Hungrily, the cradled vessel’s great steel nose pointed up to the distant stars. She was the Cosmos XII, newest and sleekest of the Space Service’s rapidly-expanding wing of interstellar scout ships, and she was now ready for operational work.
Major Lance Cooper, a big man with space-tanned features, stood in the shadow of the control bunker and watched the swarm of ground crewmen working at last-minute speed atop the loading tower. Inside him burned a hunger, too.
Hunger, and another emotion--pride.
The pride swelled Lance’s open-collared khaki shirt, as he envisioned himself at the ship’s controls within a few minutes. Finally, after long years of study, sweat and dedication, he’d made it to the Big League. No more jockeying those tubby old rocket-pots to Luna! From here on, he was going to see, taste, feel what the universe was like way, way out--in Deep Space. The Cosmos XII, like her earlier sisters, was designed to plow through that shuddery nowhere the cookbooks identified as “hyperspace.”
Lance’s glance shifted upward, scanning the velvet backdrop of frosty white points of light against which the slender, silverish, almost wingless form stood framed. More stars than a man could visit in a lifetime! And some already within grasp!
His exultant feeling grew, and Lance kept his head tilted backward. Alpha Centauri, the most popular target, was not visible at this latitude; and Barnard’s star, besides being far too faint, lay on the other side of the sun. But there shone Sirius, just as bright as it had glittered for the Greeks, and frosty Procyon, a little to the north. Both orbs twinkled and beckoned, evoking strange and demanding dreams!
One day, Man would be able to make landings. Teams of scientists outfitted to the eyebrows and trained to cope with any environment or emergency, would explore unknown jungles, llanos, steppes; tramp up and down fertile vales and hills under blue-hot alien suns. Perhaps, they might even contact native species boasting human intelligence: mammalian hunters and fishers, city-building lizards, sky-probing arachnids--who knew what?
But now, of course, all that Headquarters permitted of flights was the most furtive of reconnoitering. You hoisted your scout ship aloft under high-gee, cleared the ecliptic, then swung out of normal space and jumped. When you materialized in the new sector, you set your cameras clicking, toggled all the other instruments into recording radiation, gravity pressures, spectroscopy, at slam-bang speed. The very instant your magnetic tapes got crammed to capacity, you pressed six dozen panic buttons and scooted like a scared jackrabbit for Home, Sweet Home.
Adventure? It wasn’t even mentioned on the travel posters, yet.
But, adventure would follow.
Meanwhile, at the taxpayers’ expense, you--the guardian of the Peace--had enjoyed the billion-dollar thrill of viewing our Solar System from light-years and light-years of distance. Or so the manual said, right here on Insert Page 30-Dash-11-Dash-6.
Lance thought about those veteran hype-pilots who’d already poked around in the great black Cold out there. How was it they were always compensating for their frustration?
Now, he remembered.
Having few tall tales to spellbind audiences with when they swooped back down on Home Base after their missions, the hype-pilots got around it by bragging up Terra itself, and how at least you could always depend upon good old Earth to come up with something to relax this Warp-Weary generation!
“Something, for example, such as we now hold in our hand, brothers!” Lance could hear them now. “Namely, one of these superbly-programmed cocktails, as only Casey can turn out.”
(Casey was the Officers Club barkeep and much-beribboned mixologist.)
“A real ‘Casey Special’--look at its pristine beauty! What better consolation can a man ask, for not having gotten to land at the apogee point of his orbit?”
“Besides”--this usually came out after two or three more tongue-loosening toasts had been quaffed to the beasts of Headquarters--”what’s so blasted special about landing on some God-forsaken rock out there?
“Hell’s bells! Earth is a planet too, isn’t it? And when you’ve been cooped up in a parsec-gobbling pot for a very, very long two weeks, any planet looming in your viewscope cries to be set down upon. Your own prosaic hunk of mud is good as any!”
Lance Cooper’s rambling thoughts broke off their aimless tracking to swing one hundred and eighty degrees in midspace and dart right back to Earth.
Here at this very moment--and less than a hundred yards away--came Terra’s foremost attraction for him. His hammering heartbeat would have placed him on the “grounded” list immediately, had there been a medico with a stethoscope hanging about to detect it.
The attraction’s name was Carolyn Sagen, and she was hurrying directly across the concrete apron.
