Big Pill - Cover

Big Pill

by Raymond Z. Gallun

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Child, it was, of the now ancient H-bomb. New. Untested. Would its terrible power sweep the stark Saturnian moon of Titan from space. or miraculously create a flourishing paradise-colony?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Under the glow of Saturn and his Rings, five of the airdomes of the new colony on Titan were still inflated. They were enormous bubbles of clear, flexible plastic. But the sixth airdome had flattened. And beneath its collapsed roof, propped now by metal rods, a dozen men in spacesuits had just lost all hope of rescuing the victims of the accident.

Bert Kraskow, once of Oklahoma City, more recently a space-freighter pilot, and now officially just a colonist, was among them. His small, hard body sagged, as if by weariness. His lips curled. But his full anger and bitterness didn’t show.

“Nine dead,” he remarked into the radio-phone of his oxygen helmet. “No survivors.” And then, inaudibly, inside his mind: “I’m a stinkin’ fool. Why didn’t we act against Space Colonists’ Supply Incorporated, before this could happen?”

His gaze swung back to the great rent that had opened in a seam in the airdome--under only normal Earthly atmospheric pressure, when it should have been able to withstand much more. Instantly the warmed air had rushed out into the near-vacuum of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Those who had been working the night-shift under the dome, to set up prefabricated cottages, had discarded their spacesuits for better freedom of movement. It was the regulation thing to do; always considered safe. But they had been caught by the sudden dropping of pressure around them to almost zero. And by the terrible cold of the Titanian night.

For a grief-stricken second Bert Kraskow looked down again at the body beside which he stood. You could hardly see that the face had been young. The eyes popped. The pupils were white, like ice. The fluid within had frozen. The mouth hung open. In the absence of normal air-pressure, the blood in the body had boiled for a moment, before the cold had congealed it.

“Your kid brother, Nick, eh, Bert?” an air-conditioning mechanic named Lawler said, almost in a whisper. “About twenty years old, hunh?”

“Eighteen,” Bert Kraskow answered into his helmet-phones as he spread the youth’s coat over the distorted face.

Old Stan Kraskow, metal-worker, was there, too. Bert’s and Nick’s dad. He was blubbering. There wasn’t much that anybody could do for him. And for the other dead, there were other horrified mourners. Some of them had been half nuts from homesickness, and the sight of harsh, voidal stars, even before this tragedy had happened.

It was Lawler who first cut loose, cursing. He was a big, apish man, with a certain fiery eloquence.

“Damned, lousy, stinkin’ obsolete equipment!” he snarled. “Breathe on it and it falls apart! Under old Bill Lauren, Space Colonists’ Supply used to make good, honest stuff. I worked with it on Mars and the moons of Jupiter. But now look what the firm is turning out under Trenton Lauren, old Bill’s super-efficient son! He was so greedy for quick profits in the new Titan colonization project, and so afraid of being scooped by new methods of making these fizzled-out worlds livable, that he didn’t even take time to have his products decently inspected! And that, after not being able to recognize progress! Hell! Where is that dumb, crawlin’ boob?”


There was a moment of silence. Then somebody muttered: “Speak of the devil!...”

With eyes that had grown quietly wolfish, Bert Kraskow saw Trenton Lauren arrive at last from the administration dome. He was plump, maybe thirty-five, and somehow dapper even in a spacesuit. That he was here on Titan at all, and not in a pressurized settlement on Mars, or at the main office of his firm in Chicago, was a cocky gesture of bravado, a leaf torn from the book of his more worthy sire, and perhaps more particularly an attempt to counteract the consequences of his bad business judgment, personally.

The fear of one who sees how his haste and breed can be called punishable criminal negligence, was in his face. The things that had been human, sprawled stiff before him, accusing him. But the worst was the presence of those grim, silent men, who might add him forcibly to the death-list. That moment held crystallized in it the conflict of an urge to win vast profits, with the payment in human lives that had been exacted this time.

