A reporter should be objective even about a hospital. It’s his business to stir others’ emotions and not let his own be stirred. But that was no good, Mel Hastings told himself. No good at all when it was Alice who was here somewhere, balanced uncertainly between life and death.
Alice had been in Surgery far too long. Something had gone wrong. He was sure of it. He glanced at his watch. It would soon be dawn outside. To Mel Hastings this marked a significant and irrevocable passage of time. If Alice were to emerge safe and whole from the white cavern of Surgery she would have done so now.
Mel sank deeper in the heavy chair, feeling a quietness within himself as if the slow creep of death were touching him also. There was a sudden far distant roar and through the window he saw a streak of brightness in the sky. That would be the tourist ship, the Martian Princess, he remembered.
That was the last thing Alice had said before they took her away from him. “As soon as I’m well again we’ll go to Mars for a vacation again, and then you’ll remember. It’s so beautiful there. We had so much fun--”
Funny, wonderful little Alice--and her strange delusion that she still clung to, that they had taken a Martian vacation in the first year of their marriage. It had started about a year ago, and nothing he could say would shake it. Neither of them had ever been to space.
He wished now he had taken her. It would have been worth it, no matter what its personal cost. He had never told her about the phobia that had plagued him all his life, the fear of outer space that made him break out in a cold sweat just to think of it--nor of the nightmare that came again and again, ever since he was a little boy.
There must have been some way to lick this thing--to give her that vacation on Mars that she had wanted so much.
Now it was too late. He knew it was too late.
The white doors opened, and Dr. Winters emerged slowly. He looked at Mel Hastings a long time as if trying to remember who the reporter was. “I must see you--in my office,” he said finally.
Mel stared back in numb recognition. “She’s dead,” he said.
Dr. Winters nodded slowly as if in surprise and wonder that Mel had divined this fact. “I must see you in my office,” he repeated.
Mel watched his retreating figure. There seemed no point in following. Dr. Winters had said all that need be said. Far down the corridor the Doctor turned and stood patiently as if understanding why Mel had not followed, but determined to wait until he did. The reporter stirred and rose from the chair, his legs withering beneath him. The figure of Dr. Winters grew larger as he approached. The morning clatter of the hospital seemed an ear-torturing shrillness. The door of the office closed and shut it out.
“She is dead.” Dr. Winters sat behind the desk and folded and unfolded his hands. He did not look at Mel. “We did everything we could, Mr. Hastings. Her injuries from the accident were comparatively minor--” He hesitated, then went on. “In normal circumstances there would have been no question--her injuries could have been repaired.”
“What do you mean, ‘In normal circumstances--’?”
Dr. Winters turned his face away from Mel for a moment as if to avoid some pain beyond endurance. He passed a weary hand across his forehead and eyes and held it there a moment before speaking. Then he faced Mel again. “The woman you brought in here last night--your wife--is completely un-normal in her internal structure. Her internal organs cannot even be identified. She is like a being of some other species. She is not--she is simply not human, Mr. Hastings.”
Mel stared at him, trying to grasp the meaning of the words. Meaning would not come. He uttered a short, hysterical laugh that was like a bark. “You’re crazy, Doc. You’ve completely flipped your lid!”
Dr. Winters nodded. “For hours during the night I was in agreement with that opinion. When I first observed your wife’s condition I was convinced I was utterly insane. I called in six other men to verify my observation. All of them were as stupefied as I by what we saw. Organs that had no place in a human structure. Evidence of a chemistry that existed in no living being we had ever seen before--”
The Doctor’s words rolled over him like a roaring surf, burying, smothering, destroying--
“I want to see.” Mel’s voice was like a hollow cough from far away. “I think you’re crazy. I think you’re hiding some mistake you made yourself. You killed Alice in a simple little operation, and now you’re trying to get out of it with some crazy story that nobody on earth would ever believe!”
