To those who have read part 1 and 2 I apologize for repetitions hereinafter; but I felt that some explanation is due to those who have not read them.
`RD' = `recycler-destructor and materials separator': it sorts and separates the component chemical elements of whatever is put in it.
`actinides' = elements 89 to 103, including uranium (92) and plutonium (94).
On the way back the Jetters called at the school. This time the children were in a building, for they were using equipment which could not be easily tethered to stop it drifting away. Plutey-pots asked the teacher what the children had thought of their trip to the system's habitable planet (which was named `Arda' by the X-100's when they discovered it, a name from Tolkien, which they had read much from their stock of CD-ROM's during weeks-long suit propulsor journeys between asteroid mining sites and trading bases), and was handed an intercom line from a computer where the children's essays on the trip were stored.
"I should get them to handwrite sometimes, so they don't get keyboard and computer dependent; but that means getting paper and then sending the used paper back for RD'ing, unless they use special removable ink. Out here, paper costs. At least photocopying ink can be removed: that's why round here photocopies and laser printer output must not be folded, and when old go in the ink remover and not for scratch paper or pulping or RD'ing, round here." the teacher said.
"Hook that into your tether wire." said Jet Jack privately to Plutey-pots by intercom wire, "We may as well get a few laughs out of it.".
As expected, the essays contained text of this sort:-
"... there is a force field called `wind' that pushed us about like tractor beams do in stories...".
"A big black cloud came over that made it dark. It leaked water real bad and soaked everything and shot about with a great big noisy laser. Everything leaks water, and it is lucky there is plenty of it about down there. Still, someone ought to make a great big tank down there to keep all the water safe in.".
"The plants are solar powered. Nothing's nuclear powered like our suits are. But I read somewhere that the planet's inside is nuclear powered from the you [misspelt for `U' = uranium] and plute and so on in the rocks.".
"Someone ought to go round and sweep up and RD what the animals drop. All the old stuff RD's itself slowly in the open and makes it smelly and dirty.".
"He said the atmosphere was 1/4 oxygen and 3/4 nitrogen. I know a man who works at the hospital and he told me that it would be nice if there was a planet with a atmosphere of entonox that he could go to for a rest sometimes.".
So much for inconsequent naive remarks by children. The last from a boy who did not know what Entonox was, but had repeated what he had heard. Even so words often spread further than intended by unexpected routes: a sour remark a year before by a hospital man overworked by flu hyperspace jumped in from afar and spread at a big in-air celebratory dinner; an over-early introduction to the idea of painkiller gas abuse, as soon as the boy looked up `Entonox' in a dictionary; a need for the teacher to trace and have a quiet word with the hospital man who the boy spoke of. And to tell yet another child that `plute' is slang, the correct word is `plutonium'.
It would be a happy star area if that was the worst thing to happen involving gas; but it is not so in reality, as Plutey-pots would see all too soon.
After this interruption, the physics lesson continued. Plutey-pots saw in another room sealed work cabinets with remote handlers, and was surprised at such an early introduction to the radioactive sciences; but they were only for ordinary chemistry, as keeping the experiments in pressure cabinets to stop watery liquids from boiling off was much cheaper (measured in energy and oxygen rather than in money) than airlocking the children in and out of pressurized laboratories. Such is life in space in frontier conditions. The future may bring a pressurized space city big enough for most people to live in atmosphere like on a planet, but not yet; `suit-offs' were an unusual treat, for children mostly when growth forced re-suiting. Protak Pete, radioing in from a nearby work site, described in graphic detail a time when his son outgrew his suit five weeks from the nearest pressurized room, and the traumatic time getting a scared six year old boy to unsuit and resuit in a pressure bag too small for an adult to go in with him to help him, for his group then did not have enough spare oxygen to fill a bigger bag. Nor did it help the boy's peace of mind at the end when the pressure bag was connected to the group's rock-processing RD as the usual way to recover all the oxygen in the bag, for he had overheard adult thriller tales of what Company enforcement craft used large RD's for, and he knew of the fictional invisible RD-craft that hunted for naughty children. But the boy got over it.
One of the children was watched unusually closely, for she had several burn scars on her eye retinas where retinoblastoma growths had been lasered out. No more had appeared in the last year and a half, and probably no more would come. This was thankful, as open space is no place for the blind. In a city on Earth a blind man can feel his way with a stick, and get much information by hearing changes in how sound echoes, and from smells and the feel of the air. In space there is none of this. Neither companies nor free miners will let blind or poor-sighted people from a planet into space; but in a population which gets old and breeds, the blind arise, even though when medical tests found the condition well before due birth date the case usually had the same end brought to it when it arose in the circumstances of a remote space base. What was the fate of the blind? whether it was to be towed and led about burdening a free tethered group and usually unable to do any work with them, or to be confined to spacecraft and building, or to be `grounded', sent to Earth or Mars which he may never have been on for many years if at all. In a laboratory in the base development was well advanced of electronic artificial eyes wired in to the brain's `primary optic cortex', and of solving a chain reaction of secondary and tertiary side-problems; success would soon come. Some talked more tentatively of likewise linking a brain area in a sighted person to an artificial sense organ, either backward-facing artificial eyes to give all-round vision, or some other artificial sense such as radar.
The lesson ended. One boy mentioned some `Jetsons' cartoons that someone had taped from an Earth TV channel and had found their way there, and wished that his family had the suburban comforts and room for airs and graces transplanted to space that the fictional Jetson family had. The series had been made in the 20th century but in these times of real routine space travel was still popular.
"Who's got copies of them, or has seen them? You better let me see them all, to check them!" said the teacher with a sharpness that surprised Plutey-pots.
"The Jetsons? What's the matter with that?" said Plutey-pots, "I've seen it no end of times in odd moments. Harmless children's stuff. It's been around for ages. A bit silly, but why jump on it like that just for silliness?".
"Harmless on a planet, but not to impressionable children out here! Haven't you seen the amount of times characters space themselves [= go into space vacuum without a spacesuit] and go on living quite happily!? One boy here airlocked himself out without a suit because he'd seen the Jetsons in the cartoons do it, and someone only just stopped a bunch of five children from doing it. I've heard (fictional, thankfully) stories of Company men spacing useless prisoners when destroying unwanted free spaceman bases when taking the area for their company. I've seen the same thing discussed real in papers that your bunch brought here from Fletchmin-1 when they raided it that time. After that I don't like seeing people shown unsuited in space, even to save cartoon artists a bit of ink. It would have been so easy to suit them up, in matter for young children. A loop drawn round his head is a bubble-type helmet; two cylinders on his back (no need to draw connection pipes) is enough breathing apparatus to give the idea of him having one. Round here, any space cartoon from Earth's for adults only until someone's been through it having to check thousands of frames one by one drawing helmets and oxy tanks on anyone seen outside without them.".
"Down there it's the other way round." Plutey-pots thought, badly shaken, "Is there no policy that's valid everywhere? On Earth, rules are to show putting space helmets on as little as possible in children's stuff, else some child'll imitate with a polythene bag as a play space helmet and suffocate himself. It's happened lots of times. That's why there's warnings about polythene bags.".
Time passed, and normal life continued.
A base radiotelescope kept aimed at the planet picked up an emergency radio call from an exploring party. The Jetters were the best placed to obey it at once. The message was clear and simple, but obeying it was not necessarily as easy. Jet Jack led them quickly to a storeroom in the base and recovered from it three tools/weapons which they had found in the Solar System in a company-run asteroid base called Fletchmin-1 where other unattractive things had also happened, until the Jetters had hyperspace jumped in and released three groups of captured free asteroid miners who were being used as slaves there. He had decided very emphatically not to use them if it could by any means be avoided; but now he had to use them. They collected other kit, loaded tow crates, and gathered close. About 30 degrees away from that system's sun, Arda was a bright dot, which binoculars showed as a crescent, like Venus is sometimes as seen from Earth. That simple shape hid lands, seas, weather, animals, minerals which had attracted explorers, and vegetation including forms that had proved deadly to them. As haste forbad propulsor flight so far, they hyper jumped close to it, but not right to the site, for they needed to see what they were jumping into.
The hyperspace grey cleared and left them in a geostationary orbit round the planet. When they had located the signal again, they split cluster, leaving some to watch their heavier mining work kit which they would not need on planet. Rattler opened a tow crate and handed round pairs of foldable aeroplane wings about 6 foot span which they fastened to their cylinder pack mountings.
"Now what?" said Plutey-puts, "Now I'm being turned into an aeroplane, rather than flying in one. I feel absurd like this.".
"They save on propulsor power in atmosphere. Don't try to use them for unpowered entry to atmosphere, or you'll end up looking like you came second best to one of these things we got from Fletchmin's: that's why the old space shuttles had those heat-resisting tiles that had to be replaced each trip.".
They went down into the atmosphere, and south. At a steady 2G acceleration they were soon low over the southern part of the single large continent of the alien world, which was much more hostile than the part visited by the recent cosy little children's outing. Around was a ring of blue sky, and space black was overhead. Red Aldebaran, far brighter than seen from Earth, pierced the edge of the blue part. And they were falling fast.
They aimed themselves horizontally, and stopped falling as the thickening air held their wings and the sky overhead became bluer. The head wind pushed backwards at every projecting part of their bodies and kit, and eddied loudly behind his head. Plutey-pots swayed wildly at first, but got used to it, for it was his first aeroplane flying lesson. They untethered and coiled their tethers. Their legs hung down, spoiling the streamlining, so they pulled and fastened new built-in cords in their suits to hold their hip joints straight. They flew over and gradually down to, not open country kept open by big grazing wild herds as he had seen before and thankfully free of hidden dangers, but dense jungle and rock-spined ridges with trees growing on every possible ledge and slope. A mountain range with a large volcano in it became part of the horizon as they sank below its peak level. The sun caught the meandering course of that region's main river, which was named Eridanus after a river-shaped constellation of Earth's sky. The carpeted land became distinct treetops of various colours, not all Earth chlorophyll green.
They found the signal source, and near it a gap where a big tree had blown down. In the gap seedlings and ground plants of unknown hazardousness carpeted the ground, but they had to land there to get to the rescue in time. They turned heads-up and folded their wings. Plutey-pots expected a fatal fall in the planet gravity, but his new propulsor held him. They landed vertical, and swayed as they got used to being in gravity. They carried their loads and wings between them on stretchers, and set off across the root and fallen wood encumbered forest floor towards the radio signal. Their spacesuits were fairly light, and also kept their bodies at the same temperature during their exertions there like they did in space. Unseen animals and insects made various noises, including one sounding disconcertingly like chainsaws. An animal with pterodactyl-like wings and also four legs swooped out of a tree onto a movement in the leaf litter.
Three of them unfastened their suit oxygen cylinders and propulsors, and put them in the loads. That left enough of their backs free to put on the three Fletchmin weapons, whose original official name, they ominously remembered, was `Ancalagon', after a dragon in Tolkien. They looked like flamethrowers, but the tube part was much wider, and the backpack parts had `radioactive' warning stickers on. Their wearers powered them up. The rest kept well away from them.
They passed an older gap, filled with a sort of bush whose branch pattern made them recoil in alarm for a moment, for they knew it well from videos. But they were dead and leafless, and when Rattler poked about carefully with a stick the natural landmines on their roots were hollow and rotten, and the feared casings held only insect faeces and remains of pupa cocoons and loose pieces of hardwood shrapnel. A few bleached skeletons told them that the local wildlife had still not learned to avoid those bushes, for they were descended from seed recently accidentally carried in from another part of the continent by man and had become a plague until man transported its natural controlling insect there. At one time the plague was so bad that the spacemen made two `flail-tank' ground vehicles to clear roads of this menace. But the danger to men was now further on.
As they reached the rescue site, they had to push through growth sticking out of trunks of big trees. Due to dense undergrowth they could not see the crowns of those trees - nor had others before them been able to. Plutey-pots, following an old habit, turned and pushed through backwards. An unwise method, but it saved his life, for he suddenly fell face down on the leaf-strewn forest floor with a loud clang of something hitting his hollow metal cylinders. There was a hiss and a gas smell from somewhere. As two others helped him up unhurt, he noticed insect-eaten and rotten but recognizable parts of a known and feared leaf-shape in the leaf litter. It was as Jet Jack had suspected.
