The examiner looked doubtful and said, “But Mr. Holloway, regulations require that I read your log before I take verbal testimony.”
Holloway’s face was drawn and ravaged. His bloodshot eyes sat in black pits. They were trained on the Examiner but looked through him rather than at him.
Holloway said, “But, I must talk! I’ve got to tell you about it. I have to keep talking.”
Holloway’s words tumbled out. “It started in the control cabin there in deep space. When Mrs. Kelvey came in. She was the blonde one. I turned around and she said, ‘Captain, there’s a great big tiger in the companionway.’”
The desperate Holloway, fearful of being stopped or running out of words, went into minute detail. “She made the statement as a pouting complaint, almost casually. Then, before I could speak, she realized what she’d said and her face changed. A kind of horrified double-take. ‘A tiger? In the companionway of a space ship?‘ This last was an incredulous question she asked herself. Then she fainted. I looked outside. I thought I saw something blurred and indistinct but it vanished quickly if it was really there at all. The companionway was empty. No tiger. No animal of any kind--”
The Examiner, holding up a hand of protest, looked like a man directing traffic. “Please, Mr. Holloway--please. We must remember regulations.”
Holloway’s eyes closed for a moment but he resolutely forced them open as though afraid of something.
The scene was Holloway’s two-room suite in the Space Port Hotel. There were three men present--Holloway, skipper of the Space King, John Mason, Port Resident, and Merle Kennedy, Section Examiner for the Space Authority people. Kennedy regarded Holloway with frank concern. Good heavens--the man was a complete mess. Looked ready to collapse. Kennedy turned to Mason. “This can be postponed, you know.”
Mason was regarding Holloway also. Strange, he thought; Holloway had left in a fanfare of publicity. Now it appeared his return would be even more dramatic. Maybe Holloway was that kind of a chap; the kind things just happened to.
He was quite young though he certainly didn’t look it now. He’d been known as a playboy ever since his father struck it big in Venusian oil. But good-looking, personable, he had worn the label well. He’d been good copy because the public regarded him with patronizing affection. To them, he’d been a nice kid having fun; not a young wastrel wasting his father’s money.
Naturally he would pick a glamour girl to play the romantic feminine role and Melody Hayden had filled the bill perfectly. Together, they had enchanted the public. Princess and Prince Charming stuff. Then tragedy. Disaster in a rocketing sports car; Melody’s coffin sealed before the funeral; young Holloway coming off without a scratch. Melody’s death was a bombshell and everyone asked. What will he do now? expecting of course, something sensational.
He didn’t let them down. Dramatically, he announced a completely new life. He bought a space ship and foreswore his old ways. He had quite a reputation as a big game hunter. He’d stalked the vicious Plutonian ice bears and lain in Venusian swamps waiting for the ten-ton lizards to rise out of the slime. He had knocked over the wiliest of animals, a telepathic Uranian mountain wolf and had dropped in flight a Martian radar-bat, a feat duplicated by only three other marksmen of record.
So what more natural occupation than guiding hunting parties in deep space? Holloway had been obviously torn by Melody’s tragic death. Perhaps out among the stars he could forget.
There had been some trouble, Mason recalled, in clearing Holloway’s first cruise. A party of five. Not to any established hunting ground but a D. U. thing. Destination Unknown, and they were always trouble. Clearance had been made, though, and now--here was Holloway back again--dramatically of course--with one of his party dead and the other four in trance-like stupors. Strange.
And stranger still, Holloway’s reason for wanting to talk immediately; with no rest--no medical attention:
“It will help keep me awake. I mustn’t go to sleep. Can’t I make you understand? I’ve got to stay awake.“
Mason pitied the man. He turned to Kennedy. “I have the log here, sir. Perhaps you could go over it now--”
Holloway leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what’s in the log. Every word of it. If I just sit here waiting--”
Mason laid a hand on his knee. “It’s all right, old chap. I won’t let you go to sleep. You and I will talk while Mr. Kennedy goes through the log. It won’t take long.”
Mason handed the book to Kennedy. He was almost apologetic. “It’s a strange log, sir, It--”
“Strange?” Kennedy frowned. Logs had no right to be strange. There were regulations--rules stating exactly how a log should be kept.
“Well sir, the lad is young. His first trip. I just meant there’s perhaps a little more in the log than should appear there.”
“We’ll see,” Kennedy said. There was a slight frost on his words. If disciplinary measures were in the offing it would pay not to get too cozy with Holloway and the Resident.
Kennedy opened the log. The first entry was dated June 3rd, 4:10 p. m. Earth time. Kennedy frowned. Permissible of course, but sloppy, very sloppy. The better skippers computed from Orion immediately after blast-off. Kennedy set back and began to read:
June 3rd, 4:10 p. m.
