"Centaurus II" by A. E. van Vogt (1947) - a golden-age novelette never before republished
Tuesday 10 February 2015, by
This novelette, which was the cover story in the June 1947 issue of the celebrated science-fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction, covers some of the same ground as van Vogt’s magnificent 1950 novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle: exploration of far-off star systems, discovery of highly-developed not to say superior alien civilisations and, especially, the grave dangers that internal social/sociological conflicts can and probably always will pose to the very survival of such long-term exploratory excursions outside of man’s own little solar system.
Never republished in spite of the stature and commercial success of its author, no doubt because of its length (14,400 words, rather unsuitable to the anthology format of later years), this interesting tale is now available here for the first time in, well, a long time indeed, with the striking original Astounding artwork by Schneeman.
An e-book is available for downloading below.
Out of the corner of one eye, Lesbee saw Ganarette climbing the steps that led to the spaceship’s bridge. He felt vaguely annoyed. Ganarette, at nineteen, was a big, husky youth with a square jaw. Like Lesbee himself, he had been born on the ship, and he had the peculiar walk of the hundred-odd young people aboard. As a non-officer he was not allowed on the bridge, and it was that, entirely aside from his own personal dislike of Ganarette, that annoyed Lesbee about the intrusion.
Besides, he was scheduled to go off duty in five minutes.
Ganarette mounted the final step, and climbed gingerly down to the cushiony floor. He must have been intent on his task, for when he looked up, he gasped and then stood teetering a dozen feet from Lesbee, staring into the darkness. His reaction startled Lesbee. It hadn’t struck him before, but there were actually people on this ship whose only view of space had been by way of the visiscreen.
The sheer stark reality of the transparent plexiglass bridge, with its effect of standing right up in dark, empty space itself, must be mind-staggering. Lesbee had a vague feeling of superiority. He had been allowed on the bridge since early childhood.
It seemed as natural and right as the ship, as ordinary as life itself.
He shrugged. He looked at Ganarette. He saw that the other was recovering.
"So," said Ganarette, "This is what it’s really apart like. Which is Centaurus ?"
Stiffly, Lesbee pointed out the very bright star along the sight lines of the engine-aiming devices. Stiffly, because the unusualness of this visit of Ganarette’s was beginning to penetrate. He wondered, since such visits were absolutely forbidden, if he should report to his father. Captain Lesbee?
He shook his head ever so slightly. It would be unwise to antagonize the young people on the ship. As the captain’s son, he was already being treated as a person set. He could see himself repeating his father’s lonely existence.
In a few minutes, his period of duty over for another day, he would lead Ganarette gently, but firmly, down the steps, and give him as friendly a warning as possible. He saw that the youth was looking at him, grinning. But all Ganarette said was :
"And which is Earth?"
The pale star held his interest for nearly a minute. He slumped a little, then whispered:
"It’s so far away, so very far away. If we started back now, I’d be forty years old when we got back, and you’d be forty-two."
He whirled, and grasped Lesbee’s shoulders with fingers that bit in with a metal-like strength.
"Think of it !" he said. "Forty-two years old. Half of our life gone, but still a chance to have a little fun—if we turn back this instant."
Lesbee freed himself from the clamping fingers. He was startled. It was more than a year since he had heard that kind of talk from any of the younger folk. Ever since his father initiated the lectures on the importance of this, the second voyage to Alpha Centaurus, the wilder spirits among the youths had quieted down.
Ganarette seemed to realize that he was being foolish. He stepped back with a sheepish grin, then sardonically :
"But, of course, I’m forgetting. It would be silly to turn back now when we’re only nine years from Centaurus, a mere eighteen years farther from Earth. After all. these days a man of sixty is practically a young man."
Lesbee wasn’t sure that he liked the irony. But he was not prepared to get into an argument. He had had such thoughts himself and deep in his being were vestiges of horror at the idea that he was doomed to spend two-thirds of his life on the trip from Earth to Centaurus and back.
With trembling fingers, he looked at his watch. He turned, and switched on the automatics. His duty period was over. Now, for twelve hours, electronic machinery would take over. Then Carson would assume the watch for six hours. The first officer would be followed after twelve hours by the second officer, who in turn would be followed by Browne, the third officer. And then, when another twelve hours of automatics had gone by, it would be his own turn again.
Such was the pattern of his life, and so it had been since his fourteenth birthday. Now, he would just have time to wash up, before the movie show started. He grew aware that Ganarette was looking at the clock on the low-built control board.
He faced Lesbee decisively. "O.K., Jim," he said, "you might as well get it now. Five minutes after the motion picture starts showing, my group is taking over the ship. It is our intention to make you captain, but only on the condition that you agree to turn back to Earth. We won’t hurt any of the old fogies—if they behave. If you try to warn anybody, we shall reconsider our plan to make you captain.
"That’s all. Let’s go down now to the theater. But remember what I said. Watch yourself. Be as surprised as the others, but be prepared to step in and take command."
Lesbee sank heavily into his seat. All around him in the darkness of the theater people were fumbling to their places. He had time for his first real thought : If he was going to do anything, he had better act swiftly.
Ganarette crushed into the seat beside him. He leaned towards Lesbee. "Only a few minutes now, as soon as everybody is in. Then the lights go on."
A buzzer sounded. "Ah," whispered Ganarette, "the picture is going to start."
The sense of inexorable time pressing him to decision was strong in Lesbee. He stirred in his seat, and wondered desperately if he couldn’t escape in the darkness. He gave that up, for his eyes were accustoming to the night of the theater, and it was not really dark at all. Over to one side he could see Third Officer Browne and his wife sitting together. The older man caught his distracted gaze and nodded.
Lesbee grimaced a smile, then turned away. A moment later, he saw First Officer Carson sitting near the back of the theater. Lesbee senior hadn’t arrived yet, and the second officer must be one of the slumped figures nearer the front, but the theater had its usual packed look. Three times a "week" there was a show. Three times a week the five hundred people on the ship gathered from every corner of the spaceship and gazed silently at the scenes of far-off Earth that glided over the screen.
Seldom did anyone miss the show. His father would be along any minute.
Lesbee settled himself to the inevitability of what was about to happen. On the screen a light flickered, and then there was a burble of music. A voice said something about "an interesting trial," and then there were some printed words and a list of technical experts. At that point Lesbee’s mind and gaze had wandered back to his father’s reserve seat.
