On impact he’d had time to see Hatter’s head jerk loose from the carefully weakened strap. As Hatter slumped unconscious he touched the hidden switch.
A shock, then darkness.
What first came to him out of the humming blackout mist was his own name: Marcusson. Al Marcusson, just turned sixteen that Saturday in June, that green-leafed day his father had called him out to the back yard. They had sat on discount-house furniture under the heavy maple, Al who wore jeans and sneakers and a resigned expression, his father who wore glasses, a sport shirt, slacks, eyelet shoes and a curious reckless smile, a smile that didn’t belong in the picture.
“Now you’re sixteen, Al, there’s something I have to tell you,” his father had begun. “My father told me when I turned sixteen, and his father told him. First, the name of our family isn’t Marcusson. It’s Marcopoulos. Your name’s Alexander Marcopoulos.”
“What? Dad, you must be kidding! Look, all the records...”
“The records don’t go back far enough. Our name was changed four generations back, but the legal records disappeared in the usual convenient courthouse fire. As far as anyone knows, our family’s name’s always been Marcusson. My grandfather went to Minnesota and settled among the Swedes there. Unlike most foreigners he’d taken pains to learn good English beforehand. And Swedish. He was good at languages.” For a moment the out-of-place smile came back. “All our family is. Languages, math, getting along with people, seldom getting lost or confused. You better pay attention, Al. This is the only time I’m going to speak of our family, like my father. We never bothered much, by the way, about how our name was written. You can believe me or think I sat in the sun too long, but I’ll tell you how our most famous relatives spelled it: Marco Polo.”
“Never mind what you think now. Besides, I won’t answer any questions, anyway. My father didn’t and he was right. I found out some things by myself later; you’ll probably find out more. For example, the best job for us is still exploring. That’s why I became an oil geologist, and it paid off. Another thing: learning the legends of the place you’re in, if you take up exploring, can mean the difference between success and a broken neck. That’s all, boy. Guess I’ll get your mother some peonies for the supper table.”
Al Marcusson had gone up quietly to his room. Later, his special gift for languages and math got him through college and engineering school; his sense of direction and lack of inner-ear trouble helped to get him chosen for Astronaut training while he was in the Air Force.
While in training at the Cape he had met and married a luscious brunette librarian in one of the sponge-fishing towns, a brunette with a rather complicated last name that became forgotten as she turned into Mrs. Marcusson, and unbeatable recipes for the most bewitching cocktails since Circe held the shaker for Ulysses.
Marcusson’s hobbies included scuba diving, electronic tinkering and reading. His psychiatrists noted a tendency to reserve, even secrecy, which was not entirely bad in a man who worked with classified material and had to face long periods of time alone. Besides, his ability to get along with people largely compensated.
With slowly returning consciousness the last months of training swam in Al Marcusson’s mind. The orbital flight--the only part of it he’d really enjoyed was the quarter-hour alone with SARAH, the electronic beacon, cut off from Control and even from the rescue team just over the horizon, alone with the music of wind and sea.
For the moon shot he’d been responsible for communications, recording and sensing systems inside the capsule, as Hatter had for the life-support systems and their two back-up men for propulsion and ground systems coordination respectively. He relived the maddening, risky business of the master switch to be secretly connected with the capsule’s several brains and camouflaged. The strap to be weakened. Then the blind terror of launch when his pulse had topped 120; blurred vision, clenched teeth, the suit digging into him, the brief relief of weightlessness erased by the cramped, terrifying ride filled with new sensations and endless petty tasks. The camera eye pitilessly trained on his helmet. The way things had of staying there when you’d put them away. On Earth--already it was “On Earth,” as if Earth was a port he’d sailed from--you put things out of your mind, but here they bobbed before you still, like the good luck charm in its little leather bag, for instance, the charm his wife had tied to one of his fastener tabs and that kept dancing in the air like a puppet, jerking every time he breathed.
Every time he breathed in the familiar sweat-plastic-chemicals smell, familiar because he’d been smelling it in training, in the transfer truck, in the capsule mock-up for months. All that should be new and adventurous had become stale and automatic through relentless training. His eyes rested on the color-coded meters and switches that were associated with nausea in the centrifuge tumbler-trainer. The couch made him think of long hours in the chlorinated pool--he always used to come out with his stomach rumbling and wrinkled white fingers, despite the tablets and the silicone creams. His skin itched beneath the adhesive pads that held the prying electrodes to his body, itched like the salt and sand itch he felt after swimming between training bouts. It was still Florida air he breathed, but filters had taken out its oil-fouled hot smell, its whiffs of canteen cooking, fish, seaweed and raw concrete in the sun. Hatter’s and his own sing-song bit talk, so deliciously new to television audiences, rang trite in his own ears: a makeshift vocabulary, primer sentences chosen for maximum transmission efficiency to Control.
The Control center he remembered from having watched orbital flights himself. Machines that patiently followed pulse rate, breathing, temperature. Squiggly lines, awkward computer handwriting, screens where dots jumped, screens that showed instrument panels, screens where his own helmet showed, and inside it the squirming blob that was his own face, rendered as a kind of rubberized black-and-white tragic mask. He felt the metal ears turning, questing for signals, the little black boxes, miniaturized colossi tracking, listening, spewing tape. On the capsule itself--all folded in like Japanese water flowers--sensors, cameras, listeners, analyzers should have burgeoned on impact, shot up, reached out, grasped, retracted, analyzed, counted, transmitted.
But he’d cut the switch.
Al Marcusson blinked awake.
He set about freeing himself, a task comparable to getting a butterfly alive out of a spider web. Every creak of his suit and of the moulded couch sounded loud and flat in the newly silent capsule. His breathing soughed about him. But no signal went out from the electrodes taped to his chest to say that his heart beat had again topped a hundred, that he sweated, that his stomach contracted--even though he was under no gravity strain, the emergency cooling worked, and his latest no-crumbs, low-residue meal had been welcomed by the same stomach an hour earlier.
He sat up. The port gave off a pale creamy glow. He leaned forward and could see nothing except for a cream- or eggshell-colored mist, even and opaque.
He undid his glove-rings and took off his gloves. By the gleam of his wrist-light he checked whether Hatter was breathing correctly from his suit, visor down, and not the capsule’s air, then put his gloves on again and bled the air slowly out. They were not supposed to leave the capsule, of course. Still the possibility of having to check or repair something had had to be considered and it was theoretically possible. He began the nerve-rasping egress procedure, through the narrow igloo-lock that seemed to extend painful claws and knobs to catch at every loop and fold of his suit. At last he gave a frantic wiggle and rolled free.
Because of the dead switch, turning antennae circled in vain, pens stopped reeling out ink, screens stayed blank. The men in the control room activated emergency signals but got no triggered responses. Meanwhile, television reporters sent frantic requests for background material fillers, their “and now back to’s” falling thick and fast.
Al Marcusson bounced on a kind of lumpy featherbed two or three times before coming to rest in the same eggshell soup. Dust. Moon dust that had no particular reason for dropping back now cocooned the ship. He stood up with great care and staggered straight out, putting his feet down slowly to minimize dust puffs. The mist thinned and he rubbed the gloves against his visor and goggled.