"I don't like it," Major Crispin Eller said. He stared through the port scope, frowning. "An asteroid like this with plenty of water, moderate temperature, an atmosphere similar to Terra's oxygen-nitrogen mix --"
"And no life." Harrison Blake, second in command, came up beside Eller. They both stared out. "No life, yet ideal conditions. Air, water, good temperature. Why?"
They looked at each other. Beyond the hull of the cruiser, the X-43y, the barren, level surface of the asteroid stretched away. The X-43y was a long way from home, half-way across the galaxy. Competition with the Mars-Venus-Jupiter Triumvirate had moved Terra to map and prospect every bit of rock in the galaxy, with the idea of claiming mining concessions later on. The X-43y had been out planting the blue and white flag for almost a year. The three-member crew had earned a rest, a vacation back on Terra and a chance to spend the pay they had accumulated. Tiny prospecting ships led a hazardous life, threading their way through the rubble-strewn periphery of the system, avoiding meteor swarms, clouds of hull-eating bacteria, space pirates, peanut-size empires on remote artificial planetoids --
"Look at it!" Eller said, jabbing angrily at the scope. "Perfect conditions for life. But nothing, just bare rock."
"Maybe it's an accident," Blake said, shrugging.
"You know there's no place where bacteria particles don't drift. There must be some reason why this asteroid isn't fertile. I sense something wrong."
"Well? What do we do?" Blake grinned humorlessly. "You're the captain. According to our instructions we're supposed to land and map every asteroid we encounter over Class-D diameter. This is a Class-C. Are we going outside and map it or not?"
Eller hesitated. "I don't like it. No one knows all the lethal factors floating out here in deep space. Maybe --"
"Could it be you'd like to go right on back to Terra?" Blake said. "Just think, no one would know we passed this last little bit of rock up. I wouldn't tip them off, Eller."
"That isn't it! I'm concerned with our safety, and that's all. You're the one who's been agitating to turn Terra-side." Eller studied the port scope. "If we only knew."
"Let out the pigs and see what shows. After they've run around for a while we should know something."
"I'm sorry I even landed."
Blake's face twisted in contempt. "You're sure getting cautious, now that we're almost ready to head home."
Eller moodily watched the gray barren rock, the gently moving water. Water and rock, a few clouds, even temperature. A perfect place for life. But there was no life. The rock was clean, smooth. Absolutely sterile, without growth or cover of any kind. The spectroscope showed nothing, not even one-celled water life, not even the familiar brown lichen encountered on countless rocks strewn through the galaxy.
"All right, then," Eller said. "Open one of the locks. I'll have Silv let out the pigs."
He picked up the com, dialing the laboratory. Down below them in the interior of the ship Silvia Simmons was working, surrounded by retorts and testing apparatus. Eller clicked the switch. "Silv?" he said.
Silvia's features formed on the vidscreen. "Yes?"
"Let the hamsters outside the ship for a short run, about half an hour. With line and collars, of course. I'm worried about this asteroid. There may be some toxic poisons around or radiation pits. When the pigs come back give them a rigid test. Throw the book at them."
"All right, Cris," Silvia smiled. "Maybe we can get out and stretch our legs after a while."
"Give me the results of the tests as soon as possible." Eller broke the circuit. He turned to Blake. "I assume you're satisfied. In a minute the pigs will be ready to go out."
Blake smiled faintly. "I'll be glad when we get back to Terra. One trip with you as captain is about all I can take."
Eller nodded. "Strange, that thirteen years in the Service hasn't taught you any more self-control. I guess you'll never forgive them for not giving you your stripes."
"Listen, Eller," Blake said. "I'm ten years older than you. I was serving when you were just a kid. You're still a pasty-faced squirt as far as I'm concerned. The next time --"
Eller turned quickly. The vidscreen was relit. On it, Silvia's face showed, frantic with fear.
"Yes?" He gripped the com. "What is it?"
"Cris, I went to the cages. The hamsters -- They're cataleptic, stretched out, perfectly rigid. Every one of them is immobile. I'm afraid something --"
"Blake, get the ship up," Eller said.
"What?" Blake murmured, confused. "Are we --"
"Get the ship up! Hurry!" Eller raced toward the control board. "We have to get out of here!"
Blake came to him. "Is something --" he began, but abruptly he stopped, choked off. His face glazed over, his jaw slack. Slowly he settled to the smooth metal floor, falling like a limp sack. Eller stared, dazed. At last he broke away and reached toward the controls. All at once a numbing fire seared his skull, bursting inside his head. A thousand shafts of light exploded behind his eyes, blinding him. He staggered, groping for the switches. As darkness plucked at him his fingers closed over the automatic lift.
As he fell he pulled hard. Then the numbing darkness settled over him completely. He did not feel the smashing impact of the floor as it came up at him.
Out into space the ship rose, automatic relays pumping frantically. But inside no one moved.
