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Authors: John W. Campbell

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BOOK: Who Goes There
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“Somehow in the blinding inferno we could see great hunched things—black bulks. They shed even the furious incandescence of the magnesium for a time. Those must have been the engines, we knew. Secrets going in blazing glory—secrets that might have given man the planets. Mysterious things that could lift and hurl that ship—and had soaked in the force of the Earth’s magnetic field. I saw Norris’s mouth move, and ducked. I couldn’t hear him.

“Insulation—something—gave way. All Earth’s field they’d soaked up twenty million years before broke loose. The aurora in the sky above licked down, and the whole plateau there was bathed in cold fire that blanketed vision. The ice-ax in my hand got red hot, and hissed on the ice. Metal buttons on my clothes burned into me. And a flash of electric blue seared upward from beyond the granite wall.

“Then the walls of ice crashed down on it. For an instant it squealed the way dry-ice does when it’s pressed between metal.

“We were blind and groping in the dark for hours while our eyes recovered. We found every coil within a mile was fused rubbish, the dynamo and every radio set, the earphones and speakers. If we hadn’t had the steam tractor, we wouldn’t have gotten over to the Secondary Camp.

“Van Wall flew in from Big Magnet at sunup, as you know. We came home as soon as possible. That is the history of—that.” McReady’s great bronze beard gestured toward the thing on the table.

II

Blair stirred uneasily, his little, bony fingers wriggling under the harsh light. Little brown freckles on his knuckles slid back and forth as the tendons under the skin twitched. He pulled aside a bit of the tarpaulin and looked impatiently at the dark ice-bound thing inside.

McReady’s big body straightened somewhat. He’d ridden the rocking, jarring steam tractor forty miles that day, pushing on to Big Magnet here. Even his calm will had been pressed by the anxiety to mix again with humans. It was lone and quiet out there in Secondary Camp, where a wolf-wind howled down from the Pole. Wolf-wind howling in his sleep—winds droning and the evil, unspeakable face of that monster leering up as he’d first seen it through clear, blue ice, with a bronze ice-ax buried in its skull.

The giant meteorologist spoke again. “The problem is this. Blair wants to examine the thing. Thaw it out and make micro slides of its tissues and so-forth. Norris doesn’t believe that is safe, and Blair does. Doctor Copper agrees pretty much with Blair. Norris is a physicist, of course, not a biologist. But he makes a point I think we should all hear. Blair has described the microscopic life-forms biologists find living, even in this cold and inhospitable place. They freeze every winter, and thaw every summer—for three months—and live.

“The point Norris makes is—they thaw and live again. There must have been microscopic life associated with this creature. There is with every living thing we know. And Norris is afraid that we may release a plague—some germ disease unknown to Earth—if we thaw those microscopic things that have been frozen there for twenty million years.

“Blair admits that such micro life might retain the power of living. Such unorganized things as individual cells can retain life for unknown periods, when solidly frozen. The beast itself is as dead as those frozen mammoths they find in Siberia. Organized, highly developed life forms can’t stand that treatment.

“But micro-life could. Norris suggests that we may release some disease form that man, never having met it before, will be utterly defenseless against.

“Blair’s answer is that there may be such still-living germs, but that Norris has the case reversed. They are utterly nonimmune to man. Our life chemistry probably—”

“Probably!” The little biologist’s head lifted in a quick, birdlike motion. The halo of gray hair about his bald head ruffled as though angry. “Hen, one look—”

“I know,” McReady acknowledged. “The thing is not earthly. It does not seem likely that it can have a life chemistry sufficiently like ours to make cross infection remotely possible. I would say that there is no danger.”

McReady looked toward Dr. Copper. The physician shook his head slowly. “None whatever,” he asserted confidently. “Man cannot infect or be infected by germs that live in such comparatively close relatives as the snakes. And they are, I assure you,” his clean-shaven face grimaced uneasily,
“much
nearer to us than—
that.”

Vance Norris moved angrily. He was comparatively short in this gathering of big men, some five-feet-eight, and his stocky, powerful build tended to make him seem shorter. His black hair was crisp and hard, like short, steel wires, and his eyes were the gray of fractured steel. If McReady was a man of bronze, Norris was all steel. His movements, his thoughts, his whole bearing had the quick, hard impulse of a steel spring. His nerves were steel—hard, quick-acting—swift corroding.

