peril on pallas

a tale of the old solar system

by Dylan jeninga and zendexor

[This story was begun by Zendexor and continued with the help of contributions by Dylan, who steered it to its ending.  Readers' feedback welcome; you may easily comment via the Your Views page.]

It was torment, enclosed in the forward cabin of this bizarre space-pod which contained no controls, to face the swelling orb in the view-screen while unable to do aught but stare while tension crooked his fingers into claws - torment for any space-pilot to resign himself to helplessness.  The Patrol required men of action in its ranks, yet he, Candidate Patrolman John Raker, late of Aristarchus Academy, was being subjected to forced inaction during the approach to his severest test.  Well, maybe frustration was part of the test... 

Raker was not by nature a reflective man, so the thought, "Perhaps it is my personality that is about to be measured, as well as my survival skills", flashed through his mind only briefly.  He shrugged it away.  Nah.  Can't afford to do my head in with that stuff.  In any case, I'm about to ground, and that situation has a tendency to bump any theory into oblivion.

Pallas now more than filled the screen, and he was able to make out its bulbous groves and ravines, its sparse grasslands and a couple of its garish forests, in blazing detail.  No matter how uncongenial a remote-control landing was to his taste, at least it would allow him to emerge from this effective prison, onto the surface of a world where a man might do things...

As for what he might do, and how he might survive till pickup day: well, none of the other candidates ever talked - and presumably something would happen, or would be said, to make sure that he did not talk, either - but at least he could draw some reassurance from the fact that quite a few did make it through the test, and after all, surely, the Patrol could not afford to lose that many applicants...

And now the low hum of the gravitic drive began to be accompanied by the more strident whistle of Pallas' thin atmosphere as it tore against the hull.  The view through the screen tipped to show the planetoid's limb which straightened as Raker watched, to become a horizon.  He meanwhile had strapped himself into the recoil chair, and the final impact inflicted no more than a soft thud.

He took his time, then.  After all, no extra marks would be awarded for haste at this point.  He hefted his oft-checked survival pack, comforted by the weight of it, by the thought of what was in it - and rested for a few minutes.  Now that he felt freer, his impatience had gone, replaced by wariness and distrust.  He stared through the viewscreen at the semi-desert landscape of the asteroid. 

Whip-like blades of giant tufts of grass slanted across his field of view.  Beyond them across a gravelly stretch reared the contrasting fatness of a cluster of giant fungi, mingled with the metallic blue glitter of poisonous-looking shrubs, and with more of the grass-tufts interspersed everywhere.  Beyond all this the blue-black sky curtained down to the close horizon, but the sunlight lay bright and plentiful on the ground.

Raker turned his eyes from the view outside to the positioning device in his left hand.  The two winking dots showed his own position and that of the rescue point.  As expected, these locations were separated by the greatest possible distance on Pallas, diameter 318 miles.  His task could be simply described: he must walk several hundred miles till he reached the point where the two dots winked as one.  Well, what others had done, he could do.

He pressed the stud to open the hatch, and listened to the slight noise it made, reminding himself that it might be a while before he heard a man-made sound again.

Then he stepped out on to the gravelly soil of Pallas.