Eller opened his eyes. His head throbbed with a deep, aching beat. He struggled to his feet, holding onto the hull railing. Harrison Blake was coming to life also, groaning and trying to rise. His dark face had turned sickly yellow, his eyes were blood-shot, his lips foam-flecked. He stared at Cris Eller, rubbing his forehead shakily.
"Snap out of it," Eller said, helping him up. Blake sat down in the control chair.
"Thanks." He shook his head. "What-what happened?"
"I don't know. I'm going to the lab and see if Silv is all right."
"Want me to come?" Blake murmured.
"No. Sit still. Don't strain your heart. Do you understand? Move as little as possible."
Blake nodded. Eller walked unsteadily across the control room to the corridor. He entered the drop lift and descended. A moment later he stepped out into the lab.
Silvia was slumped forward at one of the work tables, stiff and unmoving.
"Silv!" Eller ran toward her and caught hold of her, shaking her. Her flesh was hard and cold. "Silv!"
She moved a little.
"Wake up!" Eller got a stimulant tube from the supply cabinet. He broke the tube, holding it by her face. Silvia moaned. He shook her again.
"Cris?" Silvia said faintly. "Is it you? What -- what happened? Is everything all right?" She lifted her head, blinking uncertainly. "I was talking to you on the vidscreen. I came over to the table, then all of a sudden --"
"It's all right." Eller frowned, deep in thought, his hand on her shoulder. "What could it have been? Some kind of radiation blast from the asteroid?" He glanced at his wristwatch. "Good Lord!"
"What's wrong?" Silvia sat up, brushing her hair back. "What is it, Cris?
"We've been unconscious two whole days," Eller said slowly, staring at his watch. He put his hand to his chin. "Well, that explains this." He rubbed at the stubble.
"But we're all right now, aren't we?" Silvia pointed at the hamsters in their cages against the wall. "Look -- they're up and running around again."
"Come on." Eller took her hand. "We're going up above and have a conference, the three of us. We're going over every dial and meter reading in the ship. I want to know what happened."
Blake scowled. "I have to agree. I was wrong. We never should have landed."
"Apparently the radiation came from the center of the asteroid." Eller traced a line on the chart. "This reading shows a wave building up quickly and then dying down. A sort of pulse wave from the asteroid's core, rhythmic."
"If we hadn't got into space we might have been hit by a second wave," Silvia said.
"The instruments picked up a subsequent wave about fourteen hours later. Apparently the asteroid has a mineral deposit that pulses regularly, throwing out radiation at fixed intervals. Notice how short the wave lengths are. Very close to cosmic ray patterns."
"But different enough to penetrate our screen."
"Right. It hit us full force." Eller leaned back in his seat. "That explains why there was no life on the asteroid. Bacteria landing would be withered by the first wave. Nothing would have a chance to get started."
"Cris?" Silvia said.
"Cris, do you think the radiation might have done anything to us? Are we out of danger? Or--"
"I'm not certain. Look at this." Eller passed her a graph of lined foil, traced in red. "Notice that although our vascular systems have fully recovered, our neural responses are still not quite the same. There's been alteration there."
"In what way?"
"I don't know. I'm not a neurologist. I can see distinct differences from the original tracings, the characteristic test patterns we traced a month or two ago, but what it means I have no way to tell."
"Do you think it's serious?"
"Only time will tell. Our systems were jolted by an intense wave of unclassified radiation for a straight ten hours. What permanent effects it has left, I can't say. I feel all right at this moment. How do you feel?"
"Fine," Silvia said. She looked out through the port scope at the dark emptiness of deep space, at the endless fragments of light arranged in tiny unmoving specks. "Anyhow, we're finally heading Terra-side. I'll be glad to get home. We should have them examine us right away."
"At least our hearts survived without any obvious damage. No blood clots or cell destruction. That was what I was primarily worried about. Usually a dose of hard radiation of that general type will --"
"How soon will we reach the system?" Blake said.
Blake set his lips. "That's a long time. I hope we're still alive."
"I'd advise against exercising too much," Eller said. "We'll take it easy the rest of the way and hope that whatever has been done to us can be undone back on Terra."
"I guess we actually got off fairly easy." Silvia said. She yawned. "Lord, I'm sleepy." She got slowly to her feet, pushing her chair back. "I think I'll turn in. Anyone object?"
"Go ahead," Eller said. "Blake, how about some cards? I want to relax. Blackjack?"
"Sure," Blake said. "Why not?" He slid a deck from his jacket pocket. "It'll make the time pass. Cut for deal."
"Fine." Eller took the deck. He cut, showing a seven of clubs. Blake won the deck with a jack of hearts.
They played listlessly, neither of them much interested. Blake was sullen and uncommunicative, still angry because Eller had been proved so right. Eller himself was tired and uncomfortable. His head throbbed dully in spite of the opiates he had taken. He removed his helmet and rubbed his forehead.
