THE MINUS WOMAN.
By Russ Winterbotham
Red Brewer had plugged his electric razor into the lab circuit and he was running it over his pink jowls while I tried to discover what was haywire about the balance scales.
"Have you noticed," Red said above the clatter of his shaver, "how much less you have to shave on an asteroid?"
"I still shave every day," I said. There was something definitely wrong with the scales. The ten-gram weight didn't balance two five-gram weights. Instead it weighed 7.5 grams. And then, suddenly, the cockeyed scales would get ornery and the two five-gram weights would weigh 7.5 grams and the ten-gram slug would weigh what it should.
"I don't," said Red. "I shave once a week. Back on terra I shaved every day, but not here. And I don't even have a beard to show for it."
I didn't answer. There were tougher problems on my mind than whiskers, but of course Red Brewer wouldn't understand them. He was good at machinery, and with a camera, and for company on a lonely asteroid which right now was 300,000,000 miles from the earth, but he certainly wasn't a brain.
"What do you make of it, Jay?" he asked. "Oh, Mr. Hayling, I'm speaking to you."
"Maybe it's your thyroid," I said. "Shut up."
"I'm twenty-seven," said Red. "Too old to have thyroids."
"You mean adenoids."
Red growled and shut off the razor. He ran his hand over his face. "I've got a face like a school-kid's," he said. "If there was only a girl on this god-forsaken piece of rock to see it."
There were no girls on Asteroid 57GM. This place didn't have anything excepting a lonely shack with paper-thin walls made of special heat-insulating material. There wasn't a blade of grass; not a puff of wind; no soil for violets; not even a symmetrical shape, it was lopsided like a beaten-up baseball. Or at least that was what I thought until something happened to the balance scales.
The idea of sending Jay Hayling, which is me, and ruddy Red Brewer to Asteroid 57GM, was simply to check up on some figures which said that this little 10-mile chunk of rock didn't have the right mass. Twice it had been clocked on near passages to Jupiter and twice it had behaved differently, as if it had suddenly lost some of its mass. So Red and I had been sentenced to fifteen months alone in space on an asteroid just to find out that somebody had made a mistake in arithmetic.
The sonar equipment showed what kind of rock it was--iron and basalt. And I'd made borings which checked. We'd tested the speed of escape which was a good push so we had to be careful, and its force of gravity, which wasn't much. And then I'd discovered that the balance in the lab had a habit of being 25 per cent wrong one way or the other every time I tried to use it.
Red put away his razor and went through the little door leading to the living quarters. The partition was crystal clear plastic so I could see him pulling himself along by the hand rail toward the bookcase. I knew he would presently find himself something to read while I worked.
We seldom walked in the laboratory. Our muscles, conditioned by terrestrial gravity, were too strong for walking. We'd have bumped our heads on the ceiling at every step and possibly we might even have punched a hole in the roof, losing our air. So we sort of pulled ourselves along by a system of hand rails on all of the anchored desks, furniture and walls. It was like pulling yourself along the bottom of the ocean by hanging onto rocks, since the air in the lab was dense enough to support our almost weightless bodies.
I checked the scales every way I could and finally gave up. I'd tackle the problem again tomorrow. Maybe something on the asteroid, some magnetic rock or something, threw it off. I washed my hands in the laboratory sink and then, while I wiped them on a towel, glanced at Red, who was lying on his bunk reading. For the first time I noticed how skinny he was getting. Lack of exercise, I presumed. We were going to have to do something to build up our muscles again. I supposed I had lost weight just as much as he had. It would be tough to weigh ourselves here, since we had only the balance in the laboratory. Spring scales wouldn't work on the asteroid--we wouldn't have weighed enough to register, even though our mass was probably about the same as an average man's on earth.
Red put the book aside, closed his eyes and smiled. My eyes fell on the book for some reason. Then suddenly I saw a page flip over. I didn't realize at first that this couldn't happen.
There wasn't any draft in the place, I was sure of that. A draft would mean a leak in the laboratory and alarms would tell us when that happened. There was no motion, nothing to cause a page in the book to turn.
Another page turned and I was sure I wasn't dreaming. I pulled myself over to the door, opened it a trifle.
"Red!" I called softly.
"Dollie!" He was dreaming. Dollie was one of the dozen or so girls he was always talking about in his sleep.
