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The Portable Star

Isaac Asimov

  Illustration by EMSH

  Holden made love to his friend’s wife. He couldn’t help it!

  The Portable Star


  * * *

  IF SPACE voyages are “romantic,” Holden Brooks was certainly carrying on the tradition when he stepped into the cabin of his best friend’s wife, with one straightforward objective in mind.

  He did not signal. He merely opened the door and walked in. She was waiting for him as, somehow, he had known she would be, wearing a loose night garment. She held out her arms to him and they trembled slightly. Her dark hair fell below her shoulders, accenting the pale roundness of her face.

  Her name was Celestine Van Horne and her husband sat in one corner of the room, idly pinching his ear-lobe.

  Holden paid no attention to the husband’s presence. He stepped directly to Celestine and placed his hands on her shoulders. She swayed toward him and they kissed violently, longingly, over and over again.

  Breathlessly then, he swept her from the floor, cradling her in his arms. Her eyes closed, and her hand stroked the back of his neck gently.

  Holden had turned toward the bed when, for the first time, someone spoke.

  It was scarcely an impressive speech. Philip Van Horne was scarcely an impressive man. His sandy hair was thinning, his frame was slight, and his eyes were a pale blue. He rose from his chair and said with an air curiously compounded of indignation and bewilderment.

  “What’s going on?”

  Holden placed his soft burden on the floor, and looked at the man who had spoken. Holden was taller than Philip by half a head and more massive. His lips drew back, showing strong teeth in a broad face. His shoulders hunched a little. The light of battle was glowing in him.

  Celestine, having backed against the bed, watched with a feral pleasure.

  Philip looked nervous. He said, sharply, “Holden, stop it.”

  Holden moved forward with little shuffling steps. His fist shot out, catching Philip on the side of his head and sending him to his knees. Celestine’s laugh was high-pitched and strained.

  Philip got to his feet with an effort and stumbled toward the door. His wife was there before him, spread-eagling herself as a barrier. She was still laughing.

  Philip looked over his shoulder in horror. “Don’t do it, Holden. Don’t!”

  Holden didn’t. A puzzled look seemed to soak into his face. His hands, which had risen to encircle Philip’s neck, fell limply.

  Celestine, her eagerness fading, moved away from the door, and sat down on the bed. She lit a cigarette.

  Holden said. “I’m sorry, Phil. I knew what I was doing, but I just had to I—”

  “I know.” said Philip, brushing his knees. “It’s they.”

  “That’s right,” said Holden. “I’m sorry, Celestine.”

  “Oh well,” she said, shrugging.

  Philip said sharply, “Put some clothes on, Celest.”

  His wife raised her eyebrows. “Now don’t be silly, darling. I wasn’t myself. No one was.”

  Holden Brooks was still apologizing. “They just push buttons and have fun. You understand how it was. Phil? There was no way I could stop—”

  “Oh, shut up,” Philip said, “and go away.”

  The door signal flashed.

  “That’s Grace,” said Holden. His eyes went quickly from husband to wife. “Listen, there’s no use saying—”

  Philip said. “She knows what the situation is.”

  Grace Brooks edged in. She was a little thing with a triangular delicately-boned face that ended in a pointed, dimple-centered chin.

  She said in a low voice, “I was getting afraid to be alone.”

  Holden took her hand. “All right, Grace. Let’s try for some sleep.”

  When the Van Hornes were alone, Celestine stubbed out her cigarette and placed it in the small vent that puffed it out into the poisonous atmosphere of the alien planet on which they were stranded.

  They stared distrustfully at one another. There was nothing to do, nothing to say. They were slaves; both of them; all four of them.

  Slaves more thoroughly than any Earthly understanding of the word… .

  * * *

  It had been exciting when it was first suggested. Holden Brooks and Philip Van Horne worked in adjacent offices in the Administrative Service of the Housing Unit in which they lived. Both had accumulated half-year sabbaticals, and some months earlier Holden had bought a space flivver none the worse for being second-hand. Why not, then, a shared-expense space tour?

