Big Pill, p.1Raymond Z. Gallun
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This etext was produced from Planet Stories September 1952. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
By RAYMOND Z. GALLUN
_Child, it was, of the now ancient H-bomb. New. Untested. Would its terrible power sweep the stark Saturnian moon of Titan from space ... or miraculously create a flourishing paradise-colony?_
* * * * *
Under the glow of Saturn and his Rings, five of the airdomes of thenew colony on Titan were still inflated. They were enormous bubbles ofclear, flexible plastic. But the sixth airdome had flattened. Andbeneath its collapsed roof, propped now by metal rods, a dozen men inspacesuits had just lost all hope of rescuing the victims of theaccident.
Bert Kraskow, once of Oklahoma City, more recently a space-freighterpilot, and now officially just a colonist, was among them. His small,hard body sagged, as if by weariness. His lips curled. But his fullanger and bitterness didn't show.
"Nine dead," he remarked into the radio-phone of his oxygen helmet."No survivors." And then, inaudibly, inside his mind: "I'm a stinkin'fool. Why didn't we act against Space Colonists' Supply Incorporated,before this could happen?"
His gaze swung back to the great rent that had opened in a seam in theairdome--under only normal Earthly atmospheric pressure, when itshould have been able to withstand much more. Instantly the warmed airhad rushed out into the near-vacuum of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.Those who had been working the night-shift under the dome, to set upprefabricated cottages, had discarded their spacesuits for betterfreedom of movement. It was the regulation thing to do; alwaysconsidered safe. But they had been caught by the sudden dropping ofpressure around them to almost zero. And by the terrible cold of theTitanian night.
For a grief-stricken second Bert Kraskow looked down again at the bodybeside which he stood. You could hardly see that the face had beenyoung. The eyes popped. The pupils were white, like ice. The fluidwithin had frozen. The mouth hung open. In the absence of normalair-pressure, the blood in the body had boiled for a moment, beforethe cold had congealed it.
"Your kid brother, Nick, eh, Bert?" an air-conditioning mechanic namedLawler said, almost in a whisper. "About twenty years old, hunh?"
"Eighteen," Bert Kraskow answered into his helmet-phones as he spreadthe youth's coat over the distorted face.
Old Stan Kraskow, metal-worker, was there, too. Bert's and Nick's dad.He was blubbering. There wasn't much that anybody could do for him.And for the other dead, there were other horrified mourners. Some ofthem had been half nuts from homesickness, and the sight of harsh,voidal stars, even before this tragedy had happened.
It was Lawler who first cut loose, cursing. He was a big, apish man,with a certain fiery eloquence.
"Damned, lousy, stinkin' obsolete equipment!" he snarled. "Breathe onit and it falls apart! Under old Bill Lauren, Space Colonists' Supplyused to make good, honest stuff. I worked with it on Mars and themoons of Jupiter. But now look what the firm is turning out underTrenton Lauren, old Bill's super-efficient son! He was so greedy forquick profits in the new Titan colonization project, and so afraid ofbeing scooped by new methods of making these fizzled-out worldslivable, that he didn't even take time to have his products decentlyinspected! And that, after not being able to recognize progress! Hell!Where is that dumb, crawlin' boob?"
There was a moment of silence. Then somebody muttered: "Speak of thedevil!..."
* * * * *
With eyes that had grown quietly wolfish, Bert Kraskow saw TrentonLauren arrive at last from the administration dome. He was plump,maybe thirty-five, and somehow dapper even in a spacesuit. That he washere on Titan at all, and not in a pressurized settlement on Mars, orat the main office of his firm in Chicago, was a cocky gesture ofbravado, a leaf torn from the book of his more worthy sire, andperhaps more particularly an attempt to counteract the consequences ofhis bad business judgment, personally.
