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The Planet Strappers
by Raymond Zinke Gallun
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Transcriber's Note: Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Text enclosed by asterisks was in bold face in the original (*bold*). The 3-dot ellipsis has been retained as in the original.

Out There—the world's first space colony—adventures and dangers beyond human ken!



The Planet Strappers

RAYMOND Z. GALLUN



*A Million Miles Beyond the Moon...*

... Nelson and Ramos sped on toward Mars in their tiny plastic-bubble spacecraft. They were on the alert—it didn't pay to take anything for granted in the Big Vacuum....

The way between the worlds was mostly empty space—except for the outlaws of the void who drifted, patiently and vengefully waiting for a victim, then struck!

Nelsen and Ramos tensed—blips on the radar screen! Maybe meteors... More blips—and fist-sized chunks of rock flicked through their fragile vehicles. Air puffed out ... and Nelson and Ramos were fighting for their lives...

*... A Million Miles Beyond the Moon!*



THE PLANET STRAPPERS

Raymond Z. Gallun

PYRAMID BOOKS, 444 Madison Avenue, New York 22, New York



*THE PLANET STRAPPERS,* by Raymond Z. Gallun

This book is fiction. No resemblance is intended between any character herein and any person (Here or Out There), living or dead; any such resemblance is purely coincidental.

Published by Pyramid Books First printing: October 1961

Printed in the United States of America



I

The Archer Five came in a big packing box, bound with steel ribbons and marked, This end up—handle with care. It was delivered at a subsidized government surplus price of fifty dollars to Hendricks' Sports and Hobbies Center, a store in Jarviston, Minnesota, that used to deal mostly in skin diving equipment, model plane kits, parts for souping up old cars, and the like. The Archer Five was a bit obsolete for the elegant U.S. Space Force boys—hence the fantastic drop in price from two thousand dollars since only last June. It was still a plenty-good piece of equipment, however; and the cost change was a real break for the Bunch.

By 4:30 that bright October afternoon, those members who were attending regular astronautics classes at Jarviston Technical College had gathered at Hendricks' store. Ramos and Tiflin, two wild characters with seldom-cut hair and pipe stem pants, who didn't look as if they could be trusted with a delicate unpacking operation, broke the Archer out with a care born of love, there in Paul Hendricks' big backroom shop, while the more stolid members—and old Paul, silent in his swivel chair—watched like hawks.

"So who tries it on first?" Ramos challenged. "Dumb question. You, Eileen—naturally."

Most Bunches have a small, hard, ponytailed member, dungareed like the rest.

Still kidding around, Ramos dropped an arm across Eileen Sands' shoulders, and got her sharp elbow jabbed with vigor into his stomach.

She glanced back in a feminine way at Frank Nelsen, a tall, lean guy of nineteen, butch-haircutted and snub featured. But he was the purposeful, studious kind, more an observer and a personal doer than a leader; he hadn't much time for the encouraging smiles of girls, and donning even an Archer Five now instead of within a few hours, didn't exactly represent his kind of hurry.

"I'll wait, Eileen," he said. Then he nodded toward Gimp Hines. That the others would also pick Gimp was evident at once. There were bravos and clapping, half for a joke.

"Think I won't?" Gimp growled, tossing his crutches on a workbench littered with scraps of color-coded wire, and hopping forward on the one leg that had grown to normal size. He sort of swaggered, Frank Nelsen noticed. Maybe the whole Bunch swaggered with him in a way, because, right now, he represented all of them in their difficult aim. Gimp Hines, with the nylon patch in his congenitally imperfect heart, and with that useless right underpinning, had less chance of taking part in space-development than any of them—even with all his talent for mechanics and electronics.

Two-and-Two (George) Baines, a large, mild person who was an expert bricklayer in his spare time, while he struggled to absorb the intricate math that spacemen are supposed to know—he used to protest that he could at least add two and two—bounced forward, saying, "I'll give yuh a hand, Gimp."

Mitch Storey, the lean colored kid with the passion for all plant life, and the specific urge to get somehow out to Mars, was also moving to help Gimp into the Archer. Gimp waved them off angrily, but they valeted for him, anyhow.

"Shucks, Gimp," Storey soothed. "Anybody needs assistance—the first time..."

They got his good leg, and what there was of the other, into the boots. They laced carefully, following all they had learned from books. They rolled the wire-braced silicone rubber body-section up over his torso, guided his arms into the sleeves, closed the zipper-sealers and centered the chest plate. While the others checked with their eyes, they inspected the nipples of the moisture-reclaimer and chlorophane air-restorer capsules. They lifted the helmet of clear, darkened plastic over his head, and dogged it to the gasket with the automatic turnbuckles. By then, Gimp Hines' own quick fingers, in the gloves, were busy snapping this and adjusting that. There was a sleepy hum of aerating machinery.

"It even smells right, in here," Gimp growled muffledly, trying to be nonchalant.

There was loud laughter and clapping. Ramos whistled piercingly, with two fingers. The huge Kuzak twins, Art and Joe—both had football scholarships at Tech—gave Indian yells. Eileen Sands clasped her hands over her head and went up on her toes like the ballet dancer she had once meant to be. Old Paul, in his chair, chortled, and slapped his arm. Even little David Lester said "Bravo!" after he had gulped. The applause wasn't entirely facetious.

Gimp's whole self had borrowed hard lines and an air of competence from the Archer Five. For a second he looked like somebody who could really cross millions of miles. There was a tiny, solar-powered ionic-propulsion unit mounted on the shoulders of the armor, between the water-tank and the beam-type radio transmitter and receiver. A miniaturized radar sprouted on the left elbow joint. On the inside of the Archer's chest plate, reachable merely by drawing an arm out of a sleeve, emergency ration containers were racked. In the same place was a small airlock for jettisoning purposes and for taking in more supplies.

"What do yuh know—toilet facilities, yet!" Ramos chirped with spurious naivete, and there were guffaws which soon died out. After all, this was a serious occasion, and who wanted to be a jerk? Now that the price had been shoved down into the ground, they could probably get their Archer Fives—their all-important vacuum armor. They were one more hurdle nearer to the stars.

Two regular members of the Bunch hadn't yet shown up. Ten were present, including Gimp in the Archie. All were different. Each had a name.

But Frank Nelsen figured that numbers, names, and individual variations didn't count for much, just then. They were a crowd with an overall personality—often noisy, sometimes quiet like now, always a bit grim to sustain their nerve before all they had to learn in order to reduce their inexperienced greenness, and before the thought of all the expensive equipment they had to somehow acquire, if they were to take part in the rapid adaptation of the solar system to human uses. Most of all, their courage was needed against fear of a region that could be deadly dangerous, but that to them seemed wonderful like nothing else.

The shop smelled of paint, solvent and plastic, like most any other. Gimp, sitting in the Archer, beside the oil-burning stove, didn't say any more. He forgot to play tough, and seemed to lose himself in a mind-trip Out There—probably as far as he would ever get. His face, inside the helmet, now looked pinched. His freckles were very plain in his paled cheeks. Gimp was awed.

So was everybody else, including Paul Hendricks, owner of the Hobby Center, who was approaching eighty and was out of the running, though his watery blue eyes were still showing the shine of boyhood, right now.

Way back, Paul Hendricks used to barnstorm county fairs in a wood-and-fabric biplane, giving thrill rides to sports and their girls at five dollars a couple, because he had been born sixty years too soon.

Much later in his spotty career, he had started the store. He had also meant to do general repair work in the backroom shop. But in recent years it had degenerated into an impromptu club hall, funk hole, griping-arguing-and-planning pit, extracurricular study lab and project site for an indefinite horde of interplanetary enthusiasts who were thought of in Jarviston as either young adults of the most resourceful kind—for whom the country should do much more in order to insure its future in space—or as just another crowd of delinquents, more bent on suicide and trouble-making than any hot rod group had ever been. Paul Hendricks was either a fine, helpful citizen—among so many who were disinterested and preoccupied—or a corrupting Socrates who deserved to drink hemlock.

Frank Nelsen knew all this as well as most. He had been acquainted with Paul ever since, at the age of seven, he had come into the store and had tried to make a down payment on a model building kit for a Y-71 ground-to-orbit freight rocket—clearly marked $49.95 in the display window—with his fortune of a single dime. Frank had never acquired a Y-71 kit, but he had found a friend in Paul Hendricks, and a place to hang around and learn things he wanted to know. Later on, as now, he had worked in the store whenever he had some free time.

Frank leaned against a lathe, watching the others, the frosty thrill and soul-searching hidden inside himself. Maybe it was hard to guess what Eileen Sands, standing near, was thinking, but she was the firm kind who would have a definite direction. Perhaps unconsciously, she hummed a tune under her breath, while her feet toyed with graceful steps. No doubt, her mind was also on the Big Vacuum beyond the Earth.

But what is there about a dangerous dream? When it is far out of reach, it has a safe, romantic appeal. Bring its fulfillment a little closer, and its harsh aspects begin to show. You get a kick out of that, but you begin to wonder nervously if you have the guts, the stamina, the resistance to loneliness and complete strangeness.

Looking at a real Archie—with a friend inside it, even—did this to Frank Nelsen. But he could see similar reactions in some of the others.

