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´╗┐Title: Space Oasis
Author: Gallun, Raymond Z.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Space Oasis" ***

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                              SPACE OASIS

                         By RAYMOND Z. GALLUN

                  Space-weary rocketmen dreamed of an
                 asteroid Earth. But power-mad Norman
                    Haynes had other plans--and he
                     spread his control lines in a
                   doom-net for that oasis in space.

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                       Planet Stories Fall 1942.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


I found Nick Mavrocordatus scanning the bulletin board at the Haynes
Shipping Office on Enterprize Asteroid, when I came back with a load of
ore from the meteor swarms.

He looked at me with that funny curve on his lips, that might have been
called a smile, and said, "Hi, Chet," as casually as though we'd seen
each other within the last twenty-four hours.... "Queer laws they got
in the Space Code, eh? The one that insists on the posting of casualty
lists, for instance. You'd think the Haynes Company would like to keep
such things dark."

I didn't say anything for a moment, as my eyes went down those narrow,
typed columns on the bulletin board: Joe Tiffany--dead--space armor
defect.... Hermann Schmidt and Lan Harool--missing--vicinity of
Pallas.... Irvin Davidson--hospitalized--space blindness....

There was a score of names of men I didn't know, in that
space-blindness column. And beneath, there was a much longer line of
common Earth-born and Martian John-Henrys, with the laconic tag added
at the top--_hospitalized_--_mental_. Ditto marks saved the trouble of
retyping the tag itself, after each name.

One name caught my eye.

Ted Bradley was listed there. Ted Bradley from St. Louis, my and Nick
Mavrocordatus' home town. It gave me a little jolt, and a momentary
lump somewhere under my Adam's Apple. I knew the state Bradley would be
in. Not a man any more--no longer keen and sure of himself. A year out
here among the asteroids had changed all that forever.

Shoving from one drifting, meteoric lump to another, in a tiny space
boat. Chipping at those huge, grey masses with a test hammer that
makes no sound in the voidal vacuum. Crawling over jagged surfaces,
looking for ores of radium and tantalum and carium--stuff fabulously
costly enough to be worth collecting, for shipment back to the
industries of Earth, at fabulous freight rates, on rocket craft whose
pay-load is so small, and where every gram of mass is at premium.

No, Ted Bradley would never be himself again. Like so many others. It
was an old story. The almost complete lack of gravity, out here among
the asteroids, had disturbed his nerve-centers, while cosmic rays
seeped through his leaded helmet, slowly damaging his brain.

There was more to it than the airlessness, and absence of weight, and
the cosmic rays. There was the utter silence, and the steady stars, and
the blackness between them, and the blackness of the shadows, like the
fangs of devils in the blazing sunshine. All of this was harder than
the soul of any living being.

And on top of all this, there was usually defeat and shattered hope.
Not many futures were made among the asteroids by those who dug for
their living. Prices of things brought from Earth in fragile, costly
space craft were too high. Moments of freedom and company were too
rare, and so, hard-won wealth ran like water.

Ted Bradley was gone from us. Call him a corpse, really. In the
hospital here on Enterprize, he was either a raving maniac, or
else--almost worse--he was like a little child, crooning over the
wonder of his fingers.

It got me for a second. But then I shrugged. I'd been out here two
years. An old timer. I knew how empires were built. I knew, better
than most, how to get along out here. Be fatalistic and casual. Don't
worry. Don't plan too much. That way I'd stayed right-side-up. I'd even
had quite a lot of fun, being an adventurer, against that gigantic,
awesome background of the void.

I didn't consider my thoughts about Ted Bradley worth mentioning to
Nick Mavrocordatus. He was probably thinking about Ted, too, and that
was enough.

"Come on, Nick," I said. "They've got my ore weighed and analyzed for
content in the hopper rooms. I'm going into the pay-office and get my
dough. Then we might shove off to the Iridium Circle, or some other
joint, and have us a time, huh?"

Nick laughed, then, good-naturedly, triumphantly. I gave him a sharp
glance, noticing that under his faintly bitter air, there seemed to be
something big. Some idea that gripped him, confused him, thrilled him.
His small, knotty body was taut with it; his dark eyes, under the curly
black hair that straggled down his forehead, glowed with a far-away
look.

Of course, he was still very young--only twenty-two, which to me,
at twenty-five, with a six-months edge of asteroid-lore beyond his
year and a half of experience, made me feel old and disillusioned and
practical, by comparison.

"All right, Chet," he said at last. "Let's get your money. Celebrations
are in order--on me, though. But I guess we'd better soft-pedal them
some. I've got a lot to tell you, and more to do."

I didn't give his words proper attention, just then. I swaggered into
the pay office, where a couple of stenogs clicked typewriters, and
where Norman Haynes, acting head of the Haynes Shipping Company, sat at
his desk, under the painted portrait of his uncle, that grizzled old
veteran, Art Haynes, who had retired years ago, and who now lived on
Earth.

I knew old Art only by reputation. But that was enough to arouse my
deep respect. Between nephew and uncle there was a difference as great
as between night and day. The one, the founder, unafraid to dirty his
hands and face death, and build for the future. Tough, yes, but square,
and willing to pay bonuses to miners even while he'd been struggling
to expand his company, and open up vast, new space trails. The other,
an arm-chair director, holding on tight, now, to an asteroid empire,
legally free of his control, but whose full resources came eventually
into his hands at the expense of others, because he controlled the
fragile, difficult supply lines.

At sight of me, Norman Haynes arose from his chair. He was very tall,
and he wore an immaculate business suit. He was smooth-shaven, with a
neat haircut, in contrast to my shaggy locks and bristles. Across his
face spread a smile of greeting as broad as it was false.

"Well--Chet Wallace," he said. "You've done some marvelous meteor
mining, this trip: Nineteen hundred dollars' worth of radium-actinium
ore! Splendid! Maybe you'll do even better next time!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Yeah! I'd seen and heard Norman Haynes act and talk like this before.
He handed out the same line to all of the miners. To me it was forever
irritating. Always I'd wanted to turn that long nose of his back
against his right ear. He and his words were both phony. Always he used
a condescending tone. And I felt that he was a bloodsucker. My anger
was further increased, now, because of Ted Bradley.

