Dr. Warner didn’t usually burst into Dr. Farrar’s office. Usually he paced slowly up the hospital corridor, pulling down his glistening white lastijac uniform, meditating on all the mistakes he might have made during the past week, reluctantly turning the knob on the outer door, hesitatingly asking Miss Herrington if the doctor wished to see him now, stepping humbly through the inner door into the presence. But this morning he burst in and slammed the inner door.
“Two this morning in Block Nineteen!” he blurted. “Two suicides at once; Saul Forsythe and Madam LePays!”
Only a few minutes before, Dr. Farrar had been reading and sighing, sighing at the thought that there were no excitements left, only annoyances and minor gratifications.
“The publication of The One-Hundred-Year-Old in the Culture of Today marks the date of another notable contribution to human understanding by the justly famous young doctor, Jules Farrar.” The review grew more laudatory from paragraph to glowing paragraph. Dr. Farrar, re-reading it word by word, was inclined to smile at the adjective ‘young’; he was fifty-eight and felt every day of it this smiling spring morning. He ran his hand back over his head smoothing the place where, twenty years ago, there had been hair. He looked up from the paper on his desk, through the glimmering sunlight at the row of dark green file cases banking the opposite end of the office, the first five now ticketed “closed” and the “closed” sign lying on top of the sixth, the 100-year case. He gazed on down the row—110, 120, 130, 140 and the rest—and sighed deeply. Futility washed over him, and an echo of the old story of the man who wrote his autobiography taking a year to write the doings of each day. The job would never be finished and the amusement of writing of youth was too far behind.
He quoted grimly from his own Sixty-Year-Old, “Among males at this time, the conviction, often amounting to panic, that the time for accomplishment is almost past begins to grow and obscure the comfortable mellowness of being in the midst of important activity.” How could he have known so much at thirty and still have arrived at almost sixty without having solved anything, discovered anything new, done nothing but descriptive studies steadily for thirty-five years? And there were no excitements left—nothing but annoyances.
His office door now flew open with a crash against the 50-year file case, then was banged shut again and Bob Warner’s white-jacketed body was leaning toward him over his desk.
“Two suicides at once, Dr. Farrar!” Dr. Warner was almost shouting at him, “and one last week and four others in the past year! They’ll investigate us and upset the subjects and everybody. They’ll get out of Block Nineteen and go poking around in genetics and new diseases and want to know where and why every cent is being spent and wind up trying to cut the staff or change the diets or some other stupidity.” (Jules Farrar smiled wryly: there had been two Congressional Investigations at the hospital since he came, and Bob’s description from hearsay was all too accurate.) “I tell you, Doctor, we’ve got to hush this up. Congress won’t let us get away with firing a couple of floor nurses this time!” Ione Phillips was in Nineteen and much too pretty for a scapegoat. It wasn’t his responsibility anyway. “What are we going to do, Doctor?”
“Saul Forsythe and Madame LePays,” Jules Farrar’s voice was low with concern, “How old were they? What was the matter?”
“Madame was 182 and Forsythe was a year or two older. There wasn’t anything wrong that I know. They’d both been reading last night. He had the last volume of the Britannica and she had a little old book of poems—French poems.”
“No animosities, no quarrels with other subjects?”
“No, no! They weren’t very social types, you know; we haven’t had much culture-pattern data on either of them for some time. It’s not as if they were a great loss to the experiments,” he added reassuringly. Mustn’t get old Farrar upset.
The older doctor looked oddly at the younger. “There must be something wrong in Block Nineteen. We’ll call a meeting of staff. You can’t cover up this sort of thing, Doctor. Everybody probably knows it already. You know how nurses gossip. But we’d better talk to Daneshaw first. He’s always sound on what’s going on in Block Nineteen.”
“But Dr. Farrar, Daneshaw can’t bring them back. He’s just another subject. You could swear the nurses to secrecy for the good of the hospital. It’s not as if it were anything strange or exciting. If we get an investigation, the subjects will run amok. Blood pressures will go up and some of them won’t eat and others won’t sleep thinking up fancy stories to tell the investigating commission and the smooth curve charts will be all shot to….”
Farrar laughed, “Intriguing thought, a thousand near-200-year-oldsters running amok. But seriously, if they kill themselves off this way, it will mess things up. Don’t worry about your job yet, Doctor. Daneshaw will think of something. On your way out, ask Miss Herrington to get in touch with him. Now you get back to Block Nineteen and see that everything stays quiet for a while. I’d rather not have an investigation either.”
“It’s an order. Well, on second thought, get everybody over 150 out of the hospital on an expedition of some kind.” He scribbled on a pad.
“But, Dr. Farrar….”
“Here’s an order for cars … and … (writing) … buses and field kitchens. Take them out in the country for a picnic. Come back here as soon as you can get away.” He held out a paper.
“A picnic! For a thousand?”
“You can do it. You’re the best organizer in the hospital.”
“Well … I suppose so.”
“Excellent,” concluded Dr. Farrar and rose, indicating dismissal. “Daneshaw will think of something,” he repeated to himself as Warner walked out and slammed the door.
R. N. Ione Phillips flounced down Corridor Five of Block Nineteen, white elaston uniform rustling with permanent and indignant starch.
“Those old biddies,” she muttered. “Both of them say they want lilac pattern dresses and then when they come they’re mad because they have dresses just alike. They’re just like children!” Miss Phillips didn’t care much for children.
“Won’t wash for meals but spend hours taking up all the driers in the beauty salon. Bob Warner doesn’t realize what we have to put up with.”
Her angry stalk slowed to a demure mincing as she approached the elevator and imagined Dr. Warner coming out of it.
Behind the door she had just closed with apparently thoughtful gentleness, Mrs. Maeva McGaughey and Mrs. Alice Kaplan in lilac acelle were considering the meal on the table between them.
“Creamed spinach, Maeva, for breakfast!” Mrs. Kaplan was withering in her distaste.
“And that Miss Phillips—treats us as if we were babies,” whined Mrs. McGaughey. “The way she talks you’d think she’d brought us a couple of wedding gowns. Shoddy stuff these days, too.”
Mrs. Kaplan looked slyly at Mrs. McGaughey. “I know how to fix her, Maeva. Let’s pour this spinach down our fronts.”
Ione had reached the end of the corridor and was tripping abstractedly by the desk facing the row of elevators.
“Phillips,” the receptionist’s voice was startling and cool, “will you tell Mr. Daneshaw, Room 563, that Dr. Farrar would like to see him at once in his office.”
“It’s my breakfast hour! I’m just going off duty.” Receptionists thought they owned the hospital ordering people around all the time.
“I can’t leave the desk and your relief hasn’t come up. Dr. Farrar says it’s urgent.”
“Oh, all right.” Ione turned on her heel and strode with something of the old swish up the hall to the left of the one she’d come from.
She knocked sharply at the door of room 563. “Mr. Daneshaw?”
She turned the knob and economically stuck only her head around the frame. “Dr. Farrar wants you in his office at once.” She withdrew and closed the door in one motion. Don’t give them a chance to argue or ask questions. They’d waste your whole day for you if you gave them a chance. She headed for the elevators once more.
Professor Emeritus Charles Timothy Daneshaw had lain in bed in the comfortable insulation of the bulky grey plastine autometab case which covered him to the waist. He really enjoyed this five minutes after waking when the world was entirely shut off and he could collect his thoughts for the day with no other business but regular inhale and exhale.
Sweet day, so calm, so cool, so bright, he quoted mentally. This was a comfortable poem for springtime in one’s 186th year. The bridal of the earth and sky, The dews shall weep thy fall tonight, For thou must die. No one would have to weep for him. He wasn’t going to die. He would walk on the lawns today and enjoy the burgeoning of spring without pain, without fear. He would read Wordsworth and plan a vacation walking trip.
The bell next to his ear pinged—the machine had finished his daily metabolic record—he pressed the button that raised the heavy case to the ceiling. He stretched and put his feet over the edge of the bed.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses, he headed for the bathroom, A box where sweets compacted lie. The shaving cabinet was not such a box. He had to stoop to see the shock of white hair in the mirror, and shaving was a daily nuisance in a bent-kneed position. Some architect must have decided that it was the custom for old men not to be over five feet eight and installed accordingly. Old men should be bowed down with years, but Tim Daneshaw was still six feet three in spite of four inches shrinkage since his thirties, his tall body still unbowed by years or habit.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul, like seasoned timber never gives … he was finishing the Herbert quotation as he wiped off the remaining shaving soap, when there was a sharp rap on the outer door of his room.
“Dr. Farrar wants you in his office at once.” Miss Phillips’ white-capped head bobbed in and out, the door shut, and he could hear the click of her retreating heels.
He stepped out of the bathroom and began pulling on his clothes. “Poor Jules,” he mused. “Hard at work on a beautiful spring morning before I’ve even had breakfast. Maybe he’ll give me a cup of coffee.”
He was half-way to the elevator, pacing slowly, imagining the aroma of a hot cup of coffee, seeing a thin twist of steam, when a door opened a few steps ahead of him. A wiry little man in a maroon bathrobe beckoned.
“Come in here a minute, Tim,” said the little man, his voice almost a whisper.
“Jules wants me over in Administration Block, El.”
Elbert Avery grabbed Daneshaw’s arm. “He can wait. This is important, Tim.”
“Just for a minute, then. The nurse said ‘at once’.” He went in and Avery closed the door quickly.
“Have you heard about Saul and Clarice? How they both got out this morning?” Avery seated himself in the swivel chair beside the tremendous desk that made his room look much smaller than Daneshaw’s.
“They were both found dead this morning at breakfast time. I just heard about it. Saul cut his wrist with his razor and Clarice fiddled with the autometab so it wouldn’t raise and then went to sleep in it. Some people are just born with more nerve than others!” Avery sounded actually envious.
“This is no joke, El.” Tim Daneshaw leaned against the high white bed. “Don’t talk that way to anybody—there’s nothing noble in killing yourself and you know you wouldn’t do it even if you had the chance.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” responded the little man defiantly, tipping back in his chair. “What’s the percentage in living on here forever? Nobody knows what you were and nobody cares what you are and there’s not one damn thing worth spending ten minutes on that they don’t say, ‘Take it easy, don’t strain yourself, don’t get worked up, why don’t you take a rest or play a nice relaxing game of checkers.’ I don’t like pet mice and I think raffia baskets are an abomination. You’re right about suicide not being noble—it’s just common sense!”
“Elbert, Elbert,” Tim was gentle, reproachful, “wait a minute. Everybody here knows how you built up Avery, Inc. singlehanded into the biggest transport corporation in the world and how you bowed out to let younger men have their chance at running the most successful business in the country.” He came over and perched on the edge of the desk close to Avery. “You know the Block Nineteen Association wouldn’t even be able to buy Christmas cards if you weren’t handling our little investments. There isn’t one person on this experiment that doesn’t respect you.”
