He snapped on a spool of light music and stretched back, completely exhausted. I don't ever want to see or taste a dinosaur steak again, he thought. Not ever.
He watched the figures of his crewmates dashing through the ship, each going about some last-minute job that had to be handled before the ship touched down. In a way he was glad he had drawn the assignment he had: it was difficult, gruelingly heavy labor, carried out under nasty circumstances--it was never fun to spend any length of time doing manual labor inside a spacesuit, because the sweat-swabbers and the air-conditioners in the suit were generally always one step behind on the job--but at least the work came to a definite end. Once all the meat was packed, the job was done.
The same couldn't be said for the unfortunates who swabbed the floors, scraped out the jets, realigned the drive mechanism, or did any other tidying work. Their jobs were never done; they always suffered from the nagging thought that just a little more work might bring the inspection rating up a decimal or two.
Every starship had to undergo a rigorous inspection whenever it touched down on Earth. The Valhalla probably wouldn't have any difficulties, since it had been gone only nine years Earthtime. But ships making longer voyages often had troubles with the inspectors. Procedure which passed inspection on a ship bound out for Rigel or one of the other far stars might have become a violation in the hundreds of years that would have passed before its return.
Alan wondered if the Valhalla would run into any inspection problems. The schedule called for departure for Procyon in six days, and the ship would as usual be carrying a party of colonists.
The schedule was pretty much of a sacred thing. But Alan had not forgotten his brother Steve. If he only had a few days to get out there and maybe find him---- Well, I'll see, he thought. He relaxed.
But relaxation was brief. A familiar high-pitched voice cut suddenly into his consciousness. Oh, oh, he thought. Here comes trouble.
"How come you've cut jets, spaceman?"
Alan opened one eye and stared balefully at the skinny figure of Judy Collier. "I've finished my job, that's how come. And I've been trying to get a little rest. Any objections?"
She held up her hands and looked around the big recreation room nervously. "Okay, don't shoot. Where's that animal of yours?"
"Rat? Don't worry about him. He's in my cabin, chewing his nibbling-stick. I can assure you it tastes a lot better to him than your bony ankles." Alan yawned deliberately. "Now how about letting me rest?"
She looked wounded. "If you want it that way. I just thought I'd tell you about the doings in the Enclave when we land. There's been a change in the regulations since the last time we were here. But you wouldn't be interested, of course." She started to mince away.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Judy's father was the Valhalla's Chief Signal Officer, and she generally had news from a planet they were landing on a lot quicker than anyone else. "What's this all about?"
"A new quarantine regulation. They passed it two years ago when a ship back from Altair landed and the crew turned out to be loaded with some sort of weird disease. We have to stay isolated even from the other starmen in the Enclave until we've all had medical checkups."
"Do they require every ship landing to go through this?"
"Yep. Nuisance, isn't it? So the word has come from your father that since we can't go round visiting until we've been checked, the Crew's going to have a dance tonight when we touch down."
"You heard me. He thought it might be a nice idea--just to keep our spirits up until the quarantine's lifted. That nasty Roger Bond has invited me," she added, with a raised eyebrow that was supposed to be sophisticated-looking.
"What's wrong with Roger? I just spent a whole afternoon crating dinosaur meat with him."
"Oh, he's--well--he just doesn't do anything to me."
I'd like to do something to you, Alan thought. Something lingering, with boiling oil in it.
"Did you accept?" he asked, just to be polite.
"Of course not! Not yet, that is. I just thought I might get some more interesting offers, that's all," she said archly.
Oh, I see the game, Alan thought. She's looking for an invitation. He stretched way back and slowly let his eyes droop closed. "I wish you luck," he said.
She gaped at him. "Oh--you're horrible!"
"I know," he admitted coolly. "I'm actually a Neptunian mudworm, completely devoid of emotions. I'm here in disguise to destroy the Earth, and if you reveal my secret I'll eat you alive."
She ignored his sally and shook her head. "But why do I always have to go to dances with Roger Bond?" she asked plaintively. "Oh, well. Never mind," she said, and turned away.
He watched her as she crossed the recreation room floor and stepped through the exit sphincter. She was just a silly girl, of course, but she had pointed up a very real problem of starship life when she asked, "Why do I always have to go to dances with Roger Bond?"
The Valhalla was practically a self-contained universe. The Crew was permanent; no one ever left, unless it was to jump ship the way Steve had--and Steve was the only Crewman in the Valhalla's history to do that. And no one new ever came aboard, except in the case of the infrequent changes of personnel. Judy Collier herself was one of the newest members of the Crew, and her family had come aboard five ship years ago, because a replacement signal officer had been needed.
Otherwise, things remained the same. Two or three dozen families, a few hundred people, living together year in and year out. No wonder Judy Collier always had to go to dances with Roger Bond. The actual range of eligibles was terribly limited.