I pulled myself to his side and punched him gently. Red woke up. "You're a hell of a guy," he said.
"Yes," I said. "You were dreaming about Dollie. But I saw something happen here and I wanted you to see it too." I pointed at the book. The pages were still now. Suddenly one of them flipped over.
"Somebody, or something is reading your book," I said.
We didn't figure it out then and I wasn't even sure that I'd made the right diagnosis, but things went on every day afterwards that left me convinced there was something else living on this hunk of rock besides Red and me. It didn't have mass, apparently, because we tried our best to touch it.
Once when it got to fooling around with the laboratory balance, Red and I encircled the balance with our arms and then squeezed together without feeling a thing.
It wasn't energy, because we tried every instrument to detect electricity, heat, light, and radio. But it was alive, because it moved. It read books and monkeyed with the lab scales.
And at last I decided that maybe _it_ had something to do with the apparent discrepancy in the asteroid's change in mass. After that I had a great deal to work on.
Red began behaving queerly too. He swore that he was getting too small for his clothing. His shoes, he said, were almost a size too large. I was too busy to check, so I put it down as a loss in weight.
We'd spent a year on the asteroid when we were due to pass Mars. So our first anniversary was spent in checking our movements with a telescope, a camera and a chronometer. We discovered our mass--or that of Asteroid 57GM--had depreciated another 25 per cent. It now had only half the mass it was supposed to have. This was too much of an error for even a grade school student.
"I'll bet some astronomers back on earth will get redder than my hair when we get home," Red said.
I shook my head. "It hasn't anything to do with their observations," I said. "It's what is happening now to you and me. We're losing mass someway."
There was only one way to check it and that was to weigh ourselves. So I rigged up a rude sort of a balance by weighing out chunks of rock until we had a mass equal to what we should weigh, placing them on a teeter-totter arrangement I rigged up in the lab.
"It'll be close enough to learn if we've lost half our mass," I said.
Red showed a weight loss equal to about 20 pounds on earth. I had gained a little weight. These figures were only relative, and dependent on whether or not the rocks we'd used on the balance had lost mass also. But something was wrong with Red and I decided to watch him carefully.
"Your scales are cockeyed," Red said. "I feel fine. Never felt better, in fact. Except that I'm lonesome ... not that I don't enjoy your company, pal, ole pal, but I'd like Dollie's better."
Something on the far side of the room caught my eye. It was along the glass partition between the lab and the living room. It might have been a reflection of some sort, because the sun was up and its beams were coming right through the transparent roof at that moment. But for a fleeting instant I thought I saw a figure there. A tall, shapely, black-haired girl, dressed in a flowing robe of orange. The next instant she was gone.
I said I thought it might be a reflection, but I was pretty sure it wasn't. "Red," I said. "We've got company."
"I'm sure of it, Red. There's somebody else here besides us."
"There's no one else. You're crazy." Red looked around the room. Then he looked at me. His gaze was sharp and penetrating.
"You can't see it now," I said. "But I'm sure I saw something. A woman. Over there." I pointed to where I'd seen the thing that might have been a reflection.
"Maybe you'd better lie down, Jay. You've been working too hard. A year out on this rock could make a man see King Solomon's harem."
"No, Red," I said. "Those funny things we saw, your book pages turning; the cockeyed balance; maybe your loss of weight. They aren't natural. Something is here and what I just saw makes me think it's human and it's trying to get in touch with us."
Red's stomach muscles squeezed with laughter and he held onto a guard rail to keep from being sent across the room by the exertion.
"What I saw was a woman, Red," I went on.
Red laughed out loud and hung on again. "I could use a babe," he said. Suddenly he jerked. "Who hit me?" he asked. Across his face was a red welt, the shape of a woman's hand.
We called them "manifestations" after that and Red called her his ghost sweetheart, although the slap had convinced him it wasn't a ghost. Red's getting slapped was the first indication that perhaps this thing did have matter of some sort, but its ability to remain invisible made it appear that the matter wasn't the ordinary kind.
Finally I came up with some sort of an answer. It was just a crazy idea and there was no way to prove that I was right. I tried to explain it to Red, who didn't know much about atomic physics, but he seemed to get the idea.
"You see, Red, it could be _negative_ matter," I explained.
"Well, you know what an electron is, I suppose, a negatively charged sub-atomic particle?"
