by Randall Garrett

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: There are two basic kinds of fools--the ones who know they are fools, and the kind that, because they do not know that, are utterly deadly menaces!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The mountain was spinning.

Not dizzily, not even rapidly, but very perceptibly, the great mass of jagged rock was turning on its axis.

Captain St. Simon scowled at it. “By damn, Jules,” he said, “if you can see ‘em spinning, it’s too damn fast!” He expected no answer, and got none.

He tapped the drive pedal gently with his right foot, his gaze shifting alternately from the instrument board to the looming hulk of stone before him. As the little spacecraft moved in closer, he tapped the reverse pedal with his left foot. He was now ten meters from the surface of the asteroid. It was moving, all right. “Well, Jules,” he said in his most commanding voice, “we’ll see just how fast she’s moving. Prepare to fire Torpedo Number One!”

“Yassuh, boss! Yassuh, Cap’n Sain’ Simon, suh! All ready on the firin’ line!”

He touched a button with his right thumb. The ship quivered almost imperceptibly as a jet of liquid leaped from the gun mounted in the nose of the ship. At the same time, he hit the reverse pedal and backed the ship away from the asteroid’s surface. No point getting any more gunk on the hull than necessary.

The jet of liquid struck the surface of the rotating mountain and splashed, leaving a big splotch of silvery glitter. Even in the vacuum of space, the silicone-based solvents of the paint vehicle took time to boil off.

“How’s that for pinpoint accuracy, Jules?”

“Veddy good, M’lud. Top hole, if I may say so, m’lud.”

“You may.” He jockeyed the little spacecraft around until he was reasonably stationary with respect to the great hunk of whirling rock and had the silver-white blotch centered on the crosshairs of the peeper in front of him. Then he punched the button that started the timer and waited for the silver spot to come round again.

The asteroid was roughly spherical--which was unusual, but not remarkable. The radar gave him the distance from the surface of the asteroid, and he measured the diameter and punched it through the calculator. “Observe,” he said in a dry, didactic voice. “The diameter is on the order of five times ten to the fourteenth micromicrons.” He kept punching at the calculator. “If we assume a mean density of two point six six times ten to the minus thirty-sixth metric tons per cubic micromicron, we attain a mean mass of some one point seven four times ten to the eleventh kilograms.” More punching, while he kept his eye on the meteorite, waiting for the spot to show up again. “And that, my dear Jules, gives us a surface gravity of approximately two times ten to the minus sixth standard gees.”

Jawohl, Herr Oberstleutnant.

“Und zo, mine dear Chules, ve haff at least der grave zuspicion dot der zurface gravity iss less dan der zentrifugal force at der eqvator! Nein? Ja! Zo.”

Jawohl, Herr Konzertmeister.

Then there was a long, silent wait, while the asteroid went its leisurely way around its own axis.

“There it comes,” said Captain St. Simon. He kept his eyes on the crosshair of the peeper, one hand over the timer button. When the silver splotch drifted by the crosshair, he punched the stop button and looked at the indicator.

“Sixteen minutes, forty seconds. How handy.” He punched at the calculator again. “Ah! You see, Jules! Just as we suspected! Negative gees at the surface, on the equator, comes to ten to the minus third standard gees--almost exactly one centimeter per second squared. So?”

“Ah, so, honorabu copton! Is somesing rike five hundred times as great as gravitationar attraction, is not so?”

“Sukiyaki, my dear chap, sometimes your brilliance amazes me.”

Well, at least it meant that there would be no loose rubble on the surface. It would have been tossed off long ago by the centrifugal force, flying off on a tangent to become more of the tiny rubble of the belt. Perhaps “flying” wasn’t exactly the right word, though, when applied to a velocity of less than one centimeter per second. Drifting off, then.

“What do you think, Jules?” said St. Simon.

“Waal, Ah reckon we can do it, cap’n. Ef’n we go to the one o’ them thar poles ... well, let’s see--” He leaned over and punched more figures into the calculator. “Ain’t that purty! ‘Cordin’ ter this, thar’s a spot at each pole, ‘bout a meter in diameter, whar the gee-pull is greater than the centry-foogle force!”

