Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Star Road

Gordon R. Dickson



  Gordon R. Dickson

  Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York
































  Nine short stories by one of the most prominent writers in the field of science fiction.

  Filled with the drama and excitement of man's first tentative steps toward the stars, they examine the mystery of existence and the very real possibilities that lie within the realm of future experience. And together they show Gordon R. Dickson at his entertaining and thought-provoking best.


  Books by Gordon R. Dickson:






  PLANET RUN (with Keith Laumer)

















  EARTHMAN'S BURDEN (with Poul Anderson)



  ISBN: 0-385-06811-5

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 72-89304

  Copyright © 1973 by Gordon R. Dickson All Rights Reserved

  Printed in the United States of America

  First Edition

  1. Whatever Gods There Be first published in Amazing Stories, July 1961: copyright 1961 by Ziff-Davis Publications Company. Published in 1967 in Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told: copyright 1967 by Ultimate Publications Co.

  2. Hilifter published in Analog, February 1963: copyright by the Conde Nast Publications Inc.

  3. Building on the Line published in Galaxy, November 1968: copyright by Galaxy Publishing Corporation.

  4. The Christmas Present published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1958: copyright by Fantasy House Inc.

  5. 3-Part Puzzle published in Analog, June 1962: copyright 1962 by the Conde Nast Publications Inc.

  6. On Messenger Mountain published in Worlds of Tomorrow, June 1964: copyright, New York 1964 by Galaxy Publishing Corporation.

  7. The Catch published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1959: copyright 1959 by Street and Smith Publications Inc.

  8. Jackal’s Meal published by Analog in June 1969: copyright 1969 by the Conde Nast Publications Inc.

  9. The Mousetrap published in Galaxy, September 1952: copyright 1952 by Galaxy Publications Corporation.

  * Of the above stories, only Hilifter has been previously anthologized— in Analog 3, published by Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1965


  At 1420 hours of the eighth day on Mars, Major Robert L. (Doc) Greene was standing over a slide in a microscope in the tiny laboratory of Mars Ship Groundbreaker II. There was a hinged seat that could be pulled up and locked in position, to sit on; but Greene never used it. At the moment, he had been taking blood counts on the four of them that were left in the crew, when a high white and a low red blood cell count of one sample had caught his attention. He had proceeded to follow up the tentative diagnosis this suggested, as coldly as if the sample had been that of some complete stranger. But, suddenly, the scene in the field of the microscope had blurred. And for a moment he closed both eyes and rested his head lightly against the microscope. The metal eyepiece felt cool against his eyelid; and caused an afterimage to blossom against the hooded retina—as of a volcanic redness welling outward against a blind-dark background. It was his own deep-held inner fury exploding against an intractible universe.

  Caught up in this image and his own savage emotion, Greene did not hear Captain Edward Kronzy, who just then clumped into the lab, still wearing his suit, except for the helmet.

  “Something wrong, Bob?” asked Kronzy. The youngest of the original six-officer crew, he was about average height—as were all the astronauts—and his reddish, cheerful complexion contrasted with the shock of stiff black hair and scowling, thirty-eight year old visage of Greene.

  “Nothing,” said Greene, harshly, straightening up and slipping the slide out of the microscope into a breast pocket. “What’s the matter with you?”

  “Nothing,” said Kronzy, with a pale grin that only made more marked the dark circles under his eyes. “But Hal wants you outside to help jacking up.”

  “All right,” said Greene. He put the other three slides back in their box; and led the way out of the lab toward the airlock. In the pocket, the glass slide pressed sharp-edged and unyielding against the skin of his chest, beneath. It had given Greene no choice but to diagnose a cancer of the blood—leukemia.

  Ten minutes later, Greene and Kronzy joined the two other survivors of Project Mars Landing outside on the Martian surface.

  These other two—Lt. Colonel Harold (Hal) Barth, and Captain James Wallach—were some eighty-five feet above the entrance of the airlock, on the floor of the crater in which they had landed. Greene and Kronzy came toiling up the rubbled slope of the pit where the ship lay; and emerged onto the crater floor just as Barth and Wallach finished hauling the jack into position at the pit’s edge.

  Around them, the crater floor on this eighth day resembled a junk yard. A winch had been set up about ten feet back from the pit five days before; and now oxygen tanks, plumbing fixtures, spare clothing, and a host of other items were spread out fanwise from the edge where the most easily ascendible slope of the pit met the crater floor—at the moment brilliantly outlined by the sun of the late Martian ‘afternoon’. A little off to one side of the junk were two welded metal crosses propped erect by rocks.

  The crosses represented 1st Lieutenant Saul Moulton and Captain Luthern J. White, who were somewhere under the rock rubble beneath the ship in the pit.