Mitch Storey sat, bent forward, on a box, staring at his big, sepia hands, in which he tossed back and forth a tiny, clear capsule containing a fuzzy fragment of vegetation from Mars. He had bought this sealed curio from Paul a year ago for fifty dollars—souvenirs that came from so far were expensive. And now, in view of what was happening to hopeful colonists of that once inhabited and still most Earth-like other planet, ownership of such a capsule on Earth seemed about to be banned, not only by departments of agriculture, but by bodies directly concerned with public safety.

Did the color photographs of Mars, among all the others that the Bunch had thumbtacked to the shop walls, still appeal as strongly to Mitch? Did he still want to go out to that world of queer, swirled markings, like the fluid flow in the dregs of a paper coffee cup? Mitch would—more so than ever. He had plant life in his soul, maybe from wandering in the swamps near his home in Mississippi. He had been supporting himself here at school by fixing gardens. If it was plant life of a different, dangerous sort, with other billions of years of development behind it, that just made the call stronger. Mitch just sat and thought, now, the mouth organ he seldom played sagging forward in his frayed shirt pocket.

Ramos—Miguel Ramos Alvarez—only stood with his black-visored cap pushed back on his head, and a cocky smirk of good humor on his mouth. Reckless Ramos, who went tearing around the country in an ancient motor scooter, decorated with squirrel tails and gaudy bosses, would hardly be disturbed by any risky thing he wanted to do. The thumbtacked pictures of the systems of far, cold Jupiter and Saturn—Saturn still unapproached, except by small, instrumented rockets—would be the things to appeal to him.

The Kuzak twins stood alertly, as if an extra special homecoming football game was in prospect. But they weren't given to real doubts, either. From their previous remarks it was clear that the asteroids, those fragments of an exploded and once populated world, orbiting out beyond Mars, would be for them. Osmium, iridium, uranium. The rich, metallic guts of a planet exposed for easy mining. Thousands of prospectors, hopeful characters, and men brutalized by the life in space, were already drifting around in the Asteroid Belt.

Two-and-Two Baines wore a worried, perplexed expression. He was a massive, rather lost young man who had to keep up with the times, and with his companions, and was certainly wondering if he was able.

Little David Lester, the pedant, the mother's boy, who looked eighteen but was probably older, pouted, and his heavy lips in his thin face moved. "Cores," Nelsen heard him whisper. He had the habit of talking to himself. Frank knew his interests. Drill cores withdrawn from the strata of another planet, and inspected for fossils and other evidences of its long history, was what he probably meant. Seeing Gimp in the Archie had set off another scientific reverie in his head. He was a whizz in any book subject. Maybe he had the brains to be a great investigator of the past, in the Belt or on Mars, if his mind didn't crack first, which seemed sure to happen if he left Earth at all.

But it was Glen Tiflin's reactions that were the strangest. He had his switch blade out, and was tossing it expertly against a wall two-by-four, in which it stuck quivering each time. This seemed his one skill, his pride, his proof of manhood. And he wanted to get into space like nobody else around, except maybe Gimp Hines. It wasn't hard to sense how his head worked—the whole Bunch knew.

Tiflin's face seemed to writhe, now, with self-doubt and truculence; his eyes were on the photos of the heroes, beginning way back; Goddard. Von Braun. Clifford, who had first landed on the far side of the Moon. LaCrosse, who had reached Mercury, closest to the sun. Vasiliev, who had just come back from the frozen moons of Jupiter, scoring a triumph for the Tovies—somebody had started calling them that, a few years ago—up in high Eurasia, the other side of an ideological rift that still threatened the ever more crowded and competitive Earth, though mutual fear had so far kept the flare ups within limits. Bannon, whose expedition was even now exploring the gloomy cellar of Venus' surface, smothered in steam, carbon dioxide and poisonous formaldehyde.

To Tiflin, as to the others, even such places were glamorous. But he wanted to be a big shot, too. It was like a compulsion. He was touchy and difficult. Three years back, he had been in trouble for breaking and entering. Maybe his worship of space, and his desire to get there and prove himself, were the only things that had kept him straight for so long—grimly attentive at Tech, and at work at his car-washing job, nights.

In his nervousness, now, he stuck a cigarette savagely between his lips, and lighted it with a quick, arrogant gesture, hardly slowing down the continuous toss and recovery of his knife.

This had begun to annoy big Art Kuzak. For one thing, Tiflin was doing his trick too close to the mass of crinkly, cellophane-like stuff draped over a horizontal wooden pole suspended by iron straps from the ceiling. The crinkly mass was one of the Bunch's major projects—their first space bubble, or bubb which they had been cutting and shaping with more care and devotion than skill.

"Cripes—put that damn shiv away, Tif!" Art snapped. "Or lose it someplace!"

Ramos, who was a part-time mechanic at the same garage where Tiflin worked, couldn't help taunting. "Yeah—smoking, too. Oh-oh. Using up precious oxygen. Better quit, pal. Can't do much of that Out There."

This was a wrong moment to rib Tiflin. He was in an instant flare. But he ground out the cigarette at once, bitterly. "What do you care what I do, Mex?" he snarled. "And as for you two Hunky Kuzaks—you oversized bulldozers—how about weight limits for blastoff? Damn—I don't care how big you are!"

In mounting rage, he was about to lash out with his fists, even at the two watchful football men. But then he looked surprised. With a terrible effort, he bottled up even his furious words.

The Bunch was a sort of family. Members of families may love each other, but it doesn't have to happen. For a second it was as if Ramos had Tiflin spitted on some barb of his taunting smile—aimed at Tiflin's most vulnerable point.

Ramos clicked his tongue. What he was certainly going to remark was that people who couldn't pass the emotional stability tests, just couldn't get a space-fitness card. But Ramos wasn't unkind. He checked himself in time. "No sweat, Tif," he muttered.

"Hey, Gimp—are you going to sit in that Archie all night?" Joe Kuzak, the easy-going twin, boomed genially. "How about the rest of us?"

"Yeah—how about that, Gimp?" Dave Lester put in, trying to sound as brash and bold as the others, instead of just bookish.

Two-and-Two Baines, still looking perplexed, spoke in a hoarse voice that sounded like sorrow. "What I wanna know is just how far this fifty buck price gets us. Guess we have enough dough left in the treasury to buy us each an Archer Five, huh, Paul?"

Paul Hendricks rubbed his bald head and grinned in a way that attempted to prove him a disinterested sideliner. "Ask Frank," he said. "He's your historian-secretary and treasurer."

Frank Nelsen came out of his attitude of observation enough to warn, "That much we've got, if we want as many as twelve Archies. And a little better than a thousand dollars more, left over from the prize money."

They had won twenty-five hundred dollars during the summer for building a working model of a sun-powered ionic drive motor—the kind useful for deep-space propulsion, but far too weak in thrust to be any good, starting from the ground. The contest had been sponsored by—of all outfits—a big food chain, Trans-Columbia. But this wasn't so strange. Everybody was interested in, or affected by, interplanetary travel, now.

On a workbench, standing amid a litter of metal chips and scraps of color-coded wire, was the Bunch's second ionic, full-size this time, and almost finished. On crossed arms it mounted four parabolic mirrors; its ion guide was on a universal joint. Out There, in orbit or beyond, and in full, spatial sunlight, its jetting ions would deliver ten pounds of continuous thrust.

"A thousand bucks—that's nowhere near enough," Two-and-Two mourned further. "Doggone, why can't we get blasted up off the Earth—that costs the most, all by itself—just in our Archies? They've got those little ionic drives on their shoulders, to get around with, after we're in orbit. Lots of asteroid hoppers live and ride only in their space suits. Why do they make us get all that other expensive equipment? Space bubbs, full-size ionics, lots of fancy instruments!"

"'Cause it isn't legal, otherwise," Mitch Storey pointed out. "'Cause new men are green—it isn't safe for them, otherwise—the Extra-Terrestrial Commission thinks. Got to have all the gear to get clearance. Travelling light isn't even legal in the Belt. You know that."

"Maybe we'll win us another prize," Ramos laughed, touching the crinkly substance of their first bubb, hanging like a deflated balloon over the ceiling pole.

Tiflin sneered. "Oh, sure, you dumb Mex. Too many other Bunches, now. Too much competition. Like companies starting up on the Moon not hiring ordinary help on Earth and shipping them out, anymore—saying contract guys don't stick. Nuts—it's because enough slobs save them the expense by showing up on their own... Or like most all of us trying to get into the Space Force. The Real Elite—sure. Only 25,000 in the Force, when there are over 200,000,000 people in the country to draw from. Just one guy from Jarviston—Harv Diamond—ever made it. Choosy? We can get old waiting for them to review our submitted personal data, only to have a chance to take their lousy tests!"

Joe Kuzak grinned. "So down with 'em—down with the worthy old U.S.S.F.! We're on our own—to Serenitatis Base on the Moon, to the Belt, Pallastown, and farther!"

Ramos still hovered near Eileen Sands. "What do you say, Sweetie?" he asked. "You haven't hardly made a comment."

Eileen remained tough and withdrawn. "I'm just listening while you smart male characters figure out everything," she snapped. "Why don't you become a listener, too, for a change, and go help Gimp out of that Archer?"

Ramos bowed elegantly, and obeyed the latter half of her suggestion.

"I have a premonition—a hunch," little Lester offered, trying to sound firm. "Our request for a grant from the Extra-Terrestrial Development Board will succeed. Because we will be as valuable as anybody, Out There. Then we will have money enough to buy the materials to make most of our equipment."

Joe Kuzak, the gentler twin, answered him. "You're right about one thing, Les. We'll wind up building most of our own stuff—with our own mitts...!"