Jet Jack gave an order. Inside the Ancalagons' backpacks, small nuclear reactors, very well heat-insulated but to save weight inadequately shielded except on the side against the wearer's backs, went critical and, uncooled, heated to white-hot, nearly to meltdown but not quite. Then powerful rotating air blowers sucked air in at the top of the backpack and blew it, now white hot from passing unshielded through the reactor, through and out of the aimable tube with a whining roar like a jetmotor. Such was the fearsomely dirty but effective weapon that Fletcher's company had developed in secret at a secret space base. The three men wearing them forgot any respect for local wildlife they may have had, and aimed and fired, burning tree trunk offshoots and bark and undergrowth and lurking small animals indiscriminately to radioactive ash. They could work for months continuously, unlike petrol and propane flamethrowers which are quickly emptied. Even Jet Jack shuddered a bit on seeing them in action. The jungle was clearly luckily too wet to catch fire as a whole standing and green, but several times something inflammable exploded with a surprisingly loud "wump", or squirted flame at them, luckily never hitting them.
Something growled from a burrow. There was only 5% chance per encounter of that sort of animal jumping out at them, and only if it was defending cubs; but it had a poison-injecting bite. After the alarm with Plutey-pots Rattler refused to chance it, but shoved his Ancalagon's muzzle in the hole and turned the burrow into a combustion chamber. They advanced again, and found ten men in spacesuits with their hoods and helmets off. Their enemy was indeed an injecter, but not that sort of animal.
Their kit bore the group name `Typhoons' and their individual names. One of them pointed at a huddled shape lying among dense branches growing out of a thick treetrunk, and said angrily: "Rattler copped it from that #%$ tree. 'E's the only one of us can work our 'yper jumper. Our props [= propulsors] can't lift us off this @#$ 'ole. `Arda'? Right name f'r it, it is an 'ard place to stay alive. Get our 'yper jumper back, we need it again. %$&~# funny tree. I kept telling 'im to teach a few of us others 'ow to #&% work 'is jumper, but 'e wouldn't, and now we're stuck 'ere. 'Ow bad is 'e?".
Plutey-pots had a brief hard shock at the reported fate of one of his group companions, but looked around and saw that Rattler was still unharmed, with the ominous shape of his `backpack Chernobyl' (as a workman where they were made had nicknamed them) on his back. With a flat feeling of realization that this was not the place and time to discuss a personal name coincidence, he looked around in the dim forest-floor light. Rattler (Jetters), his group's best medic, went to his fallen namesake, saw the blood and the pierced spacesuit, cut in and looked at things, and realized that the suit medipack had striven its hardest but in vain against the worst that massive multiple high-pressure injections of propane and carbon dioxide mixture could do.
Two more of the tree's natural blast-injector spikes, barbed to stop victims backing off them easily while they injected, stabbed out and fired, one into the body and the other into air, as they recovered the body from the tangled growth. Intended to defend the tree against elephant-sized thick-skinned native animals trying to push it over or rear up its trunk to eat its leaves, it had proved hopelessly lethal against men. Rattler fingered his weapon's trigger in a fury of helpless realization that there is no true vengeance against the long slow blind forces of natural evolution, for creating such a booby-trap; the mini nuclear reactor on his back still carefully kept itself at just below meltdown temperature. He remembered what he had read of how the tree loaded its weapons: the pressure-sac develops filled with a harmless waxy stuff called butyric acid, then adds an enzyme that splits it into high-pressure propane and carbon dioxide by a common biochemical reaction called decarboxylation.
"@#% things! The books say they don't #$& grow this far south! Lucky we were 'ere in radio range and not out away in some other system! Rattler was our boss." the Typhoons' temporary acting leader, Tarpan, continued angrily.
"No point accusing the dead." Jet Jack said, "First thing when we're out of this: I better teach you and a few more how to operate your hyper jumper, like he should have before. Perhaps he reckoned that no-one else in the group'd want to grab it if they didn't know how to work it. That dilemma again. Our man Plutey-pots nearly copped it also, but the thing tried to needle his oxy tanks. It hasn't yet evolved to punch a hole in good solid plutonium. I think that's what warned me what'd happened.".
"Plutonium!? Oxy tanks made out of plutonium?!" said Tarpan in surprise.
"Whence his name." said Jet Jack, "Run an analyzer over them if you don't believe me. They work perfectly well.".
They put the fallen Rattler (Typhoons) in a small pressure bag, to stop vacuum from damaging him more, while Rattler (Jetters) and the other two aimed their weapons upwards and burnt away the branches overhead, feeling in no mood to risk anything on takeoff. They switched their weapons off and took them off, and refitted their suit oxygen cylinders and propulsors. All present re-hooded and sealed their spacesuits, and tethered themselves and their loads, and the Ancalagons, together into one cluster, whose total propulsor power now lifted everyone and everything through the hole in the jungle canopy, through the mist rising from the treetops, through the insect-ridden lower air, away from danger in a gravity well towards familiar free space, through a developing shower cloud, up and away as the sky overhead darkened to black, reducing the blue to a rim above the horizon which got increasingly below horizontal and noticeably curved as Arda gradually changed from "the world" to an object in the sky below their feet as they found the rest of their group, as the new propulsors overcame gravity easily and did not fail or auto overload cutout. Red Dog of the Jetters rid his eye-windows and helmet of a flock of colourful, now space-dried, butterfly-like insects that had splattered there as he flew up.
They radioed base what had happened, and set their propulsors towards where the rest of the Typhoons were working. After settling to a steady drift on a routine long space journey, they had no reason not to use their towed miners' big rock-processing RD to do on the journey what had to be done. After such as those present could remember of the usual funeral service, and the long series of last good-byes, some of them radioed in with long waitings while signals travelled, one of them put his arms into the pressure bag through sealable holes and unsuited Rattler (Typhoons) for the last time, and then connected the bag to a tube connection on the RD; it held all the air and water that then boiled out in the vacuum of space. He then opened the pressure bag and extracted the suit and added it to their towed kit; but Jet Jack kept its hyper jumper tethered short to himself as a precaution until its new owner could be properly chosen and trained in its use. Tarpan took for his group the personal items from the suit's packs, for their owner had had no relatives at known addresses and easily reachable. Then he who had led the Typhoons through much work, and through many scrapes and fights in bases when company men tried to detain them or others for unfair reasons, and through the Long Jump to this place beyond the Pleiades, and through the long factory-work job of making new suits to replace those used up in resuiting the three groups rescued from Fletchmin-1, but victim at last to an alien tree's unthinking defence against leaf-eating animals, was pushed inside the Jetters' big towed RD, and its intake lid closed behind him, and its gauges showed that its mechanism ran for a while, and he was gone. It stowed separated chemical elements, or simple compounds for easier storage, in its output store.
The rest of the Typhoons came to meet them, and went back to the main base with them, for they had words to say about the information they had relied on, and work lasers to aim if they were given excuses rather than reasons. The base geographer, who before they spoke had guessed what had happened by the damaged bloodstained empty suit and the planet insects stuck to their suits, altered his information files about the planet accordingly, and put in a complication about meteorology explaining why some parts of the southern part of the continent had warmer winters and vegetation more tropical than expected; the word `tragically' in the new text averted the worst of the likely complaints about attitude and feelings. Tarpan was a competent space navigator, and later learned well how to use the Typhoons' hyper jumper, and was allocated it.
During this somewhat emotion-charged meeting, someone asked "How come the X-100's found this @#% place in the first place?", and others asked similarly.
One of the X-100's, who were busy with building work nearby in Arda Base alias Ilmenost (another name taken from Tolkien, it means `Space Town') in that system's asteroid belt, overheard and said: "We got into space one way and another. We got together gradually when long-trip asteroid miner kit came in, first those little one-man craft nicknamed `photon torpedoes', then modern long-trip suits. We named our group the X-100's after an early experimental rocket plane. We read Tolkien a lot for something to do on those long journeys between sites and bases: one of us bought a set of CD-ROM's of his books.
We were mining in the asteroid belt, in the Solar System. We had in tow a fancy star pattern recorder that a Company let us have to survey for asteroids with. People had talked about hyperspace jumping; some said it was impossible; others said that they could never be made small and light enough to be any use, even in a big ship. Anyway, we weren't thinking about them right then. Then the Sardies met us. How they came I didn't know: our radar hadn't seen them coming. One of them had an extra metal box on his suit; but different ones of us have so many odd bits on their kit that we took no notice of it. Then they hyper jumped with us. No point trying to describe how surprised we were. I was even more surprised when their leader gave me a hyperspace jumper of my own. It had been copied without the companies knowing in a workshop run by free miners somewhere. He taught me how to use it. I didn't believe it was real till I touched it: a little hyperspace jumper that one man could fit on his spacesuit and carry around, a secret of secrets that had come from the dark places of the Companies.
At first we just used it within the Solar System, until we knew that it was safe and wouldn't break down and leave us stranded light years from home. Lovely going right across the [asteroid] belt in less than an hour. We found out all sorts of things that were happening here and there, including a rich spot that we went to and mined, and made enough to afford to take a few weeks off work. So we tried longer jumps, to be sure we knew how to get back, then a really a long jump to near the Pleiades, to see what they looked like close up. Then we made more long jumps about that area, around the Pleiades and between there and Aldebaran, to get different views. Each time we recorded the star pattern. Then we compared the views to find proper 3-D coordinates of as many stars as possible. To do the comparing, we had a computer, but one of us had to write the software, there tethered together weightless in black void three light years from the nearest star, not in a ship like in stories but just in spacesuits: the people we got the computer and the star pattern recorder off hadn't thought of us using them for that. Then we jumped to each of the stars that we'd found where they were, that looked likely.
It took weeks, all that time taken off our paying asteroid mining. Every star we tried was double. We knew to miss out stars that we could see were double, but some doubles are too close to see it from that far. Sometimes so close that they pulled each other into tide bulges so they looked like a pair of eyes, and went round each other in an hour or two. Double stars don't have anything going round them, each other's company's enough for them. The gravity variations as they go round each other sooner or later throw anything else out of orbit or make it fall into one of the stars. If a load of gas and dust are falling together to make a star system, if it's spinning too fast it can't fall right into the middle, and it ends up as a double. Once when we got there one of the pair was a pulsar, of all #@$ things to find wasting our time. Hard to believe, the astronomers say it's a single giant atom nucleus about six miles diameter, something that small as heavy as the Sun. Spinning like a lighthouse and with such a whacking rotating magnetic field that we had to @#& off out of there $%& quick for our kit's sake. We got so sick of double stars that we started calling them words not in astronomy books, such as "double yolker", "childless couple", "snake's eyes", and unprintable anatomical terms, until we jumped here and at last saw one star, and what looked like planets. Then we waited a fortnight and let our star pattern recorder tell us what had moved against the star background, like we'd been given it for. So we named the system and the planet `Arda', which means `Earth' in a language that Tolkien invented, since some of us had read his books a lot, as I said. We went back and fetched others to help set up a base of our own here, and one of us named it Ilmenost.
Why Tolkien? Why not? Names that NASA gave to places on the moons of Solar System gas giant planets in the 1980's follow all sorts of odd themes. Sometimes we used his languages for placenames on Arda, like Har-Lossered = `Southern Snow Mountains', but not everybody uses those names, which I can understand if they don't share our interests.".
"Naming things after other things can be confusing, since it makes one thing have the same name as something else, like that bunch of 15 that turned up round [the asteroid] Juno a while back: they called their group `the Actinides', and each of them after one of them: Actinium, Thorium, Protak, U, Nep, Plute, Am, Curium, Berk, Cally, Einstein, Fermium, Mendel, Nob, Laurie. Or at least that's what the names became after they'd been thrown about a bit.".
"What planets has this system got?" Plutey-pots asked.
"Rather like the Solar System, since the same forces created it." said Protak Pete, "We used names that Tolkien chose for Earth's planets, since several of us liked reading his books: we had them on some CD-ROM's. The names refer to what the planets looked like from Earth, and some astrology mixed in: he never went into space. Like `Luinil' for Uranus means `Blue Star' because `Uranus' is Greek for `sky' and Earth's sky is blue, I suppose: he chose the name, not us.
