Voyage to Eternity
Chapter VIII

Public Domain

“You got to hand it to Temple’s kid brother.”

“Yeah. Cool as ice cubes.”

“Are you guys kidding? He doesn’t know what’s in store for him, that’s all.”

“Do you?”

“Now that you mention it, no. Isn’t a man here who can say for sure what kind of environmental challenges he’ll have to respond to. Hypno-surgery sees to it the guys who went through the thing won’t talk about it. As if that isn’t security enough, the subject’s got to be a brand new arrival!”

“Shh! Here he comes.”

The brothers Temple entered Earth City’s one tavern quietly, but on their arrival all the speculative talk subsided. The long bar, built to accommodate half a hundred pairs of elbows comfortably, gleamed with a luster unfamiliar to Temple. It might have been marble, but marble translucent rather than opaque, giving a beautiful three-dimensional effect to the surface patterns.

“What will it be?” Jason demanded.

“Whatever you’re drinking is fine.”

Jason ordered two scotches, neat, and the brothers drank. When Jason got a refill he started talking. “Does T.A.T. mean anything to you, Kit?”

“Tat? Umm--no. Wait a minute! T.A.T. Isn’t that some kind of projective psychological test?”

“That’s it. You’re shown a couple of dozen pictures, more or less ambiguous, never cut and dry. Each one comes from a different stratum of the social environment, and you’re told to create a dramatic situation, a story, for each picture. From your stories, for which you draw on your whole background as a human being, the psychometrician should be able to build a picture of your personality and maybe find out what, if anything, is bothering you.”

“What’s that to do with this response to environmental challenge thing?”

“Well,” said Jason, drinking a third scotch, “the Super Boys have evolved T.A.T. to its ultimate. T.A.T.--that stands for Thematic Apperception Test. But in E.C.R.--environmental challenge and response, you don’t see a picture and create a dramatic story around it. Instead, you get thrust into the picture, the situation, and you have to work out the solution--or suffer whatever consequences the particular environmental challenge has in store for you.”

“I think I get you. But it’s all make believe, huh?”

“That’s the hell of it,” Jason told him. “No, it’s not. It is and it isn’t. I don’t know.”

“You make it perfectly clear,” Temple smiled. “The red-headed boy combed his brown hair, wishing it weren’t blond.”

Jason shrugged. “I’m sorry. For reasons you already know, the E.C.R. isn’t very clear to me--or to anyone. You’re not actually in the situation in a physical sense, but it can affect you physically. You feel you’re there, you actually live everything that happens to you, getting injured if an injury occurs ... and dying if you get killed. It’s permanent, although you might actually be sleeping at the time. So, whether it’s real or not is a question for philosophy. From your point of view, from the point of view of someone going through it, it’s real.”

“So I become part of this--uh, game in about an hour.”

“Right. You and whoever the Russians offer as your competition. No one will blame you if you want to back out, Kit; from what you tell me, you haven’t even been adequately trained on Mars.”

“If you draw on the entire background of your life for this E.C.R., then you don’t need training. Shut up and stop worrying. I’m not backing out of anything.”

“I didn’t think you would, not if you’re still as much like your old man as you used to be. Kit ... good luck.”

The fact that the technicians working around him were Earthmen permitted Temple to relax a little. Probably, it was planned that way, for entering the huge white cube of a building and ascending to the twelfth level on a moving ramp Temple had spotted many figures, not all of them human. If he had been strapped to the table by unfamiliar aliens, if the scent of alien flesh--or non-flesh--had been strong in the room, if the fingers--or appendages--which greased his temples and clamped an electrode to each one had not felt like human fingers, if the men talking to him had spoken in voices too harsh or too sibilant for human vocal chords--if all that had been the case whatever composure still remained his would have vanished.

“I’m Dr. Olson,” said one white-gowned figure. “If any injuries occur while you lie here, I’m permitted to render first aid.”

“The same for limited psychotherapy,” said a shorter, heavier man. “Though a fat lot of good it does when we never know what’s bothering you, and don’t have the time to work on it even if we did know.”

“In short,” said a third man who failed to identify himself, “you may consider yourself as the driver of one of those midget rocket racers. Do they still have them on Earth? Good. You are the driver, and we here in this room are the mechanics waiting in your pit. If anything goes wrong, you can pull out of the race temporarily and have it repaired. But in this particular race there is no pulling out: all repairs are strictly of a first-aid nature and must be done while you continue whatever you are doing. If you break your finger and find a splint appearing on it miraculously, don’t say you weren’t warned.”

