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´╗┐Title: Accidental Flight
Author: Wallace, F. L. (Floyd L.), 1915-2004
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Accidental Flight" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction April 1952.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


                            [Illustration]


                          Accidental Flight


                           By F. L. WALLACE


                     Illustrated by Ed Alexander


     _Outcasts of a society of physically perfect people, they
     couldn't stay and they couldn't go home again--yet there had
     to be some escape for them. Oddly enough, there was!_

       *       *       *       *       *



Cameron frowned intently at the top of the desk. It was difficult to
concentrate under the circumstances. "Your request was turned over to
the Medicouncil," he said. "After studying it, they reported back to
the Solar Committee."

Docchi edged forward, his face literally lighting up.

Dr. Cameron kept his eyes averted; the man was damnably disconcerting.
"You know what the answer is. A flat no, for the present."

Docchi leaned back. "We should have expected that," he said wearily.

"It's not entirely hopeless. Decisions like this can always be
changed."

"Sure," said Docchi. "We've got centuries." His face was
flushed--_blazing_ would be a better description.

Absently, Cameron lowered the lights in the room as much as he could.
It was still uncomfortably bright. Docchi was a nuisance.

"But why?" asked Docchi. "You know that we're capable. Why did they
refuse?"

Cameron had tried to avoid that question. Now it had to be answered
with blunt brutality. "Did you think you would be chosen? Or Nona, or
Jordan, or Anti?"

Docchi winced. "Maybe not. But we've told you that we're willing to
abide by what the experts say. Surely from a thousand of us they can
select one qualified crew."

"Perhaps so," said Cameron. He switched on the lights and resumed
staring at the top of the desk. "Most of you are biocompensators.
Ninety per cent, I believe. I concede that we ought to be able to get
together a competent crew." He sighed. "But you're wasting your time
discussing this with me. I'm not responsible for the decision. I can't
do anything about it."

Docchi stood up. His face was colorless and bright.

Dr. Cameron looked at him directly for the first time. "I suggest you
calm down. Be patient and wait; you may get your chance."

"You wait," said Docchi. "We don't intend to."

The door opened for him and closed behind him.

Cameron concentrated on the desk. Actually he was trying to look
through it. He wrote down the card sequence he expected to find. He
opened a drawer and gazed at the contents, then grimaced in
disappointment. No matter how many times he tried, he never got better
than strictly average results. Maybe there was something to telepathy,
but he hadn't found it yet.

He dismissed it from his mind. It was a private game, a method of
avoiding involvement while Docchi was present. But Docchi was gone
now, and he had better come up with some answers. The right ones.

He switched on the telecom. "Get me Medicouncilor Thorton," he told
the robot operator. "Direct, if you can; indirect if you have to. I'll
wait."

With an approximate mean diameter of thirty miles, the asteroid was
listed on the charts as Handicap Haven. The regular inhabitants were
willing to admit the handicap part of the name, but they didn't call
it haven. There were other terms, none of them suggesting sanctuary.

It was a hospital, of course, but even more like a convalescent home,
_the permanent kind_. A healthy and vigorous humanity had built it for
those few who were less fortunate. A splendid gesture, but, like many
such gestures, the reality fell somewhat short of the original
intentions.

The robot operator interrupted his thoughts. "Medicouncilor Thorton
will speak to you."

The face of an older man filled the screen. "On my way to the
satellites of Jupiter. I'll be in direct range for the next half
hour." At such distance, transmission and reception were practically
instantaneous. "You wanted to speak to me about the Solar Committee
reply?"

"I do. I informed Docchi a few minutes ago."

"How did he react?"

"He didn't like it. As a matter of fact, he was mad all the way
through."

"That speaks well for his mental resiliency."

"They all seem to have enough spirit, though, and nothing to use it
on," said Dr. Cameron. "I confess I didn't look at him often, in spite
of the fact that he was quite presentable. Handsome, even, in a
startling way."

Thorton nodded. "Presentable. That means he had arms."

"He did. Is that important?"

"I think it is. He expected a favorable reply and wanted to look his
best. As nearly normal as possible."

"Trouble?"

"I don't see how," said the medicouncilor uncertainly. "In any event,
not immediately. It will take them some time to get over the shock of
refusal. They can't do anything, really. Individually they're
helpless. Collectively--there aren't parts for a dozen sound bodies on
the asteroid."

"I've looked over the records," said Dr. Cameron. "Not one accidental
has ever _liked_ being on Handicap Haven, and that covers quite a few
years. But there has never been so much open discontent as there is
now."

"Someone is organizing them. Find out who and keep a close watch."

"I know who. Docchi, Nona, Anti, and Jordan. But it doesn't do any
good merely to watch them. I want your permission to break up that
combination. Humanely, of course."

"How do you propose to do it?"

"Docchi, for instance. With prosthetic arms he appears physically
normal, except for that uncanny luminescence. That is repulsive to the
average person. Medically there's nothing we can do about it, but
psychologically we might be able to make it into an asset. You're
aware that Gland Opera is the most popular program in the Solar
System. Telepaths, teleports, pyrotics and so forth are the heroes.
All fake, of course: makeup and trick camera shots. But Docchi can be
made into a real live star. The death-ray man, say. When his face
shines, men fall dead or paralyzed. He'd have a chance to return to
normal society under conditions that would be mentally acceptable to
him."

"Acceptable to him, perhaps, but not to society," reflected the
medicouncilor. "An ingenious idea, one which does credit to your
humanitarian outlook. Only it won't work. You have Docchi's medical
record, but you probably don't know his complete history. He was an
electrochemical engineer, specializing in cold lighting. He seemed on
his way to a brilliant career when a particularly messy accident
occurred. The details aren't important. He was badly mangled and
tossed into a tank of cold lighting fluid by automatic machinery. It
was some time before he was discovered.

"There was a spark of life left and we managed to save him. We had to
amputate his arms and ribs practically to his spinal column. The
problem of regeneration wasn't as easy as it usually is. We were able
to build up a new rib case; that's as much as we could do. Under such
conditions, prosthetic arms are merely ornaments. They can be fastened
to him and they look all right, but he can't use them. He has no back
or shoulder muscles to anchor them to.

"And add to that the adaptation his body made while he was in the
tank. The basic cold lighting fluid, as you know, is semi-organic. It
permeated every tissue in his body. By the time we got him, it was
actually a necessary part of his metabolism. A corollary, I suppose,
of the fundamental biocompensation theory."

The medicouncilor paused and shook his head. "I'm afraid your idea is
out, Dr. Cameron. I don't doubt that he would be successful on the
program you mention. But there is more to life on the outside than
success. Can you picture the dead silence when he walks into a room of
normal people?"

"I see," said Cameron, though he didn't, at least not eye to eye. The
medicouncilor was convinced and there was nothing Cameron could do to
alter that conviction. "The other one I had in mind was Nona," he
added.

"I thought so." Thorton glanced at the solar chronometer. "I haven't
much time, but I'd better explain. You're new to the post and I don't
think you've learned yet to evaluate the patients and their problems
properly. In a sense, Nona is more impossible than Docchi. He was once
a normal person. She never was. Her appearance is satisfactory;
perhaps she's quite pretty, though you must remember that you're
seeing her under circumstances that may make her seem more attractive
than she really is.

"She can't talk or hear. She never will. She doesn't have a larynx,
and it wouldn't help if we gave her one. She simply doesn't have the
nervous system necessary for speech or hearing. Her brain is
definitely not structurally normal. As far as we're concerned, that
abnormality is not in the nature of a mutation. It's more like an
anomaly. Once cleft palates were frequent--prenatal nutritional
deficiencies or traumas. Occasionally we still run into cases like
that, but our surgical techniques are always adequate. Not with Nona,
however.

"She can't be taught to read or write; we've tried it. We dug out the
old Helen Keller techniques and brought them up to date with no
results. Apparently her mind doesn't work in a human fashion. We
question whether very much of it works at all."

"That might be a starting point," said Cameron. "If her brain--"

"Gland Opera stuff," interrupted Thorton. "Or Rhine Opera, if you'll
permit me to coin a term. We've thought of it, but it isn't true.
We've tested her for every telepathic quality that the Rhine people
list. Again no results. She has no special mental capacities. Just to
make sure of that, we've given her periodic checkups. One last year,
in fact."

Cameron frowned in frustration. "Then it's your opinion that she's not
able to survive in a normal society?"

"That's it," answered the medicouncilor bluntly. "You'll have to face
the truth--you can't get rid of any of them."

"With or without their cooperation, I'll manage," said Cameron.

"I'm sure you will." The medicouncilor's manner didn't ooze
confidence. "Of course, if you need help we can send reinforcements."

The implication was clear enough. "I'll keep them out of trouble,"
Cameron promised.

The picture and the voice were fading. "It's up to you. If it turns
out to be too difficult, get in touch with the Medicouncil...."

The robot operator broke in: "The ship is beyond direct telecom range.
If you wish to continue the conversation, it will have to be relayed
through the nearest main station. At present, that is Mars."

Aside from the time element, which was considerable, it wasn't likely
that he would get any better answers than he could supply for himself.
Cameron shook his head. "We are through, thanks."

He got heavily to his feet. That wasn't a psychological reaction at
all. He really was heavier. He made a mental note. He would have to
investigate.

In a way they were pathetic--the patchwork humans, the half or quarter
men and women, the fractional organisms masquerading as people--an
illusion which died hard for them. Medicine and surgery were partly to
blame. Techniques were too good, or not good enough, depending on the
viewpoint.

Too good in that the most horribly injured person, if he were still
alive, could be kept alive! Not good enough because a percentage of
the injured couldn't be returned to society completely sound and
whole. There weren't many like that; but there were some, and all of
them were on the asteroid.

They didn't like it. At least they didn't like being _confined_ to
Handicap Haven. It wasn't that they wanted to go back to the society
of the normals, for they realized how conspicuous they'd be among the
multitudes of beautiful, healthy people on the planets.

What the accidentals did want was ridiculous. They desired, they
hoped, they petitioned to be the first to make the long, hard journey
to Alpha and Proxima Centauri in rockets. Trails of glory for those
that went; a vicarious share in it for those who couldn't.

Nonsense. The broken people, those without a face they could call
their own, those who wore their hearts not on their sleeves, but in a
blood-pumping chamber, those either without limbs or organs--or too
many. The categories seemed endless.

The accidentals were qualified, true. In fact, of all the billions of
solar citizens, _they alone could make the journey and return_. But
there were other factors that ruled them out. The first point was
never safe to discuss with them, especially if the second had to be
explained. It would take a sadistic nature that Cameron didn't
possess.

       *       *       *       *       *

Docchi sat beside the pool. It was pleasant enough, a pastoral scene
transplanted from Earth. A small tree stretched shade overhead. Waves
lapped and made gurgling sounds against the sides. No plant life of
any kind grew and no fish swam in the liquid. It looked like water,
but it wasn't. It was acid. In it floated something that monstrously
resembled a woman.

[Illustration]

"They turned us down, Anti," Docchi said bitterly.

"Didn't you expect it?" the creature in the pool asked.

"I guess I didn't."

"You don't know the Medicouncil very well."

"Evidently I don't." He stared sullenly at the faintly blue fluid.
"Why did they turn us down?"

"Don't you know?"

"All right, I know," he said. "They're pretty irrational."

"Of course, irrational. Let them be that way, as long as we don't
follow their example."

"I wish I knew what to do," he said. "Cameron suggested we wait."

"Biocompensation," murmured Anti, stirring restlessly. "They've always
said that. Up to now it's always worked."

"What else can we do?" asked Docchi. Angrily he kicked at an anemic
tuft of grass. "Draw up another request?"

"Memorandum number ten? Let's not be naive about it. Things get lost
so easily in the Medicouncil's filing system."

"Or distorted," grunted Docchi.

"Maybe we should give the Medicouncil a rest. They're tired of hearing
us anyway."

"I see what you mean," said Docchi, rising.

"Better talk to Jordan about it."

"I intend to. I'll need arms."

"Good. I'll see you when you leave for far Centauri."

"Sooner than that, Anti. Much sooner."

Stars were beginning to wink. Twilight brought out shadows and tracery
of the structure that supported the transparent dome overhead. Soon
controlled slow rotation would bring darkness to this side of the
asteroid.

       *       *       *       *       *

Cameron leaned back and looked speculatively at the gravital engineer,
Vogel. The man could give him considerable assistance, if he would.
There was no reason why he shouldn't; but any man who had voluntarily
remained on Handicap Haven as long as Vogel had was a doubtful
quantity.

"Usually we maintain about half Earth-normal gravity," Cameron said.
"Isn't that correct?"

Engineer Vogel nodded.

"It isn't important why those limits were set," Cameron continued.
"Perhaps it's easier on the weakened bodies of the accidentals. There
may be economic factors."

"No reason for those limits except the gravital units themselves,"
Vogel said. "Theoretically it should be easy to get any gravity you
want. Practically, though, we get between a quarter and almost full
Earth gravity. Now take the fluctuations. The gravital computer is set
at fifty per cent. Sometimes we get fifty per cent and sometimes
seventy-five. Whatever it is, it just is and we have to be satisfied."

The big engineer shrugged. "I hear the units were designed especially
for this asteroid," he went on. "Some fancy medical reason. Easier on
the accidentals to have less gravity change, you say. Me, I dunno. I'd
guess the designers couldn't help it and the reason was dug up later."