We blasted at 2:18 p. m. A good getaway. Course 58.329 by the polar angle. No blast sickness among the passengers. They are old hands. I put the automatic board into control at 3:50 p. m. I checked the tubes. Pressures balanced and equal.
I don’t like this cruise. I don’t like Murdo. He’s a domineering slob. The other four, well--Keebler is an alcoholic, Kelvey an empty-headed opportunist. I don’t particularly dislike them. They’re just a worthless pair who would rather fawn on Murdo and take his insults than work for a living. The two wives are both young. Martha Keebler has a child’s mind in a woman’s body. Jane Kelvey is an oversexed witch with an indecent exposure complex. I may have trouble with her. Already she’s parading around in skimpy shorts and a bra. Evidently Murdo doesn’t care for women. He pays no attention to her. Money and power are his dish. And a terrible restlessness.
Melody baby--I wish you were here--
June 4th, 3:00 p. m.
I had a talk with Murdo about this silly cruise. Tried to swing him onto something that makes a little more sense. Pluto, Venus, Ganymede--some hunting ground I’m familiar with. No good. Even a suggestion and he thinks you’re crossing him and snorts like a bull. Still demands to go to this place where big game prowls in space. Where elephants and leopards and snakes and anything you can name fly around your ship and look in your ports. Where you do your hunting in space suits right out in the void.
Why in hell did I fall for this idiocy? Guess I just didn’t care. Maybe I thought it was a good idea because it sounded like a cruise you could get killed on without much trouble. No--I shouldn’t say that. Melody wouldn’t like me to say it. She was so wonderful--so level-headed. How wrong they all were about us. About her. Because she was so beautiful, I guess. I tried to tell them I’d married an angel and they took bets among themselves on how long it would last. The answer to that would have been forever. It still is. I’ve lost so much and learned so much in such a very short time. The hell with Murdo and his four puppets. I’ll take them out and bring them back. Then I’ll go somewhere alone and I won’t come back at all.
Course 28.493 by the polar angle. Went through small asteroid field...
Kennedy looked up sharply. He frowned. “This log is unacceptable.”
Holloway was pacing the floor, his eyes blank and terrible “Unacceptable?”
“Course and position should be noted within each twenty-four hour period. You missed June 5th entirely. You--” Kennedy leafed through the pages. “Why at times you missed three and four days in sequence!”
“Sometimes I didn’t have time to write.”
Mason tried to hide his disgust. How did men like Kennedy get into positions they weren’t fitted for? The ass! Couldn’t he see this man was suffering? Mason said, “Why not reserve comment until you’ve finished, Mr. Kennedy?”
Kennedy’s eyes widened at the sharp tone of Mason’s voice. Really. When residents start dictating to Examiners--Kennedy saw the stiffness in Mason’s face. And something more. He went quickly back to his reading:
June 6, 1:00 p. m.
I talked some more with Murdo about this fool cruise. He got wind of our destination--wherever it is--from some rich idiot in Paris. And I don’t use idiot figuratively. His informant was in some kind of a private nut house--an exclusive insane asylum of idiots with lots of money--and he had lucid intervals. At one of these times he told Murdo where he’d been and what had happened. I don’t think Murdo believes all of it but he wants to see for himself. Well, if he wants to spend his money chasing meteorites it’s his business.
Keebler got drunk as a goat. Strapped him in his bunk and left him there. Murdo spent a few hours explaining guns to Mrs. Keebler. I think he enjoys the look of wonder on her face. Makes him feel very superior knowledgewise. Her face is just built that way and so far as she’s concerned he could be talking Greek. He thinks she’s very beautiful. I wonder if he ever saw Melody’s picture?
Course 36.829 by the Orion angle. All clear.
June 9th, 1:00 a. m.
Course 36.841 by the Orion angle. Small asteroids.
Jane Kelvey is bored and has started taking it out on me. When I passed her door it was open. She was taking a sponge bath, stark naked in the middle of the cabin. She turned around to face me and did a very bad job of acting flustered, trying to cover herself up with a small sponge! How crude can a female get? She was hoping I’d come in. If I had it would have been to slap her face. I got away as fast as I could.
June 10th, 7 p. m.
Course 41.864 by the Orion angle. Brushed a small asteroid.
I’ve been noting the time wrong. It should be figured on a twenty-four-hour cycle. Midnight to midnight, the hell with it.
