The angry burnt-red face of Ryan greeted him. "Okay, Stormy, this isn't the place for fun and games. What did you do with them?"
"Do with what?"
"The dead beasties. All the dead animals laying around the ship."
"What are you talking about, Ryan? What do you think I did with them?"
"I don't know. All I know is that they are gone."
Ekstrohm shouldered his way outside and scanned the veldt.
There was no ring of animal corpses. Nothing. Nothing but wispy grass whipping in the keen breeze.
"I'll be damned," Ekstrohm said.
"You are right now, buddy. ExPe doesn't like anybody mucking up primary evidence."
"Where do you get off, Ryan?" Ekstrohm demanded. "Why pick me for your patsy? This has got to be some kind of local phenomenon. Why accuse a shipmate of being behind this?"
"Listen, Ekstrohm, I want to give you the benefit of every doubt. But you aren't exactly the model of a surveyor, you know. You've been riding on a pink ticket for six years, you know that."
"No," Ekstrohm said. "No, I didn't know that."
"You've been hiding things from me and Nogol every jump we've made with you. Now comes this! It fits the pattern of secrecy and stealth you've been involved in."
"What could I do with your lousy dead bodies? What would I want with them?"
"All I know is that you were outside the bubbles last night, and you were the only sentient being who came in or out of our alarm web. The tapes show that. Now all the bodies are missing, like they got up and walked away."
It was not a new experience to Ekstrohm. No. Suspicion wasn't new to him at all.
"Ryan, there are other explanations for the disappearance of the bodies. Look for them, will you? I give you my word I'm not trying to pull some stupid kind of joke, or to deliberately foul up the expedition. Take my word, can't you?"
Ryan shook his head. "I don't think I can. There's still such a thing as mental illness. You may not be responsible."
"Don't try anything violent, Stormy. I outweigh you fifty pounds and I'm fast for a big man."
"I wasn't planning on jumping you. Why do you have to jump me the first time something goes wrong? You've only got a lot of formless suspicions."
"Look, Ekstrohm, do you think I looked out the door and saw a lot of dead animals missing and immediately decided you did it to bedevil me? I've been up for hours--thinking--looking into this. You're the only possibility that's left."
"The bodies are missing. What could it be? Scavengers? The web gives us a complete census on everything inside it. The only animals inside the ring are more wart-hogs and, despite their appearance, they aren't carnivorous. Strictly grass-eaters. Besides, no animal, no insect, no process of decay could completely consume animals without a trace. There are no bones, no hide, no nothing."
"You don't know the way bacteria works on this planet. Radiation is so low, it may be particularly virulent."
"That's a possible explanation, although it runs counter to all the evidence we've established so far. There's a much simpler explanation, Ekstrohm. You. You hid the bodies for some reason. What other reason could you have for prowling around out here at night?"
I couldn't sleep. The words were in his throat, but he didn't use them. They weren't an explanation. They would open more questions than they would answer.
"You're closing your eyes to the possibility of natural phenomenon, laying this on me. You haven't adequate proof and you know it."
"Ekstrohm, when something's stolen, you always suspect a suspicious character before you get around to the possibility that the stolen goods melted into thin air."
"What," Ekstrohm said with deadly patience, "what do you think I could have possibly done with your precious dead bodies?"
"You could have buried them. This is a big territory. We haven't been able to search every square foot of it."
"Ryan, it was thirty or forty below zero last night. How the devil could I dig holes in this ground to bury anything?"
"At forty below, how could your bacteria function to rot them away?"
Ekstrohm could see he was facing prejudice. There was no need to keep talking, and no use in it. Still, some reflex made him continue to frame reasonable answers.
"I don't know what bacteria on this planet can do. Besides, that was only one example of a natural phenomenon."
"Look, Ekstrohm, you don't have anything to worry about if you're not responsible. We're going to give you a fair test."
What kind of a test would it be? He wondered. And how fair?
Nogol came trotting up lightly.
"Ryan, I found some more wart-hogs and they keeled over as soon as they saw me."
"So it was xenophobia," Ekstrohm ventured.
"The important thing," Ryan said, with a sidelong glance at the surveyor, "is that now we've got what it takes to see if Ekstrohm has been deliberately sabotaging this expedition."
The body heat of the three men caused the air-conditioner of the tiny bubble to labor.
"Okay," Ryan breathed. "We've got our eyes on you, Ekstrohm, and the video circuits are wide open on the dead beasts. All we have to do is wait."
"We'll have a long wait," Nogol ventured. "With Ekstrohm here, and the corpses out there, nothing is going to happen."
That would be all the proof they needed, Ekstrohm knew. Negative results would be positive proof to them. His pink ticket would turn pure red and he would be grounded for life--if he got off without a rehabilitation sentence.
But if nothing happened, it wouldn't really prove anything. There was no way to say that the conditions tonight were identical to the conditions the previous night. What had swept away those bodies might be comparable to a flash flood. Something that occurred once a year, or once in a century.
And perhaps his presence outside was required in some subtle cause-and-effect relationship.
