The Planet Strappers: V

  1. IV
  2. The Planet Strappers
  3. VI

“It’s the life of Reilly, Paul,” Ramos was beaming back to Jarviston, Minnesota, not many hours after Frank Nelsen, Gimp Hines and he started out from the Moon, with their ultimate destination—after the delivery of their loads of supplies to the Kuzaks—tentatively marked in their minds as Pallastown on Pallas, the Golden Asteroid.

Ramos was riding a great bale, drawn by his spinning and still accelerating ring, to the hub of which it was attached by a thin steel cable, passed through a well-oiled swivel bolt. One of his booted feet was hooked under a bale lashing, to keep him from drifting off in the absence of weight. He held a rifle casually, but at alert, across his knees. Its needle-like bullets were not intended to kill. They were tiny rockets that could flame during the last second of a long flight, homing in on a target by means of a self-contained and marvelously miniaturized radar guidance system. Their tips were anesthetic.

The parabolic antenna mounted on the elbow of Ramos’ Archer, swung a tiny bit, holding the beam contact with Paul Hendricks automatically, after it was made. Yet Ramos kept his arm very still, to avoid making the slender beam swing wide. Meanwhile, he was elaborating on his first statement:

“… Not like before. No terrestrial ground-to-orbit weight problem to beat, this trip, Paul. And we’ve got some of about everything that the Moon could provide, thanks to Gimp, who paid the bill. Culture steak in the shadow refrigerators. That’s all you need, Out Here, to keep things frozen—just a shadow… We’ve got hydroponic vegetables, tinned bread, chocolate, beer. We’ve got sun stoves to cook on. We’ve got numerous luxury items not meant for the stomach. We’re living high for a while, anyhow. Of course we don’t want to use up too much of the fancy stuff. Tell Otto Kramer about us…”

Frank Nelsen and Gimp Hines, who were riding the rigging of their respective bubbs, which were also hauling big bales of supplies, were part of the trans-spatial conversation, too. There was enough leakage from Ramos’ tightened beam, here at its source, for them to hear what he said.

But when, after a moment, Paul Hendricks answered from the distance, “Easy with the talk, fella—overinterested people might be listening,” they suddenly forgot their own enthusiasms. They realized. Their hides tingled unpleasantly.

Ramos’ dark face hardened. Still he spoke depreciatingly. “Shucks, Paul, this is a well-focused beam. Besides it’s pointing Earthward and sunward; not toward the Belt, where most of the real mean folks are…” But he sounded defensive, and very soon he said, “‘Bye for now, Paul.”

A little later, Frank Nelsen contacted Art Kuzak, out in the Asteroid Belt, across a much greater stretch of space. He thought he was cautious when he said, “We’re riding a bit heavy—for you guys…” But after the twenty minute interval it took to get an answer back over ten light-minutes of distance traversed twice—186,000 miles for every second, spanned by slender threads of radio energy which were of low-power but of low-loss low-dispersal, too, explaining their tremendous range—Art Kuzak’s warning was carefully cryptic, yet plain to Nelsen and his companions.

“Thanks for all the favors,” he growled dryly. “Now keep still, and be real thoughtful, Frankie Boy. That also goes for you other two naive boneheads…”

Open space, like open, scarcely touched country, had produced its outlaws. But the distances were far greater. The pressures of need were infinitely harsher.

“Yeah, there’s a leader named Fessler,” Gimp rasped, with his phone turned low so that only his companions could hear him. “But there are other names… Art’s right. We’d better keep our eyes open and our mouths shut.”

Asteroid miners who had had poor luck, or who had been forced to kill to win even the breath of life; colonists who had left Mars after terrible misfortunes, there; adventurers soured and maddened by months in a vacuum armor, smelling the stench of their own unwashed bodies; men flush with gains, and seeking merely to relieve the tensions of their restrained, artificial existences in a wild spree; refugees from rigid Tovie conformism—all these composed the membership of the wandering, robbing, hijacking bands, which, though not numerous, were significant. Once, most of these men had been reasonably well-balanced individuals, easily lost in a crowd. But the Big Vacuum could change that.

Ramos, Hines, and Nelsen had heard the stories. Now, their watchfulness became almost exaggerated. They felt their inexperience. They made no more radio beam contacts. One of them was always on lookout, clutching a rifle, peering all around, glancing every few seconds at the miniaturized radar screen set inside the collar of his helmet. But the spherical sky remained free of any unexplained blip or luminous speck. Fragments of conversations picked up in their phones—widely separated asteroid-miners talking to each other, for the most part—obviously came from far away. There was a U.S.S.F. bubb cruising a few million miles off. Otherwise, the enormous emptiness was safely and perversely empty, all around.

They kept accelerating. For a planned interval, they enjoyed all the good things. They found that masculine guardedness and laziness went well together. They ate themselves full. Like Mitch Storey had once done, they all started hydroponic gardens inside their bubbs. In the pleasant, steamy sun-warmth of those stellene interiors, they bounced back and forth from elastic wall to elastic wall, with gravity temporarily at zero because they had stopped the spin of their bubbs. Thus they loosened their muscles, worked up a sweat. Afterwards they dozed, slept, listened to beamed radio music or taped recordings of their own. They smiled at pin-up pictures, read microfilmed books through a viewer, looked at the growing plants around them.