“I want you to see,” said Dr. Winters, rising slowly. “That’s why I called you in here, Mr. Hastings.”
Mel trailed him down the long corridor again. No words were spoken between them. Mel felt as if nothing were real anymore.
They went through the white doors of Surgery and through the inner doors. Then they entered a white, silent--cold--room beyond.
In the glare of icy white lights a single sheeted figure rested on a table. Mel suddenly didn’t want to see. But Dr. Winters was drawing back the cover. He exposed the face, the beloved features of Alice Hastings. Mel cried out her name and moved toward the table. There was nothing in her face to suggest she was not simply sleeping, her hair disarrayed, her face composed and relaxed as he had seen her hundreds of times.
“Can you stand to witness this?” asked Dr. Winters anxiously. “Shall I get you a sedative?”
Mel shook his head numbly. “No--show me...”
The great, fresh wound extended diagonally across the abdomen and branched up beneath the heart. The Doctor grasped a pair of small scissors and swiftly clipped the temporary sutures. With forceps and retractors he spread open the massive incision.
Mel closed his eyes against the sickness that seized him.
“Gangrene!” he said. “She’s full of gangrene!”
Below the skin, the surface layers of fatty tissue, the substance of the tissue changed from the dark red of the wounded tissue to a dark and greenish hue that spoke of deadly decay.
But Dr. Winters was shaking his head. “No. It’s not gangrene. That’s the way we found the tissue. That appears to be its--normal condition, if you will.”
Mel stared without believing, without comprehending.
Dr. Winters probed the wound open further. “We should see the stomach here,” he said. “What is here where the stomach should be I cannot tell you. There is no name for this organ. The intestinal tract should lie here. Instead, there is only this homogeneous mass of greenish, gelatinous material. Other organs, hardly differentiated from this mass, appear where the liver, the pancreas, the spleen should be.”
Mel was hearing his voice as if from some far distance or in a dream.
“There are lungs--of a sort,” the Doctor went on. “She was certainly capable of breathing. And there’s a greatly modified circulatory system, two of them, it appears. One circulates a blood substance in the outer layers of tissue that is almost normal. The other circulates a liquid that gives the remainder of the organs their greenish hue. But how circulation takes place we do not know. She has no heart.”
Mel Hastings burst out in hysterical laughter. “Now I know you’re crazy Doc! My tender, loving Alice with no heart! She used to tell me, ‘I haven’t got any brains. I wouldn’t have married a dumb reporter if I did. But so I’ve got a heart and that’s what fell in love with you--my heart, not my brains.’ She loved me, can’t you understand that?”
Dr. Winters was slowly drawing him away. “I understand. Of course I understand. Come with me now, Mr. Hastings, and lie down for a little while. I’ll get you something to help take away the shock.”
Mel permitted himself to be led away to a small room nearby. He drank the liquid the Doctor brought, but he refused to lie down.
“You’ve shown me,” he said with dull finality. “But I don’t care what the explanation is. I knew Alice. She was human all right, more so than either you or I. She was completely normal, I tell you--all except for this idea she had the last year or so that we’d gone together on a vacation to Mars at one time.”
“That wasn’t true?”
“No. Neither of us had ever been out in space.”
“How well did you know your wife before you married her?”
Mel smiled in faint reminiscence. “We grew up together, went to the same grade school and high school. It seems like there was never a time when Alice and I didn’t know each other. Our folks lived next door for years.”
“Was she a member of a large family?”
“She had an older brother and sister and two younger sisters.”
“What were her parents like?”
“They’re still living. Her father runs an implement store. It’s a farm community where they live. Wonderful people. Alice was just like them.”
Dr. Winters was silent before he went on. “I have subjected you to this mental torture for just one reason, Mr. Hastings. If it has been a matter of any less importance I would not have told you the details of your wife’s condition, much less asking you to look at her. But this is such an enormous scientific mystery that I must ask your cooperation in helping to solve it. I want your permission to preserve and dissect the body of your wife for the cause of science.”