It was still empty.
The shock of that was not just an ordinary sensation. It was a blow that punched along his nervous system, astonishment mingled with an empty sense of imminent disaster, the sudden tremendous conviction that his father knew of the plot.
He felt his first disappointment. It was an anguish of bitter emotion, the realization that the trip would go on.
His feelings caught him by surprise. He hadn’t realized the depth and intensity of his own frustration aboard this ship seven thousand eight hundred days out from Earth. He whirled to word-lash Ganarette for having made such a mess of the plot.
Just in time he stopped that rush of fury.
If the rebellion was destined to fail, it wouldn’t do to have made a single favorable remark about it.
He settled back in his seat with a sigh. The anger passed. He could feel the disappointment fading, and rising up in its place an acceptance of the future.
On the screen, somebody was standing before a jury and saying, ". . . The crime of this man is treason. The laws of Earth do not pause inside the stratosphere or at the Moon or at Mars—"
Once again, the words couldn’t hold Lesbee. His gaze flashed to Captain Lesbee’s seat. A sigh breathed from his lips as he saw that his father was in the act of sitting down. So he didn’t suspect at all. His late arrival was a meaningless accident.
Within seconds the lights would flash on, and the young men would take over the ship.
Curiously, now that there was no chance of doing anything, he was able to give his attention for the first time to the screen. It was as if his mind was anxious to escape from the slow sense of guilt that was building up inside his body. He looked outside rather than in.
The screen was still a courtroom. A very pale young man was standing before a black becapped judge. And the judge was saying:
"Have you anything to say before sentence is pronounced upon you?"
The reply was haltingly delivered : "Nothing, sir . . . except we were so far out . . . it didn’t seem as if we had any connection with Earth—After seven years it just didn’t seem possible that the laws of Earth had any meaning—"
It struck Lesbee that the theater was deathly quiet, and that the rebellion was many minutes overdue. It was then as he listened to the final words of the judge that he realized there would be no rebellion. The judge in that remote Earth court was saying:
"I have no alternative but to sentence you to death in the atomic converter."
After the whole show was over, Lesbee made his way to the projection room.
"Hello, Mr. Jonathan," he said to the slim fortyish man who was busy putting away his cans.
Jonathan nodded politely. His face showed a distinct wonder that the captain’s son should have sought him out. His expression was a reminder to Lesbee that it didn’t pay to neglect any one aboard a ship, not even people you considered stupid and unimportant. Lesbee swallowed, then :
"Odd picture you showed there at the beginning," he said casually.
"Yeah." The cans were being shoved into their protective cases. "Kind of surprised me when your dad phoned up and asked me to show it. Very old, you know. From the early days of interplanetary travel."
Lesbee said something, he couldn’t remember what. His mind was humming. He went out without looking where he was going. Weeks were to pass before he admitted to himself how impressed he was.
His admiration for his father actually began on that day.
For weeks they had been slowing down. And, day by day, the bright stars in the blackness ahead grew larger and more dazzling. The four suns of Alpha Centauri no longer looked like one brilliant diamond, but were distinct units separated by noticeable gaps of black space.
They passed Proxima Centauri at a distance of two billion eight hundred million miles. The faint red star loomed vast in the interstellar radar telescopes, then slowly retreated behind them.
Not Proxima the red, the small, but Alpha A was their first destination. From far Earth itself the shadow telescopes had picked out seven planets revolving around A. Surely, of seven planets, one would be habitable.
When they were still four billion miles from the main system, Lesbee’s six-year-old son came to him, in the hydroponic radiation gardens.
"Grandfather wants to see you, Dad, in the captain’s cabin."
Lesbee nodded, and noted that the boy ignored the workers in the garden. He felt vaguely pleased. It was well for people to realize their station in life. And, ever since the boy’s birth, several years after the crisis created by Ganarette, he had consciously striven to instill the proper awarenesses into the youngster.
The boy would grow up with that attitude of superiority so necessary to a commander.
Lesbee forgot that. He tugged the youngster along to the playground adjoining the residential section, then took an elevator to the officers’ deck. His father, four physicists from the engineering department, Mr. Carson, Mr. Henwick and Mr. Browne were in conference as he entered. Lesbee sank quietly into a chair at the outer edge of the group, but he knew better than to ask questions.
It didn’t take long to realize what was going on. The sparks. For days the ship had been moving along through what seemed to be a violent electrical storm. The sparks spattered the outer hull from stem to stern. On the transparent bridge it had become necessary to wear dark glasses; the incessant firefly-like flares of light upset the muscular balance of the eyes, and caused strain and headache.
The manifestation was getting worse, not better.
"In my opinion," said the chief physicist, Mr. Plauck, "we have run into a gas cloud—as you know space is not really a vacuum, but is filled, particularly in and near star systems with free atoms and electrons. In such a complicated structure as is created by the Alpha A, B, C and Proxima suns, gravity pull would draw enormous totals of gas atoms from the outer atmospheres of all the stars, and these would permeate all the surrounding space.
"As for the electrical aspects apparently a disturbance, a flow, has been set up in these gas clouds, possibly even caused by our own passage, though that is unlikely. Interstellar electrical storms are not new."
He paused. He glanced at one of his assistants, questioningly. The man, a mousy individual named Kesser said:
"It happens that I am in disagreement with the electrical storm theory, though I, too, agree on the presence of masses of gas. After all, that is old stuff in astronomy. But now—my explanation for the ’sparks’:
"As long ago as the middle twentieth century it was theorized that the gas molecules and atoms floating in space readily interchanged velocity for heat, or heat for velocity. The temperatures assumed for these free particles were about twenty thousand degrees Fahrenheit."
He looked around, momentarily very unmouselike. "What would happen if a molecule holding such a temperature struck our cold ship? Sparks, of course."
He paused. He was a graying man with a hesitant way of speaking. He finished:
"And then, of course, we must always remember the first Centauri expedition, and be careful."
There was a chilled silence. It was strange, but Lesbee had the impression that, though everybody had been thinking of the first expedition, nobody had wanted it mentioned. Lesbee glanced at his father. Captain Lesbee was frowning, staring at the floor. The commander had grown more spare with the years, but his six feet three inches of height still supported two hundred pounds of flesh. He looked up, and said :
"It is taken for granted that we shall be cautious. One of the purposes of this voyage is to discover the fate of the first expedition." His gaze flashed towards the group of physicists. "As you know," he said, "that expedition arrived at Alpha Centauri nearly seventy-five years ago. We are assuming that, no matter how violent its ending, even if it fell through the atmosphere of a planet completely out of control, that some trace of its presence will remain. The question is, what would survive after three quarters of a century?"