  “Over here, Bob,” Greene heard in the earphones of his helmet. He looked and saw Barth beckoning with a thick-gloved hand. “We’re going to try setting her up as if in a posthole.”

  Greene led Kronzy over to the spot. When he got close, he could see through the faceplates of their helmets that the features of the other two men, particularly the thin, handsome features of Barth, were shining with sweat. The eighteen-foot jack lay with its base end projecting over a hole ground out of solid rock.

  “What’s the plan?” said Greene.

  Barth’s lips puffed with a weary exhalation of breath before he answered. The face of the Expedition’s captain was finedrawn with exhaustion; but, Greene noted with secret satisfaction, with no hint of defeat in it yet. Greene relaxed slightly, sweeping his own grim glance around the crater, over the hole, the discarded equipment and the three other men.

  A man, he thought, could do worse than to have made it this far.

  “One man to
anchor. The rest to lift,” Barth was answering him.

  “And I’m the anchor?” asked Greene.

  “You’re the anchor,” answered Barth.

  Greene went to the base end of the jack and picked up a length of metal pipe that was lying ready there. He shoved it into the hole and leaned his weight on it, against the base of the jack.

  “Now!” he called, harshly.

  The men at the other end heaved. It was not so much the jack’s weight, under Mars’ gravity, as the labor of working in the clumsy suits. The far end of the jack wavered, rose, slipped gratingly against Greene’s length of pipe—swayed to one side, lifted again as the other three men moved hand under hand along below it—and approached the vertical.

  The base of the jack slipped suddenly partway into the hole, stuck, and threatened to collapse Greene’s arms. His fingers were slippery in the gloves, he smelled the stink of his own perspiration inside the suit, and his feet skidded a little in the surface dust and rock.

  “Will it go?” cried Barth gaspingly in Greene’s earphones.

  “Keep going!” snarled Greene, the universe dissolving into one of his white-hot rages—a passion in which only he and the jack existed; and it must yield. “Lift, damn you! Lift!”

  The pipe vibrated and bent. The jack swayed—rose—and plunged suddenly into the socket hole, tearing the pipe from Greene’s grasp. Greene, left pushing against nothing, fell forward, then rolled over on his back. Above him, twelve protruding feet of the jack quivered soundlessly.

  Greene got to his feet. He was wringing wet. Barth’s faceplate suddenly loomed before him.

  “You all right?” Barth’s voice asked in his earphones.

  “All right?” said Greene. He stared; and burst suddenly into loud raucous laughter, that scaled upward toward un-controllability. He choked it off. Barth was still staring at him. “No, I broke my neck from the fall,” said Greene roughly. “What’d you think?”

  Barth nodded and stepped back. He looked up at the jack.

  “That’ll do,” he said. “We’ll get the winch cable from that to the ship’s nose and jack her vertical with no sweat.”

  “Yeah,” said Kronzy. He was standing looking down into the pit. “No sweat.”

  The other three turned and looked into the pit as well, down where the ship lay at a thirty degree angle against one of the pit’s sides. It was a requiem moment for Moulton and White who lay buried there; and all the living men above felt it at the same time. Chance had made a choice among them —there was no more justice to it than that.

  The ship had landed on what seemed a flat crater floor. Landed routinely, upright, and apparently solidly. Only, twenty hours later, as Moulton and White had been outside setting up the jack they had just assembled—the jack whose purpose was to correct the angle of the ship for takeoff-chance had taken its hand.

  What caused it—Martian landslip, vibration over flawed rock, or the collapse of a bubble blown in the molten rock when the planet was young—would have to be for those who came after to figure out. All the four remaining men who were inside knew was that one moment all was well; and the next they were flung about like pellets in a rattle that a baby shakes. When they were able to get outside and check, they found the ship in a hundred foot deep pit, in which Moulton and White had vanished.

  “Well,” said Barth, “I guess we might as well knock off now, and eat. Then, Jimmy—” his faceplate turned toward Wallach, “you and Ed can come up here and get that cable attached while I go over the lists you all gave me of your equipment we can still strip from the ship; and I’ll figure out if she’s light enough to lift on the undamaged tubes. And Bob— you can get back to whatever you were doing.”

  “Yeah,” said Greene. “Yeah, Til do that.”

  After they had all eaten, Greene shut himself up once more in the tiny lab to try to come to a decision. From a military point of view, it was his duty to inform the commanding officer—Barth—of the diagnosis he had just made. But the peculiar relationship existing between himself and Barth—

  There was a knock on the door.

  “Come on in!” said Greene.

  Barth opened the door and stuck his head in.

  “You’re not busy.”