Mel looked at the Doctor in sudden sharp antagonism. “Not even give her a burial? Let her be put away in bottles, like--like a--”
“Please don’t upset yourself any more than necessary. But I do beg that you consider what I’ve just proposed. Surely a moment’s reflection will show you that this is no more barbaric than our other customs regarding our dead.
“But even this is beside the point. The girl, Alice, whom you married is like a normal human being in every apparent external respect, yet the organs which gave her life and enabled her to function are like nothing encountered before in human experience. It is imperative that we understand the meaning of this. It is yours to say whether or not we shall have this opportunity.”
Mel started to speak again, but the words wouldn’t come out.
“Time is critical,” said Dr. Winters, “but I don’t want to force you to an instantaneous answer. Take thirty minutes to think about it. Within that time, additional means of preservation must be taken. I regret that I must be in such haste, but I urge that your answer be yes.”
Dr. Winters moved towards the door, but Mel gestured for him to remain.
“I want to see her again,” Mel said.
“There is no need. You have been tortured enough. Remember your wife as you have known her all her life, not as you saw her a moment ago.”
“If you want my answer let me see her again.”
Dr. Winters led the way silently back to the cold room. Mel drew down the cover only far enough to expose the face of Alice. There was no mistake. Somehow he had been hoping that all this would turn out to be some monstrous error. But there was no error.
Would she want me to do what the Doctor has asked? he thought. She wouldn’t care. She would probably think it a very huge joke that she had been born with innards that made her different from everybody else. She would be amused by the profound probings and mutterings of the learned doctors trying to find an explanation for something that had no explanation.
Mel drew the sheet tenderly over her face.
“You can do as you wish,” he said to Dr. Winters. “It makes no difference to us--to either of us.”
The sedative Dr. Winters had given him, plus his own exhaustion, drove Mel to sleep for a few hours during the afternoon, but by evening he was awake again and knew that a night of sleeplessness lay ahead of him. He couldn’t stand to spend it in the house, with all its fresh reminders of Alice.
He walked out into the street as it began to get dark. Walking was easy; almost no one did it any more. The rush of private and commercial cars swarmed overhead and rumbled in the ground beneath. He was an isolated anachronism walking silently at the edge of the great city.
He was sick of it. He would have liked to have turned his back on the city and left it forever. Alice had felt the same. But there was nowhere to go. News reporting was the only thing he knew, and news occurred only in the great, ugly cities of the world. The farmlands, such as he and Alice had known when they were young, produced nothing of interest to the satiated denizens of the towns and cities. Nothing except food, and much of this was now being produced by great factories that synthesized protein and carbohydrates. When fats could be synthesized the day of the farmer would be over.
He wondered if there weren’t some way out of it now. With Alice gone there was only himself, and his needs were few. He didn’t know, but suddenly he wanted very much to see it all again. And, besides, he had to tell her folks.
The ancient surface bus reached Central Valley at noon the next day. It all looked very much as it had the last time Mel had seen it and it looked very good indeed. The vast, open lands; the immense ripe fields.
The bus passed the high school where Mel and Alice had attended classes together. He half expected to see her running across the campus lawn to meet him. In the middle of town he got off the bus and there were Alice’s mother and father.
They were dry-eyed now but white and numb with shock. George Dalby took his hand and pumped it heavily. “We can’t realize it, Mel. We just can’t believe Alice is gone.”
His wife put her arms around Mel and struggled with her tears again. “You didn’t say anything about the funeral. When will it be?”
Mel swallowed hard, fighting the one lie he had to tell. He almost wondered now why he had agreed to Dr. Winters’ request. “Alice--always wanted to do all the good she could in the world,” he said. “She figured that she could be of some use even after she was gone. So she made an agreement with the research hospital that they could have her body after she died.”
It took a moment for her mother to grasp the meaning. Then she cried out, “We can’t even bury her?”