There was an arrogance in them, because they had succeeded in bringing so much of home out here. There was even a mood like that of a lost, languid beach in the tropics. And how was that possible, with only a thin skin of stellene between them and frigid nothing?

Ramos said just about what he had said—long ago, it seemed, now. “Nuts—the Big Vacuum ain’t so tough.” But he amended quickly, “Yeah, I know, Frank—don’t scowl. When you aren’t looking, it can up and kill you. Like with my Uncle José, only worse. He was a powder monkey in Mexico. It got so he thought dynamite was his friend. Well, there wasn’t even anything to put in his coffin…”

The luxurious interlude passed, and they reverted mostly to Spartan meals of space-gruel, except for some fresh-grown lettuce. Mars became an agate bead, then a hazy sphere with those swirled, almost fluid markings, where the spores of a perhaps sentient vegetable life followed the paths of thin winds, blowing equatorward from the polar caps of hoarfrost.

The three stellene rings bumped lightly on the ten mile chunk of captured asteroidal rock and nickel-iron that was Phobos, Mars’ nearer moon. Gravitation was almost nil. There was no need, here, for rockets, to land or take off. The sun-powered ionics were more than enough.

A small observatory, a U.N.-tended between ground-and-orbit rocket port, and a few hydroponic garden domes nestled in the jaggedness were about all that Phobos had—other than the magnificent view of the Red Planet, below.

Gimp Hines’ freckled face shone in the ruddy light. “I’m going down,” he declared. “Just for a few days, to look around near the Survey Station. You guys?”

Ramos shrugged, almost disinterested. “People have been there—some still are. And what good is poking around the Station? But who wants to goof up, going into the thickets? Others have done that, often enough. Me for Pallastown, and maybe lots farther, pal.”

Frank Nelsen wasn’t that blasé. On the Moon, he had seen some of the old Mars of advanced native technology, now long extinct. But there was also the recent Mars of explorers and then footloose adventurers, wondering what they could find to do with this quiet, pastel-tinted world of tremendous history. Then had come the colonists, with their tractors and their rolls of stellene to make sealed dwellings and covered fields in that thin, almost oxygenless atmosphere.

But their hopes to find peace and isolation from the crowded and troubled Earth by science and hard work even in so harsh a place, had come into conflict with a third Mars that must have begun soon after the original inhabitants had been destroyed. Though maybe it had had its start, billions of years before, on the planets of another star. The thickets had seemed harmless. Was this another, different civilization, that had risen at last in anger, using its own methods of allergy, terrible repellant nostalgia, and mental distortions?

Frank felt the call of mystery which was half dread. But then he shrugged. “Uh-uh, Gimp. I’d like to go down, too. But the gravity is twice that of the Moon—getting up and down isn’t so easy. Besides, once when I made a stopover in space, after a nice short hop, I got into trouble. I’ll pass this one up. I’d like to talk to Mitch Storey, though.”

They all tried to reach him, beaming the Survey Station at the edge of Syrtis Major, the great equatorial wedge of blue-green growths on the floor of a vanished ocean, first.

“Mitchell Storey is not around right now,” a young man’s voice informed them. “He wandered off again, three days ago. Does it often… No—we don’t know where to reach him…”

Widening their beams over the short range of considerably less than four thousand miles, they tried to call Mitch directly. No luck. Contact should have been easy. But of course he could be wandering with his Archer helmet-phone turned off.

Considering the reputation of Mars, Nelsen was a bit worried. But he had a perhaps treacherous belief that Mitch was special enough to take care of himself.

Ramos was impatient. “We’ll hook old Mitch on our party line, sometime, Frank,” he said. “Right now we ought to get started. Space is still nice and empty ahead, toward the Kuzaks and Pallastown. That condition might not last… Gimp, are you honest-to-gosh set on going down to this dried-up, museum-world?”

“Umhmm. See you soon, though,” Gimp answered, grinning. “I’ll leave my bubb and my load of supplies up here on Phobos. Be back for it probably in a week. And there’ll be a freight-bubb cluster, or something, for me to join up with, and follow you Out…”

Nelsen and Ramos left Gimp Hines before he boarded the winged skip-glide rocket that would take him below. Parting words flew back and forth. “See you… Take care… Over the Milky Way, suckers…”

Then they were standing off from Mars and its two moons. During the next several Earth-days of time, they accelerated with all the power that their bubb ionics could wring out of the sunshine, weakened now, with distance. They knew about where to find the Kuzaks. But contact was weeks off. When they were close enough, they could radio safely, checking the exact position of Art’s and Joe’s supply post. And they knew enough to steer clear of Ceres, the largest Asteroid, which was Tovie-occupied. All the signs were good. They were well-armed and watchful. They should have made the trip without trouble.

Ahead, dim still with distance, but glinting with a pinkish, metallic shine which made it much brighter than it would otherwise have been, was Pallas, which Ramos watched like a beacon.

“Eldorado,” he said once, cockily, as if he remembered something from the Spanish part of his background.