Cameron concealed his irritation. He wanted information, not a
heart-to-heart confession. "All practical sciences try to justify
whatever they can't escape but would like to. Medicine, I'm sure, is
no exception." He paused thoughtfully. "Now, there are three separate
gravital units on the asteroid. One runs for forty-five minutes while
the other two are idle. Then it cuts off and another takes over. This
is supposed to be synchronized. I don't have to tell you that it
isn't. You felt your weight increase suddenly at the same time I did.
What is wrong?"

"Nothing wrong," said the engineer. "That's what you get with
gravital."

"You mean they're supposed to run that way? Overlapping so that for
five minutes we have Earth or Earth-and-a-half gravity and then none?"

"It's not _supposed_ to be that way," said Vogel. "But nobody ever
built a setup like this that worked any better." He added defensively:
"Of course, if you want, you can check with the company that makes
these units."

"I'm not trying to challenge your knowledge, and I'm not anxious to
make myself look silly. I have a sound reason for asking these
questions. There is a possibility of sabotage."

The engineer's grin was wider than the remark seemed to require.

"All right," said Cameron tiredly. "Suppose you tell me why sabotage
is so unlikely."

"Well," explained the gravital engineer, "it would have to be someone
living here, and he wouldn't like it if he suddenly got double or
triple gravity or maybe none at all. But there's another reason. Now
take a gravital unit. Any gravital unit. Most people think of it as
just that--a unit. It isn't really that at all. It has three parts.

"One part is a power source that can be anything as long as it's big
enough. Our power source is a nuclear pile, buried deep in the
asteroid. You'd have to take Handicap Haven apart to get to it. Part
two is the gravital coil, which actually produces the gravity and is
simple and just about indestructible. Part three is the gravital
control. It calculates the relationship between the amount of power
flowing through the gravital coil and the strength of the created
gravity field in any one microsecond. It uses the computed
relationship to alter the power flowing through in the next
microsecond to get the same gravity. No change of power, no gravity. I
guess you could call the control unit a computer, as good a one as is
made for any purpose."

The engineer rubbed his chin. "Fatigue," he continued. "The gravital
control is an intricate computer that's subject to fatigue. That's why
it has to rest an hour and a half to do forty-five minutes of work.
Naturally they don't want anyone tinkering with it. It's
non-repairable. Crack the case open and it won't work. But first you
have to open it. Mind you, that can be done. But I wouldn't want to
try it without a high-powered lab setup."

If it didn't seem completely foolproof, neither did it seem a likely
source of trouble. "Then we can forget about the gravital units," said
Cameron, arising. "But what about hand weapons? Are there any
available?"

"You mean toasters?"

"Anything that's lethal."

"Nothing. No knives even. Maybe a stray bar or so of metal." Vogel
scratched his head. "There is something dangerous, though. Dangerous
if you know how to take hold of it."

Instantly Cameron was alert. "What's that?"

"Why, the asteroid itself. You can't physically touch any part of the
gravital unit. But if you could somehow sneak an impulse into the
computer and change the direction of the field...." Vogel was very
grave. "You could pick up Handicap Haven and throw it anywhere you
wanted. At the Earth, say. Thirty miles in diameter is a big hunk of
rock."

It was this kind of information Cameron was looking for, though the
engineer seemed to regard the occasion as merely a social call. "Is
there any possibility of that occurring?" he asked quietly.

The engineer grinned. "Never happened, but they're ready for things
like that with any gravital system. They got monitor stations all
over--the moons of Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus.

"Any time the gravital computer gets dizzy, the monitor overrides it.
If that fails, they send a jammer impulse and freeze it up tight. It
won't work until they let loose."

Cameron sighed. He was getting very little help or information from
Vogel. "All right," he said. "You've told me what I wanted to know."

He watched the engineer depart for the gravity-generating chamber far
below the surface of the asteroid.

       *       *       *       *       *

The post on Handicap Haven wasn't pleasant; it wasn't an experience a
normal human would desire. It did have advantages--advancement came in
sizes directly proportional to the disagreeableness of the place.

Ten months to go on a year's assignment. If Cameron could survive that
period with nothing to mar his administration, he was in line for
better positions. A suicide or any other kind of unpleasantness that
would focus the attention of the outside world on the forgotten
asteroid was definitely unwelcome.

He flipped on the telecom. "Rocket dome. Get me the pilot."

When the robot finally answered, it wasn't encouraging. "I'm sorry.
There is no answer."

"Then trace him," he snapped. "If he's not in the rocket dome, he's in
the main dome. I want you to get him at once."

A few seconds of silence followed. "There is no record of the pilot
leaving the rocket dome."

His heart skipped; with an effort he spoke carefully. "Scan the whole
area. Understand? You've got to find him."

"Scanning is not possible. The system is out of operation in that
area."

"All right," he said, starting to shake. "Send out repair robots."
They were efficient in the sense they always did the work they were
set to do, but not in terms of speed.

"The robots were dispatched as soon as scanning failed to work. Are
there any other instructions?"

He thought about that. He needed help, plenty of it. Vogel? He'd be
ready and willing, but that would leave the gravity-generating setup
unprotected. Better do without him.

Who else? The sour old nurse who'd signed up because she wanted quick
credits toward retirement? Or the sweet young thing who had bravely
volunteered because someone ought to help those poor unfortunate men?
Not the women, of course. She had a bad habit of fainting when she saw
blood. Probably that was why she couldn't get a position in a regular
planetary hospital.

That was all, except the robots, who weren't much help in a case like
this. That and the rocket pilot. For some reason he wasn't available.

The damned place was under-manned. Always had been. Nobody wanted to
come except the mildly psychotic, the inefficient and lazy, or,
conceivably, an ambitious young doctor like himself. Mentally, Cameron
berated the last category. If anything serious happened here, such a
doctor might end his career bandaging scratches at a children's
playground.

"Instructions," he said. "Yes. Leave word in gravity-generating for
Vogel. Tell him to throw everything he's got around the units. Watch
them."

"Is that all?"

"Not quite. Send six general purpose robots. I'll pick them up at the
entrance to the rocket dome."

"Repair robots are already in that area. Will they do as well?"

"They will not. I want geepees for another reason." They wouldn't be
much help, true, but the best he could manage.

       *       *       *       *       *

Docchi waited near the rocket dome. Not hiding, merely inconspicuous
among the carefully nurtured shrubbery that was supposed to give the
illusion of Earth. If the plants failed in that respect, at least they
contributed to the oxygen supply of the asteroid.

"Good girl," said Docchi. "That Nona is wonderful."

Jordan could feel him relax. "A regular mechanical marvel," he agreed.
"But we can gas about that later. Let's get going."

Docchi glanced around and then walked boldly into the passageway that
connected the main dome with the much smaller, adjacent rocket dome.
Normally, it was never dark in the inhabited parts of the asteroid; a
modulated twilight was considered more conducive to the slumber of the
handicapped. But it wasn't twilight as they neared the rocket dome--it
was a full-scale rehearsal for the darkness of interplanetary space.

Docchi stopped before the emergency airlock which loomed solidly in
front of them. "I hope Nona was able to cut this out of the circuit,"
he said anxiously.

"She understood, didn't she?" asked Jordan. He reached out and the
great slab moved easily aside in its grooves. "The trouble with you is
that you lack confidence."

Docchi, listening with a frown, didn't answer.

"Okay, I hear it, too," whispered Jordan. "We'd better get well inside
before he reaches us."

Docchi walked rapidly into the darkness of the rocket dome. He allowed
his face to become faintly luminescent, the one part of his altered
metabolism that he had learned to control, when he wasn't under
emotional strain.

He was nervous now, but his control had to be right. Enough light so
that he'd be noticed, not so much that details of his appearance would
be plain.

The footsteps came nearer, accompanied by a steady volume of
profanity. Docchi flashed his face once and then lowered the intensity
almost immediately.

The footsteps stopped. "Docchi?"

"No. Just a lonely little light bulb out for an evening stroll."

The rocket pilot's laughter wasn't altogether friendly. "I know it's
you. I meant, what are you doing here?"

"I saw the lights in the rocket dome go out. The entrance was open, so
I came in. Maybe I can help."

"They're off, all right. Everything. Even the standby system." The
rocket pilot moved closer. The deadly little toaster was in his hand.
"You can't help. You'd better get out. It's against regulations for
you to be in here."

Docchi ignored the weapon. "What happened? Did a meteor strike?"

The pilot grunted. "Not likely." He peered intently at the barely
visible silhouette. "Well, I see you're getting smart. You should do
that all the time. You look better that way, even if they're not
usable arms. You look...." His voice faded away.

"Sure, almost human," Docchi finished for him. "Not like a pair of
legs and a spinal column with a lightning bug stuck on top."

"I didn't say that. So you're sensitive about it, eh? Maybe that's not
your fault. Anyway, you'd better get going."

"But I don't want to go," said Docchi deliberately. "I'm not afraid of
the dark. Are you?"

"Cut the psycho talk, Docchi. All your circuits are working and you
know it. Now get out of here before I take your fake hand and drag you
out."

"Now you've hurt my feelings," declared Docchi reproachfully, nimbly
stepping away.

"You asked for it," growled the pilot, lunging after him. What he took
hold of wasn't an imitation hand, made of plastic. It was flesh and
blood. That was why the pilot screamed, once, before he was lifted off
his feet and slammed to the floor.

Docchi bent double. The dark figure on his back came over his head
like a sword from a scabbard.

"Jor--"

"Yeah," said Jordan.

He wrapped one arm around the pilot's throat and clamped it tight.
With the other he felt for the toaster the pilot still held.
Effortlessly he tore it away and used the butt with just enough force
to knock the pilot unconscious without smashing the skull. Docchi
stood by until it was over. All he could offer was an ineffectual
kick, not balanced by arms.

It wasn't needed.

"Let there be light," ordered Jordan, laughing, and there was, a
feeble, flickering illumination from Docchi.

Jordan was balancing himself on his hands. A strong head, massive,
powerful arms and shoulders. His body ended at his chest. A round
metal capsule contained his digestive system.

"Dead?" Docchi looked down at the pilot.

Jordan rocked forward and listened for the heartbeat. "Nah," he said.
"I remembered in time that we can't afford to kill anyone."

"Good," said Docchi, and stifled an exclamation as something coiled
around his leg. His reactions were fast; he broke loose almost
instantly.

"Repair robot," said Jordan, looking around. "The place is lousy with
them."

Docchi blinked on and off involuntarily and the robot came toward him.

"Friendly creature," observed Jordan. "He's offering to fix your
lighting system for you."

Docchi ignored the squat contrivance and stared at the pilot. "Now
what?" he asked.

"Agreed," said Jordan. "He needs attention. _Not_ the kind I gave
him." He balanced the toaster in his hand and burned a small hole in
the little wheeled monster. Tentacles emerged from the side of the
machine and felt puzzledly at the damaged area. The tentacles were
withdrawn and presently reappeared with a small torch and began
welding.

Jordan pulled the unconscious pilot toward him. He leaned against the
machine, raised the inert form over his head and laid it gently on the
top flat surface. Another tentacle reached out to investigate the body
of the pilot. Jordan welded the joints solid with the toaster. Three
times he repeated the process until the pilot was fastened to the
robot.

"The thing will stay here, repairing itself, until it's completely
sound again," remarked Jordan. "However, that can be fixed." He
adjusted the toaster beam to an imperceptible thickness. Deftly he
sliced through the control case and removed a circular section. He
reached inside and ripped out circuits. "No further self-repair," he
said cheerfully. "Now I'm going to need your help. From a time
stand-point, I think it's a good idea to run the robot around the
main dome a few times before it delivers the pilot to the hospital. No
point in giving ourselves away before we're ready."

Docchi bent over the robot, and with his help the proper sequence was
implanted. The machine scurried erratically away.

Docchi watched it go. "Time for us to be on our way." He bent double
for Jordan. The arms folded around his neck, but Jordan made no effort
to climb up onto his back. For a panic moment Docchi knew how the
pilot felt when strength, where there shouldn't have been strength,
reached out from the darkness and gripped his throat.

He shook the thought from his mind. "Get on my back," he insisted.

[Illustration]

"You're tired," said Jordan. "Half gravity or not, you can't carry me
any farther." His fingers worked swiftly and the carrying harness fell
to the floor. "Stay down," growled Jordan. "Listen."

Docchi listened. "Geepees!"

"Yeah," said Jordan. "Now get to the rocket."

"What can I do when I get there? You'll have to help me."

"You'll figure something out when the time comes. Hurry up!"

"Not without you," said Docchi stubbornly, without moving.

[Illustration]

A huge paw clamped around the back of his skull. "Listen to me,"
whispered Jordan fiercely. "Together we were a better man than the
pilot--your legs and my arms. It's up to us to prove that separately
we are a match for Cameron and his geepees."

"We're not trying to _prove_ anything," said Docchi.

A brilliant light sliced through the darkness and swept around the
rocket dome.

"Maybe we are," said Jordan. Impatiently, he hitched himself along the
ground. "I think I am."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going up. With no legs, that's where I belong."

He grasped the structural steel member in his great hands, and in the
light gravity, ascended rapidly.

"Careful," warned Docchi.

"This is no time to be careful." His voice floated down from high in
the lacy structure. It wasn't completely dark; the lights were getting
nearer. Docchi decided it was possible for Jordan to see what he was
doing.

They hadn't expected to be discovered so soon. But the issue had not
yet been settled against them. Docchi settled into a long stride,
avoiding the low-slung repair robots that seemed to be everywhere. If
Jordan refused to give up, Docchi had to try.