“On this experiment, hell!” exploded Avery. “There isn’t anybody in Block Nineteen that doesn’t know I ran out when the government began hemming in big corporations with thousands of petty restrictions on mansized business so that a company president was nothing more than a yes-man to a regiment of lawyers and government accountants. If the boys in Washington knew I was handling a little stock for Block Nineteen they’d think of some way to close us up in five minutes. They’d be just as happy if they knew I was out of the way.”
“But you are a genius at keeping your tracks covered and we do need you. We’ll need you especially at the block meeting today,” soothed Daneshaw.
“The meeting’s not till day after tomorrow,” Avery objected.
“We’ll have to hold it now before some of us forget we’re grown up and start going to pieces like the two this morning you were so excited about a minute ago.” He paused. “I just can’t understand it about Clarice LePays. She was so self-possessed, a charming and dignified woman. We will miss her, Elbert. She added a great deal of grace to our gatherings.”
“Grace! She was just another old woman in a young woman’s world. Don’t be a hypocrite, Tim.”
Daneshaw got up. “Anyhow, you have a job now. It’s up to you and me as officers of the Block Nineteen Association to keep the others calm and give them something else to think about. You put that magic brain of yours to work on that while I go down to see Jules. I’ll tell him we must have our meeting today.” He put his hand on the knob.
“Calm, bah!” Avery bit the end off a stogy and spat it at the floor vehemently. “You better warn that Jules Farrar that his guinea pigs are sick and tired of his hotel-concentration-camp and of the whole world where we don’t belong. I hope he lives to be a million.”
“I’ll tell him what you say,” smiled Daneshaw grimly. “Now you get to work on a speech.” He went out, a set smile still on his face.
When the amber light showed on the intercom on his desk, Dr. Farrar flipped the switch and barked a brief, “Send him in!”
Expecting the lanky white-maned Daneshaw in familiar heather-tweed, he was shocked by the appearance of the natty little man in midnight-blue dulfin slacks and ultra-conservative tabarjak. A Congressman so soon? He rose, extended his hand, half expecting the newcomer to refuse it coldly.
This little man smiled and grasped the outstretched hand heartily, saying, “Dr. Farrar? I’m Jeremy Brill of Far-Western Insurance and Annuity. Your secretary said you might have some time to spare this morning.” He relinquished the hand and Dr. Farrar was freed to motion him to the green easy chair at the right of the desk.
“Glad to know you.” He wasn’t—he was lining up a few words for Miss Herrington on the subject of admitting salesmen. “Miss Herrington was mistaken, though, about my having much time. Something important has come up in the hospital this morning. Another day might be much better if you have anything extensive to discuss.” He tried to remain courteous, keep his voice pleasant.
“I won’t take but a few minutes of your day, Dr. Farrar, but there is a matter upon which The Company needs advice from you as soon as possible.”
This sounded different from the usual opening. “Yes? What can I do for you?”
“You have a large group of patients here, Doctor, all of whom are well over a hundred years old.”
“Not patients, Mr. Brill. Subjects. Subjects for observation on patterns of old age.”
“Subjects, then. Well, a considerable number of these subjects have annuities with us and it is of great concern to us to have some estimate of their present condition.”
“You mean physiologically? This group is in excellent health.”
“Not exactly,” the little man leaned forward confidentially. “We are more concerned with their mental state. You probably know that when a person is adjudged mentally incompetent or even gravely ‘insecure,’ the state takes over the care and support of such a person and The Company is released from financial obligation to that person. As a tremendous taxpayer, The Company aids in state support, but not to the extent of, shall we say, a perpetual annuity.”
“Oh, I see. The company is feeling the pinch of a few long-term payments to those subjects of ours and would like to have them put away to cut expenses?” Dr. Farrar could not completely keep the scorn out of his voice.
“Oh, no, Doctor. You misunderstand me completely.” Brill’s tones were rich with wounded innocence. “The Company only wants to know what are the probabilities of mental breakdown at different ages, say a hundred and sixty, a hundred and eighty, two hundred. If we had some assurance of even a slight but definite tendency to, shall we say, mental erosion, with an increase in age above a hundred and fifty, The Company might find it possible to continue some such annuity plan as is now in operation.” The man talked like an annual report, it seemed to Dr. Farrar, but with the difference that it had something to do with him.
“You or your medical colleagues,” Brill went on brightly, “have done humanity yeoman service. Not only have you lengthened life and made living it less painful, but you have reduced the consumer-costs of life insurance to a level which makes premiums ridiculously low. Of course,” he added complacently, “this has resulted in a great increase in the number of the insured and the size and scope of The Company.”
“But if people are going to live forever, your company is going to have to discontinue the annuity system, is that it?” Dr. Farrar asked pointedly. “You’d leave the old folks cut off from jobs by custom and from any other income by expediency?”
Jeremy Brill was suddenly serious. “The problem of the support of paupers is hardly the immediate responsibility of Far-Western. Besides,” he added hopefully, “by the time the thirty-year olders whose policies we would have to refuse to write now are old enough to worry about it, our society will no doubt have found some way for them to maintain their independence. I have the greatest faith in you social researchers, so great that my company can surely feel free to turn that problem over to you with utter confidence.
“And perhaps, as a matter of fact,” he continued, “you can already tell me that there is little hope that man can pass his two-hundredth year without serious impairment of his faculties, and we shall only have to raise the age at which annuities begin to pay. The Company naturally prefers the gentle road of reform to the cataclysm of revolution.” He relaxed after this burst of metaphor.
“I am not at all sure that there is any sanity data on those over 150 in statistical form. It would take me some time to be sure of any exact present correlation of mental erosion, as you call it, with age.” Dr. Farrar reflected on the state of the file cases in the further corner. He wasn’t at all sure, either, how much it was wise to tell this eager representative of The Company. (Mr. Brill always said it as if “The Company” were written entirely in capital letters.) There might be other angles. This increase in suicide, for instance.
“You see,” he went on, “Block Nineteen does not have a very high complement of psychiatrists. If the subjects get too difficult to handle, we usually send them to Mayhew Mental Observing Hospital and close their files here. We do chiefly physiological research here, you know. The older subjects seem to mistrust young psychiatrists and the more practical men seem to prefer working in places like the Mayhew where the material is more interesting.” Maybe he could get rid of the man by offering a better bait.
“The Company would be more than willing to offer the services of a couple of trained statistical analysts if you would like to put your unorganized material at our disposal for, shall we say, a week?”
So that was the angle—let The Company in on the files where they would uncover a number of other interesting things—the suicides too, as the other subjects reacted to them. Now he’d have to take time off, at work on the Hundred-and-Ten-Year-Old to dig about in the advanced data. One couldn’t violate the privacy of the records, not at this moment, anyhow.
“That won’t be necessary, thanks. I could have some word for you in a couple of weeks—as soon as certain other matters are taken care of. I’d be interested in the results myself, naturally.” And he would. There might be some clue to poor Clarice LePays and Forsythe and the earlier ones. A promise of figures soon would put Brill off temporarily. Now change the subject and close the talk.
“I suppose you have to do a lot of odd investigating like this in the course of company work?” Dr. Farrar asked politely.
“Yes, indeed, Doctor. Every event in the world is somehow connected with the insurance business. You might be interested to know that some of our men are now in Washington investigating space ship conditions. Confidentially, we shall probably soon be pushing a government subsidy for insurance for space crews and extra-territorial colonists. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?”
“I should say so. But I thought the Colonia wasn’t due to take off for another year. I rather lose track of world news in my job here.”
“She’d be ready to blast in fourteen months if they could decide about passengers and crew. Every nation in the Assembly and every bloc from farm and free-lifers to commists wants to be the first to start the colony, mostly from distrust of the others, but no particular individuals seem to want to be the first to cut the ties. The crew has to stay with the colony for months, you know, until they’re settled and know what else they need. The Colonia’s the only large ship under construction. The Company doesn’t want to be responsible for possible mishaps and we’ve just started writing in space-travel exception clauses in our regular policies.”
The intercom bulb burned amber again. This time Farrar was more cautious.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“Send him in in about a minute.”
He turned to Brill. “The man who’s coming in is one of our older subjects. You might like to meet him.” He smiled. “Not that he’s exactly typical of his age.”
“You won’t tell him why I’m here?” Brill requested. “The Company naturally doesn’t want any publicity on this matter yet, Doctor.”
“Naturally, Mr. Brill, you don’t want a run on annuity policies any more than the Government wants to alarm prospective settlers on Venus by refusing to insure them. Old Daneshaw has probably forgotten more secrets than we’ll ever know: but if you think best….”
The door swung back smoothly, stopping just short of the file cases, to admit the tall tweed-clad figure of the professor emeritus, who closed it gently, deliberately.
“Good morning, Jules.” Daneshaw noticed the stranger and stood uncertainly just inside the door.
“I’d like to introduce Mr. Brill—Mr. Daneshaw.”
Daneshaw’s handshake was firm but gentle like his closing of the door. He moved to the maple armchair and sat, crossing his long legs, relaxed.
“Mr. Brill’s got a great-aunt on the waiting list for Block Nineteen. He’s here looking us over to see if we’re fit company.”
Mr. Daneshaw looked a question at the doctor, who continued, “Mr. Brill is in the insurance business. He’s been telling me about one of their recent problems—whether or not to insure space crews and extraterrestrial colonists. On the Colonia, you know.”
Daneshaw roused suddenly and turned an eager face to Brill. “That’s a great thing! Never thought I’d see the day, though I was quite a science-fiction fan in my eighties and nineties. I’ve read everything I could lay my hands on about the Colonia. Do you really know who the colonists are going to be—or is that a secret between the United Assembly and the insurance companies?”
Brill looked pleased. This nice old boy realized the confidence of The Powers in The Company. “It hasn’t been settled yet—may take months more the way they’re wrangling. The Chinese don’t want it to be the Dutch and the Dutch don’t want the Brazilians. You know how it is. Myself, I think the government bit off more than it could chew, offering the first American built ship to whatever group the Assembly decided to send.”
Dr. Farrar winced inwardly. A political discussion with Tim Daneshaw would certainly antagonize Brill if not exhaust him. “Who would you like to see go, Tim?” he veered the talk away from the errors of the present regime.
“I suppose farmers would be the first choice—big scale men with experience in hydroponics, from what I know of conditions on Venus.”
“But the Assembly seems to be set against any group now economically favored,” Brill offered the objection condescendingly, “and small farmers as a class have some sort of prejudice against any type of farming or scenery except what they grew up with.”