Lesbee was dimly amazed at the various answers. There were so many things that the physicists expected to survive. The "pile" engines. All electronic detectors and broadcasters mounted in metallic print. "Printed instruments can withstand gravities of 800 G’s." The shell of the ship? Its survival would depend on the velocity of the ship as it fell through the planet’s atmosphere. It was theoretically possible that the speed would be vast beyond all safety limits. At such immense speeds, the entire machine would go up in a puff of heat energy.
But that was not what the experts anticipated. There should be something. "We should be able to trace the ship within hours of arriving at the planet where it had crashed."
As the men got up to leave, Lesbee caught his father’s signal for him to remain behind. When the others had gone, the older man said
– "It is necessary to make plans against a second rebellion. There is a scheme afoot to evade our connection with Earth law by establishing a permanent colony on Centaurus, and never returning to Earth. And this time the rebels do NOT intend to make you captain. Let us, therefore, discuss tactics and strategy—"
Watch duty became a nightmare. The three chief officers and Lesbee divided it into three-hour shifts that ran consecutively now. They wore semi-spacesuits for protection when they were on the bridge, but Lesbee’s eyes at least never stopped aching.
During his sleep period, he dreamed of sparks dancing with unsteady beat under his eyelids, and there was a picture of a successful mutiny led by Ganarette, somehow surprising them in spite of their foreknowledge.
It was miraculous enough that his father knew as much as he did about the plot.
The speed of the ship came down to interplanetary levels. And, slowly, they drew near the planet they had selected for a first landing. It was the only possible selection. Of the seven planets in the system, six had already been measured as being of Jupiter size; this seventh one had a diameter of ten thousand miles. At 120,000,000 miles from Alpha A, a sun fifteen per cent hotter than Sol, it almost approximated Earth conditions. There was the added complication of the pale but sun-sized star, Alpha B, visible in the blackness little more than a million miles to one side; and the almost invisible C, too, would have its effect. But that scarcely mattered beside the wonderful fact that here was a planet of approximately the right size, and even at a distance it glowed with a jewel-like atmosphere.
At four thousand miles from the surface of the planet, the giant Centaurus II was maneuvered into a fast orbit—and the preliminary study of the planet began.
Nobody had any fun. What should have been the thrill, literally, of a lifetime was a fearful fight against mounting tension. Lesbee accompanied his father to the instrument room for one visit only. In spaceships the principle of alarms that affected both ear and eye was long established practice. The vast room hummed with pulsing energies. Men moved around with faces strained by the incessant grating sound.
Kesser, looking like a shrivelled edition of a human being, came dragging over.
". . . The sooner we get into the safety of the atmosphere, the better I’ll like it."
Lesbee had the same feeling, but his father only shook his head.
"You were just out of college, Mr. Kesser, when you signed up for the voyage. You have not that awareness of the standards of precaution by which the navy acts."
He added grumpily, "That is the trouble aboard this ship. Those who were born during the trip will never during their lifetime begin to understand what efficiency is."
He finished : "I do not plan to leave this orbit for at least two weeks, possibly even longer."
As the days passed, the information began to come in. The planet’s atmosphere had a strong greenish tinge, and this was identified as chlorine. There was a great deal of oxygen in the stratosphere, and the comparison which everybody made was that here was another, but more bounteous Venus, where masks would have to be worn against the irritating chlorine.
No final test of the percentage of either gas present could be made at this height. Only at sea level or thereabouts would a proper measurement tell the final story.
At four thousand miles, the difference between water and land was sufficiently distinguishable for a photographic map to be made. Cameras, taking thousands of pictures a second, obtained views entirely free of sparks.
There were four main continents, and islands uncountable. Fifty-nine hundred cities were large enough to show clearly despite the distance. They were not lighted at night, but that could have been because there was no light in the Earth sense. When Alpha A was not shining down on the continents below, either Alpha B or Alpha C or both were always shedding some equivalent of daylight.
"We mustn’t assume," said Captain Lesbee, in one of his daily talks on the broadcasters, "that the civilization here has not discovered electricity. Individual lights in houses would not necessarily be visible if they weren’t used often."
These talks, Lesbee discovered, did not serve the function that his father intended. There was a great deal of criticism, a feeling that the commander was being too cautious.
Said one man, "Why don’t we run down, collect some samples of the atmosphere, and get this uncertainty over. If we can’t breathe that stuff down there, let’s find it out, and get started home."
In spite of his confidence in his parent, Lesbee found himself sharing the sentiment. Surely, the people below would not take violent offense. And, besides, if they departed immediately—
Privately, his father informed him that the mutiny had been called off pending developments. The rebel plan, to settle forever, was shaken by the possibility that the planet might not be suitable for human beings, and that in any event permission to settle would now have to be secured from the present inhabitants.
"And, though they won’t admit it," said the ’commander, "they’re afraid."
Lesbee was afraid, too. The idea of an alien civilization made his mind uneasy. He went around with an empty feeling in his stomach, and wondered if he looked as big a coward as he felt. There was only one satisfaction. He was not alone. Everywhere were pale, anxious faces and voices that quavered. At least he had his father’s strong, confident voice.
He began to build up pictures of a non-mechanical civilization that would be dazzled and dominated by the tremendous and wonderful ship from Earth. He had visions of himself walking among .the awed creatures like a god come down from the sky.
’That vision ended forever on the ninth day after the orbit was established, when a general warning was sounded from every broadcaster on the ship :
"This is Captain Lesbee. Observers have just reported sighting a super-spaceship entering the atmosphere below us. The direction the ship was travelling indicates that it must have passed within a few miles of us, and that therefore we were seen.
"All officers and men will accordingly take up action stations.
"I will keep you informed."
Lesbee put on his suit, and climbed up to the bridge. The sparks were dancing like mad on the outside of the plexiglass, and it was a pleasure to sit down at the bridge directive board, and watch the screen that had been rigged up two days before by the physics department. The screen was fed pictures by the high speed cameras, but an electronic device eliminated every picture which had on it a spark. The speed of the pictures made the scene appear continuous and uninterrupted.