“We should have a memorial service, right here at home where all her friends are,” said Mel.
George Dalby nodded in his grief. “That was just like Alice,” he said. “Always wanting to do something for somebody else--”
And it was true, Mel thought. If Alice had supposed she was not going to live any longer she would probably have thought of the idea, herself. Her parents were easily reconciled.
They took him out to the old familiar house and gave him the room where he and Alice had spent the first days of their marriage.
When it was night and the lights were out he felt able to sleep naturally for the first time since Alice’s accident. She seemed not far away here in this old familiar house.
In memory, she was not, for Mel was convinced he could remember the details of his every association with her. He first became conscious of her existence one day when they were in the third grade. At the beginning of each school year the younger pupils went through a course of weighing, inspection, knee tapping, and cavity counting. Mel had come in late for his examination that year and barged into the wrong room. A shower of little-girl squeals had greeted him as the teacher told him kindly where the boy’s examination room was.
But he remembered most vividly Alice Dalby standing in the middle of the room, her blouse off but held protectingly in front of her as she jumped up and down in rage and pointed a finger at him. “You get out of here, Melvin Hastings! You’re not a nice boy at all!”
Face red, he had hastily retreated as the teacher assured Alice and the rest of the girls that he had made a simple mistake. But how angry Alice had been! It was a week before she would speak to him.
He smiled and sank back deeply into the pillow. He remembered how proud he had been when old Doc Collins, who came out to do the honors every Fall, had told him there wasn’t a thing wrong with him and that if he continued to drink his milk regularly he’d grow up to be a football player. He could still hear Doc’s words whistling through his teeth and feel the coldness of the stethoscope on his chest.
Suddenly, he sat upright in bed in the darkness.
They had tapped and inspected and listened to Alice that day, and all the other examination days.
If Doc Collins had been unable to find a heartbeat in her he’d have fainted--and spread the news all over town!
Mel got up and stood at the window, his heart pounding. Old Doc Collins was gone, but the medical records of those school examinations might still be around somewhere. He didn’t know what he expected to prove, but surely those records would not tell the same story Dr. Winters had told.
It took him nearly all the next day. The grade school principal agreed to help him check through the dusty attic of the school, where ancient records and papers were tumbled about and burst from their cardboard boxes.
Then Paul Ames, the school board secretary, took Mel down to the District Office and offered to help look for the records. The old building was stifling hot and dusty with summer disuse. But down in the cool, cobwebbed basement they found it ... Alice’s records from the third grade on up through the ninth. On every one: heart, o.k.; lungs, normal. Pulse and blood pressure readings were on each chart.
“I’d like to take these,” said Mel. “Her doctor in town--he wants to write some kind of paper on her case and would like all the past medical history he can get.”
Paul Ames frowned thoughtfully. “I’m not allowed to give District property away. But they should have been thrown out a long time ago--take ‘em and don’t tell anybody I let you have ‘em.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot,” Mel said.
And when she was fourteen or fifteen her appendix had been removed. A Dr. Brown had performed the operation, Mel remembered. He had taken over from Collins.
“Sure, he’s still here,” Paul Ames said. “Same office old Doc Collins used. You’ll probably find him there right now.”
Dr. Brown remembered. He didn’t remember the details of the appendectomy, but he still had records that showed a completely normal operation.
“I wonder if I could get a copy of that record and have you sign it,” Mel said. He explained about the interest of Dr. Winters in her case without revealing the actual circumstances.
“Glad to,” said Dr. Brown. “I just wish things hadn’t turned out the way they have. One of the loveliest girls that ever grew up here, Alice.”
The special memorial service was held in the old community church on Sunday afternoon. It was like the drawing of a curtain across a portion of Mel’s life, and he knew that curtain would never open again.
He took a bus leaving town soon after the service.
There was one final bit of evidence, and he wondered all the way back to town why he had not thought of it first. Alice’s pregnancy had ended in miscarriage, and there had never been another.
