The space ship landed briefly, and John Endlich lifted the huge Asteroids Homesteaders Office box, which contained everything from a prefabricated house to toothbrushes for his family, down from the hold-port without help or visible effort.
In the tiny gravity of the asteroid, Vesta, doing this was no trouble at all. But beyond this point the situation was--bitter.
His two kids, Bubs, seven, and Evelyn, nine--clad in space-suits that were slightly oversize to allow for the growth of young bodies--were both bawling. He could hear them through his oxygen-helmet radiophones.
Around him, under the airless sky of space, stretched desolation that he’d of course known about beforehand--but which now had assumed that special and terrible starkness of reality.
At his elbow, his wife, Rose, her heart-shaped face and grey eyes framed by the wide face-window of her armor, was trying desperately to choke back tears, and be brave.
“Remember--we’ve got to make good here, Johnny,” she was saying. “Remember what the Homesteaders Office people told us--that with modern equipment and the right frame of mind, life can be nice out here. It’s worked on other asteroids. What if we are the first farmers to come to Vesta? ... Don’t listen to those crazy miners! They’re just kidding us! Don’t listen to them! And don’t, for gosh sakes, get sore...”
Rose’s words were now like dim echoes of his conscience, and of his recent grim determination to master his hot temper, his sensitiveness, his wanderlust, and his penchant for poker and the social glass--qualities of an otherwise agreeable and industrious nature, that, on Earth, had always been his undoing. Recently, back in Illinois, he had even spent six months in jail for all but inflicting murder with his bare fists on a bullying neighbor whom he had caught whipping a horse. Sure--but during those six months his farm, the fifth he’d tried to run in scattered parts of North America, had gone to weeds in spite of Rose’s valiant efforts to take care of it alone...
Oh, yes--the lessons of all that past personal history should be strong in his mind. But now will power and Rose’s frightened tones of wisdom both seemed to fade away in his brain, as jeering words from another source continued to drive jagged splinters into the weakest portion of his soul:
“Hi, you hydroponic pun’kin-head! ... How yuh like your new claim? ... Nice, ain’t it? How about some fresh turnips? ... Good luck, yuh greenhorn ... Hiyuh, papa! Tied to baby’s diaper suspenders! ... Let the poor dope alone, guys ... Snooty ... Won’t take our likker, hunh? Won’t take our money ... Wifey’s boy! Let’s make him sociable ... Haw-Haw-haw ... Hydroponic pun’kin-head!...”
It was a medley of coarse voices and laughter, matching the row of a dozen coarse faces and grins that lined the view-ports of the ship. These men were asteroid miners, space-hardened and space-twisted. They’d been back to Earth for a while, to raise hell and freshen up, and spend the money in their then-bulging pockets. Coming out again from Earth, across the orbit of Mars to the asteroid belt, they had had the Endlichs as fellow passengers.
John Endlich had battled valiantly with his feebler side, and with his social inclinations, all through that long, dreary voyage, to keep clear of the inevitable griefs that were sure to come to a chap like himself from involvement with such characters. In the main, it had been a rather tattered victory. But now, at the final moment of bleak anticlimax, they took their revenge in guffaws and ridicule, hurling the noise at him through the radiophones of the space-suit helmets that they held in their laps--space-suits being always kept handy beneath the traveler-seats of every interplanetary vessel.
“ ... Haw-haw-haw! Drop over to our camp sometime for a little drink, and a little game, eh, pantywaist? Tain’t far. Sure--just drop in on us when the pressure of domesticity in this beootiful country gets you down ... When the turnips get you down! Haw-haw-haw! Bring the wife along ... She’s kinda pretty. Ought to have a man-size fella ... Just ask for me--Alf Neely! Haw-haw-haw!”
Yeah, Alf Neely was the loudest and the ugliest of John Endlich’s baiters. He had gigantic arms and shoulders, small squinty eyes, and a pendulous nose. “Haw-haw-haw!...”
And the others, yelling and hooting, made it a pack: “Man--don’t he wish he was back in Podunk! ... What!--no tomatas, Dutch? ... What did they tell yuh back at the Homestead office in Chicago?--that we were in de-e-esperate need of fresh vegetables out here? Well, where are they, papa? ... Haw-haw-haw!...”
