To those who have read part 1 I apologize for repetitions hereinafter; but I felt that some explanation is due to those who have not read it.
`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).
"Until I actually saw him, I didn't think it was possible, only a story we heard here and there and told each other to keep our spirits up while we were held there and no way away when many of us were once free with kit to go where we wanted to. The group of free asteroid miners that can get in and out of anywhere, and one of them's got oxy tanks made out of plutonium: they exist and got us out of there: he exists and he found me, and I've breathed from his tanks!" said Long Tom later, after the meeting, when he and the other asteroid miners were back at work, "That story'd been going around for several years now." said one of the Pallas-2's.
"Then it doesn't refer to me?" said Plutey-pots, "I've only been in space for about a year or a bit less. I got my oxy tanks with my suit from a base kit storeman called Levitsky. He didn't tell me what they were made of till I was well away in space. I wondered why they were so heavy. I thought at first that the name that Jet Jack gave me was short for `plutocratic money pot': I was a businessman before and my real name's Mr.Blore, until things went bad and got on top of me: I had to go into space to a conference, and it went wrong; I missed my flight home, and I had to stay out here while creditors bayed after me down on Earth like hounds after a fox; Levitsky tricked me into putting a long-stay asteroid miner spacesuit on, then he shoved me out into space.".
"Oh him. He's of a type of his own!, somewhere between company and miner. I bet he tried to make fun of that tale that was going around, not knowing that he was making part of it happen! Likely at the start someone said that us getting in and back out of some Company lock-ups and the like was as unlikely as making spacesuit cylinders out of plutonium, and the story grew from there. Easy to get fanciful ideas for stories during long trips to the next asteroid that's worth looking at. All sorts of variations the story got, some using star patterns as ready-made pictures for it, and altered as it went by people that didn't know much about different isotopes of plute. Some have him keeping them many years and wouldn't part with them for anything; but at last in his old age in the time of our greatest danger he melts them down to make a bomb which destroys a huge army of attacking Company enforcers, and saves the free miners from extinction. Some have him suicide bombing with it, and some of those even his ghost coming back to help asteroid miners that get into tight spots. How does some of it go?: `My body got old, and lost its old strength; now it and my tanks that served me so long are gas and fission products orbiting the sun for ever, and will never have funeral and go in an RD to become part of the next generation's bodies and kit. My shadowy ghost body and kit and tank contents are no use to you, but I will do what I can.'. All sorts of thriller stuff, crudely exciting or too weepy and not really `good' stories that people'd keep like old authors; the real war is to keep us and our kit out of base guards' hands and suchlike, and our minds from going silly from seeing nothing but the same stars for weeks on end. But you have got plute tanks, and you did find me so we got out of that Company slave-base in the Vesta sector whose bosses called it `Fletchmin-1'.".
"Yes, I've heard it." said Rattler, "All sorts of sad stuff in his goodbye to his cylinders, like that poem `The Arab's Farewell to his Steed' that I read at school. I can't see much of it actually happening, the way it goes.".
"We didn't get time to say goodbye to our kit, when that trick loader caught us and ordered us to take it off and RD'ed it and gave us company issue suits instead so we were base-bound there for five years, and badly treated with it. I didn't believe it when you lot appeared from nowhere in our dorm[itory]. Manpack hyperspace jumper!: they said there could never be such a thing." said Stego, who like Long Tom was one of the Pallas-2 `bunch' of asteroid miners.
"How come there was that much work for you lot there, anyway? Us lot couldn't find that much work for that long within a day's suit [propulsor] flight of the same base, at any base round here.".
"It was a rich patch, and the base could move about; they spread false reports that there was nothing there, so free miners wouldn't come to nose round, and if they did, a Fletchmin company patrol craft got them. We overheard guards and staff talking a few times. Sometimes I wonder what else used to happen there. Sometimes stuff came and went that we weren't allowed to handle, the guards and staff had to load and unload it themselves, they didn't like having to work themselves and we copped it from them afterwards.".
"Why your name? We were too busy before for me to ask." said Cobra.
"From stegosaurus, the dinosaur with the back plates. I've got a lot of big scars down my back from small roof falls: that happens in coal mines like the one where I used to work. The mine shut down, so I went to space to find work.".
"It's time we went back to work. All that chasing and hyper jumping about hasn't paid us for much that we need, whatever it may have earned us in goodwill from those three lots that we rescued there. Action makes a fine tale, but it uses energy or kit that someone has to make or find or buy." said Plutey-pots; the word `goodwill' used in its business sense showed that inside his mind Mr.Blore the city businessman still slept uneasily.
After more of this sort of small talk the various groups separated, with a big job of untangling tethers. Jet Jack's group after three day's travel found an unlisted achondrite asteroid half a mile wide with a thick seam of rock rich in lanthanide metals, and stayed there a while. Their large towed RD kept up with the job of separating it, but was making heavy weather of it.
"That thing's beginning to need a reactor in it so we can turn its power up and down, not that radium that it's got now and when its storage battery's full we must throw the heat away." said Cobra as he hacked at the solidified contents of a lava chamber that must once have been buried deep in a much bigger asteroid than the long-ago-broken fragment of it that they had found.
"We paid a lot for that radium." said Jet Jack, "good steady heat, half life 1600 years so it lasts well, can't get full o' fission products eating neutrons so it gets to need reprocessing like reactor fuel does. When's someone going to come up with a fusion reactor small enough for this sort of job? There's hydrogen everywhere.".
"Oh, that stuff. Only one part in 6700-and-something of it's any use. And fusion reactors are a $@# lot 'arder to make.".
"I don't mean deuterium. Nirvana here'd be a protium fusion reactor, p'tic'ly one small enough for me to wear it on my suit.".
"What's special about that stuff? Protak-231's 'alf life is 3280 years, but it ain't got nuthin' that radium ain't got, and not much of it turns up, and it won't chain fission. The other protaks are 'alf gone in 3 weeks or less. Most of what there is, RD's out of thorium that's been in a reactor. Only one I know of's got it in 'is suit powerpack: that's Protak Pete in the X-100's.".
"I didn't say protactinium! Protium's ordinary hydrogen, not deut[erium] or tritium. Just an electron chasing round a proton. The protium fusion reactor! Like what most stars run off, the basic power of the universe, `the star in your backpack'. When will someone come up with it, and an end to chasing about after U and thorium and plute, and @#%'ing about in radioactive reactors 'aving to kick them upstairs [= turn them into plutonium-239 and U-233 and curium-245 respectively] to make them so they'll chain fission?".
They continued hacking and drilling at the asteroid. By now Plutey-pots was as good as the rest at running his suit propulsor at low power to push the drill against the work. Small or medium amounts of a great variety of elements came out in the RD'ing, a puzzle in space workshops to many steel and brass based Earth-trained metallurgists who now had to keep track of the merits and demerits of hafnium, gallium, scandium, titanium, niobium, lanthanides, and many other odd names from odd corners of the periodic table. "It could be said that's quite enough safe for the likers of variety," he thought, "the delight some of these wild bunches seem to take in openly wearing kit items made of actinides - which includes me. Despite the nuclear materials regulations. And Jackhammer's nep[tunium]-237 suit RD-cover that he fitted after the old one got dented in and had to be left for repair that time.".
So it went on. Some elements like silicon are so common that they were left. They worked until they had a full load of metals, and then went to a collecting base. As they approached, someone radioed whoever was listening asking for a lift to a base built on an asteroid called Herculina; they answered. On arriving they unloaded. As a thankful change the prices on the lists were the prices paid with no talk of percentages and charges. They stuck to their habit of unsuiting and showering a third at a time while the rest guarded the kit. They bought some news and entertainment CD's, caught up with the space-talk with whoever they met in the goods area, and asked the storeman where the Mr.Jackson was who had asked for a lift to Herculina. Mr.Jackson came, and proved to be an under-manager who was being suddenly transferred to fill in after an outbreak of flu brought in by a finance businessman who had refused to let doctor's orders make him miss investment opportunities. On hearing this, Mr.Blore the city businessman stirred guiltily at the back of Plutey-pots's mind, for Mr.Blore had done that himself a few times, suppressing symptoms and carrying on, and at least once summarily sacking and replacing an agent who went down with flu just before an important conference; but to Plutey-pots the spaceman such memories were a distant irrelevant past.
"You bunch said you could give me a lift to Herculina, but I don't see it." said Mr.Jackson when he arrived.
"Here it is." said Rattler showing him one of their spare spacesuits.
"Oh no." said Mr.Jackson, "I thought you meant a proper enclosed craft! If you think you're going to get me into in that thing with its intimate intrusions into my anatomy, and I arrive smelling like I'd been dead a fortnight, you're mistaken! For a start I've got a briefcaseful of important papers and my computer to carry, and to work on on the journey. And I see that him with the cylinders is with you. He better keep them away from me.".
"Its outside pack's big enough for all your stuff.".
"Oh is it? I can't work on papers in open space, they'd go everywhere, I was counting on this lift. I thought you'd be more helpful after the companies conceded all those points at that conference. Like once in Leeds when a promised lift turned out to be pillion on a motorcycle, cold and wet and no chance to work on my papers on the trip; and a lift from Birmingham to Bristol when I'd just spread my papers out on the other back seat to catch up on the journey when into the car come his wife laden with shopping, and two noisy active children who at once wanted to play video games on my laptop computer. Can't put anything down because there's no down or up, everything floats about or floats away. Haven't any of you got a `glove box' like they handle atomic stuff in? My firm stands to lose a lot to rivals if I don't get to Herculina in time.".
"No." said Rattler, "Can't you business types ever just relax? When I was builder in London one of my boss's directors stayed at our house for a weekend before a conference. We'd arranged some nice little trips round for him, but he just stayed indoors with his nose in papers all the time, in fine hot weather.".
"Oh. It seems I must put that suit of yours on, and risk you towing me off into the wilds and turning me into one more asteroid miner, like I've heard tales of, and I never see my office again, you saying you had a proper lift for me, and now you haven't, trick to get me into one of your spacesuits. Easily into it, but how easily out of it and when? All these parts in it made in no factory known to Earth or Mars. Where was it made? How did it get here?".
The last question had puzzled many in passing, and Mr.Jackson did not know that he was looking straight at the answer. "Agh, I've better things to do with this lot of roughs for company, than staring at some steel tank full of sewage or radioactivity on that Jet Jack's dirty long-trip spacesuit." he muttered.
"He would indeed have a tale to tell to his bosses if he knew what that was." Jet Jack thought.
Mr.Jackson accepted the inevitable, undressed, put his clothes and luggage into the spacesuit's outside pack, put the undersuit and the suit on, sealed up and tethered himself as instructed, listened to one of them telling him how to use his suit radio, and airlocked out with the rest of them.
"I'll follow you a bit away, I've some confidential work on my computer that I at least can catch up with, if my @# suit's powerpack's the right voltage and connector shape for my computer to run off. I know how your suit propulsors work." said Mr.Jackson, "And I well knew asteroid miner undersuit smell among the facts of life in an asteroid base, and I'll soon smell the same.".
"I know, it shows we're not some base-bound bunch that can unsuit every night. No, you're not following loose and you've never been in a suit like ours before. Men get lost that way." said Jet Jack, "You come tethered in with the rest of us. If we're lucky we'll find a loader going our way.".
"Don't you speak to me like that.".
"Still doesn't alter the facts of space travel.".
They set off. He did what he could on his computer, which he had tethered to himself very securely; but he was hampered by not daring to take floppy disks out of his outside pack in case they drifted away: it was his first time ever in open space. He accepted his predicted fate as they stopped in passing to poke about a half-mile-long lump of nickel-iron that they passed; but they carried on after a few hours, and at last to his relief he saw the familiar shape of Herculina approaching, a sight that he would have preferred to see through a passenger craft porthole than through asteroid miner spacesuit breathing mask eye-windows. They duly left him there. Two of them went into the airlock with him to make sure they got the suit back.
They did what trading was needed there through the base storeman's outside porthole, and prepared to move on. They met the group of asteroid miners called the X-100's there, for Herculina was a big base and there were many comings and goings there. They had some new repairs on their suits. When Jet Jack asked them why, their leader Protak Pete replied with an tale of trouble all too soon after all concerned had thought that there was a new and friendlier spirit about:
"We'd found summat unusual: big di'monds, sev'ral 'undred carat of 'em. Good clear 'uns, not industrial stuff. We took 'em to a base; the storeman was some wide bloke fresh up from Earth, paid us in gold, OK by us, 'cept our [portable remote metal] analyzers found it was ali [= aluminium] an' copper an' stuff mixed an' no gold. What some call `fool's gold'. 'E started sorryin' an' sayin' 'e'd chase back where it came from. We wanted the di'monds back. 'E changed the subject an' said we'd set our analyzers to tell lies. I said if you don't trust analyzers put it in water to see 'ow much the water rises [to find its volume], then weigh it, then divide an' see if it's 'eavy enough. 'E changed the subject again. We said 'e'd better give us it to RD it back into sep'rate metals so nob'dy'd get cheated with it again, an' that 'e was a #$& fool not to run an analyzer over valuable stuff afore 'e accepted it. 'E wouldn't, so we took it, an' the di'monds back. 'E rang for the uniforms an' pulled a gun out, not a laser but a thing called a K'lashnikov, sprays lead ev'rywhere an' nob'dy gets the lead back later, wasteful things that sort of gun, but lethal. We hid be'ind things an' went for our lasers an' soon got 'im. Not very brave in a corner. 'E soon started babblin' an' gabblin' about another lot fiddlin' an' 'e was 'oldin' the fiddlin's for 'em so the Company wouldn't find out, then 'e'd used it for some private business of 'is own on the side an' lost it, so now 'e was in a blind funk to get the amount back or the Company and that other lot'd be after 'im, please or they'd do 'im over bad, `sorry sorry I won't do it again honest', 'e'd already 'ad to run away to space to get away from a scrape over someone's money in Paris. Then the uniforms came an' wouldn't listen to our side of it, we backed away into the base, they thought we were fools backin' t'wards an' into their lock-up, then they locked us in. A bit later we got out.".
"How? Some of those base lockups are @#% tight and lasers and your explosives won't touch them.".
"We got out." he said, "Next base we went to, they'd 'eard of it, they said it was OK, that storeman'd been arrested for dishonesty an' 'bezzlin', sorry sorry it was a misunderstanding: don't know if it was true or for show. But still only a quarter of us unsuited at once while the rest guarded the suits an' kit.".
Jet Jack realized that one more group of free asteroid miners now had a copy of the secret thing that he had and had often got him in and out of places. How much longer would it stay secret, with this new report getting back of locked-up asteroid miners apparently `quantum-leaking' out to freedom like electrons do?
"People are the same with money." Plutey-pots thought uncomfortably, "That's too much like how I had to stay in space and stop being Mr.Blore to get away from creditors etc that time. Lucky I suppose that Jet Jack and his bunch have kept me on a short tether to keep me out of trying it on again out here, else I might be where that storeman is.".
(Note: the term `fool's gold' is also used for the mineral called iron pyrites (ferrous disulphide, FeS2), because of its colour).
They went back to work. Life went on, and their time passed unremarkably; the usual round went on, which alarms and scares are only an interruption in, for ultimately the companies want metals and many still thought that free miners are as good as a way as any other to get them. Things let go drifted away and had to be chased, second nature to the other miners but still having to be got used to by Plutey-pots. Once Plutey-pots to his relief did not have to chase a hammer whose tether had broken, for Cobra recovered it with a tractor beam, which after that proved mercifully useful, a thing longed for and at last got to hand - until the hand-held tractor beam generator dissolved into emptiness along with the dream that it was part of. He swore impatiently at the intrusion into real world practicality of yet another fictional device that there was as yet no hope of seeing in reality, and at the longings to have such a thing in reality; he swore several times more that `morning' when he found himself looking in vain for a tractor beam generator among his kit, for he had that dream several times and very vividly. "Last month I kept on dreaming of subspace radio conversations with people I knew back on Earth." he said, tiredly describing it to the others, "Instant radio contact across the light years, or nearly instant, according to what story it's in. It made me homesick for my childhood home. No good: its household's dead of old age or dispersed, and different people live there now.".
"Subspace radio?" said Rattler, "Likely the man that designs it'll come in a spaceship with a beryllium-8 hull. All these handy little tricks to make fiction story events run quicker, then people want them for real and get sulky when they can't have them. I once overheard angry radioing when a man on a Space Explorer holiday thought his tour leader's suit radio was subspace, he absolutely had to ring his broker in New York at once about shares, as if he couldn't forget business for a while.". The rest laughed, for beryllium-8 is proverbially hopelessly short-lived: its half-life is 0.00000000000000007 seconds.
When they had dug enough, they went to a base to trade it for a big load of metals and supplies needed for other plans. The stay at base went without trouble, and the base storeman thankfully traded fair. A week in atmosphere and gravity and access to news from Earth was welcome. Some base personnel still treated suited free miners as unattractive space machinery that should stay in the goods area. A television program called `The Unexplained' (in wavy writing and a ghostly voice) was making much of a recent simultaneous disappearance of various company directors and the like from various places on Earth.
They overheard an argument including threats of suing between Space Explorer tourists and their tour leader when suiting up at the start of their trip, for some of them despite clear warnings in the brochure had brought more luggage than would fit in their suit outside and inside packs (including all sorts of inappropriate stuff as if they were going to a hot seaside), and some of the extra bulk was valuable personal items which would have to be left, and the cost of leaving luggage (and they could not rely on going back to that base) or (as was done) sending it back or on, and the natural unwillingness of their tour leader (an ex-asteroid miner) to clutter and burden his tour group with several large towed crates of extra luggage, for they had no mothercraft but went in a tethered cluster like miners. They would probably spend heavily on undersuit deodorant, look through the base's space-telescope at Jupiter and its moons which they were nearly in conjunction with (one reason for them coming to that particular base), get used to their suit propulsors and having a whole sphere of stars round them rather than a hemisphere or a portholeful, learn that swimming in space got nowhere, poke round a few nearby asteroids of various sorts, perhaps watch a group of real asteroid miners at work, and (if the miners let them) perhaps try using the miners' tools (to the amusement of each other and of the miners, who it made a change in routine for), and get back to base and into atmosphere and thus into a spacecraft and home thinking they knew all there was to know about being in space in a spacesuit. "They'd have a deal more exciting time if their tour leader had what I've got on my suit!" Jet Jack thought.
By then Jet Jack's group had done all they had gone to base to do, so they left. There was no attempt to charge an airlock use fee on exit: reporters arriving unexpectedly at a crucial meeting between miners and Company men had made the base companies badly scared of the prospect of having an independent judiciary forced on them if a sensation started in the public media. As they were leaving, they met the Pallas-2's arriving. They waited while the Pallas-2's did their base business, then the two groups met.
"That last Space Explorer group: you should've heard the language that a fancy piece of skirt [= posh woman] came out with when she found she had to trim 5 suitcases and 3 hatboxes and a real crocodile handbag down to what'd fit in her suit packs!" said Rattler, "She thought that her poshness gave her the right to demand more than was in the brochure. She tried to hire a tow crate for her surplus stuff, but forgot it when she was told she'd have to tow it herself. She tried to share it among the rest of the party pinching their luggage allowances. The tour leader had to tell her sharply that they hadn't come to be her porters. Well, she knows now a bit of what we go through all the time when we carry stuff, calling herself ill-used as if she'd been held where you lot were held.".
"That place where you were held - Fletchmin-1 - some call it `Dragline's' now - something tells me we may as well look there again carefully and see what that company's starting there again, and what else has been going on there. I still don't quite trust that lot." said Plutey-pots.
"Oh, it's you!" Long Tom, one of the Pallas-2's, exclaimed, "If you hadn't seen me running away on that missile, we and those two other lots of us'd still be held in there. I reckon it was [news of] the mistreatment we had in there getting in the media helped to change a lot. A shock for the public to learn that that sort of thing had come back.".
"We may as well. Off we go. Hang on while I calculate the coordinates." said Rattler. The two groups went off together. They ran their suit propulsors for a while and drifted until well out of range of radars. Plutey-pots fell asleep in his suit and dreamed of home. By now he was so used to it that beds in bases seemed strange and he could not sleep well in them. All the time his suit's recycling system, powered by a nuclear powerpack, collected his body's waste including exhaled gas, split them into sorted chemical elements, and synthesized food for him and kept him supplied with oxygen. His suit RD in its steel-cased bulge at his left waist consumed everything it was given. Once, on a day that seemed ages ago, it had consumed his credit etc cards that were his last good provable link with his former life as Mr.Blore the London financier. Now he had as hard a contempt for such urban things as Jet Jack and the rest had. They all bunched into a tight ball, and Jet Jack activated the hyperspace jumper that was attached to his spacesuit. The stars disappeared, and reappeared with the sun against a different part of the zodiac. They waited a day, then carefully approached the space base (which still rotated to make gravity), and entered it through a large hole in its side. "That's where we jumped you lot out, and part of the wall came with us: we'd set the jump field very wide." said Jet Jack.
Inside it was empty and airless. The surviving guards and staff had long ago loaded their casualties into the base's two patrol craft and fled, not caring to face either prisoners that suddenly got the means of fighting back, or Company charges of failure. The two groups of free miners, wearing the freedom-giving long-trip spacesuits that had been anathema to the types that had ruled there, now wandered at random in what had been a place of locking up and harsh orders, and guns aimed by vicious ex-convict guards, and permissions needed. They looked through abandoned offices and corridors and empty valuables stores (for the fleeing guards had taken what they could that was saleable, having little stomach or skill for work as any sort of space workman). Papers drifted about. In the offices and staff living area pot plants were withered in space vacuum. Little of the base still held air, for most of the airtight safety doors had been open when the disaster came: the guards, when asked by staff or visitors to shut them in case, had replied only with threats and abuse and excuses, until the end came to many guards and most staff including all on site who knew about a particular important Company project. They collected all papers they found. But one part of the base's volume was unaccounted for. Jet Jack's men chose a locked door leading into it, activated and aimed their lasers, torched out the lock mechanism, and opened the door. Behind it was another door. They shut the first door behind them to use the space between as an airlock, got the second door open, and entered. Inside was a large dusty storeroom, where they saw little that at first sight seemed useful.
"A load of those wretched badly-made uncomfortable short-trip suits without recyclers that they made us use, so we were base-bound here. They took our own suits and destroyed them in a big RD." a Pallas-2 said.
"Not all of them. Here's a few long-trip suits that the guards used on patrol. We may as well take them `on account'." another said.
"Brooms, spare computers, unused forms, junk." said Plutey-pots poking round, "Catering crates for the staff kitchen: what's in them'll have gone bad by now. Machine parts. A creepy ghostly feeling. Cobwebs everywhere: something must've bred insects for spiders to live on, and it's likely that nobody ever thought to fumigate. Disinfectant, likely to clean the dorm with. What's in this crate? Here goes with this pry bar - I suppose it's a disinfectant mist blower - or is it!? Radioactivity symbols on its backpack part - I'll try my [remote metal] analyzer on it - what!?! Some sort of very heat-resistant plutonium-239 ceramic - boron, in control rods I suppose - lead shielding and special heat-resisting alloys - there's a reactor in it! That sort of thing's Cobra's speciality.".
"This makes no sense." said Cobra, looking at it and its handbook, "Backpack small nuclear reactor that can get white hot without melting down - air intake hole at the top - air blown straight over the reactor elements like in a jet engine so it gets white-hot and then out of this heat-insulated gun-part like a flamethrower's but wider and with gauges and switches on - reactor not properly shielded except on the side towards the man wearing it, to save weight - oh yes it does make sense, of a sort. I still can't really believe that a man'd wear this, but these on it must be backpack straps. Blast of white-hot air from the gun-part, likely with radioactive dust and gas in from the reactor. Ye Gods! Of all the dirty lethal weapons! Nuclear flamethrower!, lasts far longer than petrol or propane types. And there's two more of them here. Its insides'll be well heat-insulated. Handbook calls it `Ancalagon', that's a dragon in Tolkien, but here's a piece of paper with `Chern 1' scrawled on it.".
"Workmen's slang for it where it was made, likely." said a Pallas-2 alarmedly, "The Chernobyl in a backpack! Reduce holed-up enemies or an unauthorized street demonstration to radioactive ash in a few minutes! The enemy often daren't shoot back if it risks splattering the reactor's contents about contaminating the area bad. Likely some of the metal we mined for that company went into these things. Who the &%$ invented it!? And they try to wave the nuclear materials regulations at us over Plutey-pots's oxy tanks. At least they can't use it on us in space, it needs air to blow. And it'd take time to get ready from cold, while the reactor gets hot enough. Reactors cost, they'd likely be special-squad weapons, not for general issue. %$@ preserve us from a squad armed with them. If we go public about them, will public opinion stop them, or will hearing of them make people want them?, like some rough countries I've read of where Kalashnikovs are ordinary fashionable men's wear accessories. It gives me the shivers finding this sort of thing in fiction, safely the other side of the surface of the page or the screen; but when I see it real solid working in front of me in metal... a whining roar like a jetmotor and a 40-foot blast of white-hot radioactive air.".
"I could have used something like this on a few of the planets we've hyper jumped down to, instead of having to hand hack through alien jungle full of every sort of natural antipersonnel weapon evolved against grazing animals, and that sort of bush that makes natural landmines on its roots." said Jet Jack, "I don't suppose that's the only thing they'll be used for in the wrong hands.".
