by A. Appleyard

Mr.Blore, stockbroker and director of several investment firms etc, like most of his kind who try to stay profitable as ever more traders and financiers live off the same amount of primary producers as people whose school education was almost entirely paperwork get unwilling to get their hands dirty, even when space travel is routine had to drive himself and his agents faster and faster to get to opportunities first, until much can be hostage to one illness or lost driving licence or transport delay or loss of business papers or desertion. He had enough reliable employees, who however were usually all fully busy and had little free time. The less spare capacity such a system has, the likelier it is to break down disastrously, but he managed to keep everything tied together, often taking money out of one thing to save another, and always thinking that he saw ever more complicated routes to paying everybody back and getting square and keeping a comfortable feeling of authority - until one day.

Instead of an important deal clinched he got a report of a heart attack. As with the nervous breakdown case five months before, he summarily sent the man a get-well card and a dismissal notice and his insurance card in the same envelope and advertised for a replacement: the perpetual urgency forbad any tolerance of people who could not keep up pace or could not think under pressure.

That threw his work load onto the others until his replacement could be chosen and settle in. One of them tried to keep up, found his mind acting odd from the pressure, "saw the writing on the psychiatrist's wall" in time, asked for a desperately needed holiday, was refused because his firm was as always on an intensive sales and investment drive, took money intended for organizing a business dinner and spent it on a scuba diving holiday. A narrowly-avoided nervous breakdown and evil memories of endless different urgent things to keep track of at once, receded and dissolved in warm seawater as he explored coral reefs; but it did not keep Blore's businesses financed. A valuable consultancy went elsewhere because the only employee near enough that evening could not be contacted because he let his son engage his home phone on scuba diving matters and then took his family out to a theatre, earning next day a 20-minute formal reprimand for being incommunicado but not saving the consultancy. Blore cursed human mental and physical frailty but could do nothing about it then, tried to do what he could over the phone, could not, and realized that he had to go on one of the calls himself - to a meeting out in space, thinking to finish the matter quickly and get back quickly to his office with its fast international communication links and catch up and carry on.

On his flight he was too busy studying reports and news and thinking and writing and rehearsing speeches to look out through a porthole much. The familiarly airliner-like interior of the passenger craft and the assurance of regular timetables reduced the strangeness of being so far from Earth to merely an annoying interruption to routine; he would soon be back in his office.

All his skill in pushing meetings through quickly and brushing off objections and interruptions did not stop people from raising issues and points by shouting above his and the chairman's suggestions to vote quickly and to move to the next item. The meeting dragged on and became disorderly. In a welter of angry argument he did not notice the time, and he missed his booked flight home. When he booked accommodation the accommodation clerk refused to accept Blore's credit cards etc or company cheques but demanded cash - which he had other plans for. While he was stuck there business back home including another conference got left; he began to uncomfortably realize how far he was from home.

His employees, unsupervised, attended to their own businesses rather than his. Delays caused other delays; customers refused to wait but took their business elsewhere; there was bad publicity; creditors got scared. Conference caterers refused to supply unless he paid them cash first plus all outstanding bills including for several other firms that had largely the same directors; his firm had to makeshift what catering they could by themselves, and the result did not impress visiting delegates. Over long-distance radio with several minutes' wait for the signal to travel each time Blore, chafing at rigid flight timetables and inability to be in two places at once, could not exert the pressure of personal presence needed to resist outside pressures, and the most impressive business language could not keep liquidators and the Receiver off, leaving him watching helplessly while bankruptcies set off more bankruptcies in a chain reaction and creditors and investigators and investors tried to call him to book, leaving him with no recourse but the oldest, to run before the hounds until he dropped.

At least the space age had brought more places for the hunted to run to. He saw in time what was starting to happen and used some of his cash in hand to go to a suitably remote space exploration base to wait the storm out, glad that he had brought enough hard cash and securities and credit with him to buy things and pay for accommodation and food and at a suitable time and place start again under another name, for routine passenger space travel along established routes was reliable enough. Meanwhile he needed personal transport if possible. The base's equipment store was run by a Mr.Levitsky, who had been expecting him.

"I need personal transport." said Mr.Blore importantly, quickly recovering composure, "I have some important business to tidy up in several places.".

Levitsky was a practical man and dealt with practical people, and business suited managerial airs irritated him. "You mean that you're trying to patch together the ends of old financialisms and plutocracy - which gives me an idea." he thought, for to him pompousness was a balloon to be burst; but he said nothing then. "You'll need a spacesuit. Not all places as remote as you'll need to go, have atmosphere areas that a ship can airlock onto.".

Blore had never worn a spacesuit before, nor wanted to, and was annoyed to be told that good spacesuits, like bespoke business suits, have to be measured for and waited for instead of bought off the peg. Levitsky measured Blore, who, needing accommodation while it came, asked to book a suite of rooms and showed several credit cards, which Levitsky ignored, saying that out here people lived in one room at a time if any and paid cash. Blore had to put up with it.

The spacesuit duly came. Blore looked at it and was shown how to operate it. "Its cylinders are very heavy for their size!" he queried, "And why's it so bulky and complicated like a work spacesuit?". Instead of a "space helmet" as he knew of them it had a flexible hood with a hard breathing mask; there was an unpressurized safety helmet to wear over it.

"We don't get much call for those very lightweight visitors' suits. This is the usual sort that we keep in stock of parts for them." said Levitsky, and said how much it cost.

"Oh." said Blore, and again showed credit cards and company cheque books, and got the same answer as before.

"All right, I've had it before at petrol stations: `credit cards are too much messing about, and too many companies take ages to pay bills and then go bust owing', treating reputable companies and fly-by-nights alike. Like that backstreet hotel man that thought that my American Express card was a railway train pass and I had to give him my wrist watch to pay my bill." he complained, still in his most impressive business manner, "Is there say an opening in metals from asteroids or something that I can get into?".

"Yes. A good one with good prospects, but first finish trying the suit on.".

He picked the spacesuit up and looked for where to step into it.

"No. Undress completely and put the undersuit on first.".

He undressed, put the undersuit on, transferred his credit etc cards to the undersuit's pocket following his habit of transferring them to pyjama pockets when going to bed in strange places, and then put the suit on, irritatedly enduring the intimate personal intrusions of the connections of the suit's `convenience' (as Levitsky called it then). The oxygen cylinders were indeed very heavy, but Levitsky turned the artificial gravity down.

"That `opening' in metals: where's the office? With my status in business I don't want a rabbit hutch that I can't spread papers out in.".

"Yes. It's got a big office. And you'll need these." said Levitsky, fastening assorted tools and instruments to Blore's spacesuit and sealing it and switching its systems on.

"They're heavy and likely cost a lot! What are they for? What'll I need them for?" Blore complained in surprise, "Where is this opening and what's the salary or share?", too surprised to think as quickly as he should have.

"Yes, it's got the biggest office that ever was, light years wide. It's out there!" said Levitsky, and switched the artificial gravity off and shoved him through an airlock into space, "Yes, metals, as in find and dig them yourself like most other people round here!" he continued over his suit radio.

"But - leaving me adrift - I need wheels, I mean personal transport." Blore moaned, "Let me back inside! I've never been weightless or in space before!".

"Personal transport? You're wearing it." said Levitsky.

"I didn't mean living in a spacesuit for weeks on end with a propulsor bolted to my back like an asteroid miner." Blore moaned, "I'm ...".

"... yet another city type that thought we're a holiday camp for people to broker in commodities without ever seeing them. Read the instructions that come with your kit. We can't carry idlers and penpushers out here. Too many of them already living off us. Yes, that's a long-stay work suit you're in, not a light short-stay suit. And don't wave that plastic at people, it's no use out here.".

He could do nothing but tether himself to a ring on the outside of the space base while he read through the instructions that came with his kit and life support system. He tried the metal detector / remote analyzer on anything in reach. When aimed at his oxygen cylinders it gave an absurd reading, but Levitsky said by radio that it was all right. He had nothing to do for a week except float about on the end of a line and get used to his spacesuit and its propulsor and his kit and to watch the comings and goings. He soon had ideas why he had been given the work kit, and it was not as goods to sell. A few times he tried to get back in, but something or someone stopped the airlock from opening for him. Inside were small but comfortable bedrooms and dining tables, while he had to sleep weightless in a spacesuit and live off its food synthesis system via a sucking tube, which he would have to get used to like all who wore such longstay spacesuits. At least in space there was no discomfort of hot and cold weather. Finally about twenty asteroid miners tethered to each other came out of the base and approached him. "That's the new man for us that he told us about." his suit radio overheard one of them say. Not liking the look of them, he untethered himself and fled with such suit propulsor skill as he had, dodging round the base's struts and projections and solar panels, but after a short chase they caught him and tethered him into their group and towed him away. The base receded into the distance and shrank to a dot. He did not like the code name that they put in big letters across his spacesuit chest and helmet forehead with its apparent implication of "some plutocratic money-pot from somewhere".

"Levitsky! What's going on? Where are this lot taking me? When I can contact anyone I'll have the law on everybody involved in this." he protested over his radio, looking in vain for the base and not even knowing what direction it was in, "And my cylinders make my Geiger counter swear as well as what my metal detector says. The other men's cylinders don't. Why is that? Are they safe?".

"It must be from your suit's power pack. Or from whatever's making your metal detector say what you say that it keeps on saying." said Levitsky, unreally clear in his ear reminding him longingly of his last contact with anything like his familiar world and business and personal contacts, while he was exiled to an airless outer wilderness among a modern equivalent of wild native tribes.

"You said they're all new. Nothing else makes them act like that except what is like they say it is." said Blore.

"Then your instruments are telling the truth." said Levitsky.

"But they can't: my metal detector says that ..." said Blore.

"Your metal detector is telling the truth." said Levitsky.

"It can't be ..." said Blore.

"It is. I made your suit's cylinders myself. Out here people have to learn how to make and service and repair things themselves. I had some special metal spare - very special metal -" said Levitsky.

"Erh? What!?!" said Blore, starting to have a horrible feeling of realization.

"You're right. Your name isn't short for `plutocrat' or `money-pots' like you seemed to think.".

"You mean that nickname." said Blore, "I don't hold with nicknames. I've docked people's wages before now for keeping on using nicknames at work. If you have to mention someone, keep up a habit of being respectful and use proper names and titles. That'll be `Mr.Blore' from you like from everyone else. What does that nickname stand for, anyway?: `plutocrat''s bad enough, and slang distortions of it are worse.".

"Whether you were one, you won't get any chances to be one out here. As your instruments say, you stuffy $%# refusing to be called by any nickname but only by your full formal name and titles, you've got a nickname anyway, and it means: `the spaceman with plutonium cylinders'!" said Levitsky.

"Oh that's why they're so heavy!? I'm nowhere near anywhere I can take this spacesuit off or change it! Now you tell me that I'm a walking atom bomb!?!?!?! So that's what `Plutey-pots' in big letters across my chest and helmet mean! !"#$%&'()*+,-./:;=?@[\]^_`{>}~ get them off me!" said Blore frantically.

"It's not too radioactive, and shielded on the side towards your back; it's got a few percent of other metals mixed in to make it strong enough. They won't blow up: isotope 239's the best for fission, and as you go up the scale to 244 you need more and more and in the right shape to go critical. Well, your oxygen cylinders do the job they're supposed to do, don't they?" said Levitsky, "Now you've got something special about your kit, like a lot of the men have.".

"OK, I heard of someone who stuffed a mattress with guncotton that he'd found washed up from a shipwreck, not knowing what it was, and of someone that tied kit onto his car's roof rack with bits of an explosive cord called Cordtex." Blore said faintly, "I had no intention of going within ten miles of anything nuclear: and now you tell me what I've got strapped to my back as a vital part of my life support system. Looks like I'm stuck with them for a while longer, nowhere for weeks likely where I can take my spacesuit off. And I suppose my spacesuit's powerpack's nuclear also, not chemical like you said, and no idea where this lot are taking me. And if I did get near anyone, they `wouldn't know me from Adam' in this suit with nothing of me or of you lot showing except eyes through eye holes above these breathing masks.".

"Powerpacks of long-stay suits such as ours always are nuclear. I thought you'd know that." said Levitsky, and then to the other asteroid miners: "As I said, Plutey-pots is new to the job, so you better `show him the ropes'.".

