Asteroid of Fear


4. Attacked!

John Endlich considered setting up floodlights, and working on through the hours of darkness. But such lights would be a dangerous beacon for prowlers; and when you were inside their area of illumination, it was difficult to see into the gloom beyond.

Still, one did not know if the mask of darkness did not afford a greater invitation to those with evil intent. For a long moment, Endlich was in an agony of indecision. Then he said:

"We'll knock off from work now--get in the tent, eat supper, maybe sleep..."

But he was remembering Neely's promise to return tonight.

In another minute the small but dazzling sun had disappeared behind the broken mountains, as Vesta, unspherical and malformed, tumbled rather than rotated on its center of gravity. And several hours later, amid heavy cooking odors inside the now inflated plastic bubble that was the tent, Endlich was sprawled on his stomach, unable, through well-founded worry, even to remove his space suit or to allow his family to do so, though there was breathable air around them. They lay with their helmet face-windows open. Rose and Evelyn breathed evenly in peaceful sleep.

Bubs, trying to be very much a man, battled slumber and yawns, and kept his dad company with scraps of conversation. "Let 'em come, Pop," he said cheerfully. "Hope they do. We'll shoot 'em all. Won't we, pop? You got the rifle and the pistol ready, Pop...."

Yes, John Endlich had his guns ready beside him, all right--for what it was worth. He wished wryly that things could be as simple as his hero-worshipping son seemed to think. Thank the Lord that Bubs was so trusting, for his own peace of mind--the prankish and savage nature of certain kinds of men, with liquor in their bellies, being what it was. For John Endlich, having been, on occasion, mildly kindred to such men, was well able to understand that nature. And understanding, now, chilled his blood.

Peering from the small plastic windows of the tent, he kept watching for hulking black shapes to silhouette themselves against the stars. And he listened on his helmet phones, for scraps of telltale conversation, exchanged by short-range radio by men in space armor. Once, he thought he heard a grunt, or a malicious chuckle. But it may have been just vagrant static.

Otherwise, from all around, the stillness of the vacuum was absolute. It was unnerving. On this airless piece of a planet, an enemy could sneak up on you, almost without stealth.

Against that maddening silence, however, Bubs presently had a helpful and unprompted suggestion: "Hey, Pop!" he whispered hoarsely. "Put the side of your helmet against the tent-floor, and listen!"

John Endlich obeyed his kid. In a second cold sweat began to break out on his body, as intermittent thudding noises reached his ear. In the absence of an atmosphere, sounds could still be transmitted through the solid substance of the asteroid.

It took Endlich a moment to realize that the noises came, not from nearby, but from far away, on the other side of Vesta. The thudding was vibrated straight through many miles of solid rock.

"It's nothing, Bubs," he growled. "Nothing but the blasting in the mines."

Bubs said "Oh," as if disappointed. Not long thereafter he was asleep, leaving his harrassed sire to endure the vigil alone. Endlich dared not doze off, to rest a little, even for a moment. He could only wait. If an evil visitation came--as he had been all but sure it must--that would be bad, indeed. If it didn't come--well--that still meant a sleepless night, and the postponement of the inevitable. He couldn't win.

Thus the hours slipped away, until the luminous dial of the clock in the tent--it had been synchronized to Vestal time--told him that dawn was near. That was when, through the ground, he heard the faint scraping. A rustle. It might have been made by heavy space-boots. It came, and then it stopped. It came again, and stopped once more. As if skulking forms paused to find their way.

Out where the ancient and ghostly buildings were, he saw a star wink out briefly, as if a shape blocked the path of its light. Then it burned peacefully again. John Endlich's hackles rose. His fists tightened on both his rifle and pistol.

He fixed his gaze on the great box, looming blackly, the box that contained the means of survival for his family and himself, as if he foresaw the future, a moment away. For suddenly, huge as it was, the box rocked, and began to move off, as if it had sprouted legs and come alive.

John Endlich scrambled to action. He slammed and sealed the face-windows of the helmets of the members of his family, to protect them from suffocation. He did the same for himself, and then unzipped the tent-flap. He darted out with the outrushing air.

This was a moment with murder poised in every tattered fragment of it. John Endlich knew. Murder was engrained in his own taut-drawn nerves, that raged to destroy the trespassers whose pranks had passed the level of practical humor, and become, by the tampering with vital necessities, an attack on life itself. But there was a more immediate menace in these space-twisted roughnecks.... Strike back at them, even in self-defense, and have it proven!