His skin itched and his head was light at the sudden drop in air pressure, but months in pressure chambers and on the surface of Mars had prepared his lungs for the rigors of a tenuous atmosphere.  After a moment he was reoriented.
    His first impression of the world where he was to survive for the next few weeks was the frigidity.  At just over two hundred and fifty million miles from the sun and without a gas giant to warm it, it had led him to expect cold, and he was in fact already wearing a thermosuit. It would keep him comfortable through Pallas’ four-hour day, although the nights...
     His second impression was the smell of it. It was a well known fact among spacers, but not the general public, that every habitable planet had its own unique odor. Mars had a dry, acrid scent, Venus stank of rot and hot rain, and Earth - he was told, although being an Earther himself he had never noticed - smelled of people. Pallas, he thought, smelled faintly of dust and burnt gunpowder.
     Brushing aside the tall grass, he took stock of his surroundings. The Pod had deposited him in the deepest part of a sparse valley surrounded on all sides by mountains, possibly an ancient impact basin or enormous volcanic crater. Or perhaps not as big as all that. A nearer horizon means it’s easy to overestimate distances and sizes.
     A sudden whirring gust from behind him made him jump, and he spun to watch  the space-pod begin its ascent into the purple Palladian sky. Slowly, slowly it rose, kicking up dust, then faster, until Raker was left listening to the fading buzz of the craft's engine on the thin air. The silence that followed seemed seemed infinitely deep. He was really alone now.
     He wasted no time. An experienced spacer might bound across a low-gravity landscape in great leaps, but Raker was unwilling to take such risks. He went hastily through the exercises and mental rituals his instructors had taught him to quickly adjust to an unearthly gravitational pull. Then he opened his survival pack and laid out all the supplies that had been allowed him: A knife, a length of rope, a pot, three days of food and water rations, a collapsible shovel, a flashlight, and a magnesium fire-starter. No decent weapons. If there’s anything violent lurking out there, hopefully we don’t run into each other. No doubt at least some of the local life was edible, or the Patrol would have given him more food. He’d need to find water, and something to boil it with. The heat would be welcome too, especially when the sun set.
     He gathered his equipment back into his pack and started off into the valley, following the blinking dot on his positioner, feeling more at ease about his ability to brave the wilds of Pallas.

At first, Raker’s confidence increased, as with a sense of airy lightness he strode among the grass-groves, the fungi and the jutting boulders of the shallow basin in which he had landed.  It took him a few minutes to cross it, and during this short time the spring in his step, a gift of the low gravity, appropriately matched his sense of achievement, of adaptation to this odd little world.  Little?  Here came his first serious hesitation, a conviction that he had left something vital out of account.  Little world, little problem?  Ah, there lay the fallacy.  What happens on little worlds with scant gravitational restraint…? 

The question released the memory: the Palladian Zuff.  How could he have forgotten that much elementary zoology?  Frightened as one who feels within himself the onset of dementia, Raker grabbed at the first excuse which came to mind: the data must have lain lost among the vast masses of information which the Academy’s hypno tapes had stuffed into his brain.  Even so - the Palladian Zuff – no, that thing could no more be forgotten on Pallas, than a visitor to an Indian nature reserve could forget the existence of tigers.

They must have blanked it deliberately!  It was a set-up, thought Raker, in growing rage.  His distrust of those who had sent him here, a distrust which had disturbed him briefly at the time of his landing, re-surfaced more acutely than ever.  Bitterly he recalled the aphorism, that if you’re paranoid it means you’ve just grasped what’s going on.  Conspiracies, one after the other, displayed their credentials as likely explanations…  Now that it was too late, now that he was marooned here, it was easy for him to figure out how those bastards at Academy HQ had worked out a way of evading the safety regulations which were supposed to protect candidates.  Those regulations said you had to inform candidates of the dangers.  Very well, inform them – but give them the data in delayed-action form, so that they remember them only when it’s too late to ask awkward questions, and too late to draw back.  Raker’s earlier faith, based on the idea that the authorities would have no interest in killing off too many candidates, had dissipated.  The logic had sounded good until now.  He still could not refute it.  But rationality had its limits.  A materialist shudders like anyone else when he hears something go bump in the night.

He began to imagine a zuff growing behind every bush… or, worse, a rare full-size adult specimen rearing behind every hill...

