometime, soon. He was putting up another solar powerhouse. But he's beginning to say, what the hell, the future ain't there, or on any planet... So this is how it's gonna be, huh? With some additions, sure. Factories, super markets, cornfields, pig farms, parks, playgrounds, beauty parlors, all encased in stellene, and orbiting in clusters around the sun, eh...? 'Hey, Pop!' some small fry will say to his old man. 'Gimme ten bucks, please, for an ice cream cone down at the soda bubb?' And his mom'll say to his dad, 'George, Dear--is the ionocar nice and shiny? I have to go play bridge with the girls over in Nelsenville...' No, I'm not ribbing you, Frankie. It'll be kind of nice to hear that type of talk, again--if they only include a place for a man to be a little bit himself."
Two-and-Two (George) Baines sighed rapturously and continued. "Figure it out to the end, Frankie. No planets left--all the materials in them used up to build these bubbtowns. There'll be just big shining, magnificent rings made up of countless little floating stellene houses all around the sun. A zillion people, maybe more. Gardens, flowers, everything beautiful. Everybody free to move anywhere. Uh-uh--I'm not making fun, Frankie. I'm joining in with all the relief and happiness of my heart. Only, it'll be kind of sad to see the old planets go--to be replaced by a wonderful super-suburbia. Or maybe we should say, superbia."
Nelsen burst out laughing, at last. "You sly slob...! Anyhow, that extreme is millenniums off--if it has a chance of happening, at all. Even so, our descendants, if any, will be going to the stars by then. There won't be any frustration of their thirst for danger... Just as there isn't any, now, for us. Except that we can keep our weapons handy, and hope... Me--I'm a bit bored with adventure, just at present."
"So am I," Two-and-Two affirmed fervently. "Now, have you got me a job, Frankie?"
"There'll be something," Nelsen answered him. "Meanwhile, to keep from feeling regimented by civilization, you could take your rocket launcher and join the perimeter watchers that range out a thousand miles..."
Nance Codiss arrived a week later, with a group of recent Pallastown convalescents. Bad signs came with her, but that fact got lost as she hugged Nelsen quickly there in the dwelling he had set up with the thought it would be their home. At once she went on a feminine exploring expedition of the prefab's interior, and its new, gleaming appointments. Kitchen, living room, sundeck. Nelsen's garden was already well along.
"Like the place?" he asked.
"Love it, Frank," she answered quietly.
"It could have been more individual," he commented. "But we were in a hurry. So they are all identical. That can be fixed, some, soon. You're thinking about improvements?"
Her eyes twinkled past the shadow in her expression. "Always some," she laughed. Then her face went solemn. "Let them ride, for now, Frank. It's all wonderful and unbelievable. Hug me again--I love you. Only--all this is even more fantastically new to me than it is to you. Realize that, please, Frank. I'm a month late in getting here and I'm still groping my way. A little more time--for us both... Because you might be fumbling, some, too."
Her tone was gentle. He saw that her eyes, meeting his, were honest and clear. He felt the careful strength behind them, after a moment of hurt. There was no rushing, one-way enthusiasm that might easily burn out and blow up in a short time.
He held her close. "Sure, Nance," he said.
"You probably know that our group from Mars was followed, Frank. I hope I'm not a jinx."
"Of course you're not. Somebody would have followed--sometime. We're watching and listening. Just keep your Archer handy..."
The faint, shifting blips in the radar screens was an old story, reminding him that certain things were no better than before, and that some were worse. Somewhere there were other bubbtowns. There were policing space forces, too. But for millions of miles around, this cluster of eight hundred prefabs and the numerous larger bubbs that served them, were all alone.
Nelsen looked out from his sundeck, and saw dangerous contrasts. The worst, perhaps, was a spherical bubble of stellene. Inside it was a great globe of water surrounded by air--a colossal dewdrop. Within it, a man and two small boys--no doubt father and sons from Pallastown, were swimming, horsing around, having a swell time--only a few feet from nothing. Nelsen spoke softly into his radio-phone. "Leland--close down the pool..."
