The Planet Strappers: IV

  1. III
  2. The Planet Strappers
  3. V

Frank Nelsen’s view of empire-building on the Moon was brief, all encompassing, and far too sketchy to be very satisfying, as Rodan—turned about in his universal-gimbaled pilot seat—spiralled his battered rocket down backwards, with the small nuclear jets firing forward in jerky, tooth-cracking bursts, to check speed further.

It was necessary to go around the abortive sub-planet that had always accompanied the Earth, almost once, to reduce velocity enough for a landing.

Thus, Nelsen glimpsed much territory—the splashed, irregular shape of Serenitatis, the international base on the mare, the dust sea of the same name; the radiating threads of trails and embryo highways, the ever-widening separation of isolated domes and scattered human diggings and workings faintly scratched in the lunar crust, as, at a still great height, Frank’s gaze swept outward from the greatest center of human endeavor on the Moon.

It was much the same around Tycho Station, except that this base was smaller, and was built in a great, white-rayed crater, whose walls were pierced by tunnels for exit and entry.

The Tovie camp, glimpsed later, and only at the distant horizon, seemed not very different from the others, except for the misleading patterns of camouflage. That the Tovies should have an exclusive center of their own was not even legal, according to U.N. agreements. But facts were facts, and what did anyone do about them?

Frank was not very concerned with such issues just then, for there was an impression that was overpowering: The slightness of the intrusion of his kind on a two thousand-something miles-in-diameter globe of incredible desert, overlapping ring-walls, craters centered in radiating streaks of white ash, mountain ranges that sank gradually into dust, which once, two billion years ago, after probable ejection from volcanoes, had no doubt floated in a then palpable atmosphere. But now, to a lone man down there, they would be bleak plains stretching to a disconcertingly near horizon.

Frank Nelsen’s view was one of fascination, behind which was the chilly thought: This is my choice; here is where I will have to live for a short while that can seem ages. Space looks tame, now. Can I make it all right? Worse—how about Lester?

Frank looked around him. Like Rodan, Lester and he had both pivoted around in their gimbaled seats—to which they had safety-strapped themselves—to face the now forward-pointing stern jets.

Rodan, looking more trap-mouthed than before, had said nothing further as he guided the craft gingerly lower. Lester was biting his heavy lip. His narrow chin trembled.

A faint whisper had begun. As far back as the 1940s, astronomers had begun to suspect that the Moon was, after all, not entirely airless. There would be traces of heavy gases—argon, neon, xenon, krypton, and volcanic carbon dioxide. It would be expanded far upward above the surface, because the feeble lunar gravity could not give it sufficient weight to compress it very much. So it would thin out much less rapidly with altitude than does the terrestrial atmosphere. From a density of perhaps 1/12,000th of Earth’s sea level norm at the Moon’s surface, it would thin to perhaps 1/20,000th at a height of eighty miles, being thus roughly equivalent in density to Earth’s gaseous envelope at the same level! And at this height was the terrestrial zone where meteors flare!

This theory about the lunar atmosphere had proven to be correct. The tiny density was still sufficient to give the Moon almost as effective an atmospheric meteor screen as the Earth’s. The relatively low velocity needed to maintain vehicles in circumlunar orbits, made its danger to such vehicles small. It could help reduce speed for a landing; it caused that innocuous hiss of passage. But it could sometimes be treacherous.

Frank thought of these things as the long minutes dragged. Perhaps Rodan, hunched intently over his controls, had reason enough, there, to be silent…

The actual landing still had to be made in the only way possible on worlds whose air-covering was so close to a complete vacuum as this—like a cat climbing down a tree backwards. With flaming jets still holding it up, and spinning gyros keeping it vertical, the rocket lowered gradually. The seats swung level, keeping their occupants right side up. There was a hovering pause, then the faint jolt of contact. The jet growl stopped; complete silence closed in like a hammer blow.

“Do you men know where you are?” Rodan asked after a moment.

“At the edge of Mare Nova, I think,” Frank answered, his eyes combing the demons’ landscape beyond the thick, darkened glass of the cabin’s ports.

The dazzling sun was low—early morning of two weeks of daylight. The shadows were long, black shafts.

“Yes—there’s Tower Rock,” Lester quavered. “And the Arabian Range going down under the dust of the plain.”

“Correct,” Rodan answered. “We’re well over the rim of the Far Side. You’ll never see the Earth from here. The nearest settlement is eight hundred miles away, and it’s Tovie at that. This is a really remote spot, as I intimated before.”

He paused, as if to let this significant information be appreciated. “So that’s settled,” he went on. “Now I’ll enlighten you about what else you need to know… Come along.”

Frank Nelsen felt the dust crunch under the rubberized boot-soles of his Archer. There was a brief walk, then a pause.

Rodan pointed to a pit dynamited out of the dust and lava rock, and to small piles of greyish material beside six-inch borings rectangularly spaced over a wide area.

“There is an extensive underlying layer of gypsum, here,” he said. “The water-bearing rock. A mile away there’s an ample deposit of graphite—carbon. Thus, there exists a complete local source of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, ideal for synthesizing various hydrocarbonic chemicals or making complicated polyethylene materials such as stellene, so useful in space. Lead, too, is not very far off. Silicon is, of course, available everywhere. There’ll be a plant belonging to Hoffman Chemicals here, before too long. I was prospecting for them, for a site like this. Actually I was very lucky, locating this spot almost right away—which is fortunate. They think I’m still looking, and aren’t concerned…”

Rodan was quiet for a moment before continuing. The pupils of his eyes dilated and contracted strangely.

“Because I found something else,” he went on. “It was luck beyond dreams, and it must be my very own. I intend to investigate it thoroughly, even if it takes years! Come along, again!”

This time the walk was about three hundred yards, past three small stellene domes, the parabolic mirrors of a solar-power plant, a sun-energized tractor, and onward almost to the mountain wall, imbedded in the dust of the mare. There Frank noticed a circular, glassy area.

Strips of magnesium were laid like bridging planks across chunks of lava, and in the dust all around were countless curious scrabbled marks.

