14

It was the next morning when Dan tracked down Valery in the ship’s library.

She was sitting in one of the small tape-reading booths. There were two viewscreens mounted side by side on the booth wall, and Val was comparing some of the spectrograms she had made with the big telescope against the special analysis charts in the library’s files.

Dan tapped on the glass door of the booth. She turned, smiled, and waved him in.

He slid the door open and squeezed into the booth. There was only one chair, and hardly enough room for him to stand beside her. The door slid shut automatically as soon as he let go of it.

“Cozy in here,” he said, grinning.

“It’s not built for comfort,” Valery agreed, shifting her weight slightly on the stiff metal chair.

“I wanted to know if you’re free for dinner tonight?” His voice rose enough to make it a question.

Val shook her head.

“Lunch?”

“Dan,” she said sadly. “I told you and Larry the same thing. Until the two of you stop fighting each other, I’m not going to have much to do with either of you. I won’t be the bait in a battle between you.

“But you said …”

“I’ve said a lot of things. Now I’m saying that the answer to both of you is no… as long as you’re fighting each other.”

“But Larry is…”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

Dan could feel hot anger rising inside him.

She almost smiled at him. “You don’t have to look so grim.”

“Don’t I?”

“No—Look, here are some of the results of the spectra I’ve taken with the main telescope. I haven’t shown them to anybody else, but I’ll show them to you.”

He shrugged. “Big thrill.”

“Don’t be fresh. And you’ve got to promise not to tell anyone until I make my report to the Council next week. I don’t want these data leaking out before I’ve had a chance to check everything through thoroughly.”

“I can keep a secret,” Dan said tightly.

“Well…” Val lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “Both stars seem to have Earthlike planets.”

“What?”

Nodding, Val went on, her voice rising with excitement. “Epsilon Indi is the closer of the two stars, so I can resolve its planets more easily. Not that I’ve been able to see anything except a pinpoint of light, even with the best image intensification. But the gravimetric measurements look good, and the spectral data…”

She turned to the twin viewscreens. “Look… here’s a spectrum I made twenty-four hours ago of the innermost planet of Epsilon Indi—the one that’s about Earth’s size and mass. And here, on the other screen, is a spectrum I made of Earth with the same telescope, a few days earlier. We’re just about the same distance from both planets—about four lightyears.”

Dan squinted at the two viewscreens. Each showed a smear of colors, crisscrossed by hundreds of dark lines. The Earth spectrum seemed to be dominated by shades of yellow, while the Epsilon Indi spectrum seemed more orange.

“The background continuum isn’t what’s important,” Valery explained. “Look at the absorption lines—” She pointed from one viewscreen to the other. “Oxygen here. And here. Nitrogen, on both. Water vapor… carbon dioxide,” her slim hand kept shifting back and forth, “and all at just about the same concentration. It’s fantastic!”

“You mean this planet’s just like Earth?”

“So close to each other that it’s hard to tell where they’re different, from this distance, at least.”

“But…” Dan’s insides were churning now. “But, the Epsilon Indi planet is just as far from us now as Earth and the solar system.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Val admitted.

“We could never make it there.”

Instead of answering, Valery turned back to the keyboard in front of the viewscreens. One of the pictures disappeared, to be replaced by another spectrogram.

“This is the spectrum of Femina… it’s much more intense than the Epsilon Indi planet’s, because we’re right next to it.”

“And the other spectrogram is still Earth’s?”

“Yes,” Val said. “And look at the differences in the atmospheric constituents. Sulfur oxides, big gobs of carbon dioxide and monoxide, other things I haven’t even identified yet.”

Even Dan’s unpracticed eye could see that the two spectrograms were very different from each other.

“Considering what you went through down there on the surface,” Valery said, “I should think you’d want to repair the ship and then push on for Epsilon Indi.”

Dan said nothing. He leaned against the acoustically insulated wall of the tiny booth; his face was pale, his eyes troubled.

“Thanks for showing me,” he said quietly. “I… won’t tell anybody until you give your report at the Council meeting.”

And then he pulled the -door open and stepped out of the booth, leaving Valery there alone to watch him walking quickly, through the tape shelves of the library.

Now I’ve told each of them, the exact opposite of what he wants to hear, she thought. Which one will come after me and try to silence me before the Council meeting?

Four days passed.

Larry sat in the main conference room, at his usual chair at the head of the table. But the table was mostly empty. Only Dan, Dr. Polanyi, Mort Campbell, and Guido Estelella were there, all clustered up close to Larry’s seat.