They got almost three-quarters across that unimaginable stretch of emptiness before there was a bad sign. It was a catcall—literally—in their helmet phones. “Meow!” It was falsely plaintive and innocuous. It was a maliciously childish promise of trouble.

A little later, there was a chuckle. “Be cavalier, fellas. Watch yourselves. I mean it.” The tone had a strange intensity.

Ramos was on lookout, then, with eyes, radar and rifle. But the spoken message had been too brief to get a fix on the direction of its radio waves.

Ramos stiffened. With his phone power turned very low, he said, “Frank—lots of people say ‘Be cavalier’, nowadays. But that includes one of the old Bunch. The voice might match, too.”

“Uh-huh—Tiflin, the S.O.B.,” Nelsen growled softly.

For ten hours, nothing else happened. Then there were some tiny radar-blips, which could have indicated meteors. Nelsen and Ramos changed the angle of the ion guides of their ionic motors to move their bubbs from course, slightly, and dodge. During the first hour, they were successful. But then there were more blips, in greater numbers.

Fist-sized chunks flicked through their vehicles almost simultaneously. Air puffed out. Their rings collapsed under them—the sealer was no good for holes of such size. At once, the continued spin of the bubbs wound them, like limp laundry, into knots.

While Nelsen and Ramos were trying to untangle the mess, visible specks appeared in the distance. They fired at them. Then something slammed hard into the fleshy part of Nelsen’s hip, penetrating his armor, and passing on out, again. The sealing gum in the Archer’s skin worked effectively on the needle-like punctures, but the knockout drug had been delivered.

As his awareness faded, Nelsen fired rapidly, and saw Ramos doing the same—until his hand slapped suddenly at his side…

After that there was nothing, until, for a few seconds, Frank Nelsen regained a blurred consciousness. He was lying, unarmored, inside a bubb—perhaps his own, which had been patched and reinflated. All around him was loud laughter and talk, the gurgle of liquor, the smells of cooked meat, a choking concentration of tobacco smoke. Music blared furiously.

“Busht out shummore!” somebody was hollering. “We got jackpot—the whole fanshy works! I almost think I’m back in Sputtsberg—wherever hell that is… But where’s the wimmin? Nothing but dumb, prissy pitchers! Not even good pitchers…!”

There were guys of all sizes, mostly young, some armored, some not. One with a pimply face stumbled near. Frank Nelsen choked down his fury at the vandalism. He had a blurred urge to find a certain face, and almost thought he succeeded. But everything, including his head, was a fuzzy jumble.

“Hey!” the pimply guy gurgled. “Hey—Boss! Our benefactors—they’re half awake! You should shleep, baby greenhorns…!”

A large man with shovel teeth ambled over. Frank managed half to rise. He met the blow and gave some of it back. Ramos was doing likewise, gamely. Then Nelsen’s head zeroed out again in a pyrotechnic burst…

He awoke to almost absolute silence, and to the turning of the whole universe around him. But of course it was himself that was rotating—boots over head. There was a bad smell of old sweat, and worse.

His hip felt numb from the needle puncture. In all except the most vital areas, those slim missiles would not usually cause death, or even serious injury; but soon the wound would ache naggingly.

First, Frank Nelsen hardly knew where he was. Then he understood that he was drifting free in space, in an armor. He thought it was his own until he failed to recognize the scuffed, grimy interior. Even the workshirt he was wearing wasn’t the new blue one he had put on, it seemed only hours ago. It was a greasy grey.

Etched into the scratched plastic of the helmet that covered his head, he saw “Archer III—ser. no. 828211.” And casually stuck into the gasketted rim of the collar, was a note, pencilled jaggedly on a scrap of paper:

“Honest, Greenie, your a pal. All that nice stuff. Thanks a 1,000,000! Couple of my boys needed new Archies, bad. Thanks again. You and your buddie are not having so bad a brake. These old threes been all over hell. They will show you all about Asteroid hopping and mining. So will the load-hauling net and tools. Thanks for the little dough, too. Find your space fitness card in shirt pocket. We don’t need it. Have lots of fun. Just remember me as The Stinker.”

Frank Nelsen was quivering with anger and scare. He saw that a mended steel net, containing a few items, had got wrapped around him with his turning. He groped for the ion-guide of the ancient shoulder-ionic, and touched a control. Slowly his spin was checked. Meanwhile he untangled himself, and saw what must be Ramos, adrift like himself in a battered Archer Three, doing the same.

Gradually they managed to ion glide over to each other. Their eyes met. They were the butts of a prank that no doubt had been the source of many guffaws.

“Did you get a letter, too, Frank?” Ramos asked. For close communication, the old helmet-phones still worked okay.

“I did,” Nelsen breathed. “Why didn’t they just knock us off? Alive, we might tell on them.”

“Not slow and funny enough, maybe,” Ramos answered dolefully. “In these broken-down outfits, we might not live to tell. Besides, even with these notes for clues, who’d ever find out who they are, way out here?”

Nelsen figured that all this was probably the truth. In the Belt, life was cheap. Death got to be a joke.

“There was an ox of a guy with big teeth!” he hissed furiously. “Thought I saw Tiflin, too—the S.O.B.! Cripes, do I always land in the soup?”