It was Lesbee’s first awareness that there was such a thing as a different way of arranging the equipment aboard the Centaurus II. He had read about invention, and adaptation of devices to new purposes, but that was on Earth.
Oddly, the discovery that it could be done aboard ship, too, brought an afterglow of irritation. Why hadn’t the method been thought of at the very beginning of the sparks?
His criticism ended. There was a flash of brightness ten miles away at the lower end of the screen.
Its speed of approach must have been miles a second, for a quick trailer punch on a side screen failed to show the slightest sign of it in the heavens. One instant it wasn’t within two hundred miles, the next instant, in spite of watchful cameras, it had hove-to in the near distance.
Captain Lesbee’s voice came quietly from the broadcaster :
"Apparently, these beings have discovered a drive principle that enables them to dispense with gradual starts and stops. They must be able to attain interstellar maximum velocities within minutes of leaving their atmosphere."
Lesbee scarcely heard. He was watching the alien ship. He did remember thinking that it took the Centaurus II weeks and weeks to accelerate and decelerate, but that thought quickly blanked out; the comparison was too unfavourable.
Once again, there was only the ship ahead.
With a start he saw that it was larger.
Sharply, the commander’s voice came :
"Torpedo crews load! But take warning: Any officer firing without orders will be executed. These people may be friendly."
Silence reigned on the bridge while the two ships approached within two miles of each other. Then a mile, then half a mile. Lesbee licked dry lips, then glanced at First Officer Carson, sitting in the chair beside him, glaring into the screen. The older man’s bearded face showed little or no emotion.
Captain Lesbee’s voice came on the broadcaster behind them :
"I want all weapon officers to listen carefully. The following order applies only to torpedo chamber A, under the command of Technical Gunnery Mate Doud. Doud, I want you to drop an air-filled torpedo. Understand me? Drop it. Don’t fire it.
"Drop it, let it ease out several hundred yards, so they can’t miss seeing it, then keep it under radio control cruising around in a narrow area of about two hundred feet."
The commander explained quietly to his audience: "This action will apprise the other ship that we have weapons, but are not using them in aggressive action. Their response will indicate whether or not their quiet approach was a friendly or a cunning one. It might also give us some information which we desire, but I won’t develop on that at the moment.
"Do not be alarmed. All our screens and defences are up. They represent Earth’s mightiest science."
That was briefly reassuring, but the empty feeling came back, as a hard, tense voice sounded on the broadcasters :
"This is Gunnery Mate Doud. Somebody’s trying to take the radio control of the torpedo away from me."
"Let them have it." That was Captain Lesbee, quick as a flash. "They’ve obviously discovered it is harmless."
Lesbee watched as the Earth torpedo was drawn toward the hull of the larger ship. A hole yawned in its side, and the torpedo floated inside.
A minute passed; two ; and then the torpedo emerged, and slowly approached the Centaurus II.
Lesbee waited, but he didn’t actually need words now. For the first time, in all this long voyage, something of the tremendousness of this meeting of the civilizations of different suns struck him. For the first time in all those years the trip took on meaning, and the wonder of himself being on the scene.
Of the multibillions of Earth-born men, he was here on the frontier of man’s universe participating in the greatest event in the history of the human race.
Soddenly, it seemed to him, he understood the pride of his father in this voyage.
Suddenly, he realized how great an honor it had been for the man who received the command of the Centaurus II. An entire generation of adventurous minded men must have envied the lucky few who thirty years before had launched themselves into the blackness of interstellar space.
For a moment, sitting there, his fear gone, Lesbee shared that pride, and felt a joy beyond any emotions he had ever had.
The feeling ended, as Captain Lesbee’s voice came curtly :
"I am limiting this call to officers and the science department. I want, first, Doud to try to take control again of the torpedo. See if they’ll let it go. Immediately."
There was a pause; then : "Got it, sir."
"Good." Captain Lesbee’s voice was triumphant. "I want the atomic men to test it with everything they’ve got. Actually, they didn’t have time to put in a death charge of anything, but we’ve got to make sure, before we pull it back in to the ship—not afterwards."
Silence again, then Plauck’s voice :
"Seems to be nothing, captain." He must have realized that was too weak. "There is nothing dangerous inside," he said flatly.
The captain was intent. "Doud, bring it inside. Do not open it. I want the air inside drained off and analyzed by the chemical bureau. At once. All personnel will remain at battle stations."
For an hour, then, the broadcasters were silent. When they finally came to life again, Captain Lesbee said grimly :
"I want Jim and Mr. Browne to come to my cabin, armed."
When Lesbee arrived, followed a moment later by Browne, the commander did not hesitate.
"Gentlemen," he said quietly, "I wish you to accompany me to effect the arrest of Ganarette on a charge of mutiny."
The words seemed absolutely unconnected with what had just happened, but Lesbee went along without a demur.
He did wonder if his parent had gone insane.
The trial of Ganarette began shortly after the breakfast hour on the following sidereal day. The Centaurus II was still in her orbit around Alpha A-4, but the alien machine had disappeared. And so the people of the ship could devote themselves to the trial itself.
The extent of the evidence startled Lesbee. Hour after hour records of conversations were reeled off, conversations in which Ganarette’s voice came out sharp and clear, but whoever answered was blurred and unrecognizable.
"I have followed this policy," Captain Lesbee explained to the silent spectators, "because Ganarette is the leader. No one but myself will ever know the identity of the other men, and it is my intention to forget, and act as if they did not participate."
The records were damning. How they had been recorded Lesbee could only guess, but they had caught Ganarette when he believed himself to be absolutely safe. The man had talked wildly on occasion about killing anybody who opposed them, and a dozen times he advocated the murder of the captain and the two chief officers and Lesbee’s son.
"They have to be put out of the way, or they’ll make trouble. The sheep on this ship just take it for granted the Lesbees do the bossing."
Emile Ganarette laughed at that point, then he stared boldly at the spectators.
"It’s the truth, isn’t it?" he said. "You bunch of idiots take it for granted that somebody can be appointed to boss you for your entire lives. Wake up, fools! You’ve only got one life. Don’t let one man tell you how to live it."
He made no effort to deny the charge. "Sure, it’s true. Since when did you become God. I was born on this ship without being asked whether I wanted to live here. I recognize no rights of anybody to tell me what to do."