One of them held it against his back over his cylinders (easy in the low gravity) and brandished the gun-part about and sang the Ghostbusters song; some of them laughed, but others didn't, in the empty deserted echoing shell of what had long been a place of fear and confinement and locked-up secrets. They put the three weapons back in their crates and took them in tow, revealing a steel box full of papers about them, which they took. They found nothing more of use or information and no more unexplored rooms. They left the abandoned shell of Fletchmin-1; space stretched empty all round and nothing moved within suit radar range. Where had the guards and staff gone in their two craft? Would they sell their services where they could, or have to turn to honest work, or use their weapons and official-looking uniforms and Company guard thug-training to prey where they could, or trail their bedraggled rat's-tail of defeat to whatever office on Earth their base had been controlled from? From what was known it the guards seemed to have run matters there very much as they wished. Asteroid miners are a scattered people, and it took time for warnings to spread, slower than companies can pass information along established routes between planets and bases, although the few miner-leaders with hyperspace jumpers did what they could to speed up matters within the limits of trying not to let outsiders know they had them. They left the place and went on with what they were doing before.
They hyper jumped with their loads to a place beyond the Pleiades in a place that only a few hyperspace jumper equipped free asteroid miner group leaders knew the hyper jump coordinates of, where another group of ex-businessmen were going through what Blore had gone through when being turned into Plutey-pots, and what Mr.Jackson the under-manager had vaguely and unnecessarily half-feared. They had been coordinating the long plan to phase out by whatever means free asteroid miners and replace them by tight laws and rigidly controlled base-bound rule to maximise profit, doing whatever they like when away from the public eye, until during a secret meeting of their cartel whose existence they had often denied to the public they had suddenly been hyper jumped away with no idea of where to. Not for them the excitement or apprehension counting the days to when they would go into space; not for them the gradual learning about their future life; not for them the packing and the tidying up of personal business back home; not for them checkin and boarding and feeling of blastoff, and Earth dropping away. Only a sudden manifestation in their boardroom as Jet Jack's free asteroid miners hyper jumped in, then unconsciousness from thrown gas-grenades, and the waking in long-trip asteroid miner spacesuits so far from Earth that the constellations were different. The grand long-planning undercover Arrangement killed by a neat surgical take-out of its leaders, with kit which they had been planning to use against the free miners, thanks to a squad of enforcers (now called the Sardies) that they had sent out to hyper jump `unauthorized' groups back into captivity, trained as free miners to masquerade as them, but had cut loose and had become free miners themselves and their own masters: thus the free miners got hyperspace jumpers, and the now fragmented remaining Company leadership were much more willing to accept that the asteroid miners' side of matters needed considering.
A shock for Mr.Fletcher, broker in asteroid metals without ever handling them, director of a firm of patent agents who had fought tirelessly against patent-infringement kit that turned up on free miners' suits when they came into bases to trade as in remote self-built space workshops free miners found ways to bypass the Arrangement's gradual phasing out of general use of long-stay spacesuits, recently suffering a bad drop in profits when Fletchmin-1 was wrecked by what seemed to be an explosion in the workers' dormitory, to find himself in remote airless space in such a suit himself having to cherish it as his life-support, and having to call himself by an aggressive sounding name `Dragline' chosen for him.
A shock for Sir Engisham the meeting's chairman finding himself likewise, and also having to suddenly be their foreman and action-leader and to drop all committee-isms from the way he ran his group, plus his new name `Hot-pots', for as a badge of office he had been given oxygen cylinders made out of the same stuff as Plutey-pots's.
Worse for Mr.Milford, company director, who because of a likeness of face was now under orders enforced `or else' to forget all his current mannerisms and likes and dislikes and business career and even cherished childhood memories, and learn instead those of someone else, to take on the identity and history of and be a replacement for a rough asteroid miner called Red Scorpion who had been RD'ed along with his unauthorized patent-infringement long-term spacesuit when he offered defiance when a Company enforcement craft caught him, and on top of this having to learn in a month a skill in and feign an enthusiasm and instinctive feel for electronics which the original had needed his life from 9 years old to get, for that skill was needed to make and repair spacesuits etc for the free miners. If anything electronic went wrong, he would take it to a repairman or bought another: that was now no more, and the antics of electrons and silicon and so on made his head spin and hurt as he tried to understand it all, on top of having to learn a new life story from the long list of personal details and history written in memory of the original Red Scorpion, including having to adopt the original's strong Birmingham accent and personal preferences and tastes in reading etc and memories of relatives and friends, and of seeing the original's face instead of his own wherever he looked in a shiny metal surface, and disowning honours at Eton to replace it by a rough working-class school left at 15 to work as a docker in Swansea and on building sites here and there and periods out of work until his skill at electronics led to the chance that got him into space.
If he complained, the only answer he got was "You were in with that Fletcher that had that trick craft that caught three lots of us and so on; you take men from us on excuses, so we take men from you lot to replace them.". Also, many of the spacemen, unaccustomed to the ways of business and finance, assumed, or claimed to assume, automatically and wrongly that he had got his directorship of an electronics firm by rising through the ranks from workman, learning on the way a great variety of electronics skills and knowledge, and refused to be told otherwise, but ordered him to use that skill to make and service their suits and other kit. They were bitterly angry at the treacherous way the original Red Scorpion, who was a well-known and valuable electronics man and mechanic, had been caught and summarily disposed of, on top of many other grievances, and he now well knew that as he struggled to understand and get into working order like new the innards of yet another battered asteroid miner spacesuit and its many patent-infringement parts which seemed to have been through every hazard from there to Aldebaran and back, which he would formerly have given short shrift to; images of angry shareholders of patent-holding firms suffering from the competition attacked his mind like ghosts of a murderer's victims in the dark corner of his brain where Mr.Milford sheltered as Red Scorpion gradually took over in the endless having to act and learn and recite another's life story as his own until he gradually came to believe it himself as the months and then the years brought no return to Earth and no way to get news back until too late.
Nor were there any managerial types to discuss things with as a relief from the endless workmen, only that ultimate in faceless bosses, the free miners' base's `manager-computer' which did most routine managing and could not even enjoy a good wine and a seat at a theatre, and `The Arbiter', sometimes called `He who is above all group-leaders', who was sometimes called on to settle disputes and try law cases, with suit oxygen cylinders which were ominously described as being "two protons further than Plutey-pots or Hot-pots", as ready to do manual work as any other man there. When he who had been Mr.Milford was assigned to the Pallas-2's and was again within contact reach with Earth, the conversion was complete, with time and alien surroundings aided by hypnosis and similar, and he was Red Scorpion back with his well-known fellow space travellers, with all his skills and memories and attitudes and mannerisms, and no waking memory of being anyone else. In contorted dreams elements of Eton and boardroom returned, and woke him in alarm, but on waking he dismissed them as irrelevant. Nor did former colleagues by chance seeing him with his spacesuit off recognize him, for plastic surgery had made Red Scorpion's body scars and face correct and had removed all Milford business dinner belly fat; anabolic steroids from an in-suit auto-pump built up his muscles and hand size to the workman-type original. He `resumed' his electronics and mechanic work, with as many useful inventions and willing apprentices as he had ever had before.
Not lightly had the X-100's there far from Earth undertaken such a thing as in effect `RD'ing' a man's mind into a copy of another man's, and they often spoke against such things; but, on top of anger at what had happened to the original and at such a way of losing his skills which had given the asteroid miners much vital help in becoming independent of Company kit-repair bases, seeing that the captured Mr.Milford approved of and was partly guilty of his fate and was also like him physically in some ways including eye and hair colour, finally made them `see red' in two senses and for once broke down their resistance to trying such a thing, and so Red Scorpion rejoined the Pallas-2's. Two things to reveal true original identity survived the `mind RD': fingerprints, and blood vessel patterns on and in the eyes; but his were not on file anywhere. Not even in his old age did senile mental degeneration, stripping away newest memories first, let him briefly be Mr.Milford the businessman again before he was no-one at all, for that disease came not to him, but only at last `death in harness' of natural causes aged 83, when he was found floating limp among his tools and repair work and inventions with his spacesuit's medipack trying in vain to resuscitate him; and the names written with that date in records and sent to relatives and put on the founders' plaque there were `Red Scorpion' and his original name as a workman in Birmingham and Swansea and elsewhere in England on Earth.
No comforting office or courtroom image was there for any of the `F-15's' (as the captured conference delegates were chosen a spaceman group name, after a make of jet fighter), company director or highly-paid lawyer or financier, get when called to account by those who they had been planning themselves to call to account. No spotless executive suit. Not even that symbol of proper dressing, the necktie, for when some of them had made neckties out of odd cloth and wore them over their unattractively functional spacesuits as a last desperate symbol of the business office style that was denied to them, Jet Jack and Plutey-pots ordered them to "put those silly things in your suit RD's before we laser them off you, before they get caught in rotating machinery and cause an accident. With us, `ties' are what we tie sheaves of wires and tubes together with.". Only a sun whiter than Earth's reflected in shiny spacesuit kit casings made out of many metals including a variety of actinides got in places where there had been supernovas much more recently than around Earth's Sun. Only the endless lethal vacuum a few inches from their skin, and floating about weightless tethered to each other.
To appeals to better feelings during pleas for personal reasons to be allowed home, only the free miners' reply that "we are not polite city people but space sewage, as you can tell by the smell when we unsuit, and we intend to stay so: shows we're not some base-bound bunch that unsuit every night.", and having to learn to say it with equal pride about themselves. Only a sun-dazzle in their eyes from The Arbiter's shiny unearthly curium-247 oxygen tanks as he finally confirmed their new identities and occupations by aiming a large work-laser as some of them continued to complain. At least curium-247's half life is long: 16 million years and so less radioactive than feared. Only, for Mr.Milford who was kept separately from the rest, a sudden unexpected and unwelcome order to design a specified new feature to be put in spacesuit personal RD-controllers, a thing that would have been easy for the original Red Scorpion who he was officially declared to be a continuation of, and needing much frantic looking up in abstruse books and tapes that he still could only half understand.
"I'm an important director of a stockbroking firm. I demand to be sent back now. I've got three important meetings to attend this week, for a start." one of the ex-delegates said.
"No $@# idle City slicker stockbroker's important, nor is anything like one." said Jet Jack, "In the 1939 war the London Stock Exchange was closed for the duration, and all its @$% idle pigs had to go in the Army or the weapons and ammunition factories or down coal mines, and the country ran itself and ran a war quite happily like that.".
"The fact is, that you want your freedom respecting, and you deny it to us: you grab us out of a meeting and bring us here.".
"The fact is, that `it was you or us', as you know full well." The Arbiter replied, "Papers found on you lot explained much that we've been getting down the years, and some of your cosy little cartel's members who didn't like what was going on have told us more: kit parts made to wear out quick and need replacing expensively, so suit life-supports go wrong a month from the nearest base: it happened to me, and I had to be `siamesed' to another man's suit overloading it for 5 weeks till we got to a base, and then the storeman charged the earth for new parts: complaining letters get nowhere. That's the sort of thing that made us say @$% to the patent laws and make our own new parts. Groups coming to base to trade and being locked up on excuses of money owed so other groups had to fork out to get them let go: holding for ransom, nasty trick, you're supposed to be trading companies only, not holding people. The usurping authority round there was you, enforcing rules of your own making. Many of your rulings'd never have stood up in a proper law court back on Earth. Any way for you to get more and more money off the metals trade. And not only free miners either, but you lot were planning to play cats and mice with people's jobs all over the place and making shortages to save handling costs, I'm not going to translate it into business-ese for you, since you know @$% well what I mean: such as it's easier to sell one of something for $100 profit and then idle about the rest of the week, than to have to work all week selling a hundred for $1 profit each, even if people do need the hundred. Time was when traders even did that with basic foodstuffs, and it took destructive bread riots to make governments and traders see sense. A lot of us were workmen back on Earth put out of work by your sort @#%'ing about with work firms and jobs.".
"Like I said." a dissenting voice interrupted among the ex-delegates, "Back at that meeting we were grabbed from, I said that there'd be trouble some time the way we were acting, we should have left them alone to do their work as they know how. Now it's happened, and don't tell me I didn't try to warn you, but in a way that I never imagined, and I'm stuck here in this spacesuit, and likely years if ever before I walk on a planet again. Like the sort of thing that cost us Mars, the companies picked on the colonists until they rebelled and we had to let them go independent. Excuses to stop them from getting women to try to stop a native born population from developing, and you called them everything dirty under the sun when they turned to cloning themselves for children. Good for them!".
"Yes, I know the pornographic details." said another tiredly, "Most embryos were cloned from men so XY, but give some of them female hormone at the right time and they become girls anyway, and it went normally from there, except the first generation had X and Y eggs as well as sperms so twice as many boys as girls next generation so more cloning to even the sex ratio out: not even they liked all that artificial mucking about, but it had to be done. and the children asking `why haven't I got a Mummy?'. Enough to say that we lost Mars, same as Britain lost the American colonies in the 1770's: that big battle in the Argyre basin in a sandstorm and it was over for us. Oh well, there's always the Moon.".