He stayed well ahead of the oncoming general purpose robots.

       *       *       *       *       *

He reached the rocket and barely had time to look around. It was
enough, however. The ship's passenger and freight locks were closed.
Nona had either not understood all their instructions, or she hadn't
been able to carry them out. The first, probably. She had put the
light and scanning circuits out of commission with no tools except her
hands. That and her uncanny knowledge of the inner workings of
machines. It was too much to expect that she should also have the ship
ready and waiting for them.

It was up to him to get in. If he had the toaster they'd taken from
the pilot, he might have been able to soften the proper area of the
passenger lock. But he didn't. Not having arms, he couldn't have used
it. For that reason Jordan had kept the weapon.

The alternative was to search the surrounding mechanical jungle for an
external control of the rocket. There had to be one, at least for the
airlocks. Then it was a matter of luck whether he could work it.

The approaching lights warned him that he no longer had that
alternative. If Cameron hadn't tried to search the rocket dome as he
came along, the geepees would be solidly ringed around the ship now.
That was Cameron's mistake, however, and he might make more.

In all probability Jordan was still at large. Perhaps nearby. Would
Cameron know that? He might not.

Docchi descended into the shallow landing pit. Until both of them were
caught, there was always a chance. He had to hide, but the landing pit
seemed remarkably ill-suited for that purpose.

He leaned against the stern tube cluster and tried to shake his brain
into activity. The metal pressed hard into the thin flesh that covered
his back. In the smooth glazed surface of the landing pit, the only
answer was the tubes.

He straightened up and looked into them. A small boy might climb
inside and crawl out of sight. Or a grown man who had no shoulders or
arms to get wedged in the narrow cylinder.

Out in space, the inner ends of the tubes were closed with a
combustion cap wherein the fuel was ignited. But in the dome, where
the ship was not used for months at a time....

Yes, there was that possibility.

He tried a lower tube. He lay on the floor and thrust his head inside.
He wriggled and shoved with his feet until he had forced himself
entirely in. It was dark and terrifying, but no time for
claustrophobia.

He stopped momentarily and listened. A geepee descended noisily into
the landing pit. The absence of any other sound indicated to Docchi
that it was radio-controlled.

He drove himself on, though it was slow progress. The walls were
smooth and it was difficult to get much purchase. The going became
even tougher--the tube was getting smaller. Not much, but enough to
matter.

Again he stopped. Outside, there was the characteristic sputter, like
frying, that the toaster beam made when it struck metal. A great
clatter followed.

"Get him!" shouted Cameron. "He's up there!"

Jordan had arrived and had picked off a geepee. And it wasn't going to
be easy for Cameron to capture him. The diversion would help.

"Don't use heat," ordered Cameron. "Get your lights on him. Blind him.
Drive him in a corner and then go up and get him."

Docchi had been wrong; the geepees were controlled by voice, not
radio. That would make it easier for him once he got inside the ship.
If he did.

It looked as though he would. The tube wasn't getting narrower. More
important, the air was not noticeably stale. The combustion cap had
been retracted, which was a lucky break. His feet slipped. It didn't
matter; somehow he inched along. Blood was pounding in his veins from
the constriction, but his head emerged in the rocket.

He stared at the retracted combustion cap a few feet away. If he had
arms, he could grasp it and pull himself free. But if he had arms, he
would never have gotten this far. He wriggled until his body was
nearly out and only his legs were in the tube. He kicked hard, fell to
the floor.

He lay there while his head cleared, then rolled to his feet and
staggered forward to the control compartment. The rocket was his, but
he didn't want it for himself alone.

He stared thoughtfully at the instrument panel. It had been a long
time since he had operated a ship. When he understood the controls, he
bent down and thrust his chin against the gravital dial. Laboriously
he turned it to the proper setting. Then he sat down and kicked on a
switch. The ship rocked and rose a few inches.

Chances were that Cameron wouldn't notice that in the confusion
outside. If he did, he had thirty seconds in which to stop Docchi.
That wouldn't be enough for Cameron.

"Rocket landing," said Docchi when the allotted time passed.
"Emergency instructions. Emergency instructions. Stand by." Strictly
speaking, that wasn't necessary, for the frequency he was using
assured him of complete control.

"All energized geepees lend assistance. This order supersedes previous
orders. Additional equipment necessary." After listing the equipment,
he sat back and chuckled.

With his knee he turned on the external lights, got up and walked to
the passenger lock, brushing against the switch. The airlock opened.
He stood boldly at the threshold and looked out. The rocket dome was
floodlighted by the ship.

"All right, Jordan, you can come down now," he called.

Jordan appeared overhead, hanging from a beam. He swung along it until
he reached a column, down which he descended. He propelled himself
over the floor and up the ramp in his awkward fashion. Balancing on
his hands, he gazed up at Docchi.

"Well, monster, how did you do it?"

"Monster yourself," said Docchi. "Do what?"

"I saw you crawl in the rocket tubes," said Jordan. "But what did you
do after you got inside?"

"Cameron's a medic," said Docchi, "not mechanically inclined. He
forgot that an emergency rocket landing cancels any verbal orders. So
I took the ship up a few inches. Geepees aren't very bright; that
satisfied them that I was coming in for a landing. What Cameron should
have done was splash some heat against a gravital unit, and then,
having created an artificial emergency condition in the main dome, he
could have directed the geepees from the gravity control center. After
that, he would have had top priority, not me."

"But they rushed off, carrying Cameron with them." Jordan looked
puzzled.

"Easy. I told the geepees that there was danger of crashing and that
they must remove any human beings nearby, whether they were willing or
not. You weren't nearby and that let you out. They took Cameron
because he was."

"It's ours!" breathed Jordan. "But what about Anti and Nona?"

"Anti's taken care of. As far as the geepees are concerned, she comes
under the heading of emergency landing material. They'll bring her.
Nona is supposed to be waiting with Anti." Docchi frowned. "There's
nothing we can do if she isn't. Meanwhile you'd better get ready to
take the ship off."

Jordan swung himself inside.

Docchi remained at the passenger lock, waiting. He heard the geepees
first and saw them seconds later. They came into sight half pushing,
half carrying a huge rectangular tank. With unexpected robotic
ingenuity, they had mounted it on four of their smaller brethren, the
squat repair robots, which served to support the tremendous weight.

The tank was filled with blue liquid. Twisted pipes dangled from the
ends; it had been torn and lifted from its foundation. Broken plants
still clung to the narrow ledge on top and moist soil adhered to the
sides. Five geepees pushed it rapidly toward the ship, mechanically
oblivious to the disheveled man who frustratedly shouted and struck at
them.

"Jordan, open the freight lock."

In response the ship rose a few more inches and hung quivering. A
section of the ship hinged outward and downward to form a ramp. The
ship was ready to take on cargo.

Docchi stood at his post. That damn fool Cameron should have stayed in
the main dome where the geepees had released him. His presence added
an unwelcome complication. Still, it should be easy enough to get rid
of him when the time came.

It was Nona who really worried him. She wasn't anywhere to be seen. He
took an uncertain step down the ramp, came back, shaking his head. It
was impossible to look for her now, though he wanted to.

The tank neared the ship. A few feet of it projected onto the ramp.
The geepees stopped; their efforts lost momentum. They looked
bewildered.

The tank rolled backward. The geepees shook, buzzed and looked around,
primarily at Docchi. He didn't wait any longer. He leaped into the
ship.

"Close the passenger lock!" he shouted.

Jordan looked up questioningly from the controls.

"Vogel, the engineer," explained Docchi. "He must have seen the
geepees on scanning when they entered the main dome. He's trying to do
what Cameron should have done, but didn't have enough sense to do."

The passenger lock swung ponderously shut behind him.

"Now what?" Jordan asked, worried.

"First, let's see what you can get on the telecom," said Docchi.

The angle was impossible, so close to the ship, but they did manage to
get a corner of the tank on the screen. Apparently it was resting
where Docchi had last seen it, though it was difficult to be sure
because the curve of the ship loomed so large.

"Maybe we'd better get out of here," suggested Jordan nervously.

"Without the tank? Not a chance. Vogel hasn't got complete control of
them yet." That seemed to be true. The geepees were nearly motionless,
paralyzed.

"What shall I do?" asked Jordan.

"Give me full power on the radio," said Docchi. "Burn it out if you
have to. I think the engineer is at the wrong angle to broadcast much
power to them. Besides, the intervening structure is absorbing most of
his signal."

He waited until Jordan had complied. "The tank must be placed in the
ship," he added.

Geepees were not designed to sift contradictory commands that were
nearly at the same level of urgency. Their reasoning power was feeble,
but the mechanism was complicated enough. In that respect they
resembled humans. Borderline decisions were difficult.

"More power," whispered Docchi.

Sweating, Jordan obeyed.

Marionettes. This string led toward a certain action. Another,
intrinsically more important, but suddenly far less powerful, pulled
for something else. Circuits burned within electronic brains.
Micro-relays fluttered under the stress.

Choice....

Stiffly the geepees moved and grasped the tank. The quality of
decision, in this case, was strained. Inch by inch the tank rolled up
the ramp.

"When it's completely on, raise the ramp," Docchi whispered to Jordan
in an even lower voice.

One geepee wavered and fell. Motionless, it lay there. The remaining
four were barely equal to the task.

"Now," said Docchi.

The freight ramp began to rise. The tank picked up speed as it rolled
into the ship.

"Geepees, save yourselves!" shouted Docchi.

They leaped from the ramp.

Jordan breathed deeply. "I don't think they can hurt us now."

Docchi nodded. "Get me ship-to-asteroid communication, if there's any
radio left."

"There is." Jordan made the adjustment.

"Vogel, we're going out. Give us the proper sequence and save the dome
some damage."

There was no reply.

"He's trying to bluff," said Jordan. "He knows the airlocks to the
main dome will automatically close if we do break through."

"Sure," said Docchi. "Everyone in the main dome is safe, _if_
everyone is in there. Vogel, we'll give you time to think about
that."

Jordan gave him the time until it hurt, waiting. Meanwhile he flipped
on the telecom and searched the rocket dome. Nothing was moving; no
geepee was in sight. Docchi watched the screen with interest. What he
thought didn't show on his face.

Still there was no reply from Vogel.

"All right," Docchi said in a low, hard voice. "Jordan, take it out.
Hit the shell with the bow of the rocket."

The ship hardly quivered as it ripped through the transparent covering
of the rocket dome. The worst sound was unheard: the hiss of air
escaping through the great hole in the envelope.

Jordan sat at the controls, gripping the levers. "I couldn't tell," he
said slowly. "It happened too fast for me to be sure. Maybe Vogel did
have the inner shell out of the way. In that event, it's all right
because it would close immediately. The outer shell is supposed to be
self-sealing, but I doubt if it could handle that much damage."

He twisted the lever and the ship leaped forward.

"Cameron I don't mind. He had enough time to get out if he wanted to.
But I keep thinking that Nona might be in there."

Docchi avoided his eyes. There was no light at all in his face. He
walked away.

Jordan rocked back and forth. The hemisphere that held what remained
of his body was well suited for that. He set the auto-controls and
reduced the gravity to one-quarter Earth normal. He bent his great
arms and shoved himself into the air, deftly catching hold of a guide
rail. He would have to go with Docchi. But not at the moment. He felt
bad.

That is, he did until he saw a light blinking at a cabin door. He had
to investigate that first.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jordan caught up before Docchi reached the cargo hold. In the lesser
gravity of the ship Jordan was truly at home.

Docchi turned and waited for him. Jordan still carried the weapon he
had taken from the pilot. It was clipped to the sacklike garment he
wore, dangling from his midsection, which, for him was just below his
shoulders. Down the corridor he flew, swinging from the guide rails
lightly, though gravity on the ship was as erratic as on the asteroid.

Docchi braced himself. Locomotion was not so easy for him.

Jordan halted beside him and dangled from one hand. "We have another
passenger."

Docchi stiffened. "Who?"

"I could describe her," said Jordan. "But why, when a name will do at
least as well?"

"Nona!" said Docchi. He slumped in sudden relief against the wall.
"How did she get in the ship?"

"A good question," said Jordan. "Remind me to ask her that sometime
when she's able to answer. But since I don't know, I'll have to use my
imagination. My guess is that, after she jammed the lights and
scanners in the rocket dome, she walked to the ship and tapped the
passenger lock three times in the right places, or something just as
improbable. The lock opened for her whether it was supposed to or
not."

"As good a guess as any," agreed Docchi.

"We may as well make our assumptions complete. Once inside, she felt
tired. She found a comfortable cabin and fell asleep in it. She
remained asleep throughout our skirmish with the geepees."

"She deserves a rest," said Docchi.

"She does. But if she had waited a few minutes to take it, she'd have
saved you the trouble of crawling through the tubes."

"She did her part and more," Docchi argued. "We depend too much on
her. Next we'll expect her to escort us personally to the stars." He
straightened up. "Let's go. Anti is waiting for us."

The cargo hold was sizable. It had to be to contain the tank, battered
and twisted though it was. Equipment had been jarred from storage
racks and lay in tangled heaps on the floor.

"Anti!" called Docchi.

"Here."

"Are you hurt?"

"Never felt a thing," came the cheerful reply.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jordan scaled the side of the tank. He reached the top and peered
over. "She seems all right," he called down. "Part of the acid's gone.
Otherwise no damage."

Damage enough, however. Acid was a matter of life for Anti. It had
been splashed from the tank and, where it had spilled, metal was
corroding rapidly. The wall against which the tank had crashed was
bent and partly eaten through. That was no reason for alarm; the
scavenging system of the ship would handle acid. The real question was
what to do for Anti.

