Vaguely, flicking cigarettes onto the floor, he wondered why. The letter had not given a reason. He had probably flunked a physical. Or a mental. One or the other, each good enough reason. He was 47 years old, and this was a rough business. Still, he felt strong and cautious, and he knew he was not afraid. He felt good for a long while yet ... but obviously he was not.
Well, then, he thought, where now?
He considered that with interest. There was no particular place for him to go. Really no place. He had come into the business easily and naturally, knowing what he wanted--which was simply to move and listen and see. When he was young, it had been adventure alone that drew him; now it was something else he could not define, but a thing he knew he needed badly. He had to see, to watch ... and understand.
It was ending, the long time was ending. It didn't matter what was wrong with him. The point was that he was through. The point was that he was going home, to nowhere in particular.
When evening came, he was still in his room. Eventually he'd been able to accept it all and examine it clearly, and had decided that there was nothing to do. If there was anything out in space which he had not yet found, he would not be likely to need it.
He left off sitting, and went up to the control room.
Cooper was waiting for him. Cooper was a tall, bearded, scrawny man with a great temper and a great heart and a small capacity for liquor. He was sitting all alone in the room when Wyatt entered.
Except for the pearl-green glow of dashlights from the panel, the room was dark. Cooper was lying far back in the pilot's seat, his feet propped up on the panel. One shoe was off, and he was carefully pressing buttons with his huge bare toes. The first thing Wyatt saw when he entered was the foot glowing luridly in the green light of the panel. Deep within the ship he could hear the hum of the dynamos starting and stopping.
Wyatt grinned. From the play of Coop's toes, and the attitude, and the limp, forgotten pole of an arm which hung down loosely from the chair, it was obvious that Coop was drunk. In port, he was usually drunk. He was a lean, likable man with very few cares and no manners at all, which was typical of men in that Command.
"What say, Billy?" Coop mumbled from deep in the seat.
Wyatt sat down. "Where you been?"
"In the port. Been drinkin' in the goddam port. Hot!"
"Bring back any?"
Coop waved an arm floppily in no particular direction. "Look around."
The flasks lay in a heap by the door. Wyatt took one and sat down again. The room was warm and green and silent. The two men had been together long enough to be able to sit without speaking, and in the green glow they waited, thinking. The first pull Wyatt took was long and numbing; he closed his eyes.
Coop did not move at all. Not even his toes. When Wyatt had begun to think he was asleep, he said suddenly: "Heard about the replacement."
Wyatt looked at him.
"Found out this afternoon," Coop said, "from the goddam Commandant."
Wyatt closed his eyes again.
"Where you goin'?" Coop asked.
Wyatt shrugged. "Plush job."
"You got any plans?"
Wyatt shook his head.
Coop swore moodily. "Never let you alone," he muttered. "Miserable bastards." He rose up suddenly in the chair, pointing a long matchstick finger into Wyatt's face. "Listen, Billy," he said with determination, "you was a good man, you know that? You was one hell of a good goddam man."
Wyatt took another long pull and nodded, smiling.
"You said it," he said.
"I sailed with some good men, some good men," Coop insisted, stabbing shakily but emphatically with his finger, "but you don't take nothin' from nobody."
"Here's to me, I'm true blue," Wyatt grinned.
Coop sank back in the chair, satisfied. "I just wanted you should know. You been a good man."
"Betcher sweet life," Wyatt said.
"So they throw you out. Me they keep. You they throw out. They got no brains."
Wyatt lay back, letting the liquor take hold, receding without pain into a quiet world. The ship was good to feel around him, dark and throbbing like a living womb. Just like a womb, he thought. It's a lot like a womb.
"Listen," Coop said thickly, rising from his chair. "I think I'll quit this racket. What the hell I wanna stay in this racket for?"
Wyatt looked up, startled. When Coop was drunk, he was never a little drunk. He was always far gone, and he could be very mean. Wyatt saw now that he was down deep and sinking; that the replacement was a big thing to him, bigger than Wyatt had expected. In this team, Wyatt had been the leader, and it had seldom occurred to him that Coop really needed him. He had never really thought about it. But now he let himself realize that, alone, Coop could be very bad. Unless this new man was worth anything and learned quickly, Coop would very likely get himself killed.
Now, more than ever, this replacement thing was ridiculous; but for Coop's sake, Wyatt said quickly: "Drop that, man. You'll be on this ship in the boneyard. You even look like this ship--you got a bright red bow."
When the tall man was dark and silent, Wyatt said gently, "Coop. Easy. We leave at midnight. Want me to take her up?"
