"Man, that goes good...."
The cigarette was not lighted. Hoskins turned away, an expression of sick pity on his face. Ives reached abruptly for his own lighter, and the doctor checked him with a gesture.
"Every time I see a hot pilot work I'm amazed," Paresi said conversationally. "Such concentration ... you must be tuckered, Johnny."
Johnny puffed at his unlit cigarette. "Tuckered," he said. "Yeah." There were two odd undertones to his voice suddenly. They were fatigue, and eagerness. Paresi said, "You're off-watch, John. Go stretch out."
"Real tired," mumbled Johnny. He lumbered to his feet and went aft, where he rolled to the couch and was almost instantly asleep.
The others congregated far forward around the controls, and for a long moment stared silently at the sleeping pilot.
"I don't get it," murmured Ives.
"He really thought he flew us out, didn't he?" asked Hoskins.
Paresi nodded. "Had to. There isn't any place in his cosmos for machines that don't work. Contrary evidence can get just so strong. Then, for him, it ceased to exist. A faulty cigarette lighter irritated him, a failing airlock control made him angry and sullen and then hysterical. When the drive controls wouldn't respond, he reached his breaking point. Everyone has such a breaking point, and arrives at it just that way if he's pushed far enough."
Paresi looked from face to face, and nodded somberly. Anderson asked, "What knocked him out? He's trained to take far more strain than that."
"Oh, he isn't suffering from any physical or conscious mental fatigue. The one thing he wanted to do was to get away from a terrifying situation. He convinced himself that he flew out of it. The next best thing he could do to keep anything else from attacking him was to sleep. He very much appreciated my suggestion that he was worn out and needed to stretch out."
"I'd very much appreciate some such," said Ives. "Do it to me, Nick."
"Reach your breaking point first," said the doctor flatly, and went to place a pillow between Johnny's head and a guard-rail.
Hoskins turned away to stare at the peaceful landscape outside. The Captain watched him for a moment, then: "Hoskins!"
"I've seen that expression before. What are you thinking about?"
The engineer looked at him, shrugged, and said mildly, "Chess."
"Oh, a very general thing. The reciprocity of the game. That's what makes it the magnificent thing it is. Most human enterprises can gang up on a man, slap him with one disaster after another without pause. But not chess. No matter who your opponent might be, every time he does something to you, it's your move."
"Very comforting. Have you any idea of how we move now?"
Hoskins looked at him, a gentle surprise on his aging face. "You missed my point, Skipper. We don't move."
"Oh," the Captain whispered. His face tautened as it paled, "I ... I see. We pushed the airlock button to get out. Countermove: It wouldn't work. We tried the manual. Countermove: It broke off. And so on. Now we've tried to fly the ship out. Oh, but Hoskins--Johnny broke. Isn't that countermove enough?"
"Maybe. Maybe you're right. Maybe the move wasn't trying the drive controls, though. Maybe the move was to do what was necessary to knock Johnny out." He shrugged again. "We'll very soon see."
The Captain exhaled explosively through his nostrils. "We'll find out if it's our move by moving," he gritted. "Ives! Paresi! We're going to go over this thing from the beginning. First, try the port. You, Ives."
Ives grunted and went to the ship's side. Then he stopped.
"Where is the port?"
Anderson and Paresi followed Ives' flaccid, shocked gaze to the bulkhead where there had been the outline of the closed port, and beside it the hole which had held the axle of the manual wheel, and which now was a smooth, seamless curtain of impenetrable black. But Hoskins looked at the Captain first of all, and he said "Now it's our move," and only then did he turn with them to look at the darkness.
The unfamiliar, you say, is the unseen, the completely new and strange? Not so. The epitome of the unfamiliar is the familiar inverted, the familiar turned on its head. View a familiar place under new conditions--a deserted and darkened theater, an empty night club by day--and you will find yourself more influenced by the emotion of strangeness than by any number of unseen places. Go back to your old neighborhood and find everything changed. Come into your own home when everyone is gone, when the lights are out and the furniture rearranged--there I will show you the strange and frightening ghosts that are the shapes left over when reality superimposes itself upon the images of memory. The goblins lurk in the shadows of your own room.... Owen Miller Essays on Night and the Unfamiliar For one heart-stopping moment the darkness had seemed to swoop in upon them like the clutching hand of death. Instinctively they had huddled together in the center of the room. But when the second look, and the third, gave them reassurance that the effect was really there, though the cause was still a mystery, then half the mystery was gone, and they began to drift apart. Each felt on trial, and held tight to himself and the picture of himself he empathized in the others' eyes.