Had a fight with Murdo. He wanted to take over the ship. His words were, “Let’s get some speed out of this slop bucket.” I reminded him I was Captain. He reminded me he was footing the bills. I asked him how he would like to be locked in his cabin for the remainder of the cruise? He didn’t say, but I guess he wouldn’t have liked it because he quieted down. Keebler has been quietly drunk for the last two days. Lucky Keebler.
June 13th, 18 hours.
Course 26.932 by the Virgo angle. Went four degrees off course to avoid small planetoid.
Jane Kelvey came to my cabin an hour ago. The rest were asleep. She wore a blue dressing gown with nothing under it. I want to set down what happened in case there’s ever a kickback although I don’t think there ever will be.
I was sitting in a chair and she came up behind me and it was very unfortunate because I saw the blue dressing gown first. By sheer chance it was almost exactly like the one Melody wore that first night. I was thinking of Melody. Melody was all around me and inside me. In my mind, in my heart, in all my aching regrets.
So when that dressing gown brushed me, something electric happened inside and I got up and took Jane Kelvey in my arms. It wasn’t more than three or four seconds but in that time the gown had been brushed aside. Then I came to my senses and pushed her away.
The dressing gown stayed parted. She stepped back, confused. She said, “What’s the matter? Are you scared?”
“I’m disgusted. Button your gown. Get out of here!”
“What are you? Not one of those noble creatures I hope--who wouldn’t touch a man’s wife.”
“I said get out! I wouldn’t touch you regardless.”
“But you just did.”
“It was a mistake. I--”
“Look--I’m a woman. You’re a man--I think. We’re alone in space and life is short. Let’s have fun and then forget about it.”
I slapped her across the mouth. A skipper can be jailed for life for striking a passenger. Even with cause. But I slapped her and I’m setting it down in the log...
Kennedy looked up from his reading. “Jane Kelvey--she is the dead one?”
Kennedy looked at Holloway with marked severity. “Are you sure you only slapped her?”
Mason exploded. “Good God, man. Did you see the body? You’re not implying he did that to her, are you?”
“I’m not implying anything,” Kennedy said within a restrained grimness that infuriated Mason.
“Why don’t you finish the log before you start passing judgment?”
Kennedy leafed through the pages. “I--wait a minute! This log doesn’t cover the whole cruise! It breaks off in the middle of a sentence!”
“Read what’s there, man! Read what’s there.”
“Very serious--very serious,” Kennedy muttered. “Not completing a log. No license should have been issued this man. Lax! Very lax.” He sat back to make himself more comfortable and prepared to go on with his reading.
June 30th--3 hours
Course 29.341 by the Virgo angle. I think that’s the course. The instruments are acting funny. In fact a lot of things seem to be wrong. Some of the constellations aren’t in the right places anymore.
I began noticing these things a couple of days ago and spoke to Murdo. I suggested we turn back. I told him it was my duty as a skipper to look out for the welfare of my passengers. And that included not continuing if vital instruments showed signs of failure.
He sneered at me and said, “I thought you were a big game hunter, Holloway?”
I told him I’d hunted big game--yes.
“It doesn’t sound like it. You sound like a timid old woman. So you’ve made some miscalculations. The course is still right. It’s on the flight pattern in the automatic control board and I know it’s correct because I gave it to you.”
“But if instruments fail nothing stays right.”
“Okay--you’re the skipper. If you’ve turned yellow and want to show your tail I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.”
He almost got his jaw broken, but I was able to hold myself. Then, suddenly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care whether Murdo stayed alive or got killed. As to the others--they’d come on the cruise with their eyes open. They deserved whatever they got. And I certainly didn’t give a damn about myself. Guess I wasn’t cut out to skipper a ship. A skipper should care. That’s all he should do. Just care. I’d rather dream about Melody.
I don’t know what the date is. The chronometer stopped so I don’t even know what time it is. But what does it matter about the time if you don’t even know what day it is? We just go on and on.
Murdo--I can’t figure out. Windbag or not--braggart or no--he has an iron will. I think he’s scared but he won’t admit it. And some stubborn streak inside him won’t let him turn tail and run. He hides his fear behind long accounts of his hunting trips. He describes the vicious animals he’s killed. He bores us with accounts of his skill as a great hunter.
The rest listen because they have to. I go to my cabin and remember Melody.
The rest are scared too, but they’re too scared of Murdo to let him know it. That’s an odd one. Scared for your life but afraid to tell the big man because he might kill you. Would Murdo kill in a fit of rage? I don’t know.
Keebler stays drunk so none of it bothers him. Keebler’s wife, I think, is in love with Murdo but it’s a kind of little-girl love. She never quite grew up. Kelvey glues himself to Murdo and sticks like a plaster. He seems to consider Murdo a haven, as though Murdo’s bulk will make everything all right.