It wasn't long before the perimeter watch, returning from a patrol that had taken them some distance out, brought in a makeshift dwelling bubb made from odds and ends of stellene. They had also picked up its occupant, a lean comic character with an accent and a strange way of talking.
"Funny that you'd turn up, here--Igor, is it?" Nelsen said dryly.
Igor sniffed, as if with sorrow. He had been roughed up, some. "Very funny--also simple. You making a house, so I am making a house for this identical purpose. People from Ceres are already being here; in consequence, I am also arriving. Nobody are saying what are proper doing and thinking--so I am informed. I am believing--okay, Igor. When being not true, I am going away again."
The tone was bland. The pale eyes looked naive and artless, except, perhaps, for a hard, shrewd glint, deep down.
Joe Kuzak was present. "We searched him, Frank," he said. "His bubb, too. He's clean--as far as we can tell. Not even a weapon. I also asked him some questions. I savvy a little of his real lingo."
"I'll ask them over," Nelsen answered. "Igor--a friend named Tiflin wouldn't be being around some place, would he?"
The large space comedian didn't even hesitate. "I am thinking not very far--not knowing precisely. Somebody more is being here, likewise. Belt Parnay. You are knowing this one? Plenty Jollies--new fellas--not having much supplies--only many new rocket launchers they are receiving from someplace. You are understanding this? Bad luck, here, it is meaning."
Nelsen eyed the man warily, with mixed doubt and liking. "I don't think you can be going away again, right now, Igor," he said. "We don't have a jail, but a guard will be as good..."
The watch didn't give the alarm for several hours. Three hisses in the phones, made vocally. Then one, then two more. North, second quadrant, that meant. Direction of first attack. Ionic drives functioned. The cluster of bubbs began to scatter further. Nelsen knew that if Igor had told the truth, the outlook was very poor. Too much deployment would thin the defenses too much. And against new, homing rockets--if Parnay really had them--it would be almost useless. A relatively small number of men, riding free in armor, could smash the much larger targets from almost any distance.
Nelsen didn't stay in his prefab. Floating in his Archer, he could be his own, less easily identifiable, less easily hit command post, while he fired his own homing missiles at the far-off radar specks of the attackers. He ordered everyone not specifically needed inside the bubbs for some defense purpose to jump clear.
In the first half-minute, he saw at least fifty compartmented prefabs partly crumple, as explosives tore into them. A dozen, torn open, were deflated entirely. The swimming pool globe was punctured, and a cloud of frosty vapor made rainbows in the sunshine, as the water boiled away. Far out, Nelsen saw the rockets he and his own men had launched, sparkling soundlessly, no doubt scoring, some, too.
The attackers didn't even try to get close yet. Far greater damage would have to be inflicted, before panic and disorganization might give them sufficient advantage. But such damage would take only minutes. Too much would reduce the loot. So now there was a halt in the firing, and another component of fear was applied. It was a growling, taunting voice.
"Nelsen! And all of you silly bladder-brains...! This is Belt Parnay...! Ever hear of him? Come back from hell, eh? Not with just rocks, this time! The latest, surest equipment! Want to give up, now, Nelsen--you and your nice, civilized people? Cripes, what will you cranks try next? Villages built in nothing and on nothing! Thanks, though. Brother, what a blowout this is gonna provide!"
Parnay's tone had shifted, becoming mincingly mocking, then hard and joyful at the end.
Maybe he shouldn't have suggested so plainly what would happen--unless something was done, soon. Maybe he shouldn't have sounded just a little bit unsure of himself under all his bluff. Because Nelsen had made preparations that matched a general human trend. Now, he saw a condition that fitted in, making an opportunity... So he began to taunt Parnay back.