Several times he expressed the puzzlement that was slowly growing in Lesbee’s own mind:
"What is this all about? This trial is silly, now that we’ve discovered the Centaurus system is inhabited. I’m fully prepared to go back to Earth like a good little boy. It’s bad enough to know that the trip was for nothing, and that I’ll be sixty years old when we get back. But the point is, I do recognize the necessity now of going back. And, besides, there was no mutiny. You can’t try me for shooting off my face, when nothing actually happened,"
Towards the end Lesbee watched his father’s face. There was an expression there that he did not understand, a grimness that chilled him, a purpose that did not actually consider the evidence, except as a means to a hidden intention.
When dinner was less than an hour away, the commander asked the accused a final question:
"Emile Ganarette, have you entered your complete defense?"
The big-boned young man shrugged. "Yeah, I’m through."
There was silence, then slowly Captain Lesbee began his judgment. He dwelt on the aspects of naval law involved in the charge of "incitement to mutiny." For ten minutes, he read from a document, which Lesbee had never seen before, which his father called the "Articles of Authority on the Centaurus II," a special law passed by the elected Space Board of the Solar System:
”. . . It is taken for granted that a spaceship is always an appendage of the civilization from which it derives, and cannot ever be considered as a sovereign power in its own right, its commanders and its purposes subject to the elective whims of the few individuals who happen to be aboard. . . . A spaceship is dispatched by its owners or by a sovereign government. . . . Its officers are appointed. . . . It is governed by rules and regulations set up by the Space Board. . . ."
There was much more, but that was the gist. The laws of a remote, lifetime distant planet applied aboard the spaceship.
And still Lesbee had no idea where his father was pointing his words. Or even why the trial was being held, now that the danger of mutiny was over.
The final words fell upon the audience and the prisoner like a thunderbolt:
"By right of the power vested in me by the peoples of Earth through their lawful government, I am compelled to pass judgment upon this unfortunate young man. The law is fixed. I have no alternative but to sentence him to death in the atomic converter. May God have mercy upon his soul."
Ganarette was on his feet. His face was the color of lead.
"You fool!" he quavered. "What do you think you’re doing?" The deadliness of the sentence must have sunk in deeper, for he shouted: "There’s something wrong. This guy has got something up his sleeve. He knows something we don’t know. He—"
Lesbee had already caught his father’s signal. At that point, he and Browne and Carson, and three special M.P.’s hustled Ganarette out of the room. He was glad for the chance at movement. It made thinking unnecessary.
Ganarette grew bolder as they moved along the corridors, and some of his color came back.
"You won’t get away with this!“ he said, loudly. "My friends will rescue me. Where are you taking me, anyway?"
It was a wonder that had already struck Lesbee. Once more, the quick-minded Ganarette realized the truth in a flash of insight.
"You skunks !" he gasped, "you’re not going to kill me now."
The vague thought came to Lesbee that an outsider would have had difficulty distinguishing the prisoner and his captors by the amount of color in their cheeks. Everyone was as pale as death. When Captain Lesbee arrived a few minutes later his leathery face was almost white, but his voice was calm and cold and purposeful:
"Emile Ganarette, you have one minute to make your peace with your God . . ."
The execution was announced just before the sleep hour, but long enough after dinner to prevent physical upset.
Lesbee did not eat dinner. He spent the evening in his bathroom, bringing up his lunch.
Lesbee awakened the following day from his uneasy sleep to the realization that his "call" alarm was buzzing softly.
He dressed, and headed immediately for the bridge.
As he sank into the seat beside Browne, he noted with surprise that the planet, which had been so close, was nowhere to be seen. A glance at the mighty sun, Alpha A, brought another, more pleasant surprise. It was receding, already much smaller. The three suns A, B and C were still not a unit, but only one, the dim C, was still ahead; the other two swam like small, bright lights in the blackness behind them.
"Ah," said Captain Lesbee’s voice from the broadcaster, "there you are, Jim. Good morning."
Lesbee acknowledged the greeting diffidently. He was not too pleased at the attempt at friendliness, and no longer sure that he liked his father. However wildly Ganarette might have talked at times, it was hard to forget that they had grown up together.
Besides, Ganarette had been right! After the threat of mutiny was past was hardly the time to execute.
The finale had come too swiftly, Lesbee thought in agony. Given a chance to consider the sentence, he himself might have protested to his lather.
The unseemly haste of the execution repelled him. The cruelty of it shocked him.
His father was speaking again: “While you slept, Jim, I had a specially constructed torpedo dropped into the atmosphere of A-4. I’m sure that everyone here would like to see what happened to it."
He did not wait for a reply. The picture on the screen changed. It showed, the Centaurus II much closer to the atmosphere of the planet, and off to one side a bright gleam, where the torpedo was falling toward the haze of atmosphere below.
What happened then was puzzling. The robot machinery began to emit blue sparks. Relays closed and opened erratically. The torpedo began to twist and dive in meaningless jerks. Finally, when every relay was smoking, a spring device started a gas turbine, which provided power for a liquid oxygen rocket system.
The telescopes showed the torpedo as it slowly straightened its course, and, working now on a non-electrical source, turned and climbed back towards the ship. Part of the return journey was through a heavy rain flooding down on the eerie land below.
The torpedo rocketed to the vicinity of the ship, and was snatched by tractor beams and drawn aboard.
As the picture on the screen faded, Captain Lesbee climbed to his feet, and approached a long, canvas-covered object, which Lesbee had noticed when he first entered the bridge.
Very deliberately, the commander tugged the canvas aside.
It took a moment for Lesbee to recognize the scarred and battered cigar-shaped thing that lay there as the once glistening torpedo.
Involuntarily, he approached it, and stared down at it in amazement. There were shocked murmurs from some of the other men. He paid no attention. The inch-thick hull of the torpedo was seared through in a dozen places as by intolerable fire. Behind him, a man said hesitantly :
"Yon mean, sir, that . .. atmosphere . . . down . . . there—"
"This torpedo," said Captain Lesbee, as if he had not heard the interruption, "and presumably the Centaurus I ran into a hydrochloric acid and nitric acid rain. That’s the famous and deadly mixture aqua regia, the dissolver of dissolvers. A ship made of platinum or lead, or covered with wax, could go down into an atmosphere capable of that kind of precipitation. And we could do it if we had a method of spraying our ship continuously with sodium hydroxide or other equally strong base. But that would only take care of that one aspect of the devil’s atmosphere down there.
