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The Outward Urge

John Wyndham


  John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes

  Chapters 1 to 4 first published by Michael Joseph 1959, Published with Chapter 5 by Science Fiction Book Club 1961, Published in Penguin Books 1962

  Copyright © John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes, 1959

  John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes are both pen names of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (10 July 1903 - 11 March 1969)

  One: THE SPACE-STATION - A.D. 1994

  Ticker Troon emerged from his final interview filled with an emulsion of astonishment, elation, respect, and conviction that he needed refreshment.

  The interview had begun formally, as he had expected. Announced by the clerk, he had marched in smartly, and come to attention before the wide desk. The old boy behind it had turned out to be a considerably older boy than he had been prepared for, but his type was authentic. Lean, he was, with a handsome, slightly weathered, aristocratic face, carefully trimmed hair that was quite white, and rows of ribbons on his left breast.

  He had raised his eyes from a clipful of forms to inspect his visitor carefully, and even at that point Ticker had begun to have a suspicion that the interview was not going to be entirely routine, for the old boy - or, to identify him more fully, Air Marshal Sir Godfrey Wilde - did not employ simply that keen-eyed air of summing one’s man up at leisure and appearing incompletely satisfied, which had been the drill at lower grades of interviews. He was really looking at Ticker as a person, and somewhat oddly, too. Still looking, he nodded slowly to himself two or three times.

  ‘Troon,’ he said, reflectively. ‘Flight-Lieutenant George Montgomery Troon. Very probably known in some circles, I suspect, as Ticker Troon?’

  Ticker had been startled.

  ‘Er - yes, sir.’

  The old boy smiled a little. ‘The young are seldom very original. G. M. Troon - G. M. T. - hence, deviously, Ticker.’ He had gone on regarding Ticker steadily, with a length of inspection that passed the bounds of custom, and of comfort. Ticker grew embarrassed, and had to resist the temptation to shift uneasily. The old boy became aware of the awkwardness. His face relaxed into a smile that was friendly, and reassuring.

  ‘Forgive me, my boy. I was fifty years away,’ he said. He glanced down at the forms. Ticker recognized some of them. His whole history was there. Troon, G. M„ aged twenty-four, single, C. of E. Parentage ... education ... service details ... medical report ... C.O.’s report ... security report, no doubt ... probably a private-life report ... notes on friends, and so on, and so on ... Quite a bundle of stuff, altogether. The old boy evidently thought so too, for he pushed it all aside with a touch of impatience, waved his hand at an easy chair, and slid over a silver cigarette-box. ‘Sit down there, my boy,’ he invited.

  ‘Thank you, sir,’ Ticker had said. And he had taken the offered cigarette, doing his best to give an impression of ease.

  ‘Tell me,’ said the old boy, in a friendly tone, ‘what made you apply for transfer from Air to Space?’

  It was an expected, standard question, to which there was a standard answer, but it was not put in the standard way, and, with the man’s eye thoughtfully upon him, Ticker decided against giving the standard reply. He frowned, a little uncertainly.

  ‘It isn’t easy to explain, sir. In fact, I’m not honestly sure that I know. It - well, it isn’t that I had to do it. But there is a kind of inevitable feeling about it - as if it were a thing I was bound to do, sooner or later. My natural next step…’

  ‘Next step,’ repeated the Air Marshal. ‘Not your crowning ambition, then? Next step towards what?’

  ‘I don’t really know, sir. Outwards, I think. There’s a sort of sense I can’t explain ... a kind of urge onwards and outwards. It is not a sudden idea, sir. It seems always to have been there, at the back of my mind. I’m afraid it all sounds a bit vague…‘ He let himself trail off, inadequately.

  But the old boy did not seem to find it inadequate. He gave a couple of his slow nods, and leant back in his chair. For a few moments he gazed up at the cornice of the ceiling, seeming to search his memory. Presently, he said:

  ‘...for all the night

  I heard their thin gnat-voices cry

  Star to faint star across the sky.’

