Vol I Part 89

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The chamber was one of scores stationed throughout the ship as required by law. The escape chambers contained s.p.a.ce suits for personal exit from the ship in case of emergency. They were never expected to be used. In any emergency requiring abandonment of the vessel it would be as suicidal to go into s.p.a.ce in a suit as to remain with the ship. But fusty lawmakers had decreed their necessity, and pa.s.sengers received a perfunctory briefing in the use of the chambers and the suits--which they promptly forgot.

Mel wrestled now with what he remembered of the instructions. He inspected a suit hanging in its cabinet and then was relieved to find that the instructions were repeated on a panel of the cabinet. Slowly, he donned the suit, following the step by step instructions as he went. He began to sweat profusely from his exertions and from his fear of discovery.

He finally succeeded in getting the c.u.mbersome gear adjusted and fastened without being detected. He did not know if the airlock of the chamber had some kind of alarm that would alert the crew when it was opened. That was a chance he had to take. He discovered that it was arranged so that it could be opened only by a key operated from within the suit. This was obviously to prevent anyone leaving the ship unprotected. Perhaps with this safeguard there was no alarm.

He twisted the lock and entered the chamber. He opened the outer door and faced the night of s.p.a.ce.

He would not have believed that anything could be so utterly terrifying. His knees buckled momentarily and left him clinging to the side of the port. Sweat burst anew from every pore. Blindly, he pressed the jet control and forced himself into s.p.a.ce.

He arced a short distance along the curve of the ship and then forced himself down into contact with the hull. He clung by foot and hand magnetic pads, sick with nausea and vertigo.

He had believed that by clinging to the outside of the hull he could escape detection and endure the flight back to Earth. In his sickness of body and mind the whole plan now looked like utter folly. He retched and closed his eyes and lay on the hull through the beginning of an eternity.

He had no concept of time. The chronometer in the suit was not working. But it seemed as if many hours had pa.s.sed when he felt a faint shock pa.s.s through the hull beneath him. He felt a momentary elation. The ships had separated. The search for him--if any--had been abandoned.

Slowly he inched his way around the hull to get a glimpse of the black ship. It was still there, standing off a few hundred yards but not moving. Its presence dismayed him. There could be no reason now for the two ships to remain together. The Martian Princess should be turning around for the return to Earth.

Then out of the corner of his eye he saw it. A trace of movement. A gleam of light. Like a small moon it edged up the distant curvature of the hull. Then there were more--a nest of quivering satellites.

Without thought, Mel pressed the jet control and hurled himself into s.p.a.ce.

The terror of his first plunge was multiplied by the presence of the searchers. Crewmen of the Martian Princess, he supposed. The absence of the s.p.a.ce suit had probably been discovered.

In headlong flight, he became aware of eternity and darkness and loneliness. The sun was a hot, bright disc, but it illuminated nothing. All that his mind clung to for identification of itself and the universe around it was gone. He was like a primeval cell, floating without origin, without purpose, without destination.

Only a glimmer of memory pierced the thick terror with a shaft of rationality. Alice. He must survive for Alice's sake. He must find the way back to Alice--back to Earth.

He looked toward the Martian Princess and the searchers on the hull. He cried out in the soundless dark. The searchers had left the hull and were pursuing him through open s.p.a.ce. Their speed far exceeded his. It was futile to run before them--and futile to leave the haven of the Martian Princess. His only chance of survival or success lay in getting to Earth aboard the ship. In a long curve he arced back toward the ship. Instantly, the searchers moved to close in the arc and meet him on a collision course.

He could see them now. They were not crewmen in s.p.a.cesuits as he had supposed. Rather, the objects--two of them--looked like miniature s.p.a.ceships. Beams of light bore through s.p.a.ce ahead of them, and he suspected they carried other radiations also to detect by radar and infra red.

In the depths of his mind he knew they were not of the Martian Princess. Nor were there any crewmen within them. They were robot craft of some kind, and they had come from the great black ship.

He felt their searching beams upon him and waited for a deadly, blasting burst of heat or killing radiation. He was not prepared for what happened.

They closed swiftly, and the nearest robot came within a dozen feet, matching Mel's own velocity. Suddenly, from a small opening in the machine, a slender metal tentacle whipped out and wrapped about him like the coils of a snake. The second robot approached and added another binding. Mel's arms and legs were pinned. Frantically, he manipulated the jet control in the glove of the suit. This only caused the tentacles to cut deeply and painfully, and threatened to smash the sh.e.l.l of the suit. He cut the jets and admitted the failure of his frantic mission.

In short minutes they were near the ships again. Mel wondered what kind of reprimand the crewmen of the Martian Princess could give him, and what fantastic justification they might offer for their own actions.

But he wasn't being taken toward the Martian Princess. He twisted painfully in the grip of the robot tentacles and confirmed that he was being carried to the black stranger.