I guess I sneered. "Don't worry about those nineteen hundred dollars,
Mr. Haynes," I said. "When I buy grub, and a few things I need, and
have a little blow, you'll have the money all back."

Beside the office railing there was a machine--a cigarette vendor. Into
a roller system at its top, I inserted two five-dollar bills from my
pay. There was a faint whir as the robot photographic apparatus checked
the denominations of the notes, and proved their authenticity. Two
packs of cigarettes slipped down into the receiver arrangement.

"Five bucks apiece, Haynes," I said. "At a fair shipping rate,
cigarettes brought out from Earth aren't worth much more than three
bucks. But you're just a dirty chiseller, not satisfied with a fair
profit. Costs here in the asteroids are naturally plenty steep; but you
make a bad situation worse by charging at least twenty-five per-cent
more than's reasonable! A Venutian stink-louse is more of a gentleman
than you are, Haynes!"

Oh, there was a Satanic satisfaction in feeling the snarl in my throat,
and seeing Haynes' face go purplish red, and then white with surprise
and fury. Some other space men had entered the pay office, and they hid
their grins of pleasure behind calloused palms.

First I thought Norman Haynes would swing at me. But he didn't. He
lacked that kind of nerve. He began to sputter and curse under his
breath, and I thought of a snake hissing. I felt the danger of it,
though--danger that broods and plans, and doesn't come out into the
open, but waits its chance to strike. Knowing that it was there,
sizzling in Haynes' mind, gave me a thrill.

Casually I tossed one of the packs of cigarettes to Nick Mavrocordatus,
who had come with me into the pay office. He gave me a nudge, which
meant we'd better scram. When we were out of the building, he held
me off from going to any of the few tawdry saloons there under the
small, glassed-in airdome of Enterprize City, the one shabby scrap of
civilization and excuse for comfort.

"No drinks now, Chet," Nick whispered. "Can't chance it. Got to keep
on our toes. In one way I'm glad you talked down to that--whatever you
want to call him. But you've made us the worst possible enemy we could
have--now."

I shrugged. "What were you gonna tell me before, Nick?" I demanded. "I
gathered you had something plenty big in view."

He answered me so abruptly that I didn't quite believe my ears at
first. "Pa and Sis and Geedeh and I, have made good, Chet," he said.
"We found--not just pickings--but a real fortune in ore, on planetoid
439. So rich is the deposit that we could buy our own smelting and
purifying machinery, and hire ships under our own control, to take the
refined metals back to Earth!"

"You're kidding, Nick," I said amazedly.

"Not a bit of it," he returned.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then I was pumping his hand, congratulating him. Really good luck was
a phenomenon among the asteroids. That friends of mine, among the
thousands of hopeful ones that I didn't know, should grab the jack-pot,
seemed almost impossible.

"I suppose you'll all be leaving us soon," I told him. "Going back to
Earth, living the lives of millionaires. I'm glad for you all, kid.
Your Pa can raise his flowers and grapes, instead of starting up in the
truck-garden business again. Your sis, Irene, can study her painting
and her music, like she wants to."

Anybody can see the way my thoughts were going just then. When you
start out green for the Minor Planets, that's part of what's in your
mind, first--get rich, come back to Earth.

Nick sighed heavily as we walked along. That funny smile was on
his lips again. He glanced around, and the emerald light of the
illuminators was on his young face.

Then he said, "I don't think it's quite safe to talk here, Chet.
Better come to our old space jaloppy, the _Corfu_."

The _Corfu_ was on the ways outside the dome. We put on space suits to
reach it. Inside, the old crate smelled of cooking odors, some of them
maybe accumulated over the eighteen months the Mavrocordatuses had been
asteroid mining. Old ships are hard to ventilate, with their imperfect
air-purifiers.

The instruments in the control room, were battered and patched; and
from the living quarters to the rear, issued a duet of snores--one
throaty and rattly, Pa Mavrocordatus' beyond doubt; and the other an
intermittent hiss, originating unquestionably in the dust-filtering
hairs in the larynx of Geedeh, the little Martian scientist, whom Nick
had befriended.

"I can't figure you out, Nick," I said. "Rich, and not leaving this
hell-hole of space. You're an idiot."

"So are you, Chet," he returned knowingly. "In my place, you wouldn't
go either--at least not without regrets. In spite of all hell, there's
something big here in space that gets you. You feel like nothing,
yourself. But you feel that you're part of something terribly huge and
terribly important. You'd be happy on Earth for a week; then you'd
begin to smother inside. The Minor Planets have become our home, Chet.
It's too late to break the ties."

Slowly it soaked into my mind that Nick was right.

"Not to say anything bad against old Mother Earth, Chet," he continued.
"Far from it! That's just what's needed out here--a little touch of
our native scene. Growing things. A piece of blue sky, maybe. Enough
gravity to make a man believe in solid ground again."

Right then I began to smell Nick's plan, not only what it was, but all
the impractical dreamer part of it.

I began to grin, but there was a kind of sadness in me, too. "Sure!
Sure, Nick!" I chided. "The idea's as old as the hills! Rejuvenate
some asteroid. Bring in soil and water and air from Earth. Install a
big gravity-generating unit. Ha! Have you any idea how many ships it
would take to bring those thousands and thousands of tons of stuff out
here--even to get started?"

       *       *       *       *       *

I was talking loud. My voice was booming through the rusty hull of the
_Corfu_, making ringing echoes. So just about as I finished, they were
all around me. Pa Mavrocordatus, in pajamas and ragged dressing gown,
his handle-bar moustaches bristling. Geedeh, the tiny Martian, draped
in a checkered Earthly blanket, his great eyes blinking, and his tiny
fingers, with fleshy knobs at their ends instead of nails, twiddling
nervously near the center of his barrel-chest. And Irene, too, standing
straight and defiant and little, in her blue smock.

