Voyage to Eternity
“It’s all so big! So incredible! We’ll never understand it! Never...”
“Relax, Sophia. Arkalion said--”
“I know what Arkalion said, but we haven’t learned anything yet.”
Hours before, Arkalion had landed them on the space station, a gleaming, five-mile in diameter globe, and had quickly departed. Soon after that they had found themselves in a veritable labyrinth of tunnels, passageways, vaults. Occasionally they passed a great glowing screen, and always the view of space was the same. Like a magnificent, elongated shield, sparkling with a million million points of light, pale gold, burnished copper, blue of glacial ice and silver white, the Andromeda Galaxy spanned space from upper right to lower left. Off at the lower right hand corner they could see their space station; apparently the viewer itself stood far removed in space, projecting its images here at the globe.
Awed the first time they had seen one of the screens, Temple said, “All the poets who ever wrote a line would have given half their lives to see this as we see it now.”
“And all the writers, musicians, artists...”
“Anyone, who ever thought creatively, Sophia. How can you say it’s breathtaking or anything like that when words weren’t ever spoken which can...”
“Let’s not go poetic just yet,” Sophia admonished him with a smile. “We’d better get squared away here, as the expression goes, before it’s too late.”
“Yes ... Hello, what’s this?” A door irised open for them in a solid wall of metal. Irised was the only word Temple could think of, for a tiny round hole appeared in the wall spreading evenly in all directions with a slow, uniform, almost liquid motion. When it was large enough to walk through, they entered a completely bare room and Temple whirled in time to see the entrance irising shut.
“Something smells,” said Sophia, sniffing at the air.
Sweet and cloying, the odor grew stronger. Temple may have heard a faint hissing sound. “I’m getting sleepy,” he said.
Nodding, Sophia ran, banged on the wall where the door had opened so suddenly, then closed. No response. “Is it a trap?”
“By whom? For what?” Temple found it difficult to keep his eyes from closing. “Fight it if you want, Sophia. I’m going to sleep.” And he squatted in the center of the floor, staring vacantly at the bare wall.
Just as Temple was drifting off into a dream about complex machinery he did not yet understand but realized he soon would, Sophia joined him the hard way, collapsing alongside of him, unconscious and sprawling gracelessly on the floor.
“Sleepy-head, get up.” Sophia stirred as he spoke and shook her. She yawned, stretched, smiled up at him lazily. “How do you feel now?”
“That’s a point. It’s all right now, though. I know exactly where the food concentrates are kept. Three levels below us, second segment of the wall. You can make those queer doors iris by pressing the wall twice, with about a one second interval.”
They found the food compartment, discovered row on row of cans, boxes, jars. Temple opened one of the cans, gazed in disappointment on a sorry looking thing the size of his thumb. Brown, shriveled, dry and almost flaky, it might have been a bird.
Sophia turned up her nose. “If that’s the best this place has to offer, I’m not so hungry anymore.”
Suddenly, she gaped. So did Temple. A savory odor attracted their attention, steam rising from the small can added to their interest. Amazing things happened to the withered scrap of food on exposure to the air. Temple barely had time to extract it from the can, burning his fingers in the process, when it became twice the can’s size. It grew and by the time it finished, it was as savory looking a five pound fowl as Temple had ever seen. Roasted, steaming hot, ready to eat.
They tore into it with savage gusto.
“Stephanie should see me now,” Temple found himself saying and regretted it.
“Stephanie? Who’s that?”
“What’s the difference? She’s a million light years and fifty centuries away.”
“Yes,” said Temple, wishing he could change the subject. “My girl.” He hadn’t thought of Stephanie in a long time, perhaps because it was meaningless to think of someone dead fifty centuries. Now that the thoughts had been stirred within him, though, he found them poignantly pleasant.
“Your girl ... and you would marry her if you could?”
He had grown attached to Sophia, not in reality, but in the second of their dream worlds. He wished the memory of the dream had not lingered for it disturbed him. In it he had loved Sophia as much as he now loved Stephanie although the one was obtainable and the other was a five-thousand year pinch of dust. And how much of the dream lingered with him, in his head and his heart?
“Let’s forget about it,” Temple suggested.
“No. If she were here today and if everything were normal, would you marry her?”
“Why talk about what can’t be?”
“I want to know, that’s why.”
“All right. Yes, I would. I would marry Stephanie.”
“Oh,” said Sophia. “Then what happened in the dream meant ... nothing.”
“We were two different people,” Temple said coolly, then wished he hadn’t for it was only half-true. He remembered everything about the dream-which-was-more-than-a-dream vividly. He had been far more intimate with Sophia, and over a longer period of time, than he had ever been with Stephanie. And even if Stephanie appeared impossibly on the spot and he spent the rest of his life as her husband, still he would never forget his dream-life with Sophia. In time he could let himself tell her that. But not now; now the best thing he could do would be to change the subject.
