“One of these days I’m going to take time off,” Spence Olham said at first-meal. He looked around at his wife. “I think I’ve earned a rest. Ten years is a long time.”
“And the Project?”
“The war will be won without me. This ball of clay of ours isn’t really in much danger.” Olham sat down at the table and lit a cigarette. “The newsmachines alter dispatches to make it appear the Outspacers are right on top of us. You know what I’d like to do on my vacation? I’d like to take a camping trip in those mountains outside of town, where we went that time. Remember? I got poison oak and you almost stepped on a gopher snake.”
“Sutton Wood?” Mary began to clear away the food dishes. “The Wood was burned a few weeks ago. I thought you knew. Some kind of a flash fire.”
Olham sagged. “Didn’t they even try to find the cause?” His lips twisted. “No one cares any more. All they can think of is the war.” He clamped his jaws together, the whole picture coming up in his mind, the Outspacers, the war, the needle-ships.
“How can we think about anything else?”
Olham nodded. She was right, of course. The dark little ships out of Alpha Centauri had by-passed the Earth cruisers easily, leaving them like helpless turtles. It had been one-way fights, all the way back to Terra.
All the way, until the protec-bubble was demonstrated by Westinghouse Labs. Thrown around the major Earth cities and finally the planet itself, the bubble was the first real defence, the first legitimate answer to the Outspacers—as the newsmachines labelled them.
But to win the war, that was another thing. Every lab, every project was working night and day, endlessly, to find something more: a weapon for positive combat. His own project, for example. All day long, year after year.
Olham stood up, putting out his cigarette. “Like the Sword of Damocles. Always hanging over us. I’m getting tired. All I want to do is take a long rest. But I guess everybody feels that way.”
He got his jacket from the closet and went out on the front porch. The shoot would be along any moment, the fast little bug that would carry him to the Project.
“I hope Nelson isn’t late.” He looked at his watch. “It’s almost seven.”
“Here the bug comes,” Mary said, gazing between the rows of houses. The sun glittered behind the roofs, reflecting against the heavy lead plates. The settlement was quiet; only a few people Were stirring. “I’ll see you later. Try not to work beyond your shift, Spence.”
Olham opened the car door and slid inside, leaning back against the seat with a sigh. There was an older man with Nelson.
“Well?” Olham said, as the bug shot ahead. “Heard any interesting news?”
“The usual,” Nelson said. “A few Outspace ships hit, another asteroid abandoned for strategic reasons.”
“It’ll be good when we get the Project into final stage. Maybe it’s just the propaganda from the newsmachines, but in the last month I’ve gotten weary of all this. Everything seems so grim and serious, no colour to life.”
“Do you think the war is in vain?” the older man said suddenly. “You are an integral part of it, yourself.”
“This is Major Peters,” Nelson said. Olham and Peters shook hands. Olham studied the older man.
“What brings you along so early?” he said. “I don’t remember seeing you at the Project before.”
“No, I’m not with the Project,” Peters said, “but I know something about what you’re doing. My own work is altogether different.”
A look passed between him and Nelson. Olham noticed it and he frowned. The bug was gaining speed, flashing across “the barren, lifeless ground towards the distant rim of the Project buildings.
“What is your business?” Olham said. “Or aren’t you permitted to talk about it?”
“I’m with the government,” Peters said. “With FSA, the Security Organ.”
“Oh?” Olham raised an eyebrow. “Is there any enemy infiltration in this region?”
“As a matter of fact I’m here to see you, Mr. Olham.”
Olham was puzzled. He considered Peters” words, but he could make nothing of them. “To see me? Why?”
“I’m here to arrest you as an Outspace spy. That’s why I’m up so early this morning. Grab him, Nelson—”
The gun drove into Olham’s ribs. Nelson’s hands were shaking, trembling with released emotion, his face pale. He took a deep breath and let it out again.
“Shall we kill him now?” he whispered to Peters. “I think we should kill him now. We can’t wait.”
Olham stared into his friend’s face. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Both men were staring at him steadily, rigid and grim with fright. Olham felt dizzy. His head ached and spun.
“I don’t understand,” he murmured.
At that moment the shoot car left the ground and rushed up, heading into space. Below them the Project fell away, smaller and smaller, disappearing. Olham shut his mouth.