"I've stewed in this soup for years," said Anti. "Get me out of here."

"How?"

"If you weren't as stupid as doctors pretend to be, you'd know how. No
gravity, of course. I've got muscles, more than you think. I can walk
as long as my bones don't break from the weight."

No gravity would be rough on Docchi; having no arms, he would be
virtually helpless. The prospect of floating free without being able
to grasp something was terrifying.

"As soon as we can manage it," he said, forcing down his fear. "First
we've got to drain and store the acid."

Jordan had anticipated that. He'd swung off the tank and was busy
expelling the water from an auxiliary compartment into space. As soon
as the compartment was empty, he led a hose from it to the tank.

The pumps sucked and the acid level fell slowly.

Docchi felt the ship lurch familiarly. "Hurry," he called out to
Jordan.

The gravital unit was acting up. Presumably it was getting ready to
cut out. If it did--well, a free-floating globe of acid would be as
destructive to the ship and those in it as a high velocity meteor
cluster.

Jordan jammed the lever as far as it would go and held it there. "All
out," said Jordan presently, and let the hose roll back into the wall.
Done in plenty of time. The gravital unit remained in operation for a
full minute.

As soon as she was weightless, Anti rose out of the tank.

In all the time Docchi had known her, he had seen no more than a face
framed in blue acid. Periodic surgery, where it was necessary, had
trimmed the flesh from her face. For the rest, she lived submerged in
a corrosive liquid that destroyed the wild tissue as fast as it grew.
Or nearly as fast.

Docchi averted his eyes.

"Well, junkman, look at a real monster," snapped Anti.

       *       *       *       *       *

Humans were not meant to grow that large. But it was not obscene to
Docchi, merely unbelievable. Jupiter is not repulsive because it is
the bulging giant of planets; it is overwhelming, and so was Anti.

"How will you live out of the acid?" he stammered.

"How really unobservant some men are," said Anti loftily. "I
anticipated our little journey and prepared for it. If you look
closely, you will notice I have on a special surgery robe. It's the
only thing in the Solar System that will fit me. It's fabricated from
a spongelike substance and holds enough acid to last me about
thirty-six hours."

She grasped a rail and propelled herself toward the corridor. Normally
that was a spacious passageway. For her it was a close fit.

Satellites, one glowing and the other swinging in an eccentric orbit,
followed after her.

       *       *       *       *       *

Nona was standing before the instrument panel when they came back.
There was an impressive array of dials, lights and levers in front of
her, but she wasn't interested in these. A single small dial, separate
from the rest, held her complete attention. She seemed disturbed by
what she saw or didn't see. Disturbed or excited, it was difficult to
say which.

Anti stopped. "Look at her. If I didn't know she's a freak like the
rest of us, the only one, in fact, who was born that way, it would be
easy to hate her--she's so disgustingly normal."

Normal? True and yet not true. Surgical techniques that could take a
body apart and put it back together again with a skill once reserved
for the repair of machines had made beauty commonplace. No more
sagging muscles, wrinkles; even the aged were attractive and
youthful-seeming until the day they died. No more ill-formed limbs,
misshapen bodies. Everyone was handsome or beautiful. No exceptions.

None to speak of, at least.

The accidentals didn't belong, of course. In another day most of them
would have been candidates for a waxworks or the formaldehyde of a
specimen bottle.

Nona fitted neither category; she wasn't a repair job. Looking at her
closely--and why not?--she was an original work as far from the normal
in one direction as Anti, for example, was in the other.

"Why is she staring at the little dial?" asked Anti as the others
slipped past her and came into the compartment. "Is there something
wrong with it?" She shrugged. "I would be interested in the big dials.
The ones with colored lights."

"That's Nona." Docchi smiled. "I'm sure she's never been in the
control room of a rocket before, and yet she went straight to the most
curious thing in it. She's looking at the gravital indicator. Directly
behind it is the gravital unit."

"How do you know? Does it say so?"

"It doesn't. You have to be trained to recognize it, or else be Nona."

Anti dismissed that intellectual feat. "What are you waiting for? You
know she can't hear us. Go stand in front of her."

"How do I get there?" Docchi had risen a few inches from the floor,
now that Jordan had released him from his grip.

"A good engineer would have enough sense to put on magneslippers. Nona
did." Anti grasped his jacket. How she was able to move was uncertain.
The tissues that surrounded the woman were too vast to permit the
perception of individual motions. Nevertheless, she proceeded to the
center of the compartment, and with her came Docchi.

Nona turned before they reached her.

"My poor boy," sighed Anti. "You do a very bad job of concealing your
emotions, if that's what you're trying to do. Anyway, stop glowing
like a rainbow and say something."

"Hello," said Docchi.

Nona smiled at him, though it was Anti that she came to.

"No, not too close, child. Don't touch the surgery robe unless you
want your pretty face to peel off like a plastiwrapper."

Nona stopped; she said nothing.

Anti shook her head hopelessly. "I wish you would learn to read lips
or at least recognize written words. It's so difficult to communicate
with you."

"She knows facial expressions and actions, I think," said Docchi.
"She's good at emotions. Words are a foreign concept to her."

"What other concepts does anyone think with?" asked Anti dubiously.

"Maybe mathematical relationships," answered Docchi. "Though she
doesn't. They've tested her for that." He frowned. "I don't know what
concepts she does think with. I wish I did."

"Save some of that worry and apply it to our present situation," said
Anti. "The object of your concern doesn't seem to be interested in
it."

That was true. Nona had wandered back and was staring at the gravital
indicator again. What she saw to hold her attention was a puzzle.

In some ways she seemed irresponsible and childlike. That was an
elusive thought, though: whose child? Not really, of course. Her
parents were obscure technicians and mechanics, descendants of a long
line of mechanics and technicians. The question he had asked himself
was this: where and how does she belong? He couldn't answer.

With an effort Docchi came back to reality. "We appealed to the
Medicouncil," he said. "We asked for a ship to go to the nearest star.
It would have to be a rocket, naturally. Even allowing for a better
design than any we now have, the journey would take a long time, forty
or fifty years going and the same length of time back. That's entirely
too long for a normal, but it wouldn't matter to a biocompensator."

"Why a rocket?" interrupted Jordan. "Why not some form of gravity
drive?"

"An attractive idea," admitted Docchi. "Theoretically, there's no
limit to gravity drive except light speed, and even that's not
certain. If it would work, the time element could be cut to a
fraction. But the last twenty years have proved that gravity drives
won't work at all outside the Solar System. They function very poorly
even when the ship is as far out as Jupiter's orbit."

"I thought the gravity drive on a ship was nearly the same as the
gravital unit on the asteroid," said Jordan. "Why won't they
function?"

"I don't know why," answered Docchi impatiently. "If I did, I wouldn't
be marooned on Handicap Haven. Arms or no arms, biocompensator or not,
I'd be the most important scientist on Earth."

"With a multitude of pretty women competing for your affections,"
added Anti.

"I think he'd settle for one. A certain one," suggested Jordan.

"Poor, unimaginative boy," said Anti. "In my youth...."

"We've heard about your youth," said Jordan.

"Youth and love are long since past, for both of you. Talk about them
privately if you want, but not now." Docchi glowered at them.
"Anyway," he resumed, "gravity drive is out. One time they had hopes
for it, but no longer. It should be able to drive this ship. Actually,
its sole function is to provide an artificial gravity _inside_ the
ship, for passenger comfort. So rocket ship it is. That's what we
asked for. The Medicouncil refused. Therefore we're going to appeal to
a higher authority."

"Fine," said Anti. "How?"

"We've discussed it," answered Docchi. "Ultimately the Medicouncil is
responsible to the Solar Government. And in turn--"

"All right, I'm in favor of it," said Anti. "I just wanted to know."

"Mars is closer," continued Docchi. "But Earth is the seat of
government. As soon as we get there...." He stopped suddenly and
listened.

Anti listened with him and waited until she could stand it no longer.
"What's the matter?" she asked. "I don't hear anything."

Jordan leaned forward in his seat and looked at the instrument panel.
"That's the trouble, Anti. You're not supposed to hear anything. But
you should be able to _feel_ the vibration from the rocket exhaust, as
long as it's on."

"I don't feel anything, either."

"Yeah," said Jordan. He looked at Docchi. "There's plenty of fuel."

       *       *       *       *       *

Momentum of the ship didn't cease when the rockets stopped, of course.
They were still moving, but not very fast and not in the direction
they wanted to go. Gingerly Docchi tried out the magneslippers; he
was clumsy, but no longer helpless in the gravityless ship. He stared
futilely at the instruments as if he could wring more secrets than the
panel had electronic access to.

"It's mechanical trouble of some sort," he said uneasily. "There's one
way of finding out."

Before he could move, Anti was in the corridor that led away from the
control compartment.

"Stay here, Anti," he said. "I'll see what's wrong."

She reached nearly from the floor to the ceiling. She missed by scant
inches the sides of the passageway. Locomotion was easy enough for
her; turning around wasn't. Anti didn't turn.

"Look, honey," her voice floated back. "You brought me along for the
ride. That's fine, but I'm not satisfied with it. I want to earn my
fare. You stay and run the ship because you know how and I don't. I'll
find out what's wrong."

"But you won't know what to do, Anti." There was no answer. "All
right," he said in defeat. "Both of us ought to go. Jordan, you stay
at the controls."

Anti led the way because Docchi couldn't get around her. Determinedly
he shuffled along. There was a trick to magneslippers that he had
nearly forgotten. Slowly it was coming back to him--shuffle instead of
striding.

It was a dingy, poorly lighted passageway in an older ship. Handicap
Haven definitely didn't rate the best equipment that was produced. On
one side was the hull of the ship; on the other, a few small cabins.
None were occupied. Anti stopped. The passageway ended in a cross
corridor that led to the other side of the ship.

"We'd better check the stern rocket tubes," he said, still unable to
see around her. "Open it up and we'll take a look."

"I can't," said Anti. "There are handles, but the thing won't open.
There's a red light, too. Does that mean anything?"

His heart sank. "It does. Don't try to open it. With your strength,
you might be unlucky enough to do it."

"That's a man for you," said Anti sharply. "First he wants me to open
it, and then he tells me not to."

"There's a vacuum in there. The combustion cap has been retracted.
That's the only thing that will actuate the warning signal. You'd die
in a few seconds if you somehow managed to open the lock to the rocket
compartment."

"What are we waiting for? Let's get busy and fix it."

"Sure, fix it. You see, Anti, that didn't happen by itself. Someone,
or something, was responsible."

"Who?"

"Did you see anyone when we were loading your tank in the ship?"

"Nothing. I heard Cameron shouting, a lot of noise. All I could see
was what was directly overhead. What does that have to do with it?"

"I think it has to do with a geepee. I thought they all dropped
outside. Maybe there was one that didn't."

"Why a geepee?" she asked blankly.

"In the first place, no man is strong enough to move the combustion
cap. But if he should somehow manage to exert super-human effort, as
soon as the cap cleared the tubes, rocket action would cease. The air
in the compartment would exhaust into space and anyone in there would
die."

"So we have a dead geepee in there."

"A geepee doesn't die. Not even become inactive; it doesn't need air."
Docchi tried to think the thing through. "Not only that, a geepee
might be able to escape from the compartment. The lock would close as
soon as the pressure dropped. But a geepee...."

Anti settled down grimly. "Then there's a geepee on the loose, intent
on sabotage?"

"I'm afraid so," he admitted worriedly.

"What are we standing here for? We'll go back to controls and pick up
the robot on radio. What it damaged, it can repair." She was partly
turned around now and saw Docchi's face. "Don't tell me," she said. "I
suppose I should have thought of it. The signal doesn't work inside
the ship."

Docchi nodded. "It doesn't. Robots are never used aboard, so the
control is set in the bow antenna and the ship, of course, is
insulated."

"Well," said Anti happily, "we've got a robot hunt ahead of us."

"We do. And our bare hands to hunt it with."

"Oh, come now! It's not as bad as all that. Look, the geepee was back
here when the rockets stopped. Could it get by the control compartment
without our seeing it?"

"It couldn't. There are two corridors leading through the compartment,
one on each side of the ship."

"That's what I thought. We came down one corridor and no geepee was in
it. It has to be in the other. If it goes into a cabin, a light will
shine on the outside. It can't really hide from us."

"Sure, we'll find out where it is. But what are we going to do with it
when we find it?"

"I was thinking," said Anti. "Can you get around me when I'm standing
like this?"

"I can't."

"Neither can a geepee. All I need is a toaster, or something that
looks like one, and I can drive the robot into the control compartment
for Jordan to pick off." Determinedly, she began to move toward the
opposite corridor. "Hurry back to Jordan and tell him what we're
doing. There ought to be another toaster on the ship. Probably there's
one somewhere in the control compartment. Bring it back to me."

Docchi bit his lip and stared at the back of the huge woman. "All
right," he answered. "But stay where you are. Don't try anything until
I get back."

Anti laughed. "I value my big, fat life," she said. There were other
things she valued, but she didn't mention them.

Docchi went as fast as the magneslippers would allow, which wasn't
very fast. The strategy was simple, but it didn't follow that it was
sound--a toaster for Jordan and one for Anti, if another could be
found.

Anti would block the corridor. A geepee might go through her, but it
could never squeeze past her. The robot would have to run for it. If
it came toward Anti, she might be able to burn it down. But she would
be firing directly into the control room. If she missed even
partially--

The instruments were delicate.

