[Taken from Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales.]
When Satellite Control called me, I was writing up the day's progress report in the observation bubble—the glass-domed office that juts out from the axis of the space station like the hubcap of a wheel.
It was not really a good place to work, for the view was too overwhelming. Only a few yards away I could see the construction teams performing their slow-motion ballet as they put the station together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. And beyond them, twenty thousand miles below, was the blue-green glory of the full Earth, floating against the raveled star-clouds.
"Station supervisor here," I answered. "What's the trouble?"
"Our radar's showing a small echo two miles away, almost stationary, about five degrees west of Sirius. Can you give us a visual report on it?"
Anything matching our orbit so precisely could hardly be a meteor; it would have to be something we'd dropped—perhaps an inadequately secured piece of equipment that had drifted away from the station. So I assumed; but when I pulled out my binoculars and searched the sky around Orion, I soon found my mistake. Though this space traveler was man-made, it had nothing to do with us.
"I've found it," I told Control. "It's someone's test satellite—cone-shaped; four antennas. Probably the U.S. Air Force, early 1960's, judging by the design. I know they lost track of several when their transmitters failed. There were quite a few attempts to hit this orbit before they finally made it."
After a brief search through the files, Control was able to confirm my guess. It took a little longer to find that now, in 1988, Washington wasn't in the least bit interested in our discovery and would be just as happy if we lost it again.
"Well, we can't do that," said Control. "Even if nobody wants it, the thing's a menace to navigation. Someone had better go out and haul it aboard; get it out of orbit."
That someone, I realized, would have to be me. I dared not detach a man from the closely knit construction teams; we were already behind schedule, and a single day's delay on this job cost a million dollars. All the radio and TV networks on Earth were waiting impatiently for the moment when they could route their programs through us, and thus provide the first truly global service, spanning the world from pole to pole.
"I'll go out and get it," I answered, and though I tried to sound as if I were doing everyone a great favor, I was secretly not at all displeased. It had been at least two weeks since I'd been outside.
The only member of the staff I passed on my way to the air lock was Tommy, our recently acquired cat. Pets mean a great deal to men thousands of miles from Earth, but there are not many animals that can adapt themselves to a weightless environment. Tommy mewed plaintively at me as I clambered into my spacesuit, but I was in too much of a hurry to play with him.
At this point, perhaps I should remind you that the suits we use on the station are completely different from the flexible affairs men wear when they want to walk around on the Moon. Ours are really baby space ships, just big enough to hold one man. They are stubby cylinders, about seven feet long, fitted with low-powered propulsion jets, and have a pair of accordion-like sleeves at the upper end for the operator's arms.
As soon as I'd settled down inside my very exclusive space craft, I switched on power and checked the gauges on the tiny instrument panel. All my needles were well in the safety zone, so I gave Tommy a wink for luck, lowered the transparent hemisphere over my head and sealed myself in. For a short trip like this, I did not bother to check the suit's internal lockers, which were used to carry food and special equipment for extended missions.
As the conveyor belt decanted me into the air lock, I felt like an Indian papoose being carried along on its mother's back. Then the pumps brought the pressure down to zero, the outer door opened, and the last traces of air swept me out into the stars, turning very slowly head over heels.
The station was only a dozen feet away, yet I was now an independent planet—a little world of my own. I was sealed up in a tiny, mobile cylinder, with a superb view of the entire universe, but I had practically no freedom of movement inside the suit. The padded seat and safety belts prevented me from turning around, though I could reach all the controls and lockers with my hands or feet.
In space the great enemy is the Sun, which can blast you to blindness in seconds. Very cautiously, I opened up the dark filters on the "night" side of my suit, and turned my head to look out at the stars. At the same time I switched the helmet's external sunshade to automatic, so that whichever way the suit gyrated my eyes would be shielded.
