Mission to UniverseGordon R. Dickson
Mission to Universe
Gordon R. Dickson
START SCIENCE FICTION
An Imprint of Start Publishing LLC
New York, New York
MISSION TO UNIVERSE © 1965 by Gordon R. Dickson. © 1993 by Gordon R. Dickson.
First Start Science Fiction edition 2013.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Start Science Fiction, 609 Greenwich Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10014.
All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Published by Start Science Fiction,
an imprint of Start Publishing LLC
New York, New York
Ben Shore woke—and the long interior of the barracks-like building around him was still, moonlit dark. For a moment on waking he could not remember where he was.He lay motionless, waiting for memory to come back to him.
He had come awake suddenly, automatically, and ready| for action, as was his habit. Now for a moment he hung halfway between sleep and wakefulness, waiting for all he had forgotten to catch up with his abruptly roused body.
Then it came back, all at once, with the solid, body-blow impact of remembering a crime, planned, but yet to be committed; and he stiffened on his cot as if one of the men sleeping around him had jumped up without warning to shout accusingly at him.
Then the first shock passed, leaving behind it only the steady feeling of emptiness, bleakness, and determination he had felt first after the decision two days ago. It was, settled and done. With the muscle of will power built up over the eight years now since he had first made up his mind that the phase ship must be built, he shoved the present emptiness and the rest of it into the comer of his thoughts, out from under foot He turned his attention to the coming day. There were only hours left, and everything still to be done.
He rolled over on his side and picked up the small alarm clock from the pale new wood of the floor. In the moonlight, the sharp black hands pointed like daggers at sixteen minutes to four. He pushed in the unnecessary alarm button before it went off, as he had set it, at fifteen minutes to the hour. He got up on, one elbow, looking down the room.
The double row of cots running along it were filled with, sleeping men, all the way to the dark end that was the wall of the latrine. Li the long wall opposite him, the cold, distant full moon shone brilliantly as a spotlight through the bare, glass panes of the windows over the row of cots opposite him. The moon’s rays passed all those cots and the dark center aisle to paint at last false windows of light, half on the upper half of the cots on his side, half on the wall behind them. Above these false windows, the wall at Ben’s back and the windows in it were dark. The night coldness of these northern latitudes in September struck through the thin wooden shell of the uninsulated wall. But the air bathing Ben’s face and neck and hands was hot.
Just over his cot, a muted, heated roar came steadily from the blower like a giant’s continuous outbreathing in an endless rushing breath exhaling toward infinity. For a second, his half-awake state moved in Ben to give birth to the wild idea that it was the unstoppable breath of time itself, breathing on them all, blowing the whole tense, overarmed world forward to nuclear self-destruction. He jerked his mind back from that notion and looked down the double row of cots to the far dark wall at the end. It was pierced by a rectangle, the fine-as-if-pen-drawn line of yellow light outlining the door to the latrine. At right angles to that was the inset block of darkness in the opposite long wall that was the door to the unborn day outside, waiting for him. Ben threw back the blankets and sat up on the edge of the cot.
The floor was cold to the bare soles of his feet. For a moment, sitting up, he had felt a little dizziness, a light-headedness from lack of sleep. That was not right. It had been only yesterday—no, he corrected himself—it had been the day before yesterday, that he had ordered everyone up here from the underground site fifteen miles away. In that forty-eight hours or so until now, he had only had the three hours of sleep just past. So the dizziness was justified. All the same, he could not afford it. Later, he would have all the time in the universe to sleep. Now—he reached into the dark wooden, stand by his cot, fumbled out his kit bag of toilet articles and towel, and got up, heading for the latrine door.
The old, hastily-laid floorplanks creaked slightly under his feet as he moved down the center aisle between the sleeping men. Guilt flooded back into him without warning. He had a sudden self-image of himself creeping between their unsuspecting bodies like a traitorous captain. Once more he stiff-armed the feeling from him. With fifty nations standing armed and ready at each other’s throats, it was no time to play at self-reproach. But it had wakened another ancient doubt and worry to plague him. He was determined to go through with it. But, how would they—these men he thought he knew well, and the women, too—how would they react to it when it was too late to change anything?
Quietly, unobtrusively, over the past six months, he had tried to weed out the nervous ones, the fearful, the unreliable among both the men and women. For that matter he had tried to weed out the women entirely, but that had not worked. He thought those that were left now could be counted on. But was he right?
He looked at the faces not hidden by darkness—the faces of the men on his left, caught in the pattern of the moonlight, as he passed them. Now, on this last morning, even if they didn’t know what was coming, if there was a, weakness in any of them, certainly, keyed-up as he was, he should be able to see it. He stared at the lean, high-schoolish face of Ralph Egan. It was young but serene in the moonlight He moved on, to the dark, unyielding Negro face of Matt Duncan. Matt, he knew he could count on. He moved on . . . Kirk Walish, half-bald in the moon-light. Hans Clogh, his plump face relaxed, his clever mathematician’s gaze hooded in sleep. Julian Tyree, his Jamaican face as dark as Matt’s, but smaller-boned, more secret and withdrawn. . . . These three were all older men. Physically, they should be all right, but there was a certain hardening of attitude that came with age, a loss of the ability to adjust...