“The bossman with the teeth, I remember,” Ramos grated. “Tiflin I don’t know about. Could be… Hell, though—what now? I suppose we’re going in about the same direction and at the same speed as before? Have to watch the sun and planets to make sure. Did they leave us any instruments? Meanwhile, we might try to decelerate. I’d like to get out to Pluto sometime, but not equipped like this.”

“We’ll check everything—see how bad off they left us,” Nelsen said.

So that was what they did, after they had set their decrepit shoulder-ionics to slow them down in the direction of the Belt.

Each of their hauling nets contained battered chisels, hammers, saws for metal, a radiation counter, a beaten-up-looking pistol, some old position-finding instruments, including a wristwatch that had seen much better days to be used as a chronometer. There were also two large flasks of water and two month-supply boxes of dehydrated space-gruel—these last items obviously granted them from their own, now vanished stores. Here was weird generosity—or perhaps just more ghoulish fun to give them the feeble hope of survival.

Now they checked each other’s Archer Threes as well as they could while they were being worn. No use even to try to communicate over any distance with the worn-out radio transmitters. The nuclear batteries were ninety-percent used up, which still left considerable time—fortunately, because they had to add battery power to the normally sun-energized shoulder-ionics, in order to get any reasonable decelerating effect out of them. Out here, unlike on the Moon at night, the air-restorers could also take direct solar energy through their windows. They needed current only for their pumps. But the green chlorophane, key to the freshening and re-oxygenation of air, was getting slightly pale. The moisture-reclaimers were—by luck—not as bad as some of the other vital parts.

Ramos touched his needled side. His wry grin showed some of his reckless humor. “It’s not utterly awful, yet,” he said. “How do you feel?”

Nelsen’s hip hurt. And he found that he had an awful hangover from the knockout drug, and the slapping around he had received. “Bad enough,” he answered. “Maybe if we ate something…”

They took small, sealed packets of dehydrated food in through their chest airlocks, unsleeved their arms, emptied the packets into plastic squeeze bottles from the utensil racks before them, injected water from the pipettes which led to their shoulder tanks, closed the bottles and let the powdered gruel swell as it reabsorbed moisture. The gruel turned out hot all by itself. For it was a new kind which contained an exothermic ingredient. They ate, in the absence of gravity, by squeezing the bottles.

“Guess we’ll have to become asteroid-hoppers—miners—like the slob said,” Nelsen growled. “Well—I did want to try everything…”

This was to become the pattern of their lives. But not right away. They still had an incomplete conception of the vast distances. They hurtled on, certainly decelerating considerably, for days, yet, before they were in the Belt. Even that looked like enormous emptiness.

And the brightened speck of Pallas was too far to one side. Tovie Ceres was too near on the other side—left, it would be, if they considered the familiar northern hemisphere stars of Earth as showing “up” position. The old instruments had put them off-course. Still, they had to bear even farther left to try to match the direction and the average orbital speed—about twelve miles per second—of the Belt. Otherwise, small pieces of the old planet, hurtling in another direction—and/or at a different velocity—than themselves, could smash them.

Maybe they thought that they would be located and picked up—the gang that had robbed and dumped them had found them easily enough. But there, again, was a paradox of enormity. Bands might wait for suckers somewhere beyond Mars. Elsewhere, there could be nobody for millions of miles.

They saw their first asteroid—a pitted, mesoderm fragment of nickel-iron from middle-deep in the blasted planet. It was just drifting slightly before them. So they had achieved the correct orbital speed. They ion-glided to the chunk, and began to search clumsily for worthwhile metal. It was fantastic that somebody had been there before them, chiselling and sawing out a greyish material, of which there was a little left that made the needles of their radiation counters swing wildly.

They got a few scraps of the stuff to put into the nets which they were towing.

“For luck,” Ramos laughed. “Without it we’ll never pay J. John.”

“Shut up. Big deal,” Nelsen snapped.

“Okay. Shut up it is!” Ramos answered him.

So they stayed silent until they couldn’t stand that, either. Everything was getting on their nerves.

Their next asteroids were mere chips a foot long—core fragments of the planet, heavy metals that had sunk deep. No crust material of any normally formed world could ever show such wealth. It gleamed with a pale yellow shine, and made Ramos’ sunken eyes light up with an ancient fever, until he remembered, and until Nelsen said:

“Not for the gold, anymore, pal. Common, out here. So it’s almost worthless, everywhere. Not much use as an industrial metal. But the osmium and uranium alloyed with it are something else. One hunk for each of our nets. Too bad there isn’t more.”

The uranium was driving their radiation-counters wild.

“Could we drag it, if there was more?” Ramos growled. “With just sun-power on these lousy shoulder-ionics?”

Everything was going sour, even Ramos. After a long deceleration they were afraid to draw any more power for propulsion from their weakened batteries. They needed the remaining current for the moisture-reclaimers and the pumps of the air-restorers—a relatively much lighter but vital drain. The sunlight was weak way out here. Worse, the solar thermocouples to power the ionics were almost shot. They tried to fix them up, succeeding a little, but using far more time than they had expected. Meanwhile, the changed positions of the various large asteroids, moving in their own individual orbits, lost them any definite idea of where the Kuzaks’ supply post was, and the dizzying distance to Pallas, with only half-functioning ionics to get them there, fuddled them in their inexperience.