Presently, I found my target—a bright fleck of silver whose metallic glint distinguished it clearly from the surrounding stars. I stamped on the jet control pedal and felt the mild surge of acceleration as the low-powered rockets set me moving away from the station. After ten seconds of steady thrust, I cut off the drive. It would take me five minutes to coast the rest of the way, and not much longer to return with my salvage.
And it was at that moment, as I launched myself out into the abyss, that I knew that something was horribly wrong.
It is never completely silent inside a space suit; you can always hear the gentle hiss of oxygen, the faint whir of fans and motors, the susurration of your own breathing—even, if you listen carefully enough, the rhythmic thump that is the pounding of your heart. These sounds reverberate through the suit, unable to escape into the surrounding void; they are the unnoticed background of life in space, for you are aware of them only when they change.
They had changed now; to them had been added a sound which I could not identify. It was an intermittent, muffled thudding, sometimes accompanied by a scraping noise.
I froze instantly, holding my breath and trying to locate the alien sound with my ears. The meters on the control board gave no clues; all the needles were rock-steady on their scales, and there were none of the flickering red lights that would warn of impending disaster. That was some comfort, but not much. I had long ago learned to trust my instincts in such matters; it was their alarm signals that were flashing now, telling me to return to the station before it was too late....
Even now, I do not like to recall those next few minutes, as panic slowly flooded into my mind like a rising tide, overwhelming the dikes of reason and logic which every man must erect against the mystery of the universe. I knew then what it was like to face insanity; no other explanation fitted the facts.
For it was no longer possible to pretend that the noise disturbing me was that of some faulty mechanism. Though I was in utter isolation, far from any other human being or indeed any material object, I was not alone. The soundless void was bringing to my ears the faint, but unmistakable, stirrings of life.
In that first, heart-freezing moment it seemed that something was trying to get into my suit—something invisible, seeking shelter from the cruel and pitiless vacuum of space. I whirled madly in my harness, scanning the entire sphere of vision around me except for the blazing, forbidden cone towards the Sun. There was nothing there, of course. There could not be—yet that purposeful scrabbling was clearer than ever.
Despite the nonsense that has been written about us, it is not true that spacemen are superstitious. But can you blame me if, as I came to the end of logic's resources, I suddenly remembered how Bernie Summers had died, no further from the station than I was at this very moment?
It was one of those "impossible" accidents; it always is. Three things had gone wrong at once. Bernie's oxygen regulator had run wild and sent the pressure soaring, the safety valve had failed to blow—and a faulty joint had given way. In a fraction of a second, his suit was open to space.
I had never known Bernie, but suddenly his fate became of overwhelming importance to me, for a horrible idea had come into my mind. One does not talk about these things, but a damaged space suit is too valuable to be thrown away, even if it has killed its wearer. It is repaired, renumbered—and issued to someone else....
What happens to the soul of a man who dies between the stars, far from his native world? Were you still here, Bernie, clinging to the last object that linked you to your lost and distant home?
As I fought the nightmares that were swirling around me—for now it seemed that the scratchings and soft fumblings were coming from all directions—there was one last hope to which I clung. For the sake of sanity, I had to prove that this wasn't Bernie's suit—that the metal walls so closely wrapped around me had never been another man's coffin.
It took me several tries before I could press the right button and switch my transmitter to the emergency wave length. "Station!" I gasped, "I'm in trouble! Get records to check my suit—"
I never finished; they say my yell wrecked the microphone. But what man, alone in the absolute isolation of space, would not have yelled when something patted him softly on the back of the neck?
I must have lunged forward, despite the safety harness, and smashed against the upper edge of the control panel. When the rescue squad reached me a few minutes later, I was still unconscious, with an angry bruise across my forehead.
And so I was the last person in the whole satellite relay system to know what had happened. When I came to my senses an hour later, all our medical staff was gathered around my bed, but it was quite a while before the doctors—and certainly that cute little space nurse—bothered to look at me. They were much to busy playing with the three little kittens our badly misnamed Tommy had been rearing in my space suit's Number Three storage locker.