“How soon will we reach the system?” Blake said.
Blake set his lips. “That’s a long time. I hope we’re still alive.”
“I’d advise against exercising too much,” Eller said. “We’ll take it easy the rest of the way and hope that whatever has been done to us can be undone back on Terra.”
“I guess we actually got off fairly easy.” Silvia said. She yawned. “Lord, I’m sleepy.” She got slowly to her feet, pushing her chair back. “I think I’ll turn in. Anyone object?”
“Go ahead,” Eller said. “Blake, how about some cards? I want to relax. Blackjack?”
“Sure,” Blake said. “Why not?” He slid a deck from his jacket pocket. “It’ll make the time pass. Cut for deal.”
“Fine.” Eller took the deck. He cut, showing a seven of clubs. Blake won the deck with a jack of hearts.
They played listlessly, neither of them much interested. Blake was sullen and uncommunicative, still angry because Eller had been proved so right. Eller himself was tired and uncomfortable. His head throbbed dully in spite of the opiates he had taken. He removed his helmet and rubbed his forehead.
“Play,” Blake murmured. Under them the jets rumbled, carrying them nearer and nearer Terra. In a week they would enter the system. They had not seen Terra in over a year. How would it look? Would it still be the same? The great green globe, with its vast oceans, all the tiny islands. Then down at New York Spaceport. San Francisco, for him. It would be nice, all right. The crowds of people, Terrans, good old frivolous, senseless Terrans, without a care in the world. Eller grinned up at Blake. His grin turned to a frown.
Blake’s head had drooped. His eyes were slowly closing. He was going to sleep.
“Wake up,” Eller said. “What’s the matter?”
Blake grunted, pulling himself up straight. He went on dealing the next hand. Again his head sank lower and lower.
“Sorry,” he murmured. He reached out to draw in his winnings. Eller fumbled in his pocket, getting out more credits. He looked up, starting to speak. But Blake had fallen completely asleep.
“I’ll be damned!” Eller got to his feet. “This is strange.” Blake’s chest rose and fell evenly. He snored a little, his heavy body relaxed. Eller turned down the light and walked toward the door. What was the matter with Blake? It was unlike him to pass out during a game of cards.
Eller went down the corridor toward his own quarters. He was tired and ready for sleep. He entered his washroom, unfastening his collar. He removed his jacket and turned on the hot water. It would be good to get into bed, to forget everything that had happened to them, the sudden exploding blast of radiation, the painful awakening, the gnawing fear. Eller began to wash his face. Lord, how his head buzzed. Mechanically, he splashed water on his arms.
It was not until he had almost finished washing that he noticed it. He stood for a long time, water running over his hands, staring silently down, unable to speak.
His fingernails were gone.
He looked up in the mirror, breathing quickly. Suddenly he grabbed at his hair. Handfuls of hair came out, great bunches of light brown hair. Hair and nails —
He shuddered, trying to calm himself. Hair and nails. Radiation. Of course: radiation did that, killed both the hair and the nails. He examined his hands.
The nails were completely gone all right. There was no trace of them. He turned his hands over and over, studying the fingers. The ends were smooth and tapered. He fought down rising panic, moving unsteadily away from the mirror.
A thought struck him. Was he the only one? What about Silvia!
He put his jacket on again. Without nails his fingers were strangely deft and agile. Could there be anything else? They had to be prepared. He looked into the mirror again.
His head – What was happening? He clasped his hands to his temples. His head. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. He stared, his eyes wide. He was almost completely hairless, now, his shoulders and jacket covered with brown hair that had fallen. His scalp gleamed, bald and pink, a shocking pink. But there was something more.
His head had expanded. It was swelling into a full sphere. And his ears were shriveling, his ears and his nose. His nostrils were becoming thin and transparent even as he watched. He was changing, altering, faster and faster.
He reached a shaking hand into his mouth. His teeth were loose in the gums. He pulled. Several teeth came out easily. What was happening? Was he dying? Was he the only one? What about the others?
Eller turned and hurried out of the room. His breath came painfully, harshly. His chest seemed constricted, his ribs choking the air out of him. His heart labored, beating fitfully. And his legs were weak. He stopped, catching hold of the door. He started into the lift. Suddenly there was a sound, a deep bull roar. Blake’s voice, raised in terror and agony.
“That answers that,” Eller thought grimly, as the lift rose around him. “At least I’m not the only one!”
Harrison Blake gaped at him in horror. Eller had to smile. Blake, hairless, his skull pink and glistening, was not a very impressive sight. His cranium, too, had enlarged, and his nails were gone. He was standing by the control table, staring first at Eller and then down at his own body. His uniform was too large for his dwindling body. It bagged around him in slack folds.
“Well?” Eller said. “We’ll be lucky if we get out of this. Space radiations can do strange things to a man’s body. It was a bad day for us when we landed on that –”
“Eller,” Blake whispered. “What’ll we do? We can’t live this way, not like this! Look at us.”
“I know.” Eller set his lips. He was having trouble speaking now that he was almost toothless. He felt suddenly like a baby. Toothless, without hair, a body growing more helpless each moment. Where would it end?
“We can’t go back like this,” Blake said. “We can’t go back to Terra, not looking this way. Good heavens, Eller! We’re freaks. Mutants. They’ll — they’ll lock us up like animals in cages. People will –”
“Shut up.” Eller crossed to him. “We’re lucky to be alive at all. Sit down.” He drew a chair out. “I think we better get off our legs.”
They both sat down. Blake took a deep, shuddering breath. He rubbed his smooth forehead, again and again.
“It’s not us I’m worried about,” Eller said, after a time. “It’s Silvia. She’ll suffer the most from this. I’m trying to decide whether we should go down at all. But if we don’t, she may –”
There was a buzz. The vidscreen came to life, showing the white-walled laboratory, the retorts and rows of testing equipment, lined up neatly against the walls.
“Cris?” Silvia’s voice came, thin and edged with horror. She was not visible on the screen. Apparently she was standing off to one side.
“Yes.” Eller went to the screen. “How are you?”
“How am I?” A thrill of hysteria ran through the girl’s voice. “Cris, has it hit you, too? I’m afraid to look.” There was a pause. “It has, hasn’t it? I can see you — but don’t try to look at me. I don’t want you to see me again. It’s — it’s horrible. What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. Blake says he won’t go back to Terra this way.”
“No! We can’t go back! We can’t!”
There was silence. “We’ll decide later,” Eller said finally. “We don’t have to settle it now. These changes in our systems are due to radiation, so they may be only temporary. They may go away, in time. Or surgery may help. Anyhow, let’s not worry about it now.”
“Not worry? No, of course I won’t worry. How could I worry about a little thing like this! Cris, don’t you understand? We’re monsters, hairless monsters. No hair, no teeth, no nails. Our heads –”
“I understand.” Eller set his jaw. “You stay down in the lab. Blake and I will discuss it with you on the vidscreen. You won’t have to show yourself to us.”
Silvia took a deep breath. “Anything you say. You’re still captain.”
Eller turned away from the screen. “Well, Blake, do you feel well enough to talk?”
The great-domed figure in the corner nodded, the immense hairless skull moving slightly. Blake’s once great body had shrunk, caved in. The arms were pipe stems, the chest hollow and sickly. Restlessly, the soft fingers tapped against the table. Eller studied him.
“What is it?” Blake said.
“Nothing. I was just looking at you.”
“You’re not very pleasant looking, either.”
“I realize that.” Eller sat down across from him. His heart was pounding, his breath coming shallowly. “Poor Silv! It’s worse for her than it is for us.”
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