“You have been chosen for this mission of murder
because you are the only people in our culture
who are capable of this type of violence. You have
broken our laws, and this is your punishment!”
Lou Phillips sat on the cold metal deck of the control room, seething with a growing dislike for the old man.
“What you are here for,” the other had told him when the guards had brought Phillips in, “is a simple crime of violence. You’ll do, I’m sure.”
The old man paced the deck impatiently, while a pair of armed guards maintained a watchful silence by the door. Two more men in plain gray shirts and trousers sat beside Phillips, leaning back sullenly against the bulkhead. He guessed that they were waiting for a fourth, remembering that three other figures had been hustled aboard with him at the Lunar spaceport.
The door slid open, allowing another youth in gray uniform to stumble inside. One of the guards in the corridor beyond shoved the newcomer forward, and Phillips’ eyebrows twitched as he had a closer look. This last prisoner was a girl.
He thought she might have been pretty, with a touch of lipstick and a kinder arrangement of her short, ash-blonde hair; but he lowered his eyes as her hard, wary stare flickered past him. She walked over to the bulkhead and took a seat at the other end of the little group.
The old man turned, scanning their faces critically. “I am in charge of a peculiar project,” he announced abruptly. “The director of the Lunar Detention Colony claims that you four are the best he has--for our purposes!”
Long habit kept the seated ones guardedly silent. Seeing, apparently, that they would not relax, he continued.
“You were chosen because each of you has received a sentence of detention for life because of tendencies toward violence in one form or another. In our twenty-second century civilization such homicidal inclinations are quite rare, due to the law-abiding habits of generations under the Interplanetary Council.”
He had been pacing the cramped space left free by the equipment, the guards, and the four seated prisoners. Now he paused, as if mildly astonished at what he was about to say.
“In fact, now that we are faced by a situation demanding illegal violence, it appears that no normal citizen is capable of committing such an act. Using you may eliminate costly screening processes... and save time. Incidentally, I am Anthony Varret, Undersecretary for Security in the Council.”
None of the four showed any overt sign of being impressed. Phillips knew that the others, like himself, were scrutinizing the old man with cold, secretive stares. They had learned through harsh experience to keep their own counsels. Varret shrugged. “Well, then,” he said dryly, “I might as well call the roll. I have been supplied with accurate records.”
He drew a notebook from his pocket, consulted it briefly, then nodded at the man next to the girl. “Robert Brecken,” he recited, “age thirty-one, six feet, one hundred eighty-five pounds, hair reddish brown, eyes green, complexion ruddy. Convicted of unjustified homicide by personal assault while resisting arrest for embezzlement. Detention record unsatisfactory. Implicated in two minor mutinies.”
He glanced next at the youth beside Phillips. “Raymond Truesdale, age twenty-two, five-feet-five, one-thirty. Hair black, eyes dark brown, complexion pale. Convicted of two suicide attempts following failures in various artistic fields. Detention record fair, psychological report poor.”
His frosty eyes met Phillips’. “Louis Phillips, age twenty-six, five-ten, one-eighty. Hair brown, eyes brown, complexion darkly tanned--that was before Luna, wasn’t it, Phillips? Convicted of unjustified homicide, having assaulted a jet mechanic so as to cause death. Detention record satisfactory.”
The blonde girl was last in Varret’s review. “Donna Bailey, age twenty-three, five-five, one-fifteen. Hair blonde, eyes blue, complexion fair. Convicted of manslaughter by negligence, while piloting an atmosphere sport rocket in an intoxicated condition. Detention record satisfactory.”
Varret fell silent, regarding them with cynical disgust. His lips twisted slightly with distaste. “There we have it,” he said. “A violent-tempered thief from the business world; an over-expensive purchase by a rich playboy who became his widow by her own negligence; a mentally-unstable fool who thought he was artistically gifted, and a rocket engineer who was too brutally careless with his own strength when irritated by a space-fatigued helper. I wonder if you’ll do... ?”