Even under the incandescent work-lamps of the crew scrambling up and down the ladders, she looked as fetching as a video starlet making her first personal-appearance tour of the nation. Only the fact she was Colonel “Hard-Head” Sagen’s family pride and joy kept the helmeted and half-puckered up techs on the rungs from whistling themselves dry in their enthusiasm.
Now, she had completely bypassed the work area. Here, the lighting did not reach and the paler illumination of starshine took over. It seemed to render the girl’s soft blond hair and her full warm lips more intimately something belonging to Lance Cooper alone--and he liked that. He saw that she had turned up the collar of her tan coat against the night wind.
While still a step or two distant from him, Carolyn halted. Her worshiping eyes rested fully upon the big pilot. Lance thought he detected a troubled expression.
Then, the girl managed a tight smile that conveyed her outward resignment to all Man’s absurd aspirations to own the galaxy:
“Don’t worry about ‘Security,’ Lance. Dad wrote me out an O.K. to skitter up this close to the Launching Area. You know”--she gestured self-consciously--”big crucial moment ... lovers’ farewell ... I pulled all the stops, but it worked.”
“Matter of fact,” she added, in an obvious attempt at facetiousness, “Dad opined he’d have walloped the daylights out of me, if I hadn’t put up a struggle to get near my man.”
Then suddenly, she was not at all brave, anymore.
Suddenly, she had burrowed into his arms. “Oh Lance, had there been no other way, I’d have clawed right through fence and revetments to get to you! Men, men! Just because something’s out there, as you say ... why is it so important to build ships and go out and look at it?” Her fingers dug into Lance’s shoulders. “Women are saner ... but maybe that’s why men need us.” The grip of her fingers shifted, tightened. “Kiss me, you big baboon.”
Lance kissed her. A tender kiss, yet gusty enough that he lifted her from the ground and her high-heeled shoes kicked in free fall.
The pilot found his girl’s breath warm, loving. Yet her cheeks seemed colder than even the crisp air should account for. And her body was trembling.
He planted a second kiss, then set her down.
“Hey! This is no way for a Space Service brat to carry on. Why, you’re just about to--”
“To cry, Lance? No, I wasn’t. It’s just that ... you’ll be gone so long.”
He punched her playfully. “Two measly weeks out, two weeks to astrogate her back home. And once I’ve got my feet wet at it, it’ll be like shooting ducks in an alley.”
Carolyn reached out, brushed a windswept tuft of hair from above the rock-steady eyes that looked at her.
“I know, Lance. I even realize that just ten years ago, women had to put up with separations from their sweethearts or husbands that lasted months. When the old pioneer ships used to limp back and forth to Mars and Venus. But I’m different, I guess. Weak, maybe. Or just plain scared--”
This didn’t sound like the blithe-spirited girl he’d pursued for a year, then wooed and subdued. Lance studied her, then said slowly: “You’re scared. About what? My first flight?”
Carolyn’s head bobbed timidly.
Lance flashed a reassuring grin. “Everything has to be a brand-new experience, at some time or other. Me, I prefer to look at hype-flight from the point of view of the service. A routine thing. Just takes training. Otherwise,” and he shrugged, “it’s no more a risk than hauling groceries upstairs to some weather satellite.”
“Is it, Lance? When one or two ships out of every ten never make it back at all. Just disappear ... somewhere ... while the others--”
“One out of thirty or forty, you mean. So hyperspace is a little tricky.”
“And there’s always pilot error to blame, too, I suppose?”
“Now that you mention it.”
“Only my man is immune from everything?”
Lance smiled, a little wryly. “Any pilot can make boo-boos, Carolyn. I’m determined to try awfully hard not to.” He added a slight qualification to his statement. “I’ve always been pretty lucky up to now, at not getting lost.”
“I thought the guidance systems and the autopilot computers took care of all the astrogation corrections?”
“On a theoretically perfect flight, yes. It’s equally true, however, that hyperspace’s geometry doesn’t always resemble the sort of lines and angles you find in our own universe--”
Lance abruptly stopped, realizing he was quoting text; his mind groped for a better way to explain. But Carolyn plunged in first:
“You see, there do sometimes develop special situations.”
