***

A red-shingled cottage, as yummy-looking as a raspberry gumdrop, stood on the floor of the little see-through box. One jiggle of the box and three little pigs came tumbling out of the bushes, so like three rosy-pink pearls. Simultaneously, a black wolf, its serrated, red-lined jaw chomping up and down at the slightest nudge, popped out of its hole by the forest—a make-believe forest painted on the rear wall, but amazingly lifelike—and made a beeline for the pigs. (The wolf was probably magnetized.) Now, it took a pretty steady hand to head off a massacre. The trick was to maneuver the pigs through the cottage door—not the most obliging of doors, by the way—by tapping the bottom of the box with the nail of your little finger. The box was no bigger than a ladies’ compact, but challenging enough to consume half a lifetime. But at the moment it was as good as useless, due to the zero gravity. Pirx gazed down at the accelerator controls, wistfully. A flick of the finger, the barest amount of thrust, and he would have just enough gravity to tinker with the pigs’ destiny—which beat staring idly into space any day.

Regrettably, saving three rosy-pink piglets from an attacking wolf was not reason enough to justify activating the reactor, not according to the flying regs, anyway, which strenuously forbade any aimless maneuvers in space. Aimless, my foot!

Pirx reluctantly slipped the box back into his pocket. Other pilots before him had stowed even wackier things aboard, this being especially the custom on long patrol flights, such as the one Pirx was now on. There was a time when the Base’s Flight Command used to wink at this splurging of uranium, which was used to launch not only manned spaceships but such personal items as toy windup birds—the kind that feed on bread crumbs—self-propelled hornets that chase after mechanical wasps, and nickel-plated Chinese puzzles inlaid with ivory. By now it was so commonplace that people had forgotten how it all began, that it was little Aarmens who first infected the Base with this mania when he started confiscating his six-year-old son’s toys before going out on patrol.

The honeymoon lasted not quite a year—up until the time the ships stopped reporting back from their missions.

In those halcyon times, patrol duty was still a cause for bitching, just as being assigned to a “space-combing mission” was interpreted as a sign of the CO’s personal malice. Pirx, on the other hand, took the news completely in stride. Patrols were like a bout of the measles: sooner or later everyone was bound to get them.

Then Thomas failed to report back—big tubby Tom, who wore size 16 shoes, was always good for a gag, and who kept a bunch of poodles, the world’s smartest, of course. The pockets of his space suit were frequently home to hot-dog bits and sugar cubes, and the CO suspected him of occasionally sneaking the poodles aboard ship, though Thomas vehemently proclaimed his innocence. Maybe he was innocent, though the truth will probably never be known. Because one July afternoon Thomas embarked on a patrol mission—his last—loaded down with two Thermoses of coffee (he was also a coffee addict), and leaving behind a third in the pilots’ mess, filled to the brim, to make sure his favorite brew was waiting for him on his return: coffee mixed with grounds and boiled with sugar. The coffee was a long time waiting. The third day after takeoff, at 7:00 P.M., after the customary grace period had expired, Thomas’s name appeared—all by its lonesome—on the control-room blackboard. Such things were a relic of the past; only the oldest veterans could recall a time when missions were aborted, and they loved to fluster the younger pilots with grim stories of the days when meteorite warnings came fifteen seconds before impact—just enough time for a pilot to say his good-byes. By radio, of course. But such stuff was now ancient history. The blackboard in the control room was always empty, a permanent fixture sustained only through the sheer force of inertia.

At nine o’clock it was still light outside; the pilots on duty, having just emerged from the control tower, stood on the lawn surrounding the concrete landing strip, gazing skyward. The tower was declared off limits. That evening the CO drove back from town, fished the tapes out of the canisters—the ones with the signal recordings of Thomas’s automatic transmitter—and went upstairs to where a glass-domed observatory gyrated in a madman’s frenzy as it combed the skies with its black radar dishes.

Thomas was flying a small, one-man AMU, though its fuel supply was enough to propel the craft halfway around the Milky Way and back, as the NCO from the tanker squadron, a man unanimously regarded as a jerk, hastened to reassure the pilots. “Up yours, pal,” someone muttered the moment the NCO turned his back. Because the truth was the oxygen supply aboard an AMU—a five-day ration, with an eight-hour emergency store—was a mere drop in the bucket, and everybody knew it. For four consecutive days, then, the station’s eighty-some-odd pilots scoured the sector where Thomas was supposed to have disappeared, logging a total of nearly five thousand rocket hours. And each time they came back empty-handed, as if the man had simply vanished into space.

The second one to disappear was Wilmer, who, if the truth be told, was beloved by hardly anyone. Although there was no one major reason to account for his unpopularity, there was also no shortage of minor ones. He was forever butting into the conversation, not content unless allowed to have his say; he had a goofy laugh, a knack for cackling in the least appropriate places, and the more he got under your skin, the louder the cackle. Whenever he didn’t feel like landing by the book, he’d think nothing of setting his ship down on the lawn adjoining the landing field, incinerating grass, roots, and topsoil to a depth of one meter. But let anyone encroach on his patrol sector, by as much as a milliparsec, and right away he’d report it, even if it meant ratting on a fellow rocket jockey from the Base. Not to mention a few other annoying habits, almost too petty to be mentioned, such as drying himself with other people’s towels, just to keep his own clean longer. The moment he failed to report back from patrol duty, however, Wilmer suddenly turned out to be a prince of a guy, a regular bosom buddy. Again the radar went berserk, the pilots were put on a round-the-clock shift, the flight controllers worked overtime, people took turns catnapping on a bench by the wall and had dinner brought upstairs; the CO, who was on vacation, flew back by special plane and ordered a four-day search mission, the Base morale having sunk so low by now that in retaliation for a single, lousy, imperfectly fitted rivet the men were ready to crack the skull of the mechanic responsible. Two commissions of experts came, an AMU-16—a twin copy of the ship flown by Wilmer—was dismantled screw by screw, clock-fashion, but the results were nil: not a single defective part was found.