It wasn't better if Jordan got the chance to bring down the robot.
Anti would be in the line of fire. No, that wasn't good, either.
They'd have to think of something else.

"Jordan," called Docchi as he entered the control compartment. Jordan
wasn't there. Nona was, still gazing serenely at the gravity
indicator.

Lights were streaming from the corridor on the opposite side of the
compartment. Docchi hurried over. Jordan was just inside the entrance,
the toaster clutched grimly in his hand. He was hitching his truncated
body slowly toward the stern.

Coming to meet him was Anti--unarmed, enormously fat Anti. She wasn't
walking; somehow it seemed more like swimming, a bulbous, flabby sea
animal moving through the air. She waved her fins against the wall and
propelled herself forward.

"Melt him down!" she cried.

It was difficult to make out the vaguely human form of the geepee. The
powerful, shining body blended into the structure of the ship
itself--unintentional camouflage, though the robot wasn't aware of
that. It was crouched at the threshold of a cabin, hesitating between
the approaching dangers.

Jordan raised the weapon and as instantly lowered it. "Get out of the
way," he told Anti.

There was no place for her to go. She was too big to enter a cabin,
too massive to let the geepee squeeze by her even if she wanted it to.

"Never mind that. Get him," she answered.

A geepee was not a genius even by robot standards. It didn't need to
be. Heat is deadly; a human body is a fragile thing. This it knew. It
ran toward Anti. Unlike man, it didn't need magneslippers. It had
magnetic metal feet which could move fast, and did.

Docchi couldn't close his eyes, though he wanted to. He had to watch.
The geepee torpedoed into Anti. And it was the robot that was thrown
back. Relative mass favored the monstrous woman.

The electronic brain obeyed its original instructions, whatever those
were. It got to its feet and rushed toward Anti. Metal arms shot out
with dazzling speed and crashed against the flesh of the fat woman.
Docchi could hear the thud. No ordinary person could take that kind of
punishment and live.

Anti wasn't ordinary; she was strange, even for an accidental, living
far inside a deep armor of flesh. It was possible that she never felt
the crushing force of those blows. Amazingly, she grasped the robot
and drew it to her. And the geepee lost the advantage of leverage. The
bright arms didn't flash so fast nor with such lethal power.

"Gravity!" cried Anti. "All you've got!"

She leaned against the struggling machine.

Gravity. That was something he could do. Docchi turned, took two steps
before the surge of gravity hit him. It came in waves, the sequence of
which he was never able to disentangle. The first wave staggered him;
at the second his knees buckled and he sank to the floor. After that
his eardrums hurt. He thought he could feel the ship quiver. He knew
dazedly that an artificial gravity field of this magnitude was
impossible, but that knowledge didn't help him move.

It vanished as suddenly as it had come. Painfully his lungs expanded.
Each muscle ached. He rolled to his feet and lurched past Jordan.

He didn't find the mass of broken flesh he expected. Anti was already
standing.

"Oof!" she grunted and gazed with satisfaction at the twisted
grotesque shape at her feet. The electronic brain had been smashed,
the body flattened.

[Illustration]

"Are you hurt?" asked Docchi gently, awed.

She waggled the extremities of her body. "Nope, I can't feel anything
broken," she said solemnly. She moved back to get a better view of the
robot. "I'd call that throwing my weight around. At the right time, of
course. The secret's timing. And I must say you picked up your cue
with the gravity well." Her laughter rolled through the ship.

"It wasn't I," said Docchi.

"Jordan? No, he's just getting up. Then who?"

"Nona," said Docchi. "It had to be her. She saw what had to be done
and did it. But how she got that amount of gravity--"

"Ask her," said Anti with fond irony.

Docchi grimaced and limped back into the control room, followed by
Anti and Jordan. Nona was at the gravity panel, her face pleasant and
childlike.

"Gravity can be turned on or off," said Docchi puzzledly, searching
her face for some sign. "And regulated, within certain narrow limits.
But somehow you doubled or tripled the normal amount. How?"

Nona smiled questioningly.

"Gravity engineers would like to know that too," said Jordan.

"Everybody would like to know," Anti interrupted irritably. "Except
me. I'm too pragmatic, I suppose, but I want to know when we start the
rockets and be on our way."

"It isn't that easy," sighed Jordan. "A retracted combustion cap in
flight generally means at least one burned-out tube." He made his way
to the instrument panel and looked at it glumly. "Three."

"A factor." Docchi nodded. "But I was thinking about the robot."

Anti was impatient. "An interesting subject, no doubt. What about it?"

"Where did it get instructions? Not radio; the hull of the ship cuts
off all radiation. The last we knew, it was in our control."

"All right, how?"

"Voice," said Docchi. "Cameron's voice, to be exact."

"But he was in the rocket dome," Jordan objected.

"Think back to when we were loading the tank. We had to look through
the telecom and the angle of vision was bad. We couldn't see much of
the cargo lock. Anti couldn't see anything that wasn't directly
overhead. Both Cameron and the geepee managed to get inside and we
didn't know it."

Jordan hefted his weapon. "Looks like we've got another hunt on our
hands. This time a nice normal doctor."

"Keep it handy," said Docchi, glancing at the toaster. "But be careful
how you use it. One homicide and we can forget what we came for. I
think he'll be ready to surrender. The ship's temporarily disabled;
he'll consider that damage enough."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jordan found the doctor in the forward section of the ship. Cameron
knew better than to argue with a toaster. In a matter of minutes he
was in the control room.

"Now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?" he asked.

Docchi swiveled away from the instrument panel. "I don't expect active
cooperation, of course, but I like to think you'll give your word not
to hinder us hereafter."

Cameron glared. "I promise nothing of the kind."

"We can chain him to Anti," suggested Jordan. "That will keep him out
of trouble."

"Like leading a poodle on a leash? Nope," said Anti indignantly. "A
girl has to have some privacy."

"Don't wince, Cameron," objected Docchi. "She really was a girl once,
an attractive one."

"We can put him in a spacesuit and lock his hands behind his back,"
said Jordan. "Something like an ancient straitjacket."

Cameron laughed.

"No, that's inhuman," said Docchi.

Jordan juggled the toaster. "I can weld with this. Let's put him in a
cabin and weld the door closed. We can cut a slot to shove food in. A
very narrow slot."

"Excellent. I think you have the solution. That is, unless Dr. Cameron
will reconsider his decision."

Cameron shrugged. "They'll pick you up in a day or less anyway. I
suppose I'm not compromising myself by agreeing to your terms."

"Good."

"A doctor's word is as good as his oath," observed Anti. "Hippocratic
or hypocritic."

"Now, Anti, don't be cynical. Doctors have an economic sense as well
as the next person," said Docchi gravely. He turned to Cameron. "You
see, after Anti grew too massive for her skeletal structure, doctors
reasoned she'd be most comfortable in the absence of gravity. That was
in the early days, before successful ship gravital units were
developed. They put her on an interplanetary ship and kept
transferring her before each landing.

"But that grew troublesome and--expensive. They devised a new
treatment; the asteroid and the tank of acid. Not being aquatic by
nature, Anti resented the change. She still does."

"I knew nothing about that," Cameron pointed out defensively.

"It was before your time." Docchi frowned at the doctor. "Tell me, why
did you laugh when Jordan mentioned a spacesuit?"

Cameron grinned. "That was my project while you were busy with the
robot."

"To do what? Jordan--"

But Jordan was already on his way. He was gone for some time.

"Well?" asked Docchi on his return. It really wasn't necessary;
Jordan's gloomy face told the story.

"Cut to ribbons."

"All of them?"

"Every one. Beyond repair."

"What's the excitement about?" rumbled Anti. "We don't need spacesuits
unless something happens to the ship and we have to go outside."

"Exactly, Anti. How do you suppose we go about replacing the defective
tubes? From the outside, of course. By destroying the spacesuits,
Cameron made sure we can't."

Anti opened her mouth with surprise and closed it in anger. She
glowered at the doctor.

"We're still in the asteroid zone," said Cameron. "In itself, that's
not dangerous. Without power to avoid stray rocks, it is. I advise you
to contact the Medicouncil. They'll send a ship to pick us up and tow
us in."

"No, thanks. I don't like Handicap Haven as well as you do," Anti said
brusquely. She turned to Docchi. "Maybe I'm stupid for asking, but
exactly what is it that's deadly about being out in space without a
spacesuit?"

"Cold. Lack of air pressure. Lack of oxygen."

"Is that all? Nothing else?"

His laugh was too loud. "Isn't that enough?"

"I wanted to be sure," she said.

She beckoned to Nona, who was standing near. Together they went
forward, where the spacesuits were kept.

Cameron scowled puzzledly and started to follow. Jordan waved the
toaster around.

"All right," said the doctor, stopping. He rubbed his chin. "What is
she thinking about?"

"I wouldn't know," said Docchi. "She's not scientifically trained, if
that's what you mean. But she has a good mind, as good as her body
once was."

"And how good was that?"

"We don't talk about it," said Jordan shortly.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a long time before the women came back--if the weird creature
that floated into the control compartment with Nona _was_ Anti.

Cameron stared at her and saw shudderingly that it was. "You need a
session with the psycho-computer," he said. "When we get back, that's
the first thing we do. Can't you understand...."

"Be quiet," growled Jordan. "Now, Anti, explain what you've rigged
up."

"Any kind of pressure is good enough as far as the outside of the body
is concerned," answered Anti, flipping back the helmet. "Mechanical
pressure will do as well as air pressure. I had Nona cut the
spacesuits into strips and wind them around me--hard. Then I found a
helmet that would fit over my head when the damaged part was cut away.
It won't hold much air pressure, even taped very tight to my skin. But
as long as it's pure oxygen--"

"It might be satisfactory," admitted Docchi. "But the temperature?"

"Do you think I'm going to worry about cold?" asked Anti. "Me? Way
down below all this flesh?"

"Listen to me," said Cameron through his teeth. "You've already
seriously threatened my career with all this childish nonsense. I
won't permit you to ruin it altogether by a deliberate suicide."

"You and your stinking career," retorted Jordan tiredly. "We're not
asking your permission to do anything." He turned away from the
doctor. "You understand the risk, Anti? It's possible that it won't
work at all."

"I've thought about it," Anti replied soberly. "On the other hand,
I've thought about the asteroid."

"All right," said Jordan. Docchi nodded. Nona bobbed her head; it was
doubtful that she knew what she was agreeing to.

"Let's have some telecom viewers outside," said Docchi. "One directly
in back, one on each side. We've got to know what's happening."

Jordan went to the control panel and flipped levers. "They're out and
working," he said, gazing at the screen. "Now, Anti, go to the freight
lock. Close your helmet and wait. I'll let the air out slowly. The
pressure change will be gradual. If anything seems wrong, let me know
over the helmet radio and I'll yank you in immediately. Once you're
outside I'll give you further instructions. Tools and equipment are in
a compartment that opens into space."

Anti waddled away.

Jordan looked down at his legless body. "I suppose we have to be
realistic about it--"

"We do," answered Docchi. "Anti is the only one of us who has a chance
of doing the job and surviving."

Jordan adjusted a dial. "It was Cameron who was responsible for it.
If Anti doesn't come back, you can be damn sure he'll join her."

"No threats, please," said Docchi. "When are you going to let her
out?"

"She's out," said Jordan. Deliberately, he had diverted their
attention while he had taken the burden of emotional strain.

Docchi glanced hastily at the telecom. Anti was hanging free in space,
wrapped and strapped in strips torn from the useless spacesuits--that,
and more flesh than any human had ever borne. The helmet sat jauntily
on her head; the oxygen cylinder was strapped to her back. She was
still intact.

"How is she?" he asked anxiously, unaware that the microphone was
open.

"Fine," came Anti's reply, faint and ready. "The air's thin, but it's
pure oxygen."

"Cold?" asked Docchi.

"It hasn't penetrated yet. No worse than the acid, at any rate. What
do I do?"

Jordan gave her directions. The others watched. It was work to find
the tools and examine the tubes for defectives, to loosen the tubes in
the sockets and pull them out and push them spinning into space. It
was still harder to replace them, though there was no gravity and Anti
was held to the hull by magneslippers.

But it seemed more than work. To Cameron, who was watching, an odd
thought occurred: In her remote past, of which he knew nothing, Anti
had done something like this before. Ridiculous, of course. Yet there
was a rhythm to her motions, this shapeless giant creature whose bones
would break with her weight if she tried to stand at even only half
Earth gravity. Rhythm, a sense of purpose, a strange pattern, an
incredible gargantuan grace.

The whale plowing the waves is graceful; it cannot be otherwise in its
natural habitat. The human race had produced, accidentally, one
unlikely person to whom interplanetary space was not an alien thing.
Anti was at last in her element.

"Now," said Jordan, keeping the tension out of his voice, "go back to
the outside tool compartment. You'll find a lever. Pull. That will set
the combustion cap in place."

"Done," said Anti, some minutes later.

"That's all. You can come in now."

"That's all? But I'm not cold. It hasn't reached any nerves yet."

"Come in," repeated Jordan, showing the anger of alarm.

She walked slowly over the hull to the cargo lock and, while she did,
Jordan reeled in the telecom viewers. The lock was no sooner closed
to the outside and the air hissing into the compartment than Jordan
was there, opening the inner lock.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

She flipped back the helmet. There was frost on her eyebrows and her
nose was a bright red. "Of course. My hands aren't a bit cold." She
stripped off the heated gloves and waggled her fingers.