Captain St. Simon looked at the figures on the calculator. The forces, in any case, were negligibly small. On Earth, where the surface gravity was ninety-eight per cent of a Standard Gee, St. Simon weighed close to two hundred pounds. Discounting the spin, he would weigh about four ten-thousandths of a pound on the asteroid he was inspecting. The spin at the equator would try to push him off with a force of about two tenths of a pound.

But a man who didn’t take those forces into account could get himself killed in the Belt.

“Very well, Jules,” he said, “we’ll inspect the poles.”

“Do you think they vill velcome us in Kraukau, Herr Erzbischof?”

The area around the North Pole--defined as that pole from which the body appears to be spinning counterclockwise--looked more suitable for operations than the South Pole. Theoretically, St. Simon could have stopped the spin, but that would have required an energy expenditure of some twenty-three thousand kilowatt-hours in the first place, and it would have required an anchor to be set somewhere on the equator. Since his purpose in landing on the asteroid was to set just such an anchor, stopping the spin would be a waste of time and energy.

Captain St. Simon positioned his little spacecraft a couple of meters above the North Pole. It would take better than six minutes to fall that far, so he had plenty of time. “Perhaps a boarding party, Mr. Christian! On the double!”

“Aye, sir! On the double it is, sir!”

St. Simon pushed himself over to the locker, took out his vacuum suit, and climbed into it. After checking it thoroughly, he said: “Prepare to evacuate main control room, Mr. Christian!”

“Aye, aye, Sir! All prepared and ready. I hope.”

Captain St. Simon looked around to make sure he hadn’t left a bottle of coffee sitting somewhere. He’d done that once, and the stuff had boiled out all over everywhere when he pulled the air out of the little room. Nope, no coffee. No obstacles to turning on the pump. He thumbed the button, and the pumps started to whine. The whine built up to a crescendo, then began to die away until finally it could only be felt through the walls or floor. The air was gone.

Then he checked the manometer to make sure that most of the air had actually been pumped back into the reserve tanks. Satisfied, he touched the button that would open the door. There was a faint jar as the remaining wisps of air shot out into the vacuum of space.

St. Simon sat back down at the controls and carefully repositioned the ship. It was now less than a meter from the surface. He pushed himself over to the open door and looked out.

He clipped one end of his safety cable to the steel eye-bolt at the edge of the door. “Fasten on carefully, Jules,” he said. “We don’t want to lose anything.”

“Like what, mon capitain?”

“Like this spaceship, mon petit tête de mouton.”

“Ah, but no, my old and raw; we could not afford to lose the so-dear Nancy Bell, could we?”

The other end of the long cable was connected to the belt of the suit. Then St. Simon launched himself out the open door toward the surface of the planetoid. The ship began to drift--very slowly, but not so slowly as it had been falling--off in the other direction.

He had picked the spot he was aiming for. There was a jagged hunk of rock sticking out that looked as though it would make a good handhold. Right nearby, there was a fairly smooth spot that would do to brake his “fall”. He struck it with his palm and took up the slight shock with his elbow while his other hand grasped the outcropping.

He had not pushed himself very hard. There is not much weathering on the surface of an asteroid. Micro-meteorites soften the contours of the rock a little over the millions of millennia, but not much, since the debris in the Belt all has roughly the same velocity. Collisions do occur, but they aren’t the violent smashes that make the brilliant meteor displays of Earth. (And there is still a standing argument among the men of the Belt as to whether that sort of action can be called “weathering”.) Most of the collisions tend to cause fracturing of the surface, which results in jagged edges. A man in a vacuum suit does not push himself against a surface like that with any great velocity.

St. Simon knew to a nicety that he could propel himself against a bed of nails and broken glass at just the right velocity to be able to stop himself without so much as scratching his glove. And he could see that there was no ragged stuff on the spot he had selected. The slanting rays of the sun would have made them stand out in relief.

Now he was clinging to the surface of the mountain of rock like a bug on the side of a cliff. On a nickel-iron asteroid, he could have walked around on the surface, using the magnetic soles of his vacuum suit. But silicate rock is notably lacking in response to that attractive force. No soul, maybe.