Some noisy conversation about who should try the Archer next, was interrupted when the antique customer's bell over the street door of the store, jangled. There was a scrape of shoe soles, as the two previously absent members of the Bunch, Jig Hollins and Charlie Reynolds, arriving together by chance, came into the shop.

Jig (Hilton) Hollins was a mechanic out at the airport. He was lean, cocky, twenty-four, with a stiff bristle of blond hair. Like Charlie Reynolds, he added up what had just been happening, here, at a glance. Both were older than the others. They had regular jobs. Their educations were completed, except for evening supplementary courses.

"Well, the men have arrived," Jig announced.

Maybe Charlie Reynolds' faint frown took exception to this remark. He was the only one in a suit, grey and tasteful, with a subdued flash to match the kind of car he drove. Few held this against him, nor the fact that he usually spent himself broke, nor the further fact that J. John Reynolds, tight-fisted president of the Jarviston First National Bank, was his grandfather. Charlie was an engineer at the new nuclear powerhouse, just out of town. Charlie was what is generally known as a Good Guy. He was brash and sure—maybe too sure. He had a slight swagger, balanced by a certain benignancy. He was automatically the leader of the Bunch, held most likely to succeed in their aims.

"Hi, gang," he breezed. "Otto is bringing beer, Pepsi and sandwiches from his joint across the street. Special day—so it's on me. Time to relax—maybe unsnarl. Any new problems?"

"Still plenty of old ones," Frank Nelsen commented laconically.

"Has anybody suddenly decided to back out?" Charlie chuckled. "It's tiresome for me always to be asking that." He looked around, meeting carefully easy grins and grim expressions. "Nope—I guess we're all shaggy folk, bent on high and wild living, so far. So you know the only answer we can have."

"Umhmm, Charlie," Art Kuzak, the tough, business-like twin, gruffed. "We can get the Archers, now. I think Frank has our various sizes noted down. Let everybody sign up that wants an Archie. Better hurry, though—there'll be a run on them now that they're being almost given away... List all the other stuff we need—with approximate purchase price, or cost of construction materials, attached. Sure—we'll be way short of funds. But we can start with the items we can make, ourselves, now. The point is not to lose time. New restrictions may turn up, and give us trouble, if we do. We'll have to ride our luck for a break."

"Hell—you know the lists are ready, Art," Frank Nelsen pointed out. "A bubb for everybody—or the stuff to make it. Full-scale ionic drives, air-restorers and moisture-reclaimers, likewise. Some of the navigation instruments we'll almost have to buy. Dehydrated food, flasks of oxygen and water, and blastoff drums to contain our gear, are all relatively simple. Worst, of course, is the blastoff price, from one of the spaceports. Who could be rich enough to have a ground-to-orbit nuclear rocket of his own? Fifteen hundred bucks—a subsidized rate at that—just to lift a man and a thousand pounds of equipment into orbit. Five thousand dollars, minimum per person, is what we're going to need, altogether."

Gimp Hines, who always acted as if he expected to get off the Earth, too, had yielded his position inside the Archer to Tiflin, and had hobbled close.

"The cost scares a guy who has to go to school, too, so he can pass the tests," he said. "Well, don't worry, Frank. A thousand dollars buys a lot of stellene for bubbs. And we can scratch up a few bucks of our own. I can find a hundred, myself, saved from my TV repair work, and my novelties business. Charlie, here, ought to be able to contribute a thousand. Same for you, Hollins. That'll buy parts and materials for some ionic motors, too."

"Oh, certainly, Gimp," Hollins growled.

But Charlie Reynolds grinned. "I can kick in that much, if I hold down a while," he said. "Maybe more, later. What we've got to have, however, is a loan. We can't expect a grant from the Board. Sure they want more people helping to develop resources in space, but they're swamped with requests. Let's not sweat, though. With a little time, I'll swing something... Hey, everybody! Proposition! I move that whoever wants an Archer put his name down for Frank. I further move that we have him order us a supply of stellene, and basic materials for at least three more ionic motors. I also suggest that everybody donate as much cash as he can, no matter how little, and as much time as possible for making equipment. With luck, and if we get our applications for space-fitness tests mailed to Minneapolis within a week, at least some of us should get off Earth by next June. Now, shall we sign for the whole deal?"

Art Kuzak hunched his shoulders and displayed white teeth happily. "I'm a pushover," he said. "Here I come. I like to see things roll."

"Likewise," said his brother, Joe. Their signatures were both small, in contrast to their size.

Ramos, fully clad in the Archer, clowned his way forward to write his name with great flourishes, his ball point clutched in a space glove.

Tiflin made a fierce, nervous scrawl.

Mitch Storey wrote patiently, in big, square letters.

Gimp chewed his lip, and signed, "Walter Hines," in a beautiful, austere script, with a touch as fine as a master scientist's. "I'll go along as far as they let me," he muttered.

"I think it will be the same—in my case," David Lester stammered. He shook so much that his signature was only a quavering line.

"For laughs," Eileen Sands said, and wrote daintily.

Two-and-Two Baines gulped, sighed, and made a jagged scribble, like the trail of a rocket gone nuts.

Jig Hollins wrote in swooping, arrogant circles, that came, perhaps, from his extra jobs as an advertising sky writer with an airplane.

Frank Nelsen was next, and Charlie Reynolds was last. Theirs were the most indistinctive signatures in the lot. Just ordinary writing.

"So here we all are, on a piece of paper—pledged to victory or death," Reynolds laughed. "Anyhow, we're out of a rut."

Nelsen figured that that was the thing about Charlie Reynolds. Some might not like him, entirely. But he could get the Bunch unsnarled and in motion.

Old Paul Hendricks had come back from waiting on some casual customers in the store.

"Want to sign, too, Paul?" Reynolds chuckled.

"Nope—that would make thirteen," Paul answered, his eyes twinkling. "I'll watch and listen—and maybe tell you if I think you're off beam."

"Here comes Otto with the beer and sandwiches," Ramos burst out.

They all crowded around heavy Otto Kramer and his basket—all except Frank Nelsen and Paul Hendricks, and Eileen Sands who made the ancient typewriter click in the little office-enclosure, as she typed up the order list that Nelsen would mail out with a bank draft in the morning.

Nelsen had a powerful urge to talk to the old man who was his long-time friend, and who had said little all during the session, though he knew more about space travel than any of them—as much as anybody can know without ever having been off the Earth.

"Hey, Paul," Frank called in a low tone, leaning his elbows across a workbench.

"Yeah?"

"Nothing," Frank Nelsen answered with a lopsided smile.

But he felt that that was the right word, when your thoughts and feelings became too huge and complicated for you to express with any ease.

Grandeur, poetry, music—for instance, the haunting popular song, Fire Streak, about the burial of a spaceman—at orbital speed—in the atmosphere of his native planet. And fragments of history, such as covered wagons. All sorts of subjects, ideas and pictures were swirling inside his head. Wanting to sample everything in the solar system... Home versus the distance, and the fierce urge to build a wild history of his own... Gentleness and lust to be fulfilled, sometime. There would be a girl... And there were second thoughts to twist your guts and make you wonder if all your savage drives were foolish. But there was a duty to be equal to your era—helping to give dangerously crowded humanity on Earth more room, dispersal, a chance for race survival, if some unimaginable violence were turned loose...

He thought of the names of places Out There. Serenitatis Base—Serene—on the Moon. Lusty, fantastic Pallastown, on the Golden Asteroid, Pallas... He remembered his parents, killed in a car wreck just outside of Jarviston, four Christmases ago. Some present!... But there was one small benefit—he was left free to go where he wanted, without any family complications, like other guys might have. Poor Dave Lester. How was it that his mother allowed him to be with the Bunch at all? How did he work it? Or was she the one that was right?...

Paul Hendricks had leaned his elbows on the workbench, too. "Sure—nothing—Frank," he said, and his watery eyes were bland.

The old codger understood. Neither of them said anything for a minute, while the rest of the Bunch, except Eileen who was still typing, guzzled Pepsi and beer, and wolfed hotdogs. There was lots of courage-lifting noise and laughter.

Ramos said something, and Jig Hollins answered him back. "Think there'll be any girls in grass skirts out in the Asteroid Belt, Mex?"

"Oh, they'll arrive," Ramos assured him.

Nelsen didn't listen anymore. His and Paul's attention had wandered to the largest color photo thumbtacked to the wall, above the TV set, and the shelf of dog-eared technical books. It showed a fragile, pearly ring, almost diaphanous, hanging tilted against spatial blackness and pinpoint stars. Its hub was a cylindrical spindle, with radial guys of fine, stainless steel wire. It was like the earliest ideas about a space station, yet it was also different. To many—Frank Nelsen and Paul Hendricks certainly included—such devices had as much beauty as a yacht under full sail had ever had for anybody.

Old Paul smirked with pleasure. "It's a shame, ain't it, Frank—calling a pretty thing like that a 'bubb'—it's an ugly word. Or even a 'space bubble.' Technical talk gets kind of cheap."

"I don't mind," Frank Nelsen answered. "Our first one, here, could look just as nice—inflated, and riding free against the stars."

He touched the crinkly material, draped across its wooden support.

"It will," the old man promised. "Funny—not so long ago people thought that space ships would have to be really rigid—all metal. So how did they turn out? Made of stellene, mostly—an improved form of polyethylene—almost the same stuff as a weather balloon."