Phillips felt impelled at last to speak. “Just what plans do you have for us?” he demanded harshly.
“Nothing complicated,” replied Varret, matching the tone. “We need you to perform a mass murder!”
Phillips blinked, despite his prison-learned reserve. He heard the girl suck in her breath sharply, and felt the youth beside him begin to tremble.
“I have shocked you, I see,” sneered Varret. “Well, I assure you, it shocks me also, probably a good deal more since I have lived a normal life. However--this is the background:
“About three months ago, we had reports of the outbreak of a deadly plague in one of the asteroid groups. As near as can be determined, it was spread by the crew of an exploratory rocket after the discovery of a new asteroid. It began to sweep through the mining colonies out there with the velocity of an expanding nova!”
“Where was your Health Department?” asked the man named Brecken in a sneering tone.
Varret frowned at him. “Several members gave their lives trying to learn the nature of the disease. We have no information to date, except a theory that it attacks the nervous and circulatory systems, because the reports indicate that the reason of the victim is markedly affected as the disease progresses. Not a single survivor is known--they all die in raving insanity. We do not even know with certainty how it is communicated.”
“What are you doing?” asked Phillips.
“Isolation. It is all we can do, until our medical men can make some progress. We evacuated an asteroid colony and began to ship into it any person showing any of the symptoms, using a cruiser piloted by remote control. That was where we slipped.”
“On the last trip--unless we have not really collected all the sufferers--we lost control. Someone being transported knew his spaceships. Shortly thereafter, a gibbering lunatic got on the screen and threatened the escorting rocket. He announced the cruiser would head for Mars, where the passengers would demand their freedom. They are past reasoning with.”
“Can’t say I really blame them,” Phillips remarked.
“Blame them? Of course not! Neither do I. What has that to do with it? What has the Council so worried is that this thing will get loose on Mars, that it may even be carried to Earth and Venus. There are over a hundred persons in that ship, no longer responsible for their actions but capable of causing deaths by the billions. We want to help them, but we simply must hold the line on this quarantine until we solve the medical problem.”
They stared at him in silence, and Phillips noticed that the old man’s forehead was moist with tiny beads of perspiration.
“Don’t you see? They are as good as dead. No knowledge or help of man can save them--as of this moment. If we are ever to be of any help, we must prevent a worse catastrophe.
“Yes, the survival ship is a world in itself, but this world must die!”
For a minute or two, it seemed to Phillips that he could hear each person in the control room breathing. Finally, there was a small sound of cloth rubbing on metal as Brecken stirred. “Why pick on us?” he rasped from his seat on the deck. “I’m no volunteer!”
“I know what you are,” replied Varret sharply. “I know what you all are. You have been chosen for this mission of murder, because you are the only people in our culture who are capable of this kind of violence. You have broken our laws, and this is your punishment.
“It would take us too long to find others like you who had merely never faced the same circumstances that sent you four to Luna. We have made attempts to attack this vessel. Manned by normal men, our ships could accomplish nothing.”
“Why not?” asked Phillips.
“The crews found they could not kill!“
“It amounts to that. One pilot blacked out at the start of an offensive approach. He lost contact before recovering--you realize how quickly that happens at interplanetary speeds. On several other ships, there were passive mutinies. One was destroyed; how, we do not know.”
“Why don’t you get some men in your Department of Security?” sneered Brecken.
Varret sighed. “It was far from simple cowardice. The crews had fine records. We have been civilized too long, so long that the idea of deliberate killing unnerved them. As to the one ship that did make some motion to attack, it may have been destroyed by the cruiser’s defenses, or even by sabotage. Somebody may quite possibly have found the mission too repulsive to face with complete sanity.”
He was interrupted by a uniformed man, who slid the door open and gestured significantly. Varret paused. He nodded, and the newcomer retired.
