To those who have read parts 1 to 4 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).
Time passed, and there was no overt sign of trouble. More than merely an inshore trawler built optimistically on Arda before its builders found what biochemical incompatibility between Ardan and Earth life was, was hyperspace jumped to Earth and sold to buy things. Earth wanted hyperspace jumpers and spaceship propulsors, and Ilmenostian long-trip spacesuits were so well spoken of that they were first choice for many Earth spacemen, and Earth kit makers had to accept it despite remaining quibbles about patents. And other things were sold, and from time to time Earth government representatives queried about it.
"About your trade in nuclear technology with all and sundry:" said one such on a visit to Ilmenost (the free spacemen's main base on an asteroid in the Anor star system), "production-sized (not experimental small) fast breeder reactors for anyone willing to pay, and full plans how to make them sold to even more, so bypassing the need for expensive difficult uranium isotope enrichment which until now has been a reliable check on nuclear proliferation. And I'm getting tired of being in a spacesuit day and night for weeks like an asteroid miner, as if nobody round here's heard of spaceships with pressurized cabins. And RD's give me the willies, the way everything vanishes into them, and I don't really like having a little one built into my spacesuit's life support system.".
"But you lot keep saying that with energy sources getting less, you're trying to make efficient fast breeder reactors to get the best out of your uranium-238 and thorium, and that any help's welcome. Some of you want nuclear power to continue, to save on other fuels, and some don't. Decide which, can't you nations? Or would you rather see everybody go back to the 18th century because some environmental bunch has given you a phobia against anything nuclear? If you want to stop the most radioactive pollution of the air, stop burning coal, all the uranium and thorium that was in the coal and goes up in the smoke, much more than comes from atomic places, or so it seems from what I've read." said Jet Jack, the leader of the free spacemen group called the Jetters, who were asteroid mining for supplies including to make the articles in dispute.
"I'm from the government of a nation who's buying one, and they told me to say this:" said another man who seemed not quite at home in a long-trip spacesuit, "we kept trying to get one or materials and plans to make one, from people on Earth, we need it to make power when our oil etc runs short and so on, but all we got was excuses, like this one: `About your enquiry about nuclear reactors'" he angrily paraphrased the officialese, "`sorry regret sorry regret, writing smudged with tears, but I am not empowered to tell you a #%$ thing about it.', so we are getting one where we can. At least this time, `as it is on earth, it is thankfully not so here in heaven, to the excuse-makers is the power and the glory until a big destructive riot shifts them, for ever and ever, amen'.".
"Yes, we aren't so eager to see fast breeder reactors. We soon realized they'd bypass the need for isotope separators and make nuclear proliferation too easy. Also, we hold that we've some rights to what we've discovered and need to keep secure. You boast of as new and state-of-the-art and publish to all and sundry as your own and given your names, discoveries and techniques that we made 30, 40, 50 years ago and decided for these very good reasons to keep quiet about. For instance this way of arranging the fuel and the U-238 that you call the `Puff Adder technique', silly-sounding name that everybody'll be using for it soon, I suppose named after one of your men (those nicknames after weapons and poisonous snakes and all sorts that on Earth where I live only back street roughs use or answer to), and you tell everybody about it, we patented it over 40 years ago as the `Ivanov-Elliott technique' and it's still officially top secret and I shouldn't have told you about that now, but it's too late and thanks to you the world now knows about that technique and others.
You write so quite explicitly here: `It soon became quite clear that despite much funding by governments Earth fast breeder reactor technology had advanced little beyond a few small experimental set-ups: no-one that we contacted knew anything or knew where anything could be found; being free from officialdom we at Ilmenost and on Arda have broken much fresh ground very quickly and without outside funding.'. It's quite clear that, as well as your most inconvenient financial law that debt interest can't be enforced, you lot've now got your private scientific ethics rule that secret work and information is to be treated as nonexistent, calling us all incompetent to all and sundry, and giving you discoverer's rights such as naming it and not having to bother whether it's patented. And you did have outside funding, lots of it, from Companies and governments, namely a lot of training that they've never been paid for, and kit that you ran off with. Even ignoring all the unauthorized kit copying including that hyperspace jumper. That Company astronomy star pattern recorder that your X-100's ran off with and used it to discover Anor with, was only one bit of it.
Not the only time it's happened. Back in the 1950's scuba diving started to become a sport: OK in warm clear water, but in Britain the Navy and Siebe Gorman kept it to themselves and diving gear too expensive for most people, and said that cold dark British water's not the place to muck about in frogman's kit for fun. So sport divers makeshifted, and to them in Britain the Russians quietly turned to find about diving gear when official bodies wouldn't tell. I saw an early Russian aqualung once [and so did I: Author]: easy to see what sport divers' backstreet workshop throw-together it was a somewhat improved copy of: high pressure valve off a blowtorch, propane-type intermediate connection, low pressure valve made from a bottled butane regulator, tank meant for RAF oxygen, other parts home-made, and they'd called it state-of-the-art scuba diving gear.
All these corners cut to get a fast breeder breeding and making power as quick as possible so you could copy it and sell them, e.g. this one that you say is the first one built at a place called Aulien on Arda: ye catfish it's got no secondary sodium circuit, and its steam condenser / recycler to catch all that radioactive steam looks so new that odds 10 to 1 on it was running without one for quite some time, no containment, next to no shielding except on the side towards the buildings; reaction so irregular that you've got to operate the control rods individually and keep taking fuel rods out and moving them about and turning them over, and cutting them in half and rejoining them ends to middle; and on this drawing of it it's obvious that to do that or anything like that you've got to open the reactor's lid blasting gamma rays and gaseous fission products into the atmosphere, corners cut, corners cut, if you don't get a string of meltdowns and pressure blowouts and Chernobylate your precious new planet Arda into a desert before your grandchildren are old I'll be surprised.
OK, so your new reactors are much better, but you still haven't heard of many Earth laws and agreements about reactors. Those three Company nuclear scientists that deserted and went over to you (don't tell me I can't recognize that one who calls himself Control Rod, that tall thin character): they were theoretical and lab men, them trying to be reactor design engineers out in the wilds without adequate training or equipment or supplies. Only now are you going round Aulien gradually putting containments and full shielding on the reactors there. OK, so you've about learned proper reactor safety design by now, by repeating experience that we went through long ago and could have told you about. And never before have I known the zirconium alloy sheaths for fuel rods to be made in halves bolted together and afterwards carefully unbolted off and re-used.
That man who calls himself `Control Rod' is Dr.Enzheimer, who was an important Company nuclear scientist with contacts with colleagues in other organizations. He kept shooting his mouth off about Company policy in handling asteroid miners, and was twice reprimanded severely for it; then he took a lot of documentation and software and either disappeared or absconded, now I know where to.
Too easy now to join the nuclear club. First dig uranium ore and get the metal out of it by crude and dirty 19th-century methods. Then make a 1940's-type `atomic pile', literally, a lot of natural uranium and graphite piled up in a spare building, and while that's making plutonium build the breeder, and if no good contractor'll touch the job then round up thousands of men with picks and shovels and barrows. Then pull the atomic pile apart with ordinary JCB's and fish out the uranium and process it to extract the plutonium like in an ordinary chemical factory and work out the details as you go. Then cast the plutonium into rods as if it was some ordinary metal. Then load the breeder, and that's you away (and after that it's too easy to make an atom bomb). Tidy up the radioactive leaks as well as you can afterwards. You need control rods: try to buy cadmium, nobody'll sell it to you 'cos they know what you want it for, so buy up all the borax you can and process it for the boron in it to make control rods that way. And depth-charge any nosy environmental group's divers that muck about round the outfall pipe, if the outfall doesn't kill them first. It'll make the air and sea radioactive for miles, but who cares? They didn't bother about dirtying the area when they built big factories last century. So some would say.
It's already happened once on Earth. A country going back to a man and horse economy with no public services as coal and oil and new uranium ran low. Plenty of thorium and depleted uranium, but no way to turn it into fissiles, and the government didn't want to: only fenced-off sites of big good modern reactors that had been pulled down years ago. Then an industrialist with a vision found uranium ore and told nobody, but set up what he said was a wave-powered factory. He made a pile and then a breeder just like I described. Plus salvaging and reprocessing a big dump of old fuel rods that he'd found about and dug a tunnel into. And he advertized to convert anyone's thorium and used uranium into U-233 and plutonium, and said in the brochure that his reactor was modern (which it was if you ignore all knowledge that officials `hadn't been prepared to divulge' about to him and therefore to him didn't count as existing). To build his breeder, all he had to go on was a few bookshop books about nuclear physics and the like, and some simulation on an ordinary PC computer with programs that he wrote himself. Christ alone knows how his random throw-together worked as well as it did and didn't melt down at once. But it worked, and it generated, and when he had to reset its power level as demand varied it was like a wild horse, but he and the staff there got used to it. [Even so the pride of Poland's steel industry for decades in Communist times and after was the big steelworks at Nowa Huta, built by Russia in the 1950's as a copy of 1930's and earlier USA designs and with dirtiness and coal consumption accordingly.]
Soon so many out-of-work people went there to get work where there was electricity from it, and so well armed by him, that when several years later the Government found out, all they could do was quietly send him advisors and money to help him build a better cleaner safer breeder reactor, and to pretend that's what they'd planned all along, men pulled out of other jobs or retirement when they'd thought they'd seen the last of neutrons and actinides ages ago. Either that, or a Government ex-reactor man took pity on him struggling to repeat work that had been done ages ago, and went over to him, and others followed him. In either case the country's prime minister, who had risen to power through an environmental organization, had to go back on a lifetime of promises and stand there wearing one of the place's radiation overalls and safety helmets with the place's `fissioning atom' badge on and formally announce government support and plans for the place and plans to build others like it. But it got that country back into the power and public utilities and industry age, and the controversy over him blew up into workers' disorders that brought the government down: to many, getting a job and having power to warm the house and cook food, matter first. Some accused him that "of elements he again brought forth / the Unnatural One, the 94th", and many similar lamenting lines that their pre-industrial pastoral idyll hadn't returned for good after all; but life before industry came was only idyllic for the rich, and most people had to live and doss as roughly and dirtily as only tramps do now - and some of the accusers went home and slept easier for their smoke detectors, which work by detecting how smoke interferes with alpha particles that come from a tiny bit of americium-241 (element 95).
Before that, the government tried once to close him down: they daredn't risk a big attack or they'd risk a Chernobyl there, so on a festival day when they thought people'd be off guard they undercover sent a special armed force with guns and warrants to take the place over long enough to fill it with a load of boron beads that they brought with them, so with the power dead the area'd `die on the vine'. But the reactor staff and workmen around overcame them in a long fight with all sorts of weapons: it is said that the attackers' commander was slingshotted out David-and-Goliath-fashion by a lab technician with a lump of americium-241 from the place's labs, of all the ways for someone as antinuclear as him to go. The boron beads became iron boride control rods and shielding: over his radio station he thanked the government for the kind gift of it, and others then blamed the government for such a breach of their much publicized anti-nuclear stand; but in the end he had to be accepted as official as the country's new nuclear programme. His RD-equipped submersible patrol / capture / dredging craft tracelessly unseen consumed various environmental group frogmen found reconnoitring or blocking outfall pipes or the like. Some still accused and demonstrated; in reply he helped his town's TV station to set a fiction series in the country's recent past but with the old reactor establishments surviving through and developing fast breeding at an easy steady rate in plenty of time instead of his actual desperate unsafe rush to build a new one from the ground up and working while the country still had enough fossil fuel power left to do the job so the country is not forced back to a pre-industrial economy sooner than needs be, and the government was left to meditate on what was versus what might have been as a symbol of their foremost technology. Such sorts of local de-facto independence tend to develop when central government gets weak.
So much for that: now you lot come along. What's this other paper you've brought?: `A Natural Nuclear Reactor' ... all about some place called Nunarien - `over geological time groundwater amassed uranium until it went critical ... through the reactor core and forms the headwaters of the Nunorduin river ...', ye gods the dirty thing, lucky we haven't had any on Earth that we know of, since 2 billion years ago at Oklo in Gabon in Africa. Chernobyl was bad enough. The only good that came from that was when lambs couldn't be sold till they'd been tested, so they came to the butchers `Cherno-belatedly' when they'd grown good and big with proper filling-sized chops and joints from them for once. That word gets thrown about too much. Once I heard of a dairy manager who kept not getting his churns back because farmers were keeping them to store seed and stuff in, complaining that `the churn bill is Chernobylating my bank account'.
At least the reactors you've been sending to Earth are adequately safe, often suddenly appearing where you've hyper jumped them down in all sorts of small countries, and more being built there. The sooner all this work of ours that you've duplicated and published's been taken off our secret lists, the better, so we can publish a true history of who first discovered and patented and named what when where and of how much useful work we've done, you @#$ spacemen giving everybody the idea we've been doing next to nothing in this line for donkey's years. I've already seen an Earth nuclear physics textbook which described the Ivanov-Elliott technique and other things, using your names for them, and saying how much Earth nuclear science is indebted to you lot for these new advances.
And, are you sending us your best? If a fast breeder's customers get half their U-238 back as Pu-239 they're lucky, and it's the same if the reactor's one you made; but here you routinely return two thirds of the original fertile as fissile, I heard. Why so much lost in conversion anyway? Actinides cost, and 50% more back'd be welcome! Like in the old days when farmers kept getting much less flour back from the mill than the corn they sent in, and the miller's pig was by sheer coincidence the fattest in the village.".
"2/3 back?! Not till you find natural plute-244 on Earth!" Jet Jack replied indignantly, "We've got plenty from recent supernova fallout. Before you call us inefficient, how much nuclear physics do you know? Always some's lost in the conversion, some of us call it `Seaborg's rake-off' after the man that first made plute [in 1941 in USA]. Of course some must fission to make neutrons to convert the rest! One neutron to carry the chain reaction on, one to make a new fissile atom to replace the one used, and only what's left after that and losses can make net increase in fissiles. If the fissile atoms in a breeder make n neutrons each after losses, you get 1-1/(n-1) of your original fertile back as fissile. Plute-239 in a fast breeder makes 3 and a bit neutrons a time, that's about 1-1/2 = a half back. That 2/3 back's when we breed plute-244 into curium-245!, which makes about 4 neutrons a fission in a fast breeder, so you get about 1-1/3 = 2/3 back.".