Although the sector measured 1,600 billion cubic kilometers, it was also thought to be a relatively tame one, undisturbed by any meteorite showers or the cold remnants of old comet tails, last seen hundreds of years ago—all the more remarkable, considering that comets of that vintage have been known to disintegrate in the vicinity of Jupiter, in its “perturbation mill,” and later to discard pieces of their nucleus onto their former course. But the sector was as good as empty, unmarred by any satellites or asteroids, and least of all by the Belt. And just because it was so “clean,” no one had a hankering to patrol it.

Even so, Wilmer’s made the second disappearance in a row. His tape, which was played and replayed countless times, photocopied, blown up, and forwarded to the Institute, yielded as much information as Thomas’s: zilch. Sporadic signals for a while, then nothing. The signals sent by the transmitter had come at infrequent intervals, on the average of one per hour. Thomas had transmitted a total of eleven signals; Wilmer, fourteen. That was all.

After the second disappearance, the CO swung into action. For starters, he had all the ships checked out from bow to stern—atomic pile, flight control systems, every nut and screw; one scratched dial and you were docked a week’s vacation. The timers in the transmitters had to be replaced—as if it were all their fault!—and ships on patrol were now required to radio back at eighteen-minute intervals. Not that there was anything wrong with that; what was bad was that henceforth two senior officers were stationed by the launch ramp, where they ruthlessly confiscated anything in a pilot’s possession—everything from windup birds (of both the feeding and tweeting variety), butterflies, and bees, to various games of skill—in time, transforming the CO’s office into a storeroom for every conceivable sort of novelty. The Base cynics maintained that the CO always kept his door locked because he liked to play with his toys in private.

Given such obstacles, one is better able to appreciate the masterful cunning exercised by Pirx in smuggling aboard his AMU the little house with the three pigs. This despite the fact that, apart from a certain moral satisfaction, he derived little actual benefit from it. The patrol flight was grinding into its ninth consecutive hour. “Grinding” was precisely the word for it. Pirx was reclining in his contour couch, all bound and belted in, mummylike, with only his arms and legs free, and his listless gaze fixed on the screens. For six weeks they had been flying in teams of two, at a distance of 300 kilometers, when Base Command decided to revert to its original tactic, leaving the sector deserted, clean as a whistle, so that even one patrolship was one too many. But just so there wouldn’t be any stellar “holes” on the maps, the solo flights were resumed. Pirx’s was the eighteenth mission to be flown after the team flights were scrubbed.

For lack of anything better to do, he began turning over in his mind all the possible things that could have happened to Thomas and Wilmer. The names of the missing pilots were seldom mentioned at the Base anymore, but nothing is more conducive to idle speculation than prolonged isolation during a manned space flight. He had logged not quite three years’ flight time—two years and four months, to be precise—and already he thought of himself as an old pro. Even so, this time the astro-boredom was beginning to get to him, though he was the last person to advertise it.

Patrol flights have been compared, and aptly so, to waiting one’s turn at the dentist’s—the difference being that here the dentist never shows. Stars that never move, an Earth that either can’t be seen at all or, if you’re extremely lucky, looms as big as the tiny crescent of a bruised fingernail—during the first two hours of flight, that is, after which it assumes the same appearance as any star, in this case a moving one. And staring into the Sun, as everyone knows, is not too advisable, either. It’s times like these that a Chinese puzzle or a brain-teaser becomes an absolute must.

Still, it was a pilot’s duty to hang suspended in a cocoon of belts, to monitor each and every screen—both radar and video—to check the reactor’s idling gauge, and to radio back at regular intervals. Once in a great while, it’s true, he might pick up a distress call—even an SOS!—coming from somewhere inside his sector, and off he’d go, at breakneck speed; but a pilot could count himself lucky if this happened more than once or twice a year.

Under the circumstances, it is hardly astonishing that pilots are subject to myriad fantasies, fantasies which from the point of view of Earth, or of ordinary passengers, might seem wicked, but which in fact are quite normal. When you’re out there, surrounded by 1.5 trillion cubic kilometers of empty space, without so much as a flake of cigarette ash for company, the desire for action—be it even some hideous calamity—can grow to a genuine obsession.

In the course of his 172 patrol flights, Pirx had run the gamut of psychic responses, having been subject to attacks of drowsiness, crotchetiness, even fits of feebleminded eccentricity… and once was on the verge of committing some far-from-harmless prank. Lately he had begun concocting plots to various stories, a hangover from his student days, some of which turned out to be so intricate in construction as to defy finding a resolution before the end of the flight. But did it help to relieve the boredom? Not a bit.

