As he hauled himself toward the Ranger, Coffin watched the receiver web grow in his eyes, till it snared a distorted Milky Way. It seemed very frail to have carried so much hell. And, indeed, it would have to be dismantled before deceleration. No trick to sabotage the thing. If only I had known!
Or if someone on Earth, the villain or well-meaning fool or whatever he was who wrote that first message ... if only he would send another. "Ignore preceding. Educational decree still in force." Or something. But no. Such things didn't happen. A man had to make his own luck, in an angry world.
Coffin sighed and clamped boot-soles to his flagship's air lock.
Mardikian helped him through. When he removed his hoarfrosted space helmet, Coffin saw how the boy's mouth quivered. A few hours had put years on Mardikian.
He was in medical whites. Unnecessarily, to break the silence with any inane remark, Coffin said: "Going on vat duty, I see."
"Yes, sir." A mutter. "My turn." The armor made a lot of noise while they stowed it. "We'll need some more ethanol soon, captain," blurted Mardikian desperately.
"What for?" grumbled Coffin. He had often wished the stuff were not indispensable. He alone had the key to its barrel. Some masters allowed a small liquor ration on voyage, and said Coffin was only disguising prejudice in claiming it added risk. ("What the devil can happen in interstellar orbit? The only reason anyone stays conscious at all is the machinery to care properly for sleepers would mass more than the extra supplies do. You can issue the grog when a man comes off watch, can't you? Oh, never mind, never mind! I'm just grateful I don't ship under you!") "Gammagen fixative ... and so on ... sir," stumbled Mardikian. "Mr. Hallmyer will ... make the requisition as usual."
"All right." Coffin faced his radio man, captured the fearful eyes and would not let them go. "Have there been any further communications?" he snapped.
"From Earth? No. No, sir. I ... I wouldn't really expect it ... we're about at the ... the ... the limit of reception now. It's almost a miracle, sir, I suppose, that we picked up the first. Of course, we might get another--" Mardikian's voice trailed off.
Coffin continued to stare. At last: "They've been giving you a hard time, haven't they?"
"The ones like Lochaber, who want to go on. They wish you'd had the sense to keep your mouth shut, at least till you consulted me. And then others, like de Smet, have said the opposite. Even over telecircuit, it's no fun being a storm center, is it?"
Coffin turned away. Why torment the fellow more? This thing had happened, that was all. And the fewer who realized the danger, and were thereby put under still greater strain, the less that danger would be.
"Avoid such disputes," said Coffin. "Most especially, don't brood over those which do arise. That's just begging for a nervous breakdown--out here. Carry on."
Mardikian gulped and went aft.
Coffin drifted athwartships. The vessel thrummed around him.
He was not on watch, and had no desire to share the bridge with whoever was. He should eat something, but the idea was nauseating; he should try to sleep, but that would be useless. How long had he been with Teresa, while she cleared his mind and gave him what comfort she had to offer? A couple of hours. In fourteen hours or less, he must confront the spokesmen of crew and colonists. And meanwhile the fleet seethed.
On Earth, he thought wearily, a choice between going on and turning back would not have drawn men so close to insanity, even if the time elements had been the same. But Earth was long domesticated. Maybe, centuries ago, when a few wind-powered hulks wallowed forth upon hugeness, unsure whether they might sail off the world's edge--maybe then there had been comparable dilemmas. Yes ... hadn't Columbus' men come near mutiny? Even unknown, though, and monster-peopled by superstition, Earth had not been as cruel an environment as space; nor had a caravel been as unnatural as a spaceship. Minds could never have disintegrated as quickly in mid-ocean as between the stars.
Coffin grew aware, startled, that he had wandered to the radio shack.
He entered. It was a mere cubbyhole, one wall occupied by gleaming electronic controls, the rest full of racked equipment, tools, testers, spare parts, half-assembled units for this and that special purpose. The fleet did not absolutely need a Com officer--any spaceman could do the minimal jobs, and any officer had intensive electronics training--but Mardikian was a good, conscientious, useful technician.
His trouble was, perhaps, only that he was human.
Coffin pulled himself to the main receiver. A tape whirred slowly between spools, preserving what the web gathered. Coffin looked at a clipboard. Mardikian had written half an hour ago: "Nothing received. Tape wiped and reset, 1530 hr." Maybe since then--? Coffin flipped a switch. A scanner went quickly through the recording, found only cosmic noise--none of the orderliness which would have meant code or speech--and informed the man.