Near-dead Titan was the present step in mankind’s outward march of colonial dominion toward the stars. Titan itself was rich in the radioactive ores that has become the fuel, the moving force, not only of the rockets of Earth’s expanding space-commerce, but of the wheels of industry and comfort at home. And richer in those elements were the Rings of Saturn, nearby, those stupendous, whirling bands of dust, wreckage of a broken satellite in which, as in any other planet or moon most of those heaviest, costliest metals had originally sunk to its center, far out of reach of mining operations. But in the Rings, all this incalculable wealth of uranium, radium, osmium, and so forth, not to mention millions of tons of useless gold, was uniquely exposed as easily accessible dust.

Oh, yes. And the S.C.S.--Space Colonists’ Supply--wanted its cut for providing equipment, as received elsewhere in the past. Bert Kraskow knew that this must remain dapper Trenton Lauren’s aim, in spite of a vast and possibly ruinous investment in manufactured goods that could turn out to be obsolete and unmarketable, in addition to its poor quality.

Bert studied Lauren from between narrowed eyelids, weighing his qualities further, judging, ever predicting. Trenton Lauren might hate himself some for the deaths that were his responsibility. Yet Bert bet that he hated himself more for having to explain the failure of one of his airdomes to these crude colonists. It hurt his ego. Lauren was full of fear; he was a stuffy, visionless conservative, but he was wily, too.

Bert saw his lips tighten, as he marshalled his forces to smooth down the fury of the men before him.

“I’m deeply sorry that these people had to die,” he said in his high-pitched voice. “But chance-taking is part of any new space-venture. And all who use airdomes, spacesuits, or other S.C.S. equipment, are insured against its defective performance. Ten thousand dollars, paid in case of death, is still a lot of money. S.C.S. has made fine products for over forty years. No dangerous, new-fangled ideas can yet replace them. Considering the risk inherent in space colonization, occasional mishaps can hardly be avoided. You all know that. Business--life--everything--is a gamble.”

Sure. About chance-taking there was truth in his pompous words. But did one buy a life with a few thousand dollars, or call money a just penalty for obvious and deadly neglect?

Knots of muscle gathered at the angles of Lawler’s square jaw. Old Stan Kraskow stared at Lauren as if he didn’t believe that anybody could talk so stupidly.

Bert Kraskow’s savage blood seethed. But when he was really sore his tendency was to be coldly and quietly logical in his speech and actions. The plans to change things were made. He was in on them. And what was the use of getting into arguments that might give the enemy a hint? Or set off violence that might spoil everything?

“Easy,” he whispered. “Dad! Lawler! Don’t talk. Don’t start anything.”

But Alice Leland Kraskow, Bert’s wife, had arrived on the scene. She was little and dark and fiery, one of the few feminine colonists yet on Titan. In another airdome, where Bert and she had their cottage, she had been awakened by the shouts of those who had seen the accident take place. Donning a spacesuit, she had followed the crowd.

Being at a little distance from her, Bert had no chance to shush her outspoken comments. And to try might have done no good, anyway. She had truth to tell, and a woman’s tongue to tell it.

“Yes, Mr. Lauren,” she said pointedly. “We’re all gamblers. Granted. But you started to cheat even before you were afraid of losing. Maybe it’s time we did something about it.”

Trenton Lauren looked more scared than before. But now, as two Space Patrolmen in their silvery armor, arrived from their quarters and stood beside him, he smiled a little.

“Madam,” he drawled, “maybe I know what you mean. You want to defy the law. Someone around here has been hoping for word from Earth that an okay has been granted by the Safe Products Approval Board, for, shall we say, a radically new product? Well, the optimists will wait a long time for such approval at the S.P.A.B. The action of this invention is, to say the least, extremely dangerous. So, if they’re that foolish, those optimists might as well go ahead with their alternate course: To bring their deadly and spectacular innovation dramatically into use without the stamp of safety!”

Bert’s concern about his wife’s outspoken challenge to Lauren was thus suddenly diverted. His jaw hardened further. A nagging suspicion that Trenton Lauren had found things out, was confirmed. It meant, perhaps, that Lauren had already taken counteraction secretly.

