We had the driver let us off in the central district and took a copter-taxi back to Homefield. There’s no disgrace about it, of course; we just didn’t feel like having all the neighbors see the big skycar with LYDNA PROJECT painted on its side, and then having them drop in casually to express what they would call interest and we would know to be curiosity.
There are people who boast that their sons and daughters have been picked for Lydna. What is there to boast about? It’s pure chance, within limits.
And Hal is our only child and we love him.
Lucy didn’t say a word all the way back from saying good-by to him. Lucy and I have been married now for 27 years and I guess I know her about as well as anybody on Earth does. People who don’t know her so well think she’s cold. But I knew what feelings she was crushing down inside her.
Besides, I wasn’t feeling much like talking myself. I was remembering too many things:
Hal at about two, looking up at me--when I would come home dead-tired from a hard day of being chewed at by half a dozen bosses right up to the editor-in-chief whenever anything went the least bit out of kilter--with a smile that made all my tiredness disappear. Hal, when I’d pick him up at school, proudly displaying a Cybernetics Approval Slip (and ignoring the fact that half the other kids had one, too). Hal the day I took him to the Beard Removal Center, certain that he was a man, now that he was old enough for depilation. Hal that morning two weeks ago, setting out to get his Vocational Assignment Certificate...
That’s when I stopped remembering.
It had been five years after our marriage before they let us start a child: some question about Lucy’s uncle and my grandmother. Most parents aren’t as old as we are when they get the news and usually have other children left, so it isn’t so bad.
When we got home, Lucy still was silent. She took off her scarf and cloak and put them away, and then she pushed the button for dinner without even asking me what I wanted. I noticed, though, that she was ordering all the things I like. We both had the day off, of course, to go and say good-by to Hal--Lucy is a technician at Hydroponics Center.
I felt awkward and clumsy. Her ways are so different from mine; I explode and then it’s over--just a sore place where it hurts if I touch it. Lucy never explodes, but I knew the sore place would be there forever, and getting worse instead of better.
We ate dinner in silence, though neither of us felt hungry, and had the table cleared. Then it was nearly 19 o’clock and I had to speak.
“The takeoff will be at 19:10,” I said. “Want me to tune in now? Last year, when Mutro was Solar President, he gave a good speech before the kids left.”
“Don’t turn it on at all!” she said sharply. Then, in a softer voice, she added: “Of course, Frank, turn it on whenever you like. I’ll just go to my room and open the soundproofing.”
There were still no tears in her eyes.
I thought of a thousand things to say: Don’t you want to catch a glimpse of Hal in the crowd going up the ramp? Mightn’t they let the kids wave a last farewell to their folks listening and watching in? Mightn’t something in the President’s speech make us feel a little better?
But I heard myself saying, “Never mind, Lucy. Don’t go. I’ll leave the thing off.”
I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted Lucy there with me.
So we sat out the whole time of the visicast, side by side on the window-couch, holding hands. I’ll say this for the neighbors--they must all have known, for Hal was the first to be selected from Homefield in nearly 40 years, and the newscast must have announced it over and over, but not a single person on the whole 62 floors of the house butted in on us. Not even that snoopy student from Venus in 47-14, who’s always dropping in on other tenants and taking notes on “the mores of Earth Aboriginals.” People can be very decent sometimes. We needn’t have worried about coming home in the Lydna Project bus.
It was no good trying to keep my mind on anything else. Whether I wanted to or not, I had to relive the two last hours we’d ever have with Hal.
It couldn’t mean to him what it meant to us. We were losing; he was both losing and gaining. We were losing our whole lives for 21 years past; he was, too, but he was entering a new life we would never know anything about. No word ever comes from Lydna; that’s part of the project. Nobody even knows where it is for sure, though it’s supposed to be one of the outer asteroids.
Both boys and girls are sent and there must be marriages and children--though probably the death-rate is pretty high, for every year they have to select 200 more from Earth to keep the population balanced. We would never know if our son married there, or whom, or when he died. We would never see our grandchildren, or even know if we had any.
Hal was a good son and I think we were fairly good parents and had made his childhood happy. But at 21, faced with a great, mysterious adventure and an unknown and exciting future, a boy can’t be expected to be drowned in grief at saying good-by to his humdrum old father and mother. It might have been tougher for him 200 years ago, when they hadn’t learned to decondition children early from parental fixations. But no youngster today would possess that kind of unwholesome dependency. If he did, he would never have been selected for Lydna in the first place.
That’s one comfort we have--it’s a sort of proof we had reared a child far above the average.
It was just weakness in me to half wish that Hal hadn’t been so healthy, so handsome, so intelligent, so fine in character.
They were a wonderful lot. We said our good-bys in an enormous room of the spaceport, with this year’s 200 selectees there from all over Earth, each with the relatives and whoever else had permission to make the last visit. I suppose it’s a matter of accommodations and transportation, for nobody’s allowed more than three. So it was mostly parents, with a few brothers, sisters and sweethearts or friends. The selectees themselves choose the names. After all, they’ve had two weeks after they were notified to say good-by to everyone else who matters to them.