Blore saw the end of his plans of a comfortable hotel-type refuge away from creditors until the heat died down and then starting again with some new companies with different names. He looked at the men in kit-laden heavy-duty spacesuits with rough-looking nicknames in big letters on their helmet foreheads and across their chests, and realized what name he would have to answer to instead of the dignified-sounding false name that he had spent much thought in choosing. "OK, the joke's over." he said, still in his best business manner trying to talk his way out, "Where are the proper steel or aluminium alloy cylinders that came with this spacesuit? Is anything else in this spacesuit funny?", but, having found too late that he had been put into a long-stay work spacesuit instead of an ordinary light spacesuit, and seeing the variety of flashy ornaments and patterns that they sported on their kit, realized that he had very little hope of return to dignified office plainness.

"I don't know about you, but my helmet's made of gadolinium." said Levitsky, still clear although the base that he was radioing from was indistinguishable from the thousands of stars all around him. Familiar constellations in that unearthly place, plus knowing what he was wearing and who he was among, made Blore feel lonelier than he had ever felt before.

"Oh." said Blore, "One of those odd elements out of some old supernova's congealed blowing-off. Just to be different. Like the one that's leading them, him called `Jet Jack' over there with the jet fighter fight painted all over his cylinders and helmet. Like someone who buys a soberly styled British lorry and tarts it up with a flashy obvious vertical exhaust pipe like a chrome-plated exclamation mark. And here I am with oxygen tanks made of an unnatural metal with atomic number more than God's appointed limit of 92 and if I had enough I could make an atom bomb out of it, and with the fact written across my spacesuit chest, your idea to give me something individual and show-off. As soon as I can I'm getting rid of them, and I'll thank you to tell me where I can hire or buy the space equivalent of a good car to travel in and give a lift to business colleagues and customers and not shut in a spacesuit for weeks on end with my propulsion gear fastened to me. And where I can get a good suit.".

"Oh do you?" said Jet Jack, "We can't carry idlers out here like in some comfy city suburb full of stockbrokers. You are now a trainee asteroid prospector and miner. We work for a living. And what's wrong with the suit you've got on?".

"I said suit, not spacesuit. So ...". said Blore.

"... you can keep your slick office looks and manners." Jet Jack interrupted, "With us `suit' means `spacesuit'. What use are office suits? For in-atmosphere work wear good strong overalls, and keep the newest overall clean for best. Four years ago a slick character from a city turned up around here and started buying up lots of supplies and charging more for them instead of finding a proper job. We soon put a stop to him. If you don't like it out here you can always go home. Drop that office language before we knock it out of you. And nobody says `sorry but' to us in that manner. The last three stuffed shirts that said it to us got the same as that barman got in the end that kept on shutting just before we got in from long work sessions.".

Blore thought of all the creditors and writs and lawsuits and prosecutions after him back at home, and the mess that his ever more delicately balanced and complicated financial juggling had collapsed into after all his running about to keep different things tied together. "Says you when I don't know the way home from here anyway or even where I am." he said, "All right, I'm a trainee asteroid prospector and miner and miscellaneous rough job space workman whether I want to be one or not, under whatever name you choose for me. Like in some wars in the past men were conscripted into coal mines as well as into the armed forces, I read once. Instead of properly in a bed in a room to myself, I must sleep floating about in nothing tethered in with a bunch of roughs. And I can't even go to a loo and flush and leave it, but I must go around with my personal mini sewage works built into my suit, dirty idea and the pumping and squelching noises it makes, what that Levitsky called a `convenience'.".

"It's an RD, that's `recycler / digester' or `recycler / destructor', it's that steel tank thing on your left waist. RD's are like `fuel cells' but more complicated, they break down organic and most metal stuff and sort it into component elements. They come in many sizes and sorts. They can make energy by oxidizing it all, or ...".

"OK, even I've heard of RD's. I've seen how rubbish vanishes into the big one that my local corporation has. There's one in my office's basement also.".

Blore had to stay at his asteroid mining job. He gradually got the hang of it, and the names and compositions of minerals and how to identify and analyze them, and how to operate the equipment that they wore on their suits or towed on tethers. The work gradually toughened him mentally and physically as his skill at it improved. At least he could concentrate on that one job and not have to keep track of several other things at the same time any more. Memory of many years of brokering in metals at the `commodity prices' made him even less patient than the rest at being paid far less for them at the collecting bases. He gradually got used to knowing what his cylinders were made of.

Several weeks later they went back to the base towing a full load. At supply and entertainment points he was given plenty of room when the people there found what his new name meant. "Lets hope this is a `suit-off' and relaxation, not just quick business with helmets and suit hoods off and then back to space." he thought, thinking it odd to be wanting business to be delayed by personal matters. His hope was satisfied. Even gladder than the rest to get his suit off, he took an opportunity to slip away and get to the passenger area. Enquiry after his office clothes that he had taken off to try his spacesuit on, proved in vain. He asked a booking clerk: "I'm Mr.Blore. I need a flight to Earth now.", feeling the familiar managerial self-assurance returning on coming back to somewhere where his credit cards and proved memberships of things worked.

"Lets see some identification." the clerk said.

He showed his cards, glad to see their reassuring emblems for the first time in weeks. Luckily he had transferred them to his undersuit, else they would likely have vanished into a big RD in Levitsky's storeroom along with his office clothes. The booking clerk seemed to believe him, but he faintly heard someone telephoning: "Someone in a work spacesuit undersuit smelling like he's been in a spacesuit for weeks on end's come with the I.D. of that Blore that a message about him being wanted for financial this that and the other came a bit back.".

"I'll see what I can do, Mr.Blore." said the clerk. Blore recognized tactics to delay him while security came, and fled. Several uniforms with unfriendly faces came after him. As they trapped him against a locked door, something from the other side laser-burnt the door off its hinges and came through it. It was Jet Jack and his men, back in their spacesuits and carrying Blore's spacesuit.

"We'll sort him out. He's one of us, running off with one of us's cards and a bunch of our stuff." said Jet Jack angrily. Faced with more than they could cope with, the uniforms backed off, unwilling to shoot in case they hit any of the various nuclear powerpacks in the miners' kit. The miners quickly got Blore back into his spacesuit and away. There was no attempt to stop them at the airlock, else they would have cut a way out to space. In the incident report afterwards he was described as an asteroid miner.

"Gah!" he said angrily afterwards, "I spend all those years building up an investment and finance business and it's wound up because a few people can't wait a bit for a bit of money while I finish other things. And that giveaway asteroid miner suit smell: I didn't die out there, but I sure smell like I did. If I'd found a shower and a change of clothes I'd be in a good passenger seat going back home, not out here again with you roughs with these cylinders on.".

"And get picked up at the spaceport or at the next airport and locked up and charged with financial this and that. Levitsky told me why you'd bunked off to his place thinking it was a holiday camp." said Jet Jack, and then to the others: "Plutey-pots had these on him. I better put them out of mischief's way. Tried to do a runner. A good doing over if we weren't in such a hurry." showing the others Blore's credit etc cards, for they had emptied his undersuit pockets when they rescued, or recaptured, him. Jet Jack pushed the cards through a small hatch into Blore's suit RD, fastened the hatch, and pressed a button. Blore felt through his kit and suit a vibration like something hard being ground up and pumped through, and knew that he would never see his cards again.

There followed eleven more unmemorable weeks of poking round natural and artificial space debris for useful minerals which they would load up, or mark for the loader craft to pick up. His mouth started aching. He sometimes dreamed of being home or in his office on Earth, but always woke to see through his mask-windows and visor the endless black vacuum and the distant stars. More than once he suffered the indignity of being scooped up along with the others by a loader craft and pumped into its hold as the quickest way to a new area, but he got used to it. A moving star proved in a telescope to be a passenger craft passing. In it people lived in gravity and slept in beds, and food was served on plates with cutlery, and credit cards worked, as irrelevantly remote for him then as fictional fantasy story scenarios where magic works; he said so.

"If you want magic, you'll see some some time. We've got more than one way to get to places." said Rattler, an asteroid miner who had on each cylinder a large shiny flat model of a rattlesnake in a metal called ytterbium, and a spectacular variety of stickers about his suit and kit.

"That loader's hold is hardly magic." said Blore.

"You'll see later, even if the government won't." Jet Jack hinted darkly.

They got to a different exploration base and with the usual arguments about quality and quantity and excuses to deduct or add amounts were paid for their haul. He did not say the name "Blore" then, or ever again, and with some mental effort suppressed speech managerialisms and tried to talk like his fellows. At his first meal served at table for weeks the food was routine ration stuff, a lot of it on-site synthesizer output, and attempts to order something better like at a good restaurant in a city got nowhere: he was told that "fancy food" never got out that far: too many other places bought it up along the way for more money than remote bases could afford. He could only chew on his right side due to painful teeth. The base charged so much for secure suit storage and using its air that they re-suited after the first day and cancelled plans to book a dormitory with bunks for three nights. Luckily the base was big enough to keep a dentist: it was the first time for many years that he had the time to visit one. Three new fillings and a crown later came too late another cold realization: his last proof of being Mr.Blore, his dental records back in his home suburb on Earth, often of use in identifying bodies, would not match reality to identify him any more. His fingerprints remained, but were not on file; there would be plenty of them in his office in London, but it was very unlikely that he could convince the authorities at the base enough to get them to send a message to Earth to tell the London police to look for those fingerprints, or that he would meet in space anyone who knew him personally. The dentist and the doctor listed him as "Plutey-pots" and a code number, and kept well away from his suit cylinders.

He caught up with the news. Some of his firms had closed, others were carrying on under new owners. A cousin of his had decided not to try to claim inheritance of his property and businesses, not risking picking up their debts also. They serviced or repaired several things in the base, for the storeman was not good at getting around to jobs: after an argument he knocked a bit off their bill in return. They slept in a heap in an empty storeroom; air and contact transmitted every personal and suit noise including for Blore a `front row seat' for Rattler relieving himself voluminously and loudly into his suit's collection pipes and the result being pumped on and gradually destroyed by his suit's oversized sewage system (which thankfully was securely sealed except for sound) whose steel bulge lay against Blore's helmet. Blore tried to move away but was wedged in, and complained that "I didn't ask to come on this trip."; several voices told him to shut up and stay still, in words that described too well what had caused the noises. Next morning they tethered themselves to each other, tightly packed themselves into an airlock that was just big enough, cycled it, and left. Their haul had about paid their expenses plus a little to put by. Such is the life of workmen: noises, smells, discomfort, rough and ready travel, and forced familiarity with the less attractive parts of how useful things work.

Laser Larry, not trusting ever-inflating money as savings, and thankful that widespread possession of remote metal analyzers forced honesty in metal trading, had bought with his a lump of some obscure shiny valuable metallic element; over the next days while in flight he used tools and heat from his laser to make it into a fair attempt at a flat image of a leaping tiger, and fastened it to his spacesuit's chest: he could sell or barter it at need. Life went on. At least travelling now gave Blore time for proper rest, not as before having to go through papers every waking hour and business flights becoming argumentative mid-air conferences punctuated by complaints from other passengers who wanted to sleep or listen to the in-flight movie, and the endless fattening drink-ridden business dinners, and the tension and stomach ulcers and chasing about.

After nine weeks of work punctuated by five weeks of monotonous flight through empty space living off their suits' systems with only stars and distant faint radio voices for company, they got back to base, and found most of it occupied by a visiting official party, and orders that asteroid miners must stay in the goods area and are not to unsuit.

"As usual." one of them said to Blore, "If we go in in our undersuits they'd think it was `The Night of the Walking Dead', the way we'd smell, and we can't un-smell ourselves 'cos they've #$@ collared all the washrooms. If they use things made from metal that we find, they should put up with the smell once in a while when they come into our area. It keeps happening. And talking about smells, smell that stuff cooking to `wine and dine' them, all sorts of stuff that the storemen've never got in stock for us and can't even get it on order for us. When you get your pay, just buy what you have to and back out to work.".

"Why don't you use suit deodorant?" Blore tentatively suggested.

He got no reply except a few curt "No."'s. To them spacesuit deodorants were for trippers and officials, and anyway no deodorant ever made could kill or hide two-month-trip asteroid miner smell.