“Sure, sometimes.” An exasperation crept into Lance Cooper’s voice, despite his effort to keep it out. Hell, he was just a pilot; not a rated mathematician. He’d fly hyperspace by the seat of his pants, if he had to.
“Lance,” said Carolyn.
“You feel it too, don’t you?”
“That there is danger involved. That something dreadfully, dreadfully wrong can happen to you while you’re out there. No matter what the eggheads say about it.” A paroxysm of sobs suddenly racked the girl’s slender body. “Oh, darling, don’t go!”
“Honey, honey!” Lance patted her thin shoulders.
“I love you so much.”
“Love you, too, Carolyn. You know that.”
“We shouldn’t have postponed the wedding. It was wrong to set the date back.”
Lance shook his head. “Sorry. I couldn’t see it any other way.”
He hugged the girl to him; she seemed more desperately frightened than he had realized. And again, as always when it came to comforting somebody, he felt as awkward and clumsy as some big lumbering repair-tug out in space--say--trying to patch a small trim patrol craft.
But especially, he felt helpless in the presence of this frail, clinging, lovely piece of femininity he wanted so dearly. Nevertheless he could keep on trying--blundering though his words and gestures might be.
“Carolyn, you think I wanted to chance making you a widow twenty-four hours after you became a bride?” Lance took a deep breath. “So I did maintain the percentage wasn’t great. Still, it does exist. I’m aware of that. I just don’t let it concern me. But you, Carolyn--don’t you see, hon? Lance Cooper couldn’t let anything bad happen to his best girl.”
“I’m trying to understand,” said Carolyn.
Lance’s blunt, serious face peered into hers. “Tell you what I will promise to do.”
Hope cleared away some of the mistiness in Carolyn’s eyes. She looked up at him. “What, Lance?”
“Once I’ve knocked off my shell-back trip through the hype, we’ll stage the fanciest wedding this old space base ever goggled its eyes over. I’ll even see to it, the chaplain samples the spiked punch. And you remember what a raconteur the padre proved to be when Light-Colonel Galache got spliced?”
Carolyn Sagen managed a wan smile.
Lance revved his pep-talk up a few hundred r.p.m. “After all, think of it this way. Suppose I hadn’t beat my brains out to get into hype-training? I’d never have wound up at this base. You and me would never have met. I’d never have fallen for you like a ton of space-ballast.”
“Oh, I know you’re right,” said Carolyn, clinging more tightly than ever to Lance’s solid frame. “You’re always right, just like the Space Service is always right. But I have a woman’s intuition. And I ... I sense--”
Unable to finish, she released her grasp and once more withdrew into herself.
Lance’s big muscular hand reached out, tilted the girl’s chin upward. Her face was tear-stained for sure, now.
“Honey, this won’t ever do.”
“I can’t help it.”
“You’re torturing yourself with useless premonitions.” Lance wiped the briny shine from the girl’s cheeks as he talked, his own voice getting hoarser. “Carolyn, I love you so much that I ... well, you know I happen to hunger for you more than I do that Christmas tree on my control deck. But I just couldn’t give up a chance to solo out to the stars. I couldn’t, baby. I’d probably be court-martialed, anyhow,” he added.
“No, Lance. They wouldn’t do that. Not unless you actually got into space, then turned back. I asked Major Carmody.”
“Carolyn! You didn’t?”
The girl nodded, affirming the truth of what she said. “Lance, I had to. T-there are some things I know about that you don’t.” A note of sudden urgency now tinged her voice. “Strange unfathomable things. Many of the other pilots who’ve come back have not been right. I think it has something to do with their having been outside of normal space--”
He stared at her. “I just now realize you’re trying to tell me something.”
“Lance, I happened to overhear Dad telling Mother something one night. Apparently, he’d been rolling and tossing in bed, couldn’t sleep. And Mother’s looked after him so long, she just had to know what was wrong. They went downstairs and she poured him a stiff drink. Then in return, Dad poured out his troubled soul to her. And Lance--”
“The most probable reason why some hype-pilots never quite make it back to our world is that the men involved--”
“The men? You mean, the pilots?”
“No, the brass. They haven’t told the pilots about the fissioning of anything that gets into hyperspace--”
Carolyn’s breath gave out in a sudden gasp. Her eyes moved away alarmed, and Lance’s own glance turned simultaneously. He saw Colonel “Hard-Head” Sagen and two other officers coming across the area.