But directly and indirectly, that lack of response to magnetic forces was the reason for St. Simon’s crawling around on the surface of that asteroid. Directly, because there was no other way he could move about on a nonmetallic asteroid. Indirectly, because there was no way the big space tugs could get a grip on such an asteroid, either.

The nickel-iron brutes were a dead cinch to haul off to the smelters. All a space tug had to do was latch on to one of them with a magnetic grapple and start hauling. There was no such simple answer for the silicate rocks.

The nickel-iron asteroids were necessary. They supplied the building material and the major export of the Belt cities. They averaged around eighty to ninety per cent iron, anywhere from five to twenty per cent nickel, and perhaps half a per cent cobalt, with smatterings of phosphorous, sulfur, carbon, copper, and chromium. Necessary--but not sufficient.

The silicate rocks ran only about twenty-five per cent iron--in the form of nonmagnetic compounds. They averaged eighteen per cent silicon, fourteen per cent magnesium, between one and one point five per cent each of aluminum, nickel, and calcium, and good-sized dollops of sodium, chromium, phosphorous, manganese, cobalt, potassium, and titanium.

But more important than these, as far as the immediate needs of the Belt cities were concerned, was a big, whopping thirty-six per cent oxygen. In the Belt cities, they had soon learned that, physically speaking, the stuff of life was not bread. And no matter how carefully oxygen is conserved, no process is one hundred per cent efficient. There will be leakage into space, and that which is lost must be replaced.

There is plenty of oxygen locked up in those silicates; the problem is towing them to the processing plants where the stuff can be extracted.

Captain St. Simon’s job was simple. All he had to do was sink an anchor into the asteroid so that the space tugs could get a grip on it. Once he had done that, the rest of the job was up to the tug crew.

He crawled across the face of the floating mountain. At the spot where the North Pole was, he braced himself and then took a quick look around at the Nancy Bell. She wasn’t moving very fast, he had plenty of time. He took a steel piton out of his tool pack, transferred it to his left hand, and took out a hammer. Then, working carefully, he hammered the piton into a narrow cleft in the rock. Three more of the steel spikes were hammered into the surface, forming a rough quadrilateral around the Pole.

“That looks good enough to me, Jules,” he said when he had finished. “Now that we have our little anchors, we can put the monster in.”

Then he grabbed his safety line, and pulled himself back to the Nancy Bell.

The small craft had floated away from the asteroid a little, but not much. He repositioned it after he got the rocket drill out of the storage compartment.

“Make way for the stovepipe!” he said as he pushed the drill ahead of him, out the door. This time, he pulled himself back to his drilling site by means of a cable which he had attached to one of the pitons.

The setting up of the drill didn’t take much time, but it was done with a great deal of care. He set the four-foot tube in the center of the quadrilateral formed by the pitons and braced it in position by attaching lines to the eyes on a detachable collar that encircled the drill. Once the drill started working, it wouldn’t need bracing, but until it did, it had to be held down.

All the time he worked, he kept his eyes on his lines and on his ship. The planetoid was turning under him, which made the ship appear to be circling slowly around his worksite. He had to make sure that his lines didn’t get tangled or twisted while he was working.

As he set up the bracing on the six-inch diameter drill, he sang a song that Kipling might have been startled to recognize:

_”To the tables down at Mory’s,

To the place where Louie dwells,

Where it’s always double drill and no canteen,

Sit the Whiffenpoofs assembled,

With their glasses raised on high,

And they’ll get a swig in Hell from Gunga Din.”_

When the drill was firmly based on the surface of the planetoid, St. Simon hauled his way back to his ship along his safety line. Inside, he sat down in the control chair and backed well away from the slowly spinning hunk of rock. Now there was only one thin pair of wires stretching between his ship and the drill on the asteroid.

When he was a good fifty meters away, he took one last look to make sure everything was as it should be.

“Stand by for a broadside!”

“Standing by, sir!”

“You may fire when ready, Gridley!”

“Aye, sir! Rockets away!” His forefinger descended on a button which sent a pulse of current through the pair of wires that trailed out the open door to the drill fifty meters away.

A flare of light appeared on the top of the drill. Almost immediately, it developed into a tongue of rocket flame. Then a glow appeared at the base of the drill and flame began to billow out from beneath the tube. The drill began to sink into the surface, and the planetoid began to move ever so slowly.

