Kieran looked up at him. He asked, "Am I in a starship?"
"But there aren't any starships."
"There are. You're in one." The sandy-haired man added, "My name is Vaillant."
It's true, what he says, murmured the something in Kieran's mind.
"Where--how--" Kieran began.
Vaillant interrupted his stammering question. "As to where, we're quite a way from Earth, heading right now in the general direction of Altair. As to how--" He paused, looking keenly down at Kieran. "Don't you know how?"
Of course I know. I was frozen, and now I have been awakened and time has gone by-- Vaillant, looking searchingly down at his face, showed a trace of relief. "You do know, don't you? For a moment I was afraid it hadn't worked."
He sat down on the edge of the bunk.
"How long?" asked Kieran.
Vaillant answered as casually as though it was the most ordinary question in the world. "A bit over a century."
It was wonderful, thought Kieran, how he could take a statement like that without getting excited. It was almost as though he'd known it all the time.
"How--" he began, when there was an interruption.
Something buzzed thinly in the pocket of Vaillant's shirt. He took out a thin three-inch disk of metal and said sharply into it, "Yes?"
A tiny voice squawked from the disk. It was too far from Kieran for him to understand what it was saying but it had a note of excitement, almost of panic, in it.
Something changed, hardened, in Vaillant's flat face. He said, "I expected it. I'll be right there. You know what to do."
He did something to the disk and spoke into it again. "Paula, take over here."
He stood up. Kieran looked up at him, feeling numb and stupid. "I'd like to know some things."
"Later," said Vaillant. "We've got troubles. Stay where you are."
He went rapidly out of the room. Kieran looked after him, wondering. Troubles--troubles in a starship? And a century had passed-- He suddenly felt an emotion that shook his nerves and tightened his guts. It was beginning to hit him now. He sat up in the bunk and swung his legs out of it and tried to stand but could not, he was too weak. All he could do was to sit there, shaking.
His mind could not take it in. It seemed only minutes ago that he had been walking along the corridor in Wheel Five. It seemed that Wheel Five must exist, that the Earth, the people, the time he knew, must still be somewhere out there. This could be some kind of a joke, or some kind of psychological experiment. That was it--the space-medicine boys were always making way-out experiments to find out how men would bear up in unusual conditions, and this must be one of them-- A woman came into the room. She was a dark woman who might have been thirty years old, and who wore a white shirt and slacks. She would, he thought, have been good-looking if she had not looked so tired and so edgy.
She came over and looked down at him and said to him, "Don't try to get up yet. You'll feel better very soon."
Her voice was a slightly husky one. It was utterly familiar to Kieran, and yet he had never seen this woman before. Then it came to him.
"You were the one who talked to me," he said, looking up at her. "In the dreams, I mean."
She nodded. "I'm Paula Ray and I'm a psychologist. You had to be psychologically prepared for your awakening."
The woman explained patiently. "Hypnopedic technique--establishing facts in the subconscious of a sleeping patient. Otherwise, it would be too terrific a shock for you when you awakened. That was proved when they first tried reviving space-struck men, forty or fifty years ago."
The comfortable conviction that this was all a fake, an experiment of some kind, began to drain out of Kieran. But if it was true-- He asked, with some difficulty, "You say that they found out how to revive space-frozen men, that long ago?"
"Yet it took forty or fifty years to get around to reviving me?"
The woman sighed. "You have a misconception. The process of revival was perfected that long ago. But it has been used only immediately after a wreck or disaster. Men or women in the old space-cemeteries have not been revived."
"Why not?" he asked carefully.
"Unsatisfactory results," she said. "They could not adjust psychologically to changed conditions. They usually became unbalanced. Some suicides and a number of cases of extreme schizophrenia resulted. It was decided that it was no kindness to the older space-struck cases to bring them back."
"But you brought me back?"
"There were good reasons." She was, clearly, evading that question. She went on quickly. "The psychological shock of awakening would have been devastating, if you were not prepared. So, while you were still under sedation, I used the hypnopedic method on you. Your unconscious was aware of the main facts of the situation before you awoke, and that cushioned the shock."
Kieran thought of himself, lying frozen and dead in a graveyard that was space, bodies drifting in orbit, circling slowly around each other as the years passed, in a macabre sarabande-- A deep shiver shook him.
"Because all space-struck victims were in pressure-suits, dehydration was not the problem it could have been," Paula was saying. "But it's still a highly delicate process--"
He looked at her and interrupted roughly. "What reasons?" And when she stared blankly, he added, "You said there were good reasons why you picked me for revival. What reasons?"
Her face became tight and alert. "You were the oldest victim, in point of date. That was one of the determining factors--"
"Look," said Kieran. "I'm not a child, nor yet a savage. You can drop the patronizing professional jargon and answer my question."
Her voice became hard and brittle. "You're new to this environment. You wouldn't understand if I told you."
"All right," she answered. "We need you, as a symbol, in a political struggle we're waging against the Sakae."
"I told you that you couldn't understand yet," she answered impatiently, turning away. "You can't expect me to fill you in on a whole world that's new to you, in five minutes."
She started toward the door. "Oh, no," said Kieran. "You're not going yet."
He slid out of the bunk. He felt weak and shaky but resentment energized his flaccid muscles. He took a step toward her.
The lights suddenly went dim, and a bull-throated roar sounded from somewhere, an appalling sound of raw power. The slight tingling that Kieran had felt in the metal fabric around him abruptly became a vibration so deep and powerful that it dizzied him and he had to grab the stanchion of the bunk to keep from falling.
Alarm had flashed into the woman's face. Next moment, from some hidden speaker in the wall, a male voice yelled sharply, "Overtaken--prepare for extreme evasion--"
"Get back into the bunk," she told Kieran.