“From everything you’ve been telling me,” Larry was saying, looking at the chart on the viewscreen at the far end of the long, narrow room, “we have no choice but to go down to the surface again and try to repair the refining equipment.”

Polanyi folded his hands over his paunchy middle and agreed. “Whether we eventually decide to stay here or to move on, we still must have enough deuterium for many more years of living aboard the ship.”

“And we’ve got to overhaul just about everything on board,” Campbell added. “Doesn’t make a bit of difference if we’re going to live here or find another planet. The ship’s starting to fall apart. We’ve got to patch her up.”

Larry turned to Estelella. “What about rebuilding the refining equipment? That’ll take a lot of shuttling back and forth to the surface.”

The astronaut tilted his head slightly to one side. “That’s what I’m here for—I’m no use to anyone just sitting around.”

“No, I suppose not,” Larry said seriously. “How many flights will be necessary? Will you have to do all the flying yourself or will some of the other kids you’ve been training be able to help?”

“There are at least three or four who can fly the shuttle almost as well as I can,” Estelella said. It could have sounded like a boast, but he said it as a simple statement of fact. “And we can take the back-up shuttles out of storage and use them, too.”

Larry nodded thoughtfully.

“I think,” Dan said, “it’d be a good idea to have a spare shuttle on the ground next to the camp at all times. That way we’ll always have an escape route, in an emergency.”

“Good idea,” Larry said.

“The only real danger on the surface that we’ve run into are the storms,” Estelella muttered.

Polanyi said, “They appear to be tied in with the volcanic disturbances. If we could revive our full meteorological and geological teams, perhaps we could get accurate predictions of when to expect storms…”

Larry cut him off. “We can’t revive large numbers of people until we’ve made a firm decision to stay here. And that decision won’t be made until we get a full report on the other available planets.”

“We’re still going to be orbiting this planet,” Dan argued, “for a long time. Years, maybe.”

The others nodded agreement.

Dan went on, “I’m going down there with the first crew… got to see how bad the damage to the refinery really is.”

“You just got back,” Larry said. “And the medics are still…”

“I’m responsible for the equipment,” Dan snapped, his voice rising a notch louder than Larry’s. “It’s my job. I’m going down.”

Larry forced down an urge to shout back at him. “All right,” he said coldly, “then the only question is, when do we start?”

“Sooner the better,” Dan said.

“The campsite is in darkness now,” Estelella said, with a glance at his wristwatch. “It’ll be daylight there again in about… eight hours.”

“That puts it close to midnight, ship time.”

“Right.”

Dan said, “Let’s get a landing group together and get down there as soon as there’s enough light to see.”

“We can take off at midnight,” Estelella said.

“Good. You, me, and enough equipment to get the camp started again. Who else will we need?”

Larry was getting that helpless feeling again. Dan was running things his own way.

“You’d both better get some sleep,” he said. “And I’ll get the maintenance crew to crack the back-up shuttles out of storage, so you can get them into action as soon as possible.”

“Right.”

They got up from their chairs and headed for the door. Larry was the last to reach the doorway. Dan was still there, lingering, waiting for him.

“You’re not fooling me,” Dan said.

Larry frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t have any intention of staying here. I know that. You’re going to get the ship overhauled and patched up, and then try to convince everybody we ought to push on.”

To where? Larry almost said. But he wouldn’t give Dan the satisfaction. Instead, he asked, “You enjoyed your trip to the surface so much? You think it’s a fun place to be?”

“It’s better than this ship.”

Larry snorted. “That’s like saying that death is better than life.”

“Wrong!” Dan snapped. “Can’t you see it’s wrong? This is where we have to stay. Trying to push farther is just going to kill everybody. Is that what you want?”

“We’ve had this argument before, Dan.”

“You’re still not convinced?”

“This planet is a killer,” Larry said. “We can alter the next generation or two or even three… but I still don’t think they’ll be able to survive on Femina. The Planet’s deadly: Guido picked a good name for it.”

Dan started to answer, but Larry went on, “It’s a huge universe out there. It would be criminal of us to settle for this planet when there’ve got to be better worlds for us. Somewhere. There’s got to be.”

“We’ll see,” Dan said, his voice shaking. “We’ll see. And soon.”

Midnight.