“Best of luck to you, young man,” said the psychotherapist.

“Here we go,” said the doctor, finding the large vein on the inside of Temple’s forearm and plunging a needle into it.

Temple’s senses whirled instantly, but as his vision clouded he thought he saw a large, complex device swing down from the ceiling and bathe his head in warming radiation. He blinked, squinted, could see nothing but a swirling, cloudy opacity.

Approximately two seconds later, Sophia Androvna Petrovitch watched as the white-gowned comrade tied a rubber strap around her arm, waited for the vein to swell with blood, then forced a needle in through its thick outer layer. Was that a nozzle overhead? No, rather a lens, for from it came amber warmth ... which soon faded, with everything else, into thick, churning fog...

Temple was abruptly aware of running, plunging headlong and blindly through the fiercest storm he had ever seen. Gusts of wind whipped at him furiously. Rain cascaded down in drenching torrents. Foliage, brambles, branches struck against his face; mud sucked at his feet. Big animal shapes lumbered by in the green gloom, as frightened by the storm as was Temple.

His head darted this way and that, his eyes could see the gnarled tree trunks, the dense greenery, the lianas, creepers and vines of a tropical rain forest--but dimly. Green murk swirled in like thick smoke with every gust of wind, with the rain obscuring vision almost completely.

Temple ran until his lungs burned and he thought he must exhale fire. His leaden feet fought the mud with growing difficulty for every stride he took. He ran wildly and in no set direction, convinced only that he must find shelter or perish. Twice he crashed bodily into trees, twice stumbled to his knees only to pull himself upright again, sucking air painfully into his lungs and cutting out in a fresh direction.

He ran until his legs balked. He fell, collapsing first at the knees, then the waist, then flopping face down in the mud. Something prodded his back as he fell and reaching behind him weakly Temple was aware for the first time that a bow and a quiver of arrows hung suspended from his shoulders by a strong leather thong. He wore nothing but a loin cloth of some nameless animal skin and he wondered idly if he had slain the animal with the weapon he carried. Yet when he tried to recollect he found he could not. He remembered nothing but his frantic flight through the rain forest, as if all his life he had run in a futile attempt to leave the rain behind him.

Now as he lay there, the mud sucking at his legs, his chest, his armpits, he could not even remember his name. Did he have one? Did he have a life before the rain forest? Then why did he forget?

A sense not fully developed in man and called intuition by those who fail to understand it made him prop his head up on his hands and squint through the downpour. There was something off there in the foliage ... someone...

A woman.

Temple’s breath caught in his throat sharply. The woman stood half a dozen paces off, observing him coolly with hands on flanks. She stood tall and straight despite the storm and from trim ankles to long, lithe legs to flaring loin-clothed hips, to supple waist and tawny skin of fine bare breasts and shoulders, to proud, haughty face and long dark hair loose in the storm and glistening with rain, she was magnificent. Her long, bronzed body gleamed with wetness and Temple realized she was tall as he, a wild beautiful goddess of the jungle. She was part of the storm and he accepted her--but strangely, with the same fear the storm evoked. She would make a lover the whole world might relish (what world, Temple thought in confusion?) but she would make a terrible foe.

And foe she was...

“I want your bow and arrows,” she told him.

Temple wanted to suggest they share the weapon, but somehow he knew in this world which was like a dream and could tell him things the way a dream would and yet was vividly real, that the woman would share nothing with anybody.

“They are mine,” Temple said, climbing to his knees. He remembered the animal-shapes lumbering by in the storm and he knew that he and the animals would both stalk prey when the storm subsided and he would need the bow and arrows.

The woman moved toward him with a liquid motion beautiful to behold, and for the space of a heartbeat Temple watched her come. “I will take them,” she said.

Temple wasn’t sure if she could or not, and although she was a woman he feared her strangely. Again, it was as if something in this dream-world real-world could tell him more than he should know.

Making up his mind, Temple sprang to his feet, whirled about and ran. He was plunging through the wild storm once more, blinded by the occasional flashes of jagged green lightning, deafened by the peals of thunder which followed. And he was being pursued.

Minutes, hours, more than hours--for an eternity Temple ran. A reservoir of strength he never knew he possessed provided the energy for each painful step and running through the storm seemed the most natural thing in the world to him. But there came a time when his strength failed, not slowly, but with shocking suddenness. Temple fell, crawled a ways, was still.

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