Soon their big hope was that some reasonable asteroid-hoppers would come within the few thousand mile range of their weakened transmitters. Then they could call, and be picked up.

Mostly to keep themselves occupied, they hunted paymetal, taking only the very best that they could find, to keep the towage mass down. Right from the start they cut their food ration—a good thing, because one month went, and then two, as near as they could figure. Cripes, how much longer could they last?

Often they actually encouraged their minds to create illusions. Frank would hold his body stiff, and look at the stars. After a while he would get the soothing impression that he was swimming on his back in a lake, and was looking up at the night sky.

Mostly, they were out of the regular radio channels. But sometimes, because of the movement of distant bubb clusters that must be kept in touch, they heard music and news briefly, again. They heard ominous reports from the ever more populous Earth. Now it was about areas of ocean to become boundaried and to be “farmed” for food. Territorial disputes were now extending far beyond the land. Once more, the weapons were being uncovered. Of course there were repercussions out here. Ceres Station was beaming pronouncements, too—rattling the saber.

Nelsen and Ramos listened avidly because it was life, because it was contact with lost things, because it was not dead silence.

Their own tribulations deepened.

“Cripes but my feet stink!” Ramos once laughed. “They must be rotten. They’re sore, and they itch something awful, and I can’t scratch them, or change my socks, even. The fungus, I guess. Just old athlete’s foot.”

“The stuff is crawling up my legs,” Nelsen growled.

They knew that the Kuzaks, maybe Two-and-Two, Reynolds, Gimp, Storey, must be trying to call them. They kept listening in their helmet-phones. But this time Frank Nelsen knew that he’d gotten himself a real haystack of enormity in which to double for a lost needle. The slender beams could comb it futilely and endlessly, in the hope of a fortunate accident. Only once they heard, “Nelsen! Ra…” The beam swept on. It could have been Joe Kuzak’s voice. But inevitably, somewhere, there had to be a giving up point for the searchers.

“This is where I came in,” Nelsen said bitterly. “Damn these beam systems that are so delicate and important!”

They did pick up the voices of scattered asteroid-hoppers, talking cautiously back and forth to each other, far away. “… Got me pinpointed, Ed? Coming in almost empty, this trip. Not like the last… Stake me to a run into Pallastown…?” Most of such voices sounded regular, friendly.

Once they heard wild laughter, and what could have been a woman’s scream. But it could have been other things, too.

On another occasion, they almost believed that they had their rescue made. Even their worn-out direction and distance finders could place the ten or so voices as originating not much over a hundred miles away. But they checked their trembling enthusiasm just in time. That was sheerest luck. The curses, and the savage, frightened snarls were all wrong. “If we don’t catch us somebody, soon…”

Out here, the needs could get truly primitive. Oxygen, water, food, repair parts for vital equipment. Cannibalism and blood-drinking could also be part of blunt necessity.

Nelsen and Ramos were fortunate. Twenty miles off was a haze against the stars—a cluster of small mesoderm fragments. Drawing power for their shoulder-ionics from their almost spent nuclear batteries, they glided toward the cluster, and got into its midst, doubling themselves up to look as much like the other chunks as possible. They were like hiding rats for hours, until long after the distant specks moved past.

While he waited, Frank Nelsen’s mind fumbled back to the lost phantom of Jarviston, Minnesota, again. To a man named Jig Hollins who had got married, stayed home. Yellow? Hell…! Nelsen imagined the comforts he might have had in the Space Force. He coaxed up a dream girl—blonde, dark, red-headed—with an awful wistfulness. He thought of Nance Codiss, the neighbor kid. He fumbled at the edge of a vast, foggy vision, where the wanderlust and spacelust of a man, and needs of the expanding race, seemed to blend with his home-love and love-love, and to become, impossibly, a balanced unit…

Later—much later—he heard young, green asteroid-hoppers yakking happily about girls and about how magnificent it was, out here.

“Haw-haw,” he heard Ramos mock.

“Yeah,” Nelsen said thickly. “Lucky for them that they aren’t near us—being careless with their beams, that way…”

Frank Nelsen sneered, despising these innocent novices, sure that he could have beaten and robbed them without compunction. That far he had come toward understanding the outlaws, the twisted men of the Belt.

Ramos and he seemed to go on for an indefinite period longer. In a sense, they toughened. But toward the last they seemed to blunder slowly in the mind-shadows of their weakening body forces. They had a little food left, and water from the moisture-reclaimers. At zero-gravity, where physical exertion is slight, men can get along on small quantities of food. The sweetish, starchy liquid that they could suck through a tube from the air-restorers—it was a by-product of the photosynthetic process—might even have sustained them for a considerable interval.

But the steady weakening of their nuclear batteries was another matter. The pumps of their air-restorers and moisture-reclaimers were dependent on current. Gradually the atmosphere they breathed was getting worse. But from reports they had read and TV programs they had seen long ago, they found themselves another faint hope, and worked on it. With only solar power—derived through worn-out thermocouple units—to feed their uncertain ionics, they could change course only very slowly, now.

