Asteroid of Fear


8. Jeez--Tamadas!

He didn't have to wait at all for results. Bloodshot eyes, some of them belonging to men who had been as gentle as lambs in their ordinary lives on Earth, turned swiftly alert. Bristly faces showed swift changes of expression: surprise, interest, greed for possession--but most of all, aggressive and Satanic humor.

"Jeez--tamadas!" somebody growled, amazed.

Under the circumstances, to be aware of opportunity was to act. Big paws, some bare and calloused, some in the gloves of space suits, reached out, grabbed. Teeth bit. Juice squirted, landing on hard metal shaped for the interplanetary regions.

So far, fine. John Endlich felt prouder of himself--he'd expected a certain fierceness and lack of manners. But knowing all he did know, he should have taken time to visualize the inevitable chain-reaction.

"Thanks, pal.... You're a prince...."

Sure--but the thanks were more of a mockery than a formality.

"Hey! None for me? Whatsa idea?..."

"Shuddup, Mic.... Who's dis guy?... Say, Friend--you wouldn't be that pun'kin-head we been hearin' about, would you?... Well--my gracious--bet you are! Dis'll be nice to watch!..."

"Where's Alf Neely, Cranston? What we need is excitement."

"Seen him out by the slot-machines. The bar is still out of bounds for him. He can't come in here."

"Says who? Boss Man Mahoney? For dis much sport Neely can go straight to hell! And take Boss Man with him on a pitchfork.... Hey-y-y!... Ne-e-e-e-l-y-y-y!..."

The big man whose name was called lumbered to the window at the entrance to the bar, and peered inside. During the last couple of months he'd been in a perpetual grouch over his deprivation of liberty, which had rankled him more as an affront to his dignity.

When he saw the husband of the authoress of his woes--the little bum, who, being unable to guard his own, had allowed his woman to holler "Cop!"--Neely let out a yell of sheer glee. His huge shoulders hunched, his pendulous nose wobbled, his squinty eyes gleamed and he charged into the bar.

John Endlich's first reaction was curiously similar to Neely's. He felt a flash of savage triumph under the stimulus of the thought of immediate battle with the cause of most of his troubles. Temper blazed in him.

Belatedly, however, the awareness came into his mind that he had started an emotional avalanche that went far beyond the weight and fury of one man like Neely. Lord, wouldn't he ever learn? It was tough as hell to crawl, but how could a man put his wife and kids in awful jeopardy at the hands of a flock of guys whom space had turned into gorillas?

Endlich tried for peace. It was to his credit that he did so quite coolly. He turned toward his charging adversary and grinned.

"Hi, Neely," he said. "Have a drink--on me."

The big man stopped short, almost in unbelief that anyone could stoop so low as to offer appeasement. Then he laughed uproariously.

"Why, I'd be delighted, Mr. Pun'kins," he said in a poisonous-sweet tone. "Let bygones be bygones. Hey, Charlie! Hear what Pun'kins says? The drinks are all on him! And how is the Little Lady, Mrs. Pun'kins? Lonesome, I bet. Glad to hear it. I'm gonna fix that!"

With a sudden lunge Neely gripped Endlich's hand, and gave it a savage if momentary twist that sent needles of pain shooting up the homesteader's arm. It was a goading invitation to battle, which grim knowledge of the sequel now compelled Endlich to pass up.

"Don't call him Pun'kins, Neely!" somebody yelled. "It ain't polite to mispronounce a name. It's Mr. Tomatoes. I just saw. Bet he's got a million of 'em, out there on the farm!"

The whole crowd in the bar broke into coarse shouts and laughs and comments. "... We ain't good neighbors--neglecting our social duties. Let's pay 'em a visit.... Pun'kins! What else you got besides tamadas? Let's go on a picnic!... Hell with the Boss Man!... Yah-h-h--We need some diversion.... I'm not goin' on shift.... Come on, everybody! There's gonna be a fight--a moider!... Hell with the Boss Man...."

Like the flicker of flame flashing through dry gunpowder, you could feel the excitement spread. Out of the bar. Out of the rec-dome. It would soon ignite the whole tense camp.

John Endlich's heart was in his mouth, as his mind pictured the part of all this that would affect him and his. A bunch of men gone wild, kicking over the traces, arcing around Vesta, sacking and destroying in sheer exuberance, like brats on Hallowe'en. They would stop at nothing. And Rose and the kids....

