"Tell me, Rat. If you were me----"
"If I were you I'd get dressed for that dance," Rat said sharply. "If you've got a date, that is."
"That's just the point. I don't have a date. I mean, I didn't bother to make one. I know all those girls so well. Why bother?"
"So you're not going to the dance?"
Rat clambered up the arm of the pneumochair and swivelled his head upward till his glittering little eyes met Alan's. "You're not planning to go over the hill the way Steve did, are you? I can spot the symptoms. You look restless and fidgety the way your brother did."
After a moment of silence Alan shook his head. "No. I couldn't do that, Rat. Steve was the wild kind. I'd never be able just to get up and go, the way he did. But I've got to do something. I know what he meant. He said the walls of the ship were pressing in on him. Holding him back."
With a sudden impatient motion he ripped open the magnesnaps of his regulation shirt and took it off. He felt himself changing, inside. Something was happening to him. Maybe, he thought, he was catching whatever it was Steve had been inflamed by. Maybe he had been lying to himself all along, about being different in makeup from Steve.
"Go tell the Captain I'm not going to the dance," he ordered Rat. "Otherwise he'll wonder where I am. Tell him--tell him I'm too tired, or something. Tell him anything. But don't let him find out how I feel."
The next morning, Roger Bond told him all about the dance.
"It was the dullest thing you could imagine. Same old people, same dusty old dances. Couple of people asked me where you were, but I didn't tell them anything."
They wandered on through the heap of old, ugly buildings that composed the Starmen's Enclave. "It's just as well they think I was sick," Alan said. "I was, anyway. Sick from boredom."
He and Roger sat down carefully on the edge of a crumbling stone bench. They said nothing, just looking around. After a long while Alan broke the uncomfortable silence.
"You know what this place is? It's a ghetto. A self-imposed ghetto. Starmen are scared silly of going out into the Earther cities, so they keep themselves penned up in this filthy place instead."
"This place is really old. I wonder how far back those run-down buildings date."
"Thousand years, maybe more. No one ever bothers to build new ones. What for? The starmen don't mind living in the old ones."
"I almost wish the medical clearance hadn't come through after all," said Roger moodily.
"Then we'd be still quarantined up there. We wouldn't be able to come down and get another look at the kind of place this really is."
"I don't know which is worse--to be cooped up in quarantine or to go wandering around a dismal hole like the Enclave." Alan stood up, stretched, and took a deep breath. "Phew! Get a lungful of that sweet, fresh, allegedly pure Terran air! I'll take ship atmosphere, stale as it is, any time over this smoggy soup."
"I'll go along with that. Say, look--a strange face!"
Alan turned and saw a young starman of about his own age coming toward them. He wore a red uniform with gray trim instead of the orange-and-blue of the Valhalla.
"Welcome, newcomers. I suppose you're from that ship that just put down? The Valhalla?"
"Right. Name's Alan Donnell, and this is Roger Bond. Yours?"
"I'm Kevin Quantrell." He was short and stocky, heavily tanned, with a square jaw and a confident look about him. "I'm out of the starship Encounter, just back from the Aldebaran system. Been in the Enclave two weeks now--with a lot more ahead of me."
Alan whistled. "Aldebaran! That's--let's see, 109 years round trip. You must be a real old-timer, Quantrell!"
"I was born in 3403. Makes me 473 years old, Earthtime. But I'm actually only seventeen and a half. Right before Aldebaran we made a hop to Capella, and that used up 85 years more in a hurry."
"You've got me by 170 years," Alan said. "But I'm only seventeen myself."
Quantrell grinned cockily. "It's a good thing some guy thought up this Tally system of chalking up every real day you live through. Otherwise we'd be up to here in confusion all the time."
He leaned boredly against the wall of a rickety building which once had proudly borne the chrome-steel casing characteristic of early 27th Century architecture, but whose outer surface was now brown and scaly from rust. "What do you think of our little paradise?" Quantrell asked sarcastically. "Certainly puts the Earther cities to shame."