As he ventured into the labyrinth of lonely contemplation, Pirx realized he would never solve the mystery of his two missing comrades, not when the most high-powered experts at the Base had been beating their brains out, for months on end, without cracking it. No, he was better off with his piggy game, a no less idle but certainly more harmless pastime—if only he could get it to work! But the engines were quiet, nor was there any reason to fire them up, what with the ship now cruising along the segment of a protracted ellipsis, one of whose foci was the Sun. No, the piggies would have to wait for sunnier days.

Okay, so what could have happened to Thomas and Wilmer?

An ordinary layman would have presumed a collision with something—with a meteor, for example, with a cloud of cosmic dust, a comet’s tail, or the wreckage of some old rocket ship. But the chances of such a collision’s occurring were about as remote as finding a mammoth diamond in the middle of a busy street; statistics showed, in fact, that the odds in favor of finding the diamond were much greater.

From sheer boredom, Pirx began feeding figures into his computer and formulating equations to compute the probability of a collision. The result was a figure so large that the computer would have had to drop the last eighteen decimal places just to accommodate the number on its displays.

Besides, the sector was empty. No comet tails, no clouds of cosmic dust—nothing. Theoretically, the wreckage of an earlier ship might just as well have turned up here as anywhere else in the universe—but only after an inconceivable number of years. But if that were the case, surely Thomas and Wilmer would have sighted it—say, from a distance of 250 kilometers. Suppose it had approached from the side of the Sun; in that case, the meteoradar would have sounded the alarm a good thirty seconds before impact. And even if the pilot had slept through the alarm, the automatic control would have triggered the yaw maneuver, whereas a malfunction in the automatic yaw control was practically unheard of: it might happen once, but not twice in a row in the space of a few days.

All this a layman might have deduced, a layman who knew nothing of the hazards present aboard ship during a manned space flight—perils far greater than colliding with a meteorite or a decayed comet. A spacecraft, even one as small as an AMU, is made up of nearly 114,000 major parts—major in the sense that a malfunction in any one of them could have disastrous consequences. The minor parts number more than a million. But even assuming a fatal accident, a spaceship would not simply disintegrate into ether—since, to cite an old spaceman’s adage, nothing is ever lost in space: toss out a cigarette lighter, and all you have to do is to plot its trajectory and be in the right place at the right time, and the lighter, following its own orbital path, will with astronomical precision plop into your hand at the designated second. The fact that in space a body will orbit about another to infinity means that sooner or later the wreckage of any spaceship is almost always bound to turn up. The Institute’s megacomputers had plotted more than forty million possible orbits in which the missing ships could be traveling, each of which was probed by concentrated pencils of the most powerful radar tracking equipment available on Earth. With the aforementioned results.

This is not to say that the entire solar system was systematically probed. Compared to the vastness of space, a rocket ship is something infinitesimally small, smaller even than an atom in relation to Earth. Still, they searched high and low, anywhere the ships might have been—assuming, of course, the pilots had not simply abandoned their assigned sector. But then, what reason would they have had to leave it? They had received no radio commands or distress calls, nor were they the victims of any collision—that much, at least, had been established.

All indications were that Thomas and Wilmer had evaporated, spaceships and all, like drops of water on a blazing hot grill.

A layman endowed with some imagination, unlike his more pedestrian colleague, would have hastened to attribute the mysterious disappearances to those enigmatic creatures from other planets, creatures possessed of an awesome yet sinister intelligence who are always on the prowl in space.

But who in that advanced age of manned space exploration still believed in the existence of such creatures, not one of which had ever been encountered in the known universe? By this time the number of jokes about “creatures from outer space” far exceeded the number of cubic kilometers contained in the solar system. No one, except for the greenest recruits, whose only flight experience was in a chair suspended from the laboratory ceiling, would have bet a plugged nickel on them. If there were any inhabitants on other stars, then only on ones belonging to a distant galaxy.

Add up the handful of primitive mollusks, lichens, bacteria, infusoria—all unknown on Earth—and you have the grand total of many years’ expeditions. Even were such creatures to exist, would they really have nothing better to do than to ambush measly little patrolships in one of the most desolate, godforsaken regions of space? And how could they get within striking distance without being noticed?

The effect of such questions—and there seemed to be no end to them—was to reduce the whole hypothesis to a grand, monumental absurdity, to deprive the game of any semblance of reality. But prone as he was to the wildest fantasies during his ninth hour of flight, when faced with such ruthlessly sobering facts, even Pirx would have been strained to entertain something as preposterous as demonic beings from outer space.

From time to time, despite the zero gravity, he would tire of sitting in the same position, adjust the angle of the contour couch in which he was pinioned, and shift his gaze from left to right—without, strange as it may seem, distinguishing any of the 311 gauges, instrument lights, and pulsating dials and displays, as routinely familiar to him as the features of a face whose expression can be read without reference to any parting of the brows, arching of the lips, or pattern of wrinkles on the forehead. Just so, one glance, and dials, control lights—everything—would merge to form a single whole, a message telling him that all systems were go. Looking straight ahead, he commanded a view of both stellar screens—and between them, framed by a yellow, dome-shaped helmet partially obscuring chin and forehead, his own face.