Irene hadn't been sleeping. Probably she'd been washing dishes, and
straightening up the galley after supper. She still had a dish towel in
her hands. Wealth hadn't altered the Mavrocordatus' mode of life, yet.
Irene looked like a bold little kewpie, her dark head of tousled, curly
hair, not up to my shoulder. She was exquisitely pretty; but now she
was somewhat irritated.

She shook a finger up at me, angrily. "You think Nick has a dumb idea,
eh, Chet Wallace?" she accused. "That's only because you don't know
what you're talking about! We won't have to bring a drop of water, or a
molecule of air or soil, out from Earth! You ask Geedeh!"

I turned toward the little Martian. The dark pupil-slits, and the
yellow irises of his huge eyes, covered me. "Irene has spoken the
truth, Chet," he told me in his slow, labored English. "The Asteroid
Belt, the many hundreds of fragments that compose it, are the remains
of a planet that exploded. So there is soil on many of the asteroids.
Dried out--yes--after most of the water and air disappeared into space,
following the catastrophe. But the soil can still be useful. And there
is still water, not in free, liquid form, but combined in ancient rock
strata; gypsum, especially. It is like on Mars, when the atmosphere
began to get too thin for us to breathe, and the water very scarce on
the dusty deserts."

I said nothing, wished I had kept silent.

"We roasted gypsum in atomic furnaces," Geedeh finished, "driving
the water out as steam, and reclaiming it for our underground
cities. The same can be done here among the Minor Planets. And since
water is hydrogen dioxide, oxygen can be obtained from it, too, by
electrolysis. Nitrogen and carbon dioxide, necessary to complete the
new atmosphere, which will be prevented from leaking into space by the
force of the artificial gravity, can be obtained from native nitrates,
and other compounds. Only vital parts of the machinery need be brought
out from Earth and Mars by rocket. The rest can be made here, from
native materials."

Geedeh's voice, as he spoke to me, was a soft, sibilant whisper, like
the rustle of red dust in a cold, thin, Martian wind.

"You bet," Pa Mavrocordatus enthused. "Nick's got a good idea. I'm
gonna raise my flowers! I'm gonna raise tomatoes and cabbages and
carrots, right here on one of them asteroids!"

It struck me as funny--asteroids--cabbages! Nothing I could think of,
could seem quite that far apart. Black, airless vacuum, rough rocks,
and raw, spacial sunshine! And things from a truck garden! It didn't
match. But then, Pa Mavrocordatus didn't match the asteroids either!
He'd had a truck garden once, outside of St. Louis. And yet he was out
here in space, and had been for a year and a half!

Well, even if the idea _was_ practical, I thought first that they were
still just dreaming--kidding themselves that it would be a cinch to
accomplish. And not being able to fight through.

Then I glanced back at Nick. That look on his face was there again. A
strange mixture of confidence, worry, grimness, and vision. It came to
me then that he was no kid at all.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Let me in on the job?" I asked hopefully.

"Sure!" Nick returned. "We wouldn't be telling you all this, if we
didn't want you. That's why we came back to Enterprize--hoping to find
you around some place."

So I was in. Part of a wild scheme of progress--more thrilling
and inspiring because it seemed so wild. An asteroid made into a
tiny, artificial Earth! A boon to void-weary space men! A source of
cheap food supplies, as well as a place to rest up. A new stage of
colonization--empire building!

And then I thought I heard a sound--a faint clinking outside of the
hull of the _Corfu_. At once, I was alert--taut. Maybe half of my
sudden worry was intuition, or a form of telepathy. When you've been
out in deep space, a million miles away from any other living soul, you
feel a vast, hollow loneliness, that perhaps is mostly the absence of
human telepathy waves from other minds. But when you have people around
you once more, your sixth sense seems keener for the period of lack.
That was why I was sure of an eavesdropper, sensing his presence. With
proper sub-microphonic equipment, a man outside a space ship can hear
every word spoken inside.

Nick felt it too. "But we'd better look and see," he whispered. "Norman
Haynes keeps spies around. And he may have heard rumors. You can't keep
a project like ours secret very long. It's too big."

My pulses jumped with fear, as I piled into my space suit. But when
Nick and I got through the airlock together, there was nobody in sight.
Only some footprints in the faint rocket dust of the ways, covering our
own footprints, where we'd passed before, coming to the _Corfu_. Our
flashlights showed them plainly.

"Having a rejuvenated asteroid in these parts, producing fresh food
and so forth, would take a lot of trade away from the Haynes Shipping
Company, wouldn't it?" I said when we were back in the cabin once
more. "Norman Haynes wouldn't be practically boss of the Minor Planets
anymore, would he? He wouldn't like that. He'll fight us."

"We need you, Chet," Irene said, her eyes appealing. That was enough
for me.

"We'd better blast off right away," Nick added. "We're going to
asteroid 487, Chet. Its new name is Paradise. It's the one we've
picked."


                                  II

Asteroid 487 was the usual thing. A torn, jagged, airless fragment.
It was no paradise yet, unless it was a paradise of devils. Nick had
a thousand men hired--space roustabouts, and a lot of mechanics and
technicians, mostly fresh from Earth. Sure, it's hard handling a bunch
like that, but there was nothing in this difficulty that we didn't know
was part of the job. Some of our outfit gave us horse-laughs, but they
worked. The pay was good.

The ships came through with the packed loads of machinery. Atomic
forges blazed, purifying native meteoric iron to complete the vast
gravity-generating machine, sunk in a shaft at the center of the
planetoid, ten miles down. Geedeh directed most of the work. Nick and
I saw that orders were carried out, swearing, sweating, and making
speeches intended to inspire.

And then the trouble started.

A rocket, bringing in food, and money to pay our crews, blew up in
space, just as it was coming close. The light of the blast was blinding
and awesome, making even the bright stars seem to vanish for a moment.
Atomic rocket fuel going up. Gobs of molten metal dripped groundward,
like real meteors heated in an atmosphere which still didn't exist.

It could have been an accident. You can't always control titanic atomic
power, and space ships fly to pieces quite frequently. But then I had a
suspicion that maybe this wasn't an accident.

