“Well, yes,” Amspaugh admitted, “it was a unique war in many ways, including its origin. However, there are so many analogies to other colonial revolutions--” His words trailed off as usual.
“I know. Earth’s mercantile policies and so forth,” said Lindgren. He fancies himself a student of interplanetary history. This has led to quite a few arguments since Amspaugh, who teaches in that field, joined the Club. Mostly they’re good. I went to the bar and got myself another drink, listening as the mine owner’s big voice went on:
“But what began it? When did the asterites first start realizing they weren’t pseudopods of a dozen Terrestrial nations, but a single nation in their own right? There’s the root of the revolution. And it can be pinned down, too.”
“‘Ware metaphor!” cried someone at my elbow. I turned and saw Missy Blades. She’d come quietly into the lounge and started mixing a gin and bitters.
The view window framed her white head in Orion as she moved toward the little cluster of seated men. She took a fat cigar from her pocket, struck it on her shoe sole, and added her special contribution to the blue cloud in the room after she sat down.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I couldn’t help that. Please go on.” Which I hope relieves you of any fear that she’s an Unforgettable Character. Oh, yes, she’s old as Satan now; her toil and guts and conniving make up half the biography of the Sword; she manned a gun turret at Ceres, and was mate of the Tyrfing on some of the earliest Saturn runs when men took their lives between their teeth because they needed both hands free; her sons and grandsons fill the Belt with their brawling ventures; she can drink any ordinary man to the deck; she’s one of the three women ever admitted to the Club. But she’s also one of the few genuine ladies I’ve known in my life.
“Uh, well,” Lindgren grinned at her. “I was saying, Missy, the germ of the revolution was when the Stations armed themselves. You see, that meant more than police powers. It implied a degree of sovereignty. Over the years, the implication grew.”
“Correct.” Orloff nodded his bald head. “I remember how the Governing Commission squalled when the Station managers first demanded the right. They foresaw trouble. But if the Stations belonging to one country put in space weapons, what else could the others do?”
“They should have stuck together and all been firm about refusing to allow it,” Amspaugh said. “From the standpoint of their own best interests, I mean.”
“They tried to,” Orloff replied. “I hate to think how many communications we sent home from our own office, and the others must have done the same. But Earth was a long way off. The Station bosses were close. Inverse square law of political pressure.”
“I grant you, arming each new little settlement proved important,” Amspaugh said. “But really, it expressed nothing more than the first inchoate stirrings of asteroid nationalism. And the origins of that are much more subtle and complex. For instance ... er...”
“You’ve got to have a key event somewhere,” Lindgren insisted. “I say that this was it.”
A silence fell, as will happen in conversation. I came back from the bar and settled myself beside Missy. She looked for a while into her drink, and then out to the stars. The slow spin of our rock had now brought the Dippers into view. Her faded eyes sought the Pole Star--but it’s Earth’s, not our own any more--and I wondered what memories they were sharing. She shook herself the least bit and said:
“I don’t know about the sociological ins and outs. All I know is, a lot of things happened, and there wasn’t any pattern to them at the time. We just slogged through as best we were able, which wasn’t really very good. But I can identify one of those wriggling roots for you, Sigurd. I was there when the question of arming the Stations first came up. Or, rather, when the incident occurred that led directly to the question being raised.”
Our whole attention went to her. She didn’t dwell on the past as often as we would have liked.