"It _can't_ be!" protested Cameron. "You should be frozen stiff!"

"Why?" asked Anti, laughing. "It's a matter of insulation and I have
plenty of that."

Cameron turned to Docchi. "When I was a kid, I saw a film of a dancer.
She did a ballet, Life of the Cold Planets, I believe it was called.
For some cockeyed reason, I thought of it when Anti was out there. I
hadn't thought of it in years."

He rubbed his hand fretfully over his forehead. "It fascinated me when
I first saw it. I couldn't get it out of my mind. When I grew older, I
found out a tragic thing happened to the dancer. She was on a tour of
Venus and the ship she was in disappeared. They sent out searching
parties, of course. They found her after she had spent a week on a
fungus plain. You know what that meant. The great ballerina was a
living spore culture medium."

"Shut up," growled Jordan.

Cameron didn't seem to hear. "Naturally, she died. I can't remember
her name, but I've always remembered the ballet she did. And that's
funny, because it reminded me of Anti out there--"

A fist exploded in his face. If there had been more behind the blow
than shoulders and a fragment of a body, his jaw would have been
broken. As it was he floated through the air and crashed against the
wall.

Angrily, he got to his feet. "I gave my word I wouldn't cause any
trouble. The agreement evidently doesn't work both ways." He glanced
significantly at the weapon Jordan carried. "Maybe you'd better be
sure to have that around at all times."

"I told you to shut up," said Jordan. After that he ignored the
doctor. He didn't have a body with which to do it, but somehow Jordan
managed a bow. "A flawless performance. One of your very best,
Antoinette."

"Do you think so?" sighed Anti. The frost had melted from her eyebrows
and was trickling down her cheek. She left with Jordan.

Cameron remained behind. He felt his jaw. It was too bad about his
ambitions. He knew now that he was never going to be the spectacular
success he had once imagined. Not after these accidentals had escaped
from Handicap Haven. Still, he would always be able to practice
medicine somewhere in the Solar System. He'd done his best on the
asteroid and this ship, and he'd been a complete ass both times.

The ballerina hadn't really died, as he had been told. It would have
been better for her if she had. He succeeded in recalling her name. It
had been Antoinette.

Now it was Anti. He could have found that out by checking her case
history--_if_ Handicap Haven had one on file. Probably not, he
comforted himself. Why keep case histories of hopeless cases?

       *       *       *       *       *

"We'll stick to the regular lanes," said Docchi. "I think we'll get
closer. They have no reason to suspect that we're heading toward
Earth. Mars is more logical, or one of the moons of Jupiter, or
another asteroid."

Jordan shifted uneasily. "I'm not in favor of it. They'll pick us up
before we have a chance to say anything."

"But there's nothing to distinguish us from an ordinary Earth-to-Mars
rocket. We have a ship's registry on board. Pick out a ship that's in
our class. Hereafter, we're going to be that ship. If Traffic blips
us, and they probably won't unless we try to land, have a recording
ready. Something like this: 'ME 21 zip crackle 9 reporting. Our
communication is acting up. We can't hear you, Traffic.' Don't overdo
the static effects but repeat that with suitable variations and I
don't think they will bother us."

Shaking his head dubiously, Jordan swung away toward the repair shops.

"You look worried," said Anti.

Docchi turned around. "Yeah."

"Won't it work?"

"Sure. We'll get close to Earth. They're not looking for us around
here. They don't really know why we escaped in the rocket. That's why
they can't figure out where we're going."

His face was taut and his eyes were tired. "It's not that. The entire
Solar Police Force has been alerted for us."

"Which means?"

"Look. We planned to bypass the Medicouncil and take our case directly
to the Solar Government. If they want us as much as the radio
indicates, it's not likely they'll be very sympathetic. If the Solar
Government doesn't support us all the way, we'll never get another
chance."

"Well?" said Anti. She seemed trimmer, more vigorous. "What are we
waiting for? Let's take the last step first."

He raised his head. "The Solar Government won't like it."

"They won't, but there's nothing they can do about it."

"I think there is--simply shoot us down. When we stole the ship, we
automatically stepped into the criminal class."

"We knew that in advance."

"Is it worth it?"

"I think so," said Anti.

"In that event," he said, "I'll need time to get ready."

She scrutinized him carefully. "Maybe we can fix you up."

"With fake arms and grease-paint? No. They'll have to accept us as we
are."

"A good idea. I hadn't thought of the sympathy angle."

"Not sympathy. Reality. I don't want them to approve of us as handsome
accidentals and have them change their minds when they discover what
we're really like."

Anti looked doubtful, but she kept her objections to herself as she
waddled away.

Sitting in silence, he watched her go. She, at least, would derive
some benefit. Dr. Cameron apparently hadn't noticed that exposure to
extreme cold had done more to inhibit her unceasing growth than the
acid bath. She'd never be normal again; that was obvious. But some
day, if the cold treatment were properly investigated, she might be
able to stand gravity.

He examined the telecom. They were getting closer. No longer a bright
point of light, Earth was a perceptible disc. He could see the outline
of oceans, shapes of land; he could imagine people.

Jordan came in. "The record is rigged up, though we haven't had to use
it. But we have a friend behind us. An official friend."

"Has he blipped us?"

"Not yet. He keeps hanging on."

"Is he overtaking us?"

"He would like to."

"Don't let him."

"With this bag of bolts?"

"Shake it apart if you have to," Docchi impatiently said. "How soon
can you break into a broadcasting orbit?"

"I thought that was our last resort."

"Right. As far as Anti and I are concerned, this is it. Any argument
against?"

"None that I can think of," answered Jordan. "With a heavy cruiser
behind us, no argument at all."

       *       *       *       *       *

They were all in the control compartment. "I don't want a focus
exclusively on me," Docchi was saying. "To a world of perfect normals
I may look strange, but we have to avoid the family portrait effect."

"Samples," suggested Anti.

"In a sense, yes. A lot depends on whether they accept those
samples."

[Illustration]

For the first time Dr. Cameron began to realize what they were up to.
"Wait!" he exclaimed. "You've got to listen to me!"

"We're not going to wait and we've already done enough listening to
you," said Docchi. "Jordan, see that Cameron stays out of the telecom
transmitting angle and doesn't interrupt. We've come too far for
that."

"Sure," Jordan promised harshly. "If he makes a sound, I'll melt the
teeth out of his mouth." He held the toaster against his side, out of
line with the telecom, but aimed at Cameron's face.

Cameron began to shake with urgency, but he kept still.

"Ready?" Docchi asked.

"Flip the switch and we will be, with everything we've got. If they
don't read us, it'll be because they don't want to."

The rocket slipped out of the approach lanes. It spun down, the stern
tubes pulsing brightly, coming toward Earth in a tight trajectory.

[Illustration]

"Citizens of the Solar System!" began Docchi. "Everyone on Earth! This
is an unscheduled broadcast, an unauthorized appeal. We are using the
emergency bands because, for us, it is an emergency. Who are we?
Accidentals, of course, as you can see by looking at us. I know the
sight isn't pretty, but we consider other things more important than
appearance. Accomplishment, for example. Contributing to progress in
ways normals cannot do.

"Shut away on Handicap Haven, we're denied this right. All we can do
there is exist in frustration and boredom; kept alive whether we want
to be or not. Yet we have a gigantic contribution to make ... if we
are allowed to leave the Solar System for Alpha Centauri! You can't
travel to the stars now, although eventually you will.

"You must be puzzled, knowing how slow our present rockets are. No
normal person could make the round trip; he would die of old age. But
we accidentals can go! We would positively _not_ die of old age! The
Medicouncil knows that is true ... and still will not allow us to go!"

At the side of the control compartment, Cameron opened his mouth to
protest. Jordan, glancing at him, imperceptibly waggled the concealed
weapon. Cameron swallowed his words and subsided without a sound.

"Biocompensation," continued Docchi evenly. "You may know about it,
but in case information on it has been suppressed, let me explain: The
principle of biocompensation has long been a matter of conjecture.
This is the first age in which medical technology is advanced enough
to explore it. Every cell, every organism, tends to survive, as an
individual, as a species. Injure it and it strives for survival
according to the seriousness of the injury. We accidentals have been
maimed and mutilated almost past belief.

"Our organisms had the assistance of medical science. _Real_ medical
science. Blood was supplied as long as we needed it, machines did all
our breathing, kidneys were replaced, hearts furnished, glandular
products supplied in the exact quantities necessary, nervous and
muscular systems were regenerated. In the extremity of our organic
struggle, because we had the proper treatment, our bodies were wiped
virtually free of death."

Sweat ran down his face. He longed for hands to wipe it away.

"Most accidentals are nearly immortal. Not quite--we'll die four or
five hundred years from now. Meanwhile, there is no reason why we
can't leave the Solar System. Rockets are slow; you would die before
you got back from Alpha Centauri. We won't. Time doesn't matter to us.

"Perhaps better, faster rockets will be devised after we leave. You
may get to there long before we do. We won't mind. We will simply have
made our contribution to progress as best we could, and that will
satisfy us."

With an effort Docchi smiled. The instant he did, he felt it was a
mistake, one that he couldn't rectify. Even to himself it felt more
like a snarl.

"You know where we're kept That's a politer word than imprisoned. We
don't call it Handicap Haven; our name for it is the _junkpile_. And
to ourselves we're junkmen. Does this give you a clue to how we feel?

"I don't know what you'll have to do to force the Medicouncil to grant
their permission. We appeal to you as our last resort. We have tried
all other ways and failed. Our future as human beings is at stake.
Whether we get what we want and need is something for you to settle
with your conscience."

He nudged the switch and sat down.

His face was gray.

"I don't like to bother you," said Jordan, "but what shall we do about
them?"

Docchi glanced at the telecom. "They" were uncomfortably close and
considerably more numerous than the last time he had looked.

"Take evasive action," he said wearily. "Swing close to Earth and use
the planet's gravity to give us a good push. We've got to keep out of
their hands until people have time to react."

"I think you ought to know--" began Cameron. There was an odd tone to
his voice.

"Save it for later," said Docchi. "I'm going to sleep." His body
sagged. "Jordan, wake me up if anything important happens. And
remember that you don't have to listen to this fellow unless you want
to."

Jordan nodded and touched the controls. Nona, leaning against the
gravital panel, paid no attention to the scene. She seemed to be
listening to something nobody else could hear. That was nothing new,
but it broke Docchi's heart whenever he saw it. His breath drew in
almost with a sob as he left the control room.

       *       *       *       *       *

The race went on. Backdrop: planets, stars, darkness. The little
flecks of light that edged nearer didn't seem cheerful to Jordan. His
lips were fixed in a straight, hard line. He could hear Docchi come in
behind him.

"Nice speech," said Cameron.

"Yeah." Docchi glanced at the telecom. The view didn't inspire further
comment.

"That's the trouble, it was just a speech. It didn't do you any good.
My advice is to give up before you get hurt."

"It would be."

Cameron stood at the threshold. "I may as well tell you," he said
reluctantly. "I tried to before the broadcast, as soon as I found out
what you were going to do. But you wouldn't listen."

He came into the control compartment. Nona was huddled in a seat,
motionless, expressionless. Anti was absent.

"You know why the Medicouncil refused to let you go?"

"Sure," said Docchi.

"The general metabolism of accidentals is further from normal than
that of creatures we dredge from the bottom of the sea. Add to that an
enormously elongated life span and you ought to see the Medicouncil's
objection."

"Get to the point!"

"Look at it this way," Cameron continued almost desperately. "The
Centauri group contains quite a few planets. From what we know of
cosmology, intelligent life probably exists there to a greater or
lesser extent. You will be our representatives to them. What _they_
look like isn't important; it's their concern. But our ambassadors
have to meet certain minimum standards. They at least--damn it, don't
you see that they at least have to _look_ like human beings?"

"I know you feel that way," said Jordan, rigid with contempt.

"I'm not talking for myself," Cameron said. "I'm a doctor. The
medicouncilors are doctors. We graft on or regenerate legs and arms
and eyes. We work with blood and bones and intestines. We know what a
thin borderline separates normal people from--from you.

"Don't you understand? They're perfect, perhaps too much so. They
can't tolerate even small blemishes. They rush to us with things like
hangnails, pimples, simple dandruff. Health--or rather the appearance
of it--has become a fetish. They may think they're sympathetic to you,
but what they actually feel is something else."

"What are you driving at?" whispered Docchi.

"Just this: if it were up to the Medicouncil, you would be on your way
to the Centauri group. But it isn't. The decision always had to be
referred back to the Solar System as a whole. And the Medicouncil
can't go counter to the mass of public opinion."

Docchi turned away in loathing.

"Don't believe me," said Cameron. "You're not too far from Earth. Pick
up the reaction to your broadcast."

Worriedly, Jordan looked at Docchi.

"We may as well find out," said Docchi. "It's settled now, one way or
the other."

They searched band after band. The reaction was always the same.
Obscure private citizen or prominent one, man or woman, they all told
how sorry they were for the accidentals, but--

"Turn it off," said Docchi at last.

"Now what?" Jordan asked numbly.

"You have no choice," said the doctor.

"No choice," repeated Docchi dully. "No choice but to give up. We
misjudged who our allies were."

"We knew you had," said Cameron. "It seemed better to let you go on
thinking that way while you were on the asteroid. It gave you
something to hope for. It made you feel you weren't alone. The trouble
was that you got farther than we thought you would ever be able to."