We call this sun 'Anor'. Unlike our sun, it does have a `Vulcan', that planet inside Mercury's orbit that some thought existed: we call it Narien, which means `Fire-land'. Its surface is nearly red hot on its sun side. It's always got the same side to the sun.
The next out is Elemmire. It's a lot bigger than Mercury, since nothing walloped it and knocked most of its mantle off like they say likely happened early on with Mercury; it's got a slight atmosphere.
The next one is Earendil. Like Venus, complete with clouds, but it's got a moon, which we call Elwing.
The next one is Arda. Air like earth's, his name for the Earth. Lots of life but none sentient or anywhere near. Some quite enormous land animals. Biochemistry too unlike Earth's to eat any of it. Two moons.
The next one is Karnil. Bigger than Mars, more air and water, and life in the equatorial parts so it's not as red as Mars. Biochemistry different from Arda's and Earth's, so no aliens carried life between. Some of us wonder how life got started there: they say most of it was too cold and dry even in the old days for life to start, particularly as Anor was a bit cooler then: that sort of star gradually gets a bit warmer as time passes. Karnil's got rings like Saturn's: I guess some big comet got inside its Roche limit once and broke up. I wish I could've seen it happen.
Next an asteroid belt, a lot denser than the Sun's. That's where Ilmenost is.
The big gas giant, just outside the limit of where Anor's heat was enough in its `T Tauri' stage to melt ices and blow the gas away. We call it Alkarinque.
Three more gas giants: Lumbar, Luinil, Nenar. Usual real right assortment of moons they've got. And rings, but not as big as Saturn's. We'll leave them for a while, except for exploring and patrolling: the asteroids are plenty for us to go at.
Comets, like the Sun's got. There's one enormous one in a short-period orbit, starting to break up. It makes the sky spectacular sometimes. We call it Altaloke, which means `Great Serpent'. The 'stronomer said it likely was further out but something threw it in close, and it went near Earendil and got thrown into where it is now. Likely this place'll be overrun with Earth astronomers if they find out about this place and how to get here.".
"It wouldn't be only astronomers coming here. We'd get every sort of noseybody telling us what to do, such as telling us that children mustn't be reared in space, like they had on Mars." someone said.
"Oh will it!?" said Jet Jack, "Out here every brain and hand counts. Children are needed to help and succeed their parents, they aren't just nuisances to be put up with till grown up and then found useless paperwork jobs 'cos there's no other work for them else `Satan makes work for idle hands', unemployed riots and all that, and they end up as too many bureaucrats and businessmen, and administration gets top-heavy and slow and officials get officious, and the men on top get all the blame for it. And sometimes even then they get up to trouble 'cos paperwork doesn't use up their young energy. I'm not letting people take our children away for some silly sociologist saying a lot of funny talk which when deciphered means that the only right rearing for children is being raised to be a yuppie or an official. Nature will out, and if the young can't go out into the wilds and explore new lands they'll find their own outlet for their energy in their own place there it's least useful. Enough of teenage gangs making trouble, and the companies wouldn't let some of them go to Mars instead to colonise although they wanted to, and then cried blue murder when the unauthorized landings by colonists started.".
An F-15 said: "All this boils down to young blood wanting to use up its energy instead of living quietly. These bunches of spacemen here bring up too many bad memories of my first taste of it. We'd had the usual amount of hopeful teenagers round for jobs, and brushed them off, `sorrybut' and all that. I was in New York for my firm. I was longer than planned going through papers the evening before, so I overslept. Plus jet lag. I was too late to drive to the meeting, the roads were jammed solid. So I cut across some waste ground to a railway station. Fool thing to do, walking out like that looking reputable. Too open it was. A helirig gang got me. New version of motorcycle gangs. Usual teenage gang type clothes, crash helmets, and each wore one of those backpack helicopter motor and rotor sets that can be got hold of all too easily. One of them got me like a hawk on a rabbit, and carried me up to a flat roof with no way down. He'd handcuffed me in the air as if he'd practised it. As you'd expect, they took my briefcase and my case and emptied my pockets. Then they flew up with me, and one dropped me, and another swooped and caught me, and so on over and over again, yahooing and boasting of it to each other. Cop copter was too big to follow them between the buildings. Then they decided it was fun to put a helirig on me and leave me on a ledge so I had to fly down with it. Noisy smelly heavy thing on my back and that lethal great rotor on it, and I'd never flown anything before. I went all over the place. God knows how, but I landed unhurt. They took the helirig back and dumped me in the South Bronx, where two more gangs (the ordinary non-flying sort) needed a lot of convincing that I had nothing left on me. Losing the papers in the briefcase, and me missing the meeting, delayed a lot of business, and clients went elsewhere, and I got all the blame and the sack from my firm.".
"I've seen helirigs before. One of the men who worked with me before I went into space used to use one to fly across the river to and from work.".
"Well, I hadn't seen them before. I'd thought they were just something in stories. That gang called themselves `the Spacers' and clearly were imitating spacemen with suit propulsors. All that young eagerness and willingness to take risks and learn to use kit that you have to be tough to use, that could have had a better use, like in space exploration. I heard some of them boasting of how they'd helirig raided a posh garden party once.
Anyway, my company sent me to Mars," he continued, not thinking where he was, "with fresh men to replace men who'd deserted, and to inspect. Then we found how bad it had got, site managers making unauthorized stuff and selling it to all comers, unauthorized settlements both by illegal immigrants and by company workers who'd deserted, everything that we didn't want that'd become a local population getting in our way like we'd gone there to get away from. We never posted husband and wife together, and strict rules against immorality; after a bit we stopped allowing women out there. But babies got born anyway out there, and they said `here is my son to succeed me here' and the like, although they knew perfectly well that we only allowed enough settlements to feed necessary mine workers, and that they'd go back to Earth when their turn of duty was over. And when we started cracking down, the armed resistance began. Complete with local copies of the eternal Kalashnikov like a badly-filmed remake in pressure suits of some old colonial disorder back on Earth. And nothing heavy enough to sort them out properly was light enough to be flown in, and when we tried to make it locally the men went on strike. And the air was far too thin to use search planes or fighter-bombers or to helicopter troops in. A lot of them holed up in those big areas of crazy-paving block faulting that they call `chaoses', which they knew far better than us: some of us said sourly that `law and order is `in chaos' in two senses'. And they started wasting energy on terraforming, huge waste tips of silicon where they were pulling oxygen out of silicates in the rocks to eventually build the atmosphere up to enough to breathe.
I remember one place too well. They were absconded Company workmen rather than illegal immigrants. So sure that we'd treat finished unauthorized work as a permit, and babies as wedding rings, that when we came they counted us and laid the big table for 14 and killed three chickens, as if we couldn't have had chicken when we liked back at Company base where we reared chickens in bulk on synthesized feed. OK, so real meat on the table was an unusual treat for them. They thought like Arabs that once we'd eaten with them at their table we and they'd be safe from each other, and didn't know or care that I'd seen a personnel carrier full of men that I knew go up on a rebel landmine two days before. We'd lost enough men and vehicles trying to ferret illegal factories and the like out of all those canyons and chaoses. Next they got their pretty little children that they shouldn't have bred, in their courtyard in their sweet little child-size pressure suits that some local factory shouldn't have been making, to welcome us with a pretty little morris dance like at some village fete back in England. Four of my men did go to sit at the table, and I had to order them sharply back to duty. Of course we deported everybody, and destroyed or deactivated everything that we could not take away, and filed criminal charges against them accordingly. I'm not afraid to unaccomplish accomplished facts. Never mind the `spirit of colonization and enterprise': the companies can't live by setting up independent colonies like mother birds raising young only to have them cut loose and fly away so we are left nothing to give to the shareholders but an empty dirty nest. Of course we knew how to keep such undesirables as public media reporters away and how to counter or stop bad reports of us that may get about among the public on Earth.
It was such a big sweep that we'd stripped our barracks too much; we got back to the main Company base in that area to find it overrun and held against us. The Company management married quarters there had been emptied and the occupants were on their way to become ready-made families for illegal colonists who blamed us for not letting them raise families of their own on site before. Some of those children were renamed after children they'd had before and that we'd taken away. Every typist and secretary gone, and shared out among colonists as wives, life in dirty overalls and native-made pressure suits knowing that only their great grandchildren would ever feel the wind on their faces without pressure suits, and longer for them not to need breathing sets in the open. And they called us every sort of pervert in the dictionary for not letting them breed children in the wilderness, turning tightly-run work camps into random disorderly towns. By now both sides were desperate, and anything went in a need to build their future numbers up. Anything, as I would see.
We had to surrender to the rebels. Their leader looked pregnant. He was. That was the first I knew that in their shortage of women they'd turned to cloning humans, a thing forbidden. (I hadn't yet heard of `Project Sardaukar', those identical multiplet XYY's cloned by some company from some thug to breed really hard reliable security men, and named after something in Frank Herbert's `Dune' stories; and as soon as we sent them out to catch loose asteroid miners they cut loose and became loose asteroid miners themselves, they call them the Sardies now, and so the asteroid miners got a suit-pack-sized hyperspace jumper to copy, and from that has come much that we didn't want to happen, and the first discovery of a solar system outside our own was not by some proper government or company that could make use of the glory from it and commemorate their own people in names there, but by a bunch of wild free asteroid miners who named it and their base there with those absurd names from Tolkien, and that's what came from that breaking of the rule for what we'd thought'd be a valid purpose.)
What a future for a baby: conceived in a test tube, a man's peritoneum instead of a woman's womb, and `Daddy, why haven't I got a Mummy?'. Anyway, back to the point. They took some of us back to what was left of the same settlement and dumped us there with no radios or transport or any of our own ID or other papers, only a few supplies and tools, and overalls and badly fitting native made pressure suits (they took our own). We were administrators, we were no good at practical stuff. One of us used to service his own car, back in London: that was all. It took us a while even to work out the difference between a cutter and a welder blowtorch head, and what welding rods were for.
Mars night is @%$ cold. So we had till nightfall to get one room rebuilt and pressure tight, and a source of power. We managed to make an airlock, using parts from three that had been there before. We needed a source of power. Luckily contamination regulations had stopped us from blowing the settlement's unauthorized locally made reactor up or making it meltdown; but we'd filled it with boron beads, which had to be got out. The only way was to take the reactor apart, and we had no remote handling gear. We knew next to nothing about nuclear reactors. There was no choice, else we'd all have died that night. Three of us did the job with bare hands, and got it reassembled and working by sunset; but at the end of all that massive exposure to radiation one was dead and the other two were dying. So died the nearest we had to a best mechanic. The last thing they did before dying was to tie long ropes to themselves so we wouldn't have to go near them afterwards. We towed them to a hole that we'd dug, and let the wind cover them. We couldn't even give them a proper send-off because of the radiation coming from them.
We still had to get or mend an air pump and an oxygen producer. The place's own couldn't be mended: I'd made sure of that when I was there before. Luckily one of us remembered something that he'd overheard one of the place's children say that a Company police vehicle had hit a mine over the rise south of us. We just managed to get there and cut the parts out of it, before dark. How we got back by starlight I don't know. Phobos and Deimos aren't much help as light.
Then we had till our food ran out plus till we starved to death, to rebuild some of the food growing area and then wait till harvest. Lucky we found odd seeds scattered about. Lucky we found then, and not at our previous `visit', some buried spare parts. And we had nine months to make somewhere safe for babies: two of us were our women secretaries, and the rebels had made sure that they'd do their bit towards replacing the people that they blamed us for causing loss of. We got sick of patching together endless torn bits and pieces, and the dead wilderness, and that dry riverbed that hadn't carried water for a billion years (we called it the Thames), and scavenging for bits, and the splintered remains of the big table that they'd welcomingly laid for chicken dinner for fourteen that time, and everything about the place. Rescue never came. We lost four more from hunger and disease before the first crop (a few soya beans) came ready. Time went on, everything in one room, scanty monotonous diet, little Phobos and Deimos whizzing across the sky instead of Earth's proper-sized Moon, daytime pink sky as if a halfwit artist had makeshifted instead of getting more blue on running out of it, patched-up bedding, patched-up beds, endlessly patching our badly-made native pressure suits with bits of anything we found; thank God for Mars's lack of oxygen: on Earth we'd have put the place to the flamethrower before, burning up much that we had to use afterwards. To think that a few months before three times as many people had lived there in comfort and the means to do much other work, and eggs on the table every day!