  He brought his gaze down to Ticker’s surprised face. ‘That mean anything to you?’ he asked.

  Hesitantly, Ticker said:

  ‘I think so, sir. Where does it come from?’

  ‘I was told it was Rupert Brooke - though I’ve never found the context. But the man I first heard it from was your grandfather.’

  ‘My - my grandfather, sir?’ Ticker stared.

  ‘Yes. The other George Montgomery Troon - and does it surprise you to know that he was Ticker Troon, too? Grandfather!‘ He shook his head, ruefully. ‘It always seems to be a word for old fellows like me. But Ticker - well, he never had the chance. He was dead, you know, before he was your age.’

  ‘Yes, sir. Did you know him well?’

  ‘I did indeed. We were in the same squadron when it happened. You look amazingly like him. I was expecting you, of course; nevertheless, it gave me quite a shock when you came in.’ The Air Marshal had paused at that, somewhat lengthily. Then he went on: ‘He had that feeling, too. He flew because that was as far outwards as we could get in those days - as far as most of us ever expected to get. But not Ticker. I can remember even now the way he used to look up at the night sky, at the moon and the stars, and talk about them as if it were a foregone conclusion that we’d be going out there some day - and sadly, too, because he knew that he’d never be going out there himself. We used to think it comic-strip stuff in those days, but he’d smile off the ragging and the arguments as if he just knew.’ There had been another long pause then before he added: ‘God, I’m sorry old Ticker can’t know about this. If there’s one thing that’d make him as pleased as Punch, it’d be to know that his grandson wants to go “out there”.’

  ‘Thank you, sir. It’s good to know that,’ Ticker had told him. And then, feeling that the ball had been passed to him, he added: ‘He was killed over Germany, wasn’t he, sir?’

  ‘Berlin. August 1944,’ said the Air Marshal. ‘A big op. His aircraft blew up.’ He sighed, reminiscently. ‘When we got back, I went to see his wife, your grandmother. She was a lovely girl, a sweet girl. She took it hard. She went away somewhere, and I lost touch with her. She is still alive?’

  ‘Very much so, sir. She married again in, I think, 1949.’

  ‘I’m glad of that. Poor girl. They were only married a week before he was killed, you know.’

  ‘Only a week, sir. I didn’t know it was as short as that.’

  ‘It was. So your father, and consequently yourself, may be said to exist at all, only by a very narrow margin. They had married a little earlier than they intended. Perhaps Ticker had a premonition: most of us did, though some of us were wrong.’

  There was another pause which lasted until the Air Marshal roused himself from his thoughts to say:

  ‘You have stated here that you are single.’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ agreed Ticker.

  He became abruptly conscious of the special licence in his pocket, and all but looked down to see if it were protruding.

  ‘That was a condition of application, of course,’ said the old man. ‘Are you, in fact, unmarried?’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ Ticker said again, with an uneasy feeling that the pocket might have become transparent.

  ‘And you have no brother?’

  ‘No, sir.’

  The Air Marshal remarked, consideringly:

  ‘The stated purpose of this qualification is at variance with my experience. I have never found in war that the married officer is less redoubtable than the single man: rather the o
ther way, in fact. One is led to suspect, therefore, that the matter of pensions and subsequent responsibilities is allowed inappropriate weight. Would you say that it is a good principle that our fittest young men should not infrequently be dissuaded from procreation while the less fit retain the liberty to breed like rabbits?’

  ‘Er - no, sir,’ Ticker said, wonderingly.

  ‘Good,’ said the Air Marshal. ‘I am very glad to hear it.’ He maintained such a steady regard that Ticker was all but impelled to confess the presence of the licence. Prudence, however, still kept a fingertip hold on him. When the old boy had spoken again, it was to turn the interview on to more conventional lines.

  ‘You understand the need for top security in this work?’ he inquired.

  Ticker felt easier.

  ‘Security has been very much stressed all along, sir.’

  ‘But you don’t know why?’

  ‘I’ve been given no details, sir.’