Rodan stood carefully on a magnesium strip, and looked back at Nelsen and Lester, his brows crinkling as if he was suspicious that he had already told them too much. Frank Nelsen became more aware of the heavy automatic pistol at Rodan’s hip, and felt a tingling urge to get away from here and from this man—as if a vast mistake had been made.

“It is necessary for you to be informed about some matters,” Rodan said slowly. “For instance, unless it is otherwise disturbed, a footprint, or the like, will endure for millions of years on the Moon—as surely as if impressed in granite—because there is no weather left to rub it out. You will be working here. I am preserving some of these markings. So please walk on these strips, which Dutch and I have laid down.”

Rodan indicated a large, Archer-clad man, who also carried an automatic. He had the face of a playful but dangerous mastiff. He was hunkered down in a shallow pit, scanning the ground with a watch-sized device probably intended for locating objects hidden just beneath the surface, electronically. Beside him was a screen-bottomed container, no doubt meant for sifting dust.

“Greetings, Novices!” he gruffed with genial contempt. But his pale eyes, beyond the curve of his helmet, had a masked puzzlement, as if something from the lunar desolation had gotten into his brain, leaving the realization of where he was, permanently not altogether clear to him.

Rodan pulled a shiny object from his thigh pouch, and held it out in a gloved palm for his new employees to peer at.

“One of the things we found,” he remarked. “Incomplete. If we could, for instance, locate the other parts…”

Frank saw a little cylinder, with grey coils wrapped inside it—a power chamber, perhaps, to be lined with magnetic force, the only thing that could contain what amounted to a tiny twenty-million degree piece of a star’s hot heart. It was a familiar principle for releasing and managing nuclear power. But the device, perhaps part of a small weapon, was subtly marked by the differences of another technology.

“I believe I have said enough,” Rodan stated with a thin smile. “Though some facts will be unavoidably obvious to you, working here. But at least I will let you figure them out for yourselves, since you are well-informed young men, by your own statement.” Here Rodan looked hard at the pale, unsteady Lester. “We will go back, now, so I can show you the camp, its routine, and your place in it. We have three domes—garden and living quarters, with a workshop and supply dome between them…”

Quarters proved to be okay—two bunks and the usual compact accessories.

“Leave your Archers in the lockers outside your door—here are your keys,” Rodan suggested. “Helen will have a meal ready for you in the adjacent dining room. Afterwards, take a helpful tranquilizer, and sleep. No work until you awaken. I shall leave you, now…”

It was a good meal—steak cultured and grown in a nourishing solution, on the Moon, perhaps at Serene, much as Dr. Alexis Carrel had long ago grown and kept for years a living fragment of a chicken’s heart. Potatoes, peas and tomatoes, too—all had become common staples in hydroponic gardens off the Earth.

“What do you make of what Rodan was talking about, Les?” Frank asked conversationally.

But David Lester was lost and vague, his food almost untouched. “I—I don’t know!” he stammered.

Scared and embittered further by this bad sign, Frank turned to Helen. “And how are you?” he asked hopefully.

“I am all right,” she answered, without a trace of encouragement.

She was in jeans, maybe she was eighteen, maybe she was Rodan’s daughter. Her face was as reddened as a peasant’s. It was hard to tell that she was a girl at all. She wasn’t a girl. It was soon plain that she was a zombie with about ten words in her vocabulary. How could a girl have gotten to this impossible region, anyway?

Now Frank tried to delay Lester’s inevitable complete crackup by encouraging his interest in their situation.

“It’s big, Les,” he said. “It’s got to be! An expedition came here to investigate the Moon—it couldn’t be any more recently than sixty million years ago, if it was from as close as Mars, or the Asteroid Planet! Two adjacent worlds were competing, then, the scientists know. Both were smaller than the Earth, cooled faster, bore life sooner. Which sent the party? I saw where there rocket ship must have stood—a glassy, spot where the dust was once fused!… From all the markings, they must have been around for months. Nowhere else on the Moon—that I ever heard of—is there anything similar left. So maybe they did most of their survey work by gliding, somehow, above the ground, not disturbing the dust… I think the little indentations we saw look Martian. That would be a break! Mars still has weather. Archeological objects wouldn’t stay new there for millions of years, but here they would! Rodan is right—he’s got something that’ll make him famous!”

“Yes—I think I’ll have a devil-killer and hit the sack, Frank,” Lester said.

“Oh—all right,” Frank agreed wearily. “Me, likewise.”

Frank awoke naturally from a dreamless slumber. After a breakfast of eggs that had been a powder, Lester and he were at the diggings, sifting dust for the dropped and discarded items of an alien visitation.

Thus Frank’s job began. In the excitement of a hunt, as if for ancient treasure, for a long time, through many ten hour shifts, Frank Nelsen found a perhaps unfortunate Lethe of forgetfulness for his worries, and for the mind-poisoning effects of the silence and desolation in this remote part of the Moon.

They found things, thinly scattered in the ten acre area that Rodan meant tediously to sift. The screws and nuts, bright and new, were almost Earthly. But would anyone ever know what the little plastic rings were for? Or the sticks of cellulose, or the curved, wire device with fuzz at the ends? But then, would an off-Earth being ever guess the use of—say—a toothbrush or a bobbypin?

The metal cylinders, neatly cut open, might have contained food—dried leaf-like dregs still remained inside. There were small bottles made of pearly glass, too—empty except for gummy traces. They were stoppered with a stuff like rubber. There were also crumpled scraps, like paper or cellophane, most of them marked with designs or symbols.

After ten Earth-days, in the lunar afternoon, Frank found the grave. He shouted as his brushing hands uncovered a glassy, flexible surface.

Rodan took charge at once. “Back!” he commanded. Then he was avidly busy in the pit, working as carefully as a fine jeweller. He cleared more dust away, not with a trowel, not with his gloved fingers, but with a little nylon brush.

The thing was like a seven-pointed star, four feet across. And was the ripped, transparent casing of its body and limbs another version of a vacuum armor? The material resembled stellene. As in an Archer, there were metal details, mechanical, electronic, and perhaps nuclear.

In the punctured covering, the corpse was dry, of course—stomach, brain sac, rough, pitted skin, terminal tendrils—some coarse, some fine, almost, as thread, for doing the most delicate work, half out of protecting sheaths at the ends of its arms or legs.

