Asteroid of Fear


10. Neely Lost His Pride

For a little while then, he had to be hard. He thrust another tomato toward Neely, at the same time directing a thin stream from the blaster just past the big nose. Neely ate six more tomatoes with a will, his eyes popping, sweat streaming down his forehead.

Endlich's next blaster-stream barely missed Neely's booted toe. The persuasive shot was worth fifty-five more dollars in garden fruit consumed. The crowd gave with mock cheers and bravos, and demanded more action.

"That makes thirty-two.... Come on, Neely--that's just a good start. You got a long, long ways to go.... Come on, Pun'kins--bet you can stuff fifty into him...."

To goad Neely on in this ludicrous and savage game, Endlich next just scorched the metal at Neely's shoulder. It isn't to be said that Endlich didn't enjoy his revenge--for all the anguish and real danger that Neely had caused him. But as this fierce yet childish sport went on, and the going turned really rough for the big asteroid miner, Endlich's anger began to be mixed with self-disgust. He'd always be a hot-tempered guy; he couldn't help that. But now, satisfaction, and a hopeful glimpse of peace ahead, burned the fury out of him and touched him with shame. Still, for a little more, he had to go on. Again and again, as before, he used that blaster. But, as he did so, he talked, ramblingly, knowing that the audience, too, would hear what he said. Maybe, in a way, it was a lecture; but he couldn't help that:

"Have another tomato, Neely. Sorry to do things like this--but it's your own way. So why should you complain? Funny, ain't it? A man can get even too many tomatoes. Civilized tomatoes. Part of something most guys around here have been homesick for, for a long time.... Maybe that's what has been most of the trouble out here in the asteroids. Not enough civilization. On Earth we were used to certain standards--in spite of being rough enough there, too. Here, the traces got kicked over. But on this side of Vesta, an idea begins to soak in: This used to be nice country--blue sky, trees growing. Some of that is coming back, Neely. And order with it. Because, deep in our guts, that's what we all want. And fresh vegetables'll help.... Have another tomato, Neely. Or should we call it enough, guys?"

Endlich's voice was steely ... "Sorry to do things like this--but it's your way!"

"Neely, you ain't gonna quit now?" somebody guffawed. "You're doin' almost good. Haw-haw!"

Neely's face was purple. His eyes were bloodshot. His mouth hung partly open. "Gawd--no--please!" he croaked.

An embarrassed hush fell over the crowd. Back home on Earth, they had all been more-or-less average men. Finally someone said, expressing the intrusion among them of the better dignity of man:

"Aw--let the poor dope go...."

Then and there, John Endlich sold what was left of his first bushel of tomatoes. One of his customers--the once loud-mouthed Schmidt--even said, rather stiffly, "Pun'kins--you're all right."

And these guys were the real roughnecks of the mining camp.

Is it necessary to mention that, as they were leaving, Neely lost his pride completely, soiling the inside of his helmet's face-window so that he could scarcely see out of it? That, amid the raucous laughter of his companions, which still sounded slightly self-conscious and pitying. Thus Alf Neely sank at last to the level of helpless oblivion and nonentity.

A week of Vestal days later, in the afternoon, Rose and the kids came to John Endlich, who was toiling over his cucumbers.

"Their name is Harper, Pop!" Bubs shouted.

"And they've got three children!" Evelyn added.

John Endlich, straightened, shaking a kink out of his tired back. "Who?" he questioned.

"The people who are going to be our new neighbors, Johnny," Rose said happily. "We just picked up the news on the radio--from their ship, which is approaching from space right now! I hope they're nice folks. And, Johnny--there used to be country schools with no more than five pupils...."

"Sure," John Endlich said.

Something felt warm around his heart. Leave it to a woman to think of a school--the symbol of civilization, marching now across the void. John Endlich thought of the trouble at the mining camp, which his first load of fresh vegetables, picked up by a small space boat, had perhaps helped to end. He thought of the relics in this strange land. Things that were like legends of a lost pastoral beauty. Things that could come back. The second family of homesteaders was almost here. Endlich was reconciled to domesticity. He felt at home; he felt proud.

Bees buzzed near him. A tay-tay bug from a perished era, hummed and scraped out a mournful sound.

"I wonder if the Harper kids'll call you Mr. Pun'kins, Pop," Bubs remarked. "Like the miners still do."

John Endlich laughed. But somehow he was prouder than ever. Maybe the name would be a legend, too. (End)