"What is it?"
"It may be," she said with a certain faint viciousness, "that you're about to die a second time."
The lights dimmed to semi-darkness, and the deep vibration grew worse. Kieran clutched the woman's arm.
"Damn it, let me go!" she said.
The exclamation was so wholly familiar in its human angriness that Kieran almost liked her, for the first time. But he continued to hold onto her, although he did not feel that with his present weakness he could hold her long.
"I've a right to know," he said.
"All right, perhaps you have," said Paula. "We--our group--are operating against authority. We've broken laws, in going to Earth and reviving you. And now authority is catching up to us."
"Another ship? Is there going to be a fight?"
"A fight?" She stared at him, and shock and then faint repulsion showed in her face. "But of course, you come from the old time of wars, you would think that--"
Kieran got the impression that what he had said had made her look at him with the same feelings he would have had when he looked at a decent, worthy savage who happened to be a cannibal.
"I always felt that bringing you back was a mistake," she said, with a sharpness in her voice. "Let me go."
She wrenched away from him and before he could stop her she had got to the door and slid it open. He woke up in time to lurch after her and he got his shoulder into the door-opening before she could slide it shut.
"Oh, very well, since you insist I'm not going to worry about you," she said rapidly, and turned and hurried away.
Kieran wanted to follow her but his knees were buckling under him. He hung to the side of the door-opening. He felt angry, and anger was all that kept him from falling over. He would not faint, he told himself. He was not a child, and would not be treated like one-- He got his head outside the door. There was a long and very narrow corridor out there, blank metal with a few closed doors along it. One door, away down toward the end of the corridor, was just sliding shut.
He started down the corridor, steadying himself with his hand against the smooth wall. Before he had gone more than a few steps, the anger that pushed him began to ebb away. Of a sudden, the mountainous and incredible fact of his being here, in this place, this time, this ship, came down on him like an avalanche from which the hypnopedic pre-conditioning would no longer protect him.
I am touching a starship, I am in a starship, I, Reed Kieran of Midland Springs, Ohio. I ought to be back there, teaching my classes, stopping at Hartnett's Drug Store for a soft drink on the way home, but I am here in a ship fleeing through the stars ...
His head was spinning and he was afraid that he was going to go out again. He found himself at the door and slid it open and fell rather than walked inside. He heard a startled voice.
This was a bigger room. There was a table whose top was translucent and which showed a bewildering mass of fleeting symbols in bright light, ever changing. There was a screen on one wall of the room and that showed nothing, a blank, dark surface.
Vaillant and Paula Ray and a tall, tough-looking man of middle age were around the table and had looked up, surprised.
Vaillant's face flashed irritation. "Paula, you were supposed to keep him in his cabin!"
"I didn't think he was strong enough to follow," she said.
"I'm not," said Kieran, and pitched over.
The tall middle-aged man reached and caught him before he hit the floor, and eased him into a chair.
He heard, as though from a great distance, Vaillant's voice saying irritatedly, "Let Paula take care of him, Webber. Look at this--we're going to cross another rift--"
There were a few minutes then when everything was very jumbled up in Kieran's mind. The woman was talking to him. She was telling him that they had prepared him physically, as well as psychologically, for the shock of revival, and that he would be quite all right but had to take things more slowly.
He heard her voice but paid little attention. He sat in the chair and blankly watched the two men who hung over the table and its flow of brilliant symbols. Vaillant seemed to tighten up more and more as the moments passed, and there was still about him the look of a coiled spring but now the spring seemed to be wound to the breaking-point. Webber, the tall man with the tough face, watched the fleeting symbols and his face was stony.
"Here we go," he muttered, and both he and Vaillant looked up at the blank black screen on the wall.
Kieran looked too. There was nothing. Then, in an instant, the blackness vanished from the screen and it framed a vista of such cosmic, stunning splendor that Kieran could not grasp it.
Stars blazed like high fires across the screen, loops and chains and shining clots of them. This was not too different from the way they had looked from Wheel Five. But what was different was that the starry firmament was partly blotted out by vast rifted ramparts of blackness, ebon cliffs that went up to infinity. Kieran had seen astronomical photographs like this and knew what the blackness was.
Dust. A dust so fine that its percentage of particles in space would be a vacuum, on Earth. But, here where it extended over parsecs of space, it formed a barrier to light. There was a narrow rift here between the titan cliffs of darkness and he--the ship he was in--was fleeing across that rift.
The screen abruptly went black again. Kieran remained sitting and staring at it. That incredible fleeting vision had finally impressed the utter reality of all this upon his mind. They, this ship, were far from Earth--very far, in one of the dust-clouds in which they were trying to lose pursuers. This was real.
"--will have got another fix on us as we crossed, for sure," Vaillant was saying, in a bitter voice. "They'll have the net out for us--the pattern will be shaping now and we can't slip through it."
"We can't," said Webber. "The ship can't. But the flitter can, with luck."
They both looked at Kieran. "He's the important one," Webber said. "If a couple of us could get him through--"
"No," said Paula. "We couldn't. As soon as they caught the ship and found the flitter gone, they'd be after him."
"Not to Sako," said Webber. "They'd never figure that we'd take him to Sako."
"Do I have a word in this?" asked Kieran, between his teeth.
"What?" asked Vaillant.
"This. The hell with you all. I'll go no place with you or for you."
He got a savage satisfaction from saying it, he was tired of sitting there like a booby while they discussed him, but he did not get the reaction from them he had expected. The two men merely continued to look thoughtfully at him. The woman sighed, "You see? There wasn't time enough to explain it to him. It's natural for him to react with hostility."
"Put him out, and take him along," said Webber.