“Well, speaking purely academically, Mr. Brill, I think the Assembly could do worse than send us.”
“Us old duffers. Economically speaking, we’re nobodies, our local ties are the weakest, we are of no particular value to anybody except Dr. Farrar here,” he waved a hand, “and we’re obviously of no political danger to the Chinese or the commists or the insulars either. We’re not even a bloc. But of course we wouldn’t please anybody especially as colonists, either. It’s only an academic suggestion, you understand.”
He grinned first at Brill, and at Farrar. “We couldn’t put the good Jules out of a job, of course.”
The intercom light flashed at the same moment that the door was flung open. Dr. Warner was half-way to the desk before he noticed the other visitors. He stopped abruptly.
“What is it, Doctor?” Dr. Farrar’s voice was mildly reproachful. “Do you need me?”
“Excuse me, Doctor. The fleet is ready for the picnic and I thought you might have some last minute … that is … I didn’t know what plans….” Dr. Warner mumbled, confused at finding a stranger in the office.
“This is Mr. Brill—Dr. Warner. Doctor, Mr. Brill’s great-aunt is on our waiting list for Block Nineteen and he is concerned with our program and facilities here. Do you suppose you could take him with you on the picnic this morning?”
Jeremy Brill was startled. “I don’t want to be any trouble, Doctor,” he said apologetically to both doctors at once.
“No trouble at all, Mr. Brill,” reassured Dr. Farrar. “You go with Dr. Warner here. He’ll find a place in one of the limousines and you’ll have a chance to talk to lots of the people your aunt would have to live with—make some judgment for yourself about all the items we were discussing. You can have Mr. Daneshaw’s lunch on the picnic. He’s staying here with me today.”
Brill bowed his thanks to Daneshaw and Dr. Farrar and rose.
Jules Farrar turned to Dr. Warner. “Give them a good time, Bob. There aren’t any special plans, but if you should happen to pass a circus, take the whole gang. Do you have plenty of money? This is on the hospital.”
If Bob Warner had been alone with his chief he would have shouted, “A circus—ye gods!” but with Brill and Daneshaw both present he didn’t even dare splutter. He nodded mechanically for Brill to precede him out the office door. Just before closing it after them, he stuck his head back into the office and enunciated with great care, “Thank you for the lovely treat, Doctor!” and was gone.
There was silence in the office for a few moments after the two had left.
Both men spoke at once. “Tim, have you heard….” “Two deaths, Jules.”
Both were silent again. Neither looked at the other.
Dr. Farrar started again. “Why did it happen, Tim? What’s the trouble up there? What have we done or not done?”
“They were bored and lonely and useless. Nothing you could have done, I’m afraid. Others feel the same way. There will have to be some smart talking at an Association meeting tonight to make them forget it.”
Dr. Farrar looked keenly at the old man. “You too, Tim? Do you want to join Forsythe and Madame?”
Daneshaw looked straight at the doctor. “No, not me. That’s why it will be hard for me to talk to them. I’ve been enjoying myself the whole time—sitting back, waiting and watching to see how our problems were going to be solved, indulging my curiosity about things, looking on with a rather Jovian amusement and tolerance to see how the young ones would have to learn how to deal with the old ones when they found out how many of us there were going to be. I thought I had all the time in the world to wait, so I’ve just been taking it easy and having quite a good time. It’s really more my fault than yours.”
“It’s not your fault, Tim; I suppose it’s mine. I thought that my studies would lose their validity if I stepped in and changed factors in your way of living. I totally ignored the changes involved in bringing you all here out of a normal life pattern with nothing but little diddling make-work substitutes to keep you busy.”
“What would you call normal for us? We didn’t even diddle before we came here.”
“I should have remembered, though. I did a lot of work on the ‘suicide period’ between 60 and 70 seventeen years ago. There were only a couple hundred of the present Block Nineteener’s and new ones coming all the time to keep things stirred up and interesting. I got so used to having things change up there every day that I never noticed when it began to bog down. It was my problem, Tim, and I ignored it.”
“Ours, too, Jules. We ought to be responsible adults by now, capable of working out our own troubles.” Daneshaw uncrossed his legs and sat forward. “But we aren’t going to get anywhere sitting here worrying about which of us is to blame. We’ve got to cook up something more important than another kind of pet to keep or another bridge tournament. Wordsworth was evidently wrong. He should have written ‘Not getting and not spending we lay waste our powers.’ We ought to be up to the ears in the work of a lifetime … a very long lifetime.” His lean hand brushed back unruly white locks.
Dr. Farrar shrugged his shoulders. “Any suggestions?”
“Whatever it is,” argued Daneshaw, “it ought to be as important as … as the Colonia trip to Venus. It’s certainly as vital as that, though of course having the Federal Government of the United Assembly messing with the problem would put off a solution indefinitely.”
A look of wonder grew on the doctor’s face. “The Colonia! A colony! How about that? The hospital has funds. We could buy a piece of land somewhere in the wilds of Brazil or even Canada and you could have a shot at frontier problems. That ought to be absorbing enough. And of course you could have help from government experts here if you ran into trouble. How about it?” he asked eagerly.
“It smacks of the county poor farm, though the idea of a colony is rather appealing. I hate to be a wet blanket, but the prospect of government experts seems like a continuation of the kindly but firm handling we get from the nurses here,” and Tim Daneshaw smiled ruefully remembering Ione Phillips and how well she “handled” the subjects. “I’m afraid that unless we could get as far away from supervision as Venus we’d go right on feeling like a second thumb.”
“Then go to Venus! On the first ship out.” Jules sobered suddenly. “It would take an ungodly amount of finagling … do you think they’d really go?”
“It would be worth asking them tonight.” (There was no harm in joining in a flight of imagination, when a real solution might take years.) “And you know, we could be more of a nuisance to the government than you could ever be. We could threaten to commit suicide en masse and blackmail the government into backing us for fear of one of those social breakdown investigations by the United Assembly, and we could fix the Assembly by threatening to flood the international publications with articles about the mental horrors of old age and break down the whole socialized medicine convention at the international level. It might be rather fun … though completely unethical.”
The doctor got up and came around to sit on the front of the desk. He was beaming. “Tim, we’ll try it. I think I can get help from Brill. I’ll tell you about it later. We’ve got to get right to work, though.”
“I can’t pull it off alone,” he paused, staring intently into Daneshaw’s face. “I want you to go to the U. A. headquarters … right now. Parker can take you to Des Moines in my copter and you’ll get a rocket there. Miss Herrington will make your reservation. I want you to get all the stuff you can on number of passengers, agricultural projects, known difficulties of settlement on Venus—everything about the Colonia. And especially how to go about making application for the first group of colonists. I’ll call Spence, the ranking medical officer of the U. A. We were friends in school. He can meet you and find out in advance who you should see. On the way you can work up something to tell the meeting tonight.” Dr. Farrar seemed to see the plan growing in the air in front of him.
“That’s quite an order for an old man—but it should be fun. What shall I tell the people I have to see why I want to know all this?”
“Tell them it’s a secret … Social Medical priority A four-ones. That’ll get ’em interested and if they can find out somehow what it’s all about by private investigation they’ll be more likely to back us because they’ll be in on what they think is top-secret.”
“Smart, aren’t you Jules.” Tim got up and grasped his hand. “It’ll be quite thrilling while it lasts. I feel pretty selfish, having all the fun to myself.” He turned and strode to the door. “I’ll go up and get a hat while the copter is coming—guess I don’t even need a toothbrush.”
“Tim,” Dr. Farrar was hesitant, “do you have a pin-stripe tabarjak … or anything like that?”
“Diplomat duds, you mean?” grinned the departing Daneshaw. “I’ve got a full set for Princeton reunions. I’ll knock their eyes out.”
It was hardly half past two when Jeremy Brill returned to the hospital. Dr. Farrar, returning from a belated lunch, found him fidgeting in the waiting room, making notes on a pocket pad. He rose quickly and followed the doctor into the inner office, carefully closing the door.
“I’ve heard enough, Doctor,” he blurted out as he reached for the straight chair near the desk. “Enough to last a long time. They’re sane, but what sanity! That Avery!”
“Have a little talk with Avery, did you?” inquired Dr. Farrar. He thought the two of them must have been well matched.
“First I heard all about the business of ‘relax and save your energy forever’.”
The doctor smiled. “Standard indoctrination for longevity subjects.”
“Then he asked what I did. I told him a little about our work in The Company and that set him off! The man’s a menace. He knows more about The Company than I do.” Brill’s suavity was quite gone. “And what a rugged tyrant he must have been. Positively treasonable in his attacks on governmental regulation. He believes in business for the businessman—thinks only people with capacity for handling high finance ought to run the country for the country’s good. It was heresy—appalling!”
“I was rather of the opinion,” commented the doctor, “that the views of your company ran something along the same line.”
“Not at all, not at all! We believe firmly in the committee system and systematic regulation by elected agencies. There can be no grand-scale despotism in The Company! Why, our officers receive psychotesting every six months to assure the policy-holders that they have no personal power ambitions. I tell you, Doctor, that such men as Elbert Avery are a threat to our national democracy. He seems perfectly capable of going back into business at the drop of a hat. The Company may have to send a man to Washington to work out some sort of control to prevent such men from re-entering business.”
Dr. Farrar looked thoughtful. “The control would be easy enough, but expensive,” he remarked doubtfully.
“The good of the country is always expensive.”
“What would you think of sending this whole group of social misfits out of the country?” Dr. Farrar could be cagey.
“Force, Doctor? We couldn’t do that.”
“But you’d like to see ’em go?”
“And if the government would take over the annuities, you’d feel even better?”
“That is too much for The Company to ask.” Brill was resigned now, almost wistful.
Dr. Farrar settled himself back in his chair. “I have a plan, Mr. Brill; and perhaps you might be able to help me.” (Brill sat forward.) “I would like to see Block Nineteen emptied completely—I would like to see its present occupants migrate to Venus on the Colonia. I don’t think they’d ever come back. That would give your company several years to work out its new policy scheme and would remove what you call a dangerous menace to a safe distance. The next generation of Old Ones will be better schooled in ridding themselves of ‘personal power ambition.’ Do you think it could be done?”
“Perhaps,” Brill was slow to hope. “The Company certainly has the organization to put it through. But you’d never get them to go. Why, Avery thinks the whole Colonia enterprise is financially unsound. He says it’s the duty of every thinking man to do all he can to stop such ruinous nonsense. Colonization is expensive, but it is undoubtedly best for the people of the world!… But that old Avery doesn’t give a hang for the Assembly’s making a gift of Venus to the people.”
“Avery would go like a shot rather than be left behind. And he’s only one out of a thousand. You’d be willing to help?”