The drill was essentially a pair of opposed rockets. The upper one, which tried to push the drill into the surface of the planetoid, developed nearly forty per cent more thrust than the lower one. Thus, the lower one, which was trying to push the drill off the rock, was outmatched. It had to back up, if possible. And it was certainly possible; the exhaust flame of the lower rocket easily burrowed a hole that the rocket could back into, while the silicate rock boiled and vaporized in order to get out of the way.

Soon there was no sign of the drill body itself. There was only a small volcano, spewing up gas and liquid from a hole in the rock. On the surface of a good-sized planet, the drill would have built up a little volcanic cone around the lip of the hole, but building a cone like that requires enough gravity to pull the hot matter back to the edge of the hole.

The fireworks didn’t last long. The drill wasn’t built to go in too deep. A drill of that type could be built which would burrow its way right through a small planetoid, but that was hardly necessary for planting an anchor. Ten meters was quite enough.

Now came the hard work.

On the outside of the Nancy Bell, locked into place, was a specially-treated nickel-steel eye-bolt--thirty feet long and eight inches in diameter. There had been ten of them, just as there had been ten drills in the storage locker. Now the last drill had been used, and there was but one eye-bolt left. The Nancy Bell would have to go back for more supplies after this job.

The anchor bolts had a mass of four metric tons each. Maneuvering them around, even when they were practically weightless, was no easy job.

St. Simon again matched the velocity of the Nancy Bell with that of the planetoid, which had been accelerated by the drill’s action. He positioned the ship above the hole which had been drilled into the huge rock. Not directly above it--rocket drills had been known to show spurts of life after they were supposed to be dead. St. Simon had timed the drill, and it had apparently behaved as it should, but there was no need to take chances.

“Fire brigade, stand by!”

“Fire brigade standing by, sir!”

A nozzle came out of the nose of the Nancy Bell and peeped over the rim of the freshly-drilled hole.

“Ready! Aim! Squirt!”

A jet of kerosene-like fluosilicone oil shot down the shaft. When it had finished its work, there was little possibility that anything could happen at the bottom. Any unburned rocket fuel would have a hard time catching fire with that stuff soaking into it.

“Ready to lower the boom, Mr. Christian!” bellowed St. Simon.

“Aye, sir! Ready, sir!”

“Lower away!”

His fingers played rapidly over the control board.

Outside the ship, the lower end of the great eye-bolt was released from its clamp, and a small piston gave it a little shove. In a long, slow, graceful arc, it swung away from the hull, swiveling around the pivot clamp that held the eye. The braking effect of the pivot clamp was precisely set to stop the eye-bolt when it was at right angles to the hull. Moving carefully, St. Simon maneuvered the ship until the far end of the bolt was directly over the shaft. Then he nudged the Nancy Bell sideways, pushing the bolt down into the planetoid. It grated a couple of times, but between the power of the ship and the mass of the planetoid, there was enough pressure to push it past the obstacles. The rocket drill and the eye-bolt had been designed to work together; the hole made by the first was only a trifle larger than the second. The anchor settled firmly into place.

St. Simon released the clamps that held the eye-bolt to the hull of the ship, and backed away again. As he did, a power cord unreeled, for the eye-bolt was still connected to the vessel electrically.

Several meters away, St. Simon pushed another button. There was no sound, but his practiced eye saw the eye of the anchor quiver. A small explosive charge, set in the buried end of the anchor, had detonated, expanding the far end of the bolt, wedging it firmly in the hole. At the same time, a piston had been forced up a small shaft in the center of the bolt, forcing a catalyst to mix with a fast-setting resin, and extruding the mixture out through half a dozen holes in the side of the bolt. When the stuff set, the anchor was locked securely to the sides of the shaft and thus to the planetoid itself.

St. Simon waited for a few minutes to make sure the resin had set completely. Then he clambered outside again and attached a heavy towing cable to the eye of the anchor, which projected above the surface of the asteroid. Back inside the ship again, he slowly applied power. The cable straightened and pulled at the anchor as the Nancy Bell tried to get away from the asteroid.

“Jules, old bunion,” he said as he watched the needle of the tension gauge, “we have set her well.”