"A few millimeters thick, light, perfectly flexible when deflated," Nelsen added. "Cut out and cement your bubb together in any shape you choose. Fold it up firmly, like a parachute—it makes a small package that can be carried up into orbit in a blastoff rocket with the best efficiency. There, attached flasks of breathable atmosphere fill it out in a minute. Eight pounds pressure makes it fairly solid in a vacuum. So, behold—you've got breathing and living room, inside. There's nylon cording for increased strength—as in an automobile tire—though not nearly as much. There's a silicone gum between the thin double layers, to seal possible meteor punctures. A darkening lead-salt impregnation in the otherwise transparent stellene cuts radiation entry below the danger level, and filters the glare and the hard ultra-violet out of the sunshine. So there you are, all set up."

"Rig your hub and guy wires," old Paul carried on, cheerfully. "Attach your sun-powered ionic drive, set up your air-restorer, spin your vehicle for centrifuge-gravity, and you're ready to move—out of orbit."

They laughed, because getting into space wasn't as easy as they made it sound. The bubbs, one of the basic inventions that made interplanetary travel possible, were, for all their almost vagabondish simplicity, still a concession in lightness and compactness for atmospheric transit, to that first and greatest problem—breaking the terrific initial grip of Earth's gravity from the ground upward, and gaining stable orbital speed. Only a tremendously costly rocket, with a thrust greater than its own weight when fully loaded, could do that. Buying a blastoff passage had to be expensive.

"Figuring, scrounging, counting our pennies, risking our necks," Nelsen chuckled. "And maybe, even if we make it, we'll be just a third-rate group, lost in the crowd that's following the explorers... Just the same, I wish you could plan to go, too, Paul."

"Don't rub it in, kid. But I figure on kicking in a couple of thousand bucks, soon, to help you characters along."

Nelsen felt an embarrassed lift of hope.

"You shouldn't, Paul," he advised. "We've overrun and taken possession of your shop—almost your store, too. You've waived any profit, whenever we've bought anything. That's enough favors."

"My dough, my pleasure... Let's each get one of Reynolds' beers and hotdogs, if any are left..."

Later, when all the others had gone, except Gimp Hines, they uncovered the Archer, which everyone else had tried. Paul got into it, first. Then Nelsen took his turn, sitting as if within an inclosed vault, hearing the gurgle of bubbles passing through the green, almost living fluid of the air-restorer capsule. Chlorophane, like the chlorophyl of green plants, could break up exhaled carbon dioxide, freeing the oxygen for re-breathing. But it was synthetic, far more efficient, and it could use much stronger sunlight as an energy source. Like chlorophyl, too, it produced edible starches and sugars that could be imbibed, mixed with water, through a tube inside the Archer's helmet.

Even with the Archer enclosing him, Nelsen's mind didn't quite reach. He had learned a lot about space, but it remained curiously inconceivable to him. He felt the frost-fringed thrill.

"Now we know—a little," he chortled, after he stood again, just in his usual garb.

It was almost eight o'clock. Gimp Hines hadn't gone to supper, or to celebrate decision on one of the last evenings of any kind of freedom from work. He couldn't wait for that... Under fluorescent lights, he was threading wire through miniature grommets, hurrying to complete the full-size ionic drive. He said, "Hi, Frank," and let his eyes drop, again, into absorption in his labors. Mad little guy. Tragic, sort of. A cripple...

"I'll shove off, Paul," Nelsen was saying in a moment.

Out under the significant stars of the crisp October night, Nelsen was approached at once by a shadow. "I was waiting for you, Frank. I got a problem." The voice was hoarse sorrow—almost lugubrious comedy.

"Math again, Two-and-Two? Sure—shoot."

"Well—that kind is always around—with me," Two-and-Two Baines chuckled shakily. "This is something else—personal. We're liable—honest to gosh—to go, aren't we?"

"Some of us, maybe," Nelsen replied warily. "Sixty thousand bucks for the whole Bunch looks like a royal heap of cabbage to me."

"Split among a dozen guys, it looks smaller," Two-and-Two persisted. "And you can earn royal dough on the Moon—just for example. Plenty to pay back a loan."

"Still, you don't pick loans off trees," Nelsen gruffed. "Not for a shoestring crowd like us. We look too unsubstantial."

"Okay, Frank—have that part your way. I believe there still is a good chance we will go. I want to go. But I get to thinking. Out There is like being buried in millions of miles of nothing that you can breathe. Can a guy stand it? You hear stories about going loopy from claustrophobia and stuff. And I got to think about my mother and dad."

"Uh-huh—other people could be having minor second thoughts—including me," Frank Nelsen growled.

"You don't get what I mean, Frank. Sure I'm scared some—but I'm gonna try to go. Well, here's my point. I'm strong, willing, not too clumsy. But I'm no good at figuring what to do. So, Out There, in order to have a reasonable chance, I'll have to be following somebody smart. I thought I'd fix it now—beforehand. You're the best, Frank."

Nelsen felt the scared earnestness of the appeal, and the achy shock of the compliment. But in his own uncertainty, he didn't want to be carrying any dead weight, in the form of a dependent individual.

"Thanks, Two-and-Two," he said. "But I can't see myself as any leader, either. Talk about it to me tomorrow, if you still feel like it. Right now I want to sweat out a few things for myself—alone."

"Of course, Frankie." And Two-and-Two was gone.

Frank Nelsen looked upward, over the lighted street. There was no Moon—site of many enterprises, these days—in the sky, now. Old Jupiter rode in the south. A weather-spotting satellite crept across zenith, winking red and green. A skip glider, an orbit-to-ground freight vehicle, possibly loaded with rich metals from the Belt, probably about to land at the New Mexico spaceport far to the west, moved near it. Frank felt a deliciously lonesome chill as he walked through the business section of Jarviston. From somewhere, dance music lilted.

In front of Lehman's Drug Store he looked skyward again, to see a dazzling white cluster, like many meteors, falling. The gorgeous display lasted more than a second.

"Good heavens, Franklin Nelsen—what was that?"

He looked down at the slight, aging woman, and stiffened slightly. Miss Rosalie Parks had been his Latin teacher in high school. Plenty of times she used to scold him for not having his translations of Caesar worked out. A lot she understood about a fella who had to spend plenty of time working to support himself, while attending school!

"Good evening, Miss Parks," he greeted rather stiffly. "I think it was that manned weather satellite dumping garbage. It hits the atmosphere at orbital velocity, and is incinerated."

She seemed to be immensely pleased and amused. "Garbage becoming beauty! That is rather wonderful, Franklin. I'll remember. Thank you and good night."

She marched off with the small purchase she had made, in the direction opposite his own.

He got almost to the house where he had his room, when there was another encounter. But it was nothing new to run into Nancy Codiss, the spindly fifteen-year-old next door. He had a sudden, unbelievably expansive impulse.

"Hi, Nance," he said. "I didn't get much supper. Let's go down to Lehman's for a hamburger and maybe a soda."

"Why—good—Frankie!"

They didn't talk very much, walking down, waiting for their orders, or eating their hamburgers. But she wasn't as spindly as he used to think. And her dark hair, even features and slim hands were nicer than he recalled.

"I hear you fellas got your space-armor sample, Frank."

"Yep—we did. We're ordering more."

Her expression became speculative. Her brown eyes lighted. "I've been wondering if I should look Outward, too. Whether it makes sense—for a girl."

"Could be—I've heard."

Their conversation went something like that, throughout, with long silences. Finally she smiled at him, very brightly.

"The Junior Fall dance is in two weeks," she said. "But I guess you'll be too busy to be interested?"

"'Guess' just isn't the word, Nance. I regret that—truly."

He looked and sounded as though he meant it. In some crazy way, it seemed that he did mean it.

He walked her home. Then he went to the next house, and up to his rented room. He showered, and for once climbed very early into bed, feeling that he must have nightmares. About strange sounds in the thin winds, over the mysterious thickets of Mars. Or about some blackened, dried-out body of a sentient being, sixty million years dead, floating free in the Asteroid Belt. A few had been found. Some were in museums.

Instead, he slept the dreamless sleep of the just—if there was any particular reason for him to consider himself just.



II

Gimp Hines put the finishing touches on the first full-scale ionic during that next week. The others of the Bunch, each working when he could, completed cementing the segments of the first bubb together.

On a Sunday morning they carried the bubb out into the yard behind the store and test inflated the thirty-foot ring by means of a line of hose from the compressor in the shop. Soapsuds dabbed along the seams revealed a few leaks by its bubbling. These were fixed up.

By late afternoon the Bunch had folded up the bubb again, and were simulating its practice launching from a ground-to-orbit rocket—as well as can be done on the ground with a device intended only for use in a state of weightlessness, when the operators are supposed to be weightless, too. The impossibility of establishing such conditions produced some ludicrous results:

The two Kuzaks diving with a vigor, as if from a rocket airlock, hitting the dirt with a thud, scrambling up, opening and spreading the great bundle, attaching the air hose. Little Lester hopping in to help fit wire rigging, most of it still imaginary. A friendly dog coming over to sniff, with a look of mild wonder in his eyes.

"Laugh, you leather-heads!" Art Kuzak roared at the others. He grinned, wiping his muddy face. "We've got to learn, don't we? Only, it's like make-believe. Hell, I haven't played make-believe since I was four! But if we keep doing it here, all the kids and townspeople will be peeking over the fence to see how nuts we've gone."