"You saw what happened to the electrical equipment aboard the torpedo." He glanced around at the expectant faces. "You understand," he said, "that I am coordinating information which I have received from several science departments."
He went on: "The natural electricity around this planet inter-flows on a colossal scale. For anything we’ve got, that air is an ionized hell. What the special explanation is, I don’t know. One of the simplest methods of releasing chlorine from the various chlorides of metal is electrolysis. It is possible the plant life of A-4 uses chlorine to maintain its life, and releases electricity into the ground and air as a sort of excrement, which, in turn, causes the release of chlorine into the atmosphere.
"The planetary vastness of such a phenomenon would make for complication too great for us to figure out at this distance, and besides that is not what we are interested in."
He looked around again, gravely now. "Well, that’s all, gentlemen. With that kind of erosion going on, the wreck of the Centaurus I would have suffered chemical changes that would make it unrecognizable to our instruments. We can assume that their atomic drives—operated as they are by electrical and electronic equipment —would have ceased to function as they entered the atmosphere, and they crashed here three quarters of a century ago. They found out the hard way that the Alpha Centauri system is not for man."
The words lifted Lesbee out of his tension. He had taken it for granted they would spend several years in exploration.
Now instead they would be going home.
He would see Earth before he died.
The excitement of that thought ended, as his father spoke again: "Whatever the form of the aliens, they were not very friendly. They warned us, but that could be because they had no desire for our big ship to come crashing down on one of their towns.
"They made no effort to communicate with us. The warning transmitted, they departed. Since then, we have seen two ships come up and disappear, apparently heading out to interstellar space. Neither of the ships made any effort to approach us."
He broke off, finished curtly: "I have no recourse but to follow the instructions given me by the Space Board before we left Earth. We will examine a few more planets here. Every time we see a ship we will approach it. If we are shunned, then we shall leave this system in approximately one month.
"We are not, however, going home.
"My orders are, to proceed to Sirius, then Procyon, and not till then return to Earth. Since we shall have only enough fuel to reach the vicinity of Sirius it will be necessary for us at some future date to use as fuel the interior decorations of the ship. This entire piece of information is not at the present time, not till I give permission, to be given to anybody aboard this ship.
"You can now see why it was necessary to execute the troublemaker in our midst. The example made of him will restrain the hotheads."
The intensity went out of his voice. He sounded suddenly tired, as he finished:
"Gentlemen, you have all necessary information. You will conduct yourselves with that decorum and confidence which is the mark of an officer regardless of the situation in which he finds himself.
"You have my best wishes—"
James Lesbee, the third, acting captain, sat in the great captain’s chair, which he had rigged up on the bridge, and pondered the problem of the old people.
There were too many of them. They ate too much. They required constant attention.
It was ridiculous having seventy-nine people around who were over a hundred years old.
On the other hand, some of those old scoundrels knew more about science and interstellar navigation than all the younger people put together. And they were aware of it, too, the cunning, senile wretches.
"Let’s see now, which ones could be killed without danger of destroying valuable knowledge? He began to write down names, mostly of women and non-officers among the men. When it was finished he stared down at it thoughtfully, and mentally selected the first five victims. Then he pressed a button beside his chair.
After two minutes a heavy built young man climbed up the steps from below.
"Yeah," he said, "what is it ?"
Lesbee III gazed at the other with carefully concealed distaste. There was a coarseness about Atkins that offended his sensibilities, and in a curious fashion it seemed to him that he could never like the man who killed his father, James Lesbee, Jr.—even though he himself had ordered the killing.
Lesbee sighed. Life was a constant adaptation to the reality of the inorganic and organic matter that made up one’s environment.
In order to get a man properly murdered, you had to have a capable murderer. From a very early age he had realized that his nonentity of a father would have to be eliminated. Accordingly, he had cultivated Atkins.
The man must be kept in his place, of course.
"Atkins," said Lesbee with a weary wave of one hand, "I have some names here for you. Be careful. Do not make the mistake of making a mistake. The deaths must appear natural, or I will disown you as an inefficient fool."
The big man grunted. He was the grandson of one of the original workers in the hydroponic radiation gardens, and it had caused quite a stir when he had been relieved of his duties as a gardener some seven years before.
The resentment died quickly when the officer’s son who protested the loudest was put to work in Atkins’ place.
Lesbee had thought out things like that years before he acted against his father. His plan was to kill Atkins as soon as he had served his purpose
With an aloof air, he gave the first five names, gave them verbally; and then, as Atkins withdrew down the steps, he turned his attention to the screen. He pressed another button, and presently the graying son of the old first officer climbed up to the bridge and came over to him, slowly.
"What is it—captain?"
Lesbee hesitated. He was not sure he liked the slight pause before the use of his title. He was not sure that he liked Carson.
He sighed. Life was a problem of so many adjustments, with everybody making a fetish of hoarding what knowledge they had. One had to put up with so much, and that was strange because he could remember in his own youth that people even then had been much more open-handed and open-hearted.
Why, the first generation had taught their children everything they knew—so it was said.
"Uh, Mr. Carson, what are the latest reports on Sirius ?"
Carson brightened. "We are now within ten thousand billion miles. The ship has been swung around for deceleration purposes, but it will be a week yet before the telescopes will be able to determine definitely the size of the planets or whether they have atmospheres."
"Any, uh, radiation activity ?"
Mr. Carson started to shake his head. He stopped. A curious expression came into his eyes. Lesbee twisted to follow his gaze.
Slowly, he stiffened.
The forward half of the plexiglass bridge was twinkling with a scattering of sparks. Even as Lesbee stared, they grew more numerous.
In an hour the gas storm had closed in around them.
Sirius A at five hundred million miles looked about the size of the Sun as seen from Earth. Lesbee III did not make the comparison from his own experience. There were motion picture views that provided a fairly exact standard for judgement. What was radically different was the planetary arrangement.
There were two planets between Sirius A and its companion sun. Their orbital speed was fantastically swift, the one nearest B having a velocity of nearly two hundred miles a second. The other one, which was four hundred and seventy million miles from A, had a velocity of just over one hundred and twenty-five miles a second.
It was this nearest planet that offered their only hope. With a diameter of seventeen thousand miles, it was less than half the size of the second planet, and about one hundredth the size of the planets that swung weightily beyond the erratic orbit of Sirius B.