The next work trip was hard and monotonous. Jet Jack and some of his followers occasionally darkly and expectantly mentioned promise of changes from routine. Report of a comet set every miner in the sector converging on it to stock up on the water that the metal-separators that they towed needed. The sun heated it, boiling out of it jets of dusty gas that blasted from holes in its ancient cratered crust. After at some risk dodging all these jets and landing on it, one group found that it was largely methane and ammonia ice, which was little use to his group at the time, but some other groups needed it for an unspecified purpose, so all present, protected by heavy metal shields, hacked at exposed ice faces and stored it in towed containers until they had what was needed. Those who had worked there but did not need what they had dug, had to be paid by the others for their time, after a lengthy radio and intercom wire argument which Blore tried to help in but soon decided to merely listen to. After more ordinary asteroid work they went to a different base, and found it occupied by the same official party. The same happened there. They again traded quickly and went back to work without unsuiting. Work went on, a routine that seemed to be going on for ever. The next base they reached was being extended.

"No chance of us unsuiting in there with all the torchoes [= construction crew, ref. cutting and welding] that'll be in there. And some of them I'm not leaving my kit anywhere near. There'll be no more spare space than in my RD tank. They might've &%$ warned us last time we were here." said Jet Jack.

"They didn't want to lose trade." Jackhammer growled, "Then the storeman'll 'ave to @#@ suit up and depresh [= depressurize] 'is store an' open 'is $# window to us, or come out to us. An' it's three trips since we've %$ unsuited.".

"They'd better put their laundromat machines somewhere more secure until they take them inside and install them." said Blore as they went round the base looking for the storeman's window, and pointed through scaffolding at ten machines labelled "washer" fastened to the outside of a wing of the base.

"They ain't, they're in-suit washers 'ere at @#% last!" Jackhammer exclaimed, "Lets go! Quick! We got company.".

A flock of trippers from a tourist craft, all tethered to a one-man craft ridden by their guide, were nearer the washers, and approached them carefully.

"Look at 'em, playing at explorers, can't stand a few G!, want a suit wash after a few days out likely. Lets go!" Jet Jack exclaimed. `G' is a unit of acceleration and deceleration force. He and his men, much more skilled with suit propulsors and much tougher against `G', rushed in, darting round the tourist craft and between base aerials and past the front trippers and securing all the washers. "Yeehaa!" some of them exclaimed on the trippers' frequency as some of the trippers and the guide objected. Blore by how had the flying skill to stay with them (and his tether forced him to), but the violent twisting and turning left him feeling beaten up as his suit propulsor repeatedly jerked him about until he finally could stop. Sounding winded, he started to say to the trippers his usual formal apology for a nuisance caused by an employee.

"Stow those office manners, Plutey-pots, yer one of us now." said Rattler, "And if yer can't take a few G by now, yer'll 'ave to learn 'ow to, if yer ever want to get to things first and dodge guards. Three #&$ trips without unsuiting. They get the washers and take #*& ages; then those torchoes decide to work round 'em and we never get a wash. I thought yer'd see our side, washing yerself every $&% day before yer teamed up with us.".

Blore found a `washer' free, and connected its hose to his suit as per the instructions. He felt his suit inflating tight with warm wash solution, then deflating, several times, except for the bit inside his breathing mask, and clearing out the accumulated old foul staleness from his skin and his undersuit and the inside of his suit. It inflated and deflated with plain water a few times, rinsing. It sucked surprisingly hard to get the water out, constricting him uncomfortably. It blew warm air in and out a few times. Its hose dropped off him. He felt damp but refreshed: his suit's sweat-recovery system had a busy two hours drying him, and his RD's output tank for recovered water got full.

"That's the storeman!." said one of them, pointing at a man in a lightweight suit just outside a big open porthole which his tether ran in through, "Oh he did depresh and open up. I never thought I'd see him in a suit!".

The storeman disliked being in a spacesuit, and said so. They tried to buy spacesuit and tool spares and got various excuses why this and that was out of stock, and pointed out that they needed the kit to work to bring metals in for the storeman and his company to sell on. The storeman talked about commercial takeovers, tried excuses to charge percentages more than the listed price for using the washers, and then noticed a suit fitting without the usual maker's name on, and complained about patent infringement.

"Only that company's got the right to make that design of those." he said.

"Not our #@ fault." said Jet Jack, "We needed them, and nobody we asked's got them in; people collar what there are and charge a fortune for them; so someone out here made some of them for us.".

"There's the legal aspect: compensation for loss of trade for us and for the wholesaler..." said the storeman.

"Now who's saying `sorry but', or words to that effect!?" Blore thought.

"What trade? You've got no @# trade in them to lose if you've never got any in to sell. I've $%& asked round for them all over space. Are we expected to steal them then? That causes trouble and makes someone else short." said Jet Jack.

"There's a drop in price of several metals. Less demand." said the storeman.

"We can wait till the price goes up again." said Jet Jack.

"Lucky I haven't got a company writ to seize patent infringement stuff.".

"One bunch tried to once, and learned the hard way not to try it again.".

"If I let my firm's profits drop because I don't do what I can against patent infringers and people who buy less rather than pay more, I'll be for it. That man Plutey-pots with you: he better keep those oxy tanks of his right away from me, I know what they're made of. Firms take over other firms by buying 51% of the shares in them, then close them down, they call it `concentrating production at place X', things get short, and I'm caught in the middle. And if you come in don't unsuit in here unless you've been to the washer.".

"I know who's behind all this, high up. I'll tell you later." said Blore, and floated boredly at the edge of the group until they finished their business there - business in much smaller sums than Blore was used to - and left without having been inside the base. The storeman floated back in through his window.

Jet Jack asked Blore over an intercom wire what Blore had been hinting at, and was told, and had an idea for a plan. "You don't seem very impressed when we sell and buy stuff. I thought you'd be `back in your element', trading in `commodities' and all that, there and back at that comet." he told Blore.

"That - `business'? - haggling in spacesuits over bits more or less that wouldn't pay my train fare home from a deal in Manchester? I might as well get worked up over buying a new lawn mower or selling the dog's latest puppies. And the profit not invested in other deals to build up a business structure but spent on shopping or just kept. Where are the agencies and brokerships and consultancies? Where is worthwhile entertainment to please a client, a good restaurant and a theatre?" said Blore as his old self briefly returned in might regardless of where he was; but the fit passed as he realized that he had no way back. Rattler, who had let his suit aerial touch the intercom wire, tapping it, merely laughed into his breathing mask at the inappropriate city language. They checked their kit and their tethers, aimed themselves, endured a hard high-G propulsor acceleration, and were off. They went to where they were prospecting before, and worked there five weeks, then moved on, and so twice more.

It was time to move again. Rattler (their best navigator) found which star to aim at. They ran their suit propulsors for a while and settled into a steady drift with occasional course corrections. Blore got sleepy, longed for a bed and a toilet, relieved himself into his suit's RD via the permanent pipe connections which he had by now got used to, slept in his suit, and was back in his office in London on Earth. Business was good at first, until intruders gagged and bound him and prodded him in the belly with a gun. As he protested and struggled, the dream scenario dissolved into the reality of empty weightless space. Untwinkling stars and a tiny Sun shone remotely. He was tightly squeezed between Rattler and Jackhammer and another and all four tightly wrapped in a spectacular tangle of tethers. Rattler's oversized bulk pressed his suit's oversized steel-cased RD uncomfortably into Blore's belly. It happened from time to time, from moving about in their sleep in weightlessness. From experience he knew that the vote was emphatically 3-1 in favour of letting them sleep. Someone moved in his sleep. Heads touched, transmitting sound, and Jackhammer's snoring woke Rattler. In a chorus of radioed complaints they disentangled themselves and went to sleep again. Finally they woke, yawned and stretched, sucked food from their suits' synthesis systems, and had nothing better to do than retell Greek and other old, and some new and unprintable, legends with personalized constellations and stars as characters: at least some of them helped men to remember star patterns. Many also eagerly looked forward to a promised seasonal change from their usual food.

Space technology for all its modernness and speed had brought back one once familiar pre-technical fact of life: journeys that routinely lasted weeks. No longer would he have spurned the so-called "astro miner's limousine", the naked-steel-ribbed hold of a loader craft that happened to be going their way, to shorten the journey; but none came. They got to the base eventually, radioing the storeman as they approached it. Christmas was near, and they were hopeful: on arriving they asked for the makings of a feast that they, relying on promises made to them, had ordered as a change for once from synthesized rations.

None of it had come. The storeman made excuses. Jet Jack, their leader, spoke his mind. Their haul and findings fetched much less than expected. Blore as a broker and speculator knew about market fluctuations, and used to get a good income from them; but the miners blamed conspiracy to cheat them. Things were said. Producers dislike traders, except steady traders who also do a useful job transporting or storing the goods; steady traders dislike speculators. Someone passing through on business strayed in from the passenger area, heard them arguing, and supported the city business side. Blore, disappointed of promised Christmas fare after months of hacking at space debris for little reward, to his own surprise replied in language which in the old days he would have sacked an employee at once for saying. His allegiance was changing despite himself; he was fast becoming `Plutey-pots', space workman, with a workman's rough attitude towards that sort of matter. They took one look at the price list for beds and washing and using base air, and the list of extra chargeable sums, and resealed their suits.

"No spacesuits in the entertainment area. Company rules." said the storeman.

"So we must pay for beds and air use and (not properly guarded) kit storage at the prices you charge, after you couldn't @#$ be bothered to order the first proper Christmas dinner we'd've had for ten years at least, like you said you would, since it's us that helps to get in the metals that your company lives off. I'm sick of this. You were #%$ quick to whip out of sight those space liner catering crates we saw through your porthole, and now you tell us there's no supply route for stuff." said Jackhammer, and then to the rest: "Lets pay for what of his base's air we've used so far, and go.".

"That was an invalid diet for someone." the storeman tried a thin excuse.

"Don't tell me that first class passenger craft passengers can't get all sorts of fancy food even out here. I knew people who'd travelled on them." said Blore angrily.

"You still said you could get our Christmas stuff in." said Jet Jack.

"I don't want to be left with stuff. I did ask you to pay 30% cash up front for the special food." said the storeman.

"Good thing we didn't then. We don't pay cash up front. We've been had before, excuses for ever." said Jet Jack.

"Turkey and mince pies and all the trimmings out here!? What do you expect me to do?! Every so often some $@# bunch of astro miners goes posh and orders a fancy blowout a trip in advance. Those #@ high-ups make promises at meetings so you'll shut up, and you take them as literal." the storeman said, losing his temper, "We storemen have a rule: no extra perishables needing special rush and keeping them sorted from other people's stuff. Liner catering crates are enough nuisance. Can't you manage on rations? The bosses say put prices up, so people cut down on things or make their own, so takings don't go up like the bosses wanted, and if you didn't have something to come back here for you likely go to another base and spend there instead, and I get all the flak from both sides.".

"Same as before, just as if that meeting had never happened." someone said.

The passer through (who had been listening to the argument and looking at Blore in spacesuit and felt his kit and saw the name on it but, luckily for his peace of mind at the time, did not guess from it what his cylinders were made of) dumped a bagful of business newspapers and periodicals that he had been reading on his trip in. Blore retrieved them and stowed them in his suit's outside pack, and wondered about Jet Jack's hints. They finished restocking and kit servicing, and left, angry and unwashed and disappointed.

The passer through got back home and to his office, where he remembered the name and realized, too late to do anything but comment to friends in surprise, and some alarm at what he had touched, that he had seen in person `the spaceman with plutonium cylinders'. Not the last to say that in unexpected places!

Again they were out of sight of base or object where anyone could be watching them. Jet Jack pulled all the men together by their tethers in a way that Blore now knew meant that everybody was to link up with intercom wires to talk in radio silence. They huddled as close as possible and held onto each other with their arms and legs with Blore in among them. "Now to let Plutey-pots in on our little secret - literally!" Jet Jack exclaimed, "That lot thinking we're stuck here having to pay and get their prices: a bit expensive each time but worth it: yeehaa for Hyperspace Highwayyyy!!". He retracted his left hand and pressed some buttons inside his sleeve. Everything around went blank grey for about a minute, then back to normal. Except for one thing. Even Blore with his limited knowledge of space matters knew what it meant. The stars had changed.

"Manpack hyperspace jumper!" he realized, "The secret of secrets, something that every official scientist says is impossible, and a good thing too. And now this bunch of wild characters have got hold of one or re-invented it somehow.". He noticed, somewhat disquietingly, a large bright constellation shaped like a hypodermic syringe. The only star pattern that he recognized was the Pleiades cluster, far too big, far too bright like a blown-up photo in an astronomy book, somewhat disarranged, and reversed as if seen from behind. Now he was indeed without a way home. He looked involuntarily at his left waist at the steel bulge of his suit's RD which had ground up and consumed his last way back to his former life. Among the Pleiades he saw where the stars clearly lit up gas and dust clouds that over millions of years might become solar systems which might contain planets that over billions of years might breed intelligent life which would look wonderingly at the stars and perhaps find how to travel among them. The vastness of empty distance filled his mind, until noises and pumpings from his suit's sewage system and a jerk at his tether brought him back to thinking of his own `cluster' and its possible destinations.