In between the two stellar screens was a mirror, rather modest in size but mounted in such a way that a pilot could not possibly escape his own reflection. What it was actually doing there, what purpose it served, was never explained. That is to say, it was explained, but the rationale given, while ingenious, fooled hardly anyone. The mirrors were the brainchild of psychologists. Man, according to them, when subjected to long periods of unrelieved solitude, is apt to lose control over his own mind and emotions, can be lulled imperceptibly into a dreamless, wakeful sleep from which he is not always able to waken in time. Some have been known to fall victim to hallucinations of obscure origin, to fits of anxiety or severe emotional outbursts, and the ability to control one’s own physiognomy is thought to be an excellent corrective, though, to be sure, it was no fun having to stare at one’s own face for hours on end and dutifully record its every expression. And no one can appreciate this better than the pilots of patrolships. It may begin innocently enough: you make a face, you frown or grin at your own reflection, and that unleashes a torrent of grimaces, one more contorted than the next. That’s what can happen when a situation so contrary to nature goes beyond normal human endurance.

Fortunately, Pirx was not so infatuated with his own image as others were with theirs. Though difficult to verify, stories were told of those who, overcome by a debilitating boredom, were given to such embarrassing acts as spitting at their own reflection, and how, overwhelmed with shame, and in violation of all the rules, they would unfasten their straps, get up, and proceed to walk—or rather to swim—through the cabin’s zero-gravity atmosphere to the mirror, to somehow clean it before landing. There were some who stubbornly maintained that Wuertz had drilled his ship thirty-three meters into the concrete landing strip because he had put off cleaning his mirror until the moment of reentry.

Pilot Pirx had never experienced such symptoms, much less felt the temptation to spit at his own reflection—the struggle to resist often led to severe psychological damage that could have been amusing only to those who have never flown a lonely patrol. In the end, even during his worst spells, Pirx had always found something to distract him, some dependable spool around which to wind his jumbled thoughts and emotions, like a long and tangled thread.

The dial—the normal one, measuring time—showed 11:00 P.M. In thirteen minutes he would reach his orbit’s aphelion. He coughed once or twice into the microphone to test it, on a whim made the computer derive the fourth root of 8769983410567396, then showed not the slightest interest when the computer displayed the answer with the utmost speed, grinding out the digits and jiggling them nervously in its CRTs as if it were a matter of life and death; and was thinking that the first thing he’d do after landing would be to toss a glove out through the hatch door—just for kicks—light up a smoke, march down to the mess hall, order himself something hot and spicy, seasoned with paprika, and wash it down with a tall draft of beer (he was a great beer lover)—when he spotted a light.

He had been monitoring the left-front video screen, with one of those seemingly unseeing looks of his, but mentally already back in the mess hall (where he could almost smell the dark-brown camp fries, a whole batch of them, prepared especially for him), when into the center of the screen crept this luminous white dot, the sight of which stiffened his whole body with such a jolt that if not for his straps he would have slammed right into the ceiling.

The screen measured about a meter in diameter, pitch-black except for Rho Ophiuchi in the center, and the Milky Way, dissected by a yawning black void that stretched clear to the other side of the screen, which was bordered on either side by glittering Stardust. This perfect still-life spectacle was, slowly but steadily, invaded by a tiny brilliant light, which was not so tiny, however, that it couldn’t be distinguished from the stars. But then, it was not the brightness of it that had caught his attention, as much as the fact that it moved.

Luminous moving dots in space usually mean one thing: a ship’s navigation lights. As a rule, a ship’s lights are not turned on except in response to a radio call, for purposes of identification. Different ships display different kinds of lights: passenger ships are identified by one kind, freighters by another, and the same applies to high-speed ballistic rockets, patrolships, rescue ships, tankers, and so on. The lights are mounted variously, depending on the ship, and they come in every conceivable color except one—white—to make the ships distinguishable at all times from the stars. When two or more vehicles are flying in tandem, a white light on the lead ship can too easily be mistaken for a stationary light, in which case the pilot following behind runs the risk of going off course.

But the little speck floating leisurely across the screen was white as could be, and Pirx could actually feel his eyeballs coming loose from their sockets. Not once did he blink, afraid that he might lose track of it if he did—but the white dot sauntered gingerly along, undisturbed, now only a dozen or so centimeters away from the opposite side of the screen. Another minute and it would vanish from sight.

Instinctively, Pirx’s hands went straight for the controls. The reactor, which had been idling, responded with instantaneous thrust, the acceleration shoving Pirx back into the seat’s foam-rubber cushion… stars scudding across the screen… the Milky Way running downhill, very much like a road of milk… This brought the mobile speck to a standstill, with the ship’s nose following right on its tail, aiming at it like a hunting dog pointing at a pheasant in the brush. Now was that classy handling, or wasn’t it?

The whole maneuver consumed a mere ten seconds.

Now, for the first time, he had the leisure to reflect, and it slowly dawned on him that what he was seeing was a hallucination, because such things were unprecedented. This deduction did him credit. On the whole, people tend to trust too much in the evidence of their senses; if they should happen to see a deceased acquaintance in public, they would sooner believe in a resurrection than admit to their own insanity.

Pilot Pirx groped in one of the seat’s side pockets, pulled out a small flask, inserted its two small glass tubes into his nostrils, and inhaled until his eyes began to water. Psychraine was potent enough to disrupt the cataleptic trances of a Yogi or the mystical visions of a saint. But, much to his chagrin, the light continued its peregrinations in the center of the left screen. Having done the prescribed thing, he returned the flask to its proper place, maneuvered the ship’s rudders slightly to align himself with the other, and checked the radar to get a fix on the luminous object.