Under the barrage John Endlich’s last shreds of common-sense were all but blotted out by the red murk of fury. He was small and broad--a stolid-looking thirty-two years old. But now his round and usually placid face was as red as a fiery moon, and his underlip curled in a snarl. He might have taken the savage ribbing more calmly. But there was too much grim fact behind what these asteroid miners said. Besides, out here he had thought that he would have a better chance to lick the weaknesses in himself--because he’d have to work to keep his family alive; because he’d been told that there’d be no one around to distract him from duty. Yah! The irony of that, now, was maddening.
For the moment John Endlich was speechless and strangled--but like an ignited firecracker. Uhunh--ready to explode. His hard body hunched, as if ready to spring. And the baiting waxed louder. It was like the yammering of crows, or the roar of a wild surf in his ears. Then came the last straw. The kids had kept on bawling--more and more violently. But now they got down to verbal explanations of what they thought was the matter:
“Wa-aa-aa-a-ahh-h! Papa--we wanna-go-o-o--hom-m-mm-e!...”
The timing could not have been better--or worse. The shrieks and howls of mirth from the miners, a moment ago, were as nothing to what they were now.
“Ho-ho-ho! Tell it to Daddy, kids! ... Ho-ho-ho! That was a mouthful ... Ho-ho-ho-ho! Wow!...”
There is a point at which an extremity of masculine embarrassment can lead to but one thing--mayhem. Whether the latter is to be inflicted on the attacked or the attacker remains the only question mark.
“I’ll get you, Alf Neely!” Endlich snarled. “Right now! And I’ll get all the damned, hell-bitten rest of you guys!”
Endlich was hardly lacking in vigor, himself. Like a squat but streamlined fighting rooster, rendered a hundred times more agile by the puny gravity, he would have reached the hold-port threshold in a single lithe skip--had not Rose, despairing, grabbed him around the middle to restrain him. Together they slid several yards across the dried-out surface of the asteroid.
“Don’t, Johnny--please don’t!” she wailed.
Her begging could not have stopped him. Nor could her physical interference--for more than an instant. Nor could his conscience, nor his recent determination to keep out of trouble. Not the certainty of being torn limb from limb, and not hell, itself, could have held him back, anymore, then.
Yet he was brought to a halt. It certainly wasn’t cowardice that accomplished this. No.
Suddenly there was no laughter among the miners. But in a body they arose from their traveler-seats aboard the ship. Suddenly there was no more humor in their faces beyond the view-ports. They were itching to be assaulted. The glitter in Alf Neely’s small eyes was about as reassuring as the glitter in the eyes of a slightly prankish gorilla.
“We’re waitin’ for yuh, Mr. Civilization,” he rumbled softly.
After that, all space was still--electrified. The icy stars gleamed in the black sky. The shrunken sun looked on. And John Endlich saw beyond his own murder. To the thought of his kids--and his wife--left alone out here, hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, and real law and order--with these lugs. These guys who had been starved emotionally, and warped inside by raw space. Coldness crawled into John Endlich’s guts, and seemed to twist steel hooks there, making him sick. The silence of a vacuum, and of unthinkable distances, and of ghostly remains which must be left on this fragment of a world that had blown up, maybe fifty million or more years ago, added its weight to John Endlich’s feelings.
And for his family, he was scared. What hell could not have accomplished, became fact. His almost suicidal impulse to inflict violence on his tormenters was strangled, bottled-up--brutally repressed, and left to impose the pangs of neurosis on his tormented soul. Narrowing domesticity had won a battle.
Except, of course, that what he had already said to Alf Neely and Friends was sufficient to start the Juggernaut that they represented, rolling. As he picked himself and Rose up from the ground, he saw that the miners were grimly donning their space-suits, in preparation to their coming out of the ship to lay him low.
“Oh--tired, hunh, Pun’kin-head?” Alf Neely growled. “It don’t matter, Dutch. We’ll finish you off without you liftin’ a finger!”