“Yes, m’lud. So it would appear, m’lud.”

St. Simon cut the power. “Very good, Jules. Now we shall see if the beeper is functioning as it should.” He flipped a switch that turned on the finder pickup, then turned the selector to his own frequency band.

Beep! said the radio importantly. Beep!

The explosion had also triggered on a small but powerful transmitter built into the anchor. The tugs would be able to find the planetoid by following the beeps.

“Ah, Jules! Success!”

“Yes, m’lud. Success. For the tenth time in a row, this trip. And how many trips does this make?”

“Ah, but who’s counting? Think of the money!”

“And the monotony, m’lud. To say nothing of molasses, muchness, and other things that begin with an M.”

“Quite so, Jules; quite so. Well, let’s detach the towing cable and be on our way.”

“Whither, m’lud, Vesta?”

“I rather thought Pallas this time, old thimble.”

“Still, m’lud, Vesta--”

“Pallas, Jules.”


“Hum, hi, ho,” said Captain St. Simon thoughtfully. “Pallas?”

The argument continued while the tow cable was detached from the freshly-placed anchor, and while the air was being let back into the control chamber, and while St. Simon divested himself of his suit. Actually, although he would like to go to Vesta, it was out of the question. Energywise and timewise, Pallas was much closer.

He settled back in the bucket seat and shot toward Pallas.

Mr. Edway Tarnhorst was from San Pedro, Greater Los Angeles, California, Earth. He was a businessman of executive rank, and was fairly rich. In his left lapel was the Magistral Knight’s Cross of the Sovereign Hierosolymitan Order of Malta, reproduced in miniature. In his wallet was a card identifying him as a Representative of the Constituency of Southern California to the Supreme Congress of the People of the United Nations of Earth. He was just past his fifty-third birthday, and his lean, ascetic face and graying hair gave him a look of saintly wisdom. Aside from the eight-pointed cross in his lapel, the only ornamentation or jewelry he wore consisted of a small, exquisitely thin gold watch on his left wrist, and, on the ring finger of his left hand, a gold signet ring set with a single, flat, unfaceted diamond which was delicately engraved with the Tarnhorst coat of arms. His clothing was quietly but impressively expensive, and under Earth gravity would probably have draped impeccably, but it tended to fluff oddly away from his body under a gee-pull only a twentieth of Earth’s.

He sat in his chair with both feet planted firmly on the metal floor, and his hands gripping the armrests as though he were afraid he might float off toward the ceiling if he let go. But only his body betrayed his unease; his face was impassive and calm.

The man sitting next to him looked a great deal more comfortable. This was Mr. Peter Danley, who was twenty years younger than Mr. Tarnhorst and looked it. Instead of the Earth-cut clothing that the older man was wearing, he was wearing the close-fitting tights that were the common dress of the Belt cities. His hair was cropped close, and the fine blond strands made a sort of golden halo about his head when the light from the panels overhead shone on them. His eyes were pale blue, and the lashes and eyebrows were so light as to be almost invisible. That effect, combined with his thin-lined, almost lipless mouth, gave his face a rather expressionless expression. He carried himself like a man who was used to low-gravity or null-gravity conditions, but he talked like an Earthman, not a Belt man. The identification card in his belt explained that; he was a pilot on the Earth-Moon shuttle service. In the eyes of anyone from the Belt cities, he was still an Earthman, not a true spaceman. He was looked upon in the same way that the captain of a transatlantic liner might have looked upon the skipper of the Staten Island ferry two centuries before. The very fact that he was seated in a chair gave away his Earth habits.

The third man was standing, leaning at a slight angle, so that his back touched the wall behind him. He was not tall--five nine--and his face and body were thin. His tanned skin seemed to be stretched tightly over this scanty padding, and in places the bones appeared to be trying to poke their way through to the surface. His ears were small and lay nearly flat against his head, and the hair on his skull was so sparse that the tanned scalp could be easily seen beneath it, although there was no actual bald spot anywhere. Only his large, luminous brown eyes showed that Nature had not skimped on everything when he was formed. His name was lettered neatly on the outside of the door to the office: Georges Alhamid. In spite of the French spelling, he pronounced the name “George,” in the English manner.