"Yes, there is," said another ex-delegate, "with no hydrogen, not even a few parts per billion, so no water, and every drop must be taken in expensively down a `gravity well' where there's no atmosphere to glide in on, The Moon's no place to mine if there's other places handy to mine. And a lot of other stuff that life needs is very short there. And if it does get back to Earth that this lot've got on-suit hyperspace jumpers, this lot'll then have no reason not to keep hyper jumping nosy newspaper and TV reporters out all over space and back and we can no longer control information about our activities. Back in the 19th century I think it was, when paper got cheap enough for newspapers to get cheap, the [British] government `saw the writing on the wall' in time about losing control of who knew and said what about what, and slapped such a whacking tax on newspapers that only the rich and reliable could afford them: but backstreet people kept printing them untaxed illegally until the Government gave up trying to stop them. Since then public opinion contradicting and complicating everything's got out of control. At least at negotiations when we can't promise absolutely but we've got to check with our shareholders first, most of them'll be businessmen and we know they'll see the correct side of things.".
"And corporate shareholders, that means companies that hold shares in your company, have to check with their own shareholders, etc etc for ever and nothing done, any excuse not to concede anything. And I suppose astronomers'd be after these hyperspace jumpers and spacesuits like yours like hot cakes, so they can go up to things and see them close instead of peering at them from Earth.".
"The press are trying it on already." said another, "One time my firm sent me into space to check up on things at bases, and a Mr.Robinson with me from a firm that bought metals off us etc; he seemed genuine and as usual I was busy with papers, but at the first company base we reached their security called me: `That Robinson's a coco [= `not legitimate' (after a famous clown)], his firm's not on my computer and we found spy kit and a press card on him. New York Times.'. He'd seen too much already, so he was needled [= anaesthetized] and stripped and stuffed into a Company issue work spacesuit [needing recharging every day, so the wearer is base-bound] (not one of these $@% go-where-you-like long-trip free miner suits that should be on the restricted list), and he woke in Fletchmin-1: one more worker there was always useful: now he knows plenty about asteroid mining and the companies and what they do: you lot haven't the monopoly on doing that to people. %#@ press. That, and other cases, some detected when they apply to come with us, some on the ground before takeoff, some in space. And likely some cases got away with, but the papers know we've got ways to make it expensive for them if they publish defamatory matter that they can't back up.".
"I know." said Rattler, "We found him there when we hyper raided the place and rescued the slaves. If we're illegal grabbing you lot, you were illegal running a gulag out here instead of taking real or supposed offenders to the proper Earth law courts. And the men's suit radios scrambled so they couldn't talk with outsiders. Lucky we had enough spare suits for them: once when we rescued 30 men that a company base had grabbed on excuses of money owed from your overchargings and fiddlings and so on, we had to keep them in a holding cell of our own for a month while we made or got hold of enough new free miner suits for them. You sent those cloned XYY thugs called Sardies after us: you didn't think they'd cut loose and go free miner themselves. Out here, if someone runs up bills or keeps going on the borrow, whatever we take off him for it, we don't take his suit or his work kit leaving him stranded. You can't take stuff for debt like that anyway: only a proper law court's officials can: I know the law. About the only thing we take a man's suit off him for is dangerous insanity and the like.".
"Oh, that's what happened at Fletchmin-1, is it!? Not an explosion then!".
"Grrrr." said Dragline (formerly Mr.Fletcher) to the Arbiter, "Like I've said before about judges back on Earth, telling our companies what they can and can't do, and freeing people from agreements so we lose money. Can't we do anything for ourselves to protect our trade, out here in the wilds? Now I can guess why shipments of new suits have vanished from our stores: you lot likely hyper jump raided them out. You obey the law before you wave landsmen's law at us. And I suppose next you'll be hyper jumping valuable metals to Earth bypassing us. I want back to my office and my home and my family and my businesses, and meals on plates at table, and the wind on my skin. I'm already getting sick of being weightless and looking at myself and seeing a spacesuit and nothing of me but eyes between a breathing mask and a safety helmet like a jet fighter pilot's. What happened even to space helmets with a fullface window round here?".
"If you sell a new miner a suit that you took from another miner on one of your excuses, as far as I'm concerned you're selling stolen property and the new miner's entitled to his money back or a suit that is yours to sell him, and the first suit you sold him 's owner's entitled to it back. Same if you take suits and sell them to space tourism companies. If you take stuff illegally, we take back. We want independent law courts out in the bases.".
"I'd like to see you sporting those fancy curium-247 oxygen cylinders of yours and never mind the nuclear materials regulations, drilling and shovelling rock all day every day.".
"I do already." said the Arbiter, "We all do, or some other sort of work such as making kit, unless infirmity prevents it.".
Dragline, who was still largely Mr.Fletcher the businessman, disliked this unconcerned attitude to an important official doing dirty manual work in public, but was interrupted by a radioed cry of pain and a red flashing light on one of his business colleagues, a Mr.Oldham, whose helmet bore the name Rockdrill which he did not much care for having to refer to himself by. "Now what's happening to him, your fancy suit gone wrong or started electric shock interrogating him by remote control or whatever, oh that's what the electrodes about my body in my undersuit are for, you unpleasant ..." said Dragline.
"No. It's a heart attack likely." said Jet Jack, "Leave him alone. His suit's picked it up, it's keeping his heart going, that's what the electrodes across your chest are for, and its breathing set's put his oxygen pressure up and it's running its power ventilator, and it's put a needle in him in case he needs adrenalin. Only thing to do is wait and see if he pulls through.".
"I didn't know our suits could do that!" said Dragline, "And my suit's food synthesizer feeds me through a stomach tube: I suppose it's the safest way in zero gravity in a breathing mask all the time. The idea that each of us is wearing his personal mini intensive care ward. I don't know whether to care for the idea or not.".
"I thought you'd've known from your suit's handbook about its medipack.".
"While you lot've been chattering, I'm trying this." said Long Tom, "It's in a set of auto medical kit that I picked up a few weeks ago when we were re-kitted after we were rescued from there. I've had a paramedic training: but I wasn't telling the base staff about it, I wasn't going to be ordered to be a personal doctor to some rich Company office character and taken away from my own people. Hang on while I do this.". He set some controls on the device and pushed it against the patient's chest. It recoiled like a nailgun as it punched a thick hollow tube through suit and undersuit and chest wall, and sealed the holes round itself. A flexible probe came out through it, found the aorta, pierced, entered, and sealed round itself. Inside, it felt down each of the coronary arteries, reaming out and sucking up fatty artery wall deposits and a loose bloodclot that had washed in from somewhere and caused the heart attack. It withdrew and sealed up after itself. He removed it, emptied its wash tank into his suit RD to get rid of the residue of years of business dinners which had caused the trouble, and put it back in its compartment in its box. "This thing can even install a heart pacemaker if it has to." he said. All around the empty void stretched to infinity; each man carried his own `planetary atmosphere and hydrosphere' and power supply in his spacesuit. Rockdrill recovered over the next few days, but ever after had a scar on the front of his chest as if he had been shot there - "which in a way he had been", some of the onlookers thought.
"Oh are you a paramedic!? You never told me or my firm that." Dragline said angrily as if he was still Mr.Fletcher controlling Fletchmin-1, "I've had staff ill and I don't trust outside medical staff not to tell stories about ... forget it. Here I am in this suit, turned into an independent asteroid miner myself.".
"These suits are good at life support. Perhaps too good sometimes." said Jet Jack, "I've seen men a few times have trouble breathing when they unsuited, and it turned out they'd had their suits set to power-ventilate all the time for weeks and they'd got out of practice breathing for themselves. These suits can even read the blood gases levels and adjust the power ventilator accordingly. That, and the waste collection system and the temperature control: some say it's too easy to become suit-dependent and never want to unsuit even in atmosphere.
We've got a spaceman's emergency HL, that's a heart-lung machine, that's an artificial blood pump and oxygenator, with a stab-in autoconnector like that. One of us is called Spanner Sam, he's a good mechanic. He was one of the first to find how to make and repair kit and teach others how to, instead of paying the supply stations, that time when the companies started the funny business putting prices up and making parts wear out quick. He was costing the companies a fortune that way. He invented that sort of HL. He had one on his suit all the time. Once when we called at a base they called him aside to mend something, then arrested him on an excuse. He resisted, so they put him against a wall still in his suit and shot him `while resisting arrest'. We found later that the base boss had ordered them to 'cos he [= the boss] was in a state 'cos he was scared of the sack 'cos takings'd gone down 'cos we were making our own kit parts but they wouldn't believe him and said he was fiddling it. We realized what might have happened, and shot our way in and got to Sam, a bit too late: it was before we had our hyperspace jumper. But his suit HL had stabbed in and connected itself, and kept him going till we got him somewhere safer. One of us who was our best at surgery went in a pressure bag with him and tidied him up. So much damage to his chest that he had to stay on the HL. We got him to an independent workshop that made him a big permanent HL built into him and his suit, it sticks out in front where a lot of his chest wall's missing where he was shot. He'll likely live as long as the rest of us, and he can do all his work; but in air he can never unsuit like the rest of us. Next time he went to a base with us, the company men there looked pale and some of them thought he was his ghost. After that we don't let one of us go away from the rest in bases.".
"Which base was that? Some bases are safe, some aren't." said Stego.
"It was some years ago, a new base near [the asteroid] Vesta. The guards were a risky looking lot.".
"If so we've likely sorted them out already. That was nearly a second good kit-maker one of you lot'd've had to become a replacement for, Dragline.".
"And next in this parade of the latest men's wear accessories made out of actinides, how about this fashionable little number?" said Long Tom, arriving wearing one of the `Ancalagons' and explaining what it did.
Dragline, formerly Mr.Fletcher, looked despairingly at it, his firm's top secret main hope in the enemy's hands; after the disaster at Fletchmin-1 the surviving guards, after telling him what had happened, had not awaited further orders but had decamped he knew not where, taking the surviving staff with them, and so he learned too late not to trust thug-trained ex-convicts; and before he could assemble those of his personnel who were security-cleared for Project Ancalagon and get them and himself trained in spacesuit use to recover secret stuff before scavenging free miners did - `#%$ all accidents in secret areas that force important people to do workman's work' - he had come to the fateful big cartel meeting, and here he was in a spacesuit anyway. The `Jetters' (as Jet Jack's group was called) left. It had been a long `day'. They hoped in vain for beds and room service, and slept in their spacesuits tethered to a part of a base which the spacemen including himself were building for themselves (he was unwilling to call them `miners', since out there they did much other word than mining, and mined only for themselves, not for a planetary population, since they did not need to be supplied from planets).
He dreamed of home, a brief return to times before business and space had taken his life over, except that he and his family were tethered together like spacemen everywhere they went, an unwelcome reminder. The postman floated in through an upstairs window, another unwanted intrusion from the real world, and left a letter to him from a character in a space fiction thriller that he had seen. While he was trying to sort it out, the whole confused mixture dissolved as he woke to amazedly and thankfully see a restorer of Earth law and order that he had helped to organize development of: he guessed that the big disappearance had prompted an unexpectedly quick completion of development and prototype. It was a streamlined armoured space-police craft with powerful guns and radars and lasers arranged over it, which must have hyper jumped in as they slept. From a large missile gun in its bow it fired a burst of about 20 one-man missile-like armed craft. It made four loud white noise pulses across all radio frequencies, and lit dot matrix patterns of lights on its sides. Next, he knew, would come warnings to `surrender or we fire' on all known spacesuit frequencies and on the dot matrixes of lights, and all scatterers overtaken and chased back or picked off with laser shot or caught with mechanical capture devices, and any attempt to hyper jump away stopped by laser or missile fired into the developing hyper jump field as soon as the police craft's instruments noticed it. Soon he would be out of his unattractive spacesuit, and its undersuit smelling like the walking dead, and back to life, back to Earth, back to a good office suit and his businesses; and the spacemen who had held him would be in holding cells stripped of kit to be tried on board and their illegal kit probably shovelled into a big onboard RD, and the public media shouting victory.
If the captured spacemen were not needed for further interrogation or to work under guard, it was far from certain that the police craft would not treat them the same way as their kit. Then the place would either vanish tracelessly into high-capacity RD-equipped automatic mining craft, or be turned into a proper Company and government control base. How did they find the place? A willing betrayal, or forced by modern `interrogation aids'? He expected rough treatment until his identity was proved, as an inevitable `Purgatory before Heaven', or this time before return from the heavens. Three of the missile craft approached each group of spacemen, extending hook-ended poles, presumably to snag the tethers and tow the group to the parent craft. Miners' laser shot would have no more effect on them than a cat's claws would on a steel grab. Would any get away to found another free base elsewhere, or would the scoop-up be 100% clean? The free miners boasted of their roughness and hardiness and kit and keeping a step ahead of Companies; but forces with better and bigger resources and backup would catch up some time and clean them up as a inshore fishery or naval submersible fast patrol boat equipped with ultrasound guns and capture devices cleans up unauthorized or shellfish-poaching scuba divers, or as trees, slow growing but persistent, finally outgrow and shade out tangled thorny bushes. He waited.