Lesbee III studied the reports, depressed but determined. It was clear that the universe had not been designed for the comfort and convenience of man. But he must be careful not to accept the implied defeat.
Reluctantly, he made his way to the cabin where, for long now, he had segregated his aged grandfather.
He found the old man sitting up in a chair, watching a small screen view of the planet that swung nearer and nearer. Possession of the screen was one of the many small courtesies which the younger man extended to the other, but so far it had produced no friendliness.
His grandfather did not look up as he entered. After a little, Lesbee walked over and settled himself in a chair facing the other.
He waited resignedly. It was hard when people misunderstood one’s purposes. He had once thought his grandfather would understand, even if no one else did, that James Lesbee III had the interests of the trip at heart.
Perhaps it was too much to expect, though. Human beings were always willing to be objective—about other human beings; and so an old man resented the method by which he had been retired.
Some day, no doubt, he, Lesbee III would be retired by Lesbee IV, now ten years old. It seemed to the young man in a sudden burst of self-pity, that when the time came he would accept the situation gracefully—provided it didn’t happen too soon.
His annoyance passed. He launched his bombshell:
"Grandfather, I have come to ask your permission to announce that you will come out of retirement during the whole period that we are in the vicinity of Sirius, and that during that period you will direct the activities of the ship."
The long, thin, scrawny body moved, but that was all. Lesbee suppressed a smile. It seemed to him that his grandfather’s mind must be working furiously. He pressed his purpose, as persuasively as possible:
"Throughout your life, sir, you have had but one purpose: to ensure that the voyage of the Centaurus II is completed according to the orders you received from the Space Board. I have read those orders, so I know what your feeling is. And I want to assure you that I understand fully the importance of this mission."
He shrugged. "Frankly, I like it aboard ship. Here, after your death—which I hope will never take place—I shall be commander. People used to be worried about the fact that there was one more girl in the third generation than there were men. I solved that problem very simply. I took a second wife. It was shocking for awhile, but now no one gives it a second thought."
He leaned back easily. "A voyage like this is something special. We’re a little private world, and we have to make private adjustments to changing conditions."
He paused, and waited. But the old man said nothing. Lesbee smothered his irritation in an affable smile.
"You might be interested, sir, in the suggestions I have to make for our stay within the Sirius system. Naturally, it is already pretty certain that we cannot land here. That atmosphere below is saturated with sulphur. Just what that would do to our ship I don’t know. But one thing is certain. We’ve got to find out right here where we go next."
It seemed to Lesbee that he had his audience interested now. The old man was stroking his scraggly white beard, his lips pursed thoughtfully.
But again it was Lesbee who broke the gathering silence :
"I have studied the reports of the methods used to re-establish communication with the Centaurians. The methods all seem too timid, considered in retrospect. There was no bold determination on your part to force attention from them, and although you spent months longer than your original intention cruising around, your lack of initiative made that merely a waste of time.
"It was obvious even then that there is a chlorine-breathing interstellar civilization, somewhat superior to that of Earth. Now, here is a sulphur-breathing world."
He leaned forward, in a sudden intensity : "We must make ourselves so obnoxious to these people that they will give us all the information we want. Are you interested?"
The old man stirred. Slowly he straightened his long body. His eyes narrowed to slits o f blue.
"Just what have you got in mind," he asked, "besides murder?"
The atomic bomb that was fired into the atmosphere of Sirius I attained a velocity of thirty miles a second. And so, in spite of the violently exploding energy flares that soared up to meet it, it penetrated to within forty miles of the planet’s dimly seen surface before it was finally exploded by a direct hit.
In one hour, when the entire scene was still concealed by an impenetrable cloud, they had their first reaction.
A transparent, glittering shell not more than eight feet in diameter was detected by the shadow telescopes. There was something inside it, but whatever it was refused to resolve into focus.
It came nearer, and nearer, and still the thing inside would not show clearly to their straining eyes.
Lesbee III stood on the bridge beside the chair in which his grandfather sat. And the sweat broke out on his brow. When the shell was within two hundred yards distant, he said :
"Do you think we ought to let it come any nearer?"
The old man’s glance was contemptuous. "Our screens are up, aren’t they? If it’s a bomb, it can’t touch us."
Lesbee III was silent. He did not share the old man’s confidence that Earth’s science was equal to anything that might happen in space. He was prepared to admit that he knew very little about Earth’s science, but still—that shell.
"It seems to have stopped, sir." That was Carson, pointedly addressing the aged captain, ignoring the acting captain.
The words relieved Lesbee III, but the first officer’s action saddened him. What kind of suicidal impulse made Carson think that the temporary presence of the hundred-year-old retired captain was a good reason for insulting the man who would be commander for thirty years more at least?
He forgot that, for the thing in the shell, whatever it was, was watching them intently. Lesbee III felt a hideous thrill. He said jumpily:
"Somebody get us a clear picture of it."
The screen blurred, then cleared, but the object in the shell looked as confusing as ever. After a moment longer it moved in an unhuman fashion. Instantly the shell began to approach the spaceship again with a disturbingly steady forward movement.
Within seconds, it was a hundred yards away, and coming nearer.
"He’ll never get through the defences!" Lesbee said doubtfully.
He watched the shell with a gathering tenseness. Not once did it slow. At twenty-five yards, it was already through the outer defences not only of the ship but of Lesbee’s sanity.
He couldn’t see it. That was the damnable, mind-destroying part. His eyes kept twisting, as if his brain would not accept the image. The sensation was fantastic. His courage slipped from him like a rotted rag. He made a dive for the stairway, and was vaguely amazed to find Carson there ahead of him. He felt the burly Browne crowding his heels.
Lesbee III’s final memory of the bridge was of the ancient Captain Lesbee sitting stiffly in the great captain’s chair—and the alien shell only a few feet from the outer hull.
They found his grandfather an hour later, still alive but quite mad, and stone blind. As they carried him down the steps to his room, Lesbee heard the old man muttering away to himself. He strained, and a few words came through :
"... We forgot the eccentric orbit of Canis Major A with its B. We forgot that B is one of the strange suns of the Galaxy .. . so heavy, so monstrously, heavy—it came originally from a planet of B—"
In the cabin, Lesbee had his first look at the lined and bearded face. He was shocked. The eyes were all wrong, twisted, crossed, as if they had tried to look at something that could not be seen by human eyes. As he watched they continued to twist, sightlessly, horribly.