Nick and I were in the open plain to see it happen. He'd just come from
the airtight barracks we'd built. His face didn't change much behind
the quartz crystal of his oxygen helmet--it only sobered a trifle.
While the fiery wreckage of the rocket was still falling in shreds and
fragments, he spoke, his voice clicking in my receptor phones:

"Yeah, Chet.... And there's trouble on asteroid 439, too, where our
mines are located. I just got the radio message, back at the office.
Sabotage, and some men killed. It seems that some of the workmen are
trying to break things up for us. Harley's in charge. I think he can
handle matters--for a while."

"I hope so," I answered fervently. "If the work only turns out right at
this end. With that ship smashed, we'll be on short rations for a week.
And we've lost some important machinery. The pay money's insured, but
the men won't like the delay."

I didn't expect much trouble from the crew--yet. It was Irene that
really helped the most--mastered the situation. She'd taken over the
management of the kitchens since the start of the work.

But now she had an additional job. She talked to that rough crew of
ours. "We're going to win, boys!" she told them. "We know what we've
got to do: Our task is for the good of every one of us--and for many
people yet to come!"

Simple, straightforward, inspiring talk. Funny what men will do for
a pretty girl--against hell itself. But that wasn't all of it. The
paintings of hers, that she'd hung in our recreation room, showed what
asteroid 487 _could_ be, when we were finished with it.

Space men are the toughest kind of adventurers that ever lived. But
adventurers are always optimists, sentimentalists, romanticists, no
matter how hard the exterior. And space men, by the very nature of the
appalling region to which they belong, believe in miracles.

       *       *       *       *       *

They cheered the thought--most of those tough men. I cheered, too. But
the miracle hadn't happened yet, and in the back of my mind, there
was always the fear that it wouldn't happen. Those crags were still
bleak and star-washed. Deader than any tomb! It wasn't an impossible
wonder--technically--to change all this. But perhaps it was impossible,
anyway--because of Norman Haynes! He was the only person who had the
power and the reason to stop all that we were attempting. The sabotage
and killings must be incited by him--certain members of our crews must
be in his hire. Quite probably the rocket that had blown up had been
secretly mined with explosive, under his orders, too.

But there is nothing harder to fight than those subtle methods. We had
no proof, and no easy means of getting it. We could only go on with
our task. Geedeh and the rest of us worked hopefully. One segment of
asteroid 487, had been part of the surface of that old world that had
exploded. From here we spread the dry soil over the planetoid's jagged
terrain, drawing it in atom trucks. More soil was brought in from other
asteroids. The great rock-roasting furnaces were put up. Gypsum was
heated in them, releasing its water in great clouds of steam, which
the artificial gravity kept from drifting off into space. Some of the
water, under electrolysis, yielded oxygen. Nitrogen came from nitrates.

Our gravity machine needed readjustments now and then. To a large
extent, the thousands of parts that composed it were electrical. Great
coils converted magnetic force into gravitation.

One ship reached us all right, bringing seeds and food. Another didn't.
It blew up in space, the second to go. Then somebody tried to get
Geedeh, the Martian, with a heat ray. Another food ship failed to
arrive.

Then Norman Haynes came to visit us. He landed before we had a chance
to refuse to receive him. He had a body-guard of a dozen men. He was
our enemy, but we couldn't prove it. He seemed to have forgotten the
little brush between himself and me, at his office.

"Splendid layout you've got, Wallace and Mavrocordatus!" he said to
Nick and me, pronouncing Nick's name perfectly. He sounded very much
like his usual self. "Of course there's bound to be difficulties.
Trouble with crews, and so on. It's hard to get people to believe in
a project as fantastic as this. I didn't quite believe in it, either,
at first. But the facts are proved, now that the groundwork is laid.
You'll need help, fellows. I can give it to you."

He was smiling, but under the smile I could see a snaky smirk, which
probably he didn't know showed. I felt fury rising inside me. He was
trying to get control of our project, now that he saw for sure that it
could amount to something. Competition he feared, but if he had control
he could enforce his high prices, keep his empire, and expand his
wealth by millions of dollars. His dirty work must have been partly an
attempt to force the issue.

"Thanks," Nick told him quietly. "But we prefer to do everything alone."

Our visitor shrugged, standing there at the door of his space boat.
"Okay," he breezed. "Get in touch with me, if you feel you need me!"

Some hours later, a radiogram came through from Earth.
"_Congratulations!_" it read. "_Stick to your guns! I like people with
imagination. Maybe I'll be back in harness soon myself.--Art Haynes._"

       *       *       *       *       *

"He's probably just being sarcastic," I said bitterly.

"Old devil!" Pa Mavrocordatus growled.

Two men were killed just thirty minutes after the message was received.
A little thin-faced fellow named Sparr did it. But he got away in a
space boat before we could catch him. A paid killer and trouble maker.

The incident put our crew more on edge than before. A half dozen of the
newcomers--mechanics from Earth--quit abruptly. Our food was almost
gone. We got another shipload in, but the growing unrest didn't abate,
though we kept on for another month. There was similar trouble on 439,
where the Mavrocordatus money came from. But maybe we'd make the grade,
anyway.

We had a pretty dense atmosphere already, on Paradise Asteroid. The
black sky had turned blue now. The ground was moist with water. Earthly
buildings were going up. Pa Mavrocordatus had had seeds and small trees
and things planted. It was that deceptive moment of success, before the
real blow came.

After sunset one night, I heard shots. I raced out of the barracks,
Geedeh, Irene, and Pa Mavrocordatus following me. We all carried blast
tubes.

We found Nick in a gorge, his body half burned through, just above his
right hip. But he was still alive. He had a blast tube in one hand.
Two men lay on the rocks and earth in front of him, dead. Beside them,
glinting in our flashlight beams, was an aluminum cylinder.

"It's a bacteria culture container, Chet," Nick whispered. "They had me
caught, and they bragged a little before I did some fast moving, and
got one of their blast tubes. Venutian Black-Rot germs. They were going
to dump them in the drinking water supply. They mentioned--Haynes...."

Nick couldn't say much more than that. But he'd saved our lives. He
died there in my arms, a hero to progress, a little breeze in the new
atmosphere he'd helped to create rumpling his curly hair. He'd died for
his dream of beauty and betterment.