In John Endlich the rage of intolerable insults still seethed. But there was no question, now, of outcome between it and the brassy taste of danger on his tongue. He knew that even knuckling down, and changing from man to worm to take back his fighting words, couldn’t do any good. He felt like a martyr, left with his family in a Roman arena, while the lions approached. His butchery was as good as over...
Reprieve came presumably by way of the good-sense of the pilot of the space ship. The hold-port was closed abruptly by a mechanism that could be operated only from the main control-board. The rocket jets of the craft emitted a single weak burst of flame. Like a boulder grown agile and flighty, the ship leaped from the landscape, and arced outward toward the stars, to curve around the asteroid and disappear behind the scene’s jagged brim. The craft had gone to make its next and final stop--among the air-domes of the huge mining camp on the other side of Vesta--the side of torn rocks and rich radioactive ores.
But before the ship had vanished from sight, John Endlich heard Alf Neely’s grim promise in his helmet radiophones: “We’ll be back tonight, Greenhorn. Lots of times we work night-shift--when it’s daytime on this side of Vesta. We’ll be free. Stick around. I’ll rub what’s left of you in the dust of your claim!”
Endlich was alone, then, with the fright in his wife’s eyes, the squalling of his children, and his own abysmal disgust and worry.
For once he ceased to be a gentle parent. “Bubs! Evelyn!” he snapped. “Shud-d-d--up-p-p!...”
The startled silence which ensued was his first personal victory on Vesta. But the silence, itself, was an insidious enemy. It made his ears ring. It made even his audible pulsebeats seemed to ache. It bored into his nerves like a drill. When, after a moment, Rose spoke quaveringly, he was almost grateful:
“What do we do, Johnny? We’ve still got to do what we’re supposed to do, don’t we?”
Whereupon John Endlich allowed himself the luxury and the slight relief of a torrent of silent cussing inside his head. Damn the obvious questions of women! Damn the miners. Damn the A.H.O.--the Asteroids Homesteaders Office--and their corny slogans and posters, meant to hook suckers like himself! Damn his own dumb hide! Damn the mighty urge to get drunk! Damn all the bitter circumstances that made doing so impossible. Damn! Damn! Damn!
Finished with this orgy, he said meekly: “I guess so, Hon.”
All members of the Endlich family had been looking around them at the weird Vestal landscape. Through John Endlich’s mind again there flashed a picture of what this asteroid was like. At the Asteroids Homesteaders’ School in Chicago, where his dependents and he had been given several weeks of orientation instruction, suitable to their separate needs, he had been shown diagrams and photographs of Vesta. Later, he had of course seen it from space.
It was not round, like a major planet or most moons. Rather, it was like a bomb-fragment; or even more like a shard of a gigantic broken vase. It was several hundred miles long, and half as thick. One side of it--this side--was curved; for it had been a segment of the surface of the shattered planet from which all of the asteroids had come. The other side was jagged and broken, for it had been torn from the mesoderm of that tortured mother world.
From the desolation of his own thoughts, in which the ogre-form of Alf Neely lurked with its pendent promise of catastrophe soon to come, and from his own view of other desolation all around him, John Endlich was suddenly distracted by the comments of his kids. All at once, conforming to the changeable weather of children’s natures regardless of circumstance, their mood had once more turned bright and adventurous.
“Look, Pop,” Bubs chirped, his round red face beaming now from his helmet face-window, in spite of his undried tears. “This land all around here was fields once! You can even see the rows of some kind of stubble! Like corn-stubble! And over there’s a--a--almost like a fence! An’ up there is hills with trees on ‘em--some of ‘em not even knocked over. But everything is all dried-out and black and grey and dead! Gosh!”
“We can see all that, Dopey!” Evelyn, who was older, snapped at Bubs. “We know that something like people lived on a regular planet here, awful long ago. Why don’t you look over the other way? There’s the house--and maybe the barn and the sheds and the old garden!”
Bubs turned around. His eyes got very big. “Oh! O-ooh-h-h!” he gasped in wonder. “Pop! Mom! Look! Don’t you see?...”
“Yeah, we see, Bubs,” John Endlich answered.
For a long moment he’d been staring at those blocklike structures. One--maybe the house--was of grey stone. It had odd, triangular windows, which may once have been glazed. Some of the others were of a blackened material--perhaps cellulose. Wood, that is. All of the buildings were pushed askew, and partly crumpled from top to bottom, like great cardboard cartons that had been half crushed.