  “Matter of opinion,” he said. “What is it?”

  Barth came all the way in, shut the door behind him, and leaned against the sink.

  “You’re looking pretty washed out, Bob,” he said.

  “We all are. Never mind me,” said Greene. “What’s on your mind?”

  “A number of things,” said Barth. “I don’t have to tell you what it’s like with the whole Space Program. You know as well as I do.”

  “Thanks,” said Greene.

  The sarcasm in his voice was almost absent-minded. Insofar as gratitude had a part in his makeup, he was grateful to Barth for recognizing what few other people had—how much the work of the Space Program had become a crusade to which his whole soul and body was committed.

  “We just can’t afford not to succeed,” Barth was saying.

  It was the difference between them, noted Greene. Barth admitted the possibility of not succeeding. Nineteen years the two men had been close friends—since high school. And nowadays, to many people, Barth was the Space Program. Good-looking, brilliant, brave—and possessing that elusive quality which makes for newsworthiness at public occasions and on the tv screens—Barth had been a shot in the arm to the Program these last six months.

  And he had been needed. No doubt the Russian revelations of extensive undersea developments in the Black Sea Area had something to do with it. Probably the lessening of world tensions lately had contributed. But it had taken place—one of those unexplainable shifts in public interest which have been the despair of promotion men since the breed was invented.

  The world had lost much of its interest in spatial exploration.

  No matter that population pressures continued to mount. No matter that natural resources depletion was accelerating, in spite of all attempt at control. Suddenly—space exploration had become old hat; taken for granted.

  And those who had been against it from the beginning began to gnaw, unchecked, at the roots of the Program. So that men like Barth, to whom the Space Program had become a way of life, worried, seeing gradual strangulation as an alternative to progress. But men like Greene, to whom the Program had become life itself, hated, seeing no alternative.

  “Who isn’t succeeding?” said Greene.

  “We lost Luthern and Saul,” said Barth, glancing downward almost instinctively toward where the two officers must be buried. “We’ve got to get back.”

  “Sure. Sure,” said Greene.

  “I mean,” said Barth, “we’ve got to get back, no matter what the cost. We’ve got to show them we could get a ship up here and get back again. You know, Bob—” he looked almost appealingly at Greene—“the trouble with a lot of people who’re not in favor of the Project is they don’t really believe in the moon or Mars or anyplace like it. I mean—the way they’d believe in Florida, or the South Pole. They’re sort of half-clinging to the notion it’s just a sort of cut-out circle of silver paper up in the air, there, after all. But if we go and come back, they’ve got to believe!”

  “Listen,” said Greene. “Don’t worry about people like that. They’ll all be dead in forty years, anyway.—Is this all you wanted to talk to me about?”

  “No. Yes—I guess,” said Barth. He smiled tiredly at Greene. “You pick me up, Bob. I guess it’s just a matter of doing what you have to.”

  “Do what you’re going to do,” said Greene with a shrug. “Why make a production out of it?”

  “Yes.” Barth straightened up. “You’re right. Well, I’ll get back to work. See you in a little while. We’ll get together for a pow-wow as soon as Ed and Jimmy get back in from stringing that cable.”

  “Right,” said Greene. He watched the slim back and square shoulders of Barth go out the door and slumped against the sink, himse
lf, chewing savagely on a thumbnail. His instinct had been right, he thought; it was not the time to tell Barth about the diagnosis.

  And not only that. Nineteen years had brought Greene to the point where he could, in almost a practical sense, read the other man’s mind. He had just done so; and right now he was willing to bet that he had a new reason for worry.

  Barth had something eating on him. Chewing his fingernail, Greene set to work to puzzle out just what that could be.

  A fist hammered on the lab door. “Bob?”

  “What?” said Greene, starting up out of his brown study. Some little time had gone by. He recognized his caller now. Kronzy.

  “Hal wants us in the control cabin, right away.”

  “Okay. Be right there.”

  Greene waited until Kronzy’s boot sounds had gone away in the distance down the short corridor and up the ladder to the level overhead. Then he followed, more slowly.

  He discovered the others already jammed in among the welter of instruments and controls that filled this central space of the ship.

  “What’s the occasion?” he asked, cramming himself in between the main control screen and an acceleration couch.

  “Ways and means committee,” said Barth, with a small smile. “I was waiting until we were all together before I said anything.” He held up a sheet of paper. “I’ve just totalled up all the weight we can strip off the ship, using the lists of dispensable items each of you made up, and checked it against the thrust we can expect to get safely from the undamaged tubes. We’re about fifteen hundred Earth pounds short. I made the decision to drop off the water tanks, the survival gear, and a few other items, which brings us down to being about five hundred pounds short.”