Philip Kindred Dick
“I don’t like it,” Major Crispin Eller said. He stared through the port scope, frowning. “An asteroid like this with plenty of water, moderate temperature, an atmosphere similar to Terra’s oxygen-nitrogen mix…”
“And no life.” Harrison Blake, second in command, came up beside Eller. They both stared out. “No life, yet ideal conditions. Air, water, good temperature. Why?”
They looked at each other. Beyond the hull of the cruiser, the X-43y, the barren, level surface of the asteroid stretched away. The X-43y was a long way from home, half-way across the galaxy. Competition with the Mars- Venus-Jupiter Triumvirate had moved Terra to map and prospect every bit of rock in the galaxy, with the idea of claiming mining concessions later on. The X-43y had been out planting the blue and white flag for almost a year. The three-member crew had earned a rest, a vacation back on Terra and a chance to spend the pay they had accumulated. Tiny prospecting ships led a hazardous life, threading their way through the rubble-strewn periphery of the system, avoiding meteor swarms, clouds of hull-eating bacteria, space pirates, peanut-size empires on remote artificial planetoids…
“Look at it!” Eller said, jabbing angrily at the scope. “Perfect conditions for life. But nothing, just bare rock.”
“Maybe it’s an accident,” Blake said, shrugging.
“You know there’s no place where bacteria particles don’t drift. There must be some reason why this asteroid isn’t fertile. I sense something wrong.”
“Well? What do we do?” Blake grinned humorlessly. “You’re the captain. According to our instructions we’re supposed to land and map every asteroid we encounter over Class-D diameter. This is a Class-C. Are we going outside and map it or not?”
Eller hesitated. “I don’t like it. No one knows all the lethal factors floating out here in deep space. Maybe…”
“Could it be you’d like to go right on back to Terra?” Blake said. “Just think, no one would know we passed this last little bit of rock up. I wouldn’t tip them off, Eller.”
“That isn’t it! I’m concerned with our safety, and that’s all. You’re the one who’s been agitating to turn Terra-side.” Eller studied the port scope. “If we only knew.”
“Let out the pigs and see what shows. After they’ve run around for a while we should know something.”
“I’m sorry I even landed.”
Blake’s face twisted in contempt. “You’re sure getting cautious, now that we’re almost ready to head home.”
Eller moodily watched the gray barren rock, the gently moving water. Water and rock, a few clouds, even temperature. A perfect place for life. But there was no life. The rock was clean, smooth. Absolutely sterile, without growth or cover of any kind. The spectroscope showed nothing, not even one-celled water life, not even the familiar brown lichen encountered on countless rocks strewn through the galaxy.
“All right, then,” Eller said. “Open one of the locks. I’ll have Silv let out the pigs.”
He picked up the com, dialing the laboratory. Down below them in the interior of the ship Silvia Simmons was working, surrounded by retorts and testing apparatus. Eller clicked the switch. “Silv?” he said.
Silvia’s features formed on the vidscreen. “Yes?”
“Let the hamsters outside the ship for a short run, about half an hour. With line and collars, of course. I’m worried about this asteroid. There may be some toxic poisons around or radiation pits. When the pigs come back give them a rigid test. Throw the book at them.”
“All right, Cris,” Silvia smiled. “Maybe we can get out and stretch our legs after a while.”
“Give me the results of the tests as soon as possible.” Eller broke the circuit. He turned to Blake. “I assume you’re satisfied. In a minute the pigs will be ready to go out.”
Blake smiled faintly. “I’ll be glad when we get back to Terra. One trip with you as captain is about all I can take.”
Eller nodded. “Strange, that thirteen years in the Service hasn’t taught you any more self-control. I guess you’ll never forgive them for not giving you your stripes.”
“Listen, Eller,” Blake said. “I’m ten years older than you. I was serving when you were just a kid. You’re still a pasty-faced squirt as far as I’m concerned. The next time…”
Eller turned quickly. The vidscreen was relit. On it, Silvia’s face showed, frantic with fear.
“Yes?” He gripped the com. “What is it?”
“Cris, I went to the cages. The hamsters… They’re cataleptic, stretched out, perfectly rigid. Every one of them is immobile. I’m afraid something…”
“Blake, get the ship up,” Eller said.
“What?” Blake murmured, confused. “Are we…”
“Get the ship up! Hurry!” Eller raced toward the control board. “We have to get out of here!”
Blake came to him. “Is something…” he began, but abruptly he stopped, choked off. His face glazed over, his jaw slack. Slowly he settled to the smooth metal floor, falling like a limp sack. Eller stared, dazed. At last he broke away and reached toward the controls. All at once a numbing fire seared his skull, bursting inside his head. A thousand shafts of light exploded behind his eyes, blinding him. He staggered, groping for the switches. As darkness plucked at him his fingers closed over the automatic lift.
As he fell he pulled hard. Then the numbing darkness settled over him completely. He did not feel the smashing impact of the floor as it came up at him.
Out into space the ship rose, automatic relays pumping frantically. But inside no one moved.
Eller opened his eyes. His head throbbed with a deep, aching beat. He struggled to his feet, holding onto the hull railing. Harrison Blake was coming to life also, groaning and trying to rise. His dark face had turned sickly yellow, his eyes were blood-shot, his lips foam-flecked. He stared at Cris Eller, rubbing his forehead shakily.
“Snap out of it,” Eller said, helping him up. Blake sat down in the control chair.
“Thanks.” He shook his head. “What-what happened?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to the lab and see if Silv is all right.”
“Want me to come?” Blake murmured.
“No. Sit still. Don’t strain your heart. Do you understand? Move as little as possible.”
Blake nodded. Eller walked unsteadily across the control room to the corridor. He entered the drop lift and descended. A moment later he stepped out into the lab.
Silvia was slumped forward at one of the work tables, stiff and unmoving.
“Silv!” Eller ran toward her and caught hold of her, shaking her. Her flesh was hard and cold. “Silv!”
She moved a little.
“Wake up!” Eller got a stimulant tube from the supply cabinet. He broke the tube, holding it by her face. Silvia moaned. He shook her again.
“Cris?” Silvia said faintly. “Is it you? What… what happened? Is everything all right?” She lifted her head, blinking uncertainly. “I was talking to you on the vidscreen. I came over to the table, then all of a sudden…”
“It’s all right.” Eller frowned, deep in thought, his hand on her shoulder. “What could it have been? Some kind of radiation blast from the asteroid?” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Good Lord!”
“What’s wrong?” Silvia sat up, brushing her hair back. “What is it, Cris?
“We’ve been unconscious two whole days,” Eller said slowly, staring at his watch. He put his hand to his chin. “Well, that explains this.” He rubbed at the stubble.
“But we’re all right now, aren’t we?” Silvia pointed at the hamsters in their cages against the wall. “Look… they’re up and running around again.”
“Come on.” Eller took her hand. “We’re going up above and have a conference, the three of us. We’re going over every dial and meter reading in the ship. I want to know what happened.”