The moonlight was bright on Patty's grave. Rodney Martin felt the moisture in his eyes, threw a final spadeful of earth, and groped for a prayer to a God whose jurisdiction surely ended somewhere south of here. Behind him, in the dark, the surf was a muffled boom.
The wind moved in the trees.
It seemed now he had never known her free of pain. He had worked with her aboard Alexia for almost three years; yet her lifetime, for him, was bracketed between this night and that terrible moment on the dark ruined bridge of the stricken starship when he had come upon her, mouth bloody, face pale behind the plexiglass of her helmet.
Grief twisted his features.
He was reluctant to leave, and stood a long time listening to the forest sounds and the ocean. The moon drifted through the night, not the barren pebble of Earth's skies, but a large blue-green globe of continents and water, its arc softened in the shimmering white clouds.
There was a chill in the air.
After awhile, Martin shouldered the spade and walked slowly back toward the beach. The trees gave was to tough, fibrous plants rooted in stony soil. He looked out at the ocean, on which no ship had ever sailed.
Long waves broke and slid up the beach. Ahead, atop a low slope, the lights from the Monson dome glittered on the water. He'd been careful to turn the lamps on before leaving, but now it seemed distant and cold.
He passed a massive boulder, its lower sides smoothed by the tides. Beyond lay the escape capsule, cool and round and black, an enormous bowling ball in the sand, forming a kind of matched pair with the rock.
He climbed the ridge behind the capsule, and was home. The Monson was actually four domes, three smaller ones connected by twelve-foot-long tubes to a primary central bubble. Not exactly a townhouse, but comfortable, designed to withstand extreme temperatures, assaults by giant lizards, corrosive atmosphere, whatever. The ideal survival structure, sufficient to house the entire eight-person crew of Alexia. As things had turned out, he had a lot of room.
And a lot of time. He wondered what had happened on the ship. Screen failure, probably. God knew the shields had blinked out often enough before. So yes, they'd probably gotten corked by a good-sized rock.
Whatever it was, the hull had come apart, and apparently dumped everyone but the two sleepers into the void. During those last frantic minutes, with power and gravity gone, and the star well swirling beneath his feet, he'd searched Alexia's spaces and found only Patty, whose first fortunate response had been to launch the datapak.
Sleep did not come easily. He tried to read but could not concentrate. Finally he turned out the lights and stared at the ceiling. The bedroom windows were open. The surf thundered and boomed.
It had been two weeks since
they'd arrived here in the escape capsule. Patty had been thrown hard into a
bulkhead during the event and had never really rallied. She'd grown weaker day
by day while he watched helplessly.
In the morning, he was up early. Tired, angry, he scrambled an egg for which he had no appetite, added toast and coffee, and went for a swim. The ocean was cool. After a while he came in close to shore and stood knee-deep in the surf, enjoying its inconstant tug, feeling it pull the sand from around his toes. The sea was blue and salty, indistinguishable from the Atlantic. Strands of weed wrapped around his ankles. Things very much like sandcrabs washed in and buried themselves amid tiny fountains of water. The white beach, punctuated with heaps of gray rock, swung in a wide curve for miles, vanishing at last around the edge of a promontory. Inland, wooded hills mounted in successive ridges westward to the foot of a distant mountain chain. A lost floater drifted over the breakers, until it was picked up by the wind and blown back toward the forest. The floaters were green airbags, apparently airborne plants, resembling nothing so much as lopsided leathery balloons, complete with an anchoring tail. He watched until it disappeared inland.
He slept most of the afternoon, and woke feeling better than he had at any time since the accident. He was coming to terms with the loss of Patty. It was painful, and he promised himself if he got home he'd never leave again. But his situation was not desperate. The environment did not seem especially dangerous, and the Momsen could keep him alive indefinitely. He had a transmitter, so he would be able to say hello when help showed up. Survival depended only on his ability to adjust to being alone.
The Institute had nothing between here and home. It was seventy-some parsecs to Earth. Alexia's distress signal, riding its subspace carrier, would cross that vast ocean in 26 months and some odd days, which meant that he could expect a rescue party in about five years.