"We've got a lot of the latest type rockets to throw, too, Parnay. You'd have quite a time, trying to take us. But there's more... Just look behind you, Parnay. And all around. Not too far. Who's silly? Who's the jerk? Some new guys are in your crowd, I hear? Then they won't have much against them--they aren't real outlaws. Do you think they want to keep following you around, stinking in their armor--when what we've got is what they're bound to want, right now, too? They can hear what I'm saying, Parnay. Every one of them must have a weapon in his hands. Why, you stupid clown, you're in a trap! We will give them what they need most, without them having to risk getting killed. In space, there'll have to be a lot of things forgotten, but not for you or for the rough old-timers with you... Come on, you guys out there. There's a folded bubb right here waiting for each of you. Take it anywhere you want--away from here, of course... Parnay--big, important Belt Parnay--are you still alive...?"
Nelsen had his own sneering tone of mockery. He used it to best advantage--but with fear in his heart. Plenty of his act was only counter-bluff. But now, as he paused, he heard Two-and-Two Baines' mournful voice continue the barrage of persuasion.
"Flowers, Parnay? We ain't got many, yet. But you won't care... Fellas--do you want to keep being pushed around by this loud mouth who likes to run and lets you sweat for him, because he's mostly alone and needs company? Believe me, I know what it's like out there, too. At a certain point, all you really want is something a little like home. And the Chief ain't kidding. It was all planned. Try us and see. Send a couple of guys in. They'll come out with the proof..."
Other voices were shouting. "Wake up, you suckers...! You'll never take us, you stupid slobs...! Come on and try it, if that's what you want to be..."
What happened, could never have happened so quickly if Parnay's doubtless considerably disgruntled following hadn't been disturbed further by intrigue beforehand. Nelsen heard Parnay roar commands and curses that might have awed many a man. But then there was a cluster of minute sparks in the distance, as rockets, not launched by the defenders, homed and exploded.
There was a pause. Then many voices were audible, shouting at the same time, with scarcely any words clear... Several minutes passed like that. Then there was almost silence.
"So--has it happened?" Nelsen growled into his phone.
"It has," came the mocking answer. "Be cavalier, Nelsen. Salute the new top outlaw... Don't faint-- I knew I'd make it... And don't try anything you might regret... I'm coming in with a couple of my Jolly Lads. You'd better not welsh on your promises. Because the others are armed and waiting..."
The guys with Tiflin looked more tired than tough. Out from under their fierce, truculent bravado showed the fiercer hunger for common things and comforts. Nelsen knew. The record was in his own memory.
"You'll get your bubbs right away," he told them. "Then send the others in, a pair at a time. After that, go and get lost. Make your own place--town--whatever you want to call it... Leland, Crobert, Sharpe--fit these guys out, will you...?"
All this happened under the sardonic gaze of Glen Tiflin, and before the puzzled eyes of Joe Kuzak and Two-and-Two Baines. A dozen others were hovering near.
Nelsen lowered his voice and called, "Nance?"
She answered at once. "I'm all right, Frank. A few people to patch. Some beyond that. I'm in the hospital with Doc Forbes..."
"You guys can find something useful to do," Nelsen snapped at the gathering crowd.
"Well, Frankie," Tiflin taunted. "Aren't you going to invite me into your fancy new quarters? Joe and Two-and-Two also look as though they could stand a drink."
On the sundeck, Tiflin spoke again. "I suppose you've got it figured, Nelsen?"
Nelsen answered him in clipped fashion. "Thanks. But let's not dawdle too much. I've got a lot of wreckage to put back together... Maybe I've still got it figured wrong, Tiflin. But lately I began to think the other way. You were always around when trouble was cooking--like part of it, or like a good cop. The first might still be right."
Tiflin sneered genially. "Some cops can't carry badges. And they don't always stop trouble, but they try... Anyhow, what side do you think I was on, after Fessler kicked me around for months...? Let Igor go. He's got law and order in his soul. I kind of like having him around... But keep your mouths buttoned, will you? I'm talking to you, Mr. Baines, and you, Mr. Kuzak, as well as to you, Nelsen. And I'm take my bubb along, the same as the other ninety or so guys who are left from Parnay's crowd. I've got to look good with them... Cheers, you slobs. See you around..."