  “There’s no point in having a space flivver,” Celestine said, when the four of them talked it over, “if you don’t use it. Air and, water last just about indefinitely with a good recirculating system, which the ship has, and power is no problem. So that just leaves food to think about. And we can renew stocks almost anywhere.”

  Grace said, “I don’t think I could drink recirculated water.”

  “Nonsense, darling. Pure water is pure water, even if it comes from perspiration or sewage. You’re just being medieval if you worry about that.”

  It worked out well. The controls of the space-ship were simple enough, and in a week Philip could handle the ship as well as Holden could. The Spacionautic Handbook, with its details on all inhabited planets, stood always ready to direct them to this or that interesting one.

  In fact, the entire vacation might easily have been a complete success had not the ion-beam alignment in one of their micro-piles lost focus, first fitfully, and then permanently.

  Holden Brooks put his fingers through his brown hair in dismay and said, “Well, we just can’t make any Jumps through hyperspace, that’s all.”

  “Wasn’t the ship overhauled before we left?” Celestine demanded, sharply.

  Philip bit his lip. “You can’t predict these things, damn it.”

  “Then what do we do?” Grace wanted to know, her thin voice tremulous.

  “Pull in for repairs, I guess,” Holden said, dubiously.

  And because their Jumps, after all, were amateurish ones, it turned out that there was no inhabited planet within half-a-light-day distance. None, that is, that the ship could Teach in reasonable time by traveling through normal space.

  Holden checked the handbook twice, then Philip checked it.

  There was only one star in the neighborhood and there was only one planet in its family where the gravity was not impossibly high, and the temperature not impossibly extreme. The handbook called it Sigmaringen IV, and placed a dagger mark next to it which meant, conventionally, that it was uninhabited and uninhabitable.

  Grace looked troubled. “It sounds horrible. Can’t we fix the beam in space?”

  Philip said, “Focusing a beam in the absence of a gravitational field is for an expert, not for us,” and they headed for Sigmaringen IV. Their ship dropped to the planet’s surface on the noiseless, flameless, gravity-shield of the field-vortices produced by the two micropiles that were still in working order.

  * * *

  What made Sigmaringen IV sound horrible to Grace was the Handbook’s information on the planet’s chemical makeup. The thick atmosphere consisted exclusively of nitrogen and argon in a proportion of three to one, with small quantities of the other inert gases. There was no water on the planet, no trace of free oxygen or of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not more than a trace of carbon in the soil. The soil consisted almost entirely of aluminum and iron silicates with a heavy overload of free silica which, whirled aloft by perpetual winds formed an apparently permanent “cloud layer.” “Just like Venus,” muttered Phil. “Old home week.” His thin, solemn face twisted into a half-smile.

  It was “day” when they landed, but the only light was the dull gray that filtered
diffusely through the dust clouds.

  Grace shuddered and said, “We should have ultra-waved for help.”

  Holden’s troubled eyes looked down upon his wife out of a perplexed face. “I thought of that, too, but it would cost an awful lot. Isn’t that right, Phil?”

  “A year’s salary for each of us,” Philip said incisively. “They don’t send repair ships through hyperspace for half-credit pieces.”

  The first day on Sigmaringen IV was passed in adjusting the beam-focus. On the whole, it was a creditable job, and by the time the planet’s rotation brought them and their ship into the night-shadowed half, it seemed obvious to both men that the ship would survive one Jump at least, probably half-a-dozen.

  Holden stood up, put down his ergometer, and said, “It’s night. Might as well leave the take-off for morning.”

  Philip yawned. “Why not? Better check with the girls, though.”

  For a wonder, the girls raised no objection. Grace frowned a little, but confined herself to a murmured, “If you say so.”

  The first night on Sigmaringen IV, in retrospect, was uneventful. Over the morning coffee, Celestine bubbled excitedly about her odd dream. Holden, with initial creaking, began to recount one of his own.