Bert Kraskow longed to beat up Lauren in spite of the presence of the two space policemen. But the need for immediate and better action denied him this extravagant luxury. He went to his wife’s side and took her arm.

“Lauren,” he said. “I’ve got a brother to bury. So discussions are out, for now. Guys, will you bring Nick’s body to my cottage? Come on, Allie...”

Bert was trying very hard to slip away unobtrusively when Lauren grinned mockingly. “Hold on, Kraskow,” he snapped. “You’re tangled up in this matter, somehow. I’ve learned that you’ve already broken a minor law by landing a ship quietly out in the deserts of Titan without declaring its presence; a ship that can be assumed reasonably to be freighted with lethal materials. As a dangerous individual, you can be put under an arrest of restraint. Legal technicalities can be disregarded in a raw colonization project where people are apt to show hysteria, and where something like military law must be enforced for general protection. The say-so of an old and honorable firm like S. C. S. that you are a menace, can, I am sure, be accepted. Patrolmen, take him!”

The cops were puzzled. They offered no immediate objection as Bert, leading his wife, tried to pass them. But Lauren got in Bert’s way to prevent him from slipping into the glowering crowd.

Against a man in space-armor, fists weren’t very effective; still Bert had the satisfaction of giving Lauren a mighty shove that sent him sprawling. A terrible fury was behind it. The desperation of a last chance. Here was where he had to become completely outlaw.

Alice and he threaded their way through the crowd where the cops could use neither their blasters nor their paralyzers, in spite of Lauren’s frantic urging to “Get them!”

Once in the clear, Bert ran with his wife. There was no question of destination. They came to a metal shed. Inside it, beside the small spaceboat, they found Lawler who had anticipated where Bert would go.

The two men spoke to each other with their helmet radios shut off to avoid eaves-dropping. They clasped hands so that the sound-waves of their voices would have a channel over which to pass, in the absence of a sufficiently dense atmosphere.

“All of a sudden I’m a little worried, Bert,” Lawler growled. “About the Big Pill. Maybe Lauren is half right about its being so dangerous. After all it has never been tested on a large scale before. And there are two hundred people here on Titan. Well, you know what’s got to be done now. When you get to the Prometheus, tell Doc Kramer that I’m squeezing my thumbs...”

Lawler sounded almost plaintive at the end.

Bert felt the tweak of that same worry, too, but his course was set. He grinned in the darkness that surrounded them.

“Nuts!” he said. “Even Lauren admits that everything is a gamble, remember? And you can pile all of the people into the space ship here in camp, and blast off with them, and hover at a safe distance from Titan till we’re absolutely sure. I’d better hurry now, Lawler. Lauren’s cops’ll be on my tail any second. Gotta go.”

“With your wife along?” Lawler demanded.

“Sure,” Bert answered. “Allie’s a fine shot with a blaster. Often I wish she wasn’t such a good shot with her tongue. But I guess that with Lauren she cleared the atmosphere. Right, Allie?”

With a small hand on the shoulder of each man, Alice had been listening in. “I think so,” she answered grimly. “Let’s dash.”

Ten seconds later Bert Kraskow and his wife went rocketing up into the weird and glorious Titanian night, which was nearing its end. They thought of Doc Kramer, the little physicist, waiting for them out in the desert, in the space ship, Prometheus, with its terrible and wonderful cargo. Bert thought, too, of his contact and contract with the new colonists’ supply company, which was also called Prometheus. Yeah, Prometheus, the educator, the fire-bringing god of the ancient Greeks. The symbol of progress. At that moment Bert Kraskow felt very right. He’d been hired secretly to help carry the torch against the stiff and smug forces of conservative obstructionism, with its awkward and now antiquated methods.

Alice kept looking behind through the windows of the spaceboat’s cabin. She spoke, now, with her helmet face-window open, for there was breathable air around them.

“I was thinking that Lauren might want us to run like this, Bert, so that we’d lead the cops to the hiding place of the Prometheus. So far there’s no pursuit.”