"Why breeders anyway?, when you've got so much fresh fissile actinide about, natural `enriched' uranium all over the place, and natural fissile curium-247 even! I've heard of that big new actinide ore find of yours on Arda in those mountains called Ered Kalashnikov. (Who ever thought of that placename?, Tolkien and automatic rifles together.) And, talking about safety with actinides, if `Plutey-pots' on that man's helmet over there means what I suspect about his oxygen cylinders, they better be 244!"
"When we use nuclear fuel, we use it completely, not accumulate used fuel rods and keep making a mess and using energy mining fresh fuel when we needn't. We make curium-245 mostly for steady heat such as in spacesuit powerpacks.
A lot of the place names were given by the X-100's when they first surveyed about. They're fond of Tolkien. They had hundreds of ground features to name quickly, and they thought those mountains seen from space looked like a rifle.".
"Oh. And of all these fancy new discoveries of yours, we will now see which are duplications of earlier and still patented Earth work, and which derive from work of ours that that disloyal Dr.Enzheimer and any others ran away with.".
"OK, OK, I can see it coming: a paper called `Refuting Ilmenostian claims of priority in various nuclear technology advances' or the like. But, for example, if Mr.Ivanov and Mr.Elliott wanted their discovery to be recognized, why didn't they publish it properly? We found absolute zero about it in any of the nuclear science books and papers that we've had from Earth, and in the end our man Puff Adder discovered it here separately. OK, OK, Company and government secrecy, the enemy of scientific advance. The Bible talks about lighting a lamp and then hiding it under a bushel measure: a boy heard that and said that either the light'd go out or the bushel'd catch fire: all too true. Control Rod wasn't disloyal, he stayed loyal as long as he could, but in the end, what with scientific and technological advances kept hidden, and Company policy towards asteroid miners, he didn't like what was going on, so he came over to us.".
"Oh. We're back to that. Whistle-blowers and not-likers of what's going on, that general pest and old enemy of secrecy. And tongues loosened by drink. When's someone going to make a working deuterium fusion reactor? I saw a working protium fusion reactor - not as real but as a mock-up in a space fiction film, a metal tank on someone's back, with stuff in it supposedly heated to 40,000,000 degrees, for that's what you need to get protium [= ordinary hydrogen] to fuse fast enough to be any use, and then by the `carbon cycle': if you chuck protons at protons they hardly ever react however hard they hit each other, that's why stars last so long and don't go off like hydrogen bombs as soon as they form. Forty million degrees on my back! I'd sooner go about with an atom bomb chained to me. No point keep on arguing: you lot have blown secrecy on much that we wanted keeping quiet. And now we know the answers to a few mysteries: why that `atom weed' with the unnatural biochemistry's started growing on old atom bomb test sites on Earth, I know, you lot accidentally brought seeds in on your dirty spacesuits when you landed sneak for some private trading, now I know it grows wild on your planet Arda. And that plute silicate stuff labelled `seaborgite' that's turned up recently in some mineral collections on Earth, and the curators told us it was a natural mineral, but with plute in how could it be!?".
"Keep quiet, what for? People need to know how to use thorium and U-238, so they've got power till they get fusion reactors working. More commercial secrecy delaying discovery, like with hyperspace jumpers, and scared that someone'll make an atom bomb or two. It's that and holding out till fusion reactors are online, versus most of the people going back to the 18th century long before they need to.
And while we're here, about another sort of explosive that various people've asked us about: in any agreement we swear in the name of all real and fictional space heroes that have ever been heard of, that we will not sell or give etc to any person or company or nation etc any living part or propagation material of `Keraunorrhiza detonans', the Ardan landmine bush, or any similar species, and we will by all possible means stop any who tries to get hold of any. We aren't going to get a reputation for peddling that sort of weapon.".
"Pity, that's one of the things that we'd come to discuss, us getting seed of them." someone said, and then muttered "@#$ moralists.", and asked "How on earth did such a thing evolve, anyway?".
Cobra in the Jetters, who was a biologist, replied: "A family of semi-desert bushes stored wet-season water in root swellings, which in those thirsty places soon had to store various poisons to stop digging animals from eating them. In one form the poison was explosively unstable, and thus as a defence against grazing animals evolution developed and then all too thoroughly perfected the natural root landmines of the notorious genus Keraunorrhiza. K. detonans is the species first discovered, as is sometimes when a species's specific name calls it something which is true for all the genus; some other species were named with no concession to Latinism by an explosives expert who was called in to advise: Keraunorrhiza schu, a small but vicious sort, lucky it's got a very distinctive branch and leaf shape; Keraunorrhiza claymore, with an unusually big amount of shrapnel that mostly flies out sideways, to defend against packs of soft-skinned animals. If there's too many growing close together, you may even get a chain reaction: one goes off, and bits and stones thrown about set others off, and so on until most of the patch has exploded. But that isn't the end, because its seeds get thrown everywhere, and the bushes can regrow from odd torn bits. Animal evolution fights back: some big animals evolve skin armour and can regrow lost limbs; some animals dig a bunker near a landmine bush and back-heel stones out at it to detonate it and then come in and eat its scattered remains. And there's some very efficient insect grubs that eat out the landmines and kill the bushes; they can breed parthenogenetically as larvae, so the adult insect only need lay a few eggs per bush.".
"The people that asked me to ask about them said they were only going to research into them.".
"I'll believe that when I've asked Nunarien's operating staff about it.".
"I thought that Nunarien was natural and not made or operated by man.".
"Yes, I know that. Like when those aggressive tinkers that Red Scorpion found bullying his parents and the area about when he visited Earth recently, and we hyper jump grabbed the whole @#$ lot away to make them leave people alone: some of them did a runner from here and thought they'd heard of a really big reactor away not well guarded to take over as a power base: but it was Nunarien, and they found too late what it was, no operating staff to compel at gunpoint, or anything else of use to them. Even before that, people said that such-and-such was about as likely as meeting Nunarien's operating staff, and suchlike expressions; and names developed like `Nunarien's control rods' for a sort of radiation resistant bush that grows there, from what its stems look like.".
"Oh. Yet another funny way of saying `never' or `I don't believe it'.".
"Not long before legends and ghost stories collected round that place, I've heard." said Plutey-pots, "Anyone who treads the ground in Reactor Gully, or searches the deadly waters of the Nunorduin and its source pool called Nunornen at the foot of the hot cliff, he must take the risk, and it happened a few times that someone fell to the perils of the place and before the radiation sickness ended him told of things he thought he'd seen, even Nunarien's operating staff looking impassively at him from the valley-side rocks, weird and unnatural: it became a saying that anyone who saw them had not long to live. People in that sort of state imagine all sorts of things, often according to ideas that were in their heads before: often hallucination follows existing superstition and thus reinforces it.".
"It went further once." said another, "There's a story that someone was stranded on the ground there with none of his kit working and no way of getting it working, and he was in a bad way from hunger and from exposure to radioactive spray: whether by act of enemy internecine or external, or whatever, versions vary. He wandered about in the river gorge, seeking help and not finding it, having to stay out of sight from above, until the enemies found him again (in those versions). Whether desperate not to be captured alive, or whatever, he jumped into the source pool and swam to its bottom expecting a quick end. "At least I will see the bed of the Nunornen, even if I never return to report it!" he thought as his mind darkened over.
But he found himself sucked in through a submerged hole in the cliff base to an underground water surface, where he was carried into a well-lit room. He recognized from dark rumour the beings in there: Nunarien's control staff, who no man sees and lives long afterwards. Weird and distorted they were from human shape, and each had an extra eye in the back of his head and two extra arms on the back of his shoulders; their human guest or captive's backbone went icy cold at the unnatural forms. Clearly they were what may have arisen if the long line of Ardan land vertebrate evolution had at last led to sentience one of the common Ardan eight-legged hairy tree-climbers [not spiderlike but with the four extra legs growing upwards, a rare abnormality that became normal when it was an advantage; the eight legs derive from the fore and aft steering fins of a torpedo-like fast predatory water animal that went onto land]. He had seen similar forms in biologists' speculations of the future and in Ilmenostian fiction stories, but nowhere else; their present-day real ancestors had not yet come down from the trees, or had not yet been known to have.
They kept him there some time and fed him. He recognized the taste of food derived from Ardan native plants and animals, and expected a quick end from the well-known and all too often proved biochemical incompatibility, but no harm came to him from it. The room looked like any other reactor control room, except for the alien writing and the evidence of millennia of age. They repaired his kit, and re-clothed him, in clothes like their own but adapted for his body shape. He wondered if such beings would ever walk on Arda in reality: he had heard tales of ghosts of future events as well as of past events. He slept and woke in there, in a good bed in a room where all instruments had told men there was only solid rock, steadily healing from his weariness and wounds, until one day he woke outside on the forest floor on the plateau top above the buried natural reactor. He was out, and safe, and he never saw the beings again except in dreams; and his immediate latest memory was diving into the hot pool.
Geophysical survey there a little later showed no sign of underground chambers or passages, except millimetre cracks for the oozing water which was Nunarien's refueller and moderator (to slow the neutrons so they can be caught easier) and control system, and no sign there had ever been any. He dismissed the matter as quite obviously hallucination caused by severe physical distress, and attributed his survival to luck and his body's own biological repair mechanisms. Somehow in his delirium he must have got out of the pool and climbed the hot radioactive cliff. He radioed to be picked up and went back to normal life, the only man to have seen those who he had seen there and lived long afterwards.
But he was healed and had put on several pounds of weight, and his kit, which had all been damaged far beyond repair, was in a fully repaired and recharged condition when he woke on the surface afterwards. There was clear medical evidence that he had eaten a hugely lethal amount of Ardan living matter; but he was not dead or ill from it. And he was in an anti-radiation suit that no man had made and was far better than any that man has ever made or is ever likely to make for some time. He still has the suit, and from time to time uses it.
Some say he was not in Nunarien as we know it but in the control room of a reactor which native Ardans will build there in the far future, and that lands will move and mountains wear low and new mountains arise, and exposed rocks will erode away to the sea and others be revealed, before those he saw will walk on Arda or the anti-radiation suit they gave him will be designed and made.
Did he see the past, or the future, or what might have been? If it was the future, then we men using the Anor system's resources are their trustees, and must not disperse metals beyond recovery, or use up actinides, so that when those he saw come to reality and their time of technology they would not find everything used up. What happened to him is a lesson. It is said that coming events cast shadows before them. C.S.Lewis wrote in `A Voyage to Venus', that the huge interstellar distances are God's quarantine regulations so each planet's life and culture can evolve undisturbed in its own time. Now hyperspace jumpers have blown that quarantine to pieces, even as sea-voyaging Man on Earth destroyed or damaged many distinctive native human cultures and natural wildlife systems, and the second defensive line, biochemical incompatibility between men and local life, is a much weaker guard. Myself, I feel that in the depths of Nunarien Arda herself spoke directly to a man, warning him and us of this.".
"How come some likely animals go sentient and some don't?" Plutey-pots asked.
"On Earth, some of the small running dinosaurs looked promising that way," said Cobra, "and I've seen a picture of a sort of reptile man that's reckoned would have evolved from them, but one thing stopped it in reality: they all laid hard-shelled eggs, and there's a limit to the size of an egg, so there's a limit to the size of the brain of the newly hatched young. Later, Ramapithecus the monkey and its relatives would have swung from tree to tree forever, till elephants got big enough to push trees down to eat the leaves, destroying a lot of forest, so some of the apes had to scavenge on open grassland, till one sort started throwing stones and batoncharging to chase hyenas and wild dogs off their kills; and that needed quick reactions and organization and intelligence, as any riotsquad training sergeant'll tell you. Thus Man started, likely. When if ever those eight-legged Ardan tree-climbers - Octoscelea I call them - will ever go sentient: who knows? There are so many chances: another sort of ground predator, and Earth apes might not have been able to live out of reach of trees to take refuge up.
And I better start writing up descriptions of some of these new species. With plants I've got to write a Latin version also: the Earth botany organizations still insist on it [and in reality: Author], except for bacteria. And in the Keraunorrhizidae having to write explosives handling matter in Latin in the descriptions (I better warn the readers that they're @#% dangerous things), and for a start there's no good Latin word for `explode': `detonare' means `to stop thundering', as in weather, and `explodere' means `to hiss a bad actor off the stage'. And that tree called `Propanodendron lethale' with those @#$ great spines that stab out and inject high-pressure gas, vicious things meant to see off big thick-skinned grazing animals, I've still not got around to describing that formally. Here goes.
Switch my suit computer on and start a new file. Load a standard start: 'Imperium Ardabiota. Regnum Plantae. Phylum Florifera. Classis Archaeoflora." now to start: `Ordo Triplifolia. Familia Protak-Pete-aceae' (well, he found the first plant of that family, or at least he squashed a tuft of it when he landed that time, and called it some names, and I'm starting to get stuck for names). `Genus et species novae Rhabdophyton radii-gubernatores vulgo Nunarien's control rods.', enough without having to find Latin words for nuclear reactor parts now, it's one of those small plants grown big in unusual habitats like Ruwenzori giant groundsel in Africa, `Habitat Nunarieni' (no, not `Nunariendesse', those X-100's and their Tolkien, I know the Roman authors often declined Greek words as Greek, but I'm not doing it with Quenya), `in terra molle in litoribus stagni nominati Nunornen qui est sub praecipitio reactoris', etc etc, `radioactivitatem saepe durans', etc, `periculum: omnis illic radioactivissimus est', etc, that's where that character Eland turned up again who came and pretended to be a biologist, I'd have been glad of some help, but he wasn't one but only a Company man nosing about furtively so up to no good, I asked him a bit about skulls and he thought `ontology' was `oncology' and went off into a fund-raiser's promotion speech about cancer research and nothing about the biology of it.". So he said to himself as he caught up with arrears of biological writing-up, floating in space in the asteroid belt of the Anor star system far from his planet of birth.
"Apart from telling creepy tales about Nunarien, when are you lot going to have something new to offer us about your most inconvenient laws and customs not recognizing the financial joint-stock system and debt interest?" said the Earth representative who had queried about breeder reactors, "And not recognizing company limited liability, and you've started to put some Earth nations up to that also, like that man d'Evreux from France that you're holding here and letting a lot of Earth-men from England sue him under your laws? A pity if he can't come even here without liabilities that he thought he was rid of and a clean start, and you blame us for doing that to you.".