But X-rays had been taken to try to find the cause of Alice’s difficulty. If they showed that Alice was normal within the past two years--
Dr. Winters was mildly surprised to see Mel again. He invited the reporter in to his office and offered him a chair. “I suppose you have come to inquire about our findings regarding your wife.”
“Yes--if you’ve found anything,” said Mel. “I’ve got a couple of things to show you.”
“We’ve found little more than we knew the night of her death. We have completed the dissection of the body. A minute analysis of each organ is now under way, and chemical tests of the body’s substances are being made. We found that differences in the skeletal structure were almost as great as those in the fleshy tissues. We find no relationship between these structures and those of any other species--human or animal--that we have ever found.”
“And yet Alice was not always like that,” said Mel.
Dr. Winters looked at him sharply. “How do you know that?”
Mel extended the medical records he had obtained in Central Valley. Dr. Winters picked them up and examined them for a long time while Mel watched silently.
Finally, Dr. Winters put the records down with a sigh. “This seems to make the problem even more complex than it was.”
“There are X-rays, too,” said Mel. “Alice had pelvic X-rays only a little over two years ago. I tried to get them, but the doctor said you’d have to request them. They should be absolute proof that Alice was different then.”
“Tell me who has them and I’ll send for them at once.”
An hour later Dr. Winters shook his head in disbelief as he turned off the light box and removed the X-ray photograph. “It’s impossible to believe that these were taken of your wife, but they corroborate the evidence of the other medical records. They show a perfectly normal structure.”
The two men remained silent across the desk, each reluctant to express his confused thoughts. Dr. Winters finally broke the silence. “It must be, Mr. Hastings,” he said, “--it must be that this woman--this utterly alien person--is simply not your wife, Alice. Somehow, somewhere, there must be a mistake in identity, a substitution of similar individuals.”
“She was not out of my sight,” said Mel. “Everything was completely normal when I came home that night. Nothing was out of place. We went out to a show. Then, on the way home, the accident occurred. There could have been no substitution--except right here in the hospital. But I know it was Alice I saw. That’s why I made you let me see her again--to make sure.”
“But the evidence you have brought me proves otherwise. These medical records, these X-rays prove that the girl, Alice, whom you married, was quite normal. It is utterly impossible that she could have metamorphosed into the person on whom we operated.”
Mel stared at the reflection of the sky in the polished desk top. “I don’t know the answer,” he said. “It must not be Alice. But if that’s the case, where is Alice?”
“That might even be a matter for the police,” said Dr. Winters. “There are many things yet to be learned about this mystery.”
“There’s one thing more,” said Mel. “Fingerprints. When we first came here Alice got a job where she had to have her fingerprints taken.”
“Excellent!” Dr. Winters exclaimed. “That should give us our final proof!”
It took the rest of the afternoon to get the fingerprint record and make a comparison. Dr. Winters called Mel at home to give him the report. There was no question. The fingerprints were identical. The corpse was that of Alice Hastings.
The nightmare came again that night. Worse than Mel could ever remember it. As always, it was a dream of space, black empty space, and he was floating alone in the immense depths of it. There was no direction. He was caught in a whirlpool of vertigo from which he reached out with agonized yearning for some solidarity to cling to.
There was only space.
After a time he was no longer alone. He could not see them, but he knew they were out there. The searchers. He did not know why he had to flee or why they sought him, but he knew they must never overtake him, or all would be lost.
Somehow he found a way to propel himself through empty space. The searchers were growing points of light in the far distance. They gave him a sense of direction. His being, his existence, his universe of meaning and understanding depended on the success of his flight from the searchers. Faster, through the wild black depths of space--
He never knew whether he escaped or not. Always he awoke in a tangle of bedclothes, bathed in sweat, whimpering in fear. For a long time Alice had been there to touch his hand when he awoke. But Alice was gone now and he was so weary of the night pursuit. Sometimes he wished it would end with the searchers--whoever they were--catching up with him and doing what they intended to do. Then maybe there would be no more nightmare. Maybe there would be no more Mel Hastings, he thought. And that wouldn’t be so bad, either.
