Fee of the Frontier - Cover

Fee of the Frontier

by H. B. Fyfe

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: They didn't think of themselves as pioneers. They simply had a job to do. And if they had to give up money, or power, or love--or life itself

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

From inside the dome, the night sky is a beautiful thing, even though Deimos and Phobos are nothing to brag about. If you walk outside, maybe as far as the rocket field, you notice a difference.

Past the narrow developed strip around the dome, the desert land lies as chilled and brittle as it did for eons before Earthmen reached Mars. The sky is suddenly raw and cruel. You pull your furs around your nose and check your oxygen mask, and wish you were inside something, even a thin wall of clear plastic.

I like to stand here, though, and look out at it, just thinking about how far those ships grope out into the dark nowadays, and about the men who have gone out there on a few jets and a lot of guts. I knew a bunch of them ... some still out there, I guess.

There was a time when nearly everything had to be rocketed out from Earth, before they organized all those chemical tricks that change the Martian crops to real food. Domes weren’t fancy then. Adequate, of course; no sense in taking chances with lives that cost so much fuel to bring here. Still, the colonies kept growing. Where people go, others follow to live off them, one way or another. It began to look like time for the next step outward.

Oh, the Asteroids ... sure. Not them. I did a bit of hopping there in my own time. In fact--on account of conditions beyond my choice and control--I spent too much time on the wrong side of the hull shields. One fine day, the medics told me I’d have to be a Martian for the rest of my life. Even the one-way hop back to Earth was “not recommended.”

So I used to watch the ships go out. I still remember one that almost missed leaving. The Martian Merchant. What joker thought that would be a good name for an exploring ship I can’t imagine, but it always happens that way.

I was starting my cross-country tractor line then, and had just made the run from Schiaparelli to Asaph Dome, which was not as nice as it is now but still pretty civilized for the time. They had eight or ten bars, taverns, and other amusements, and were already getting to be quite a city.

One of the taverns near the western airlock was named the Stardust, and I was approaching, measuring the sand in my throat, when these spacers came out. The first one in sight was a blocky, dark-haired fellow. He came rolling through the door with a man under each arm.

Just as I got there, he made it to his feet somehow and cracked their heads together exactly hard enough to bring peace. He acted like a man used to handling things with precision. He glanced quickly at me out of a square, serious face, then plunged back through the splintered door toward the breakup inside.

In a moment, he came out again, with two friends who looked the worse for wear. The tall, lean youngster wore a junior pilot’s bands on the sleeves of his blue uniform. His untidy hair was rumpled, as if someone had been hanging onto it while in the process of giving him the shiner.

The other one was shorter and a good deal neater. Even with his tunic ripped down the front, he gave the impression of making it his life business to be neat. He was turning gray at the temples and growing a little bulge under his belt, which lent a dignity worthy of his trim mustache and expression of deferential politeness. He paused briefly to hurl an empty bottle at someone’s head.

“Better take the alley there,” I told the blocky one, on impulse. “It’ll bring you out at the tractor lot and I’ll give you a lift to your ship.”

He wasted no time on questions, just grabbed his friends and disappeared before the crowd came out. I walked around a couple of corners and back to my tractor bus. This lot was only a clear space inside the Number Four Airlock. At that time, two or three tractors came in every day from the mines or other domes. Most of the traffic was to and from the spaceport.

“Who’s that?” asked a low voice from the shadows.

“Tony Lewis,” I answered.

The three of them moved into the dim light from the airlock guardpost.

“Thanks for the steer,” said the blocky one, “but we can stay till morning.”

He seemed as fresh as if he had just landed. His friends were a trifle worn around the edges.

“Keep playing that rough,” I said, “and you may not make it to morning.”

He just grinned. “We have to,” he said, “or the ship can’t blast off.”

“Oh, you three make the ship go, huh?”

“Just about. This is Hugh Konnel, the third pilot; the gent with the dignified air is Ron Meadows, the steward. I’m Jim Howlet, and I look after the fuel system.”

I admitted that the ship could hardly do without them. Howlet’s expression suggested that he was searching his memory.

“Lewis...” he murmured. “I’ve heard of Tony Lewis somewhere. You a spacer?”

“Used to be,” I told him. “Did some piloting in the Belt.”

Young Konnel stopped fingering his eye.

“Oh, I’ve heard of you,” he said. “Even had to read some of your reports.”

