The scientists rushed out of the airlock, bouncing along in their bubble suits, entering Lobert’s dome.
"What have you done now Stein?" Raged Findus. "You better not have-" He stopped, struck speechless by the sight of his colleague, standing on the alien soil, wearing no projective suit.
"What have you, what…" Findus tried again, but words failed him. The four scientists with him were also dumbfounded.
"I’ve done it, I’ve made the atmosphere breathable," Lobert exclaimed excitedly. "I don’t know how, but I’ve done it." The scientists looked at him in shock.
"Look, watch me." Lobert took a deep breath and theatrically exhaled. The scientists cried out in unison, joyfully rushing to Lobert’s side to shake his hand and clap him on the back, his uncovered flesh clasped in the plastic of their gloves. Even Findus congratulated him serenely, making Lobert swell with pride.
All the scientists, technicians and other assorted staff were summoned to the dome to witness the extraordinary event. Lobert saw Xan smiling at him amongst the assembled people, from military officers to the cleaners. Lobert felt guilty. It was obviously Xan’s input that had brought about the change. He looked back into the scientist’s eyes, trying to impart his feelings. Xan seemed to understand, raising a hand as if to tell Lobert not to worry. When they all had arrived Findus quietened the buzzing crowd, whose gaze was fastened on Lobert. The head scientist raised his hands to bring them to silence.
"My comrades," he began. "Today we stand on the brink of a new era for Taurus Delta. Today, we are indebted to Doctor Stein, for reaching out and grasping a new home for the human race!" The crowd clapped and cheered, Lobert flushed with embarrassment. "Now," continued Findus, hushing the men and women, "let us join in tasting the air of this, our new conquest." In unison, all fifty-seven of the dwellers on the planet removed their helmets and took a deep breath.
Horrified dread rushed over Lobert Stein as he watched his gathered colleagues scrabbling frantically at their throats, their faces turning blue and then purple, as they fell to the ground. Their heads shrunk grotesquely, and with a chorus of wet, squelching pops, their brains were crushed by the noxious gases clamping down on their skulls. Lobert screamed as he staggered backwards, shouting to the central computer.
"What seems to be the problem Doctor Stein?" The computer’s voice dripped like honey into his ears from the dome’s internal speakers.
"They’re all dead" he cried.
"Yes, it seems they couldn’t breath the air, the fatal reaction causing-"
"Why didn’t you stop them?" Lobert interrupted.
"I assumed it was part of your experiment," the computer replied, placidly. "A controlled test, so to speak."
"What d’you mean, controlled test? Hang on a second, why can I breath the air?" Lobert manically questioned.
"Because of your success in melding the properties of the alien creature with those of your own. I assumed that was your reason for keeping the creature in such close proximity."
"Melding properties? What the hell are you talking about?"
"By spending time with the creature you have entered its evolutionary pattern, absorbing it’s ability to breath in this harsh environment." Lobert felt his neck and recoiled in shock as his fingers ran across the gill-like flaps on his neck. How had he not noticed them before? "I assumed," the computer continued mockingly, "that you were aware of this change."
"But why didn’t you stop them from killing themselves when you knew they couldn’t breath?"
"As I have already related to you, I assumed this was part of your experiment, using a control group to show the difference from your personal reaction." The computer continued tiredly.
"Obviously from a human point of view, the loss is tragic. But you must see Doctor Stein, that you have made a breakthrough. Mankind is in your debt."
Lobert stood bewildered, staring down at the bodies of his fallen comrades. Philip watched him silently from his rock. It was then that as Lobert clapped his hands to his head in desolation, he felt six small lumps growing out of his forehead, just big enough to be noticed. Philip watched him beadily; glad to have a new friend to share his planet. He and Lobert walked out into the dusty wilderness, leaving the computer alone with the bodies.