Asteroid of Fear


2. Alf Neely A Bully

After that, all space was still--electrified. The icy stars gleamed in the black sky. The shrunken sun looked on. And John Endlich saw beyond his own murder. To the thought of his kids--and his wife--left alone out here, hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, and real law and order--with these lugs. These guys who had been starved emotionally, and warped inside by raw space. Coldness crawled into John Endlich's guts, and seemed to twist steel hooks there, making him sick. The silence of a vacuum, and of unthinkable distances, and of ghostly remains which must be left on this fragment of a world that had blown up, maybe fifty million or more years ago, added its weight to John Endlich's feelings.

And for his family, he was scared. What hell could not have accomplished, became fact. His almost suicidal impulse to inflict violence on his tormenters was strangled, bottled-up--brutally repressed, and left to impose the pangs of neurosis on his tormented soul. Narrowing domesticity had won a battle.

Except, of course, that what he had already said to Alf Neely and Friends was sufficient to start the Juggernaut that they represented, rolling. As he picked himself and Rose up from the ground, he saw that the miners were grimly donning their space-suits, in preparation to their coming out of the ship to lay him low.

"Oh--tired, hunh, Pun'kin-head?" Alf Neely growled. "It don't matter, Dutch. We'll finish you off without you liftin' a finger!"

In John Endlich the rage of intolerable insults still seethed. But there was no question, now, of outcome between it and the brassy taste of danger on his tongue. He knew that even knuckling down, and changing from man to worm to take back his fighting words, couldn't do any good. He felt like a martyr, left with his family in a Roman arena, while the lions approached. His butchery was as good as over....

Reprieve came presumably by way of the good-sense of the pilot of the space ship. The hold-port was closed abruptly by a mechanism that could be operated only from the main control-board. The rocket jets of the craft emitted a single weak burst of flame. Like a boulder grown agile and flighty, the ship leaped from the landscape, and arced outward toward the stars, to curve around the asteroid and disappear behind the scene's jagged brim. The craft had gone to make its next and final stop--among the air-domes of the huge mining camp on the other side of Vesta--the side of torn rocks and rich radioactive ores.

But before the ship had vanished from sight, John Endlich heard Alf Neely's grim promise in his helmet radiophones: "We'll be back tonight, Greenhorn. Lots of times we work night-shift--when it's daytime on this side of Vesta. We'll be free. Stick around. I'll rub what's left of you in the dust of your claim!"

Endlich was alone, then, with the fright in his wife's eyes, the squalling of his children, and his own abysmal disgust and worry.

For once he ceased to be a gentle parent. "Bubs! Evelyn!" he snapped. "Shud-d-d--up-p-p!..."

The startled silence which ensued was his first personal victory on Vesta. But the silence, itself, was an insidious enemy. It made his ears ring. It made even his audible pulsebeats seemed to ache. It bored into his nerves like a drill. When, after a moment, Rose spoke quaveringly, he was almost grateful:

"What do we do, Johnny? We've still got to do what we're supposed to do, don't we?"

Whereupon John Endlich allowed himself the luxury and the slight relief of a torrent of silent cussing inside his head. Damn the obvious questions of women! Damn the miners. Damn the A.H.O.--the Asteroids Homesteaders Office--and their corny slogans and posters, meant to hook suckers like himself! Damn his own dumb hide! Damn the mighty urge to get drunk! Damn all the bitter circumstances that made doing so impossible. Damn! Damn! Damn!

Finished with this orgy, he said meekly: "I guess so, Hon."

All members of the Endlich family had been looking around them at the weird Vestal landscape. Through John Endlich's mind again there flashed a picture of what this asteroid was like. At the Asteroids Homesteaders' School in Chicago, where his dependents and he had been given several weeks of orientation instruction, suitable to their separate needs, he had been shown diagrams and photographs of Vesta. Later, he had of course seen it from space.

It was not round, like a major planet or most moons. Rather, it was like a bomb-fragment; or even more like a shard of a gigantic broken vase. It was several hundred miles long, and half as thick. One side of it--this side--was curved; for it had been a segment of the surface of the shattered planet from which all of the asteroids had come. The other side was jagged and broken, for it had been torn from the mesoderm of that tortured mother world.

From the desolation of his own thoughts, in which the ogre-form of Alf Neely lurked with its pendent promise of catastrophe soon to come, and from his own view of other desolation all around him, John Endlich was suddenly distracted by the comments of his kids. All at once, conforming to the changeable weather of children's natures regardless of circumstance, their mood had once more turned bright and adventurous.

"Look, Pop," Bubs chirped, his round red face beaming now from his helmet face-window, in spite of his undried tears. "This land all around here was fields once! You can even see the rows of some kind of stubble! Like corn-stubble! And over there's a--a--almost like a fence! An' up there is hills with trees on 'em--some of 'em not even knocked over. But everything is all dried-out and black and grey and dead! Gosh!"

"We can see all that, Dopey!" Evelyn, who was older, snapped at Bubs. "We know that something like people lived on a regular planet here, awful long ago. Why don't you look over the other way? There's the house--and maybe the barn and the sheds and the old garden!"

Bubs turned around. His eyes got very big. "Oh! O-ooh-h-h!" he gasped in wonder. "Pop! Mom! Look! Don't you see?..."

"Yeah, we see, Bubs," John Endlich answered.

For a long moment he'd been staring at those blocklike structures. One--maybe the house--was of grey stone. It had odd, triangular windows, which may once have been glazed. Some of the others were of a blackened material--perhaps cellulose. Wood, that is. All of the buildings were pushed askew, and partly crumpled from top to bottom, like great cardboard cartons that had been half crushed.

Endlich's imagination seemed forced to follow a groove, trying to picture that last terrible moment, fifty-million years ago. Had the blast been caused by natural atomic forces at the heart of the planet, as one theory claimed? Or had a great bomb, as large as an oversized meteor, come self-propelled from space, to bury itself deep in that ancient world? A world as big as Mars, its possible enemy--whose weird inhabitants had been wiped out, in a less spectacular way, perhaps in the same conflict?

Endlich's mind grabbed at that brief instant of explosion. The awful jolt, which must have ended all consciousness, and all capacity for eyes to see what followed. Perhaps there was a short and terrible passing of flame. But in swift seconds, great chunks of the planet's crust must have been hurled outward. In a moment the flame must have died, dissipated with the suddenly vanishing atmosphere, into the cold vacuum of the void. Almost instantly, the sky, which had been deep blue before, must have turned to its present black, with the voidal stars blazing. There had been no air left to sustain combustion, so buildings and trees had not continued to burn, if there had been time at all to ignite them. And, with the same swiftness, all remaining artifacts and surface features of this chip of a world's crust that was Vesta, had been plunged into the dual preservatives of the interplanetary regions--deep-freeze and all but absolute dryness. Yes--the motion of the few scattered molecules in space was very fast--indicating a high temperature. But without substance to be hot, there can be no heat. And so few molecules were there in the void, that while the concept of a "hot" space remained true, it became tangled at once with the fact that a practically complete vacuum can have practically no temperature. Which meant--again in practice--all but absolute zero.

John Endlich knew. He'd heard the lectures at the Homesteaders' School. Here was a ghost-land, hundreds of square miles in extent--a region that had been shifted in a few seconds, from the full prime of life and motion, to moveless and timeless silence. It was like the mummy of a man. In its presence there was a chill, a revulsion, and yet a fascination.