Sure, I was one of the tough guys who said it would be great, just great, to get away from the boiling mess of humanity that stank up every inhabitable rock on earth.
Not being the Daniel Boone type, this was my private qualification for the job--being fed up to here with people, with the smothering bureaucracy of world government, with restrictions and rationing and synthetic diet supplements and synthetic blondes and mass hypochondria and phony emotions and standing in line to get into a pay toilet.
I hated my profession, trying to wring glamorous interviews out of bewildered heroes and press-agents’ darlings and pompous politicians and snotty millionaires and brave little wronged chorus girls. Their lives were no more glamorous than their readers. They were the same mixture of greed and fear and smelly sweat and deceit and two-bit passion. My particular prostitution was to transform their peccadilloes into virtues, their stubbed toes into tragedies and their fornications into romance. And I’d been at it so long I couldn’t stand the odor of my own typewriter.
Of course, I was so thunderstruck at being chosen as one of the 21-man crew for the Albert E. that I never got to gloating over it much until we were out in deep space. Yes, it was quite an honor, to say nothing of the pure luck involved. Something like winning the Luna Sweepstakes, only twice as exclusive.
We were the pioneers on the first starship, the first to try out the Larson Drive in deep space. At last, man’s travel would be measured in parsecs, for our destination was 26 trillion miles down near the celestial south pole. Not much more than a parsec--but a parsec, nonetheless.
As a journalist, such distances and the fabulous velocities involved were quite meaningless to me. My appointment as official scribe for the expedition was not based on my galactic know-how, but rather on my reputation as a Nobel-winning columnist, the lucky one out of fifty-six who entered the lottery.
Larson, himself, would keep me supplied with the science data, and I was to chronicle the events from the human interest side as well as recording the technical stuff fed to me.
Actually, I had no intentions of writing a single word. To hell with posterity and the immortality of a race that couldn’t read without moving its lips. The square case I had carried aboard so tenderly contained not my portable typewriter, but six bottles of forbidden rye whiskey, and I intended to drink every drop of it myself.
So, at last we were in space, after weeks of partying, dedications and speech-making and farewell dinners, none of which aroused in me a damned regret for my decision to forsake my generation of fellow-scrabblers.
Yes, we were all warned that, fast as the Larson Drive was, it would take us over 42 years, earth-measured time, to reach our destination. Even if we found no planets to explore, turned around and came right back, the roundtrip would consume the lifetimes of even the new babies we left behind. To me this was a perversely comforting thought.
All I wanted to know was how they expected me to live long enough to complete the journey? I could think of pleasanter ways to spend my last days than cooped up in this sardine can with a passel of fish-faced, star-happy scientists.
I was 48 when we departed, which would make me a lucky 90 if I was still wiggling when we hove into our celestial port. But the mathematicians said to relax. Their space-time theory provided, they claimed, a neat device for survival on our high-velocity journey.
The faster a body moves in reference to another, the slower time appears to act on the moving body. If, they said, man could travel at the speed of light, supposedly time would stand still for him. This, I reflected, would mean human immortality--much too good for people.
Anyway, since our average velocity for the trip was planned to come out around a tenth of the speed of light, to us on the Albert E., only about five months would seem to have elapsed for the journey that would consume 42-1/2 years, earth-time.
It seemed to me they were laying a hell of a lot of faith in a theory that we were the first to test out. Our food, water and air-supplies gave us a very small safety margin. With strict rationing we would be self-sufficient for just 12 months.
That left us just two months to fool around looking for a place to sit down. I mentioned this item to Larson on the second day out. I found him at coffee mess sitting alone, staring at his ugly big hairy hands. He was a tall Swede with a slight stoop and the withdrawn manner of a myopic scholar.
As commander of the ship he had the right to keep aloof, but as scribe, I had the privilege of chewing him for information. I said, “Skipper, if it took us generations to discover all the planets in our own little solar system, what do you figure the chances are of our spotting a planet near our goal, in the short time of two months?”
He was silent while I drew my ration of coffee and sugar, then he opened his hands and seemed to find words written on his palms. His eyes never did come up from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. “If they exist,” he said slowly, “we might find one. We have better telescopes and our vantage point in space will be superior.”
He was a sorry-looking specimen, and I remembered that the fifty-year-old scientist had left behind a youngish wife who adored the ground he walked on. The handsome, blonde woman had stood heroically beside the ramp and watched, dry-eyed, as her husband ascended.
There had been no visible exchange of farewells at the end, as he stood beside me in the air-lock. They just stared into each other’s eyes oblivious to all but the maudlin sorrow of their separation.
Then the portal had closed and widowed her, and I had the feeling that Larson was going to tear at the great, threaded door with his bare hands and renounce the whole project. But he just stood there breathing a little heavy and clenching those tremendous hands until it was time to take off. In a way I envied him an emotion that was long dead in me, dead of the slow corrosive poison of contempt for the whole human race. Dead and pickled in the formaldehyde of ten thousand columns for which the syndicates had paid me nothing but cold money.
Here was a man whose heart could still love, and I hated him for it. I said, “You look like you still have regrets. Maybe this isn’t worth your personal sacrifices, after all. If we don’t find an inhabitable planet we won’t have accomplished much.”
“You are wrong,” he said quickly. “We have already served our purpose.”
“Testing the Drive, you mean?”
He nodded. “This morning in our last radio contact with earth I dispatched the word. The Larson Drive is successful. We have passed from our solar system on schedule, and our measurements of ship-objective time check out with the theory--roughly, at least.”
He spread his hands out on the table. “This was our primary goal. The expedition ahead is subsidiary. Colonization may result from our exploration, true; but now we have opened the universe.”
It was nice to know that things were progressing as planned. I asked, “What do you mean about things checking ‘roughly’? Is there some error?”