          He cautiously approached the circumference of hills - for it was now evident that they really were hills - and eyed the thick vegetation growing there warily. Slowly he scaled the hills and made his way into the craggy, broken countryside. His pulse raced when he thought he saw movement in the surrounding foliage, but sighed with relief when he realized it was merely the extending shadows. He cast his gaze up to the small sun. He was dismayed to see it well past zenith; soon the short Palladian day would be over and the deep, frozen night would be upon him. He would have to build a fire, although without a weapon he hated risking unwanted attention. Still, it was that or freeze, and the cold would kill him more surely than a zuff.
     He withdrew his knife from his pack and examined the nearest fungus. Of course, it wasn’t truly a fungus, that was an earthly form of life, but this resembled it in appearance if not function. He seemed to recall that Palladian life was distinctly alien in a way that had astounded biologists when it was first discovered. The creatures of Pallas blurred the line between single organisms and colonies - most closely they resembled a mesh between the two. This fungus, for example, drew water from the ice locked in the soil, but not every fungus of this type did so. One would take up that task, while another would grow from its side and process nutrients, and another prepare for reproducing the entire pseudo-organism’s genetics. Should one be hurt or damaged, the others could pick up its slack until it was healed, as each possessed the necessary biological machinery.
     This, incidentally, was what made the zuff so fearsome. As its unfortunate discoverer, Viron Zuff, had learned, a bullet would not stop it as long as enough of its “nodes” remained unharmed. Some of those nodes, particularly its thrasher-tentacles, were devastatingly dangerous.
     Cutting into the fungus, he managed to remove a piece that seemed suitably dry for burning. Since he had no idea what growth would most easily light, he decided to hedge his bets and collect some of everything, the grass, the shrubs, a crawling vine and some others, and test each one with his magnesium lighter.
     An hour later the sun was plunging below the horizon, and the ground was covered in a thin frost everywhere except a wide circle around Raker’s crackling fire. Sitting near it made him feel secure, and as he lay with his head resting on his pack he thought again of the situation the Patrol had left him in. I hope there’s open water somewhere out here; so far everything seems to get its water from the ground, or perhaps the air, neither of which do me any good. But I can’t waste time every day searching for springs, not when the sun’s only up for four hours. Or perhaps nobody survives this test and the Patrol is staffed by corpses. He grinned, remembering some of his colder, less animated instructors.
     A bright streak cut across the brilliant, star-splattered night sky, quickly followed by another, and then a host which carried on endlessly. Of course, Raker watched in awe, meteors. This is the Belt, after all. He counted meteors until sleep took him.

Somewhere in the distance, the silence was broken at last, as a creature whistled to its mates.  This was a signal that the soundless Palladian day was over, and the voices of night could begin.  Raker slept on, as if beguiled by a spell, until a faint wheezing, like a great lung or crowd of lungs exerting distant physical effort, woke him for a moment, and he sat up like a bolt.  When the noise failed to sound again, he fell back into a restless slumber.

After four hours of darkness a flood of light woke Raker as it swept across the landscape to begin the planetoid’s next short day.

He rose with a stretch which became a jump.  The fire was still smouldering and the cold was not seriously uncomfortable.  He felt, in fact, impressively good, neither stiff nor groggy after hours lying on the ground.  The routine of “watch-on-watch”, four hours sleep followed by four hours awake, was an option he had been trained for, and here the training had evidently paid off. 

As he breakfasted, his eyes roving over his surroundings, he reflected that Pallas did not seem such a bad little world.  Other planetoids and small moons abounded, on which one could not expect to survive a night exposed on their surfaces – there was something about a minor world which often encouraged evolution to be more focused, less wasteful and therefore more formidable and efficient, than on the major orbs such as Venus and Earth.  But this grim principle did not, evidently, apply to Pallas.  Just as well.  A Patrol which dumped its trainees among the volcanic ice-fiends of Enceladus, for example, would soon run out of recruits…  whereas here, he repeated to himself, things weren’t too bad. 

Of course, he must guard against over-confidence.  He was alone on an alien world, and no doubt harsh lessons were waiting to be learned here… the idea certainly wasn’t to make things too easy for him.  What the hell, thought Raker impatiently, and he broke camp and set off, not wishing to waste the brief daylight. 

The broken, gravelly regolith would have been exhausting to tramp through if this had been a high-gravity world; but then, a high-gravity world would not have a surface like this, except on particularly dangerous screes.  Here he was in small danger of losing his balance, or if he did, his slow-motion fall would give him time to recover.  Almost, he surrendered to the temptation to bound.  No, he said to himself.  Play it safe and you’ll get to the pickup point – that’s all that matters.