Most of the time, all I could keep my mind on was Hal, trying to fix forever in my memory every last detail of him. We have dozens of sound stereos, of course, but this was the last time.
Still, it’s my business at the News Office, and has been for 30 years, to observe people and form conclusions about them, so I couldn’t help noticing with a professional eye some of the rest of the selectees. (This farewell visit is a private affair, and the press is barred, which is why I’d never been there before.)
There were two kinds of selectees that stood out, in my mind. One was those who had nobody at all to see them off. Completely alone, poor kids--orphans, doubtless, with no families and apparently not even friends near enough to matter. But, in a way, they would be the happiest; life on Earth couldn’t have been very rewarding for them, and on Lydna they might find companionship. (If only companionship in misery, I thought--but I shied away from that. In our business, there are always leaks; we know--or guess--a few things about Lydna nobody else does, outside the authorities themselves. But we keep our mouths shut.)
The ones that tore my hearts were the boys and girls in love. They never take married people for Lydna, but a machine can’t tell what a boy or girl is feeling about another girl or boy, and it’s a machine that does the selecting. There’s no use putting up an argument, for, once made, the choice is inexorable and unchangeable. In my work as a newsgatherer, I’ve heard some terrible stories. There have been suicide pacts and murders.
You could tell the couples in love. Not that there were any scenes. If there had been any in the two weeks past, they were over. But anybody who has learned to read human reactions, as I have, could recognize the agony those youngsters were going through.
I felt a deep gratitude that Hal wasn’t one of them. He’d had his share of adolescent affairs, of course, but I was sure he was still just playing around. He’d seen a lot of Bet Milen, a girl a class ahead of him in school and college, but I didn’t think she meant more to him than any of the others. If she had, she’d have been along to say good-by, but he’d asked for only the two of us. She was now a laboratory assistant in our hospital and could easily have gotten the time off.
It was growing late, almost midnight, and Lucy and I had to be at work tomorrow, no matter how we felt. I forced myself to talk, with Lucy’s silent pain smothering me like a force-blanket. I made an effort and cleared my throat.
“Lucy, go to bed and turn on the hypno and try to get some sleep.”
Lucy stood up obediently, but she shook her head. “You go, dear,” she said, her voice firm. “I can’t. I--”
The roof buzzer sounded. Somebody had landed in a copter and wanted us.
“Don’t answer,” I said quickly. “There’s nobody we want to see--”
But she had already pushed the button to open the door.
It was Bet Milen, the girl Hal used to go around with.
I braced myself. This might be bad. She might have cared more for Hal than we had guessed.
But she didn’t look grief-stricken. She looked excited, and determined, and a little bit frightened.
She scarcely glanced at me. She went right up to Lucy and took both Lucy’s hands in hers.
“Well,” she said in a clipped, tense voice, “we made it.”
Then Lucy broke for the first time. The tears ran down her face and she didn’t even wipe them away. “Are you certain?”
“Positive. And I got word to him. We’d agreed on a code. That’s why he didn’t want me there today--we couldn’t trust ourselves not to betray it, either way.”
I stood there staring at them, bewildered.
“What’s this all about?” I demanded. “Have you two cooked up some crazy scheme to rescue Hal? I hope to heaven not! It would ruin all of us, including him!”
The wild daydreams I’d had myself flashed through my mind--the drug that would seem to kill him and wouldn’t, the anonymous false accusation of subversion, the previous secret marriage. All impossible, all fatal.
Lucy disengaged her hands from the girl’s and slipped her arm through mine.
“You tell him, Bet,” she said gently. “You’re the one who should.”
I’d never noticed how pretty the girl was till then, when she stood there with her face flushed and her eyes straight on mine. A pang went through me; if only she and Hal could have--
“No, Mr. Sturt,” she said, “we haven’t rescued Hal. He’s gone. But we’ve rescued part of him. I’m going to have his baby.”
“Bet’s going to live with us and be our daughter, Frank,” Lucy explained. “Hal and she and I worked it out in these two weeks, after they came to me and told me how they felt about each other. We couldn’t tell you till we were sure; I couldn’t bear to have you hope and then be disappointed--it would be enough for me to have to suffer that.”
“That is, I’ll come if you want me here, Mr. Sturt,” said Bet.
I had to sit down before I could speak. “Of course I want you. But what about your own family?”
“I haven’t any. My mother’s dead and my father’s an engineer on Ganymede and gets home on leave about once in three years. I’ve been living in a youth hostel.”
“But look here--” I turned to Lucy--”how on Earth can you know? Two weeks or less is no time--”
Lucy gave me a look I recognized, the patient one of the scientist for the layman.
“The Chow-Visalius test, dear. One day after the fertilized ovum starts dividing--”