His glance shifted from one to the other.
Nobody would reply--neither Colonel Sagen, nor any of the officers bunched-up around him.
Sweat suddenly broke out on Lance's brow. The chilly feeling went through him that if and when an answer was provided him, he wasn't particularly going to like it.
Not in the slightest.
Shortly afterwards, Lance was driven across the base by his captors and escorted into his commanding officer's private office. The two aides were dismissed, but the psychiatrist-officer, who also wore eagles on his shoulders, and Major Carmody remained.
Colonel Sagen seated himself behind his desk.
"Major," he began, clearing his throat, "you imagine me to have a daughter. You're positive of it. You even visualize her so well, that you remember something about how you were going to marry her."
"You're not going to talk me out of anything on that score," Lance shot back.
"Perhaps, we don't intend to. Colonel Nordsen, here," Sagen indicated the psychiatrist, "has flown in from HQ to chat with you. He can explain the technical aspects of the phenomenon that has thrown you better than I can. I'd advise you to listen to him. He's just what you need."
"Just what I need? What else do you intend to do? Hypnotize me, so you can erase all my past?"
The colonel scowled. "Look here, major. You co-operate and learn to keep your mouth shut, we may be able to restore you to duty. But if not ... well, what happens then will be entirely up to Nordsen. It could mean a padded cell. The development of hyperspace exploration has to go on, whatever happens to you."
"I'll tell you one thing to your face, colonel," Lance replied, hotly. "I'm not off my rocker."
"No one has maintained you were," broke in Colonel Nordsen. "But Colonel Sagen had to throw a curtain around you fast."
Neither officer answered.
Finally, Colonel Sagen said, "I think you'd better continue with him, Colonel Nordsen."
Nordsen was a youthful-looking man for his rank, yet prematurely balding. He wore thick-shelled glasses.
"Major Cooper," Nordsen began, "let's go back to when you put the Cosmos XII through its first jump through hyperspace. How well do you recall your experience?"
"I'll never forget it. You Earthbound kiwis should try it sometime."
"Did you experience a feeling ... perhaps, rather uncanny ... that the whole thing had happened to you before? What psychologists call the sense of deja vu?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Perhaps some other type of phenomenon was manifested? A feeling you'd been split in half, maybe."
"That did happen."
"It was more than just being split in half. I felt like I was suddenly hundreds of selves. I could see other replicas of 'me' all around."
Nordsen nodded, thoughtfully. "That was what we call the 'Infinite Fission' syndrome. All those other 'you's' were personality matrices of yourself in alternate worlds. Did you notice anything else?"
Lance nodded, grudgingly.
"Look, colonel. If I answer your questions, will you answer mine?"
"Any reasonable ones, yes. That's what we're here for."
"Well, there was the disturbing thing about the Cosmos XII, itself. I saw images of the ship riding along beside me, out there in the hype. Where nothing material could possibly exist. Where not even light could reflect back, or any other wave propagation." Lance shook his head, recalling the experience. "What could have caused a hallucination like that?"
"It was no hallucination, Lance. It was real and has happened before. We can rest you easy on that point."
Colonel Nordsen removed tobacco from a pouch, stuffed his pipe, lit up. Bluish smoke formed a halo about him.
"Lance, the Space Service has been sending ships through hyperspace for nearly two years now. Only recently did anybody notice something was seriously wrong with the pilots who came back. Up until then ... oh, a pilot might act a little queer for a day or two. But who wouldn't, cooped up alone in a steel projectile for four weeks? We thought very little of it."
"Uh huh," was Lance Cooper's only comment.
Nordsen transferred his pipe to his hand. "But eventually, even the Space Service gets around to putting two and two together on the slipstick. The incidents kept piling up. A pilot comes back from Epsilon Eridani, for example, and insists on giving everybody left-handed salutes. Another has taken a scout ship to 61 Cygni. He insists at the Officers Club that Colonel Sagen here has a nickname of 'Old Hard-Head'. Nobody else on the base is aware of any such thing. Then, still another pilot--"
"Wait a minute!" Lance interrupted. "Hasn't he?"
"Hasn't what? I don't follow you."
"Colonel Sagen. Hasn't he got that nickname? I mean, it was a term of respect and liking, of course. But--"
"No," said Nordsen.
"No?" Lance echoed, disbelieving. "Since when?"
"Not since ever, major. Not on this particular track."
"Colonel Nordsen, you're losing me."
"Patience, please. I was about to tell you that still another pilot lands on our base, and he wears a blue tie. Claims the Space Service has always worn blue ties."
"I take it back," said Lance. "I'm a pilot and all pilots are slowly going nuts." Then, it occurred to him to evince more interest or they might ship him back to the brig sooner than expected. "A blue tie, huh?"
"And blue suede chukkas, to match," Colonel Sagen's hoarse voice broke in. "Most unmilitary-looking uniform I ever saw on a space officer."
Colonel Nordsen, the psychiatrist, set his pipe aside. "Gradually, we began building up a file of such weird discrepancies. Another pilot landed wearing a handle-bar mustache. He couldn't possibly have grown so much lip-hair in a month. Yet, the man claimed he'd sported the mustache for years; and that every officer in his squadron was decked out with one, too."
"Tell me just one thing," Lance pleaded. His nerves were gradually getting more on edge. "What has all this got to do with Carolyn Sagen? Why is she being kept from me?"
