diumenge, 7 d’agost de 2016

l T HE faxgram read: REPORT MA IS INSTANTER GRAVIS. The news obelisk just off the express strip outside Mega Angeles' Galactic Survey Building was flashing: ONE OF OUR STAR SHIPS IS MISSING! Going up in the lift, I recalled what I had seen once scrawled upon the bulkhead of a GS trainer: Space is kind to those who respect her. And underneath, in different handwriting: Fear is the word, my boy. The look given me by the only other passenger, a husky youngster in GS gray, when I punched Interstel's level, didn't help. It was on the tip of my tongue to retaliate: Yes, and I'd turn in my own mother if she were a star chaser and I caught her doing something stupid. But I let it ride; obviously, it was a general-principles reaction; he couldn't have known the particulars of my last assignment: the seldom kind that had given Interstel its reputation. The lumer over the main entrance glowed: INTERSTELLAR SECURITY, INVESTIGATION, AND SPECIAL SERVICES BRANCH, GALACTIC SURVEY, NORTH AMERICAN FEDERATION. At the end of the long corridor between offices was a door labeled: CHIEF SPECIAL AGENT. Gravis hadn't changed a bit in the thirty-six hours since I'd last seen him: a large, rumpled man who showed every year of the twenty he'd spent in Interstel. "It's a nasty job, Ivy." "Always has been," I said, completing the little interchange that had been reiterated so often that it had become almost a shibboleth. I took advantage of his momentary silence. I'd had an hour during the air-taxi hop from Xanadu, the resort two hundred miles off the coast of California, to prepare my bitter statement. Words come fluently when an earned leave has been pulled peremptorily out from beneath you; a leave that still had twenty-nine days to go. But I was brief; the news flasher had canceled much of the bite of my anger; it took me something under one hundred and twenty seconds, including repetition of certain words and phrases. Gravis lived up to his name; he didn't bat an eye. He handed me a thin folder; three of its sheets were facsimile extrapolations of probot reports; the fourth was an evaluation-and-assignment draft; all were from Galactic Survey Headquarters, NAF, in Montreal. The top three were identical, excepting probot serial numbers and departure and arrival times. GSS 231 had been located in its command orbit above a planet that had not yet been officially named but was well within the explored limits of the space sector assigned NAFGS by the interfederational body, had been monitored by three robot probes—described as being in optimum mechanical condition—on three distinctly separate occasions, and all devices that could be interrogated from outside had triggered safe and secure. But no human contact had been accomplished. The fourth sheet—which bore the calligraphy on its upper right corner: Attention Callum—assumed that the crew of 231, a survey team and con alternate, had met with an accident or series of accidents of undetermined origin and extent in the course of carrying out the duty described as follow-up exploration on the Earth-type planet, herein and heretofore designated Epsilon-Terra, and must therefore be considered— "The news is—" I started to say. "Pure delirium," Gravis interrupted. "Haven't you read Paragraph Six? We know exactly where the ship is because it's exactly where it should be. It's the crew that's missing." Paragraph Seven concluded: We therefore recommend that an agent of experience be dispatched soonest to the designated star system. "Experienced or expendable?" I muttered. "Ivy, after ten years in Interstel, you should know that experience and expendability are synonymous." Inside the GS section of the Lunar Complex, I had the occasion to think semantically again. Words like instanter and soonest seldom match their literal meaning when applied to the physical transport of human beings, but in my job—I hadn't even had time to get my gee-legs. I stepped off the glide strip in front of the ramp marked OUTGOING PERSONNEL, handed the efficient looking redhead my Q-chit and ID, and said: "Priority one." "Quarantine, O.K.," she checked, smiling. "Feeling antiseptic?" I had to admit, privately, that I did not. As applied to her, the term: coveralls, regulation, gray was strictly a euphemism. Perhaps it was the combination of low gravity and controlled conditions that made Lunatics of female persuasion blossom so anatomically. Or maybe she was a plant, a deliberate psych experiment to put outbound starmen in a particular frame of mind. She flashed my identification on the screen, took a long look, and became coldly efficient. Callum, Ivor Vincent. Age: 40. Height: 5′8″. Weight: 142. Hair: brown. Eyes: green. Rank: Special Agent, Interstel. "You look much older, Mr. Callum." She consulted her assignment list. "Lock Three." I snapped the identoflake back in its bracelet, picked up my jump bag