Endlich’s imagination seemed forced to follow a groove, trying to picture that last terrible moment, fifty-million years ago. Had the blast been caused by natural atomic forces at the heart of the planet, as one theory claimed? Or had a great bomb, as large as an oversized meteor, come self-propelled from space, to bury itself deep in that ancient world? A world as big as Mars, its possible enemy--whose weird inhabitants had been wiped out, in a less spectacular way, perhaps in the same conflict?
Endlich’s mind grabbed at that brief instant of explosion. The awful jolt, which must have ended all consciousness, and all capacity for eyes to see what followed. Perhaps there was a short and terrible passing of flame. But in swift seconds, great chunks of the planet’s crust must have been hurled outward. In a moment the flame must have died, dissipated with the suddenly vanishing atmosphere, into the cold vacuum of the void. Almost instantly, the sky, which had been deep blue before, must have turned to its present black, with the voidal stars blazing. There had been no air left to sustain combustion, so buildings and trees had not continued to burn, if there had been time at all to ignite them. And, with the same swiftness, all remaining artifacts and surface features of this chip of a world’s crust that was Vesta, had been plunged into the dual preservatives of the interplanetary regions--deep-freeze and all but absolute dryness. Yes--the motion of the few scattered molecules in space was very fast--indicating a high temperature. But without substance to be hot, there can be no heat. And so few molecules were there in the void, that while the concept of a “hot” space remained true, it became tangled at once with the fact that a practically complete vacuum can have practically no temperature. Which meant--again in practice--all but absolute zero.
John Endlich knew. He’d heard the lectures at the Homesteaders’ School. Here was a ghost-land, hundreds of square miles in extent--a region that had been shifted in a few seconds, from the full prime of life and motion, to moveless and timeless silence. It was like the mummy of a man. In its presence there was a chill, a revulsion, and yet a fascination.
The kids continued to jabber--more excitedly now than before. “Pop! Mom!” Bubs urged. “Let’s go look inside them buildings! Maybe the things are still there! The people, I mean. All black and dried up, like the one in the showcase at school; four tentacles they had instead of arms and legs, the teacher said!”
“Sure! Let’s go!” Evelyn joined in. “I’m not scared to!”
Yeah, kids’ tastes could be pretty gruesome. When you thought most that you had to shelter them from horror, they were less bothered by it than you were. John Endlich’s lips made a sour line.
“Stay here, the pair of you!” Rose ordered.
“Aw--Mom--” Evelyn began to protest.
“You heard me the first time,” their mother answered.
John Endlich moved to the great box, which had come with them from Earth. The nervous tension that tore at him--unpleasant and chilling, driving him toward straining effort--was more than the result of the shameful and embarrassing memory of his very recent trouble with Alf Neely and Companions, and the certainty of more trouble to come from that source. For there was another and even worse enemy. Endlich knew what it was--
The awful silence.
He still looked shamefaced and furious; but now he felt a gentler sharing of circumstances. “We’ll let the snooping go till later, kids,” he growled. “Right now we gotta do what we gotta do--”
The youngsters seemed to join up with his mood. As he tore the pinchbar, which had been conveniently attached to the side of the box, free of its staples, and proceeded to break out supplies, their whimsical musings fell close to what he was thinking.
“Vesta,” Evelyn said. “They told us at school--remember? Vesta was the old Roman goddess of hearth and home. Funny--hunh--Dad?”
Bubs’ fancy was vivid, too. “Look, Pop!” he said again, pointing to a ribbon of what might be concrete, cracked and crumpled as by a terrific quake, curving away toward the hills, and the broken mountains beyond. “That was a road! Can’t you almost hear some kinda cars and trucks goin’ by?”
John Endlich’s wife, helping him open the great box, also had things to say, in spite of the worry showing in her face. She touched the dessicated soil with a gauntleted hand. “Johnny,” she remarked wonderingly. “You can see the splash-marks of the last rain that ever fell here--”
“Yeah,” Endlich growled without any further comment. Inside himself, he was fighting the battle of lost things. The blue sky. The shifting beauty of clouds in sunshine. The warm whisper of wind in trees. The rattle of traffic. The babble of water. The buzz of insects. The smell of flowers. The sight of grass waving ... In short, all the evidences of life.