"And it's a pity that these Earth-men have had to fork out to hire transport across space and go beyond the Pleiades to get justice." said an Ilmenostian called The Arbiter, who was often called on to decide disputes, "The case isn't about interest or finance or trusting an advertized price and then refusing to pay more or accept less, or the like. The plaintiffs are ordinary private people that paid him for things and didn't get them, and the defendant according to their evidence kept abandoning old companies and forming new like a crab shedding its shell to get rid of barnacles [same in Arda's sea as in Earth's].".
"The Bible has things to say about someone who was forgiven an enormous debt and then had a man imprisoned for a little debt. All it needed was an astronomer back from your place to hear him mentioned on that consumer rights TV program and telltale about it to the program.".
"Enormous and little by whose rules? A lot of these ordinary small people can't afford to lose odd hundreds, while big companies throw ten-thousands about like dead leaves. He shed his liabilities along with his old company and formed a new one, over and over again, just like we asteroid miners weren't allowed to. I thought you had laws to stop the same man from keep on forming and winding-up more companies like that. First he was in central heating, and up to his @#%'s in complaints from customers, then he was in furniture and @%# cunning at being out when people called for what they'd paid for, then a trade directory that never got printed, then etc, and never his hands got dirty or rough. Then he tried to hide up in space, and he tried it on over here as a metals agency: he didn't like it at all when people used him once and thus met and traded directly leaving him out next time, he had the cheek to call it cheating, `the curium accused the plute of being radioactive'. And other times over here he took someone's money and never tried to find a contact for him.".
"And talking about curium, I know what your oxygen cylinders are made of, and never mind the nuclear materials regulations, wild showoff lot, and kit items made of actinides just to be different. Same as that man Plutey-pots and that man Hot-pots, oxy tanks made out of plutonium and boasting about it - which isotope, anyway? And for instance that one called Rattler: what are those snakes on his cylinders made out of? Just like consumer protection groups, bringing a baying horde of customers after a man when he's down. Another thing: in actinide stores the rule is to put boron among it to stop it from going critical, and so you do: sometimes merely by throwing borax around as if you were keeping the cockroaches down!".
"What's my oxy tanks to do with it? Rattler's snakes are made of ytterbium, an ordinary `rare earth' metal. Just a way of storing value as valuable metals. Back in the Solar System we soon learned not to trust Company credits. Down? The defendant brought himself down by wasting his customers' money on high living and speculating about. And about the `joint-stock system': I'm not having factories and workshops getting into the hands of people who know nil about the men's work there, just by buying shares up, like some new landlord back on Earth buying a house over its tenants' heads. If a firm borrows and doesn't pay back when it can, the court sorts it out: no need for the lenders to be given the power to mess about in the firm's affairs that they know nothing about, just to be sure they get paid; and no need for interest as an automatic penalty for late payment, as ordering that sort of penalties are the court's business. That rule may have been fine when most businesses were only trading, but look at the mess that results when some businessman who knows nothing about electronics tries to run an electronics factory, or whatever. And, with all the work and research and exploration to do here, I'm not having a nonproductive class develop, whether it's businessmen or officials or whatever. If you want a `faceless bureaucrat' round here, we've got the ultimate!, a sentient computer that does a lot of the routine paperwork and petty organizing, without risking humans in the job getting undesirable managerialisms or acting officious over bits of paper or trying to look efficient putting people to nuisance or loss over petty bits of nothing or squeezing people's budgets for its own sake.".
"Oh. I see. Like colonies on Earth when they were building up, all rough frontier-minded action men and nobody to keep track of it except a local lawman who had to wear every official hat in town. At the moment here, explorers and the like are using up all your capacity to supply people who are not immediately producing anything. It may not be always so. Then you'll need a way to keep idle hands busy to stop Satan from making work for them. And there'll be more and more people here to keep track of. Then you'll need more judiciary and lawyers than one man sporting a pair of curium-247 oxygen cylinders on his spacesuit: that stuff on your back's fissionable, for God's sake. And a proper courtroom in atmosphere, not just everybody involved tethered to each other floating in millions of cubic miles of nothing.".
[Half lives involved: Natural Ardan isotopes: Pu-244 81,000,000 years, Cm-247 16,000,000 years; artificial Earth isotopes: Pu-239 24100 years, Cm-245 8500 years. They all decay by alpha emission. All fissionable except Pu-244.]
"My oxy tanks didn't come out of a reactor." said the Arbiter, "The Anor system caught a lot of fallout from a big supernova nearby only 23,000,000 years ago, and a big lot of fresh actinides in it. Anyway, back to the point. That man d'Evreux. He stays here till he's worked the amount off, or till he coughs up from wherever he salted it away the money that his succession of businesses quote-lost-unquote; then we'll send it back to Earth to the plaintiffs.
My grandfather once: three men turned up in his village and ran a savings club, and each week drank the takings, and disappeared when the savers started wanting their money back. They were caught and put in prison, but that didn't bring the money back. So my grandfather and some other men went to the pub with guns and made the publican-and-sinner there pay the missing amount, since the publican had taken all that money off the three and knew @%$ well that it was more than they could have earned, and the people who lost it needed it back.".
"You sound like several things that you accuse Companies of being. D'Evreux only had a run of bad luck.".
"No. That d'Evreux wasn't a workman having to borrow on usury to avoid starving, and the amount built up. He could have quite well stayed at his first trade and done a proper job steadily, but he had to spoil it, losing money and wasting work time trading in something irrelevant, and so it went on. I'm not adding in any officials' fees or costs, just the straight total of what people paid him for goods that never came or were no good, plus what it cost them in bus fares etc trying to chase him up. Well, he came over here, and as I said. Easily into one of our long-trip work spacesuits, but not so easily out of it, he'll find. We've got where we are by not letting businessmen and officials eat up what should go to scientists and explorers, and it's staying so for now.".
"Yes, I know, too much science, and a mass of secret atomic work duplicated and published, as I said, and secret space kit duplicated and used by wild asteroid miners instead of who it was intended for. Too much ingenuity in the wrong place, same as unused computer programming talent is wasted on nuisance hooligan computer virus writing and cracking anti-copying precautions, Satan makes work for idle hands. When I saw on the TV you lot casually giving those astronomers a lift in a PSC-4, which was intended as a special forces and police spacecraft, and we haven't even got them to a working prototype, but you get hold of the plans and casually finish them, I realized that we've lost space same as we lost Mars after that colonist's rebellion against the Companies.
Yes, the super-advanced space aliens that the schizos talk of, exist, and you are them! You and the Companies between you robbed Earth of its pride of first expedition to another star: while the Companies kept hyperspace jumpers hidden and only for use by its agents, you unauthorizedly copied that one that you got hold of from that deserting special enforcement squad, and before the Explorer-1 was anywhere near ready for its expedition to Capella, it turned out that a bunch of you lot had unauthorizedly come here first; and the Explorer-1 sat at Cape Canaveral while its five crew, and that astronomer who was planned to go with them and got impatient and called you lot in, were stuffed into one of your propulsor spacesuits each and 'jumped to Capella like a casual taxi ride and came back not dead but sure smelling like they were when they finally got a chance to take off those spacesuits of yours with their dirty recycling kit full of radioactivity and their occupants' sewage. They didn't even know which of them would have been captain etc. No wonder people try to reconstruct in fiction what we were denied in reality, and make films and comic strips of the Explorer-1 flying to Capella and elsewhere as planned and its crew's adventures.
Who now to claim pride and honour for as Earth's first expedition to another star? Protak Pete and his bunch the X-100's with their backstreet rough type nicknames who should have been asteroid mining in the Solar System, no fitting names to name important streets or buildings or places on Earth after, events not authorized by or claimable by any Earth nation or body, and not known of on Earth till many years afterwards. What'd happen if a town council wanted to name an estate of streets after them?: Control Rod Street, King Cobra Street, etc: who'd want to live in streets named after men named after poisonous snakes, reactor parts, sharp and blunt weapons, dangerous animals, etc? Forget it.".
Even so expedition plans fail sometimes. In former times, Scott after bitter effort reached the South Pole and found Amundsen's flag already there, and died on the return; but England acclaims Scott and not Amundsen. Franklin tried to sail to the Pacific round the north of Canada, and he and all his men perished, frozen bodies found much later bearing marks of clumsy autopsy by crewmates vainly seeking what was slowly killing them; their killers were incompetent workmen making cans for their preserved rations, leaving big lumps of lead solder sticking into acidic food, and lead poisoning came on the expedition hopelessly far away from anywhere to throw the food away and get replacement. And Cousteau's early diving discoveries in the Mediterranean were less than might have been, for the local fish populations that he had hoped to research into had been nearly wiped out by many years of sport spearfishing, and the instrument of discovery, the aqualung, came too late there. Even so, after long planning and kit-making and training, the Explorer-1's crew found at last that their job had been done unauthorizedly by others years before.
It was to be some time later that the Explorer-1's crew's frustration and mental pain at knowing what they had been denied after long planning and eager waiting finally boiled over. One of them was by then its driver on routine cargo deliveries in the Solar System, with a ship hyper jumper from Ilmenost because Earth had still not developed them far enough; on one trip he did not return to schedule, and his four former companions (who had been relegated to office work and were fed up of `flying a desk' as the RAF used to call it) had vanished. Weeks later it returned, with all five in it, NASA's symbol put by them on it and their kit instead of the symbol and name of the Company which now ran it and employed him, much of its cargo used up to make onboard and outboard long-range survey kit, its condition onboard foul because much of its long-trip exploring survival kit had been stripped out to make more cargo room and they had had to makeshift replacements for that as for its survey kit, and its hyper jumper so far overdue for servicing after much jumping that it had to be expensively replaced on the spot; its cargo going missing had delayed other work.
The one had called the other four and an astronomer and they had set off, chosen the same captain and navigator etc from among themselves as in fictional versions of their Capella expedition, and declared it to be Earth's first expedition in an Earth-made ship, ignoring or erasing provided star coordinate lists, but finding their own by jumping about and surveying. First to Capella, which they surveyed again as if for the first time, this time in a pressurized ship. Then they explored the area about, much of it already well known, naming things and claiming discoverer's rights. Finally they returned weary to Earth, and found waiting for them on the ground no public welcome but only arrest for taking the ship and using up its cargo, as they found just in time from overheard police radio, so they took off again and landed in a television station's car park, crushing two cars, and ran in in their spacesuits carrying film they had taken and declared themselves to be an official NASA expedition and indeed the first away from the Solar System whether it was or not, to welcome and a special program as discoverers and a furious controversy. Some called it a valuable exploration; some called it mere misuse of another's property for a pointless expensive years-late reconstruction of what might have been in an attempt to rewrite the past or at least their memories of it. But the TV station shoved baseball and soap operas aside that evening for a special program about them with triumphant music and quickly computer-generated footage of an acclaimed public takeoff as the TV program director saw fit.
Their action achieved one thing at least. For, if there was a fault with NASA, it was their tendency to give each of their spacemen his turn in space, one trip usually, and then no more, and to relegate him to ground work in office or training while his spacesuit gathers dust in a museum. But a group disappearance of ex-NASA men and NASA ground-worker ex-spacemen was followed by more such, so many that NASA's work was starting to get disrupted, until many of the missing men reappeared as Ilmenostians and showed that the until then unrealizable and ignorable yearning to get back into space had found in the asteroid miner type independent long-trip propulsor spacesuit a way back into space at last. The Explorer-1 incident finally made NASA realize that experienced willing spacemen better be kept on space work with them or they'd likely find their own way of getting out of `flying a desk'; they remembered 6 ex-spacemen, and 9 ordinary office workers encouraged by their tales of space, who deserted together and went as asteroid miners, and called their group `the Actinides' and codenamed themselves each after one of the 15 actinide elements (two thirds of them each carried on his spacesuit a piece of his name actinide metal, shielded if necessary, but the five above californium have half-lives too short). So after the initial furious row the Explorer-1 five were taken on again and kept on as space explorers, although in a different and more modern ship.
The Explorer-1 affair was to cause passing interest at Ilmenost, plus passing fear that Earth was starting to get into a mind to deny Ilmenostian achievements and claim all their discoveries and property for its own, and to take over in force and sweep them aside as 19th century colonists swept natives aside, or at least that some Earth power would force a lot of officials and controls and businessmen on them; but the fear faded away. But all that was in the future, and discussion returned to the case of d'Evreux, and went on inconclusively for a while, until a PSC-1 approached, with a local identity code on. Its front scoop opened, releasing a tethered bunch of people who seemed awkward in their spacesuits, and bore on their helmets not asteroid miner codenames and group name, but `DECP'. A hope that `CP' meant `Company police' lasted only a second, for they also displayed in smaller writing Earth-type initials and surnames which he knew. D'Evreux Case Plaintiffs. The hounds had found and dug out the wily predatory fox's ultimate lair, and so the matter ended. The government man who had supported d'Evreux experienced a moment of realization: "OK! OK! One law for asteroid metals Companies who've invested a fortune in space, another for comfortable suburban people moaning about odd bits of money that wouldn't pay my fare from Earth to the Moon. OK, you want to win friends on Earth by not getting a bad name as an indiscriminate shelterer of fugitives from justice.".
"That's right, we can give someone a fresh start here, if he'll stay here and work and live by our rules, but we're not a hideyhole while a hue-and-cry dies down and then he goes back to his old place to his old ways. And if he'd been cheating people that badly we want to know about it: for one thing we know too well that often `the leopard doesn't change his spots' after all after he comes here. And his antics here rather than trade fairly reminds many of us too much of tricks that we had from Company base storemen when we went there to trade metals that we dug for supplies, and we soon learned not to pay before we got the goods, and that's one reason why we went to all the trouble to bring that lot here. Perhaps he's knowingly wicked; perhaps he's merely mentally incompetent and kept moving on trying to leave his bad luck and bad habits behind but the same mental troubles surfaced again with the same result, like some alcoholics move to another town futilely trying to leave their addiction behind. In either case his succession of businesses 's customers paid for a lot of stuff that they never received or was no good.".