This was it. What he'd been so scared of all along. It was at least partly his own fault. And there was no way to stop it now.

"I love tomatoes, Mr. Pun'kins," Neely rumbled at Endlich's side, reaching for the drink that had been set before him. "But first I'm gonna smear you all over the camp.... Take my time--do a good job.... Because y'didn't give me any tomatoes...."

Whereat, John Endlich took the only slender advantage at hand for him--surprise. With all the strength of his muscular body, backed up by dread and pent-up fury, he sent a gloved fist crashing straight into Neely's open face-window. Even the pang in his well-protected knuckles was a satisfaction--for he knew that the damage to Neely's ugly features must be many times greater.

The blow, occurring under the conditions of Vesta's tiny gravity, had an entirely un-Earthly effect. Neely, eyes glazing, floated gently up and away. And Endlich, since he had at the last instant clutched Neely's arm, was drawn along with the miner in a graceful, arcing flight through the smoky air of the bar. Both armored bodies, lacking nothing in inertia, tore through the tough plastic window, and they bounced lightly on the pavement of the main section of the rec-dome.

Neely was as limp as a wet rag, sleeping peacefully, blood all over his crushed face. But that he was out of action signified no peace, when so many of his buddies were nearby, and beginning to seethe, like a swarm of hornets.

So there was an element of despair in Endlich's quick actions as he slammed Neely's face-window and his own shut, picked up his enemy, and used his jets to propel him in the long leap to the airlock of the dome. He had no real plan. He just had the ragged and all but hopeless thought of using Neely as a hostage--as a weapon in the bitter and desperate attempt to defend his wife and children from the mob that would be following close behind him....

Tumbling end over end with his light but bulky burden, he sprawled at the threshold of the airlock, where the guard, posted there, had stepped hastily out of his way. Again, capricious luck, surprise, and swift action were on his side. He pressed the control-button of the lock, and squirmed through its double valves before the startled guard could stop him.

Then he slammed his jets wide, and aimed for the horizon.

It was a wild journey--for, to fly straight in a frictionless vacuum, any missile must be very well balanced; and the inertia and the slight but unwieldy weight of Neely's bulk disturbed such balance in his own jet-equipped space suit. The journey was made, then, not in a smooth arc, but in a series of erratic waverings. But what Endlich lacked in precise direction, he made up in sheer reckless, dread-driven speed.

From the very start of that wild flight, he heard voices in his helmet phones:

"Damn pun'kin-head greenhorn! Did you see how he hit Neely, Schmidt? Yeah--by surprise.... Yeah--Kuzak. I saw. He hit without warning.... Damn yella yokel.... Who's comin' along to get him?..."

Sure--there was another side to it--other voices:

"Shucks--Neely had it coming to him. I hope the farmer really murders that big lunkhead.... You ain't kiddin', Muir. I was glad to see his face splatter like a rotten tamata...."

Okay--fine. It was good to know you had some sensible guys on your side. But what good was it, when the camp as a whole was boiling over from its internal troubles? There were more than enough roughnecks to do a mighty messy job--fast.

Panting with tension, Endlich swooped down before his greenhouse, and dragged Neely inside through the airlock. For a fleeting instant the sights and sounds and smells that impinged on his senses, as he opened his face-window once more, brought him a regret. The rustle of corn, the odor of greenery, the chicken voices--there was home in all of this. Something pastoral and beautiful and orderly--gained with hard work. And something brought back--restored--from the remote past. The buzzing of the tay-tay bug was even a real echo from that smashed yet undoubtedly once beautiful world of antiquity.

But these were fragile concerns, beside the desperate question of the immediate safety of Rose and the kids.... Already cries and shouts and comments were coming faintly through his helmet phones again:

"Get the yokel! Get the bum!... We'll fix his wagon good...."

The pack was on the way--getting closer with every heartbeat. Never in his life had Endlich experienced so harrowing a time as this; never, if by some miracle he lived, could he expect another equal to it.

To stand and fight, as he would have done if he were alone, would mean simply that he would be cut down. To try the peacemaking of appeasement, would have probably the same result--plus, for himself, the dishonor of contempt.

So, where was there to turn, with grim, unanswering blankness on every side?