“A lot of things that was here once, we’ll bring back, won’t we, Pop?” Bubs questioned with astonishing maturity.
“Hope so,” John Endlich answered, keeping his doubts hidden behind gruffness. Maybe it was a grim joke that here and now every force in himself was concentrated on substantial objectives--to the exclusion of his defects. The drive in him was to end the maddening silence, and to rub out the mood of harsh barrenness, and his own aching homesickness, by struggling to bring back a little beauty of scenery, and a little of living motion. It was a civilized urge, a home-building urge, maybe a narrow urge. But how could anybody stand being here very long, unless such things were done? If they ever could be. Maybe, willfully, he had led himself into a grimmer trap than it had even seemed to be--or than he had ever wanted...
Inside his space suit, he had begun to sweat furiously. And it was more because of the tension of his nerves than because of the vigor with which he plied his pinchbar, doing the first task which had to be done. Steel ribbons were snapped, nails were yanked silently from the great box, boards were jerked loose.
In another minute John Endlich and his wife were setting up an airtight tent, which, when the time came, could be inflated from compressed-air bottles. They worked somewhat awkwardly, for their instruction period had been brief, and they were green; but the job was speedily finished. The first requirement--shelter--was assured.
Digging again into the vast and varied contents of the box, John Endlich found some things he had not expected--a fine rifle, a pistol and ammunition. At which moment an ironic imp seemed to sit on his shoulder, and laugh derisively. Umhm-m--the Asteroids Homesteaders Office had filled these boxes according to a precise survey of the needs of a peaceful settler on Vesta.
It was like Bubs, with the inquisitiveness of a seven-year-old, to ask: “What did they think we needed guns for, when they knew there was no rabbits to shoot at?”
“I guess they kind of suspected there’d be guys like Alf Neely, son,” John Endlich answered dryly. “Even if they didn’t tell us about it.”
The next task prescribed by the Homesteaders’ School was to secure a supply of air and water in quantity. Again, following the instructions they had received, the Endlichs uncrated and set up an atom-driven drill. In an hour it had bored to a depth of five-hundred feet. Hauling up the drill, Endlich lowered an electric heating unit on a cable from an atomic power-cell, and then capped the casing pipe.
Yes, strangely enough there was still sufficient water beneath the surface of Vesta. Its parent planet, like the Earth, had had water in its crust, that could be tapped by means of wells. And so suddenly had Vesta been chilled in the cold of space at the time of the parent body’s explosion, that this water had not had a chance to dissipate itself as vapor into the void, but had been frozen solid. The drying soil above it had formed a tough shell, which had protected the ice beneath from disappearance through sublimation...
Drill down to it, melt it with heat, and it was water again, ready to be pumped and put to use.
And water, by electrolysis, was also an easy source of oxygen to breathe ... The soil, once thawed over a few acres, would also yield considerable nitrogen and carbon dioxide--the makings of many cubic meters of atmosphere. The A.H.O. survey expeditions, here on Vesta and on other similar asteroids which were crustal chips of the original planet, had done their work well, pathfinding a means of survival here.
When John Endlich pumped the first turbid liquid, which immediately froze again in the surface cold, he might, under other, better circumstances, have felt like cheering. His well was a success. But his tense mind was racing far ahead to all the endless tasks that were yet to be done, to make any sense at all out of his claim. Besides, the short day--eighteen hours long instead of twenty-four, and already far advanced at the time of his tumultuous landing--was drawing to a close.
“It’ll be dark here mighty quick, Johnny,” Rose said. She was looking scared, again.
John Endlich considered setting up floodlights, and working on through the hours of darkness. But such lights would be a dangerous beacon for prowlers; and when you were inside their area of illumination, it was difficult to see into the gloom beyond.
Still, one did not know if the mask of darkness did not afford a greater invitation to those with evil intent. For a long moment, Endlich was in an agony of indecision. Then he said:
“We’ll knock off from work now--get in the tent, eat supper, maybe sleep...”