In the armor, the being must have walked like a toe dancer, on metal spikes. Or it might even have rolled like a wheel. The bluish tint of its crusty body had half-faded to tan. Perhaps no one would ever explain the gaping wound that must have killed the creature, unless it had been a rock fall.

“Martian!” Lester gasped. “At least we know that they were like this!”

“Yes,” Rodan agreed softly. “I’ll look after this find.”

Moving very carefully, even in the weak lunar gravity, he picked up the product of another evolution and bore it away to the shop dome.

Frank was furious. This was his discovery, and he was not even allowed to examine it.

Still, something warned him not to argue. In a little while, his treasure hunter’s eagerness came back, holding out through most of that protracted lunar night, when they worked their ten hour periods with electric lamps attached to their shoulders.

But gradually Frank began to emerge from his single line of attention. Knowing that Lester must soon collapse, and waiting tensely for it to happen, was part of the cause. But there was much more. There was the fact that direct radio communication with the Earth, around the curve of the Moon, was impossible—the Tovies didn’t like radio-relay orbiters, useful for beamed, short-wave messages. They had destroyed the few unmanned ones that had been put up.

There were the several times when he had casually sent a slender beam of radio energy groping out toward Mars and the Asteroid Belt, trying to call Storey or the Kuzaks, and had received no answer. Well, this was not remarkable. Those regions were enormous beyond imagining; you had to pinpoint your thread of tiny energy almost precisely.

But once, for an instant, while at work, he heard a voice which could be Mitch Storey’s, call “Frank! Frankie!” in his helmet phone. There was no chance for him to get an instrument-fix on the direction of the incoming waves. And of course his name, Frank, was a common one. But an immediate attempt to beam Mars—yellow in the black sky—and its vicinity, produced no result.

His trapped feeling increased, and nostalgia began to bore into him. He had memories of lost sounds. Rodan tried to combat the thick silence with taped popular music, broadcast on very low power from a field set at the diggings. But the girl voices, singing richly, only made matters worse for Frank Nelsen. And other memories piled up on him: Jarviston, Minnesota. Wind. Hay smell, car smell. Home… Cripes…! Damn…!

Lester’s habit of muttering unintelligibly to himself was much worse, now. Frank was expecting him to start screaming at any minute. Frank hadn’t tried to talk to him much, and Lester, more introverted than ever, was no starter of conversations.

But now, at the sunrise—S.O.B., was it possible that they had been here almost a month?—Frank at the diggings, indulged in some muttering, himself.

“Are you all right, Frank?” Lester asked mildly.

“Not altogether!” Frank Nelsen snapped dryly. “How about you?”

“Oh, I believe I’m okay at last,” Lester replied with startling brightness. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be. I guess I had an inferiority complex, and there was also something to live up to. You see, my dad was here with the original Clifford expedition. We always agreed that I should become a space-scientist, too. Mom went along with that—until Dad was killed, here… Well, I’m over the hump, now. You see, I’m so interested in everything around me, that the desolation has a cushion of romance that protects me. I don’t see just the bleakness. I imagine the Moon as it once was, with volcanoes spitting, and with thundrous sounds in its steamy atmosphere. I see it when the Martians were here—they surely visited Earth, too, though there all evidence weathered away. I even see the Moon as it is, now, noticing details that are easy to miss—the little balls of ash that got stuck together by raindrops, two billion years ago. And the pulpy, hard-shelled plants that you can still find, alive, if you know where to look. There are some up on the ridge, where I often go, when offshift. Carbon dioxide and a little water vapor must still come out of the deep crack there… Anyhow, they used to say that a lonesome person—with perhaps a touch of schizophrenia—might do better off the Earth than the more usual types.”

Frank Nelsen was surprised as much by this open, self-analytical explanation, and the clearing up of the family history behind him, as by the miracle that had happened. Cripes, was it possible that, in his own way, Lester was more rugged than anybody else of the old Bunch? Of course even Lester was somewhat in wonder, himself, and had to talk it all out to somebody.

“Good for you, Les,” Nelsen enthused, relieved. “Only—well, skip it, for now.”

Two work periods later, he approached Rodan. “It will take months to sift all this dust,” he said. “I may not want to stay that long.”

The pupils of Rodan’s eyes flickered again. “Oh?” he said. “Per contract, you can quit anytime. But I provide no transportation. Do you want to walk eight hundred miles—to a Tovie station? On the Moon it is difficult to keep hired help. So one must rely on practical counter-circumstances. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to be at Serenitatis Base, or anywhere else, talking about my discovery, Nelsen. I’m afraid you’re stuck.”

Now Nelsen had the result of his perhaps incautious test statement. He knew that he was trapped by a dangerous tyrant, such as might spring up in any new, lawless country.

“It was just a thought, sir,” he said, being as placating as he dared, and controlling his rising fury.

For there was something that hardened too quickly in Rodan. He had the fame-and-glory bug, and could be savage about it. If you wanted to get away, you had to scheme by yourself. There wasn’t only Rodan to get past; there was Dutch, the big ape with the dangling pistol.

Nelsen decided to work quietly, as before, for a while… There were a few more significant finds—what might have been a nuclear-operated clock, broken, of course, and some diamond drill bits. Though the long lunar day dragged intolerably, there was the paradox of time seeming to escape, too. Daylight ended with the sunset. Two weeks of darkness was no period for any moves. At sunup, a second month was almost finished! And ten acres of dust was less than half-sifted…

In the shop and supply dome, David Lester had been chemically analyzing the dregs of various Martian containers for Rodan. In spare moments he classified those scarce and incredibly hardy lunar growths that he found in the foothills of the Arabian Range. Some had hard, bright-green tendrils, that during daylight, opened out of woody shells full of spongy hollows as an insulation against the fearsome cold of night. Some were so small that they could only be seen under a microscope. Frank’s interest, here, however, palled quickly. And Lester, in his mumbling, studious preoccupation, was no companionable antidote for loneliness.

Frank tried a new approach on Helen, who really was Rodan’s daughter.

“Do you like poetry, Helen? I used to memorize Keats, Frost, Shakespeare.”

They were there in the dining room. She brightened a little. “I remember—some.”

“Do you remember clouds, the sound of water? Trees, grass…?”