The DECP's tried out their spacesuit propulsors and tried using asteroid miner tools for a while (to the amusement of real asteroid miners) until the PSC-1 scooped them up and tanked them (= stowed them in its hold), and jumped them home, where they thankfully shed their temporary group name `DECP' along with their spacesuits, in some culture shock at where they had been and what they had seen. The publicity in England via the same TV program forced a prosecutor into bringing the d'Evreux petty fraud case to the front (but many of the plaintiffs didn't call such amounts petty). Held in Ilmenost d'Evreux sorry-but'ed and blustered and put on airs but in the end had to cough up names and numbers of foreign bank accounts and safe deposits where some of the missing money was; by then the beginnings of a mail service between there and Earth was appearing: one asteroid miner type tow crate every few days, and large bulks of identical advertizing matter were liable to be rejected as overload. A court official in Lincoln, who had much else to do, handed over d'Evreux's expensive car and some other items to them directly to save the time involved in turning it back into money by usual law procedure, leaving them with the job of splitting it into the various sums of money that they had paid d'Evreux or his succession of companies for things that they had never received. D'Evreux worked off the rest of the amount, and it was the longest time in his life he had ever been at the same job, and no trading on the side allowed. The publicity also started a demand for Space Explorer holidays with hyper jumping, but that is another matter.
Meanwhile they and others, curious about life on Arda, clustered round a large screen that was showing a long biology video that had been shot there. The tape that they saw had been shot underwater off the west coast, by four men in spacesuits weighted with stones so they floated neutral or sank slightly. "Some of the sea life's quite something else." said the commentary, and so it turned out, after fourteen minutes of miscellaneous alien sea life. At the mouth of a narrow gap in a many-coloured coral reef two big native octopuses were courting. They got busy with each other, and as they were doing what they had met for, they did not notice that the weed they were holding onto had come loose and they were drifting out of their shelter; the viewers watched with various feelings, as is usual with that biological ritual. Suddenly something 15-foot-long shaped like a submarine torpedo rushed up the reef face and past, and the octopuses were gone. Its head end had four eyes spaced evenly round it. It turned in the reef gap and showed its rear end waterjet hole and four rear steering fins to the camera as it sped away. Slow motion showed what happened. Without slowing down it split its head into four equal parts with an eye on each to open its mouth and grabbed the octopuses, spinning on its axis to disorient them. Its four head sections stuffed them efficiently inside and reassembled into the solid-looking bow of the torpedo shape. Its front end re-telescoped as it pumped the octopuses still squirming into its stomach for dissolving and processing. "It's hard to believe that a head end like that could have evolved into Ardan land vertebrate heads which are a lot more like Earth animal heads, but it did." the commentary said.
"I know." said Cobra afterwards, "Like I asked that Eland's opinion on that time and he went off on a tangent about cancer. Those torpedoes: some are rigid, some are flexible. They have fourfold rotational symmetry endways, or sometimes three or five, and there is no back or belly, no particular way up. Each head segment has a part of the brain. When they went on land, they had to choose a way up. The four lower fins became legs, the other four usually disappeared. The lower head segment became the lower jaw, and its brain segment shrank to a collar of nerves and a small ganglion; its eye disappeared. The other three parts fused together, for better stability in gravity out of water. The usual eyes are the eyes of the two side segments; the top eye behaves rather like the Earth vertebrate pineal eye, but more often persists or reappears.".
"What happens then when, like when I was on Arda once and I saw a herd of some sort of gazelle-like animal and they were calving, and one of the calves had three legs front and three back, the extras were in the midline below?" said Tarpan in the Typhoons from some way away, "It couldn't run fast, and one of those light two-legged running things that look like dinosaurs soon got it.".
"Happens sometimes." Cobra replied, "It's become the normal in a few species where evolution's made something useful out of it, like that thing like a tiger that I've seen where the front mid-leg's become a dangerous weapon, and in a few climbing animals. Starts as an embryo with five instead of four-fold rotational symmetry, and that sets everything different. The two top fins front and two back disappear; the other three and three become legs. A lot's different inside them also. Threefold symmetry embryos don't seem to want to happen: I've only once heard of the result of one developing and being born anywhere.".
"Oh. Yet more wierdo stuff that we don't get back home. Like some snakes and other Ardan animals where the hole from the gut to the yolk sac that they have before birth or hatching, persists as an extra hole for its stomach to dump big indigestibles out easily. Another thing that gives me the shivers a bit.".
"Meaning that: whatever variety of stuff goes into the snake, what isn't rejected as useless becomes yet more snake." said an annoyed official-sounding voice some way away, "Same as you lot. Whatever goes in, what comes out is another long-trip spaceman. I'm getting it and so are others, since I came here. Earth organizations have the goodness to send you management science PhD's and people with honours at schools of economics and the like, and you treat them as unskilled. For example, I've been told to forget 20 years seniority as a manager and an administrator and go back to being a student. After all my experience I'm classified as `intelligent but unskilled' and put on [courses in] electronics and asteroid geology and computer programming. I'm luckier than some: two that came with me are being used as common workmen and asteroid miners. Look at that questionnaire they gave me. It had spaces for all sorts of scientific and manual skills, but nothing about management and finance, and I had to handwrite them in the `other (please spessify)' space at the bottom. Like many of your forms and notices, starts off as a reasonable attempt at official style, then trails off into slang and scruffy industrial misspellings by workmen like in factories back on Earth that totally spoil any impression of efficient impersonal officialdom, but I had to fill it in and sign it and hand it in like that.".
"Very likely." said Plutey-pots, a bit amused at the indignant expostulating, "One posh chap that turned up here asked importantly for a suite in a hotel rated at least 4-star. Well, there's all the stars you want shining all around us; one of our long-trip spacesuits is all the `accomodation' you need, and you could paint all the stars you want on it, same as Jet Jack's painted jet fighters on his.".
"I've got at least one incredible bit of news to take home from Ilmenost - at last I saw you're making something resembling a decent spaceliner for visitors to travel here in, instead of variations on the theme of PSC's and loaders that you need a spacesuit to ride in. But still so few in-air places, and even fewer that a spaceship can airlock onto. But yet your attempt at a spaceliner's got an MST-gun blister as if you can't forget PSC's.".
"We need to be able to launch MST's [= one-man small fast missile-like craft]. For a start, people who haven't been in one of our suits before are told not to untether, but some do and can't control their suit propulsors properly and have to be chased and brought back. It's quite an experience being fired from an MST-gun in an MST the first time. One of us nicknamed it the AK-47000, for it works a bit like some machine guns but far bigger.".
"And some of you nickname it a `sewage pump', referring to and boasting of the smell when you unsuit and your roughness and your attitude towards civilized city manners. Talking about PSC's and stuff that goes on them, I always thought `PSC' meant `police space craft': how come they let every sort of asteroid miner make them for themselves and yahoo about in them? OK. so there are now working PSC-4's with skilled crews, but not what I was waiting for. It's all the difference between motorcycle police and Hell's Angels, or in old times between the cavalry that defended the nation and maintained law and order, and wild tribes of horsemen that galloped in from Central Asia taking what they would.".
"Who's `they'? If you mean the Companies, they don't rule us here and we ain't going to let them. We found this star system, we set up here and built Ilmenost all by our own effort. And we make sure that all transport and work craft can be used to defend ourselves if the Companies or anyone make trouble here. We've had so much @%$ from Companies afore we came here that we don't trust travelling in big soft craft like luxury spaceliners that use up far too much fuel hauling luxury stuff and on-board casinos and all sorts around. Quicker and easier and safer for a PSC to get everybody into spacesuits and tank them and go wherever they're going a lot quicker. That's if they and their luggage are too much for a man to jump them all on his spacesuit hyperspace jumper. Our handy PSC-4 that we travel about in, with its scoop and firing us in MST's from its `sewage pump', could chomp one of your flying Monte Carlos and `gin palaces' to scrap in a few minutes and tank its contents. And it will if anyone tries to set up organized gambling round here wasting men's money and encouraging gambling addictions.".
"With instructions to RD all the valuable gambling equipment including even the croupiers, I suppose. Like tales that I've heard of when a naval or inshore fishermen's patrol / dredging mini sub finds sport scuba divers where they aren't wanted. Those subs are a menace, specially with the powerful underwater ultrasound guns they have. How you lot can routinely ride in craft that could at any moment empty its holding tank into a heavy-duty onboard RD, I don't know.".
"When one of them's in passenger or cargo mode, we keep its `empty hold into RD' lever clamped very solidly `off'. Anyway, I'd have little compunction in RD'ing any croupier type that I got hold of. I can't stand that sort of place. For one thing, all too often it's nearly impossible to get away with a big win: they ply you with drink to try to get you to lose it on more gambling or to make you so drunk that you forget to take the money away, or they make difficulties at the exit when you try to take it out, or when you cash your gambling chips they try to pay you with a cheque which then bounces, or they send thugs to rob it back off you in the car park outside. And many of those places are run by gangsters. To me, gambling equipment's valueless by definition. We've had to hyper jump rescue men of ours and their kit out of gambling dens and the like before. If that means that the place's bouncers or gunmen are 'jumped out along with them, we don't care. When that happens, sometimes we can spare spacesuits for them, sometimes we can't. We do as little damage as we can in that sort of raid job; but one day I'm sure, we'll `do a Birka' at one of those places, and never mind if people think from it that we're getting like in that film "Terror of the Space Pirates" that one of the Companies made to give us a bad name.".
"Birkenhead? [in England] What quarrel've you lot suddenly got against that place? I know it's a bit rough, like any factory and docks town is, but ...".
"No. Birka, part of Cairo in Egypt. In the 1914-18 war, British soldiers based round there used to go there for the prostitutes and kept getting robbed, and the local authorities were paid-off by the brothel-keepers, so the troops lost patience and without orders attacked the Birka and burnt it to the ground.".
"Oh. I read of that once. As regards RD'ing things, it seems that this place is one big RD: whatever sort of men go in, they come out reprocessed into spacemen with little evidence of what they were before. They even say that that failed financier Mr.Blore who went missing, is here somewhere. And that `Marie Celeste job' disappearance of all those Company directors at once: nobody's explained that properly, although ghost story writers and that creepy TV program `The Unexplained' have had goes at it: I recently saw a quite exciting Ghostbusters cartoon episode based on it. And that time one of you lots hyper jump grabbed a teenage gang that was harassing one of your men's old parents in London that time, it was in the papers. I sympathize with your man's parents, but what about the teenagers' parents? And the teenagers themselves? Some of them were only watching. No fault of theirs if there's nothing else to do. And don't try saying `If you've got nowhere to go, go home': life at home isn't that easy in some of those places. Some of the people there actually said afterwards: `If a ransom demand comes, don't come to us to help pay it: we'd've paid to have them taken away, not to get them back.', as if they and their mothers' love for them were worth not even nothing but a negative amount of money.".
"That was my parents they were harassing." said Rattler, "Don't you throw emotion and mothers at us: their mothers should've kept them out of trouble. And to me at least, hanging about on the edge of trouble's the same as taking part. I'll not put up with rule by teenage street gangs, since we had the kit to do something about it. So we grabbed them and brought them here, and thrashed them whenever they gave cheek or told lies, till they learned what proper grown-up-ness is, not just overgrown childhood got too big to control.".
So they discussed. An asteroid miner group called the F-15's came, all in identical Ilmenostian long-trip spacesuits, faces unidentifiable behind thick hard breathing masks, looking utterly space-adapted and space-hardened, knowing little of their past before going into space, their eyes through their small eye-windows looking as if they had been through countless hard times and hard work. The Pallas-2's came in a PSC-1 that they were carrying metals to a building site in: one of them, Red Scorpion, known as a very good electronics man, looked at them for a moment and then found other things to look at, as buried old memories from when he was someone else strained at their bonds like some buried giant of Greek legend, but unlike such giants failed to cause any mental equivalent of eruption or earthquake to show that they were there. He also had got his group to retaliate violently, against tramps and tinkers found harassing his parents and their neighbours in Birmingham in England: the spacemen in a hard fight had caught and bound both lots of scruffs and hyper jumped them away in pressure bags, and the spacemen's training system had had a hard and not always successful job reprocessing them into steady workers.
Again some of them reflected about local practise with nuclear materials. On Earth such things were locked in secure shielded buidings, or transported in heavy hardened special rail wagons called `flasks' surrounded with precautions, and guards, and orders, "and Balrogs, and countless swords, and strong bars, and unassailable walls, and the dark majesty of Morgoth" (as one of the X-100's had quoted from Tolkien's `The Silmarillion' once after a difficult hyper jump raid to get back items that officials had taken on excuses from free asteroid miners at Company bases that they had called at). How different it was among the free spacemen! Curium-247 and several plutonium and uranium isotopes reflected Anor's white sunlight carefreely on men's kit; seeing the name `Hot-pots' on the F-15s' leader's helmet forehead, they had no need of their remote metal analysers to know what his spacesuit oxygen cylinders were made of. On the base building's outside that they were tethered to was a 6-foot by 4-foot painted Ardan jungle scene made entirely of the astonishing variety of colours shown by compounds of various oxidation states of various actinides. Some of the Earth visitors looked nervously from a distance, for Ilmenostian ways with actinides were proverbial. Long Tom, a paramedic in the Pallas-2's, now sported a pair of foot-long neptunium-237 flat models of space shuttles on his spacesuit chest: it was one way of carrying valuable or useful metals around, preferred by some show-off types to ingots out of sight in tow crates. Another in his group 's right side now carried a Pu-242 flat model PSC-4 which had just fired a burst of 15 MST's, one made of each lanthanide metal (and yttrium, but not the atrociously short-lived promethium), which had spread in a search-and-surround formation over his chest and shoulders. Of course they respected the really dangerous isotopes that make a lot of gamma rays: for example they were not so casual with fresh fission waste or radium or californium or some other curium isotopes.
Likewise different from Earth customs were such things as giving names to children, for many of the younger of those listening had been born in space, and the first sunlight that their eyes saw was brighter and whiter than Earth's Sun's. Their women also had to adapt to space and spacesuits, and with this their need to express their femininity adapted as it could: for example they more than men preferred suit hoods with fullface windows. And being in space multiplied the problems of baby and child care.
"I see the longed-for day's come." said Protak Pete in the X-100's, seeing a member of the Quasars with a new baby in a large `hard blister' on her spacesuit, "You're not one that believes in suiting-up at birth, then?".