His thrill of anticipation and apprehension collapsed into disappointment as the missiles stopped and opened their closely-fitting cockpits, revealing men whose helmets bore X-100 free asteroid miner group badges. "Yeehaa! It's only us! It always makes them jump when we come like this!" one of the missiles' pilots said, "We're practising using this fancy new craft. Just in case. It's called a PSC-4. Some call it a `basebuster'. Now if the companies try anything, we've made two of them, and there'll be a third soon. What a way to go!, safe inside its armoured hull in our missiles in its magazine and then being shot out from that great machine gun far too fast for anything to get range on us! I've used a machine gun in a gun club back on Earth, but I never thought I'd be fired from one! Come on, you lot, there's work to do with the metals the Jetters left!".
Expected rescue had turned flat, into a display by a local defence force, which they were expected to cheer like all the other asteroid miners there. He had heard once of a strike confrontation where thankfully-arriving riot police attacked the wrong men and proved to be riotsquad-equipped strike pickets. The X-100's stayed in their missiles and used them to pull large pieces of metal about in the construction work. A piece proved to have a door in a wrong place; Hot-pots, needing to decide what to do, reverted to his habits as Sir Engisham and radio called for proposed and seconded motions on the matter, earning from the X-100's craft's pilot an angry lavatory pun on the word `motion' and a sharp order to give his men a direct order as an asteroid miner group leader should. In his fluster he called for that impossibility, a tractor beam, eliciting much laughter. Fletcher realized there was no escape from his spacesuit and from his new name Dragline and from working for his living, and likewise his companions, from weightlessness, and unaccustomedness to weather on the skin, and the other risks of suit dependence which long-trip spaceman group leaders have to watch out for as the years pass, and from the attraction of endless unobstructed distance, and from being gradually assimilated by the local spaceman community until they had little or no more will than any other group to go back to life on a planet. He reflected that if those craft had been ready in time for the Sardies to be sent out in one instead of equipped as free miners, they would have held to their orders and quickly cleaned up the uncontrolled free miners and restored Company law and order, instead of going free miner themselves and letting their spacesuit hyperspace jumper be copied by free miners and the copies be given to all and sundry.
He thought a few times of how he could get home: even if he managed to take a hyper jumper, say off Jet Jack, he did not know the needed jump coordinates. He thought of getting hold of the patrol craft and finding the coordinates on its computer and triumphantly piloting it back to the Solar System and to a proper use in Company service; but he and his men were unaccustomed to space and, from his own experience in keeping installations secure, realized that such a plan would more likely result in detection and summary local justice than success, for he was never a physical action leader, nor was Sir Engisham. At least now he had the run of the area, and a share in the life of the community there. And, several of his men now openly expressed a sympathy for the miners' side, and likely more supported it in secret, the longer they were away from business and the atmosphere of the office and the meeting room and business travel and going through papers; he did not know who of them might betray such a plan in order to save the local people from just such an attack as he had thankfully thought that the arrival of the X-100s' craft was; he remembered the risks and narrow escapes in the various space thrillers that he had seen, and decided not to imitate. He proposed one last motion to the exiled but theoretically still in session secret cartel meeting: "That this `house' should attempt no action against the de facto local authorities or against other spacemen or their kit here, and that from now on we should accept the new personal names and group name and group organization placed on us by them.". This found a ready seconder, and long discussion, but was agreed on at the vote. Then the meeting was closed, and the F-15's went back to their construction work, while red Aldebaran glared on them far brighter than in Earth's sky, part way round from the hugely enlarged and reversed Pleiades.
"Oh..." several of them groaned, still in shock at seeing their main hope manned by their enemies, and fearing the worst about what that modern equivalent of wild native tribes could do in such a craft.
"Now they've got us." said one of them, not caring who was listening, "And all that electronics I'm still having to get used to and pretend I've been doing it from when I was 9. And I don't need him with the cylinders hanging about near me spraying alpha particles over me." he continued, seeing Plutey-pots, "Plutonium oxy tanks. What next showoff flashiness? He's just like the rest of that wild lot, for all that he was once a City businessman like me, called Mr.Blore. I wonder what's happening back home?".
"Same here. I've got PhD in management and first class in insurance assessing, and that smelly lot of space workmen listed me as `unskilled'." said another `F-15', "These asteroid miners find out about things so quick that I think sometimes they must have real subspace radio like in some space stories.".
"There's a new batch of newspapers at the reading room." said Plutey-pots, "We found them in the staff reading room in Dragline's [= Fletchmin-1] when we found those three handy little backpack Chernobyls. Rather old, but they help to fill gaps in runs, and some business papers that we don't often get hold of. And some new newspapers that we picked up at a base on the way here.".
"Don't I already know that sort of thing all too well!" said Rockdrill, "I can't even get a daily paper round here, only that radio channel full of local chitchat and technical stuff about spacesuits and men's kit. And that sort of old stuff that's made the Long Jump, preserved like rare manuscripts and not allowed out of the room. Often pages missing and the crossword done by some space liner passenger before he threw it away and a base workman got it from a bin and read it and passed it to a miner. And the inevitable people whose minds have been affected by the emptiness and distance: that religious lot that's set up by themselves 14 degrees east [round this asteroid belt] from here, keep shoving their preaching at us on different frequencies. Amazing range to send such a powerful signal at us from, just for that [purpose]. We've enough work to do setting up here without that sort of movement brainwashing its members and setting friends and family members against each other. Still, this lot value each other's freedom, and that lot and others are left alone.".
"We must stick together and keep our defences up." a member of a different group radioed from some distance away, "If you think we've come here to set up an ideal society away from the world's evils etc, you're mistaken. I've seen these movements before. Schisms, subschisms, heresy-hunts, and the whole thing goes bad. We came here to leave alone and be left alone; but there's been so many comings and goings between here and other places that one day they'll find where we are. That action display by the X-100's was enough of a warning: a lot of us thought it was the real thing. Next time it may be the real thing. You heard the news the Pallas-2's brought, and there's been other cases. I know well enough what the companies want: first let free explorers do the fiddly picking about to find what metals are where, then phase them out. Never mind recycling that topic, we all know about it, same as I'm getting sick of the `Faithful Brethren' on their asteroid 14 degrees along and their fire and brimstone preaching spouted on first one frequency and then another jamming it out. A few weeks ago it started jamming out a weekly biology series as soon as the series mentioned evolution. Amazing power they use, where do they get the fuel from? And three more of our young men have gone off and joined them, vows to keep away from the sinful worldly masses for ever and such junk. We went round there to try to reason with them, but first they ignored us and then they shot at us. Bound to happen. Every so often someone's fooled by their talk and `goes for a Brethren' and goes there, and we never see him again. Space addles some people's brains. Apart from that, while we were away working, have any more of you been down on The Planet?".
There are several planets in that star's system, but he meant the one in the habitable temperature zone. As that system thus often needed to be referred to and so needed a handier name than its galactic star catalog number, the X-100's when they discovered it called the planet `Arda' and the star `Anor' (which mean `Earth' and `Sun' in languages invented by Tolkien, for some of them read books by him on CD-ROM's, in their many weeks-long suit propulsor journeys between asteroid mining sites and trading bases), with more hopes of a waiting innocent paradise world than it turned out to be, after weeks of hyperspace jumping between star systems that proved all to contain two stars, content with each other and not needing planets for company. When exploring or observing some of them chose names in Tolkien languages, e.g. `Har-Lossered' = `Southern Snow Mountains' (on Arda), and `Ilmenost' = `Space Town' (their main base there, on an asteroid in Anor's asteroid belt), but not all continued that theme. Later, others often misrendered `Anor' as `Anna' (the woman's name), and many called it (or the star of whatever system they were in at the time) merely `the sun'. Some called the whole system `Arda', as a variation of the common spaceman's habit of saying e.g. "on Altair" to mean "on a planet orbiting Altair".
"Not me." said someone, "I still remember that bunch of Earth hippies (or whatever the latest name for them is) that went into space and bought suits that a company was selling off cheap (second-rate things that wouldn't sell 'cos the free miners were making better and @#$ the patent laws), of course parts of them needed replacing after a while, they ran into the Sardies and asked them if there was anywhere where things were better and good suit replacement parts were cheap, and pestered to be taken there, so the Sardies jumped them over here, #&$ knows what for, they weren't the types I'd've chosen for work here. @$% $ it startled them, they hadn't heard of hyper jumping before. We thought they'd settled down here, then they went hippy again and talked about setting up an ideal society (it's always a warning when people say that) (now I know where the expression `spaced out' came from), when we here turned out not to be ideal enough for them after all; a workshy lot always daydreaming and playing weird music and by then they owed all over the place for stuff, they said they'd pay some of it off helping to explore on Arda with us. We went in a ship, since we had a lot of stuff to carry; as soon as it was down, the hippies forgot their orders and marched off chanting to the spirits, onto their ideal planet to set up their ideal commune there, not bothering ever to read about what people before them had found. And ten minutes later the front four of them blew themselves up on a landmine bush that they tried to shelter from rain under. Didn't think to wonder why the animals leave that sort of bush alone and don't eat them or dig about under them. And we'd warned them. #@$ nasty mess, and the bush's seeds flying about like shrapnel added to the damage. After that the rest of them sobered down and worked for a living.".
"We don't go down on planets if we can help it. Each time it uses a lot of fuel, or a hyper jump, and that takes up a lot of energy also. What's that new rockery on your [suit] shoulders: those cherry-coloured things?" said Rattler.
"Plutonium-and-something silicate, as far as I remember. Seaborg was a man who first made plute [= plutonium], back on Earth in 1941. So many minerals for me to have to remember. When we were down on Arda, we found a lot of lumps of it in a stream wash that had come out of a seam of it. On planets volcanic ground water concentrates stuff slowly. That's why there's rich ore deposits in some planets. A lot more recent supernovas here than round Earth as these planets were forming: not enough time for all those high actinides to decay away like they did around Earth.".
"All [isotope] 244, I suppose." said Plutey-pots, who had been floating about boredly on the edge of the group.
"All too true. `But what the devil for / is plute-244?', as the song goes. Not hot enough for steady heat, won't chain fission. Now I know that planet isn't the one the hippies go on about trying to reach: 'cos if it was an ideal world to set up an ideal society on, the plute on it'd be 239 or thereabouts, some use to run things. At least you can kick 244 upstairs like with U-238, and you get curium-245, which fissions and also is good and hot. Curium-247's the only sort of natural curium that lives long enough to still be around here, it isn't very hot steadily but it'll chain fission but like U-235 some doesn't fission and after another neutron goes upstairs.".
"That's to cally [= californium] 249." said Plutey-pots, "One of us's got it in his suit powerpack. He told me the reactor man'd been in too much of a hurry, he'd made up the charge when it was still half berk[elium 249], and of course over the months the heat dropped off bad: he had to siamese and run his suit off someone else's till he could get here and get some more cally. He couldn't afford a whole new charge of it, so he had to put the first cally back in with the berk in, with the new cally, and put up with his suit running too hot while the berk finished turning to cally. And with towing a polymer synthesizer about so it could use the extra heat: out here we learn not to waste heat or neutrons or anything that can be used. If something's pumping spare neutrons out, don't put dead shielding round it, put U-238 or U-236 or plute-244 round to get it kicked upstairs for free.".
"U-236? You've got that about in the wild as well?!".
"Plenty about, not like in the Solar System. Halflife 23,420,000 years. Longer than since the last big supernova fallout here.
"Half-life 23.42 million years, which is longer than it's been since the last big supernova fallout here. Plenty of it about. Not like in the Solar System.".
"Why upstairs?" someone asked at a distance, apparently unused to the ways of atom nuclei.
"There's a right balance between protons and neutrons in a nucleus. If the ratio's wrong, it shoots off positrons or electrons, they call that beta rays, to get it right. U-238's happy as it is. Shove an extra neutron into it, and that makes one too many, so to turn the extra neutron into a proton it shoots off an electron. That makes nep[tunium] 239: protons in a nucleus like being in pairs, and so do neutrons, and one proton over makes it want less neutrons, or something of that sort; also there's other special patterns that they like to be in, and one surplus over a complete pattern's liable to be chucked out. So it soon chucks another electron, and that makes plute-239. What chucks electrons or positrons out if the ratio's wrong is something called the `weak nuclear force'. What goes on in nuclei takes a lot of understanding.".