  ‘Nevertheless, as an intelligent young man you must have formed some ideas.’

  ‘Well, sir, from what I have heard and read about experimental space missiles, I should think the time can’t be far off now when we shall start to build some kind of space-station - possibly a manned satellite. Would it be something of that sort?’

  ‘It would indeed, my boy - though your deductions are not quite up to date, I’m glad to say. The space-station already exists - in parts. And some of the parts are already up there. Your job will be to help in the assembly.’

  Ticker’s eyes widened, lit up with enthusiasm.

  ‘I say, sir, that’s wonderful. I’d no idea ... I thought we were rather behind in this sort of thing. Assembling the first space-station ...!‘ He trailed off, incoherently.

  ‘I did not say it was the first,’ the old man reminded him. ‘In fact, there may be others.’

  Ticker looked shocked. The Air Marshal amplified:

  ‘It doesn’t do to take things for granted. After all, we know that the Americans, and the Other Fellows, too, have been working hard on it - and our resources are nothing like theirs.’

  Ticker stared.

  ‘I thought we’d be working with the Americans, sir.’

  ‘So we ought to be. We’re certainly not working against them, but it just so happens that our people remember their love of public announcements at politically happy moments; and they remember certain leaks in our security system. Result: we go our different ways - with a great waste of time and energy in duplication of work. On the other hand, it will allow us to stand on our own feet in space - if that expression may be permitted - instead of being taken along as poor relations. That might one day turn out to have its advantages.’

  ‘I suppose so, sir. And the Other Fellows...?’

  ‘Oh, they’re at work on it, all right. They were known to be working on an unmanned satellite forty years ago when the Americans stole their thunder by making the first public announcement on satellites. But they got their own back by putting the first one into orbit. Just how far they’ve got now is a matter on which this Department would like a lot more information than it has.

  ‘Now, as to yourself: first of all there’ll be conditioning and training…‘

  Ticker’s thoughts were far too chaotic for him to give proper attention to the details that followed. He was looking beyond the walls of the sunlit office and already seeing the fire-pointed blackness of space. In imagination he could feel himself floating in the void. In a - abruptly he became aware that the Air Marshal had ceased to talk, and was looking at him as if after a question. He tried to pull himself together.

  ‘I’m awfully sorry, sir. I didn’t quite follow...’

  ‘I can see I’m wasting my time now,’ the old man had said, but without rancour. Indeed, he had smiled. ‘I’ve seen that look before. I think you’ll do. But perhaps one day you’ll be good enough to explain to me why a Troon is habitually thrown into a form of hypnotic trance at the thought of space.’ He rose. Ticker jumped up, quickly. ‘Remember the security - this is top secret. The kind of thing you would not let even your wife guess - if, of course, you were so fortunate as to have one. You appreciate that?’

  ‘I do, sir.’

  ‘Good-bye, then - er - Ticker. And good luck.’

  Ticker had thanked him in a not quite steady voice.

  Afterwards, in the first convenient saloon-bar, with a whisky in front of him, he pulled the special marriage licence out of his pocket, and considered it again. He wished now that he had not been so carried away; that he had listened with more care to what the old boy had been telling him. Something about a conditioning course of twelve weeks, and studying the space-station, both in plan and mock-up. And something about a bit of leave, too. Could that be right? After all, if they had some of the sections up there already, wouldn’t they be about finished by the time he was trained and ready to go? He was momentarily alarmed - until his common sense asserted itself: you couldn’t just throw the pieces of a space-station up into the sky and let them come together. Every part must be ferried there, laboriously, monotonously, very, very expensively, and in quite small bits at a time. It would be far and away the most costly structure ever built. There would have to be heaven knew how many journeys up there before they had enough to start on the assembly. Thinking of only that aspect of the problem caused him to swing gloomily to the other extreme - why, it was more likely to take years and years before it could be fully assembled and in working order....

  He dredged around in his mind for what the old boy had said about spells of duty: four weeks on, four weeks off - though that was hypothetical at present, and might need modification in the light of experience. All the same, the intention sounded generous enough, not bad at all....

