The Planet Strappers: VIII

  1. VII
  2. The Planet Strappers

Frank Nelsen missed the first shambles at Pallastown, of course, since even at high speed, the rescue unit with which he came did not arrive until days after the catastrophe.

There had been hardly any warning, since the first attack had sprung from the sub-levels of the city itself.

A huge tank of liquid oxygen, and another tank of inflammable synthetic hydrocarbons to be used in the manufacture of plastics, had been simultaneously ruptured by charges of explosive, together with the heavy, safety partition between them. The resulting blast and fountain of fire had jolted even the millions of tons of Pallas’ mass several miles from its usual orbit.

The sack of the town had begun at once, from within, even before chunks of asteroid material, man-accelerated and—aimed, had begun to splatter blossoms of incandescence into the confusion of deflating domes and dying inhabitants. Other vandal bands had soon landed from space.

The first hours of trying to regain any sort of order, during the assault and after it was finally beaten off, must have been heroic effort almost beyond conception. Local disaster units, helped by hoppers and citizens, had done their best. Then many had turned to pursuit and revenge.

After Nelsen’s arrival, his memory of the interval of acute emergency could have been broken down into a series of pictures, in which he was often active.

First, the wreckage, which he helped to pick up, like any of the others. Pallastown had been like froth on a stone, a castle on a floating, golden crag. It had been a flimsy, hastily-built mushroom city, with a beautiful, tawdry splendor that had seemed out of place, a target shining for thousands of miles.

Haw, haw…! Nelsen could almost hear the coarse laughter of the Jolly Lads, as they broke it up, robbed it, raped it—because they both sneered at its effeteness, and missed what it represented to them… Nelsen remembered very well how a man’s attitudes could be warped while he struggled for mere survival in an Archer drifting in space.

Yet even as he worked with the others, to put up temporary domes and to gather the bloated dead, the hatred arose in him, and was strengthened by the fury and grief in the grim, strong faces around him. To exist where it was, Pallastown could not be as soft as it seemed. And to the hoppers—the rugged, level-headed ones who deserved the name—it had meant much, though they had visited it for only a few days of fun, now and then.

The Jolly Lads had been routed. Some must have fled chuckling and cursing almost sheepishly, like infants the magnitude of whose mischief has surpassed their intention, and has awed and frightened them, at last. They had been followed, even before the various late-coming space forces could get into action.

Nelsen overheard words that helped complete the pictures:

“I’ll get them… They had my wife…”

“This was planned—you know where…”

It was planned, all right. But if Ceres, the Tovie colony, had actually been the instigator, there was evidence that the scheme had gotten out of hand. The excitement of destruction had spread. Stories came back that Ceres had been attacked, too.

“I killed a man, Frank—with this pre-Asteroidal knife. He was after Helen and my son…”

This was timid David Lester talking, awed at himself, proud, but curiously ashamed. This made another picture. By luck the Lesters lived in the small above-the-surface portion of Pallastown that had not been seriously damaged.

Frank Nelsen also killed, during a trip to Post One of the KRNH Enterprises, to get more stellene and other materials to expand the temporary encampments for the survivors. He killed two fleeing men coldly and at a distance, because they did not answer his hail. The shreds of their bodies and the loot they had been carrying were scattered to drift in the vacuum, adding another picture of retribution to thousands like it.

Belt Parnay was the name of the leader whom everybody really wanted to get. Belt Parnay—another Fessler, another Fanshaw. That was a curious thing. There was another name and face; but as far as could be told, the personality was very similar. It was as if, out of the darker side of human nature, a kind of reincarnation would always take place.

They didn’t get Parnay. Inevitably, considering the enormity of space, many of the despoilers of Pallastown escaped. The shrewdest, the most experienced, the most willing to shout and lead and let others do the dangerous work, had the advantage. For they also knew how to run and hide and be prudently quiet. Parnay was one of these.

Some captives were recovered. Others were found, murdered. Fortunately, Pallastown was still largely a man’s city. But pursuit and revenge still went on…

Post One was intact. Art Kuzak had surrounded it with a cordon of tough and angry asteroid-hoppers. It was the same with the other posts, except Five and Nine, which were wiped out.

“Back at last, eh, Nelsen?” Art roared angrily, as soon as Frank had entered his office.

“A fact we should accept, not discuss,” Nelsen responded dryly. “You know the things we need.”

“Um-hmm—Nelsen. To rescue and restore Pallastown—when it’s pure nonsense, only inviting another assault! When we know that dispersal is the only answer. The way things are, everywhere, the whole damned human race needs to be dispersed—if some of it is to survive!”

It made another picture—Art Kuzak, the old friend, gone somewhat too big for his oversized britches, perhaps… No doubt Art had had to put aside some grandiose visions, considering the turn that events had taken: Whole asteroids moved across the distance, and put into orbit around the Earth, so that their mineral wealth could be extracted more conveniently. Space resorts established for tourists; new sports made possible by zero-gravity, invented and advertised. Art Kuzak had the gift of both big dreaming and of practice. He’d talked of such things, before.

Nelsen’s smirk was wry. “Dispersal for survival. I agree,” he said. “When they tried to settle Mars, it was being mentioned. Also, long before that. Your wisdom is not new, Art. It wasn’t followed perhaps because people are herding animals by instinct. Anyhow, our side has to hold what it has really got—one-fourth of Pallastown above the surface, and considerably more underground, including shops, installations, and seventy per cent of its skilled inhabitants, determined to stay in the Belt after the others were killed or wounded, or ran away. Unless you’ve quit claiming to be a practical man, Art, you’ll have to go along with helping them. You know what kind of materials and equipment are needed, and how much we can supply, better than I do. Or do I have to withdraw my fraction of the company in goods? We’ll take up the dispersal problem as soon as possible.”

Art Kuzak could only sigh heavily, grin a lopsided grin, and produce. Soon a great caravan of stuff was on the move.

There was another picture: Eileen Sands, the old Queen of Serene in a not-yet-forgotten song, sitting on a lump of yellow alloy splashed up from the surface of Pallas, where a chunk of mixed metal and stone had struck at a speed of several miles per second, fusing the native alloy and destroying her splendid Second Stop utterly in a flash of incandescence. Back in Archer, she looked almost as she used to look at Hendricks’. Her smile was rueful.