"No." she said, "They say that both the baby and I need to feel each other's touch. They say it's still a bit difficult making suits that small and allowing plenty of growth before it needs resuiting. Soon enough she'd need such a big `baby blister' that I'll have to put her in her own suit. While she's growing I'll have to keep topping-up her suit's RD-tank: a lot of it [= organic matter] doesn't come back to RD'ing, it's used up in growth. Suit RD's that tiny are so hard to service, a real forceps and magnifying-glass job. Whoever first invented RD's didn't think of them being made that small. I call her Dahlia: for girls I prefer something pretty like flowers, and hope that when she gets to that sort of age [= puberty] she doesn't suddenly decide to call herself something rough like a man's name instead. And I don't hold with sending a baby away to a planet for years and the parents rarely see it and it ends up nearly a stranger. Dahlia can also be her Earth-type name: we at least hold with giving children a proper Earth-type name as well as a spaceman name, in case they ever need to register as anything down on Earth or Mars. Not like your man King Cobra who won't give or answer to any other name even though he remembers it, and that man Hot-pots who leads the F-15's and can't remember any other name and not much of his life before he went into space, and most of his group likewise. Why does your man Cobra call himself a king, anyway?".
"He doesn't." said Protak Pete, "In India and thereabouts the ordinary cobra eats various sorts of animals, but the big sort of cobra called a king cobra or a hamadryad eats mostly other snakes. Anyway, why keep choosing names of Earth flowers for girl children?" said Protak Pete, "Why hardly ever local flowers that you see on the planets here? Surely they're as pretty?".
"They're as pretty, but the names often aren't!" she said, "Elanor's quite pretty, apart from being confused with Eleanor: they say it's `X-100-ese' for `Star-sun', a flower in Tolkien's stories and then they gave the name to a small flower that grows on hilly areas on Karnil. I met a girl called Seaborgia, after that stuff with the big blousy dayglo orange flowers that actinide prospectors on Arda look for: not a name I care for. There's another Karnilian flowering bush that I like, but its name! What girl'd want to be called `Haematopogon pickshaftii'? The first bit's Greek for `Bloodbeard' for those tufts of red hairs trailing off its petals; the rest's after an asteroid miner-type rough in the Quasars who brought a tuft of it to his group's biologist, and he was named after his favourite weapon in fights in asteroid mining bases against Company guards back in the Solar System before we came here. Nobody's got around to inventing an ordinary name for many of those plants yet. Anyway, blood this, blood that, what was the matter with calling it just `Redbeard'?".
"That'd be `Erythropogon'." Cobra the biologist replied, "There was already a plant genus called that. So many plants and animals need naming. In Latin it'd be `Rubribarbus', but that wouldn't work, too many people'd likely confuse it with `rhubarb'.". Again practicality had forced the tendency to ignore the emotiveness of blood and bloodiness and to use the word merely as an alternative name of the colour red.
"I was brought up on Earth." she said, "I went into space because my boy friend did. Nobody thought of appearance when they designed these spacesuits with unattractively functional bits of kit fastened on all over them and me having to work like a man with a lot of men. Sometimes I'd like to wear a pretty dress and let my natural body shape show, but out here there's no gravity to make the dress hang properly, it'd just float up around me. I'm steadily getting out of practise in living in a town on Earth. These spacesuits look after our bodies' needs so well like personal mini intensive care wards that it's all too easy to get spacesuit dependent and out of practise in walking in Earth gravity. I and my husband (we've married) don't even get much chance to kiss properly instead of just hugging and rubbing our breathing masks together and kissing at nothing in the air inside them.".
"So say all women who are among the first settlers in an area, having to wear overalls all the time and work with the men." said someone, "Someone had to set up to make the essentials of life before people could be spared from that to make luxury stuff and fancy dresses and the rest. Traders up from Earth are starting to look where they can sell fancy stuff, like that man Abu-Bakr Hasan who said that time that he wanted to start a fashion shop, he sounded like he thought Ilmenost'd be all enclosed and presht [= pressurized] like places in that Earth children's cartoon series called the Jetsons that tapes of it get here sometimes. He seemed mighty nosy, poking into and asking about all sorts of different things.".
"Yes, he was." said Plutey-pots, "Where've you been these last weeks?, all that big rumpus about what he turned out to be.".
"Why do they call you Protak Pete?" said someone who had not been in space long.
"My suit powerpack runs off protak, that's protactinium." said Protak Pete, "Rather unusual and not much about, whether you get it from uranium ore or used [reactor] fuel. Back in 1960 before anyone went into space, they 'ad to process sixty ton o' sludge left over from years o' gettin' uranium out of its ore, to get 130 gram o' protak to send to the scientists to 'xperiment on, I read once. Nearly the same now. Only isotope of it that lives long enough to be any use is 231. It comes from U-235 decaying: Th-231, Pa-231, Ac-227, and so on.".
"Is it true what some say, that your lot discovered this place?".
"We were ordinary asteroid miners in the Solar System." said Protak Pete, "Then that lot the Sardies came up to us and hyperspace jumped with us. Holy @#% it startled us. We 'adnt 'eard of 'yper jumping before 'cept in [fiction] stories. They'd been cloned by some Company from some 'ard thug and XYY-ified to make them rougher, to 'yper jump all the free [asteroid] miners back into Company jails and they'd make us use Company suits that we can't go away from them on our own in. The Companies codenamed them `Sardaukar', that's a name out of some old space fiction [the `Dune' series by Frank Herbert]. But as soon as the Sardies were away from the Company base they cut loose and became just another lot of free asteroid miners. They taught us a lot of rough things that we 'adn't known before, what to do in fights, and their #1, that's their leader (they use numbers not names for themselves), gave me a copy they'd 'ad made of their 'yper jumper. So we used it, and jumped about, and made so much that we could spare the time to explore about, and we found this place.
Most o' the stars about 'ere are double, ain't got no planets, but this star's single. We 'ad a good explore about and found all its main planets and named them after Tolkien's names for the Sun's planets: Elemmire, Earendil, Arda, Karnil, asteroids, Alkarinque, Lumbar, Luinil, Nenar. We call the star Anor, that's Tolkien's name for the Sun. It's got a planet called Narien closer in than Elemmire, like the Vulcan they used to think the Sun had. Earendil's got a moon called Elwing. Arda's got two. We spent two weeks orbiting Arda and Karnil close in, making maps of the ground geography on them. Karnil's like Mars but it's got life on, and it's got rings like Saturn's. We left out Earendil then 'cos it's all over cloud like Venus and it'd need a lot o' radaring. We looked about and found an asteroid just like the one that we'd set off from when that Company told us to go find asteroids, 'cept there was no Company base on it full of offices and papers and guards telling everybody what to do.
We 'ad a good lot o' towed machinery that we'd picked up 'ere and there, but we 'ad to set up a place to make more for when what we 'as wore out. There were 34 of us, and 5 of them were women. There was me, Control Rod the atomic man, King Cobra, Sledge'ammer, Taipan, Diamondback, Twelve Finger Joe, - never mind the full list now. There was nothin' 'ere at all. Only asteroids that nobody'd ever been at before, and we couldn't eat anything that grew on Arda or Karnil. A lot denser than in the Sun's [asteroid] belt. A lot of us knew a lot o' Tolkien stuff, we 'ad a set o' CD-ROM's of books by and about 'im, we need somethin' to read else we'd start seein' things, on long trips across millions o' miles o' nothin'. So a lot of the things we found, we named out o' Tolkien. Why not?
First to make some machine tools so we could make more stuff. And to make a reactor. Which needed fuel. Before that we only 'ad a few powerpacks running off ordinary 'ot radioactives like radium, like suit powerpacks but bigger. We 'adn't yet got PL-props, that's suit propulsors strong enough to get us on and off planets. 'Oly $ our 'yper jumper got a lot o' use jumping rock up from Arda. We 'ad a lucky find, it was on the east coast of [the main continent on] Arda, a bit north of a line drawn east from Nunarien. So we jumped ten ton o' top grade curite up to 'ere. Metals aren't that concentrated in the asteroids, it usually takes runnin' water to bring that much o' the same metal together, except a few sorts like nickel-iron.
Control Rod, when 'e looked at it 'e first thought 'is instruments 'ad gone wrong, then 'e thought 'e'd got space fever and 'e was seein' things, or that one of us'd needled 'im for fun with something. We don't do that sort o' thing, it's a risk in space, but 'e'd seen it 'appen back on Earth.
`When you said `actinide ore', I thought you meant uranium!' 'e said, rather shocked, `We used to say `easier to get a job in a plute mine' for something impossible: and you casually give me all this stuff that you say is natural curium ore! I know what to do with uranium in reactors. I've never seen more'n a pound or so o' curium, and only a few grams o' this isotope of it. At least it's safer to 'andle than the isotopes I'm used to. Odd being able to handle curium with bare hands. My first go at designing a reactor all by myself, and it's got to be with curium-247 as fuel!'.
(Not the only atomic man from Earth to act as if 'e'd seen a dragon, seein' that stuff. I 'eard 'ow that Muon acted when 'e found some of it an' that great cliff o' plute ore in the Ered Kalashnikov that time recently.)
So 'e told us 'ow to 'elp 'im to make a reactor and a generator. After that it was easier. Lucky we 'ad a really big RD that we towed about with us, and it was new, so it pulled out all separate elements from asteroid rock that we ran through it, when we ran it off our new reactor rather than its own powerpack. So we started to set up 'ere, and one of us called it Ilmenost, that means `Space Fort' or `Space Town'.
Why nuclear? Other sorts o' power only run on planets, and there's a limit to 'ow much use a man-jumper 'yper jumper 'll take jumpin' 'eavy loads on and off planets. Solar power? First we needed a reactor to get enough power to get all the metal we'd need to make enough solar panels.
We needed a good big nickel-iron asteroid to fasten the reactor to, to carry its heat away and radiate it off. Anything that runs off heat, runs off the difference between something hot and something cold. No point having the reactor loose in space, else soon it'd all be as hot as every other part of it. So we chose this asteroid, and we called it Ilmenost.
What grandiose speech did one of us make on settling here? Taipan found it, and all 'e said was this: `This is a good big iron and the right shape to fasten things to: how about this one?'. But later 'e found a flat surface on it and lasered a discovery inscription into it. We just gradually started building there: we never 'ad a proper foundation ceremony.
We 'ad to start finding 'ow to make new [space]suits before our own wore out. And more 'yper jumpers. We 'ad better suits than some, but still some parts'd only've lasted so long. There's carbon in carbonaceous chondrites, and nitrogen in the ammonia ice that's in some comets. But that's not the same as making suits: we had to make the carbon and nitrogen into polymers for a start. Some of us jumped back to the Solar System, and 'eard radioing, and jumped to what was making it. It was five Company patrol craft, four ordinary PSC-1's and one a bit different and bigger called a PSC-1C that we knew was a command craft, chasing some men who'd been mending men's suits out in space when by Company rules they shouldn't 'ave. We 'jumped into the 1C and then into another, and the other three ran away. They 'adn't seen us jump: they thought we were their crew that 'ad mutinied. That put the Companies off trusting patrol craft crews for a while after. Company guard and patrol men: some are cop and security types and 'aven't got much bottle in a tight spot; some are ex-Army and are 'arder to fight off and 'ard with prisoners: we never know which sort we'll run into. So we got the first two craft that Ilmenost's 'ad as its own. We got the suit-kit makers into the PSC-1 and jumped the whole caboodle 'ere. It strained the jumper badly using it to jump something that big, for it was meant as an on-suit man-jumper, but it did the job. Some of them'd already been scooped up and tanked, luckily by the craft we grabbed. They didn't know what we were. First they thought we were some funny lot o' Company enforcers, then they started pointing their [remote metal] analysers at our suit oxy tanks - already that tale'd started to get about, about some great warrior with suit oxy tanks made out o' plute who'd free the asteroid miners from the Companies forever.".
"Yes, I know." said Plutey-pots, who was once a London financier called Blore, "That Levitsky gave me suit oxy tanks made out of it, to poke fun at that legend of theirs, but instead he made it happen, in a small way: I found that Long Tom running away, so we found where the Fletchmin company were holding those three lots of asteroid miners, and from that other things came.".
"Yes, it did indeed." said Control Rod.
"Yes, Mr.Fletcher, Mr.Milford, and the rest that held that big meeting to coordinate action against us." Plutey-pots thought, "`They are here', literally and also as the stork said in one of Rudyard Kipling's stories.".
"Those kit-menders came here." Protak Pete continued, "They could work %@# miracles getting more life out of the tat that Companies put into kit and suits to make it wear out so we 'ad to pay Companies a #&% fortune for replacements. They knew plenty about making replacement parts out in the wilds, they had to. So they set up here with us, and soon we and they made the first complete suit that was made here. Poor-quality thing it was, we make them far better now we've made better suit-making kit and had practise at it, but it was a new long-trip suit, and we didn't have to pay any Company for any bit of it, and it worked. It's in the museum now. Not the first suit made out in space by miners, but the first made here, and it was all made from Anor system stuff and no bits out of old Company suits. It was a near-run thing: several bits of our kit that we needed absolutely, broke down soon after we'd made the first copies of them, and three pairs of us 'ad to siamese 'cause o' their suit RD's goin' wrong, before we could make new suit RD's properly. But we pulled through, and brought other groups and odd ones and oddments here, and gradually built up.
We kept the two PSC's in running order and didn't cannibalize them. We needed something to offer some sort of defence with if Company men tried to take over here: we didn't s'pose for a moment that the hyper jumper that the Sardies ran off with was the only hyper jumper that the Companies and Earth governments'd ever make, and if we found this place, they also could. As it 'appened, they killed off the whole hyper jumper project and hushed it up to save reputations and not scare investors off, but we didn't know that then. Excuse the business language, but I know their business-ese all too well, from trying to argue matters with them.
Not much we could do with their crew: hard cop types that kept on formally charging us with this and that and saying we were under arrest and that keeping on disobeying them we were committing the extra offence of breaking arrest and that all sorts of backup was already on its way, even when we'd disarmed them and stuffed them into a big pressure bag and they were 400 light years from base and backup. They'd no idea how we'd got on board, they thought we'd stowed away or sneaked on board somehow. In the end they acted as if we could trust them and said so, and we let them out of the pressure bag in atmosphere when we were getting ready for our first suit-off for seven months. They suddenly jumped us for our lasers without warning, $%# treacherous lot, and in the shooting the atmosphere room blew open, waste of good oxygen, and that was the end of them. They'd thought they'd get the better of us 'cos they were unsuited so more agile, and us not. Taipan was badly shot up and decompressed, and died two days later. We were a very long awy from anywhere, so they as well as he got our sort of funeral, but him separate from them. Only thing we could do. So our group's big towed RD made an end of the job, but we kept the cops' dog-tags and identity papers and sent them back to a Company base when we could.
