His back stiffened and his hands clenched. He turned to face me again. "I went through the Academy with Ben. How about doing me a favor? For old times sake. Tell me who it was that put the finger on him. Just give me a name. I might spot it sometime on a register."
I figured there was no sense prolonging the agony.
"O.K. Ivor Vincent Callum."
Moya's face blanched; he took a backward step and uttered something under his breath that sounded like the Spanish equivalent of-- He turned abruptly, opened the panel, and stalked out.
Somehow I expected him to come back and ask for details, but he didn't show.
I won't dwell on the trip. Any schoolboy who watches tridee space operas can quote chapter and verse and use phrases like "paraspace hops" and "rip-psyche phenomenon" as trippingly as "Hey, Joey, let's play swap-strip!" Citizens from Venus and Mars, vacationing on Terra, speak knowingly, too, whenever they can bring themselves to cease complaining about the gravity, crowded conditions, and regimentation, and can squelch the bragging about how well they're doing on good old whatever. But don't let them kid you. GSM drive is restricted to interstellar transport. Colonists from the nearer systems are picked people, stiff-backed pioneers, who don't sob to come "home" every time their particular planet completes a circuit around its primary; and, when they do return, they're generally too busy lobbying for essentials to bother telling tall tales. So, comparatively few people are really familiar with star ships and the ins and outs of paraspace. Ask a starman, you won't have any trouble recognizing one, even in mufti; or, better yet, get a spool labeled: "THE CONQUEST OF PARASPACE: A History of the Origins and Early Application of Star Drive." It's old, but good, and it was written especially for laymen.
I'll say this: it took about a week. Sure paraspace hops are, to all intents and purposes, instantaneous, but there is a limit to the capacity of the GSM drive, and regulations restrict the jumps to a toleration well within that capacity. We might have made it sooner had we not been bound to follow 231's space plan--but not much. Once a plan has been filed, only an emergency can justify deviation. So, if you'll pardon the expression, let's just say that interstellar distances are astronomical.
Every time we came back into objective space--and I'd managed to recapture my soul--I applied myself to the tapes.
I got little from Moya, and not because of enmity. Even after refreshing his memory, he couldn't offer much. Although he had been master of the ship that had first remarked E-T, he hadn't set foot upon its surface.
The planet was comparatively undistinguished.
It was about the size of Melna-Terra, had an atmosphere with a good balance of nitrogen and oxygen, plus carbon dioxide, argon, et cetera, was mostly surface water, yet offered polar ice caps and a reasonable land area, as taken in the aggregate, although present in the form of scattered, insular masses. The largest of these, about half the size of Terra's Australia, was a comfortable number of degrees above the equator and had been selected as representative for detailed examination. Briefly: standard terrain--a balance between mountains, desert, and plain; flora, varied; fauna, primitive--plenty of insect life, enough to keep an entomologist occupied for years, but not much for specialists in the other branches of zoology; warm-blooded creatures comparatively rare; and, according to the original survey team, nothing bacterial that had overburdened Doc Yakamura's polyvalent vaccine; the kind of planet that pleased Galactic Survey because it looked promising for future colonization, come the day and the need.
"The type that skeptics like me view with grave suspicion," I told Moya. "Like saints, women of unblemished reputation, heroes, politicians--"
"And all Interstel agents," Tony offered dryly.
In the interim, since the divulgence of my part in the Stuart affair, Moya had thawed somewhat. After all, he and I had been friends at one time, and the present situation held no brief for head-on, personality clashes. The phrase "all in the same boat" applies with particular meaning to spacers. Tony undoubtably figured that 231 might have been his ship. He even went so far as to express an interest in seeing E-T from the ground level.
"I work alone, Tony," I said. "But thanks for the offer. Tell you what: I'll strike a compromise. If I get into serious trouble, it'll be you I shout for. All right?"
Moya scowled. "Probably a wild goose chase anyway."
But he said it without enthusiasm.
It reads like this: regs require that messenger vehicles be returned to the Solar System on their miniature equivalents of paraspace drive, periodically, with complete information as to conditions encountered, work in progress, et cetera. None had been received from 231. There's a joke--not at all funny, I'll admit--that concerns itself with just this situation. It ends with the opening lines of the GS Memorial Service.