“We can wait a little,” Peters said. “I want to ask him some questions, first.”
Olham gazed dully ahead as the bug rushed through space.
“The arrest was made all right,” Peters said into the vidscreen. On the screen the features of the Security chief showed. “It should be a load off everyone’s mind.”
“None. He entered the bug without suspicion. He didn’t seem to think my presence was too unusual.”
“Where are you now?”
“On our way out, just inside the protec-bubble. We’re moving at maximum speed. You can assume that the critical period is past. I’m glad the take-off jets in this craft were in good working order. If there had been any failure at that point—”
“Let me see him,” the Security chief said. He gazed directly at Olham where he sat, his hands in his lap, staring ahead.
“So that’s the man.” He looked at Olham for a time. Olham said nothing. At last the chief nodded to Peters. “All right. That’s enough.” A faint trace of disgust wrinkled his features. “I’ve seen all I want. You’ve done something that will be remembered for a long time. They’re preparing some sort of citation for both of you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Peters said.
“How much danger is there now? Is there still much chance that—”
“There is some chance, but not too much. According to my understanding, it requires a verbal key phrase. In any case we’ll have to take the risk.”
“I’ll have the Moon base notified you’re coming.”
“No.” Peters shook his head. “I’ll land the ship outside, beyond the base. I don’t want it in jeopardy.”
“Just as you like.” The chief’s eyes flickered as he glanced again at Olham. Then his image faded. The screen blanked.
Olham shifted his gaze to the window. The ship was already through the pro tee-bubble, rushing with greater and greater speed all the time. Peters was in a hurry; below him, rumbling under the floor, the jets were wide open. They were afraid, hurrying frantically, because of him.
Next to him on the seat Nelson shifted uneasily. “I think we should do it now,” he said. “I’d give anything if we could get it over with.”
“Take it easy,” Peters said. “I want you to guide the ship for a while so I can talk to him.”
He slid over beside Olham, looking into his face. Presently he reached out and touched him gingerly, on the arm and then on the cheek.
Olham said nothing. “If I could let Mary know,” he thought again. “If I could find some way of letting her know.” He looked around the ship. How? The vidscreen? Nelson was sitting by the board, holding the gun. There was nothing he could do. He was caught, trapped.
“Listen,” Peters said, “I want to ask you some questions. You know where we’re going. We’re moving Moonward. In an hour we’ll land on the far side, on the desolate side. After we land you’ll be turned over immediately to a team of men waiting there. Your body will be destroyed at once. Do you understand that?” He looked at his watch. “Within two hours your parts will be strewn over the landscape. There won’t be anything left of you.”
Olham struggled out of his lethargy. “Can’t you tell me—”
“Certainly, I’ll tell you.” Peters nodded. “Two days ago we received a report that an Outspace ship had penetrated the protec-bubble. The ship let off a spy in the form of a humanoid robot. The robot was to destroy a particular human being and take his place.”
Peters looked calmly at Olham.
“Inside the robot was a U-Bomb. Our agent did not know how the bomb was to be detonated, but he conjectured that it might be a particular spoken phrase, a certain group of words. The robot would live the life of the person he killed, entering into his usual activities, his job, his social life. He had been constructed to resemble that person. No one would know the difference.”
Olham’s face went sickly chalk.
“The person whom the robot was to impersonate was Spence Olham, a high-ranking official at one of the Research projects. Because this particular project was approaching crucial stage, the presence of an animate bomb, moving towards the centre of the Project—”
Olham stared down at his hands. “But I’m Olham!”
“Once the robot had located and killed Olham, it was a simple matter to take over his life. The robot was probably released from the ship eight days ago. The substitution was probably accomplished over the last week-end, when Olham went for a short walk in the hills.”
“But I’m Olham.” He turned to Nelson, sitting at the controls. “Don’t you recognize me? You’ve known me for twenty years. Don’t you remember how we went to college together?” He stood up. “You and I were at the University. We had the same room.” He went towards Nelson.
“Stay away from me!” Nelson snarled.
“Listen. Remember our second year? Remember that girl? What was her name—” He rubbed his forehead. “The one with the dark hair. The one we met over at Ted’s place?”
“Stop!” Nelson waved the gun frantically. “I don’t want to hear any more. You killed him! You… machine.”