She actually smiled, wistfully. “Yes. Sunday afternoons. A blue dress. My mother when she was alive… A dog I had, once…”

Helen Rodan wasn’t quite a zombie, after all. Maybe he could win her confidence, if he went slow…

But twenty hours later, at the diggings, when Dutch stumbled over Frank’s sifter, she reverted. “I’ll learn you to leave junk in my way, you greenhorn squirt!” Dutch shouted. Then he tossed Frank thirty feet. Frank came back, kicked him in his thinly armored stomach, knocked him down, and tried to get his gun. But Dutch grabbed him in those big arms. Helen was also pointing a small pistol at him.

She was trembling. “Dad will handle this,” she said.

Rodan came over. “You don’t have much choice, do you, Nelsen?” he sneered. “However, perhaps Dutch was crude. I apologize for him. And I will deduct a hundred dollars from his pay, and give it to you.”

“Much obliged,” Frank said dryly.

After that, everything happened to build his tensions to the breaking point.

At a work period’s end, near the lunar noon, he heard a voice in his helmet-phone. “Frank—this is Two-and-Two…! Why don’t you ever call or answer…?”

Two-and-Two’s usually plaintive voice had a special quality, as if he was maybe in trouble. This time, Frank got a directional fix, adjusted his antenna, and called, “Hey, Two-and-Two…! Hey, Pal—it’s me—Frank Nelsen…!”

Venus was in the sky, not too close to the sun. But still, though Nelsen called repeatedly, there was no reply.

He got back to quarters, and looked over not only his radio but his entire Archer. The radio had been fiddled with, delicately; it would still work, but not in a narrow enough beam to reach millions of miles, or even five hundred. An intricate focusing device had been removed from a wave guide.

That wasn’t the worst that was wrong with the Archer. The small nuclear battery which energized the moisture-reclaimer, the heating units, and especially the air-restorer—not only for turning its pumps but for providing the intense internal illumination necessary to promote the release of oxygen in the photosynthetic process of the chlorophane when there was no sun—had been replaced by a chemical battery of a far smaller active life-span! The armor locker! Rodan had extra keys, and could tamper and make replacements, any time he considered it necessary.

Lester had wandered afield, somewhere. When he showed up, Nelsen jarred him out of his studious preoccupations long enough for them both to examine his armor. Same, identical story.

“Rodan made sure,” Frank gruffed. “That S.O.B. put us on a real short tether!”

David Lester looked frightened for a minute. Then he seemed to ease.

“Maybe it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Though I’d like to call my mother… But I’m doing things that I like. After a while, when the job is finished, he’ll let us go.”

“Yeah?” Frank breathed.

There was the big question. Nelsen figured that an old, corny pattern stuck out all over Rodan. Personal glory emphasized to a point where it got beyond sense. And wouldn’t that unreason be more likely to get worse in the terrible lunar desert than it ever would on Earth?

Would Rodan ever release them? Wouldn’t he fear encroachment on his archeological success, even after all his data had been made public? This was all surmise-prediction, of course, but his extreme precautions, already taken, did not look good. On the Moon there could easily be an arranged accident, killing Lester, and him—Frank Nelsen—and maybe even Dutch. Rodan’s pupils had that nervous way of expanding and contracting rapidly, too. Nelsen figured that he might be reading the signs somewhat warpedly himself. Still…?

At the end of another shift, Nelsen took a walk, farther than ever before, up through a twisted pass that penetrated to the other side of the Arabian Mountains. He still had that much freedom. He wanted to think things out. In bitter, frustrating reversal of all his former urges to get off the Earth, he wanted, like a desperate weakling, to be back home.

Up beyond the Arabians, he saw the tread marks of a small tractor vehicle in a patch of dust. There was a single boot print. A short distance farther on, there was another. He examined them with a quizzical excitement. But there weren’t any more. For miles, ahead and behind, unimpressable lava rock extended.

Another curious thing happened, only minutes later. A thousand miles overhead, out of reach of his sabotaged transmitter, one of those around the Moon tour bubbs, like the unfortunate Far Side, was passing. He heard the program they were broadcasting. A male voice crooned out what must be a new, popular song. He had heard so few new songs.


Found a queen…

And her name is Eileen…”

Nelsen’s reaction wasn’t even a thought, at first; it was only an eerie tingle in all his flesh. Then, realizing what his suspicion was, he listened further, with all his nerves taut. But no explanation of the song’s origin was given… He even tried futilely to radio the pleasure bubb, full of Earth tourists. In minutes it had sunk behind the abrupt horizon, leaving him with his unanswered wonder.

Girls, he thought, in the midst of his utter solitude. All girls, to love and have… Eileen? Cripes, could it be little old Eileen Sands, up on her ballet-dancing toes, sometimes, at Hendricks’, and humming herself a tune? Eileen who had deserted the Bunch, meaning to approach space in a feminine way? Holy cow, had even she gotten that far, so fast?

Suddenly the possibility became a symbol of what the others of the Bunch must be accomplishing, while here he was, trapped, stuck futilely, inside a few bleak square miles on the far side of Earth’s own satellite!

So here was another force of Frank Nelsen’s desperation.

He made up his mind—which perhaps just then was a bit mad.

With outward calm he returned to camp, slept, worked, slept and worked again. He decided that there was no help to be had from Lester, who was still no man of action. Better to work alone, anyway.

Fortunately, on the Moon, it was easy to call deadly forces to one’s aid. Something as simple as possible, the trick should be. Of course all he wanted to do was to get the upper hand on Rodan and Dutch, take over the camp, get the missing parts of his radio and Archer, borrow the solar tractor, and get out of here. To Serenitatis Base—Serene.

His only preparation was to sharpen the edges of a diamond-shaped trowel used at the diggings, with a piece of pumice. Then he waited.

Opportunity came near sundown, after a shift. Rodan, Dutch, and he had come into the supply and shop dome, through its airlock. Lester and Helen—these two introverts had somehow discovered each other, and were getting along well together—were visible through the transparent wall, lingering at the diggings.

Nelsen saw Rodan and Dutch unlatch the collars of their helmets, preparatory for removing them, as they usually did if they stayed here a while, to pack new artifacts or stow tools. Nelsen made as if to unlatch his collar, too. But if he did it, the gasket would be unsealed, and his helmet would no longer be airtight.