Besides, it was more interesting to go carefully, to observe the variety of plant-forms crisply outlined against the chalk-white gravel and the purple sky. Plant forms… and what else?  Raker felt a sense of irritation, like one who has forgotten a familiar datum which remains “on the tip of his tongue”.  Oh well, time would teach him, no doubt, if the scene had undergone some significant change.  And then he’d be surprised.  That was partly why he had been plonked here, to suffer surprises…

Raker stopped. 

He stood still for several moments, feeling sick at the realization that ever since waking he had failed to worry about the zuffs.  The non-existent zuffs.  What a fool you are, John Raker.  But then, all candidates must be fooled, every time.  By Space, he hoped so!  ‘Viron Zuff’, indeed!  Well, he had to hand it to the Patrol, it sure was a way of training their spacers “on the cheap”.  Fill their heads with a series of delayed-reaction illusions which would explode in their minds like little bombs, perhaps a new one every Palladian day, and then, if their characters could cope with that, and their bodies could fulfil the physical requirements of the hike from drop point to pickup point, they could be given their graduation badge.

His fury and resentment were less than on their previous surge.  By now he was ready to admit, grudgingly, that the authorities might have no other option.  Seeing as the Patrol’s heaviest task was to protect space commerce among the bewildering array of small moons and planetoids which dotted the System with their tiny, often virulent ecosystems and cultures, candidates had to be trained to cope with this variety; on the other hand if they were straightaway thrown into it all “for real”, it would be a massacre of the innocents...  On the other hand, reliance on safe simulations back at Base would be too artificial a method of training.  This Palladian environment was a compromise.

Oh well, no doubt he’d soon fall victim to the next illusion.  What a way to train for a career.  It was a bitter humiliation, to have his beliefs mucked about, even if only temporarily.  Meanwhile he must keep a clear head and stay realistic for as long as he could and as much as he was allowed to.  This meant, of course, that he must keep a look out for the ptu, that race of warrior stick insects which vegetated in caverns by day, and emerged to march across the face of Pallas by night, looking for prey. With a grim shrug, Raker continued on his journey, eyes peeled for the rabbit-burrow-sized holes which would betoken the presence of the ptu.  His mood darkened from its brief morning mood, in which he had appreciated the asteroidal environment on its own terms; now it simply got on his nerves and he wished the ordeal over and done with.