He pointed out across the river, where the tall, glistening buildings of the adjoining Earther city shone in the morning sunlight.
"Have you ever been out there?" Alan asked.
"No," Quantrell said in a tight voice. "But if this keeps up much longer----" He clenched and unclenched his fists impatiently.
"What's the trouble?"
"It's my ship--the Encounter. We were outspace over a century, you know, and when we got back the inspection teams found so many things wrong with the ship that she needs just about a complete overhauling. They've been working her over for the last two weeks, and the way it looks it'll be another couple of weeks before she's ready to go. And I don't know how much longer I can stand being penned up in this Enclave."
"That's exactly how your brother----" Roger started to say, and stopped. "Sorry."
"That's okay," Alan said.
Quantrell cocked an eye. "What's that?"
"My brother. I had a twin, but he got restless and jumped ship last time we were down. He got left behind at blastoff time."
Quantrell nodded understandingly. "Too bad. But I know what he was up against--and I envy the lucky so-and-so. I wish I had the guts to just walk out like that. Every day that goes by in this place, I say I'm going over the hill next day. But I never do, somehow. I just sit here and wait."
Alan glanced down the quiet sun-warmed street. Here and there a couple of venerable-looking starmen were sitting, swapping stories of their youth--a youth that had been a thousand years before. The Enclave, Alan thought, is a place for old men.
They walked on for a while until the buzzing neon signs of a feelie theater were visible. "I'm going in," Roger said. "This place is starting to depress me. You?"
Alan shot a glance at Quantrell, who made a face and shook his head. "I guess I'll skip it," Alan said. "Not just now."
"Count me out too," Quantrell said.
Roger looked sourly from one to the other, and shrugged. "I think I'll go all the same. I'm in the mood for a good show. See you around, Alan."
After Roger left them, Alan and Quantrell walked on through the Enclave together. Alan wondered whether it wasn't a good idea to have gone to the feelie with Roger after all; the Enclave was starting to depress him, too, and those three-dimensional shows had a way of taking your mind off things.
But he was curious about Quantrell. It wasn't often he had a chance to talk with someone his own age from another ship. "You know," he said, "we starmen lead an empty life. You don't get to realize it until you come to the Enclave."
"I decided that a long time ago," Quantrell said.
Alan spread his hands. "What do we do? We dash back and forth through space, and we huddle here in the Enclave. And we don't like either one or the other, but we fool ourselves into liking them. When we're in space we can't wait to get to the Enclave, and once we're down here we can't wait to get back. Some life."
"Got any suggestions? Some way of fixing things up for us without queering interstellar commerce?"
"Yes," Alan snapped. "I do have a suggestion. Hyperspace drive!"
Quantrell laughed harshly. "Of all the cockeyed----"
"There you are," Alan said angrily. "First thing you do is laugh. A spacewarp drive is just some hairbrained scheme to you. But haven't you ever considered that Earth's scientists won't bother developing such a drive for us if we don't care ourselves? They're just as happy the way things are. They don't have to worry about the Fitzgerald Contraction."
"But there's been steady research on a hyperdrive, hasn't there? Ever since Cavour, I thought."
"On and off. But they don't take it very seriously and they don't get anywhere with it. If they'd really put some men to work they'd find it--and then there wouldn't be any more Enclaves or any Fitzgerald Contraction, and we starmen could live normal lives."
"And your brother--he wouldn't be cut off from his people the way he is----"
"Sure. But you laughed instead of thinking."
Quantrell looked contrite. "Sorry. Guess I didn't put much jet behind my think-machine that time. But a hyperdrive would wipe out the Enclave system, wouldn't it?"
"Of course! We'd be able to come home from space and take a normal part in Earth's life, instead of pulling away and segregating ourselves here."