  He returned his attention to the marriage licence in his hand. There could be no doubt that from an official point of view, no such document should exist - on the other hand, if an Air Marshal chose to reveal clearly what he thought of the ban ... With such eminence on his side, even though unofficially...

  Well, why delay? He’d got the job....

  He folded the paper carefully, and restored it to his pocket. Then he strode purposefully to the telephone-box....

  Ticker, standing in the mess-room of the hulk, and gazing out of the window, took his breakfast gloomily.

  The hulk, as it had become known, even on official memos, was the one habitable spot in thousands of miles of nothing. It was the local office of works, and also the hostel for the men serving their tour of duty. Down its shadow-side, windows ran almost the full length, giving a view of the assembly area. The few ports to sunward were kept shuttered. On the outer sunside of the hull was mounted a ring of parabolic reflectors, none more than a foot across, and all precisely angled. When the eye of the sun shone full in the centre of the ring they were inactive, but it never did for long, and a variation of a degree or two would bring one or other of the reflectors into focus, collecting intense heat. Presently a small, invisible explosion of steam would correct the error by its recoil, and slowly the hulk would swing a little until another reflector came into focus, and gave another correction It went on all the time save for the brief ‘nights’ in the Earth’s shadow, so that the view from the leeward windows never altered: it was always the space-station assembly.

  Ticker broke a roll, still warm from the oven operated by a large reflector on the sunside. He left the larger part of it hanging in the air while he buttered the lesser. He munched absent-mindedly, and took a jet of hot coffee. Then he relinquished the plastic coffee-bottle, and let it float while he reached back the rest of the roll before it could waft further. All these actions he performed without conscious thought. They had quickly ceased to be novelties and become part of the natural background conditions to one’s tour of duty - so customary that it was, rather, a propensity to poise things conveniently in mid-air when one was at home on leave that had to be checked.

  Munching his roll, Ticker continued to regard the view with distaste.
However enthusiastic one might be about the project as a whole, a sense of ennui and impatience to be away inevitably set in during the last few days of a spell. It had been so on the verge of his five previous leaves, and this time, for special reasons, it was more pronounced.

  Outside, the curve of the Earth made a backdrop to half the window’s span, though there was no telling which continent faced him at the moment. Cloud hid the surface and diffused the light as it did most of the time, so that he seemed to be looking, not at a world, but at a segment of a huge pearl resting in a bed of utter blackness. As a foreground, there was the familiar jumble of work in progress.

  The main framework of the station had already been welded together, a wheel-like cage of lattice girders, one hundred and forty feet in diameter and twenty-four feet thick. It sparkled in the unobstructed sunlight with a harsh silver glitter that was trying to the eyes. A few panels of the plating were already fixed, and small, bulbous-looking figures in space-suits were manoeuvring more sheets of metal into positions within the framework. The littered, chaotic impression of the whole scene was enhanced by the web of lines which criss-crossed it. Safety-lines and mooring-lines ran in every direction. There were a dozen or more from the hulk to the main assembly, and no single component, section, or instrument was without a tether to fasten it to some other. None of the lines was taut; if one became so, it remained like that for no more than a second or two. Most of them were continually moving in loops, like lazy snakes; others just hung, with barely perceptible motion. Every now and then one of the workers on the framework would pause as a case or an item of the structure as yet unused came nuzzling gently at the girders. He would give it a slight shove, and it would drift away again, its cable coiling in slow-motion behind it.

  A large cylinder, part of the atmosphere regenerating plant, swam into Ticker’s view, on its way from the hulk to the assembly. The space-suited man who was ferrying it over had hooked himself to it, and was directing their mutual slow-progress by occasional, carefully aimed blasts from a wide-mouthed pistol. He and his charge were floating free in space but for his thin life-line undulating back to the hulk. There was no sense whatever that all this was taking place as they hurtled round the Earth at a speed of thousands of miles per hour. One was no more aware of it than one was of the pace at which the Earth hurtles round the sun.