The women's bellies grew fast and big, and we had dreads. The ninth month came, and in a dreadful ordeal in her weakened state one bore triplets, which we named after the three who had died mending the reactor. No prizes guessing why her ovaries had dropped several eggs that time. Ye Gods she was thin, after the foetuses had robbed her so much to get the means of growth. Then she had to feed them. The other woman was worse, for she had quads, and she had had cosmetic breast surgery which had left her main milk ducts all cut. They ballooned with milk that couldn't get out. One of us managed to anaesthetize her with blowtorch propane and cut in and make new connections to let the milk out: a horrible bodge-up, but it worked after a fashion. Had to use insulation off wire as duct lining until the new ducts stopped trying to close up until the scarring stopped trying to contracture. We managed to make a soya bean pulp that the babies could digest. The women conceived again despite our precautions. One of us at last got one of the solar panels working again. We went to the wrecked police vehicle again, a long way in our condition, and found a radio that we could get working; and when one of the first things we heard about over it was Argyre, we wept.
More colonists came back at last, and settled around us, easily with machinery doing what had taken us months. They put a stone on the grave of the three. It had radioactivity symbols on, as expected; and their names and "colonists, died in a reactor incident" and the date they'd died and a rebel colonial slogan, claiming for their side our deeds when they chose to. Time passed and the place got to look as it had been before we found it. It cost us much scarce food and much hard labour done for them to pay for a few chickens and piglets and rabbits and a pair of goat kids to breed from. A few Earth nations recognized Mars's independence, then a few more. A patched-together peace treaty was signed in the main spaceport. The children grew, and talked with and like the new neighbours' children, and I knew that the seed of loyal Company officials would grow up as some of the native Martians that we had striven the hardest to prevent arising. Our children started cutting up coloured paper and arranging coloured minerals for Argyre Day decorations as the next anniversary of that battle approached, and we daredn't stop them, for the colonists had too many bad memories. Anything to do with finance or stock exchange type business was called the worst of bad names: shades of times in some countries in eastern Europe when the ruling party couldn't stand the sight of anyone who wasn't a manual worker.
I had no relatives there and I was sick of pressure suits and manual work and Mars scenery. I took my chance and got away on native public transport which had started at last; but to reach it I had to walk most of a day over the ridge and my last sight of the wrecked police vehicle. In the main town every street and building that we'd named after Companies and their men and politicians had been renamed: Fletcher Street was now Argyre Street; Milford Street was now Dien Bien Phu Street. If you don't know what that name means, I didn't either. I looked for it all over the maps of Mars. I finally found it was a place in Vietnam on Earth where a lot of occupying French troops had surrendered in an old colonial war of independence. Obvious parallel with what had happened on Mars. I managed to get a ticket back to Earth and from the spaceport to London.
Immigration listed me as `Martian without ID or passport', for I knew that claiming I was who I am would likely get me treated as a schizo who thought I was someone. I managed to persuade them to let my dentist identify me by dental records and help to prove who I was and get me something usable as ID. England even in winter felt warm after Mars, and everywhere was rich green vegetation in the open, not the scanty genetically engineered stuff that was slowly spreading in the warmer parts of the deserts of Mars. I felt as alien as any of the various alien Martians in space stories and old fringe beliefs. By then it was late Saturday, and good clothes shops shut till Monday. I felt like lead in Earth gravity. I walked in my local High Street in south London, feeling unreal at seeing old places after so long. Rain and hail drummed on my pressure suit and helmet: one thing Mars was thankfully free of was Earth weather. I realized that I'd sealed and pressurized it and turned my breathing set on; it took many weeks to lose that routine of years and get used to being open to atmosphere. Some fool, seeing my suit, asked me what sort of motorcycle I had. Someone flew over with a helirig on: a reminder of the past before I went to Mars, and perhaps an omen of the future. Something big with an outsized badly adjusted diesel exhaust pipe blasted by, and I turned my breathing set on again. My wife accepted me back and let me in. I patched yet another air leak in my suit: habit was still stronger than the knowledge that the job was not needed any more. `Areoforming' me had taken much less time than terraforming Mars would.
I bought new clothes. Someone in my company was considerate for once and let me back in. Reporters pestered me till my company got a court injunction to make them leave me alone. I gradually got back into business. I put my pressure suit and my Mars-issue overalls in my attic and got back to normal life. My son, visiting, wanted me to let him wear it to a party as fancy dress; I refused, for it meant much too much to me to let it be used for something that frivolous.
Time passed, and events in the asteroids complicated business matters. I rose in my firm, and with others planned a big secret meeting to coordinate action to prevent the asteroids also from slipping out of our hands as free spacemen there had less and less need to come to company bases to buy supplies. A preliminary meeting in a hotel across a river from a docks area was helirig raided by a gang of docker-type roughs who neither knew nor cared what we were acting for or against but merely wanted our pocket contents and luggage. One of them cut the place's phone wires with his rotor as he flew in. Spare helirig rotor blades are all too handy hand-weapons; so are docker's hooks. They also had guns. They left in our cars. It was the first helirig raid in that area for some time, but that didn't bring back our business timetable and many lost papers and collected information, for due to secrecy there were no backup copies for much of it. Much important business had to be done again hastily, with incomplete secrecy from which far worse than I'd feared was to come, I smelt Mars again. Then the worst happened: asteroid miners who had a hyperspace jumper copied from the one the Sardies had run away with, found out somehow and came and hyperspace jumped us all here, and here I am in a pressure suit again, although a different sort. I am in London at a meeting, and I suddenly wake in space in an asteroid miner spacesuit with the stars all different.".
Thus the former cartel meeting delegates talked, in the Anor system beyond the Pleiades and never to return home, regretting their grand long-developing plan of control and authoritarianism decided on in London which had leaked to men who did not need lengthy preliminary meetings to decide what to do in reply. Some of them looked yet again at the reversed hugely enlarged Pleiades, trying in vain to see Earth's Sun through them. Others looked with ominous feelings at a large bright star constellation shaped very realistically like a hypodermic syringe.
The Jetters jumped back to the Solar System with a lot of new kit for asteroid miners, all good Ilmenost make with no concession to forcing the user to return to base after a set time to get parts expensively replaced, made out of matter that had never been part of the Solar System and in the light of a star hotter and whiter than the Sun, and not visible from Earth because the Pleiades are in the line of sight. They came out of hyper beside the empty shell of Fletchmin-1 in the Vesta sector of the asteroid belt. Hearing radio talk, they were wary, but found that it was only an asteroid miner group called the Leonids, who were scavenging about the holed deserted company base in a somewhat desperate manner.
"What are you looking for? We've been here before twice." said Jet Jack.
"Any sort of tools. They say this was a Company mining base. Two Company patrol craft found us and said we owed this and that and took all our work tools and every bit of valuable metal on us. Their crafts had big lasers on. One of them shot one of us's [suit] RD off his suit, that's why two of us are siamesed. They were a nasty lot. They told us to be sure we had stuff for them next time they found us. They said that if we didn't have all they wanted they'd send to Earth and have it taken off our relatives down there. They were in suits like ours but no stickers or ornaments. They had shoulder badges like this." said one of the Leonids, and drew a shape in space with a finger.
As Plutey-pots saw the shape, memories surfaced in his mind from before he went into space, before he was ever weightless in emptiness with his spacesuit providing his food and oxygen, when he was still Mr.Blore the city businessman. In that time that symbol, or something like it, was routinely familiar; but now he saw it in a role as inappropriate to that as if he had seen a high street goods trade mark on an invading regiment of army tanks.
The Jetters had run sooner than expected into the first call on the new kit that they had brought. They replaced the damaged suit's RD with one off a spare suit, and gave them some of the new kit that they had brought with them. They asked which way the attackers had gone. Such attacks were unusual. Space is vast and two groups rarely met by chance, unless both drawn to the same well-known point; and, as long-trip spacesuits are a complete life support system, there is much less need than on Earth to steal merely to survive. They took the rest of the new kit to the appointed place on a mile-diameter asteroid that only had a serial number, and reported what had happened.
Several other asteroid miner groups including the Pallas-2's were there. They heard of two other such attacks by those or similar two craft; in one of them the attacked group had taken cover behind projections of the asteroid that they had been mining at and had resisted effectively with hand-held lasers; the attackers backed off. They exchanged what descriptions they could, and warnings to keep radio silence and to keep to intercom wires, or to aimed radio or modulated laser beams, as much as possible. They reported more of a new growing bad feeling among company base storemen after the recent better relations, and of plans for a meeting on Earth with Company representatives to try to get this sort of thing sorted out. They linked up with intercom wires and discussed what to say. Plutey-pots felt a strange brief reversal to Blore at this crude likeness of a board meeting weightless in long-trip spacesuits in quadrillions of cubic miles of vacuum with a complete sphere of untwinkling stars around.
The Jetters and the Pallas-2's, and one from each of some other groups, chosen by the rest, tethered to each other and endured an unusually long and hard propulsor acceleration, for Earth was nearly between them and the sun and they were going direct and fast. Space liner booking staff waited for them in vain, and certain plans were not carried out. The Sun rapidly grew to its usual Earth-sky half-degree width and brightness as each day the thin blue crescent Earth got nearer. They endured the main, long and hard, suit propulsor deceleration push. They passed the Moon and its barren craters and ring basins which had never supported life and never would and never could be made to, for it has no water and no hydrogen to make into water. They went into orbit, looking down at Earth for the meeting place. It was still a week to the date.
They kept radio silence and hid from nosy radars in an spent 1980's Russian Energiya rocket casing which nobody had got around to salvaging. Long ago it had stood, full of power, on its launching stand over its huge concrete-lined blast pit in a guarded secret area on the dry steppe of Baikonur in Kazakhstan, a centre of attention; now it circled Earth endlessly unregarded. The landing party was chosen. The time arrived. They did what they could not have done with their old suit propulsors, dropping through the atmosphere as the Earth enlarged from a sky object below their feet to a world around them. The blue ring round the edge of the Earth became a blue sky. Rattler, who best knew that part of London, looked again at his suit computer's image of a map which had been passed to Long Tom the Pallas-2 at a base a few weeks before, and told them the place among the sea of buildings below. They landed and went in. The meeting had a consequence which had been expected some time, but was not planned by any of the groups taking part. As Plutey-pots reported afterwards:
"As the new suit propulsors give us our own way on and off earth, we were more willing than of old to go on planet to Earth to the conference. We put wings on [aeroplane wings about 6 feet span, for in-atmosphere flying to save propulsor energy] and dropped through the atmosphere and landed in the conference centre garden, startling hotel staff who were expecting a coach from the airport. There seemed to be a lot of police about, and several large unidentified vans. One was from a nuclear materials authority, and I thought of what my oxygen cylinders are made of. It was strange being back on Earth. We unsuited in a room near the conference room. Precautions to contain undersuit smell were not needed, as we'd all had an in-suit wash a few hours before with a new man-towable in-suit washer that we'd brought from Ilmenost, and for once we'd used undersuit deodorant. The welcoming party offered a coach to a business suit hire shop, and various other trips, but we were content with our spacesuit undersuits, and wanted to get straight on with business. They seemed nervous as we insisted on that. They said we should see something important in a building some miles away, and pointed to a waiting coach. We'd seen the state of the traffic as we came down, and said so, and that our suit propulsors could get us there much quicker; the officials said that it didn't matter after all. They tried in badly-hidden desperation to get us away upstairs to bathrooms, although we smelt of nothing much except warm wash solution and a little deodorant perfume. The officials shrugged and gave up and called the conference.
The other delegates at the conference brought up issues that we thought had been thoroughly discussed before, and started to go at length into secondary and tertiary minor resulting possible consequences, and details of procedure, and anything except the main parts of what we had gone there to discuss such as the return to refusing to accept other opinions about money allegedly owed, and the new bad behaviour by the two Company patrol craft, until one of us, who was just then talking about who we had traded with, looked at an instrument on his wrist. "... and some cally [= californium] to Miss Muffet ..." he added quickly with a tone of urgency.