Olham looked at Nelson. “You’re wrong. I don’t know what happened, but the robot never reached me. Something must have gone wrong. Maybe the ship crashed.” He turned to Peters. “I’m Olham. I know it. No transfer was made. I’m the same as I’ve always been.”
He touched himself, running his hands over his body. “There must be some way to prove it. Take me back to earth. An X-ray examination, a neurological study, anything like that will show you. Or maybe we can find the crashed ship.”
Neither Peters nor Nelson spoke.
“I am Olham,” he said again. “I know I am. But I can’t prove it.”
“The robot,” Peters said, “would be unaware that he was not the real Spence Olham. He would become Olham in mind as well as the body. He was given an artificial memory system, false recall. He would look like him, have his memories, his thoughts and interests, perform his job.
“But there would be one difference. Inside the robot is a U-Bomb ready to explode at the trigger phrase.” Peters moved a little away. “That’s the one difference. That’s why we’re taking you to the Moon. They’ll disassemble you and remove the bomb. Maybe it will explode, but it won’t matter there.”
Olham sat down slowly.
“We’ll be there soon,” Nelson said.
He lay back, thinking frantically, as the ship dropped slowly down. Under them was the pitted surface of the Moon, the endless expanse of ruin. What could he do? What would save him?
“Get ready,” Peters said.
In a few minutes he would be dead. Down below he could see a tiny dot, a building of some kind. There were men in the building, the demolition team, waiting to tear him to bits. They would rip him open, pull off his arms and legs, break him apart. When they found no bomb they would be surprised; they would know but it would be too late.
Olham looked around the small cabin. Nelson was still holding the gun. There was no chance there. If he could get a doctor, have an examination made—that was the only way. Mary could help him. He thought frantically, his mind racing. Only a few minutes, just a little time left. If he could contact her, get word to her some way.
“Easy,” Peters said. The ship came down slowly, bumping on the rough ground. There was silence.
“Listen,” Olham said thickly. “I can prove I’m Spence Olham. Get a doctor. Bring him here—”
“There’s the squad.” Nelson pointed. “They’re coming.” He glanced nervously at Olham. “I hope nothing happens.”
“We’ll be gone before they start work,” Peters said. “We’ll be out of here in a moment.” He put on his pressure suit. When he had finished he took the gun from Nelson. “I’ll watch him for a moment.”
Nelson put on his pressure suit, hurrying awkwardly. “How about him?” He indicated Olham. “Will he need one?”
“No.” Peters shook his head. “Robots probably don’t require oxygen.”
The group of men were almost to the ship. They halted, waiting. Peters signalled to them.
“Come on!” He waved his hand and the men approached warily; stiff, grotesque figures in their inflated suits.
“If you open the door,” Olham said, “it means my death. It will be murder.”
“Open the door,” Nelson said. He reached for the handle.
Olham watched him. He saw the man’s hand tighten around the metal rod. In a moment the door would swing back, the air in the ship would rush out. He would die, and presently they would realize their mistake. Perhaps at some other time, when there was no war, men might not act this way, hurrying an individual to his death because they were afraid. Everyone was frightened, everyone was willing to sacrifice the individual because of the group fear.
He was being killed because they could not wait to be sure of his guilt. There was not enough time.
He looked at Nelson. Nelson had been his friend for years. They had gone to school together. He had been best man at his wedding. Now Nelson was going to kill him. But Nelson was not wicked; it was not his fault. It was the times. Perhaps it had been the same way during the plagues. When men had shown a spot they probably had been killed, too, without a moment’s hesitation, without proof, on suspicion alone. In times of danger there was no other way.
He did not blame them. But he had to live. His life was too precious to be sacrificed. Olham thought quickly. What could he do? Was there anything? He looked around.
“Here goes,” Nelson said.
“You’re right,” Olham said. The sound of his own voice surprised him. It was the strength of desperation. “I have no need of air. Open the door.”
They paused, looking at him in curious alarm.
“Go ahead. Open it. It makes no difference.” Olham’s hand disappeared inside his jacket. “I wonder how far you can run.”
“You have fifteen seconds to live.” Inside his jacket his fingers twisted, his arm suddenly rigid. He relaxed, smiling a little. “You were wrong about the trigger phrase. In that respect you were mistaken. Fourteen seconds, now.”