“Shucks, I’m all right, Frank,” she said. “Even if Insurance, with so many disaster-claims, can’t pay me—which they probably still can. The boys’ll keep needing entertainment, if it’s only in a stellene space tent. They won’t let me just sit… For two bits, though, I’d move into a nice, safe orbit, out of the Belt and on the other side of the sun from the Earth, and build myself a retreat and retire. I’d become a spacewoman, like I wanted to, in the first place.”

“I’ll bet,” Nelsen joshed. “Otherwise, what have you heard and seen? There’s a certain fella…”

Right away, she thought he meant Ramos. “The damfool—why ask me, Frank?” she sniffed, her expression sour and sad. “How long has he been gone again, now? As usual he was proposing—for the first few days after he set out. After that, there were a few chirps of messages. Then practically nothing. Anyway, how long does it take to get way out to Pluto and back, even if a whole man can have the luck to make it. And is there much more than half of him left…? For two bits I’d—ah—skip it!”

Nelsen smiled with half of his mouth. “I wanted to know about Ramos, too, Eileen. Thanks. But I was talking about Tiflin.”

“Umhmm—you’re right. He and Pal Igor were both around at my place about an hour before we were hit. I called him something worse than a bad omen. He was edgy—almost like he used to be. He said that, one of these days—be cavalier—I was going to get mine. He and Igor eeled away before my customers could break their necks.”

Nelsen showed his teeth. “Thanks again. I wondered,” he said.

He stayed in Pallastown until, however patched it looked, it was functioning as the center of the free if rough-and-tumble part of the Belt once more—though he didn’t know for how long this would be true. Order of one kind had been fairly restored. But out of the disaster, and something very similar on Ceres, the thing that had always been most feared had sprung. It was the fact of opposed organized might in close proximity in the region between Pallas and Ceres. Again there was blaming and counter-blaming, about incidents the exact sources of which never became clear. What each of the space forces, patrolling opposite each other, had in the way of weapons, was of course no public matter, either; but how do you rate two inconceivables? Nor did the threat stay out in the vastness between the planets.

From Earth came the news of a gigantic, incandescent bubble, rising from the floor of the Pacific Ocean, and spreading in almost radioactivity-free waves and ripples, disrupting penned-in areas of food-producing sea, and lapping at last at far shores. Both sides disclaimed responsibility for the blast.

Everybody insisted hopefully that this latest danger would die down, too. Statesmen would talk, official tempers would be calmed, some new working arrangements would be made. But meanwhile, the old Sword of Damocles hung by a thinner hair than ever before. One trigger-happy individual might snap it for good. If not now, the next time, or the next. A matter of hours, days, or years. The mathematics of probabilities denied that luck could last forever. In this thought there was a sense of helplessness, and the ghost of a second Asteroid Belt.

Frank Nelsen might have continued to make himself useful in Pallastown, or he might have rejoined the Kuzaks, who had moved their mobile posts back into a safer zone on the other side of Pallas. But his instincts, now, all pointed along another course of action—the only course that seemed to make any sense just then.

He approached Art Kuzak at Post One. “About deployment,” he began. “I’ve made up some sketches, showing what I’d like the factories to turn out. The ideas aren’t new—now they’ll spring up all around like thoughts of food in a famine. If anything will approach answering all problems, they will. And KRNH is as well able to put them into effect as anybody… So—unless you’ve got some better suggestions?”

Art Kuzak looked the sketches over shrewdly for half an hour.

“All right, Frank,” he said after some further conversation. “It looks good enough. I’ll chip in. Whether they’re sucker bait or not, these things will sell. Only—could it be you’re running away?”

“Perhaps,” Nelsen answered. “Or following my nose—by a kind of natural compulsion which others will display, too. Two hundred of these to start. The men going with me will pay for theirs. I’ll cover the rest of this batch: You’ll be better than I am at figuring out prices and terms for later batches. Just on a hunch, I’ll always want a considerable oversupply. Post One’s shops can turn them out fast. All they are, mostly, is just stellene, arranged in a somewhat new way. The fittings—whatever can’t be supplied now, can follow.”

Fifty asteroid-hoppers, ten of them accompanied by wives, went with Nelsen as he started out with a loaded caravan toward an empty region halfway between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Everyone in the group was convinced by yearnings of his own.

Thinking of Nance Codiss, Nelsen planned to keep within beam range of the Red Planet. He had called Nance quite often. She was still working in the Survey Station hospital, which was swamped with injured from Pallastown.

Nelsen could tag all of the fierce drives in him with single words.

Home was the first. After all his years away from Earth, the meaning of the word would have been emphatic in him, even without the recurrent spasms of hot-cold weakness, which, though fading, still legally denied him the relief of going back to old familiar things. Besides, Earth seemed insecure. So he could only try to make home possible in space. Remembering his first trip, long ago, from the Moon to Mars, he knew how gentle the Big Vacuum could sometimes seem, with just a skin of stellene between it and himself. Home was a plain longing, too, in the hard, level eyes around him.

Love. Well, wasn’t that part of the first item he had tagged?

Wanderlust. The adventurous distance drive—part of any wild-blooded vagabond male. Here in his idea, this other side of a human paradox seemed possible to answer, too. You could go anywhere. Home went with you. Your friends could go along, if they wished.

Freedom. In the billions of cubic miles could any system ever be big enough to pen you in, tell you what to think or do, as long as you hurt no one? Well—he thought not, but perhaps that remained to be seen.

Safety. Deployment was supposed to be the significant factor, there. And how could you make it any better than it was going to be now? Even if there were new dangers?

The future. There was no staying with the past. The Earth was becoming too small for its expanding population. It was a stifling, dangerous little world that, if the pressures were not relieved, might puff into fire and fragments at any moment during any year. And the era of prospecting and exploration in the Asteroid Belt seemed destined soon to come to an end, in any event.

Frank Nelsen’s drives were very strong, after so much had passed around him for so long a time. Thus, maybe he became too idealistic and—at moments—almost fanatically believing, without enough of the saving grain of doubt and humor. The hoppers with him were much like himself—singly directed by what they had lacked for years.

