Authors: Philip K. Dick
Tags: #Short Story Collection, #Science Fiction
Major Lawrence Hall bent over the binocular microscope, correcting the fine adjustment.
“Interesting,” he murmured.
“Isn’t it? Three weeks on this planet and we’ve yet to find a harmful life-form.” Lieutenant Friendly sat down on the edge of the lab table, avoiding the culture bowls. “What kind of place is this? No disease germs, no lice, no flies, no rats, no—”
“No whisky or red light districts.” Hall straightened up. “Quite a place. I was sure this brew would show something along the lines of Terra’s
. Or the Martian sand rot corkscrew.”
“But the whole planet’s harmless. You know, I’m wondering whether this is the Garden of Eden our ancestors fell out of.”
“Were pushed out of.”
Hall wandered over to the window of the lab and contemplated the scene beyond. He had to admit it was an attractive sight. Rolling forests and hills, green slopes alive with flowers and endless vines; waterfalls and hanging moss; fruit trees, acres of flowers, lakes. Every effort had been made to preserve intact the surface of Planet Blue—as it had been designated by the original scout ship, six months earlier.
Hall sighed. “Quite a place. I wouldn’t mind coming back here again some time.”
“Makes Terra seem a little bare.” Friendly took out his cigarettes; then put them away again. “You know, the place has a funny effect on me. I don’t smoke any more. Guess that’s because of the way it looks. It’s so—so damn pure. Unsullied. I can’t smoke or throw papers around. I can’t bring myself to be a picknicker.”
“The picknickers’ll be along soon enough,” Hall said. He went back to the microscope. “I’ll try a few more cultures . Maybe I’ll find a lethal germ yet.”
“Keep trying.” Lieutenant Friendly hopped off the table, “I’ll see you later and find out if you’ve had any luck. There’s a big conference going on in Room One. They’re almost ready to give the go-ahead to the E.A. for the first load of colonists to be sent out.”
Friendly grinned. “Afraid so.”
The door closed after him. His bootsteps echoed down the corridor. Hall was alone in the lab.
He sat for a time in thought. Presently he bent down and removed the slide from the stage of the microscope, selected a new one and held it up to the light to read the marking. The lab was warm and quiet. Sunlight streamed through the windows and across the floor. The trees outside moved a little in the wind. He began to feel sleepy.
“Yes, the picknickers,” he grumbled. He adjusted the new slide into position. “And all of them ready to come in and cut down the trees, tear up the flowers, spit in the lakes, burn up the grass. With not even the common cold virus around to–”
He stopped, his voice choked off—
Choked off, because the two eyepieces of the microscope had twisted suddenly around his windpipe and were trying to strangle him. Hall tore at them, but they dug relentlessly into his throat, steel prongs closing like the claws of a trap.
Throwing the microscope on to the floor, he leaped up. The microscope crawled quickly towards him, hooking around his leg. He kicked it loose with his other foot, and drew his blast pistol.
The microscope scuttled away, rolling on its coarse adjustments. Hall fired. It disappeared in a cloud of metallic parts.
“Good God!” Hall sat down weakly, mopping his face. “What the hell!” He massaged his throat. “What the hell!”
The council room was packed solid. Every officer of the Planet Blue unit was there. Commander Stella Morrison tapped on the big control map with the end of a slim plastic pointer.
“This long flat area is ideal for the actual city. It’s close to water, and weather conditions vary sufficiently to give the settlers something to talk about. There are large deposits of various minerals. The colonists can set up their own factories. They won’t have to do any importing. Over here is the biggest forest on the planet. If they have any sense, they’ll leave it. But if they want to make newspapers out of it, that’s not our concern.”
She looked around the room at the silent men.