“I have only a few minutes,” said the old man, facing them again. “To be brief, this patrol vessel is armed with the best we have in guided atomic missiles and sensitive detection devices. Technical manuals are supplied for everything we could think of, though I doubt you will need them. We have brought you to within a few hundred miles of them.
“In a few minutes, my men and I will transfer to an escort ship. We will slip in behind Deimos, not too far away, and pick you up afterward to land you on Mars. Any questions?”
“Yes,” said Phillips.
“Why should we do anything at all?”
Varret’s lips tightened. A guard shrugged contemptuously. “I was told to expect that attitude,” the old man admitted. “I suppose it is part of the character we now think is needed for such an expedition.”
“You could hardly expect co-operation,” Phillips pointed out. “Laws against any kind of homicide are all well enough, but I for one don’t see why I should draw the same sentence as a murderer. I had to protect myself or die--probably through having that crazy fool blow up my rocket room.”
“You’ll make a cold landing on Sol before you’ll get any help from me!” Brecken added defiantly.
The girl said nothing, but Truesdale muttered darkly.
“Please!” said Varret. “I have no time to argue about our social and legal codes. The Council foresaw that the threat of being yourselves subject to this plague might not be enough. If you succeed in destroying or even immobilizing the cruiser, I can offer you anything you want short of unsupervised liberty. You must still be watched as potential dangers to society, but you may otherwise be as wealthy or independent as you wish.”
He motioned to the guards, who had begun to fidget impatiently; wordlessly they left the compartment.
“You can settle your relations among yourselves,” said Varret. “We chose Bailey partly because she has piloted rockets privately, and Phillips because he was a space engineer. Perhaps Brecken could handle the torpedoes--I do not know.” He rubbed his chin uneasily. “Frankly, I find intimate discussion of the affair repulsive. I hope you will decide to do what is necessary for the welfare of Earth.”
He turned abruptly and left the control room. They heard distant voices exhorting him to hurry.
Brecken arose and crept furtively to the door. He leaned out to peer down the corridor. The nervous Truesdale bounced up to crowd behind him. Phillips and the girl looked at each other; she shrugged, and they too got to their feet. She turned to the instrument panels; and after a moment, Phillips joined her.
“How have they got it?” he asked. “Controls locked?”
“No,” murmured Donna. “Don’t need to; we’re just coasting. Nice job, though. Fast as a racer, I imagine.”
“You know something about racers?”
“I used to think I did,” she answered, shortly.
He saw pain darken her blue eyes and decided to probe no further. Instead, he wandered about, inspecting the instruments. A few minutes later, with a spaceman’s indefinable alertness, he felt a change in the ship.
“They still aboard?” he called to Truesdale, who remained at the door although Brecken had disappeared.
The youth glanced over his shoulder but did not trouble to reply. Phillips’ jaw set, and he took a quick step toward the other. Before he reached the doorway, however, Brecken returned from the corridor. Shouldering Truesdale aside, he strode into the control room. “Well,” he announced, “the old fool hopped off like he said. Got a viewer in here?”
“I have it on now,” called Donna from the instrument desk. “There he goes.”
They gathered around the screen to watch. Near one edge was the image of another ship, with several spacesuited figures clustered around its entrance port. The girl made an adjustment, and the view crept over to the center of the screen just as the last of the figures vanished into the opening. Almost immediately, the other rocket slanted away on a new course.
Donna followed it on the screen until the brief flashes of its jets were dimmed by a new radiance--the ruddy disk of Mars. “We are where he said,” she admitted. “Now what?”
She looked at Phillips, who merely shrugged. “What do you make of it?” she insisted.
“Pretty much as he said, probably,” answered the engineer. “He’s heading for Deimos, I suppose. I hear they’re landscaping the whole moon--it’s only about five miles in diameter--and building a new space station for a radio beacon and relay.”
“Does that log say anything about the plague ship?” asked Truesdale nervously.