"Not mining, but construction work." said Jet Jack to them, "Building a new base. Not for some government or company but one of our own. All the supplies we need around here. We stay together and don't wander off. No suit-off work, and we don't all sleep at once or put kit down - What's all those papers you've got, Plutey-pots? I thought that bulge in your pack was something useful - `Finance Today', `Business World', etc, still want to do a runner back to your plushy desk if you can?! Let the rest of us read them: better than nothing to do on these long trips.". He leafed through them, muttering: "insurance claims 2% down - the pound and the lira and the mark etc - drop in profits due to independent asteroid miners combining to demand better prices, they are becoming too able to live on their own resources while holding onto stocks, talks to plan effective countermeasures, $%@ good thing I saw that, `forewarned is forearmed', it is said - blah blah moneygrub usury and control and profit - all this financialism stuff and `money must be put to work': money doesn't work, we work! - Holborn Holdings Ltd's annual general meeting and dinner in a fortnight's time in ..."

"That lot!" Blore interrupted, "They foreclosed on me while I was stuck out in space, @#%$ swine, I'd've paid them, and they all plan to `get their trotters in the trough' at shareholders' expense while I can't get the makings of ordinary Christmas dinner because everything's bought up on the way out.".

"That place they're meeting: I was a builder there, before I went into space." said Rattler, "I know the place. It is a plushy place they've chosen.".

Jet Jack kept the paper and put it in his pack, and thought for a moment. They passed the other papers and periodicals among themselves over the days as they approached the construction site.

"What about the natives - the aliens - whoever lives round here?" said Blore tentatively.

"What aliens? Plenty animals, but nothing cleverer than a cat anywhere near here. Long shot for a planet's animals to become sentient. Took four thousand million years on Earth. Leave off the thriller video stuff." said Rattler.

They stayed still some way off for several days, listening silently to the radio traffic. "Doesn't pay to get caught by some bunch that take away or alter suits and kit to stop us from leaving, give us instead company issue suits that only last a few hours on a tank refill." Jet Jack said, "We've hyper-jumped out of three holding cells that company guards shoved us into. The last time I set the hyper field so wide that the cell and five guards came with us. Soon stopped the funny business. I heard that in one place a priest exorcized the place after us, thought we were demons or wizards when we vanished like that.".

"It's still safe here. Nobody's taken over here, as far as we can tell." came the news later, "but first another little trip.". Rattler did some lengthy calculations. They again all packed tight together and coiled up all trailing loops of tether. The sky went grey for a minute, then back to the familiar star patterns of the Earth sky where Orion watched over everything, looking somewhat like a policeman in riotsquad gear, and the Perseus legend characters, and the articulated tanker lorry pattern of Capricornus and Aquarius, and Argo Navis the great ship, and the rest, except for the quarter of it that a very near Earth hid. He remembered his home and childhood and old friends on country walks and tent camping under those stars when his life was young and less busily hurried. Down there also, important men were contacting each other with their own plans for space and policy towards asteroid miners and others.

"That's the place, and won't we have a feast!" Rattler said, and calculated. Before Blore could work out what this meant, the sky again went hyperspace grey. There was a dim sight of what looked like cross-sections of concrete walls and steel beams. The hyper field shrank and pushed them about and finally cleared, and they were in a very well-stocked kitchen storeroom in a building in London. The building security man, who had worked for a space freight company, nearly but not quite realized what was happening, when in such an unexpected place and small scale that he did not recognize it he felt the outward rush of air displaced by the hyperspace jump field settling into local normal space, then the inward rush filling the volume of space vacuum that they had brought with them as the field was switched off. He blamed the wind and weather.

They untethered and coiled their tethers, and started to put the food in big collapsible pressurizable bags that they had brought with them, for they did not want it to be dehydrated by space vacuum. Plutey-pots briefly reverted to Blore, and sympathized with Holborn Holdings Ltd looking forward to their annual dinner after a year's work; but remembered that it was all unproductive stock and share trading, and the merciless foreclosing when he was in a tight spot, and also that the city men had other feasts to come at home and also at the various clubs that most of them belonged to one or more of, so many feasts that they were too often treated not as a pleasure to be remembered afterwards but as routine meals or as jobs of social necessity to be endured, many places to buy feasts and luxury, while a space base storeman made excuses when they who now helped to get metals to make machines and consumer goods for them tried to order a few Christmas supplies once in several years at the end of a long supply route; and anyway he like the rest was locked in the storeroom until the hyper jumper took them out. He shook those thoughts off, and helped to load the food. This was the end of Mr.Blore the city businessman, and the name disappeared from knowledge.

Shifting goods in Earth gravity in their heavy kit was laborious, but a portable artificial gravity generator set upwards helped. In atmosphere he heard the variety of noises that their suit life support systems made; he knew from experience what they would have smelled like if they had unsuited for the first time in months. Rattler heard footsteps coming outside, and said so by radio: the steel in the walls acted as a `Faraday cage' and stopped it from being heard outside. He briefly and irrelevantly remembered the common fictional aid of `subspace radio' to talk instantaneously across the light years, then dismissed such thought of unrealities as an unwanted distraction, and wondered why they had come to such a risky place where he now belonged no more than they did. Jackhammer's projecting steel-cased suit RD made dirty-sounding hollow gurgles as it coped with a rush of its rough-minded heavily built owner's intestinal wind. Plutey-pots put the last box of mince pies in a pressure bag and sealed and inflated it. A key turned in the door. They huddled round the piled bags and held onto whatever they could. The door opened, and the startled security man saw distorted cloudy shapes vanish as the piece of normal space containing them and their load bubbled off into hyperspace. A gale blew into the storeroom to replace the air that had been jumped away, for the jump departure was quick.

The security man retrieved his uniform hat and thought long what to report. Honesty is best, but what if the truth sounds so unlikely that it won't be believed? The caterers apologized, treating as inexcusable much that workmen experience routinely, and got what they could that day from every shop and takeaway within reach. The room and the building were next day checked with many instruments including even a Geiger counter, whose reading was not believed, but by habit was recorded. Much later he read other news, and remembered, and, like others, reported too late: "How he got in and out I don't know, but I briefly saw him here in this room: the spaceman with plutonium cylinders!".

While in hyper the spacemen quickly re-tethered to each other and the pressure bags, and counted themselves. The grey cleared and the stars returned with the twinkleless brilliance of space. Plutey-pots saw the oversized reversed Pleiades and the constellation shaped like a syringe. A nearby pattern of coloured lights marked the base under construction, their current destination. He was home, whether he liked the place as his home or not. Among the other asteroid miners who arrived was one cluster who seemed to be all the same height, over six feet tall; someone said that they were called "the Sardies".

They, plus as many others as needed to finish the food in reasonable time, found a pressurizable compartment, and in it set up a low artificial gravity field and took their helmets and suit hoods off, and cooked and ate a meal to remember at last after months of spacesuit synthesizer output broken only by transport cafe type stuff (often itself output from a large synthesizer in the base) in workmen's areas of space bases and vain attempts to buy something better. Locally-made crude plates and cutlery had to be accepted: his plate had been sliced from meteorite nickel-iron and showed decorative crosshatchings of its natural Widmanstatten structure. Turkey or goose or hot roast pork as each chose, sliced, and then served at once and not kept hot standing in gravy as the hotel would have mistreated it; seasonal trimmings; Christmas pudding; and promise of cake and mince pies, all fresh the previous day in England and hyper jumped to beyond the Pleiades by and to work-hardened men who normally knew that sort of food only as a memory or as a tale from others. Assorted roughly-made musical instruments, small or collapsible to fit into suit packs, were brought out, and there were singsongs. Plutey-pots's right cylinder sometimes clanged against a strut as he reached for things; he now felt somewhat affectionate for his cylinders with their unusual composition. He remembered family Christmases at his childhood home. There had been no family Christmases with him in charge, for his businesses had kept him too busy to court and marry. Some of the others who came to share the feast were women. One of them met his eye.

They sealed their suits but stayed in atmosphere, using up the food. They recovered the air from the compartment, and disposed of the bones and all other inedible traces in a large RD in the new partly-built base, and went to work, which unexpectedly was in atmosphere in a converted loader craft's hold making making asteroid miner space suits and spares for them. Raw materials arrived, towed by clusters of astro miners or in holds of RD-equipped loader craft. He wondered from time to time why so many spare suits were needed, and how Jet Jack had got hold of so top-secret a thing as a manpack hyperspace jumper. Some of the work was delicate and needed bare hands; they took the opportunity to unhood and breathe without masks, but kept their suits on. A sentient computer did much of the routine managing and paperwork; that and rules that everyone was to put in so many hours a week manual work largely prevented risks of a management class developing and gradually becoming a Company like those that many of them had gone there to avoid. He was soon to see why many of them spoke badly of Companies. But in the meantime work went on. The food synthesizer operators had developed much more skill at making a variety of food than he had known at other bases, for they had no personal supply of food brought from Earth. They took the opportunity to unsuit and wash - a half of their number at a time while the other half guarded the suits and gear, a precaution perhaps over-suspicious there but wise to keep in practice of doing. They talked of comings and goings, and wondered why particular other groups of independent spacemen had not been heard of recently, but may simply have been elsewhere, for space is vast, and in it men and matter usable by men are unimaginably scarce.

A loader craft came. Its RD output, among various quantities of many sorts of metals, included several kilos of praseodymium, which someone handed to him as his share. It was his first sight of the stuff, except as one of many odd names cluttering odd corners of the periodic table; by now he was much handier with tools, and in a few hours with a lethal-looking handheld industrial laser made it into an image of a rampant lion which he fastened to his suit's chest. He was relieved that it was a lanthanide element and not an actinide - and he thought of his oxygen cylinders. In that part of space there had been many more supernovas much more recently than near the Sun, and there were radio-isotopes around that on Earth had decayed away billions of years ago. He realized that Levitsky (who had equipped him with those cylinders) may know more than his Company or many of the spacemen knew.

Jet Jack gathered his men and spoke of a trip back with a load of spacesuit parts. "The companies've stopped making many of these, they're making new sorts that need replacing after a while." he growled, "If they're $%& going to make us accept their new conditions, they're mistaken. No point waiting for the patent to run out, they worked some law fiddle to get the patent renewed. The &%'s can wangle anything. They're riding to a fall. Like on Mars that time. Every so %$# often they try to bring us back onto a short tether.".

Plutey-pots's all-too-clear memories of what the Mars affair did to share prices and the finance and investment structure sent him briefly back to his old life's mentality as Mr.Blore. He thought: "The various company and government outposts there, given too much local survival equipment to cut supply costs, found they could live and breed and make new equipment locally without supplies from Earth, and despite all precautions cohered into a Martian nation which declared independence and nationalized everything; after some fighting round police bases and spaceports and a big scrap in the Argyre basin in a sandstorm they had to be let go. Across all that space and down a `gravity well' that deep, a big war like in a thriller fiction book just isn't on with technology as it is. The companies were determined not to let the same happen in the asteroids. Miners went in groups with a mothercraft which transported them and emptied and refilled their suits and carried any necessary energy tools such as lasers; mothercraft drivers were few enough for their loyalty to be checked first. But control got cumbersome as officials multiplied, and space is big. Technology let mothercraft and their contained RD and propulsor etc kit shrink to the `LTRC-1' one-man riding craft that are often nicknamed `photon torpedoes' after something in an old space fiction scenario, then finally to kit small enough to be worn on a spacesuit, much too freely sold, and allowed to by companies who wanted to sit in their bases and let the metals come in, and never minding that miners can live off their suit kit while they hold onto stuff until the price goes up or to stay away from bases to wait out bouts of us clamping down on miners that come in with patent infringement parts in their kit until we have to trade at their terms. Now it's happening again...".

So he thought, composing a speech as if he was back in an airliner or fast car in a well-cut office suit going to address a business committee meeting. But it passed, for there was no committee and no Blore, only irrelevant memories, and Plutey-pots in his work spacesuit setting off with other asteroid miners. On Earth, directors of space metal trading firms and suchlike gathering from many countries towards London, finalizing long-planned concerted action and new control measures, would have invited Mr.Blore if he had still been in his old life; but he was not: so large a gathering that it could not be kept entirely secret, and more heard of it than intended. "Stick together." Jet Jack ordered, jerking him back to the present, "If there's any nasties, we jump out at once. Most miners can be trusted. Too few chances for grasses to grass info back 'thout the rest knowing. And they still remember what happened to the Sardies.".