The last skull work I did was to familiarize myself with the personal dossiers of each of 231's crew, paying particular attention to psych reports. It's a part of my job that I've never liked. But I recognize the necessity.
The crew seemed fairly typical. The average was relatively inexperienced, the sort you'd expect on the type of assignment that was often used as advanced training. I managed to single out several possibles--men who might crack, depending upon the gravity of the situation. The captain-designate wasn't one of them; nor was the survey-team co-ordinator.
GSS 231 was on station--big and reflective and innocently ominous, held methodically by robopilot in an orbit that matched exactly the rotation of Epsilon-Terra--precisely over the largest land mass.
Moya conned us in like a dream, paralleled, rectified, grappled, and mated locks.
I showed up in Astrogation in a full-pressure suit, carrying the helmet.
The crew gawked, and somebody snickered.
"You think it's silly, do you?" Moya snapped.
"Better flush your side as soon as I get clear," I advised.
Moya nodded, lowered and secured the helmet, checked lines, and rapped O.K.
An hour later, I still didn't feel silly. I had the helmet open now. I sat in front of the communications console.
Moya responded as if he had been waiting with his finger on the stud. I didn't have to specify taping; all star ship radio traffic is automatically recorded.
"Level O.K.?" I asked.
"Yes, man; what's the story?"
"Inner lock and all compartments: air pressure, density, temperature, and purity optimum; all intrinsic gear optimum; three shuttler berths vacant; hold shows standard environmental equipment for one team gone; messenger racks full, no programming apparent; absolutely no sign of crew; repeat--"
"I got it; have you checked the log?"
"Who's doing this, you or me?"
I figured they could edit Moya's comment.
The log was strictly routine--space plan had been followed exactly; arrival had been on schedule; survey team had been dispatched with minimum delay, had reported grounding and camp establishment without incident, had relayed particulars of commencement of operation--until the last entry. It was eerie listening to the emotionless voice of 231's skipper: "Sub-entry one. Date: same. Time: 2205 Zulu. No contact with base camp. Surface front negates visual. Am holding dispatch of M 1. Will wait until next scheduled report time before action."
There was no sub-entry two.
I broke the recorder seal, reversed and played back the comm tapes. There wasn't much. Distance obviates any talky-talky from ship to base once the Solar System has been cleared. What I learned was simply a substantiation of what I'd already surmised. I cut off when I heard a familiar voice say: "250 from 231."
Moya helped me strip off the pressure suit. No matter what the physio manuals say, there's room for improvement. Nothing beats your own skin.
He trailed me into the gear compartment.
I returned the suit to its clips and began sorting through the welter of what the well-dressed spacer wears for a bug rig somewhere near my size. The tag is not completely adequate. It's a light-weight outfit, with intrinsic filters and auds, designed to be worn under conditions that involve the suspected presence of dangerous bacteria or harmful gases. Its efficacy does not extend beyond the limits of reasonable atmosphere.
"Now don't start jumping to conclusions," I told Moya. "All I know is that whatever happened happened quickly and down below."
From the weapons' chest, I selected a little W&R 50 and the biggest clip I could find. "Fifties" aren't much for range, but they are unconditionally guaranteed to make a creature the size of a Triceratops think twice before heading in your direction again, and, once you strap one on, you never feel the weight. That's why, even though they are officially obsolete, you can generally find a brace in most star ship arsenals.
"Remind me to report the maintenance gang of this hunk for stocking unauthorized weaponry."
"You would, too," Moya said.
On the way back to the lock, I told him: "Let's save time by not making a duplicate recording. I'll transmit additional information and intent going down. There's one shuttler left in 231, so I'll use it. If I find I need something that isn't in the shuttler, I'll fetch myself. Under no circumstances are you or any of your boys to leave this ship without my say-so."
"What happens if--?"
"You've had thirty years of deep space, Tony; am I supposed to tell you your job? Go by the book. Either launch another messenger and sit tight for instructions, or get out and risk a board inquiry, depending."
"You can rot down there for all of me."