To that end, he resolved not to waste his energy in jumping at shadows.  After all, he had not yet encountered any hostile opposition.  And while the Patrol might be filling his head with imaginary dangers in an effort to trick him into readying for false alarms, and so exercise his ability to prepare for the real thing, he still faced verifiably real danger on his journey across this squalid worldlet. Namely, his supply of food and water was more than halfway consumed. Cautious taste tests of the trustworthy looking plants he encountered led him to conclude that while the fungus was quite inedible, the tall grass had “roots” which he could stomach if he forced himself. He couldn’t speak of their nutritional value, but he hoped it would be enough to carry him until pickup day. He suspected he would come to miss the tough jerky and self-heating sludge of the Patrol rations.
That still left him with the problem of water, and as he hustled to make up time lost experimenting with the plants, the jostle of his water jug felt uncomfortably light.
He came to the top of a boulder and saw, off to his right, hope: there was a deep gully or ravine that resembled a river. Casting away caution he slid down the boulder and practically leaped to it, only to be disappointed. It was a river, all right, or rather, it appeared to have been one once. The smooth, carved sides held nothing but dust, grass and stillness. He would find no water there. Damn it to hell.
Chagrined, he bounced down into the riverbed, kicking up dust which slowly settled again. The grass was a bit thicker here, perhaps feeding on a greater concentration of ice in the soil, but unless he could find a way to separate the water from the dirt he wouldn’t be able to do the same. That was when he saw that the opposite side of the riverbed was covered in drawings.
The images appeared as if they had been freshly scratched into the weathered stone. The work of ptus!  Supposed to be the work of Ptus, Raker corrected his thought wryly, for no sooner had he framed the idea than he realized it was yet another let-down. This isn’t real - this is another illusion. Makes my skin crawl just the same. He was about to dismiss the primitive etchings when their shaky lines came together and he realized what they depicted.
The design showed a man. Not the insectile form of a Ptu, but a human man, clutching a knife and clearing a field of scant Palladian vegetation.  And another man, or perhaps the same one, was rendered setting fire to what he identified as the “zuff” creature his teachers had concocted for him. And here was yet another man, this one wielding a bow and with it menacing a group of the imaginary Ptus in their holes. Above it all, stretched a frieze of a marching army of men emerging from a large, ovoid structure: a space-pod.
Raker was stunned. He stood staring at all these scratches, completely unable to comprehend their meaning. Was this exhibition supposedly set out by Ptus, documenting the incursion of humans on their little planet? Was it some kind of trick, planted in his mind and meant to make him wonder… wonder what, exactly? What would be the point of making him see something like this? Then, as he watched, the scratches became harder to distinguish from the roughness of the rock, and shapes weren’t discernible at all. The riverside appeared as it had before he noticed the pictures.
So was it all in his head, then? This seemed to confirm it. Whether a trick or simply his overactive imagination, the illustrations had not really been there, and he had been seeing things.
Even if this meant that there were no ptus, the thought gave him no comfort. If he were hallucinating already it wasn’t likely he would make it off this rock alive. Uncontrolled delusions (that's to say, those which were not put there on purpose) would no doubt lead him fatally astray in one way or other.  If he could no longer discern what was part of the test and what was betrayal by his own mind, the likelihood of his survival was slim.
Another thought occurred to him.  It had been documented that the life on Jupiter’s moon Callisto possessed a telepathic ability; specifically, creatures from that world could project their emotions into the minds of others. No one knew if it went further than that - it was difficult to ask those beings if images accompanied their feelings, as they had no language and did not seem interested in contacting human minds - but through them science had come to recognize telepathy as a naturally occurring possibility. What if… perhaps… the Ptus did exist, and possessed that Callistan ability for mental contact, but without the Callistan taboo on touching the mind of a man? Here on Pallas, he was forced to survive off the land.  A territorial species might regard this as theft. The Ptus, in other words, might resent his intrusion into their world. They might be in his head even now.  They might be dinning their distaste at him, or manipulating him to some unpleasant end...
No, thinking like that would quickly lead to madness, especially on this silent, lonesome world.  Better assume that it had been his imagination, or maybe a facet of the test he would come to comprehend later; anything but phantom Palladians. For now, he needed to focus on survival, and that meant - water.
He hurried down the dry riverbed.  It carried him in the approximate direction he wanted to go, in search of something to allay his inevitable thirst.

And indeed, thirst came to torment Raker more and more as the day wore on. He rationed out his water, taking smaller and smaller sips, growing more anxious with every drop he consumed. That night, he camped out between the dry, stony banks. He was nervous sleeping in the open without a weapon, and settled in the end on unfolding his collapsible shovel and laying it by his side. He insisted to himself he had no reason to fear the Ptus, that in the morning he would wake and find that his terror of them had passed, just as it had with the zuff.

As he expected, he found that he no longer believed in them when the small sun rose. What was more, after he had abandoned his smoldering fire and set off down the dry river, he discovered he had another new memory, this one more useful than the previous delusive warnings. He now knew that a certain small creature, the ura, withdrew water from the regolith and stored it, purified, in the bladders of its member nodes. He also knew where to hunt for the critter, for his delayed memory told him they often nested in the metallic-blue “shrubs” he had suspected of being poisonous upon landing.
He immediately set out hunting for just such a patch and found one not much farther down the dusty riverbed. He crept slowly toward it, hefting a fist-sized stone in his right hand. After a few moments he was searching down through its reflective, razor-edged leaves, and then abandoning it for another such patch nearby where he hoped he would have more luck.

And so went the entire day. Shrub after shrub yielded nothing except a cut on his right hand from the razor-sharp fronds, which swelled up and stung painfully; and Raker spat a series of curses more profane than he ever had uttered in his life.
Then- luck! As the sun was getting low, he spotted the rustling of metallic leaves at the ancient river’s edge. Clumsily gripping a rock in his left hand, Raker kept his eyes locked on the plant in question, barely daring to breathe. He thought he could make out the shadowy form of an ura with its proboscis lodged in the icy ground. With intense concentration, he took aim at the creature and hurled the stone. He was rewarded with a cacophony of shrill hoots. He was distinctly relieved and pleased with himself as he used the shovel to brush the serrated leaves aside so he could retrieve his prey. Then he froze.