He nodded and swallowed the dregs from the magnesium cup. “A considerable error, but it’s on the safe side. Our velocity checks perfectly, but our estimate of the time-shrinkage factor is so far off that Mr. Einstein’s formulae will take some major revision to reconcile what has happened.”
“We’ll arrive sooner than planned?”
Larson nodded again. “According to shipboard elapsed time we will arrive in the vicinity of our destination in just ninety-two hours from now--a total of 122 hours since take-off. You were worrying earlier about our scanty supplies; this should put your mind at rest.”
It didn’t displease me. The lack of privacy on this tin bathtub was even worse than I had anticipated. The news came as sort of a reprieve.
I looked at Larson, and suddenly I knew why the long face. His Tina!
For her, ten years would already have passed, and as we sat there talking, weeks of her existence were fading into oblivion--and Hans Larson was begrudging every second of it. Damned fool, should have stayed at home.
I left him brooding into his empty cup and went forward to the little control dome. One wonderful attribute of the Larson Drive was that there was no acceleration discomfort. Gravity was nullified at the outset, and ship’s gravity was kept at an comfortable one-half “g”.
Mac Hulbert, chief navigator, was alone up there, one foot cocked up on the edge of the broad instrument-board that looked like a cluttered desk-top with handles. He was staring out into the void.
Yes, void! They had said it would be black in space, but not even a glimmer of light showed through the transparent dome. As you looked to the side and back, faint, violent specks seemed to catch at your peripheral vision, but it was impossible to focus on a single heavenly body.
Mac didn’t turn or greet me. His face was no longer that of the carefree adventurer with whom I had tied on a fair binge less than a week ago.
“Getting you down, too, Mac?” I asked. He was about the only one aboard I could even tolerate. He wasn’t as sour on humanity as I, but he granted me the right to my opinions, which was something.
“God, yes!” he said. “Skipper tell you about the time-error?”
I said, “Yes, but what’s there to be sad about? You don’t mind that part, do you?” To my knowledge, Mac hadn’t left anything behind but his dirty laundry.
Hulbert was in his mid-thirties, slender, balding and normally as cheerful and stupidly optimistic as they come. Now he looked worse off than Larson.
“Yeah, I mind that,” he said kind of resentfully. “I thought we’d have more time to--sort of get used to the idea of--well, outgrowing our generation. But think, by now many of my older buddies will be dead. A dozen World Series will be over. Who knows, maybe there’s a war going on back there?”
Of all the morbid nonsense. Yearning for the obituary column, the sports page and the headlines. But then people are rarely sensible when something disturbs their tidy little universe that they take for granted.
It was a little terrifying, though, staring out into that smothering lamp-black. We were moving so fast and living so slowly that even the light-waves from the galaxies toward which we moved had disappeared. We were reversing the “redshift” effect of receding light sources. We approached the stars before us at such a velocity that their light impinged at a rate above the visible violet spectrum.
Mac blurted out, “It will never work out.”
“Colonization. Not at these unholy distances, even if we do find an earth-type planet or two. People won’t leave everything behind them like this. I--I feel cut off. Something’s gone, everything, everybody we knew back there. It’s terrible to consider!”
I sat down beside him, stared out into the India-ink and faced a few over-due realities myself. Our chances of finding a habitable planet were remote. Finding intelligent life on it was even more unlikely. That such life would resemble men, was so improbable that the odds in favor were virtually nonexistent.
So--what had I really to look forward to? A quick survey of the star-system in the company of these nincompoop ideo-savants, then a return to a civilization of complete strangers--a culture in which we would all be anachronisms, almost a century behind the times.
A parade of faces began peering at me out of the darkness. There was Bess with the golden hair, and Carol and petite Annette--and Cliff, my red-headed old room-mate who knew how to charcoal-broil a steak--and our bachelor apartment with the battered old teevee set and my collection of books and pipes, and there was my out-board jet up on lovely Lake Vermillion where a man could still catch a fat pike.
What would it be like when we got back? More people, less food, tighter rationing, crowding beyond conception.
When the rest of the crew learned of our sharply-revised estimated time of arrival they came down with the same emotional cramps afflicting Larson and Hulbert. It was sickening, a bunch of so-called mature technicians and scientists moping around like a barracks full of drafted rookies, matching miniature billfold photos of cuties that were now approaching crone-hood. The whole venture had become a tragic affair overnight, and for the next few days all thoughts turned backward.
So nobody was remotely prepared for what happened. They were even unprepared to think straight--with their heads instead of their hearts. And Larson was worst of all!
On the last day Larson eased off our 1800-mile-per-second velocity, and as the stars started showing again, shifting from faint violet down into the more cheerful spectrum, spirits aboard began lifting a little.
I was in the control-room with Larson and Mac when we got our first inkling. Mac was fooling with the electronic search gear, sweeping for planets, when he gave a yip and pointed a jabbing finger at the scope.
“Audio,” he stammered. “Look at that!” He lengthened the sweep and the jumble of vertical lines spread out like a picket fence made of rubber.
“A carrier wave with audio modulation,” he said with disbelief all over his face.
Larson remained calm. “I hear you, lad. Don’t shout.” He studied the signal and frowned deeply. “It’s faint, but you can get a fix.”
As they played with the instruments I looked forward through the green shield that protected us from Alpha C’s heavy radiation. Our destination star was now a brilliant blob dominating our piece of heaven. It was a difficult thing to grasp that we had travelled almost 26 trillion miles--in five days, ship’s time.
Mac said, “It’s a planet, sure enough, but that audio--”
Larson snapped, “Forget the audio! Give me a bearing, and let’s be getting on course. That may be the only planet in the system, and I don’t want to lose it.”