and briefing kit, and headed up the ramp, feeling more eyes than the redhead's. The anonymity of a GS working uniform hadn't lasted very long. By the time I was able to capture enough breath to make coherent sounds, the shuttler was already approaching parking orbit. The pilot had used maximum grav boost, and the trip must have crowded the record. "That wasn't exactly SOP, was it?" "Priority one, sir," the youngster replied, showing teeth wolfishly. I was still trying to think up an adequate rebuttal when I came out of the air lock and into the ship. Then I felt better. P 1 means, among other things, first available transportation—but this giant was the newest type, crammed to the buffers with the results of science's latest efforts to make star voyageurs as safe as express-strip commuters inside a Terran dome. Even the vibrations of the great Gatch-Spitzer-Melnikov generators, building toward maximum output, had been dampened to a level more imaginary than tangible. Internal gravity was momentarily in operation, as an additional blessing; and, walking down the blue-lit corridor toward Astrogation, I could feel the occasional, metallic, thermal thump that meant the IP drive was hot and critical. I got a second lift when I saw who was bending over the robopilot console: Antonio Moya, Mexico City's gift to Galactic Survey some thirty-five years earlier; a café-con-leche type with shrewd eyes, nervous hands, silver-streaked hair that showed a defiance of geriatric injections, a slight, wiry body that couldn't have gone more than one hundred and twenty pounds at 1.0 gee, and probably the best Master Spaceman extant. Only discipline kept the grin off my face. But he was on the horn, getting traffic clearance, so I didn't interrupt. The others were unknowns, the sort characterized by old spacers as "pretty boy, recruitment ad types," but they looked competent; I figured a medic and a spread of ratings; counting Moya, a basic GS unit. I'd expected both a con crew and a standby. Either this was the total of available personnel, or the brass had decided not to risk more men than absolutely necessary. If I'd had illusions about the assignment, they would have faded at that instant. It's this way in Interstel: you're taught to be a loner. You're expected to have absolute confidence in your own abilities and complete skepticism about the talents of others. You're supposed to be suspicious, cynical, courageous, and completely trustworthy. And you're not expected to have friends. Which, obviously, in the light of the aforementioned and part of what is yet to come, could serve as the definition of redundancy. You're required to weed out incompetents wherever you find them without prejudice, mercy, or feeling. The standing order is survival, yet you are expected to lay down your life gladly if the sacrifice will save one, pink-cheeked, short-time, assistant teamer who gives the barest suggestion that he might some day grow up to be a man and repay the thousands of credits squandered upon his training in that profound hope. Which, stated another way, has become the Eleventh Commandment of special agents: Remember the body corporeal and keep it inviolate; and, if the reaction of the rank-and-file of Galactic Survey to Interstel is used as criterion, is the best-kept secret in the explored, physical universe. "The agent's burden," Gravis calls it. Moya's jaw dropped when he caught sight of me—apparently he had been told only to expect an agent—but he recovered quickly. "Hello, Callum," he barked. "I won't say it's a pleasure. Stow your gear and strap down." The claxon sounded stridently, and the inflectionless voice of the robopilot said: "Sixty seconds." I got into the indicated gee couch and squirmed around seeking some measure of comfort. It had been designed for a much larger man, and I gritted my teeth in the expectation of taking a beating. After a bruising few minutes, we went weightless, then the servos put us back on internal gravity, and the crew unstrapped. They ignored me studiously; it wasn't entirely bad manners; there's plenty to be done in the interval prior to the first hop, and it isn't all in just checking co-ordinates and programming master con. The usual space plan calls for several accelerations and a lot of distance between Terra-Luna proximity and Solar System departure. But Space Regs are disregarded on Priority One missions. So, for probably less than an hour, things were going to be busy in Astrogation. I retrieved my kit and looked for an unoccupied cubicle. GS star ships are designed to accommodate twenty-four men in reasonable comfort—a figure arrived at more historically—the sum of experience—than arbitrarily, as the minimum number necessary for the adequate exploration of a new star system. It breaks down this way: six men to a team, four teams maximum; three for planetary grounding, one for ship's