Poor little Irene couldn't even cry. Her face was white, and she was
stricken mute. Her pa was shaken by great sobs, and he babbled threats.
I told him to shut up. Geedeh cursed in his own language, his voice a
soft, deadly hiss, his little fists clenching and unclenching.

"Too bad Nick had to kill these men!" I growled. "We could have made
'em talk. We'd have evidence. The law would take care of Norman
Haynes!"

"But we ain't got nothing!" Pa Mavrocordatus groaned. "Nothing!"

Geedeh's face was twisted into a Martian snarl of hate. Irene stared,
as though she were somewhere far away. I tried putting my arm around
her, to bring her back to us. It was a minute before she seemed to
realize I was there.

"Irene," I said. "I love you. We all love you. Buck up, kid. We can't
quit now--ever! We'd be letting Nick down."

She just nodded. She couldn't talk.

       *       *       *       *       *

A couple of hours later I was meeting our workers in our office. Most
of them tried to be decent about it. "We'd like to stick, Wallace. But
how can we? Nothing to eat...." That was what most of them said, in one
way or another.

And how could I answer them?

Some were not so regretful, of course. Some were downright ugly. A
little crazy with space perhaps, or else hopped up with propaganda that
secret agents in Haynes' hire had been spreading among them.

"Why should we work for you anyway?" they snarled. "Even for good
money, most of which we haven't collected? You're probably like what
we're used to. Just fixing up another place here, to clip us in the
end, charging us prices sky high. Your 'Paradise' is just a little
fancier, that's all."

So they turned away, and the exodus began. The freight ships blasted
off, one by one, with loads of men. We couldn't stop them. And soon the
silence closed in. We were left alone to bury Nick. The small sun was
bright on the rough pinnacles, and their naked grey stone was bluely
murky in the new air. There was a humid warmth of summer around us.

Just then, I didn't even feel exactly angry, in the blackness of
failure, Norman Haynes had won, so far. What would be his next step in
completing our final defeat?

I spent some time in the office, going over records. Presently Pa
Mavrocordatus came rushing from the barracks. His whole fat body
sagged, as he paused before me. His face was like paste. He didn't seem
quite alive.

"Irene," he croaked. "She's gone ... too...."

I ran with him to her quarters. There was some disorder. A picture of
her mother was tipped over on a little metal dressing table. A rug was
rumpled, and there was some clothing scattered on the floor. That was
all.

Geedeh had entered her quarters, too. "Kidnapped," he hissed.

What Haynes meant to accomplish by having his agents, carry off Irene,
I couldn't imagine. The hate I felt blurred all but the thought of
getting her back to safety. The urge was like a dagger-point, sharp and
clear in the chaos of memories. I knew how much she meant to me now.

"I need a rocket," I said quietly. "The fastest we've got. I want to
radio the Space Patrol, too."

"There are no ships left here," Geedeh returned. "The men took them
all, except a little flier, which they meant us to have. But somebody
has smashed it. Our big radio transmitter is smashed, also."

A minute later I was clawing in the wreckage of tubes and wires, there
in the radio room. The apparatus was completely beyond repair. For the
time being we were helpless, stranded on our asteroid. For a moment
I felt little shouts of madness shrieking in my brain. But Geedeh's
stabbing glance warned me that this was not the way. I fought back, out
of that flash of mania.

"We'd better break out all of our weapons, Geedeh," I said. "Haynes has
gone too deep to back out now. He's in danger of the Patrol if we talk,
so he'll have to strike at us soon."

Thus we prepared ourselves as well as we could, for attack. Geedeh,
Pa Mavrocordatus, and I. We equipped ourselves with our best
armament--atomic rifles. Pa Mavrocordatus had gotten over most of his
confusion. He was still sick with grief, but necessity seemed to have
steadied him. He clutched his rifle grimly as we took up positions
behind rock masses at the edge of the landing field.


                                  III

We waited silently. The asteroid turned on its axis. The brief night
came. Then we saw the rockets approaching--flaming in on shreds of
blue-white rocket fire. As the two ships slowed for a landing, the
three of us discharged a volley.

Our atomic bullets burst on impact, dazzling in the dark. The
concussion was terrific.

"Got one!" I heard Pa Mavrocordatus shout after a moment, his voice
thin through the ringing in my ears. My dazzled eyes saw one ship lying
on its side on the landing field, its meteor armor unpunctured by our
small missiles, but with its landing rockets damaged. The other ship
had grounded itself perfectly.

We were ready to fire again, when the paralytic waves swept over us.
I saw Geedeh half rise, doubling backward in a rigid spasm, his rifle
flying wide.

Then I knew no more, until I heard Norman Haynes speaking to us. We
were bound firmly, and it was daylight again, and our captor and his
score of henchmen were smirking.

"I'm just trying to figure out how to make your deaths seem as
accidental as possible," Haynes said, looking at me. "A couple of men
of mine seem to have bungled a little business of bacteria. Maybe
they blabbed before you fellows killed them. Now, of course, I can't
take any chances. Too bad your reconditioned asteroid has to appear a
failure for a while. But I can't let my taking over seem too obvious.
Have to wait a while. I may be able to start up something here later,
when people sort of forget."

"What have you done with Irene?" I stormed blackly.

Haynes' look was quizzical. "Why ask me?" he answered. "She probably
ran off with one of your roustabouts. Or else they decided that she'd
be nice company to have around, and made her go along."

He laughed cynically. Maybe he was telling the truth about not knowing
where Irene was. But if this was true, it didn't make me feel much
better. If some of his gang, who'd been working with us, had kidnapped
her, there was no telling how badly she'd fare.

My fears showed on my face, and Norman Haynes seemed to enjoy them,
though he was nervous, dangerously so. It was getting daylight again,
now. He kept glancing at the sky, twiddling his soft hands. He didn't
like physical danger.

"Your gravity generator seems to be the answer to my prayers, Wallace,"
he informed me. "At full force it'll develop at least fifty Earth
gravities, before breaking down and melting itself. We've inspected it.
Power like that'll destroy all of you. It will look like an accident--a
breakdown of the machinery."