Now if it had just-- Coffin grew rigid. He floated among the mechanisms for a long time, blank-eyed as they, and alone the quick harsh breath showed him to be alive.
O God, help me do that which is right.
But what is right?
I should wrestle with Thy angel until I knew. But there is no time. Lord, be not wroth with me because I have no time.
Anguish ebbed. Coffin got busy.
Decision would be reached at the meeting, fourteen hours hence. A message which was to make a substantial difference ought to be received before then. But not very much before; nor too late, eleventh-hour-reprieve style, either.
But first, what should its wording be? Coffin didn't have to look up the last one. It was branded on his brain. An invitation to return and talk matters over. But necessarily short, compact, with minimum redundancy: which meant an increased danger of misinterpretation.
He braced himself before the typer and began to compose, struck out his first words and started again, and again and again. It had to be exactly right. A mere cancellation of the previous message wouldn't do after all. Too pat. And a suspicion, brooded on during a year-watch, could be as deadly as an outright sense of betrayal. So....
Since fleet now approaching equal-time point, quick action necessary. Colonization plans abandoned. Expedition ordered, repeat ordered to return to Earth. Education decree already rescinded (a man back home wouldn't be certain the first beam had made contact) and appeals for further concessions will be permitted through proper channels. Constitutionalists reminded that their first duty is to put their skills at disposal of society.
Would that serve? Coffin read it over. It didn't contradict the first one; it only changed a suggestion to a command, as if someone were growing more frantic by the hour. (And a picture of near-chaos in government wasn't attractive, was it?) The bit about "proper channels" underlined that speech was not free on Earth, and that the bureaucracy could restore the school decree any time it wished. The pompous last sentence ought to irritate men who had turned their backs on the thing which Terrestrial society was becoming.
Maybe it could be improved, though--Coffin resumed work.
When he ripped out his last version, he was astonished to note that two hours had passed. Already? The ship seemed very quiet. Too quiet. He grew feverishly aware that anyone might break in on him at any time.
The tape could run for a day, but was usually checked and wiped every six or eight hours. Coffin decided to put his words on it at a spot corresponding to seven hours hence. Mardikian would have come off vat duty, but probably be asleep; he wouldn't play back until shortly before the council meeting.
Coffin turned to a small auxiliary recorder. He had to tape his voice through a circuit which would alter it beyond recognition. And, of course, the whole thing had to be blurred, had to fade and come back, had to be full of squeals and buzzes and the crackling talk of the stars. No easy job to blend all those elements, in null-gee at that. Coffin lost himself in the task. He dared not do otherwise, for then he would be alone with himself.
Plug in this modulator, add an oscillation--Let's see, where's that slide rule, what quantities do you want for-- "What are you doing?"
Coffin twisted about. Fingers clamped on his heart.
Mardikian floated in the doorway, looking dazed and afraid as he saw who the intruder was. "What's wrong, sir?" he asked.
"You're on watch," breathed Coffin.
"Tea break, sir, and I thought I'd check and--" The boy pushed himself into the shack. Coffin saw him framed in meters and transformer banks, like some futuristic saint. But sweat glistened on the dark young face, broke free and drifted in tiny spheroids toward the ventilator.
"Get out of here," said Coffin thickly. And then: "No! I don't mean that! Stay where you are!"
"But--" Almost, the captain could read a mind: If the old man has gone space-dizzy, name of fate, what's to become of us all? "Yes, sir."
Coffin licked sandy lips. "It's O.K.," he said. "You surprised me, our nerves are on edge. That's why I hollered."
"Anyone else around?"
"No, sir. All on duty or--" I shouldn't have told him that! Coffin read. Now he knows I'm alone with him!
"It's O.K., son," repeated the captain. But his voice came out like a buzz saw cutting through bone. "I had a little project here I was, uh, playing with, and ... uh--"
"Yes, sir. Of course." Humor him till I can get away. Then see Mr. Kivi. Let him take the responsibility. I don't want it! I don't want to be the skipper, with nobody between me and the sky. It's too much. It'll crack a man wide open.
Mardikian's trapped eyes circled the little room. They fell on the typer, and the drafts which Coffin had not yet destroyed.
Silence closed in.
"Well," said Coffin at last. "Now you know."
"Yes, sir." Mardikian could scarcely be heard.
"I'm going to fake this onto the receiver tape."
"B-b ... Yes, sir." Humor him! Mardikian was drawn bowstring tight, his nostrils flared by terror.