Donna scanned the observation record, then adjusted the viewer. The red radiance of Mars fled, to be replaced by a dimmer scene of distant stars.
“In there someplace,” she said. “Out of range of this screen, but we could probably locate it with detector instruments.”
“Why all the jabber?” demanded Brecken. “Let’s get going!”
Phillips stared at him. “What’s the rush? Did he sell you that easily?”
“Huh? Oh, hell, no! I mean let’s make a dive for Mars. They were dumb to set us loose with a fast ship. We’re dumber if we don’t use it!”
“That’s right,” agreed Truesdale eagerly. “We don’t owe them anything. They owe us; for the years they took out of our lives!”
Truesdale had a point there, Phillips felt. This could grow into quite a discussion, and he was not sure which side he wanted to take. He had no great urge to become a hero, but on the other hand there was something about Brecken that aroused a certain obstinacy in him.
“Wait a minute!” Donna protested; “what do you think you’re going to do?”
“Slip into a curve for Mars,” said Brecken. “Slow down enough to take to chutes an’ let this can smack up in the deserts somewhere. They’ll never know if we got out, an’ we’ll be on our own.”
The girl turned to Phillips. “How about you?” she asked. “Don’t you think we should at least consider what Varret told us? If this plague is as dangerous as he says, this is no time to--”
“Do you have to be so bloodthirsty?” complained Truesdale.
“I don’t want to kill anybody,” declared the girl; “maybe we could just disable the cruiser.”
“Aw, kill your jets!” Brecken broke in. “I’ve been waiting for a chance like this for years. Don’t get any ideas!”
“But listen!” pleaded Donna. “It’s a terrible thing, but if we don’t do it, we won’t be safe on Mars ourselves; they’ll land and set an epidemic loose.”
“I’ll take my chances with it,” said Brecken. “You’re supposed to know something about piloting. Now get us on a curve for Mars, an’ be snappy about it!”
Donna turned desperately to Phillips.
“Why not look over the ship,” the engineer suggested, “before we blast off on half our jets? We can make up our minds when we see what we have for fuel and weapons.”
Brecken opened his mouth to object, but was smitten by an unpleasant thought. “Suppose they didn’t leave us enough fuel to make Mars!”
“We can find out soon enough,” said Phillips, leading the way to the door.
They trooped down the corridor on his heels, past the few closet-like compartments set aside for living quarters. It was a single-deck ship, with storage compartments above and below for fuel, oxygen, and other necessities. The corridor was liberally supplied with handrails, apparently in case of failure of the artificial gravity system.
About halfway to the end, another passage crossed the fore-and-aft one, and a few steps farther was a ladder. This extended up and down a vertical well, which in space amounted to a second cross corridor. Phillips was right when he guessed that the door beyond opened into the rocket room.
The others were bored by the power plant of the ship. The engineer, however, could not repress a thrill at once more standing surrounded by the gauges, valves, and pumps with which he had formerly lived. He strode about, examining and comprehending such appliances as seemed new since his last service in space.
“How about it?” demanded Brecken. “Can you handle it?”
“Sure,” answered Phillips confidently. “Mostly automatic anyway.”
“Then we can get movin’ whenever we want?”
“I suppose so. The tanks are nearly full; let’s find those space torpedoes the old man mentioned.”
“Maybe it won’t hurt, at that,” grumbled Brecken.
He led the way out, but paused indecisively. Phillips stepped past him and considered the cross passages near the midpoint of the corridor. Those in the plane of the control room deck probably led to port and starboard airlocks, he reasoned, so the others might lead to the torpedo turrets.
He went to the vertical well and started up the ladder, hearing the others follow. At the top, he was confronted by a hatch with a red danger sign. Glancing about, he located the gauges that reported the air pressure beyond. Normal.
“Make a little room,” he said, looking down to Brecken.
The big, ruddy face retreated a few rungs. Phillips could hear the others scrambling further down. He got his head out of the way before pulling the switch that opened the hatch. With a subdued humming of electric motors, the massively constructed door swung down. One after another, they pulled themselves up into the compartment.