"Play," Blake murmured. Under them the jets rumbled, carrying them nearer and nearer Terra. In a week they would enter the system. They had not seen Terra in over a year. How would it look? Would it still be the same? The great green globe, with its vast oceans, all the tiny islands. Then down at New York Spaceport. San Francisco, for him. It would be nice, all right. The crowds of people, Terrans, good old frivolous, senseless Terrans, without a care in the world. Eller grinned up at Blake. His grin turned to a frown.
Blake's head had drooped. His eyes were slowly closing. He was going to sleep.
"Wake up," Eller said. "What's the matter?"
Blake grunted, pulling himself up straight. He went on dealing the next hand. Again his head sank lower and lower.
"Sorry," he murmured. He reached out to draw in his winnings. Eller fumbled in his pocket, getting out more credits. He looked up, starting to speak. But Blake had fallen completely asleep.
"I'll be damned!" Eller got to his feet. "This is strange." Blake's chest rose and fell evenly. He snored a little, his heavy body relaxed. Eller turned down the light and walked toward the door. What was the matter with Blake? It was unlike him to pass out during a game of cards.
Eller went down the corridor toward his own quarters. He was tired and ready for sleep. He entered his washroom, unfastening his collar. He removed his jacket and turned on the hot water. It would be good to get into bed, to forget everything that had happened to them, the sudden exploding blast of radiation, the painful awakening, the gnawing fear. Eller began to wash his face. Lord, how his head buzzed. Mechanically, he splashed water on his arms.
It was not until he had almost finished washing that he noticed it. He stood for a long time, water running over his hands, staring silently down, unable to speak.
His fingernails were gone.
He looked up in the mirror, breathing quickly. Suddenly he grabbed at his hair. Handfuls of hair came out, great bunches of light brown hair. Hair and nails --
He shuddered, trying to calm himself. Hair and nails. Radiation. Of course: radiation did that, killed both the hair and the nails. He examined his hands.
The nails were completely gone all right. There was no trace of them. He turned his hands over and over, studying the fingers. The ends were smooth and tapered. He fought down rising panic, moving unsteadily away from the mirror.
A thought struck him. Was he the only one? What about Silvia!
He put his jacket on again. Without nails his fingers were strangely deft and agile. Could there be anything else? They had to be prepared. He looked into the mirror again.
His head - What was happening? He clasped his hands to his temples. His head. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. He stared, his eyes wide. He was almost completely hairless, now, his shoulders and jacket covered with brown hair that had fallen. His scalp gleamed, bald and pink, a shocking pink. But there was something more.
His head had expanded. It was swelling into a full sphere. And his ears were shriveling, his ears and his nose. His nostrils were becoming thin and transparent even as he watched. He was changing, altering, faster and faster.
He reached a shaking hand into his mouth. His teeth were loose in the gums. He pulled. Several teeth came out easily. What was happening? Was he dying? Was he the only one? What about the others?
Eller turned and hurried out of the room. His breath came painfully, harshly. His chest seemed constricted, his ribs choking the air out of him. His heart labored, beating fitfully. And his legs were weak. He stopped, catching hold of the door. He started into the lift. Suddenly there was a sound, a deep bull roar. Blake's voice, raised in terror and agony.
"That answers that," Eller thought grimly, as the lift rose around him. "At least I'm not the only one!"
Harrison Blake gaped at him in horror. Eller had to smile. Blake, hairless, his skull pink and glistening, was not a very impressive sight. His cranium, too, had enlarged, and his nails were gone. He was standing by the control table, staring first at Eller and then down at his own body. His uniform was too large for his dwindling body. It bagged around him in slack folds.
"Well?" Eller said. "We'll be lucky if we get out of this. Space radiations can do strange things to a man's body. It was a bad day for us when we landed on that --"
"Eller," Blake whispered. "What'll we do? We can't live this way, not like this! Look at us."
"I know." Eller set his lips. He was having trouble speaking now that he was almost toothless. He felt suddenly like a baby. Toothless, without hair, a body growing more helpless each moment. Where would it end?
"We can't go back like this," Blake said. "We can't go back to Terra, not looking this way. Good heavens, Eller! We're freaks. Mutants. They'll -- they'll lock us up like animals in cages. People will --"
"Shut up." Eller crossed to him. "We're lucky to be alive at all. Sit down." He drew a chair out. "I think we better get off our legs."
They both sat down. Blake took a deep, shuddering breath. He rubbed his smooth forehead, again and again.
"It's not us I'm worried about," Eller said, after a time. "It's Silvia. She'll suffer the most from this. I'm trying to decide whether we should go down at all. But if we don't, she may --"
There was a buzz. The vidscreen came to life, showing the white-walled laboratory, the retorts and rows of testing equipment, lined up neatly against the walls.
