None of them answered. There was only the faint thrumming of the rockets lowering the old ship to Earth.
"Let me be sure I have your identities right," went on Colonel Halter.
He then looked at the man on the captain's right. "You, I believe, are Lieutenant James Brady."
Brady nodded, his pale, eroded face expressionless.
Colonel Halter saw the neat black uniform, identical with the captain's; saw the cropped gray hair and meticulously trimmed goatee.
"And you," he said to the woman sitting beside the lieutenant, "are Dr. Anna Mueller."
The same nod and thin, expressionless face. The same paleness. Faded hazel eyes; hair white and trimmed close to her head; body emaciated.
"Daniel Carlyle, astrogator."
Like the doctor's brother, thought Colonel Halter, and yet like the lieutenant with his cropped hair and with an identical goatee.
"Caroline Gordon, dietician and televisor. John Crowley, rocketman."
Each nodded, expressionless, their faces like white, weathered statues in a desert.
Colonel Halter turned to the captain. The rocket thrum of the tugs had become a roar as the gravity pulled against the antique hull.
"We understand," said Colonel Halter, "that you demand repairs for your ship and fuel enough to take you back into deep space."
"That is right." The voice was low, slightly harsh.
"You're all close to a hundred years old. You'd die out there. Here, with medical aid, you'd easily live to a hundred and twenty-five."
Dr. Anna Mueller's head moved slightly. "We're aware of that, Colonel."
"It'd be pointless," said the colonel, "and a shameful waste. You're still the only crew that ever made it out beyond the Solar System. You've kept records of your personal experience, how you survived. They're valuable."
Dr. Mueller caught her breath. "Our adjustment to space is our private concern. I don't think you could understand."
"Maybe not, but we could try. To us, of course, complete adjustment is a living death."
"To us, it was a matter of staying alive."
Halter turned aside from disagreement, searching for common ground. "You'd be protected here, you know. You deserve that."
"Who'd protect us from you?" asked the captain. "Life in the Solar System is destructive."
Brady, the lieutenant, leaned forward. "You've failed--all through the whole System."
"We haven't finished living in it," said Halter. "Who can pin a label on us of success or failure?"
Miss Gordon, dietician and televisor, said quietly, "There are some records I'd like to show you. We compiled them while the Alpha was drifting back into the System."
Halter watched the frail arm reach out and turn a dial.
A point of light grew on the screen in Colonel Halter's office.
"Pluto," said her quiet voice.
Halter watched the lightspot focus on a mountain of ice. Men in suits of steel were crawling up its frozen side. Other men on the mountain's top were sighting guns. The men below were sighting guns. Yellow fire spurted from the top and the sides of the mountain, blending into a lake of fire. There was a great hissing and a rushing torrent of boiling water and rolling, twisting steel-clad bodies. The mountain of ice melted like a lump of lard in a hot frying pan. Only the steel bodies glinted, motionless, in the pale wash of sunlight.
Halter watched the brightness die and another lightspot grow one moon. The focus shifted in close to a fleet of shining silver ships.
Then another fleet dropped from close above, hanging still, and there were blinding flashes engulfing each ship below, one after the other, until there were only the shining ships above, climbing into the dusk glow of the Sun.
The glowing circle of bright-ringed Saturn was already rushing toward Colonel Halter from far back in the depth of screen. The focus shifted onto the planet's glaring surface. Men in the uniform of Earth soldiers were rushing out of transparent shell houses and staring in panic as the missiles plummeted through the shells and erupted clouds of steam which spouted up from mile-deep craters and there was nothing but the steam and the holes and the white cold.
Jupiter made a hole in the blackness, with eleven tiny holes scattered all around her, like droplets of fire. Ships streaked up, one for each droplet, circling each, spraying fire, until each droplet flared like a tiny sun.
Yellow Mars, holding closely its two speedy rocks of moons, spun into the screen.
A straggling line of men moved across a desert that whipped them with sheets of yellow dust. A single ship dived from out of the Sun, swooped along the line, licking it with the tongue of flame that streaked behind. As the ship flashed beyond the horizon, a line of smoking rag bundles lay still upon the yellow sand.
