Asteroid of Fear


3. Water Found

The kids continued to jabber--more excitedly now than before. "Pop! Mom!" Bubs urged. "Let's go look inside them buildings! Maybe the things are still there! The people, I mean. All black and dried up, like the one in the showcase at school; four tentacles they had instead of arms and legs, the teacher said!"

"Sure! Let's go!" Evelyn joined in. "I'm not scared to!"

Yeah, kids' tastes could be pretty gruesome. When you thought most that you had to shelter them from horror, they were less bothered by it than you were. John Endlich's lips made a sour line.

"Stay here, the pair of you!" Rose ordered.

"Aw--Mom--" Evelyn began to protest.

"You heard me the first time," their mother answered. John Endlich moved to the great box, which had come with them from Earth. The nervous tension that tore at him--unpleasant and chilling, driving him toward straining effort--was more than the result of the shameful and embarrassing memory of his very recent trouble with Alf Neely and Companions, and the certainty of more trouble to come from that source. For there was another and even worse enemy. Endlich knew what it was--

The awful silence.

He still looked shamefaced and furious; but now he felt a gentler sharing of circumstances. "We'll let the snooping go till later, kids," he growled. "Right now we gotta do what we gotta do--"

The youngsters seemed to join up with his mood. As he tore the pinchbar, which had been conveniently attached to the side of the box, free of its staples, and proceeded to break out supplies, their whimsical musings fell close to what he was thinking.

"Vesta," Evelyn said. "They told us at school--remember? Vesta was the old Roman goddess of hearth and home. Funny--hunh--Dad?"

Bubs' fancy was vivid, too. "Look, Pop!" he said again, pointing to a ribbon of what might be concrete, cracked and crumpled as by a terrific quake, curving away toward the hills, and the broken mountains beyond. "That was a road! Can't you almost hear some kinda cars and trucks goin' by?"

John Endlich's wife, helping him open the great box, also had things to say, in spite of the worry showing in her face. She touched the dessicated soil with a gauntleted hand. "Johnny," she remarked wonderingly. "You can see the splash-marks of the last rain that ever fell here--"

"Yeah," Endlich growled without any further comment. Inside himself, he was fighting the battle of lost things. The blue sky. The shifting beauty of clouds in sunshine. The warm whisper of wind in trees. The rattle of traffic. The babble of water. The buzz of insects. The smell of flowers. The sight of grass waving.... In short, all the evidences of life.

"A lot of things that was here once, we'll bring back, won't we, Pop?" Bubs questioned with astonishing maturity.

"Hope so," John Endlich answered, keeping his doubts hidden behind gruffness. Maybe it was a grim joke that here and now every force in himself was concentrated on substantial objectives--to the exclusion of his defects. The drive in him was to end the maddening silence, and to rub out the mood of harsh barrenness, and his own aching homesickness, by struggling to bring back a little beauty of scenery, and a little of living motion. It was a civilized urge, a home-building urge, maybe a narrow urge. But how could anybody stand being here very long, unless such things were done? If they ever could be. Maybe, willfully, he had led himself into a grimmer trap than it had even seemed to be--or than he had ever wanted....

Inside his space suit, he had begun to sweat furiously. And it was more because of the tension of his nerves than because of the vigor with which he plied his pinchbar, doing the first task which had to be done. Steel ribbons were snapped, nails were yanked silently from the great box, boards were jerked loose.

In another minute John Endlich and his wife were setting up an airtight tent, which, when the time came, could be inflated from compressed-air bottles. They worked somewhat awkwardly, for their instruction period had been brief, and they were green; but the job was speedily finished. The first requirement--shelter--was assured.

Digging again into the vast and varied contents of the box, John Endlich found some things he had not expected--a fine rifle, a pistol and ammunition. At which moment an ironic imp seemed to sit on his shoulder, and laugh derisively. Umhm-m--the Asteroids Homesteaders Office had filled these boxes according to a precise survey of the needs of a peaceful settler on Vesta.

It was like Bubs, with the inquisitiveness of a seven-year-old, to ask: "What did they think we needed guns for, when they knew there was no rabbits to shoot at?"

"I guess they kind of suspected there'd be guys like Alf Neely, son," John Endlich answered dryly. "Even if they didn't tell us about it."

The next task prescribed by the Homesteaders' School was to secure a supply of air and water in quantity. Again, following the instructions they had received, the Endlichs uncrated and set up an atom-driven drill. In an hour it had bored to a depth of five-hundred feet. Hauling up the drill, Endlich lowered an electric heating unit on a cable from an atomic power-cell, and then capped the casing pipe.

Yes, strangely enough there was still sufficient water beneath the surface of Vesta. Its parent planet, like the Earth, had had water in its crust, that could be tapped by means of wells. And so suddenly had Vesta been chilled in the cold of space at the time of the parent body's explosion, that this water had not had a chance to dissipate itself as vapor into the void, but had been frozen solid. The drying soil above it had formed a tough shell, which had protected the ice beneath from disappearance through sublimation...

Drill down to it, melt it with heat, and it was water again, ready to be pumped and put to use.

And water, by electrolysis, was also an easy source of oxygen to breathe.... The soil, once thawed over a few acres, would also yield considerable nitrogen and carbon dioxide--the makings of many cubic meters of atmosphere. The A.H.O. survey expeditions, here on Vesta and on other similar asteroids which were crustal chips of the original planet, had done their work well, pathfinding a means of survival here.

When John Endlich pumped the first turbid liquid, which immediately froze again in the surface cold, he might, under other, better circumstances, have felt like cheering. His well was a success. But his tense mind was racing far ahead to all the endless tasks that were yet to be done, to make any sense at all out of his claim. Besides, the short day--eighteen hours long instead of twenty-four, and already far advanced at the time of his tumultuous landing--was drawing to a close.

"It'll be dark here mighty quick, Johnny," Rose said. She was looking scared, again.