Now!—he told himself. Or would it be better to wait fourteen more Earth-days, till another lunar dawn? Hell no—that would be chickenish procrastination. Rodan and Dutch were a good ten feet away from him—he was out of their reach.

With the harmless-looking trowel held like a dagger, he struck with all his might at the stellene outer wall of the dome, and then made a ripping motion. Like a monster gasping for breath, the imprisoned air sighed out.

Taking advantage of the moment when Rodan’s and Dutch’s hands moved in life-saving instinct to reseal their collars, Frank Nelsen leaped, and then kicked twice, as hard as he could, in rapid succession. At Dutch’s stomach, first. Then Rodan’s.

They were down—safe from death, since they had managed to re-latch their collars. But with a cold fury that had learned to take no chances with defeat, Nelsen proceeded to kick them again, first one and then the other, meaning to make them insensible.

He got Dutch’s pistol. He was a shade slow with Rodan. “You won’t get anything that is mine!” he heard Rodan grunt.

Frank managed to deflect the automatic’s muzzle from himself. But Rodan moved it downward purposefully, lined it up on a box marked dynamite, and fired.

Nelsen must have thrown himself prone at the last instant, before the ticklish explosive blew. He saw the flash and felt the dazing thud, though most of the blast passed over him. Results far outstripped the most furious intention of his plan, and became, not freedom, but a threat of slow dying, an ordeal, as the sagging dome was torn from above him, and supplies, air-restorer equipment, water and oxygen flasks, the vitals and the batteries of the solar-electric plant—all for the most part hopelessly shattered—were hurled far and wide, along with the relics from Mars. The adjacent garden and quarters domes were also shredded and swept away.

Dazed, Nelsen still got Rodan’s automatic, picked himself up, saw that Dutch and Rodan, in armor, too, had apparently suffered from the explosion no worse than had he. He glanced at the hole in the lava rock, still smoking in the high vacuum. Most of the force of the blast had gone upward. He looked at Helen’s toppled tomatoes and petunias—yes, petunias—where the garden dome had been. Oddly, they didn’t wilt at once, though the little water in the hydroponic troughs was boiling away furiously, making frosty rainbows in the slanting light of the sun. Fragments of a solar lamp, to keep the plants growing at night, lay in the shambles.

Rodan and Dutch were pretty well knocked out from Frank Nelsen’s footwork. Now Dave Lester and Helen Rodan came running. Lester’s face was all stunned surprise. Helen was yelling.

“I saw you do it—you—murderer!”

When she kneeled beside her father, Frank got her gun, too. He felt an awful regret for a plan whose results far surpassed his intentions, but there was no good in showing it, now. Someone had to be in command in a situation which already looked black.

“Frank—I didn’t suppose—” Lester stammered. “Now—what are we going to do?”

“All that we can do—try to get out of here!” Frank snapped back at him.

With some shreds of stellene, he tied Dutch’s arms behind his back, and lashed his feet together. Then he pulled Helen away from Rodan.

“Hold her, Les,” he ordered. “Maybe I overplayed my hand, but just the same, I still think I’m the best to say what’s to be done and maybe get us out of a jam, and I can’t have Helen or Rodan or anybody else doing any more cockeyed things to screw matters up even worse than they are.”

Nelsen trussed Rodan up, too, then searched Rodan’s thigh pouch and found a bunch of keys.

“You come along with me, Les and Helen,” he said. “First we’ll find out what we’ve got left to work with.”

He investigated the rocket. That the blast had toppled it over, wasn’t the worst. When he unlocked its servicing doors, he found that Rodan had removed a vital part from the nuclear exciters of the motors. His and Lester’s blastoff drums were still in the freight compartment, but the ionics and air-restorers had been similarly rendered unworkable. Their oxygen and water flasks were gone. Only their bubbs were intact, but there was nothing with which to inflate them.

When Frank examined the sun-powered tractor, he found that tiny platinum plates had been taken from the thermocouple units. It was clear that, with paranoid thoroughness, Rodan had concentrated all capacity to move from the camp’s vicinity in himself. He had probably locked up the missing items in the supply dome, and now the exploding dynamite had ruined them.

Exploring the plain, Nelsen even found quite a few of the absent parts, all useless. Only one oxygen flask and one water flask remained intact. Here was a diabolical backfiring of schemes, all around.

Returning to Rodan and Dutch, he examined their Archers through their servicing ports. Rodan’s was as the manufacturer intended it. But Dutch’s was jimmied the same as his and Lester’s.

Nelsen swung Helen around to face him, and unlatched a port at her Archer’s shoulder.

“He put even you on a short string, kid,” he pronounced bitterly, after a moment. “Well, at least we can give you his nuclear battery for a while, and let him have his chemical cell back.”

Helen seemed about to attack him. But then her look wavered; confusion and pain came into her face.

Nelsen was aware that he was doing almost all of the talking, but maybe this had to be.

“So we’ve got a long walk,” he said. “Toward the Tovie settlement. In Archers of mostly much-reduced range. Whose fault the situation is, can’t change anything a bit. This is a life-or-death proposition, with lasting-time the most important factor. So let’s get started. Has anybody got any suggestions to increase our chances?”

Both Rodan and Dutch had come to. Rodan said nothing. His look was pure poison.

Dutch sneered. “Smart damn kid you are, huh, Nelsen? You think! Wait till you and your mumblin’ crackpot pal get out there! I’ll watch both of you go bust, squirt!”

Lester seemed not to hear these remarks. “All that gypsum, Frank,” he said. “The water-and-oxygen mineral. But this is for real. There’s no gimmick—no energy-source—to release it and save us…”

Frank Nelsen untied Rodan’s and Dutch’s feet, and, at pistol point, ordered them to move out ahead. From the charts he knew the bearing—straight toward the constellation Cassiopeia, at this hour, across an arm of Mare Nova, then along a pass that cut through the mountains. Eight hundred hopeless miles…! Well, how did he know, really? How much could a human body take? How fast could they go? How long would the chemical batteries actually last? What breaks might appear?

They loped along, even Rodan hurrying. They made a hundred miles in the hours before darkness. With just Helen’s shoulder lamp showing the way, they continued onward through the mountains.