  Finally Grace, with a marked reddening about the cheek-bones, said, “I won’t tell you my dream. Let’s get away from this horrible place.”

  Celestine laughed. “Darling, that sounds terribly sexy. You must tell us. Were we in it?”

  Grace said, “We’re being watched. I’m sure of it.”

  “Oh, come,” said Celestine. “There’s no carbon on this wretched world and even I know that means there can be nothing living on the planet.”

  Phil said, “Actually, we have nothing to keep us here. We can go.”

  Holden mopped his lips and got up. “I’ll take first shift.”

  In five minutes he was back. He said, “Funny things! I can’t get the ship started!” He stared at them out of bovine eyes.

  “What do you mean?” Celestine demanded. “The beam is focused, isn’t it?”

  “Nothing’s wrong with the controls as far as I know. I just can’t get close to them. When I try, I get—.” He waited a long time and then, as though he had failed to think of another word, he mumbled, “Scared!”

  “Scared?” In various tones, all three said that.

  Holden, visibly suffering, said in a choked voice, “You try it, Phil.”

  Philip got silently to his feet, walked out.

  In less than five minutes, he also was back. “Scared stiff,” he whispered. “Couldn’t touch a thing.”

  “Are you two mad?” demanded Celestine.

  Philip ignored her. He turned to Grace, “What was your dream?”

  Grace’s small face was white and against it the makeup stood out harshly. She said, “I dreamed we were surrounded by children and they were curious about us. I dreamed they were watching us and wouldn’t let us go. It was very real and I—I still feel it.”

  Philip said, “I felt it, too.” He looked troubled.

  Celestine said, “Darling, this is too ridiculous. Grace is open to suggestion. She’s a sweet girl, but she’s sensitive, and this is a gloomy world. That’s all. Now let’s leave.”

  Philip said, “How?”

  * * *

  Celestine looked at her husband with something approaching contempt and said, “If I knew how to handle the controls—”

  “You’d be just as badly off,” said Philip.

  Grace said quietly, “They’re watching us right now.”

  Philip looked at her thoughtfully, raised his eyebrows, and leaned back in his chair to flick the polarity knob that controlled the transparency of the ports.

  “I doubt there’s anything to see,” he said.

  He was quite wrong.

  At a distance of a hundred yards from the ship and spaced some five to ten yards apart, a series of mounds could be dimly, but definitely, made out through the sandy murk. Five could be seen. Philip frowned and stepped hastily to the other side of the ship. He transparented the opposite port. Six mounds there.

  “Apparently,” he said, “we are surrounded.”

  “They’re just mounds of earth,” protested Celestine.

  Holden said, “They weren’t there when we landed.”

  Grace said, “They’re not material. They’re energy creatures. They use earth-mounds as—as clothing. Or adornment.”

  “Such nonsense,” said Celestine.

  Philip said, “If those things are telepathic, their thoughts and emotions may be leaking across. Grace is most sensitive to them.”

  “And I’m the least sensitive—is that it?” Celestine was suddenly furious. She got to her feet, “Is this a joke of some sort? Are all three of you up to games to panic me?”

  Grace burst into violent laughter and Celestine turned on her with eyes glaring. She shrieked, “It’s funny, is it?”

  Grace shook her head but could say nothing. She whooped and shouted and held her sides. She grew weak from laughter until it subsided into breathless sobs.

  Then Philip giggled and burst into unrestrained laughter. Holden joined him, his baritone brays overriding all.

  Celestine was in tears. “Of all the nasty, contemptible—” She stuttered in her attempt to find appropriate adjectives, and then before she was anywhere close to recovering her emotional equilibrium she, too, was swept away on a tidal wave of shrill mirth.

  Grace cried, “Stop it! Stop it!”

  Slowly, and in the order in which they had begun, they stopped. Celestine was last, flushed, a handkerchief over her mouth.