The assembly operation was quickly accomplished, as soon as they were what they considered a safe distance from the Belt. On a greater scale, it was almost nothing more than the first task that Nelsen had ever performed in space—the jockying of a bubb from its blastoff drum, inflating it, rigging it, spinning it for centrifugal gravity, and fitting in its internal appointments.

Nelsen looked at the fifty-odd stellene rings that they had broken out of their containers—the others, still packed, were held in reserve. Those that had been freed glistened translucently in the sunlight. Nelsen had always thought that bubbs were beautiful. And these were still bubbs, but they were bigger, safer, more complicated.

A bantam-sized hopper named Hank Janns spoke from beside Nelsen as they floated near each other. “Pop—sizzle—and it’s yours, Chief. A prefab, a house, a dwelling. A kitchen, a terrace, a place for a garden, a place for kids, even… With a few personal touches, you’ve got it made. Better than the house trailer my dad used to hook onto the jalopy when I was ten… My Alice likes it, too, Chief—that’s the real signal! Tell your pals Kuzak that this is the Idea of the Century.”

Frank Nelsen kind of thought so, too, just then. The first thing he did was to beam the Survey Station on Mars, like he was doing twice a week—to communicate more often would have courted the still dangerous chance of being pinpointed. For similar reasons he couldn’t explain too clearly what his project was, but he hoped that he had gotten a picture of what it was like across to his girl.

“Come see for yourself, Nance,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ll arrange for a caravan from Post One to stop by on Phobos and pick you up. Also—there’s my old question… So, what’ll it be, Nance? Maybe we can feel a little surer of ourselves, now. We can work the rest out. Come and look, hang around—see how everything shakes down, if you’d rather.”

He waited for the light-minutes to pass, before he could hear her voice. “Hello, Frank…” There was the same eager quaver. “Still pretty jammed, Frank… But we know about it here—from Art… Some of the Pallastown convalescents will be migrating your way… I’ll wrangle free and come along… Maybe in about a month…”

He didn’t know quite whether to take her at her word—or whether she was somehow hedging. In the Big Vacuum, the human mind seemed hard put, quite, to know itself. Distances and separations were too great. Emotions were too intense or too stunned. This much he had learned to understand. Perhaps he had lost Nance. But maybe, still—in some bleak, fatalistic way—it would be just as well in the end, for them both.

“Sure, Nance,” he said gently. “I’ll call again—the regular time…”

Right after that he was talking, over a much greater span, to Art Kuzak. “First phase about completed, Art… Finger to thumb—in spite of the troubles elsewhere. So let it roll…!”

Art Kuzak’s reply had an undercurrent of jubilance, as if whatever he knew now was better than he had expected. “Second phase is en route. Joe will be along… Don’t be surprised…”

Joe Kuzak’s approach, a few hundred hours later, made a luminous cluster in the sky, like a miniature galaxy. It resolved itself into vast bales, and all of the stellene rings—storage and factory—of Post Three. Also there were over a hundred men and thirty-three wives. Many of them were Pallastown refugees.

Nelsen helped Joe through the airlock of the ring that he had hoped would be his and Nance’s. “Bubbtown, huh, Frank?” Joe chuckled. “The idea is spreading faster than we had believed, and we aren’t the only ones that have got it. The timing is just right. People are scared, fed up. Out Here—and on Earth, too… Most of the guys that are single in this crowd have girls who will be on the way soon. Some of the tougher space-fitness tests are being junked. We’re even screening a small batch of runaways from Ceres—to be included in the next load. An experiment. But it should work out. They’re just like anybody… Art is all of sudden sort of liberal—the way he gets when things seem to break right.”

Everything went fine for quite a while. Art Kuzak was out playing his hunches, giving easy terms to those who couldn’t pay at once.

“Might as well gamble,” he growled from the distance. “Space and terrestrial forces are still poised. If we lose at all, we lose the whole works, anyway. So let’s bring them from all around the Belt, from Earth, Venus and from wherever they’ll come. Give them a place to work, or let them start their own deal. It all helps… You know what I hear? The Tovies are letting men do things by themselves. To hold their own in room as big as this, they have to. Their bosses are over a barrel. Just organized discipline ain’t gonna work. A guy has to want things his own way…”

In a more general view, doubts were sneaking up on Frank Nelsen, though as far as KRNH was concerned, he had started the ball rolling. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed,” he said.

It was only a couple of Earth-days later that another member of the old Bunch showed up. “I had to bubb all the way from Mercury to Post One to get your location from Art, Frankie,” he complained. “Cripes—why didn’t anybody ever try to beam Gimp and me, anymore? Solar radiation ain’t that hard to get past… So I had to come sneak a look for myself, to see what the Big Deal on the grapevine is.”

“We left the back door unlatched for you, Two-and-Two,” Nelsen laughed. “And you crept in quietly. Swell to see you.”

Sitting showered and in fresh clothes on Frank Nelsen’s sundeck, any changes in Two-and-Two Baines were less evident than one might have supposed. His eyes had a much surer, farther look. Otherwise he was still the same large hulk with much the same lugubrious humor.

“Mercury’s okay, Frankie,” he said. “About four thousand people are living in the Twilight Zone, already. I could show you pictures, but I guess you know. Whole farms and little towns under stellene. Made me some dough doing lots of the building. Could have been more, but who cares? Oh, Gimp’ll be along out here sometime, soon. He was putting up another solar powerhouse. But he’s beginning to say, what the hell, the future ain’t there, or on any planet… So this is how it’s gonna be, huh? With some additions, sure. Factories, super markets, cornfields, pig farms, parks, playgrounds, beauty parlors, all encased in stellene, and orbiting in clusters around the sun, eh…? ‘Hey, Pop!’ some small fry will say to his old man. ‘Gimme ten bucks, please, for an ice cream cone down at the soda bubb?’ And his mom’ll say to his dad, ‘George, Dear—is the ionocar nice and shiny? I have to go play bridge with the girls over in Nelsenville…’ No, I’m not ribbing you, Frankie. It’ll be kind of nice to hear that type of talk, again—if they only include a place for a man to be a little bit himself.”