Two shocked faces stared at him from the pressure suits. Then they were struggling, running, tearing the door open. The air shrieked out, spilling into the void. Peters and Nelson bolted out of the ship. Olham came after them. He grasped the door and dragged it shut. The automatic pressure system chugged furiously, restoring the air. Olham let his breath out with a shudder.
One more second—
Beyond the window the two men had joined the group. The group scattered, running in all directions. One by one they threw themselves down, prone on the ground. Olham seated himself at the control board. He moved the dials into place. As the ship rose up into the air the men below scrambled to their feet and stared up, their mouths open.
“Sorry,” Olham murmured, “but I’ve got to get back to Earth.”
He headed the ship back the way it had come.
It was night. All around the ship crickets chirped, disturbing the chill darkness. Olham bent over the vidscreen. Gradually the image formed; the call had gone through without trouble. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Mary,” he said. The woman stared at him. She gasped.
“Spence! Where are you? What’s happened?”
“I can’t tell you. Listen. I have to talk fast. They may break this call off any minute. Go to the Project grounds and get Dr. Chamberlain. If he isn’t there, get any doctor. Bring him to the house and have him stay there. Have him bring equipment, X-ray, fluoroscope, everything.”
“Do as I say. Hurry. Have him get it ready in an hour.” Olham leaned towards the screen. “Is everything all right? Are you alone?”
“Is anyone with you? Has… has Nelson or anyone contacted you?”
“No, Spence, I don’t understand.”
“All right. I’ll see you at the house in an hour. And don’t tell anyone anything. Get Chamberlain there on any pretext. Say you’re very ill.”
He broke the connection and looked at his watch. A moment later he left the ship, stepping down into the darkness. He had a half-mile to go.
He began to walk.
One light showed in the window, the study light. He watched It. kneeling against the fence. There was no sound, no movement of any kind. He held his watch up and read it by starlight. Almost an hour had passed.
Along the street a shoot bug came. It went on.
Olham looked towards the house. The doctor should have already come. He should be inside, waiting with Mary. A thought struck him. Had she been able to leave the house? Perhaps they had intercepted her. Maybe she was moving into a trap.
But what else could he do?
With a doctor’s records, photographs and reports, there was a chance, a chance of proof. If he could be examined, if he could remain alive long enough for them to study him—
He could prove it that way. It was probably the only way. His one hope lay inside the house. Dr. Chamberlain was a respected man. He was the staff doctor for the Project. He would know; his words on the matter would have meaning. He could overcome their hysteria, their madness, with facts.
Madness—that was what it was. If only they would wait, act slowly, take their time. But they could not wait. He had to die, die at once, without proof, without any kind of trial or examination. The simplest test would tell, but they had not time for the simplest test. They could think only of the danger. Danger, and nothing more.
He stood up and moved towards the house. He came up on the porch. At the door he paused, listening. Still no sound. The house was absolutely still.
Olham stood on the porch, unmoving. They were trying to be silent inside. Why? It was a small house; only a few feet away, beyond the door, Mary and Dr. Chamberlain should be standing. Yet he could hear nothing, no sound of voices, nothing at all. He looked at the door. It was a door he had opened and closed a thousand times, every morning and every night.
He put his hand on the knob. Then, all at once, he reached out and touched the bell instead. The bell pealed off some place in the back of the house. Olham smiled. He could hear movement.
Mary opened the door. As soon as he saw her face he knew.
He ran, throwing himself into the bushes. A Security officer shoved Mary out of the way, firing past her. The bushes burst apart. Olham wriggled around the side of the house. He leaped up and ran, racing frantically into the darkness. A searchlight snapped on, a beam of light circling past him.
He crossed the road and squeezed over a fence. He jumped down and made his way across a backyard. Behind him men were coming, Security officers, shouting to each other as they came. Olham gasped for breath, his chest rising and falling.
Her face—he had known at once. The set lips, the terrified, wretched eyes. Suppose he had gone ahead, pushed open the door and entered! They had tapped the call and come at once, as soon as he had broken off. Probably she believed their account. No doubt she thought he was the robot, too.