"Naw." Coop turned away abruptly, shaking his head. "T'hell with you. Go die." He sank back deeply in the seat, his gaunt face reflecting the green glow from the panel. His next words were sad, and, to Wyatt, very touching.
"Hell, Billy," Coop said wearily, "this ain' no fun."
Wyatt let him take the ship up alone. There was no reason to argue about it. Coop was drunk; his mind was unreachable.
At midnight, the ship bucked and heaved and leaped up into the sky. Wyatt hung tenuously to a stanchion by a port, watched the night lights recede and the stars begin blooming. In a few moments the last clouds were past, and they were out in the long night, and the million million speckled points of glittering blue and red and silver burned once more with the mighty light which was, to Wyatt, all that was real or had ever meant living. In the great glare and the black he stood, as always, waiting for something to happen, for the huge lonely beauty to resolve itself to a pattern and descend and be understood.
It did not. It was just space, an area in which things existed, in which mechanized substance moved. Wondering, waiting, Wyatt regarded the Universe. The stars looked icily back.
At last, almost completely broken, Wyatt went to bed.
Beauclaire's first days passed very quickly. He spent them in combing the ship, seeking her out in her deepest layers, watching and touching and loving. The ship was to him like a woman; the first few days were his honeymoon. Because there is no lonelier job that a man can have, it was nearly always this way with men in the Command.
Wyatt and Cooper left him pretty much alone. They did not come looking for him, and the few times that he did see them he could not help but feel their surprise and resentment. Wyatt was always polite. Cooper was not. Neither seemed to have anything to say to Beauclaire, and he was wise enough to stay by himself. Most of Beauclaire's life until now had been spent among books and dust and dead, ancient languages. He was by nature a solitary man, and therefore it was not difficult for him to be alone.
On a morning some weeks after the trip began, Wyatt came looking for him. His eyes twinkling, Wyatt fished him up, grease-coated and embarrassed, out of a shaft between the main dynamos. Together they went up toward the astrogation dome. And under the great dome, beneath the massive crystal sheet on the other side of which there was nothing for ever and ever, Beauclaire saw a beauty which he was to remember as long as he lived.
They were nearing the Hole in Cygnus. On the side which faces the center of the Galaxy the Hole is almost flat, from top to bottom, like a wall. They were moving in on the flat side now, floating along some distance from the wall, which was so huge and incredible that Beauclaire was struck dumb.
It began above him, light-years high. It came down in a black, folding, rushing silence, fell away beneath him for millions upon millions of miles, passed down beyond sight so far away, so unbelievably far away and so vast, that there could be nothing as big as this, and if he had not seen the stars still blazing on either side he would have had to believe that the wall was just outside the glass, so close he could touch it. From all over the wall a haze reflected faintly, so that the wall stood out in ridges and folds from the great black of space. Beauclaire looked up and then down, and then stood and gazed.
After a while, Wyatt pointed silently down. Beauclaire looked in among the folds and saw it, the tiny yellow gleam toward which they were moving. It was so small against the massive cloud that he lost it easily.
Each time he took his eyes away, he lost it, and had to search for it again.
"It's not too far in," Wyatt said at last, breaking the silence. "We'll move down the cloud to the nearest point, then we'll slow down and move in. Should take a couple of days."
"Thought you'd like to see," Wyatt said.
"Thanks." Beauclaire was sincerely grateful. And then, unable to contain himself, he shook his head with wonder. "My God!" he said.
Wyatt smiled. "It's a big show."
Later, much later, Beauclaire began to remember what the Commandant had said about Wyatt. But he could not understand it at all. Sure, something like the Hole was incomprehensible. It did not make any sense--but so what? A thing as beautiful as that, Beauclaire thought, did not have to make sense.
They reached the sun slowly. The gas was not thick by any Earthly standards--approximately one atom to every cubic mile of space--but for a starship, any matter at all is too much. At normal speeds, the ship would hit the gas like a wall. So they came in slowly, swung in and around the large yellow sun.
They saw one planet almost immediately. While moving in toward that one they scanned for others, found none at all.
Space around them was absolutely strange; there was nothing in the sky but a faint haze. They were in the cloud now, and of course could see no star. There was nothing but the huge sun and the green gleaming dot of that one planet, and the endless haze.
From a good distance out, Wyatt and Cooper ran through the standard tests while Beauclaire watched with grave delight. They checked for radio signals, found none. The spectrum of the planet revealed strong oxygen and water-vapor lines, surprisingly little nitrogen. The temperature, while somewhat cool, was in the livable range.
It was a habitable planet.
"Jackpot!" Coop said cheerfully. "All that oxygen, bound to be some kind of life."
