Asteroid of Fear, p.1Raymond Z. Gallun
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ASTEROID of FEAR
By RAYMOND Z. GALLUN
[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Planet Stories March1951. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.copyright on this publication was renewed.]
[Sidenote: _All space was electrified as that harsh challenge rangout ... but John Endlich hesitated. For he saw beyond his own murder--sawthe horror and destruction his death would unleash--and knew he darednot fight back!_]
The space ship landed briefly, and John Endlich lifted the hugeAsteroids Homesteaders Office box, which contained everything from aprefabricated house to toothbrushes for his family, down from thehold-port without help or visible effort.
In the tiny gravity of the asteroid, Vesta, doing this was no trouble atall. But beyond this point the situation was--bitter.
His two kids, Bubs, seven, and Evelyn, nine--clad in space-suits thatwere slightly oversize to allow for the growth of young bodies--wereboth bawling. He could hear them through his oxygen-helmet radiophones.
Around him, under the airless sky of space, stretched desolation thathe'd of course known about beforehand--but which now had assumed thatspecial and terrible starkness of reality.
At his elbow, his wife, Rose, her heart-shaped face and grey eyes framedby the wide face-window of her armor, was trying desperately to chokeback tears, and be brave.
"Remember--we've _got_ to make good here, Johnny," she was saying."Remember what the Homesteaders Office people told us--that with modernequipment and the right frame of mind, life can be nice out here. It'sworked on other asteroids. What if we are the first farmers to come toVesta?... Don't listen to those crazy miners! They're just kidding us!Don't listen to them! And don't, for gosh sakes, get sore...."
Rose's words were now like dim echoes of his conscience, and of hisrecent grim determination to master his hot temper, his sensitiveness,his wanderlust, and his penchant for poker and the socialglass--qualities of an otherwise agreeable and industrious nature, that,on Earth, had always been his undoing. Recently, back in Illinois, hehad even spent six months in jail for all but inflicting murder with hisbare fists on a bullying neighbor whom he had caught whipping a horse.Sure--but during those six months his farm, the fifth he'd tried to runin scattered parts of North America, had gone to weeds in spite ofRose's valiant efforts to take care of it alone....
Oh, yes--the lessons of all that past personal history should be strongin his mind. But now will power and Rose's frightened tones of wisdomboth seemed to fade away in his brain, as jeering words from anothersource continued to drive jagged splinters into the weakest portion ofhis soul:
"Hi, you hydroponic pun'kin-head!... How yuh like your new claim?...Nice, ain't it? How about some fresh turnips?... Good luck, yuhgreenhorn.... Hiyuh, papa! Tied to baby's diaper suspenders!... Let thepoor dope alone, guys.... Snooty.... Won't take our likker, hunh? Won'ttake our money.... Wifey's boy! Let's make him sociable....Haw-Haw-haw.... Hydroponic pun'kin-head!..."
It was a medley of coarse voices and laughter, matching the row of adozen coarse faces and grins that lined the view-ports of the ship.These men were asteroid miners, space-hardened and space-twisted. They'dbeen back to Earth for a while, to raise hell and freshen up, and spendthe money in their then-bulging pockets. Coming out again from Earth,across the orbit of Mars to the asteroid belt, they had had the Endlichsas fellow passengers.
John Endlich had battled valiantly with his feebler side, and with hissocial inclinations, all through that long, dreary voyage, to keep clearof the inevitable griefs that were sure to come to a chap like himselffrom involvement with such characters. In the main, it had been a rathertattered victory. But now, at the final moment of bleak anticlimax, theytook their revenge in guffaws and ridicule, hurling the noise at himthrough the radiophones of the space-suit helmets that they held intheir laps--space-suits being always kept handy beneath thetraveler-seats of every interplanetary vessel.
"... Haw-haw-haw! Drop over to our camp sometime for a little drink, anda little game, eh, pantywaist? Tain't far. Sure--just drop in on us whenthe pressure of domesticity in this beootiful country gets you down....When the turnips get you down! Haw-haw-haw! Bring the wife along....She's kinda pretty. Ought to have a man-size fella.... Just ask forme--Alf Neely! Haw-haw-haw!"