Two-and-Two (George) Baines sighed rapturously and continued. “Figure it out to the end, Frankie. No planets left—all the materials in them used up to build these bubbtowns. There’ll be just big shining, magnificent rings made up of countless little floating stellene houses all around the sun. A zillion people, maybe more. Gardens, flowers, everything beautiful. Everybody free to move anywhere. Uh-uh—I’m not making fun, Frankie. I’m joining in with all the relief and happiness of my heart. Only, it’ll be kind of sad to see the old planets go—to be replaced by a wonderful super-suburbia. Or maybe we should say, superbia.”

Nelsen burst out laughing, at last. “You sly slob…! Anyhow, that extreme is millenniums off—if it has a chance of happening, at all. Even so, our descendants, if any, will be going to the stars by then. There won’t be any frustration of their thirst for danger… Just as there isn’t any, now, for us. Except that we can keep our weapons handy, and hope… Me—I’m a bit bored with adventure, just at present.”

“So am I,” Two-and-Two affirmed fervently. “Now, have you got me a job, Frankie?”

“There’ll be something,” Nelsen answered him. “Meanwhile, to keep from feeling regimented by civilization, you could take your rocket launcher and join the perimeter watchers that range out a thousand miles…”

Nance Codiss arrived a week later, with a group of recent Pallastown convalescents. Bad signs came with her, but that fact got lost as she hugged Nelsen quickly there in the dwelling he had set up with the thought it would be their home. At once she went on a feminine exploring expedition of the prefab’s interior, and its new, gleaming appointments. Kitchen, living room, sundeck. Nelsen’s garden was already well along.

“Like the place?” he asked.

“Love it, Frank,” she answered quietly.

“It could have been more individual,” he commented. “But we were in a hurry. So they are all identical. That can be fixed, some, soon. You’re thinking about improvements?”

Her eyes twinkled past the shadow in her expression. “Always some,” she laughed. Then her face went solemn. “Let them ride, for now, Frank. It’s all wonderful and unbelievable. Hug me again—I love you. Only—all this is even more fantastically new to me than it is to you. Realize that, please, Frank. I’m a month late in getting here and I’m still groping my way. A little more time—for us both… Because you might be fumbling, some, too.”

Her tone was gentle. He saw that her eyes, meeting his, were honest and clear. He felt the careful strength behind them, after a moment of hurt. There was no rushing, one-way enthusiasm that might easily burn out and blow up in a short time.

He held her close. “Sure, Nance,” he said.

“You probably know that our group from Mars was followed, Frank. I hope I’m not a jinx.”

“Of course you’re not. Somebody would have followed—sometime. We’re watching and listening. Just keep your Archer handy…”

The faint, shifting blips in the radar screens was an old story, reminding him that certain things were no better than before, and that some were worse. Somewhere there were other bubbtowns. There were policing space forces, too. But for millions of miles around, this cluster of eight hundred prefabs and the numerous larger bubbs that served them, were all alone.

Nelsen looked out from his sundeck, and saw dangerous contrasts. The worst, perhaps, was a spherical bubble of stellene. Inside it was a great globe of water surrounded by air—a colossal dewdrop. Within it, a man and two small boys—no doubt father and sons from Pallastown, were swimming, horsing around, having a swell time—only a few feet from nothing. Nelsen spoke softly into his radio-phone. “Leland—close down the pool…”

It wasn’t long before the perimeter watch, returning from a patrol that had taken them some distance out, brought in a makeshift dwelling bubb made from odds and ends of stellene. They had also picked up its occupant, a lean comic character with an accent and a strange way of talking.

“Funny that you’d turn up, here—Igor, is it?” Nelsen said dryly.

Igor sniffed, as if with sorrow. He had been roughed up, some. “Very funny—also simple. You making a house, so I am making a house for this identical purpose. People from Ceres are already being here; in consequence, I am also arriving. Nobody are saying what are proper doing and thinking—so I am informed. I am believing—okay, Igor. When being not true, I am going away again.”

The tone was bland. The pale eyes looked naive and artless, except, perhaps, for a hard, shrewd glint, deep down.

Joe Kuzak was present. “We searched him, Frank,” he said. “His bubb, too. He’s clean—as far as we can tell. Not even a weapon. I also asked him some questions. I savvy a little of his real lingo.”

“I’ll ask them over,” Nelsen answered. “Igor—a friend named Tiflin wouldn’t be being around some place, would he?”

The large space comedian didn’t even hesitate. “I am thinking not very far—not knowing precisely. Somebody more is being here, likewise. Belt Parnay. You are knowing this one? Plenty Jollies—new fellas—not having much supplies—only many new rocket launchers they are receiving from someplace. You are understanding this? Bad luck, here, it is meaning.”

Nelsen eyed the man warily, with mixed doubt and liking. “I don’t think you can be going away again, right now, Igor,” he said. “We don’t have a jail, but a guard will be as good…”

The watch didn’t give the alarm for several hours. Three hisses in the phones, made vocally. Then one, then two more. North, second quadrant, that meant. Direction of first attack. Ionic drives functioned. The cluster of bubbs began to scatter further. Nelsen knew that if Igor had told the truth, the outlook was very poor. Too much deployment would thin the defenses too much. And against new, homing rockets—if Parnay really had them—it would be almost useless. A relatively small number of men, riding free in armor, could smash the much larger targets from almost any distance.

Nelsen didn’t stay in his prefab. Floating in his Archer, he could be his own, less easily identifiable, less easily hit command post, while he fired his own homing missiles at the far-off radar specks of the attackers. He ordered everyone not specifically needed inside the bubbs for some defense purpose to jump clear.

In the first half-minute, he saw at least fifty compartmented prefabs partly crumple, as explosives tore into them. A dozen, torn open, were deflated entirely. The swimming pool globe was punctured, and a cloud of frosty vapor made rainbows in the sunshine, as the water boiled away. Far out, Nelsen saw the rockets he and his own men had launched, sparkling soundlessly, no doubt scoring, some, too.