Brill hitched his chair even closer to the desk. “Just tell me first why you are so anxious to get rid of your entire observational group? Naturally The Company doesn’t want to get mixed up in any personal animosities or anything unethical. Why do you want to get rid of them, Doctor?”
“If I can trust you to keep this as quiet as your company’s interest in moving them out?”
“To be quite frank, then, the subjects in Block Nineteen are getting restless. I don’t think we could keep them here more than ten years longer, no matter how many diversions we tried. They want to do something, be something. And yet I don’t believe they could be any more miserable than back in a world which has been growing away from them for a hundred years, a world which doesn’t want or understand them any more than you want Avery in your company. So I’d naturally rather see them go all at once, wanting to go, than one at a time, confused and hopeless. None of them want to go back to their great-great-grandchildren to die. I’d like to see them stay together. As for my research, I’m only up to the Hundred-and-Ten group. Those in Block Nineteen are all over a hundred and fifty. Do you want to help … or would you rather go to Washington to lobby for a bill to control Avery and others with even more ancient ideas before they get loose?”
“But old people are set in their ways, as you know, Doctor.” Jeremy Brill had memorized the salesman’s book. “The Company would naturally have to have some assurance that the old ones are willing to go before we put a lot of time and money into pushing their acceptance as colonists.”
“I can let you know by midnight tonight,” Dr. Farrar stated positively. “They’re holding their monthly meeting and I can see that the matter is given full consideration.”
Somewhere inside Dr. Farrar, the conspiratorial feeling was joined by a great jubilation. He wanted to shout aloud, but instead he added, “The officers of The Company will naturally want time to consider this fully, with care and deliberation. It is fortunate that you will have a good many hours in which to prepare a sound and compelling statement about the benefit to all humanity which will accrue to a project which will settle at once the great problem of a goal for old age as well as end the bitter wrangling among national and political groups for first passage on the Colonia.
“You are right. I must get back to the home office at once.” Brill scribbled on a card. “Here is my private phone. Let me know at once what is decided at the meeting.”
He rose, extending his hand. “You are a great man, Doctor, a truly great and kind man.” He wheeled and walked abruptly from the office, the weight of a noble enterprise sitting comfortably on his shoulders. Miss Herrington caught a few of his departing words and the admiring tone. “One stone … so many birds.”
Jules Farrar’s call to Jeremy Brill at 10:57 that night was necessarily brief. Mr. Daneshaw told him nothing of the wrangle with Avery and several others about the inevitable failure of any scheme so economically unsound as extraterrestrial colonization, nor did he tell the doctor that the number who wanted to go for the sake of going was considerably smaller than the number of those who would do anything that he, Tim Daneshaw, urged them to do. He reported only two things from the meeting: first, that they were willing to go on one condition; second, that the condition was that they were to be taught to man the Colonia and that no younger “snippets” of officers, crew, and particularly medical and nursing staff should go along to hamper them. That was Avery’s one victory.
In the three hours’ talk about Daneshaw’s trip to U. A. headquarters that followed the phone call, the excited doctor almost forgot to ask how the Block Association had taken the morning’s deaths.
The old professor ran his hand through his white mane. “You know, Jules, I told them we’d discuss it after the other business and they never got around to it. Even if the trip doesn’t come off, the crisis has been smoothed over for now. It’s really rather shocking, isn’t it?”
And yet, finally, incredibly, the trip really was to “come off.” No one man knew more than a fraction of the details, though Jeremy Brill and his beloved Company turned out to be more of a force than even Dr. Farrar visioned in his most facetious dreams.
The doctor did have to be present at the U. A. loyalty tests, however, and would remember the rocking yet silent mirth of the entire commission to his dying day. The old people had been so outspoken, so set in their ways, but what a multitude of ways, that no bloc could be very seriously offended with them as a group. When little old Miss Severinghouse stated firmly, “I can’t say as I trust anybody particularly, but President Wilson was a fine man,” open-armed affectionate acceptance was assured. Laughter freshened the air; world tensions eased.
The months that followed were packed with unusual activity. Dr. Farrar, still at the helm of the Riston Physiological Observing Hospital, saw and heard little of it, beyond what he inferred from the questions of the newsreporters who were constantly trying to get beyond his office into the guarded privacy of Block Nineteen. He knew what assignments had been given to which of the “post-adults” (a newspaper phrase which had become universal). He knew, for instance, that Tim Daneshaw was at Annapolis with a number of others receiving advanced officer-training to prepare him for command. But he knew no details. He did not know how….
… Dr. Francis Keighley registered under an alias for a refresher course in the hospital that had borne his name for thirty-odd years. He smilingly declined special work in obstetrics and put down his name for epidemiology, parasitology and degenerative diseases as well as the usual surgery and internal medicine….
… Thorsten Veere, the pilot of the first moon-rocket, and Arthur Fisher, the designer of the Colonia, entered a formal objection to the United Assembly that the slower reflexes of the “post-adults” would make safe landing on Venus an improbability. They were told that they had exactly eleven months and three days to design and install a safe-and-sane mechanical-plus-radar landing device….
… Maeva McGaughey titrated deftly, dipping the straw-tinted flask behind the mask of the colorimeter and back with smiling approval. The old skill that had made her a master beautician was returning rapidly as she became a Pharmacist’s Mate. She hummed softly, abstractedly, unaware of the absence of Miss Phillips’ brisk voice saying, “Please stop that buzzing, Mrs. McGaughey. I’m sure I don’t know how you expect the other ladies to get any rest with that noise going on….”
… Alice Kaplan was having two new dentures made at the clinic. The fluorine shortage in Stowe reservoir had not been known when she was a girl and the town had been too small for a dentist of its own. These would be good teeth with which to eat her own cooking. She had already helped the dietician of the hospital work out a more tasty substitute for the eternal creamed spinach for breakfast, though it was rather hampering to try to work up interesting meals with no carbohydrates and practically no animal fats. But she would use these new teeth on good beef-flour muffins and sharp cheese….
… Ole Sorensen put down the peck measure of mixed concentrates and began to toss forkfuls of fragrant alfalfa hay into the racks before the prize hospital herd. The muscles of his back and shoulders rippled as the fork swung and he moved rapidly down the line of gleaming white mangers. Between the windows behind him hung the placard filched from the Block Nineteen lobby, HASTE WASTES LIFE. Beneath this profound message was scrawled in black crayon, “Life without haste may be waste”….
… Joe Kolensky, second astrogator of the Per Aspera, whistled admiringly over the pages of calculations on the desk before him. That old gheez Avery had come up with another shortcut in Advanced Orbit Plotting. It was a legitimate shortcut, all right, but Joe had only come across it himself after two years of course work. Avery was almost twice as quick as that old Mr. White who used to teach math at Dayton Tech.
“Say, Bill,” Joe raised his gaze from the paper and turned to his office-mate who was also checking classwork, “you know what Avery said today? When I tried to compliment him on yesterday’s quadrangulations he glowered as if I’d insulted him and said, ‘Young man, I was managing billions before jets were invented. Get on with orbits.’ What a character….”
… Elbert Avery worked feverishly over the pile of papers before him. Today’s lesson had included a few facts necessary for his calculations. To make room for new pages, he shoved aside Harling and Bame’s Astrogation Handbook. “Matches for irresponsible brats to play with,” he sneered at the book, “and the sooner they get their tootsies burned the sooner they’ll learn to leave this stuff alone.” He clenched a fist. “Damned if they’re going to bankrupt one planet they can’t run to settle another one they don’t need.” He picked up a stilo and plunged back into the determination of the exact point on the course, the precise moment after turnover, at which, with the slightest increase in deceleration he could send the Colonia streaking irrevocably into the sun….
The Quarter-Way Party, three months and four days out in space, was an unqualified failure, according to Arnold Forsberg, the Colonia’s recreation director. Closeted with Captain Daneshaw in the conference room the following evening, he confessed, “Only about eighty people showed at all. They wouldn’t dance, they wouldn’t sing; only about three tables of bridge and one of eincheesistein, and those were the champions who play every day anyhow. They wouldn’t even eat—just picked at the special non-diet refreshments we thought would be such a hit. Most of them didn’t bother to dress formally. They just wandered around. Honestly Tim, with ten more months to go I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“Maybe they have other things on their minds,” Tim placated. “First Night Out Party was as gay as they come. A lot of the women have been studying pretty hard, you know; and we’ve all been conditioned to taking things calmly for the last fifty years at least.”
“You think maybe we’d better cut out the Turnover’s Over Ball and the Three Quarters Party? I’ll be hanged if I can stand a couple more flops. It’s bad for general morale.”
“You’re taking this too seriously. Why not start working on the next shindig right now—you know—contests and such to have final playoffs at the party and such. Get them to start thinking about it. After all, you don’t even know why there were so few….” The ping-ping-ping of a tiny bell indicated pilot-room intercom and Tim flipped a switch.
A plasticoid box on the wall spoke in Elbert Avery’s dry tones. “Off duty now, Tim. You want to see me?”
Daneshaw spoke to the box on his desk, “Forsberg’s here,” he said. “You might come up and give us your opinion on the party. Were you there?”
“No, I was here. What happened, Arnie? The little ladies and gentlemen get rough over their grog?”
The recreation director twisted guiltily in his chair and muttered, “Wish they had!”
“No, El. Party seems to have been rather unpopular. You might canvass a bit on your way up and see if you can get a line on it. We’ll have to cheer up Forsberg here if he’s going to get back to keeping us gay.”
The wall-box returned rather grumpily, “I trained for astrogator, not public relations. See you,” and went dead.
Elbert Avery cleared his communicator, glanced once more at the position-calc dials, rotated his chair and stood up. Slipping on his officer’s braidjac, he nodded curtly to the Second Astrogator and went out into the corridor.
Twenty feet up the dark passage was the first of the eight rearward porthole stations. Avery slipped into the niche beside the observer’s chair, and the watcher, sensing the astrogator’s presence, shook his head vigorously against the hypnotic glitter of the stars and looked up. “How’s it go?” from Avery.
“Go? Who’s going anyplace? Stars sit still, we sit still just looking.” Watcher Peters’ voice was flat. “You sure anybody’s going somewhere?”
Avery ignored the question. “Have a good time at the party last night?”
The watcher grunted, “Party, huh? All dressed up and no place to go. Same faces, same dining saloon, same games. I took a turn around the stations and went to bed. Party in this trap’s just like looking out the hole. Nothing happens.”
“Just don’t like travel, eh?”
“Who said anything about travel? When you travel you move along all the time, and the trees and the mountains and towns rush past and you’re going somewhere. I’ll take travel any day—but this lost space hospital….”