Fortunately, food was no problem. Storage lockers on board the SARC, the Sakata-Avery Rescue Chamber, held enough hamburgers and flashlight batteries to maintain eight people for years. He had weapons, though this world so far had revealed nothing dangerous. And he had a pleasant beach home. Rent free, with his pay piling up.
That evening, he dragged a chair outside, called up a novel, and sat watching the sun dip into the mountains. It was whiter than Sol, slightly larger, in reality as well as in appearance. When the leading edge touched the horizon, Martin set his watch at six o'clock. A day here was longer than at home, maybe by two hours. So his watch was useless for its designed purpose. But he would check it tomorrow when the sun touched the horizon again, and it would tell him the precise length of the day. Not that it mattered.
The SARC had come down in the northern hemisphere, and he'd steered for a temperate zone. The planet, which they had named Amity, was entering that portion of its orbit in which his hemisphere would be tilting away from the sun. Autumn was coming.
He would want a calendar. Again, not that he had any real use for one. But it would be something to occupy him. He knew Amity circled its G2 main sequence primary in just over seventeen terrestrial months.
Declination was eleven degrees. That should mean a mild winter.
He thought about supplies. Had he overlooked anything? He had an abundance of solar energy, with backup systems. The shoreline gave no indication of unusual tides, sudden inundations, anything of that nature.
The SARC possessed an extensive film library. Complete runs of the most popular HV shows of the last century. There were quiz and discussion shows, and other programs of an educational nature; and a complete run, ten years worth, of Brandenburg and Scott, a "sociodrama" in which two wisecracking government agents helped people adjust to assorted problems arising from economic dislocation, overpopulation, divergence of religious views, and so on.
He had fifty years of the World Series, and a lot of horse races. And the better part of the Library of Congress.
He also had a radio. There
was, of course, nothing to listen to other than the hourly distress call put
out by the datapak. The datapak was an orbiting cluster of antennas, receivers,
and transmitters, aimed at Earth by an on-board computer, beeping across
hyphenated space. Its receivers were designed to pick up stray whispers of
signal, electronic sighs to be filtered and dissected, the results channeled
for analysis, enhancement, and ultimate restoration. It would, one day, lead
his rescuers to him.
Martin's front yard was humanity's most remote outpost. It was half again as far as Calamity, on the other side of Sol.
A tree-squatter sat on its hind legs, watching him. It resembled an oversized and overweight squirrel. He tossed it a nut. It advanced with caution, took the nut, glanced briefly at him, and vanished back into the scrub.
The tree-squatter, with its quick black eyes, was around all the time, looking for food. But it would not trust him, and always cleared out if he tried to approach.
There were lots of squirrels and tree-squatters and floaters, but no one had yet found any philosophers or electricians. Consequently, Earth was reassuming its classic Ptolemaic position as center of the universe. The Theological Implications, as people were fond of saying, were obvious. The primordial soup, stirred centuries ago by evolutionists to evict the Creator, had acquired an extra ingredient. The view that people were a direct result of divine intervention was once again respectable. The numerous empty garden worlds, like this one, might almost have been prepared specifically for human use. But if places like this suggested a friendly cosmos to people back home, to Martin the skies were too silent, the forests too empty. The Institute was dying. The human race had more real estate than they could use for the foreseeable future. Expeditions were expensive, ships were wearing out, and the government could see no return for its money. Unless something happened that could rekindle the taxpayers' imaginations, the Great Adventure was drawing to a close. Moreover, it was unlikely that the political power structure wanted any unsettling discoveries. There would probably be a general sigh of relief when the last vessel returned emptyhanded from its last flight.
No new unit had been added
to the fleet in thirty years. Equipment was run down, and parts were scarce. In
fact, he thought wearily, if the truth were known, the loss of Alexia
would probably turn out to be attributable to a broken hose.
He missed Patty.
The place was too quiet. The wind blew and the tides came and went and seabirds flapped past. He was becoming increasingly oppressed by a sense of unease. Somewhere, in the hills, or maybe at sea, he'd have liked to see a light.
He kept the HV on constantly. The voices were reassuring. He listened to them argue politics, philosophy, medicine, religion, and sex. He watched various kinds of dramas, watched comedians, listened to musicals and even started to develop a taste for opera.