That was why Steve had gone over the hill. What was it he had said? I feel the walls of the ship holding me in like the bars of a cell. Out there was Earth, population approximately eight billion or so. And up here is the Valhalla, current population precisely 176.
He knew all 176 of them like members of his own family--which they were, in a sense. There was nothing mysterious about anyone, nothing new.
And that was what Steve had wanted: something new. So he had jumped ship. Well, Alan thought, development of a hyperdrive would change the whole setup, if--if---- He hardly found the quarantine to his liking either. The starmen had only a brief stay on Earth, with just the shortest opportunity to go down to the Enclave, mingle with starmen from other ships, see a new face, trade news of the starways. It was almost criminal to deprive them of even a few hours of it.
Well, a dance was the second best thing. But it was a pretty distant second, he thought, as he pushed himself up out of the pneumochair.
He looked across the recreation room. Speak of the devil, he thought. There was Roger Bond now, stretched out and resting too under a radiotherm lamp. Alan walked over to him.
"Heard the sad news, Rog?"
"About the quarantine? Yeah." Roger glanced at his wristchron. "Guess I'd better start getting spruced up for the dance," he said, getting to his feet. He was a short, good-looking, dark-haired boy a year younger than Alan.
"Going with anyone special?"
Roger shook his head. "Who, special? Who, I ask you? I'm going to take skinny Judy Collier, I guess. There's not much choice, is there?"
"No," Alan agreed sadly, "Not much choice at all."
Together they left the recreation room. Alan felt a strange sort of hopeless boredom spreading over him, as if he had entered a gray fog. It worried him.
"See you tonight," Roger said.
"I suppose so," Alan returned dully. He was frowning.
The Valhalla touched down on Earth at 1753 on the nose, to nobody's very great surprise. Captain Mark Donnell had not missed schedule once in his forty ship years in space, which covered a span of over a thousand years of Earth's history.
Landing procedure was rigidly set. The Crew debarked by family, in order of signing-on; the only exception to the order was Alan. As a member of the Captain's family--the only other member, now--he had to wait till the rest of the ship was cleared. But his turn came eventually.
"Solid ground again, Rat!" They stood on the jet-fused dirt field where the Valhalla had landed. The great golden-hulled starship was reared up on its tail, with its huge landing buttresses flaring out at each side to keep it propped up.
"Solid for you, maybe," Rat said. "But the trip's just as wobbly as ever for me, riding up here on your shoulder."
Captain Donnell's shrill whistle sounded, and he cupped his hands to call out, "The copters are here!"
Alan watched the little squadron of gray jetcopters settle to the ground, rotors slowing, and headed forward along with the rest of the Crew. The copters would take them from the bare landing field of the spaceport to the Enclave, where they would spend the next six days.
The Captain was supervising the loading of the copters. Alan sauntered over to him.
"Where to, son?"
"I'm scheduled to go over in Copter One."
"Uh-uh. I've changed the schedule." Captain Donnell turned away and signalled to the waiting crew members. "Okay, go ahead and fill up Copter One!"
They filed aboard. "Everyone get back," the Captain yelled. A tentative chugg-chuff came from the copter; its rotors went round and it lifted, stood poised for a moment on its jetwash, and shot off northward toward the Starmen's Enclave.
"What's this about a change in schedule, Dad?"
"I want you to ride over with me in the two-man copter. Kandin took your place aboard Copter One. Let's go now," he shouted to the next group. "Start loading up Number Two."
The Crewmen began taking their places aboard the second copter, and soon its pilot signalled through the fore window that he was loaded up. The copter departed. Seeing that he would be leaving the field last, Alan made himself useful by keeping the younger Crew children from wandering.
At last the field was cleared. Only Alan and his father remained, with the little two-man copter and the tall gleaming Valhalla behind them.
"Let's go," the Captain said. They climbed in, Alan strapping himself down in the co-pilot's chair and his father back of the controls.
"I never see much of you these days," the Captain said after they were aloft. "Running the Valhalla seems to take twenty-four hours a day."
"I know how it is," Alan said.
After a while Captain Donnell said, "I see you're still reading that Cavour book." He chuckled. "Still haven't given up the idea of finding the hyperdrive, have you?"
"You know I haven't, Dad. I'm sure Cavour really did work it out, before he disappeared. If we could only discover his notebook, or even a letter or something that could get us back on the trail----"
"It's been thirteen hundred years since Cavour disappeared, Alan. If nothing of his has turned up in all that time, it's not likely ever to show. But I hope you keep at it, anyway." He banked the copter and cut the jets; the rotors took over and gently lowered the craft to the distant landing field.
Alan looked down and out at the heap of buildings becoming visible below. The crazy quilt of outdated, clumsy old buildings that was the local Starmen's Enclave.