"So we did," Docchi said. His lethargy seemed to lift a little. "And
there's no reason to stop now. Jordan, pick up the ships behind us.
Tell them we've got Cameron on board. A hostage. Play him up as a
hero. Basically, he's not with those who are against us."

Anti came into the control compartment. Cheerfulness faded from her
face. "What's the matter?" she asked.

"Jordan will explain to you. I've got to think."

Docchi closed his eyes. The ship lurched slightly, though the
vibration from the rockets did not change. There was no reason for
alarm; the flight of a ship was never completely steady. Docchi paid
no attention.

At last he opened his eyes. "If we were properly fueled and
provisioned," he said without much hope, "I would be in favor of the
four of us heading for Alpha or Proxima. Maybe even Sirius. It
wouldn't matter where, since we wouldn't intend to come back. But we
can't make it with our small fuel reserve. If we can shake the ships
behind us, we might be able to hide until we can steal the necessary
fuel and food."

"What'll we do with Doc?" asked Jordan.

"We'd have to raid an unguarded outpost, of course. Probably a small
mining asteroid. We can leave him there."

"Yeah," said Jordan. "A good idea, _if_ we can run away from our
personal escort of bloodhounds. Offhand, that doesn't seem very
likely. They didn't come any closer when I told them we had Doc with
us, but they didn't drop back--"

He stopped and raised his eyes to the telecom. He blinked, not
believing what he saw.

"They're gone!" His voice broke with excitement.

Almost instantly Docchi was beside him. "No," he corrected. "They're
still following, but they're very far behind." Even as he looked, the
pursuing ships visibly lost ground.

"What's our relative speed?" asked Jordon. He looked at the dials
himself, frowned, tapped them as if the needles had gone crazy.

"What did you do to the rockets?" demanded Docchi.

"Nothing! There wasn't a thing I _could_ do. We were already running
at top speed."

"We're above it. Way above it. How?"

There was nothing to explain their astonishing velocity. Cameron,
Anti, and Jordan were in the control compartment. Nona still sat
huddled up, hands pressed tight against her head. There was no
explanation at all, yet power was pouring into the gravital unit, as a
long unused, actually useless dial was indicating.

"The gravital drive is working," Docchi blankly pointed out.

"Nonsense," said Anti. "I don't feel any weight."

"You don't," answered Docchi. "You won't. The gravital unit was
originally installed to drive the ship. When that proved
unsatisfactory, it was converted. The difference is slight but
important. An undirected general field produces weight effects inside
the ship. That's for passenger comfort. A directed field, outside the
ship, will drive it. You can have one or the other, not both."

"But I didn't turn on the gravital drive," said Jordan in flat
bewilderment. "I couldn't if I wanted to. It's disconnected."

"I would agree with you, except for one thing. It's working." Docchi
stared at Nona, whose eyes were closed. "Get her attention," he said.

It was Jordan who gently touched her shoulder. She opened her eyes. On
the instrument board, the needle of a once useless dial rose and fell.

"What's the matter with the poor dear?" asked Anti. "She's shaking."

"Let her alone," said Docchi.

No one moved. No one said anything at all. Minutes passed while the
ancient ship creaked and groaned and ran away from the fastest rockets
in the Solar System.

"I think I know," said Docchi at last, still frowning. "Consider the
gravity-generating plant. Part of it is an electronic computer,
capable of making the necessary calculations and juggling the
proportion of power required to produce, continuously, directed or
undirected gravity. In other words, a brain, a complex mechanical
intelligence. From the viewpoint of that intelligence, why should it
perform _ad infinitum_ a complicated but meaningless routine? It
didn't know why, and because it didn't, very simply, it refused to do
so.

"Now consider Nona. She's deaf, can't speak, can't communicate. In a
way she's comparable to the gravital computer. Like it, she has a very
high potential intelligence. Like it, she's had difficulty grasping
the facts of her environment. Unlike it, though, she has learned
something. How much, I don't know, but it's far more than the
Medicouncil psychologists credit her with."

"Yeah," said Jordan dubiously. "But what's happening now?"

"If there were two humans involved, you would call it telepathy,"
answered Docchi hesitantly, fumbling for concepts he could only sense
without grasping. "One intelligence is electronic, the other organic.
You'll have to coin a new term, because the only one I know is
extrasensory perception, and that's obviously ridiculous. It is, isn't
it?"

Jordan smiled and flexed his arms. Under the shapeless garment his
muscles rippled. "It isn't," he said. "The power was there, but we're
the only ones who know how to use it. Or rather Nona is."

"Power?" repeated Anti, rising majestically. "You can keep it. I want
just enough to get to Centauri."

"I think you'll get it," Docchi promised. "A lot of things seem
clearer now. For example, in the past, why didn't gravital units work
well at considerable distances from the Sun? As a matter of fact, the
efficiency of each unit was inversely proportional to the square of
the distance between it and the Sun.

"The gravital computer is a deaf, blind, mass-sensitive brain. The
major fact in its existence is the Sun, the greatest mass in the Solar
System. To such a brain, leaving the Solar System would be like
stepping off the edge of a flat world, because it couldn't be aware of
stars.

"Now that it knows about the Galaxy, the drive will work anywhere.
With Nona to direct it, even Sirius isn't far away."

"Doc," said Jordan carelessly, "you'd better be figuring a way to get
off the ship. Remember, we're going faster than man ever went before."
He chuckled. "Unless, of course, you _like_ our company and don't want
to leave."

"We've got to do some figuring ourselves," interposed Docchi. "Such as
where we are heading now."

"A good idea," said Jordan. He busied himself with charts and
calculations. Gradually his flying fingers slowed. His head bent low
over his work. At last he stopped and folded his arms.

"Where?" asked Docchi.

"There." Jordan dully punched the telecom selector and a view became
fixed on the screen. In the center glimmered a tiny world, a fragment
of a long-exploded planet. Their destination was easily recognizable.

It was Handicap Haven.

"But why do we want to go there?" asked Anti. She looked in amazement
at Docchi.

"We're not going voluntarily," he answered, his voice flat and spent.
"We're going where the Medicouncil wants us to go. We forgot about the
monitor system. When Nona activated the gravital unit, that fact was
indicated at some central station. All the Medicouncil had to do was
use the monitor to take the gravital drive away from Nona."

"We thought we were running away from the ships, which we were, but
only to beat them back to the junkpile?" asked Anti.

Docchi nodded.

"Well, it's over. We did our best. There's no use crying about it."
Yet she was. She passed by Nona, patting her gently. "It's all right,
darling. You tried."

Jordan followed her from the compartment.

Cameron remained; he came over to Docchi. "Everything isn't lost," he
said, somewhat awkwardly. "You're back where you started from, but
Nona at least will benefit."

"Benefit?" said Docchi. "Someone will. It won't be Nona."

"You're wrong. Now that she is an important factor--"

"So is a special experimental machine. Very valuable. I don't think
she'll like that classification."

Silence met silence. It was Dr. Cameron who turned away.

"That ghastly glow of yours when you're angry always did upset me.
I'll come back when it's dimmer."

Docchi glared after him. Cameron was the only normal aware that it was
Nona who controlled the gravital unit. All the outside world could
realize was that it was in operation, as it had been designed to work,
but never had. If Cameron could be disposed of--

He shook his head. It wouldn't solve anything. He might fool them for
a while. They might think he was responsible. In the end, they'd find
out. Nona wasn't capable of that much deception, for she never knew
what a test was.

He went over to her. Once he had hoped.... It didn't matter what he
had hoped.

She looked up and smiled. She had a right to. No word had ever broken
the silence of her mind, but now she was communicating with something,
whatever it was that an electronic brain could say. Of course she
didn't understand that the conversation was taking place between two
captives, herself and the gravital computer.

Abruptly he turned away. He stopped at the telecom panel and
methodically kicked it apart. Delicate tubes smashed into powder. The
emergency radio he thoroughly demolished.

The ship was firmly in the grip of the gravital monitor. There was
nothing he could do about that. All that remained was to protect Nona
from their prying minds as long as he could.

She didn't hear the noise, or didn't care. She sat there, head in her
hands, calm and smiling.

       *       *       *       *       *

The outer shell of the rocket dome opened before and closed behind
them. Jordan set the controls in neutral and lifted his hands,
muttering to himself. They were gliding through the lip of the inner
shell. Home.

"Cheer up," said Cameron breezily. "You're not really prisoners, you
know."

Nona seemed content, though Jordan didn't. Docchi said nothing, the
light gone from his face. Anti wasn't with them; she was floating in
the tank of acid. The gravity field of the asteroid made that
necessary.

The ship scraped gently and they were down. Jordan touched a lever;
passenger and freight locks were open.

"Let's go," said Dr. Cameron. "I imagine there's a reception committee
for you."

There was. The little rocket dome held more ships than normally came
in a year. The precise confusion of military discipline was everywhere
in evidence. Armed guards lined either side of the landing ramp down
which they walked.

At the bottom, a large telecom unit had been set up. If size indicated
anything, someone considered this an important occasion. From the
screen, larger than life, Medicouncilor Thorton looked out
approvingly.

The procession from the ship halted in front of the telecom unit.

"A good job, Dr. Cameron," said the medicouncilor. "We were quite
surprised at the escape of the four accidentals, and your
disappearance, which coincided with it. From what we were able to
piece together, you deliberately followed them. A splendid example of
quick thinking, Doctor. You deserve recognition for it."

"Thank you," said Cameron.

"I'm sorry I can't be there to congratulate you in person, but I will
be soon." The medicouncilor paused discreetly. "At first the publicity
was bad. Very bad. We thought it unwise to conceal an affair of such
magnitude. Of course the unauthorized broadcast made it impossible.
Fortunately, the gravital discovery came along at just the right time.
I don't mind telling you that the net effect is now in our favor."

"I hoped it would be," said Cameron. "Nona--"

"You've spoken about her before." The medicouncilor frowned. "We can
discuss her later. For the moment, see that she and the rest of the
accidentals are returned to their usual places. Bring Docchi to your
office at once. I want to question him privately."

Cameron stared at him in bewilderment. "But I thought--"

"No objections, Doctor," snapped Thorton. "Important people are
waiting for you. That is all." The telecom darkened.

"I think you heard what he said, Dr. Cameron." The officer at his side
was very polite. He could afford to be, with the rank of three big
planets on his tunic.

"Very well," Cameron answered. "But as commander of the asteroid, I
request that you furnish a guard for the girl."

"Commander?" repeated the officer. "That's funny--my orders indicate
that I am, until further notice. I haven't got that notice." He looked
around at his men and crooked a finger. "Lieutenant, see that the
little fellow--Jordan, I think his name is--gets a lift back to the
main dome. And you can walk the pretty lady to her room. Or whatever
it is she lives in." He smiled negligently at Cameron. "Anything to
oblige another commander."

       *       *       *       *       *

The medicouncilor, Thorton, was waiting impatiently on the telecom
when they got to Cameron's office.

"We will arrive in about two hours," he said immediately. "When I say
we, I mean a number of top governmental officials and scientists.
Meanwhile, let's get on with this gravital business." He caught sight
of the commander. "General Judd, this is a technical matter. I don't
think you'll be interested in it."

"Very well, sir. I'll stand guard outside."

The medicouncilor was silent until the door closed behind General
Judd. "Sit down, Docchi," he said with unexpected kindness. He paused
to note the effect. "I can sympathize with you. You had everything you
wanted nearly within your reach. And, after that, to return to
Handicap Haven--well, I can understand how you feel. But since you did
return, I think we can arrange to do something for you."

Docchi stared at the man on the screen. A spot of light pulsed on his
cheek and then flared rapidly over his face.

"Sure," he said casually. "But there are criminal charges against me."

"A formality," said the medicouncilor. "With a thing like the
discovery--or rediscovery--of the gravital drive to think about, no
one is going to worry much about your unauthorized departure from the
asteroid."

Medicouncilor Thorton sounded pleased. "I don't want to mislead you.
We can't do any more for you medically than has already been done.
However, you will find yourself the center of a more adequate social
life. Friends, work, whatever you want. Naturally, in return for this,
we will expect your full cooperation."

"Naturally." Docchi blinked at him and got to his feet. "Sounds
interesting. I'd like to think about it for a minute."

Cameron planted himself squarely in front of the screen. "Maybe I
don't understand. I think you've got the wrong person."

"Dr. Cameron!" Thorton glowered. "Please explain."

"It was an easy mistake to make," said Cameron. "Cut off from
communication, the gravital drive began to work. How? Why? Mostly, who
did it? You knew it wasn't I. I'm a doctor, not a physicist. Nor
Jordan, he's at best a mechanic. Therefore it had to be Docchi,
because he's an engineer. He could make it work. But it wasn't Docchi.
He had nothing to do with--"

"Look out!" cried Thorton too late.

Cameron fell to his knees. The same foot that brought him down crashed
into his chin. His head snapped back and he sprawled on the floor.
Blood trickled from his face.

"Docchi!" shouted Thorton from the screen.

Docchi didn't answer. He was crashing through the door. The commander
was lounging against the wall. Head down, Docchi ran into him. The
toaster fell from his belt to the floor. With scarcely a pause, Docchi
stamped on it and continued running.

The commander got to his feet and retrieved the weapon. He aimed it
tentatively at the retreating figure; a thought occurred to him and he
lowered it. He examined the damaged mechanism. After that, it went
gingerly into a tunic pocket.

Muffled shouts were coming from Cameron's office. The general broke
in.

The medicouncilor glared at him from the screen. "I can see that you
let him get away."

The disheveled officer straightened his uniform. "I'm sorry, sir. I'll
alert the guards immediately."

