All space was electrified as that harsh challenge rang out ... but John Endlich hesitated. For he saw beyond his own murder--saw the horror and destruction his death would unleash--and knew he dared not fight back!
The space ship landed briefly, and John Endlich lifted the huge Asteroids Homesteaders Office box, which contained everything from a prefabricated house to toothbrushes for his family, down from the hold-port without help or visible effort.
In the tiny gravity of the asteroid, Vesta, doing this was no trouble at all. But beyond this point the situation was--bitter.
His two kids, Bubs, seven, and Evelyn, nine--clad in space-suits that were slightly oversize to allow for the growth of young bodies--were both bawling. He could hear them through his oxygen-helmet radiophones.
Around him, under the airless sky of space, stretched desolation that he'd of course known about beforehand--but which now had assumed that special and terrible starkness of reality.
At his elbow, his wife, Rose, her heart-shaped face and grey eyes framed by the wide face-window of her armor, was trying desperately to choke back tears, and be brave.
"Remember--we've got to make good here, Johnny," she was saying. "Remember what the Homesteaders Office people told us--that with modern equipment and the right frame of mind, life can be nice out here. It's worked on other asteroids. What if we are the first farmers to come to Vesta?... Don't listen to those crazy miners! They're just kidding us! Don't listen to them! And don't, for gosh sakes, get sore...."
Rose's words were now like dim echoes of his conscience, and of his recent grim determination to master his hot temper, his sensitiveness, his wanderlust, and his penchant for poker and the social glass--qualities of an otherwise agreeable and industrious nature, that, on Earth, had always been his undoing. Recently, back in Illinois, he had even spent six months in jail for all but inflicting murder with his bare fists on a bullying neighbor whom he had caught whipping a horse. Sure--but during those six months his farm, the fifth he'd tried to run in scattered parts of North America, had gone to weeds in spite of Rose's valiant efforts to take care of it alone....
Oh, yes--the lessons of all that past personal history should be strong in his mind. But now will power and Rose's frightened tones of wisdom both seemed to fade away in his brain, as jeering words from another source continued to drive jagged splinters into the weakest portion of his soul:
"Hi, you hydroponic pun'kin-head!... How yuh like your new claim?... Nice, ain't it? How about some fresh turnips?... Good luck, yuh greenhorn.... Hiyuh, papa! Tied to baby's diaper suspenders!... Let the poor dope alone, guys.... Snooty.... Won't take our likker, hunh? Won't take our money.... Wifey's boy! Let's make him sociable.... Haw-Haw-haw.... Hydroponic pun'kin-head!..."