The attackers didn’t even try to get close yet. Far greater damage would have to be inflicted, before panic and disorganization might give them sufficient advantage. But such damage would take only minutes. Too much would reduce the loot. So now there was a halt in the firing, and another component of fear was applied. It was a growling, taunting voice.

“Nelsen! And all of you silly bladder-brains…! This is Belt Parnay…! Ever hear of him? Come back from hell, eh? Not with just rocks, this time! The latest, surest equipment! Want to give up, now, Nelsen—you and your nice, civilized people? Cripes, what will you cranks try next? Villages built in nothing and on nothing! Thanks, though. Brother, what a blowout this is gonna provide!”

Parnay’s tone had shifted, becoming mincingly mocking, then hard and joyful at the end.

Maybe he shouldn’t have suggested so plainly what would happen—unless something was done, soon. Maybe he shouldn’t have sounded just a little bit unsure of himself under all his bluff. Because Nelsen had made preparations that matched a general human trend. Now, he saw a condition that fitted in, making an opportunity… So he began to taunt Parnay back.

“We’ve got a lot of the latest type rockets to throw, too, Parnay. You’d have quite a time, trying to take us. But there’s more… Just look behind you, Parnay. And all around. Not too far. Who’s silly? Who’s the jerk? Some new guys are in your crowd, I hear? Then they won’t have much against them—they aren’t real outlaws. Do you think they want to keep following you around, stinking in their armor—when what we’ve got is what they’re bound to want, right now, too? They can hear what I’m saying, Parnay. Every one of them must have a weapon in his hands. Why, you stupid clown, you’re in a trap! We will give them what they need most, without them having to risk getting killed. In space, there’ll have to be a lot of things forgotten, but not for you or for the rough old-timers with you… Come on, you guys out there. There’s a folded bubb right here waiting for each of you. Take it anywhere you want—away from here, of course… Parnay—big, important Belt Parnay—are you still alive…?”

Nelsen had his own sneering tone of mockery. He used it to best advantage—but with fear in his heart. Plenty of his act was only counter-bluff. But now, as he paused, he heard Two-and-Two Baines’ mournful voice continue the barrage of persuasion.

“Flowers, Parnay? We ain’t got many, yet. But you won’t care… Fellas—do you want to keep being pushed around by this loud mouth who likes to run and lets you sweat for him, because he’s mostly alone and needs company? Believe me, I know what it’s like out there, too. At a certain point, all you really want is something a little like home. And the Chief ain’t kidding. It was all planned. Try us and see. Send a couple of guys in. They’ll come out with the proof…”

Other voices were shouting. “Wake up, you suckers…! You’ll never take us, you stupid slobs…! Come on and try it, if that’s what you want to be…”

What happened, could never have happened so quickly if Parnay’s doubtless considerably disgruntled following hadn’t been disturbed further by intrigue beforehand. Nelsen heard Parnay roar commands and curses that might have awed many a man. But then there was a cluster of minute sparks in the distance, as rockets, not launched by the defenders, homed and exploded.

There was a pause. Then many voices were audible, shouting at the same time, with scarcely any words clear… Several minutes passed like that. Then there was almost silence.

“So—has it happened?” Nelsen growled into his phone.

“It has,” came the mocking answer. “Be cavalier, Nelsen. Salute the new top outlaw… Don’t faint—I knew I’d make it… And don’t try anything you might regret… I’m coming in with a couple of my Jolly Lads. You’d better not welsh on your promises. Because the others are armed and waiting…”

The guys with Tiflin looked more tired than tough. Out from under their fierce, truculent bravado showed the fiercer hunger for common things and comforts. Nelsen knew. The record was in his own memory.

“You’ll get your bubbs right away,” he told them. “Then send the others in, a pair at a time. After that, go and get lost. Make your own place—town—whatever you want to call it… Leland, Crobert, Sharpe—fit these guys out, will you…?”

All this happened under the sardonic gaze of Glen Tiflin, and before the puzzled eyes of Joe Kuzak and Two-and-Two Baines. A dozen others were hovering near.

Nelsen lowered his voice and called, “Nance?”

She answered at once. “I’m all right, Frank. A few people to patch. Some beyond that. I’m in the hospital with Doc Forbes…”

“You guys can find something useful to do,” Nelsen snapped at the gathering crowd.

“Well, Frankie,” Tiflin taunted. “Aren’t you going to invite me into your fancy new quarters? Joe and Two-and-Two also look as though they could stand a drink.”

On the sundeck, Tiflin spoke again. “I suppose you’ve got it figured, Nelsen?”

Nelsen answered him in clipped fashion. “Thanks. But let’s not dawdle too much. I’ve got a lot of wreckage to put back together… Maybe I’ve still got it figured wrong, Tiflin. But lately I began to think the other way. You were always around when trouble was cooking—like part of it, or like a good cop. The first might still be right.”

Tiflin sneered genially. “Some cops can’t carry badges. And they don’t always stop trouble, but they try… Anyhow, what side do you think I was on, after Fessler kicked me around for months…? Let Igor go. He’s got law and order in his soul. I kind of like having him around… But keep your mouths buttoned, will you? I’m talking to you, Mr. Baines, and you, Mr. Kuzak, as well as to you, Nelsen. And I’m take my bubb along, the same as the other ninety or so guys who are left from Parnay’s crowd. I’ve got to look good with them… Cheers, you slobs. See you around…”

Afterwards, Joe growled, “Hell—what do you know! Him…! Special Police. Undercover. U.N., U.S., or what?”

“Shut up,” Nelsen growled.

Though he had sensed it coming and had met it calmly, the Tiflin switch was something that Frank Nelsen had trouble getting over. It confused him. It made him want to laugh.

Another thing that began to bother him even more was the realization that the violence, represented by Fessler, Fanshaw, Parnay, and thousands of others like them back through history, was bound to crop up again. It was part of the complicated paradox of human nature. And it was hard to visualize a time when there wouldn’t be followers—frustrated slobs who wanted to get out and kick over the universe. Nelsen had felt such urges cropping up within himself. So this wasn’t the end of trouble—especially not out here in raw space, that was still far too big for man-made order.

So it wasn’t just the two, opposed space navies patrolling, more quietly now, between Ceres and Pallas. That condition could pass. The way people always chose—or were born to—different sides was another matter. Or was it just the natural competition of life in whatever form? More disturbing, perhaps, was the mere fact of trying to live here, so close to natural forces that could kill in an instant.

For example, Nelsen often saw two children and a dog racing around inside one of the rotating bubbs—having fun as if just in a back yard. If the stellene were ripped, the happy picture would change to horror… How long would it take to get adjusted to—and accept—such a chance? Thoughts like that began to disturb Nelsen. Out here, in all this enormous freedom, the shift from peaceful routine to tragedy could be quicker than ever before.

But is wasn’t thinking about such grim matters that actually threw Frank Nelsen—that got him truly mixed up. In Parnay’s attack, ten men and two women had been killed. There were also twenty-seven injured. Such facts he could accept—they didn’t disturb him too much, either. Yet there was a curious sort of straw that broke the camel’s back, one might have said.

The incident took place quite a while after the assault. Out on an inspection tour in his Archer, he happened to glance through the transparent wall of the sundeck of a prefab he was passing…

In a moment he was inside, grinning happily. Miss Rosalie Parks was lecturing him: “… You needn’t be surprised that I am here, Franklin. ‘O, tempora O, mores!’ Cicero once said. ‘O, the times! O, the customs!’ But we needn’t be so pessimistic. I am in perfect health—and ten years below retirement age. Young people, I suspect, will still be taught Latin if they choose… Or there will be something else… Of course I had heard of your project… It was quite easy for you not to notice my arrival. But I came with the latest group, straight from Earth…”

Nelsen was very pleased that Miss Parks was here. He told her so. He stayed for cakes and coffee. He told her that it was quite right for her to keep up with the times. He believed this, himself…

Afterwards, though, in his own quarters, he began to laugh. Her presence was so incongruous, so fantastic…

His laughter became wild. Then it changed to great rasping hiccups. Too much that was unbelievable by old standards had happened around him. This was delayed reaction to space. He had heard of such a thing. But he had hardly thought that it could apply to him, anymore…! Well, he knew what to do… Tranquilizer tablets were practically forgotten things to him. But he gulped one now. In a few minutes, he seemed okay, again…

Yet he couldn’t help thinking back to the Bunch, the Planet Strappers. To the wild fulfillment they had sought… So—most of them had made it. They had become men—the hard way. Except, of course, Eileen—the distaff side… They had planned, callowly, to meet and compare adventures in ten years. And this was still less than seven…

How long had it been since he had even beamed old Paul, in Jarviston…? Now that most of the Syrtis Fever had left him, it seemed futile even to consider such a thing. It involved memories buried in enormous time, distance, change, and unexpectedness.

Glen Tiflin—the sour, space-wild punk who had become a cop. Had Tiflin even saved his—Frank Nelsen’s—life, once, long ago, persuading a Jolly Lad leader to cast him adrift for a joke, rather than to kill him and Ramos outright…?

Charlie Reynolds—the Bunch-member whom everybody had thought most likely to succeed. Well, Charlie was dead from a simple thing, and buried on Venus. He was unknown—except to his acquaintances.

Jig Hollins, the guy who had played it safe, was just as dead.

Eileen Sands was a celebrity in Serene, in Pallastown and the whole Belt.

Mex Ramos—of the flapping squirrel tails on an old motor scooter—now belonged to the history of exploration, though he no longer had real hands or feet, and, very likely, was now dead, somewhere out toward interstellar space.

David Lester, the timid one, had become successful in his own way, and was the father of one of the first children to be born in the Belt.

Two-and-Two Baines had won enough self-confidence to make cracks about the future. Gimp Hines, once the saddest case in the Whole Bunch, had been, for a long time, perhaps the best adjusted to the Big Vacuum.

Art Kuzak, one-time hunkie football player, was a power among the asteroids. His brother, Joe, had scarcely changed, personally.

About himself, Nelsen got the most lost. What had he become, after his wrong guesses and his great luck, and the fact that he had managed to see more than most? Generally, he figured that he was still the same free-wheeling vagabond by intention, but too serious to quite make it work out. Sometimes he actually gave people orders. It came to him as a surprise that he must be almost as rich as old J. John Reynolds, who was still drawing wealth from a comparatively small loan—futilely at his age, unless he had really aimed at the ideal of bettering the future.

Nelsen’s busy mind couldn’t stop. He thought of three other-world cultures he had glimpsed. Two had destroyed each other. The third and strangest was still to be reckoned with…

There, he came to Mitch Storey, the colored guy with the romantic name. Of all the Planet Strappers, his history was the most fabulous. Maybe, now, with a way of living in open space started, and with the planets ultimately to serve only as sources of materials, Mitch’s star people would be left in relative peace for centuries.

Frank Nelsen began to chuckle again. As if something, everything, was funny. Which, perhaps, it was in a way. Because the whole view, personal and otherwise, seemed too huge and unpredictable for his wits to grasp. It was as if neither he, nor any other person, belonged where he was at all. He checked his thoughts in time. Otherwise, he would have commenced hiccuping.

That was the way it went for a considerable succession of arbitrary twenty-four hour day-periods. As long as he kept his attention on the tasks in hand, he was okay—he felt fine. Still, the project was proceeding almost automatically, just now. The first cluster of prefabs had grown until it had been split into halves, which moved a million miles apart, circling the sun. And he knew that there were other clusters, built by other outfits, growing and dividing into widely separated portions of the same great ring-like zone.

Maybe the old problems were beat. Safety? If deployment was the answer to that, it was certainly there—to a degree, at least. Room enough? Check. It was certainly available. Freedom of mind and action? There wasn’t much question that that would work out, too. Home, comfort, and a kind of life not too unfamiliar? In the light of detached logic and observation, that was going fine, too. In the main, people were adjusting very quickly and eagerly. Perhaps too quickly.

That was where Nelsen always got scared, as if he had become a nervous old man. The Big Vacuum had a grandeur. It could seem gentle. Could children, women and men—everybody sometimes forgot—learn to live with it without losing their respect for it, until suddenly it killed them?

That was the worst point, if he let himself think. And how could he always avoid that? From there his thoughts would branch out into his multiple uncertainties, confusions and puzzlements. Then those strangling hiccups would come. And who could be taking devil-killers all the time?

He hadn’t avoided Nance Codiss. He talked with her every day, lunched with her, even held her hand. Otherwise, a restraint had come over him. Because something was all wrong with him, and was getting worse. Just one urge was clear, now, inside him. She knew, of course, that he was loused up; but she didn’t say anything. Finally he told her.

“You were right, Nance. I was fumbling my way, too. Space fatigue, the medic told me just a little while ago. He agrees with me that I should go back to Earth. I’ve got to go—to take a look at everything from the small end, again. Of course I’ve always had the longing. And now I can go. It has been a year since the worst of the Syrtis Fever.”

“I’ve had the fever. And sometimes the longing, Frank,” she said after she had studied him for a moment. “I think I’d like to go.”

“Only if you want to, Nance. It’s me that’s flunking out, pal.” He chuckled apologetically, almost lightly. “My part has to be a one-person deal. I don’t know whether I’ll ever come back. And you seem to fit, out here.”

She looked at him coolly for almost a minute. “All right, Frank,” she said quietly. “Follow your nose. It’s just liable to be right on the beam—for you. I might follow mine. I don’t know.”

“Joe and Two-and-Two are around—if you need anything, Nance,” he said. “I’ll tell them. Gimp, I hear, is on the way. Not much point in my waiting for him, though…”

Somehow he loved Nance Codiss as much or more than ever. But how could he tell her that and make sense? Not much made sense to him anymore. It seemed that he had to get away from everybody that he had ever seen in space.

Fifty hours before his departure with a returning bubb caravan that had brought more Earth-emigrants, Nelsen acquired a travelling companion who had arrived from Pallastown with a small caravan bringing machinery. The passenger-hostess brought him to Nelsen’s prefab. He was a grave little guy, five years old. He was solemn, polite, frightened, tall for his age—funny how corn and kids grew at almost zero-gravity.

The boy handed Nelsen a letter. “From my father and mother, sir,” he said.

Nelsen read the typed missive.

“Dear Frank: The rumor has come that you are going home. You have our very best wishes, as always. Our son, Davy, is being sent to his paternal grandmother, now living in Minneapolis. He will go to school there. He is capable of making the trip without any special attention. But—a small imposition. If you can manage it, please look in on him once in a while, on the way. We would appreciate this favor. Thank you, take care of yourself, and we shall hope to see you somewhere within the next few months. Your sincere friends, David and Helen Lester.”

A lot of nerve, Nelsen thought first. But he tried to grin engagingly at the kid and almost succeeded.

“We’re in luck, Dave,” he said. “I’m going to Minneapolis, too. I’m afraid of a lot of things. What are you afraid of?”

The small fry’s jutting lip trembled. “Earth,” he said. “A great big planet. Hoppers tell me I won’t even be able to stand up or breathe.”

Nelsen very nearly laughed and went into hiccups, again. Fantastic. Another viewpoint. Seeing through the other end of the telescope. But how else would it be for a youngster born in the Belt, while being sent—in the old colonial pattern—to the place that his parents regarded as home?

“Those jokers,” Nelsen scoffed. “They’re pulling your leg! It just isn’t so, Davy. Anyhow, during the trip, the big bubb will be spun fast enough, so that we will get used to the greater Earth-gravity. Let me tell you something. I guess it’s space and the Belt that I’m afraid of. I never quite got over it. Silly, huh?”

But as Nelsen watched the kid brighten, he remembered that he, himself, had been scared of Earth, too. Scared to return, to show weakness, to lack pride… Well, to hell with that. He had accomplished enough, now, maybe, to cancel such objections. Now it seemed that he had to get to Earth before it vanished because of something he had helped start. Silly, of course…

He and Davy travelled fast and almost in luxury. Within two weeks they were in orbit around the bulk of the Old World. Then, in the powerful tender with its nuclear retard rockets, there was the Blast In—the reverse of that costly agony that had once meant hard won and enormous freedom, when he was poor in money and rich in mighty yearning. But now Nelsen yielded in all to the mother clutch of the gravity. The whole process had been gentled and improved. There were special anti-knock seats. There was sound- and vibration-insulation. Even Davy’s slight fear was more than half thrill.

At the new Minneapolis port, Nelsen delivered David Lester, Junior into the care of his grandmother, who seemed much more human than Nelsen once had thought long ago. Then he excused himself quickly.

Seeking the shelter of anonymity, he bought a rucksack for his few clothes, and boarded a bus which dropped him at Jarviston, Minnesota, at two a.m. He thrust his hands into his pockets, partly like a lonesome tramp, partly like some carefree immortal, and partly like a mixed-up wraith who didn’t quite know who or what he was, or where he belonged.

In his wallet he had about five hundred dollars. How much more he might have commanded, he couldn’t even guess. Wups, fella, he told himself. That’s too weird, too indigestible—don’t start hiccuping again. How old are you—twenty-five, or twenty-five thousand years? Wups—careful…

The full Moon was past zenith, looking much as it always had. The blue-tinted air domes of colossal industrial development, were mostly too small at this distance to be seen without a glass. Good…

With wondering absorption he sniffed the mingling of ripe field and road smells, borne on the warm breeze of the late-August night. Some few cars evidently still ran on gasoline. For a moment he watched neon signs blink. In the desertion he walked past Lehman’s Drug Store and Otto Kramer’s bar, and crossed over to pause for a nameless moment in front of Paul Hendricks’ Hobby Center, which was all dark, and seemed little changed. He took to a side street, and won back the rustle of trees and the click of his heels in the silence.

A few more buildings—that was about all that was visibly different in Jarviston, Minnesota.

A young cop eyed him as he returned to the main drag and paused near a street lamp. He had a flash of panic, thinking that the cop was somebody, grown up, now, who would recognize him. But at least it was no one that he remembered.

The cop grinned. “Get settled in a hotel, buddy,” he said. “Or else move on, out of town.”

Nelsen grinned back, and ambled out to the highway, where intermittent clumps of traffic whispered.