Though Pa Mavrocordatus kept cursing Haynes continuously, and Geedeh
kept calling him names that no Earthman could have translated into our
less vitriolic English, our captor paid them no attention. He kept
directing his threats at me. That was how I knew he was still thinking
of the time in his office at Enterprize, when I'd called him by his
true colors. He still held that grudge, and he meant to pay me back
with fifty gravities. Which means that every pound of Earth-weight
would be increased to fifty pounds! In a grip like that a man as big as
me would weigh a good four tons!

That meant a heart stopped by the load of the blood it tried to pump,
and tissues crushed by their own weight! Like being on the surface of
some dead star of medium dimensions, where gravity is terrific!

       *       *       *       *       *

At Haynes' order, six of his twenty henchmen picked up Geedeh and Pa
and me. The whole bunch was an ugly looking lot, the scum of the space
ports. Some of these men were commanded to stay on the surface of the
planetoid, while we were carried to the elevator shed. In the cage we
descended at dizzying speed to that vault at the center of 487 where
the gravity machinery was housed in its crystal shell. At that depth,
under the load of the column of air above, the atmospheric pressure was
very high. One could not breathe comfortably in that stuffy medium.

"Courage!" Geedeh gasped to Pa Mavrocordatus and me, while his great
eyes kept roving around, looking for some chance that wasn't there.

Haynes began to examine the machinery. He was smirking again. "Simple
to do!" he said to his companions. "Set the robot control for gradually
increasing power, so that we'll have time to get away. Break the manual
controls, so that no readjustments can be made. You can cut our friends
loose now, Zinder, so there won't be any ropes to show this was a
put-up job. But keep your blasters on these men--all of you!"

This was the end, all right. I was sure of it. I'd die without even
knowing what had happened to Irene. Irene, whom I knew now that I
loved....

We'd been freed of our bonds when the surface phone rang. The lookout
party, whom Haynes had left above, was calling. Our captor snapped on
the switch of the speaker. A voice boomed in that busy cavern of metal
giants, green light, and glinting crystal:

"Listen, Chief! There's a bunch of specks to the right of the sun.
They're getting bigger fast. Must be a flock of space ships. Couldn't
be any of yours. What'll we do?"

I saw Haynes' weak features go sallow. Briefly my spirits rose. I
couldn't imagine whom those ships could belong to. But they must be
rescuers of some kind. They were coming to stop Norman Haynes' madness.

But Haynes was clever, as he quickly proved. "Friends of Wallace here,
I suppose. Maybe even Space Patrol boats," he said over his phone to
the lookout party. "You'll all have to take a discomfort for a while.
We'll use gravity on them, too! They'll never land successfully."

Pa Mavrocordatus looked at me and Geedeh. "What's he mean--use gravity?"

Geedeh was a bit quicker than I in giving the obvious answer. "Just
as with us," he said. "Increase the output of the gravity generator
here to a certain degree. From space, the increase will be practically
unnoticeable. The rockets will try to land--but without taking into
consideration the multiplied attractive force, they will crash!"

"Many birds with one stone!" Haynes chuckled gleefully. "You will
have a short reprieve, friends, while I take care of these intruders,
whoever they are. I can't use too great a gravity on them at first. It
might warn them, if they notice that their ships are accelerating too
rapidly. They might as well be part of my 'accident', even if they do
happen to be police. The Space Patrol has accidents now and then, just
like anybody else!"

Haynes started to work the manual controls of the generator. The
area in which he and his several aides stood, was shielded against
the greater attraction, having been thus arranged by us for testing
purposes. The shrill hum of the machines grew louder.

I felt the weight of my prone body increase suffocatingly. The
heat increased too, as the great coils, gleaming in the glow of
illuminators, gradually absorbed more power. And I knew that, out in
space, those slender fingers of force were reaching and strengthening,
invisible and treacherous. Our unknown friends were doomed.

Not only were they doomed, but our whole idea was destined to failure.
The dream that Nick had died for. The vast progress that it meant.
Worlds out here--worlds with largely a self-sufficient production--real
colonization. Fair play. Norman Haynes would resist all that, because
progress would weaken his power here. He was master of the asteroids,
because he was master of their imports and exports. And unless he
could control the rejuvenated asteroids himself, they would never be.
With him directing, they would not represent a real improvement--only
another means of robbing from the colonists. And colonists weren't rich.

I could see those same thoughts, that gouged savagely into my own
brain, burning in Geedeh's cat eyes, where he sprawled near me. Being
a Martian, born to a lesser gravity than the terrestrial, he was
suffering more than I--physically. But perhaps my mental torture was
worse. Geedeh was Irene's friend, but I loved her. She was gone--lost
somewhere--maybe dead. That, for me, was the worst--much worse than
that crushing weight.

I couldn't let things remain the way they were! My seething fury and
need lashed me on, even in my helplessness. God--what could I do? I
tried to figure something out. Could I break the gravity machinery some
way? Impossible, now, certainly!

I tried to remember my high school physics. Principles that might be
used to give warning signals, and so forth. And just what that awful
gravity would do to things.

Close to me was the base of the domelike crystal shell that covered
the gravity generator. It wasn't a vital part, certainly, just stout
quartz. But it was the only thing I could reach. As I lay there on the
floor, I drew my foot back, doubling my knee. I stamped down against
the quartz with all my strength. The first blow cracked it. The second
drove my metal-shod boot-heel through with a crashing sound. A small
hole, eighteen inches long, was made in the barrier. The sounds of the
great machinery went on as before. The gravity kept slowly increasing.
Geedeh, suffering more, now, looked at me puzzledly. Pa Mavrocordatus
stared anxiously. And Norman Haynes at the surface phone laughed
unpleasantly.

"Cracking up, eh, Wallace?" he sneered. "I know who your would-be
helpers on those space ships are, now. I suppose I should be surprised
at their identities. They're calling to you. Want to listen? My men
above have locked this surface phone to our ship radio."

[Illustration: _"Cracking up, eh, Wallace?" Norman Haynes sneered._]

He turned up the volume of the reproducer.