"Why do some sorts fission and some not?".
"Protons and neutrons are sticky, something called the `strong nuclear force' sticks them together if they're touching. Else, protons repel each other, as you learned in school. As I said, U-238's about OK as it is. U-235's got a bit too few neutrons to hold the protons together properly; also neutrons like being in pairs, so the odd one pulls in any loose neutron that comes along so hard that it shakes things up, and 4 times out of 5 the nucleus can't hold together but splits. And as it splits more neutrons go flying, and hit other atoms, and so the chain reaction goes on. Also, those big nuclei are simply a bit too big to hold together properly, apart from anything else, so one of those cosy little fours, two protons and two neutrons, sooner or later flies off on its own, that's an alpha particle, and the atom goes down two steps. When you go up past cally, it's so bad that often the atom fissions on its own, and it gets worse the higher you try to go. They say that isotope 298 of element 114'd be a special complete pattern and'd hold together better, but I've never heard of anyone who's found or made any of it.".
"You said `4 times out of 5'. What happens the fifth time?".
"It manages to chuck a gamma and hold together, U-236, U-237, nep-237, nep-238, plute-238, uses up two more neutrons to get there. If you haven't stopped and taken the fuel rod out by then, it eats another neutron and becomes an expensive roundabout way to plute-239. Same as trying to stop berk-249 from eating another neutron before it can go upstairs.".
"Neutrons stack up from the centre of the nucleus out in a special pattern a bit like electrons in an atom do." said someone, "So do protons. The `Pauli exclusion principle' says that two the same can't get into exactly the same orbital and spin for the strong force between them to be strongest, which one of each can, so if the nucleus has an outer layer which is all neutrons or all protons, they don't stick together as well as they could, and the force tries to turn the extra neutrons into protons or vice versa to even the stacks up. (In big nuclei the protons stack looser because their electric charges repel each other, so big nuclei need more and more neutrons than protons to keep the two stacks level.) There are things called quarks. Protons and neutrons are made of three ordinary quarks; particles called mesons are made of an ordinary quark and an antimatter quark. A weak interaction is usually when a quark turns into another sort of quark; it involves an electron and a neutrino. There is a weak force, but it's very short range; it's between an electron and a neutrino; usually it makes a quark want to throw out one of each and thus turn into another quark. It'd take too long to explain it all now. If there's enough loose energy about to create a quark and an antimatter quark, the reaction's very quick, but there isn't here, so it needs a weak reaction. Neutrinos are a %$# waste of good energy, they carry it away, they're hardly ever caught, you'd need 10 light years thickness of matter to stop most of them.".
"Oh those. Orbital. Spin. Pauli. Quantum mechanics, #@$ hard to understand. A lot of people trying to understand it slide into treating an electron as a vague cloud of electricity, and likely the same with protons and neutrons in nuclei. At least learning that sort of thing passes the time on long flights.".
Time and work passed. The Sardies came. In air when they unsuited they were an unpleasant-looking lot, and as identical as photocopies; many of those present thanked #&$ that the Sardies were on their side. The Sardies' leader noticed that for once thank @$% the eternal &%$ noise of preaching from the Faithful Brethren was not jamming any radio channels. All present discussed the PSC-4 for a while, and were relieved that its action display was only a display.
But the next operation involving that sort of police craft around that area was indeed the real thing. The base concerned, not the main base but a small base some way round the local asteroid belt, was about its usual activities when the craft came in at speed and stopped suddenly, unaffected by defensive fire. It fired its one-man missile-like craft (sometimes called MST's) , which quickly outran and rounded up all men found outside, either by snagging their tethers or in towed nets like a fishing boat's but much less visible because there was no friction wear against seabed to have to strengthen them against. While they were being loaded into the PSC-4, the rest of the MST's attacked the base and cut in and in, ignoring what gunfire the occupants had. The occupants suited-up in a fright, and, as each room was cut open like a dug-up ants' nest, surrendered, or tried to scatter and were chased and caught, or fled to other rooms. Speakers on wires put against the base turned the base's metal walls into a sounding board; the whole place resounded to warnings to surrender. Some of the MST's towed cylindrical objects which fastened on and ejected a circle of blasted-out base wall: they were self-attaching airlocks, for orders were not to trust the base's own airlocks in case of traps. The remaining in-air rooms were entered through them and cleared, and the occupants overpowered and restrained or anaesthetized and taken away, in pressure bags if they were found unsuited. The base was searched for valuables and useful stores and evidence. The operation was quick, skilled, and efficient. The MST's went back into their PSC-4, which left the empty base at cruising speed with the base's occupants and records packed in its hold for processing and awaiting their fate.
The first that anyone else knew of this when the craft came to the main base (often called Arda Base, although the X-100's had first called it Ilmenost, which means `Space Town' : it was in the Arda system's asteroid belt) with its drum-shaped collapsible hold ominously distended and protruding on its back. Its crew came out of a hatch in its side, and started unloading netfuls and tied bunches of struggling spacesuited prisoners, and some unsuited prisoners in pressure bags, into a base building which they took over.
"Oi! What's happening? grabbing bunches of us?" some people asked who saw it.
As the crew neared the base, the onlookers saw their surprise their badges.
"Now what on earth? They're not some government or Company's cops, they're the X-100's! said someone, "Those they've got are no bunch here, from their badges. I hope we're not going to start raiding other free bases, then they'll raid us back and no end to trouble.".
"At least they're being unloaded. Before I came into space I worked in a navy base. They had five submersible patrol craft that can serve as diver-catchers to stop people getting near secret stuff underwater. They had collapsible drum holds like these have. More than once one of them came back with its hold right out full, but it never unloaded, just the hold gradually shrank back down to empty as if the sub was RD'ing its hold contents tracelessly. Could have been just dredged rubbish; but next day there was a group sport diver disappearance in the papers. Questions in Parliament afterwards, but the Navy `stone-walled' and blamed underwater currents, and hinted about secret underwater installations that they didn't want the public to see and get away to tell of.".
The X-100's said nothing, but got on with their job, pushing their prisoners in batches into a part of the base.
"We can manage our affairs without cops so far." said someone, "You lot seem to be gradually turning into cops, the way you're acting. I don't care for it. Or were you cops all the time?, infiltrating us.".
Protak Pete, the X-100s' leader, broke his men's silence at last and said, in an official manner: "We occupied the Faithful Brethren's base and arrested all persons found there. We've probably caught their group's whole membership.".
"What?! That place!? What harm were they doing?" someone asked startledly.
"They were only living as they wanted to." someone complained, "That settles it. We've now got cops in a PSC-4 here, not by cops coming in, but by the X-100's turning into cops. Next some other bunch'll turn into a Company giving us orders, and we'll be where we came here to get away from. Again people flee from enemies and find in the end that they've brought their enemies with them.".
"We've done it! We've taken out the Faithful Brethren! As easy as pryin' open an' emptyin' an unguarded [space] liner caterin' crate!" Protak Pete replied, this time in more like his usual manner as an asteroid miner leader.
"I dare say you did, in all that fancy kit and they didn't have a chance. Let them go back, and stick to mining and making things like the rest of us, and fight fair if you must fight, not yahooing about in a cop craft playing at Company cops clearing out free miner bases. Every day I'm beginning to dread seeing a whole fleet of them and a bulk prisoner transport suddenly hyper jumping in and that's the end of our freedom here. Let them worship as they want to in their own place.".
"Can't. Already a third of 'em don't want to go back there, an' likely a lot more after they've been back on normal food an' sleep and no more propaganda for a few days. We found what we thought we'd find in there.".
"They only went there to pray and serve higher beings as they want to.".
"I'll tell you what they were doin': Keepin' 'em awake 3 an' 4 days prayin' an' suchlike endlessly an' nonstop preachin' over their suit radio frequency, to brainwash 'em. Suits altered so they can't be away from base more 'n 4 days, so they can't get away from there. Food synthesizers reset to a poor diet with too little protein an' vitamins, an' a lot o' fastin' as well, so they can't think straight, an' believe any lie they 'ear. Bastard size oxygen connectors so they can't get any from outsiders - something that the Pallas-2's came across before! Suit radios with only one frequency an' a private scramble code so they can't talk with outsiders. Oaths to abandon the outside sinful world, an' to surrender all property to `the brotherhood' - who to an' what for? More reg'lations put on 'em after one of 'em managed to jury-rig 'is suit back to runnin' long enough to get to another base, an' 'e nearly got there; but the Brethren's prophet an' 'is `angers-on 'ad faster suit propulsors an' caught 'im. Now they're away from there, a lot of 'em are gettin' de'ypnotized an' wantin' out. Another lot for 'oldin' cells till they can be re-suited, unless you lot accusin' us can find 'em enough suits now. Their old suits'll need most o' their kit replacin'. Their fancy prophet an' 'is revelations from God's just another schizo with an 'ead voice: our doctor's examined 'im. So's the leader of 'is 'angers-on. The rest of 'is hangers-on are a bunch from a tradin' company that went bust back near Earth, they ran off in astro miner suits to wait till the 'eat was over, an' tried various tricks in space around there to live off people, till someone got sick of 'em an' 'yper jumped 'em 'ere to try to get 'em away from chances to make trouble, but they tried it on again 'ere when that schizo preached at 'em.
The stuff they'd taken from people joinin' 'em: a truth drug got it from that prophet's men that they'd been spendin' it on speculatin' in supplies, which explains other things that people've been wonderin' about. One o' their main prayers was: `Please God don't let people find any more of such an' such, or we'll never corner the supply of it.'.".
"It's more likely it's that prophet's men that'd've become a Company 'ere!" Protak Pete said, "They sell religion like people sell anything else, then they invest the profit in other deals, and so a business structure develops, and more and more people drop out o' work to penpush, and those left get all the work.".
"Yes, I know, from what I did before I went into space." said Plutey-pots.
"You mock religion! Let them go to worship as they will!" someone protested.
"When they're in normal suits so they can leave if they want to, an' the place is visited sometimes to check they're not 'oldin' people against their wills, an' not keep jammin' other people's radio frequencies wi' their junk. An' what about that foundin' prophet o' theirs bein' a schizo? Our doctor found quite clearly that 'e 'ad a lot too much of a stuff called dopa that the brain makes. That makes the brain too active, which makes schizophrenia. Schizo 'ead voices come from the brain's incomin' speech decoder runnin' backwards so brain ideas become ear voices an' not the other way round. I've seen it in neurocomputers that go wrong. Run a string o' little electrodes down the correct part o' the 'earin' brain cortex an' you can `phone-tap' the schizo voice signal out of 'is brain so everybody can 'ear it. It gave me the creeps the first time I saw - an' 'eard - it done. Now I know why schizos go mad, voices an' silly ideas givin' 'em no peace. In old times they often thought it was spirits talkin' to 'em. This one ain't God, it's just parts of 'is brain talkin' to each other usin' 'is 'earin' circuitry as an emailer [= intercomputer message transmitter]. 'Appens sometimes when neurocomputers go wrong, an' people's brains are a sort o' neurocomputer but made o' different stuff. We caught these two cases in time: put an auto dope pump with `major tranquillizer' in in their suits an' that'll stop it. It'll 'ave to be an auto pump: if you leave it to the patients they often stop botherin' to take their pills, then they're off again.".
"You and your scientific explanations for everything and crossing out every trace of a higher power. We gave them refuge and quiet from the temptations and pressures of the outside world in this place of men who boast of their roughness and equipment." said one of the prisoners, who had been in the Brethren's ruling group and thus was allowed to have a full-facility suit radio.
"An' got a fat profit from their property which they 'anded over to you.".
"To the Lord's service.".
"To your pocket's service, for you to s-peculate in commodities an' 'oard.".
"To the Lord is the money which was humbly and freely dedicated to Him by His followers, and also what is got by trading with it. We had good works planned.".
"To your prisoners goes the money, 'oo you conned an' brainwashed into giving it up. What good works? All that money sent out o' the area, people want to know what's 'appenin' to it, if that's what you were plannin', as likely.".
"`Prisoners'? The Lord gives freedom.".
"`Freedom'? Then why did you alter their suit kit so they 'ad to be back in four days so they couldn't run away, if they were all in here by free will?".
"If you were any sort of decent people you wouldn't dream of saying that sort of thing about any Church people, whatever their faults. With the `sword of the Spirit' we fought long against the worldly outer darkness.".
