Produced by Robert Cicconetti, Stephen Blundell and theOnline Distributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net
THE PLANET WITH NO NIGHTMARE
Illustrated by Wood
BY JIM HARMON
The creatures on the little planet were real bafflers. The first puzzler about them was that they died so easily. The second was that they didn't die at all.
Tension eased away as the spaceship settled down on its metallichaunches and they savored a safe planetfall.
Ekstrohm fingered loose the cinches of his deceleration couch. Hesighed. An exploration camp would mean things would be simpler for him.He could hide his problem from the others more easily. Trying to keepsecret what he did alone at night was very difficult under the closeconditions on board a ship in space.
Ryan hefted his bulk up and supported it on one elbow. He rubbed hiseyes sleepily with one huge paw. "Ekstrohm, Nogol, you guys okay?"
"Nothing wrong with me that couldn't be cured," Nogol said. He didn'tsay what would cure him; he had been explaining all during the trip whathe needed to make him feel like himself. His small black eyes dartedinside the olive oval of his face.
"Ekstrohm?" Ryan insisted.
"Well, let's take a ground-level look at the country around here."
The facsiport rolled open on the landscape. A range of bluffs hugged thehorizon, the color of decaying moss. Above them, the sky was the blackof space, or the almost equal black of the winter sky above Minneapolis,seen against neon-lit snow. That cold, empty sky was full of fire andlight. It seemed almost a magnification of the Galaxy itself, of theMilky Way, blown up by some master photographer.
This fiery swath was actually only a belt of minor planets, almost likethe asteroid belt in the original Solar System. These planets were muchbigger, nearly all capable of holding an atmosphere. But to theinfuriation of scientists, for no known reason not all of them did. Thiswould be the fifth mapping expedition to the planetoids of Yancy-6 inthree generations. They lay months away from the nearest Earth star byjump drive, and no one knew what they were good for, although it wasfelt that they would probably be good for something if it could only bediscovered--much like the continent of Antarctica in ancient history.
"Some can be lonely in a crowd," Nogol said elaborately.
* * * * *
"What will we need outside, Ryan?" Ekstrohm asked.
"No helmets," the captain answered. "We can breathe out there, allright. It just won't be easy. This old world lost all of its helium andtrace gases long ago. Nitrogen and oxygen are about it."
"Ryan, look over there," Nogol said. "Animals. Ringing the ship. Thinkthey're intelligent, maybe hostile?"
"I think they're dead," Ekstrohm interjected quietly. "I get no readingsfrom them at all. Sonic, electronic, galvanic--all blank. According tothese needles, they're stone dead."
"Ekstrohm, you and I will have a look," Ryan said. "You hold down thefort, Nogol. Take it easy."
"Easy," Nogol confirmed. "I heard a story once about a rookie who gotexcited when the captain stepped outside and he couldn't get anencephalographic reading on him. Me, I know the mind of an officer worksin a strange and unfathomable manner."
"I'm not worried about you mis-reading the dials, Nogol, just about alug like you reading them at all. Remember, when the little hand isstraight up that's negative. Positive results start when it goes towardsthe hand you use to make your mark."
"But I'm ambidextrous."
Ryan told him what he could do then.
Ekstrohm smiled, and followed the captain through the airlock with onlya glance at the lapel gauge on his coverall. The strong negative fieldhis suit set up would help to repel bacteria and insects.
Actually, the types of infection that could attack a warm-blooded mammalwere not infinite, and over the course of the last few hundred yearsadequate defenses had been found for all basic categories. He wasn'tlikely to come down with hot chills and puzzling striped fever.
They ignored the ladder down to the planet surface and, with only aglance at the seismological gauge to judge surface resistance, droppedto the ground.
It was day, but in the thin atmosphere contrasts were sharp betweenlight and shadow. They walked from midnight to noon, noon to midnight,and came to the beast sprawled on its side.
Ekstrohm nudged it with a boot. "Hey, this is pretty close to awart-hog."
"Uh-huh," Ryan admitted. "One of the best matches I've ever found. Well,it has to happen. Statistical average and all. Still, it sometimes givesyou a creepy feeling to find a rabbit or a snapping turtle on somestrange world. It makes you wonder if this exploration business isn'tall some big joke, and somebody has been _everywhere_ before you evenstarted."
* * * * *
The surveyor looked sidewise at the captain. The big man seldom gave outwith such thoughts. Ekstrohm cleared his throat. "What shall we do withthis one? Dissect it?"
Ryan nudged it with his toe, following Ekstrohm's example. "I don'tknow, Stormy. It sure as hell doesn't look like any dominant intelligentspecies to me. No hands, for one thing. Of course, that's not definiteproof."
"No, it isn't," Ekstrohm said.
"I think we'd better let it lay until we get a clearer picture of theecological setup around here. In the meantime, we might be thinking onthe problem all these dead beasts represent. What killed them?"
"It looks like we did, when we made blastdown."
"But _what_ about our landing was lethal to the creatures?"
"Radiation?" Ekstrohm suggested. "The planet is very low in radiationfrom mineral deposits, and the atmosphere seems to shield out most ofthe solar output. Any little dose of radiation might knock off thesecritters."
"I don't know about that. Maybe it would work the other way. Maybebecause they have had virtually no radioactive exposure and don't haveany R's stored up, they could take a _lot_ without harm."
"Then maybe it was the shockwave we set up. Or maybe it's sheerxenophobia. They curl up and die at the sight of something strange andalien--like a spaceship."
"Maybe," the captain admitted. "At this stage of the game anything couldbe possible. But there's one possibility I particularly don't like."
"And that is?"
"Suppose it was _not_ us that killed these aliens. Suppose it issomething right on the planet, native to it. I just hope it doesn't workon Earthmen too. These critters went real sudden."
Ekstrohm lay in his bunk and thought, the camp is quiet.
The Earthmen made camp outside the spaceship. There was no reason toleave the comfortable quarters inside the ship, except that, faced witha possibility of sleeping on solid ground, they simply had to get out.
The camp was a cluster of aluminum bubbles, ringed with a spy web toalert the Earthmen to the approach of any being.
Each man had a bubble to himself, privacy after the long period ofenforced intimacy on board the ship.
Ekstrohm lay in his bunk and listened to the sounds of the night onYancy-6 138. There was a keening of wind, and a cracking of the frozenground. Insects there were on the world, but they were frozen solidduring the night, only to revive and thaw in the morning sun.
The bunk he lay on was much more uncomfortable than the accelerationcouches on board. Yet he knew the others were sleeping more soundly, nowthat they had renewed their contact with the matter that had birthedthem to send them riding high vacuum.
Ekstrohm was not asleep.
Now there could be an end to pretending.
He threw off the light blanket and swung his feet off the bunk, to thefloor. Ekstrohm stood up.
There was no longer any need to hide. But what was there to do? What hadchanged for him?
He no longer had to lie in his bunk all night, his eyes closed,pretending to sleep. In privacy he could walk around, leave the lighton, read.
It was small comfort for insomnia.
Ekstrohm never slept. Some doctors had informed him he was mistakenabout this. Actually, they said, he did sleep, but so shortly andfitfully that he forgot. Others admitted he was absolutely correct--he_never_ slept. His body processes only slowed down enough for him todispel fatigue poisons. Occasionally he fell into a waking, gritty-eyedstupor; but he