Irene's voice was the first in the speaker. "Chet!" she was urging.
"Chet Wallace! Pa! Geedeh! Do you hear me? I left 487 of my own free
will. I couldn't waste time, going to the Space Patrol for help--they'd
want proof, and that would take a while to present. So--there was only
one person and I thought you'd mistrust him.... Why don't you answer?
Or have you left 487 too? I'm turning the mike over to somebody else,
now. I found him on Enterprize, just come from Earth, Mr. Arthur
Haynes...."


                                  IV

I gasped, listening to Irene. I didn't know what surprised and confused
me most--her being alive and safe, or what she'd done about old Art
Haynes. Could I trust old Art? I had no way of telling. Had Irene
told him about his nephew, or had she kept silent? Did he know he was
opposed to Norman Haynes, or did he think it was somebody else who had
sabotaged the project? Where would his loyalties be, if he found out?
It was a ticklish situation.

As soon as Irene's ragged, excited breathing died away in the speaker,
Norman Haynes took it upon himself to clarify his own stand, and my
uncertainties. He looked at Geedeh and Pa and me, tense and suffering
in the grip of the gravity, and tortured with doubt.

"Uncle Art is an old fool," he said. "So he thinks he'll come back to
the asteroids, and replace me in the business, does he? Well, he should
have died long ago, and now is as good a time as any! He might as well
be part of the accident, too, along with those space bums of yours.
Nobody'll ever know!"

It was tragic that old Art couldn't have heard that. But his nephew
wasn't broadcasting. He was just listening quietly. And now his uncle's
voice was coming through:

"We're blasting in to land, Wallace, if you're listening. There won't
be any more trouble, now. I'll see to that! We'll find out who's back
of this sabotage. We'll put an end to it!"

For me it was bitter, black irony--old Art proving himself our friend,
now! He didn't know his enemy. He was nearly ninety--a grim old
fighter, with real vision. Irene too, who meant everything to me. She
didn't know that with the intensified gravity those incoming ships
would be smashed and blazing!

My mind was growing a bit dim in the strangling pressure of
the artificial gravitation. Sweat was streaming from me in the
smothering heat that added to the oppressiveness of the heavy air. Pa
Mavrocordatus was groaning the name of his daughter. Geedeh's great
eyes were fixed on me in helpless suffering.

Through the shrill sounds of the engines I listened for more words
from Irene and old Art. But none came. They must know their doom by
now. They must be fighting savagely and hopelessly to get away. Still
some distance from 487, they were already caught, deep in the web of
invisible force.

After some moments, I heard a distant crash, a roll of sound. What was
it? A huge rocket, hitting the jagged crags above, at meteoric speed?
Crumpling, destroying itself and those inside it? I thought my heart
would burst with the added weight of my anxiety.

The first crash was only the beginning. Others followed in quick
succession--inexorably. And there was a faint, far-off roar, coming
down from ten miles above.

And that roar was the roar of titanic rain. Of floods of water coming
down this shaft, where the gravity machine was! All the countless tons
of water that we'd baked from ancient rocks, and which had been mostly
suspended as vapor in our synthetic atmosphere, was condensing now,
coming down in torrents!

       *       *       *       *       *

Norman Haynes kept grinning satanically, while he and his aides
attended to the gravity machine. Triumph showed in his eyes. But
presently he began to look puzzled, as that soughing roar that
accompanied the crashing din, increased. It was a little early for the
space ships to be smashing up, anyway.

I could feel a grim smile coming over my lips, against my will. Had my
guesses and hopes, which had seemed so unsubstantial, been correct?
Norman Haynes was glancing doubtfully at the reproducer. I could see
that he was wondering why his surface watchers didn't communicate any
more--and tell him what was happening up there on the crust of 487.

I knew the answers, now! Geedeh did, too. The excitement of knowledge
was in his withered, pain-wracked face. Those distant crashes were not
what I'd feared they might be, but part of what I'd hoped for. They
were gigantic thunder-claps--the noise of terrific lightning bolts!
Norman Haynes had made a simple oversight in his plan to destroy those
incoming space craft. There was a fearsome electrical storm going on
above--one of inconceivable proportions--utterly beyond the Earthly!
Doubtless all of Norman Haynes' surface watchers, up above, had been
killed by that sudden deluge of electricity! The multiplied gravitation
up there, had pinned them down, so that they could neither escape, nor
warn their chief!

Before Norman Haynes understood what was happening, foam-flecked muddy
water was at the door of the machinery room, rushing and gurgling past
the threshold! He and his helpers stared at it stupidly, and I laughed
at them.

"You didn't realize it, did you, Haynes?" I grunted. "You didn't
realize that increased gravity would increase the weight of the
atmosphere, as well as of everything else! And increased weight of
the air, means increased atmospheric pressure, too, pushing molecules
together, creating greater density. And what happens? Go back to your
high school physics, Haynes! It's like when you store air in the tank
of a compressor pump. The moisture in it liquifies. And in the case
of an atmosphere as big as 487 has now, static electricity would be
suddenly and violently condensed, besides."

Norman Haynes stared at me, stunned with consternation. But his
recovery was fairly prompt. His sudden sneer had a rattish desperation.
"Hell," he said. "Just a thunder storm. A lot of rain. What of it? The
gravity machine still works. The ships will still be destroyed."

I knew that that was true--unless what I'd planned happened. Those
rockets, manned by our old construction crew, and Irene, and old Art
Haynes, had been too close to asteroid 487 for the last couple of
minutes, to effect an escape, even if the sudden dark clouds had warned
them that something dangerous was afoot.

"Watch this--Haynes," Geedeh panted, and it was hard for the acting
head of the Haynes Shipping Company to guess what the little Martian
meant, at first.

       *       *       *       *       *

Under the pull of that terrific gravity, the water was coming into that
room like an avalanche. Geedeh and Pa and I were floundering in it
feebly, held to the floor by that awful weight. I was sure we'd drown.
But as we coughed and sputtered, the flood found its way through the
hole I'd kicked, low down in the side of the crystal dome that covered
that gigantic machinery. There was a flash of electrical flame, as the
water interfered with the functioning of the apparatus.