Time had run out on them.
“Carolyn,” Lance said, hurriedly. “I’ve gabbed with quite a few vets of hyperspace. At the Club and in my training, both. Sure, a man feels like he’s been crammed into a concrete mixer when he’s burning up light-years in a hyper ship. But after a while, I’m told, even your brains get used to being bounced around.” Lance took the girl’s hands and squeezed them between his. “So let’s not worry, huh?”
Carolyn started to say something in rebuttal, but her father and his aides were already upon them.
Colonel Sagen was a tall thin man of erect military carriage. His features were crisscrossed with radiation scars and his voice boomed out like a military drum. Yet when one got to know him, he wasn’t so gruff. On the base, he commanded two thousand military personnel and half that many scientists and techs: a tough job, and one that he was giving his best.
After returning Major Lance Cooper’s brisk salute, the colonel unbent and gave his prospective son-in-law a hardy handshake.
“Lance, I hope you’ll be able to keep more of a rein on this little space-filly of mine, than I’ve been able to. She was determined to see you off.”
“I was glad to see her, colonel.”
The colonel smiled. “Can’t think of a man on this base I’d rather turn Carolyn over to.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Lance.
“Been counting the minutes to take-off, I suppose?”
“He’s hardly had a chance to, Dad,” Carolyn broke in. “What with me in his hair!”
One of the colonel’s aides glanced at his watch, then opened up a brief case and took out a sealed envelope. The colonel relieved him of it and handed it to Lance.
“Your flight orders, Lance. Got the preset tapes installed and checked?”
“Well, you should know your onions now, if you’re ever going to. Best of luck, son.”
“Thank you, colonel.”
Lance turned. “Good-by, Carolyn. Just four weeks now, like I said.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
“First jump’s always the hardest, I hear,” spoke up the second aide, cheerily. Like a great many other execs, the officer boasted no active space rating, though he did wear the winged moons of an observer.
But Lance and Carolyn were again quite busy, and did not hear.
Inside the shell of the Cosmos XII, Lance, sitting flat on his back against gravity, looked up at the sweep hands on the control deck clocks and hurried through his pre-jump check list. Tension mounted inside him. He contacted the Operations people in the bunker over the radio net. Colonel Sagen’s voice came in clear: “Five minutes, Lance.”
“I am receiving. Area cleared?”
Traffic broke into report: “Take-off will proceed on schedule.”
The function lights on the “tree” in front of Lance shone green. Gyros were caged; the tapes were set to roll. Lance’s big hands hovered lightly near the manual over-rides. He was ready to fly, and the autopilot lights were already winking out in count-down. But you never could be sure until the last moment.
What had Carolyn been trying to tell him?
Before he could pursue the thought, he felt the pressure of the rising ship take hold; gently at first as she cleared the ground; then heavier and heavier, until his face felt like a rubber mask under the acceleration and his heart commenced pounding.
It didn’t take long these days for any ship to build up a tremendous velocity in space. Lance cleared the ecliptic by a hundred million miles; then with the Solar System spread out flat below him, he opened up his flight orders. His destination, he discovered, was Groombridge 34, a visual double star. Right ascension: zero hours, thirteen minutes. Declination: forty-three and four-tenths degrees. Nearly twelve light-years distant.
Since the star’s apparent location was nearly halfway up the sky from the celestial equator, Lance could begin the jump any time and not worry on his way about skewing too near the gravitational field of any large-massed body in his own immediate vicinity.
He permitted himself one brief glance at the blazing universe that hung all about him: the bright fixed lights that were innumerable suns against an eternal blackness, and the luminous dust in between that was even farther-flung. Confusion and chaos seemed to dwell here; if a man gazed too long, he could quietly go mad. But even more insane, he anticipated, would be the thick, writhing nothingness of hyperspace.
Lance Cooper made one final check of all the ship’s operating components; then crossed his fingers and cut in the hype-drive.
Instantly, his teeth crashed together and clenched; his strapped-in body was jerked back in its cushioned seat; sweat beaded his brow. A thousand needles prickling his skin couldn’t have been worse. He had been told once that the switching-out from this known universe into an unknown one would feel just like a ten-thousand volt jolt in an old-fashioned electric chair; and now he could believe it. Every cell in his body had begun tingling; his stomach pitched under a racking nausea; and an involuntary trickle of saliva dripped from his mouth the moment he got his jaws working again.