We had arranged long before what mention of her name would mean to us. We ran out with an excuse, knocking chairs over, and got to a goods entrance to find assorted police and various others loading our space kit into two vans. We formed into arrowhead formation (a riotsquad trick that the Sardies had taught us) and pushed through. They started police warnings and talk of arrest and seizure of kit for this and that reason. Some of the other delegates protested, for they were not party to this treachery. We were unused to Earth gravity, and many of them had had fight training. They pulled at us and started to separate and overpower us: the end seemed clear. But among the confusion of kit and uniformed and ununiformed arms Rattler recognized a particular suit with jet fighters painted on it and pushed it at Jet Jack who was trying to throw two police off him. Jet Jack just managed to get his left arm to a place on the suit. A space metals trading Company official recognized in alarm what it was, but his warning took too long to say and Jet Jack just managed to operate it.
Gravity ceased as a grey fog closed in around. Vans and police and bailiffs and other officials and bits of ground and building had come with us. Most of them had never been weightless before. We had managed to break the trap. The surprise gave some of us just time to suit up. A policeman, his judo useless in zero gravity, fought desperately with Rattler for a spacesuit, now seeking not to seize it but to put it on, for he knew that we were hyperspace jumping and would soon be in space vacuum. Now that some of us again had use of propulsors, we overcame and disarmed them. We all suited up. If there is one thing that gives me the shivers, it is suiting up in hyperspace. Red Dog's left suit cuff was visibly stretched over a laser-severed half of a handcuff. We stuffed them and an oxygen cylinder into a pressure bag as the grey cleared and we again thankfully saw the twinkleless stars of space. After the hasty random escape jump with a high-powered wide field, Rattler looked for planets and stars and worked out where we were. In the bag a bailiff who knew some astronomy looked bleakly through the tough but thin-looking plastic at the limitless lifeless void of space, and at Venus adorning the far southern constellation of Hydrus, and an undersized Sun in Pavo, which they never go anywhere near as seen from Earth, and knew what that meant, for we were a long way north of the plane of the ecliptic and about 110 million miles from the sun. Knowing he was that far from where any planet orbits made him feel even further from home. He shivered.
They would need more oxygen soon, for they were packed in as tight as frogs in a stork's stomach or rubbish in a disposal bag and expected a similar fate, for they knew that, in space among many spacemen, kit theft leaving a man stranded is a capital offence: `like hoss [= horse] stealing in Cowboyland', as one of the culprits tried to jibe in an imitation Wild West accent. We `balled' tightly round the bag, leaving the vans and other Earth junk, to save this time the extra energy needed to make a wide hyperspace jump field. Jet Jack connected his hyperspace jumper to Rattler's computer, and we jumped back to Earth orbit, and after half an hour's propulsor flight met the Pallas-2's who were guarding our heavier work kit. We connected the bag to our towed rock-processing RD, which could be used as an oxygen regenerator at need. They realized what it was for, and that any waste would have to be pushed into it. But as expected it had no food synthesizer ability. One of them was pointing a handgun through the bag at us; we had overlooked it when we searched them hurriedly in hyper.
Spanner Sam aimed a laser in reply. It was large and industrial-looking, and its casing could easily withstand pistol bullets. `Now this is what we call a gun.' he said, having found the frequency of the policemen's personal radios. I'm not afraid of that little thing. The companies didn't like me teaching us how to make their own kit parts to save money, so at that place Fletchmin-1 near [the asteroid] Vesta which you lot can't now deny exists, I was arrested on an excuse and executed by a Company firing squad, and here I am still.'.
`That's him! I know his voice and that spacesuit! I was there, I saw it done! By eight good men with M-15's. The @#& rat copying patents that we needed to maintain profitability and pay people for things.' said someone in the bag, forgetting secrecy in his superstitious fright, and started confessing his sins.
`If eight explosive bullets didn't stop me, a bit of exorcism won't.'.
`Exi, Nosferatu, in nomine Dei, non es proprius animus cadaveris istius...'.
`We need explosive bullets to get through the suits that some of those space roughs wear. And to shoot out their suit life support systems if we want them alive, then we put them into other suits that only last a day on a recharge and they must stick at the job where we say. Never mind the bullets conventions.'.
`Those Fletchmin-1 guards weren't `good men' but prison sweepings in for violence. I know, I was held there for five years.' said Long Tom, a Pallas-2.
`What the $@# are you lot babbling about!?,' said another captive, and then to us over the police radio that he was listening over, `I assure you that I was nothing to do with this action against you. Like you, I came here - to that meeting - to discuss matters. I am as angry as you about all this.', and then to the other captives, `What did you try a fool trick like that for? Of course they had theft alarms and anti-handling devices in their kit. I was hoping to discuss with them fairly and find out what it's like for them out there and get to know them. Now they won't trust any of us again. News gets round @%$ fast among them: now I know how.'.
`I also read `Dracula' and know Latin. I can cross running water etc as well as anyone.' said Spanner Sam, `I've got a heart-lung machine built into my chest to keep me going, since that day. I had a very good suit medipack that day, and my mates found me just in time.'.
`Oh. Something else old and solid and reliable knocked out by fancy stuff from some boffin. Now they won't stay shot but become unshot. Unnatural. Like a genetical engineering experiment leftover that I know of, who became a council workman. Whenever he gets infested slinging vagrants and their stuff out of dossing holes, he fumigates himself with cyanide gas in a gas chamber with no ill effects at all. In there fifteen minutes, and a normal man would have died in a few seconds. He gets the stuff from pest control. Gives me the creeps. And, never mind those two patrol craft that you were moaning about at last going out after uncontrolled loose asteroid miners: what about that bunch that's raided more than one minor company asteroid base and abducted all persons from them?'.
`Ye gods. Ye gods.' another Company man said in severe shock, `Those wild roughs have got `PL-props' [= planet-landing suit propulsors] and man-portable hyperspace jumpers. Seeing them come down from the sky like we'd intended only special commandos to. How long and expensively have we been developing PL-props in secret and still no working prototype because of bureaucratic and business negotiational delays?, and this lot drop in with them on their backs working just to get to a meeting on time! And whose clever idea was it to try to make real `Sardaukar' like in that story, and all they did was go over to the enemy with the first hyper jumper let away from the secret labs? Letting special kit go all over the place: I still remember that meeting a bit before several of the firm's bosses went off to different places and vanished, when those dirty docker-type roughs swooped on us with those ugly smelly helirigs on flying into private land. One who smelt of stale bone-meal that he must've been unloading a bit before, grabbed me and flew up with me and left me in a slum backyard minus my luggage and pocket contents. Helirigs should be special forces stuff only. That delayed much important business. All that careful scientific disinformation that we've had put out, saying hyperspace jumping is impossible except perhaps with a huge device - and we get jumped with by a man-portable hyper jumper! And the PSC-4 space police craft which is nowhere near ready because of the same delays.'.
Such was many of them 's first trip into space.
`What shall we do with you lot?' said Jet Jack, `You say you came to seize kit on the same old excuses, including a lot that I thought had been written off at that big meeting at that base, and that old #@$ about patents.'.
`Much of the relevant shareholdership was corporate, and we found later that their own shareholders had not been sufficiently consulted about writing off such big sums.'.
`Oh. Yet another excuse to wriggle out.' said Rattler, `Not only we get it. Before I went into space I knew someone who owed one of that Blore's companies money; he died, and the company billed his second cousin for the amount as the nearest kin who could pay, right through to a pitched battle against company men who'd come round to take over the premises, and it took a legal injunction to desist to make the company write the amount off and accept that there's no inheritance of debt in England like in hot poor countries. Not by relatives, not by friends, not by work associates, not by anyone. When you companies were allowed to run space matters, you were allowed to enforce the law of the land, not to make laws of your own. The law of the land still overrides company rules, as a lot of law cases have shown you lot. Remember Argyre.'.
`As I said, what to do with you lot? You came to seize our kit: perhaps I'll let you have some of it. OK, you vermin who haven't heard that envoys are inviolate, we've got spare spacesuits like our own for any three of you.' said Jet Jack.
`I'm not being turned into no asteroid miner.' said an official frightenedly, `I heard that that businessman Blore ran away to space that time to hole up away from creditors for a while, and the asteroid miners got him.'.
`You lot in the bag. Shove that oxy tank out, it's ours. And that gun. There's a shuttle coming right now to pick you up. Save us having to take you back down to Earth and risk jet fighters coming after us after we've left you.' said Jet Jack, and then called on the frequency of an orbiting shuttle that he knew of. He also let them enter something in their seized items list after all: one floppy disk, with our side of the case hurriedly entered on it, including that we'd risked ourselves taking them back to Earth when we needn't have.
They unwillingly obeyed, pushing it through the connection into the attached RD, which, in the mode that it was set to then, did not destroy it. The gun and three more followed. We freed the bag from our RD as a white object approached in orbit. We checked our tethers to our towed kit, and endured a high-powered suit propulsor blast towards the approaching shuttle and over it so it could not easily turn to chase us. To our dismay it fired from a hole in its bow a missile or likelier a missile-shaped one-man craft called an MST. (We know them: we've got plenty of our own at Ilmenost, and special police craft called PSC-4's that can fire and recover up to 20 or so of them each, and they're fast and agile and all too effective spaceman-catchers and base-busters: we found and copied and completed some company plans for them, in case companies try mischief here.) It went to the bag and scooped it up in a net, and towed it back to the shuttle while we got away.
`Phew! Ou gar deuteron eikhen khalkeon enkhos.' said Red Dog very relievedly as Earth shrank to a dot behind us, thankful to have lost only time and energy and a pressure bag. Many of us in our haste had put wrong suits on and were uncomfortable; the sooner our next safe suit-off to swop them back, the better.
`Deuterons? Deuterium? Do those things have fusion reactors in?' said someone.
`No. It's from Homer in the Iliad: `For he had no second spear of bronze', after he'd thrown the one he had. Thank #@%$ that thing didn't have two MST's. Perhaps they will soon after this. Or they didn't want us. Well, this is it. A lot of people on the ground including a lot who know about space'll've seen how we vanished. And that lot in the bag'll have their own tale to tell: `dead men tell no tales' some would advise here, but also `murder will out', even if only by a tongue loosened by drink or by someone who took part and then doesn't like what's going on. That's the end of them not knowing we've got hyperspace jumpers. Had to happen some time, I suppose, with more and more of us using them routinely. And we've added abduction to the charges out against us. We better not go on Earth again to anywhere we're expected again.'.
Red Dog's Homeric quotation was not surprising: many of us study all sorts of arcane subjects for something to do in our long journeys through empty space between work sites and space bases. Our type of space travel has brought back one common fact of pre-industrial times: journeys that routinely last weeks.".
That widely seen hyperspace jump only confirmed an existing gathering suspicion which had been voiced occasionally in the public media and more often in private meetings. Faster than light travel is so routine in fiction that a real case of it caused less culture shock than might be expected. Ordinary scientists were more or less startled. Those who knew about hyperspace jumping before saw no more point in doing anything else than going public about it, and so the world came to know about the Sardies also. There were accusations why evidence had not been acted on or passed on before.
"Not my fault." one pleaded, "You kept saying that hyper jumping couldn't be done. When e.g. one group was reported at Juno and the next day at Herculina, what should I have thought, than that it was bad record keeping?".
"Spot the extra kit item on his suit? They've got all sorts of kit on them. Likely lots of people saw it and thought it was just another dirty bit of suit kit made God knows where and full of his sewage or junk or radioactivity.".
"Any suspicion like that, should have been sent to us and to us alone, not shouted to all and sundry on that silly TV ghost program called `The Unexplained'. Luckily most people did just dismiss it as a space ghost story.".
"`Space pirates'? Good luck to them, At least they used hyperspace jumpers when they got them. Just how long have you companies known of hyperspace jumping and kept it hidden because you were afraid of something? All that could have been done and discovered with them, while you hid them away like when the armed forces held tight for so many years onto microchip-controlled scubadiver's mixture rebreather sets. Soon come explorations with them, and the first Space Explorer holiday with them!".