Soundlessly, a port slid open and the robots swept him through into the dark interior of the ship. He felt himself dropped on a hard metal floor. The tentacles unwound. Alone, he struggled to his feet and flashed a beam of light from the suit flashlight to the walls about him. Walls, floor and ceiling were an indistinguishable dark gray. He was the only object in the chamber.

While he strained his sight to establish features in the blank metallic surfaces a clipped, foreign voice spoke. "Remove your suit and walk toward the opening in the wall. Do not try to run or attack. You will not be harmed unless you attack."

There was no use refusing. He did as commanded. A bright doorway opened in the wall before him. He walked through.

It reminded him of a medical laboratory. Shelves and cabinets of hand instruments and electronic equipment were about. And in the room three men sat watching the doorway through which he entered. He gazed at the strangers as they at him.

They looked ordinary enough in their white surgeons' smocks. All seemed to be of middle age, with dark hair turning gray at the fringe. One was considerably more muscular than the other two. One leaned to overweight. The third was quite thin. Yet Mel felt himself bristling like a dog in the dark of the moon.

No matter how ordinary they looked, these three were not men of Earth. The certainty of this settled like a cold, dead weight in the pit of his stomach.

"You--" he stammered. There was nothing to say.

"Please recline on this couch," the nearest, the muscular one said. "We wish you no harm so do not be afraid. We wish only to determine if you have been harmed by your flight into s.p.a.ce."

All three of them were tense and Mel was sure they were worried--by his escapade. Had he nearly let some unknown cat out of the bag?

"Please--," the muscular one said.

He had no alternative. He might struggle, and destroy a good deal of apparatus, but he could not hope to overwhelm them. He lay on the couch as directed. Almost instantly the overweight one was behind him, seizing his arm. He felt the sting of a needle. The thin one was at his feet, looking down at him soberly. "He will rest," the thin one said, "and then we shall know what needs to be done."

The sleep had lasted for an eon, he thought. He had a sense of the pa.s.sage of an enormous span of time when he at last awoke. His vision was fuzzy, but there was no mistaking the image before him.

Alice. His Alice--safe.

She was sitting on the edge of the bed, smiling down at him. He fought his way up to a half-sitting position. "Alice!" He wept.

Afterwards, he said, "Where are we? What happened? I remember so many crazy things--the vacation to Mars."

"Don't try to remember it all, darling," she said. "You were sick. Some kind of hysteria and amnesia hit you while we were there. We're home now. You'll soon be out of the hospital and everything will be all right."

"I spoiled it," he murmured. "I spoiled it all for you."

"No. I knew you were going to be all right. I even had a lot of fun all by myself. But we're going back. As soon as you are all well again we'll start saving up and go again."

He nodded drowsily. "Sure. We'll go to Mars again and have a real vacation."

Alice faded away. All of it faded away.

As if from a far distance the walls of Dr. Martin's laboratory seemed to close about him and the lights slowly increased. Dr. Martin was seated beside him, his head shaking slowly. "I'm so terribly sorry, Mr. Hastings. I thought we were going to get the full and true event this time. But it often happens, as in your case, that fantasy lies upon fantasy, and it is necessary to dig through great layers of them before uncovering the truth. I think, however, that we shall not have to go much deeper to find the underlying truth for you."

Mel lay on the couch, continuing to stare at the ceiling. "Then there was no great, black ship out of s.p.a.ce?"

"Of course not! That is one danger of these a.n.a.lyses, Mr. Hastings. You must not be deceived into believing that a newly discovered fantasy is the truth for which you were looking. You must come back and continue your search."

"Yes. Yes, of course." He got up slowly and was helped to the outer room by the Doctor and an attendant. The attendant gave him a gla.s.s of white, sweetish substance to drink.

"A booster-upper," laughed Dr. Martin. "It takes away the grogginess that sometimes attends such a deep sweep. We will look for you day after tomorrow."

Mel nodded and stepped out into the hall.

No great black ship.

No mysterious little robot ships with tentacles that whip out and capture a man.

No strange trio in surgeons' gowns.

And no Alice-- A sudden spear of thought pierced his mind. Maybe all that was illusion, too. Maybe he could go home right now and find her waiting for him. Maybe-- No. That was real enough. The accident. Dr. Winters. The scene in the icy room next to Surgery at the hospital. Dr. Martin didn't know about that. He would have called that a fantasy, too, if Mel had tried to tell him.

No. It was all real.

The unbelievable, alien organs of Alice.

The great, black ship.

The mindless robot searchers.

His nightmare had stemmed from all this that had happened out in s.p.a.ce, which had somehow been wiped from his conscious memory. The nightmare had not existed in his boyhood, as he had thought. It was oriented in time now.

But what had happened to Alice? There was no clue in the memory unearthed by Dr. Martin. Was her condition merely the result of some freak heredity or gene mutation?

The surging turmoil in his mind was greater than before. There was only one way to quiet it--that was to carry out his original plan to go to Mars.