"And a proton, which is positively charged?"
Again he nodded.
"Well, scientists have learned that there could be positive electrons, as well as negative, and negative protons. In other words each sub-atomic particle has a 'minus quantity' counterpart."
"You're saying it, I'm believing it," said Red. "A guy's gotta believe something."
"Well, this leads to a great deal of speculation. If these minus quantities got together they might form a minus matter."
"You've got me in a hole, so I'm minus too."
"You don't have to understand it, but try to imagine that two universes could exist side by side, one minus, one plus, and that neither could be aware of the other. Every star, every planet and every speck of matter could have its counterpart, but neither would be aware of that counterpart's existence."
Red grinned and shook his head. "Crazy," he said.
"Yes, crazy. But dig this, supposing that some sixth sense made it possible for one of our minus counterparts to get in contact with us through extra-sensory perception."
"How'd they do it?" Red asked.
"I don't know. We don't know how to do it, but it may be that our scientific progress wouldn't keep abreast of each other. We might know more than our minus counterparts in some fields, and they might know more in others. But their special knowledge enabled them to bridge the gap briefly--long enough to see us, and watch us--"
"And read our books." Red nodded.
"And perhaps learn our language--remember you got slapped."
"I'll watch it," said Red.
"There's no reason why the gap couldn't be bridged. Science and minds have done a lot of things that looked impossible."
We went to bed on that and all night long I dreamed of negative universes, with suns like old Sol except that they shone black in bright heavens and planets of space floating in vacuums of matter. Red must have dreamed about it too, because he had a question over the dehydrated ham and eggs the next morning.
"Does that explain the loss in mass for this asteroid?"
"I think it does. Either the method our minus counterparts have in bridging the gap, or perhaps some sort of space warp that permits them to do it. At any rate enough of the minus world has been projected through to our side of the equation to displace the mass of this planetoid. Our lab scales being haywire might be the result of a being's nearness to it, or something."
Red didn't digest it all, but I could see he was thinking. "I wonder what all this has to do with my whiskers," he mused.
We were busy making some further checks on the planetoid's mass later in the day when Red got a glimpse of the vision I'd seen. Red didn't take it quietly. He yelled loud and pointed.
I turned just in time to see her fade away. It was the same woman, dressed the same. But this time she had been a bit more than a vapor.
Red forgot where he was and made a dive toward her. His body shot like a bullet across the room, skimming over laboratory equipment, and his head crashed solidly against the telescope.
Red literally bounced back halfway again. Then a long thin arm seemed to reach out of nowhere and seize him by the jacket and hold him long enough to stop him.
Red drifted down to the floor, knocked cold.
It had happened so swiftly that I hadn't had time to move. Now I pulled myself toward Red. The arm was still there in space, and it had added a shoulder, a rather pretty shoulder. Next there was a body, clothed in the flowing orange cape, and finally a woman's head. It was the same one--the minus woman.
"It's true," I said.
The woman seemed to understand. "Yes," she said. "All that you told Red Brewer is true, Jay Hayling. For you, I am a minus woman. For me, you are a minus man. But we have bridged the gap. For the first time in eternity, plus and minus, positive and negative, can meet on even terms."
"Better not come too close," I said.
"Nothing will happen," she replied. "We are now alike." She stooped toward the fallen figure on the floor. "Help me with this child. He's unconscious."
"Child!" I said. "If he's a child, they grow 'em big in the minus world."
But as I lifted Jay off the floor I wondered if he was as big as I'd always thought. It wasn't his weight. Nothing weighed very much on this asteroid, but it was his frail body. He seemed to be a boy of sixteen, rather than a man stationed 300,000,000 miles in space.
I carried him out of the laboratory into the living quarters and placed him on his bunk. I loosened his clothing, noting at the time that he had been right about his garments not fitting him.
"You've made him lose weight," I said.
"What makes you think so?" the woman asked.
"Because every screwy thing that has happened since we came here a year ago must have an explanation."
The woman smiled. "Don't think too harshly of me." She looked very solid now. Her body had lost that tenuous look. She was no longer nebulous and cloud-like. "Certain things were necessary in order for me to proceed safely through the gap between the positive and negative worlds," she explained.
I looked at Red again. His face was smooth and I knew he hadn't shaved in more than a week. "You've made him younger," I said. "Well, he shouldn't kick at that."