The key to the subsequent trouble was that one of the restrictions involved communication. If Silbert had been able to hear clearly, he might have understood what was developing before it had gone too far; but he couldn’t. His space helmet lacked the impedance-matching feature of the diving gear, and the latter equipment had no radios.
Some sound did get through his helmet both from and into the water, but not much; for real conversation he had to bring the helmet into physical contact with that of the other party. He therefore knew little of what went on during the next few minutes. He spent them continuing his ecology sample, and paid little attention to anything else.
With Mrs. Weisanen present, some of Bresnahan’s unease in her husband’s presence left him, and he brought up at last the point which had occurred to him.
“I’ve been wondering, sir,” he opened, “why it wouldn’t be possible to break up Raindrop just as was planned, and still use the smaller drops as homes for people like yourselves. I can’t see that it would be very different from your present plan.”
Weisanen did not seem annoyed, but answered in a straightforward fashion. “Aside from the fact that we would prefer to be in a single city rather than a lot of detached houses which would require us to visit our neighbors by spaceship, the smaller drops will have the radiation problem. Here we have nearly five miles of water shielding us.”
“Hmph. I never thought of that.”
“No reason why you should have. It was never your problem.”
“But still — what do we do about food? Conditions on Earth are getting worse all the time. Starting another Raindrop project would take years. Couldn’t you at least compromise? Permit the small drops to be skimmed off the surface of this one while you are living here, and while another Raindrop is set up?”
“I don’t like the idea. Can you imagine what it will be like here with shock waves from exploding steam bubbles echoing all through the globe every time the skin is opened for a new farm lot?”
“Why should they break the skin? I should think they’d want to draw off the water through the lock, or other locks which might be built, anyway; otherwise there’d be a lot of waste from boiling. I should think…”
Weisanen’s annoyance suddenly boiled over, though no sign of it had been visible before.
“Mr. Bresnahan, it matters very little what you think when you forget that Raindrop is now, legally and properly, private property. I dislike to sound selfish and misanthropic, but I belong to a group which has gone to a great deal of thought and labor to get for itself, legally and without violence, an environment which it needs and which no one else — including the people responsible for our existence — was willing to provide. In addition, if you would think with your brain instead of your stomach you’d realize that the whole original project was pure nonsense. The only possible way mankind can keep himself adequately fed is to limit his population. If you’ll pardon the pun, the whole idiotic project was a drop in the bucket. It might have put the day of reckoning back five years, conceivably ten or fifteen, but then we’d have been right back where we started. Even with fusion energy there’s a limit to the number of space farms which could be built in a given time, and the way Earth’s population grows it would soon be impossible just to make new farms fast enough, let alone operate them. Cheating people? Nonsense! We’re doing the rest of mankind a favor by forcing them to face facts while there are a few billion less of them to argue with each other. One group has had to exercise the same sort of control the rest of mankind should be using for a good half century. We didn’t dare have children except when it was practicable to keep the mother in orbit for the best part of a year. Why should we be particularly sympathetic with the rest of you?”
“I see your point,” admitted Bresnahan, “but you’ve forgotten one other thing. The food problem is yours, too. What will you do as your food supply shrinks like everyone else’s? Or worse, when people decide not to send any food at all up here, since you won’t send any down? Raindrop is a long way yet from being self-supporting, you know.”
A grin, clearly visible in the light from a nearby plant knob, appeared on Weisanen’s face; but his irritation remained.
“Slight mistake, my young friend. There is another minor modification in our structure; our saliva glands produce an enzyme you lack. We can digest cellulose.” He waved his hand at the plants around them.
“How do you know these plants contain cellulose?”
“All plants do; but that’s a side issue. The weeds near the surface were analyzed long ago, and proved to contain all the essentials for human life — in a form which we can extract with our own digestive apparatus. Raindrop, as it now is, could support all of us there are now and there are likely to be for a couple of generations. Now, please get back to checking this little world of ours. Brenda and I want to decide where to build our house.”
Bresnahan was silent, but made no move to get back to work. He floated for a minute or so, thinking furiously; Weisanen made no effort to repeat or enforce his order.
At last the computerman spoke slowly — and made his worst mistake.
