It was after oh-one-hundred when Kane arrived at my apartment. I checked the hall screen carefully before letting him in, too, though the hour almost precluded the possibility of any inquisitive passers-by.
He didn’t say anything at all when he saw me, but his eyes went a bit wide. That was perfectly natural, after all. The illegal plasti-cosmetician had done his work better than well. I wasn’t the same person I had been.
I led Kane into the living room and stood before him, letting him have a good look at me.
“Well,” I asked, “will it work?”
Kane lit a cigarette thoughtfully, not taking his eyes off me.
“Maybe,” he said. “Just maybe.”
I thought about the spaceship standing proud and tall under the stars, ready to go. And I knew that it had to work. It had to.
Some men dream of money, others of power. All my life I had dreamed only of lands in the sky. The red sand hills of Mars, moldering in aged slumber under a cobalt-colored day; the icy moraines of Io and Callisto, where the yellow methane snow drifted in the faint light of the Sun; the barren, stark seas of the Moon, where razor-backed mountains limned themselves against the star fields--
“I don’t know, Kim; you’re asking a hell of a lot, you know,” Kane said.
“It’ll work,” I assured him. “The examination is cursory after the application has been acted on.” I grinned easily under the flesh mask. “And mine has.”
“You mean Kim Hall’s application has,” he said.
I shrugged. “Well?”
Kane frowned at me and blew smoke into the still air of the room. “The Kim Hall on the application and you aren’t exactly the same person. I don’t have to tell you that.”
“Look,” I said. “I called you here tonight to check me over and because we’ve been friends for a good long time. This is important to me, Kane. It isn’t just that I want to go. I have to. You can understand that, maybe.”
“Yes, Kim,” he said bitterly. “I can understand. Maybe if I had your build and mass, I’d be trying the same thing right now. My only chance was the Eugenics Board and they turned me down cold. Remember? Sex-linked predilection to carcinoma. Unsuitable for colonial breeding stock--”
I felt a wave of pity for Kane then. I was almost sorry I’d called him over. Within six hours I would be on board the spaceship, while he would be here. Earthbound for always. Unsuitable for breeding stock in the controlled colonies of Mars or Io and Callisto.
I thought about that, too. I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry off my masquerade forever. I wouldn’t want to. The stringent physical examination given on landing would pierce my disguise easily. But by that time it would be too late. I’d be there, out among the stars. And no Earthbound spaceship captain would carry my mass back instead of precious cargo. I’d stay. If they wanted me for a breeder then--okay. In spite of my slight build and lack of physical strength, I’d still be where I wanted to be. In the fey lands in the sky...
“I wish you all the luck in the world, Kim,” my friend said. “I really do. I don’t mean to throw cold water on your scheme. You know how few of us are permitted off-world. Every one who makes it is a--” he grinned ruefully--”a blow struck for equality.” He savored the irony of it for a moment and then his face grew serious again. “It’s just that the more I think of what you’ve done, the more convinced I am that you can’t get away with it. Forged applications. Fake fingerprints and X-rays. And this--” He made a gesture that took in all of my appearance. Flesh, hair, clothes. Everything.
“What the hell,” I said. “It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Very good. In fact, you make me uncomfortable, it’s so good. But it’s too damned insane.”
“Insane enough to work,” I said. “And it’s the only chance. How do you think I’d stack up with the Eugenics Board? Not a chance. What they want out there is big muscle boys. Tough breeders. This is the only way for me.”
“Well,” Kane said. “You’re big enough now, it seems to me.”
“Had to be. Lots to cover up. Lots to add.”
“And you’re all set? Packed and ready?”
“Yes,” I said. “All set.”
“Then I guess this is it.” He extended his hand. I took it. “Good luck, Kim. Always,” he said huskily. “I’ll hear if you make it. All of us will. And we’ll be cheering and thinking that maybe, before we’re all too old, we can make it, too. And if not, that maybe our sons will--without having to be prize bulls, either.”
He turned in the doorway and forced a grin.
“Don’t forget to write,” he said.
The spacefield was streaked with the glare of floodlights, and the ship gleamed like a silvery spire against the desert night.
I joined the line of passengers at the checking desk, my half-kilo of baggage clutched nervously against my side. My heart was pounding with a mixture of fear and anticipation, my muscles twitching under the unaccustomed tension of the plastiflesh sheath that hid me.
All around me were the smells and sounds and sights of a spaceport, and above me were the stars, brilliant and close at hand in the dark sky.
The queue moved swiftly toward the checking desk, where a gray-haired officer with a seamed face sat.
The voice of the timekeeper came periodically from the loudspeakers around the perimeter of the field.
“_Passengers for the Martian Queen, check in at desk five. It is now H minus forty-seven._”
I stood now before the officer, tense and afraid. This was critical, the last check-point before I could actually set foot in the ship.
“It is now H minus forty-five,” the timer’s metallic voice said.
The officer looked up at me, and then at the faked photoprint on my papers.
“Kim Hall, age twenty-nine, vocation agri-technician and hydroponics expert, height 171 centimeters, weight 60 kilos. Right?”
I nodded soundlessly.
“Sums check within mass-limits. Physical condition index 3.69. Fertility index 3.66. Compatibility index 2.99.” The officer turned to a trim-looking assistant. “All check?”
The uniformed girl nodded.
I began to breathe again.
“Next desk, please,” the officer said shortly.
I moved on to the medics at the next stop. A gray-clad nurse checked my pulse and respiration. She smiled at me.
“Excited?” she asked. “Don’t be.” She indicated the section of the checking station where the breeders were being processed. “You should see how the bulls take it,” she said with a laugh.
She picked up an electrified stamp. “Now don’t worry. This won’t hurt and it won’t disfigure you permanently. But the ship’s guards won’t let you aboard without it. Government regulations, you know. We cannot load personal dossiers on the ships and this will tell the officers all they need to know about you. Weight limitations, you see.”
I almost laughed in her face at that. If there was one thing all Earth could offer me that I wanted, it was that stamp on my forehead: a passport to the stars...
She set the stamp and pressed it against my forehead. I had a momentary fear about the durability of the flesh mask that covered my face, but it was unnecessary. The plastiskin took the temporary tattoo the way real flesh would have.
I felt the skin and read it in my mind. I knew exactly what it said. I’d dreamed of it so often and so long all my life. My ticket on the Martian Queen. My pass to those lands in the sky.
CERT SXF HALL, K. RS MART QUEEN SN1775690.
I walked across the ramp and into the lift beside the great tapering hull of the rocket. My heart was singing.
The timer said: “It is H minus thirty-one.”
And then I stepped through the outer valve, into the Queen. The air was brisk with the tang of hydrogenol. Space-fuel. The ship was alive and humming with a thousand relays and timers and whispering generators, readying herself for space.
I lay down in the acceleration hammock and listened to the ship.
This was everything I had wished for all my life. To be a free man among the stars. It was worth the chances I had taken, worth the lying and cheating and danger.