"What about them?" Plutey-pots asked as he tethered one of the new suits to himself, "I saw them in there. Must've been an inbred lot on that little island of theirs, all looking alike like that, when they unhooded in there. Just like all identical twins of each other, and all big rough types. Not the lot to meet on a dark night, as they say back on Earth.".

"Not Sardinian. Sardie. Short for Sardaukar." Jet Jack explained.

"What's that? What language is that, or yet more alphabet soup [= set of initials]?".

"Who's them?".

"Even if you ignorant lot never read the 1980's science fiction series called `Dune' (very popular and a film was made of it) instead of that Tolkien elf and wizard stuff on that `seedy' (= CD-ROM) that Laser Larry's been reading on his suit computer, someone in some big company likely had." said Jet Jack, "In the Dune stories they were an elite tough efficient ruthless etc lot enforcing the authority of a big space-empire: some readers like that sort of thing. Anyway, someone in some government lab ran what was codenamed `Project Sardaukar'. It was some time before it leaked out what it was. All they could come up with in the real world was bunches like that lot: identical multiplet XYY's cloned from some hard thug type that seemed good starting stock. All the roughest training and the best kit, total dedicated hardness, and this lot got the first manpack hyper jumper let away from the secret labs. They were told to keep on finding where an independent bunch of us were, get among them, and hyper jump them back into a Company brig for their kit to be taken off them and instead they'd get suits without RD's that need emptying and filling every day, back to the old days when they couldn't go far on their own and they had to do what they were told, to `maximize the Company's profits' (I hate that $%&# expression).".

"XYY. An extra Y chromosome. I've heard of that. Usually over 6 feet tall, and rough with it." said Jackhammer, "Unless after all the expense having the egg extracted and XYY-ified, whoever did it find they've bred yet another brainbox after all, and he won't take a rough heavy manual job on the docks or whatever to bring his XYY-ness out properly, but off he goes to 6th form and university, two Y's and all, serve them right for messing about with him. I know one XYY like that that became an atomic scientist: tall but he never filled out properly so he ended up like a beanpole and his energy all goes on intellectual stuff.".

"I'm a bit surprised that sort of thing was tried at all." said Plutey-pots, "It takes 20 years to get a man from egg to full grown. And the ethical angle.".

"Likely in case they were needed for anything, or just to experiment." Jet Jack continued, "Anyway, they had to look like astro miners, so they were equipped and trained as astro miners. And as soon as they were away from the company base they found what it was like for astro miners, bases trying to charge extra and pay less, broken promises about getting a change of food, same as you found. They'd been trained not to like being told `no', so next time what they'd ordered ahead didn't come they hyper jumped into a transit lockup and bagged five liner catering crates and the base manager's private pantry; what was too much for them they handed round other miners they met. After that they became just another lot of loose astro miners. Some bits of their kit had been made to wear out and need replacing in case they ran away, but they soon found where to get proper stuff instead. About the first thing they did was to get their hyper jumper copied, and that's how I got mine: a long hard dicey job it was, but we managed it: lucky we had three space scientists who'd gone as astro miners to get away from Company funny goings-on. I once traded something else useful from them, that that company'd issued to them. They hyper raided supplies wherever they wanted except from other miners: space liner catering crates, stuff meant for company official dinners, plans and parts all over the place. So much for that idea. No end of posh liner passengers had to shift on a snack or synthesizer stuff after the Sardies had the crates: a bit of what we get all the time. In the end they stopped doing that, and put a story about that their hyper jumper had blown up and killed them all.".

"Which all the companies believed and said `good riddance', I should know; but they kept what was happening well hidden from the public." said Plutey-pots.

"Lets load up and get out and get on." said Jet Jack. As they left the airlock a man passed in kit which was by then unusual: an old-style suit with a hard pressure helmet and a fullface window which revealed an old-looking face; his suit had no on-suit survival kit but instead was harnessed and plumbed in to a torpedolike craft about a yard diameter and twelve feet long which he rode.

"Once we all rode those." said the old man, who had seen them looking at him, "I'll never get used to your modern in-suit kit, I've tried it, it feels like being adrift in space with kit screwed on all over me. I want to feel I'm riding something. If its cargo compartment's empty enough I can drive it from inside. When we all used them, sometimes the craft taking us to a new area stored them with us inside in a magazine like a gun's and pumped us out from a torpedo tube. Betty [= his torpedo]'s getting old, like me. She needs a new powerpack. The one she's got now's strontium-90 from RD'ing old reactor waste, and that's half gone after 28.8 years, and she's been with me for a lot longer than that; she can't run two suits now like she used to when my old mate rode with me on her. Need a lot of it to get a good heat, but no gamma [rays], so no masses of lead to carry. Radium's far hotter, but it makes a lot of gamma.".

"We may see torpedoes like those again." said Plutey-pots, "I saw a design for a one-man space patroller like that a year ago, at this stage of the art much faster and better armed and armoured than in your time, and the man in it wore a modern suit like ours; it showed a space-police ship which was too well armoured to open big hatches but it fired them off from its front missile gun.".

"And just when we're complete and set up here," another said, "a bunch of company police enforcement craft 'll find where we are and hyper jump in and aim themselves and pump missiles and those mini-fighter craft into us, and either take over and enforce their rules and say they built the place, or send in great machines driven by one man each which clean us up tracelessly and then do all the finding and mining and metal-separating themselves. And I suppose that a lot of the metal that we bring in 'll be built into those things. A lot of funny business happens where the public and the public media can't see it. So we've made two of them ourselves in case. There's several companies'd like to take this place over on excuses, if they knew it was here.".

"Space is big, and they've got to find us." Rattler said, "We're far enough from things: time we jumped back. Lets get these suits and stuff delivered and get back to proper mining instead of all this running about and getting each other afraid of &%$ knows what attack craft and all sorts. What bothers me more is: what if all the companies that run the bases get together and simply say they'll take no more metal from free miners? I heard some men here saying they'd heard that something like that's actually happening down there [= on Earth].".

"All pull in close and here we go!!" said Jet Jack, and operated controls on an extra bulge on his kit. They obeyed him. The sky went grey, and after a few minutes the constellations of the solar system returned. The Sun was at the right brightness for the asteroid belt, but its glare hid a different part of the Zodiac from before. Over the next few days they looked at a few asteroids that they found in the endless empty distance; some of them seemed to have been dug at, although they knew none who had news of the area. They noted what metals were about, and prepared to jump again. They were back to their familiar mining routine, except for carrying a load of suits and kit, and things described in their previous alarm talk seemed far away.

Plutey-pots never could explain why he looked twice at one of many `moving star' readings on his suit computer; but he untethered from the rest and went off after it. "Plutey-pots! Come back, you #&$" Jet Jack and others radioed loudly to him, and said foully what they thought of and did to deserters. Plutey-pots sped on, but some of the others has slightly faster suit propulsors, and at last caught him, and were not gentle; but he had drawn them on just far enough for the most far-sighted of them to see something wrong about the moving object, which now blew hot gas from time to time, and tried to turn towards them. They reached it and matched speed with it, and were badly shocked.

It was a middle-sized war-surplus missile, still with a large hydrogen bomb warhead - and a man rode astride it. His hands reached in through a rough blowtorched hole to crudely-made controls. He wore a short-range suit without recycler, only a waste tank which would have had to be emptied back at base. His helmet forehead bore his name (H.Malling) and a serial number and the name of a company which Plutey-pots knew well via shares lists and finance deals, but he had only known they were a broker in metals, not also a mining firm. His suit propulsor was a chemical rocket-pack which was now empty. His oxygen tanks were also empty, as were the nine spare that he towed on lengths of explosive cord used for lack of anything more usual. He looked at them, desperate through a fog of conviviality which was inappropriate but understandable, for the cylinder that he was using now was labelled "Entonox" (a mixture of 50% oxygen and 50% nitrous oxide, often used as a painkiller). They tried to feed him oxygen from various of their suits, but in vain. He looked shocked and tried to defend himself, misunderstanding and then understanding Cobra's angry oath of "&$# bastard size!" on finding that none of their oxygen connections would fit.

Cobra drew a knife and reached for a spare long-stay spacesuit that he was towing, forced to the feared last resort of unsuiting and resuiting the man in space, exposing him to vacuum for a good fraction of a minute in the process. They had practised it on dummies, but had hoped never to have to do it for real, made worse by the man being woozy from Entonox. But someone had another idea.

"Plutey-pots! That spare side connection that Levitsky put on those tanks of yours! Can we cut the valve off it and tap in a top from one of these tanks that this man's got?" Rattler said.

Plutey-pots by now was so used to his name written across his chest and helmet forehead that he thought little of why it has been given to him, after Levitsky that day that now seemed half a lifetime ago had made an unusual choice of what metal to make his spacesuit cylinders out of, inspired by an annoyed pun with "plutocratic money pot" referring to his previous life as Mr.Blore the businessman. But now the memory of that day came back in full force, and his consternation when he found what they were made of and what his new name meant.

"Of all the times to have to find the metalworking properties of plutonium, and to have to wonder where the bits go. Of all the stuff to make oxy tanks out of." Rattler muttered, but as he got tools out he noticed a small part of the missile's workings. It was a pipe end whose screw thread matched Plutey-pots's oxygen tank side connection. The connecter was made, and the man got fresh oxygen without having to cut anyone's kit about, too glad for rescue to be scared when he later heard what Plutey-pots's cylinders were made of, that he was now breathing out of. But the supply would not last for ever, as they were not meant as a steady supply but as an emergency top-up.

One of the miners had in his towed kit a deflated transparent pressure bag but nothing to fill it with. They looked in the missile again. Its oxidant was useless hydrogen peroxide, but its fuel was hydrogen. It took them some time to tap it out, complicated by having to check the missile's live warhead. They put the man and his trailing Entonox cylinder and a spare suit and undersuit in the pressure bag. The man slashed at things with an imaginary knife: he had no suit radio transmitter and needed a knife. Cobra put his knife in its sheath into the bag, which they then inflated. Jet Jack wrote "Hydrogen!" on a writing board and showed it through the bag: the gas was explosive and unable to support life, but it was pressure. The man cut his old suit off himself with angry gestures, often sucking at his new suit's breathing mask to get gas-free oxygen, and then rid himself of company issue overalls and underclothes, and put on his new undersuit and suit easily as if familiar with long-stay spacesuits. He came out of the pressure bag, and switched his new suit's radio on, and spoke to them.

"My mates used to call me Long Tom." he said wearily, and somewhat shocked at the ending of long hopelessness, "We were a bunch like yours, and we had suits like yours. At bases we got the usual stuff about us owing money and putting more on bills, and about us using patent infringement kit items, they always do that. Then one day a loader craft offered to give us a lift. That was five years ago. We'd often had lifts in them. But inside it was wrong. The hold inside was smooth cylindrical and our lasers wouldn't touch it, nor would explosives. A voice through a speaker said a lot of legal stuff and about seizing our kit for money owed and new laws, and told us to go into a side airlock and unsuit. After ten minutes metal arms pushed all of our suits from the hold into the ship's RD - including two that still had two of us in them that had refused to unsuit. They called us `space pirates' and said that if they hadn't been needing men they'd've RD'ed the lot of us and our unauthorized long-stay suits with us. They knocked us about and gave us company issue suits like the one you found me in, and a lot of rules and regulations and orders. Funny size oxy connection screw threads so we can't get oxy anywhere else if we find any. Kept us on a %@# short tether. They trusted me to sweep up in the armoury, didn't think I could get away on anything in there: too fond of drink and cards to waste time doing it themselves. They chased me, but that thing I was riding outran them. While some of the guards were outside over-driving us on a work rush and the rest were getting drunk, I had my chance.". He told them how far and which direction was the company space base that he had come from. He took a large handheld laser from the spare kit they were towing; they let him.

"Yes, that's him. He was in the `Pallas-2' bunch. Now I know why we haven't come across them for years!" said Rattler, and then to Long Tom: "That fake loader won't do it again. It tried the same with us, but some of us got from its hold into its cockpit and that was the end of that. We have it now.".

"How? We couldn't even scratch that lining its `stomach' had." said Long Tom.

"You'll see." said Jet Jack.