Was there truly much to tell, in that slow, losing struggle? Nelsen attached the oxygen flask to his air system for a while, relieving the drain on his battery. Then he gave the flask to Lester. Later he began to move the nuclear battery around to all the Archers, to conserve all of the other batteries a little. Soon they filled the drinking-water tanks of their armor, so that they could discard the flask, whose slight weight seemed to have tripled.

After twenty hours, the power of the chemical batteries began to wane. David Lester, hovering close to Helen, muttered to himself, or to her. Rodan, still marching quite strongly, retreated into an unreality of his own.

“Have another scotch on the rocks, Ralph,” he said genially. “I knew I’d make it… Nobel Prize… Oh, you have no idea what I went through… Most of my staff dead… But it’s over, now, Ralph… Another good, stomach-warming scotch…”

“Damn, loony squirt’s crackin’ up!” Dutch screamed suddenly.

He began to run, promptly falling into a volcanic crack, the bottom of which couldn’t even be found with the light. Fortunately he wasn’t wearing the nuclear battery just then.

Somehow, Lester remained cool. It was as if, with everyone else scared, too, and nobody to show superior courage, he had found himself.

The batteries waned further. The cold of the inky lunar night—much worse than that of interplanetary space, where there is practically always sunshine, began to bite through the insulation of the Archers, and power couldn’t be wasted on the heating coils.

Worst was the need for rest. They all lay down at last, except Frank Nelsen, who moved around, clipping the nuclear battery into one Archer for a minute, to freshen the air, and then into another. It was the only trick—or gimmick—that they found. After a while, Lester made the rounds, while Nelsen rested.

They got a few more miles by swapping batteries in quick succession. But the accumulating carbon dioxide in the air they breathed, made them sleepier. They had to sit down, then lie down. Frank figured that they had come something over a quarter of the eight hundred miles. This was about the end of Frank Nelsen, would-be Planet Strapper from Jarviston, Minnesota. Well—his coffin would be a common one—an Archer Five… Somehow, he thought of a line from Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

He tried to clip the nuclear battery back in Helen’s armor, again. She might make the remaining five hundred-something miles, alone…! He just barely managed to accomplish it… There was still a little juice, from his chemical cell, feeding his helmet phone… Now, he thought he heard someone singing raucously one of those improvised doggerel songs of spacemen and Moonmen… Folklore, almost…

“If this goddam dust

Just holds its crust,

I’ll get on to hell

If my gear don’t bust…”

“Hey!” Nelsen gurgled thickly into his phone. “Hey…” Then it was as if he sort of sank…

Hell was real, all right, because, with needles in his eyes and all through his body, Nelsen seemed to be goaded on by imps to crawl, in infinite weariness, through a hot steel pipe, to face Old Nick himself—or was it somebody he’d met before?

Maybe he asked, because he got an answer—from the grinning, freckled face bending over him, as he lay, armorless, on a sort of pallet, under the taut stellene roof of a Moontent.

“Sure Frankie—me, Gimp Hines, the itinerant trader and repairman of the lunar wilderness… What a switch—didn’t think you’d goof! The Bunch—especially Two-and-Two—couldn’t contact you. So I was sort of looking, knowing about where you’d be. Just made it in time. Les and the girl, and that ornery professor-or-whatever, are right here, too—still knocked out with a devil-killer. You’ve been out twenty hours, yourself. I’ll fill you in on the news. Just shut up and drink up. Good Earth whiskey—a hundred bucks just to shoot a fifth into orbit.”

Frank gulped and coughed. “Thanks, Gimp.” His voice was like pumice.

“Shut up, I said!” Gimp ordered arrogantly. “About me—first. When I got to Serene, I could have convinced them I was worth a job. But I’m independent. I hocked my gear, bought some old parts, built myself a tractor and trailer, loaded it with water, oxygen, frozen vegetables, spare parts, cigarettes, pin-up pictures, liquor and so forth, and came travelling. I didn’t forget tools. You’d be astonished by what you can sell and fix—and for what prices—out in the isolated areas, or what you can bring back. I even got a couple of emeralds as big as pigeon eggs. I’m getting myself a reputation, besides. What difference does just one good leg make—at only one-sixth Earth grav? You still hop along, even when you don’t ride. And everywhere I go, I leave that left boot print behind in the dust, like a record that could last a thousand ages. I’m getting to be Left Foot, the legend.”

Nelsen cleared his throat, found his voice. “Cocky, aren’t you, Pal?” he chuckled. So another thing was happening in reverse from what most people had expected. Gimp Hines was finding a new, surer self, off the Earth.

“It’s all right, Gimp,” Nelsen added. “I figured that I saw your tracks and your tractor tread marks, up in the hills, just before I decided to break away from Rodan…”

Then he was telling the whole story.

“Yes, I was there,” Gimp said at the end. “I missed you on the first pass, prospected for a couple of Earth-days, found a small copper deposit. High ground gave me a good position to receive short-wave messages—thought I heard your voices a couple of times. So I doubled back, and located what is left of Rodan’s camp, and yours and Les’ initialed blastoff drums, which I’ve brought along in my trailer. Lucky a trader needs an atom-powered tractor that can move at night. I followed your tracks, though going through rough country, you were screened from my radio calls until I was almost on you. Though on my first pass, when you were still in camp, I guess I could have reached you by bouncing a beam off a mountain top, had I known… Well, it doesn’t matter, now. I’m out of stock, again, and full of money—got to head back to Serene… You were trying for the Tovie station, eh?”

“What else could we do?”

“I see what you mean, Frank. If you could have made it, and missed getting shot by some trigger-happy guard—where a frontier isn’t even supposed to exist—they probably would have held you for a while, and then let you go.”

“About the rest of the Bunch?” Frank Nelsen prompted.

“The Kuzaks got to the Belt okay—though they had to fight off some rough and humorous characters. Storey reached his Mars. Charlie Reynolds and Two-and-Two got to Venus, and hooked up with the exploring expedition. Tiflin? Who knows?”


“Ah—a real disappointing case, Frank. Darn wild idiot who ought to be probing the farther reaches of the solar system, got himself a job in a chemical plant in Serene. A synthesizing retort exploded. He was burned pretty bad. Just out of the hospital when I last left. It was on account of a woman that he was on the Moon at all.”