Avery tried to be jovial. “Good thing we’re old enough to be used to waiting. This would drive the young ones crazy.”
“Driving me crazy too. Just waiting for the chance to be farmers and go on waiting for crops.”
Avery edged out of the niche, although the watcher was obviously not done. “All settled down waiting to settle down. Coffee without sugar, night without end, months without news….” Avery was thirty feet down the corridor now. “… and no new audience to listen to all the swell gripes I sit here working out.” His voice lost its flatness, became full and genial. “I’m the best damn griper in this damn outfit,” he bragged, “I’m the….” (Noting Avery’s absence) “… oh what the hell!” He brought his gaze back to the window to the stars.
Avery stopped at a door and rapped sharply. “Who is it?” “Elbert Avery.” “Just a moment.” He waited. “You can come in now.” He turned the knob and opened the door. Angela Claflin half turned on the bench before her dressing table to face him. Her arms were raised and her hands were busy at the back of her head as she replaced the last of the bone pins in a great knot of hair black as a crow’s wing. Tweezers, uncovered lipstick, rouge and powder boxes still lay on the table.
“Oh, Mustah Avery,” in a voice a little high, a little twittery, “we missed you so at the pahty. We wuh so gay. Competition fo dancin’ pahtnehs was jes furious and I was so hopin you’d come.”
“I was on duty—couldn’t make it.”
“Oh I think that’s jes cruel not to let jes everybody have some of the fun! You kin dance with me afteh suppah tomorr’ night and we’ll pretend the pahty’s still on.”
“I’ll see.” He stepped back toward the door.
“But Mistuh Avery, you didn’ come hyar jes to listen to me chattuh. Is theh somethin you wanted?”
“Just dropped in to see if you enjoyed the party. Captain wanted to know.”
“Well, bless his haht! You jes thank the cap’m fo me and tell him it’s these yere social meetings that help us stay civilized an nice during this long trip.” She giggled. “It makes a gihl downright unfemi-nine sometimes, studyin’ manurin’ problems and sheep-breedin’.”
“I’ll tell him.” He backed out and shut the door. “Downright unfeminine,” he imitated softly, falsetto. “The old bat—dyed hair and all. No sense of the decorum of space—no sense, period.” He walked on. “No loss, either.”
He hadn’t intended to stop at Bart Westcott’s room, but the door was open and he could hear voices. He pushed the door a little wider and went in.
Bart and Charlie Dean and Jeff Kuhnhardt in shirt-sleeves were sitting around a flat-top table covered with large papers in the middle of the room. Bart’s left hand was swiping back his mop of reddish-grey hair, his right tapping excitedly with a sharp pencil at a far point on one of the papers. “We could put unit 84 over here in the middle of the back,” he was saying emphatically, “which would leave more room for cupboards and the hatch to the storage attics.”
Kuhnhardt was objecting less vigorously, “But that would cut out the center window and all the women say they want as many as possible. If you put 84 here,” he pointed, “you’ll have better passage of air from the conditioner through there.” His pencil swept an arc across the paper.
Charlie Dean was the first to notice the newcomer. “Something we can do for you, Avery?” he asked briefly, setting down his pencil.
“Captain’s compliments,” he answered formally, “and he requests to know whether you enjoyed the Quarter-Way Party.”
“Quarter-Way Party?” Charlie turned with a slightly puzzled look to his companions. “Oh, Quarter-Way Party … uh … return our compliments to the captain and tell him we loved it. Not that we were there, of course.”
“A few more compliments and why not?”
“Too busy. These pre-fab housing units,” he indicated the papers, “come in a couple thousand pieces like an unholy jig-saw puzzle. We’ve got to figure how to put them together and not have any left over to store and still not get the devil from the women who’ll have to operate ’em.”
“What’s the rush? Still ten months to go.”
“Well,” Westcott looked a little sheepish, “it’s got to be kind of fun. We’ve got to working out all the variations we can so each house will be some different from all the others. Then there are all the farm buildings and offices. We won’t even have all the gimmicks worked out in ten months. Local Venus conditions, you know….”
“Sort of make-work so the trip’ll seem shorter?”
Kuhnhardt objected quickly, “As a matter of fact we could use another ten months. We never had time to complete our materials course on earth. We’ve got a lot of book work to do, too.” He gestured toward Westcott’s bunk, which was overflowing with manuals and thick volumes. “So parties are out, but we like them because we get fewer people in here looking for prospects for poker.” He grinned at Avery.
There didn’t seem to be any good comeback to this, so Avery just nodded and said, “Fine,” and left. He took the elevator next to Westcott’s room.
He stopped the elevator half-way up to headquarters and got out. Better sample a few more responses to the party. No one answered his knock at the first two doors; the third was marked DARKROOM; but at the fourth he heard a sort of mumble and turned the knob.
Samuel Wyckoff was sitting on the edge of the bunk. Not a short man, but thin like all the healthy old ones: wispy white hair and faded blue eyes and a tremulous look about the mouth made him seem fragile. He was half-dressed; his thin long hands gripped the edge of the bunk; and he was staring at the floor a foot or two his side of the door.
“Going to bed early?” Elbert Avery was politely apologetic.
“Changing, then. It doesn’t matter. Captain Daneshaw is having me ask around to find out how you people enjoyed the party last night. Did you have a good time?”
“A good time?” The man didn’t seem to comprehend a simple question.
“That’s it. Gayety, good time, fun, prizes and all, and sugar and cream in the coffee. Did you like it?”
“Didn’t go.” His gaze never left the floor, though it had moved to one side to avoid Avery’s feet.
“Any particular reason? Program sound dull? Were you tired?”
“I guess so.”
“You’re probably working too hard. I just came from Westcott’s room. He and a couple of other fellows are going it fast and furious on problems in architecture—as if they were trying to make their first billion the hard way. Relax, man. The United Assembly didn’t mean us to work ourselves to death.”
“What did they mean us to do?” Wyckoff asked with the first sign of interest.
Avery let loose one of his rare chuckles. “Who knows? They don’t. Something impractical, you can be sure. But they didn’t send us out to die. We cost ’em too much.”
“More than we’re worth.” A statement.
“Of course. Billions, actually, and on some fool thing like this. You can’t teach ’em. Government generations are too short. The only administration they care about is the last one and how to talk it down. It would take a major catastrophe to beat any sense into their heads.”
“I suppose so.” Wyckoff still stared at the floor.
“They didn’t have any place for us in their set-up, and they aren’t smart enough to figure out any. We know too much. The best they could come up with was this scheme to get us out of sight.” Wyckoff was certainly a good listener. “They won’t even know if we land safely for another two-three years when the ship does or doesn’t come back for supplies. You’d think even the most moronic secretariat would know better than to send out a bunch of colonists that can’t even multiply.”
“But they sent us. They must have thought there was something we could do.”
“We’ll never know who sent us—or why. It’s all mixed up with politics somewhere. Ours but to do as they say.”
“Do or die.”
“What? Oh … the quotation. Well, I stand corrected—don’t know as it makes any great difference. We all will someday, in spite of the great Farrar and his coddling hospital.”
Samuel looked even more fragile and a little wistful as he glanced up at Avery at last. “We thought this would be more interesting than the hospital, anyway.”
“You don’t like it?” El felt a sudden relief. Actually he didn’t want to rob these people of any fun, he thought, and obviously most of them weren’t having any anyway.
“It’s just the same. Maybe we’re too old to find it interesting. I dare say younger people….”
“Well, nobody can say it’s our fault, anyhow. We didn’t ask to get old any more than we asked to be born. I better go nose-side. Captain’s waiting. Good night.”
“Good night.” Sam Wyckoff stood and followed Avery to the door. As it closed, he looked down at his unbuttoned shirt, his socks. “We didn’t ask to get old,” he whispered, and went back to the edge of his bunk.
Avery hustled back to the elevator. He shouldn’t have spent so much time talking. Wyckoff was a good fellow. Sometimes it seemed a darn shame that the government couldn’t come up with something really good for old codgers like him. But what could you do with a superannuated book reviewer like Wyckoff? Old people ought to make good book reviewers and teachers. But naturally nobody’d listen to them. Those smart alecs in Washington wouldn’t recognize a bear till it bit them. Only way to batter anything into their heads….
The elevator door opened and Avery swaggered truculently along the corridor to the headquarters anteroom, his fists clenched.
The captain and recreation director looked up at his entrance.
Captain Daneshaw greeted him. “Sorry to call you up here when you’re off duty. This isn’t really very serious.” He smiled over at Forsberg.
“Well, I did what you wanted,” Avery said, sitting down to face the recreation director at the large conference table. “I asked around to get the general reaction.”
“And?” from Daneshaw.
“And … out of the six people I saw, only one woman—Miss Claflin, of course—just luhved it, had a wondaful tahm. The other five didn’t go.”
“One said it was monotonous. Said the whole trip was just like being in Block Nineteen only more so. Three fellows seemed to think it was too trivial to bother with. They’ve been making up better games with the housing blueprints, so they say. The last man said he was just tired.” Avery leaned toward Forsberg. “Looks like you’re going to have to make up a new game or think up some way to make ’em think they’ve never met each other and are just crazy to get acquainted.” He snickered. “That’s as I see it, of course. I’m no recreation director.”
“Not bad!” Arnold Forsberg roared and slapped the table. “The man’s a wizard, Captain!” He turned back to Avery. “You think I can’t do it? The After Turnover Party theme is going to be New Personality. That’s perfect! Well announce it all over the ship the first thing tomorrow. Everybody’s got eleven weeks to develop a new personality to wear on our new home, Venus. It’s never too late to be somebody new. Be the man you’ve always wanted to be for the next hundred years. That’s great!”
Avery tipped back in his chair during this blast. “It really sounds corny,” he belittled. “We’ve had a century and a half to get like we are. Why change? I’m good enough for me.”
“It’s your idea,” said the recreation director triumphantly, getting up, “and I like it. Sorry to have been a nuisance, Tim. I’ll go straight to El Avery next time.”
He buttoned his resplendent silver braidjac and came around the table, resting his hand fraternally on Avery’s shoulder for a moment before he reached the door. “Good night. See you at the party.” Then he was gone.
“Need me for anything else tonight, Tim?” asked Avery.
“Thanks for doing the rounds, El,” said Tim. “That’s about all. By the way, who was the one you described as ‘just tired’?”
“Oh, that was Wyckoff, Sam Wyckoff on the eighth floor.”
“Any idea what tired him so much he didn’t want to go to the party? I thought we were being pretty careful about fatigue. He’s not one of the crew, is he?”
“No … kitchen helper maybe. He didn’t say it was anything in particular. He did seem sort of shot, but he perked up and we had a good talk,” added Avery.