Nordsen's eyebrows met, evincing a little displeasure. "Don't you get the drift, major? I've been trying to accomplish two things at the same time. Cushion a shock for you--and explain why what has happened has happened. There is no Carolyn Sagen. The colonel and his wife have always been childless."
Lance got belligerent. "Say that again!"
"There is no Carolyn Sagen here."
"What d'you mean, when you say 'here'?"
Nordsen took off his shell-rimmed glasses, wiped them, restored them to his boyish face. "I would advise you to brace yourself. By 'here,' I mean on this particular time-track."
Lance stared at him.
"Doesn't the word have any significance for you?" Nordsen asked.
"Time-track? Sure, I've heard of the concept before. It's a theory that parallel worlds branch off when ... hey!" Lance's tone rose to a shout. "You're not trying to imply that ... that I'm on a diff--?"
"That's right. We're trying to tell you that you have obviously landed in another time-track. One that is parallel to--but just a slight bit different from the one you formerly knew. To you, we seem to be the same officers as in that world; but of course, we're not. It isn't the same universe. Hyperspace is tricky stuff, as our men are finding out. You've just got bounced around by one of the trickiest things connected with it."
Lance groaned. "Now, I'm told!"
"I'm sorry. It's nothing new, only the information is classified top-secret in our world; and evidently in yours, too. It has to be withheld from hype-trainees, otherwise they might deliberately flunk their course. We're running pilot classes here on our track, too. We have to keep them filled."
Lance was stunned. He hardly knew what he should say or do next.
Finally, he put forth a faltering question: "Is there any way I can get back to Home Base? My home base?"
All three officers in the room shook their heads in unison.
"You might as well look for a pebble in the beach," said Nordsen. He elucidated: "As a matter of fact, this is Home Base for you. The differences between one track and another are not usually too great; the resemblances are many. Sometimes even, the returned pilot accommodates himself to the new time-track without suspecting in the slightest what's happened to him."
"And in those cases, you seldom bother to enlighten him, I suppose."
"Naturally not. Security frowns on it."
"But in my case, you couldn't cover up."
"Your case manifests a much more serious slippage. Your path, evidently, warped to a track several million or billion worlds further over than anybody from your world had previously experienced. Consequently, your luck has really been unfortunate. You've materialized out of hyperspace into a universe where someone you apparently knew quite closely simply was never born."
"But Carolyn did exist before ... where I was? I'm not dreaming."
"No. Both our worlds are equally real."
Lance, though he felt the truth slowly and inexorably sink in, still could not quite grasp all its implications. He turned his numbed face to the other two officers in the room. Colonel Sagen and Major Carmody inclined their heads.
For one despairing moment, Lance felt almost like hurling himself through the window. Then, he straightened up. His mouth compressed into a thin line. "If I must face the facts, I must. But," his tone edged off into irony, "it sure isn't easy. You'll have to give me time."
Colonel Nordsen stood up, held out his hand. "I'm sorry, major, believe me. This is a hard blow to take and I wouldn't care to be on the receiving end, myself. But you'll adjust. If you like, I'll recommend you for convalescent leave. You understand, of course," the psychiatrist went on, "that we expect you to keep tight-lipped. Our hype-classes are still too small. We need a lot of sharp men, and they have to be volunteers. Right, Colonel Sagen?"
Lance dropped the proffered hand. "I get it. Let the word get around how hyperspace messes you up, all your bright young jets will bug out on it. That's your main worry, isn't it? Not what happens to me."
"Frankly, yes," Nordsen acknowledged, without blinking. "But the Space Service is also concerned about individuals. Don't worry now, major. We'll look after you."
"Don't bother!" An uncontrolled bitterness crept into Lance's reply. "Far as I'm concerned, the Space Service can go to hell. What reason have I got to stay in it? You've conned me out of all that meant anything in my life."
Nobody said a word.
Lance rose to his feet, unsteadily. His sardonic glance swept over them. "I suppose it's back to the guardhouse for me now, huh? Well, I won't be sorry to go. I'll find better company. And I refuse your bribe of special leave-time."
Colonel Nordsen seemed unaffected. "You're making a mistake," he said, calmly.
"Major, we're offering you a chance to get adjusted and assimilated. Take it or leave it. We can hold you in the brig until you see reason. But you're a good man. We need you."
"For what? More flights through that hyperspace muck?"
"If you can pass our mental stability tests, yes."
"And if not?"
"You'll be grounded."
Lance made a sudden decision.
"I want to go up right now."
"You heard me. I want to go up in the Cosmos XII right now, tests or no tests. Ground me--and I'll never have a chance again. Don't you think I'm hep to that?"
"We'll see that you're not grounded," broke in Colonel Sagen, from behind his desk.
But Lance didn't believe him.
"Don't try to kid me, colonel," he snapped out. "You write me out flight orders for the Cosmos XII, or I'll blab everything I know. You can't hang me, you can't tear my tongue out--and I know I'll bust out of your guardhouse one way or another! You'll see! And then, how will you fill up your precious training classes? Then, how will you get new chumps to pilot your ships to the stars? The stars! Ha, ha! That's the biggest joke of all!"
Colonel Sagen began to splutter. Lance, watching him carefully, decided there wasn't much resemblance between the old boy and the fine Colonel Sagen he'd known in his own world. Maybe it'd been having the softening influence of normal family life and a growing daughter that had made old Hard-Head human.
"You'll never get away with this," Sagen warned. "We're three against one."