He took to bolting the door. It was the beginning of the Greenway Syndrome.
Everett Radcliffe, stranded on the back side of the Moon for six months after a series of improbable accidents had carried off his two colleagues, had heard footsteps behind him the rest of his days. Will Evans had taken his life after four months in a prototype of Martin's shelter. Myra Greenway, for whom the disorder was named, was adrift for a year in a SARC, never close to a planetary surface. She swore that something had lived outside, trying continually to get at her. Brad Kauffman had spent eight months alone in a crippled cruiser after his partner had died, and had refused, on his return to Earth, to come out of his house at night.
There were other cases.
Something deep in the soul does not like unbroken, intense solitude. Cut whatever it is that ties a man to the rest of his species, plunge him into the outer dark, and you will not get him back whole.
Martin tried not to think about it.
Standard procedure was to embrace whatever entertainment was available, cultivate hobbies, keep occupied. He glanced at the hologram. An aging beauty was swapping mindless chitchat with a comedian.
He could collect rocks.
Martin was not a man easily
frightened. He'd intervened in a gang assault, did not fear speaking to large
groups of people, and had ridden the great starships into the unknown.
Nevertheless, he continued to keep his door locked.
STATUS REPORT 037 ALEXIA 090857 GMT: PATRICIA MASON DEAD OF INJURIES SEPTEMBER 3.
He thought of Patty's
family, two years from now, receiving this news, and added: PEACEFULLY. He
poked in his name, and hit the transmit.
The morning was gray with rain. He played bridge with the computer, got bored, tried a novel. After lunch, he sat down at the terminal and pointed the datapak's antennas at Sirius. The speakers crackled with static.
Hello from God.
Outside, the trees bent under a stiff wind, and the ocean was choppy. Rain coming. Oblivious to the weather, a groper ambled amiably along the treeline, its oilskin hide glistening. It probed the branches with long, flexible arms for a yellow fruit that had also tested okay for Martin's consumption.
He'd awakened with a wisp of recollection from his childhood, something not quite remembered, brought back by a dream:
He was a boy, alone in the house in Atlanta. And frightened by the shadows and dark places outside the living room. He'd put on the HV, and looked through the dining room at the gloomy doorway to the kitchen, with its exits opening out back and into the basement. He'd sat awhile, trying to pretend it was not there. Then, he had turned off the unit, taken a book, and crawled behind the sofa. To be safe from whatever might come through that door.
Had it really happened? As he reached back, details took shape. It had happened more than once.
He rotated the orbiter's antennas randomly, and set the scanner to range over a wide band of frequencies. There was something constructive he could do: intercept an alien signal, a navigational beacon in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, maybe, or a weather report from the Pleiades. Do that, and they'd build a shrine on this spot.
He sat through most of the afternoon, listening to the cosmic racket, wondering whether he would recognize an alien signal if he heard one. Eventually tiring of the game, Martin returned control to the on-board computer, which obediently tracked back across the sky and locked onto its primary target. The signal changed.
It was a blip, a rhythmic murmur gone so quickly that he wasn't sure it had been there at all. He reversed the scanner, and was listening to a jumble of signals, nothing he could make out, but different in quality from the stellar transmissions he'd heard previously. He used the filters to isolate the strongest signal, and then boosted it. It became a piano, and a voice:
"...A lipstick's traces,
"An airline ticket to romantic places,
"And still my heart has wings;
"These foolish things remind me of you...."
Martin frowned, smiled, shook his head.
Rescue ship nearby? That brought a momentary surge of elation, but he knew it could not be. He got up anyhow and went outside to see if anything was moving against the stars. The piano sounded very far away.
...A telephone that rings, but who's to answer?
"Oh, how the ghost of you clings!...."
The singer finished to a burst of applause, and the melody shifted smoothly.
"Thanks, folks, and goodnight from all of us here at the Music Hall until next Sunday, when we'll be coming your way again with more of America's favorite tunes."
More applause, music up in volume, and then a fadeaway to another voice:
"This is CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting System. News is next, with Waldo Anderson."
Old Earth: he was picking up carrier waves that had left Earth more than two centuries ago!