He tossed sleeplessly the rest of the night and got up at dawn feeling as if he had not been to bed at all. He would take one day more, and then get back to the News Bureau. He’d take this day to do what couldn’t be put off any longer--the collecting and disposition of Alice’s personal belongings.
He shaved, bathed and dressed, then began emptying the drawers, one by one. There were many souvenirs, mementos. She was always collecting these. Her bottom drawer was full of stuff that he’d glimpsed only occasionally.
In the second layer of junk in the drawer he came across the brochure on Martian vacations. It must have been one of the dreams of her life, he thought. She’d wanted it so much that she’d almost come to believe that it was real. He turned the pages of the smooth, glossy brochure. Its cover bore the picture of the great Martian Princess and the blazoned emblem of Connemorra Space Lines. Inside were glistening photos of the plush interior of the great vacation liner, and pictures of the domed cities of Mars where Earthmen played more than they worked. Mars had become the great resort center of Earth.
Mel closed the book and glanced again at the Connemorra name. Only one man had ever amassed the resources necessary to operate a private space line. Jim Connemorra had done it; no one knew quite how. But he operated now out of both hemispheres with a space line that ignored freight and dealt only in passenger business. He made money, on a scale that no government-operated line had yet been able to approach.
Mel sank down to the floor, continuing to shift through the other things in the drawer.
His hand stopped. He remained motionless as recognition showered sudden frantic questions in his mind. There lay a ticket envelope marked Connemorra Lines.
The envelope was empty when he looked inside, and there was no name on it. But it was worn. As if it might have been carried to Mars and back.
In sudden frenzy he began examining each article and laying it in a careless pile on the floor. He recognized a pair of idiotic Martian dolls. He found a tourist map of the ruined cities of Mars. He found a menu from the Red Sands Hotel.
And below all these there was a picture album. Alice at the Red Sands. Alice at the Phobos Oasis. Alice at the Darnella Ruins. He turned the pages of the album with numb fingers. Alice in a dozen Martian settings. Some of them were dated. About two years ago. They had gone together, Alice had said, but there was no evidence of Mel’s presence on any such trip.
But it was equally impossible that Alice had made the trip, yet here was proof. Proof that swept him up in a doubting of his own senses. How could such a thing have taken place? Had he actually made such a trip and been stripped of the memory by some amnesia? Maybe he had forced himself to go with her and the power of his lifelong phobia had wiped it from his memory.
And what did it all have to do--if anything--with the unbelievable thing Dr. Winters had found about Alice?
Overcome with grief and exhaustion he sat fingering the mementos aimlessly while he stared at the pictures and the ticket envelope and the souvenirs.
Dr. Winters spoke a little more sharply than he intended. “I don’t think anything is going to be solved by a wild-goose chase to Mars. It’s going to cost you a great deal of money, and there isn’t a single positive lead to any solution.”
“It’s the only possible explanation.” Mel persisted. “Something happened on Mars to change her from what she once was to--what you saw on your operating table.”
“And you are hoping that in some desperate way you will find there was a switch of personalities--that there may be a ghost of a chance of finding Alice still alive.”
Mel bit his lip. He was scarcely willing to admit such a hope but it was the foundation of his decision. “I’ve got to do what I can,” he said. “I must take the chance. The uncertainty will torment me all my life if I don’t.”
Dr. Winters shook his head. “I still wish I could persuade you against it. You will find only disappointment.”
“My mind is made up. Will you help me or not?”
“What can I do?”
“I can’t go into space unless I can find some way of lifting, even temporarily, this phobia that nearly drives me crazy at the thought of going out there. Isn’t there a drug, a hypnotic method, or something to help a thing like this?”