And here he was in for his second shock: the meteoradar screen was blank. Its green tracing beam, incandescent as a strip of phosphorus exposed to a strong dose of solar radiation, swept around in a continuous circle, but without showing the slightest trace of any light—nothing. An absolute blank.

Pirx was not so foolish as to think that he was pursuing a spirit with a shining halo. The fact was, he didn’t believe in spirits, although occasionally, especially in the company of women, he might shoot the breeze about them, but even then it was not born of any spiritualistic convictions.

Of one thing he was sure: what he was following was not a dead celestial body, because such an object will always reflect a radar tracking beam, will always show up as a blip. Only objects that are artificially made and externally treated with a substance capable of absorbing, neutralizing, and dispersing centimeter waves will not produce any optical echoes.

Pilot Pirx cleared his throat and spoke deliberately, his Adam’s apple, with each measured phrase, bobbing up and down and pressing lightly against the laryngophone attached to his neck.

“Patrolship AMU-111 calling object flying in sector one-thousand-two-point-two, steering a course approaching sector one-thousand-four-hundred-four, and showing one navigation light. Request your call numbers. Over.”

He waited for the response.

Seconds passed, the seconds turned into minutes—still no answer. Instead, Pirx noticed that the light was fading, which meant it was receding. Although the radar telemeter had flunked the test, he still had the more primitive optical range finder in reserve. He stretched one leg, pushed a pedal, and the range finder, similar in appearance to a telescope, dropped down from above.

Pirx brought it up close to his eyes and adjusted the focus.

He located the dot immediately—and discovered something else while he was at it. Magnified now by the lens, the speck assumed the proportions of a pea when seen from a distance of 5 meters—which, by standards prevailing in outer space, was nothing short of gargantuan. Not only that, but its somewhat flattened surface was traversed by a number of tiny dark squiggles, much as if several thick black hairs were being pulled across the front lens. The squiggles were just as blurry and indistinct, though constantly in motion—always from right to left.

Pirx tried to increase the sharpness of the image, but the luminous speck adamantly refused to be focused; so, using a second prism, one designed especially for this purpose, he cut the image in two, brought the two halves together—with positive results—checked the scale, and received his third shock.

The shining object was only 4 kilometers away! This was equivalent to driving a racing car at top speed and suddenly discovering that 5 millimeters away from you is another car—in space, a proximity of 4 kilometers is just as lethal.

Pirx was running out of ammunition. He directed the outer thermocouple in the direction of the light, with the remote-control lever aimed the target finder straight at the milky-white dot, and read off the temperature out of the corner of his eye: 24 degrees Kelvin.

That meant the light had the same temperature as ambient space—25 degrees above absolute zero.

That cinched it. A luminous, self-propelled light in space? Never! But just because it was there, dead ahead of him, he gave chase.

The light was growing visibly—and rapidly—fainter. A minute later he verified that it had gained a full 100 kilometers on him. He increased his velocity.

Then the most uncanny thing of all happened.

First the light deliberately let him gain ground—letting him get within 80, 70, then 30 kilometers—before jumping out in front again. Pirx accelerated to 75 kilometers per second; the light, to 76. Pirx applied more thrust, but this time he didn’t pussyfoot around. He opened the jets to half-power, unleashing a powerful forward thrust; the triple gravity shoved him back into the seat’s padded cushion. His AMU had a small rest mass, its rate of acceleration being roughly equivalent to that of a racing car. Before long he was hitting 140.

The little light hit 140.5.

Pirx was beginning to feel hot and clammy. He applied maximum thrust. His AMU-111 hummed; his tachometer, whose readings were based on fixed stars, climbed steadily higher: 155… 168… 190… 200.

At 200 he took a peek through the range finder, which, considering the 4g, was a feat worthy of a decathlon athlete.

He was gaining on the light, which swelled in size as the gap between them closed to 20, then 10, and finally 3 kilometers, at which distance it looked larger than a pea when seen from an arm’s length away. The dark, blurry shapes continued to shunt across its surface, whose brightness was comparable to stars of the second magnitude—except that it resembled more a disk than a starlike dot.

His AMU-111 was giving everything it had, swelling Pirx with pride. During that sudden burst to maximum thrust, not a thing in the cabin had shaken—not a single vibration! The reaction was in the axis of acceleration; the jets were performing to perfection; the reactor was working like a champ.

The light kept closing in, though at a slower rate of speed. When it was no more than 2 kilometers off board, Pirx’s wheels began to turn.

The whole thing looked fishy as hell. A light, not attached to any terrestrial ship. Hm… Space pirates, maybe? What a laugh. Even if there were such things as space pirates, what would they be doing in such a godforsaken hole? The light had an extraordinary speed range; it could accelerate as sharply as it braked. And moody, too; first retreating, then letting itself be gradually overtaken. And that, more than anything, made him antsy. It was almost as if the thing were baiting him, stringing him along like a decoy, like a worm dangling on the end of a hook.

And immediately he conjured up the image of a hook.