"Thanks a pile. Make certain your crew understands. I wouldn't want any of them getting their pretty hands dirty."
But I didn't feel so cocky going down. I hadn't the least idea of what to expect. Sure, I'd gleaned something from the comm tapes: the unsuccessful attempts to contact the survey team at base camp; the happy-go-lucky report from the kid sent in shuttler II to investigate, saying that the camp was deserted but everything looked fine, just fine; the unsuccessful attempts to recontact him; and then a blank except for my own voice. Apparently, the skipper had followed with the rest of the con crew. I could even guess why he had failed to make additional entries in the log, or not transmitted from the camp in lieu thereof. He figured it was something he could work out himself, and he didn't want anything on record to show that he had broken regulations. He wanted to keep the errors of personnel under his command--and his own--in the family. He figured, after the situation was resolved, that he could make cover entries and nobody's slate would be soiled.
The camp was at the edge of a plain marked "Hesitation" on the chart.
I plucked a scrap of verse out of my mind: On the Plains of Hesitation Bleach the bones of countless millions Who, when victory was dawning Sat down to rest And resting, died.
I wondered how prophetic that was going to be.
I grounded within yards of the other three shuttlers. They were parked neatly parallel. Their orderliness made my scalp prickle, and I was sweating long before I got into the bug suit, squeezed out of the tiny lock, and set foot on Epsilon-Terra.
The sky was blue, naked except for a tracing of tenuous clouds.
I could see neither of the star ships.
I wonder if you can imagine how it feels to be on a planet so far away from the Solar System that the term "trillions of miles" is totally inadequate? If you can grasp even a bit of it, then add the complication of a small but insistent voice inside your head that keeps telling you that no matter where or how far you go, you're not-- Let's just say it gives your sweat an odor and your mouth a taste and makes you want to look over your shoulder all the time.
I walked the hundred yards to the white plastidome, avoiding the few bulbous plants and tussocks of short yellow grass that dotted the dry plain.
Through the aud cells of the suit's hood, I could hear the light buzzing of insects that served only to heighten the overbearing quiet of the area.
The port was closed. Inside, everything was correct, except for the little dirt brought in on boot soles during erection and subsequent goings and comings.
There was a packet of nutratabs, lying open on an empty crate that had been pressed into service as a table. Some one had fortified himself before trekking off into the nearby bush. There was much equipment still sealed in cartons. Bunks were made up. Tucked under the blanket of one was a little book with stylus attached. All pages were blank except the first. The entry read: "TC in a sweat to get going. Rain potential. No rest for the weary. This seems to be a nice spot though. Am kind of eager myself to take a look at some of the vegetation hereabouts. Have several ideas along the lines of Thompson's prelim research concerning extraction of--"
I replaced it under the blanket. I was ready to give odds that each of the previous finders had done the same: the kid that had arrived in shuttler II, and probably 231's skipper; and each from the same motive--He'll be back; after all, a diary is a personal thing.
I went back outside, shut the port, and made a complete circuit of the camp. I looked into each of the three shuttlers. I found nothing that could offer the least positive clue to the fate of the twelve men from 231.
I returned to shuttler IV, beamed Moya, and filled him in, forcing myself to be cheery.
"How's everything upstairs?"
"Right now we're having a little zero-gee drill; keeps the boys alert."
"Good idea. Now here's my plan: I've got ten hours of daylight left, so I'm heading out into the bush. Figure departure in five minutes. Weather has obscured signs, but I don't think I can go wrong by following my nose and taking the shortest route. I'm traveling light, just the bug rig, the W&R, belt kit, and a minicomm. I'm going to set up this transceiver to record and transmit on command-response. I suggest you interrogate every hour on the hour from now on. Catchum?"
I broke off, made the necessary adjustments, strapped the minicomm on my wrist, and exited the shuttler.
The antiseptic air that I drew into my lungs was beginning to seem inadequate, I felt slippery all over, and there was a cottony taste in my mouth.