“Well, if that’s all, I’ll get along and eat and shoot a couple of games of slotto before I turn in. It’s relaxing after sitting over a hot calculator all evening.” At the door he turned. “Can’t you join me this once?”
“Not tonight. Just a few more things to attend to, thanks.”
After Avery left, Daneshaw straightened a few papers aimlessly on the dull green alloid table top. “Tired,” he mused, “sort of shot. Might be a case for Doc Keighley. Better see to it. Of course, he might be homesick.” He stood up and glanced around the piles of papers. Nothing that couldn’t wait till tomorrow.
In three minutes, he was knocking briskly on Wyckoff’s door.
There was no answer. Surely the man hadn’t gotten to sleep in the twenty minutes since Avery talked to him. He knocked again. Some sort of mumble came from inside. Tim turned the knob and walked in.
The light in the cabin was off, but in the dim reflection from the corridor walls, Tim could see Wyckoff was lying in the bunk, which faced the door, on his back with the covers pulled up under his chin. “Asleep so soon, Sam?” asked Tim in a low voice.
“Not quite. What is it?”
“El Avery was just up. Said you looked exhausted and naturally I was a little worried. Had a check-up with the doctor recently?”
“No … no … don’t worry about me,” faintly.
“That’s part of my job. We want everybody to get to Venus ready for a hard pull. Have you been studying too hard on the trip?”
“No. My job’s not very important. Please don’t worry about me.”
“Mind if I turn on the light and have a little talk?” Tim reached for the switch of the reading lamp at the head of the bunk on his right.
“If you want to,” reluctantly.
Tim clicked the switch and sat down on the foot of the bunk. “Finding the trip comfortable?” he smiled.
“I … I suppose.”
“Miss the pretty nurses back at the hospital?”
Tim looked down at the edge of the bunk thoughtfully. “Been eating regularly? Sleeping … say, did you spill something on the blanket?” he asked suddenly and reached forward to touch the small dark stain just above the edge of the bunk. The stain was wet.
Tim grabbed the blanket and stripped it back. Wyckoff was still wearing his undershirt and slacks and the red stain was bright on the white sheets above and below his left wrist.
Tim jumped up and pulled open the top drawer of the built-in wall-chest, ripped out a handkerchief and hair brush and had a tourniquet on Wyckoff’s upper arm before the man in the bunk could make a movement.
Holding the hair brush tight in his right hand, Tim reached across the bunk and lifted Wyckoff’s other hand. There was no blood there. He sat back on the edge of the bunk.
“You meant to do this, Sam?” Daneshaw’s voice was reproachful.
“I guess so … I don’t know.”
“I don’t think you do know. Because you’re not a coward, Sam. You’re not really afraid to do your share for the rest of us on this trip. We need all of us.”
“Oh, I’m not very important.”
“We can’t spare you,” Tim replied positively. “But we can talk about that in a few minutes. Can I trust you to hang on to this brush?”
“I guess so.”
Tim released his grip when he felt Wyckoff’s firm hold on the handle. He darted into the tiny laboratory and opened the medicine cabinet. The bulb in the interior glowed softly through the few plastic articles on the shelves. Tim rummaged among the soapaks and found a small glass bottle of aspirillin tablets. Grasping it by the neck, he struck it smartly against the monel basin, shattering it into the basin and onto the floor. He dropped the neck among the tablets in the basin and went back to the top drawer of the chest where he found another handkerchief. Back at the bunkside, he sopped up as much blood as he could with the cloth, then took it back to the lavatory and wrung out a little on the floor, wadded the handkerchief and tossed it into the basin.
Approaching Wyckoff, who had sat up in the bunk, he pushed him down again gently. “You push your button for the steward and get the doctor right away. Tell him you dropped the aspirillin bottle and got cut by a piece of flying glass. I’m going to wait in the darkroom next door and come back for a long talk after the doc is done. Hear me?”
“Because if the doctor doesn’t come in five minutes, I’m going for him and the psychiatrist, too. But I think you’d rather not have this get out any more than I would.”
“All right, then. Push the button.”
Daneshaw waited while Wyckoff pushed the button in the wall above his right elbow. Then he hurried out of the cabin and into the next door, the darkroom where the biological photographer would do his work after the landing on Venus until the building was completed. He left the door open a crack and waited for the approach of the steward and doctor.
He leaned noiselessly, suddenly weary, against the wall of the darkroom. Here was the problem of the hospital all over again. Was it his fault somehow? The trip had been a great victory, seemingly, over the sagging spirits of his friends, his “army.” (He heard the steward go in and come out.) His head seemed full of whirring thoughts without meaning. What fear, what despair had got into the man? What was it … how did the words go? … pluckt from us all hope of due reliefe,That earst us held in love of lingering life;Then hopelesse hartlesse, gan the cunning thiefePerswade us die, to stint all further strifesTo me he lent this rope, to him a rustie knife.
How could Wyckoff have felt that life was too much to bear? The thought was so simple once it seemed right….What if some little paine the passage have,That makes fraile flesh to feare the bitter wave?Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease….
(The door to Sam’s cabin opened and closed again.) He would have to talk like an angel or a devil to stop Sam from another try. But Sam was one of his people and he’d got them all into this. His responsibility … his.
Tim had a sudden guilty feeling he had dozed off when he heard the door open and close for the third time. The doctor must have gone. He came out of the darkroom and re-entered Wyckoff’s.
Sam was sitting on the edge of the bunk regarding his bandaged wrist wryly.
“All fixed up?”
“I expect so.”
“Was it bad?”
“No. He didn’t even have to take stitches—just little tape strips.” The wry look became a grimace. “Said I was lucky it didn’t get the artery. I can’t even cut my wrist the right way.”
Tim grinned. If Sam’s sense of humor was returning, it might not be such a hard job. “Aren’t you supposed to be lying down?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, you lie down anyhow and let’s talk about things.” Sam lowered himself obediently and Daneshaw went on. “First I want to know if you’re in any trouble? Had a row with anybody? Think you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t?”
“Well … no.”
“Good. Now what’s your job on board and what do you do after we land?”
“Just a kitchen helper here. When we get there, I’ll run the control panels for some remotracs—planting and harvesting, you know.”
“Not a very exciting set of jobs. How’s the kitchen.”
The slender man bristled, looked less frail. “They don’t like the way I peel wathros. Mrs. Kaplan says I peel all the vitamins off. She says you can’t trust a man with a peeler anyhow,” he added fiercely. “And I hate wathros no matter how you peel them!”
“You’re in a rut, Sam. You’ve worn out that job. And you and Mrs. Kaplan are evidently wearing out each other. Do you want to change jobs?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t mean anything against Mrs. Kaplan. She does a good piece of work.”
“So should you, and wathro peeling’s not necessarily it.” Tim mused for a moment. “Are you sure the doc didn’t say anything about your staying in bed?”
“No. I’m sure he didn’t even mention it.”
“It probably never occurred to him you’d do anything else. Anyhow I think this would be a good time for a little excursion. Have you been all over the ship?”
“Not since the big tour before blast-off.”
“Get your shirt and shoes on. We’ll go the rounds and you can have your pick of the jobs. You look them all over tonight and make up your mind tomorrow which one you would like.”
Wyckoff sat up and Tim slung him the shirt from the back of the chair. He had to help him with the snaps on the shirt and the shoes, but in a few moments they were out in the corridor.
“You shouldn’t spend all this time on me, Mr. Daneshaw. You just pick out a job and I’ll take it.”
“Spending time is my job and you need a job you’ll like. You know, Sam, emotional conflicts can wear a man to a frazzle twenty times faster than hard labor. And don’t call me Mister. I’m Tim to everybody unless they want to bawl me out for something, and Captain only when they want me to bawl somebody else out.”
“All right, Tim. Let’s go.”
Tim grasped Sam’s arm and hit his long stride. He’d get more from him on the way. Emotional responses sure could knock hell out of a man.
Hell or something seemed knocked out with the insistent “Ting, ting-ting” of the rising chime in the captain’s cabin at seven the next morning.
First waking. Waking itself seemed a great exertion this time. Then the long, long pause of gentle thought, of mustering of energies before opening his eyes and making a physical move to rise. Tim Daneshaw’s first thought was of sinking to sleep again, of overwhelming fatigue. The bunk was firmer than usual—seemed to thrust up against his body, and to thrust up again, wearyingly, like a wave. The association brought words…. … Is there any peaceIn ever climbing up the climbing wave?All things have rest, and ripen toward the graveIn silence; ripen, fall and ceasesGive us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Full consciousness came like a blow. Death, dark death meant Wyckoff, of course; and Wyckoff would be coming this morning, or, if he didn’t, he, Tim Daneshaw must go in search … must fight … poor Sam Wyckoff deserved work…. Tim felt his thought grow dizzy and the lift and lift under him gave way to a fall and fall. He opened his eyes.
The room was steady. Only the feeling of falling a little, then stopping, then falling a little continued. Tim brought his eyes down to the desk top again and again, each time to see the glowing desk lamp, pencils, papers, opened book lie quiet, steady, without tremor. The motion must be in his dizzying head. The cabin beyond the desk was in shadow, but the shadow retreated and advanced in rhythm with the falling.
By a tremendous effort, Tim raised his hand to the wall button and pushed. The hand fell back limp on the covers.
Why are we weighed upon with heaviness?
His mind revolved dully, waiting for an answer, waiting for the steward, waiting and turning and almost dozing.
To answer the gentle knock on the door was too hard. He could turn his head a little. After a sharper knock, the door opened and Steward Loomis looked in. “Everything all right, Captain?” No answer.
Loomis came over to the bunk quickly. “Tim, what’s the matter?”
“Hello, Loo. Weak, I guess.” Words came easier now. “Better get Doc Keighley.”
“You bet I will,” and the steward was already hurrying out the door. “You stay right there,” he added firmly and unnecessarily.
Tim stayed right there. The bed stopped falling, but he didn’t move. He knew how to relax from years of practice in the hospital and years of habit before that.
Keighley walked in, bag in hand, without knocking and came and sat on the edge of the bunk. “Tim?”
“Hello, Doc. I feel done in. Air supply all right?”
“Air’s OK,” Doc’s hand felt Tim’s forehead, reached for his wrist, his eye recording the sweep of the second hand on the desk chrono. A few moments later his stethoscope pressed against Tim’s chest.
In answer to Keighley’s probing questions, Tim described his symptoms. The doctor rummaged in his bag for a hypo-pak and ampule. After the shot, he took out a bottle of capsules, closed his bag and drew up the chair from the desk.
“You know, Tim,” he began softly, “we’re both old men. We can keep going indefinitely as long as the rate is slow and steady. Acceleration is mighty dangerous. Now you’re going to rest.”