“Not so fast, fella!” Pirx said to himself, and he braked as abruptly as if he were on a collision course with an asteroid, though the radar was blank and the video screens likewise empty. Instinctively he bent his neck, tucked in his chin, and felt the automatic compressor fill his suit with an extra supply to compensate for the sudden acceleration, which didn’t stop him from having a momentary blackout.

The gravimeter plunged to -7, hovered there for a second, then climbed back up to -4. His AMU-111 had lost nearly a third of its velocity, dropping down to 145 kilometers per second.

Where was the light? For a moment he was afraid he’d lost track of it. No, it was there—just farther away, that’s all. The optical tracking device gave the distance as 240 kilometers. During those brief two seconds it could have increased its lead by a great deal more than that. That it hadn’t meant that it must have braked within seconds of when he did!

Then—later he was amazed that it could have taken him so long—he realized he was on the trail of that mysterious something encountered by Thomas and Wilmer while on patrol.

Until now he had not been conscious of any danger. Suddenly he was afraid—a momentary case of the jitters. It was highly unlikely, of course, but supposing the light did belong to an extraterrestrial ship…?

The light was moving closer… killing speed… closing the gap… 60… 50… 30… He decided to nudge a little closer, feathering the thrust… and watched in amazement as the thing ballooned—now only 2 kilometers off his bow!

On the other side of the couch was a pocket containing a pair of 24-power night glasses—used mainly in emergencies, in case of a radar malfunction, for example, or when approaching a satellite from the night side. But at the moment they were just what the doctor ordered. Their magnifying power was strong enough to bring the light to within the 100-meter range, and what he saw was a small disk, the color of diluted milk, similar in size to the Moon when viewed from Earth, its otherwise smooth surface marred by a continual procession of vertical smudges. When it eclipsed the stars, they faded only gradually, as if the disk’s outer rim was somehow thinner and more transparent than at the center.

But around the disk there was nothing, no luminosity to block out the starlight. Now, when examined through binoculars from a distance of 100 meters, a spaceship looks pretty much the size of a desk drawer. But there was nothing like that in sight, not a sign of any vehicle. And the little disk was definitely not somebody’s navigation light or exhaust flare.

It was just what it appeared to be: a solitary, self-propelled, little white light.

It was enough to drive a man batty!

He felt a tremendous urge to fire a shot at the thing, but without any weapons aboard—the regulations made no provision for them—that would have been no easy task. There were only two things Pirx could fire from the cabin: himself and a balloon probe. The patrolships were designed such that a pilot could eject himself in his encapsulated seat, together with a braking chute. This was done only as a last resort, and obviously there was no going back once a pilot had bailed out. That left the balloon probe—a remarkably simple device, consisting of a thin-walled rubber balloon that when deflated rolled up tightly enough to be a spear. To enhance its visibility, it was treated with an aluminum coating. Sometimes a pilot has a hard time telling by his aerodynamometer readings whether or not he has entered a planet’s atmosphere. Most importantly, he will want to know if any rarefied gas is lying in his path. When in doubt, he will fire the balloon, which inflates automatically and travels at a speed somewhat greater than the ship’s velocity. Because of its brightness, it is visible to the naked eye from as far away as 5 to 6 kilometers. If it encounters rarefied gas, the friction will cause it to heat up and explode. That’s when the pilot knows it’s time to start braking.

Pirx did his level best to aim the ship’s nose directly at the milky-white disk. Without the radar to guide him, he had to rely on the telescopic range finder. But trying to hit a target that size from a distance of almost 2 kilometers is no mean feat. Whenever he went to fire the balloon, the little disk would slip out of the line of fire. And no sooner would he bring his nose around, gently feathering his yaw jets, than the disk would do a nifty little sidestep and pop up again in the center of the screen. It repeated this maneuver four times in a row, each time with greater speed and facility, as if it were already starting to second-guess him. And judging by the way it flew slightly off course, at an angle, it was clear the disk had no intention of letting the AMU-111 fire point-blank at it.

This was fantastic. To react to such minute changes in his ship’s attitude, at a distance of 200 meters, the disk would have had to be using a telescope of gigantic proportions—of which nary a trace. But not only was it capable of carrying out a tricky evasive maneuver, it did so with only a split-second delay at the most.

His anxiety grew. He had done everything in his power to identify this uncanny flying object—and was not the least bit wiser than at the beginning. Then, while he was sitting there, immobilized, his hands gradually turning numb on the controls, it suddenly hit him that Thomas and Wilmer must have experienced the very same thing. They, too, must have sighted the light, tried to pick up the call numbers of what they took to be a UFO, given chase when they got no answer, kept track of it through the telescopic range finder, spotted the lacy little squiggles, maybe even fired a balloon probe, and then—then done something that made it unlikely that they would ever return.

When he realized how close he was to sharing the same fate, he felt not fear but despair. The whole thing was like a bad dream, a nightmare in which he couldn’t tell which part he was playing: himself, Thomas, or Wilmer. Because what was happening now was just a repeat performance—that much was clear. He sat paralyzed, profoundly convinced that the game was up. And worst of all, he couldn’t even say what the danger was, or from which direction it would come, with all this empty space around…

Empty?

Yes, the sector was empty, but then he had been chasing the little light for well over an hour, up to speeds of 230 kilometers per second. By now it was possible, if not altogether certain, that he was approaching the sector’s outer perimeter, or had already crossed it. And beyond that? Sector 1009, another 1.5 trillion kilometers of space. So there he was, surrounded by a void, by millions and millions of kilometers of nothing—and what should he have 2 kilometers off his bow but a pirouetting light!