Of course the Companies' press men called us all the bad names they could, when they heard, such as: `We have to put up with those space rats RD'ing their own dead like common refuse instead of bringing them in for transport to an approved undertakers on Earth, but when they do it to our people ...', and so on, but they used to charge anyone's group or relatives a &%# fortune to get his body to Earth, and we'd usually have to tow him for weeks to the nearest Company base first, yekh, the idea gives me the creeps, and bereavement is enough loss without having to fork out a fortune to pay for it and be in debt for years afterwards, we had to end the matter and do what we could where we were, same as explorers and early settlers did when one of them died weeks travel from the nearest consecrated ground. Some of us knew some of the usual funeral service. Taipan didn't leave much: a few photos and bits (not worth mailing them to 'is people down on Earth, with the amount the Companies charged for mail even if they didn't bin the mail and keep the postage against what they said we owed them and them never minding the law that says that mail must get through), an old Company-issue [space]suit that we'd already 'ad to make a lot of replacement parts for and we never minding their patent laws, and a model jet fighter 6 inches long made of thulium [a lanthanide, element 69] that 'e wore on the front of 'is right shoulder. The Taipan who's around now's someone else with the same name. After that we got back to work.".
It was clear enough to those listening to imagine, the sense of fittingness clashing with all too real practicalities of where they were, men who had become Company patrolmen for adventure and finding that they were an enforcement force detested by asteroid miners and bad-named by Earth (and later Mars) popular press, and at last not having as hoped a quiet family funeral attended by relatives and friends near home away from space and the apparatus of space and guns and the apparatus of law enforcement in space, but being committed to an asteroid mining RD as a funeral volley of laser was fired over it into the black emptiness that stretched all around, in no particular place that relatives or friends or descendants could visit later. But circumstances had forced it. At least their dog-tags and identity papers came back for their relatives on Earth to keep in memory not knowing that those small leftovers of Company officialdom and proof of authority had been beyond the Pleiades.
Protak Pete continued: "After that we gradually built up here. Experts in different things got here one way and another. Amazing the amount of different things are needed to run things, and they've all got to be made. Apart from the first things that people think of being made here, spacesuits and hyperspace jumpers and PL-props and PSC's and the like. We've all had to learn to be several different things, and we can't carry officials or idlers. Groups come and go. For a long time each group that had a hyper jumper kept it a secret from other groups in case the Companies found out, until the Jetters had to 'jump out of a meeting in London on Earth that turned out to be a Company trap that time and a lot of Earth people saw it. Now that the secrecy's gone and all sorts of Earth people come and go here, we must watch our security. A lot of people'd like to take this place over. Those Companies or what's left of them 've about realized that all that money that they said we owed them, wouldn't stand up in any proper fair court. About. That sort of debt owed to big firms seems to have as many lives as a cat, picking up charges and interest, while debts owed by firms die as soon as firm bosses wind up a firm and start another. The firm goes bust, hurray it's dead and it can't bully me any more, then I find some hard debt-collecting firm bought the debts off the Receiver and claims the amount all over again plus fat fees. And it often takes big firms forever to decide to obey the courts same as deciding anything else. One bad bout of that in Birmingham in England ended up with shooting and petrol bombs before they learned to write the amounts off and leave people alone.
Anyway, Ilmenost built up, and it's still here and it's still free, and it's going to stay so, however many funny types come here nosying around and are found out.".
"Yes, I know." someone visiting from Earth thought, "Attempts to get them to trust us until our men are allowed to go where they want to and see what men and strength of weapons this lot have, are not helped by fool mistakes like that man who called himself Eland and in a tight spot panicked and ran instead of staying smooth and collected, nor by things going wrong plus rows over funeral customs like with that Abu-Bakr Hasan just now.".
Ilmenost and many on Earth remembered the Abu-Bakr Hasan incident. That is his proper name. When he went to Ilmenost with the by now something like regular mail service from Earth, he said he was looking for trading opportunities, and was believed, for wariness after previous scares had got less. He disliked being tethered in with a bunch all the time, and kept untethering and trying to follow loose at a distance, saying he needed privacy to work on papers. But he was inexpert with a spacesuit propulsor, and after the mail service's MST four times had to chase and retrieve him, the leader ignored his sorrying and removed his tether release lever. His flying gradually got better, only gradually, for men in their 60's are often slow to learn. So he travelled about and saw and heard and recorded things, until he was with a group orbiting Elemmire (the Anor system equivalent of Mercury). Then his spacesuit suddenly started its heart restarter and autoventilator, and kept them on, and flashed warning lights to say so. A suit computer function that kept track of the natural electric signals that the brain makes, gave an even direr warning.
It was a massive burst of his left middle cerebral artery. More usually known and dreaded as a stroke. It was soon clear that there was nothing there any more and in that remote place only one thing to do, what free spacemen had done for a long time when the inevitable came that far from earth and fire and water. The group's towed RD consumed him as they held funeral after their custom.
They got to the nearest long-range radio and told Ilmenost to mail Earth to tell Hasan's next of kin and apparent employers. Some of the public noise in the next weeks came from the former, when they received a packet of personal possessions and a nickel-iron box of the solid part of his RD'ings, for they were devout Muslims and committed their dead only to the earth, not to water or fire and certainly not to an RD. Some invoked the sword of the Prophet and fire from Allah, but finally the row simmered down. But what else for long-trip spacemen to have done out there? No long-trip spaceman group likes towing a body for long periods, even in these later years of spacemen's light easily towed formalin-injector machines for use in such crises.
Also Mr.Acle, his firm's boss, saw the box made from six sheets of nickel-iron sliced by spacemen from a meteor, crosshatched by its natural Widmanstatten structure, containing what was left of the mortal remains of his emissary and of plans that had been long in the planning, for he knew that the spacemen in their need to find where and how to contact his next of kin and to pack his belongings to send them back would perforce have had to break their by then usual rule and tacit agreement not to casually search on suspicion. In his pockets the spacemen had found several warrant cards and passes that they didn't like the look of one bit, so they had searched his suit pack contents and had found out more. As Mr.Acle soon realized would have happened, but worse than he feared.
Nothing remained of long planning but many hurried phone calls to other firms and organizations advising them to quietly call plans off and to deny that they had ever been planned, and hope that whistle-blowers and Ilmenost would not start a storm. A storm would likely come anyway. Ilmenost. The name made him grind his teeth. That rebel asteroid miners' pirate base and seller of space gear that lasted too long and murdered the market, and full of infringed patents into the bargain, and its inhabitants yahooing about in spacesuit kit and spacecraft that had been intended to be police and special forces issue only. Much had been explained when those asteroid miners arrived at that meeting by PL-prop and broke the arrest trap by leaving by hyperspace jumper, both devices which had often been officially declared impossible.
What had his man died of, anyway? He read the faxed report in a fury of anger at yet another delay to plans. "Blah blah usual bereavement platitudes -" he angrily summarized, "deeply regret - get on with it, you gory-penned windy medical idiot and no idea what being a busy businessman's like - some artery or another - cerebrovascular accident - spaceman-style funeral by RD in orbit round ...". He had no idea what `Cerberus-whatever' meant, but he knew that accidents come from carelessness and what to do with the culprit. And for not sending the body back, for whereas mass war casualties have perforce often to `lie in a foreign field', such things were not in his opinion needed in peacetime. He knew too much about delays, fuming in traffic jams at yet more unnecessary roadworks while the car dashboard clock's hands reached and passed the deadline for an important meeting or flight, ditto in airport departure lounges at delayed flights, ditto when people needed were out or unavailable or had flu, ditto at transport strikes and breakdowns, ditto at clashing dates, ditto when three of his men after a business meeting in America suddenly went scuba diving and when other business suddenly arose he had to expensively hire an inshore patrol type fast diver-catcher craft to go after them to scoop them up and bring them back to duty. He had learned that mercy does not work in the real world. If something causes expensive delay, sack or discipline or sue the culprit, until the trouble stops. Now something else. His secretary recoiled at his severe reprimanding tone as he told her in a fury of accepting no more delay to "Get me that place Ilmenost NOW, wherever it is! Their big boss, not some phone girl or clerk!!".
She started to explain why she couldn't.
"Here beginneth the cosmology lesson! Don't you give me all that, any more then I want a lecture in car motor design when the car goes wrong and I need it in a hurry! Just get them!".
She tried again, and managed to get him to realize what 400 light years meant and that the new devices called hyperspace jumpers were not the nonexistent subspace radio that handily speeds up so much fictional interstellar business.
He simmered down and tiredly remembered similar delays when his firm went into space trading to fill the void left after Blore's businesses and later Fletcher Mining and Milford Metals Brokers etc collapsed and he had his fill of radio discussions with Mars and the asteroids having to wait up to an hour while the signal travelled each way, like the bad ancient days when no message however urgent and important could travel faster than the fastest foot or hoof or sail. His anger collapsed to yet another tired realization that he was not the master of everything. Space was space, light-years were not miles. No point putting on one of their dirty long-trip spacesuits and wandering round a strange solar system trying to find what had leaked and to deny stories and rumours, and come back after weeks on end without unsuiting not dead but smelling like it when he finally unsuited. That smell, the proudly-displayed badge of the free-roaming long-trip spaceman who does not need to stay within a day's flight of somewhere to unsuit. He knew and did not care for the habit of many asteroid miners of priding themselves on being "space sewage", referring to the smell and to a hard contempt of polite urban airs and graces and manners and easy living.
He faxed a strong complaint anyway to Ilmenost's current European contact address. The clerk there noticed the words `cerebrovascular accident' and his misunderstanding of them, and faxed back an explanation what a stroke was. He cursed all unclear medicalese expressions and tiredly edited out the accusation of negligence, and found that doing so removed much of the substance of his message. He faxed back what was left, and it went with other letters into an asteroid miner type tow crate, and was hyper jumped across 400 light years, and reached the Arbiter at Ilmenost. He went back to his usual work, tiredly realizing that a spaceman who sported curium-247 oxygen cylinders on his back was likely to think different from a City of London Earthman in some ways.
(He later found that the words `cerebrovascular accident' had been put in not by any spaceman but by a medical advisor in his firm passing the information on, feeling a need to correct the lack of formal official tone characteristic of many messages and publications that come from free spacemen. Why can't message forwarders leave messages as verbatim and not yield to the instinct to `claim possession of them by putting their own mark on them'?)
The fax `crossed in the mail' with a much stronger message from the Arbiter, send in multiple copy to many firms and governments and newspapers and TV stations, making it quite clear that disastrously more than he had feared had been found out when his man's luggage was searched, as was quickly pointed out by a Government intelligence agency's interrogation team that pushed into his office next day.
"What did you expect to happen?" one of them rapped, "sending a man that old with bad arteries, and all that secret paperwork on him? Never mind how expert he had been! Of course he wasn't as good at learning new things, at that age! So, he wrote things down and took a mass of secret documents and CD-ROM's away with him to refer to, instead of trusting his memory. He didn't trust himself to remember encryption passwords, so he wrote passwords down or wrote unencrypted. And it was all found on him when they went in his pockets and luggage for an address of next of kin. Many organizations, and not all of them criminal, would have had you shot for that sort of bungle. So, that's over, and a lot more soon will be. And that lot hyper jumping in and out of secret stores may find a lot more. That character with the nuclear oxy tanks goes on and on about `breach of trust, sending spies to nose about, what were you needing all that info for?, we thought we could trust you, it should be borne in mind that many Earth nations recognize the Anor solar system as independent' and so on, bits of good official language mixed with colloquialism and slang and misspellings, and they're right back to being wary and keeping close track of all visitors as if they were expecting to be attacked any moment. We were only keeping an eye on them.".
They continued like that for a while longer, then left with angry words. Mr.Acle took the rest of that day and all the next day off and tried to get back to routine, and more reminders that he was not master of everything, for he had another infuriating last-minute time rearranging transport for some visitors when finding seats for them in the personal transport that some of them had brought: too well he knew that no amount of blunt manners and brushing aside excuses could give a two-seater sports car back seats, or magic away a carful of family and scuba gear, or turn a motorcycle into a car, or a helirig (backpack motor and rotor set) into an enclosed helicopter with at least 4 seats, or (as in one spectacularly plan-wrecking case) a visiting company director's personal jet fighter into Mr.Acle's usual idea of an executive jet, and yet again at the last minute he had to expensively hire several taxis or a coach or a charter plane. He remembered when one of his men, going to a meeting in space, found that a promised lift between asteroid bases was an asteroid miner spacesuit tethered in with a group of miners and not a pressurized spacecraft. The real world and its faults was as it was, as surely as there was no real subspace radio or tractor beams, and as certainly as `the Klingons' who Abu-Bakr Hasan had been with when the disaster happened were merely an ordinary asteroid miner group who, like many others, had taken a group name out of old or new fiction.
Ilmenost and the rest of the Anor solar system also went back to its routine of work. The matters found out were soon far and wide in both sides' public media before anyone could stop it. The interrogators had ordered Mr.Acle "This discussion never happened.", but of course it had, and two days later drink and annoyance loosened his tongue in defiance of the actual meaning of their order, and the event became part of the general atmosphere of what Earth men and free spacemen thought of each other. Via the inevitable predictable public media and parliamentary rows and revelations, the affair helped to clear the air, in the end. A few more small and medium Earth nations and the Olympics Committee recognized the Anor system as independent from Earth nations and internationl bodies. On planets and in space, life continued.