"Cris?" Silvia's voice came, thin and edged with horror. She was not visible on the screen. Apparently she was standing off to one side.
"Yes." Eller went to the screen. "How are you?"
"How am I?" A thrill of hysteria ran through the girl's voice. "Cris, has it hit you, too? I'm afraid to look." There was a pause. "It has, hasn't it? I can see you -- but don't try to look at me. I don't want you to see me again. It's -- it's horrible. What are we going to do?"
"I don't know. Blake says he won't go back to Terra this way."
"No! We can't go back! We can't!"
There was silence. "We'll decide later," Eller said finally. "We don't have to settle it now. These changes in our systems are due to radiation, so they may be only temporary. They may go away, in time. Or surgery may help. Anyhow, let's not worry about it now."
"Not worry? No, of course I won't worry. How could I worry about a little thing like this! Cris, don't you understand? We're monsters, hairless monsters. No hair, no teeth, no nails. Our heads --"
"I understand." Eller set his jaw. "You stay down in the lab. Blake and I will discuss it with you on the vidscreen. You won't have to show yourself to us."
Silvia took a deep breath. "Anything you say. You're still captain."
Eller turned away from the screen. "Well, Blake, do you feel well enough to talk?"
The great-domed figure in the corner nodded, the immense hairless skull moving slightly. Blake's once great body had shrunk, caved in. The arms were pipe stems, the chest hollow and sickly. Restlessly, the soft fingers tapped against the table. Eller studied him.
"What is it?" Blake said.
"Nothing. I was just looking at you."
"You're not very pleasant looking, either."
"I realize that." Eller sat down across from him. His heart was pounding, his breath coming shallowly. "Poor Silv! It's worse for her than it is for us."
Blake nodded. "Poor Silv. Poor all of us. She's right, Eller. We're monsters." His fragile lips curled. "They'll destroy us back on Terra. Or lock us up. Maybe a quick death would be better. Monsters, freaks, hairless hydrocephalics."
"Not hydrocephalics," Eller said. "Your brain isn't impaired. That's one thing to be thankful for. We can still think. We still have our minds."
"In any case we know why there isn't life on the asteroid," Blake said ironically. "We're a success as a scouting party. We got the information. Radiation, lethal radiation, destructive to organic tissue. Produces mutation and alteration in cell growth as well as changes in the structure and function of the organs."
Eller studied him thoughtfully. "That's quite learned talk for you, Blake."
"It's an accurate description." Blake looked up. "Let's be realistic. We're monstrous cancers blasted by hard radiation. Let's face it. We're not men, not human beings any longer. We're --"
"I don't know." Blake lapsed into silence.
"It's strange," Eller said. He studied his fingers moodily. He experimented, moving his fingers about. Long, long and thin. He traced the surface of the table with them. The skin was sensitive. He could feel every indentation of the table, every line and mark.
"What are you doing?" Blake said.
"I'm curious." Eller held his fingers close to his eyes, studying them. His eyesight was dimming. Everything was vague and blurred. Across from him Blake was staring down. Blake's eyes had begun to recede, sinking slowly into the great hairless skull. It came to Eller all at once that they were losing their sight. They were going slowly blind. Panic seized him.
"Blake!" he said. "We're going blind. There's a progressive deterioration of our eyes, vision and muscles."
"I know," Blake said.
"But why? We're actually losing the eyes themselves! They're going away, drying up. Why?"
"Atrophied," Blake murmured.
"Perhaps." Eller brought out a log book from the table, and a writing beam. He traced a few notes on the foil. Sight diminishing, vision failing rapidly. But fingers much more sensitive. Skin response unusual. Compensation?
"What do you think of this?" he said. "We're losing some functions, gaining others."
"In our hands?" Blake studied his own hands. "The loss of the nails makes it possible to use the fingers in new ways." He rubbed his fingers against the cloth of his uniform. "I can feel individual fibers which was impossible before."
"Then the loss of nails was purposeful!"
"We've been assuming this was all without purpose. Accidental burns, cell destruction, alteration. I wonder... " Eller moved the writing beam slowly across the log sheet. Fingers: new organs of perception. Heightened touch, more tactile response. But vision dimming....
"Cris!" Silvia's voice came, sharp and frightened.
"What is it?" He turned toward the vidscreen.
"I'm losing my sight. I can't see."
"It's all right. Don't worry."
"I'm -- I'm afraid."
Eller went over to the vidscreen. "Silv, I think we're losing some senses and gaining others. Examine your fingers. Do you notice anything? Touch something."
There was an agonizing pause. "I seem to be able to feel things much differently. Not the same as before."
"That's why our nails are gone."
"But what does it mean?"
Eller touched his bulging cranium, exploring the smooth skin thoughtfully. Suddenly he clenched his fists, gasping. "Silv! Can you still operate the X-ray equipment? Are you mobile enough to cross the lab?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Then I want an X-ray plate made. Make it right away. As soon as it's ready i notify me."