He was decided on his point now, and he lashed out in its defense with a characteristic quick, clipped flow of words. “Different chemistry be damned. That thing may be dead—or, by God, it may not—but I don’t like it. Damn it, Blair, let them see the monstrosity you are petting over there. Let them see the foul thing and decide for themselves whether they want that thing thawed out in this camp.

“Thawed out, by the way. That’s got to be thawed out in one of the shacks tonight, if it is thawed out. Somebody—who’s watchman tonight? Magnetic—oh, Connant. Cosmic rays tonight. Well, you get to sit up with that twenty-million-year-old mummy of his. Unwrap it, Blair. How the hell can they tell what they are buying, if they can’t see it? It may have a different chemistry. I don’t care what else it has, but I know it has something I don’t want. If you can judge by the look on its face—it isn’t human so maybe you can’t—it was annoyed when it froze. Annoyed, in fact, is just about as close an approximation of the way it felt as crazy, mad, insane hatred. Neither one touches the subject.

“How the hell can these birds tell what they are voting on? They haven’t seen those three red eyes and that blue hair like crawling worms. Crawling—damn, it’s crawling there in the ice right now!

“Nothing Earth ever spawned had the unutterable sublimation of devastating wrath that thing let loose in its face when it looked around its frozen desolation twenty million years ago. Mad? It was mad clear through—searing, blistering mad!

“Hell, I’ve had bad dreams ever since I looked at those three red eyes. Nightmares. Dreaming the thing thawed out and came to life—that it wasn’t dead, or even wholly unconscious all those twenty million years, but just slowed, waiting—waiting. You’ll dream, too, while that damned thing that Earth wouldn’t own is dripping, dripping in the Cosmos House tonight.

“And, Connant,” Norris whipped toward the cosmic ray specialist, “won’t you have fun sitting up all night in the quiet. Wind whining above—and that thing dripping—” He stopped for a moment, and looked around.

“I know. That’s not science. But this is, it’s psychology. You’ll have nightmares for a year to come. Every night since I looked at that thing I’ve had ‘em. That’s why I hate it—sure I do—and don’t want it around. Put it back where it came from and let it freeze for another twenty million years. I had some swell nightmares—that it wasn’t made like we are—which is obvious—but of a different kind of flesh that it can really control. That it can change its shape, and look like a man—and wait to kill and eat—

“That’s not a logical argument. I know it isn’t. The thing isn’t Earth-logic anyway.

“Maybe it has an alien body chemistry, and maybe its bugs do have a different body chemistry. A germ might not stand that, but, Blair and Copper, how about a virus? That’s just an enzyme molecule, you’ve said. That wouldn’t need anything but a protein molecule of any body to work on.

“And how are you so sure that, of the million varieties of microscopic life it may have,
none
of them are dangerous? How about diseases like hydrophobia—rabies—that attack any warm-blooded creature, whatever its body chemistry may be? And parrot fever? Have you a body like a parrot, Blair? And plain rot—gangrene—necrosis if you want?
That
isn’t choosy about body chemistry!”

Blair looked up from his puttering long enough to meet Norris’s angry gray eyes for an instant. “So far the only thing you have said this thing gave off that was catching was dreams. I’ll go so far as to admit that.” An impish, slightly malignant grin crossed the little man’s seamed face. “I had some, too. So. It’s dream-infectious. No doubt an exceedingly dangerous malady.

“So far as your other things go, you have a badly mistaken idea about viruses. In the first place, nobody has shown that the enzyme-molecule theory, and that alone, explains them. And in the second place, when you catch tobacco mosaic or wheat rust, let me know. A wheat plant is a lot nearer your body chemistry than this other-world creature is.

“And your rabies is limited, strictly limited. You can’t get it from, nor give it to, a wheat plant or a fish—which is a collateral descendant of a common ancestor of yours. Which this, Norris, is not.” Blair nodded pleasantly toward the tarpaulined bulk on the table.