Olham ran on and on. He was losing the officers, dropping them behind. Apparently they were not much good at running. He climbed a hill and made his way down the other side. In a moment he would be back at the ship. But where to, this time? He slowed down, stopping. He could see the ship already, outlined against the sky, where he had parked it. The settlement was behind him; he was on the outskirts of the wilderness between the inhabited places, where the forests and desolation began. He crossed a barren field and entered the trees.
As he came towards it, the door of the ship opened.
Peters stepped out, framed against the light. In his arms was a heavy boris-gun. Olham stopped, rigid. Peters stared around him into the darkness. “I know you’re there, some place,” he said. “Come on up here, Olham. There are Security men all around you.”
Olham did not move.
“Listen to me. We will catch you very shortly. Apparently you still do not believe you’re the robot. Your call to the woman indicates that you are still under the illusion created by your artificial memories.
“But you are the robot. You are the robot, and inside you is the bomb. Any moment the trigger phrase may be spoken, by you, by someone else, by anyone. When that happens the bomb will destroy everything for miles around. The Project, the woman, all of us will be killed. Do you understand?”
Olham said nothing. He was listening. Men were moving towards him, slipping through the woods.
“If you don’t come out, we’ll catch you. It will be only a matter of time. We no longer plan to remove you to the Moon-base. You will be destroyed on sight, and we will have to take the chance that the bomb will detonate. I have ordered every available Security officer in the area. The whole county is being searched, inch by inch. There is no place you can go. Around this wood is a cordon of armed men. You have about six hours left before the last inch is covered.”
Olham moved away. Peters went on speaking; he had not seen him at all. It was too dark to see anyone. But Peters was right. There was no place he could go. He was beyond the settlement, on the outskirts where the woods began. He could hide for a time, but eventually they would catch him.
Only a matter of time.
Olham walked quietly away through the wood. Mile by mile, each part of the country was being measured off, laid bare, searched, studied, examined. The cordon was coming all the time, squeezing him into a smaller and smaller space.
What was there left? He had lost the ship, the one hope of escape. They were at his home; his wife was with them, believing, no doubt, that the real Olham had been killed. He clenched his fists. Some place there was a wrecked Outspace needle-ship, and in it the remains of the robot. Somewhere nearby the ship had crashed, and broken up.
And the robot lay inside, destroyed.
A faint hope stirred him. What if he could find the remains? If he could show them the wreckage, the remains of the ship, the robot—
But where? Where would he find it?
He walked on, lost in thought. Some place, not too far off, probably. The ship would have landed close to the Project; the robot would have expected to go the rest of the way on foot. He went up the side of a hill and looked around. Crashed and burned. Was there some clue, some hint? Had he read anything, heard anything? Some place close by, within walking distance. Some wild place, a remote spot where there would be no people.
Suddenly Olham smiled. Crashed and burned—
He increased his pace.
It was morning. Sunlight filtered down through the broken trees, on to the man crouching at the edge of the clearing. Olham glanced up from time to. time, listening. They were not far off, only a few minutes away. He smiled.
Down below him, strewn across the clearing and into the charred stumps that had been Sutton Wood, lay a tangled mass of wreckage. In the sunlight it glittered a little, gleaming darkly. He had not had too much trouble finding it. Sutton Wood was a place he knew well; he had climbed around it many times in his life, when he was younger. He had known where he would find the remains. There was one peak that jutted up suddenly, without warning.
A descending ship, unfamiliar with the Wood, had little chance of missing it. And now he squatted, looking down at the ship, or what remained of it.
Olham stood up. He could hear them, only a little distance away. coming together, talking in low tones. He tensed himself. Everything depended on who first saw him. If it were Nelson he had no chance. Nelson would fire at once. He would be dead before they saw the ship. But if he had time to call out, hold them off for a moment—that was all he needed. Once they saw the ship he would be safe.
But if they fired first—
A charred branch cracked. A figure appeared, coming forward uncertainly. Olham took a deep breath. Only a few seconds remained, perhaps the last seconds of his life. He raised his arms, peering intently.
It was Peters.
“Peters!” Olham waved his arms. Peters lifted his gun, aiming. “Don’t fire!” His voice shook. “Wait a minute. Look past me, across the clearing.”
“I’ve found him,” Peters shouted. Security men came pouring out of the burned woods around him.
“Don’t shoot. Look past me. The ship, the needle-ship. The Outspace ship. Look!”
Peters hesitated. The gun wavered.