Bert growled, “I’m not worried that the Patrol boys won’t be along. What really scares me is that some of Lauren’s men may already have found the Prometheus. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Beneath the spaceboat the desert rolled. Vast Saturn and his multiple moons, hung against the black and all-but-airless star-curtain. Then, all of a sudden, before the eastward hurtling craft, it was daylight, as the tiny sun burst over the horizon. Its wan rays fell on pale, stratified mists of air, all but frozen in the cold of night.

Those mists, cupped between the hills, were the last of Titan’s atmosphere. Once, eons ago, when monster Saturn had been hot enough to supplement the far-off sun’s heat with radiation of its own, those hills had been, for a few brief ages, verdant with primitive, mossy growths.

Bert followed the dry bed of an ancient river, till he came to the rocky cleft where the Prometheus had been concealed.

Just as they glimpsed the ship, Alice gave a sharp gasp, as they saw another spaceboat dart unhurriedly away. Bert landed in the rocky gorge, and on foot they approached the Prometheus cautiously, the blasters from the cabin of the spaceboat gripped in their gauntleted hands.

They found the ship’s airlock securely bolted. But someone had tried to cut through its tough, heat-resistant shell with a blaster for the metal was still hot.

“A break,” Bert breathed raggedly. “We got here just in time to scare them off ... Hey!...”

That was when they found Doc Kramer. He lay behind a boulder, a pathetic little figure who seemed to be merely sleeping. There wasn’t a mark on him that could be easily discovered. There was no time to figure out how he had died--by poisoned needle, overstrong paralyzer beam, or whatever. His body, within its spacesuit, was just beginning to develop rigor mortis.

Alice’s eyes were wet, her small jaw set hard. “Your brother’s death was at least an unintentional accident caused by carelessly made equipment, Bert,” she said. “But Doc was murdered.”

“Yeah,” Bert grated thickly. “Only murder is awful hard to prove as far from civilization as this. Come on, we can’t do a thing about it right now.”

Double rage and grief drove him on toward what he must do with greater insistence than before. With a key from his hip-pouch, he opened the airlock of the Prometheus. With great caution they went inside but found no one in the ship.

The mood of its interior was brooding and sullen. Every cubic foot of space not taken up by its machinery and fuel was packed with black ingots of an alloy, a large proportion of which was fissionable metal, quiescent now, and harmless, but under the right kind of primer, capable of bursting into a specialized hell of energy. Five thousand tons of the stuff, Earth-weight!

But even all this was the secondary part of the purpose for which the Prometheus had been fitted. Bert and Alice followed a narrow catwalk to a compartment along the keel of the ship which was fitted like a huge bomb-bay. And the monster that rested there, gripped by mechanically operated claws, would certainly have fitted the definition of a bomb as well as anything that had ever been made by Earth-science. Child, it was, of the now ancient H-bomb.

It was a tapered cylinder, a hundred feet long and thirty feet thick. For one grim, devilish moment Bert Kraskow paused to pat its flank, to feel the solid metallic slap of its tremendous shellcase under his palm, to be aware of the intricacies of its hidden parts: The forklike masses of fissionable metals that could dovetail and join instantly; the heavy-water, the lead, the steel, the beryllium.

Here was watchlike perfection and delicacy of mechanism--precision meant to function faultlessly for but a fragment of a second, and then to perish in a mighty and furious fulfillment. Here was the thought of man crystallized--trying to tread a hairline past inconceivable disaster, to the realization of a dream that was splendid.

In that moment this thing seemed the answer to all the fury of wrong and sorrow that burned in Bert Kraskow. And the vision soared in his mind like a legend of green fields and light. For a few seconds he was sure, until doubt crept up again from the bottom of his brain, and until Alice put that uncertainty into words.

“Doc is gone,” she said. “Even with his expert help, using the Big Pill would be taking a chance. Bert, do you think we can do it alone? Will it be all right? Are you certain, Bert?”

Her large, dark eyes pleaded for reassurance.