“Let’s be realistic. Some of you have been thinking we shouldn’t send the okay to the Emigration Authority, but keep the planet our own selves, to come back to. I’d like that as much as any of the rest of you, but we’d just get into a lot of trouble. It’s not
planet. We’re here to do a certain job. When the job is done, we move along. And it is almost done. So let’s forget it. The only thing left to do is flash the go-ahead signal and then begin packing our things.”
“Has the lab report come in on bacteria?” Vice-Commander Wood asked.
“We’re taking special care to look out for them, of course. But the last I heard nothing had been found. I think we can go ahead and contact the E.A. Have them send a ship to take us off and bring in the first load of settlers. There’s no reason why—” she stopped.
A murmur was swelling through the room. Heads turned towards the door.
Commander Morrison frowned. “Major Hall, may I remind you that when the council is in session no one is permitted to interrupt!”
Hall swayed back and forth, supporting himself by holding on to the door knob. He gazed vacantly around the council room. Finally his glassy eyes picked out Lieutenant Friendly, sitting half-way across the room.
“Come here,” he said hoarsely.
“Me?” Friendly sank further down in his chair.
“Major, what is the meaning of this?” Vice-Commander Wood cut in angrily. “Are you drunk or are—?” He saw the blast gun in Hall’s hand. “Is something wrong, Major?”
Alarmed, Lieutenant Friendly got up and grabbed Hall’s shoulder. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Come to the lab.”
“Did you find something?” the Lieutenant studied his friend’s rigid face. “What is it?”
“Come on.” Hall started down the corridor, Friendly following.
Hall pushed the laboratory door open, stepped inside slowly.
“What is it?” Friendly repeated.
“Your microscope? What about it?” Friendly squeezed past him into the lab. “I don’t see it.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“I blasted it.”
“You blasted it?” Friendly looked at the other man. “I don’t get it. Why?”
Hall’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.
“Are you all right?” Friendly asked in concern. Then he bent down and lifted a black plastic box from a shelf under the table. “Say, is this a gag?”
He removed Hall’s microscope from the box. “What do you mean, you blasted it? Here it is, in its regular place. Now, tell me what’s going on? You saw something on a slide? Some kind of bacteria? Lethal? Toxic?”
Hall approached the microscope slowly. It was his all right. There was the nick just above the fine adjustment. And one of the stage clips was slightly bent. He touched it with his finger.
Five minutes ago this microscope had tried to kill him. And he knew he had blasted it out of existence.
“You sure you don’t need a psych test?” Friendly asked anxiously. “You look like post-trauma to me, or “worse.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Hall muttered.
The robot psyche tester whirred, integrating and gestalting. At last its colour code lights changed from red to green.
“Well?” Hall demanded.
“Severe disturbance. Instability ratio up above ten.”
“That’s over danger?”
“Yes. Eight is danger. Ten is unusual, especially for a person of your index. You usually show about a four.”
Hall nodded wearily. “I know.”
“If you could give me more data—”
Hall set his jaw. “I can’t tell you any more.”
“It’s illegal to hold back information during a psyche test; the machine said peevishly. “If you do that you deliberately distort my findings.”
Hall rose. “I can’t tell you any more. But you do record a high degree of unbalance for me?”
“There’s a high degree of psychic disorganization. But what it means, or why it exists, I can’t say.”
“Thanks.” Hall clicked the tester off. He went back to his own quarters. His head whirled. Was he out of his mind? But he had fired his blast gun at
. Afterwards, he had tested the atmosphere in the lab, and there were metallic particles in suspension, especially near the place he had fired his blast gun at the microscope.
But how could a thing like that be? A microscope coming to life, trying to kill him!
Anyhow, Friendly had pulled it out of its box, whole and sound. But how had it got back in the box?
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 hands 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 of ten 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 towards her. “Listen to me. This is serious. There’s something 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 kill you?”
“It came alive. Its stems 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 around loose. You could do a lot of damage.”
The guards moved him towards 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 his feet were 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 towards the open door. One of the guards blasted it.
Hall ran to the vidscreen and shakily dialled 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.