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ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



COSMIC CASTAWAY

By STANLEY MULLEN

"You aren't human, Bell. And you're not a robot. What are
you
?" Bell pondered the query slowly, cautiously, with his
semi-mechanical superbrain ... a brain that Plutonians
dubbed the most deadly and dangerous in the universe
.

ATMOSPHERE in the ticket agent's office seemed thicker and warmer than usual, but the disturbing factors were supercharged emotions, not jammed pressure-gauges or thermal adjustors. Not all the emotions were human; but they were real enough, both to Bell and to the ticket agent.

"I know all about you, Bell," the agent said, looking over the half-man curiously, with a hint of vicious resentment. Like many minor functionaries, the ticket agent took the troubles of his employers personally, and Mines, Inc. on Pluto was a subsidiary of the Power and Transport Trust. "Sure, you think you have return passage coming to you. Hasn't the company been more than generous? Actually, it must have cost a fortune to patch you up."

"It did," Bell admitted. "But that's not the problem. I'm not claiming free passage. I have money to pay."

Bell was half-man, half-robot, the result of one of those hideous accidents never mentioned in the Company's much-vaunted Public Reports. Technologically, even aesthetically, he was a work of art, but his own mother would not have known him. Item by item, his appearance was curiously humanoid, but no elasticity of definition could make him human. Every vital organ was partly or wholly artificial, 64% of his body being either reclaimed or synthetic tissue. The face was a mask of stainless steel, washed to flesh color by aluminum bronze tinted toward copper, and the brain behind it was not the one he was born with.

Closing his ledger with a bang the agent snorted. "So what? I don't care If you own half of Pluto. You're still out of luck for passage home. We're booked solid . . . six months ahead."

"You're a liar," Bell stated flatly, "and even if you were a good one, I know better. There've been four cancellations by miners who couldn't pass physical for space. What's the gag?"

Underground Pluto is an interesting place, but it would be pleasant only for a race of troglodytes. Heated and pressurized air is uncomfortably dense; light is artificial and there is a sense of constant vibration from distant atomic boring. No one ever quite gets used to the endless maze of galleries in subsurface cities, or to the jarring quiver of vibrations in octaves above and below audible sound. Worst of all is the deadly isolation from civilized mankind, and even hardy miners accustomed to the black pits of Luna and Ganymede require weeks of readjustment before they can work. For himself, Bell had never objected to the working and living conditions, but he no longer worked, and Pluto was no place to spend his life.

"Are you sure you could pass the physical?" The ticket agent shrugged. "Don't bother me about it." With a type of insolence not uncommon in his breed, he attempted to turn away. Bell reached, got the man's collar into a strangling tourniquet around his throat. Pawing frantically, the agent tried to release himself but Bell applied force and waited until the plump face purpled artistically.

"Now that we understand each other, do I get my ticket?" Bell demanded without heat, easing pressure to permit reply.

"No!" gasped his victim, signalling wildly as the pressure of twisted cloth tightened again. "Wait! I can't sell you a ticket. Even if I did, no space-skipper would dare honor it. We have orders. You aren't going back to Earth, Bell. You can't go anywhere! . . ."

Bell dropped his prey as a terrier discards a dead rat.

"Why not? Orders from whom?"

Glaring, warily resentful, the clerk spat an unprintable reply. "1 wouldn't know," he added. Then anticipating further violence of discussion, he dived into a fat sheaf of papers and came up waving a red flimsy. "Go on. Read it yourself. No ticket for you, now or ever. Nobody tells me why. If anyone had, I wouldn't tell you. Try the Psycho Lab. That's where the order came from. Maybe they'll give you a reason. Maybe they'll explain. I hope they do—"

There was no good will in the expression that followed Bell from the ticket office.

HASTINGS, in Psycho, dreaded the interview with Bell. He was warned by the visi-screen that Bell was on his way, so lie braced himself and wondered how best to word an explanation that would not explain. A buzzer sounded and Hastings pressed the button-release to admit Bell to the office.

It was impossible not to stare. Hastings wanted to be kind. As a scientist he was naturally interested; as a man he recognized tragedy. Hastings did Bell the courtesy of not attempting to hide his curiosity.

From a distance, or to casual observation, illusion was both startling and complete. No functional' flaws had shown up under the most exhaustive tests. Eyes looked like eyes, facial planes bore remarkable resemblance to human features, new limbs and extremities looked and worked at least as well as the originals. Design and workmanship was skillful enough to fool a layman, though a specialist might catch minute, observable differences, especially in the smooth flow of motor impulses. Synthetic muscle...

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