This was soon literally true. In some embarrassment, the Bunch rolled up their bubb and lugged it into the shop.

"I can borrow a construction compressor unit on a truck," Two-and-Two offered. "And there's a farm I know..."

A great roll of stellene tubing, to have a six-feet six-inch inside diameter when inflated, was delivered on Monday. Enough for three bubbs. The Archer Fives were expected to be somewhat delayed, due to massive ordering. But small boxes of parts and raw stock for the ionics had begun to arrive, too. Capacitors, resistors, thermocouple units. Magnesium rods for Storey or Ramos or the Kuzaks to shape in a lathe. Sheet aluminum to be spun and curved and polished. With Eileen Sands helping, Gimp Hines would do most of that.

So the real work began. Nobody in the Bunch denied that it was a grind. For most, there were those tough courses at Tech. And a job, for money, for sustenance. And the time that must be spent working for—Destiny. Sleep was least important—a few hours, long after midnight, usually.

Frank Nelsen figured that he had it relatively easy—almost as easy as the Kuzak twins, who, during football season, were under strict orders to get their proper sack time. He worked at Hendricks'—old Paul didn't mind his combining the job with his labors of aspiration. Ramos, the night-mechanic, Tiflin, the car-washer, and Two-and-Two Baines, the part-time bricklayer, didn't have it so easy. Eileen, a first-rate legal typist employed for several hours a day by a partnership of lawyers, could usually work from notes, at the place where she lived.

Two-and-Two would lift a big hand facetiously, when he came into the shop. Blinking and squinting, he would wiggle his fingers. "I can still see 'em—to count!" he would moan. "Thanks, all you good people, for coaching me in my math."

"Think nothing of it," Charlie Reynolds or David Lester, or most any of the others, would tell him. Two-and-Two hadn't come near Frank Nelsen very much, during the last few days, though Frank had tried to be friendly.

Lester was the only one without an activity to support himself. But he was at the shop every weekday, six to ten p.m., cementing stellene with meticulous care, while he muttered and dreamed.

The Bunch griped about courses, jobs, and the stubbornness of materials, but they made progress. They had built their first bubb and ionic. The others would be easier.

Early in November, Nelsen collected all available fresh capital, including a second thousand from Paul Hendricks and five hundred from Charlie Reynolds, and sent it in with new orders.

That about exhausted their own finances for a long time to come. Seven bubbs, minus most of even their simpler fittings, and five ionics, seemed as much as they could pay for, themselves. Charlie Reynolds hadn't yet lined up a backer.

"We should have planned to outfit one guy completely," Jig Hollins grumbled on a Sunday afternoon at the shop. "Then we could have drawn lots about who gets a chance to use the gear. That we goofed there is your fault, Reynolds. Or—your Grandpappy didn't come through, huh?"

Charlie met Hollins' sneering gaze for a moment. "Never mind the 'Grandpappy', Jig," he said softly. "I knew that chances weren't good, there. However, there are other prospects which I'm working on. I remember mentioning that it might take time. As for your other remarks, what good is equipping just one person? I thought that this was a project for all of us."

"I'm with Charlie," Joe Kuzak commented.

"Don't fight, guys—we've got to figure on training, too," Ramos laughed. "I've got the problem of an expensive training centrifuge about beat. Out at my old motor scooter club. Come on, Charlie—you, too, Jig—get your cars and let's go! It's only seven miles, and we all need a break."

Paul Hendricks had gone for a walk. So Nelsen locked the shop, and they all tore off, out to the place, Ramos leading the way in his scooter. At the scooter club they found an ancient carnival device which used to be called a motordrome. It was a vertical wooden cylinder, like a huge, ironbound, straight sided cask, thirty feet high and wide, standing on its bottom.

Ramos let himself and the scooter through a massive, curved door—conforming to the curvature of the walls—at the base of the 'drome.

"Secure the latch bar of this door from the outside, fellas," he said. "Then go to the gallery around the top to watch."

Ramos started riding his scooter in a tight circle around the bottom of the 'drome. Increasing speed, he swung outward to the ramped juncture between floor and smooth, circular walls. Then, moving still faster, he was riding around the vertical walls, themselves, held there by centrifugal force. He climbed his vehicle to the very rim of the great cask, body out sideways, grinning and balancing, hands free, the squirrel tails flapping from his gaudily repainted old scooter.

"Come on, you characters!" he shouted through the noise and smoke. "You should try this, too! It's good practice for the rough stuff to come, when we blast out!... Hey, Eileen—you try it first—ride with me—then alone—when you get the hang of it!..."

This time she accepted. Soon she was riding by herself, smiling recklessly. Reynolds rode after that, then the Kuzaks. Like most of them, Frank Nelsen took the scooter up alone, from the start. He was a bit scared at first, but if you couldn't do a relatively simple stunt like this, how could you get along in space? He became surer, then gleeful, even when the centrifugal force made his head giddy, pushed his buttocks hard against the scooter's seat, and his insides down against his pelvis.

Storey, Hollins and Tiflin all accomplished it. Even Gimp Hines rode behind Ramos in some very wild gyrations, though he didn't attempt to guide the scooter, himself.

Then it was David Lester's turn. It was a foregone conclusion that he couldn't take the scooter up, alone. Palefaced, he rode double. Ramos was careful this time. But on the downward curve before coming to rest, the change of direction made Lester grab Ramos' arm at a critical instant. The scooter wavered, and they landed hard, even at reduced speed. Agile Ramos skipped clear, landing on his feet. Lester flopped heavily, and skidded across the bottom of the 'drome.

When the guys got to him, he was covered with friction burns, and with blood from a scalp gash. Ramos, Storey and Frank worked on him to get him cleaned up and patched up. Part of the time he was sobbing bitterly, more from failure, it seemed, than from his physical hurt. By luck there didn't seem to be any bones broken.

"Darn!" he choked in some infinite protest, beating the ground with his fists. "Damn—that's the end of it for me...! So soon... Pop..."

"I'll drive you to Doc Miller's, Les," Charlie Reynolds said briskly. "Then home. You other people better stay here..."

Charlie had a baffled, subdued look, when he returned an hour later. "I thought his mother would chew my ear, sure," he said. "She didn't. She was just polite. That was worse. She's small—not much color. Of course she was scared, and mad clean through. Know her?"

"I guess we've all seen her around," Nelsen answered. "Widow. Les was in one of my classes during my first high school year. He was a senior, then. They haven't been in Jarviston more than a few years. I never heard where they came from..."

Warily, back at the shop, the Bunch told Paul what had happened.

For once his pale eyes flashed. "You Bright Boys," he said. "Especially you, Ramos...! Well, I'm most to blame. I let him hang around, because he was so doggone interested. And driven—somehow. Lucky nothing too bad happened. Last August, when you romantics got serious about space, I made him prove he was over twenty-one..."

They sweated it out, expecting ear-burning phone calls, maybe legal suits. Nothing happened. Nelsen felt relieved that Lester was gone. One dangerous link in a chain was removed. Contempt boosted his own arrogant pride of accomplishment. Then pity came, and anger for the sneers of Jig Hollins. Then regret for a fallen associate.

The dozen Archers were delivered—there would be a spare, now. The Bunch continued building equipment, they worked out in the motordrome, they drilled at donning their armor and at inflating and rigging a bubb. Gimp Hines exercised with fierce, perspiring doggedness on a horizontal bar he had rigged in the back of the shop. He meant to compensate for his bad leg by improving his shoulder muscles.

Most of the guys still figured that Charlie Reynolds would solve their money problem. But in late November he had a bad moment. Out in front of Hendricks', he looked at his trim automobile. "It's a cinch I can't use it Out There," he chuckled ruefully and unprompted. Then he brightened. "Nope—selling it wouldn't bring one tenth enough, anyhow. I'll get what we need—just got to keep trying... I don't know why, but some so-called experts are saying that off-the-Earth enterprises have been overextended. That makes finding a backer a bit tougher than I thought."

"You ought to just take off on your own, Reynolds," Jig Hollins suggested airily. "I'll bet it's in your mind. The car would pay for that. Or since you're a full-fledged nuclear engineer, some company on the Moon might give you a three year contract and send you out free in a comfortable vehicle. Or wouldn't you like to be tied that long? I wouldn't. Maybe I could afford to be an independent, too. Tough on these shoestring boys, here, but is it our fault?"

Hollins was trying to taunt Reynolds. "You're tiresome, Jig," Reynolds said without heat. "Somebody's going to poke you sometime..."

Next morning, before going to classes at Tech, Frank Nelsen, with the possibility of bitter disappointment looming in his own mind, spotted Glen Tiflin, the switch blade tosser, standing on the corner, not quite opposite the First National Bank. Tiflin's mouth was tight and his eyes were narrowed.

Nelsen felt a tingle in his nerves—very cold.

"Hi—what cooks, Tif?" he said mildly.

"To you it's which?" Tiflin snapped.

Nelson led him on. "Sometimes I think of all the dough in that bank," he said.

"Yeah," Tiflin snarled softly. "That old coot, Charlie Reynolds' grandpa, sitting by his vault door. Too obvious, though—here. Maybe in another bank—in another town. We could get the cash we need. Hell, though—be cavalier—it's just a thought."

"You damned fool!" Nelsen hissed slowly.

It was harder than ever to like Tiflin for anything at all. But he did have that terrible, star-reaching desperation. Nelsen had quite a bit of it, himself. He knew, now.