He had welcomed the two Earthmen into his office, smiling the automatic smile of the diplomat as he welcomed them to Pallas. As soon as they were comfortably seated--though perhaps that word did not exactly apply to Edway Tarnhorst--Georges Alhamid said:

“Now, gentlemen, what can I do for you?”

He asked it as though he were completely unaware of what had brought the two men to Pallas.

Tarnhorst looked as though he were privately astonished that his host could speak grammatically. “Mr. Alhamid,” he began, “I don’t know whether you’re aware that the industrial death rate here in the Belt has been the subject of a great deal of discussion in both industrial and governmental circles on Earth.” It was a half question, and he let it hang in the air, waiting to see whether he got an answer.

“Certainly my office has received a great deal of correspondence on the subject,” Alhamid said. His voice sounded as though Tarnhorst had mentioned nothing more serious than a commercial deal. Important, but nothing to get into a heavy sweat over.

Tarnhorst nodded and then held his head very still. His actions betrayed the fact that he was not used to the messages his semicircular canals were sending his brain when he moved his head under low gee.

“Exactly,” he said after a moment’s pause. “I have ‘stat copies of a part of that correspondence. To be specific, the correspondence between your office and the Workers’ Union Safety Control Board, and between your office and the Workingman’s Compensation Insurance Corporation.”

“I see. Well, then, you’re fully aware of what our trouble is, Mr. Tarnhorst. I’m glad to see that an official of the insurance company is taking an interest in our troubles.”

Tarnhorst’s head twitched, as though he were going to shake his head and had thought better of it a fraction of a second too late. It didn’t matter. The fluid in his inner ears sloshed anyway.

“I am not here in my capacity as an officer of the Workingman’s Compensation Insurance Corporation,” he said carefully. “I am here as a representative of the People’s Congress.”

Alhamid’s face showed a mild surprise which he did not feel. “I’m honored, of course, Mr. Tarnhorst,” he said, “but you must understand that I am not an official of the government of Pallas.”

Tarnhorst’s ascetic face betrayed nothing. “Since you have no unified government out here,” he said, “I cannot, of course, presume to deal with you in a governmental capacity. I have spoken to the Governor of Pallas, however, and he assures me that you are the man to speak to.”

“If it’s about the industrial death rate,” Alhamid agreed, “then he’s perfectly correct. But if you’re here as a governmental representative of Earth, I don’t understand--”

“Please, Mr. Alhamid,” Tarnhorst interrupted with a touch of irritation in his voice. “This is not my first trip to the Belt, nor my first attempt to deal with the official workings of the Confederated Cities.”

Alhamid nodded gently. It was, as a matter of fact, Mr. Tarnhorst’s second trip beyond the Martian orbit, the first having taken place some three years before. But the complaint was common enough; Earth, with its strong centralized government, simply could not understand the functioning of the Belt Confederacy. A man like Tarnhorst apparently couldn’t distinguish between government and business. Knowing that, Alhamid could confidently predict what the general sense of Tarnhorst’s next sentence would be.

“I am well aware,” said Tarnhorst, “that the Belt Companies not only have the various governors under their collective thumb, but have thus far prevented the formation of any kind of centralized government. Let us not quibble, Mr. Alhamid; the Belt Companies run the Belt, and that means that I must deal with officials of those companies--such as yourself.”

Alhamid felt it necessary to make a mild speech in rebuttal. “I cannot agree with you, Mr. Tarnhorst. I have nothing to do with the government of Pallas or any of the other asteroids. I am neither an elected nor an appointed official of any government. Nor, for that matter, am I an advisor in either an official or unofficial capacity to any government. I do not make the laws designed to keep the peace, nor do I enforce them, except in so far as I am a registered voter and therefore have some voice in those laws in that respect. Nor, again, do I serve any judiciary function in any Belt government, except inasmuch as I may be called upon for jury duty.

“I am a business executive, Mr. Tarnhorst. Nothing more. If you have governmental problems to discuss, then I can’t help you, since I’m not authorized to make any decisions for any government.”

Edway Tarnhorst closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his thin nose between thumb and forefinger. “I understand that. I understand that perfectly. But out here, the Companies have taken over certain functions of government, shall we say?”

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