He could see nothing but the dusty white soil of Pallas.
He probed frantically with the shovel, searching for the corpse he was sure was there. He got down on all fours, ignoring the shooting pain in his hand, and looked under the covering leaves of the shrub. Standing, he whacked furiously at it, until this proved a bad idea as it sent shiny blue knives flying through the air in all directions.
Eventually he collapsed in a fury, tears of frustration welling in his eyes. He was sure there had been an ura in that bush, siphoning the water that he needed so desperately! He had seen it, killed it, heard it die! Where had it gone?!

His mind went back to the drawings on the riverside stone. Those had also disappeared before his eyes, almost like he hadn’t been meant to see them. Depicted in them had been humans, like himself, surviving against the Palladian dangers. But he could not believe it had been made by another candidate patrolman. He, at least, had been busy surviving since his arrival on this cursedly dry planetoid. What candidate in their right mind would stop to scratch out a picture? Furthermore, the images had depicted Palladian life of an animal or sapient nature, where the only examples he had encountered had been stationary.

A story began to form in his head. The Patrol sent its candidates to Pallas and filled their heads with pertinent warnings and tips about the environment they were to survive in, to be locked up in their brains until they needed it. The candidates encountered the dangers of Pallas and bested them, fending off zuffs, drinking from uras, defeating the Ptus, and taking whatever they needed wherever they could find it. But the Ptus had the ability to meddle in minds, like Callistans, and they despised humanity for killing them and reaping the fruits of their home. So, slowly and methodically, by mentally hiding themselves and vital resources, they developed a way to kill off intruders without ever having to confront them.

Shadows gathered and the air turned freezing, and yet Raker felt compelled to go, to get the hell away, off this little world and back to Earth. Finally standing, he used his shovel to hack down some thicker fronds of grass and, binding them up with vines, made a crude torch. Then he gathered his pack and set off through the crags and valleys, gripping his shovel in one hand and the torch in the other.

He hurried in fright through the darkness. The meteors carried on their magnificent display unheeded, for in every deep shadow Raker imagined hostile Palladian eyes glaring out at him, waiting for him to collapse. He had ceased paying mind to his drinking, and so had unthinkingly finished off the last of his water. The first harbingers of thirst were tickling in his throat, and the itch drove him harder into the night, toward the impossibly distant blinking dot on his positioner.

And so Raker carried on for days, barely stopping to eat and unable to drink. Palladian days and nights carried on in a blur, he got frostbite in his hands and feet, swollen cuts from the shrubs on his legs, and he had twisted his ankle stumbling over a jutting rock. But he pushed onward in a thirsty haze, thinking only of that blinking point and rescue.

When he finally reached it, he was limping along slowly, dragging his sprained foot, his mind lost in delirium. If he had been cognizant, he would have realized he could not have gotten to the pickup point yet, that the image on his positioner must be another lie.
There was no space-pod waiting for him there. There were instead three mounds, about the length of a man, in parallel lines on the ground. To the side of them was a trench, about four feet deep, and the same length as the mounds.
Raker fell then, and lay still. All about him, the world was silent, and not even the whistling, wheezing night life of Pallas intruded on the quiet.

Out of the darkness, insectoid creatures slid gracefully. They regarded the intruder silently, an air of cold finality about them. Then, cooly, they deposited him in the trench and covered him in white Palladian soil.

On Earth, the Chief Patrolman read a report saying the fourth candidate patrolman in a row had failed to make pickup on Pallas without any clear reason. A search and rescue party had turned up nothing, just as it had with the other candidates. The International Interplanetary Authority would not permit them to send candidates there anymore unless the source of the disappearances could be discerned and dealt with.

The Chief grunted. That meant never. It was a mystery, all right, but the Patrol didn’t have the resources to investigate a mystery on an out-of-the-way planetoid like Pallas.

“Well,” she said, “poor kids.”

And so silent Pallas spun alone in the starry sky.