- Author: Manly Wade Wellman
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not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Devil's Asteroid by MANLY WADE WELLMAN
The Rock Bred Evolution in Reverse
It was not very large, as asteroids go, but about it clung a silvery mist of atmosphere. Deeper flashes through the mist betokened water, and green patches hinted of rich vegetation. The space-patroller circled the little world knowledgeably, like a wasp buzzing around an apple. In the control room, by the forward ports, the Martian skipper addressed his Terrestrial companion.
"I wissh you joy of yourr new home," he purred. Like many Martians, he was braced upright on his lower tentacles by hoops and buckles around his bladdery body, so that he had roughly a human form, over which lay a strange loose armor of light plates. In the breathing hole of his petal-tufted skull was lodged an artificial voice-box that achieved words. "I rregrret—"
Fitzhugh Parr glowered back. He was tall, even for a man of Earth, and his long-jawed young face darkened with wrath. "Regret nothing," he snapped. "You're jolly glad to drop me on this little hell."
"Hell?" repeated the Martian reproachfully. "But it iss a ssplendid miniaturre worrld—nineteen of yourr miless in diameterr, with arrtificial grravity centerr to hold airr and waterr; ssown, too, with Terresstrrial plantss. And companionss of yourr own rrace."
"You! They drive you out?" A thick, unsure voice accosted him.
"There's a catch," rejoined Parr. "Something you Martian swine think is a heap big joke. I can see that, captain."
The tufted head wagged. "Underr trreaty between Marrs and Earrth, judgess of one planet cannot ssentence to death crriminalss frrom the otherr, not even forr murrderr—"
"It wasn't for murder!" exploded Parr. "I struck in self-defense!"
"I cannot arrgue the point. Yourr victim wass a high official perrhapss inssolent, but you Earrth folk forrget how eassy ourr crraniumss crrack underr yourr blowss. Anyway, you do not die—you arre exiled. Prreparre to dissembarrk."
Behind them three Martian space-hands, sprawling like squids near the control-board, made flutelike comments to each other. The tentacle of each twiddled an electro-automatic pistol.
"Rremove tunic and bootss," directed the skipper. "You will not need them. Quickly, ssirr!"
Parr glared at the levelled weapons of the space-hands, then shucked his upper garment and kicked off his boots. He stood up straight and lean-muscled, in a pair of duck shorts. His fists clenched at his sides.
"Now we grround," the skipper continued, and even as he spoke there came the shock of the landfall. The inner panel opened, then the outer hatch. Sunlight beat into the chamber. "Goodbye," said the skipper formally. "You have thirrty ssecondss, Earrth time, to walk clearr of our blasstss beforre we take off. Marrch."
Parr strode out upon dark, rich soil. He sensed behind him the silent quiver of Martian laughter, and felt a new ecstasy of hate for his late guards, their race, and the red planet that spawned them. Not until he heard the rumble and swish of the ship's departure did he take note of the little world that was now his prison home.
At first view it wasn't really bad. At second, it wasn't really strange. The sky, by virtue of an Earth-type atmosphere, shone blue with wispy clouds, and around the small plain on which he stood sprouted clumps and thickets of green tropical trees. Heathery ferns, with white and yellow edges to their leaves, grew under his bare feet. The sun, hovering at zenith, gave a July warmth to the air. The narrow horizon was very near, of course, but the variety of thickets and the broken nature of the land beyond kept it from seeming too different from the skyline of Earth. Parr decided that he might learn to endure, even to enjoy. Meanwhile, what about the other Terrestrials exiled here? And, as Parr wondered, he heard their sudden, excited voices.
Threats and oaths rent the balmy air. Through the turmoil resounded solid blows. Parr broke into a run, shoved through some broad-leafed bushes, and found himself in the midst of the excitement.
A dozen men, with scraggly beards and skimpy rags of clothing, were setting upon an unclassifiable creature that snarled and fought back. It was erect and coarsely hairy—Parr saw that much before the enigma gave up the unequal fight and ran clumsily away into a mass of bright-flowered scrub. Execrations and a volley of sticks and stones speeded its flight.
Then the mob was aware of Parr. Every man—they were all male Terrestrials—turned toward him, with something like respect. One of them, tall and thin, spoke diffidently:
"You just arrived?"
"I was just booted out, ten minutes ago," Parr informed him. "Why?"
"Because you're our new chief," responded the thin man, bowing. "The latest comer always commands here."
Parr must have goggled, for the thin one smiled through tawny stubble. "The latest comer is always highest and wisest," he elaborated. "He is healthiest. Best. The longer you stay on this asteroid, the lower you fall."
Parr thought he was being joked with, and scowled. But his informant smiled the broader. "My name's Sadau—here under sentence for theft of Martian government property."
"I'm Fitzhugh Parr. They said I was a murderer. It's a lie."
One or two chuckled at that, and the one who called himself Sadau said: "We all feel unjustly condemned. Meet the others—Jeffords, Wain, Haldocott...." Each man, as named, bowed to Parr. The final introduction was of a sallow, frowning lump of a fellow called Shanklin.
"I was boss until you came," volunteered this last man. "Now you take over." He waved toward a little cluster of grass huts, half hidden among ferny palms. "This is our capital city. You get the largest house—until somebody new shows up. Then you step down, like me."
He spoke with ill grace. Parr did not reply at once, but studied these folk who were putting themselves under his rule. They would not have been handsome even if shaved and dressed properly. Indeed, two or three had the coarse, low-browed look of profound degenerates. Back into Parr's mind came the words of Sadau: "The longer you stay ... the lower you fall."