“This isn’t my field,” said Dr. Winters. “But I suspect that the cause of your trouble cannot be suppressed. It will have to be lifted. Psycho-recovery is the only way to accomplish that. I can recommend a number of good men. This, too, is very expensive.”
“I should have done it for Alice--long ago,” said Mel.
Dr. Martin, the psychiatrist, was deeply interested in Mel’s problem. “It sounds as if it is based on some early trauma, which has long since been wiped from your conscious memory. Recovery may be easy or difficult, depending on how much suppression of the original event has taken place.”
“I don’t even care what the original event was,” said Mel, “if you rid me of this overwhelming fear of space. Dr. Winters said he thought recovery would be required.”
“He is right. No matter how much overlay you pile on top of such a phobia to suppress it, it will continue to haunt you. We can make a trial run to analyze the situation, and then we can better predict the chance of ultimate success.”
As a reporter, Mel Hastings had had vague encounters with the subject of psycho-recovery, but he knew little of the details about it. He knew it involved some kind of a machine that could tap the very depths of the human mind and drag out the hidden debris accumulated in mental basements and attics. But such things had always given him the willies. He steered clear of them.
When Dr. Martin first introduced him into the psycho-recovery room his resolution almost vanished. It looked more like a complex electronic laboratory than anything else. A half dozen operators and assistants in nurses’ uniforms stood by.
“If you will recline here--,” Dr. Martin was saying.
Mel felt as if he were being prepared for some inhuman biological experiment. A cage of terminals was fitted to his head and a thousand small electrodes adjusted to contact with his skull. The faint hum of equipment supported the small surge of apprehension within him.
After half an hour the preparations were complete. The level of lights in the room was lowered. He could sense the operators at their panels and see dimly the figure of Dr. Martin seated near him.
“Try to recall as vividly as possible your last experience with this nightmare you have described. We will try to lock on to that and follow it on down.”
This was the last thing in the world Mel wanted to do. He lay in agonized indecision, remembering that he had dreamed only a short time ago, but fighting off the actual recollection of the dream.
“Let yourself go,” Dr. Martin said kindly. “Don’t fight it--”
A fragment of his mind let down its guard for a brief instant. It was like touching the surface of a whirlpool. He was sucked into the sweeping depths of the dream. He sensed that he cried out in terror as he plunged. But there was no one to hear. He was alone in space.
Fear wrapped him like black, clammy fur. He felt the utter futility of even being afraid. He would simply remain as he was, and soon he would cease to be.
But they were coming again. He sensed, rather than saw them. The searchers. And his fear of them was greater than his fear of space alone. He moved. Somehow he moved, driving headlong through great vastness while the pinpoints of light grew behind him.
“Very satisfactory,” Dr. Martin was saying. “An extremely satisfactory probe.”
His voice came through to Mel as from beyond vast barriers of time and space. Mel felt the thick sweat that covered his body. Weakness throbbed in his muscles.
“It gives us a very solid anchor point,” Dr. Martin said. “From here I think we run back to the beginning of the experience and unearth the whole thing. Are you ready, Mr. Hastings?”
Mel felt too weak to nod. “Let ‘er rip!” he muttered weakly.
The day was warm and sunny. He and Alice had arrived early at the spaceport to enjoy the holiday excitement preceding the takeoff. It was something they had both dreamed of since they were kids--a vacation in the fabulous domed cities and ruins of Mars.
Alice was awed by her first close view of the magnificent ship lying in its water berth that opened to Lake Michigan. “It’s huge--how can such an enormous ship ever get off the Earth?”
Mel laughed. “Let’s not worry about that. We know it does. That’s all that matters.” But he could not help being impressed, too, by the enormous size and the graceful lines of the luxury ship. Unlike Alice, he was not seeing it at close range for the first time. He had met the ship scores of times in his reporting job, interviewing famous and well-known personages as they departed or arrived from the fabulous playgrounds of Mars.