He sighed as the strain plucked at his nerves, in spite of what he knew of Doc Kramer’s careful small-scale tests. Maybe what he felt was just a normal suspicion of anything so new and so colossal.

“No, Allie, not absolutely certain,” he replied. “But how can anybody ever be sure of anything unless they try it? Doc died for an idea that holds tremendous hope for the good of all people who make their living in space. He was the principal inventor, and much more than just the boss of a new company. We aren’t going to let him down. What we’re going to do is for Nick, and for everybody who ever died violently on near-dead worlds. Lauren, and what he stands for, won’t stop us. We can radio another warning and instruct everyone on Titan to blast off for a while.”

Alice seemed to draw confidence from her husband’s words. She smiled a bit wanly. “Okay, Bert,” she said. “This is also for the folks who have gone nuts, or have just gotten terribly homesick from seeing too much black sky of space for too long. Let’s go!”

They strapped themselves to the seats in the Prometheus‘ control room. Bert depressed the throttle. Rocket jets flamed. The rebuilt freighter lifted heavily and gained momentum toward a speed of miles per second. In the rear-vision screen the Kraskows saw two police spaceboats flashing the blue signal for them to land.

Bert set the Prometheus in an orbit around Titan, about a thousand miles above the bleak and dried out surface of this Saturnian satellite. Thus the ship became a little moon of a moon.

Alice was shouting into the mike of the large radio transmitter: “Colonists at Camp Titan! Enter your ship! Blast into space for safety! We are about to use the Big Pill! Colonists at Camp Titan! Blast for safety! ... Police boats, give us room! Don’t interfere!...”

This was the start of wild drama. When Alice switched from transmission to reception, the calls from the patrol craft were stern: “Freighter Prometheus, this is the Space Patrol. Proceed to a landing or we blast.”

But these calls still seemed secondary, compared to other words also coming from the receiver, like another, overlapping radio program. It was Trenton Lauren’s scared voice that spoke:

“Space Colonists’ Supply, Incorporated, calling deep-space units of patrol! Send more help to Titan! Maniac named Kraskow amuck with freighter Prometheus, known to contain huge bomb! Destroy on sight: Bomb supposed to be invention of group headed by one, Emil Kramer, renegade scientist believed to have a grudge against S. C. S. Claims for invention wholly extravagant and unbased. Hurry, deep-space units of Patrol. More help! Or all of Titan will be flooded with heat and deadly radioactivity! Hurry ... Hurry ... Hurry...”

Just then the Prometheus rocked from the impact of a blaster-beam; and though the Kraskows could not see the effect of the weapon, they knew that there were glowing spots on their ship’s tough hull. If the Patrol boats could bear down with their beams on a particular area for a few seconds, a mighty episode could end violently before it had a chance to start.

Alice’s small hands were on the complicated aiming and firing mechanism of the heavy blaster, mounted externally on the hull of the Prometheus.

“I’ll keep the cops at a distance with a few near-misses,” she said. “Maybe they aren’t too anxious to take the chance of setting off the Big Pill, anyway. Let me worry about them, Bert. Just do what you’ve got to do...”

They had shut off their radio. There was no need to listen to the somewhat hysterical repetitions of what had come through before.

Every few moments there was a burst of humming sound as Alice fired. Bert put additional power into the rockets to surpass fixed orbital speed; but he held the ship to a tight curve around Titan. It was best to cover distance as quickly as possible. In his speeding course, he passed almost over the camp. But his purpose was to bomb a point at antipodes from it, halfway around this Saturnian moon.

Under full acceleration, the Prometheus was soon nearing this destination. To allow for the Big Pill’s forward motion, imparted to it by the ship’s velocity even after release, he pressed the lever that opened the bomb-bay doors, and then jabbed the single button that controlled both release, and the firing of the gigantic missile’s own propulsive jets. Without those jets, considering the centrifugal force of its vast velocity in a circular path around Titan, much overbalancing the feebler gravitational pull of the moon, it could not have started its fall at all. It needed jets to drive it down.

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