Darkness closed in upon the television screen in Colonel Halter's office. In the long moment of silence that followed, he thought, Oh, God, after this awful picture, how can I convince them to come out of the womb of that ship and live again? What reason can I give?
Immobilizing his face, he saw the half circle of the six old people again in the control room of the old, old ship.
He said, "You'll set down in approximately twenty minutes."
"Yes," agreed the captain, "from where we jumped into space seventy-five years ago. The people of Earth were talking about their problems, not killing each other about them. There was hope. We felt that by the time we'd finished our mission and come back from that other solar system, where a healthy colony could be born, most of those problems would be solved." A pause. "But now there's this terrible killing all through the System. We won't face it."
The roaring of the rockets now as they plunged flame against the concrete slab of the landing field. The bug bodies of the tugs gently easing old Alpha to Earth.
Colonel Halter was saying, "How about this other solar system? You haven't let us know whether or not you reached it."
"We saw it." There was a hollowness in the captain's voice. "We didn't reach it. But we will. You'll repair the Alpha and refuel it."
"As you were saying," prompted Colonel Halter, "you didn't reach it."
"A meteor," said the captain. "Straight into our rockets. Our ship began to drift. The cameras, of course, set in the bulkheads, were watching us."
"May I see? Anything you have to show or say will be strictly between us. I've given orders for our communication to be unrecorded and private. You have my word."
"You'll be allowed to see. I've given my permission."
Colonel Halter thought, You have given permission?
Then he saw in his telescreen the little old lady who was Caroline Gordon, dietician and televisor, press a button on the side of her chair. Instantly the picture changed. He heard her voice. "You see the rocket room of the Alpha back almost seventy-five years, a few minutes before the accident."
There were the four torpedo-like tubes projecting into the cylindrical room; the mass of levers, buttons, wheels and flashing lightspots.
Halter watched John Crowley, the rocketman, broad-shouldered and lithe, turning a wheel at the point of one of the giant tubes.
The next moment, he was flung to the floor. He struggled to his feet, jerked an oxygen mask from the bag at his chest, clamped it to his face and rushed to the tubes. He twirled wheels, pulled levers, pressed buttons. He glanced at the board on which the lightspots had been flashing. Darkness. He pressed a button. A foot-thick metal door swung open. He stepped through it. The door shut and locked.
Leaning against the steel wall at the end of a long companionway, he pulled off his oxygen mask and ran along the companionway toward the control room.
The others met him in the center of the ship.
Crowley saluted the young Captain McClelland.
"The rockets are gone, sir. A meteor."
McClelland did not smile or frown, show sadness or fear or any other emotion. He was tall and slim then, with cropped black hair, its line high on his head. His face was lean and strong-featured. There was a sense of command about the captain.
Quietly, he said, "We'll all go to the control room."
They followed him as he strode along the companionway.
The telescreen in Colonel Halter's office darkened and there was only the old voice of the captain, saying, "We were drifting in space. You know what that means. But no one broke down. We were too well trained, too well conditioned. We gathered in the control room."
Light opened up again on Colonel Halter's telescreen. He saw the polished metal walls, the pilot chairs and takeoff hammocks, the levers, buttons and switches of the young ship back those many years, and the six young people standing before a young Captain McClelland, who was speaking to them of food, water and oxygen.
It was decided that their metabolisms must be lowered and that they must live for the most part in their bunks. All activity must be cut to minimum. All weapons must be jettisoned, except one, the captain's shock gun, that could not kill but only cause unconsciousness for twenty-four hours.
Captain McClelland gave an order. The weapons were gathered up and placed in an airlock which thrust them out into space. Five of the crew lay down in their bunks. Dr. Anna Mueller, tall and slim, full-bosomed, tawny-skinned and tawny-haired, remained standing. She pressed the thought recorders over the heads of the other five people who lay there motionless, clamped the tiny electrodes onto her own temples and placed a small, black box, covered with many tiny dials, beside the bunk of Miss Gordon, the televisor.
A moment later, a jumble of thoughts: Now I am dead. An end. For what, now that it's here? Love. The warm press of a body. Trees and grass. Sunrise. To take poison. Clean air after a rain. City, people, lights. Sunset-- The thought words jumbled like a voice from a recorder when the speed is turned up.