Afterwards, Joe growled, "Hell--what do you know! Him...! Special Police. Undercover. U.N., U.S., or what?"
"Shut up," Nelsen growled.
Though he had sensed it coming and had met it calmly, the Tiflin switch was something that Frank Nelsen had trouble getting over. It confused him. It made him want to laugh.
Another thing that began to bother him even more was the realization that the violence, represented by Fessler, Fanshaw, Parnay, and thousands of others like them back through history, was bound to crop up again. It was part of the complicated paradox of human nature. And it was hard to visualize a time when there wouldn't be followers--frustrated slobs who wanted to get out and kick over the universe. Nelsen had felt such urges cropping up within himself. So this wasn't the end of trouble--especially not out here in raw space, that was still far too big for man-made order.
So it wasn't just the two, opposed space navies patrolling, more quietly now, between Ceres and Pallas. That condition could pass. The way people always chose--or were born to--different sides was another matter. Or was it just the natural competition of life in whatever form? More disturbing, perhaps, was the mere fact of trying to live here, so close to natural forces that could kill in an instant.
For example, Nelsen often saw two children and a dog racing around inside one of the rotating bubbs--having fun as if just in a back yard. If the stellene were ripped, the happy picture would change to horror... How long would it take to get adjusted to--and accept--such a chance? Thoughts like that began to disturb Nelsen. Out here, in all this enormous freedom, the shift from peaceful routine to tragedy could be quicker than ever before.
But is wasn't thinking about such grim matters that actually threw Frank Nelsen--that got him truly mixed up. In Parnay's attack, ten men and two women had been killed. There were also twenty-seven injured. Such facts he could accept--they didn't disturb him too much, either. Yet there was a curious sort of straw that broke the camel's back, one might have said.
The incident took place quite a while after the assault. Out on an inspection tour in his Archer, he happened to glance through the transparent wall of the sundeck of a prefab he was passing...
In a moment he was inside, grinning happily. Miss Rosalie Parks was lecturing him: "... You needn't be surprised that I am here, Franklin. 'O, tempora O, mores!' Cicero once said. 'O, the times! O, the customs!' But we needn't be so pessimistic. I am in perfect health--and ten years below retirement age. Young people, I suspect, will still be taught Latin if they choose... Or there will be something else... Of course I had heard of your project... It was quite easy for you not to notice my arrival. But I came with the latest group, straight from Earth..."
Nelsen was very pleased that Miss Parks was here. He told her so. He stayed for cakes and coffee. He told her that it was quite right for her to keep up with the times. He believed this, himself...
Afterwards, though, in his own quarters, he began to laugh. Her presence was so incongruous, so fantastic...
His laughter became wild. Then it changed to great rasping hiccups. Too much that was unbelievable by old standards had happened around him. This was delayed reaction to space. He had heard of such a thing. But he had hardly thought that it could apply to him, anymore...! Well, he knew what to do... Tranquilizer tablets were practically forgotten things to him. But he gulped one now. In a few minutes, he seemed okay, again...
Yet he couldn't help thinking back to the Bunch, the Planet Strappers. To the wild fulfillment they had sought... So--most of them had made it. They had become men--the hard way. Except, of course, Eileen--the distaff side... They had planned, callowly, to meet and compare adventures in ten years. And this was still less than seven...
How long had it been since he had even beamed old Paul, in Jarviston...? Now that most of the Syrtis Fever had left him, it seemed futile even to consider such a thing. It involved memories buried in enormous time, distance, change, and unexpectedness.
Glen Tiflin--the sour, space-wild punk who had become a cop. Had Tiflin even saved his--Frank Nelsen's--life, once, long ago, persuading a Jolly Lad leader to cast him adrift for a joke, rather than to kill him and Ramos outright...?
Charlie Reynolds--the Bunch-member whom everybody had thought most likely to succeed. Well, Charlie was dead from a simple thing, and buried on Venus. He was unknown--except to his acquaintances.
Jig Hollins, the guy who had played it safe, was just as dead.