“Well, thaw the damned thing in a tub of Formalin if you must. I’ve suggested that—”

“And I’ve said there would be no sense in it. You can’t compromise. Why did you and Commander Garry come down here to study magnetism? Why weren’t you content to stay at home? There’s magnetic force enough in New York. I could no more study the life this thing once had from a Formalin-pickled sample than you could get the information you wanted back in New York. And—if this one is so treated,
never in all time to come can there be a duplicate!
The race it came from must have passed away in the twenty million years it lay frozen, so that even if it came from Mars then, we’d never find its like. And—the ship is gone.

“There’s only one way to do this—and that’s the best possible way. It must be thawed slowly, carefully, and not in Formalin.”

Commander Garry stood forward again, and Norris stepped back muttering angrily. “I think Blair is right, gentlemen. What do you say?”

Connant grunted. “It sounds right to us, I think—only perhaps he ought to stand watch over it while it’s thawing.” He grinned ruefully, brushing a stray lock of ripe-cherry hair back from his forehead. “Swell idea, in fact—if he sits up with his jolly little corpse.”

Garry smiled slightly. A general chuckle of agreement rippled over the group. “I should think any ghost it may have had would have starved to death if it hung around here that long, Connant,” Garry suggested. “And you look capable of taking care of it. ‘Ironman’ Connant ought to be able to take out any opposing players still.”

Connant shook himself uneasily. “I’m not worrying about ghosts. Let’s see that thing. I—”

Eagerly Blair was stripping back the ropes. A single throw of the tarpaulin revealed the thing. The ice had melted somewhat in the heat of the room, and it was clear and blue as thick, good glass. It shone wet and sleek under the harsh light of the unshielded globe above.

The room stiffened abruptly. It was face up there on the plain, greasy planks of the table. The broken haft of the bronze ice-ax was still buried in the queer skull. Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow—

Van Wall, six feet and 200 pounds of ice-nerved pilot, gave a queer, strangled gasp, and butted, stumbled his way out to the corridor. Half the company broke for the doors. The others stumbled away from the table.

McReady stood at one end of the table watching them, his great body planted solid on his powerful legs. Norris from the opposite end glowered at the thing with smoldering hate. Outside the door, Garry was talking with half a dozen of the men at once.

Blair had a tack hammer. The ice that cased the thing
schluffed
crisply under its steel claw as it peeled from the thing it had cased for twenty thousand thousand years—

III

“I know you don’t like the thing, Connant, but it just has to be thawed out right. You say leave it as it is till we get back to civilization. All right, I’ll admit your argument that we could do a better and more complete job there is sound. But—how are we going to get this across the Line? We have to take this through one temperate zone, the equatorial zone, and halfway through the other temperate zone before we get it to New York. You don’t want to sit with it one night, but you suggest, then, that I hang its corpse in the freezer with the beef?” Blair looked up from his cautious chipping, his bald freckled skull nodding triumphantly.

Kinner, the stocky, scar-faced cook, saved Connant the trouble of answering. “Hey, you listen, mister. You put that thing in the box with the meat, and by all the gods there ever were, I’ll put you in to keep it company. You birds have brought everything movable in this camp in onto my mess tables here already, and I had to stand for that. But you go putting things like that in my meat box, or even my meat cache here, and you cook your own damn grub.”

“But, Kinner, this is the only table in Big Magnet that’s big enough to work on,” Blair objected. “Everybody’s explained that.”

“Yeah, and everybody’s brought everything in here. Clark brings his dogs every time there’s a fight and sews them up on that table. Ralsen brings in his sledges. Hell, the only thing you haven’t had on that table is the Boeing. And you’d ‘a’ had that in if you coulda figured a way to get it through the tunnels.”

Commander Garry chuckled and grinned at Van Wall, the huge Chief Pilot. Van Wall’s great blond beard twitched suspiciously as he nodded gravely to Kinner. “You’re right, Kinner. The aviation department is the only one that treats you right.”

“It does get crowded, Kinner,” Garry acknowledged. “But I’m afraid we all find it that way at times. Not much privacy in an antarctic camp.”

“Privacy? What the hell’s that? You know, the thing that really made me weep was when I saw Barclay marchin’ through here chantin’ “The last lumber in the camp! The last lumber in the camp!’ and carryin’ it out to build that house on his tractor. Damn it, I missed that moon cut in the door he carried out more’n I missed the sun when it set. That wasn’t just the last lumber Barclay was walkin’ off with. He was carryin’ off the last bit of privacy in this blasted place.”

BOOK: Who Goes There
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