A slow, private smile crossed her lips. She looked beyond us again. “As a matter of fact,” she murmured, “I got my husband out of it.” Then quickly, as if to keep from remembering too much:
“Do you care to hear the story? It was when the Sword was just getting started. They’d established themselves on SSC 45--oh, never mind the catalogue number. Sword Enterprises, because Mike Blades’ name suggested it--what kind of name could you get out of Jimmy Chung, even if he was the senior partner? It’d sound too much like a collision with a meteorite--so naturally the asteroid also came to be called the Sword. They began on the borrowed shoestring that was usual in those days. Of course, in the Belt a shoestring has to be mighty long, and finances got stretched to the limit. The older men here will know how much had to be done by hand, in mortal danger, because machines were too expensive. But in spite of everything, they succeeded. The Station was functional and they were ready to start business when--”
It was no coincidence that the Jupiter craft were arriving steadily when the battleship came. Construction had been scheduled with this in mind, that the Sword should be approaching conjunction with the king planet, making direct shuttle service feasible, just as the chemical plant went into service. We need not consider how much struggle and heartbreak had gone into meeting that schedule. As for the battleship, she appeared because the fact that a Station in just this orbit was about to commence operations was news important enough to cross the Solar System and push through many strata of bureaucracy. The heads of the recently elected North American government became suddenly, fully aware of what had been going on.
Michael Blades was outside, overseeing the installation of a receptor, when his earplug buzzed. He thrust his chin against the tuning plate, switching from gang to interoffice band. “Mike?” said Avis Page’s voice, “You’re wanted up front.”
“Now?” he objected. “Whatever for?”
“Courtesy visit from the NASS Altair. You’ve lost track of time, my boy.”
“What the ... the jumping blue blazes are you talking about? We’ve had our courtesy visit. Jimmy and I both went over to pay our respects, and we had Rear Admiral Hulse here to dinner. What more do they expect, for Harry’s sake?”
“Don’t you remember? Since there wasn’t room to entertain his officers, you promised to take them on a personal guided tour later. I made the appointment the very next watch. Now’s the hour.”
“Oh, yes, it comes back to me. Yeah. Hulse brought a magnum of champagne with him, and after so long a time drinking recycled water, my capacity was shot to pieces. I got a warm glow of good fellowship on, and offered--Let Jimmy handle it, I’m busy.”
“The party’s too large, he says. You’ll have to take half of them. Their gig will dock in thirty minutes.”
“Well, depute somebody else.”
“That’d be rude, Mike. Have you forgotten how sensitive they are about rank at home?” Avis hesitated. “If what I believe about the mood back there is true, we can use the good will of high-level Navy personnel. And any other influential people in sight.”
Blades drew a deep breath. “You’re too blinking sensible. Remind me to fire you after I’ve made my first ten million bucks.”
“What’ll you do for your next ten million, then?” snipped his secretary-file clerk-confidante-adviser-et cetera.
“Nothing. I’ll just squander the first.”
“Goody! Can I help?”
“Uh ... I’ll be right along.” Blades switched off. His ears felt hot, as often of late when he tangled with Avis, and he unlimbered only a few choice oaths.
“Troubles?” asked Carlos Odonaju.
Blades stood a moment, looking around, before he answered. He was on the wide end of the Sword, which was shaped roughly like a truncated pyramid. Beyond him and his half dozen men stretched a vista of pitted rock, jutting crags, gulf-black shadows, under the glare of floodlamps. A few kilometers away, the farthest horizon ended, chopped off like a cliff. Beyond lay the stars, crowding that night which never ends. It grew very still while the gang waited for his word. He could listen to his own lungs and pulse, loud in the spacesuit; he could even notice its interior smell, blend of plastic and oxygen cycle chemicals, flesh and sweat. He was used to the sensation of hanging upside down on the surface, grip-soled boots holding him against that fractional gee by which the asteroid’s rotation overcame its feeble gravity. But it came to him that this was an eerie bat-fashion way for an Oregon farm boy to stand.
Oregon was long behind him, though, not only the food factory where he grew up but the coasts where he had fished and the woods where he had tramped. No loss. There’d always been too many tourists. You couldn’t escape from people on Earth. Cold and vacuum and raw rock and everything, the Belt was better. It annoyed him to be interrupted here.
Could Carlos take over as foreman? N-no, Blades decided, not yet. A gas receptor was an intricate piece of equipment. Carlos was a good man of his hands. Every one of the hundred-odd in the Station necessarily was. But he hadn’t done this kind of work often enough.
.... There is more of this story ...