He exerted all his powers of concentration. What would they have done—Thomas and Wilmer—right now, at this very second? Because whatever they had done, he would have to do something altogether different. Otherwise he wouldn’t come back alive.

Again he braked, again the needle shook, again his speed dropped—from 30, down to 22, to 13, to 5 kilometers per second—until the needle fluttered gently above zero. Technically speaking, he was already stopped; in space, speed is constant, always relative to something else; there’s no such thing as absolute zero, as on Earth.

The light began to shrink, retreating farther and farther… becoming dimmer and dimmer; then it reversed the process, gradually gaining in size and color, until it came to a stop again, 2 kilometers off his bow.

What would Thomas and Wilmer not have done? he wondered. What was the one thing they definitely would have avoided doing? Would they have made a run for it? Never! Not from a measly little speck, from such a dippy little dot!

He had no desire to turn the ship around—too easy to lose track of the thing—nothing harder than to patrol when something is astern—no fun twisting your head around like a corkscrew to monitor the video screen… No, turning around was definitely out—better to keep it in full view at all times. So he started moving in reverse, using his braking rockets to accelerate—one of the many basic navigational skills a pilot was expected to have mastered. His gravimeter showed 1g… then -1.6… -2… The ship was harder to handle in reverse; the nose kept listing to one side… Retro-rockets were meant for braking, not accelerating.

The little light seemed to hesitate. It hung back for a while, gradually diminishing, momentarily eclipsed Alpha Eridani, then slid away, gamboled among a few nameless stars, and—took off after him!

It wasn’t about to be given the brush-off.

Relax, he thought. Why should I sweat such a shining little pissant? Screw it. My job is to patrol the sector, and to hell with it.

He might have thought this way, but not for a moment did he take his eyes off the light. Nearly two hours had gone by since he first sighted it. His eyes were beginning to sting and get a little watery. Wide-eyed and goggle-eyed, he kept the machine in reverse. Flying in reverse is slow going; the braking rockets were not designed for continuous thrust. He reached a top speed of 8 kilometers per second, and sweated it all the way.

As time went on, he began feeling a funny sensation in his neck, as if someone were tweaking the skin under his chin, stretching it down toward his chest, and his mouth was starting to turn dry. But he refused to let it bother him, having more important things on his mind than a dry mouth and a tweaking sensation in the neck. A couple of times he had the eerie sensation of losing all sense of touch in his hands—but not his legs: he could feel the right one exerting pressure on the braking pedal.

He tried moving his hands, but without taking his eyes off the light. It seemed to be gaining on him; it was now only 1.9 or 1.8 kilometers off his bow. Was it trying to catch up with him, or what?!

He tried lifting his hand, but couldn’t. The other one was too numb to even attempt it! No sensation whatever; both hands as good as useless. He tried to catch a glimpse of them—his neck was stiff as a board.

He was panic-stricken. Why had he neglected to do the one thing he was duty-bound to do? Why hadn’t he radioed the Base and reported the light at once?

He was afraid of the embarrassment, just as surely as Thomas and Wilmer must have been. What a laugh they’d have had back in the radio shack! A light! A little white light that likes to chase and be chased! Come off it, Pirx! Knock off the dreaming and snap out of it!

With a feeling of resigned indifference, he took another look at the video screen and said:

“Patrolship AMU-111 reporting to Base…”

Or at least that’s what he would have said if his voice hadn’t got stuck in his throat. But all that came out was a lot of incoherent mumbling. He strained every muscle and let out a howl. Then, for the very first time, his eyes shifted from the stellar screen to the mirror, where he saw, sitting in the pilot’s seat, in a round yellow helmet, the face of a freak.

Huge, swollen, bulging eyes, full of ungodly terror; a gaping, froglike mouth with a blotchy, drooping tongue. Where his neck was he saw a bunch of stiffened cords, vibrating so hard they all but obliterated his lower jaw—and this monstrosity with the bloated, ashen face was yelling, yelling, yelling…

He made to close his eyes… couldn’t. He tried to focus on the screen again… couldn’t. The freak shackled to the seat was twitching more and more violently, as if bent on snapping his straps. Powerless to do anything else, Pirx stared straight ahead at the monster. He himself was oblivious of the convulsions, of everything except a choking sensation in the chest: he couldn’t take in air.

Somewhere in the vicinity he heard a hideous grinding of teeth. He was no longer himself, had no more identity, period; he knew nothing, had lost the use of his limbs and body, of everything except the leg on the braking pedal. His eyesight was dimming, getting blurrier by the second; soon it was teeming with lights—tiny, dazzling, multitudinous. He wiggled his leg; it started twitching. He raised it up; he let it back down. The mutant in the mirror was pale as ash, its mouth flecked with foam, its eyes bulging clear out of their sockets, its body convulsed.

Then he did the only thing that still lay within his power. He cocked his leg, brought it up fast, and kneed himself in the face, full force. The blood ran down his chin; the pain in his mutilated lips blinded him; everything went black.

“Ahhhh,” he gurgled. “Ahhhh…”

The gurgling was his own voice.