The Captain said quietly, "It's just ... there. It doesn't seem to be spreading."
Hoskins gazed at it critically. "About half a meter deep," he murmured. "What do you suppose it's made of?"
"Not a gas," said Paresi. "It has a--a sort of surface."
Ives, who had frozen to the spot when first he saw the blackness on his way to the port, took another two steps. The hand which had been half lifted to touch the control continued upward relievedly, as if glad to have a continuous function even though its purpose had changed.
"Don't touch it!" rapped the Captain.
Ives turned his head to look at the Captain, then faltered and let the hand drop. "Why not?"
"Certainly not a liquid," Paresi mused, as if there had been no interruption. "And if it's a solid, where did that much matter come from? Through the hull?"
Hoskins, who knew the hull, how it was made, how fitted, how treated once it was in place, snorted at the idea.
"If it was a gas," said Paresi, "there'd be diffusion. And convection. If it were poisonous, we'd all be dead. If not, the chances are we'd smell it. And the counter's not saying a thing--so it's not radioactive."
"You trust the counter?" asked Ives bitterly.
"I trust it," said Paresi. His near-whisper shook with what sounded like passion. "A man must have faith in something. I hold that faith in every single function of every part of this ship until each and every part is separately and distinctly proved unworthy of faith!"
"Then, by God, you'll understand my faith in my own two hands and what they feel," snarled Ives. He stepped to the bulkhead and brought his meaty hand hard against it.
"Touche," murmured Hoskins, and meant either Ives' remark or the flat, solid smack of the hand against the blackness.
In his sleep, Johnny uttered a high, soft, careless tinkle of youthful, happy laughter.
"Somebody's happy," said Ives.
"Paresi," said the Captain, "what happens when he wakes up?"
Paresi's eyebrows shrugged for him. "Practically anything. He's reached down inside himself, somewhere, and found a way out. For him--not for any of the rest of us. Maybe he'll ignore what we see. Maybe he'll think he's somewhere else, or in some other time. Maybe he'll be someone else. Maybe he won't wake up at all."
"Maybe he has the right idea," said Ives.
"That's the second time you've made a crack like that," said Paresi levelly. "Don't do it again. You can't afford it."
"We can't afford it," the Captain put in.
"All right," said Ives, with such docility that Paresi shot him a startled, suspicious glance. The big communications man went to his station and sat, half-turned away from the rest.
"What are they after?" complained the Captain suddenly. "What do they want?"
"Who?" asked Paresi, still watching Ives.
Hoskins explained, "Whoever it was who said 'Welcome to our planet.'"
Ives turned toward them, and Paresi's relief was noticeable. Ives said, "They want us dead."
"Do they?" asked the Captain.
"They don't want us to leave the ship, and they don't want the ship to leave the planet."
"Then it's the ship they want."
"Yeah," amended Ives, "without us."
Paresi said, "You can't conclude that, Ives. They've inconvenienced us. They've turned us in on ourselves, and put a drain on our intangible resources as men and as a crew. But so far they haven't actually done anything to us. We've done it to ourselves."
Ives looked at him scornfully. "We wrecked the unwreckable controls, manufactured that case-hardened darkness, and talked to ourselves on an all-wave carrier with no source, about information no outsider could get?"
"I didn't say any of that." Paresi paused to choose words. "Of course they're responsible for these phenomena. But the phenomena haven't hurt us. Our reactions to the phenomena are what has done the damage."
"A fall never hurt anyone, they told me when I was a kid," said Ives pugnaciously. "It's the sudden stop."
Paresi dismissed the remark with a shrug. "I still say that while we have been astonished, frightened, puzzled and frustrated, we have not been seriously threatened. Our water and food and air are virtually unlimited. Our ability to live with one another under emergency situations has been tested to a fare-thee-well, and all we have to do is recognize the emergency as such and that ability will rise to optimum." He smiled suddenly. "It could be worse, Ives."
"I suppose it could," said Ives. "That blackness could move in until it really crowded us, or--"
Very quietly Hoskins said, "It is moving in."