After that, one thing led to another, with the result that I offered to find somewhere else to relax. We walked south from the airlock, past a careless assortment of buildings. In those days, there was not much detailed planning of the domes. What was necessary for safety and for keeping the air thicker and warmer than outside was done right; the remaining space was grabbed by the first comers.

Streets tended to be narrow. As long as an emergency truck could squeeze through at moderate speed, that was enough. The buildings grew higher toward the center of the dome, but I stopped while they were still two stories.

The outside of Jorgensen’s looked like any other flimsy construction under the dome. We had just passed a row of small warehouses, and the only difference seemed to be the lighted sign at the front.

“We can stop at the bar inside while we order dinner,” I said.

“Sounds good,” said Howlet. “I could go for a decent meal. Rations on an exploring ship run more to calories than taste.”

The pilot muttered something behind us. Howlet turned his head.

“Don’t worry about it, Hughie,” he retorted. “It’ll be all over the dome by tomorrow anyway.”

“But they said not to--”

“Mr. Lewis won’t say anything, and he’s not the only spacer who’ll guess it.”

It was easy to figure out. Ships did little exploring in the Belt now--plenty of untouched rocks there but nothing really unknown. “Exploring” could only mean that a hop to Jupiter was in the works at last. There had already been rumors about a few wide swings outside the Belt.

Well, it was just about time.

I would have liked to go too, and it was more than just a spacer’s curiosity. To my mind, man had to move out in space. Being only halfway in control of his own planetary system was no state to be found in by the first interstellar visitors.

That is a meeting bound to happen sooner or later. It would be better for the human race to be able to do the visiting, I thought.

The inside of Jorgensen’s always surprised new visitors to Asaph Dome. It was different from anything on Earth, and yet not too much like the real Mars either. That way, Jorgensen hoped to catch both the sandeaters and the tourists. The latter came to rough it in local color, the former to dream of a better world.

“Hey! Look at the stars over the bar!” exclaimed Howlet.

To begin with, the bar was of pinkish sandstone, smoothed and covered by a coating of plastic. Behind it, instead of less imaginative mirrors or bottle displays, Jorgensen had had some drifter paint a night desert: all dull pink and bronze crags smothering in sand under a black sky. The stars twinkled like glass beads, which they were. Lights were dim enough to hide the Martian austerity of the metal furnishings.

“The Earth tourists spend a lot of time here,” I told the trio. “Seems they’d rather look at that sky than the real one outside the dome.”

The dining room was for the souls of the locals, who could admire the desert more conveniently than find a good meal. It was mostly green and white, with a good deal of the white being crystal. In the corners stood fake pine trees which Jorgensen had repainted every month; but what drew the sandeaters was the little fountain in the middle of the room.

Real water!

Of course, it was the same gallon or two pumped around and around, but clear, flowing water is a sight on Mars. When the muddy trickles in the canals began to make you feel like diving in for a swim, you stopped in at Jorgensen’s to watch the fountain while his quiet, husky waiters served your dinner most efficiently.

“Say, this is a cut or two above ship chow,” admitted Konnel when the food arrived. “What’s that? Music too?”

“They have a trio that plays now and then,” I told him. “Sometimes a singer too, when not much is going on in the back room.”

“Back room?” Howlet caught up the words.

“Never mind. What would you do right now with a million? Assuming you could beat the wheel or the other games in the first place.”

“Do they use ... er ... real money?” asked Meadows, cocking an eyebrow.

“Real as you like,” I assured him. “It collects in these places. I guess lots of sandeaters think they might pick up a first-class fare back to Earth.”

“Do they?” inquired Konnel, chewing on his steak.

The string trio, which had been tuning up, eased into a quiet song as he spoke. We listened as the question hung in the air, and I decided that the funny feeling under my belt was homesickness, all the stranger because I owned three homes not too far from the Martian equator.

“As far as I know,” I answered, “the luck seems to run to those who can’t go back anyway, for one reason or another. The ones just waiting for a lucky night to go home rich ... are still waiting.”

The door to the back room opened, letting through a blend of talk and small mechanical noises. It also emitted a strikingly mismatched couple.

The girl was dark-haired and graceful, though not very tall. She wore a lavender gown that showed a good deal of trim back as she turned to walk toward the musicians, and what the gown overlooked the walk demonstrated. The man was fat enough to make him seem short until he approached. His face and baldish dome were desert-reddened, and his eyebrows were faded to invisibility. Jorgensen.