Mr.Acle tried to patch up his public image and carry on trading. A court in Washington (USA) finally and definitely declared several crucial spacesuit and other space kit patents to have expired some time ago. He traded as he could, having to go himself into space sometimes. Realizing that risking his personal money had gone far enough, he formed his commercial and financial interests into `Acle Investments Ltd.', chose a company logo with his name arranged as a stylized spacecraft, and in promotion videos showed a forward-into-space image promising a big future with big fleets of big craft carrying valuable cargo to and from Earth across far distances, a new start, old mistakes not repeated, uncontrolledness made a quick end of like when as a naval or inshore fisheries dredger-sub used as a patroller to stop shellfish-poaching or theft of shipwreck valuables suddenly sucks up or clamps its grab on intruding scuba divers and pumps them into its dredgings tank, disappointments forgotten, investors confident, share dividends steadily increasing.
But he soon found that the wheel would not turn full circle. There would be no new Fletcher or Milford or the rest. (Where on Earth or the depths of Space were the originals, anyway? He thought uncomfortably that it may well be the latter.) No great alliance of space trading Companies to come, a power of control and patrol across the planet orbits wherever there was matter for men to mine. The free spacemen had too many places to make life support kit, too many places and vast distances to hide in, too much kit that made them independent of Earth supply lines for months or years on end. If ever an armed space fleet was to set forth and scoop up and consume all uncontrolled space nomadism in the Solar System and then in the Anor system as easily and efficiently as a big domestic duck dredges up noisy night-croaking frogs and pumps them into its stomach for dissolving despite their slippery hopping and underwater agility, that would be not for companies but for an alliance of governments, if even they could do it, for governments have many things to have to pay for, not only space ventures.
He thought of spacesuits. Of the type of work suit that had to return to base every night to be emptied of waste and recharged, so the man wearing it could not go far enough from base to desert, he had plenty, bought cheap as bankrupt stock from the fall of Fletcher Brokers etc; but who wanted them? One firm did try setting up a new remote mobile asteroid mining base using those suits, recruiting and training miners from poor and unknowledgeable areas of Earth, and had good profit for a while; but people talk to people, news leaks, and that returned ghost of the notorious `space gulag' Fletchmin-1 was found by free spacemen who resuited the men in long-trip suits, so they could leave at will, and that was the end of that; no point the base sending its PSC-4 to interfere, for the free spacemen involved came in a PSC-4 also. Some sold as spacecrafts' emergency and short work trip suits, and some even as on-planet industrial protective suits. Some had to be cleared out at a loss as film prop spacesuits, their heavier kit parts replaced by plastic foam copies, and ironically often used in films to represent long-trip spacesuits.
The Company-type long(ish)-trip suits with parts designed to wear out, fared little better. In the end, for the long-trip suit market, he to his dislike found himself having to retread trodden paths and do what he had accused others of doing and copy Ilmenostian designs, and a spaceman who bought one of those rarely needed another in his lifetime; men came and went at will with personal spacesuit propulsors, and the call for pressurized passenger spacecraft from his shipyard interest was far less than hoped.
But he and his like traded about and communicated with remote bases as he could, and at least once even went to Ilmenost, where there was an unexpected meeting. He had gone in a small fast executive spacecraft, but soon had to tether it and leave it, wearing a long-trip suit that his firm has made, for next to nothing locally seemed to happen in pressure where his craft could airlock onto. To cut short much tedious business discussion by intercom wire tethered in a bunch floating in nothing, and keeping as far as he could from the ominous bright reflection of Anor's white sunlight from the capacious shiny curium-247 oxygen tanks on The Arbiter's back, and wondering what else of the men's metal ornaments had atomic number on the wrong side of 90, he found that Ilmenost curtly said that seeking outside investment was "borrowing on interest and we'll be paying the interest on it forever" despite reassurances about low interest rates and favourable terms. Trading, yes, if he paid cash or valuable metals on the spot. As he knew all too well, the spacemen had little patience for factors and agents and forbad lending on interest among each other (including any `fee' etc that is effectively interest renamed).
He was aware that he was being strictly kept track of, since the Abu-Bakr Hasan incident. People moved a bit, and he finally saw all the hallmark on King Cobra's metal chest plaque model of Arda's main continent, which he had been all too near for all too long: to his relief the metal symbol was `Pt' (platinum), now that he could see its second letter. "Huh!" he thought, "Bismuth, that's element 83, cures stomach ulcers, they say. Anything past 83 gives me ulcers, the way people round here sport them on their dirty spacesuits. Will I ever get anything long-term out of this?".
Next, they were to go to a lab that wanted to buy some special equipment from or through him. A PSC-1 approached with its front scoop open. For a moment its left side reflected Anor's light at the correct angle for him to see a faint shadow of a Fletchmin-1 symbol under a thick Ilmenostian repaint. That explained a disappearance: Fletcher Brokers's assets had included a fleet of PSC-1 patrol spacecraft, and the Official Receiver at the big bankruptcy had complained about not being able to find two of them. (As far as he knew, Fletchmin-1's career had ended when it was blown open by an explosion in which all its captive workers vanished - if it was an explosion. Its two PSC-1 patrol craft had been reported in action here and there afterwards for a while, then nothing.) Then it turned directly towards them and scooped them up in a tangle of tethers and stowed them in its collapsible tank. He wondered what was happening, then remembered what he had heard of the rough and ready transport that work spacemen accept. In the holding tank with him he saw a man with the name `Red Scorpion' on his helmet forehead, well known locally as an electronics expert. Mr.Acle was pressed against another man's oxygen tanks: luckily for his peace of mind he did not see the name `Plutey-pots' on the man's helmet forehead. Even so he met again two of his former business associates but was never to know it; nor could one of the two ever have known it despite Mr.Acle's suit breathing mask's fullface window.
Several hours later the PSC-1's tank collapsed as far as it could, holding them still for deceleration. It did not help his peace of mind to know that it could empty its tank into a powerful heavy-duty onboard RD, as it had done several times when Fletchmin-1's guards used it. But it opened its intake and let them out. The lab was nearby. On construction work extending it were the F-15's. Even so he met several more who he has known of old and did not know it; nor did they know it although they saw his full face. A large PSC-4 with the Sardies' symbol on it was nearby; its magazineful of MST's were towing large pieces of metal about. He felt a dislike at that sight of `a stableful of police patrol horses basely used for building site cart work', for he was still not fully minded towards free spacemen although he had to trade with them on equal terms; he remembered TV news of unprotected police facing riotsquad-equipped strike pickets as an example of security force kit in the wrong hands.
"These runaway asteroid miners are called `wild' because they don't obey Earth orders." he thought, "but they seem well enough ordered among themselves. From what I've heard of when the X-100's in a PSC-4 `took out' that religious order base called the Faithful Brethren that they say was brainwashing people and not doing its share of keeping Ilmenost running and defended, there's some mighty good space-police material being wasted here wandering uncontrolled in the wild instead of being drilled to Earth law and order and helping to enforce proper regulations about kit and licences and where metals go. It all started when those Sardies (as they call themselves now) found that despite promises they were getting Company base synthesizer output like asteroid miners got instead of good food when they called at bases, so they started hyper jump raiding good food out of base stores. If only we could've sent them out in a PSC-4! Now they are driving one, but it's much too late.". He felt a hopeless longing for that nonexistent but in fiction common space device, the tractor beam; if the supply of tractor beam generators could be properly controlled, a PSC with a battery of them would indeed be effective as a space law enforcer.
Mr.Acle felt another annoyance at a chance lost, and thought of what might have been if the Companies had had the PSC-4 ready in time, and the Sardies manning one or more of them and still true to the Companies, making a fast efficient plentiful start to cleaning up asteroid miner disobedience and unauthorized kit use before it got out of control, and often emptying a holdful of arrested runaway spacemen and seized unauthorized kit into a bulk prisoner transport or a Company base lockup or processing them itself as easily as a town corporation RD-truck grinds up and tracelessly consumes dustbin emptyings or seized unauthorized street-market wares as it goes. But that had not happened; even as inshore shellfish fishermen did not have ultrasound guns or modern diver-catcher craft in the 1960's ready to stop in its tracks the mass sport diver invasion of shellfish fishing areas as it started. The PSC-4 held a large subassembly carefully in its front scoop, to stop it from drifting away.
He looked at the PSC-4 again. Its hull outside and hold insides were proof against any tool or weapon man-portable by spacemen. It had powerful lasers and the latest anti-craft and antipersonnel and man-catching missiles, and several sorts of radar and other sensors. If tractor beams had existed, it would have had them. It could easily detect and fire a missile into a hyperspace jump field developing anywhere near before the escapers could jump away. It could scoop up and store a big bulk in its drum-shaped collapsible hold. Onboard it had a powerful heavy-duty RD to tracelessly consume its hold contents if wished, and other processing kit. It could fire the small fast armed one-man craft called MST's. Its shape looked indeed as if it contained all those powers and more - and it was manned not by the hard efficient space-police squad that it was intended for but by the uncontrolled free spacemen who it had been intended to put a stop to. There is not much difference in appearance between the guarding Alsatian and the roaming wolf of the outer wilderness. It and several others like it had come from no Earth government or Company shipyard but had been made by Ilmenost. Unless Earth swept much else aside at once to finance a fast and massive spacecraft building program, the result would be not suddenly descending on and consuming this backup base of space uncontrollableness like a mobile incinerator swallowing a wasps' nest but a wasteful and dangerous arms race, and history told him what had come of arms races before.
This sight of what had been intended as a police spacecraft being used for a completely different job finally brought home to him the desolate feeling of the fading of empire, in his aftercoming shrunken attempt to rebuild some of the space power and confidence of Fletcher and Milford and the rest who were some nobody knew where and the rest living as they could with far less power. That feeling came on him, the cold autumn wind that signed foreclosure on a summer of harvests, the wolves of the wilderness at the gates, the oasis being buried by huge returning sand dunes wind-piled like an army's seige-engines.
Even so on Earth the big national empires broke up after 1945, the Soviet Union in 1991 one of the last. Even so, soon after 2000, the huge might of Communist China, stricken by internal disorders like a dragon with inoperable cancer, could not hold any more onto remote areas inhabited by other peoples, the steady breakdown of law and order, abandonment of the provinces of Kashgar and Khotan, disorders elsewhere, and the final savage week-long battle on the shore of lake Baghrash Kol 110 miles south of Urumchi that ended the hopes of any who had invested money in anything Chinese in those areas. Nothing to do after but send relief aid to the inevitable refugees as the newly free Uighurs and the rest cleaned their land of Chinese officials and settlers and made mass bonfires of anything with Chinese writing on and deleted every commemmorative place and street name, and watch the same happening in Tibet, and Guangxi and Guizhou (= Kwangsi and Kweichow), and so on. And later to watch the same happening on Mars as strict control by the Companies got slack and failed and unauthorized settlements multiplied and cohered into a Martian nation. And now in the asteroids, thanks to a few critical secret space devices escaped so now everybody had them.
"What had happened and gone wrong in the asteroids, the new clean start with a clean mind and `this time things won't go wrong'?", he thought. The asteroid miners at some bases were free Earth men who had answered Company job adverts promising a life in space that sounded much more exciting than it actually was. But not all bases. Of unauthorized settlers and other prisoners arrested by Company police on Mars during the rebellion there, many had not been repatriated to Earth as stated to the public news, but what Company police interrogators had no more use for was sent to some Company asteroid mining bases (and untruths to their relatives on Earth). At that time, long-trip spacesuits did not exist, and both sorts of miner were base-bound and could not be more than a day in space away from base. The Company foreman had absolute power over them. With that sort of thing in their personal or family past it is no wonder that later asteroid miners were rough and hard-minded and contemptuous of Earth polite manners.
"The boffins did their work too well." he thought, of how suit-recharging stations shrank from the whole base moving from site to site, to a mothercraft driven by the foreman, to one-man riding craft commonly called photon torpedoes, to on-suit recycler and food-synthesis gear. Little did the RD-maker who made a briefcase-sized miniature RD as a business trip demonstration model, think what would come of that when his product and copies of it became a common part of a spacesuit. Of course at first, photon torpedoes and then long-trip spacesuits were for explorers and prospectors and security guards and reliable men only. But many base staff got slack, and on being told to cut base staff down to cut costs, often did so by cutting suit recharging costs by issuing long-trip kit to ordinary asteroid miners.
Despite all precautions, tales got back to Earth and the supply of miners from there got short; after the Mars War of Independence the Companies got no more men from Mars. To compete for what miners there were and keep up quota, bases slid into trading in metals and kit and kit parts with any miner who turned up; miners ignored rules about possessing metals and convertible currencies in space and about which base they belonged to. So things changed and matters slid into what Mr.Blore had found when he went into space; again tales got back, and more men were willing to go into space as asteroid miners, for the recruiting advert writers made much of this new ability to roam at will. Groups of free miners with wild exotic personal and group codenames roamed the asteroid belt and were only controlled by controlling all supply of essential kit items and access to transport on and off planets. Bases or Companies sometimes tried to restore the old tightness of order; then miners stayed away from bases and waited it out. In some bases, heavy security did maintain the old conditions.
Miners with an engineering or electronic past started making kit parts in space in breach of Company monopoly. "And sometimes they ended up telling a firing squad or heavy-duty RD about it in a Company base or police craft; but sometimes not." he thought, "Then that clever `Sardaukar' idea went wrong, and they got hyperspace jumpers. Then some free miner invented and made PL-props, that's suit propulsors that can get on and off planets, before we could. And that was the end of that. And they had PSC-4's before we did. They'll just jump and spread, and spread and jump, wherever there's stars with asteroids, far too far for anyone to control them all. This sort of thing will happen if you don't keep tight watch on every man. They've already set up here good and fancy, and here I am tethered in with a bunch of them in their dirty long-trip spacesuits watching them building yet more, looking and feeling like a cross between a fighter pilot and an aeroplane and a flying sewage works, and smelling most like the last when I finally unsuit.". He resigned himself to negotiating with them as equals. Perhaps time and population increase will turn them into something like a settled nation, in which petty traders would gradually evolve into large companies minded like his own and able to agree with him on matters, and their rather random law-making and case-trying system of group leaders and that character the Arbiter with his showoff shiny curium-247 oxy tanks would have to develop into a formal government and judiciary and police and army.
"As a matter of interest, how did some of you lot get into space, anyway?" he asked, trying to find something of their origins while they were friendly.