“… could stand a few days of taking it easy….”
“Not a few days—months. Flat in bed.”
“But the ship … the people….” The vision of Samuel Wyckoff rose again.
“The crew and the Lord can take care of the ship; we people will have to take care of ourselves. We’ll need you more the last few months of flight and after we land. If you’ve got to see anybody, I’ll get them right now before that sedative takes effect.”
Tim’s hand rose and fell. “All right, Doc,” the thin, exhausted voice fell too. “Even Moses didn’t make the Promised Land.”
“You’ll make it, you fuddleheaded old Moses, if you obey Doc Keighley’s commandments. Even Moses had more sense than to try to be captain and master of ceremonies and life of the party and general trouble shooter all at once.”
Daneshaw smiled wanly. “I’ll be good. Better have El Avery come up before I go to sleep. He’ll have to take on some of my duties or figure out somebody else. He knows as much about the ship as anybody. Don’t worry him, though, Frank. He’s a nervous old dog…. By the way, can I read?”
“You can’t even hold a book for a couple of weeks at least. If you want to hear something, I’ll send you a reader or you can have a player and a bunch of wires if we carry anything but treatises on farming. I wouldn’t be surprised if Avery’d make a good top man—more autocratic, less tolerant than you, but there are more ways of killing a cat … and I’ll assign you nurses in six hour shifts. It’ll keep some of the girls out of mischief.”
“Frank … have a heart!”
“You have one—and hang onto it.” Doc Keighley gathered up his bag and left the cabin.
Outside the door he almost bumped into Jack White, Second Astrogator, and Steward Loomis. “Loo, get El Avery up here right away before the hypo hits him. Jack, you go in and sit with him till Avery gets here. He’s all right, boys. Just worn out. Let everybody know he’ll be back on deck after turnover—if you all stay out of his way till then. Don’t let anybody but Avery or the nurse in, Jack,” and the little doctor bustled off and out of sight around the curve of the corridor.
To Jack White, entering the tiny cabin lit only by the desk lamp, Tim Daneshaw looked near gone. He went over and sat silent on the chair the doctor had turned to the bunk. Tim’s eyes were shut, but he spoke weakly.
“El? El Avery?”
“No Captain, it’s Jack White. Avery will be here as soon as he can.”
A long silence.
Daneshaw spoke again. “Got to shift command, Jack.”
“What about Avery, Jack. Can he do it?”
“I think so. You remember how he handled that gyroscope record the first two weeks out.”
“How was that, Jack?”
White was startled, but gave no sign. If Tim Daneshaw’s memory was slipping, he really was in bad shape. “You remember, Captain. We were only a few thousand miles out when the gyro appeared to be recording a constant correction, and how Mister Avery,” (a term of deference would show Tim how respected Avery was) “was so thorough and kept the crew so busy they didn’t have time to worry about the real danger of being off course. He got the engineers doing radionic soundings of the walls of the big tube in action and some of the crew went practically into the dead tubes looking for flare action. He had everybody else who knew about it testing all over the inner skin for an air leak that might be producing a tiny jet. It was wonderful the way he got the passengers thinking it was a routine check for the early stages of any space trip. And he never let down—sat at the calculators eighteen hours a day until he found out that the recording pen on the gyro must have got bent in blast-off. We were proud of him, Captain.”
“I recall it now. You think he’ll make a good executive?” Tim seemed pitifully eager for assurance.
“Make an executive, Captain? He is an executive. He’s the Old Fox of Avery, Inc. again, since those two weeks. He’s taken to coming into the pilot-room when he’s off duty—just coming in and standing and watching as if he wanted to keep an eye on everything and everybody. And nobody seems to resent it. And he never needles the rest of us button-pushers when he finds an error in calculations. We all make them, El too, but we’ve quit deviling each other about them since then. He’s your man.”
“Thanks, Jack. I … hoped … you’d … feel….” Tim’s voice trailed off. “Tired … get Avery … tell him Sam Wyckoff….”
“Tim!” White was more insistent.
A gentle rap on the door.
“Tim, are you awake?”
After a moment of silence, Jack White got to his feet and tiptoed out.
Avery was on the other side of the door.
“He’s asleep, El,” White informed him, “Very sick—heart. Doc Keighley was here and says he’ll be in bed at least till turnover. He told me that you were to take command—Tim Daneshaw, that is.”
The two men moved away from the closed door. Elbert Avery turned to face White. “What’s that about command?” he asked sharply.
“He wants you to take over. Thinks you’re the best man for it. Likes the way you handled the passengers and crew over the gyro business.”
“Fine job I’d make of awarding bridge prizes and settling arguments between second and third cooks on how much salt in the buns.” Avery sounded gruff but pleased.
“Orders are orders,” Jack White forced a smile.
“Then I guess I’ll have to order you back to my turn of duty in the pilot-room while I get my bearings.”
“El?” Jack was struck with a memory. “The captain said something about Sam Wyckoff, too. He went to sleep before he finished. You better ask him about it next time you see him.”
“Here he comes now.” The frail figure came slowly, deliberately around the curve of the corridor. “Tim probably wanted him to help me out. I hear he took him around the ship for some reason last night.”
Samuel Wyckoff’s eyes regarded the floor of the corridor as he approached. If the other men had not moved out of his way and spoken, he would probably have continued his progress to the captain’s door without noticing them.
“Sam … Sam Wyckoff. It’s not that bad. Doc says he’ll be up and around after turnover.” Jack White’s voice was full of concern.
Wyckoff looked up. “What?” he asked dully.
Avery repeated, “It’s not too bad. Doctor Keighley says he has to rest but he’ll be back on his feet in less than three months if we don’t get him worried or tired again. That right, Mr. White?”
“That’s it. And the captain said something about you just as he was dozing off. Mr. Avery here says he thinks he meant for you to help out in the emergency.”
“He took you all over the ship last night, didn’t he?” added Avery.
“Well, yes … but….”
“He must have had some idea of what was coming. I’ve never been in half the labs or the kitchen and Ole Sorensen wouldn’t let me nearer to his prize cows than the door of the stable. Not that I’m fond of cows, anyway. So if I’ve got to take over command for a while, looks as if you’re the choice of the boss for liaison man. C’mon along up to the confab room and we’ll pow-wow.”
“But … I … that is … can’t I see the captain? He said … I mean I need to see him. He told me to come this morning.” Wyckoff looked from one to the other.
White was definite. “Not today, maybe not this week. Doctor’s orders. You better get along with Mr. Avery. You know the ship. The captain would want you to keep things running smoothly without a break.”
“Well, all right, I’ll come.” Wyckoff sounded doubtful still, but he allowed the others to lead him toward the elevator which would take them up to headquarters.
Just at the elevator door they were met by the floor steward, Loomis.
“Who’s to be in command, sir?”
“Well, Mrs. Jeffries of the laundry just phoned and said when she got down to the laundry a few minutes ago the place was flooded with water. One of the taps sprung or something, and she called damage control and they told her to call water reclamation and I guess the water-rec squad was all over at hydroponics trying to figure out why the increase in humidity—anyhow, Mrs. Jeffries is upset because she can’t get the captain and will you go down and smooth her out?” Loomis recited rapidly.
Avery turned to Samuel Wyckoff. “Guess you get right into harness. This is for you.” Then to Loomis, “Sam’s my righthand man for just this sort of thing. Give him all the help you can,” and back to Wyckoff: “We’ll see you up nose-side as soon as you’re through. We’ve got to plan fast so’s not to upset the whole crowd. You take the elevator down: we’ll walk up. We’re in no hurry.”
As the elevator glided down out of sight past the transplast door, and Loomis returned along the corridor, Avery and White turned into the narrow winding stair to climb slowly to the fourth floor above. White looked up at Avery’s back and asked, puzzled, “Do you think this came on suddenly? And why? I didn’t see him too often, but he always seemed so tough, so … well … resilient, if you know what I mean. But he must have known it was coming if he took Wyckoff around last night. What do you think happened to him?”
The man ahead shrugged his shoulders and they climbed on and up.
The “New-Side Out Ball and Social Assembly” was in full swing the night after Turnover, when Jack White edged quickly through the door into the circular Great Saloon just in time to avoid collision with a fantastically costumed guest carrying a tray half full of tiny crystal coffee-glasses, and stood peering through the half-dark of lowered lights at the little clusters of people in easy chairs and loungettes which ringed the room and filled it with a confusion of talk and laughter. He moved a step or two away from the wall, his eyes seeking more intently through the small throng near the center of the room on his right where Captain Daneshaw, guarded by a solicitous Sam Wyckoff, sat in a great raised chair receiving congratulations on his recovery. Elbert Avery was not in that bunch. Mr. White picked his way to the left where a few couples were dancing to the slow strains of the xerxia being played by a small orchestra on a bit of a curtailed stage. So intent was his search, that he ran into the arm of a chair and almost fell into the midst of the gay little groups.
Helen Platt’s voice was sweet, chiding, “You’re quite out of character, Mister White. You have to give up the absent-minded math professor this evening. We’re all somebody new tonight, you know.”
White looked down. The ex-Latin teacher, heavily made up, had hidden her thinning grey hair under a towering bejewelled turban. “I’m a movie actress and Phil here is a big game hunter,” she added, swinging a ruby-shod toe toward a lamp-bronzed man wearing a chalk-white nilene tropojak and encircling crimson commerbund. “Tell us something about yourself and let us guess what kind of secret you’ve been hiding the last century.”
White forced a smile. “Not yet,” he apologized. “Got to find Elbert Avery first. Quite urgent. Is he around here?”
Nobody had seen him, and Jack White, promising abstractedly to come back later and let them “guess him” went on down the room, cautiously avoiding another accident.
From circle to cluster he repeated his question with no better success. Several times he was asked why he wanted Avery and twice men of the group offered to help him hunt. To each question, he mumbled something about its not being important—he just wanted to find El Avery for a minute, thanks, and went on toward the orchestra on its stage. As he made his way carefully around the room, peering at dancers, at circles on the other side of the party dusk, he failed to notice the silence behind him. The worried glances which followed him, the half sentences, “Avery this time?” “Overwork….” “Too much for one man….” “… collapsed somewhere?” “… do you suppose?” “… something wrong, definitely….” “Did you see how pale Jack was?” failed to reach him; but more than a quadrant of the hall was aware of his quickened pace when he caught sight of the wiry little man standing against the wall half hidden by the outer edge of one curtain of the stage.
Elbert Avery was regarding the dancers morosely, his full-dress uniform indicating that he, at least, was sticking to his character as chief astrogator in preference to some more exotic role. As he had expressed it to Samuel Wyckoff when both men went to escort Tim Daneshaw triumphantly to the assembly, “I’m too old to change again. I’m an astrogator now and a ‘gator I’ll be to the bitter end.”