The pain abated, and the old numbness returned. Hey! What gives, anyway? Where the hell was he? He was nowhere; there was nothing anywhere…

He went on battering, pulverizing his face with one knee, his body contorted in a madman’s convulsions. Then it stopped. The howling, that is. What he heard next was the sound of his own garbled, blood-choked, sickening cry.

He had arms again, arms and hands. They were like wood, and ached with the slightest exertion, like torn ligaments, but he could move them. Blindly, with half-numb fingers, he groped for the straps and started undoing them, clutched the armrest with both hands, and stood up. His legs shook; his whole body felt beaten to a pulp. Grabbing hold of the line that stretched across the control room, he advanced toward the mirror and braced himself against its frame.

The man in the mirror was Pirx.

His face was no longer ashen, but bloodied; his nose was a swollen bruise. Blood was oozing from his mangled lips; his cheeks were livid, puffy; there were dark circles under his eyes and faint spasms under his chin—and all this was happening to him, Pirx. He wiped the blood from his chin, spit, coughed, took a few deep breaths—a hopeless physical wreck.

He stepped back to check the screen. The machine was still cruising in reverse, unpowered. Through its own momentum. The white disk was still tailing him, 2 kilometers off his bow.

Steadying himself on the cable, he made his way back to the contour couch—unthinking. His hands began to shake—the normal delayed reaction following a shock, no cause for alarm. Something not quite right in front of the seat…

The top of the automatic transmitter cassette. Badly dented. He nudged the lid; it collapsed. Components badly damaged. How had that happened? He must have done it himself with his foot. When was that?

He sank into the contour couch, fired his roll jets, went into a turn.

The little disk hesitated, then began gliding toward the edge of the screen; but instead of disappearing, it bounced back out into the middle, like a tennis ball. For crying out loud!

“You bastard!” His voice was full of vile loathing.

Thanks to this latest gambit, he had almost gone into stationary orbit! Yet the fact remained: the light had not left the screen when he turned. That could mean only one thing: the light was artificial, generated by the screen itself. A screen, after all, is not a window. A manned spacecraft is equipped not with windows but with video scanners, with cameras mounted externally on the ship’s armored hull, together with a transformer for converting the electrical impulses into images on a cathode-ray tube. Was this just some screwy malfunction in the scanner? Had the same thing happened to Thomas’s and Wilmer’s? And what became of them, anyway?

No time to think about such things now. Better to flip on the emergency transmitter.

“Patrolship AMU-111 to Base,” he said. “AMU-111 to Base. Present reading: sector boundary one-zero-zero-nine-dash-one-zero-one-zero, equatorial zone. Have located trouble, am coming home…”

Pirx landed some six hours later, at which time a full-scale inquiry was launched, the investigation lasting an entire month. The first thing to be overhauled was the scanner. It was a new, improved model, installed on all the AMU ships the year before and until now having a perfect performance record. Not a single malfunction had been reported.

After laborious testing, the electronics engineers finally discovered the cause of the light. After several thousand hours of testing, the vacuum in the cathode-ray tube developed a leak, causing a loose charge to appear on the screen’s inner surface, observable on the outer screen as a milky-white spot. The movements of the charge were governed by a set of complicated laws. During periods of acceleration, the charge would become distended over a broad area, as if flattened against the inside glass, making it appear as if the speck were approaching. When reverse thrust was applied, the charge would withdraw deeper into the tube. Zero and constant acceleration brought the charge slowly back into the center of the screen. It was capable of unlimited movement, but its favorite resting position, during stationary orbit or periods of unpowered flight, was front center. Research on the charge continued, and its dynamics were represented by a sixth-order differential equation. It was also demonstrated that the charge tended to disperse in response to strong light impulses, and to become more concentrated only when the intensity of impulses received by the CRT was extremely low—such as in space, for example, when a ship was farthest from the Sun. If as much as a ray of sunlight brushed the screen, the charge would vanish for several hours.

The findings of the electronics experts filled an entire volume, copiously laced with mathematical formulas. The next to tackle the case was a team of doctors, psychologists, and specialists in astroneurosis and astropsychosis. And again, after many hours of investigation, it was shown that the loose charge pulsated, which to the naked eye manifested itself as tiny dark squiggles creeping across the luminous disk.

The frequency of these pulsations, too brief to be recorded individually by the eye, affected the so-called theta rhythm of the brain’s cortex, intensifying the oscillation potential to such a degree that it could induce a seizure identical to an epileptic fit. Other contributing factors were the state of absolute inertia and the absence of any external stimuli, except for prolonged and uninterrupted exposure to a pulsating light.

The experts credited with these discoveries became internationally famous. Today electronics experts the world over are conversant with the Ledieux-Harper effect, caused by the formation of loose charges in high-vacuum cathode-ray tubes, whereas astrobiologists are familiar with Nuggelheimer’s atactic-catatonic-clonic syndrome.

Pirx remained an unknown in the world of science. Only the most assiduous readers could infer, from remarks printed in fine type in some of the evening editions, that, thanks to Pirx, pilots of the future would be spared the fate of Thomas and Wilmer, those two unfortunate victims who perished in the outer regions of space after losing consciousness in a high-speed chase after an illusory light.

The denial of fame did not bother Pirx in the slightest. Nor did he mind having a new tooth put in to replace the one demolished by his knee, nor even the fact that he had to pay for it out of his own pocket.

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