“This must be where they set controls for launching,” guessed Phillips, leaning back against a rack of emergency spacesuits. “That intercom screen on the bulkhead is probably plugged in to the control room. Looks as if the torpedoes themselves are stored under that hatch at the after end.”
“How do they kick them off?” asked Brecken.
“Those conveyor belts run them into tubes in the forward bulkhead. A charge of compressed air blows them out, and then the rockets are started and controlled by radio.”
“You mean we have to point at a target to fire?”
“Oh, no. Once the rockets are going, the torpedo can be maneuvered and aimed anywhere by remote control.”
“I’ve seen enough,” announced Truesdale. “I’m hungry.”
At that, they all decided to return to the main deck. Phillips carefully closed the airtight hatch as they left, then followed the others in search of the galley.
Later, after a very unsatisfactory meal of packaged concentrates, they loitered sullenly in the control room once more while Donna studied the controls. Phillips had finally decided that he could wear the third spacesuit on the rack if he had to. He was idly examining the tools supplied with it when his thoughts were interrupted.
Young Truesdale had been monkeying with a range indicator for some time, but now his sharp outcry drew all eyes to him.
The others immediately gathered to peer over his shoulder. A needle flickered wildly from one side of the dial to the other.
“Here! Get it balanced,” said Phillips, thrusting a powerful arm between the crowded bodies. As his deft adjustment steadied the needle, he stepped back and leaned against the bulkhead to study their faces. Truesdale’s was pale.
“It’s them!” he panted.
“Well,” asked Donna, “what will it be?”
“Whaddya mean?” demanded Brecken, red-faced. “It’ll be get dam’ well outa here, that’s what it’ll be!”
“Let’s see you go,” invited the girl coolly. “How well do you pilot a rocket?”
Brecken’s jaw dropped. “Wh-wh-what? You crazy? Did you swallow all that stuff the old man told you?” he sputtered.
“Why not?” asked Donna. “They didn’t bring us all the way out here for nothing. Varret was scared. If it’s that dangerous, somebody just has to do it--and we’re here!”
“Not for long,” said Brecken in an ugly tone. “Get hot on those controls. You, Phillips! Run back to that rocket room and see that things work!”
“You try it,” suggested the engineer quietly.
He would have preferred to avoid the trouble the girl had been stirring up, but he did not relish Brecken’s tone. A few days off Luna, he reflected, and already he was getting independent.
“Listen,” said Donna, encouraged in her defiance, “when I touch those controls, we’ll go right up and touch noses with them. You’d better have a torpedo ready!”
She turned to the banks of buttons and switches. Muffled thunder from the stern jets trembled through the hull as the men staggered.
Brecken recovered his balance first. With a snarl, he grabbed the girl by the nape of the neck and shook her roughly. Glimpsing Phillips’ cold sneer, he reached back and seized a heavy metal bar from the spacesuit rack.
“Now, dammit!” he grated. “You’ll do like I tell you! And you get back there an’ see that those tubes recharge okay!”
Phillips felt a hard anger swelling his throat. From the corner of his eye, he saw Truesdale shrinking back against the bulkhead. He glanced about desperately for something with which to parry Brecken’s bar.
It was the girl who broke the tense silence. With a gasping intake of breath, she reached up to claw at Brecken’s face. Cursing, the man twisted his head away to protect his eyes. He released his grip on the girl’s neck and swung a clumsy, backhand blow at her head. Donna stumbled, and collapsed to the deck.
Now or never, Phillips told himself. Without waiting to think, he hurled himself forward.
Brecken saw him coming, and tried to shift around to meet the engineer’s charge. Phillips crashed into him shoulder first, and they both brought up against the opposite bulkhead with a thud. He concentrated all his strength into wringing the other’s forearm until he heard the bar clang to the deck.