“You may be right in your legal standing. You may be right in your opinion about the value of Raindrop and what the rest of the human race should do — personally, I want a family some day. You may even be right about your safety from general attack because the communication laws will keep down the number of people who know about the business. But, right or wrong, if even a single person with access to a spaceship does find out, then you — and your wife — and your baby — are all in danger. Doesn’t that suggest to you that some sort of compromise is in order?”
Weisanen’s expression darkened and his muscles tensed. His wife, looking at him, opened her mouth and made a little gesture of protest even before he started to speak; but if she made a sound it was drowned out.
“It certainly suggests something, young fellow,” snapped the official. “I was hoping the matter wouldn’t descend to this level, but remember that while we can live here indefinitely, you cannot. A few weeks of weightlessness will do damage which your bodies can never repair. There is no regular food down here. And we control the transportation back to the station and weight.”
“Aino — no!” His wife laid a hand on his arm and spoke urgently. “Wait, dear. If you threaten at all, it’s too close to a threat of death. I don’t want to kill anyone, and don’t want to think of your doing so. It wouldn’t be worth it.”
“You and the little one are worth it. Worth anything! I won’t listen to argument on that.”
“But argument isn’t needed. There is time. Mr. Bresnahan and his friend will certainly wait and think before risking the consequences of a mob-raising rumor. He wants a compromise, not…”
“His compromise endangers you and the others. I won’t have it. Mr. Bresnahan, I will not ask you for a promise to keep quiet; you might be the idealistic type which can justify breaking its word for what it considers a good cause. Also, I will not endanger your life and health more than I can help. Brenda is right to some extent; I don’t want a killing on my conscience either, regardless of the cause. Therefore, you and Mr. Silbert will remain here at the core until Brenda and I have returned to the station and made sure that no communication gear will function without our knowledge and consent. That may be a few days, which may be more than your health should risk. I’m sorry, but I’m balancing that risk to you against one to us.”
“Why should it take days? An hour to the surface, a few minutes to the station…”
“And Heaven knows how long to find and take care of all the radios. Neither of us is an expert in that field, and we’ll be a long time making sure we have left no loopholes.”
“Will you at least stop to find out whether the air renewers in these diving suits are indefinite-time ones, like the spacesuit equipment? And if they aren’t, let me change back into my spacesuit?”
“Of course. Change anyway. It will save my trying to get the sub-stance of this conversation across to Mr. Silbert. You can tell him on radio while we are on the way. Come with me back to the sphere and change. Brenda, stay here.”
“But, dearest — this isn’t right. You know…”
“I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m willing to follow your lead in a lot of things, Bren, but this is not one of them.” “But…”
“No buts. Come, Mr. Bresnahan. Follow me.”
The wife fell silent, but her gaze was troubled as she watched the two men vanish through the tiny lock. Bresnahan wondered what she would do. It was because he felt sure she would do something that he hadn’t simply defied Weisanen.
The woman’s face was no happier when the computerman emerged alone and swam back to a point beside her. Her husband was visible through the port, outsized helmet removed, beckoning to her.
For a moment Bresnahan had the hope that she would refuse to go. This faded as she swam slowly toward the sphere, occasionally looking back, removed the anchor in response to a gesture from the man inside, and disappeared through the lock. The vehicle began to drift upward, vegetation near it swirling in the water jets. Within a minute it had faded from view into the darkness.
“Just what’s going on here?” Silbert’s voice was clear enough; the suit radios carried for a short distance through water. “Where are they going, and why?”
“You didn’t hear any of my talk with Weisanen?”
“No. I was busy, and it’s hard to get sound through this helmet any-way. What happened? Did you argue with him?”
“In a way.” Bresnahan gave the story as concisely as he could. His friend’s whistle sounded eerily in the confines of his helmet.
“This — is — really — something. Just for the record, young pal, we are in a serious jam, I hope you realize.”
“I don’t think so. His wife is against the idea, and he’ll let himself get talked out of it — he’s a little afraid of the results already.”
“Not the point. It doesn’t matter if the whole thing was a practical joke on his part. They’re out of sight, in a medium where no current charts exist and the only navigation aids are that sphere’s own sonar units. He could find his way back to the core, but how could he find us?”
“Aren’t we right under the lock and the station? We came straight down.”