"An X-ray plate? Of what?"
"Of your own cranium. I want to see what changes our brains have undergone. Especially the cerebrum. I'm beginning to understand, I think."
"What is it?"
"I'll tell you when I see the plate." A faint smile played across Eller's thin lips. "If I'm right, then we've been completely mistaken about what's happened to us!"
For a long time Eller stared at the X-ray plate framed in the vidscreen. Dimly he made out the lines of the skull, struggling to see with his fading eyesight. The plate trembled in Silvia's hands.
"What do you see?" she whispered.
"I was right. Blake, look at this, if you can."
Blake came slowly over, supporting himself with one of the chairs. "What i is it?" He peered at the plate, blinking. "I can't see well enough."
"The brain has changed enormously. Notice how much enlargement there is here." Eller traced the frontal lobe outline. "Here, and here. There's been growth, amazing growth. And greater convolution. Notice this odd bulge off the frontal lobe. A kind of projection. What do you suppose it might be?"
"I have no idea," Blake said. "Isn't that area mainly concerned with higher processes of thought?"
"The most developed cognitive faculties are located there. And that's where the most growth has taken place." Eller moved slowly away from the screen.
"What do you make of it?" Silvia's voice came.
"I have a theory. It may be wrong, but this fits in perfectly. I thought of it almost at first, when I saw that my nails were gone."
"What's your theory?"
Eller sat down at the control table. "Better get off your feet, Blake. I don't think our hearts are too strong. Our body mass is decreasing, so perhaps later on --"
"Your theory! What is it?" Blake came toward him, his thin bird-like chest rising and falling. He peered down intently at Eller. "What is it?"
"We've evolved," Eller said. "The radiation from the asteroid speeded up cell growth, like cancer. But not without design. There's purpose and direction to these changes, Blake. We're changing rapidly, moving through centuries in a few seconds."
Blake stared at him.
"It's true," Eller said. "I'm sure of it. The enlarged brain, diminished powers of sight, loss of hair, teeth. Increased dexterity and tactile sense. Our bodies have lost, for the most part. But our minds have benefited. We're developing greater cognitive powers, greater conceptual capacity. Our minds are moving ahead into the future. Our minds are evolving."
"Evolving!" Blake sat down slowly. "Can this be true?"
"I'm certain of it. We'll take more X-rays, of course. I'm anxious to see changes in the internal organs, kidneys, stomach. I imagine we've lost portions of our --"
"Evolved! But that means that evolution is not the result of accidental external stresses. Competition and struggle. Natural selection, aimless, without direction. It implies that every organism carries the thread of its evolution within it. Then evolution is ideological, with a goal, not determined by chance."
Eller nodded. "Our evolution seems to be more of an internal growth and change along distinct lines. Certainly not at random. It would be interesting to know what the directing force is."
"This throws a new light on things," Blake murmured. "Then we're not monsters, after all. We're not monsters. We're -- we're men of the future."
Eller glanced at him. There was a strange quality in Blake's voice. "I suppose you might say that," he admitted. "Of course, we'll still be considered freaks on Terra."
"But they'll be wrong," Blake said. "Yes, they'll look at us and say we're freaks. But we're not freaks. In another few million years the rest of mankind will catch up to us. We're moving ahead of our own time, Eller."
Eller studied Blake's great bulging head. He could only dimly make out its lines. Already, the well-lighted control room was turning almost dark. Their sight was virtually gone. All he could make out was vague shadows, nothing more.
"Men of the future," Blake said. "Not monsters, but men from tomorrow. Yes, this certainly throws a new light on things." He laughed nervously. "A few minutes ago I was ashamed of my new appearance! But now --"
"But now what?"
"But now I'm not so sure."
"What do you mean?"
Blake did not answer. He had got slowly to his feet, holding onto the table.
"Where are you going?" Eller said.
Blake crossed the control room painfully, feeling his way toward the door. "I must think this over. There are astonishing new elements to be considered. I agree, Eller. You're quite right. We have evolved. Our cognitive faculties are greatly improved. There's considerable deterioration in body functions, of course. But that's to be expected. I think we're actually the gainers, everything considered." Blake touched his great skull cautiously. "Yes, I think that in the long run we may have gained. We will look back on this as a great day, Eller. A great day in our lives. I'm sure your theory is correct. As the process continues I can sense changes in my conceptual abilities. The Gestalt faculty has risen amazingly. I can intuit certain relationships that --"
"Stop!" Eller said. "Where are you going? Answer me. I'm still captain of this ship."