“If you look carefully,” Mel pointed out, “you’ll see a lot of faces that make news when they come and go.”
Alice’s face glowed as she clung to Mel’s arm and recognized some of the famous citizens who would be their fellow passengers. “This is going to be the most fun we’ve ever had in our lives, darling.”
“Like a barrel of monkeys,” Mel said casually, enjoying the bubbling excitement that was in Alice.
The ship was so completely stabilized that the passengers did not even have to sit down during takeoff. They crowded the ports to watch the land and the water shoot past as the ship skimmed half the length of Lake Michigan in its takeoff run. As it bore into the upper atmosphere on an ever-increasing angle of climb, its own artificial gravity system took over and gave the illusion of horizontal flight with the Earth receding slowly behind.
Mel and Alice wandered through the salons and along the spacious decks as if in some fairyland-come-true. All sense of time seemed to vanish and they floated with the great ship in timeless, endless space.
He wasn’t quite certain when he first became aware of his own sense of disquietude. It seemed to result from a change in the members of the crew. On the morning of the third day they ceased their universal and uninterrupted concern for their passengers’ entertainment and enjoyment.
Most of the passengers seemed to have taken no note of it. Mel commented to Alice. She laughed at him. “What do you expect? They’ve spent two full days showing us the ship and teaching us to play all the games aboard. You don’t expect them to play nurse to us during the whole trip, do you?”
It sounded reasonable. “I suppose so,” said Mel dubiously. “But just what are they doing? They all seem to be in such a hurry to get somewhere this morning.”
“Well, they must have some duties to perform in connection with running the ship.”
Mel shook his head in doubt.
Alice joined him in wandering about the decks, kibitzing on the games of the other passengers, and watching the stars and galaxies on the telescopic screens. It was on one of these that they first saw the shadow out in space. Small at first, the black shadow crossed a single star and made it wink. That was what caught Mel’s attention, a winking star in the dead night of space.
When he was sure, he called Alice’s attention to it. “There’s something moving out there.” By now it had shape, like a tiny black bullet.
“Where? I don’t see anything.”
“It’s crossing that patch of stars. Watch, and you can see it blot them out as it moves.”
“It’s another ship!” Alice exclaimed. “That’s exciting! To think we’re passing another ship in all this great emptiness of space! I wonder where it’s coming from?”
“And where it’s going to.”
They watched its slow, precise movement across the stars. After several minutes a steward passed by. Mel hailed him and pointed to the screen. “Can you tell us what that other ship is?”
The steward glanced and seemed to recognize it instantly. But he paused in replying. “That’s the Mars liner,” he said finally. “In just a few minutes the public address system will announce contact and change of ship.”
“Change of ship?” Mel asked, puzzled. “I never heard anything about a change of ship.”
“Oh, yes,” the steward said. “This is only the shuttle that we’re on now. We transfer to the liner for the remainder of the trip. I’m sure that was explained to you at the time you purchased your tickets.” He hurried away.
Mel was quite sure no such thing had been explained to him when he purchased tickets. He turned back to the screen and watched the black ship growing swiftly larger now as it and the Martian Princess approached on contact courses.
The public address system came alive suddenly. “This is your Captain. All passengers will now prepare to leave the shuttle and board the Mars liner. Hand luggage should be made ready. All luggage stowed in the hold will be transferred without your attention. It has been a pleasure to have you aboard. Contact with the liner will be made in fifteen minutes.”
From the buzz around him Mel knew that this was as much a surprise to everyone else as it was to him, but it was greeted with excitement and without question.
Even Alice was growing excited now and others crowded around them when it was discovered what they were viewing. “It looks big,” said Alice in subdued voice. “Bigger than this ship by far.”
Mel moved away and let the others have his place before the screen. His sense of uneasiness increased as he contemplated the approach of that huge black ship. And he was convinced its color was black, that it was not just the monotone of the view screen that made it so.