Anderson arrived in a clatter of electronic gimmickry, introduced his lead story, which concerned an armed robbery, and gave way immediately to a woman with a passion for antacid tablets. Then Anderson returned, speaking in a rich, cultured voice:
"The Willie Starr case went to the jury today. Starr is one of two men accused in a triple slaying last March at a Brooklyn liquor store. His alleged partner, Joey Horton, has already...."
Martin sighed, and turned it
off. He had found his alien civilization.
The sun broke through and the day warmed. Languidly, Martin stripped and gave himself to the sea. The water had turned cold. He swam out beyond the breakers with sure, swift strokes, turned and surveyed his world, rising and falling with the waves.
It was like one of those early summers off St. Simons, minus the white frame houses and the beachfront restaurants. And the women.
He sat on the beach, wrapped in a robe, with his reader propped against his knees, lost in a planetary, a novel set during the early days of extraterrestrial settlement. The author, Reginald Packard, had grown wealthy cranking out these historical romances. Martin did not normally read such things. But he had become engrossed in the book over breakfast. Now, however, as the sun began its long slide toward the mountains, he found that his eyes kept wandering from the rows of neat print to the shadowy places among the trees.
Something was there.
He pulled the robe tight around him. A long wave unrolled and ran up the beach. He could not get his eyes off the edge of the forest.
The Dome was three hundred yards away. A long run in the sand. How easily he could be cut off!
His heart pounded.
The wind blew and the trees writhed.
Greenway. He understood the woman, hysterical in her capsule beyond Centaurus, while a space-born thing with sharp teeth and feral eyes prowled the outside, slavering at her through the viewscreen, gnawing at the airlock.
His heartbeat picked up. And suddenly, without thinking about it, he was on his feet, churning through the loose sand. He did not look back, but kept his eyes fixed on the Dome. He fell and, in slow motion, rolled over and came back to his feet in a single fluid move.
When he got back inside, he
bolted the door, set the shields in place, drew the blinds, and collapsed. His
cheek was bleeding.
That night he tried to distract himself by working out a search pattern for the datapak. If, by a remote chance, he found what they'd all been looking for, they'd have to come get him.... Martin's eyes narrowed at the thought that had surfaced, that he'd refused to consider. That someone might decide a rescue was too expensive. They knew, or would know, he was the only survivor. One person laid against the cost of a multi-year mission. But the Service had a tradition to maintain. he had nothing to fear.
At dawn, he started the search. While the display blipped and beeped, he sat by the window, peering through the drawn shades.
Deciding that chatter would at least be company, he switched back to the terrestrial radio station and listened to two domestic serials, "Our Gal Sunday" and "LIfe Can Be Beautiful." His tension lessened. The shows had a small-town charm, and the characters seemed generally virtuous and vulnerable, if not bright. Sunday's voice had a peculiar vitality, a quality of moonlight and laughter. He tried to picture the actress, and decided he would have liked to know her.
And there was more news:
"...Governor Dewey at a press conference this morning stated that police are closing in on Buchalter, and that his arrest is imminent. Known in gangland as Lepke the Leopard, Buchalter jumped bail two years ago. Onetime boss of New York's protection racket, he is believed ."
He experimented with other
terrestrial frequencies. Most were in foreign languages. But there were others.
He listened to "Ma Perkins" and a quiz show. And he discovered
"Terry and the Pirates" and "Jack Armstrong."
There were supplies to be got in from the capsule, a job he'd been putting off. And he'd dropped his reader when he ran from the beach. He looked out the windows, and saw nothing. He turned up the radio, unlocked the door, and forced himself to walk. He went first to recover the reader. Then he hurried to the capsule. He loaded his arms with packets of dehydrated foods, sealed the vehicle, and started home. Nothing watched him from the hills. Nothing charged out of the trees. When he'd gotten back to the Momsen, he was proud of himself. He bolted the door, though no point being foolish and put everything away. Then he sat down and turned the radio back on.
Immediately, he heard a familiar name:
"Berlin announced today that Polish authorities were continuing to expel German citizens. The official Nazi newspaper Volkischer Beobachter reported two men killed near Stettin this afternoon. Both were German citizens, and were said to have been fleeing a Polish mob when they ran out onto a highway, where they were struck by a bus.