"Get up to Tech, Tif," he said like an order. "If you have a chance, tell my math prof I might be a little late..."

That was how Frank Nelsen happened to face J. John Reynolds, who, in a question of progress, would still approve of galley slaves. Nelsen had heard jokes like that laughed about, around Jarviston. J. John, by reputation, was all hard business.

Nelsen got past his secretary.

"Young man—I hope you have something very special to say."

There was a cold, amused challenge in the old man's tone, and an implication of a moment of casual audience granted generously, amid mountains of more important affairs.

Nelsen didn't waver. The impulse to do what he was doing had come too suddenly for nervousness to build up. He hadn't planned what to say, but his arguments were part of himself.

"Mr. Reynolds—I'm Frank Nelsen, born here in Jarviston. Perhaps you know me on sight. I believe you are acquainted with Paul Hendricks, and you must have heard about our group, which is aiming at space, as people like ourselves are apt to be doing, these days. We've made fair progress, which proves we're at least earnest, if not dedicated. But unless we wait and save for years, we've come about as far as we can, without a loan. Judging from the success of previous earnest groups, and the development of resources and industries beyond the Earth, we are sure that we could soon pay you back, with considerable interest."

J. John Reynolds seemed to doze, hardly listening. But at the end his eyes opened, and sparks of anger—or acid humor—seemed to dance in them.

"I know very well what sort of poetic tomfoolery you are talking about, Nelsen," he said. "I wondered how long it would be before one of you—other than my grandson with his undiluted brass, and knowing me far too well in one sense, anyway—would have the gall to come here and talk to me like this. You'd probably be considered a minor, too, in some states. Dealing with you, I could even get into trouble."

Nelsen's mouth tightened. "I came to make a proposition and get an answer," he responded. "Thank you for your no. It helps clear the view."

"Hold on, Nelsen," J. John growled. "I don't remember saying no. I said 'gall,' intending it to mean guts. That's what young spacemen need, isn't it? They've almost got to be young, so legal viewpoints about the age at which competence is reached are changing. Oh, there is plenty of brass among your generation. But it fails in peculiar places. I was waiting for one place where it didn't fail. Charlie, my grandson, doesn't count. It has never taken him any courage to talk to me any way he wants."

This whole encounter was still dreamlike to Frank Nelsen.

"Then you are saying yes?"

"I might. Do you foolishly imagine that my soul is so completely sour milk that in youth I couldn't feel the same drives that you feel, now, for the limited opportunity there was, then? But under some damnable pressure toward conformity, I took a desk job in a bank. I am now eighty-one years old... How much does your 'Bunch' need—at minimum, mind you—for the opportunity to ride in space-armor till the rank smell of their bodies almost chokes them, for developing weird allergies or going murdering mad, but, in the main, doing their best, anyway, pathfinding and building, if they've got the guts? Come on, Nelsen—you must know."

"Fifty thousand," Frank answered quickly. "There are still eleven in our group."

"Yes... More may quit along the way... Here is my proposition: I would make funds available for your expenses up to that amount—from my personal holdings, separate from this bank. The amount due from each individual shall be ten percent of whatever his gains or earnings are, off the Earth, over a period of ten years, but he will not be required to pay back any part of the original loan. This is a high-risk, high-potential profit arrangement for me—with an experimental element. I will ask for no written contract—only a verbal promise. I have found that people are fairly honest, and I know that, far in space, circumstances become too complicated to make legal collections very practical, anyway, even if I ever felt inclined to try them... Now, if—after I see your friends, whom you will send to me for an interview and to give me their individual word, also, I decide to make my proposition effective—will you, yourself, promise to abide by these terms?"

Nelsen was wary for a second. "Yes—I promise," he said.

"Good. I am glad you paused to think, Nelsen. I am not fabulously rich. But having more or less money hardly matters to me at this late date, so I am not likely to try to trap you. Yet there is still a game to play, and an outcome to watch—the future. Now get out of here before you become ridiculous by saying more than a casual thanks."

"All right—thanks. Thank you, sir..."

Nelsen felt somewhat numb. But a faint, golden glow was increasing inside his mind.

Tiflin hadn't gone up to Tech. He was still waiting on the street corner. "What the hell, Frank?" he said.

"I think we've got the loan, Tif. But he wants to see all of us. Can you go in there, be polite, say you're a Bunch member, make a promise, and—above all—avoid blowing your top? Boy—if you queer this...!"

Tiflin's mouth was open. "You kidding?"

"No!"

Tiflin gulped, and actually looked subdued. "Okay, Frank. Be cavalier. Hell, I'd croak before I'd mess this up...!"

By evening, everybody had visited J. John Reynolds, including Charlie Reynolds and Jig Hollins. Nelsen got the backslapping treatment.

Charlie sighed, rubbed his head, then grinned with immense relief. "That's a load off," he said. "Glad to have somebody else fix it. Congrats, Frank. I wonder if Otto has got any champagne to go with the hotdogs...?"

Otto had a bottle—enough for a taste, all around. Eileen kissed Frank impulsively. "You ought to get real smart," she said.

"Uh-huh," he answered. "Now let's get some beer—more our speed."

But none of them overdid the beer either...

Just after New Year's they had eight bubbs completed, tested, folded carefully according to government manuals, and stowed in an attic they had rented over Otto's place. They had seven ionics finished and stored. More parts and materials were arriving. The air-restorers were going to be the toughest and most expensive to make. They were the really vital things to a spaceman. Every detail had to be carefully fitted and assembled. The chlorophane contained costly catalytic agents.

A winter of hard work was ahead, but they figured on a stretch of clear sailing, now. They didn't expect anyone to shake their morale, least of all a nice, soft-spoken guy in U.S.S.F. greys. Harv Diamond was the one man from Jarviston who had gotten into the Space Force. He used to hang around Hendricks'.

He dropped in on a Sunday evening, when the whole Bunch was in the shop. They were around him at once, like around a hero, shouting and questioning. There were mottled patches on his hands, and he wore dark glasses, but he seemed at ease and happy.

"There have been some changes in the old joint, huh, Paul?" he said. "So you guys are one of the outfits building its own gear... Looks pretty good... Of course you can get some bulky supplies cheaper on the Moon, because everything from Earth has to be boosted into space against a gravity six times as great as the lunar, which raises the price like hell. Water and oxygen, for instance. Peculiar, on the dry, almost airless Moon. But roasting water out of lunar gypsum rock is an easy trick. And oxygen can be derived from water by simple electrolysis."

"Hell, we know all that, Harv," Ramos laughed.

So Harv Diamond gave them the lowdown on the shortage of girls—yet—in Serenitatis Base, on the Moon. Just the same, it was growing like corn in July, and was already a pretty good leave-spot, if you liked to look around. Big vegetable gardens under sealed, stellene domes. Metal refineries, solar power plants, plastic factories and so forth, already in operation... But there was nothing like Pallastown, on little Pallas, out in the Asteroid Belt... Mars? That was the heebie-jeebie planet.

Gimp asked Harv how much leave he had on Earth.

"Not long, I guess," Harv laughed. "I've got to check back at the Force Hospital in Minneapolis tomorrow..."

But right away it was evident that his thoughts had been put on the wrong track. His easy smile faded. He gasped and looked kind of surprised. He hung onto Paul's old swivel chair, in which he was sitting, as if he was suddenly terribly afraid of falling. His eyes closed tight, and there was a funny gurgle in his throat.

The Bunch surrounded him, wanting to help, but he half recovered.

"Even a good Space Force bubb, manufactured under rigid government specifications, can tear," he said in a thick tone. "If some jerk, horsing around with another craft, bumps you even lightly. Compartmentation helps, but you can still be unlucky. I was fortunate—almost buttoned into my Archer Six, already. But did you ever see a person slowly swell up and turn purple, with frothy bubbles forming under the skin, while his blood boils in the Big Vacuum? That was my buddy, Ed Kraft..."

Lieutenant Harvey Diamond gasped. Huge, strangling hiccups came out of his throat. His eyes went wild. The Kuzaks had to hold him, while Mitch Storey ran to phone Doc Miller. A shot quieted Diamond somewhat, and an ambulance took him away.

That incident shook up the Bunch a little. A worse one came on a Tuesday evening, when not everybody was at the shop.

The TV was on, showing the interior of the Far Side, one of those big, comparatively luxurious tour bubbs that take rubbernecks that can afford it on a swing around the Moon. The Far Side was just coming into orbit, where tending skip gliders would take off the passengers for grounding at the New Mexico spaceport. Aboard the big bubb you could see people moving about, or sitting with drinks on curved benches. A girl was playing soft music on a tiny, lightweight piano.

There wasn't any sign of trouble except that the TV channel went dead for a second, until a stand by commercial with singing cartoon figures cut in.

But Frank Nelsen somehow put his hands to his head, as if to protect it.

Mitch Storey, with a big piece of stellene in his brown mitts, stood up very straight.

Gimp, at a bench, handed a tiny capacitor to Eileen, and started counting, slow and even. "One—two—three—four—five—"

"What's with you slobs?" Jig Hollins wanted to know.

"Dunno—we're nuts, maybe," Gimp answered. "Ten—eleven—twelve—"

Charlie Reynolds and Paul Hendricks were alert, too.

Then a big, white light trembled on the thin snow beyond the windows, turning the whole night landscape into weird day. The tearing, crackling roar was delayed. By the time the sound arrived, all of the stellene in the Far Side must have been consumed. It had no resistance to atmospheric friction at five miles per second, or faster. There were just the heavier metallic details left to fall and burn. Far off, there was a thumping crash that seemed to make the ground sag and recover.