It was pandemonium, then. Every man for himself. Geedeh, the scientist,
and I, who, under the force of grim need, had somehow contrived to plan
this finale, had the advantage of knowledge. We'd figured out a little
of what to do.

The gravity winked off suddenly--reaching the low of practically
nothing, here at the center of this tiny world, whose normal
attraction, even at the surface, was very small. We struggled to our
feet, in a muddy swirl that was now a yard in depth. But before we
could take advantage of our sudden lightness, and leap clear, the
gravity machines gave a last gasp of power, and we were pulled down
again, smothering. Then, with a grating roar, the apparatus stopped.
The bedlam ceased, except for a low whine of expanding atmosphere, and
screams from Haynes and his men.

Presently, I felt all hell stabbing through me. My ears rang as
with the after effects of some colossal explosion. My whole body
ached. I clutched at Geedeh, who seemed on the point of collapse. Pa
Mavrocordatus managed to help me....

But strained by gravity vastly stronger than that of Mars, and now
facing a circumstance even more dangerous, tough little Geedeh still
had his wits, fortunately for us all. He pointed to an airtight crystal
cage at one edge of the chamber. The cage was necessary in routine
testing of the machinery here, which called for variations in the
output of the gravity generators, and consequent great variations in
air pressure.

"Inside the cage--all of us!" Geedeh squeaked. "Quickly! Bends!..."

Do you know what the air pressure is, at the bottom of a ten-mile
shaft, even at normal Earth gravity? Yeah, something pretty high! Then
you can imagine what it had just been like, here, at six or seven
gravities! But when the generators had quit entirely, there had been
that sudden loss of weight in the air, sudden expansion, thinning, loss
of pressure!

The three of us got inside the cage, and sealed the door. I spun
valves. There was a hiss of entering atmosphere, and the pressure rose
again, far above the norm of sea-level, on Earth. I felt better at
once, but I knew it had been a close call.

We looked out at Norman Haynes and his henchmen. They weren't drowning,
now. Tottering, they stood with their heads well above the flood. It
was something else that was killing them. Not suffocation, either.
Their faces were bloated and congested in the glow of illuminators.
Their bodies seemed to swell.

Norman Haynes raised his blast tube, as did several of the others,
trying to fire at the crystal shelter where we had taken refuge. Norman
Haynes must have known his failure, then. Why had it happened. How we
had won. It may be that he even realized some justice in his hideous
punishment. He had tried to obstruct progress and fair play.

The blast tube dropped from his fingers. He opened his mouth to shriek
in his agony. But dark blood gushed forth, and, with his henchmen, he
toppled back into the water.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Bends!" Geedeh said again. "Haynes had a worse case of bends than any
deep-sea diver ever experienced."

The flood had almost stopped, now, outside the cage. We waited.
Vengeance was complete. And it wasn't quite as satisfying as I might
once have thought.

Presently they were with us. Irene. And old Art--proving that the
Haynes name was still great, even though one who bore it had soiled it
some. We emerged from our sealed cage, after the pressure around us was
gradually lowered to normal.

"I didn't think it was Norman who was guilty," old Art breathed sadly
when he spoke to us. "I knew he was high-handed, but I didn't realize
it was as bad as it was. I guess Norman got what he deserved," he
finished, and there were tears in his heavy voice.

We went to the surface in the elevator. We needed space suits again,
up there, with the air as expanded as it was. A lot of the atmosphere
was leaking away from 487, being held down only by the tiny natural
gravity. But there was nothing that couldn't be repaired and replaced.

"We must have pumps rigged to draw the water out of the vault, so that
we can dry and repair the gravity machinery, and start it again,"
Geedeh stated.

We started again, almost as we had done at the first, for quite a
bit of the air and water had been whisked into space. We lived in
space-suits for days, rebuilding and repairing the damaged machinery.
Then with the aid of Art Haynes, and with extended credit now that our
plans were made fully known and approved, we imported machinery to pump
the water from the vault.

We hired specialists to come in, each of them with a trained crew of
men to do the work that our old crews lacked the technical skill to do.
Slowly, our planet of hope grew again, and there were bulletins sent
through the asteroid belt that workers were wanted again on Paradise
Asteroid.

The specialists left, replaced by the crews that had worked on the
asteroid before. With unlimited credit, our great freighting ships
piled materials in regular formation, and the returning crews set their
ships down on the landing fields, the men pouring eagerly forth, ready
to set up the buildings that would be the nucleus of another Earth in
space.

With our old crews returned, it took about a hundred hours to
accomplish this. Asteroid 487 was almost the same as before the final
trouble with Norman Haynes, now, except that the air was a little
thinner. But that could be quickly taken care of. Pa Mavrocordatus
was working with his vineyards and trees, and his tomato and cabbage
patches, again. The big trouble was all finished, now. The dream was
coming true. A little Earth, fresh and green, for tired miners of the
Path of Minor Planets. Space madness could never be so common now. And
cheap, fresh products would be theirs.


                                   V

Irene and I walked in the warm night. The crews were whooping it up
in the lighted barracks. Somebody was playing a harmonica. The stars
were brilliant, and there were a thousand things to think of. How
we'd all struggled. How Nick Mavrocordatus, had dreamed and worked
and died. How once the asteroids had been a planet, with almost human
inhabitants, dreaming, planning, struggling, too. Their rock carvings
were everywhere.

"It's the beginning, Chet," Irene whispered. "Asteroid 487 is the
first. But there'll be others--other small, beautiful, living planets.
There's a lot of work to be done. And when it's all finished that will
be almost unfortunate--too tame."

I knew what she meant. She was pioneer stuff, just as all of us were.
The greatness of life was in its battles. On and on, to vaster and
vaster heights. That was what had driven us into the interplanetary
void in the first place.

I kissed her. "Don't worry, Honey," I said. "There's no end to it. No
point of final stagnation. It goes on and on. There'll always be a
frontier--something bigger to reach and conquer...."

And we looked up in awe toward the infinite stars.





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