“Eileen, the Queen of Serene? Gimp!—is that so, too?”

“Yep—sort of. Our Eileen. Back in Jarviston, Ramos found out that she was there. She’s a good kid. Even admits that she hasn’t got much competition, on a mostly—yet—masculine world… Well, I guess we start rolling, eh? I didn’t want to jolt any of you poor sick people, so I camped. Let’s get you all into Archers, for which I have a few spare parts left. Then, after we roll up this sealed, air-conditioned tent of a familiar material, we can be on our way.”

“Just let’s watch Rodan—that’s all,” Frank Nelsen warned.

“Sure—we’ll keep him good and dopey with a tranquilizer…”

They aroused Dave Lester and Helen Rodan, helped them armor up, explained briefly what the situation was, stuffed Xavier Rodan into his Archer, and climbed with him into the sealable cab of the tractor. Here they could all remove their helmets.

After several hours of bumping over rugged country, with the tractor’s headlights blazing through the star-topped blackness, they reached a solid trail over a mare. Then they could zip along, almost like on a highway. There were other rough stretches, but most of the well selected route was smooth. Half the time, Nelsen drove, while Gimp rested or slept. They ate spaceman’s gruel, heated on a little electric stove. And after a certain number of hours, they climbed over the side of the Moon, and made their own sunrise. After that, the going seemed easier.

Gimp and Frank were just about talked out, by then. Helen Rodan looked after her slumbering father. Otherwise, she and Lester seemed wrapped up in each other. Frank hardly listened to the few words they exchanged. They kept peering eagerly and worriedly along the trail, that wound past fantastic scenery.

Nelsen was eager and tense, himself. Serene, he was thinking with gratitude. Back to some of civilization. Back to freedom—if there wasn’t too much trouble on account of all that had happened. Speeding along, they passed the first scattered domes, a hydroponic garden, an isolated sun-power plant.

It was another hour before they reached the checking-gate of one of the main airlocks. Frank Nelsen didn’t try any tricks before the white-armored international guards.

“There have been some difficulties,” he said. “I think you will want all of our names.”

“I am Helen Rodan,” Helen interrupted. “My father, Xavier Rodan, here, is sick. He needs a hospital. I will stay with him. These are our friends. They brought us all the way from Far Side.”

Within the broad airlock compartment, Lester also got down from the tractor. “I’ll stay, too,” he said. “Go ahead, Frank. You and Gimp have had enough.”

“A moment,” gruffed one of the guards with a slight accent. “We shall say who shall do what—passing this lock. Difficulties? Very well. Names, and space-fitness cards, please, from everybody. And where you will be staying, here in Serene…”

Gimp and Frank got permission to pass the lock after about fifteen minutes. Without Helen and Les agreeing to stay, it might have been tougher. They spoke their thanks. For the time being, Frank was free to breathe open air under big, stellene domes. But he didn’t know in what web of questioning and accusation he might soon be entangled.

Looking back to his first action against Rodan—with a sharpened trowel that had pierced the wall of a stellene dome—eventually leading up to Dutch’s death, and very nearly precipitating his own demise and that of his other companions, he wondered if it wouldn’t be regarded as criminal. Now he wasn’t absolutely sure, himself, that it hadn’t been criminal—or Moonmad. Yet he didn’t hate Xavier Rodan any less.

“The S.O.B. might just get sent to a mental hospital—at the worst,” Gimp growled loyally. “Well, come on, Frank—let’s forget it, ditch our Archies at the Hostel, get a culture steak, and look around to see what you’ve missed…”

So that was how Frank Nelsen began to get acquainted with Serene—fifteen thousand population, much of it habitually transient; a town of vast aspirations, careful discipline, little spotless cubicles for living quarters, pay twenty dollars a day just for the air you breathe, Earth-beer twenty dollars a can, a dollar if synthesized locally. Hydroponic sunflowers, dahlias, poppies, tomatoes, cabbages, all grown enormous in this slight gravity. New chemical-synthesis plants, above ground and far below; metal refineries, shops making electronic and nuclear devices, and articles of fabric, glass, rubber, plastic, magnesium. A town of supply warehouses and tanks around a great space port; a town of a thousand unfinished enterprises, and as many paradoxes and inconveniencies. No water in fountains, water in toilets only during part of an Earth-day. English, French, Spanish, German, Greek and Arabic spoken, to mention a few of the languages. An astronomical observatory; a selenographic museum, already open, though less than half completed. And of course it was against the law not to work for more than seventy-two consecutive hours. And over the whole setup there seemed to hang the question: Can Man really live in space, or does his invasion of it signal his final downfall?

At a certain point, Nelsen gave up trying to figure out all of the aspects of Serene. Of course he and Gimp had one inevitable goal. There was a short walk, Gimp hopping along lightly; then there was an elevator ride downward, for the place, aggressively named The First Stop, was nestled cosily in the lava-rock underlying the dust of Mare Serenitatis.

It had an arched interior, bar, stage, blaring jukebox, tables, and a shoulder-to-shoulder press of tough men, held in curious orderliness in part by the rigid caution needed in their dangerous and artificial existences, in part by the presence of police, and in part perhaps by a kind of stored-up awe and tenderness for girls—all girls—who had been out of their lives for too long. In a way, it was a crude, tawdry joint; but it was not the place that Frank and Gimp—or even many of the others—had come to see.

Eileen Sands was there, dancing crazy, swoopy stuff, possible at lunar gravity, as Frank and Gimp entered. Her costume was no feminine fluff; cheesecake, of which she presumably didn’t have much, was not on display, either. Dungarees, still? No, not quite. Slender black trousers, like some girls use for ballet practice, instead.

Maybe she wasn’t terribly good, or sufficiently drilled, yet, in her routines. But she had a pert, appealing face, a quick smile; her hair was brushed close to her head. She was a cute, utterly bold pixy to remember smiling at you—just you—like a spirit of luck and love, far out in the thick silence.

Her caper ended. She was puffing and laughing and bowing—and maybe sweating, some, besides. The clapping was thunderous. She came out again and sang Fire Streak in a haunting, husky voice.