Then they faded and one thought stream came through clean and clear: I am Dr. Anna Mueller. Good none of the others can hear what I'm thinking. Was afraid I'd die this way someday. But to prolong it. Painless death in an instant. Could give it to us all. But orders. Captain McClelland. No feeling? Can't he see what I feel for him? Why am I thinking like this? Now. But this is what is happening to me. He'd rather make love to this ship. Kiss Crowley before I give him the metabolism sedation shot. Captain'll see I'm a woman.
She stepped to the bulkhead and pressed a button. A medicine cabinet opened. After filling a hypodermic syringe, she went to Crowley, bent down and gave him a long kiss on the lips.
Instantly Colonel Halter heard thoughts.
Captain McClelland: She must be weak. Why's she doing that? Thought she was stronger. But the ship's the thing. The ship and I.
Crowley: What the hell? Didn't know she went for me. Just a half hour with her before the needle. What's to lose? He pulled her down to him.
Lieutenant Brady: He'd do that, the damned animal. But I'm not enough of an animal. I'm a good spaceman. All spontaneity's been trained out of me. Feel like killing him. And taking her. Anyplace. But I'm so controlled. Got to do something. This last time.... He sat up in his bunk.
Caroline Gordon: I knew he was like that. Married when we got back. Mrs. Crowley. And if we'd gotten back. Out every other night with another woman. I could kill him. She turned her face away.
Daniel Carlyle: Look at them. And I can't live. Only one person needs me, back on Earth, and she's the only. And that's enough. But maybe I can kill myself.... He did not move.
The thoughts stopped and Colonel Halter leaned forward in his chair as he saw Captain McClelland standing beside his bunk, the gun in his hand. Dr. Mueller saw, too--the young Dr. Mueller, back those seventy-five years. She struggled to pull away from Crowley.
Lieutenant Brady stood, started toward the captain, stopped. Crowley pushed Dr. Mueller away from him, leaped to his feet and lunged toward the captain. A stream of light appeared between the gun muzzle and Crowley. He stumbled, caught himself, stood up very straight, then sank down, as though he had been deflated.
The captain motioned Dr. Mueller to her bunk. She hesitated, pain in her face, turned, went to her bunk and lay down. Another stream of light appeared between her and the gun. She lay very still. The needle slipped from her fingers.
The captain turned the gun on Lieutenant Brady, who was coming at him, arms raised. The light beam again. The lieutenant sank back. Caroline Gordon was watching the captain as the light stream appeared. She relaxed, her eyes closed. Daniel Carlyle did not move as the light touched him.
Captain McClelland holstered the gun. He picked up the hypodermic needle and sterilized it at the medicine cabinet. Then he injected Crowley's arm, filled the hypo four more times, injected the others.
He finally thrust the needle into his own arm and lay down. His breathing began to slow. There was only the control room of the ship now, like some ancient mausoleum, with the six still figures and the control board dark and the eternal ocean of night pressing against the ports.
The picture of the ship's control room began to fade on the screen. After a moment of darkness, the live picture of the six old figures, sitting in their half circle, spread again over the lighted square.
Colonel Halter saw his own image, looking into the old masks.
He said, "And where was your weakness, Captain McClelland?"
"I was concerned," said the old voice, "with keeping us alive."
"You weren't aware that some of your crew were emotionally involved with each other?"
"Are there any more records you could show me?"
"Many more, Colonel, but I don't think it's necessary for you to see them. It would take too long. And we want to get back out into space." He paused. "We can brief you."
"About your going back into space.... I'm not sure we can allow it."
"Our answer's very simple. There's a button, under my thumb, on the arm of this chair. A little pressure. Carbon monoxide. It would be quick."
"Yes. A matter of preserving our integrity. We'd rather die than face the horrors of life on Earth."
Halter turned to the semi-circle of faces. "And you've all agreed to this--this suicide?"
The captain cut in. "Of course. I realized years ago that the only place we could live was in space, in this ship."
"When did your crew realize this?"
"After a couple of years. I told them over and over again, day after day. After all, I am captain. I dictate the policy."