Yet maybe they had used up their bad luck. At last they came to a surface-fragment a couple of hundred yards long. They climbed over its edge. The thin sunshine hit dried soil, and something like corn-stubble in rows. Ahead was a solid stone structure, half flattened. Beside it a fallen trunk showed its roots. Vegetation was charred black by the absolute dryness of space. There was a fragment of a road, a wall, a hillside.

Here, there must have been blue sky, thin, frosty wind. The small, Mars-sized planet had been far from the sun. Yet perhaps the greenhouse effect of a high percentage of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere and the radioactive heat of its interior had helped warm it. At least it had been warm enough to evolve life of the highest order, eons ago.

Poof had gone the blue sky and this whole world, all in a moment, the scattered pieces forming the asteroids. Accident? More likely it was a huge, interplanetary missile from competing Mars. The Martians had died, too—as surely, though less spectacularly. Radioactive poison, perhaps… Here, there had been an instant of unimaginable concussion, and of swift-passing flame. The drying out was soon ended. Then, what was left had been preserved in a vacuum through sixty millions of years.

Frank Nelsen had glimpsed ancient Mars, preserved on the Moon. Now he glimpsed its opponent culture, about which more was generally known.

“It’s real,” Ramos grunted. “Hoppers find surface-fragments like this, quite often.”

Nelsen hardly cared about the archeological aspects just then. Excitement and hope that became certainty, enlivened his dulled brain.

“An energy source,” he grated joyfully. “The Big Answer to Everything, out here! And it’s always self-contained in their buildings…”

They pushed the collapsed and blackened thing with the slender bones, aside. They crept into the flat, horizontal spaces of the dwelling—much more like chinks than the rooms that humans would inhabit. They shoved away soft, multi-colored fabrics spun from glass-wool, a metal case with graduated dials and a lens, baubles of gold and glinting mineral.

In a recess in the masonry, ribboned with glazed copper strips that led to clear globes and curious household appliances, they found what they wanted. Six little oblong boxes bunched together. Their outsides were blue ceramic.

Frank Nelsen and Miguel Ramos began to work gingerly, though the gloves of their old Archer Threes were insulated. Here, sixty million years of stopped time had made no difference to these nuclear batteries, that, because of the universal character of physical laws, almost had to be similar in principle to their own. They had almost known that it would make no difference. There had been no drain of power through the automatic safety switches.

“DC current, huh?” Ramos said, breathing hard of the rotten air in his helmet.

“Yeah—gotta be,” Frank answered quickly. “Same as from a thermocouple. Voltage about two hundred. Lots of current, though. Hope these old ionics’ll take it.”

“We can tap off lower, if we have to… Here—I’ll fix you, first… Grab this end…”

They had a sweating two hours of rewiring to get done.

With power available, they might even have found a way to distill and collect the water, usually held in the form of frost, deep-buried in the soil of any large surface-fragment. They might have broken down some of the water electrolytically, to provide themselves with more oxygen to breathe. But perhaps now such efforts were not necessary.

When they switched in the new current, the pumps of their equipment worked better at once. The internal lights of their air-restorers could be used again, augmenting the action of the pale sunshine on the photosynthetic processes of the chlorophane. The air they breathed improved immediately. They tested the power on the shaky ionics, and got a good thrust reaction.

“We can make it—I think,” Frank Nelsen said, speaking low and quick, and with the boldness of an enlivened body and brain. “We’ll shoot up, out of the Belt entirely, then move parallel to it, backwards—contrary to its orbital flow, that is. But being outside of it, we won’t chance getting splattered by any fragments. Probably avoid some slobs, too. We’ll decelerate, and cut back in, near Pallas. There’ll be a way to find the Kuzak twins.”

Ramos chuckled recklessly. “Let’s not forget to pack these historical objects in our nets. Especially that camera, or whatever it is. Money in the bank at last, boy…”

But after they set out, it wasn’t long before they knew that two people were following them. There was no place to hide. And a mocking voice came into their phones.

“Hey, Nelsen… Oh, Mex… Wait up… I’ve been looking for you for over three months…”

They tried first to ignore the hail. They tried to speed up. But their pursuers still had better propulsion. Nelsen gritted his teeth. He felt the certainty of disaster closing in.

“There’s just two of them—so far,” Ramos hissed. “Maybe here’s our chance, Frank, to really smear that rat!” Ramos’ eyes had a battlelight. “All right, Tiflin—approach. These guns are lined up and loaded.”

“Aw—is that friendship, Mex?” the renegade seemed to wheedle. But insolently, he and his larger companion came on.

“Toss us your pistols,” Ramos commanded, as they drifted close, checking speed.

Tiflin flashed a smirk that showed that his front teeth were missing. “Honest, Mex—do you expect us to do that? Be cavalier—I haven’t even got a pistol, right now. Neither has Igor, here. Come look-see… Hi, Frankie!”

“Just stay there,” Nelsen gruffed.

