He focused on the other parts of the ship, marveling at the diversity of life. Each item, no matter how small, was sufficient to itself. He forced himself to contemplate this, until the unpleasantness of the thought grated on him and he longed for the normality of home.
Most of the thoughts he received from the smaller fragments were vague and fleeting, as you would expect. There wasn’t much to be had from them, but that meant their need for completeness was all the greater. It was that which touched him so keenly.
There was the life fragment which squatted on its haunches and fingered the wire netting that enclosed it. Its thoughts were clear, but limited. Chiefly, they concerned the yellow fruit a companion fragment was eating. It wanted the fruit very deeply. Only the wire netting that separated the fragments prevented its seizing the fruit by force.
He disengaged reception in a moment of complete revulsion. These fragments competed for food!
He tried to reach far outward for the peace and harmony of home, but it was already an immense distance away. He could reach only into the nothingness that separated him from sanity.
He longed at the moment even for the feel of the dead soil between the barrier and the ship. He had crawled over it last night. There had been no life upon it, but it had been the soil of home, and on the other side of the barrier there had still been the comforting feel of the rest of organized life.
He could remember the moment he had located himself on the surface of the ship, maintaining a desperate suction grip until the air lock opened. He had entered, moving cautiously between the outgoing feet. There had been an inner lock and that had been passed later. Now he lay here, a life fragment himself, inert and unnoticed.
Cautiously, he engaged reception again at the previous focus. The squatting fragment of life was tugging furiously at the wire netting. It still wanted the other’s food, though it was the less hungry of the two.
Larsen said, “Don’t feed the damn thing. She isn’t hungry; she’s just sore because Tillie had the nerve to eat before she herself was crammed full. The greedy ape! I wish we were back home and I never had to look another animal in the face again.”
He scowled at the older female chimpanzee frowningly and the chimp mouthed and chattered back to him in full reciprocation.
Rizzo said, “Okay, okay. Why hang around here, then? Feeding time is over. Let’s get out.”
They went past the goat pens, the rabbit hutches, the hamster cages.
Larsen said bitterly, “You volunteer for an exploration voyage. You’re a hero. They send you off with speeches-and make a zoo keeper out of you.”
“They give you double pay.”
“All right, so what? I didn’t sign up just for the money. They said at the original briefing that it was even odds we wouldn’t come back, that we’d end up like Saybrook. I signed up because I wanted to do something important.”
“Just a bloomin’ bloody hero,” said Rizzo.
“I’m not an animal nurse.”
Rizzo paused to lift a hamster out of the cage and stroke it. “Hey,” he said, “did you ever think that maybe one of these hamsters has some cute little baby hamsters inside, just getting started?”
“Wise guy! They’re tested every day.”
“Sure, sure.” He muzzled the little creature, which vibrated its nose at him. “But just suppose you came down one morning and found them there. New little hamsters looking up at you with soft, green patches of fur where the eyes ought to be.”
“Shut up, for the love of Mike,” yelled Larsen.
“Little soft, green patches of shining fur,” said Rizzo, and put the hamster down with a sudden loathing sensation.
He engaged reception again and varied the focus. There wasn’t a specialized life fragment at home that didn’t have a rough counterpart on shipboard.
There were the moving runners in various shapes, the moving swimmers, and the moving fliers. Some of the fliers were quite large, with perceptible thoughts; others were small, gauzy-winged creatures. These last transmitted only patterns of sense perception, imperfect patterns at that, and added nothing intelligent of their own.
There were the non-movers, which, like the non-movers at home, were green and lived on the air, water, and soil. These were a mental blank. They knew only the dim, dim consciousness of light, moisture, and gravity.
And each fragment, moving and non-moving, had its mockery of life.
Not yet. Not yet. . . .