"I was a NASA man." said Jet Jack, "They called me Jet Jack from then, because I also tested a jetpack for them. (It flew a lot better with clip-on wings like we use on our spacesuits for planet landing.) They sent me into space in one of the early long-trip spacesuits to explore for five years. Rattler went with me. A few asteroid miners joined us: better to go as a bunch than alone, same as in scuba diving. I did what NASA said, and sent samples etc back. But after the five years, I was too fond of space and distance. I knew their rules: one trip, then `flying a desk' till I retired, or out of work. So I stayed in space as an asteroid miner leader. Other men joined us later. They call us the Jetters.".
"Yes, a lot of NASA men stayed out like that or ran away to space, like those 15 together, and others. To be expected.", said Mr.Acle.
"I didn't have such fun in space." said Cobra roughly, "I couldn't find work on Earth so I started copying music CD's to sell. They called it faking, 'cos there was a copyright on them. I couldn't pay the fine, so I went to prison. The jail governor was in with Milford's, so I and other con[vict]s from there were taken in a truck and stuffed into a space shuttle and made into asteroid miners. That was a bit before the Mars trouble blew up. Real hard place, space gulag. It was before Jet Jack went into space. Short-trip suits, had to go back to base every day. Nobody'd heard of long-trip kit. Punished for the least thing. Some of us died, or their relatives paid to get them sent back to Earth; the Company sent us other men instead, unauthorised settlers they'd taken off Mars.". He spoke briefly, for all present knew all too well what had happened in such places, by experience or from others.
"I was there for years." he continued, "The suits got older and older and they never changed them. Things got scarcer. They made more and more excuses to dock our rations, said it was punishment for this and that, but I think they were getting strapped for cash. Then one day the foreman told us: `I'm sick of paying for emptying and recharging your dirty spacesuits every day and for moving the base about. Get on one of these each and get out there and come back in a month's time with plenty of stuff.' and gave us a `photon torpedo' each, and a big RD with a plute-238 powerpack that we all had to tow to get metals out of the rock. That was how the Company tested those torpedoes. We were expendable, so they could risk our lives on them. But the torps worked. I sat astride mine, and plugged my suit's breathing set and sewage tank into it, and I could stay out for weeks. Lovely. That was the last we slept in that place. We called ourselves the Perseids after that big meteor shower that [on Earth] comes every September. The foreman came with us at first, but he got tired of torp food synthesizer output, he wanted back to his fancy staff pantry back in base, and he had paperwork to catch up with, so he slipped our tethers and #%$'ed off back to base. After that we painted out the Company's convict numbers off our kit and chose codenames for ourselves. One of us tweaked our suit radios so we could hear frequencies we shouldn't, and that's how we heard that Mars was free now.".
The other long-trip spacemen remembered the Perseids, a group that now roamed and mined only the space of memory, whose group symbol was now on no man's suit or kit, and whose only base to return to was the back corners of old memory in men's brains. For they went to now-independent Mars for supplies, a long trip away from asteroids to mine but worth it for the better treatment at the Martian base on Phobos (their torpedoes' propulsors could about get that far into and out of Mars's gravity well), and each time many of them looking down on Mars saw their old homes where they had helped for a while to tame a world; on one such arrival a shuttle from Mars was in, and many of them did not want to roam emptiness any more but returned to the Red Planet, and carried on life there. They were allowed the landing free, as Mars granted to such returned deportees. Of those left in space, some died in a shoot-out with Company base guards when a dispute over a bill turned violent, and three died of radiation from a badly-designed part in their torpedoes before the rest found what was happening and could put the fault right. Their leader Perseus died of appendicitis which burst and became peritonitis weeks from anyone who could have operated for it. Those left decided they were not enough for a group, and joined the Jetters. The Jetters later, after they got PL-props, landed in Elysium on Mars where the returnees had settled; the returnees were glad to see old comrades again but had had enough of spacesuits and weightless emptiness and stayed on Mars.
But the Jetters heard there that another group thought gone was still just alive. There had been about 30 in the Quadrantids, who had developed a habit of PL-prop landing in an area on Earth to trade in precious metals directly with jewellers on the ground in defiance of strict local laws controlling precious metals. They had got away with it several times, but the next time a police jet fighter which had been sitting at the end of the runway with a pilot in, ready armed with the latest specialized weapons to destroy raiding helirig gangs and PL-prop spacemen groups in flight, soared after them as they ran for space and at limit reach destroyed them all with a shrapnel missile. The Company that had designed the plane's weapons system was pleased with the result and made several more. The authorities recorded a 100% kill, as also did the free spacemen, for there was no point counting one of them who was far away enduring the long slow death of Alzheimer's Disease tethered in a bunch of other patients to a building in Ilmenost while their spacesuits took care of them until the end came to each.
But apart from him one man still living bore the Quadrantid symbol on his helmet, left in Ilmenost hospital with cancer thought inoperable but after a long fight cleared up. He was called Scorpio. Weak and ill but recovering, he asked about his group and found what had happened. All his companions were gone, his hardy far-travelling leader and all the rest. He went over their names. He was old and experienced, but no point calling himself leader with nobody to lead. He flew about alone doing what work came his way, unwilling to join another group and thus make an end of the Quadrantids, until he met the Quasars. In them was Black Dog, one of his group who, as sometimes happened, had jumped groups to be with a pretty face. Seeing his old group reduced to one wandering alone, he left his new group and joined Scorpio, bringing his new wife and their children with him. Both reluctantly left their new companions, but felt it had to be done. Now the Quadrantids were three, plus two babies and a foetus. An ex-NASA spaceman, now out of work and in bad condition until he at last found a landing group of free spacemen: that made four. Various eager young recruits from Earth: that made ten and slowly growing. The Quadrantids roamed space again.
"I went into space more recently." said Red Dog, "I'd just left school. I was all for following the astronauts and all that. Like Cobra said, things had got a lot better since the early years. I went to an asteroid mining company office, and they gave me a medical [test] and put me on the next shuttle out to a big base on an asteroid called Herculina. They put me in a long-trip suit at once and put me in the next group that came in to trade, whether the group wanted me or I wanted the group or not. That's how I met the Jetters."
"I was a financier who got into money trouble." said Plutey-pots, "I was in a space base on a business trip at the time, and I thought I could hole up as a base clerk or something while the hue and cry down there [= on Earth] died down. Next I knew I was in an asteroid miner spacesuit and shoved out of an airlock. Chomp, one businessman vanished down the system's throat and reprocessed. Not the only time it's happened. People talk about my oxy tanks, but astro miners weren't the first to make funny things out of valuable metals. That base storeman Levitsky who got me, he told me later that when he took over there he checked everything out and found that the spacesuit RD-part rack, one of its uprights was plute-239 and another was neodymium, someone before him'd fiddled it and hidden it from inspectors like that. I read in a newspaper [and so did I: Author] about smuggling gold by making it into a bicycle frame and riding the bike through Customs. Enough fiddling to make a symphony orchestra, and they moaned about us holding onto stuff. Well, that Levitsky's had it happen to him now: the big crash came, his Company went bust, those rogue Fletchmin guards raided his base and one of us lots had to rescue him, he had nowhere to go, and now he's `easily into one of our spacesuits but not so easily out of it'.".
Mr.Acle had not come to watch building site work or to hear spacemen's life stories. He remembered the saying "I like work: I could watch it all day.". He went into the lab with the rest of the party. The resulting discussion is irrelevant here, but the lab staff decided to buy the special equipment, and it was later duly delivered, and paid for with a quantity of various heavy metals that had been extracted from asteroids.
But also Plutey-pots noticed among the lab staff someone that he had met briefly before. Her helmet forehead bore the name `Pentaulia'. Her suit chest bore a large model of a branched twig of a flowering tree made out of niobium metal (element 41). Her spacesuit had a fullface window rather than eye holes. On a day that now seemed half a lifetime ago when he first went to Ilmenost, he met her in a room in a half-completed building, which they pressurized and in it cooked and ate what was many of the asteroid miners' first proper Christmas dinner for several years, which they had daringly hyper jumped from London on Earth. Chance and work had separated them; now they met again. They looked at each other again. She knew of him mostly as the man who had found Long Tom and Fletchmin-1 so that the three groups could be freed. In the vacuum of space she hugged him and rubbed breathing masks with him, and kissed the air inside hers, and never minded that she was touching his oxygen tanks which were well known to be made of the metal stated in his name.
He replied likewise. In his former life as Mr.Blore, London financier, he had been too busy to get involved with women, nor would many women have been patient enough with being expected to be an unpaid secretary and his endless succession of absences on business. But now life had changed, and beyond the Pleiades he felt a love that he had denied himself on Earth.
"How did you get your name?" he asked.
"My original name's rather ordinary: Janet Johnson." she said, "My parents and brother went into space looking for work. I went with them, since I had nowhere else to go. Out here everybody seems to choose these new names for themselves and each other, so I thought I'd better choose one to my liking before someone else saddled me with one I didn't care for. Some women put up with a rough codename like a man's; I want something prettier. Pentaulia's a pretty flowering tree that grows along banks of streams in the lower Eridanus floodplain on Arda. The flowers have 5 blue petals with orange streaks, and a long nectar secreting tube hangs down from each petal: its name's Greek for `having 5 tubes'. Native butterflies like it, and native birds like its fruit. This on my chest's a model of a bit of it. Most women stick to Earth flowers to name themselves or girl babies after, for some reason. I can't see why: many Arda and Karnil flowers are as pretty, and we aren't in the Earth system any more.".
By now Mr.Acle's secretary had brought his spacecraft there. The business discussions finished. The lab staff including Pentaulia tethered to each other and came out into the open.
Red Scorpion switched his suit light on and went into the PSC-1's scoop and crawled about in its intake and tank. He passed the tank-to-RD hatch. The RD that that hatch fed into was ominously significant in his memory, for that hatch had opened for some who by mischance found Fletchmin-1 when the place's guards recruited from hard convicts used it for their own and their bosses' purposes; it had opened for many good long-trip spacesuits when the guards seized them as patent infringements; and, in a modified loader that the place had also had, an equivalent hatch had opened for him, and how he had escaped the RD was unclear.
But those guards were no more, and the free spacemen had captured their two craft. He passed that hatch, and found and opened another hatch, and got what he wanted from the store compartment behind it. He came out again from what in Company times had too often been a `one-way road', towing an in-suit washer. This is a device to wash the spaceman thoroughly in his suit via an umbilical cord, for they knew that visiting Earth men usually did not share asteroid miners' affection for the familiar smell on unsuiting. Mr.Acle felt another moment of truth, for he knew enough about space to recognize this preliminary to unsuiting for a formal meal unsuited in atmosphere. They had made dinner, an unusual treat for them, but for him the 18th routine business dinner or lunch that he would have had to face that fortnight; nor was his peace of mind helped by, on reading a standard leaflet direly warning newcomers that all Ardan and Karnilian life is poisonous to Man, suddenly finding himself facing a firing squad of spacemen with powerful lasers printed large across the page below the header line to emphasize the lethalness of what the text described. As all business and paper signing had already been done, he pleaded an urgent personal matter, got into his craft, drove it a mile or so away from anything solid, and was gone in a cloud of grey distortion as he hyperspace jumped back to Earth.
The rest one by one plugged themselves to the in-suit washer. Then they went into a compartment in the lab and pressurized it and unsuited and had the dinner anyway, even without the guest of honour. It was some Earth-type food reared artificially, and some synthesized food; their food-synthesizer operators had much better skill than those at Company asteroid bases used to. While the food was cooking they took the opportunity of the suit-off for such small personal jobs as cutting their hair. They kept their suits and kit in sight, and some kept work lasers across their knees as they sat, by force of habit keeping a common precaution. As they ate, Pentaulia and Plutey-pots caught each others' eyes again. They hugged again, this time able to kiss properly.
After the dinner, they resuited. The rubbish vanished into their suit RDs' outside feed hatches. With some of them, much else had vanished into those small hatches during long rough careers as long-trip spacemen; Plutey-pots remembered the credit etc cards which had been his last potential way back to his former life as Mr.Blore. Pentaulia and Plutey-pots kissed one last time before putting their breathing masks and suit hoods and safety helmets on. They all went outside. Red Scorpion took the in-suit washer back to where he had got it from.
The various groups, the Jetters (Plutey-pots's group), the Pallas-2's, and the lab staff, sorted themselves out. Those in each group tethered to each other. Pentaulia looked at from her group at Plutey-pots in his, and passed intercom wires to two in her group. The rest of her group did likewise, and went into their lab for a while. She told the Jetters to wait "while I fetch something". The Pallas-2's activated their suit propulsors and left. The Arbiter left, riding on the outside of the PSC-1 over its scoop with his curium-247 oxygen tanks shining in Anor's sunlight, giving an impression that "in this version St.George rides the dragon" as some had called it. King Cobra drove it, back to where his group the X-100's were working. It shrank to a dot in the distance and was gone.
The Jetters and the lab staff were left, and each group prepared to go back to work as the alien constellations of the Anor system's sky shone all round them, and the Milky Way encircled them. Plutey-pots looked at it and remembered what he had read once, that before men had telescopes there were many theories about the Milky Way, even that it was divine light from outside leaking in where the `heavenly sphere' had been made in halves and joined, imagining that with the skill of the times it was a hard task even for gods to make a light-tight join in curved plating. But now men could move easily among the nearer stars, and the truth about the stars and space was known. He looked at the enlarged reversed Pleiades again, although he had no hope of seeing the Sun through them. He thought of Pentaulia again, wondering when he would see her again, and if so whether she would then be again wearing the usual fighter-pilot-type breathing mask that leaves only the eyes visible. His group prepared to leave.
It was quickly done. Pentaulia untethered, ran her suit propulsor briefly, flew loose across to the Jetters as they were starting to leave, and tethered to two of them including Plutey-pots. Her parents and brother waved at her and called on her to communicate back often, as relatives will in that sort of departure. She and Plutey-pots hugged again. The Jetters left, and she with them, looking backwards at her family while they were near enough to be seen.
The Jetters went to a reported incoming comet to see if its fragile ice bulk
held any useful light elements, on the endless routine of man living in space
without backup from a planet's population. She removed the lab staff emblem from
her helmet and put it in her suit pack, and replaced it with a Jetter emblem
when one was made for her. The `ultimate faceless bureaucrat', a large sentient
computer that did much of Ilmenost's routine record-keeping and accounts and the
like, recorded the marriage. Eleven months later she had Plutey-pots's son, and
carried him in a small pressure bag connected to her spacesuit's life support
and recycling systems until he was ready for his own little spacesuit.