"Gentlemen," said Parr at last, "before I accept command or other office, give me information. Just now you were acting violently. You, Sadau, started explaining. Go ahead."
Sadau shrugged a lean freckled shoulder, and with a jerk of his head directed his companions to retire toward the huts. They obeyed, with one or two backward glances. Left alone with Parr, Sadau looked up with a wise, friendly expression.
"I won't waste time trying to be scientific or convincing. I'll give you facts—we older exiles know them only too well. This asteroid seems a sort of Eden to you, I daresay."
"I told the Martians that I knew there was a catch somewhere."
"Your instinct's sound. The catch is this: Living creatures—Terrestrials anyway—degenerate here. They go backward in evolution, become—" Sadau broke off a moment, for his lips had begun to quiver. "They become beasts," he finished.
"What?" growled Parr. "You mean that men turn into apes?"
"Yes. And the apes turn into lower creatures. Those become lower creatures still." Sadau's eyes were earnest and doleful. "The process may run back and down to the worm, for all we can judge. We try not to think too much about it."
"This is a joke of some kind," protested Parr, but Sadau was not smiling.
"Martian joke, perhaps. The treaty keeps them from killing us—and this is their alternative punishment. It makes death trivial by comparison.... You don't believe. It's hard. But you see that some of us, oldest in point of exile, are sliding back into bestiality. And you saw us drive away, as our custom is, a man who had definitely become a beast."
"That thing was a man?" prompted Parr, his spine chilling.
"It had been a man. As you wander here and there, you'll come upon queer sights—sickening ones."
Parr squinted at the huts, around the doors of which lounged the other men. "That looks like a permanent community, Sadau."
"It is, but the population's floating. I came here three months ago—Earth months—and the place was operating under the rules I outlined. Latest comer, necessarily the highest-grade human being, to be chief; those who degenerate beyond a certain point to be driven out; the rest to live peaceably together, helping each other."
Parr only half heard him. "Evolution turned backward—it can't be true. It's against nature."
"Martians war against nature," replied Sadau pithily. "Mars is a dead world, and its people are devils. They'd be the logical explorers to find a place where such things can be, and to make use of it. Don't believe me if you don't want to. Time and life here will convince you."
In the days that followed—the asteroid turned once in approximately twenty-two hours—Parr was driven to belief. Perhaps the slowness of the idea's dawning kept him from some form of insanity.
Every man of the little group that called him chief was on the way to be a man no more. There were stooped backs among them, a forward hang to arms, a sprouting of coarse, lank hair. Foreheads fell away, noses flattened coarsely, eyes grew small and shifty. Sadau informed Parr that such evidences of degeneration meant a residence of a year or so on the exile asteroid.
"We'll be driving one or two of them away pretty soon," he observed.
"What then?" asked Parr. "What happens to the ones that are driven out?"
"Sometimes we notice them, peering through the brush, but mostly they haul out by themselves a little way from here—shaggy brutes, like our earliest fathers. There are lower types still. They stay completely clear of us."
Parr asked the question that had haunted him since his first hour of exile: "Sadau, do you see any change in me?"
Sadau smiled and shook his head. "You won't alter in the least for a month."
That was reasonable. Man, Parr remembered, has been pretty much the same for the past ten thousand years. If a year brought out the beast in the afflicted exiles, then that year must count for a good hundred thousand years turned backward. Five years would be five hundred thousand of reverse evolution—in that time, one would be reduced to something definitely animal. Beyond that, one would drop into the category of tailed monkeys, of rodent crawlers—reptiles next, and then—
"I'll kill myself first," he thought, but even as he made the promise he knew he would not. Cowards took the suicide way out, the final yielding to unjust, cruel mastery by the Martians. Parr stiffened his shoulders, that had grown tanned and vigorous in the healthy air. He spoke grimly to Sadau:
"I don't accept all this yet. It's happened to others, but not to me so far. There's a way of stopping this, and paying off those Martian swine. If it can be done—"
"I'm with you, Chief!" cried Sadau, and they shook hands.
Heartened, he made inquiries. The Martian space-patroller came every month or so, to drop a new exile. It always landed on the plain where Parr had first set foot to the asteroid. That gave him an idea, and he held conference in the early evening, with Sadau, Shanklin, and one or two others of the higher grade.
"We could capture that craft," urged Parr. "There's only a skipper and three Martians—"
"Yes, with pistols and ray throwers," objected Shanklin. "Too big a risk."
"What's the alternative?" demanded Sadau. "You want to stay here and turn monkey, Shanklin? Chief," he added to Parr, "I said once that I was on your side. I'll follow wherever you lead."
"Me, too," threw in Jeffords, a sturdy man of middle age who had been sentenced for killing a Martian in a brawl.
"And me," wound up Haldocott, a blond youth whose skin was burned darker than his hair and downy beard. "We four can pull it off without Shanklin."
But Shanklin agreed, with something like good humor, to stand by the vote of the majority. The others of the community assented readily, for they were used to acting at the will of their wiser companions. And at the next arrival of the Martian patroller—an observer, posted by Parr in a treetop, reported its coming whole hours away—they made a quick disposal of forces around the rocket-scorched plain that did duty for a landing field. Parr consulted for a last moment with Sadau, Shanklin, Jeffords and Haldocott.
"We'll lead rushes from different directions," he said. "As the hatchway comes open, the patroller will stall for the moment—can't take off until it's airtight everywhere. I'll give a yell for signal. Then everybody charge. Jam the tubes by smacking the soft metal collars at the nozzles—we can straighten them back when the ship's ours. Out to your places now."
"The first one at the hatch