“Don’t bet on that. I told you — there are currents. If we made a straight track on the trip down here I’ll be the most surprised man inside Luna’s orbit. There are twenty million square feet on this mudball. We’d be visible from a radius of maybe two hundred — visible and recognizable, that is, with our lights on. That means they have something like two hundred search blocks, if my mental arithmetic is right, without even a means of knowing when they cover a given one a second time. There is a chance they’d find us, but not a good one — not a good enough one so that we should bet your chance of dodging a couple of weeks of weightlessness on it. When that nut went out of sight, he disposed of us once and for all.”
“I wouldn’t call him a nut,” Bresnahan said.
“Why not? Anyone who would leave a couple of people to starve or get loaded with zero-gee symptoms on the odd chance that they might blab his favorite scheme to the public…”
“He’s a little unbalanced at the moment, but not a real nut. I’m sure he didn’t realize he’d passed the point of no return. Make allowances, Bert; I can. Some of my best friends are married, and I’ve seen ’em when they first learned a kid was on the way. It’s just that they don’t usually have this good a chance to get other people in trouble; they’re all off the beam for a little while.”
“You’re the most tolerant and civilized character I’ve met, and you’ve just convinced me that there can be too much of even the best of things. For my money the guy is a raving nut. More to the point, unless we can get ourselves out of the jam he’s dropped us into, we’re worse than nuts. We’re dead.”
“Maybe he’ll realize the situation and go back to the station and call for help.”
“There can be such a thing as too much optimism, too. My young friend, he’s not going to get to the station.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because the only laser tube not already in the station able to trigger the cobweb launchers is right here on my equipment clip. That’s another reason I think he’s a nut. He should have thought of that and pried it away from me somehow.”
“Maybe it just means he wasn’t serious about the whole thing.”
“Never mind what it means about him. Whatever his intentions, I’d be willing to wait for him to come back to us with his tail between his legs if I thought he could find us. Since I don’t think he can, we’d better get going ourselves.”
“Swim. How else?”
“But how do we navigate? Once we’re out of sight of the core we’d be there in the dark with absolutely nothing to guide us. These little lights on our suits aren’t…”
“I know they aren’t. That wasn’t the idea. Don’t worry; I may not be able to swim in a straight line, but I can get us to the surface eventually. Come on; five miles is a long swim.”
Silbert started away from the glow, and Bresnahan followed uneasily. He was not happy at the prospect of weightlessness and darkness combined; the doses on the trip down, when at least the sphere had been present for some sort of orientation, had been more than sufficient.
The glow of the core faded slowly behind them, but before it was too difficult to see Silbert stopped.
“All right, put your light on. I’ll do the same; stay close to me.” Bresnahan obeyed both orders gladly. “Now, watch.”
The spaceman manipulated valves on his suit, and carefully ejected a bubble of air about two feet in diameter. “You noticed that waste gas from the electrolyzers in the diving suits didn’t stay with us to be a nuisance. The bubbles drifted away, even when we were at the core,” he pointed out. Bresnahan hadn’t noticed, since he wasn’t used to paying attention to the fate of the air he exhaled, but was able to remember the fact once it was mentioned.
“That of course, was not due to buoyancy, so close to the core. The regular convection currents started by solar heat at the skin must be responsible. Therefore, those currents must extend all the way between skin and core. We’ll follow this bubble.”
“If the current goes all the way, why not just drift?”
“For two reasons. One is that the currents are slow — judging by their speed near the skin, the cycle must take over a day. Once we get away from the core, the buoyancy of this bubble will help; we can swim after it.
“The other reason is that if we simply drift we might start down again with the current before we got close enough to the skin to see daylight.
“Another trick we might try if this takes too long is to have one of us drift while the other follows the bubble to the limit of vision. That would establish the up-down line, and we could swim in that direction for a while and then repeat. I’m afraid we probably couldn’t hold swimming direction for long enough to be useful, though, and it would be hard on the reserve air supply. We’d have to make a new bubble each time we checked. These suits have recyclers, but a spacesuit isn’t built to get its oxygen from the surrounding water the way that diving gear is.”
“Let’s just follow this bubble,” Bresnahan said fervently.
At first, of course, the two merely drifted. There simply was no detectable buoyancy near the core. However, in a surprisingly short time the shimmering globule of gas began to show a tendency to drift away from them.
The direction of drift was seldom the one which Bresnahan was thinking of as “up” at the moment, but the spaceman nodded approval and carefully followed their only guide. Bresnahan wished that his training had given him more confidence in instrument readings as opposed to his own senses, but followed Silbert hopefully.