He stripped off his uniform and entered the shower. While he ran warm water over his body he meditated. The robot psyche tester had showed his mind was severely disturbed, but that could have been the result, rather than the cause, of the experience. He had started to tell Friendly about it but he had stopped. How could he expect anyone to believe a story like that?
He shut off the water and reached out for one of the towels on the rack.
The towel wrapped around his wrist, yanking him against the wall. Rough cloth pressed over his mouth and nose. He fought wildly, pulling away. All at once the towel let go. He fell, sliding to the floor, his head striking the wall. Stars shot around him; then violent pain.
Sitting in a pool of warm water, Hall looked up at the towel rack. The towel was motionless now, like the others with it. Three towels in a row, all exactly alike, all unmoving. Had he dreamed it?
He got shakily to his feet, rubbing his head. Carefully avoiding the towel rack, he edged out of the shower and into his room. He pulled a new towel from the dispenser in a gingerly manner. It seemed normal. He dried himself and began to put his clothes on.
His belt got him around the waist and tried to crush him. It was strong — it had reinforced metal links to hold his leggings and his gun. He and the belt rolled silently on the floor, struggling for control. The belt was like a furious metal snake, whipping and lashing at him. At last he managed to get his hand around his blaster.
At once the belt let go. He blasted it out of existence and then threw himself down in a chair, gasping for breath.
The arms of the chair closed around him. But this time the blaster was ready. He had to fire six times before the chair fell limp and he was able to get up again.
He stood half dressed in the middle of the room, his chest rising and falling.
“It isn’t possible,” he whispered. “I must be out of my mind.”
Finally he got his leggings and boots on. He went outside into the empty corridor. Entering the lift, he ascended to the top floor.
Commander Morrison looked up from her desk as Hall stepped through the robot clearing screen. It pinged.
“You’re armed,” the Commander said accusingly.
Hall looked down at the blaster in his hand. He put it down on the desk. “Sorry.”
“What do you want? What’s the matter with you? I have a report from the testing machine. It says you’ve hit a ratio often within the last twenty-four hour period.” She studied him intently. “We’ve known each other for a long time, Lawrence. What’s happening to you?”
Hall took a deep breath. “Stella, earlier today, my microscope tried to strangle me.”
Her blue eyes widened. “What!”
“Then, when I was getting out of the shower, a bath towel tried to smother me. I got by it, but while I was dressing, my belt –” He stopped. The Commander had got to her feet.
“Guards!” she called.
“Wait, Stella.” Hall moved toward her. “Listen to me. This is serious. There’s nothing wrong. Four times things have tried to kill me. Ordinary objects suddenly turned lethal. Maybe it’s what we’ve been looking for. Maybe this is –”
“Your microscope tried to killed you?”
“It came alive. Its stem got me around the windpipe.”
There was a long silence. “Did anyone see this happen besides you?”
“What did you do?”
“I blasted it.”
“Are there any remains?”
“No,” Hall admitted reluctantly. “As a matter of fact, the microscope seems to be all right, again. The way it was before. Back in its box.”
“I see.” The Commander nodded to the two guards who had answered her call. “Take Major Hall down to Captain Taylor and have him confined until he can be sent back to Terra for examination.”
She watched calmly as the two guards took hold of Hall’s arms with magnetic grapples.
“Sorry, Major,” she said. “Unless you can prove any of your story, we’ve got to assume it’s a psychotic projection on your part. And the planet isn’t well enough policed for us to allow a psychotic to run loose. You could do a lot of damage.”
The guards moved him toward the door. Hall went unprotestingly. His head rang, rang and echoed. Maybe she was right. Maybe he was out of his mind.
They came to Captain Taylor’s offices. One of the guards rang the buzzer.
“Who is it?” the robot door demanded shrilly.
“Commander Morrison orders this man put under the Captain’s care.”
There was a hesitant pause, then: “The Captain is busy.”
“This is an emergency.”
The robot’s relays clicked while it made up its mind. “The Commander sent you?”
“Yes. Open up.”
“You may enter,” the robot conceded finally. It drew its locks back, releasing the door.
The guard pushed the door open. And stopped.
On the floor lay Captain Taylor, his face blue, his eyes gaping. Only his head and feet was visible. A red-and-white scatter rug was wrapped around him, squeezing, straining tighter and tighter.
Hall dropped to the floor and pulled at the rug. “Hurry!” he barked. “Grab it!”
The three of them pulled together. The rug resisted.
“Help,” Taylor cried weakly.
“We’re trying!” They tugged frantically. At last the rug came away in their hands. It flopped off rapidly toward the open door. One of the guards blasted it.
Hall ran to the vidscreen and shakily dialed the Commander’s emergency number.
Her face appeared on the screen.
“See!” he gasped.
She stared past him to Taylor lying on the floor, the two guards kneeling beside him, their blasters still out.
“What — what happened?”
“A rug attacked him.” Hall grinned without amusement. “Now who’s crazy?”
“We’ll send a guard unit down.” She blinked. “Right away. But how –”
“Tell them to have their blasters ready. And better make that a general alarm to everyone.”
Hall placed four items on Commander Morrison’s desk: a microscope, a towel, a metal belt, and a small red-and-white rug.
She edged away nervously. “Major, are you sure — ?”
“They’re all right, now. That’s the strangest part. This towel. A few hours ago it tried to kill me. I got away by blasting it to particles. But here it is, back again. The way it always was. Harmless.
Captain Taylor fingered the red-and-white rug warily. “That’s my rug. I brought it from Terra. My wife gave it to me. I — I trusted it completely.”
They all looked at each other.
“We blasted the rug, too,” Hall pointed out.
There was silence.
“Then what was it that attacked me?” Captain Taylor asked. “If it wasn’t this rug?”
“It looked like this rug,” Hall said slowly. “And what attacked me looked like this towel.”
Commander Morrison held up the towel to the light. “It’s just an ordinary towel! It couldn’t have attacked you.”
“Of course not,” Hall agreed. “We’ve put these objects through all the tests we can think of. They’re just what they’re supposed to be, all elements unchanged. Perfectly stable non-organic objects. It’s impossible that any of these could have come to life and attacked us.”
“But something did.” Taylor said. “Something attacked me. And it if wasn’t this rug, what was it?”
Lieutenant Dodds felt around on the dresser for his gloves. He was in a hurry. The whole unit had been called to emergency assembly.
“Where did I — ?” he murmured. “What the hell!”
For on the bed were two pair of identical gloves, side by side.
Dodds frowned, scratching his head. How could it be? He owned only one pair. The others must be somebody else’s. Bob Wesley had been in the night before, playing cards. Maybe he had left them.
The vidscreen flashed again. “All personnel, report at once. All personnel, report at once. Emergency assembly of all personnel.”
“All right!” Dodds said impatiently. He grabbed up one of the pairs of gloves, sliding them onto his hands.
As soon as they were in place, the gloves carried his hands down to his waist. They clamped his fingers over the butt of his gun, lifting it from the holster.
“I’ll be damned,” Dodds said. The gloves brought the blast gun up, pointing it at his chest.
The fingers squeezed. There was a roar. Half of Dodd’s chest dissolved. What was left of him fell slowly to the floor, the mouth still open in amazement.
Corporal Tenner hurried across the ground toward the main building as soon as he heard the wail of the emergency alarm.
At the entrance to the building he stopped to take off his metal-cleated boots. Then he frowned. By the door were two safety mats instead of one.
Well, it didn’t matter. They were both the same. He stepped onto one of the mats and waited. The surface of the mat sent a flow of high-frequency current through his feet and legs, killing any spores or seeds that might have clung to him while he was outside.
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