"Here we go!" Charlie Reynolds yelled.

In his and Hollins' cars, they got to the scene of the fragment's fall, two miles out of town, by following a faint, fading glow. They were almost the first to reach the spot. Tiflin and Ramos, who had been working on their jobs, came with their boss, along with a trailing horde of cars from town.

Flashlights probed into the hot impact pit in the open field, where the frozen soil had seemed to splash like a liquid. Crumpled in the hole was a lump of half-fused sheet steel, wadded up like paper. It was probably part of the Far Side's central hub. Magnesium and aluminum, of which the major portions had certainly been made, were gone; they could never have endured the rush through the atmosphere.

Ramos got down into the pit. After a minute, he gave a queer cry, and climbed out again. His mitten smoked as he opened it, to show something.

"It must have been behind a heavy object," he said very seriously, not like his usual self at all. "That broke the molecular impact with the air—like a ceramic nose cone. Kept it from burning up completely."

The thing was a lady's silver compact, from which a large piece had been fused away. A bobbypin had gotten welded to it.

Old Paul Hendricks cursed. Poor Two-and-Two moved off sickly, with a palm clamped over his mouth.

Eileen Sands gasped, and seemed about to yell. But she got back most of her poise. Women have nursed the messily ill and dying, and have tended ghastly wounds during ages of time. So they know the messier side of biology as well as men.

Ramos gave the pathetic relic to a cop who was trying to take charge.

"Somebody must have goofed bad on the Far Side, for it to miss orbit like that," Ramos grated. "Or was something wrong, beforehand? Their TV transmitter went out—we were watching, too, at the garage... You can see the aurora—the Northern Lights... Those damn solar storms might have loused up instruments...! But who'll ever know, now...?"

The Kuzaks, who had been to an Athletic Association meeting at Tech, had grabbed a ride out with the stream of cars from town. Both looked grim. "No use hanging around here, Charlie," Art urged. "Let's get back to the shop."

Before he drove off, Jig Hollins tried to chuckle mockingly at everybody, especially Charlie Reynolds. "Time to think about keeping a nice safe job in the Jarviston powerhouse—eh, Reynolds? And staying near granddad?"

"We're supposed not to be children, Hollins," Charlie shot back at him from his car window. "We're supposed to have known long ago that these things happen, and to have adjusted ourselves to our chances."

"Ninnies that get scared first thing, when the facts begin to show!" Tiflin snarled. "Cripes—let's don't be like soft bugs under boards!"

"You're right, Tif," Frank Nelsen agreed, feeling that for once the ne'er-do-well—the nuisance—might be doing them all some good. Frank could feel how Tiflin shamed some of the quiver out of his own insides, and helped bring back pride and strength.

The Far Side disaster had been pretty disturbing, however. And next day, Thursday, the blue envelopes came to the members of the Bunch. A printed card with a typed-in date, was inside each: "Report for space-fitness tests at Space-Medicine Center, February 15th..."

"Just a couple of weeks!" Two-and-Two was moaning that night. "How'll I get through, with my courses only half-finished. You've gotta help me some more, people! With that stinking math...!"

So equipment building was almost suspended, while the Bunch crammed and sweated and griped and cursed. But maybe now some of them wouldn't care so very much if they flunked.

Two loaded automobiles took off for Minneapolis on the night before the ordeal. The Bunch put up at motels to be fresh the next morning. Maybe some of them even slept.

At the Center, there were more forms to fill out. Then complete physicals started the process. Next came the written part. Right off, Frank Nelsen knew that this was going a familiar way, which had happened quite often at Tech: Struggle through a tough course, hear dire promises of head-cracking questions and math problems in the final quiz. Then the switch—the easy letdown.

The remainder of the tests proceeded like assembly-line operations, each person taking each alone, in the order of his casual position in the waiting line.

First there was the dizzying, mind-blackening centrifuge test, to see if you could take enough Gs of acceleration, and still be alert enough to fit a simple block puzzle together.

Then came the free fall test, from the top of a thousand foot tower. A parachute-arrangement broke your speed at the bottom of the track. As in the centrifuge, instruments incorporated into the fabric of a coverall suit with a hood, were recording your emotional and bodily reactions. The medics wanted to be sure that your panic level was high and cool. Nelsen didn't find free fall very hard to take, either.

Right after that came the scramble to see how fast you could get into an Archer, unfold and inflate a bubb and rig its gear.

"That's all, Mister," the observer with the camera told Nelsen in a bored tone.

"Results will be mailed to your home within twelve hours—Mr. Nelsen," a girl informed him as she read his name from a printed card.

So the Bunch returned tensely to Jarviston, with more time to sweat out. Everybody looked at Gimp Hines—and then looked away. Even Jig Hollins didn't make any comments. Gimp, himself, seemed pretty subdued.

The small, green space-fitness cards were arriving at Jarviston addresses in the morning.

Near the end of the noon hour, Two-and-Two Baines was waving his around the Tech campus, having gone home to look, as of course everybody else who could, had also done. "Cripes!—Hi-di-ho—here it is!" he was yelling at the frosty sky, when Frank came with his own ticket.

The Kuzaks had theirs, and were calm about it. Eileen Sands' card was tucked neatly into her sweater pocket, as she joined those who were waiting for the others on the front steps of Tech's Carver Hall.

Ramos had to make a noise. "See what Santa brought the lady! But he didn't forget your Uncle Miguel, either—see! We're in, kid—be happy. Yippee!"

He tried to whirl her in some crazy dance, but Gimp was swinging along the slushy walk on his crutches. His grin was a mile wide. Mitch Storey was with him, looking almost as pleased.

"Guess legs don't count, Out There," Gimp was saying. "Or patched tickers, either, as long as they work good! I kind of figured on it... Hey—I don't want to ride anybody's shoulders, Ramos—cut it out...! We won't know about Charlie and Jig till tonight, when they come to Paul's from their jobs. But I don't think that there's any sweat for them, either... Only—where's Tif? He should be back by now from where he lives with his father..."

Tiflin didn't show up at Hendricks' at all that evening, or at his garage job either. Ramos phoned from the garage to confirm that.

"And he's not at home," Ramos added. "The boss sent me to check. His Old Man says he doesn't know where Tif is and cares less."

"Just leave Tif be," Mitch Storey said softly.

"Maybe that's best, at that," old Paul growled. "Only I hope the darned idiot doesn't cook himself up another jam..."

They all knew then, for sure, what had happened. Right now, Glen Tiflin was wandering alone, somewhere, cursing and suffering. As likely as not, he'd start hitchhiking across the country, to try to get away from himself... Somewhere the test instruments—which had seemed so lenient—had tripped him up, spotting the weakness that he had tried to fight. Temper, nerves—emotional instability. So there was no green card for Tif, to whom space was a kind of Nirvana...

The Bunch worked on with their preparations. Things got done all right, but the fine edge of enthusiasm had dulled. Jig Hollins flung his usual remarks, with their derisive undertone, around for a couple of weeks. Then he came into the shop with a girl who had a pretty, rather blank face, and a mouth that could twist with stubborn anger.

"Meet Minnie," Jig said loudly. "She is one reason why I have decided that I've had enough of this kid stuff. I gave it a whirl—for kicks. But who, with any sense, wants to go batting off to Mars or the Asteroids? That's for the birds, the crackpots. Wife, house, kids—right in your own home town—that's the only sense there is. Minnie showed me that, and we're gonna get married!"

The Bunch looked at Jig Hollins. He was swaggering. He was making sour fun of them, but in his eyes there were other signs, too. A pleading: Agree with me—back me up—quit! Don't see through me—it's not so, anyhow! Don't say I'm hiding behind a skirt... Above all, don't call me yellow! I'm not yellow, I tell you! I'm tough Jig Hollins! You're the dopes!...

Frank Nelsen spoke for the others. "We understand, Jig. We'll be getting you a little wedding present. Later on, maybe we'll be able to send you something really good. Best of luck..."

They let Jig Hollins and his Minnie go. They felt their contempt and pity, and their lifting, wild pride. Maybe Jig Hollins, wise guy and big mouth, boosted their own selves quite a bit, by contrast.

"Poor sap," Joe Kuzak breathed. "Who's he kidding—us or himself, or neither...?"

Soon Eileen began to show symptoms: Sighs. A restlessness. Sudden angry pouts that would change as quickly to the secret smiles of reverie, while she hummed a soft tune to herself, and rose on her toes, dancing a few steps. Speculative looks at Nelsen, or the other guys around her. Maybe she envied men. Her eyes would narrow thoughtfully for a second. Then she might look scared and very young, as if her thoughts frightened her. But the expression of determined planning would return.

After about ten days of this, Gimp asked, "What's with you, Eileen? You don't usually say much, but now there must be something else."

She tossed down a fistful of waste with which she had been wiping her hands—she had been cementing segments of the last of the ten bubbs they would make—more than they needed, now, but spares might be useful.