A while before, a concerted attempt to bring the asteroid miners under severe direct rule failed when the businessmen and officials organizing it had met in London in secret, but there was a leak and the Jetters found out and in a risky operation hyperspace jumped the meeting delegates from their meeting room to the Arda system and turned them into a group of asteroid miners called the F-15's, who remained there and never went back to the Solar System. The attempt was thus `beheaded' and stopped, and company bases acted more fairly towards free asteroid miners for a while. But now trouble stirred again.
"The same old treachery with money and saying we owe more, to keep getting more off us, keep thinking that people can keep on affording a bit more." said an asteroid miner group leader at a base where he had called to sell metals, "We're not paying no stinking new licence fee and the messing about and losing money by losing work time getting a stupid bit of paper with the right signature on. And likely it'll be a @#%-awful expensive job changing my registration base when I want to move on. The same endless harassing and pettiness that lost you Mars, when the colonists there had had enough and rebelled. Like that horse Ginger did in `Black Beauty' [by Anna Sewell, publ. 1877 and now a classic] when they tried to pull her bearing rein even further up, hurting her. Like the gold miners at Ballarat in Australia did when they got sick of being punished for not having mining licences on them, even if they'd merely left it back at camp in a pocket of their other clothes.".
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse." said the base clerk.
"Us being supposed to have a magic way to know every law as soon as it's passed, and to get from work to registration base and back at the right time without wasting weeks of work time, is no excuse for you. If you're so uptight about this, get your boffins together and invent subspace radio like in the stories, and put a transmitter of it at Westminster etc.".
"You have been committing breach of contract, in trading direct with people from Earth who aren't Company personnel.".
"Oh. Like before, you've dug up yet another rule. I know the law on restrictive trade agreements. International law still applies when your company rules try to contradict it.".
"We will have to consider further measures.".
"Such as more roughs with fancy kit and bits of paper saying they can take stuff. We can keep pace with you.".
"We have our methods.", said the clerk, trying to leave a threat in the air.
That name of a big impact basin on Mars rankled as a symbol of defeat in the minds of authoritarian Company men. There in a sandstorm a huge force of Company enforcers and police which had tried to cross it to attack unexpectedly, and accompanying officials to authorise and decide matters on the spot, perished, their vehicles bogged in deep sand or hitting landmines or lost in rock mazes which the colonists knew like their own backyards. How many trained thugs, and important officials and their authorized and authorizing pens to seize land and people and property, perished in the cold and near airlessness as they sought escape or their comfortable pressurized vehicles were burst open by a variety of weapons! No more grant of independence speech did Mars get from the Mars Board or from anyone else, than this from its chairman on hearing the bad news: "Damn that lot! Damn you silly self-important financial interests and your rules about property that caused all this! I'm pulling my hand out of there before it gets burnt any more and before any more men from my firms don't come back from there!".
"Them sitting out of reach down a gravity well. @&% planet with too little air for a proper air cover for security forces to fly in. Unauthorized landings bringing unauthorized colonists and teaching them how to make guns, systematic armed resistance when we tried to do something about it. Now what's left of our companies there can't move for workers' rights laws and needing a public enquiry before doing anything, etc, same as on Earth. Not so fancy if our security forces'd had hyperspace jumpers or the modern planet-landing suit propulsors. %$@ the boffins for being too late with them when they were needed the most! And now the free asteroid miners have got both and are careering about with them as if they owned space. All those Mars-rats did was to add murder and conspiracy etc to the criminal and civil actions and writs out against them. A year or two for the big nations to train and equip a landing army in planet-landing suits, and hyper jumpers to get the heavy weapons in; then suddenly take out every known main settlement and survival kit factory at once and we've got Mars back bar a bit of rat-hunting by police in the remote areas; their air's far too thin for them to send jet fighters up to stop us. But we were handcuffed from doing that by the %$@ politicians as soon as a few banana republics recognized Mars as independent.".
"Geneva Conventions. Thou shalt not treat being an enemy at war as a criminal offence. An envoy is inviolate whatever you may want to act against him for.".
"I could fill a Scrabble board with alphabet soup of terrorist and gangster groups that have pulled that string when law and order tries to adopt effective measures! and it ends up with umpteen scruffy little nations instead of one proper coordinating controlling authority. And in comes the eternal Kalashnikov and breeds on next to nothing like desert foxes until half the population've got them, and yet another pull-out losing everything that's been invested. And then the same in space. We'll see. And while about your attitude towards us, what about libel? What about the variety of atrocities that you attribute to fictional Company men in your thriller stories that you lot write and pass around? just to satisfy the old addiction to excitement hormones. Never mind the usual platitude clause about fictionalness and not intended to resemble, etc.".
"Ditto you! What about f'r instance that film `Terror of the Space Pirates' with that bunch of actors in studio copies of asteroid miner spacesuits, raiding Earth and space with every sort of thuggery and murder and unpleasant threat known to gangsters!?".
"And just like in that film. a few days ago a small base near here stopped transmitting and we found it had been stripped and everybody gone and asteroid miner slogans daubed about on it. You can't say they were chronic overchargers and the like, like you keep moaning about. Some of them were friends of mine.".
"All I know was: it wasn't us or any other group that we know of." said the leader of the miner group, who saw no more point in staying there, but left.
A little later the Jetters were in the area, prospecting for minerals, when they heard a faint radio call for help. Jet Jack had just time to untether and hyper jump away a few thousand miles at an angle on his own and get a second direction fix before the signal stopped suddenly. He jumped back, re-tethered, pulled at all tethers in his reach as a radio-silent way of telling his group to `ball', and jumped them to the place. Two patrol-type craft with heavy mounted lasers and collapsible drum-shaped holds which were already full, were there, attacking a group of asteroid miners who were trying to shelter behind a roundish half-mile-wide lump of nickel-iron which had few or no sharp edges to hide behind. They heard radioed warnings to abandon all valuable tools and objects. Likely only already-full holds stopped the craft from shovelling up the attacked miners with a large front capture scoop, hand-lasers and all with no more concern than an African bullfrog routinely swallowing and digesting live scorpions stings and claws and all.
Remote space without good safe backup is no place to be unthinkingly brave if there is another way to get away alive. That all involved knew. Already the two craft were moving to opposite sides of the meteoroid to bring powerful mounted lasers to bear on the miners, and on the Jetters if they interfered. But Jet Jack had to decide. He told his group to untether all towed kit and to split into equal halves. Already one of the two craft had seen them, and a beam from a heavy mounted laser destroyed a towed empty suit. Hyper jumpers should not be used too many times in quick succession, but it had to be done. He jumped his men into the craft that had fired, which we found later was named `FMPC-1'. Luckily some of the Pallas-2's in their captivity at Fletchmin-1 had been made to clean and service those craft, and had later told of their internal layout.
Inside, they knew that they had seen the crew's shoulder badges before. It was the symbol that the Leonid had drawn with his finger; it was Fletcher Brokers's trading and letterhead symbol that had also been used by Fletchmin-1 whose staff and guards had fled in two craft when their slaves were liberated. The two craft now covered all the attacked miners; now likely would come picking them off one by one until the rest obeyed.
The craft's heavy lasers stopped as the crew had to fight an enemy inside. Jet Jack and half his men shot at what targets they could before backing away into a corner and hyper jumping into the other craft, which was named FMPC-2, just in time before its crew would have noticed what was happening and shot the Jetters' heavy kit to scrap for destructiveness and target practise. The crew's radios were scrambled, but Rattler quickly recognized the code. The crew attacked, all in identical spacesuits with Fletchmin shoulder badges, in their own craft where they knew the ground and ways to get behind enemies and what was gunshot proof. Someone ordered "Pull the lever on them.", and machinery started - the Jetters found later what it was. Crew kept getting behind them, and pushed them into smaller and smaller space. Plutey-pots, caught alone between two guards, turned from one to another. The first crewman would, should, have jumped him from behind, but had seen his name on his helmet forehead and knew what it meant, having heard of him before. He knew plutonium by repute and the public media as a word of dread, and faced with two large backpack oxygen cylinders made of it he backed away in panic, obstructing other crewmen. That gave Cobra just enough time to turn and shoot that crewman and then others, and the rest suddenly lost courage and threw their guns away.
In FMPC-2, it was about the same. With nowhere to flee to, the crew fought better than they usually did. "'Ere yer slags, yer can't just 'ide be'ind us." a rough voice ordered. There was a radio noise like a large laser gun or the like bouncing off someone who it had been thrown at and had failed to catch it. The crew attacked, all in identical spacesuits with Fletchmin shoulder badges, in their own craft where they knew the ground and ways to get behind enemies and what was gunshot proof. Cobra saw briefly through a porthole that FMPC-1's hold was collapsing as it emptied into something. They noticed that machinery had started somewhere. Then to their surprise six of the crew, who had a different coloured part to their shoulder badges, turned and shot several other crewmen at close range. The remaining crewmen finally turned tail and tried to flee.
The result (in both craft added) was nine crewmen captured and tied up, and the rest dead (except the six). The Jetters suffered laser burns and suit damage, but they were repairable. While they were doing this, the six men who had shot the other crewmen suddenly ran to a cupboard before they could be stopped, but took out only something that the Jetters had a few of: emergency transparent oversuits to put on already suited men whose suits were opened in vacuum. They removed their unpressurized safety helmets and put the oversuits on and pressurized them and working through their oversuits managed to remove their suit hoods (which as usual had hard round breathing masks and small eye-windows) and show their faces.
"They're the Fletchmin-1 base's management!" said Plutey-pots, who had found ID photos of them and other staff in an office in a search of Fletchmin-1 after it had been abandoned to the vacuum and occasional scavenging asteroid miners.
One of the Fletchmin staff said: "Never did we think we'd be thankful to see you lot! That lot are the guards we employed at - well, since all the asteroid belt knows about it now, Fletchmin-1 near Vesta. Soon after we got away, they took over and gave us the dirtiest jobs and used us as cooks and servants. We management are all here in FMPC-2. We took on that lot, officially as convict labour but we used them as guards. The way they treated us, and the dirty convict slang they used in their orders to us and to prisoners and ordered us to use even among ourselves, expecting everybody to understand it at once, and the thug-training they made us go through." he continued, too glad of freedom to care who he was spilling Company affairs to, and then "- Go into the cockpit and press the red button marked `RD OFF'! Now! That's an order! In both craft! Radio it on!" he shouted frantically.
Laser Larry obeyed, and in FMPC-1 Plutey-pots obeyed. The machinery vibration, and when one of them put his helmet against a wall the noise of stuff being ground up, stopped. The tied-up guards looked afraid of something.
"Now open this hatch. It's the RD servicing hatch. Tools in that locker." said the Fletchmin staff man, who was a Mr.Wilson, sounding a bit shaken.
Laser Larry and Red Dog obeyed, looked inside, and recoiled back, switching on an `emergency throat and mouth and breathing mask washout and suckout' mechanism that their suits had. They looked again as long as they had to, then fastened the RD-cover shut. In FMPC-1, Plutey-pots and Cobra did the same and felt the same. Now they knew what had been in the two crafts' collapsible holds when they arrived, and what had happened to the staff etc in at least two small Company space bases that had been found deserted, and what the machinery they had heard had been cutting and grinding up, and that the culprits at the recently raided base were not miners despite the misleadingly incriminating graffiti. Do not give authority to hardened convicts.
"Now let me dock these two craft to each other.". They did so, and he did.
"However did you lot get in here?" said Mr.Wilson, "Stow away in the stuff they took from that last base they raided? If reality was like fiction I'd've guessed you teleported or transported in, but the scientists say otherwise.".
"We better get our work kit back." said Jet Jack.
"Get the guards from the other craft into here, while I take the two craft up to your stuff: save your suit propulsors. Some of you go out and look in the drum-holds." said Mr.Wilson, and said where the access hatch was.
They did so, feeling more than a bit odd at willingly taking orders from a Fletchmin boss. The guards, now in undisguised criminal manner, threatened action by gang members back on Earth, and by this and that.
"Now I know what you've been using the onboard RD's for." Mr.Wilson said to the captured guards, and to the Jetters, "Now. I've commanded this sort of thing before. Six of you that've got hand-held lasers ...".