"Says you, 'oo was in the money from nob'dy darin' to call you wrong. Anyway, like most astro miners we ain't your idea o' decent people, since we 'ad a bad upbringin' an' nob'dy made us afraid o' gods an' goblins an' ghosts an' spirits when we were young. So our 'andy new craft's `sewage pump' (or whatever it's called) pumped your pious pure place full of us space sewage (as you can tell by the smell when we unsuit: a reputation we intend to keep), an' we got the lot o' you and your stuff all neatly tanked up in our 'old, sacred stuff an' all. An' you get the same again if you try to con people out o' their stuff like that. If you're against `the world's evils' like you say, I didn't see much sign o' you lot doin' anything against those three that left off work to start a gamblin' racket that time before the F-15's came: that was left to the Jetters to catch 'em and do 'em over and keep 'em in their bunch so they couldn't try it again. Their Jack'ammer lives up to 'is name when that sort o' thing needs doin'. Just in time: that three were already lookin' about for `enforcers' to 'ire.".
"We're a `closed contemplative Order', as it's called.".
"You are now: we've closed you down.".
"I'd have thought that you'd have been thankful that at our place, with the base distracting needs of the flesh automatically provided for by these modern spacesuits, out there away from the vulgar curious public, you'd have been able to give all your time to holy contemplation and meditation in a way that holy men in former times back on Earth long sought in vain.".
"You mean: learn to act like a schizo obsessing on the same few thoughts all the time. All I know is that you persuade people to join you, then you brainwash them, and make @%$ sure that they can't leave if they still do want to leave.".
"Why shouldn't people give their stuff to the poor, as we require of our novices?".
"What poor? There's still enough resources for everybody 'ere. We 'aven't 'ad the time for a `the poor' to develop round 'ere. We ain't seen you goin' round after any poor anyway, as I said. The ill an' insane are seen to enough as it is. So the offerin's o' the faithful were endin' up as business speculation capital, an' this lot were bein' brainwashed till they were prayin' instead of 'elpin' to make defence craft till they'd've still been prayin' in a Company fleet o' these craft as their [collapsible] 'olds they were in were shrinkin' to empty in flight without unloadin', an' I dare say you know what that'd mean; or at least in a bulk prisoner carrier an' they never see space in a free miner suit again an' they end up either base-bound or dumped back on Earth. Same as monks at places like Lindisfarne in Northumberland in England back in Viking times, prayed till the Vikings killed 'em as they prayed, instead o' thinkin' to swop `the breastplate of righteousness an' the sword of the Spirit' for a shield o' lime-tree-wood an' a steel sword like most sensible people used at that time an' area. The main reason why most Company bases back in the Solar System treat us more or less reas'nably is that we've fought an' fought against things the companies've tried to do against us.".
"And what do they do with the insane here? I've seen what some call the `Alzheimery' where that sort of incurables are just stuck in suits in a bunch tethered to the asylum and let their suits take care of them till the end comes. Then someone else gets the suit. These suits make care of the ill too easy. What sort of `even as thou didst unto the least of these, etc' can be said at the Last Judgement to a boxful of electronics and a lump of plute-238? No humble self-dedication and giving time and things up for the ill and the poor, just plug them into machines and go back to what you were doing before.".
"What's that to do with it? They're taken care of, whether by man or machine. an' more reliably than by a 'uman attendant that gets sleepy or too many things arisin' at once makin' mistakes, or 'e loses 'is temper from the same thing keep on 'appenin', like asylum nurses do sometimes." said Protak Pete, "By the way, my suit runs off protactinium-231, rather unusual, thus my name. You just like seein' ev'rybody 'cept yourselves low an' 'umble an' reverent, an' `good causes' are just an excuse. If you like seein' people 'umble, go write stories where ev'rybody's 'umble an' low, an' don't force it on real people 'oo don't want to be made meek an' 'umble or 'ave their lives an' stuff @#%'ed about with.".
"But from the Lord's teachings on Earth came much, including the fairness of treatment that you want from the companies and so on.".
"Religion has its place, like other things. It can easily be carried too far. It's `a good servant but a bad master', like fire or fissile actinides. I'm not goin' into a full 'istory of religion now. You lot were nothing but a pest.".
"When this lot grabbed us, they even turned out `Those who went before us' from their place of rest.".
"Yes we did, an' a nasty job it was, in that 'ole you dug in that asteroid o' yours, instead o' decently RD-in' 'em like we do an' makin' an end o' the job. What you did with 'em would 'ave been OK back on Earth, 'cos the soil gradually RD's 'em naturally. Not 'ere in space. Nasty job it'll be unsuitin' 'em an' cleanin' their suits out, you @%$ ghoulish nuts 'oardin' 'em like that. We'll 'ave to unsuit 'em first, 'cos our usual funeral RD can't digest suit powerpacks an' oxy tanks easily, not like that big RD in that Company trick loader that caught those three lots." Protak Pete said with his natural feelings about the dead mixed with his spaceman's forced rough practicality.
"An easy job!" someone scoffed, "Perhaps a lot more scared against an enemy that could shoot back effectively.".
"Yes, this job did scare us - showing us how easy it was to take out a free base in this kit, and realizing that a highly trained Company or government cop hard-squad could do it even easier." said another X-100.
This discussion was interrupted by another action call: a member of a free spaceman group called the Quasars had gone amok with a work laser. By then they had finished unloading; they went to the place. When their craft arrived, its styling and armament had such an air of arrest and authoritarian rule that the Quasars, who had not seen it before, took a while to get to trust it; but they came up to it and handed their serious casualties over. Many of the Quasars had had to link up in siamesed pairs and threes, for the culprit had shot out many of their suits' oxygen recycling systems. They were attempting repairs, but in the end they went into the PSC-4's hold for a quick lift to a kit-makers. Meanwhile its front missile gun fired a burst of four MST's, which quickly reached the culprit: his laser did little harm to their hulls, and one of them soon scooped him up in a towed net, rolled him over and over to make him dizzy, pulled him in, injected him to sleep, and disarmed him. Again an alarmingly easy catch. The MST untelescoped somewhat as it pulled him inside itself through a side hatch. Then the MST's all went back to the PSC-4, and into it, and for the second time in a week its ominously police-like shape left with a free miner group packed away in its laser- and explosive-proof collapsible hold. On the way one of the X-100's asked for a history.
"Sometimes he doesn't do anything, but just sulks, and we have to tow him like a crate of tools. Other times he's jumpy and excitable and chattery, but never as bad as this time. This happens in a cycle of about three months. One of us had an argument with him about work, and he blew up and grabbed a laser from one of us and shot about with it ...".
Protak Pete interrupted, for he had seen manic-depression before. It was not a good condition for a spaceman, and he said so. (The hospital later said so also, and fitted his suit with an auto dope pump which synthesized and administered the appropriate medication during his high periods. That got the condition under control.)
The kit-makers had heard the radio reports, and so knew who the PSC-4's crew was and did not think that the laser damage had been incurred during arrest; they spoke their mind on the effect space has on some sorts of mentality. The X-100's gave the Quasars their laser back, took the culprit and the serious injuries to the hospital, and went back to their routine. The X-100's went back to mining and other ordinary work, but kept the PSC-4 well guarded until another group's turn with it came. Life went on.
The Faithful Brethren action caused controversy which lasted a while. After a week enough spare suits were rounded up for all the ex-Brethren to be resuited. Repairing their previous suits back to normal condition took a while longer, with a complication that some of them wanted their previous suits back once repaired. Another unwanted drain on the area's suit-making capacity. As Protak Pete had expected, 70% of the ex-'Faithful Brethren' after the week of normal food and no forced ritual wanted out and on resuiting and release went back to wherever they had been before becoming Brethren. The rest went back to the Brethren's base and repaired it, but without their prophet's revelations and with all members now in standard long-term asteroid miner suits, enforced so by inspections, could not prevent a string of desertions until they got too few to keep non-Brethren outsiders out or to enforce ritual observation on them, and the place slipped into being just another free asteroid miner base.
"That place he mentioned, where old people with that sad condition have to be accommodated: couldn't they call it something better than `The Alzheimery'!?" said Plutey-puts, who had overheard the argument between the X-100's and their captives from some way away, as it is with two-way radio conversations.
"That's not the place's proper name!" Jet Jack replied, "It's a name that that nasty Brethren man used for it, to make it sound bad. I know, Alzheimer's is a distressing condition, but it happens. Some say it comes from a natural repair mechanism going wrong. At least these suits of ours are efficient one-man mini intensive care wards, when the wearer gets to that stage. That, and other incurable medical and psychiatric conditions of various sorts. There, they at least can see the stars and the passing traffic. Some say it's better than being in a geriatric ward on a planet, where all they'd see is the inside of the room. They can talk to each other by intercom wires running down their tethers, while any sort of lucidity lasts. They can listen to the radio talk. While old people keep their minds and can operate their suit propulsors, they can keep up with their group, but less fit for work as each year passes, and less willing to go into gravity at bases; but if one of them gets that condition he has to be watched, and towed about, and remove his tether release lever and keep tools out of his reach, then leave him where he can be taken better care of. I hope the Sardies don't get it: they're cloned identical multiplets, so if they get it they'll get it all together, out in the wilds somewhere all too likely. If they don't go like that but simply get too weak, they could be towed around by a few MST's sometimes to give them a change of scenery. They gave us out of the dark places of the Companies the means of quick far travel: it would be a pity to see them all tethered in a row to a building awaiting the inevitable, unable to fly on their own again. Other groups are safer: they're not identicals and they keep getting young entry as the old members get old.
Anyway, there they are, tethered beside each other, with the badges of a dozen free asteroid miner groups on their helmets, some imagining they're young and strong and back in their early years again, some wanting to go meet people that died long ago or to rejoin groups that died or disbanded long ago. Others just keep talking about old times and wishing they could travel with a group again. Then, in each one in turn, his suit has to start its auto breathing ventilator and/or heart restarter, and keeps it on, and the attendant realizes that there's nothing there any more, and frees his tether and tows him in, and contacts his relatives or group if possible, and the inevitable last stage. Myself, I hope I can at least work my [suit] propulsor till the end, and `die in harness', and be put without fussing into the first RD my mates find that can do the job.".
"Sometimes things can't be helped." said an X-100, "The first time we met the Quasars they had an old man in tow; I put an intercom wire to him and he kept moaning about `This lot took Mary away. And my suit. I've always had them.'.".
"I thought you said you didn't take suits off people." an F-15 interrupted, in an imperfect attempt at losing his businessman manner.
The X-100 continued:
"`Who was Mary?' I asked.
`My photon torpedo. I feel I'm short of oxy after a day loose.' he said.".
"What's a photon torpedo?" the F-15 asked.
The X-100 continued again: "In the old days, one man's propulsor and long-term survival gear was much too big to be worn on a suit. There were a lot less of us then. We wore short-trip suits, and we were base-bound, or had to go with a Company mothercraft that refilled our suits and emptied and RD'ed the waste from the suit's waste tank. Like some companies'd like us to go back to. Then someone designed a torpedo-shaped craft about 3 feet thick and 18 feet long that had a propulsor and recycling gear for one man, who rode it and plugged his suit into it for long space trips. They're called LTRC-1's, but a lot of us called them photon torpedoes. I suppose `photon' meant its headlight: @$% powerful that headlight was. Once most long-trip spacemen had them. He was with the Quasars for many years, and he had a torpedo and old-type suit all that time. He got old, and in the end his driving got so wobbly that they had to tow him, on his torpedo to keep his old suit running. It was just too much to tow about on top of their proper loads. They reasoned with him long enough about it, but in the end at the next suit-off they stuffed him into a modern suit whether he wanted it or not, and left his torpedo and old suit behind. He still can't get used to being so long in a suit not plugged into anything. But a good thing, for a month later he had a heart attack and his new suit's medipack noticed it and kept him going. Those old suits can't take medipacks.
Modern suits came in well before the Sardies brought us our first hyperspace jumper, but some men that stuck to old suits and photon torpedoes have jumped to here since. There's still a few using them. They're nothing like as fast as those new MST things that the X-100's've been whizzing about in.".
"A photon torpedo was originally a sort of anti-ship missile in an old space story series. Someone must've reused the word as slang." someone explained.
"Where does enough `young entry' for all you groups come from?" Plutey-pots asked, "Do they all come from Earth and get jumped here? If so, surely the companies'll be wondering where they're all vanishing to? If the companies think that that many people've just got lost in space, governments'll call it another safety reason not to let people go loose in uncontrolled bunches any more rather than all controlled by an Earth authority like I thought it used to be.".
"I know." said Jet Jack, "I've still got NASA's order on me to lead a group to explore and bring back samples for 5 years, then return to Earth. @%$ me if I let them put me out to grass back on earth after one or two trips, and the trouble ex-spacemen have getting work, and the longing to get back into space. One group of ex-spacemen that were having a reunion in Houston in Texas, many of them had gone right down in the world and had asked NASA over and over again to take them on again, but were merely told that `you've had your turn at it' or something like that: one of my group overheard at a base about the reunion. There's a base-to-Earth delivery pilot that kept us in touch about news ...".