"You see," rasped Coffin, "it has to look genuine. This ought to get their backs up. They'll be more united on colonizing Rustum than they ever were before. At the same time, I can resist them, claim I have my orders to turn about and don't want to get into trouble. Finally, of course, I'll let myself be talked into continuing, however reluctantly. So no one will suspect me of ... fraud."
Mardikian's lips moved soundlessly. He was close to hysteria, Coffin saw.
"It's unavoidable," the captain said, and cursed himself for the roughness in his tone. Though maybe no orator could persuade this boy. What did he know of psychic breaking stress, who had never been tried to his own limit? "We'll have to keep the secret, you and I, or--" No, what was the use? Within Mardikian's small experience, it was so much more natural to believe that one man, Coffin, had gone awry, than to understand a month-by-month rotting of the human soul under loneliness and frustration.
"Yes, sir," Mardikian husked. "Of course, sir."
Even if he meant that, Coffin thought, he might talk in his sleep. Or I might; but the admiral, alone of all the fleet, has a completely private room.
He racked his tools, most carefully, and faced about. Mardikian shoved away, bulging-eyed. "No," whispered Mardikian. "No. Please."
He opened his mouth to scream, but he didn't get time. Coffin chopped him on the neck. As he doubled up, Coffin gripped him with legs and one hand, balled the other fist, and hit him often in the solar plexus.
Mardikian rolled in the air like a drowned man.
Swiftly, then, Coffin towed him down the corridor, to the pharmacy room. He unlocked the alcohol barrel, tapped a hypo, diluted it with enough water, and injected. Lucky the fleet didn't carry a real psychiatrist; if you broke, you went into deepsleep and weren't revived till you got home again to the clinics.
Coffin dragged the boy to a point near the air lock. Then he shouted. Hallmyer came from the bridge. "He started raving and attacked me," panted the captain. "I had to knock him out."
Mardikian was revived for a check-up, but since he only mumbled incoherently, he was given a sedative. Two men began processing him for the vat. Coffin said he would make sure that the Com officer hadn't damaged any equipment. He went back to the shack.
Teresa Zeleny met him. She did not speak, but led him to her room again.
"Well," he said, strangling on it, "so we're continuing to Rustum, by unanimous vote. Aren't you happy?"
"I was," she said quietly, "till now, when I see that you aren't. I hardly think you're worried about legal trouble on Earth; you have authority to ignore orders if the situation warrants. So what is the matter?"
He stared beyond her. "I shouldn't have come here at all," he said. "But I had to talk with someone, and only you might understand. Will you bear with me a few minutes? I won't bother you again."
"Not till Rustum." Her smile was a gesture of compassion. "And it's no bother." After waiting a bit: "What did you want to say?"
He told her, in short savage words.
She grew a little pale. "The kid was actually dead drunk, and they didn't know it when they processed him?" she said. "That's a grave risk. He might not live."
"I know," said Coffin, and covered his eyes.
Her hand fell on his shoulder. "I suppose you've done the only possible thing," she said with much gentleness. "Or, if there was a better way, you didn't have time to think of it."
He said through his fingers, while his head turned away from her: "If you don't tell on me, and I know you won't, then you're violating your own principles, too: total information, free discussion and decision. Aren't you?"
She sighed. "I imagine so. But don't all principles have their limits? How libertarian, or kind ... how human can you be, out here?"
"I shouldn't have told you."
"I'm glad you did."
Then, briskly, as if she, too, fled something, the woman said: "The truth is bound to come out when your fleet returns to Earth, so we'll need to work out a defense for you. Or is necessity enough?"
"It doesn't matter." He raised his head, and now he could again speak steadily. "I don't figure to skulk more than I must. Let them say what they will, eight decades from now. I'll already have been judged."
"What?" She retreated a little, perhaps to see the gaunt form better. "You don't mean you'll stay on Rustum? But it isn't necessary!"
"A liar ... quite likely a murderer ... I am not worthy to be the master of a ship." His voice cracked over. "And maybe, after all, there isn't going to be any more space travel to come home to."
He jerked free of her and went through the door. She stared after him. She had better let him out; no, the key had been left in the bulkhead lock. She had no excuse to follow.
You aren't alone, Joshua, she wanted to call. Every one of us is beside you. Time is the bridge that always burns behind us.
LORDS OF THE STRATOSPHERE.
by Arthur J. Burks
High into air are the great New York buildings lifted by a ray whose source no telescope can find