But Lance fought the nausea, fought the sickness, and gradually as his flesh accommodated to the change, he felt better.
It was then that the most disturbing phenomenon of all took place. He felt for a moment as if he had been split into two persons. No, four persons, eight, sixteen, an infinity of other selves. They were all beside him, in him and out of him. His eyes ached. He shut them.
When he opened them again, everything was almost back to normal. The other selves had vanished. Only the constant throbbing vibration of the ship remained; yet it was a discomfort that had to be endured for four solid straight weeks now. There was no other means known, by which a man-made vessel could travel faster than light.
Funny about that four weeks, too, thought Lance. All distances in hyperspace were the same, no matter where you wished to go; it required no more than fourteen days and no less, regardless of whether you jumped one light-year or fifty. Lance had always understood there were equations on file at HQ, which explained the paradox. But not being a math expert, he had never missed not being allowed to see them.
He flicked a switch and opened up his viewports again. The starry universe had vanished. The Cosmos XII was riding through a gray void. Alone and--
No, it wasn’t alone!
Again, Lance’s vision suffered a wrenching sickness. Out there in the colorless vacuum, hundreds of replicas of the Cosmos XII rode along beside him, above him, below him, stretched out in all directions.
There had been nothing in the manuals about this.
Lance stared at the meaningless phenomenon for a long time despite the fact it made his brain ill. At last, he decided it was harmless, whatever was causing it. He shook his head slowly and closed the ports down. He hoped Groombridge 34 would be less taxing.
The system was.
After the ship reverted to normal space in the vicinity of Groombridge 34, Lance hovered about it exactly twelve hours, following all the instructions in his manual to the letter. He started up the cameras and other recording instruments. All went well, there were no incidents, no vessels disturbed him; though had the two components of the binary been at periastron, it would have simplified the work with the position micrometer. If anything else of interest had been detected, it would have to be deciphered from the film and tapes later. You can get as close as four billion miles to an Earth-sized planet in space--and it’ll still show up fainter than a fourteenth magnitude star.
Somewhere in the galaxy, Lance supposed, there must be other races building spaceships and guiding them from sun to sun. But thus far, the scout ships from Terra--for all their magnified caution--had never run into signs of any.
The old veteran hype-pilots had the best philosophy after all. Earth was the choicest hunk of mud you were going to find. Enjoy it, brethren.
Well, he would certainly live it up when he got back, Lance swore. He would have his wedding; import Casey from the Club to spike the punch; and, perhaps after he’d gotten in his required number of scout-missions, he might even settle for a chair-borne exec’s billet, himself.
Exactly twenty-eight days and twelve hours from the time of his departure from Earth, Lance Cooper was back home again. The Cosmos XII re-materialized out of hyperspace in the neighborhood of the Solar System with its fuel tanks scarcely a third depleted, but its pilot a drained man. Lance, truthfully, not only felt weary and torpid, but a great deal disappointed.
He contacted Traffic, asked for and got a landing trajectory. A few hours later, he had coasted home and the trip was over.
He scrambled down out of the ship, hungry for Carolyn.
The base hadn’t changed any in a month, that he could see. A couple of new floodlights put in, perhaps. Some brass were emerging from the control bunker. Colonel Sagen, several others. He recognized them all. Two were SSP’s--Space Service Police.
When the colonel got close, Lance tossed off a salute and an insouciant grin: “Well, the Prodigal made it back home, sir. Hope that pessimistic daughter of yours is stashed around somewhere. Otherwise--”
“Otherwise, what?” returned the colonel, unsmiling.
“Why I’m liable to go busting right through that fence,” said Lance. “And say, if anybody’s worrying about the Cosmos XII, she flew like a dream, colonel. Matter of fact, she--”
Colonel Sagen’s jaws snapped together. Wheeling, he barked at the two SSP’s: “Spacemen, arrest this officer! Immediately!”
Lance couldn’t believe his ears.
“Hey, wait a minute!” he protested. “What have I done?”
Nobody answered. Not at first.
“Well?” Lance asked again, a little more uneasy this time.
“I have no daughter, major,” Hard-Head Sagen growled, standing with his legs braced apart and his ramrod shoulders looking businesslike. “I never have had.”