He had not the faintest doubt who they were--even though he could not see their faces in the blackness. Maybe he should lay low--let them have their way.... But how could he--even apart from his raging temper, and his honor as a man--when they were making off with his family's and his own means of survival?

He had to throw Rose and the kids into the balance--risking them to the danger that he knew lay beyond his own possible ignoble demise. He did just that when he raised his pistol, struggling against the awful impulse of the rage in him--lifted it high enough so that the explosive bullets that spewed from it would be sure to pass over the heads of the dark silhouettes that were moving about.

"Damn you, Neely!" Endlich yelled into his helmet mike, his finger tightening on the trigger. "Drop that stuff!"

At that moment the sun's rim appeared at the landscape's jagged edge, and on this side of airless Vesta complete night was transformed to complete day, as abruptly as if a switch had been turned.

Alf Neely and John Endlich blinked at each other. Maybe Neely was embarrassed a little by his sudden exposure; but if he was, it didn't show. Probably the bully in him was scared; but this he covered in a common manner--with a studiedly easy swagger, and a bravado that was not good sense, but bordered on childish recklessness. Yet he had a trump card--by the aggressive glint in his eyes, and his unpleasant grin, Endlich knew that Neely knew that he was afraid for his wife, and wouldn't start anything unless driven and goaded sheerly wild. Even now, they were seven to his one.

"Why, good morning, Neighbor Pun'kin-head!" Neely crooned, his voice a burlesque of sweetness. "Glad to oblige!"

He hurled the great box down. As he did so, something glinted in his gloved paw. He flicked it expertly into the open side of the wooden case which contained so many things that were vital to the Endlichs--

It was only a tiny nuclear priming-cap, and the blast was feeble. Even so, the box burst apart. Splintered crates, sealed cans, great torn bundles and what not, went skittering far across the plain in every direction, or were hurled high toward the stars, to begin falling at last with the laziness of a descending feather.

Neely and his companions hadn't attempted to move out of the way of the explosion. They only rolled with its force, protected by their space suits. Endlich rolled, too, helplessly, clutching his pistol and rifle: still, by some superhuman effort, he managed to regain his feet before the far more practiced Neely, who was hampered, no doubt, by a few too many drinks, had even stopped rolling. But when Neely got up, he had drawn his blaster, a useful tool of his trade, but a hellish weapon, too, at short range.

Still, Endlich retained the drop on him.

Alf Neely chuckled. "Fourth of July! Hallowe'en, Dutch," he said sweetly. "What's the matter? Don't you think it's fun? Honest to gosh--you just ain't neighborly!"

Then he switched his tone. It became a soft snarl that didn't alter his insolent and confident smirk--and a challenge. He laughed derisively, almost softly. "I dare you to try to shoot straight, pal," he said. "Even you got more sense than that."

And John Endlich was spang against his terrible, blank wall again. Seven to one. Suppose he got three. There'd be four left--and more in the camp. But the four would survive him. Space crazy lugs. Anyway half drunk. Ready to hoot at the stars, even, if they found no better diversion. Ready to push even any of their own bunch around who seemed weaker than they. For spite, maybe. Or just for the lid-blowing hell of it--as a reaction against the awful confinement of being out here.

"I was gonna smear you all over the place, Greenhorn," Neely rumbled. "But maybe this way is more fun, hunh? Maybe we'll be back tonight. But don't wait up for us. Our best regards to your sweet--family."

John Endlich's blazing and just rage was strangled by that same crawling dread as before, as he saw them arc upward and away, propelled by the miniature drive-jets attached to the belts of their space-suits. Their return to camp, hundreds of miles distant, could be accomplished in a couple of minutes.

Rose and the kids were crouched in the deflated tent. But returning there, John Endlich hardly saw them. He hardly heard their frightened questions.

To the trouble with Neely, he could see no end--just one destructive visitation following another. Maybe, already, mortal damage had been done. But Endlich couldn't lie down and quit, any more than a snake, tossed into a fire, could stop trying to crawl out of it, as long as life lasted. Whether doing so made sense or not, didn't matter. In Endlich was the savage energy of despair. He was fighting not just Neely and his crowd, but that other enemy--which was perhaps Neely's main trouble, too. Yeah--the stillness, the nostalgia, the harshness.

"No--don't want any breakfast," he replied sharply to Rose' last question. "Gotta work...."