The matter was quickly but riskily finished. They pulled themselves and their cargo, and Long Tom's missile, into a tight ball. Long Tom told them how the base was arranged inside while they approached it in radar silence until they could see it. Radio talk from searching base guards ceased as the guards gave up and went back inside. Rattler calculated, and told them to be ready for action. The sky went grey, and was replaced by the inside of the base workers' locked dormitory. All the workers were inside, having been called in from work while the hunt went on. Long Tom shot out the surveillance cameras, for he knew where they were after five years there, and was angry and vengeful after long slavery. A guard in there was clearly an untrained rough who had mistaken what sort of `Beyond' they had come from in a cloud of grey distortion and displaced air wind, for he drew a crucifix instead of his gun and recited the Ave Maria with a set face until Jet Jack shot him. The hot beam from the bulky industrial-looking handheld laser went easily through a flak-jacket. The two other guards in there eagerly attacked unarmed prisoners but had little courage against men who could shoot back; they did not last long. Alarms sounded. Guards in other rooms tardily with many oaths roused from drinking and gambling, for they were a low-minded sort. Jet Jack's men rounded everyone up close and hyper jumped out, taking a big piece of the base wall with them.

While the hyperspace field held in the base's air they had brought with them, they quickly got all the rescued workers into some of the long-stay suits they had as cargo; many of them put them on easily as if they had worn such suits before, for they were Pallas-2's and parts of two other free miner groups who had been likewise caught, and were glad to get back to their old life. The rest were from Earth, and two from Mars, enticed by the company's false promises of high pay and plenty of perks and home leave, and had not been wanting to wear either sort of spacesuit for weeks or years on end. The grey vanished and the stars reappeared.

"They read our mail, when we got it at all. They told us what to write, if the letters we wrote got away at all. We never had any leave. No stickers or personal property or nicknames allowed. Never paid. All sorts of punishments for the least thing wrong done or said. No privacy ever, even on the loo. Only the foreman safe in his `torpedo' was allowed to use a laser. I still don't quite believe that it's over!" said Long Tom, "The way we got out! And the sun's moved right round! Then it's true, not just a fantastic story going about to try to invent useless hopes, that there's a group of free miners that can get in and out of places, and one of them's got oxy tanks made out of plute!".

"Yes, that's me." said Plutey-pots, and turned, showing his cylinders, which some of them looked at apprehensively. He well imagined the public rumpus and effect on share prices if the news about that company base got into the public media. Now he knew what was behind many bland statements in company reports. As Bismarck once said, "nothing is worth believing until it has been officially denied". Mr.Blore the businessman tried again to surface in Plutey-pots's mind, but failed. "Let the silly financial `house of cards' blow down." he said, "Like that time I ran into when one lot of small factories were charged and taxed more and more on excuses, to pay for ever more officials and business, until, while they were having talks about it with official representatives, other officials `swept all the papers off the table' and said that `sorry-but, sorry-but, our hands are tied etc' the factory men owed the amount and sent bailiffs round and it turned into a big shoot-out, anything rather than the authorities admitting they're wrong and `taking part of the load off the overloaded packhorse'. A few dozen cops sent to hospital achieves more than a million polite pleading words, like that blow-up in Toxteth in Liverpool, back in the 1980's I think it was, when officialdom won't see sense. Those of this lot who want to go back to Earth or wherever, jump them back and let come what will down there from their version of that company's doings getting in the public media, including that that company's got their own arsenal there. O.K, it'll also tell everyone we've got a manpack hyperspace jumper, but is there much secrecy left to lose about that? From what Long Tom said it seems that people already know we've got a way of jumping about, same as they seem to know about my oxy tanks.".

"Yes - perhaps I will - and do something else while we're there." said Jet Jack, remembering something he had read in some business papers that Plutey-pots had picked up some time previously. They went to a nearby independent kit repair station that some asteroid miners had set up. The Pallas-2's and the other two groups wanted to keep the missile intact as a memento of their escape, and so left it there, for extra load is unwelcome to those who often have to move. There was talk of keeping its warhead bomb as a bomb in case of any more funny business by big companies, but decided that harbouring that sort of weapon causes trouble; and there were other uses for its parts. Some RD's, including those towed by asteroid miners, can separate isotopes as well as elements, if run in the right mode and not too fast; stable and slow-decaying elements come out clean from even high-level radioactive waste, whether man-made or debris from a recent supernova; the safer of the separated hot radio-isotopes find a ready use as a steady energy source in such places as long-stay suit powerpacks. And Jet Jack had his own plan for some of it; he was thankful that RD's existed, unlike back in the 1990's and earlier when much nuclear and other waste had to be stored or dumped as it was.

"Pity we couldn't bag the base manager's private pantry there." one of them said, "First proper Christmas in five years it was that we got that time.".

"We may." Jet Jack hinted darkly, "Or something even better.".

There was a confidential business meeting in London. Much of it was long and irrelevant, but parts of it, as reported afterwards by its participants, were:-

"... we've lost enough time on this from having to patch things up after all those Blore shares we had as surety became worthless that time. What happened to him, I wonder? He went to a meeting at a space base and never came back ...".

"... a new messianism among loose miners out there, when we try to clamp down on all that undisciplinedness and holding things until we must trade at their terms, they talk about a bunch that can get into anywhere and out again. and something that I don't believe about one of them's oxygen cylinders. Easy to believe in all sorts of things wandering about out of sight out there in all those ten-to-the-twentieths of cubic miles of nothing, if you've been out there and are the imaginative sort. We can only keep track of them as much as we do because they must go where they can get metals and materials and then where they can sell them.". Thus said the chairman, not knowing what was soon to come.

"There is something out there. Something blew a way out of that loader with the armoured hold that they sent out to catch loose miners that ran up bills and then ran away from their debts ... where is all that patent infringement kit of theirs coming from? ...".

"There's other reports also of loose miners arrested for unpaid debts when they came to bases to trade, and they just `quantum-leaked' out of the cell like electrons do. Once the cell and five guards vanished also. I don't trust space base personnel who used to be free asteroid miners.".

"There's a report in of a bad explosion at that profitable asteroid mining concern in the Vesta sector ... all the workers missing ... that won't do the stock market any good. Can we keep that under wraps? If so, we better.".

"Can all this information be relied on? According to this attempt at keeping track of where independent asteroid miners are, certain groups were reported in one sector and then a few days later in another sector way away. For example, it says here that a bunch run by someone calling himself Jet Jack managed to move 150 degrees round the [asteroid] belt in a week recently. The sooner the culprit is reprimanded, the better. His report smells of midnight oil and giving us the leavings of his time after doing his own work first. I interrupt other work to come here, then find that we've got no good figures to discuss from.".

"Do we need to discuss all this? We came here for some important policy decisions, not to `wash our employees' dirty linen'.".

"I'm beginning to have a nasty suspicion about some of this. I'm not certain yet, but circularize all the bases for any reports of apparent paranormal or supernatural occurrences. Promise full confidentiality and nothing on their personal files about it. I'm sorry if it seems silly.".

The response to this was laughter and the `Ghostbusters' song, until the chairman called for order, saying "No. It can't be anyone using -it- that that `Sardaukar' bunch took with them. In the end it blew up and killed them all.".

"I thought that idea'd come to nothing. There's a limit to getting ideas from old fiction books. What do you expect, when they got the usual hassle about food that asteroid miners get? If they'd been given a special pass to be allowed food from the manager's store, the talk of it'd soon have got about, all the base storemen that'd have had to know of it.".

"The more restrictions we put on them, the more we interfere with their work. Can't we just let them do their job as they know how to?".

"No! Take miners' lasers for example. I've been out there, as a base manager's assistant. I've looked down the muzzles of enough handheld asteroid miners' lasers and the like, when we try to enforce payment of money owed and the like, not to trust those lasers anywhere except mounted on a craft driven by a reliable foreman. Workmen and customers and suppliers should be kept under proper discipline. I'm an ex-Army man, and I know what indiscipline and arguing back during action can do. Down here on Earth traders and employers can't move for laws and rules, and workmen and the public can make trouble as they wish.".

"What sort of money owed?" said a dissenting voice, "I can understand them getting impatient at some of the excuses to charge or deduct percentages and amounts that they weren't told about before. That sort of thing is often illegal down here. I've actually been out there in a long-stay suit, on one of those fortnight "Space Explorer" holidays (expensive but worth it): the label on the base's in-suit wash machines said a price, then the base storeman tried to add 20% `administration' and another amount, that weren't on the label, and our guide had to be sharp to him about it. No wonder asteroid miners argue back in their own way. Too much of it and news coming back and we'll have a separate judiciary out there giving us orders, and that'll be the end of us being our own masters and our own courts and law enforcement out there.".

"Oh no, here starts yet again that old enemy of secret plans, the participant who `doesn't like what's going on'." some of them thought.

"Will this succeed, any more than previous times?".

"Previous times we didn't manage to get all the space dealers to agree not to deal with independents, or to find a really sound legal backup for seizing patent infringement kit. Always at least one embargo-breaker that paid more and didn't enforce things, so got more of the metals that were brought in. But now all the companies' top men are here, we can plan properly at last. Profit! Control! Never mind the spirit of adventure and suchlike: the time for that is past: I get shareholders shouting after me.".

"Right. No more of this. That's why we agreed not to bring anyone here: we do all photocopying and cleaning and food serving etc ourselves. I'm sick of grapevines and everyone right down to the cleaners and the free miners knowing everything within a month. There'd be no grapevine if people wouldn't chatter. Next leak I'm going to have everybody questioned until they tell me where they heard it. Remember: as the saying goes: `this meeting never happened', and no written reference to it will be made. Anyway: timetable on phasing out dealing with independents while we bring in enough organized mining concerns. The boffins did too good a job making long-term space survival kit smaller and smaller and better and better. In the old days miners couldn't go independent, the kit wasn't around. The sooner that fancy new kit's out of the shops and onto the restricted list, the better. Now, this timetable for it seems feasible ...".

Thus they discussed, confident that their grand plan would work this time. Several dozen million miles away, others discussed also.

"Whew, that was a hairy one." said Rattler, "Harder job if they'd hired army types and not those low roughs. Never before have we had to make people suit up in hyper. I'll be glad to get back to ordinary work. There won't half be a hue and cry after this.".

"Not yet, there's something else special to do." said Jet Jack, "That piece of base wall that hypered out with us had half of someone big's plushy office in it, and something that I bet shouldn't've been written down but was, 'e likely didn't trust 'is mem'ry after all. Better'n I thought! A use at last for something that I traded from the Sardies once. Now the people who issued it to them get it back again!".

"And a catering crate meant for the base's VIP kitchen!" said Cobra.

"Never mind `getting our trotters in the trough' again: what's in that office is what matters. We'll see. Lucky we've still got plenty of those spare suits after rescuing those three lots. I still think we better be ready to hyper out, when we deliver them, if they don't stop to listen when they find that a lot of them've come with men already in them. I don't like people who take stuff meant for miners, and they don't either: but what could I do? We'll `analyze that asteroid when we get to it'. We've got other things to do right now.".

Again, the deed does not take long to describe. Rattler knew the area round the meeting building well, from when he was a builder in London before he went into space. The first that the assembled high-powered delegates and managing directors and financiers who were supposedly mutually hostile total competitors or otherwise completely independent of each other knew as they drank toasts to the success of their plans and the quick buying up and closing down of any firm or thing that interfered with their schemes knew, was a side room door blown open by a sudden gale. In a welter of flying papers some of them briefly saw a greyness and distorted refraction which cohered into something that had been a central topic of their discussions but was so shocking in its inappropriateness for the place that their minds refused to accept it quickly enough for it to register before their memory of events there ceased.

They woke from a variety of strange dreams to see a sky of stars brighter than ever seen through atmosphere, arranged in no constellation known to Earth. They wondered why the floating feeling common to dreams had not stopped on waking, felt for something fixed to take hold of or stand on, tried to rid themselves of kit that they found fastened to them, looked about, and found themselves in kit that most of them had never worn before, or even seen before except in pictures, long-term asteroid miner type space suits, tethered to each other in a cluster far from any planet. Around them were other similar clusters. A nearby sun lit them, but it was whiter than Earth's Sun. They desperately in vain sought in their minds for anything that may have caused a hallucination that realistic; but it was real. A voice sounded in their ears from their suit radios.