con; since any given team can do either task, they are interchangeable, who gets which depends upon rotation; three for exploration, then, because averages spread over several generations of interstellar capability bear out the fact that mother primaries generally possess no more than three planets that are in the least amicable to humans. I was more than cursorily familiar with the drill. The basic requirement for Interstel is five years' service with a survey team. I'd spent nine. Which is another reason for general GS enmity: the turncoat syndrome. That and the fact that prospective agents are not even considered unless they rate in the top one per cent in service qualification and fitness reports: the jealousy angle. I'd known Moya from my last regular duty ship. I'd worked up from assistant under his tutelage. I'd been ready for the Team Co-ordinator/Master Spaceman exams when I'd applied for transfer. Moya had raged for hours. But he'd given me a first-rate recommendation. Call it service pride. I was just getting a start on the vid tapes when the cubicle's panel dilated and Moya stamped in, bristling like a game cock. "What's all this about Epsilon-Terra?" I removed the ear bead and grinned at him. "Hello, Tony, you old space dog! You're looking fine. What happened? Did they pull you off leave, too?" He held the acid face until the panel closed, then he brightened a little. At least, he didn't refuse my proffered hand. He stood fists on hips, glaring at me. Finally, he growled: "I had hopes you'd wash out. When I heard you'd made it, I was plenty disappointed." He shook his head. "You seem healthy enough, but I still think it's a waste of a good spacer." And that, apparently, was as close as he was going to come to saying that he was glad to see me again, because, in the next breath, he reverted to Starship Master. "Now, let's have the nexus. All I know is that I got orders to round up a short crew, was handed a space plan with co-ordinates that were originally filed for GSS 231 a few months back, with an ultimate destination of a planet I orbited five years ago." "You've been there?" "I just said so, didn't I? Don't they teach you vacuum cops to listen?" I gave him the background. He nodded soberly a couple of times, but his only comment was: "I heard rumors." Then he said: "That's all I've got time for now. We make our first jump shortly. That'll take us to where 231 went on GSM. From there on out, we follow her plan precisely." "Until we locate and grapple, Tony, then we start making our own mistakes." "I don't doubt that." Moya moved to leave, paused, said over his shoulder: "What's this about old Ben Stuart being cashiered for misconduct?" "It's true." His back stiffened and his hands clenched. He turned to face me again. "I went through the Academy with Ben. How about doing me a favor? For old times sake. Tell me who it was that put the finger on him. Just give me a name. I might spot it sometime on a register." I figured there was no sense prolonging the agony. "O.K. Ivor Vincent Callum." Moya's face blanched; he took a backward step and uttered something under his breath that sounded like the Spanish equivalent of— He turned abruptly, opened the panel, and stalked out. Somehow I expected him to come back and ask for details, but he didn't show. I won't dwell on the trip. Any schoolboy who watches tridee space operas can quote chapter and verse and use phrases like "paraspace hops" and "rip-psyche phenomenon" as trippingly as "Hey, Joey, let's play swap-strip!" Citizens from Venus and Mars, vacationing on Terra, speak knowingly, too, whenever they can bring themselves to cease complaining about the gravity, crowded conditions, and regimentation, and can squelch the bragging about how well they're doing on good old whatever. But don't let them kid you. GSM drive is restricted to interstellar transport. Colonists from the nearer systems are picked people, stiff-backed pioneers, who don't sob to come "home" every time their particular planet completes a circuit around its primary; and, when they do return, they're generally too busy lobbying for essentials to bother telling tall tales. So, comparatively few people are really familiar with star ships and the ins and outs of paraspace. Ask a starman, you won't have any trouble recognizing one, even in mufti; or, better yet, get a spool labeled: "THE CONQUEST OF PARASPACE: A History of the Origins and Early Application of Star Drive." It's old, but good, and it was written especially for laymen. I'll say this: it took about a week. Sure paraspace hops are, to all intents and purposes, instantaneous, but there is a limit to the capacity of the GSM drive, and regulations restrict the jumps to a toleration well within that capacity. We might have made it sooner had we not been bound to follow 231's space plan—but not much. Once a plan has been filed, only an emergency