Eileen Sands was a celebrity in Serene, in Pallastown and the whole Belt.
Mex Ramos--of the flapping squirrel tails on an old motor scooter--now belonged to the history of exploration, though he no longer had real hands or feet, and, very likely, was now dead, somewhere out toward interstellar space.
David Lester, the timid one, had become successful in his own way, and was the father of one of the first children to be born in the Belt.
Two-and-Two Baines had won enough self-confidence to make cracks about the future. Gimp Hines, once the saddest case in the Whole Bunch, had been, for a long time, perhaps the best adjusted to the Big Vacuum.
Art Kuzak, one-time hunkie football player, was a power among the asteroids. His brother, Joe, had scarcely changed, personally.
About himself, Nelsen got the most lost. What had he become, after his wrong guesses and his great luck, and the fact that he had managed to see more than most? Generally, he figured that he was still the same free-wheeling vagabond by intention, but too serious to quite make it work out. Sometimes he actually gave people orders. It came to him as a surprise that he must be almost as rich as old J. John Reynolds, who was still drawing wealth from a comparatively small loan--futilely at his age, unless he had really aimed at the ideal of bettering the future.
Nelsen's busy mind couldn't stop. He thought of three other-world cultures he had glimpsed. Two had destroyed each other. The third and strangest was still to be reckoned with...
There, he came to Mitch Storey, the colored guy with the romantic name. Of all the Planet Strappers, his history was the most fabulous. Maybe, now, with a way of living in open space started, and with the planets ultimately to serve only as sources of materials, Mitch's star people would be left in relative peace for centuries.
Frank Nelsen began to chuckle again. As if something, everything, was funny. Which, perhaps, it was in a way. Because the whole view, personal and otherwise, seemed too huge and unpredictable for his wits to grasp. It was as if neither he, nor any other person, belonged where he was at all. He checked his thoughts in time. Otherwise, he would have commenced hiccuping.
That was the way it went for a considerable succession of arbitrary twenty-four hour day-periods. As long as he kept his attention on the tasks in hand, he was okay--he felt fine. Still, the project was proceeding almost automatically, just now. The first cluster of prefabs had grown until it had been split into halves, which moved a million miles apart, circling the sun. And he knew that there were other clusters, built by other outfits, growing and dividing into widely separated portions of the same great ring-like zone.
Maybe the old problems were beat. Safety? If deployment was the answer to that, it was certainly there--to a degree, at least. Room enough? Check. It was certainly available. Freedom of mind and action? There wasn't much question that that would work out, too. Home, comfort, and a kind of life not too unfamiliar? In the light of detached logic and observation, that was going fine, too. In the main, people were adjusting very quickly and eagerly. Perhaps too quickly.
That was where Nelsen always got scared, as if he had become a nervous old man. The Big Vacuum had a grandeur. It could seem gentle. Could children, women and men--everybody sometimes forgot--learn to live with it without losing their respect for it, until suddenly it killed them?
That was the worst point, if he let himself think. And how could he always avoid that? From there his thoughts would branch out into his multiple uncertainties, confusions and puzzlements. Then those strangling hiccups would come. And who could be taking devil-killers all the time?
He hadn't avoided Nance Codiss. He talked with her every day, lunched with her, even held her hand. Otherwise, a restraint had come over him. Because something was all wrong with him, and was getting worse. Just one urge was clear, now, inside him. She knew, of course, that he was loused up; but she didn't say anything. Finally he told her.
"You were right, Nance. I was fumbling my way, too. Space fatigue, the medic told me just a little while ago. He agrees with me that I should go back to Earth. I've got to go--to take a look at everything from the small end, again. Of course I've always had the longing. And now I can go. It has been a year since the worst of the Syrtis Fever."
"I've had the fever. And sometimes the longing, Frank," she said after she had studied him for a moment. "I think I'd like to go."
"Only if you want to, Nance. It's me that's flunking out, pal." He chuckled apologetically, almost lightly. "My part has to be a one-person deal. I don't know whether I'll ever come back. And you seem to fit, out here."