Cooper Malson, sprawled out on his stomach, the long length of him with his brown hair tumbled in his eyes.The youngest among the men. But his reflexes of body and brain were unmatched. He could adapt, but would he have the stability that a few more years would have given him? Ben came at last to the two final cots in the row touched by the moonlight, and paused.
These, who would be his seconds-in-command, he must at least be able to count on. And certainly he could, after the years of knowing each of them. If he knew anyone, he should know these two. And still . . . this final morning the moonlight fell on their sleeping faces and seemed to mock him, challenging him to recognize them in the pattern of cold light and lightless shadow.
Ben’s own shadow fell black between the two cots and touched both of them. The moonlight passed through all the distance of space and night and through the windows to slide over his shoulders and illuminate the sleeping men. Lee Ruiz was on Ben’s left Walter Bone on his right
The moonlight fell on both their faces and showed them with a difference.
Their upper bodies and faces were revealed by the light. Their lower parts were in darkness. The small personal elements of their faces were stripped away, leaving only light and shadow.
In these cold abstract patterns of black and white, Ben looked without success for the men he had known—Lee for eight years, Walt since high school. These two, Lee and Walt, were the ones who had actually created the phase
ship—Lee, the technical master, Walt, the theoretical genius and originator of the field of phase physics he himself had developed. Ben had only imagined the ship, had forced it into being, had directed its making. After four years of the three of them working together, though, certainly Ben should recognize them—even in the moonlight!
But he could not be sure now. The pattern of light and dark seemed to have aged Lee, on Ben’s left. Lee was made old and savage. All his good looks were drawn down to the skeleton shape of his skull, as if by prolonged suffer, and the platinum chain holding the crucifix around his neck looked like the burnt-in black halter scar of some ancient slavery.
Beside Lee, Walt Bone seemed no longer even living. His massive-boned, sleeping face, topping the giant’s body under the covers and the darkness, stared straight up from the pillow, motionless as the face of a stone god. The illumination fell white on the broad bones of his brow and cheeks and powerful, jutting jaw. It left darkness pooled in the deep sockets of his eyes, in the grim cleft of his chin, and along the straight line between his closed lips.The shape shown by the moonlight looked no more mortal flesh than the metal of the Nobel Prize medal, contemptuously pierced and fitted with a chain to serve as vest pocket counterweight to the eighteen hundred dollar pocket watch lying beside it among the small change atop Walt’s cot-side stand.
All the thoughtfulness and searching of the man Ben had known on and off these long years was wiped out by the light from space. What was left was the carved, closed mask of some ancient tyrant or prophet.
Mask and mask, the two men slept side by side. Slave and tyrant—and Ben knew neither of them. Walt, least of all. The coldness of the floor against his bare feet ran suddenly up his legs in a shiver, up his spine, and spread out in a band of tight coldness across his shoulders. Suddenly he was certain that, alone among all the men and women of the phase ship crew, Walt had known all along what Ben was planning to do.
Ben shook it off. He turned to the latrine door. He went across the few feet of dark floor still remaining and through it, leaving only a furtive flash of light into the dark sleeping chamber behind him. Three steps down and his bare feet touched the even greater coldness of cement floor. Light dazzled at him from the white enamel of the washbasins and stools, the wall-long mirror above the basins.
Ben put his toilet bag on the shelf below the mirror and above the last wash basin next to the showers. To his own eyes, under the fluorescent lights over the mirror, his own square face looked back at him, brutal in appearance and incapable of weaknesses. Once he had hated it for refusing to mirror the questioning and doubts he felt inside himself. Now, he was grateful for that failure. Without needing moonlight, he wore a mask.
When he stripped off the tee shirt and shorts in which he had slept, his lean, tall, still hard-muscled body looked pale in the mirror from the two years spent mostly underground. He walked naked into the shower area and turned on the hot and cold taps of the first shower together. When the spray was warm enough, he stepped under the showerhead. What had felt lukewarm to his hand felt hot to his sleep-cold body. As soon as he began to revive, he turned the water up, warmer. With the heat that was soon sending steam smoking about the galvanized metal walls of the shower stall, the ghosts of strangers and doubts withdrew and he began to come alive.
The ordered needs of the day now starting pushed aside his lightheadedness from the lack of sleep and moved like disciplined soldiers into the forefront of his mind. His thoughts ran ahead to the meeting with Marsh Otam, the Washington liaison man, and to the daylight, and began planning the order in which the necessary things would have to be accomplished. His problem-solving mental machinery, which had come floating free out of the endless universe of sleep, now touched earth once more, put on its armor, and took up its tools of battle. He faced the coming day and left the shower.
Five minutes later, shaved and dressed in work slacks,shirt, and worn brown leather jacket, he stepped out into the chill, still-dark morning. The wind blew cold against his fresh-shaven cheeks and chin.