But he was remembering Neely’s promise to return tonight.
In another minute the small but dazzling sun had disappeared behind the broken mountains, as Vesta, unspherical and malformed, tumbled rather than rotated on its center of gravity. And several hours later, amid heavy cooking odors inside the now inflated plastic bubble that was the tent, Endlich was sprawled on his stomach, unable, through well-founded worry, even to remove his space suit or to allow his family to do so, though there was breathable air around them. They lay with their helmet face-windows open. Rose and Evelyn breathed evenly in peaceful sleep.
Bubs, trying to be very much a man, battled slumber and yawns, and kept his dad company with scraps of conversation. “Let ‘em come, Pop,” he said cheerfully. “Hope they do. We’ll shoot ‘em all. Won’t we, pop? You got the rifle and the pistol ready, Pop...”
Yes, John Endlich had his guns ready beside him, all right--for what it was worth. He wished wryly that things could be as simple as his hero-worshipping son seemed to think. Thank the Lord that Bubs was so trusting, for his own peace of mind--the prankish and savage nature of certain kinds of men, with liquor in their bellies, being what it was. For John Endlich, having been, on occasion, mildly kindred to such men, was well able to understand that nature. And understanding, now, chilled his blood.
Peering from the small plastic windows of the tent, he kept watching for hulking black shapes to silhouette themselves against the stars. And he listened on his helmet phones, for scraps of telltale conversation, exchanged by short-range radio by men in space armor. Once, he thought he heard a grunt, or a malicious chuckle. But it may have been just vagrant static.
Otherwise, from all around, the stillness of the vacuum was absolute. It was unnerving. On this airless piece of a planet, an enemy could sneak up on you, almost without stealth.
Against that maddening silence, however, Bubs presently had a helpful and unprompted suggestion: “Hey, Pop!” he whispered hoarsely. “Put the side of your helmet against the tent-floor, and listen!”
John Endlich obeyed his kid. In a second cold sweat began to break out on his body, as intermittent thudding noises reached his ear. In the absence of an atmosphere, sounds could still be transmitted through the solid substance of the asteroid.
It took Endlich a moment to realize that the noises came, not from nearby, but from far away, on the other side of Vesta. The thudding was vibrated straight through many miles of solid rock.
“It’s nothing, Bubs,” he growled. “Nothing but the blasting in the mines.”
Bubs said “Oh,” as if disappointed. Not long thereafter he was asleep, leaving his harrassed sire to endure the vigil alone. Endlich dared not doze off, to rest a little, even for a moment. He could only wait. If an evil visitation came--as he had been all but sure it must--that would be bad, indeed. If it didn’t come--well--that still meant a sleepless night, and the postponement of the inevitable. He couldn’t win.
Thus the hours slipped away, until the luminous dial of the clock in the tent--it had been synchronized to Vestal time--told him that dawn was near. That was when, through the ground, he heard the faint scraping. A rustle. It might have been made by heavy space-boots. It came, and then it stopped. It came again, and stopped once more. As if skulking forms paused to find their way.
Out where the ancient and ghostly buildings were, he saw a star wink out briefly, as if a shape blocked the path of its light. Then it burned peacefully again. John Endlich’s hackles rose. His fists tightened on both his rifle and pistol.
He fixed his gaze on the great box, looming blackly, the box that contained the means of survival for his family and himself, as if he foresaw the future, a moment away. For suddenly, huge as it was, the box rocked, and began to move off, as if it had sprouted legs and come alive.
John Endlich scrambled to action. He slammed and sealed the face-windows of the helmets of the members of his family, to protect them from suffocation. He did the same for himself, and then unzipped the tent-flap. He darted out with the outrushing air.
This was a moment with murder poised in every tattered fragment of it. John Endlich knew. Murder was engrained in his own taut-drawn nerves, that raged to destroy the trespassers whose pranks had passed the level of practical humor, and become, by the tampering with vital necessities, an attack on life itself. But there was a more immediate menace in these space-twisted roughnecks ... Strike back at them, even in self-defense, and have it proven!
He had not the faintest doubt who they were--even though he could not see their faces in the blackness. Maybe he should lay low--let them have their way ... But how could he--even apart from his raging temper, and his honor as a man--when they were making off with his family’s and his own means of survival?