"Going? I'm going to my quarters. I must rest. This body is highly inadequate. It may be necessary to devise mobile carts and perhaps even artificial organs as mechanical lungs and hearts. I'm certain the pulmonary and vascular systems are not going to stand up long. The life expectancy is no doubt greatly diminished. I'll see you later, Major Eller. But perhaps I should not use the word see." He smiled faintly. "We will not see much any more." He raised his hands. "But these will take the place of vision." He touched his skull. "And this will take the place of many, many things."
He disappeared, closing the door behind him. Eller heard him going slowly, determinedly down the corridor, feeling his way along with careful, feeble steps.
Eller crossed to the vidscreen. "Silv! Can you hear me? Did you listen to our conversation?"
"Then you know what has happened to us."
"Yes, I know. Cris, I'm almost completely blind now. I can see virtually nothing."
Eller grimaced, remembering Silvia's keen, sparkling eyes. "I'm sorry, Silv. I wish this had never happened. I wish we were back the way we were. It's not worth it."
"Blake thinks it's worth it."
"I know. Listen, Silv. I want you to come here to the control room, if you can. I'm worried about Blake, and I want you here with me."
"He's got something on his mind. He's not going to his quarters merely to rest. Come here with me and we'll decide what to do. A few minutes ago I was the one who said we should go back to Terra. But now I think I'm beginning I change my mind."
"Why? Because of Blake? You don't suppose Blake would --"
"I'll discuss it with you when you get here. Make your way along with your hands. Blake did it, so probably you can. I think perhaps we won't return to Terra after all. But I want to give you my reasons."
"I'll be there as soon as I can," Silvia said. "But be patient. And Cris -- Don't look at me. I don't want you to see me this way."
"I won't see you," Eller said grimly. "By the time you get here I won't be able to see much at all."
Silvia sat down at the control table. She had put on one of the spacesuits from the lab locker so that her body was hidden by the plastic and metal suit. Eller waited until she had caught her breath.
"Go on," Silvia said.
"The first thing we must do is collect all the weapons on the ship. When Blake comes back I'm going to announce that we are not returning to Terra. I think he will be angry, perhaps enough to start trouble. If I'm not mistaken, he very much wants to keep moving Terra-side now, as he begins to understand the implications of our change."
"And you don't want to go back."
"No." Eller shook his head. "We must not go back to Terra. There's danger, great danger. You can see what kind of danger already."
"Blake is fascinated by the new possibilities," Silvia said thoughtfully. "We're ahead of other men, several millions of years, advancing each moment. Our brains, our powers of thought, are far in advance of other Terrans."
"Blake will want to go back to Terra, not as an ordinary man, but as a man of the future. We may find ourselves in relation to other Terrans as geniuses among idiots. If the process of change keeps up, we may find them nothing more than higher primates, animals in comparison to us."
They both were silent.
"If we go back to Terra we'll find human beings nothing more than animals," Eller went on. "Under the circumstances, what would be more natural than for us to help them? After all, we're millions of years ahead of them. We could do a lot for them if they'd let us direct them, lead them, do their planning for them."
"And if they resist we probably could find ways of gaining control of them," Silvia said. "And everything, of course, would be for their own good. That goes without saying. You're right, Cris. If we go back to Terra we'll soon find ourselves contemptuous of mankind. We'll want to lead them, show them how to live, whether they want us to or not. Yes, it'll be a strong temptation."
Eller got to his feet. He went over to the weapons locker and opened it. Carefully, he removed the heavy-duty Boris guns and brought them over to the table, one by one.
"The first thing is to destroy these. After that, you and I have to see to it that Blake is kept away from the control room. Even if we have to barricade ourselves in, it has to be done. I'll reroute the ship. We'll move away from the system, toward some remote region. It's the only way."
He opened the Boris guns and removed the firing controls. One by one he broke the controls, crunching them under foot.
There was a sound. Both turned, straining to see.
"Blake!" Eller said. "It must be you. I can't see you, but --"
"You're correct," Blake's voice came. "No, Eller, we're all of us blind, or almost blind. So you destroyed the Boris guns! I'm afraid that won't keep us from returning to Terra."
"Go back to your quarters," Eller said. "I'm the captain, and I'm giving you an order to --"
Blake laughed. "You're ordering me? You're almost blind, Eller, but I think you'll be able to see -- this!"
Something rose up into the air around Blake, a soft pale cloud of blue. Eller gasped, cringing, as the cloud swirled around him. He seemed to be dissolving, breaking into countless fragments, rushed and carried away, drifting --
Blake withdrew the cloud into the tiny disc that he held. "If you'll remember," he said calmly, "I received the first bath of radiation. I'm a little ahead of you two, by only a short time, perhaps, but enough. In any case, the Boris guns would have been useless, compared to what I have. Remember, everything in this ship is a million years antiquated. What I hold --"
"Where did you get it, that disc?"
"I got it nowhere. I constructed it, as soon as I realized that you would turn the ship away from Terra. I found it easy to make. In a short time the two of you will also begin to realize our new powers. But right now, I'm afraid, you're just a bit behind."