"I was one of them." said someone, when, as is usual, Jet Jack routinely stopped transmitting for a moment in case anyone wanted to use the frequency urgently, "With the fancy words dropped, we'd been sacked for becoming a year too old. No-one on the ground wants a man with nothing since leaving school except ordinary spaceman. I'd given up long ago any hope of ever wearing a spacesuit again. Oh for the old scene, blastoffs, space work, landings, training, the general scenario, and forest fires in the NASA Forest around Cape Canaveral when dead stuff piles up and someone has to go for a walk with a flamethrower at the right time before someone drops a lit fag end at the wrong time. Sometimes I'd see my old spacesuit, in a museum in Houston in Texas. Like me it was shoved aside gathering dust, never to be used again. Sometimes I dreamed of being in space, and the weightlessness, and a ship and the noises it made, and the whole scenario, and oh the letdown when I woke back on Earth in a house in bed and yet again there was no spacesuit enclosing me after all. I kept a log of my space dreams, since that was all the space I'd ever see again. About all the work I'd had since was opening a few public events in a film costume spacesuit: they wouldn't lend me a real suit for that. And a few bits of delivery van driving. The days when every spaceman was a celebrity, were gone.
We were at our reunion, and suddenly the dog started yammering, and there was a funny wind down the stairs, and I heard noises upstairs. I went upstairs, and in there was a load of spacemen in a sort of suits that I'd never seen before. Every upstairs room was full of them. There was no way they could've got in. I'd heard bits about new sorts of spacesuits, but not a great lot. They offered to take us back into space. They said they'd got spare suits for us. I thought that some fool'd needled some @%$ junk into me from behind to make me see things, and my longings'd got the better of me. It gave me the creeps. I said nothing, 'cos I didn't want anyone who was really there to think I'd gone insane. I muttered `In nomine Patris et Filii', etc, and thought hard about all sorts of real things, but that didn't get rid of them. I waited for the hallucination to stop. But it was so realistic that I realized it had to be real. Strange sort of suits they were, after my old suit. We were in a total shock of unreality. We undressed and put the suits on. We were glad to get into suits again, although I couldn't see how we'd get back to space from there, unless they fetched a truck and took us to Cape Canaveral or somewhere. Then everything went grey, and we were in space all tethered together in a cluster. Bits of the house had come with us. I felt utterly at peace. I was back in space at last, weightless with the stars all round. The years out of work between faded away like a bad dream.
I noticed something missing. `Where's the [space] shuttle? We're just adrift here.' I asked.
`Your spaceships? You're wearing them.' said Jet Jack, and pointed to a large metal bulge on my back. That was the first I'd heard that ship propulsors could be that small, let alone ever hearing of any sort of hyperspace jumper. The space authorities keep a lot secret nowadays.
`That's even better! I'm a spaceship, I can go anywhere as I am!' I exclaimed in rather an ecstasy of illogic, `But what about refuelling me?'.
`Nuclear powerpacks, 'll last a lifetime.' he said.
Anyway, they showed us how to work those fancy new suits, and how to do their work. After a while they put us in the X-100's, and here we are now. Much better than my old NASA suit, much better than my later suit of dream-stuff that for all its abilities always vanished without trace in the cold morning awakening to yet another day out of work or at some dead-end ground job.
Groups like the Jetters were lucky, they were sent out with long-term gear and could just stay out longer than ordered. Then some bosses started to get rough about groups that stayed in space too long, and about how space was going to pot with all this uncontrolled space nomadism developing instead of Mission Controls in charge of everything, and the rest you likely know, the Sardies and the rest of it. But the companies want metals, and we're the best way to find and supply them, and they had to accept that.
I'd been thinking for a long time that it's time some of those fancy city businessmen that play cats and mice with our jobs, did some work for a change. Then that Blore ran away to space and got more than he bargained for. Then the Jetters grabbed those fancy cartel delegates! What they said when they woke in asteroid miner spacesuits with the stars all different! I saw them arrive here, I nearly laughed my [breathing] mask off when I found who they were!".
"We here are still only a smallish part of the men in space still in the Solar System." Jet Jack continued, "Some time Earth in general'll find, or have to be told, that we've got on-suit hyperspace jumpers. We've been here long enough for children born here to get to working age. One thing having our own base means is that we don't have to fork out to any Company to use in-gravity areas to get children used to being in gravity, else they'd get even skinnier than Martians [= humans born on Mars, here] are from their low gravity, don't need as much muscle to get around. They're more willing to let women into space, now they know from Mars that we'd likely clone ourselves for children else.".
The talk ended, and Plutey-pots went with the rest of the Jetters to the main base. In the base area he saw something that he had seen a few times there: an old man in an old-style suit on an unusually large make of `photon torpedo', likely having used it so long that he felt unwilling to desert it at last for a modern suit. About thirty children in miniature modern long-trip spacesuits were tethered to it. Some let themselves be towed; others flew about getting their tethers in a real right cats cradle. They had intercom wires down their tethers; Plutey-pots tapped into one of them and heard an astonishing amount of excited screeching on it. One of them had his arms out in front like a capture grab and was calling out: "I'm Fletchmin's loader and I'm going to get you!": not long before even so young they had heard of those goings-on. Until their tethers got so badly tangled that the old man had to stop and unplug from his torpedo and go back and untangle them: at least he had been persuaded to wear a modern suit propulsor: it got its power from his torpedo by a flex along his tether, an awkward mixture of old and new. Their suits had microchip controlled exercise harnesses on, that tried to pull the wearer into a knot, to simulate the effect of having to keep the body straight upright against gravity, to get healthy muscle development. They had `Microjets' (= a sort of very small manned jetplane) written on their helmets and suit chests. He remembered that the X-100's (in between careering about in a PSC-4) were currently building a really big enclosed sphere so children could fly about in it at any time untethered without getting lost. The Microjets were not a new adult group in the making; the name would go with the suits to the next children there in that age-class as their present wearers needed resuiting as they grew, and when adult they would join existing or new groups.
The Microjets went into an empty hangar where local spacecraft were sometimes serviced. Sunlight, white like burning magnesium from a sun hotter than Earth's, came in through strong mesh panels, moving somewhat as the asteroid that it was attached to rotated slowly. The Jetters followed them in, out of curiosity. The old man took a bag of tennis-sized balls out of his torpedo's cargo compartment and handed them round one each, and kept one himself. He switched on the hangar's radio relayer, so he could hear any urgent radio calls from outside the hangar, which naturally acted as a `Faraday cage' keeping radio waves out or in.
"What are they going to play?" Plutey-pots asked, for children need some sort of games, and he saw no easy way of playing Earth ball sports in zero gravity, despite an assiduous following of such Earth football and other sport news as got into space and made the Long Jump and was broadcast locally.
"Fission." the old man said, releasing the children's tether clip and flying round on his torpedo checking that all doors of the hangar were secured.
The old man had clearly said that word and not another; Plutey-pots reflected that some may say they were a bit too young to start nuclear physics, but be that as it may. "OK. Untether." the old man radioed; the children obeyed and spread themselves about the hangar, each in a small copy of a long-trip asteroid miner's suit, with nuclear powerpack, propulsor, waste collector, suit RD, food synthesizer, and so on, all reproduced in miniature but fully working. The old man let them fly about like a swarm of midges for a while, glad to be off their tethers, then threw his ball. One of the children caught it, then threw both it and his own ball; he was then classed as `having fissioned', and was out of the game. Two other children caught the two loose balls and repeated this, and so it went on. The balls were somewhat magnetic: if they stuck to anything, they were classed as `escaping from the reactor' and out of the game. When this imitation of uranium-235 fission was over, they counted the players left `unfissioned', and the time taken, and had a grand 3-dimensional chase about and a lot of excited radio screeching finding all the balls.
Plutey-pots wished that someone would teach children (and in hot countries back on Earth, high-pitched jungle parrots near hotels) not to scream from excitement, as it makes people ignore genuine screams for help.
"Sometimes I give them two balls each at the start, and when they catch a ball they throw all three." said the old man, "That makes it like plute-239, which often throws three neutrons when it fissions. Sometimes I tell some of them they're U-238; when any of those catch a ball, he keeps it, and is out of the game for a while till he's said to have turned from U-239 to plute-239, then he can catch another ball and throw all three. It helps to work their high spirits off as well as learning some physics. And in here they can get excited over their suit radios to their heart's content without jamming the channel outside, the hangar acts as a `Faraday cage'.".
As they got ready to play `fission' again, the old man took a radio call from a caller querying about political leanings in Earth history lessons. The old man knew little about politics and cared less, "as long as the Companies leave us alone and don't come here", and said so; the caller started the careful lengthy probing needed when questioning the ignorant, until the old man told him to "get off channel or I'll tell the Arbiter next time I can, I've got work to do.". By the time he got back to the children, one of them had got tired of waiting and had thrown his ball anyway, starting the game. "Spontaneous fission. Happens sometimes." he muttered. Children often have a short attention span, on top of such jobs as their parents or guardians continually topping up their suit RD-tanks from outside to replace organic matter used up in growth instead of returned to their suits' automatic `break down completely and resynthesize' cycle, and in particular their periodic needs for bigger spacesuits.
They played `fission' again, this time with half of them starting as U-238. He then called them to come back to him and retether; most did, but four of them were not out of energy and he had to chase and net and retether them one by one.
They went to their next `classroom', which was only a tethering point in a crater left by an ancient impact, for in space there is no wind or rain to need shelter from. The subject was astronomy; they had been hearing of the work of the old astronomers Tycho and Kepler. The teacher let the Jetters read some of the children's essays on the subject. As so many descriptions in their own words of old events back on Earth showed the participants in space in spacesuits, the teachers had also made a determined attempt to show them what Earth was like, resulting in essays that went into detail not so much about the intended subject but about so amazing a concept as men living on an asteroid called Earth that was so big that it had so much gravity that they could not jump off it, and could even hold its own air in so people could live without spacesuits there, and each man needed several acres of crops to keep him fed without a spacesuit.
The next lesson was ecology of wildlife on the planet, another idea strange in its large-scale uncontrollableness to those who had seen wildlife only captive, and even after that short time affected by Man, as the notorious case of some anonymous explorer who had gone with seeds in mud on his spacesuit to another region which lacked them before, making much of that region untravellably carpeted with a plague of landmine bush without its natural controls, until men transplanted an insect whose grubs attacked the bushes, eating out the natural explosive charges and letting rot into the roots, killing the bushes, until wind brought a parasite of the insect and the plague restarted, until wind brought a hyperparasite of the parasite and landmine bush became scarce there again.
The teachers realized that the time had come to let the children go on planet themselves; they got the Jetters to go with them to help watch over events. The base's children gathered, and had their first experience of a hyperspace jump, and found themselves in a flat heavy place where they could not leave the ground. They saw in wonder blue starless sky and clouds, and organic matter and water spread about in careless abundance in vegetation and a meandering river after a lifetime of conserving every bit of it. The site, as intended, was free from dangerous animals and such nasties such as landmine bushes and a tree with compressed gas injecting spines which had caused casualties before, and was warm enough for the children to wear only their undersuits in the weather. It took some of them some time to stop calling the open air "space" and to work out what wind was and to pluck up courage to unsuit in the open, but they did it; all concerned were familiar with the resulting released wave of undersuit smell. The weight and the two-dimensionalness and the fixed paths were strange, and it was even stranger learning that all men once lived like that with no idea of space or flying. Sight of local animals feeding and relieving themselves in the open was also strange, except to those who had seen caged animals reared in the base. Nor were they accustomed to having to come within a few feet of each other to understand each other talk. They resuited, tethered in with the Jetters, and were glad to be hyper jumped back into familiar weightless space. They had to set their small suits' small propulsors to a harder drive than the adults to keep up, until they got to the base and thankfully home, where after a long exciting day they tethered to a tethering ring to wait for their parents, and quickly fell asleep floating weightless in a cluster in their little spacesuits.
So much for Plutey-pots's first trip to `The Planet', and only his third time on any planet since he went into space; but he was soon to go there again, in much more dangerous circumstances. In the meantime, first a trip to a spacesuit kit makers.
"Now to get you and a few others of us new suit propulsors." said Jet Jack, "The rest of us have already got them.".
"What's the matter with the one I've got? It's carried me so far and in and out of so much. I'm getting quite fond of it." said Plutey-pots.
"Yours is an oldish type, that Levitsky had some of in store. These new ones can pull up to several G's for long enough to get you on and off planets. If you tried to do that on an old one, it'd blow out, so they've got cut-outs built in. And some of your suit circuitry'll need replacing to take the extra power used. This improvement to propulsors is our own invention out here. If some Company's invented the same before us, we still don't give a @&% for patent priority after the amount they've charged for things and spares. These propulsors should take less power each time than short hyper jumps just to get in and out of `gravity wells'. But this sort of new ability causes new responsibilities: I have to be careful who gets these. If all sorts start casually dropping in on Earth from the sky, it'll cause all sorts of scares and trouble.".
This was done: and sooner than expected the new ability had to be used.