He had to throw Rose and the kids into the balance--risking them to the danger that he knew lay beyond his own possible ignoble demise. He did just that when he raised his pistol, struggling against the awful impulse of the rage in him--lifted it high enough so that the explosive bullets that spewed from it would be sure to pass over the heads of the dark silhouettes that were moving about.
“Damn you, Neely!” Endlich yelled into his helmet mike, his finger tightening on the trigger. “Drop that stuff!”
At that moment the sun’s rim appeared at the landscape’s jagged edge, and on this side of airless Vesta complete night was transformed to complete day, as abruptly as if a switch had been turned.
Alf Neely and John Endlich blinked at each other. Maybe Neely was embarrassed a little by his sudden exposure; but if he was, it didn’t show. Probably the bully in him was scared; but this he covered in a common manner--with a studiedly easy swagger, and a bravado that was not good sense, but bordered on childish recklessness. Yet he had a trump card--by the aggressive glint in his eyes, and his unpleasant grin, Endlich knew that Neely knew that he was afraid for his wife, and wouldn’t start anything unless driven and goaded sheerly wild. Even now, they were seven to his one.
“Why, good morning, Neighbor Pun’kin-head!” Neely crooned, his voice a burlesque of sweetness. “Glad to oblige!”
He hurled the great box down. As he did so, something glinted in his gloved paw. He flicked it expertly into the open side of the wooden case which contained so many things that were vital to the Endlichs--
It was only a tiny nuclear priming-cap, and the blast was feeble. Even so, the box burst apart. Splintered crates, sealed cans, great torn bundles and what not, went skittering far across the plain in every direction, or were hurled high toward the stars, to begin falling at last with the laziness of a descending feather.
Neely and his companions hadn’t attempted to move out of the way of the explosion. They only rolled with its force, protected by their space suits. Endlich rolled, too, helplessly, clutching his pistol and rifle: still, by some superhuman effort, he managed to regain his feet before the far more practiced Neely, who was hampered, no doubt, by a few too many drinks, had even stopped rolling. But when Neely got up, he had drawn his blaster, a useful tool of his trade, but a hellish weapon, too, at short range.
Still, Endlich retained the drop on him.
Alf Neely chuckled. “Fourth of July! Hallowe’en, Dutch,” he said sweetly. “What’s the matter? Don’t you think it’s fun? Honest to gosh--you just ain’t neighborly!”
Then he switched his tone. It became a soft snarl that didn’t alter his insolent and confident smirk--and a challenge. He laughed derisively, almost softly. “I dare you to try to shoot straight, pal,” he said. “Even you got more sense than that.”
And John Endlich was spang against his terrible, blank wall again. Seven to one. Suppose he got three. There’d be four left--and more in the camp. But the four would survive him. Space crazy lugs. Anyway half drunk. Ready to hoot at the stars, even, if they found no better diversion. Ready to push even any of their own bunch around who seemed weaker than they. For spite, maybe. Or just for the lid-blowing hell of it--as a reaction against the awful confinement of being out here.
“I was gonna smear you all over the place, Greenhorn,” Neely rumbled. “But maybe this way is more fun, hunh? Maybe we’ll be back tonight. But don’t wait up for us. Our best regards to your sweet--family.”
John Endlich’s blazing and just rage was strangled by that same crawling dread as before, as he saw them arc upward and away, propelled by the miniature drive-jets attached to the belts of their space-suits. Their return to camp, hundreds of miles distant, could be accomplished in a couple of minutes.
Rose and the kids were crouched in the deflated tent. But returning there, John Endlich hardly saw them. He hardly heard their frightened questions.
To the trouble with Neely, he could see no end--just one destructive visitation following another. Maybe, already, mortal damage had been done. But Endlich couldn’t lie down and quit, any more than a snake, tossed into a fire, could stop trying to crawl out of it, as long as life lasted. Whether doing so made sense or not, didn’t matter. In Endlich was the savage energy of despair. He was fighting not just Neely and his crowd, but that other enemy--which was perhaps Neely’s main trouble, too. Yeah--the stillness, the nostalgia, the harshness.