Meanwhile, a barman touched Frank’s and Gimp’s shoulders. “Hines and Nelsen? She has spotted you two. She wants to see you in her quarters.”

“Hi, lads,” she laughed. “Beer for old times?… You look like hell, Frank. Brief me on the missing chapter. You had everybody scared.”

“Uh-uh—you first, Your Majesty,” Nelsen chuckled in return.

She wrinkled her nose at him. “Well, I got here. There was a need. Somebody decided that I was the best available talent. This is the first step. Maybe I’ll have my own spot—bigger and better. Or get back to my own regular self, working Out There with the men.”

Maybe it was bad taste, but Nelsen felt like teasing. “Ever hear of a person named Miguel Ramos?”

That didn’t bother her. She shrugged. “Still around, though I hope not for long, the buffoon! Who could ever put up with a show-off small boy like that for more than ten minutes? Besides, he’s wasting himself. Why should he pick me for a bad influence…? Now, your chapter, Frank.”

He told her the story, briefly.

At last she said, “Frank, you must be spiritually all jammed up. Gimp is set, I know…”

In a few minutes more, Eileen introduced him to a girl. Jennie Harper had large dark eyes, and a funny, achy sort of voice. Gimp disappeared discreetly with his date. Frank and Jennie sat at a table in a private booth, high up in the arches of The First Stop, and watched Eileen do another number.

Jennie explained herself. “I’m another one. I’ve got to go where the heroes go. That’s me—Frankie, is it? So I’m here…”

She had a perfume. While he was Rodan’s prisoner for two and a half months, there were special things that had driven him almost wild. Now he made hints, inevitably.

“I don’t need Eileen to tell me you’re a good guy, Frank,” she said with a small, warm smile. “We’re just entertainers. They wouldn’t let us be anything else—here…”

It hardly mattered what else they said. Maybe it was fifteen hours later that Frank Nelsen found himself walking along a stellene-covered causeway, looking for Left Foot Gimp Hines. He had memories of a tiny room, very neat and compact, with even a single huge rose in a vase on the bed table. But the time had a fierce velvet-softness that tried to draw him to it forevermore. It was like the grip of home, and the lost Earth, and the fear that he would chicken out and return.

He found Gimp, who seemed worried. “You might get stuck, here, on account of Rodan,” he said. “Even I might. We’d better go see.”

Nelsen had bitter, vengeful thoughts of Rodan being set at liberty—with himself the culprit.

The official at the police building was an American—a gruff one, but human. “I got the dope from the girl, Nelsen,” he said. “And from Lester. You’re lucky. Rodan confessed to a murder—another employee—just before he hired you. Apparently just before he made his discovery. He was afraid that the kid would try to horn in. Oh, he’s not insane—not enough to escape punishment, anyhow. Here the official means of execution is simple exposure to the vacuum. Now, if you want to leave Serene, you’d better do so soon, before somebody decides to subpoena you as a witness…”

Frank felt a humbled wonder. Was Rodan really accountable, or was it the Moon and space, working on people’s emotions?

Leaving the building, Frank and Gimp found Dave Lester and Helen Rodan entering. They talked for a moment. Then Lester said:

“Helen’s had lots of trouble. And we’re in love. What do we do, guys?”

“Dunno—get married?” Nelsen answered, shrugging. “It must happen here, too. Oh, I get it—living costs, off the Earth, are high. Well—I’ve got what Helen’s father paid me. Of course I have to replace the missing parts of my equipment. But I’ll loan you five hundred. Wish it could be more.”

“Shucks, I can do better,” Gimp joined in. “Pay us sometime, when you see us.”

“I—I don’t know…” Lester protested worriedly, like an honest man.

But Gimp and Frank were already shelling out bills, like vagabonds who happened to be flush.

“Poor simpletons,” Gimp wailed facetiously afterwards, when they had moved out of earshot. “Even here, it happens. But that’s worse. And if her Daddy had stayed human, she might almost have been an heiress… Well, come on, Frank. I’ve got my space gear out of hock, and my tractor sold. And an old buddy of ours is waiting for us at a repair and outfitting shop near the space port. I hope we didn’t jump the gun, assuming you want to get out into the open again, too?”

“You didn’t,” Nelsen answered. “You sure you don’t want to look at Rodan’s site—see if we can find any more Martian stuff?”

Gimp looked regretful for a second. “Uh-uh—it’s jinxed,” he said.

Ramos, scarred, somewhat, along the neck and left cheek, and a bit stiff of shoulder, was rueful but very eager. Frank’s gutted gear was out of the blastoff drum, and spread around the shop. Most of it was already fixed. Ramos had been helping.

“Well, Frankie—here’s one loose goose who is really glad to be leaving Luna,” he said. “Are the asteroids all right with you for a start?”

“They are,” Nelsen told him.

“Passing close to Mars, which is lined up orbitally along our route,” Gimp put in. “Did you beam Two-and-Two and Charlie on Venus?”

“Uh-huh—they’re just kind of bored,” Ramos said. “I even got Storey at the Martian Survey Station. But he’s going out into those lousy thickets, again. Old Paul, in Jarviston, sounds the same. Can’t get him right now—North America is turned away… I couldn’t pinpoint the Kuzaks in the Belt, but that’s not unusual.”

“I’ll finance a load of trade stuff for them,” Gimp chuckled. “We ought to be able to move out in about five hours, eh?”

“Should,” Ramos agreed. “Weapons—we might need ’em this trip—and everything else is about ready.”

“So we’ll get a good meal, and then buy our load,” Frank enthused.

He felt the texture of his deflated bubb. The hard lines of deep-space equipment quickened his pulses. He forgot the call of Earth. He felt as free and easy as a hobo with cosmic dust in his hair.

Blastoff from Serene’s port, even with three heavily loaded trader rockets, was comparatively easy and inexpensive.

Out in orbit, three reunited Bunch members inflated and rigged their bubbs. For Nelsen it seemed an old, splendid feeling. They lashed the supplies from the trader rockets into great bundles that they could tow.

Before the rockets began to descend, the trio of beautiful, fragile rings, pushed by ions streaming from their centers, started to accelerate.

  1. III
  2. The Planet Strappers
  3. V