Nodding casually to various diners, he noticed the new faces at our table. He ambled over lightly for one of his bulk, and it became apparent that he was far from being blubbery. His belly stuck out, but he could probably knock the wind out of you with it.

“Hello, Tony!” he said in a wheezy tenor. “Introducing some friends to the best hamburger joint on Mars?”

Then he leaned on the back of Konnel’s chair and told a couple of his old prospecting yarns to make sure everybody was happy, while the girl began to sing with the trio. She had hardly enough voice to be heard over Jorgensen’s stories. I noticed Konnel straining to listen.

Finally, Jorgensen saw it too. Leaving Howlet and Meadows grinning at a highly improbable adventure, he slapped the boy on the shoulder.

“I see you noticed Lilac Malone, boy. Like to buy her coffee?”

“C-coffee?” stuttered Konnel.

“Made with water,” I reminded him. “Awful waste here. Like champagne.”

“I’ll tell her she’s invited,” said Jorgensen, waggling a finger at her.

“The fellows are going out in the morning,” I tried to head him off. “They don’t have much time--”

“All the more reason to meet Lilac while they can!”

We watched her finish her song. She had rhythm, and the lavender dress swirled cutely around her in the Martian gravity; but, of course, Lilac would never have made a singer on Earth. Her voice was more good-natured than musical.

She arrived with the coffee, said “hello” to me, waved good-bye to Jorgensen’s back, and set out to get acquainted with the others. Catching Howlet’s wink, and suspecting that he was used to getting Konnel back to space-ships, I relaxed and offered to show Meadows the back room.

He muttered something about his gray hairs, but came along after an amused glance at Lilac and Konnel.

Jorgensen’s gambling room was different from the bar and dining room as they were from each other. Decorations were simple. Drapes of velvety synthetic, dyed the deep green that Martian colonists like, covered the walls. Indirect lighting gave a pretty gleam to the metal gadgets on the tables. Because they used a heavier ball, roulette looked about the same as on Earth, and the same went for the dice games.

“Interesting,” Meadows murmured, feeling in his pocket.

He pointed a thumb at the planets table. It was round, with a small, rectangular projection for the operator’s controls and calculator. In the nine differently colored circular tracks, rolled little globes representing the planets. These orbits were connected by spirals of corresponding colors, symbolic of ship orbits swooping inward or outward to other planets.

“You pick yourself two planets,” I explained. “For better odds, pick a start and a destination. The man throws his switch and each little ball is kicked around its groove by a random number of electrical impulses.”

“And how do I win?”

“Say you pick Venus-to-Saturn. See that silver spiral going out from Venus and around the table to the orbit of Saturn? Well, if Venus stops within that six-inch zone where the spiral starts and if Saturn is near where it ends, you scoop in the stardust.”

Meadows fingered his mustache as he examined the table.

“I ... ah ... suppose the closer you come, the more you win, eh?”

“That’s the theory. Most people are glad to get anything back. It’s honest enough, but the odds are terrific.”

A couple of spacers made room for us, and I watched Meadows play for a few minutes. The operator grinned when he saw me watching. He had a lean, pale face and had been an astrogator until his heart left him in need of Martian gravity.

“No coaching, Tony!” he kidded me.

“Stop making me look like a partner in the place!” I answered.

“Thought one night you were going to be ... No winners, gentlemen. Next bets!”

The spheres had come to rest with Pluto near one end of a lavender spiral and Mercury touching the inner end, but no one had had the insanity to bet that way. Meadows began to play inner planet combinations that occasionally paid, though at short odds. He made a bit on some near misses, and I decided to have a drink while he lost it.

I found Howlet, Konnel, and Lilac Malone in the bar admiring the red-bronze landscape. When he heard about Meadows, Howlet smiled.

“If it isn’t fixed, they better prepare to abandon,” he laughed. “People look at that face and won’t believe he always collects half the ship’s pay.”

Lilac saw a chance to do her duty, and suggested that we all go in to support Meadows. I stayed with my drink until Jorgensen drifted in to have a couple with me and talk of the old days.

After a while, one of his helpers came up and murmured something into his big red ear. He shrugged and waved his hand.

The next time it happened, about twenty minutes later, I was on the point of matching him with a story about a petrified ancient Martian that the domers at Schiaparelli dug out of a dry canal. Jorgensen lowered his faded eyebrows and strode off like a bear on egg-shells, leaving me there with the unspoken punch line about what they were supposed to have dug up with the Martian.

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