There was no way to distinguish time on the bridge. Along the ship’s corridors and tubes, in the rec areas and cafeteria, the overhead lighting was dimmed during the night shifts. But in the working spaces, such as the bridge, everything looked the same whether it was midnight or noon. Only the people working changed. And the twenty-four hour clocks.

Larry stood behind the launch monitor, watching over his shoulders the viewscreens that showed the planet below them and the shuttle rocket sitting on the ship’s launching platform, up near the hub.

The campsite was in daylight now; under the highest magnification of the observation scopes, Larry could see a blackened smudge where the camp had been.

He turned to the screen that showed the shuttle craft. He could make out the two pressure-suited men sitting side by side in the pilot’s bubble. Estelella’s voice was checking off the countdown routine:

“Internal power on.”

“…nine, eight, seven…”

“Rockets armed and ready for ignition.”

“…five, four…”

“Tracking and telemetry on,” said a technician.

“…two, one, zero!”

The electric catapult slid the shuttle craft out past the open airlock hatch. Larry watched the viewscreen. It showed the shuttle dwindling, dwindling, becoming one more speck among the endless stars.

“Rocket ignition,” came Estelella’s voice.

The speck blossomed briefly into a glow of light. Then even that disappeared.

“Tracking on the observation telescope,” said a tech.

Larry turned toward the sound of her voice. The main screen on her console showed the shuttle craft, a tiny red-glowing meteor streaking across the broad golden landscape of the planet.

“Telemetry and voice communications strong and clear.”

Larry pressed the shoulder of the tech he was standing behind. “I’m going to my quarters to grab some sleep. Call me when they’ve landed.”

He stepped out of the glare and bustle of the bridge, into the soft shadowy nighttime lighting of the corridors. His own room was dark. He didn’t bother turning on a light, just slouched onto the bunk and waited.

The phone chimed. He touched the VOICE ONLY button.

“Yes?”

“They’ve landed. Estelella reports all okay, they’re getting out of the shuttle and starting to look around.”

“Thank you.”

Larry sat on the bunk, motionless for a long while. Then he turned to the phone again. “Valery Loring, please.”

A pause. Of course. She’s asleep by now.

Mrs. Loring’s face appeared on the viewscreen. “Larry, is that you? I can hardly see you. Don’t you have any lights on?”

“I’m sorry to wake you,” he said. “Is Val there?”

“I wasn’t asleep,” she said. “Haven’t been sleeping well lately…” Her voice trailed off. Then, “Valery’s up in the observatory. She’s been keeping very odd hours lately.”

“Oh, All right. Thank you. I’ll call her there.”

But he knew he wasn’t going to call her on the phone. He had to go up there and see her, face to face.

Two more nights, Valery was thinking. Two more nights, and then on the third morning the Council meets. Then I’ll have to tell them all the truth.

Each night for the past week she had been staying up in the observatory, sitting at the desk her father had used. The myriads of stars sprinkled across the blackness outside seemed to make the place feel colder, lonelier. Their light brought no warmth. The huge bulk of the planet was out of sight, down below the floor of the observatory, on the other side of the ship.

The big spidery telescope bulked blackly against the stars, and the smaller pieces of equipment made a hodgepodge of shadows. Black on black. Dark and darker. Only the little glowlights from the computer terminal and the viewscreens lit Val’s post.

She tried to stay awake through each night, of course. She actually got quite a bit of work done. But for long stretches of the night the telescopes and cameras and other instruments were doing their tasks and there was almost nothing for her to do. Except think. And—too often—drift into sleep, lulled by the weightlessness of the observatory and the silence.

Click!

She tensed instantly.

The sound of a hatch opening. Val strained her eyes, but could see nothing in the darkness. There were several hatches leading into the observatory, and with the tubes on nighttime lights, there wouldn’t be much of a glow to see when one of them was opened.

Padding footsteps. Slippered feet walking softly across the observatory floor.

“Who’s there?” she called.

No answer.

Dan went out on the shuttle, she knew.

“Larry, it’s you, isn’t it?”

His lean dark form seemed to coalesce out of the shadows. “Yes,” he said quietly, not five meters away from her. “It’s me.”

Her pulse was racing. “Oh… you scared me… a little.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

He was close enough now for her to see his face in the glow of the desk lights. He looked infinitely weary. He pulled up a chair and floated softly onto it. Valery noticed that he didn’t snap on the zero-g restraining belt. As calmly and unhurriedly as she could, she unclipped her own lap belt. It clicked loudly and snapped back into its resting sockets.