Jane Kelvey hasn’t quit making passes at me but they’re half-hearted. She bothers me. I’m uneasy when she’s around. I get the feeling that any minute she might drop to her knees and beg. What do you do with a woman on her knees before you, begging? Maybe before long her husband will look good to her. Maybe she’ll be able to get him away from Murdo’s side for a while.
I look at both these women and realize what I lost. Melody.
Jane Kelvey came to my cabin. It’s hit her that things aren’t right. She’s scared. She asked, “Why did you tell Murdo you wanted to turn back?”
“Because I thought we’d come too far.”
“Do you still think so?”
“Everything will be all right.”
“The instruments--are they working again?”
I lied to her. “They’re working.”
“Do you think it’s really as Murdo says--that there are animals out in space?”
“I don’t know.”
She looked wan and forlorn and I was sorry for her. She said, “I’ve only been on one hunting trip in my life.”
“Is that so?”
“In India. A boy carried my gun for me. When the tiger came the boy handed me the gun and told me where to point. I fired but I didn’t hit the tiger. Somebody else shot it.”
“That was too bad.”
“No, it was all right. He was such a big beautiful animal. So sleek and powerful.”
I saw her body tremble as she closed her eyes. I said, “You better get some rest.”
She passed a hand over her eyes and then gave me an odd wistful smile. “Animals are smarter, I think. We do make awful messes out of our lives, don’t we?”
“I’m afraid we do.”
“But is it our fault? God makes us this way. We can’t help that.”
“No, I guess we can’t.”
“Why did God make us like we are?”
“I don’t know, Jane. Let’s hope He does.”
“Isn’t that sacrilege or something? Doubting Him?”
“I guess it is.”
She reached out suddenly and touched my face. “You’re a nice guy. I don’t blame you for slapping me.”
“I’m sorry. You’re pretty nice yourself.”
The smile faded. “I’m not,” she said miserably, and left the cabin.
Poor kid. I forgot her and thought of Melody.
Something’s gone wrong with everything. Not a very scientific statement for a skipper to make but that’s how it is. The stars have disappeared. The instruments jumped around as though they had minds of their own. The dial needles spin around like crazy.
And something else--something even worse. Space has changed. I mean there’s something out there in space. First I just felt it. A raw uneasiness. Then I trained a light through the port and I could see it. Stuff that looks like dust but isn’t. It’s hazy and yet it sparkles and you have a sense of being on a ship that’s pushing its way through a fog so thick the friction holds you back. And there’s something more about this sparkling fog. You look out at it and it seems to be looking back at you. Or maybe I’m losing my mind. Anyhow, that’s the way it seems. As though it’s waiting for you to speak to it--say hello or something.
I guess I’m going crazy.
The sparkling fog is affecting the others, too. They’ve all quieted down and they slip along the bulkheads as though they were being followed. Only Murdo blusters back. He says, what the hell? We expected something different, didn’t we? Well, this is sure different enough, isn’t it?
I’d turn back but I don’t know how. I have nothing to go by. The instruments make no sense.
I am going crazy. I looked out the port just now and saw a water buffalo. It was standing right out there in space with its head down looking at the ship! I had a light turned on it and suddenly it charged and hit the port headon. It bounced off and went staggering away and disappeared.
But it left a big white scratch on the quartz outside. At least I think it did. Wait. I’ll look again. Yes. A big white scratch. It’s still there. So how can I be mad? Maybe it’s a new kind of madness...
Some of the sparkling fog has penetrated the ship. Turn out the light and you can see it in the cabin. Not as thick as out in the void but thick enough to see; thick enough to stand there and ask you to talk to it.
Murdo is ready to turn back. He came to the control room and said, “I saw it out there.”
“You saw what?”
His face was pale and his hands twitched. “A boa-constrictor. Exactly like the one I killed four years ago on the Amazon. It came to the port and looked in at me.”
“It must be your imagination.”
“No. It was there. Let’s turn back. Get out of this.”
“I wish we could.”
“I don’t know where back is. We might just as well go as we are. Changing course doesn’t help if you don’t know your directions. Our only hope is to drive on out of this cloud. If I turned I might go right back into it.”
“Then one direction is as good as another?”
His mind wandered as he turned away. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” he muttered. “I thought it would be fun--sport. I thought we’d put on space suits and go out and make a kill. I thought--”
“The space suits are ready. Do you want to try it?”
He shuddered, his hanging jowls almost flapping. “You couldn’t drag me out there.”
The stuff is getting thicker in the ship.
Jane came into my cabin. She had an odd look on her face. She said, “There’s a big tiger in the companionway.”