"Thanks for the gas grenades!" Jet Jack said to them, "They went from you to the Sardies to try to use on us, and they've been here and back, and you got one of them back just now! Don't try any more of your official denials: all you lot there together who were supposed to have nothing to do with each other. If, as you say, notes aren't to be taken of your meeting, organizing your cosy secret cartel, I won't take notes; but you've got plenty time to finish your business with each other. These suits'll keep you going for years at a stretch away from a base if they have to. You lot won't see your fancy important offices again.".

Each of the delegates looked at the surrounding spacesuited men, wondering which was another delegate and which merely an asteroid miner. They saw on each of their helmet foreheads a serial number and a codename. Many of the codenames were rough-sounding. They found in their suit outside packs assorted kit but nothing with their names on and none of their credit etc cards that had given them access to facilities and supplies back on Earth, and no way back to places that recognized such cards or would obey or defer to their names or the names of their companies. As the leftover effects of the gas gradually wore off, they with much confused inexperienced two-way radioing began to find who was who. Some still thought they would shortly wake in the conference room in London, to wonder what set them dreaming of being asteroid miners and how to apologize for dozing off during a long but important meeting.

"I'm Mr.Fletcher, managing director of Fletcher Patenting Agents." said one, who had began to realize what had happened, "I strongly object to being brought out here against my will - made to answer to the name `Dragline' like some rough navvy, or so it seems from having the word on my helmet (lucky I've got this shiny bit on my kit to use as a mirror) - instead of a large and comfortable house and office, I'm shut up in this spacesuit made God-knows-where with patent-infringement items all over it - if the patentee doesn't use the patent, that's his business - uncontrolled possession of this sort of suit's doing the profitability of metals traders no good at all - instead of having it seized and destroyed I'll have to maintain and care for it as my life support kit, most distasteful after all my stand and efforts to stop patent infringements.".

"And I strongly object to being held five years at that base in the Vesta sector that was run by a firm that said it was only a brokers in the City, that you're in also." said Long Tom, who had come with them, "Five years I was in there, on thin excuses of money owed and the like, being knocked about by those prison-sweepings that you used as guards. Yes, some of us are the Pallas-2's, and we're free again!".

"And I was looking forward to a scuba diving holiday after this business was complete. Can't I even ring back and cancel it?" said another delegate, "And I'm Mr.Milford, not `Red Scorpion' as it says on my helmet forehead.".

"Meaning that you like floating about weightless with a breathing set on - as you indeed are!" said Rattler.

"It's not the same! And I'm due at a most important sales policy conference in Oslo tomorrow - if there are such things as days and nights to count time by, out here, expected to sleep floating about in my spacesuit." said Mr.Milford.

"Oh, those new names of yours." said Jet Jack, "There's a few bunches of us have disappeared: whether they're still somewhere with their suits taken off them on excuses (like some we've rescued down the years), or whatever. All good men: we've given you those men's names, and you lot will be instead of them. If we can't get them back, we've got you. It's you break rules: if one of us owes another money, (a) you don't get any more back than you lent him, (b) whatever else you take, you don't take his suit or his tools: he needs them to travel and work to earn. The previous Red Scorpion was a Pallas-2 that that trick loader got, and it RD'ed him suit and all 'cos he wouldn't take it off. He was a good electronics man: and, City Slicker Milford, you are now him and you have a month to learn his skill and how to act like he did and his life history and first of all drop that $#@ smarty city business manner and `sorrybut' and 51% of the shares and such stale reactor sweepings, 'cos there's a pile of suit and kit part making and mending waiting for you. No secretary to do it for you out here. Same goes for all of you 'cording to your new names.".

"Chatter chatter! back in that room." said the chairman, "If Mr.Blore had been there, he'd soon have pushed the discussion on and stopped all the side chat and controversy and petty odds and ends, and we'd have finished and been away before you lot came for us. Now that everybody knows what it does!, I may as well name what was likely used to bring us here: something that was only let out of the secret labs once, and we thought it had destroyed itself and those who were using it years ago: manpack hyperspace jumper! Which of you's got it, and where from?, left us stuck here in millions of miles of vacuum and nothing. We discuss something private in our office, and we wake up in spacesuits with the stars all different.", and looked at the metal bulge of his suit's unattractively obvious sewage system making unattractive noises as it pumped on and gradually destroyed a mixture of his solid and liquid and gaseous bodily wastes.

"But I did come there! I'm Mr.Blore. You may as well note in any minutes that I'm present! I'm beside Rattler." said a voice that they knew.

They struggled again with the unfamiliar controls of their suit propulsors, got their tethers into yet more cats-cradles, and some of them saw him. "It's him with `Plutey-pots' on his helmet and a metal rampant lion on his chest. Oh, I see. In such a panic when your businesses crashed that you went as an asteroid miner rather than facing your creditors." said the chairman, "And talking about pots, why've I got `Hot-pots' on my helmet? I don't even like the stuff.".

"You won't get hotpot to eat, only food-synthesizer output, like we still get including at base canteens for months on end after your broken promises about food and bills." said Plutey-pots, "That agreement didn't last long, usual stale excuses about having to refer different parts of it to infinity other committees to get them authorized, and so on for ever.".

"We had a meeting before that, and your man didn't even bother to turn up.".

"He did go, and it cost us a lot in whipround to find his fare down to Earth and back and so on, and he was arrested at the spaceport on excuses of money owed and suchlike, although that's just what he'd gone there to discuss. You treacherous #@%'s. Since that we don't send men down to planets to discuss things, same's we don't pay cash up front for things. We've learned the hard way. Like your trick loader and those three lots of free miners." said Jet Jack.

"Mr.Blore! What's happened to you out here!? I'd have thought you'd take our side in this, not go like the rest of them!" said the chairman, "But where does hotpot come into it? - if that is what it is - I hope that's what it is -".

"Since you're their leader, as something special about your kit, as a badge of office, your suit's got oxy tanks made of the same stuff as mine are!, what my name refers to." said Plutey-pots, "While I've been out here I've seen many things that you paper-shuffling groundlings never dream of. I've seen Jupiter where it looks bigger you see the Moon. I've seen the volcanoes on Io from far nearer than you ever went. I've travelled countless hundreds of millions of miles with them, and helped to produce metals for people to use, not merely consumed stuff.".

"Plute - not for `plutocrat' then - what - ye gods, he does exist, and he's here, and Blore of all people became him! I didn't think his cylinders were really made of it, I thought it was just another name chosen to make its owner sound dangerous. Keep them away from me! Oh no, and mine too! I thought they were very heavy." said the chairman in a fright, looking dismayed over his shoulder at the rounded bulks fastened to his back of what looked (under a transparent protective coating) like stainless steel but he now knew was not, against the void of space and the distant untwinkling alien stars.

"After all these months with them on, I'm still here." said Plutey-pots.

"Yes, I got away on one of those missiles that shouldn't've been at Dragline's mob's base, and that metal was in its warhead, so you've got a token of my freedom from there!" said Long Tom.

"That'll be `Mr.Fletcher' from you, and my business isn't a `mob'." said Mr.Fletcher.

"It looked like a `mob' to me." said Long Tom, "Away from the public eye, back goes organized commerce to all sorts of things that I'd thought had been seen an end to long ago. We get less and less good from companies. Like when we find plute about.". He and other asteroid miners started singing this, plus its other verses which are much less printable:-

"Now when we search around,   plutonium that's found,
the longest-lived of all   its sorts, two-forty-four, 's
the most of what's lived through   from when it made was new
in supernova's burst,   if all has not gone first.
Now plute-two-thirty-eight   will run your spacesuit great,
and plute-two-thirty-nine   will make a bang quite fine;
the isotopes beyond   to power the towns are fond;
but what the devil for   is plute-two-forty-four?".

"And if we want any of the useful sorts, we must make it in a reactor from U [= uranium] same as back in the Solar System where all the natural plute decayed away before life started." said Jet Jack, "Same as suit RD spares: what the companies sell get worse and worse, so to get good ones we've got to make them ourselves, yet another job for us to use our time and metals. So, unfortunately, you #%$ lot of #%$'s won't end up down a plutonium mine!".

"If the last supernova around was fairly recent and a good one, we find a fair lot o' curium 247 also, 'alf life 16 million years, and it chain fissions, which plute-244 doesn't. Neither's 'ot enough for steady 'eat to run your suit off." said another asteroid miner, "244 is less use than other plutes, but you can stick it in a breeder [reactor] to chuck a neutron at it like you do with U-238: it 'goes upstairs' to curium 245, which will chain [fission]: also it's quite 'ot for steady 'eat, but it makes a lot o' gamma and needs lead round it. When you burn U-235, about a fifth of it doesn't fission, and after two more neutrons you've got plute-238. Same sort o' thing wi' curium 247, and you get berk[elium] then cally [= californium] 249: it will chain [fission], and it's good an' 'ot; but it takes two neutrons a go, and they make a lot o' gamma; and you've got to keep it five years while the berk turns to cally, afore you put it in a suit powerpack or anything like that, since then it's only a fifth as 'ot as it started; but it keeps its 'eat reas'nably after that. At least up there you get more neutrons from each fission. While the berk's goin', use it to run somethin' in the workshop that the power changin' don't matter: no point wastin' power out 'ere. No point tryin' to go further'n cally either: to einsteinium and the rest: that's for the scientists to play about with. I've fermium afore: some always RD's out o' spent curium reactor fuel: %$& 'ot stuff and the gamma from it, and it don't last long enough to put it in anything to run it.".

"And U-236," said another, "half-life 23.42 million years, a third natural uranium isotope to have to separate, which we don't get in the Solar System. It doesn't fission, but two neutrons make it into plute-238, which is handy and hot for steady heat, as he said.".

"What made those radioactive elements in the first place?" said someone.

"Everythin' started wi' 'ydrogen. Ord'nry stars work like 'ydrogen bombs or fusion reactors, roughly. Take too long to explain it all. When it gets really 'ot inside stars, the atoms run together till you get to iron and nickel. Won't go no further that way. But usually a few neutrons about in stars: atom that catches 'em gets 'eavier till it must `go upstairs', that's it slings an electron or two, till you get to a stuff called bismuth. That's one past lead. Won't go further: next is polonium, but that slings an alpha far too quick. But if the star's big, when it can't burn any more, it falls in so 'ard that it squashes ev'rything into neutrons. A lot of these come blastin' out, and anything left to burn in the star's outside burns now, and the star goes off like a bomb. That's a supernova. And the neutrons come out so fast that the polonium can't chuck an alpha in time to stop it goin' 'igher, nor can the next stages, what are they all called?, astatine, radon, francium, radium, actinium, thorium, right past the unstable patch to somethin' useful at last. Next is protak [= protactinium], uranium, nep[tunium], plute, am[ericium], curium, berk, cally, einsteinium, fermium. That's element 100; it won't go past that: it splits instead o' goin' upstairs. I've never found anything above curium in the wild. They say that isotope 298 of element 114'd be stable enough to be around in the wild, but I've never 'eard of anyone 'oo's found any.".

A delegate said sourly: "I reckon we've died and gone to heaven: we'll soon smell like we've been dead too long if we open our spacesuits, and we're in the sky. If this lot is what angels are like, I'd as soon meet `the other lot'. And, holy $%#@, have that lot even built their own atomic reactor out here!?, that workman type talking casually of the upper actinides which are only remote pure science to most of us: bound to happen, with natural curium about so they can start four higher than we can on Earth.".

"I read the reports that came in about those three lots that we caught for - whatever you say it was for -" said Mr.Fletcher, "and we'll be the same when we ever get a chance to get these @#% spacesuits off: wandering roughs in spacesuit undersuits unwashed and unaired for months, smelling like stale sewage and proud of it when they do take their spacesuits off, says it shows they're `not some base-bound bunch that have to unsuit every night'. At least in atmosphere unwashed clothes get the air to them. Easy to tell by the smell that free asteroid miners have unsuited recently in a room.".

"I declare this meeting adjourned until such time as we are in privacy again." said the chairman, "They've got us. We better do what they say, and find out what all these tools are for.".

"That's like what our lot had to decide, five years ago." said Long Tom.

"At least you lot were used to work and being in space before. We aren't. We can't all be workmen. Somebody's got to organize things.".

"Then organize your own workmen and stick to that, and don't build empires, or buy places up and then close them down, or try your tricks to force us to keep paying more and more or force us back to short-term kit leaving us base-bound or needing a Company mothercraft with us ordering us about and then you moan about patents when we make suit parts ourselves because you don't make them properly or at all. And try being honest with money. We're sick of base agents charging extra percentages and amounts that aren't on the price list, and we thought we'd made him trade fair, but we find they've added it on after all and say we still owe it all plus interest, excuses to try to take our kit and so on like Dragline's mob did.".