He'd go out there again. He'd find out if the black ship existed or not.

The girl in the ticket office was kind but firm. "Our records show that you were a vacationer to Mars very recently. The demand is so great and the ship capacity so small that we must limit vacation trips to no more than one in any ten-year period."

He turned away and went down the hall and out the doorway of the marble and bra.s.s Connemorra Lines Building.

He walked through town for six blocks and the thought of old Jake Norton came to his mind. Jake had been an old timer in the city room when Mel was a cub. Jake had retired just a few months ago and lived in a place in town with a lot of other old men. Mel hailed the nearest cab and drove to Jake's place.

"Mel, it's great to see you!" Jake said. "I didn't think any of the boys would remember an old man after he'd walked out for the last time."

"People remember real easy when they want favors."

"Sure," Jake said with a grin, "but there's not much of a favor I can do you any more, boy. Can't even loan you a ten until next payday."

"Jake, you can help me," said Mel. "You don't expect to ever take a trip to Mars, do you?"

"Mars! Are you crazy, Mel?"

"I went once. I've got to go again. It's about Alice. And they won't let me. I didn't know you could go only once in ten years."

Jake remembered. Alice had called him and all the other boys after they'd come back the other time. Mel had been sick, she said. He wouldn't remember the trip. They were asked not to say anything about it. Now Mel was remembering and wanted to go again. Jake didn't know what he should do.

"What can I do to help you?" he asked.

"I'll give you the money. Buy a ticket in your name. I'll go as Jake Norton. I think I can get away with it. I don't think they make any closer check than that."

"Sure--if it'll do you any good," Jake said hesitantly. He was remembering the anxiety in Alice's voice the day she called and begged him not to say anything that would remind Mel of Mars. No one ever had, as far as Jake knew.

He took the money and Mel waited at the old men's home. An hour later Jake called. "Eight months is the closest reservation I can get at normal rates, but I know of some scalpers who charge 50% more."

Mel groaned. "Buy it no matter what the cost! I've got to go at once!" He would be broke for the next ten years.

It was little different from the other time. There was the same holiday excitement in the crowd of vacationers and those who had come to see them off. It was the same ship, even.

All that was different was the absence of Alice.

He stayed in his stateroom and didn't watch the takeoff. He felt the faint rocking motion as the ship went down its long waterway. He felt the shift as the artificial gravity took over. He lay on the bed and closed his eyes as the Martian Princess sought the cold night of s.p.a.ce.

For two days he remained in the room, emerging only for meals. The trip itself held no interest for him. He waited only for the announcement that the black ship had come.

But by the end of the second day it had not come. Mel spent a sleepless night staring out at the endless horizon of stars. Dr. Martin had been right, he thought. There was no black ship. He had merely subst.i.tuted one illusion for another. Where was reality? Did it exist anywhere in all the world?

Yet, even if there were no black ship, his goal was still Mars.

The third day pa.s.sed without the appearance of the black ship. But on the very evening of that day the speaker announced: "All pa.s.sengers will prepare for transfer from the shuttle ship to the Mars liner. Bring hand luggage--"

Mel sat paralyzed while he listened to the announcement. So it was true! He felt the faint jar that rocked the Martian Princess as the two ships coupled. From his stateroom port Mel could see the stranger, black, ugly, and somehow deadly. He wished he could show Dr. Martin this "illusion"!

He packed swiftly and left the room. Mel joined the surprised and excited throng now, not hanging back, but eager to find out the secret of the great black ship.

The transition from one ship to the other was almost imperceptible. The structure of both corridors was the same, but Mel knew when the junction was crossed. He sensed the entry into a strange world that was far different from the common one he knew.

Far down the corridor the crowd was slowing, forming into lines before stewards who were checking tickets. The pa.s.sengers were shunted into branching corridors leading to their own staterooms. So far everything was so utterly normal that Mel felt an overwhelming despondency. It was just as they had been told; they were transferring to the Mars liner from the shuttle.

The steward glanced at his ticket, held it for a moment of hesitation while he scanned Mel's face. "Mr. Norton--please come with me."

The steward moved away in a direction no other pa.s.sengers were taking. Another steward moved up to his place. "That way," the second man said to Mel. "Follow the steward."

Mel's heart picked up its beat as he stepped out of the line and moved slowly down the corridor after the retreating steward. They walked a long way through branching silent corridors that showed no sign of life.

They stopped at last before a door that was like a score of others they had pa.s.sed. There were no markings. The steward opened the door and stood aside. "In here please," he said. Mel entered and found himself alone. The steward remained outside.

The room was furnished as an office. It was carpeted and paneled luxuriously. A door leading from a room at his left opened and admitted a tall man with graying hair. The man seemed to carry an aura of power and strength as he moved. An aura that Mel Hastings recognized.

"James Connemorra!" Mel exclaimed.

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