“No--don’t want any breakfast,” he replied sharply to Rose’ last question. “Gotta work...”
He was like an ant-swarm, rebuilding a trampled nest--oblivious to the certainty of its being trampled again. First he scrambled and leaped around, collecting his scattered and damaged gear. He found that his main atomic battery--so necessary to all that he had to do--was damaged and unworkable. And he had no hope that he could repair it. But this didn’t stop his feverish activity.
Now he started unrolling great bolts of a transparent, wire-strengthened plastic. Patching with an adhesive where explosion-rents had to be repaired, he cut hundred-yard strips, and, with Rose’s help, laid them edge to edge and fastened them together to make a continuous sheet. Next, all around its perimeter, he dug a shallow trench. The edges of the plastic were then attached to massive metal rails, which he buried in the trench.
“Sealed to the ground along all the sides, Honey,” he growled to Rose. “Next we fit in the airlock cabinet, at one corner. Then we’ve got to see if we can get up enough air to inflate the whole business. That’s the tough part--the way things are...”
By then the sun was already high. And Endlich was panting raggedly--mostly from worry. After the massive airlock was in place, they attached their electrolysis apparatus to the small atomic battery, which had been used to run the well-driller. The well was in the area covered by the sheet of plastic, which was now propped up here and there with long pieces of board from the great box. Over their heads, the tough, clear material sagged like a tent-roof which has not yet been run up all the way on its poles.
Sluggishly the electrolysis apparatus broke down the water, discharging the hydrogen as waste through a pipe, out over the airless surface of Vesta--but freeing the oxygen under the plastic roof. Yet from the start it was obvious that, with insufficient electric power, the process was too slow.
“And we need to use heat-coils to thaw the ground, Johnny,” Rose said. “And to keep the place warm. And to bring nitrogen gas up out of the soil. The few cylinders of the compressed stuff that we’ve got won’t be enough to make a start. And the carbon dioxide...”
So John Endlich had to try to repair that main battery. He thought, after a while, that he might succeed--in time. But then Rose opened the airlock, and the kids came in to bother him. With all the triumph of a favorite puppy dragging an over-ripe bone into the house, Bubs bore a crooked piece of a black substance, hard as wood and more gruesome than a dried and moldy monkey-pelt.
“A tentacle!” Evelyn shrilled. “We were up to those old buildings! We found the people! What’s left of them! And lots of stuff. We saw one of their cars! And there was lots more. Dad--you gotta come and see!...”
Harassed as he was, John Endlich yielded--because he had a hunch, an idea of a possibility. So he went with his children. He passed through a garden, where a pool had been, and where the blackened remains of plants still projected from beds of dried soil set in odd stone-work. He passed into chambers far too low for comfortable human habitation. And what did he know of the uses of most of what he saw there? The niches in the stone walls? The slanting, ramplike object of blackened wood, beside which three weird corpses lay? The glazed plaque on the wall, which could have been a religious emblem, a calendar of some kind, a decoration, or something beyond human imagining? Yeah--leave such stuff for Cousin Ernest, the school teacher--if he ever got here.
In the cylindrical stone shed nearby, John Endlich had a look at the car--low slung, three-wheeled, a tiller, no seats. Just a flat platform. All he could figure out about the motor was that steam seemed the link between atomic energy and mechanical motion.
Beyond the car was what might be a small tractor. And a lot of odd tools. But the thing which interested him most was the pattern of copper ribbons, insulated with a heavy glaze, similar to that which he had seen traversing walls and ceiling in the first building he had entered. Here, as before, they connected with queer apparatus which might be stoves and non-rotary motors, for all he knew. And also with the globes overhead.
The suggestiveness of all this was plain. And now, at the far end of that cylindrical shed, John Endlich found the square, black-enamelled case, where all of those copper ribbons came together.
It was sealed, and apparently self-contained. Nothing could have damaged it very much, in the frigid stillness of millions of years. Its secrets were hidden within it. But they could not be too unfamiliar. And its presence was logical. A small, compact power unit. Nervously, he turned a little wheel. A faint vibration was transmitted to his gloved hand. And the globe in the ceiling began to glow.