The space cops sprang forward. One drew a pistol, held it on the returned pilot, while the other quickly moved behind Lance and pinioned his arms back.
“Is this a joke, colonel?” Lance demanded, struggling. “If it is, I don’t appreciate it. You know you’ve got a daughter, and I’m going to marry her!”
The colonel’s jaws clamped tight; and he shook his head from side to side, as if he were dealing with a person suddenly out of his mind. Then he acted.
“Put this man under close confinement,” he ordered Lance’s guards. “Allow no visitors of any kind.” The colonel’s tone was harsh and worried. “I’ve got to buck this matter to HQ. We can’t have it blow up right now, God knows.”
The space police nudged Lance. “All right, major. Let’s go.”
Lance’s anger seethed to a boil. Hunching his shoulders, he rammed back against the guard holding him, sending him tumbling. What was inside his mind to do if he managed an escape, he couldn’t have told. He only knew he had to get away. The colonel had flipped.
And where, by the way, was Carolyn? It seemed impossible she could be in on it, too.
He stood free for a moment, watching warily.
“Hold him!” shouted Colonel Sagen. “Don’t let him run loose.”
“We got gas pills, colonel,” suggested the space cop Lance had bowled over. The man was rising to his feet.
Lance started to run. Over his shoulder, he saw the guard reach inside a small pocket in his webbed pistol belt. The man gestured to the others to duck back out of harm’s way. Then, his throwing arm reared back and sent a pellet sailing in a high arc. It landed at Lance’s feet and burst instantly. Yellowish gas billowed out. Its acrid fumes penetrated Lance’s throat and nostrils. He began coughing. Then, all the fight suddenly ebbed from him. His knees buckled. He was stumbling, falling. The sky reeled.
And very indistinctly, from far away, came the colonel’s voice, barking: “Put him in the brig until he recovers. I repeat, let nobody see him. And another thing--I declare everything that’s happened here today classified information. If a single word leaks out, I’ll have every man-jack among you placed in solitary and held for court-martial.”
Then, Lance knew nothing more.
When at last he recovered consciousness and was able to sit up in a kind of groggy stupor, Lance found himself, for the first time in fifteen service-devoted years, on the inside of a guardhouse looking out.
With sardonic melancholy, he recalled times on his O.D. and O.G. tours when he had inspected various prison areas, peered into the cells, and often felt mildly sorry for some poor spaceman doing time for some minor infraction. There had never been very many offenders. Discipline on space bases was not a pressing problem: the corps was an elite branch and intransigent candidates were weeded out quick.
Well, now he was a prisoner, himself. He, Lance Cooper, Major, Space Service, stood behind bars. And no matter how hard his face pressed against those bars, he could only see as far as the corridor extended in either direction.
It wasn’t far enough.
Nor would anybody talk to him. He couldn’t even get the time of day.
Not since his probation as a plebe, had he consorted with such a bunch of “hush-mouths.” Had he no rights as a commissioned officer and a world citizen? He still didn’t know why he was incarcerated, or what regulation he had broken.
But that wasn’t his most nagging worry.
What preyed on his mind most was Carolyn.
Where was she?
Where? Where? WHERE?
He could have lowered his head and pounded it to a pulp against the wall, in his rage and frustration at being confined. But banging his brains out wouldn’t help. Besides, he was going to stand deeply in need of his gray matter, if he hoped to get out of this one.
At evening time, a guardhouse trusty brought him his supper on a tray. Also, the man tossed him half a pack of cigarettes when Lance sought to bum just one. But when the pilot started pitching questions back, the trusty looked scared and unhappy and quickly limped away.
The night dragged on, as unending seemingly as one of Luna’s two-week darkouts. Lance smoked, paced the cell from wall to wall, occasionally plopped down on his cot and went over everything that had happened, trying to find some pattern to it.
But there was no pattern.
Next morning, he splashed up and shaved beard away from a tired, red-eyed face in the mirror. Then, he waited. No one came.
Finally, at noon a new officer checked in for duty at the guardhouse. Lance recognized him as a young ordinance captain he’d met before. He called out to the man. The officer, striding down the hallway, wheeled at the sound of his name and came back to the cell. His eyes bugged slightly, when he saw Lance: “Holy smoke, major! What’ve they got you in for?”