Jack White reached him now, spoke in low tones; and both men hurried out a small door at the side of the hall. A sigh seemed to go over the room and conversation rose to a new pitch of animation in a dozen places when it was obvious that Avery was in full control of his wind and limbs.
Out in the curving corridor, White took Avery’s arm and fairly swept him back to the left, to the elevator. He could hardly speak. “Gyroscope bearings worn on one side … Powell and North rechecking porthole readings after turnover … degrees out of course … miss Venus completely as we’re headed …” he almost babbled.
Avery pulled back abruptly against White’s arm and stopped dead. “Get your breath, man,” he snapped, “and tell me clearly what’s wrong. Something about the course?”
A paper-tophatted guest with a tray of filled glasses of ebony coffee, unable to pass them as they stood in the middle of the corridor, waited behind for them to move on before he could reach the door to the Saloon twenty feet farther on … waited listening.
“Preposterous!” shouted Avery, “we’ve had watchers with accurate charts peeling their eyes at the sky every foot of the way till now.”
“We’re going to miss, I tell you,” White responded desperately. He began to tremble as the delayed effects of shock started to tell, and grabbed Avery’s arm to steady himself, then pulled Avery toward the shaft and into the car. “Come down and see for yourself. We’re lost! Lost!”
The tophatted tray carrier continued to the door of the Saloon. Setting his tray on the floor just inside, he circled the room, pausing at each cozy gathering to recount White’s frantic statements and passing on to the next like a man in a dream.
“Nonsense, nonsense,” Avery was gently shaking the already trembling man in the elevator. “Nobody’s lost among the inner planets. I’ll come down with you. You’ll see … a little button pushing….” As if to illustrate, he pushed the button and the car began to descend.
The tophatted figure didn’t come to the group containing Dr. Marquith, the psychiatrist, until it had covered two-thirds of the room. The doctor questioned him carefully—this could be another breakdown like several which had occurred early in the trip when port-watchers, eyes fatigued and brain a-dazzle from watching the heavens, had declared positively that the ship had left the solar system altogether and had required days of treatment to convince them that their fears or concealed desires were of the shadowy substance of dreams. But the waiter showed none of the symptoms of such a breakdown.
“I think we’d better tell your story to the captain, son,” the doctor suggested quietly to the now haggard looking older man. “There is certainly nothing you or I can do to help matters and there is no need to alarm the rest of the passengers now.” He led the unprotesting man toward Daneshaw on his dais.
They watched the group around the captain disperse at some word from the doctor; their tension mounted as the psychiatrist talked to Daneshaw and Wyckoff; and the hatted man gestured toward the door through which he had entered the room.
When Samuel Wyckoff straightened up from leaning over Captain Daneshaw, absolute quiet preceded the first of his clear confident tones.
“Matt Carey, here, wants me to tell you that he’s awfully sorry he alarmed you. He did overhear Mr. White tell Mr. Avery something which sounded … well … disturbing. But we must all realize that many a slight accident has seemed disastrous at its first reporting. And we haven’t even had an official report of any kind.”
A woman somewhere began to sob.
“Come now,” Wyckoff said reproachfully, “we are not children!”
A nervous giggle sounded from another quarter.
Wyckoff continued more forcefully. “Dr. Marquith, Carey and I are going down to the pilot-room to find out what we can for you, so keep your shirts (I mean costumes) on, and don’t forget to make Captain Daneshaw’s recovery celebration a gay as well as a memorable one.” He patted Tim’s shoulder familiarly, beckoned to the two others to precede him across the floor.
At the door, he saw the tray of glasses and turned. “You fellows better bring another round of drinks. I could stand one myself.” He stooped, lifted a glass, drank, and followed the others out.
Men rose automatically from the groups, collecting empty and half-ful glasses alike, and headed in a mass for the door; but the first few attempts to revive conversation sounded so loud that when the room finally filled with sound, it was the rustle and sibilance of whispering.
The self-appointed investigating committee of three stood in the pilot-room door.
El Avery’s crisp voice was snapping at White the new equation to be set into the B calculator, rattling out the key for the data Powell handed him to be fed to C by North in the intervals of rest while A calculator assimilated and digested. The floor of the computation area was littered with the yards of coils of paper ribbon Avery had ripped from the roll of gyro record to find the original deviation (minus the bits which Carruthers, Fifth Astrogator, had taken to the enlargement room for micro-measurements). At the accepted break for complete clearing of the A calculator banks, Avery’s precision broke to a growl.
“Damned earthbound whelps!” he muttered. “Don’t even bother to discover major factors like light pressure in their measly little tubs!” He jerked to a stand, stripped off his braidjac and flung it into the midst of the insubstantial paper snake. He sat down with a thump and bent back over the calculator keyboard. “Those babies don’t care what they lose or how!”
He set to work again with White’s eighth set of solutions forming them into factors of equations of his own. Powell, passing around the welter of paper, was the first to notice the observers and yelled at them, “You boys round up the engine room crew, quick. Get them into the boom room and tell ’em to stand by for intermittent rocket and main tube fire! Beat it!”
Jack White looked up from his keyboard, “And get the passengers into bed for turnover, too!”
“You take Matt, Doc,” said Wyckoff, authoritatively. “Don’t make an announcement, just go the rounds and call out engine crew as if it were a piece of routine. Matt, you stand out in the hall and tell them there to report to the boom room presto. When you get ’em all out, Doc, go and tell Tim Daneshaw I’ll be down to report in a minute. Jolly ’em up a bit if you can.”
Wyckoff himself advanced a couple of steps into the pilot-room. Powell passed him again on his way back to the massive data spitter and said, “Thought we asked you to clear out.”
His rudeness seemed not to affect the easy poise of the slim old man. Wyckoff’s voice was conciliatory, “I’ve got to make some sort of report on this beehive to the captain. It’s the general impression that we’re in the middle of disaster.”
Powell roared, “Avery! Who let this out? The passengers are rioting!”
“Not rioting—praying more likely,” corrected the man at the door.
“That’ll keep ’em out of trouble,” Avery flipped back, his pencil moving feverishly across a scratch pad.
Wyckoff called across the clatter of the spitter, now operating with a ferocious din, “What’ll we tell ’em, Avery? They’ve got to know something or there will be a riot or worse. Is there really any danger?”
“There’s always danger,” Avery was growling again, “when some unmitigated unweaned engineers on an unmentionable planet cook up a foolproof system of astrogation.”
He handed the scratch pad to Jack White and waved a hand at A calculator. “Take off these and add them into the firing times. I’ll send Wilman and Adams up and put them on the intercom for porthole reports during firing. I’m going with Sam and stop the rush for the life-boats we don’t have.”
Donning his jak, he arose and kicked his way defiantly through the welter of paper and stamped free of it as he reached the door. He hurried up the corridor to the elevator, eight or ten paces in advance of Wyckoff, and jabbed the button. “Sam my boy,” he barked impatiently, waiting for the car, “the worst cause of panic is panic. I’ve been on the market and I know!”
The elevator door slid shut and Wyckoff repeated his earlier question, “Is it really bad, El?”
“Probably nothing a little prompt action can’t fix,” Avery replied. “It’s going to take two more turnovers, though. You know we haven’t any jets in the nose to amount to anything, and we’ll have to tack back across our charted course like bats out of you know where. Carruthers will have to whip up a new batch of charts for the sky-watchers, too, but we can still outsmart those idiots on earth and land on Venus if we want to.”
“If we want to?” The car stopped and the two got out.
“I said if we want to, and that’s what I meant,” Avery replied tartly, heading up the Saloon floor corridor. “I’ll bet most of us didn’t want or expect much more than to cut loose from our old lives and problems; and that’s completely accomplished. Most of us just wanted to crawl away and die with some decent measure of privacy. We can do that, too, if we want to.”
Through the thin panel of the saloon door the music came, singing weakly at first, then growing, tremulously….Eternal Father, God of Grace,Whose hand hath set the stars in place,
“We’ve changed our minds, Elbert,” said Samuel Wyckoff.Who biddst the planets turn and sweepTo Thine appointed orbits keep,Oh hear us when to Thee we cryFor those in peril in the sky!
A moment’s silence through the door. Wyckoff pushed it open for Avery and followed him into the room.
The hundreds of people standing in the room, looking at Captain Daneshaw in the center, did not notice the two until they had almost reached him. Hundreds of breaths, thousands of muscles clenched, they awaited the word. Avery gave one furtive, almost guilty look around at the staring faces; then, his jauntiness returning, he took the last few steps to the captain’s side. Tim Daneshaw raised his hand, unnecessarily, for silence. Avery spoke.
“With your assistance, we shall land on Venus on schedule.”
A great sigh from hundreds of lips.
Avery continued, “We are off course because of a factor that was overlooked in building the Colonia. But there is no reason why we can’t meet our new home when she gets there. There is no reason why we can’t do a better job than the engineers and Space Commission expected of us.” No reason. There were more ways of outsmarting young fools than tying their feet with high tension wire. He gestured at Sam Wyckoff. “Tell ’em what to do next, trouble shooter.”
Wyckoff took up, “There will be two more turnovers, the first within a couple of hours, I expect. You’ve just been through one and know what to do as far as remaining in your cabins with a good supply of solid food in your kits and plenty of packaged water. As Mr. Avery expresses it, we shall have to run to catch up with our course, so there will be acceleration, too. The gravitators will be switched on again immediately after turnover, but, since acceleration may be intermittent the ship may seem bumpy until a constant acceleration has been reached. All of you who are not essential crew or involved with food service or care of animals had better go for rations at once and then strap into your bunks with a sedative and maybe a good book. Food services go hand out ration packs and report back here. Crew members still in the hall meet with Mr. Avery by the stage.” He paused for breath. “And before you walk not run to the nearest food hatch,” (tension in the Great Saloon was a new thing, alert, responsive), “let’s have three rousing cheers for a better man with a calculator than any on earth! Hip! Hip!…”
The third cheer was a wave of noise that had no beginning but dimmed suddenly when a woman near the captain folded her hands and bowed her head. The crowd followed the example like one being.
Avery, too, bowed his head for a moment, fierce triumph fading from his face; then he strode down the floor to the stage as the throng moved in orderly departure to the doors around the room, a man here and there following him.
Tim Daneshaw grasped Sam Wyckoff’s hand with a quick, friendly shake. “Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be,” he quoted musingly; and both men followed the little line leading the way to Avery and action.
Betsy Curtis was a SF writer, widely admired and praised (by Isaac Asimov, among others), although she published only sixteen short stories, and no novels, during her long lifetime. She died in 2002.
This story originally appeared in Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, in December 1950.