He felt a twinge of surprise at his father's words. The Captain had never shown any serious interest in the possibility of faster-than-light travel before. He had always regarded the whole idea as sheer fantasy.
"I don't get it, Dad. Why do you hope I keep at it? If I ever find what I'm looking for, it's going to mean the end of Starman life as you know it. Travel between planets will be instantaneous. There--there won't be this business of making jumps and getting separated from everyone you used to know."
"You're right. I've just begun thinking seriously about this business of hyperdrive. There wouldn't be any Contraction effect. Think of the changes it would mean in Starman society! No more--no more permanent separations if someone decides to leave his ship for a while."
Alan understood what his father meant. Suddenly he saw the reason for Captain Donnell's abrupt growth of interest in the development of a hyperdrive.
It's Steve that's on his mind, Alan thought. If we had had a hyperspace drive and Steve had done what he did, it wouldn't have mattered. He'd still be my age.
Now the Valhalla was about to journey to Procyon. Another twenty years would pass before it got back, and Steve would be almost fifty by then.
That's what's on his mind, Alan thought. He lost Steve forever--but he doesn't want any more Steves to happen. The Contraction took one of his sons away. And now he wants the hyperdrive as much as I do.
Alan glanced at the stiff, erect figure of his father as they clambered out of the copter and headed at a fast clip toward the Administration Building of the Enclave. He wondered just how much pain and anguish his father was keeping hidden back of that brisk, efficient exterior.
I'll get the Cavour drive someday, Alan thought suddenly. And I'll be getting it for him as well as me.
The bizarre buildings of the Enclave loomed up before him. Behind them, just visible in the purplish twilight haze, were the tips of the shining towers of the Earther city outside. Somewhere out there, probably, was Steve.
I'll find him too, Alan thought firmly.
Most of the Valhalla's people had already been assigned rooms in the quarantine section of one of the Enclave buildings when Alan and his father arrived.
The bored-looking desk clerk--a withered-looking oldster who was probably a retired Starman--gave Alan his room number. It turned out to be a small, squarish room furnished with an immense old pneumochair long since deflated, a cot, and a washstand. The wall was a dull green, with gaping cracks in the faded paint, and cut heavily with a penknife into one wall was the inscription, BILL DANSERT SLEPT HERE, June 28 2683 in sturdy block letters.
Alan wondered how many other starmen had occupied the room before and after Bill Dansert. He wondered whether perhaps Bill Dansert himself were still alive somewhere between the stars, twelve centuries after he had left his name in the wall.
He dropped himself into the pneumochair, feeling the soggy squish of the deflated cushion, and loosened the jacket of his uniform.
"It's not luxurious," he told Rat. "But at least it's a room. It's a place to stay."
The medics started coming around that evening, checking to see that none of the newly-arrived starmen had happened to bring back any strange disease that might cause trouble. It was slow work--and the Valhalla people were told that it would take at least until the following morning before the quarantine could be lifted.
"Just a precautionary measure," said the medic apologetically as he entered Alan's room clad in a space helmet. "We really learned our lesson when that shipload from Altair came in bearing a plague."
The medic produced a small camera and focused it on Alan. He pressed a button; a droning sort of hum came from the machine. Alan felt a curious glow of warmth.
"Just a routine check," the medic apologized again. He flipped a lever in the back of the camera. Abruptly the droning stopped and a tape unravelled out of the side of the machine. The medic studied it.
"Any trouble?" Alan asked anxiously.
"Looks okay to me. But you might get that cavity in your upper right wisdom tooth taken care of. Otherwise you seem in good shape."
He rolled up the tape. "Don't you starmen ever get time for a fluorine treatment? Some of you have the worst teeth I've ever seen."
"We haven't had a chance for fluorination yet. Our ship was built before they started fluorinating the water supplies, and somehow we never find time to take the treatment while we're on Earth. But is that all that's wrong with me?"
"All that I can spot just by examining the diagnostic tape. We'll have to wait for the full lab report to come through before I can pass you out of quarantine, of course." Then he noticed Rat perched in the corner. "How about that? I'll have to examine it, too."
"I'm not an it," Rat remarked with icy dignity. "I'm an intelligent extra-terrestrial entity, native of Bellatrix VII. And I'm not carrying any particular diseases that would interest you."
"A talking rat!" The medic was amazed. "Next thing we'll have sentient amebas!" He aimed the camera at Rat. "I suppose I'll have to record you as a member of the crew," he said, as the camera began to hum.
After the medic had gone, Alan tried to freshen up at the washstand, having suddenly recalled that a dance was on tap for this evening.
As he wearily went through the motions of scrubbing his face clean, it occurred to him that he had not even bothered to speak to one of the seven or eight Crew girls he had considered inviting.
He sensed a curious disturbed feeling growing inside him. He felt depressed. Was this, he wondered, what Steve had gone through? The wish to get out of this tin can of a ship and really see the universe?