can justify deviation. So, if you'll pardon the expression, let's just say that interstellar distances are astronomical. Every time we came back into objective space—and I'd managed to recapture my soul—I applied myself to the tapes. I got little from Moya, and not because of enmity. Even after refreshing his memory, he couldn't offer much. Although he had been master of the ship that had first remarked E-T, he hadn't set foot upon its surface. The planet was comparatively undistinguished. It was about the size of Melna-Terra, had an atmosphere with a good balance of nitrogen and oxygen, plus carbon dioxide, argon, et cetera, was mostly surface water, yet offered polar ice caps and a reasonable land area, as taken in the aggregate, although present in the form of scattered, insular masses. The largest of these, about half the size of Terra's Australia, was a comfortable number of degrees above the equator and had been selected as representative for detailed examination. Briefly: standard terrain—a balance between mountains, desert, and plain; flora, varied; fauna, primitive—plenty of insect life, enough to keep an entomologist occupied for years, but not much for specialists in the other branches of zoölogy; warm-blooded creatures comparatively rare; and, according to the original survey team, nothing bacterial that had overburdened Doc Yakamura's polyvalent vaccine; the kind of planet that pleased Galactic Survey because it looked promising for future colonization, come the day and the need. "The type that skeptics like me view with grave suspicion," I told Moya. "Like saints, women of unblemished reputation, heroes, politicians—" "And all Interstel agents," Tony offered dryly. In the interim, since the divulgence of my part in the Stuart affair, Moya had thawed somewhat. After all, he and I had been friends at one time, and the present situation held no brief for head-on, personality clashes. The phrase "all in the same boat" applies with particular meaning to spacers. Tony undoubtably figured that 231 might have been his ship. He even went so far as to express an interest in seeing E-T from the ground level. "I work alone, Tony," I said. "But thanks for the offer. Tell you what: I'll strike a compromise. If I get into serious trouble, it'll be you I shout for. All right?" Moya scowled. "Probably a wild goose chase anyway." But he said it without enthusiasm. It reads like this: regs require that messenger vehicles be returned to the Solar System on their miniature equivalents of paraspace drive, periodically, with complete information as to conditions encountered, work in progress, et cetera. None had been received from 231. There's a joke—not at all funny, I'll admit—that concerns itself with just this situation. It ends with the opening lines of the GS Memorial Service. The last skull work I did was to familiarize myself with the personal dossiers of each of 231's crew, paying particular attention to psych reports. It's a part of my job that I've never liked. But I recognize the necessity. The crew seemed fairly typical. The average was relatively inexperienced, the sort you'd expect on the type of assignment that was often used as advanced training. I managed to single out several possibles—men who might crack, depending upon the gravity of the situation. The captain-designate wasn't one of them; nor was the survey-team co-ordinator. GSS 231 was on station—big and reflective and innocently ominous, held methodically by robopilot in an orbit that matched exactly the rotation of Epsilon-Terra—precisely over the largest land mass. Moya conned us in like a dream, paralleled, rectified, grappled, and mated locks. I showed up in Astrogation in a full-pressure suit, carrying the helmet. The crew gawked, and somebody snickered. "You think it's silly, do you?" Moya snapped. "Better flush your side as soon as I get clear," I advised. Moya nodded, lowered and secured the helmet, checked lines, and rapped O.K. An hour later, I still didn't feel silly. I had the helmet open now. I sat in front of the communications console. Moya responded as if he had been waiting with his finger on the stud. I didn't have to specify taping; all star ship radio traffic is automatically recorded. "Level O.K.?" I asked. "Yes, man; what's the story?" "Inner lock and all compartments: air pressure, density, temperature, and purity optimum; all intrinsic gear optimum; three shuttler berths vacant; hold shows standard environmental equipment for one team gone; messenger racks full, no programming apparent; absolutely no sign of crew; repeat—" "I got it; have you checked the log?" "Who's doing this, you or me?" I figured they could edit Moya's comment. The log was strictly routine—space plan had been followed exactly; arrival had been on schedule; survey team had been dispatched with minimum delay, had reported grounding and camp establishment without