Captain Anderson shook his head. "No...." And hearing him, they slowly recognized that the syllable was not a denial, but an exclamation. For the darkness was no longer a half-meter deep on the bulkhead. No one had noticed it, but they suddenly became aware that the almost-square cabin was now definitely rectangular, with the familiar controls, the communications wall, and the thwartship partition aft of them forming three sides to the encroaching fourth.
Ives rose shaking and round-eyed from his chair. He made an unspellable animal sound and rushed at the blackness. Paresi leaped for him, but not fast enough. Ives collided sickeningly against the strange jet surface and fell. He fell massively, gracelessly, not prone but on wide-spread knees, with his arms crumpled beneath him and the side of his face on the deck. He stayed there, quite unconscious, a gross caricature of worship.
There was a furiously active, silent moment while Paresi turned the fat man over on his back, ran skilled fingers over his bleeding face, his chest, back to the carotid area of his neck. "He's all right," said Paresi, still working; then, as if to keep his mind going with words to avoid conjecture, he went on didactically, "This is the other fear reaction. Johnny's was 'flight.' Ives' is 'fight.' The empirical result is very much the same."
"I thought," said Hoskins dryly, "that fight and flight were survival reactions."
Paresi stood up. "Why, they are. In the last analysis, so is suicide."
"I'll think about that," said Hoskins softly.
"Paresi!" spat Anderson. "Medic or no, you'll watch your mouth!"
"Sorry, Captain. That was panic seed. Hoskins--"
"Don't explain it to me," said the engineer mildly. "I know what you meant. Suicide's the direct product of survival compulsions--drives that try to save something, just as fight and flight are efforts to save something. I don't think you need worry; immolation doesn't tempt me. I'm too--too interested in what goes on. What are you going to do about Ives?"
"Bunk him, I guess, and stand by to fix up that headache he'll wake up to. Give me a hand, will you?"
Hoskins went to the bulkhead and dropped a second acceleration couch. It took all three of them, working hard, to lift Ives' great bulk up to it. Paresi opened the first-aid kit clamped under the control console and went to the unconscious man. The Captain cast about him for something to do, something to say, and apparently found it. "Hoskins!"
"Do you usually think better on an empty stomach?"
"I never have either."
Hoskins smiled. "I can take a hint. I'll rassle up something hot and filling."
"Good man," said the Captain, as Hoskins disappeared toward the after quarters. Anderson walked over to the doctor and stood watching him clean up the abraded bruise on Ives' forehead.
Paresi, without looking up, said, "You'd better say it, whatever it is. Get it out."
Anderson half-chuckled. "You psychic?"
Paresi shot him a glance. "Depends. If you mean has a natural sensitivity to the tension spectra coupled itself with some years of practice in observing people--then yes. What's on your mind?"
Anderson said nothing for a long time. It was as if he were waiting for a question, a single prod from Paresi. But Paresi wouldn't give it. Paresi waited, just waited, with his dark face turned away, not helping, not pushing, not doing a single thing to modify the pressure that churned about in the Captain.
"All right," said the Captain irritably. "I'll tell you."
Paresi took tweezers, a retractor, two scalpels and a hypodermic case out of the kit and laid them in a neat row on the bunk. He then picked up each one and returned it to the kit. When he had quite finished Anderson said, "I was wondering, who's next?"
Paresi nodded and shut the kit with a sharp click. He looked up at the Captain and nodded again. "Why does it have to be you?" he asked.
"I didn't say it would be me!" said the Captain sharply.
"Didn't you?" When the Captain had no answer, Paresi asked him, "Then why wonder about a thing like that?"
"Oh ... I see what you mean. When you start to be afraid, you start to be unsure--not of anyone else's weaknesses, but of your own. That what you mean?"
"Yup." His dark-framed grin flashed suddenly. "But you're not afraid, Cap'n."
"The hell I'm not."
Paresi shook his head. "Johnny was afraid, and fled. Ives was afraid, and fought. There's only one fear that's a real fear, and that's the one that brings you to your breaking point. Any other fear is small potatoes compared with a terror like that. Small enough so no one but me has to worry about it."
"Why you, then?"
Paresi swatted the first-aid kit as he carried it back to its clamp. "I'm the M. O., remember? Symptoms are my business. Let me watch 'em, Captain. Give me orders, but don't crowd me in my specialty."
"You're insubordinate, Paresi," said Anderson, "and you're a great comfort." His slight smile faded, and horizontal furrows appeared over his eyes. "Tell me why I had that nasty little phase of doubt about myself."
"You think I can?"