"Okay, all," she said briskly. "You should hear this, without any further delay. I'm clearing out, too. Reasons? Well—at least since Tif flunked his emotional I've been getting the idea that possibly I've been playing on a third-rate team. No offense, please—I don't really believe it's so, and if it isn't so you're tough enough not to be hurt. Far worse—I'm a girl. So why am I trying to do things in a man's way, when there are means that are made for me? I'm all of twenty-two. I've got nobody except an aunt in Illinois. Meanwhile, out in New Mexico, there's a big spaceport, and a lot of the right people who can help me. I'll bet I can get where you want to go, before you do. Tell Mr. J. John Reynolds that he can have my equipment—most of which he paid for. But perhaps I'll still be able to give him his ten percent."

"Eileen! Cripes, what are you talking about?" This was Ramos yelping, as if the clown could be hurt, after all.

"I don't mean anything so bad, Fun Boy," she said more gently. "Lots of men are remarkably chivalrous. But no arguments. Now that I have declared my intentions, I'll pick up and pull out of here this minute—taking some pleasant memories with me, as well as a space-fitness card. You're all good, plodding joes—honest. But there'll be a plane west from Minneapolis tomorrow."

She was getting into her blazer. Even Ramos saw that arguments would be futile. Frank Nelsen's throat ached suddenly, as if at sins of omission. But that was wrong. Eileen Sands was too old for him, anyhow.

"So long, you characters," she said. "Good luck. Don't follow me outside. Maybe I'll see you, someplace."

"Right, Eileen—we'll miss yuh," Storey said. "And we better sure enough see you that someplace!"

There were ragged shouts. "Good luck, kid. So long, Eileen..."

She was gone—a small, scared, determined figure, dressed like a boy. On her wrist was a watch that might get pawned for a plane ticket.

Ramos was unbelievably glum for days. But he worked harder building air-restorers than most of the Bunch had ever worked before. "We're hardcore, now—we'll last," he would growl. "Final, long lap—March, April and May—with no more interruptions. In June, when our courses at Tech are finished, we'll be ready to roll..."

That was about how it turned out. Near the end of May, the Bunch lined up in the shop, the ten blastoff drums they had made, including two spares. The drums were just large tubes of sheet magnesium, in which about everything that each man would need was compactly stowed: Archer Five, bubb, sun-powered ionic drive motor, air-restorer, moisture-reclaimer, flasks of oxygen and water, instruments, dehydrated foods, medicines, a rifle, instruction manuals, a few clothes, and various small, useful items. Everything was cut to minimum, to keep the weight down. The lined up drums made a utilitarian display that looked rather grim.

The gear was set out like this, for the safety inspectors to look at during the next few days, and provide their stamp of approval.

The blastoff tickets had also been purchased—for June tenth.

"Well, how do you think the Bunch should travel to New Mexico, Paul?" Frank Nelsen joshed.

"Like other Bunches, I guess," Paul Hendricks laughed. "A couple of moving vans should do the trick..."



III

On June first, ten days before blastoff, David Lester came back to the shop, sheepishness, pleasure and worry showing in his face.

"I cleared up matters at home, guys," he said. "And I went to Minneapolis and obtained one of these." He held up the same kind of space-fitness card that the others had.

"The tests are mostly passive," he explained further. "Anybody can be whirled in a centrifuge, or take a fall. That is somewhat simpler, in its own way, than clinging to a careening motor scooter. Though I do admit that I was still almost rejected...! So, I'll join you, again—if I'm permitted? I understand that my old gear has been completed, as a spare? Paul told me. Of course I'm being crusty, in asking to have it back, now?"

"Uh-uh, Les—I'm sure that's okay," Ramos grunted. "Right, fellas?"

The others nodded.

A subdued cheerfulness seemed to possess Lester, the mamma's boy, as if he had eased and become less introverted. The Bunch took him back readily enough, though with misgivings. Still, the mere fact that a companion could return, after defeat, helped brace their uncertain morale.

"I'll order you a blastoff ticket, Les," Frank Nelsen said. "In one of the two GOs—ground-to-orbit rockets—reserved for us. The space is still there..."

David Lester had won a battle. He meant to win through, completely. Perhaps some of this determination was transmitted to the others. Two-and-Two Baines, for example, seemed more composed.

There wasn't much work to do during those last days, after the equipment had been inspected and approved, the initials of each man painted in red on his blastoff drum, and all the necessary documents put in order.

Mitch Storey rode a bus to Mississippi, to say goodbye to his folks. The Kuzaks flew to Pennsylvania for the same reason. Likewise, Gimp Hines went by train to Illinois. Ramos rode his scooter all the way down to East Texas and back, to see his parents and a flock of younger brothers and sisters. When he returned, he solemnly gave his well-worn vehicle to an earnest boy still in high school.

"No dough," Ramos said. "I just want her to have a good home."

Those of the Bunch who had families didn't run into any serious last minute objections from them about their going into space. Blasting out was getting to be an accepted destiny.

There was a moment of trouble with Two-and-Two Baines about a kid of eight years named Chippie Potter, who had begun to hang around Hendricks' just the way Frank Nelsen had done, long ago. But more especially, the trouble was about Chippie's fox terrier, Blaster.

"The lad of course can't go along with us, Out There, on account of school and his Mom," Two-and-Two said sentimentally, on one of those final evenings. "So he figures his mutt should go in his place. Shucks, maybe he's right! A lady mutt first made it into orbit, ahead of any people, remember? And we ought to have a mascot. We could make a sealed air-conditioned box and smuggle old Blaster. Afterwards, he'd be all right, inside a bubb."

"You try any stunt like that and I'll shoot you," Frank Nelsen promised. "Things are going to be complicated enough."

"You always tell me no, Frank," Two-and-Two mourned.

"I know something else," said Joe Kuzak—he and his tough twin had returned to Jarviston by then, as had all the others who had visited their homes. "There's a desperate individual around, again. Tiflin. He appealed his test—and lost. Kind of a good guy—someways..."

The big Kuzaks, usually easy and steady and not too comical, both had a certain kind of expression, now—like amused and secretive gorillas. Frank wasn't sure whether he got the meaning of this or not, but right then he felt sort of sympathetic to Tiflin, too.

"I didn't hear anything; I won't say or do anything," he laughed.

Afterwards, under the pressure of events, he forgot the whole matter.

It would take about thirty-six hours to get to the New Mexico spaceport. Calculating accordingly, the Bunch hoisted their gear aboard two canvas-covered trucks parked in the driveway beside Hendricks', just before sundown of their last day in Jarviston.

People had begun to gather, to see them off. Two-and-Two's folks, a solid, chunky couple, looking grave. David Lester's mother, of course, seeming younger than the Bunch remembered her. Make-up brought back some of her good-looks. She was more Spartan than they had thought, too.

"I have made up a basket of sandwiches for you and your comrades, Lester," she said.

Otto Kramer was out with free hotdogs, beer and Pepsi, his face sad. J. John Reynolds, backer of the Bunch, had promised to come down, later. Chief of Police, Bill Hobard, was there, looking grim, as if he was half glad and half sorry to lose this passel of law-abiding but worrisome young eccentrics. There were various cynical and curious loafers around, too. There were Chippie Potter and his mutt—a more wistful and worshipping pair would have been hard to imagine.

Sophia Jameson, one of Charlie Reynolds' old flames, was there. Charlie had sold his car and given away his wardrobe, but he still managed to look good in a utilitarian white coverall.

"Well, we had a lot of laughs, anyway, you big ape!" Sophia was saying to Charlie, when Roy Harder, the mailman with broken-down feet, shuffled up, puffing.

"One for you, Reynolds," he said. "Also one for you, Nelsen. They just came—ordinarily I wouldn't deliver them till tomorrow morning. But you see how it is."

A long, white envelope was in Frank Nelsen's hands. In its upper left-hand corner was engraved:

UNITED STATES SPACE FORCE RECRUITING SECTION WASHINGTON, D.C.

"Jeez, Frankie—Charlie—you made it—open 'em, quick!" Two-and-Two said.

Frank was about to do so. But everybody knew exactly what was inside such an envelope—the only thing that was ever so enclosed, unless you were already in the Force. An official summons to report, on such and such a date and such and such a place, for examination.

For a minute Frank Nelsen suffered the awful anguish of indecision over a joke of circumstance. Like most of the others, he had tried to get into the Force. He had given it up as hopeless. Now, when he was ready to move out on his own, the chance came. Exquisite irony.

Frank felt the lift of maybe being one of—well—the Chosen. To wear the red, black and silver rocket emblem, to use the finest equipment, to carry out dangerous missions, to exercise authority in space, and yet to be pampered, as those who make a mark in life are pampered.

"Que milagro!—holy cow!" Ramos breathed. "Charlie—Frankie—congratulations!"

Frank saw the awed faces around them. They were looking up to him and Charlie in a friendly way, but already he felt that he had kind of lost them by being a little luckier. Or was this all goof ball sentiment in his own mind, to make himself feel real modest?

So maybe he got sentimental about this impoverished, ragtag Bunch that, even considering J. John Reynolds' help, still were pulling themselves up into space almost literally by their own bootstraps. He had always belonged to the Bunch, and he still did. So perhaps he just got sore.

Charlie's and his eyes met for a second, in understanding.

"Thanks, Postman Roy," Charlie said. "Only you were right the first time. These letters shouldn't be delivered until your next trip around, tomorrow morning."

They both handed the envelopes back to Roy Harder.

The voices of their Bunch-mates jangled in a conflicting chorus.

"Ah—yuh damfools!" Two-and-Two bleated.

"Good for them!" Art Kuzak said, perhaps mockingly.

"Hey—they're us—they'll stay with us—shut up—didn't we lose enough people, already?" Gimp said.

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