“I see,” Sophia answered him coldly.
“No, you don’t. Maybe some day you will.”
“There’s nothing but what you told me. I see.”
“No ... forget it,” he told her wearily.
“Of course. It was only a dream anyway. The dream before that I almost killed you out of hatred anyway. Love and hate, I guess they neutralize. We’re just a couple of people who have to do a job together, that’s all.”
“For gosh sakes, Sophia! That isn’t true. I loved Stephanie. I still would, were Stephanie alive. But she’s--she’s about as accessible as the Queen of Sheba.”
“So? There’s an American expression--you’re carrying a torch.”
Probably, Temple realized, it was true. But what did all of that have to do with Sophia? If he and Sophia ... if they ... would it be fair to Sophia? It would be exactly as if a widower remarried, with the memory of his first wife set aside in his heart ... no, different, for he had never wed Stephanie, and always in him would be the desire for what had never been.
“Let’s talk about it some other time,” Temple almost pleaded, wanting the respite for himself as much as for Sophia.
“No. We don’t have to talk about it ever. I won’t be second best, Kit. Let’s forget all about it and do our job. I--I’m sorry I brought the whole thing up.”
Temple felt like an unspeakable heel. And, anyway, the whole thing wasn’t resolved in his mind. But they couldn’t just let it go at that, not in case something happened when the ships came and one or both of them perished. Awkwardly, for now he felt self-conscious about everything, he got his arms about Sophia, drew her to him, placed his lips to hers.
That was as far as he got. She wrenched free, shoved clear of him. “If you try that again, you will have another dislocated jaw.”
Temple shrugged wearily. If anything were to be resolved between them, it would be later.
When the ships came moments afterwards--seven, not the five Arkalion predicted--they were completely unprepared.
Temple spotted them first on one of the viewing screens, half way between the receiver and the space station itself, silhouetted against the elongated shield of Andromeda. They soared out of the picture, appeared again minutes later, zooming in from the other direction in two flights of four ships and three.
“Come on!” Sophia cried over her shoulder, irising the door and plunging from the room. Temple followed at her heels but her Jupiter trained muscles pushed her lithe legs in long, powerful strides and soon she outdistanced him. By the time he reached the armaments vault, breathless, she was seated at the single gun-emplacement, her fingers on the controls.
“Watch the viewing screen and tell me how we’re doing,” Sophia told him, not taking her eyes from the dials and levers.
Temple watched, fascinated, saw a thin pencil of radiant energy leap out into space, missing one of the ships by what looked like a scant few miles. He called the corrective azimuth to her, hardly surprised by the way his mind had absorbed and now could use its new-found knowledge.
Temple understood and yet did not understand. For example, he knew the station had but one gun and Sophia sat at it now, yet in certain ways it didn’t make sense. Could it cover all sectors of space? His mind supplied the answer although he had not been aware of the knowledge an instant before: yes. The space station did not merely rotate. Its surface was a spherical projection of a moving Moebius strip and although he tried to envision the concept, he failed. The weapon could be fired at any given point in space at twenty second intervals, covering every other conceivable point in the ensuing time.
Sophia was firing again and Temple watched the thin beam leap across space. “Hit!” he roared. “Hit!”
Something flashed at the front end of the lead ship. The light blinded him, but when he could see again only six ships remained in space--casting perfect shadows on the Andromeda Galaxy! The source of light, Temple realized triumphantly, was out of range, but he could picture it--a glowing derelict of a ship, spewing heat, light and radioactivity into the void.
“One down,” Sophia called. “Six to go. I like your American expressions. Like sitting ducks--”
She did not finish. Abruptly, light flared all around them. Something shrieked in Temple’s ears. The vault shuddered, shook. Girders clattered to the floor, stove it in, revealing black rock. Sophia was thrown back from the single gun, crashing against the wall, flipping in air and landing on her stomach.
Temple ran to her, turned her over. Blood smeared her face, trickled from her lips. Although she did not move, she wasn’t dead. Temple half dragged, half carried her from the vault into an adjoining room. He stretched her out comfortably as he could on the floor, ran back into the vault.
Molten metal had collected in one corner of the room, crept sluggishly toward him across the floor, heating it white-hot. He skirted it, climbed over a twisted girder, pushed his way past other debris, found himself at the gun emplacement.
“How dumb can I get?” Temple said aloud. “Sophia ran to the gun, must have assumed I set up the shields.” Again, it was an item of information stored in his mind by the wisdom of the space station. Protective shields made it impossible for anything but a direct hit on the emplacement to do them any harm, only Temple had never set the shields in place. He did so now, merely by tripping a series of levers, but glancing at a dial to his left he realized with alarm that the damage possibly had already been done. The needle, which measured lethal radiation, hovered half way between negative and the critical area marked in red and, even as Temple watched it, crept closer to the red.