"Chancellor Hitler, speaking at a party meeting in Munich, labeled the incident quote yet another provocation by anti-German leftists in the Polish government unquote. He called on President Moscicki to intervene, and warned that German patience is not without its limits.
"Closer to home...."
Martin, of course, knew Hitler, the twentieth-century warlord and nutcase.
The newscast went on to describe a quarrel in Congress over the Neutrality Act, a bungled attempt at an armored car holdup, and an argument at a schoolboard meeting. Tomorrow would be sunny and hot. The current heat wave was going into its sixth day. And there were some baseball scores.
Martin hadn't realized that baseball was so old. Some of the teams were the same, but it must be a strange game
He slept that night with the
shields up, though he knew, really knew, they were unnecessary.
He tried to pick up "Our Gal Sunday" again next day, but failed to take into account the two-hour-plus time differential resulting from the longer day. But there were other shows. "Stella Dallas" and "Just Plain Bill." He listened with interest: the problems faced by the characters were of a personal nature, rather than social struggles. These were people for whom there might have been no outside world, but merely the melodramatic mix of love and lust.
He passed a sizable part of his afternoon with Xavier Cugat and the Boys in "the Green Room of the beautiful Grant Park Hotel in downtown New York." Between songs, behind the announcer's voice, Martin heard the low murmur of conversation, the clink of china: fragile place of glass and laughter.
Berlin announced that two unarmed German passenger planes had been fired on by Polish fighters near Danzig. One had crashed in a field, killing all on board. The other had carried a cargo of dead and wounded back into German territory. Hitler was said to be furious.
There were also reports of an attack on a German border station.
The Poles denied it all.
Martin understood that these events were not real, that the people in the Green Room, sipping their martinis and drifting into the coming carnage, were long since gone to dust. He might as well have been listening to an account of the Third Crusade. Yet....
Warfare had been a common enough occurrence over the centuries, but to Martin it was part of a barbaric past, relegated to dusty tomes in libraries. Unthinkable.
Next day he returned to the
beach. He even walked briefly into the forest that afternoon. There was nothing
here to fear. No predators.
When the Wehrmacht rolled into Poland, Martin was lying on the sand, naked, tanned, reading Byron. He listened to appeals from Britain and France, from the White House and the Vatican. After sundown, when the first battle reports came in (both sides were claiming victories), he looked out at the dark, quiet hills, trying to imagine ponderous tanks clanking toward him, Heinkels crossing his western mountains to drop explosives on his head.
The Germans bombed Cracow. Martin listened to an eyewitness description, heavy accent, heavy static, muted blasts, children fleeing the stuttering stukas, Nazi tanks sighted west of the city, everything on fire....
Emory Michael, of the Blue Network, got through from a small town whose name he couldn't get straight. The townspeople, mostly women and children, had gathered in a pasture on the west side of the city, watching the Nazi planes circling. Watching the bombs drop.
Michael found a woman who spoke English, and asked where her husband was. "With the cavalry," she said, with a heavy accent. "They will cut the Boche to pieces!"
Horses, thought Martin. After a long while, he strode off, walking at the edge of the incoming tide, listening to the unhurried roar of the sea. From here, the war seemed so distant. (He smiled at that.)
Rain clouds were building in the west.
What was remarkable: These people bombed and strafed how many would die during the conflagration? and it would all pass, leaving only a few ripples on the tide, the wreckage washed out to sea. His generation barely knew of World War II. It was something in the history books.
A fine drizzle began to fall.
He turned into the forest. The ground was thick with leaves. He ducked under a floater that had tethered itself to a low branch. Something small, with fur, stopped to watch.
He came to Patricia's grave and said hello, aloud. There was no marker, other than three rough stones. Eventually, soon, he would correct that.
He sat down. It was a beautiful, leafy glade, a place for children, or lovers. He cradled his chin against his knees, and mourned all those, down the long years, whose lives had been cut short, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, victims of greed, folly, or plain bad luck: Patricia, the children of Cracow, the woman whose husband was in the cavalry, the Roman farmers in the path of the Vandals. Here's to everybody. There's room here, on Amity, and welcome.
The rain was falling harder,
becoming a downpour. Above him, on a branch, something stirred.