Alan looked up at the seemingly unreachable towers of the Earther city just across the river from the Enclave. Somewhere out there was Steve. And perhaps somewhere out there was someone he could talk to about the hyperdrive, someone influential who might spur the needed research.
The Earther city seemed to be calling to him. It was a voice that was hard to resist. He savagely jammed down deep inside him the tiny inner voice that was trying to object. He turned, looking backward at the dingy dreary buildings of the Enclave.
He looked then at Quantrell. "You said you've been wanting to break loose. You want to get out of the Enclave, eh, Kevin?"
"Yes," Quantrell said slowly.
Alan felt excitement beginning to pound hard in the pit of his stomach. "How'd you like to go outside there with me? See the Earther city?"
"You mean jump ship?"
The naked words, put just that bluntly, stung. "No," Alan said, thinking of how his father's face had gone stony the time Alan had told him Steve wasn't coming back. "I mean just going out for a day or so--a sort of change of air. It's five days till the Valhalla's due to blast off, and you say the Encounter is stuck here indefinitely. We could just go for a day or so--just to see what it's like out there."
Quantrell was silent a long time.
"Just for a day or so?" he asked, at last. "We'll just go out, and have a look around, just to see what it's like out there." He fell silent again. Alan saw a little trickle of sweat burst out on Quantrell's cheek. He felt strangely calm himself, a little to his own surprise.
Then Quantrell smiled and the confidence returned to his tanned face. "I'm game. Let's go!"
But Rat was quizzical about the whole enterprise when Alan returned to his room to get him.
"You aren't serious, Alan. You really are going over to the Earther city?"
Alan nodded and gestured for the little extra-terrestrial to take his usual perch. "Are you daring to take my word in vain, Rat?" he asked in mock histrionics. "When I say I'm going to do something, I do it." He snapped closed his jacket and flipped the switch controlling the archaic fluorescent panels. "Besides, you can always stay here if you want to, you know."
"Never mind," Rat said. "I'm coming." He leaped up and anchored himself securely on Alan's shoulder.
Kevin Quantrell was waiting for them in front of the building. As Alan emerged Rat said, "One question, Alan."
"Level, now: are you coming back--or are you going over the way Steve did?"
"You ought to know me better than that. I've got reasons for going out, but they're not Steve's reasons."
"I hope so."
Quantrell came up to them, and it seemed to Alan that there was something unconvincing about his broad grin. He looked nervous. Alan wondered whether he looked the same way.
"All set?" Quantrell asked.
"Set as I'll ever be. Let's go."
Alan looked around to see if anybody he knew might be watching. There was no one around. Quantrell started walking, and Alan fell in behind him.
"I hope you know where you're going," Alan said. "Because I don't."
Kevin pointed down the long winding street. "We go down to the foot of this street, turn right into Carhill Boulevard, head down the main drive toward the bridge. The Earther city is on the other side of the river."
"You better be right."
They made it at a fairly good clip through the sleepy Enclave, passing rapidly through the old, dry, dusty streets. Finally they came to the end of the street and rounded the corner onto Carhill Boulevard.
The first thing Alan saw was the majestic floating curve of the bridge. Then he saw the Earther city, a towering pile of metal and masonry that seemed to be leaping up into the sky ahead of them, completely filling the view.
Alan pointed to the bridge-mouth. "That's where we go across, isn't it?"
But Quantrell hung back. He stopped in his tracks, staring dangle-jawed at the immense city facing them.
"There it is," he said quietly.
"Sure. Let's go, eh?" Alan felt a sudden burst of impatience and started heading toward the approach to the bridge.
But after three or four paces he realized Quantrell was not with him. He turned and saw the other spaceman still rooted to the ground, gazing up at the vast Earther city as if in narcoshock.
"It's big," Quantrell murmured. "Too big."
"Kevin! What's wrong?"
"Leave him alone," Rat whispered. "I have a hunch he won't be going with you."