  Grace said, agonized. “They’re pushing buttons. They! They!” Her forefinger jabbed toward the port. “They can make us do anything.”

  There was no argument. They all felt it now. Even Celestine’s last argument sounded timid and weak when she said:

  “The Handbook says there’s no life on the planet.”

  “The Handbook,” said Philip, gravely, “bases its reports on a quickie expedition, probably, that reported no oxygen, no carbon and no water, after passing through the atmosphere and manipulating a reflection spectrometer. Ordinarily that means no life, but I’ll just bet that no expedition ever thought it worth their while actually to land on this planet.”

  Grace stared out the port and whispered, “Children about an ant-hill. Watching them scurry. Putting obstacles in the way to see what the ants would do. Maybe stamping on a few.”

  Philip said, “No telling when they’ll get tired, either. Holden, I think we better start recirculating water.”

  “Must we?” Grace asked faintly.

  “Now don’t be ridiculous, darling,” said Celestine with sudden sharpness, “The wastes are electrolyzed and the hydrogen and oxygen are compressed and stored, then combined again into water as pure as pure. It’s so pure we have to add mineral tablets to it.”

  Holden moved into the engine room. A moment later, the faint hum of the recirculator could be heard.

  Philip sighed. “Well, they let us do that.”

  * * *

  As the ten-hour day period progressed, Holden tried three more times, to get the ship started. Philip tried twice. Neither succeeded.

  Holden said tensely, “I say, attack. I say, shoot a few of them down. We have blasters.”

  “They won’t let us, you fool.” In his own discouragement, Philip was growing careless with epithets.

  Holden paid no attention. He said, “I’m willing to try. I’ll put on my suit, go out there, and shoot them down. If they don’t let me, they don’t let me, but I’m going to try.”

  Philip said, with shrill anger, “What’s the use? If we can’t even go near the controls, how do you expect to get near them?”

  Celestine said sharply, “Oh, shut up, Phil. At least Holden is showing guts. Do you have any better suggestion?”


  Holden climbed into his space suit. His fingers, large and clumsy in the enc
losing metallo-latex, snapped on his helmet. He hefted a blaster and marched in stubborn silence to the airlock.

  Philip shrugged and said to Grace, “It isn’t going to do any good, and it might be dangerous for him. Don’t let him go, Grace.”

  “Don’t do it, Grace,” Celestine said, quickly. “Don’t stop him. It just kills Phil to see someone else with backbone.”

  “Don’t be foolish,” Philip said. “Has it occurred to you that we can’t afford to lose hm? I can’t pilot this ship all alone.”

  Grace said in a monotone, “I don’t think he’s in any danger. I just don’t feel any danger for him.”

  It was suddenly lonely, with just the three of them watching Holden Brooks through the port. He was a large, robotic figure, murkily grotesque, slogging on heavily as he leaned into the wind. Sand spurted up from under his mesh boots at every step.

  They could see him raise his arm, point his blaster, and involuntarily they held their breaths.

  The featureless mounds of soil that were their alien tormenters did not move.

  Holden fired. The subsidiary bonds that held together the molecules of one of those mounds were neutralized in the force-field emitted by the blaster. All at once, without sound or flame, the mound blew apart into impalpable dust. Except for some remnants at what had been its base, it was gone.

  Holden aimed at another and another. Then they, too, were gone.

  Inside the ship, Celestine cried excitedly, “Good! Good! He had guts and he’s doing it. So much for caution.”

  Philip was silent, his lips compressed. Then suddenly he said, “Look!”

  He pointed. Where the first mound had stood before it disappeared as if by magic, a new mound stood.

  At each spot where the blaster had had its effect, and which had been blank a moment before, a mound once more puffed up out of the ground. Holden, looking to right and left, let his arm drop. As he stood there staring, his attitude of frustration and discouragement were plain even through the impersonal lines of his suit.

  Slowly he turned, and slowly he trudged back to the ship….