“It’s down there,” Olham said rapidly. “I knew I’d find it here. The burned wood. Now you believe me. You’ll find the remains of the robot in the ship. Look, will you?”
“There is something down there,” one of the men said nervously.
“Shoot him!” a voice said. It was Nelson.
“Wait.” Peters turned sharply. “I’m in charge. Don’t anyone fire. Maybe he’s telling the truth.”
“Shoot him,” Nelson said. “He killed Olham. Any minute he may kill us all. If the bomb goes off—”
“Shut up.” Peters advanced towards the slope. He stared down. “Look at that.” He waved two men up to him. “Go down there and see what that is.”
The men raced down the slope, across the clearing. They bent down, poking in the ruins of the ship.
“Well?” Peters called.
Olham held his breath. He smiled a little. It must be there; he had not had time to look himself, but it had to be there. Suddenly doubt assailed him. Suppose the robot had lived long enough to wander away? Suppose his body had been completely destroyed, burned to ashes by the fire?
He licked his lips. Perspiration came out on his forehead. Nelson was staring at him, his face still livid. His chest rose and fell.
“Kill him,” Nelson said. “Before he kills us.”
The two men stood up.
“What have you found?” Peters said. He held the gun steady. “Is there anything there?”
“Looks like something. It’s a needle-ship, all right. There’s something beside it.”
“I’ll look.” Peters strode past Olham. Olham watched him go down the hill and up to the men. The others were following after him, peering to see.
“It’s a body of some sort,” Peters said. “Look at it!”
Olham came along with them. They stood around in a circle, staring down.
On the ground, bent and twisted into a strange shape, was a grotesque form. It looked human, perhaps; except that it was bent so strangely, the arms and legs flung off in all directions. The mouth was open, the eyes stared glassily.
“Like a machine that’s run down,” Peters murmured.
Olham smiled feebly. “Well?” he said.
Peters looked at him. “I can’t believe it. You were telling the truth all the time.” .
“The robot never reached me,” Olham said; He took out a cigarette and lit it. “It was destroyed when the ship crashed. You were. all too busy with the war to wonder why an out of the way woods would suddenly catch fire and burn. Now you know.”
He stood smoking, watching the men. They were dragging the grotesque remains from the ship. The body was stiff, the arms and legs rigid.
“You’ll find the bomb, now,” Olham said. The men laid the body on the ground. Peters bent down.
“I think I see the corner of it.” He reached out, touching the body.
The chest of the corpse had been laid open. Within the gaping tear something glinted, something metal. The men stared at the metal without speaking.
“That would have destroyed us all, if it had lived,” Peters said. “That metal box, there.”
There was silence.
“I think we owe you something,” Peters said to Olham. “This must have been a nightmare to you. If you hadn’t escaped, we would have—” He broke off.
Olham put out his cigarette. “I knew, of course, that the robot had never reached me. But I had no way of proving it. Sometimes it isn’t possible to prove a thing right away. That was the whole trouble. There wasn’t any way I could demonstrate that I was myself.”
“How about a vacation?” Peters said. “I think we might work out a month’s vacation for you. You could take it easy, relax.”
“I think right now I want to go home,” Olham said.
“All right, then,” Peters said. “Whatever you say.”
Nelson had squatted down on the ground, beside the corpse. He reached out towards the glint of metal visible within the chest.
“Don’t touch it,” Olham said. “It might still go off. We better let the demolition squad take care of it later on.”
Nelson said nothing. Suddenly he grabbed hold of the metal, reaching his hand inside the chest. He pulled.
“What are you doing?” Olham cried.
Nelson stood up. He was holding on to the metal object. His face was blank with terror. It was a metal knife, an Outspace needle-knife, covered with blood.
“This killed him,” Nelson whispered. “My friend was killed With this.” He looked at Olham. “You killed him with this and left him beside the ship.”
Olham was trembling. His teeth chattered. He looked from the knife to the body. “This can’t be Olham,” he said. His mind spun, everything was whirling. “Was I wrong?”
“But if that’s Olham, then I must be—”
He did not complete the sentence, only the first phase. The blast was visible all the way to Alpha Centauri.
Author: Philip K. Dick
Published in: Astounding Science Fiction (June 1953)
Appears in: A Handful of Darkness (1955)