Eller and Silvia struggled to breathe. Eller sank against the hull railing, exhausted, his heart laboring. He stared at the disc in Blake's hand.
"We'll continue moving toward Terra," Blake went on. "Neither of you is going to change the control settings. By the time we arrive at the New York Spaceport you both will have come to see things differently. When you've caught up with me you'll see things as I see them. We must go back, Eller. It's our duty to mankind."
There was a faint mocking quality in Blake's voice. "Of course it's our duty! Mankind needs us. It needs us very much. There's much we can do for Terra. You see, I was able to catch some of your thoughts. Not all of them, but enough to know what you were planning. You'll find that from now on we'll begin to lose speech as a method of communication. We'll soon begin to rely directly on --"
"If you can see into my mind then you can see why we mustn't return to Terra," Eller said.
"I can see what you're thinking but you're wrong. We must go back for their good." Blake laughed softly. "We can do a lot for them. Their science will change in our hands. They will change, altered by us. We'll remake Terra, make her strong. The Triumvirate will be helpless before the new Terra, the Terra that we will build. The three of us will transform the race, make it rise, burst across the entire galaxy. Mankind will be material for us to mold. The blue and white will be planted everywhere, on all the planets of the galaxy, not on mere bits of rock. We'll make Terra strong, Eller. Terra will rule everywhere."
"So that's what you have in mind," Eller said. "And if Terra doesn't want to go along with us? What then?"
"It is possible they won't understand," Blake admitted. "After all, we must begin to realize that we're millions of years ahead of them. They're a long way behind us, and many times they may not understand the purpose of our orders. But you know that orders must be carried out, even if their meaning is not comprehended. You've commanded ships, you know that. For Terra's own good, and for --"
Eller leaped. But the fragile, brittle body betrayed him. He fell short, grasping frantically, blindly, for Blake. Blake cursed, stepping back.
"You fool! Don't you --"
The disc glinted, the blue cloud bursting into Eller's face. He staggered to one side, his hands up. Abruptly he fell, crashing to the metal floor. Silvia lumbered to her feet, coming toward Blake, slow and awkward in the heavy spacesuit. Blake turned toward her, the disc raised. A second cloud rose up. Silvia screamed. The cloud devoured her.
"Blake!" Eller struggled to his knees. The tottering figure that had been Silvia lurched and fell. Eller caught hold of Blake's arms. The two figures swayed back and forth. Blake trying to pull away. Suddenly Eller's strength gave out. He slipped back down, his head striking the metal floor. Nearby, Silvia lay, silent and inert.
"Get away from me," Blake snarled, waving the disc. "I can destroy you the way I did her. Do you understand?"
"You killed her," Eller screamed.
"It's your own fault. You see what you gained by fighting? Stay away from me! If you come near me I'll turn the cloud on you again. It'll be the end of you."
Eller did not move. He stared at the silent form.
"All right," Blake's voice came to him, as if from a great distance. "Now listen to me. We're continuing toward Terra. You'll guide the ship for me while I work down in the laboratory. I can follow your thoughts, so if you attempt to change course I'll know at once. Forget about her! It still leaves two of us, enough to do what we must. We'll be within the system in a few days. There's much to accomplish, first." Blake's voice was calm, matter of fact. "Can you get up?"
Eller rose slowly, holding onto the hull railing.
"Good," Blake said. "We must work everything out very carefully. We may have difficulties with the Terrans at first. We must be prepared for that. I think that in the time remaining I will be able to construct the necessary equipment that we will need. Later on, when your development catches up with my own, we will be able to work together to produce the things we need."
Eller stared at him. "Do you think I'll ever go along with you?" he said. His glance moved toward the figure on the floor, the silent, unmoving figure. "Do you think after that I could ever --"
"Come, come, Eller," Blake said impatiently. "I'm surprised at you. You must begin to see things from a new position. There is too much involved to consider --"
"So this is how mankind will be treated! This is the way you'll save them, by ways like this!"
"You'll come around to a realistic attitude," Blake said calmly. "You'll see that as men of the future --"
"Do you really think I will?"
The two men faced each other.
Slowly a flicker of doubt passed over Blake's face. "You must, Eller! It's our duty to consider things in a new way. Of course you will." He frowned, raising the disc a little. "How can there be any doubt of that?"
Eller did not answer.
"Perhaps," Blake said thoughtfully, "you will hold a grudge against me. Perhaps your vision will be clouded by this incident. It is possible..." The disc moved. "In that case I must adjust myself as soon as possible to the realization that I will have to go on alone. If you won't join me to do the things that must be done then I will have to do them without you." His fingers tightened against the disc. "I will do it all alone, Eller, if you won't join me. Perhaps this is the best way. Sooner or later this moment might come, in any case. It is better for me to --"
From the wall a vast, transparent shape moved slowly, almost leisurely, out into the control room. Behind the shape came another, and then another, until at last there were five of them. The shapes pulsed faintly, glimmering with a vague, internal glow. All were identical, featureless.