There he paused, and looked up at the sky, again. The electric beacon of a weather observation satellite blinked on and off, moving slowly. Venus had long since set, with hard-to-see Mercury preceding it. Jupiter glowed in the south. Mars looked as remote and changeless as it must have looked in the Stone Age. The asteroids were never even visible here without a telescope.

The people that he knew, and the events that he had experienced Out There, were like myths, now. How could he ever put Here and There together, and unite the mismatched halves of himself and his experience? He had been born on Earth, the single home of his kind from the beginning. How could he ever even have been Out There?

He didn’t try to hitch a ride. He walked fourteen miles to the next town, bought a small tent, provisions and a special, miniaturized radio. Then he slipped into the woods, along Hickman’s Lake, where he used to go.

There he camped, through September, and deep into October. He fished, he swam again. He dropped stones into the water, and watched the circles form, with a kind of puzzled groping in his memory. He retreated from the staggering magnificence of his recent past and clutched at old simplicities.

On those rare occasions when he shaved, he saw the confused sickness in his face, reflected by his mirror. Sometimes, for a moment, he felt hot, and then cold, as if his blood still held a tiny trace of Syrtis Fever. If there was such a thing? No—don’t start to laugh, he warned himself. Relax. Let the phantoms fade away. Somewhere, that multiple bigness of Nothing, of life and death, of success and unfairness and surprise, must have reality—but not here…

Occasionally he listened to news on the radio. But mostly he shut it off—out. Until boredom at last began to overtake him—because he had been used to so much more than what was here. Until—specifically—one morning, when the news came too quickly, and with too much impact. It was a recording, scratchy, and full of unthinkable distance.

“… Frank, Gimp, Two-and-Two, Paul, Mr. Reynolds, Otto, Les, Joe, Art, everybody—especially you, Eileen—remember what you promised, when I get back, Eileen…! Here I am, on Pluto—edge of the star desert! Clear sailing—all the way. All I see, yet, is twilight, rocks, mountains, snow which must be frozen atmosphere—and one big star, Sol. But I’ll get the data, and be back…”

Nelsen listened to the end, with panic in his face—as if such adventures and such living were too gigantic and too rich… He hiccuped once. Then he held himself very still and concentrated. He had known that voice Out There and Here, too. Now, as he heard it again—Here, but from Out There—it became like a joining force to bring them both together within himself. Though how could it be…?

“Ramos,” he said aloud. “Made it… Another good guy, accomplishing what he wanted… Hey…! Hey, that’s swell… Like things should happen.”

He didn’t hiccup anymore, or laugh. By being very careful, he just grinned, instead. He arose to his feet, slowly.

“What am I doing here—wasting time?” he seemed to ask the woods.

Without picking up his camping gear at all, he headed for the road, thumbed a ride to Jarviston, where he arrived before eight o’clock. Somebody had started ringing the city hall bell. Celebration?

Hendricks’ was the most logical place for Nelsen to go, but he passed it by, following a hunch to his old street. She had almost said that she might come home, too. He touched the buzzer.

Not looking too completely dishevelled himself, he stood there, as a girl—briskly early in dress and impulse, so as not to waste the bright morning—opened the door.

“Yeah, Nance—me,” he croaked apologetically. “Ramos has reached Pluto!”

“I know, Frankie!” she burst out.

But his words rushed on. “I’ve been goofing off—by Hickman’s Lake. Over now. Emotional indigestion, I guess—from living too big, before I could take it. I figured you might be here. If you weren’t, I’d come… Because I know where I belong. Nance—I hope you’re not angry. Maybe we’re pulling together, at last?”

“Angry—when I was the first fumbler? How could that be, Frank? Oh, I knew where you were—folks found out. I told them to leave you alone, because I understood some of what you were digging through. Because it was a little the same—for me… So, you see, I didn’t just tag after you.” She laughed a little. “That wouldn’t be proud, would it? Even though Joe and Two-and-Two said I had to go bring you back…”

His arms went tight around her, right there on the old porch. “Nance—love you,” he whispered. “And we’ve got to be tough. Everybody’s got to be tough—to match what we’ve come to. Even little kids. But it was always like that—on any kind of frontier, wasn’t it? A few will get killed, but more will live—many more…”

Like that, Frank Nelsen shook the last of the cobwebs out of his brain—and got back to his greater destiny.

“I’ll buy all of that philosophy,” Nance chuckled gently. “But you still look as though you needed some breakfast, Frank.”

He grinned. “Later. Let’s go to see Paul, first. A big day for him—because of Ramos. Paul is getting feeble, I suppose?” Nelsen’s face had sobered.

“Not so you could notice it much, Frank,” Nance answered. “There’s a new therapy—another side of What’s Coming, I guess…”

They walked the few blocks. The owner of the Hobby Center was now a long-time member of KRNH Enterprises. He had the means to expand and modernize the place beyond recognition. But clearly he had realized that some things should not change.

In the display window, however, there gleamed a brand-new Archer Nine, beautiful as a garden or a town floating, unsupported, under the stars—beautiful as the Future, which was born of the Past.

A Bunch of fellas—the current crop of aficionados—were inside the store, making lots of noise over the news. Was that Chip Potter, grown tall? Was that his same old dog, Blaster? Frank Nelsen could see Paul Hendricks’ white-fringed bald-spot.

“Go ahead—open the door. Or are you still scared?” Nance challenged lightly.

“No—just anticipating,” Nelsen gruffed. “And seeing if I can remember what’s Out There… Serene, bubb, Belt, Pallas…” He spoke the words like comic incantations, yet with a dash of reverence.

“Superbia?” Nance teased.

“That is somebody’s impertinent joke!” he growled in feigned solemnity. “Anyhow, it would be too bad if something that important couldn’t take a little ribbing. Shucks—we’ve hardly started to work, yet!”

He drew Nance back a pace, out of sight of those in the store, and kissed her long and rather savagely.

“With all its super-complications, life still seems pretty nice,” he commented.

The door squeaked, just as it used to, as Nelsen pushed it open. The old overhead bell jangled.

Pale, watery eyes lifted and lighted with another fulfilment.

“Well, Frank! Long time no see…!”

  1. VII
  2. The Planet Strappers