The fear of one who sees how his haste and breed can be calledpunishable criminal negligence, was in his face. The things that hadbeen human, sprawled stiff before him, accusing him. But the worst wasthe presence of those grim, silent men, who might add him forcibly tothe death-list. That moment held crystallized in it the conflict of anurge to win vast profits, with the payment in human lives that hadbeen exacted this time.
Near-dead Titan was the present step in mankind's outward march ofcolonial dominion toward the stars. Titan itself was rich in theradioactive ores that has become the fuel, the moving force, not onlyof the rockets of Earth's expanding space-commerce, but of the wheelsof industry and comfort at home. And richer in those elements were theRings of Saturn, nearby, those stupendous, whirling bands of dust,wreckage of a broken satellite in which, as in any other planet ormoon most of those heaviest, costliest metals had originally sunk toits center, far out of reach of mining operations. But in the Rings,all this incalculable wealth of uranium, radium, osmium, and so forth,not to mention millions of tons of useless gold, was uniquely exposedas easily accessible dust.
Oh, yes. And the S.C.S.--Space Colonists' Supply--wanted its cut forproviding equipment, as received elsewhere in the past. Bert Kraskowknew that this must remain dapper Trenton Lauren's aim, in spite of avast and possibly ruinous investment in manufactured goods that couldturn out to be obsolete and unmarketable, in addition to its poorquality.
Bert studied Lauren from between narrowed eyelids, weighing hisqualities further, judging, ever predicting. Trenton Lauren might hatehimself some for the deaths that were his responsibility. Yet Bert betthat he hated himself more for having to explain the failure of one ofhis airdomes to these crude colonists. It hurt his ego. Lauren wasfull of fear; he was a stuffy, visionless conservative, but he waswily, too.
Bert saw his lips tighten, as he marshalled his forces to smooth downthe fury of the men before him.
"I'm deeply sorry that these people had to die," he said in hishigh-pitched voice. "But chance-taking is part of any newspace-venture. And all who use airdomes, spacesuits, or other S.C.S.equipment, are insured against its defective performance. Ten thousanddollars, paid in case of death, is still a lot of money. S.C.S. hasmade fine products for over forty years. No dangerous, new-fangledideas can yet replace them. Considering the risk inherent in spacecolonization, occasional mishaps can hardly be avoided. You all knowthat. Business--life--everything--is a gamble."
Sure. About chance-taking there was truth in his pompous words. Butdid one buy a life with a few thousand dollars, or call money a justpenalty for obvious and deadly neglect?
Knots of muscle gathered at the angles of Lawler's square jaw. OldStan Kraskow stared at Lauren as if he didn't believe that anybodycould talk so stupidly.
Bert Kraskow's savage blood seethed. But when he was really sore histendency was to be coldly and quietly logical in his speech andactions. The plans to change things were made. He was in on them. Andwhat was the use of getting into arguments that might give the enemy ahint? Or set off violence that might spoil everything?
"Easy," he whispered. "Dad! Lawler! Don't talk. Don't start anything."
But Alice Leland Kraskow, Bert's wife, had arrived on the scene. Shewas little and dark and fiery, one of the few feminine colonists yeton Titan. In another airdome, where Bert and she had their cottage,she had been awakened by the shouts of those who had seen the accidenttake place. Donning a spacesuit, she had followed the crowd.
Being at a little distance from her, Bert had no chance
"Yes, Mr. Lauren," she said pointedly. "We're all gamblers. Granted.But you started to cheat even before you were afraid of losing. Maybeit's time we did something about it."
Trenton Lauren looked more scared than before. But now, as two SpacePatrolmen in their silvery armor, arrived from their quarters andstood beside him, he smiled a little.
"Madam," he drawled, "maybe I know what you mean. You want to defy thelaw. Someone around here has been hoping for word from Earth that anokay has been granted by the Safe Products Approval Board, for, shallwe say, a radically new product? Well, the optimists will wait a longtime for such approval at the S.P.A.B. The action of this inventionis, to say the least, extremely
Big Pill by Raymond Z. Gallun / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes