The Sense of Wonder

by Steven Marlowe

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: When nobody aboard ship remembers where it's going, how can they tell when it has arrived?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Every day for a week now, Rikud had come to the viewport to watch the great changeless sweep of space. He could not quite explain the feelings within him; they were so alien, so unnatural. But ever since the engines somewhere in the rear of the world had changed their tone, from the steady whining Rikud had heard all twenty-five years of his life, to the sullen roar that came to his ears now, the feelings had grown.

If anyone else had noticed the change, he failed to mention it. This disturbed Rikud, although he could not tell why. And, because he had realized this odd difference in himself, he kept it locked up inside him.

Today, space looked somehow different. The stars--it was a meaningless concept to Rikud, but that was what everyone called the bright pinpoints of light on the black backdrop in the viewport--were not apparent in the speckled profusion Rikud had always known. Instead, there was more of the blackness, and one very bright star set apart by itself in the middle of the viewport.

If he had understood the term, Rikud would have told himself this was odd. His head ached with the half-born thought. It was--it was--what was it?

Someone was clomping up the companionway behind Rikud. He turned and greeted gray-haired old Chuls.

“In five more years,” the older man chided, “you’ll be ready to sire children. And all you can do in the meantime is gaze out at the stars.”

Rikud knew he should be exercising now, or bathing in the rays of the health-lamps. It had never occurred to him that he didn’t feel like it; he just didn’t, without comprehending.

Chuls’ reminder fostered uneasiness. Often Rikud had dreamed of the time he would be thirty and a father. Whom would the Calculator select as his mate? The first time this idea had occurred to him, Rikud ignored it. But it came again, and each time it left him with a feeling he could not explain. Why should he think thoughts that no other man had? Why should he think he was thinking such thoughts, when it always embroiled him in a hopeless, infinite confusion that left him with a headache?

Chuls said, “It is time for my bath in the health-rays. I saw you here and knew it was your time, too...”

His voice trailed off. Rikud knew that something which he could not explain had entered the elder man’s head for a moment, but it had departed almost before Chuls knew of its existence.

“I’ll go with you,” Rikud told him.


A hardly perceptible purple glow pervaded the air in the room of the health-rays. Perhaps two score men lay about, naked, under the ray tubes. Chuls stripped himself and selected the space under a vacant tube. Rikud, for his part, wanted to get back to the viewport and watch the one new bright star. He had the distinct notion it was growing larger every moment. He turned to go, but the door clicked shut and a metallic voice said. “Fifteen minutes under the tubes, please.”

Rikud muttered to himself and undressed. The world had begun to annoy him. Now why shouldn’t a man be permitted to do what he wanted, when he wanted to do it? There was a strange thought, and Rikud’s brain whirled once more down the tortuous course of half-formed questions and unsatisfactory answers.

He had even wondered what it was like to get hurt. No one ever got hurt. Once, here in this same ray room, he had had the impulse to hurl himself head-first against the wall, just to see what would happen. But something soft had cushioned the impact--something which had come into being just for the moment and then abruptly passed into non-being again, something which was as impalpable as air.

Rikud had been stopped in this action, although there was no real authority to stop him. This puzzled him, because somehow he felt that there should have been authority. A long time ago the reading machine in the library had told him of the elders--a meaningless term--who had governed the world. They told you to do something and you did it, but that was silly, because now no one told you to do anything. You only listened to the buzzer.

And Rikud could remember the rest of what the reading machine had said. There had been a revolt--again a term without any real meaning, a term that could have no reality outside of the reading machine--and the elders were overthrown. Here Rikud had been lost utterly. The people had decided that they did not know where they were going, or why, and that it was unfair that the elders alone had this authority. They were born and they lived and they died as the elders directed, like little cogs in a great machine. Much of this Rikud could not understand, but he knew enough to realize that the reading machine had sided with the people against the elders, and it said the people had won.

Now in the health room, Rikud felt a warmth in the rays. Grudgingly, he had to admit to himself that it was not unpleasant. He could see the look of easy contentment on Chuls’ face as the rays fanned down upon him, bathing his old body in a forgotten magic which, many generations before Rikud’s time, had negated the necessity for a knowledge of medicine. But when, in another ten years, Chuls would perish of old age, the rays would no longer suffice. Nothing would, for Chuls. Rikud often thought of his own death, still seventy-five years in the future, not without a sense of alarm. Yet old Chuls seemed heedless, with only a decade to go.

Under the tube at Rikud’s left lay Crifer. The man was short and heavy through the shoulders and chest, and he had a lame foot. Every time Rikud looked at that foot, it was with a sense of satisfaction. True, this was the only case of its kind, the exception to the rule, but it proved the world was not perfect. Rikud was guiltily glad when he saw Crifer limp.

But, if anyone else saw it, he never said a word. Not even Crifer.


Now Crifer said, “I’ve been reading again, Rikud.”

“Yes?” Almost no one read any more, and the library was heavy with the smell of dust. Reading represented initiative on the part of Crifer; it meant that, in the two unoccupied hours before sleep, he went to the library and listened to the reading machine. Everyone else simply sat about and talked. That was the custom. Everyone did it.

But if he wasn’t reading himself, Rikud usually went to sleep. All the people ever talked about was what they had done during the day, and it was always the same.

“Yes,” said Crifer. “I found a book about the stars. They’re also called astronomy, I think.”

This was a new thought to Rikud, and he propped his head up on one elbow. “What did you find out?”

“That’s about all. They’re just called astronomy, I think.”

“Well, where’s the book?” Rikud would read it tomorrow.

“I left it in the library. You can find several of them under ‘astronomy,’ with a cross-reference under ‘stars.’ They’re synonymous terms.”

“You know,” Rikud said, sitting up now, “the stars in the viewport are changing.”

“Changing?” Crifer questioned the fuzzy concept as much as he questioned what it might mean in this particular case.

“Yes, there are less of them, and one is bigger and brighter than the others.”

“Astronomy says some stars are variable,” Crifer offered, but Rikud knew his lame-footed companion understood the word no better than he did.

Over on Rikud’s right, Chuls began to dress. “Variability,” he told them, “is a contradictory term. Nothing is variable. It can’t be.”

“I’m only saying what I read in the book,” Crifer protested mildly.

“Well, it’s wrong. Variability and change are two words without meaning.”

“People grow old,” Rikud suggested.

A buzzer signified that his fifteen minutes under the rays were up, and Chuls said, “It’s almost time for me to eat.”

Rikud frowned. Chuls hadn’t even seen the connection between the two concepts, yet it was so clear. Or was it? He had had it a moment ago, but now it faded, and change and old were just two words.

His own buzzer sounded a moment later, and it was with a strange feeling of elation that he dressed and made his way back to the viewport. When he passed the door which led to the women’s half of the world, however, he paused. He wanted to open that door and see a woman. He had been told about them and he had seen pictures, and he dimly remembered his childhood among women. But his feelings had changed; this was different. Again there were inexplicable feelings--strange channelings of Rikud’s energy in new and confusing directions.

He shrugged and reserved the thought for later. He wanted to see the stars again.


The view had changed, and the strangeness of it made Rikud’s pulses leap with excitement. All the stars were paler now than before, and where Rikud had seen the one bright central star, he now saw a globe of light, white with a tinge of blue in it, and so bright that it hurt his eyes to look.

Yes, hurt! Rikud looked and looked until his eyes teared and he had to turn away. Here was an unknown factor which the perfect world failed to control. But how could a star change into a blinking blue-white globe--if, indeed, that was the star Rikud had seen earlier? There was that word change again. Didn’t it have something to do with age? Rikud couldn’t remember, and he suddenly wished he could read Crifer’s book on astronomy, which meant the same as stars. Except that it was variable, which was like change, being tied up somehow with age.

Presently Rikud became aware that his eyes were not tearing any longer, and he turned to look at the viewport. What he saw now was so new that he couldn’t at first accept it. Instead, he blinked and rubbed his eyes, sure that the ball of blue-white fire somehow had damaged them. But the new view persisted.

Of stars there were few, and of the blackness, almost nothing. Gone, too, was the burning globe. Something loomed there in the port, so huge that it spread out over almost the entire surface. Something big and round, all grays and greens and browns, and something for which Rikud had no name.

A few moments more, and Rikud no longer could see the sphere. A section of it had expanded outward and assumed the rectangular shape of the viewport, and its size as well. It seemed neatly sheered down the middle, so that on one side Rikud saw an expanse of brown and green, and on the other, blue.

Startled, Rikud leaped back. The sullen roar in the rear of the world had ceased abruptly. Instead an ominous silence, broken at regular intervals by a sharp booming.

Change--

“Won’t you eat, Rikud?” Chuls called from somewhere down below.

“Damn the man,” Rikud thought. Then aloud: “Yes, I’ll eat. Later.”

“It’s time...” Chuls’ voice trailed off again, impotently.

But Rikud forgot the old man completely. A new idea occurred to him, and for a while he struggled with it. What he saw--what he had always seen, except that now there was the added factor of change--perhaps did not exist in the viewport.

Maybe it existed through the viewport.

That was maddening. Rikud turned again to the port, where he could see nothing but an obscuring cloud of white vapor, murky, swirling, more confusing than ever.

“Chuls,” he called, remembering, “come here.”

“I am here,” said a voice at his elbow.

Rikud whirled on the little figure and pointed to the swirling cloud of vapor. “What do you see?”

Chuls looked. “The viewport, of course.”

“What else?”

“Else? Nothing.”

Anger welled up inside Rikud. “All right,” he said, “listen. What do you hear?”

“Broom, brroom, brrroom!” Chuls imitated the intermittent blasting of the engines. “I’m hungry, Rikud.”

The old man turned and strode off down the corridor toward the dining room, and Rikud was glad to be alone once more.


Now the vapor had departed, except for a few tenuous whisps. For a moment Rikud thought he could see the gardens rearward in the world. But that was silly. What were the gardens doing in the viewport? And besides, Rikud had the distinct feeling that here was something far vaster than the gardens, although all of it existed in the viewport which was no wider than the length of his body. The gardens, moreover, did not jump and dance before his eyes the way the viewport gardens did. Nor did they spin. Nor did the trees grow larger with every jolt.

Rikud sat down hard. He blinked.

The world had come to rest on the garden of the viewport.


For a whole week that view did not change, and Rikud had come to accept it as fact. There--through the viewport and in it--was a garden. A garden larger than the entire world, a garden of plants which Rikud had never seen before, although he had always liked to stroll through the world’s garden and he had come to know every plant well. Nevertheless, it was a garden.

He told Chuls, but Chuls had responded, “It is the viewport.”

Crifer, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. “It looks like the garden,” he admitted to Rikud. “But why should the garden be in the viewport?”

Somehow, Rikud knew this question for a healthy sign. But he could not tell them of his most amazing thought of all. The change in the viewport could mean only one thing. The world had been walking--the word seemed all wrong to Rikud, but he could think of no other, unless it were running. The world had been walking somewhere. That somewhere was the garden and the world had arrived.

“It is an old picture of the garden,” Chuls suggested, “and the plants are different.”

“Then they’ve changed?”

“No, merely different.”

“Well, what about the viewport? It changed. Where are the stars? Where are they, Chuls, if it did not change?”

“The stars come out at night.”

“So there is a change from day to night!”

“I didn’t say that. The stars simply shine at night. Why should they shine during the day when the world wants them to shine only at night?”

“Once they shone all the time.”

“Naturally,” said Crifer, becoming interested. “They are variable.”


Rikud regretted that he never had had the chance to read that book on astronomy. He hadn’t been reading too much lately. The voice of the reading machine had begun to bore him. He said, “Well, variable or not, our whole perspective has changed.”

And when Chuls looked away in disinterest, Rikud became angry. If only the man would realize! If only anyone would realize! It all seemed so obvious. If he, Rikud, walked from one part of the world to another, it was with a purpose--to eat, or to sleep, or perhaps to bathe in the health-rays. Now if the world had walked from--somewhere, through the vast star-speckled darkness and to the great garden outside, this also was purposeful. The world had arrived at the garden for a reason. But if everyone lived as if the world still stood in blackness, how could they find the nature of that purpose?