There was some good news: A woman named Myers was reunited with her mother after 43 years; Lepke turned himself over to a newsman named Winchell; and Martin discovered Fibber McGee. McGee was unlike anything he had encountered before, an engaging mixture of pomposity, naive dishonesty, and scrambling insecurity. McGee's world of goodhearted bumblers seemed untouched by the savagery in the newscasts.
Martin's first experience with fictional psychotics and madmen came with "The Shadow." It was a series which would not have been allowed in his own time. His society frowned on mindless mayhem. But week after week, the invisible, slightly schizophrenic hero tracked down and eliminated mass murderers and insane physicians in the most delicious manner. Martin loved it.
Despite the global disaster, there was a warmth to the programing, good humor, a sense of purpose and community that extended beyond time and space to Martin's beachfront property. He strolled the tree-lined streets of Philadelphia, dined in some of Chicago's better restaurants. He became addicted to "Amos 'n' Andy," followed Captain Midnight into exotic jungle locales, explored the temple of vampires with Jack, Doc, and Reggie. He was a regular visitor in the Little Theater off Times Square.
Meanwhile, Hitler's armies swept all opposition aside. President Roosevelt appeared frequently in informal broadcasts, discussing the economy and the war, assuring his audience that America would stay out of the war.
Although he could not recall the course of the struggle (he was not even certain yet which President Roosevelt he was listening to), Martin knew that, in the end, the Western Allies would won. Had won. But it was difficult, in the summer of 1940, to see how such an outcome might develop. Britain, bloody, desperate, stood alone. And Churchill's regal voice rang defiance across the light years.
Martin listened with sorrow to Edward R. Murrow in London, as the Nazis pounded the city. A year later, he was at a football game between the Redskins and the Eagles when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He fought with the garrison on Luzon, watched the aerial battle over Midway, rode in the desert with Montgomery.
In the late spring of 1944, the datapak picked up a subspace transmission: RESCUE UNIT ENROUTE. SHOULD ARRIVE WITHIN THIRTY DAYS AFTER YOU RECEIVE THIS. HANG ON, ROD.
By then Martin had taken to getting away from home periodically on two- and three-day jaunts into the countryside. But he wanted to keep up with the war. He was on one of these trips, lying in the grass halfway up a mountain in the early afternoon when the response came, breaking into "Dawn Patrol." He let it repeat several times, wondering why he wished they had been a little less prompt.
Eisenhower's army gathered in Britain. Everyone knew what was coming; most of the speculation centered on timing and landing points. Martin waited with the rest of the nation for word of the invasion. Tension inside the Dome grew thick.
But the invasion did not happen. A few days later, while he was still caught up in speculation from Washington and London, the Eagle arrived. It was a sleek silver bulletshaped cruiser. sailing majestically on its magnetics. (The Eagle was the same class vessel as Alexia, but his ship had never looked so good.) His datapak gave him a look at it, and an hour or so later its lander settled softly into the scrub. The hatch rotated, opened, and people spilled out. Martin hugged everybody.
They stayed two weeks, splashing in the surf, drinking at night, walking in the woods. Martin talked constantly, to anyone who would listen. He paired off with a young technician and rediscovered a few lost emotions.
Captain and crew gathered around his radio, and listened curiously to "Big Town" and Gabriel Heatter. But time was pressing. "You know how it is, Rod," the captain said. "Got to be moving."
Martin noticed that, with the arrival of the Eagle, the broadcasts lost some of their sense of immediacy. He no longer felt he was living through the second war. When, on the fourth day of his rescue, Allied troops stormed ashore on Omaha Beach, he was in a glade with his technician. He heard about it later, but it seemed like an historical event. Something far removed from Amity.
They dug up Patty's body, to be returned to New Hampshire. The medical officer and the captain each inquired after his health. One thought he seemed depressed; the other wondered if he was actually unhappy about being rescued. "Long time to be stuck in a place like this," the captain said, looking around at the empty beaches and the silent woods.
Martin's eyes dimmed. "Not stuck here," he said. "I've been traveling."
The medical officer frowned. "What do you mean, Rod?"
"I'm not sure I can
explain it, Doc," he said. "But I may be the world's first time