I made it to the start of the bush in fifteen minutes. Don't be misled into picturing jungle. There was a variety of vegetation, including trees, but none of it was what you'd call heavy going. Beyond somewhere was a stream, significant enough to be noted on the chart as "First Water." And several miles from the camp was the start of a series of rolling hills. Blue in the distance was a chain of mountains--"The Guardians." The over-all impression was of peaceful, virgin wilderness.
The original survey team had made its camp in the relative frankness of the plain, then, after preliminary tests, had moved to higher ground, specifically, the lee side of one of the nearer hills.
They had cleared an area, using heat sweepers to destroy encroaching vegetation, and R-F beams to disenchant the local insect population.
Insects there were: a regular cacophony of buzzings, chirpings and monotonous mutterings. By the time I'd reached the bank of the stream, I'd lost track of individual varieties.
The stream was a bare trickle; the bed was spongy and dotted with tall, spare plants that resembled horse tails; I negotiated the fifty feet to the opposite bank without difficulty.
I threaded through a thicket and came out into a brief expanse of savannah.
There I found the first evidence of the fate of 231's people.
It was a small object, oval, flattened, the color of old ivory.
Although I hadn't been walking along with my head under my arm, it took me a moment to tumble to what I'd discovered.
Then my hair tried to stand on end. I rid myself of it and used the minicomm for the first time.
Speaking to a recorder was altogether too impersonal for what I had to report.
"I've just found a patella; a human knee-cap. I'm about a hundred feet beyond the far bank of the stream in almost a straight line from the camp. I'm in grass about two feet tall. I'm casting about now, looking--Hold it. Yes, it's scraps of a gray uniform. More remains. Here's a femur; here's a radius-ulna. The bones are clean, scattered. Evidence of scavengers. No chance for a P-M on this one."
I got out the chart from its case on the suit's belt, x'd the location, and went on, feeling more lonely all the time.
It wasn't that I was unconversant with the physical evidence of death. I've marked corpses on planets you've probably never heard of--corpses resulting from disaster, unavoidable accident, stupid error, and even murder. What I've learned is that you never get used to coming face to face with human death, even when its manifestation is the inscrutable vacancy of bare bones.
You can put this down, too, and think what you want about incongruity: I was angry; angry with the spacer that had got himself catapulted into eternity so far from home; angry with myself for having assumed before leaving the Interstel office in Mega Angeles that this is what I would find; angry because the assumption had done nothing to prepare me for the reality. No space padre would have admired what I said inside the bug suit's hood--nor the refinements that grew more bitter with each new discovery.
Within three hours, I'd accounted for all twelve of 231's missing crew.
The search had led to and beyond the hillside where the original team had made its second and permanent camp. In one place, I found enough to separate four skeletons of men who had fallen within a few feet of each other. The rest were randomly located. There was a small plant growing up through the hole in the left half of a pelvis. Somehow it looked obscene, and I had to fight the impulse to tear it out. But it was simply one of many, struggling for survival, that I'd seen growing here and there throughout the area: a species that seemed to bear a familial kinship to those that sprinkled the plain.
There was equipment: field kits, a minilab, a couple of blasters, each showing full charge.
Cause of death: that was the enigma.
"So far I'm stumped," I said into the minicomm. "I've retrieved a few scraps of uniform bearing stains. Maybe analysis can discover something. The tapes say that E-T's birds and mammals are comparatively rare, but comparative doesn't mean much in the light of what I've seen. So far, though, everything I can come up with seems totally inadequate. Bacterial invasion, animal attack, insect incursion--none were problems with the first survey gang, so why should they be now? Rule out gas poisoning or allied concomitants; the suit tab shows white. Speaking of that--I'm peeling now. Keep your fingers crossed."
The air was warm and still, heavy with the ubiquitous smells and sounds of wilderness.
I was in the approximate area of the first team's camp. As per custom, they had struck the plastidome, dismantled the scanners, power panels, and other reusable equipment, and destroyed the debris of occupancy. The clearing had repaired itself. But for the slight concavities on the hilltop that marked shuttler settlings, there was little to indicate their previous presence.
I sat down and waited.
The suicide complex has never been a part of my psyche, but there are times when you have to place yourself in jeopardy; it's occupational, and I've got the gray hair, worry lines, and scars to prove it.