"Organize our workmen: what workmen?, except a few maintenance men. We're not scruffy little backstreet factory managers, we're proper City businessmen. And from you that'll be `Fletcher Broke-'" the chairman started to say sharply, but tailed off as he looked around at the stars and realized with an appalling loneliness that his life till that day and all it meant to him had shrunk to one bright dot among millions and that three inches from his face outside his hard breathing mask was the infinite lifeless void, "Anyway, Mr.Fl-, oh well to satisfy you Mr.Dragline, wasn't personally involved in that out there, he ran matters from London. And here we are stuck in asteroid miner gear light years away from independent contact with Earth, having to do manual labour in these unattractive spacesuits. And judging by the sergeant stripes on my shoulders I'm supposed to suddenly be a work and action leader giving orders when I'm no good at that. You lot don't know anything. A chairman's only a figurehead who all remarks are to be addressed through. I'm used to having everything properly proposed and seconded and discussed and voted on and referred to any other relevant committees. You lot have got so many odds and ends on your kit that I'll likely never find who's got the hyperspace jumper or what it looks like, let alone how to operate it. Leaving me stuck here with plute tanks forced to take on the identity of some wild rough free-miner leader whose day of reckoning caught up with him. If I've got to `carpet' someone, how do I do it? No office to call him into, no desk for me to sit behind, having to address him over two-way radio that everybody in miles can overhear and argue back at...".

"Then pass him an intercom wire, if you want to talk privately.".

"All right, all right, all these oddments in our kit that we'll have to get used to, stuck here with no way back to where we belong. What do we do next?".

"Your lot and you yourself help the Pallas-2's to break up that big carbonaceous chondrite that someone brought in, and run the bits through their RD. We need the carbon for organic chemicals and suchlike. There's plenty work here, this asteroid belt's much bigger and denser than our own. The man you're instead of was called Leo after the const'lation, but there's a diff'rent man called Leo now. And that plute turned up: he always wanted a really good badge of office of that sort, and how he's - that's you've - got it!" said Jet Jack.

"Who proposes that we do that?" said the chairman.

"Drop that @#$ silly committeeing (now I know why officialdom is like it is), just give the order and do it!" said Jet Jack.

They obeyed him. They gradually learned the work, including such things as how to run their suit propulsors while rock drilling, to push the drill against the work. Jet Jack's group went out of sight and hypered to the Solar System. The men he met already knew of the rescue of the three groups (but not how he had got in and out) and accepted that diversion of the new suits as valid.

A week later Hot-pots's group had an unexpected chance to be in atmosphere. They were weary from unaccustomed manual work, shocked at sudden loss of power and influence, and already wanted a change from floating about in nothing, and the long journeys with nothing to look at except each other and the unchanging sphere of stars. Some of them craved tobacco or alcohol, but got neither. As they were airlocking in, two of the Pallas-2's went through them looking at gauges and system recorders on their suits' recycling systems, saying "Excuse, you're new to these suits: we better check something.". One of the two opened a small cover on Hot-pots's recycling gear and pressed buttons; it started to make quiet noises. They did the same with some of the others. Over the last three days Hot-pots had felt more and more disenchanted with his new name, with manual work and knowing at last something of where things come from, with having to give orders instead of going through `due procedure', and with life in general, and with the total solid constipation which he and some of his group had, caused by the change of food from business dinners to suit synthesizer output. He went inside and took off his helmet and suit hood, glad for the first chance in eight days for his fellows to see each other's faces instead of eyes over breathing masks. The air transmitted every noise that everyone's suits made. When they opened their spacesuits, they found underneath, as expected, only spacesuit undersuits, and the beginnings of the usual asteroid miner undersuit smell, and no trace of their previous clothes or anything that had been in their pockets. The Pallas-2's, who had come in with them, seemed to be waiting for something.

He had composed a speech, and started to deliver it, trying one last time to put on in an unattractive long-term work spacesuit far from Earth the managerial dignity that goes with a well-cut business office suit in a committee room. As he spoke of policy and finance which they now had no chance of influencing, his and several of his men's suit sewage systems made obvious pumping and other noises as each all too clearly felt, and others heard, it pumping wash water into him even as he addressed them, and then the water flowing back out of him plus other stuff; gas and liquid echoed inside as it made more pumping noises. Thankfully each man's linked combination of biological and mechanical waste systems was sealed against everything except sound. The Pallas-2's watching laughed roughly at his men's annoyed embarrassment at this display of dirty mechanical noises at a dignified occasion. At least after it he felt physically relieved. He finished the speech and listened to the replies, mechanically as a ritual that now seemed pointless, and afterwards read his spacesuit handbook very well. They did what else needed atmosphere to do, and airlocked out and back to work; they settled and remained there and never returned to the Solar System. Hot-pots remained their work and action leader; they fast had to drop the committee-ism and much else from their manner and internal organization.

Later a few newspapers from Earth found their way to them; surprisingly, the authorities had not guessed the cause of their disappearance from what were thought to be many widely separate places, for they had all too successfully kept their meeting secret, but for a long time the missing men were searched for on and near Earth. Either that, or the authorities kept any suspicions secret. The companies involved replaced their missing men and went their separate ways; with the loss of most of the papers and personal memories involved, the long-hatching undercover concerted plan of the companies was dead at last.

There was another meeting between free miners and company and government representatives about rules and food and payments and suchlike. From initial probings the companies seemed somehow likely to be more amenable. The asteroid miners ordered special food for an entertainment meal, and it came in full at the time stated in three catering crates, an occurrence thought until then to be as impossible as helium oxide. The storeman complained "last time I let a crate away from `the system', it ended up in a workshop for keeping isotopes in, and when I got it back I had to sling it in the RD. And the amount of them that I've seen being towed about by miners and workmen with their stuff in, whether they's been pinched from an empties store, or what. Crates cost, they're not like empty bottles.". The delegates started arriving: groups of asteroid miners tethered to each other, official representatives in small craft fitted with every comfort and modern communications, parties of them in larger craft.

A group of asteroid miners known as the X-100's came. Their name was after an early type of 1960's experimental rocket plane that was little different from a large air to ground missile with a cockpit. One of the group was some distance away, linked to the rest of the group by two very long tethers, seemed awkward with his suit propulsor, and when he came closer was seen to have on his suit patches of a pink powder like a known brand of spacesuit deodorant. They had seen that sort of thing before: it was a minor official on an inspection tour having to get a lift where he could, and not very pleased when the `personal transport' offered to him proved to be a spare spacesuit of theirs and not an enclosed craft. He reached the base and thankfully airlocked in with the others. After half an hour he was presentable, but hurriedly shaven after a fortnight's growth and still smelling of the spacesuit; his clothes and expensive Savile Row suit looked very second-hand after a fortnight exposed to vacuum crumpled into a spacesuit outside pack. He hurriedly started the paperwork which he had planned to do on the way: if he had opened his case in space the contents would have drifted everywhere. "@#$ workmen not realizing how much paperwork we get, that's why we want transport with plenty of room, not just from luxuriousness." he muttered. In vacuum his correction fluid bottle had boiled dry in his case and he had to resort to untidy crossing out.

"The casual way asteroid miners treat nuclear materials." said someone waving a metal detector and a Geiger counter, "There's something `hot' exposed - here it is - that one with a face like that Mr.Blore who vanished - Oh my God, either my instruments are wrong, or his oxygen cylinders are made of plutonium. And he boasts about it, `Plutey-pots' on his helmet forehead. It's him! I thought he was just a story of theirs! I've seen some way-out showoff features, but really. He better keep them away from us.", and briefly speculated on the likely outcome of the jet fighter fight painted on Jet Jack's safety helmet and cylinders.

"He's well enough known of for Space Explorer tour leaders to be known to say `The last one to suit up gets the plute tanks!' when his party are slow suiting up when they set off. It sure makes them get a move in!" said another.

When all had come who were likely to come, discussion started. Sometimes it seemed that `the leopard had changed fewer of his spots' than hoped.

"Mr.Jet Jack or whatever your proper name is:" said Mr.Newton, a metals trading company executive, "new spirit and all that, but we would still like a schedule of payments of the large sums that your group and other groups owe, not just refusals and work lasers pointed at our agents.".

"I want to know what each bit of it's for separately. Not just a few lines like `Supplies and interest on same - Amount' like last time." said Jet Jack.

"It's clear you miners are as you were, and if so, why should we change? You let your debts accumulate to that amount, and that much needs paying.".

"I want to know what each bit of it's for separately.".

"What for, except to waste my valuable time? It still all needs paying.".

"I still want to know what each bit of it's for separately.".

"OK. OK, I'll show it on my computer screen, and you can look at it with me.".

Mr.Newton pressed keys on his computer, and an account table appeared on it.

"I told you. Look at this one, f'r instance. When we went there, it said a price on the in-suit washers, and nothing about extras. Then inside he slapped a rate and an admin charge on it. We thought we'd argued him out of it, but he just added it up and sent it to central and now you've put interest on it also. You'd soon call the law if a restaurant in London did that to you. I know the law about prices and price lists and descriptions. Don't say `mistake': mistakes stand as what's on the paper, else they could always say it was a mistake.".

"First you throw cosy polite on-planet laws at us, then you demand extra pay at laser gun point, like that time.".

"Yes we did. We'd found a lot of platinum metals. We had to hold them back two trips 'cos the bases weren't paying 'nuff, but the third time it was better, and we had to buy some RD parts: they kept wearing out. He said it was so much a kilo, and took the metals, than paid us short. Said it was a percent and a costs that he'd taken off. Rattler and me had to show him our lasers afore he'd pay fair. Even so it was a @$# lot less than the finance prices in the papers. Soon in court if he'd tried that on you in town. They always try to get extra bits.".

"You should know that there's these costs and so on.".

"He should still tell us the real price first including these bits. And what's all these officials' fees? We ain't called no officials in on this. You did.".

"OK, OK, you dispute the bill yet again. I was told not to let people off bits of these bills. I'll have to refer this back to central.".

"Oh no, not a-#@$-nother `sorrybut' with his hands tied, and we get nowhere.".

"There's no point in this line of talk." said Plutey-pots, and started to turn round on his seat, showing them his back - and the attached oxygen cylinders.

"OK, OK, `central''s come here with us, or some of them have. It doesn't help us much, you hoarding stuff till the price goes up, and then you accuse us of doing that. We need a steady supply of these metals." said Mr.Newton.

"And some of us need a steady supply of pay for it. The price you pay keeps going up and down. And things that we have to pay for keep costing more, what you call `inflation', it's safer to keep metals than money as savings.".

Mr.Newton realized that it would take too long explaining the workings of the metals brokerage etc market system right then. They talked inconclusively about the persistent dispute about spacesuit parts etc that wore out too quickly so the asteroid miners had to infringe patents making their own parts.

"I presume you agree with me in this," Mr.Newton said to a man in a light short-stay space suit who came up behind him, "Mr. -er- sorry, but what company do you represent, and in what capacity?".

"I'm from the Daily Telegraph.".

Mr.Newton wondered briefly why a newspaper was trading or brokering in asteroid metals, then realized with a cold shock that despite all precautions the public media had heard in time and had got men there, and that the next stage was all too likely public sympathy, a trade union paying for lawyers to support the asteroid miners' side, court cases, adverse publicity, space fans who saw the asteroid miners as an altered but recognisable embodiment of many space heroes fictional and real, secret plan participants turning public evidence, and the general fear-shadow of `Judge Dread' as they sometimes named the sum total of outside forces interfering with companies' plans. He told his superiors so. They finally gave up, and dropped all the sums owing as cheaper in the long run than going through thousands of account entries recalculating everything, and let the miners make their own kit if they wanted to. The other companies one by one agreed. Distance and emptiness to hide in, and a chance bit of secret technology that most of them still did not know about, had won again. The participants made what agreements were needed, and ate the food provided, and spoke of peace and cooperation and suchlike. The reporters went back to their ship, escorted by the miners who had every work laser gun at the ready, for a few company security men had been overheard talking of seizing their films and cassettes; but the precaution was not needed. So the matter ended, and all involved went their ways and went back to work.

The asteroid miners took the empty crates back to the base store, reckoning that "this time they've played fair about food, so we should play fair with the empties.". The storeman decided not to try to charge them a hire charge for the time they had had the crates, for times had changed.