The sky was paling slightly. The sun would be up soon,but for now the camouflaged buildings of the surface installation and the distant hillock that was the phase ship itself, in disguise, were blocks and lumps of darkness. He stood looking about at them for a moment, then turned and walked across the short distance of gravel, pounded flat by the tractors and trucks, and went softly up the five steep, narrow wooden steps to the door of the women’s barracks. He opened the door and stepped quietly inside.
The women’s barracks was an older building and there was a phone just inside the door, against the wall. He lifted down the handpiece and dialed the message center, back at the underground installation. While he waited for the message center to answer, he looked around at this other, long sleeping room.
Here, it was exactly as it had been in the men’s barracks, except that half the long room was empty. The blower was on here, too, and the warm air felt harshly hot on his face and hands after the coldness of his brief walk outside. In the shadow of the closed door, holding the phone and waiting, he looked at the women of the phase ship crew. They slept more quietly than the men,those he could see in the moonlight, and they were smaller under the blankets.
But the moonlight, mixed with the creeping dawn, marked them also. In the moonlight, farthest off of those who were visible, Polly Neigh’s face looked small under its dark hair against the pillow. One bed closer, Tessie Sorenson slept, relaxed and younger than he had ever seen her. Closest, Nora Taller’s strong beautiful features under her black hair looked strangely lonely in the stillness. Ben felt his own loneliness echo inside him at the sight of hers.
The phone buzzed. A small voice spoke from it.
“Message Center. Waller speaking.”
Ben put the handpiece to his mouth.
“Ben Shore,” he said softly. “Any sign of Marsh Otam’s plane on the radar yet?”
“Just a few miles out. Coming in for a landing now,” said the voice.
“Good. Tell him to take the rail car through the tunnel to the Surface Installation here, as soon as he lands. Say I’ll be waiting for him—he’ll know where.”
“Oh,” said Ben. A thought had occurred to him. “If his plane’s pilot wants to take off again right away, ask him please to wait.”
“That’s all then.” Ben hung up the phone. He looked at the sleeping women for a second more, turned, and went softly out of the door and down the steps. On the gravel he paused. The moon was fading in the face of the brightening horizon opposite. Still, it was not yet day. It would be ten minutes or more before Marsh could get here.
He turned away from both barracks and walked slowly up a little slope toward the camouflaged phase ship and the end of the Installation.
Small, hooded lights gleamed at the comers of the buildings he passed. A row of windows was alight at the back of the mess hall and in the infirmary. The combined installations’ two doctors would be getting ready to give the phase ship crew the medical examinations he had ordered for them before breakfast. Under the combination of faded moonlight and brightening sky, Ben glanced at his watch again. Its black hands stood squarely on ten minutes past four. He, walked on until he came out at last between two large buildings, stopping above a field of late wheat and only some forty yards from the hillock that was the camouflage dome over the phase ship.
From this came a few stray twinkles of yellow light, the sound of voices and of heavy objects being shifted on surfaces of cement or metal. Loading should be nearly complete.
He looked away out over the field of wheat. At first glance it was only a vaguely moving carpet of darkness, but as he stood watching and the minutes ran slowly away,the dawn brightened until he could just see the ripe heads of the grain making up the texture of its surface.
The cold breeze of morning moved across that surface.He could trace the wind’s passage in the small extra darkness here and there where the
grain tops bent before the invisible pressure of the moving air. He felt the breeze himself on his hands and face and throat, filling his lungs coldly, outlining the heat of his clothed body with its chill;and suddenly he imagined all the moving ocean of air above the world.
A deep and desperate feeling moved in him. He imagined the stony metallic bones of the earth under his feet, the depths of the oceans, light and dark, river and lake, season shifting into season, all the life of this planet on which he had been born and of whose substance he was made,flesh and bone, molecule and atom. The feeling moved deeply in him. The muscles of his shoulders ached and he reached down suddenly, in between the gravel that came to its end with the edge of the Installation, here, and took up a handful of plain dirt. He clenched it in his fist with all the muscle of his arm and held it there. For a moment he felt rooted in the world himself, like a stone, or tree.
“—Ben?” said a harsh, and somewhat breathless voice behind him.
He turned, letting the dirt fall. A shadow came at him from out of the shadow between the two buildings behind him and stepped out into the growing daylight to show itself to be Marsh Otam, back from Washington on schedule. As Marsh came close, the pale light left darkness in the lines of his middle-aged, heavy-boned face so that he looked older by ten years or more than his forty-eight years. He was no more than average height, half a head shorter than Ben, and shrunken further by weight and fatigue.
“Yes,” said Ben.
Marsh halted before him, holding a package in his hand.
“Don’t know why you wanted me to meet you here,” he said. His breathing was heavy in the stillness. The suit he wore bulked out of press and rumpled.
“There may be some highly secret orders in what you’re carrying,” said Ben.
“There isn’t.” Marsh handed the package over and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand as Ben broke the seals on the package. “Save yourself time, Ben. I know what’s in there. Oh, you got the military ranks you asked for. Everybody’s commissioned in the Air Force. Copies of the order in there for all of them. You’ll have two captains, Bone and Ruiz. You’re Brigadier General, yourself. The gap’s so you can promote now and then to give the illusion things are still happening.”