“Why… what brings you up here?” she asked.

For a moment he didn’t answer, merely stared at her. “I just had to talk to somebody,” he said at last. “I… lately, I’ve had the feeling that I’m completely alone. Totally cut off from everybody. No friends, nobody.”

“I’m still your friend, Larry,” she said softly.

“It’s hard for us to be friends, Val. After everything that’s happened… we can’t be friends. Not really.”

“I don’t understand.”

He seemed miserable. “Can’t you see? When you tell the Council that you haven’t been able to find an Earthlike planet, they’re going to vote to stay here. They’ll elect Dan Chairman and the geneticists will be put to work preparing the next generation of children for that deathworld down there. Your children, Val! Yours and Dan’s. They’ll be monsters. Sulfur-breathing, gorilla-sized monsters.”

She had to struggle to keep her voice from shaking. “But what else can we do?”

“We’ve got to keep on going. Got to find an Earthlike planet somewhere. In this whole universe…”

“There might not be any,” Valery said. “Maybe Earth is a unique place. Why should we expect anything closer to Earth conditions than the planet down below us?”

Larry didn’t answer. He just sat there and lifted his head back, gazing up at the stars that crowded all around.

“I can see why you like it up here,” he said. “It’s peaceful here. Like being alone in the universe… floating free among the stars. It wouldn’t be a bad way to die, just floating out there. No cares, no weight, just out there in the universe, without the ship to hem you in.”

“Wh… what do you mean?”

He snapped his attention back to her. Valery felt a chill as his ice-blue eyes focused on her.

“You got Dr. Hsai to start revival procedures on a team of psychiatrists,” Larry said flatly.

“I… we talked about it, yes…”

“Why?” Larry asked, rising up from his chair like a ghost. “I told Hsai it wasn’t necessary. Why did you get him to countermand my decision?”

“He thought it would be best,” Valery said, her voice going high, the words coming out fast. “I didn’t tell him to do it; he decided for himself.”

“He didn’t decide until after you talked to him.” He was standing over her now, feet barely touching the floor, looming over her.

Valery got up from her chair, bumping Larry slightly so that he bobbed away gently.

“Larry… you and Dan are both certain that there’s a madman aboard this ship. A killer. You think it’s Dan and he thinks it’s you.”

“So?”

Carefully, Val edged over in front of the desk and sat on it. Her feet no longer touched the floor. She gripped the edge of the desk with both hands.

“So shouldn’t we have a psychiatrist on hand to examine him? And—and you?”

“Me? Why me? I’m not the killer.”

Suddenly Val didn’t know how to say what she knew had to be said… She plunged ahead anyway.

“Larry—have you ever thought that maybe, if Dan is the killer, he doesn’t know it?”

“Huh?”

“He might be doing things that his conscious mind isn’t aware of. And, besides, he hasn’t killed anybody. Not really.”

“He tried to kill your father. And the fire in the cryonics unit might have been deliberately set. That’s still a possibility.”

“All right,” Valery said, inching the top desk drawer open with her right hand. “Even if he did… maybe he doesn’t know about it. He might be sick, insane.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous.”

“I know,” Val agreed. “But—you can understand that he might be doing all these things without being consciously aware of it.”

Looking puzzled now, Larry said, “Yes… I guess that’s possible.”

Val held her breath for an instant, then blurted, “Then you can see that it might be you who’s doing it! You could be the sick one and not even know it!”

“Whhaaat?”

Larry’s eyes went wide with shock. He seemed to stagger back.

“No!” he roared. “That can’t be.”

Tears were springing up in Val’s eyes, and her vision was getting blurry. “Larry, it could be. It could be!”

“You’re wrong. That’s crazy… it’s not me—”

Her hand closed on the cold hard metal she was seeking.

“Why did you come up here tonight?” Val asked. “Why did you come up here the night my father was nearly killed?”

“No!” he shouted again, and started for her.

Valery pulled the sonic stunner out of the desk drawer and fired point-blank. The gun made a barely-audible popping sound. But Larry’s body stiffened, his eyes glazed, his arms froze outstretched barely a few centimeters from her. He didn’t fall, he couldn’t in zero-gravity. He merely hung there, unconscious.

Val found that her hands were shaking wildly now, and she was sobbing.

Then:

“Very neat work. The two of you are being very cooperative.”

Dan Christopher stepped out of the shadows from beyond the desk, grinning.

Contents