“I will eat,” Chuls said, breaking Rikud’s revery.

Damn the man, all he did was eat!

Yet he did have initiative after a sort. He knew when to eat. Because he was hungry.

And Rikud, too, was hungry.

Differently.


He had long wondered about the door in the back of the library, and now, as Crifer sat cross-legged on one of the dusty tables, reading machine and book on astronomy or stars in his lap, Rikud approached the door.

“What’s in here?” he demanded.

“It’s a door, I think,” said Crifer.

“I know, but what’s beyond it?”

“Beyond it? Oh, you mean through the door.”

“Yes.”

“Well,” Crifer scratched his head, “I don’t think anyone ever opened it. It’s only a door.”

“I will,” said Rikud.

“You will what?”

“Open it. Open the door and look inside.”

A long pause. Then, “Can you do it?”

“I think so.”

“You can’t, probably. How can anyone go where no one has been before? There’s nothing. It just isn’t. It’s only a door, Rikud.”

“No--” Rikud began, but the words faded off into a sharp intake of breath. Rikud had turned the knob and pushed. The door opened silently, and Crifer said, “Doors are variable, too, I think.”

Rikud saw a small room, perhaps half a dozen paces across, at the other end of which was another door, just like the first. Halfway across, Rikud heard a voice not unlike that of the reading machine.

He missed the beginning, but then:

--therefore, permit no unauthorized persons to go through this

door. The machinery in the next room is your protection against the

rigors of space. A thousand years from now, journey’s end, you may

have discarded it for something better--who knows? But if you have

not, then here is your protection. As nearly as possible, this ship

is a perfect, self-sustaining world. It is more than that: it is

human-sustaining as well. Try to hurt yourself and the ship will

not permit it--within limits, of course. But you can damage the

ship, and to avoid any possibility of that, no unauthorized persons

are to be permitted through this door--

Rikud gave the voice up as hopeless. There were too many confusing words. What in the world was an unauthorized person? More interesting than that, however, was the second door. Would it lead to another voice? Rikud hoped that it wouldn’t.

When he opened the door a strange new noise filled his ears, a gentle humming, punctuated by a throb-throb-throb which sounded not unlike the booming of the engines last week, except that this new sound didn’t blast nearly so loudly against his eardrums. And what met Rikud’s eyes--he blinked and looked again, but it was still there--cogs and gears and wheels and nameless things all strange and beautiful because they shone with a luster unfamiliar to him.

“Odd,” Rikud said aloud. Then he thought, “Now there’s a good word, but no one quite seems to know its meaning.”

Odder still was the third door. Rikud suddenly thought there might exist an endless succession of them, especially when the third one opened on a bare tunnel which led to yet another door.

Only this one was different. In it Rikud saw the viewport. But how? The viewport stood on the other end of the world. It did seem smaller, and, although it looked out on the garden, Rikud sensed that the topography was different. Then the garden extended even farther than he had thought. It was endless, extending all the way to a ridge of mounds way off in the distance.

And this door one could walk through, into the garden. Rikud put his hand on the door, all the while watching the garden through the new viewport. He began to turn the handle.

Then he trembled.

What would he do out in the garden?

He couldn’t go alone. He’d die of the strangeness. It was a silly thought; no one ever died of anything until he was a hundred. Rikud couldn’t fathom the rapid thumping of his heart. And Rikud’s mouth felt dry; he wanted to swallow, but couldn’t.

Slowly, he took his hand off the door lever. He made his way back through the tunnel and then through the room of machinery and finally through the little room with the confusing voice to Crifer.

By the time he reached the lame-footed man, Rikud was running. He did not dare once to look back. He stood shaking at Crifer’s side, and sweat covered him in a clammy film. He never wanted to look at the garden again. Not when he knew there was a door through which he could walk and then might find himself in the garden.

It was so big.


Three or four days passed before Rikud calmed himself enough to talk about his experience. When he did, only Crifer seemed at all interested, yet the lame-footed man’s mind was inadequate to cope with the situation. He suggested that the viewport might also be variable and Rikud found himself wishing that his friend had never read that book on astronomy.

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