Wyatt said nothing. He was sitting in the pilot chair, his huge hands on the controls, nursing the ship around into the long slow spiral which would take them down. He was thinking of many other things, many other landings. He was remembering the acid ocean at Lupus and the rotting disease of Altair, all the dark, vicious, unknowable things he had approached, unsuspecting, down the years.
... So many years, that now he suddenly realized it was too long, too long.
Cooper, grinning unconsciously as he scanned with the telescope, did not notice Wyatt's sudden freeze.
It was over all at once. Wyatt's knuckles had gradually whitened as he gripped the panel. Sweat had formed on his face and run down into his eyes, and he blinked, and realized with a strange numbness that he was soaking wet all over. In that moment, his hands froze and gripped the panel, and he could not move them.
It was a hell of a thing to happen on a man's last trip, he thought. He would like to have taken her down just this once. He sat looking at his hands. Gradually, calmly, carefully, with a cold will and a welling sadness, he broke his hands away from the panel.
"Coop," he said, "take over."
Coop glanced over and saw. Wyatt's face was white and glistening; his hands in front of him were wooden and strange.
"Sure," Coop said, after a very long moment. "Sure."
Wyatt backed off, and Coop slid into the seat.
"They got me just in time," Wyatt said, looking at his stiff, still fingers. He looked up and ran into Beauclaire's wide eyes, and turned away from the open pity. Coop was bending over the panel, swallowing heavily.
"Well," Wyatt said. He was beginning to cry. He walked slowly from the room, his hands held before him like old gray things that had died.
The ship circled automatically throughout the night, while its crew slept or tried to. In the morning they were all forcefully cheerful and began to work up an interest.
There were people on the planet. Because the people lived in villages, and had no cities and no apparent science, Coop let the ship land.
It was unreal. For a long while, none of them could get over the feeling of unreality, Wyatt least of all. He stayed in the ship and got briefly drunk, and then came out as carefully efficient as ever. Coop was gay and brittle. Only Beauclaire saw the planet with any degree of clarity. And all the while the people looked back.
From the very beginning it was peculiar.
The people saw the ship passing overhead, yet curiously they did not run. They gathered in groups and watched. When the ship landed, a small band of them came out of the circling woods and hills and ringed the ship, and a few came up and touched it calmly, ran fingers over smooth steel sides.
The people were human.
There was not, so far as Beauclaire could tell, a single significant difference. It was not really extraordinary--similar conditions will generally breed similar races--but there was something about these men and women which was hard and powerful, and in a way almost grand.
They were magnificently built, rounded and bronzed. Their women especially were remarkably beautiful. They were wearing woven clothes of various colors, in simple savage fashions; but there was nothing at all savage about them. They did not shout or seem nervous or move around very much, and nowhere among them was there any sign of a weapon. Furthermore, they did not seem to be particularly curious. The ring about the ship did not increase. Although several new people wandered in from time to time, others were leaving, unconcerned. The only ones among them who seemed at all excited were the children.
Beauclaire stood by the view-screen, watching. Eventually Coop joined him, looking without interest until he saw the women. There was one particular girl with shaded brown eyes and a body of gentle hills. Coop grinned widely and turned up the magnification until the screen showed nothing but the girl. He was gazing with appreciation and making side comments to Beauclaire when Wyatt came in.
"Looka that, Billy," Coop roared with delight, pointing. "Man, we have come home!"
Wyatt smiled very tightly, changed the magnification quickly to cover the whole throng around them.
"Nope," Coop said. "Air's good, too. Thin, but practically pure oxygen. Who's first to go out?"
"Me," Wyatt said, for obvious reasons. He would not be missed.
No one argued with him. Coop was smiling as Wyatt armed himself. Then he warned Wyatt to leave that cute little brown-eyed doll alone.
Wyatt went out.
The air was clear and cool. There was a faint breeze stirring the leaves around him, and Wyatt listened momentarily to the far bell-calls of birds. This would be the last time he would ever go out like this, to walk upon an unknown world. He waited for some time by the airlock before he went forward.
The ring of people did not move as he approached, his hand upraised in what the Mapping Command had come to rely on as the universal gesture of peace. He paused before a tall, monolithic old man in a single sheath of green cloth.
"Hello," he said aloud, and bowed his head slowly.
From the ship, through the wide-angle sights of a gun, Beauclaire watched breathlessly as Wyatt went through the pantomime of greeting.
None of the tall people moved, except the old man, who folded his arms and looked openly amused. When the pantomime was done, Wyatt bowed again. The old man broke into a broad grin, looked amiably around at the circle of people, and then quite suddenly bowed to Wyatt. One by one the people, grinning, bowed.