"Yes, I know you have. I know, with an artificial heart and lungs built into my chest and suit to keep me going, since that day." said Spanner Sam.
"Are this lot still in sentence? If so, they may as well be sent back to Earth and finish their sentences in the ordinary way." said Jet Jack.
"Needle [= anaesthetize] them, get them in a pressure bag (there's one big enough and drug darters in that locker) and unsuit them." said Mr.Wilson.
The Jetters obeyed. As they quickly examined the suits, of those nine and of the other crew, they noticed that many of the suits had abuse drug synthesizers in their medipacks, and said so.
"Ours have got them as well. We didn't want them, but they made us have them. They'll stop working unless they get the right radio signal from the boss guard. Ye Gods, I don't want to have to face `cold turkey' from that stuff. Their way to stop us from deserting them. But I guess I'll have to some time".".
"I'll see what I can do." said Rattler, "I know a fair bit about electronics." and opened a box on Mr.Wilson's suit and poked about inside, "Oh here it is: in your medipack, there's that `auto-junk-pump' that they put in, cut this wire and short it over to that one and that's the end of it. Put in line one of these resistors that gradually go open-circuit over a month or two: I know what supply companies often put them in kit for, but here's a better use for them: over that time it'll gradually cut the dose rate to zero. Now for each of you others.".
"I take it these craft are PSC-1's. I wouldn't have liked to meet that lot in one of those new PSC-4's that I've heard of." said Jet Jack.
"Oh, you've heard of those, have you?" said Mr.Wilson, "This lot raided miners and Company bases alike, they weren't choosy. What was in the drum-tanks was from the last two bases they raided.".
The outside hatch opened, and the men who had gone out came in towing two men in two of the Jetters' spare suits. "What a #@$ nasty place to suit up someone, inside a big RD's power-grinder which might've started up any moment, among all those blades and the - stuff - on them. I nearly pulled him out of there and did the job in space. I've never done that. Would've meant spacing him for nearly a minute. Only for if there's no other way. We've practised it on dummies. I knew someone in the Leonids who had to jump between airlocks without a suit once, and he survived it. I found these two alive in craft 1's. They're from the last base this lot cleaned out. No-one in 2's - I mean no-one alive." said Laser Larry in a shocked voice, "I've given one of them a suit with a fullface window hood. I thought Plutey-pots might want to meet him again.".
Plutey-pots looked at the rescued man's face. It was Levitsky. The same base storeman who one day that seemed a lifetime ago tricked him into trying an asteroid miner spacesuit on and shoved him out into space, when he, when he was still Mr.Blore the city businessman, had gone there to hide from creditors.
"I thought I was for it" said Levitsky in shock, "- they put us in there in case we came in useful - that lot of thugs `pulling the lever' on us rather than let us be rescued. I've been a loyal company man since I went into space, and this is what happens, from men who were let into space as enforcers for my own kind. Of all the places to see you again. A few minutes later and I'd've been just eighty kilos of RD'ings. The other one's Mr.Jackson, a base clerk. I knew and worked with all the people that they took out of that last base. I saw those thugs painting miner graffiti on the base as they towed us across all stuffed in a pressure bag, but I knew they weren't miners. It's OK, I can testify in court who all those people were. You may as well start those RD's again and let them finish the job. Save someone else a job like you just had among that mess in there mixed up with base furniture and paper and all sorts. No way out here to get enough preservative or freezer capacity to keep that lot to get it to a forensic lab on the ground, anyway, unless I space it all to dry it, and I know what they say about spacing pathology material to preserve it, I know someone who tried it once and the cop lab @#$'ed his @%$'s for it in their letter back. Someone find a floppy or some paper and a pen and I'll write their names and details down. I'll go with the Jetters for a while, I think. I don't want to work in that base again, even when it's repaired and restaffed, it'd remind me of too much. At least that lot's been caught. So things usually end, in small scraps and captures in odd corners, not some grandiose battle like in that film `Terror of the Space Pirates'.".
So it was agreed on and done. Levitsky wrote his list out, and several copies of it were made and distributed. A funeral service was started, with roughly the same parts of remembered Church funeral plus space-written fill-out that was said when Rattler (Typhoons) was committed to the Jetters' towed RD after his fatal landing in a jungle on Arda far away. Jet Jack pulled the lever in FMPC-1, and Mr.Wilson in FMPC-2, that ominous lever, looking impersonally like so many other control levers operating machinery in spacecraft and elsewhere, which started each craft's big onboard RD. The mechanical noises started again and ran their course and finished. The RD's cleaned themselves through tracelessly and in bins and tanks stored separated elements and simple compounds that were no longer part of anything and had no particular meaning.
In view of what had happened, calmer advice prevailed and the captured guards were sent to Earth, as it was important to find what they had done out there. At least asteroid miners were exonerated from the recent bout of raids on company bases. And the Jetters were spared from having to face the rear ends of a firing squad's guns, a prospect little more welcome to them than the front ends. But others may have thought otherwise, for there is no record of those ex-guards being released or finishing their sentences anywhere.
Seeing that other dangers were over, Mr.Wilson's assistant, a Mr.Delaville, worked into what he was saying what many on both sides recognised as a codeword. Two of the Fletchmin staff started to go to prearranged places, but Mr.Wilson sharply called a halt. "Plan B can `b' off, even if I've got to order the Jetters to arrest you." he ordered in a disreputable but annoyed wordplay, "This isn't the place for it. What we did to free miners in the past has caught up with us. Mr.Fletcher my boss has vanished, no-one knows where, and account of what we'd ordered or allowed there has got about somehow. I once heard someone refer to Fletchmin-1 as `Dragline's', whoever Dragline is: sounds like an astro miner nickname, likely they've been poking about in there since finding things out. We don't need any more treachery and the tale of it gets about. I'm having a great effort to stop myself reverting to that dirty convict jargon that that lot made us learn and use even among ourselves, can't stand anyone being better spoken than themselves: how I'll avoid coming out with it at board meetings when things get heated, I don't know. At least being in space like that's unhooked me from snout, I mean tobacco and fags, there it comes out again. I don't want to see the inside of this craft again. Drop us, and those convicts, at the next base. Fletcher Mining's dead anyway, and we're on the labour market. We'll take some of the RD'ings back with us, in case relatives want any to scatter or bury: some'll want to hold something more usual for them than a spaceman's funeral.".
This was done. Mr.Jackson went with them, but Levitsky for a while stayed in space with the Jetters, who loaded their kit on and in the two PSC-1's and went back to their endless asteroid mining routine.
"Here I am, with my base store reduced to an asteroid miner spacesuit's inside and outside packs, myself `tethered in with a bunch of roughs', as Plutey-pots said that day he realized he was in space for the duration. If I went back to my Company they'd likely forget and post me back at that base, so I better wait till they've put someone else in charge there." said Levitsky a bit later, "What'll you call me?".
"In Russian and Polish, hang on, `Lev-its-sky' looks like it means `someone living at the place of a lion, or of someone called Lion'." said one of them, "Call him `Leo'. There's the constellation of Leo over there. Looks quite like the animal. There's another man or two called Leo about, but there's so many asteroid miners about that we can't help a few duplications. If necessary we use the group name as a surname.".
Life went on. As was to be expected, the six Fletchmin staff's spectacular change in feeling towards free asteroid miners, the result of thankfulness and shock, did not last very long, and a hue and cry went round for the two PSC-1's; but it was too late to get them back.
Later organized Earth landings by asteroid miners had varying success. In one of them, when a group of free spacemen came down to a planned meeting with a town council, police jumped the spacemen from nearby windows, claiming some infringement of local trading and taxation and customs laws but probably after the space kit. But the organizers of the trap had clearly underestimated the new propulsors. The spacemen rose clear of the ground, many of them with one or more terrified policemen clinging to them for their lives as the ground shrank below them and the `houses opposite' turned into a sea of roofs. Then they descended to a few feet above soft garden land and told the police to drop off; the police thankfully obeyed. An armed helicopter tried to intervene, but the spacemen `skyed' (i.e. rose at full propulsor power). Gravity and air friction slowed their ascent to 100 mph or so, but they got above it; and it could not fire upwards or climb very fast. As the air thinned and air friction got less they got faster and away into space. So they got away that time.
Another time when Stego in the Pallas-2's ventured down to a city on Earth alone, he, mentally hardened by his years in Fletchmin-1, was less merciful, and two street-robbers who had handcuffed him between them saw with dread and vain pleading the ground receding and the sky darkening and felt the air chilling and thinning to space as he ascended dragging them. Luckily he could operate his suit propulsor with his toes by switches in his suit boots; when attacked he had had just time to seal his suit. As he rose, two more attackers dropped off him early. Long Tom's laser rid him of the now space-dried bodies three days later.
An ambush with a heavy weighted rocket-fired net did not work, for the spacemen saw it as they descended, and landed out of its reach. The men on the ground made excuses until curious public got too many to be kept out, then left.
Another landing was to rescue one of them who some time ago had been sent by them to Earth to a meeting to discuss matters and grievances with Company men. He had gone in a scheduled space-liner, costing his fellows a lot to pay the fare and find him spending money for expenses and buying office-type clothes for him; he had felt it odd to be himself going through papers and writing speeches and thinking of replies to various things the opposition might bring up, like their standard idea of what businessmen are like; and at the spaceport on Earth while he was expecting to thrash out the standing disputes between them and the companies, or at least to get a reply to take back, he had been met not by a car taking him to the meeting but by an arrest squad wanting him for money allegedly owed, etc, although that was what he had gone there to discuss. Whether the other meeting delegates were party to this treachery, matters not; but he never got to the meeting (if there was a meeting), or got back into space for a long time. Word got back, and this taught the asteroid miners not to send men onto planets to meetings. After a coalminers' union took his side and sent their lawyer to help him, the company dropped the conspiracy etc criminal charges and treated it as a routine civil action for money owed; he had no means of paying the amount. A fight between company men and picketing coal miners outside an uncle of his's house taught the company not to try to recover the amount from relatives. The court told him who to work for and attached his wages. He deserted and got work elsewhere, still feeling awkward in planet gravity and confined with only two-dimensional mobility. He was found and charged with breach of court orders and sentenced to prison, as he had no way to pay fines. News finally reached the asteroids, and a free miner group propulsor descended on the prison at exercise time, lasered through the anti-helicopter netting above the exercise yard, and got him out and up before the guards could react effectively. They put him in a pressure bag as they skyed, and he was soon back in his own spacesuit, which they had kept for him. Two police helicopters flew about, unarmed and too late. A newspaper that tended to support the trade union side of matters spoke on his behalf and told the full story in the resulting public media clamour of people and organizations accusing each other like when a housing estate's dogs are set off by one of them barking at something.
But as time passes, things change, sometimes fast.
As free spacemen breed and migrate and mine and make their own kit in space until the only likely cease is when the substance of the asteroids has been built into their ever-multiplying bodies and kit to the limit of availability out there of necessary elements such as carbon and nitrogen, pressure of numbers outgrows any welcome. Random suit propulsor landings by spacemen to trade are sometimes disliked by ground authorities, particularly if local tax or trading control laws are broken or if trading turns to raiding, as cannot be denied there were cases of. One group was in the habit of getting US dollars by selling precious metals directly to jewellers on the ground, until one day. While they were trading, police and a customs officer came and loudhailered notice of arrest, for some governments are sensitive what happens to precious metals and of untaxed trade with outsiders. The spacemen went into the shop's backyard and `skyed', as they had before several times, ignoring several radioed warnings to descend and submit to arrest, knowing that in ten or fifteen minutes they would be out of atmosphere and its friction drag and able to accelerate gradually back to space speed and safety. The last they ever heard was the jet fighter's radar interference in their suit radios as its hot powerful engines blasted its dangerous-looking streamlined form there from its airfield and up after them in seven minutes, outrunning the noise of its flight. It pumped a heavy shrapnel rocket into their usual close tethered formation, demolishing them.