incident, had relayed particulars of commencement of operation—until the last entry. It was eerie listening to the emotionless voice of 231's skipper: "Sub-entry one. Date: same. Time: 2205 Zulu. No contact with base camp. Surface front negates visual. Am holding dispatch of M 1. Will wait until next scheduled report time before action." There was no sub-entry two. I broke the recorder seal, reversed and played back the comm tapes. There wasn't much. Distance obviates any talky-talky from ship to base once the Solar System has been cleared. What I learned was simply a substantiation of what I'd already surmised. I cut off when I heard a familiar voice say: "250 from 231." Moya helped me strip off the pressure suit. No matter what the physio manuals say, there's room for improvement. Nothing beats your own skin. He trailed me into the gear compartment. I returned the suit to its clips and began sorting through the welter of what the well-dressed spacer wears for a bug rig somewhere near my size. The tag is not completely adequate. It's a light-weight outfit, with intrinsic filters and auds, designed to be worn under conditions that involve the suspected presence of dangerous bacteria or harmful gases. Its efficacy does not extend beyond the limits of reasonable atmosphere. "Now don't start jumping to conclusions," I told Moya. "All I know is that whatever happened happened quickly and down below." From the weapons' chest, I selected a little W&R 50 and the biggest clip I could find. "Fifties" aren't much for range, but they are unconditionally guaranteed to make a creature the size of a Triceratops think twice before heading in your direction again, and, once you strap one on, you never feel the weight. That's why, even though they are officially obsolete, you can generally find a brace in most star ship arsenals. "Remind me to report the maintenance gang of this hunk for stocking unauthorized weaponry." "You would, too," Moya said. On the way back to the lock, I told him: "Let's save time by not making a duplicate recording. I'll transmit additional information and intent going down. There's one shuttler left in 231, so I'll use it. If I find I need something that isn't in the shuttler, I'll fetch myself. Under no circumstances are you or any of your boys to leave this ship without my say-so." "What happens if—?" "You've had thirty years of deep space, Tony; am I supposed to tell you your job? Go by the book. Either launch another messenger and sit tight for instructions, or get out and risk a board inquiry, depending." "You can rot down there for all of me." "Thanks a pile. Make certain your crew understands. I wouldn't want any of them getting their pretty hands dirty." But I didn't feel so cocky going down. I hadn't the least idea of what to expect. Sure, I'd gleaned something from the comm tapes: the unsuccessful attempts to contact the survey team at base camp; the happy-go-lucky report from the kid sent in shuttler II to investigate, saying that the camp was deserted but everything looked fine, just fine; the unsuccessful attempts to recontact him; and then a blank except for my own voice. Apparently, the skipper had followed with the rest of the con crew. I could even guess why he had failed to make additional entries in the log, or not transmitted from the camp in lieu thereof. He figured it was something he could work out himself, and he didn't want anything on record to show that he had broken regulations. He wanted to keep the errors of personnel under his command—and his own—in the family. He figured, after the situation was resolved, that he could make cover entries and nobody's slate would be soiled. The camp was at the edge of a plain marked "Hesitation" on the chart. I plucked a scrap of verse out of my mind: On the Plains of Hesitation Bleach the bones of countless millions Who, when victory was dawning Sat down to rest And resting, died. I wondered how prophetic that was going to be. I grounded within yards of the other three shuttlers. They were parked neatly parallel. Their orderliness made my scalp prickle, and I was sweating long before I got into the bug suit, squeezed out of the tiny lock, and set foot on Epsilon-Terra. The sky was blue, naked except for a tracing of tenuous clouds. I could see neither of the star ships. I wonder if you can imagine how it feels to be on a planet so far away from the Solar System that the term "trillions of miles" is totally inadequate? If you can grasp even a bit of it, then add the complication of a small but insistent voice inside your head that keeps telling you that no matter where or how far you go, you're not— Let's just say it gives your sweat an odor and your mouth a taste and makes you want to look over your shoulder all the time. I walked the hundred yards to the white plastidome, avoiding the few

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