Tiflin cocked his head inside the helmet of a brand-new Archer Six, in a burlesqued pose for inspection. He looked bad. His face had turned hard and lean. There were scars on it. The nervous, explosive-tempered kid, who couldn’t have survived out here, had been burned out of him. For a second, Nelsen almost thought that the change could be for the good. But it was naive to hope that that could happen. Glen Tiflin had become passive, yielding, mocking, with an air of secret knowledge withheld. What did an attitude like that suggest? Treachery, or, perhaps worse, a kind of poised—and poisonous—mental judo?

Nelsen looked at the other man, who wore a Tovie armor. Tall, starvation-lean. Horse-faced, with a lugubrious, bumpkinish smile that almost had a whimsical appeal.

“Honest—I just picked up Igor—which ain’t his real name—in the course of my travels,” Tiflin offered lightly. “He used to be a comic back in Eurasia. He got bored with life on Ceres, and sort of tumbled away.”

With his body stiff as a stick, Igor toppled forward, his mouth gaping in dismay. He turned completely over, his great boots kicking awkwardly. His angular elbows flapped like crow-wings. He righted himself, looked astonished, then beatifically self-approving. He burped delicately, patted his chest plate, then sniffed in sad protest at the leveled pistols.

Now Nelsen and Ramos cast off the loaded nets they had been towing, and closed in on this strange pair. Nelsen did the searching, while Ramos pointed the guns.

“Haven’t even got my shiv anymore, Frankie,” Tiflin remarked, casually. “Threw it at a guy named Fessler, once. Missed by an inch. Guess it’s still going—round and round the sun, for millions of years. Longest knife throw there ever was.”

“Fessler!” Frank snapped. “Now we’re getting places, you S.O.B.! The funny character that robbed and dumped Ramos and me, I’ll bet. Probably with your help! You know him, huh?”

“Knew—for a while—past tense,” Tiflin chuckled wickedly. “Nope—it wasn’t me that stripped off his armor in space. He wasn’t even around, anymore, when you beauties got caught. They come and they go.”

“But you were around, Tiflin!”

“Maybe not. Maybe I was twenty million miles off.”

“Like hell!” Nelsen gritted his teeth, grabbed Tiflin’s shoulder, and swung his gloved fist as hard as he could against the thin layer of rubber and wire over Tiflin’s stomach. He struck three times.

“Damn you!” Nelsen snarled. “I promised myself I’d get you good, Tiflin! Now tell us what else you and your friends are cooking for us, or by the Big Silence, you’ll be a drifting, explosively decompressed mummy!”

Frank Nelsen didn’t know till now, after exerting himself, how weak privations had made him. He felt dizzy.

Tiflin’s eyes had glazed slightly, as he and Frank did a slow roll, together. He gasped. But that insulting smirk came back.

“Haven’t had your Wheaties lately, have you, Frank? Go ahead—hit, knock yourself out. You, too, Mex. I’ve been slugged before, by big men, in shape…! Could be I’m not cooking anything. Except I notice that you two have found yourselves some very interesting local objects of ancient history, worth a little money. Also, some good, raw metal… Well, I suppose you want to get the load and yourselves to the famous twins, Art and Joe. That’s easy—with luck. Though the region is a trifle disturbed, right now. But I can tell you where they are. You won’t have to fiddle around, hunting.”

“Here, hold these guns, Frank. Lemme have a couple of pokes at the slob,” Ramos snapped.

“Aw-right, aw-right—who’s asking you guys to believe me?” Tiflin cut in. “I’ll beam the twins for you—since I’d guess your transmitter won’t reach. You can listen in, and talk back through my set. Okay?”

“Let’s see what happens—just for kicks,” Ramos said softly. “If you’re calling some friends to come and get us, or anything, Tif—well, you’ve had it!”

They watched Tiflin spin and focus the antenna. “Kuzak… Kuzak… Kuzak… Kuzak…” he said into his phone. “Missing boys alive and coming to you. Mex and old Guess Which… Kicking and independent, but very hungry, I think… Put on the coffee pot, you storekeepers… Kuzak… Kuzak… Kuzak… Talk up, Frank and Miguel. Your voices will relay through my phone…”

“Hi, Art and Joe—it’s us,” Ramos almost apologized.

“Yeah—we don’t quite know yet what Tiflin is pulling. But here we are—if it’s you we’re talking to…”

There was the usual long wait as impulses bridged the light-minutes.

Then Art Kuzak’s voice snarled guardedly. “I hear you, Ram and Nel. Come in, if you can…! Tif, you garbage! Someday…! This is all. This is all…” The message broke off.

Tiflin smirked. “Third quadrant of the Belt,” he said, giving a position in space almost like latitude and longitude on Earth. “About twenty minutes of the thirty-first degree. Three degrees above median orbital plane. Approximately two hundred hours from here. Can Igor and I leave you, now, or do you want us to escort you in?”

“We’ll escort you,” Ramos said.

So it was, until, near the end of a long ride, a cluster of bubbs was in view in the near distance, and Ramos and Nelsen could contact Art Kuzak themselves.

“We’ve got Tiflin and his Tovie pal with us, Art,” Frank Nelsen said. “They showed us the way, more or less because we made them. But Tif did give us the right position at the start. A favor, maybe. I don’t know. And now he’s saying, ‘Be cavalier—it might be awkward for me to meet Art and Joe just at present.’ Do you want to fix this character’s wagon bad enough? Your customers could get mean—if he ever did them dirt.”