"Never mind now. Revive that man."

The general wasn't accustomed to giving resuscitation; it was out of
his line. Nevertheless, in a few minutes Cameron was conscious, though
somewhat dazed.

"Now then, Doctor, if it wasn't Docchi who was responsible for the
sudden functioning of the gravital drive, who was it?"

With satisfaction, Cameron told him. He had not been wrong about the
girl. Listening to the detailed explanation of Nona's mental
abilities, the general was perplexed, as generals sometimes are.

"I see." The medicouncilor nodded. "We overlooked that possibility
altogether. Not the mechanical genius of an engineer. Instead, the
strange telepathic sense of a girl. That puts the problem in a
different light."

"It does." Cameron pressed his aching jaw. "She can't tell us how she
does it. We'll have to experiment. Fortunately, it won't involve any
danger. With the monitor system we can always control the gravital
drive."

The medicouncilor leaned perilously backward and shook his head.
"You're wrong. It's supposed to, but it doesn't. We tried. For a
microsecond, the monitor did take over, but the gravital computer is
smarter than we thought, if it _was_ the computer that figured out the
method. It found a way of cutting the power from the monitor circuit.
It didn't respond at all."

Cameron forgot his jaw. "If you didn't bring the rocket back on
remote, why did she come?"

"Docchi knows," growled the medicouncilor. "He found out in this room.
That's why he escaped." He tapped on his desk with blunt fingers. "She
could have taken the ship anywhere she pleased and we couldn't have
stopped her. Since she voluntarily came back, it's obvious that she
wants the asteroid!"

Medicouncilor Thorton tried to shove his face out of the screen and
into the room. "Don't you ever think, General? There isn't any real
difference between gravital units except size and power. What she did
to the ship she can do as easily to the asteroid." He thrust out a
finger and pointed angrily. "Don't stand there, General Judd. Find
that girl!"

It was late for that kind of command. The great dome overhead trembled
and creaked in countless joints. The little world shivered, groaned as
if it had lain too long in an age-old orbit. It began to move.

       *       *       *       *       *

Vague shapes stirred, crawled, walked if they could. Fantastic and
near-fantastic figures came to the assembly. Huge or tiny, on their
own legs or borrowed ones, they arrived, with or without arms, faces.
The word had spread by voice, by moving lips, by sign languages of
every sort.

"Remember, it will be hours or perhaps days before we're safe," said
Docchi. His voice was growing hoarse. "It's up to us to see that Nona
has all the time she needs."

"Where is she hiding?" asked someone from the crowd.

"I don't know. If I did, I still wouldn't tell you. It's our job to
keep them from finding her."

"How?" demanded one near the front. "Fight the guards?"

"Not directly," said Docchi. "We have no arms in the sense of weapons.
Many of us have no arms in any sense. All we can hope to do is
obstruct their search. Unless someone has a better idea, this is what
I plan:

"I want all the men, older women, and the younger ones who aren't
suitable for reasons I'll explain later. The guards won't be here for
another half hour--it will take that long to get them together and
give them the orders that the Medicouncil must be working out now.
When they do come, get in their way.

"How you do that, I'll leave to your imagination. Appeal to their
sympathy as long as they have any. Put yourself in dangerous
situations. They have ethics; at first they'll be inclined to help
you. When they do, try to steal their weapons. Avoid physical violence
as much as you can. We don't want to force them into retaliation. Make
the most of that phase of their behavior. It won't last long."

Docchi paused and looked over the crowd. "Each of you will have to
decide for himself when to drop that kind of resistance and start an
active battle campaign. We have to disrupt the light and scanning and
ventilation systems, for instance. They'll be forced to keep them in
repair. Perhaps they'll try to guard these strategic points. So much
the better for us--there will be fewer guards to contend with."

"What about me?" called a woman from far in back. "What do I do?"

"You are in for a rough time," Docchi promised her. "Is Jerian here?"

She elbowed her way to his side through the crowd.

"Jerian," said Docchi to the accidentals, "is a normal, pretty
woman--outwardly. She has, however, no trace of a digestive system.
The maximum time she can go without food and fluid injections is ten
hours. That's why she's here."

Again Docchi scanned the group. "I need a cosmetech, someone who has
her equipment with her."

A legless woman propelled herself forward. Docchi conferred with her.
She seemed startled, but she complied. Under her deft fingers Jerian
was transformed--into Nona.

"She will be the first Nona they'll find," explained Docchi, "because
she can get away with the disguise longer. I think--I hope--they'll
call off the search for a few hours while they test her. Eventually
they are sure to find out. In Jerian's case, fingerprints or X-rays
would reveal who she is. But that won't occur to them immediately.
Nona is impossible to question, as you know, and Jerian will act
exactly as Nona would.

"As soon as they discover that Jerian isn't Nona--well, they won't
bother to be polite, if that's the word for it. The guards will like
the idea of finding an attractive girl they can manhandle in the line
of duty, especially if they think that will help them find Nona. It
won't, of course. But it will hold up the search and that's what we
want."

They stood still, no one moving. Women looked at each other in silent
apprehension.

"Let's go," said Jordan grimly.

"Wait," advised Docchi. "I have one volunteer Nona. I need about fifty
more. It doesn't matter if you're physically sound or not--we'll raid
the lab for plastissue. If you think you can be made up to look like
Nona, come forward."

[Illustration]

Slowly, singly and by twos and threes, they came to him. There were
few indeed who wouldn't require liberal use of camouflage.

The rest followed Jordan out.

Mass production of an individual. Not perfect in every instance. Good
enough to pass in most. Docchi watched approvingly, suggesting
occasional touches of makeup.

"She can't speak or hear," he reminded the volunteers. "Remember that
at all times, no matter what they do. Hide in difficult places. After
Jerian is taken and the search called off and then resumed, let
yourselves be found one at a time. Every guard that has to take you
for examination is one less to look for the real Nona. They have to
find her soon or get off the asteroid."

The cosmetechs were busy; none stopped. There was one who looked up.

"Get off?" she asked. "Why?"

"The Sun is getting smaller."

"Smaller!" exclaimed the woman.

He nodded. "Handicap Haven is leaving the Solar System."

Her fingers flew and molded the beautiful curve of a jaw where there
had been none. Next, plastissue lips were applied.

Nona was soon hiding in half a hundred places.

And one more....

[Illustration]

       *       *       *       *       *

The orbit of Neptune was far behind and still the asteroid was
accelerating. Two giant gravital units strained at the core of
Handicap Haven. The third clamped an abnormally heavy gravity on the
isolated world. Prolonged physical exertion was awkward and doubly
exhausting. Hours turned into a day, but the units never faltered.

"Have you figured it out as precisely as you should?" asked Docchi
easily. "You share our velocity away from the Sun. You'll have to
overcome it before you can start going back."

The general ignored him. "If we could only turn off that damned
drive!"

Engineer Vogel shrugged sickly. "You try it," he suggested. "I don't
want to be around when you do. It sounds easy: just a gravital unit.
But remember there's a good-sized nuclear pile involved."

"I know we can't," admitted the general, morosely looking at the
darkness overhead. "On the other hand, we can take off and blow this
rock apart from a safe distance."

"And lose all hope of finding her?" taunted Docchi.

"We're losing her anyway," Cameron commented sourly.

"It's not as bad as all that," consoled Docchi. "Now that you know
where the difficulty is, you can always build another computer and
furnish it with auxiliary senses. Or maybe build into it the facts of
elementary astronomy."

Cautiously, he shifted his frail body under the heavy gravity.
"There's another solution, though it may not appeal to you. I can't
believe Nona is altogether unique. There must be others like her.
So-called 'born' mechanics, maybe, whose understanding of machinery is
a form of empathy we've never suspected. Look hard enough and you may
find them, perhaps in the most unlikely or unlovely body."

General Judd grunted wearily, "If I thought you knew where she is--"

"You can try to find out," Docchi invited, glowing involuntarily.

"Forget about the dramatics, General," said Cameron in disgust. "We've
questioned him thoroughly. Resistance we would have had in any event.
He's responsible merely for making it more effective than we thought
possible."

He added slowly: "At the moment, obviously, he's trying to tear down
our morale. He doesn't have to bother. The situation is so bad that it
looks hopeless. I can't think of a thing we can do that would help
us."

The Sun was high in the center of the dome. Sun? More like a very
bright star. It cast no shadows; the lights in the dome did. They
flickered and with monotonous regularity went out again. The general
swore constantly and emotionlessly until service was restored.

A guard approached with his captive. "I think I've found her, sir."

Cameron looked at the girl in dismay. "Guard, where's your decency?"

"Orders, sir," the man said.

"Whose orders?"

"Yours, sir. You said she was sound of body. How else could I find
out?"

Cameron scowled and thrust a scalpel deep into the girl's thigh. She
looked at him with a tear-stained face, but didn't move a muscle.

"Plastissue, as any fool can see," he commented dourly.

The guard looked revolted and started to lead her out.

"Let her go," snapped the doctor. "Both of you will be safer, I
think."

The girl darted away. The guard followed her, shuddering, his eyes
filled with a self-loathing that Cameron realized would require hours
of psychiatric work to remove.

Docchi smiled. "I have a request to make."

"Go ahead and make it," snorted the general. "We're likely to give you
anything you want."

"You probably will. You're going to leave without her. Very soon. When
you do go, don't take all your ships. We'll need about three when we
come to another solar system."

General Judd opened his mouth in rage.

"Don't you say anything you'll regret," cautioned Docchi. "When you
get back, what will you report to your superiors? Can you tell them
that you left in good order, while there was still time to continue
the search? Or will they like it better if they know you stayed until
the last moment? So late that you had to abandon some of your ships?"

The general closed his mouth and stamped away. Wordlessly, Cameron
dragged after him.

       *       *       *       *       *

The last ship had blasted off and the rocket trails had faded into
overwhelming darkness. The Sun, which had been trying to lose itself
among the other stars, finally succeeded. The asteroid was no longer
the junkpile. It was a small world that had become a swift ship.

"We can survive," said Docchi. "Power and oxygen, we have, and we can
grow or synthesize our food."

He sat beside Anti's tank, which had been returned to the usual place.
A small tree nodded overhead in the artificial breeze. It was peaceful
enough. But Nona wasn't there.

"We'll get you out of the tank," promised Jordan. "When she comes
back, we'll rig up a place where there's no gravity. And we'll
continue cold treatment."

"I can wait," said Anti. "On this world I'm normal."

Docchi stared forlornly about. The one thing he wanted to see wasn't
there.

"If you're worrying about Nona," advised Anti, "don't. The guards were
pretty rough with the women, but plastissue doesn't feel pain. They
didn't find her."

"How do you know?"

"Listen," said Anti. The ground shivered with the power of the
gravital units. "As long as they're running, how can you doubt?"

"If I could be sure--"

"You can start now," Jordan said. "First, though, you'd better get up
and turn around."

Docchi scrambled to his feet. She was coming toward him.

She showed no sign of strain. Except for a slight smudge on her
wonderfully smooth and scar-less cheek, she might just have stepped
out of a beauty cubicle. Without question, she was the most beautiful
woman in the world. This world, of course, though she could have done
well on any world--if she could have communicated with people as well
as with machines.

"Where were you hiding?" Docchi asked, expecting no answer.

She smiled. He wondered, with a feeling of helplessness, if machines
could sense and appreciate her lovely smile, or whether they could
somehow smile themselves.

"I wish I could take you in my arms," he said bitterly.

"It's not as silly as you think," said Anti, watching from the surface
of the tank. "You don't have any arms, but she has two. You can talk
and hear, but she can't. Between you, you're a complete couple."

"Except that she would never get the idea," he answered unhappily.

Jordan, rocking on his hands, looked up quizzically. "I must be
something like her. They used to call me a born mechanic; just put a
wrench in my hand and I can do anything with a piece of machinery.
It's as if I sense what the machine wants done to it. Not to the
extent that Nona can understand, naturally. You might say it's
reversed, that she's the one who can hear while I have to lip-read."

"You never just gabble," Docchi prompted. "You have something in
mind."

Jordan hesitated. "I don't know if it's stupid or what. I was thinking
of a kind of sign language with machines. You know, start with the
simple ones, like clocks and such, and see what they mean to her.
Since they'd be basic machines, she'd probably have pretty basic
reactions. Then it's just a matter of--"

"You don't have to blueprint it," Docchi cut in excitedly. "That would
be fine for determining elementary reactions, but I can't carry around
a machine shop; it wouldn't be practical. There ought to be one
variable machine that would be portable and yet convey all meanings to
her."

"An electronic oscillator?"

Acid waves washed at the sides of the tank as Anti stirred
impatiently. "Will you two great brains work it out in the lab,
please? And when you get through with that problem, you'll have plenty
more to keep you occupied until we get to the stars. Jordan and me,
for instance. What future is there for a girl unless she can get
married?"

"That's right," Docchi said. "I've got an idea we can do better than
normal doctors. Being accidentals ourselves, we won't stop
experimenting till we succeed. And we have hundreds of years to do it
in."

Glowing, literally, with pleasure, he bent over for Jordan to climb on
his back. Then he kissed Nona and headed for the laboratory.

Nona smiled and followed.

"There are some things you don't need words or machines to express,"
Anti called out. "Keep that in mind, will you?"

She submerged contentedly in the acid bath. Above the dome, the stars
gleamed a bright welcome to the little world that flashed through
interstellar space.

                                                        --F. L. WALLACE

       *       *       *       *       *





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