All this test would prove, if the bodies didn't disappear, was only that conditions were not identical to conditions under which they did disappear.
Ryan and Nogol were prepared to accept him, Ekstrohm, as the missing element, the one ingredient needed to vanish the corpses. But it could very well be something else.
Only Ekstrohm knew that it had to be something else that caused the disappearances.
Or did it?
He faced up to the question. How did he know he was sane? How could he be sure that he hadn't stolen and hid the bodies for some murky reason of his own? There was a large question as to how long a man could go without sleep, dreams and oblivion, and remain sane.
Ekstrohm forced his mind to consider the possibility. Could he remember every step he had taken the night before?
It seemed to him that he could remember walking past the creature lying in the grass, then walking in a circle, and coming back to the base. It seemed like that to him. But how could he know that it was true?
There was no way he could prove, even to himself, that he had not disposed of those alien remains and then come back to his bubble, contented and happy at the thought of fooling those smug idiots who could sleep at night.
"How much longer do we have to wait?" Nogol asked. "We've been here nine hours. Half a day. The bodies are right where I left them outside. There doesn't seem to be any more question."
Ekstrohm frowned. There was one question. He was sure there was one question.... Oh, yes. The question was: How did he know he was sane?
He didn't know, of course. That was as good an answer as any. Might as well accept it; might as well let them do what they wanted with him. Maybe if he just gave up, gave in, maybe he could sleep then. Maybe he could ...
Ekstrohm sat upright in his chair.
No. That wasn't the answer. He couldn't know that he was sane, but then neither could anybody else. The point was, you had to go ahead living as if you were sane. That was the only way of living.
"Cosmos," Ryan gasped. "Would you look at that!"
Ekstrohm followed the staring gaze of the two men.
On the video grid, one of the "dead" animals was slowly rising, getting up, walking away.
"A natural phenomenon!" Ekstrohm said.
"Suspended animation!" Nogol ventured.
"Playing possum!" Ryan concluded.
Now came the time for apologies.
Ekstrohm had been through similar situations before, ever since he had been found walking the corridors at college the night one of the girls had been attacked. He didn't want to hear their apologies; they meant nothing to him. It was not a matter of forgiving them. He knew the situation had not changed.
They would suspect him just as quickly a second time.
"We're supposed to be an exploration team," Ekstrohm said quickly. "Let's get down to business. Why do you suppose these alien creatures fake death?"
Nogol shrugged his wiry shoulders. "Playing dead is easier than fighting."
"More likely it's a method of fighting," Ryan suggested. "They play dead until they see an opening. Then--ripppp."
"I think they're trying to hide some secret," Ekstrohm said.
"What secret?" Ryan demanded.
"I don't know," he answered. "Maybe I'd better--sleep on it."
Ryan observed his two crewmen confidently the next morning. "I did some thinking last night."
Great, Ekstrohm thought. For that you should get a Hazardous Duty bonus.
"This business is pretty simple," the captain went on, "these pigs simply play possum. They go into a state of suspended animation, when faced by a strange situation. Xenophobia! I don't see there's much more to it."
"Well, if you don't see that there's more to it, Ryan--" Nogol began complacently.
"Wait a minute," Ekstrohm interjected. "That's a good theory. It may even be the correct one, but where's your proof?"
"Look, Stormy, we don't have to have proof. Hell, we don't even have to have theories. We're explorers. We just make reports of primary evidence and let the scientists back home in the System figure them out."
"I want this thing cleared up, Ryan. Yesterday, you were accusing me of being some kind of psycho who was lousing up the expedition out of pure--pure--" he searched for a term currently in use in mentology--"demonia. Maybe the boys back home will think the same thing. I want to be cleared."
"I guess you were cleared last night, Stormy boy," Nogol put in. "We saw one of the 'dead' pigs get up and walk away."
"That didn't clear me," Ekstrohm said.
The other two looked like they had caught him cleaning wax out of his ear in public.
"No," Ekstrohm went on. "We still have no proof of what caused the suspended animation of the pigs. Whatever caused it before caused it last night. You thought of accusing me, but you didn't think it through about how I could have disposed of the bodies. Or, after you found out about the pseudo-death, how I might have caused that. If I had some drug or something to cause it the first time, I could have a smaller dose, or a slowly dissolving capsule for delayed effect."
The two men stared at him, their eyes beginning to narrow.
"I could have done that. Or either of you could have done the same thing."
"Me?" Nogol protested. "Where would my profit be in that?"
"You both have an admitted motive. You hate my guts. I'm 'strange,' 'different,' 'suspicious.' You could be trying to frame me."
"That's insubordination," Ryan grated. "Accusations against a superior officer ..."
"Come off it, Ryan," Nogol sighed. "I never saw a three-man spaceship that was run very taut. Besides, he's right."
Beet-juice flowed out of Ryan's swollen face. "So where does that leave us?"
"Looking for proof of the cause of the pig's pseudo-death. Remember, I'll have to make counter-accusations against you two out of self-defense."