“Just one thing I’ve got against Tiflin!” Art snarled back. “Every time I hear his voice, it means trouble. But I’ve never seen the crumb face-to-face since that Moonhop. Okay, let’s not spoil my stomach. Turn him loose. It can’t make much difference. Or maybe I’m sentimental about the old Bunch. He was our cracked, space-wild punk.”

“Thanks, Art,” Tiflin laughed.

In a minute he, and his comic, scarecrow pal who originated from the dark side of trouble, on Earth and out here, too, were fading against the stars.

Nelsen and Ramos, the long-lost, glided in, past some grim hoppers. A bubb and sweet air were around them once more. They shed their stinking Archer Threes. Hot showers—miraculous luxury—played over them. They rubbed disinfectant salves into their fungus-ridden hides.

Then there was a clean, white table, with plates, knives, forks. They had to treat their shrunken stomachs gently—just a little of everything—beer, steak, vegetables, fruit… Somewhere during the past, unmarked days Frank Nelsen had gotten to be twenty years old. Only twenty? Well—maybe this was his celebration.

Ramos and he told their story very briefly. Little time was wasted on congratulations for survival or talk of losses long past. The Kuzaks looked leaner and tougher, now, and there were plenty of present difficulties to worry them. Joe Kuzak hurried out to argue with the miners at the raw metal receiving bins and at the store bubbs. Art stayed to explain the present situation.

“Three big loads of supplies were shipped through to us from the Moon,” he growled. “We did fine, trading for metal. We sent J. John Reynolds his percentage—a fair fraction of his entire loan. We sent old Paul five thousand dollars. But the fourth and fifth loads of trade stuff got pirated en route. When there’s trouble on Earth, it comes out here, too. Ceres, colonized by our socialist Tovie friends of northern Eurasia, helps stir up the bums, who think up plenty of hell on their own. It’s a force-out attempt aimed at us or at anybody who thinks our way. After two lost shipments, and a lot of new installations here at the Post, we’re about broke, again. Worse, we’ve got the asteroid-hoppers expecting us to come through with pay for the new metal in their nets, and with stuff they need. Back home, some people used to raise hell about a trifle like a delayed letter. How about a spaceman’s reaction, when what is delayed may be something to keep him alive? They could get really annoyed, and kick this place apart.”

Art Kuzak blew air up past his pug nose, and continued. “Finance—here we go again, Frank!” he chuckled. “Gimp Hines is helping us. After Mars, he came here without trouble. He’s in Pallastown, now, trying to raise some fast cash, and to rush supplies through from there, under Space Force guard. You know he’s got a head for commerce as well as science. But our post, here, perhaps isn’t considered secure enough to back a loan, anymore.”

Art grinned wryly at Nelsen and Ramos. His hint was plain. He had seen the museum pieces that they had brought in.

“Should we, Frank?” Ramos chuckled after a moment.

“Possibly… We’ve got some collateral, Art. Lots more valuable per unit mass than any raw metal, I should think.”

“So you might want to work for us?” Art inquired blandly.

“Not ‘for’,” Nelsen chuckled. “We might say ‘with’.”

“Okay, Cuties,” Art laughed.

Joe Kuzak had just come back into the dwelling and office bubb.

“Don’t let my twin sell you any rotten apples, fellas,” he warned lightly. “He might be expecting you to transport your collateral to Pallastown. Naturally anybody trying to strangle this Post will be blocking the route. You might get robbed again. Also murdered.”

Ramos’ gaunt face still had its daring grin. “Frank and I know that,” he said. “I’m past bragging. But we’ve had experience. Now, we might be smart enough to get through. A few more days out there won’t hurt. How about it, Frank?”

“Ten hours sleep and breakfast,” Frank said. “Then a little camouflage material, new weapons, a pair of Archers in condition—got any left?”

“Five in stock,” Joe answered.

“Settled, then?” Art asked.

“Here, it is,” Ramos answered, and Nelsen nodded.

It would have been rough going for them to try to sleep in beds. They had lost the habit. They slept inside their new Archer Fives.

Afterwards they painted their armor a dark grey, like chunks of mesoderm stone. They did likewise to the two bundles in which they wrapped their relics.

They were as careful as possible to get away from the post without being observed, visually or by radar. But of course you could never be sure.

Huddled up to resemble stray fragments, they curved out of the Belt—toward the Pole Star, north of its orbital plane. Moving in a parallel course, they proceeded toward Pallastown. The only thing that would seem odd was that they were moving contrary to the general orbital rotation of most of the permanent bodies of the solar system. Of course they and their bundles might have been stray meteors from deep in space.

Four watchful, armored figures seemed to notice the peculiarity of their direction, and to become suspicious. These figures seemed too wary for honesty as they approached. They got within twenty-five miles.

Even without the memory that Tiflin might make guesses about what they meant to do, Nelsen and Ramos would have taken no chances. They had to be brutal. Homing darts pierced armor. The four went to sleep.

  1. IV
  2. The Planet Strappers
  3. VI