Thus, as often, things change. Jet fighters at quick call are one of the few things that random-landing propulsor spacemen dread as something that there is little chance of escape from once they know it is coming. A few police VTOL [= vertical takeoff and landing] jet fighters in each area, their pilots waiting in them and not having to run in from buildings, not needing long office procedure and approval for the police to call then, not needing a long runway but able to operate from any oddment of land, able to stop and rotate in the air, can efficiently clean up even large incursions by suit propulsor borne spaceman made bold to raid by the same numerousness that causes shortages that drive them to raid, as their old pioneering instinctive moral codes fade away with time. The spacemen descend to planned targets as often before. Radar sees them, and the local police know of no authorized spaceman landings there and then. The spacemen hear the fighters coming, and frantically jettison their loads and untether and scatter as they `sky'. Several jet fighters fly round and above them, able by TV links to each other to see each other's views as well as their own and thus able at once to know distance as well as direction of the scattering fast-rising targets, to back up what their radars see. In a whirlpool of whining blasting roars of jet engines and stabbing lasers and machine guns and air-to-air missiles, aimed by intelligent computers operating far faster than men can think or react, not wasting much shot, and with the old retaliation of man-carried anti-aircraft missiles long ago countered and gone, another group of space-hardened far-travelling men are summarily disposed of when they venture to act by their own rules on the planet of their species's origin. The people on the ground see and celebrate the end of a chronic spaceman raid nuisance.
Armed helicopters hunt any who try to fall and land and wait for a better time to run to space. One group of spacemen, confident that an old trick will keep on working, get above a helicopter and find too late that it can fire a gun and missiles up through its hollow rotor shaft, as was long before with some wartime German propeller fighters with a bullet tunnel built in through its engine along the rotation axis. One weapon that such spacemen do have is enemy unwillingness to spatter their suit powerpacks' radioactive contents about; but not if (as the future may bring) they have suit fusion reactors instead, or if weapons are designed to attack the man's body without breaking kit items open. Another group scatters when some way away, but a large missile reaches them and releases submissiles which spread out and home in and account for all targets: soon after it came out, it had proved itself by making a quick 100% end of a helirig gang which was flying to raid a wealthy event.
Another spaceman group tries to hyper jump away, but a fighter detects the developing jump field with a special sensor and fires a missile into it before it separates well from normal space. One group, instead of scattering, `bullets' (= packs into a streamlined shape) and so `skyes' much faster. A fighter stands on its tail, wide intakes scooping up the air needed by its hot engines, wide jet nozzles blasting like huge blowlamps at full afterburn as its lethal-looking streamlined bulk soars in pursuit. Its computer-brain thinks far faster than a man's; its pilot only has to steer it to site and decide general policy. As it turns in pursuit, it shoots two strays with a rear-pointing gun. The spacemen accelerate as the air thins as they rise, 6 miles, 7 miles, 8 miles, and the jet drops behind as the air gets too thin for its engines; it fires a missile, which at the end of its fuel reaches the accelerating spacemen and pushes among them. A small explosive charge separates them, exposing them all to its main charge and its shrapnel. Debris falls far and widely scattered to earth. With half a minute or so more time they would have got away. The action ends.
Radar reports all enemy accounted for. The pilots fly back to base and log the action and the ammunition and fuel used. Their commander prepares a reply "shot while resisting or evading arrest" for any legal consequences. The ground area is cordoned off and cleaned, and a corporation RD consumes what is found.
Thus part of the climax of the popular Earth-made film `Terror of the Space Pirates'; then in the film the pilots get public acclaim, and their personal crises are resolved as part of the emotional matter needed to offset pure action in good action stories; meanwhile with equal dramaticness a fleet of government PSC-4's, completed and ready at last (for repeated raids from space had long delayed this completion), find and attack and clean out the space pirates' base. Great is the dismay of the pirates when they see their great fear completed and in action at last. Those who have long sown the wind of their quick raidings on planets now reap a whirlwind of MST's chasing and locating and cutting in, until every enemy person is in the PSC-4s' collapsible drum-shaped holds and their base is scrap to be shovelled up by big automatic asteroid mining RD-craft, and the enemy space kit likewise, except such of it as is assigned to the follow-up Government space exploration effort, and promise fictionally of an exciting future of interstellar discovery and in reality of an equally exciting sequel.
Thus also with variations and sometimes surviving spacemen in other thrillers including many made by spacemen, occupying their long journeys through empty millions of miles between work sites and space bases, inevitably tending to colour their opinion of Earth-based authority. But apart from such dramatic writings, ability to descend at will to planets did cause trouble. Governments naturally want to control or watch who and what comes and goes across their borders, and ordinary travellers follow fixed routes and are usually easy to check. But spacemen with planet-landing suit propulsors can and want to go straight down from space to their place of business or personal visit, and treat orders to land at set sites and travel from there expensively by public transport as an unfair imposition. Some laws compromise, saying that spacemen must land at an approved immigration check, but can then propulsor fly on to destinations if they stay in atmosphere; but even that takes time, and they still often drop straight from space to any desired destination.
Reaction to such casual landings is likely to vary; if free spacemen do develop a raiding habit, the time may come when every local police force has a few jet fighters at quick call, as clear a warning seen while descending as the inshore fishermen's or naval ultrasound-gun-armed RD-equipped submersible patrol craft that visiting sport scuba divers (sometimes guilty of taking shellfish or raiding wrecks) see in the harbour on reaching the sea and so dive elsewhere or not at all. Such routine mass spaceman raids and actions against them still are in the future, if anywhere at all; but an asteroid miner group called the Quadrantids did indeed as described above trade platinum metals directly with men on the ground in defiance of local Customs laws and several warnings, until that country's first police jet fighter disposed of them. The official report said "shot while resisting or evading arrest". But widely scattered bits of their suit powerpacks caused so much radioactive contamination in the area that ground defences would think twice before using that tactic again over a town.
Some spacemen name groups or individuals after types of jet fighter or missile or spaceship or parts thereof, half hoping to give them its speed and ability in anything that may arise, even as in former times Germanic forest tribesmen were often named after the wolf and the bear and the eagle and the dragon, and the lion when they heard of it. So life goes on. The old battle between the desert and the sown, in a new form. Planet-based control may try to extend, until resources and enemy are too widely scattered to make it worthwhile; then, in a time of political disorder or economic slump, control gets slack and pulls back, or else local commanders go independent; or groups of space-dwellers take pay in government control forces, or land from space and take over and soon become a government like the one they took over from. Or the two peoples may learn to live with each other. The biggest and most intractable `enemy of the people' is simply people, numbers, too many of their own kind, and it is that enemy, bureaucracy and business slow from overload of extra office workers taken on with government subsidy to keep unemployment down to reduce the riots and crime and public discontent that it causes, not raiding spacemen, that in reality so notoriously delayed Earth development and production of such devices as the PSC-4 and the planet-landing suit propulsor.
Of such actions actual and possible and fictional the free spacemen heard, and wondered what the future might bring on Earth and in space. But at their new home in the Arda system, there are less fears of such a future. Dangerous Ardan wildlife can be avoided easier. Any remote government control bases will have to live as the spacemen do, for the dense biochemically incompatible local wildlife is a powerful defence against an Earth-style land-based government developing and keeping an airforce to attack or arrest landing spacemen, unless the spacemen build them and man them themselves for reasons of their own, as may be to defend Arda if some Earth-based government or company sends a highly-trained army in local-type space kit to take over and deny the local population the right of free far travel except to an authorized few.
Like many, the spacemen made fun of enemies that were safely distant, and one Ilmenostian TV-cartoon series was `Jettie', about a thick-headed blundering Earth-based jet fighter pilot who for all his power-blasting about and ingenious weapons never quite manages to shoot or catch any of the propulsor suit spacemen who raid his airfield and the nearby town; sometimes his jet fighter complains about pay and hours when he flies too long in it; it gasps with its `chest' heaving like a man's and complains about being `spaced' when he tries to fly it too high into over-thin air in pursuit. But plenty of harder more serious film fiction of that sort was made there, with exciting action, and dangerous rescues from all sorts of traps and prisons, and cleanouts of either side's bases by the other side; advanced computer image generation made it easy for one skilled man at a computer to make video film as realistic as if filmed live-action.
Jet Jack decided to submit to court trial on Earth, as another attempt to get his side heard and the whole matter sorted out. He took with him `Judge Dread', his group's name for a barrister who, concerned about stories filtering in from space about Company actions and treatment of the law, had gone to space as an asteroid miner to see for himself, and had joined the Jetters. They bought new suit hoods with fullface windows, so the court could see their faces clearly, and at the time on the summonses dropped in from space to the courthouse carpark, startling the public in the area. But this idea did not go well.
In the first attempt, he was subjected to the common nasty cat-and-mouse trick of gunpoint arrest at the court door and charge with assorted other offences which were largely excuses, and the two curtly hyper jumped out.
The second attempt did not go well. Coal and other Earth miners demonstrated noisily in sympathy outside the court, annoying the court officials. In a side room away from public sight some Company men tried to anaesthetize him, but his suit medipack injected an antidote quickly. He shammed continued unconsciousness until they started pulling his spacesuit off, pleading first aid necessity; then he suddenly stood up. The barrister protested. The culprits realized that there was a limit to what they could attempt in a public courthouse. They went into the court, and the trial started. The court raised queries about him instructing a barrister directly, rather than through a solicitor, and about bringing a barrister to a magistrate's court anyway. And about the barrister wearing a spacesuit, for both were very chary of unsuiting in strange places. He unhooded. The magistrate started to threaten contempt of court if the two did not unsuit, until a Company man described asteroid miner undersuit smell. The barrister raised legal queries about the arrest attempt the previous time. A Company man made the first of several moans about a clear cut case of money owed etc being fouled with legalistic bits and pieces.
Civil action: money owed. Charge: ignoring many orders to pay it. Etc.
"Oh no, the same tired overchargings in complete full with full interest as if none of our discussions with them about it had ever happened. They'd soon be in court for pricing and advertising offences if they'd tried that on you in a shop on the ground. They're like a pack of dogs that used to come round when I was a child: however often chased away, a few minutes later they were in our front barking and confronting yet again, until my father had to take a shotgun to them." said Jet Jack, and tiredly yet again recited a list of trading deceptions and breaches of pricing laws by company storemen at company space bases.
Civil action: patent infringement re spacesuit parts.
This caused the same complicated argument as various times and places before, about shortage and short service life of officially made parts until people have to make their own as a safety measure.
Charge: entry not by an official immigration channel.
"Why should I have to land a hundred miles away and have to endure the expense and crime risk and delay of public transport, when I can quickly safely drop in straight? What if you weren't allowed to drive your car to destinations but had to park it insecurely miles away and bus in? Not even as if I was allowed to land at immigration and then go up into orbit to get to my destination quick. And often I'd have to leave my suit in expensive left luggage somewhere, fussy little rules about the suit powerpack and the cylinders, and I know officials and thieving workmen well enough not to trust to find it there and complete and not tampered with when I go to get it back, or they'd charge extra bits and surcharges to let me have it back. It is my life support and my transport, and I won't leave it about. What is the legal territory status of interplanetary space? If I sailed in and got immigration in Dover, say, I wouldn't have to leave my boat there: I'd be allowed to sail on to other British ports without having to go through immigration again. How different is space from that?".
The matter thus got complicated. Instead of carrying on with the case, the Company side persuaded the court to adjourn for a really long time so they could consult documents. Jet Jack was bailed to reappear in a month's time. The barrister pleaded in vain against the adjournment. On Company suggestions the court ordered Jet Jack to deposit his spacesuit as bail surety, despite the barrister's pleas that it was needed for work. Back to that again. The two spacemen hyper jumped out with their spacesuits on. This time the police in court knew better than to try to stop them.
The month passed. The time arrived. Jet Jack and the barrister appeared out of
hyper in the courtroom, bypassing a better organized plan to arrest him at the
building door, for he had well noted the coordinates the previous time. The
Company pleaded difficulty assembling documents, and asked for another
adjournment. The magistrate objected, and spoke his mind about organizational
slowness. Judgement on the legal status of direct entry from space was adjourned
awaiting a final decision by an alphabet soup of slowly-acting committees who
were waiting for each other's findings. The patents were discussed again; the
barrister queried the legality of some recent Company renewals of space kit
patents. The company men dropped charges re the patents, or seemed to. Thus the
matter and hopes of a resolution trailed off to nothing. The two spacemen hyper
jumped out and went back to work with their group. Life went on.