Yeah, Alf Neely was the loudest and the ugliest of John Endlich'sbaiters. He had gigantic arms and shoulders, small squinty eyes, and apendulous nose. "Haw-haw-haw!..."
And the others, yelling and hooting, made it a pack: "Man--don't he wishhe was back in Podunk!... What!--no tomatas, Dutch?... What did theytell yuh back at the Homestead office in Chicago?--that we were inde-e-esperate need of fresh vegetables out here? Well, where are they,papa?... Haw-haw-haw!..."
* * * * *
Under the barrage John Endlich's last shreds of common-sense were allbut blotted out by the red murk of fury. He was small and broad--astolid-looking thirty-two years old. But now his round and usuallyplacid face was as red as a fiery moon, and his underlip curled in asnarl. He might have taken the savage ribbing more calmly. But there wastoo much grim fact behind what these asteroid miners said. Besides, outhere he had thought that he would have a better chance to lick theweaknesses in himself--because he'd _have_ to work to keep his familyalive; because he'd been told that there'd be no one around to distracthim from duty. Yah! The irony of that, now, was maddening.
For the moment John Endlich was speechless and strangled--but like anignited firecracker. Uhunh--ready to explode. His hard body hunched, asif ready to spring. And the baiting waxed louder. It was like theyammering of crows, or the roar of a wild surf in his ears. Then camethe last straw. The kids had kept on bawling--more and more violently.But now they got down to verbal explanations of what they thought wasthe matter:
"Wa-aa-aa-a-ahh-h! Papa--we wanna-go-o-o--hom-m-mm-e!..."
The timing could not have been better--or worse. The shrieks and howlsof mirth from the miners, a moment ago, were as nothing to what theywere now.
"Ho-ho-ho! Tell it to Daddy, kids!... Ho-ho-ho! That was a mouthful....Ho-ho-ho-ho! Wow!..."
There is a point at which an extremity of masculine embarrassment canlead to but one thing--mayhem. Whether the latter is to be inflicted onthe attacked or the attacker remains the only question mark.
"I'll get you, Alf Neely!" Endlich snarled. "Right now! And I'll get allthe damned, hell-bitten rest of you guys!"
Endlich was hardly lacking in vigor, himself. Like a squat butstreamlined fighting rooster, rendered a hundred times more agile by thepuny gravity, he would have reached the hold-port threshold in a singlelithe skip--had not Rose, despairing, grabbed him around the middle torestrain him. Together they slid several yards across the dried-outsurface of the asteroid.
"Don't, Johnny--please don't!" she wailed.
Her begging could not have stopped him. Nor could her physicalinterference--for more than an instant. Nor could his conscience, norhis recent determination to keep out of trouble. Not the certainty ofbeing torn limb from limb, and not hell, itself, could have held himback, anymore, then.
Yet he was brought to a halt. It certainly wasn't cowardice thataccomplished this. No.
Suddenly there was no laughter among the miners. But in a body theyarose from their traveler-seats aboard the ship. Suddenly there was nomore humor in their faces beyond the view-ports. They were itching to beassaulted. The glitter in Alf Neely's small eyes was about as reassuringas the glitter in the eyes of a slightly prankish gorilla.
"We're waitin' for yuh, Mr. Civilization," he rumbled softly.
After that, all space was still--electrified. The icy stars gleamed inthe black sky. The shrunken sun looked on. And John Endlich saw beyondhis own murder. To the thought of his kids--and his wife--left alone outhere, hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, and real law andorder--with these lugs. These guys who had been starved emotionally, andwarped inside by raw space. Coldness crawled into John Endlich's guts,and seemed to twist steel hooks there, making him sick. The silence of avacuum, and of unthinkable distances, and of ghostly remains which mustbe left on this fragment of a world that had blown up, maybe fiftymillion or more years ago, added its weight to John Endlich's feelings.
And for his family, he was scared. What hell could not haveaccomplished, became fact. His almost suicidal impulse to inflictviolence on
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