In the center of the control room the shapes came to rest, hovering a little way up from the floor, soundlessly, pulsing gently, as if waiting.
Eller stared at them. Blake had lowered his disc and was standing, pale and tense, gaping in astonishment. Suddenly Eller realized something that made chill fear rush through him. He was not seeing the shapes at all. He was almost completely blind. He was sensing them in some new way, through some new mode of perception. He struggled to comprehend, his mind racing. Then, all at once, he understood. And he knew why they had no distinct shapes, no features.
They were pure energy.
Blake pulled himself together, coming to life. "What --" he stammered, waving the disc. "Who --"
A thought flashed, cutting Blake off. The thought seared through Eller's mind, hard and sharp, a cold, impersonal thought, detached and remote.
"The girl. First."
Two of the shapes moved toward Silvia's inert form, lying silently beside Eller. They paused a slight distance above her, glowing and pulsing. Then part of the glimmering corona leaped out, hurtling toward the girl's body, bathing her in a shimmering fire.
"That will suffice," a second thought came, after a few moments. The corona retreated. "Now, the one with the weapon."
A shape moved toward Blake. Blake retreated toward the door behind him. His withered body shook with fear.
"What are you?" he demanded, raising the disc. "Who are you? Where did you come from?"
The shape came on.
"Get away!" Blake cried. "Get back! If you don't --"
He fired. The blue cloud entered the shape. The shape quivered for a moment, absorbing the cloud. Then it came on again. Blake's jaw fell. He scrambled into the corridor, stumbling and falling. The shape hesitated at the door. Then it was joined by a second shape which moved up beside it.
A ball of light left the first shape, moving toward Blake. It enveloped him. The light winked out. There was nothing where Blake had stood. Nothing at all.
"That was unfortunate," a thought came. "But necessary. Is the girl reviving?"
"Who are you?" Eller asked. "What are you? Will Silv be all right? Is she alive?"
"The girl will recover." The shapes moved toward Eller, surrounding him. "We should perhaps have intervened before she was injured but we preferred to wait until we were certain the one with the weapon was going to gain control."
"Then you knew what was happening?"
"We saw it all."
"Who are you? Where did you -- where did you come from?"
"We were here," the thought came.
"On the ship. We were here from the start. You see, we were the first to receive the radiation; Blake was wrong. So our transformation began even before his did. And in addition, we had much farther to go. Your race has little evolution ahead of it. A few more inches of cranium, a little less hair, perhaps. But not really so much. Our race, on the other hand, had just begun."
"Your race? First to receive the radiation?" Eller stared around him in dawning realization. "Then you must be --"
"Yes," the calm, inflexible thought came. "You are right. We are the hamsters from the laboratory. The pigs carried for your experiments and tests." There was almost a note of humor in the thought. "However, we hold nothing against you, I assure you. In fact, we have very little interest in your race, one way or another. We owe you a slight debt for helping us along our path, bringing our destiny onto us in a few short minutes instead of another fifty million years.
"For that we are thankful. And I think we have already repaid you. The girl will be all right. Blake is gone. You will be allowed to continue on your way back to your own planet."
"Back to Terra?" Eller faltered. "But --"
"There is one more thing that we will do before we go," the calm thought came. "We have discussed the matter and we are in complete agreement on this. Eventually your race will achieve its rightful position through the natural course of time. There is no value in hurrying it prematurely. For the sake of your race and the sake of you two, we will do one last thing before we depart. You will understand."
A swift ball of flame rose from the first shape. It hovered over Eller. It touched him and passed on to Silvia. "It is better," the thought came. "There is no doubt."
They watched silently, staring through the port scope. From the side of the ship the first ball of light moved, flashing out into the void.
"Look!" Silvia exclaimed.
The ball of light increased speed. It shot away from the ship, moving at incredible velocity. A second ball oozed through the hull of the ship, out into space behind the first.
After it came a third, a fourth, and finally a fifth. One by one the balls of light hurtled out into the void, out into deep space.
When they were gone Silvia turned to Eller, her eyes shining. "That's that," she said. "Where are they going?"
"No way to tell. A long way, probably. Maybe not anywhere in this galaxy. Some remote place." Eller reached out suddenly, touching Silvia's dark-brown hair. He grinned. "You know, your hair is really something to see. The most beautiful hair in the whole universe."
Silvia laughed. "Any hair looks good to us, now." She smiled up at him, her red lips warm. "Even yours, Cris."
Eller gazed down at her a long time. "They were right," he said at last.
"It is better." Eller nodded, gazing down at the girl beside him, at her hair and dark eyes, the familiar lithe, supple form. "I agree -- There is no doubt of it."