Captain James Lesbee, first commander of the Centaurus II, died in the sleep hour that same sidereal day, seventy-seven years, four months and nine days out from Earth, at the honorable age of one hundred and six years.
Within six months, no man or woman of his generation remained
It was then that Lesbee III made a major error. He attempted to carry out his purpose of getting rid of a no longer wanted Atkins.
The death of Lesbee III at the hands of Atkins—who was immediately executed despite his plea of self-defence—created a new crisis aboard the Centaurus II.
James Lesbee IV was only ten years old, and, though it was urged by Browne that he be made captain at once, First Officer Carson thought otherwise.
"It is true," he said sanctimoniously, "that he will be grown up by the time we reach Procyon, but in the meantime we will establish a Captain’s Council to command for him."
In this he was supported by Second Officer Luthers. And several weeks went by before Browne discovered the two wives of Lesbee III were now living with Carson and Luthers.
"You old goats!" he said, at the next meeting of the Captain’s Council, "I demand an immediate election. And if you don’t agree right now, I’m going to the scientists and the crew:"
He stood up, and towered over the smaller men. The older men shrank back, and then Carson made the mistake of trying to draw a blaster from an inside pocket. When he was in a hurry Browne did not know his own strength, He grabbed the two men, and bumped their heads together. The power of that bump was too much for human bone and flesh, particularly since Browne’s rage did not permit him to stop immediately.
The developing limpness of the two bodies in his grasp finally brought him out of his passion. When full realization penetrated, he called the scientists into session, and it was then decided to hold an election.
It required a while to make the people understand what was wanted, but finally an executive council was duly elected by secret ballot. And this council recognized the right of James Lesbee IV to succeed his father when he reached maturity. In the meantime the council offered the temporary captaincy to Browne, for a term of one year.
By the following year two of the council members had thought over the situation, and offered themselves as candidates for the captaincy. Brown was vaguely annoyed at the opposition that had developed against him.
"Why," he said in a hurt tone to his eldest son, "they don’t know anything about, the duties of an officer."
He began to train his two sons in the details of the work.
"You might as well know something about it," he said. "Somebody’s got to."
For a while his conscience bothered him, and then he began to hear that there was a campaign of vilification being carried on against him behind his back.
"Things never used to be like this," he complained to the council. "When donkeys like young Kesser and that middle-aged goat Plauck can call you a fool behind your back, there’s something wrong. I think maybe next year you fellows had better appoint me captain until Lesbee is twenty-five years old, and end that kind of nonsense. We can’t take the chance of some nut getting control, now that we’re, burning the inside of the ship in the fuel chambers."
Councillor Plauck commented dryly that the selection of decorations to be used for fuel was a function which the science department shared with the ship’s officers. A knowledge of physics was a handy adjunct to any commander in a space cluttered with dangerous energies such as the cosmic rays.
Browne’s "recommendation," as it was called, was refused. But he was re-appointed to the captaincy for another year.
It was shortly after this that one of the councillors, passing through the hydroponic gardens, saw a familiar face among the workers. He reported to the council, and an emergency meeting was called. Browne was suave.
"Why shouldn’t young Lesbee limber up his muscles a little? This idea of a separate hierarchy is all wrong. In my opinion, all the young people should work in the gardens for a time every year. I’m going to have that put to a vote. I’ll bet the regular garden workers would just love to have you big shots come around and tell them that there are people aboard this ship who are too good to do manual labor."
Later, when he was asked about the progress of young Lesbee in his officer training, Browne shook his head, troubled.
"Frankly, gentlemen, it ain’t so wonderful. I have him come up to the bridge every day after he’s through at the gardens. And he just doesn’t seem to take any interest. I’m coming to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he just isn’t very bright. He just can’t learn good."
It was clear to some of the council members at least, that Captain Browne was learning very "good" indeed.
James Lesbee IV did not pause in his picking of the ripened fruit. The nearest horizon of the hydroponic gardens was two hundred yards away, but his caution was boundless. He listened with a deliberate casualness as the girl spoke to him "Mother says the sparks started two days ago. So we must be near Procyon."
Lesbee IV said nothing. He accepted the old explanation for the spark phenomena, that they occurred wherever there were two or more suns to draw huge masses of gases from one another’s atmospheres. He had given the girl her instructions the "night" before. It was now up to her to make her report. His fingers continued their automatic movements, as she went on:
"The others think you should run in this election. Browne is putting his oldest son up for the council. If we can elect you in his place—"
She stopped; then: "Remember, you’re now twenty-nine years old. And the council still has paid no attention to your rights. You’ll have to fight for them."
Lesbee IV made no answer. He felt a weariness at these stupid people who were always urging him to come out into the open. Didn’t they realize the danger? And, besides, it was important to wait till they had been to Procyon. Then, with Earth as the next destination, the scoundrels who had cheated him out of his rights would begin to think twice.
"If you don’t act," said the girl anxiously, "the men are going to take things into their own hands. They’re tired—we’re all tired—of doing all the hard work, and getting the poorest food. Gourdy says"—she paused—"we’ll take the ship."
She sounded awed. And for the first time Lesbee made a movement that had nothing to do with fruit picking. "Aaaaaa!" he said, and brought his hand down, contemptuously. These ignorant fools, he thought. They didn’t realize what they were talking about.
Take the ship indeed—a bunch of working people, who had never even seen space, except on a screen.
"You’d better hurry !" said the girl. "You’d better hurry and make up your mind—"
The vague reports of the underground resurrection that was developing failed to disturb Captain Browne.
"Those dirty beggars," he said to Lieutenant George Browne, his younger son, and chief officer of the ship, "haven’t enough brains to lick my boots."
He shrugged. "Besides, just wait till they find out what my plans are when we get into the Procyon system. That’ll make them think twice."
The younger Browne said nothing. He considered his old man a fool, and it had already struck him that it would be a long, long time before this burly captain-father of his would start to decline physically.
At seventy-nine, the commander looked good for another twenty years.
It was a long time to wait for the captaincy. He’d be an old man himself before it happened.
The subject was one which he had already discussed with his elder brother, who was due to run for the council at the elections next month.
Perhaps, he should also let the underground group become aware of the tenor of his thoughts. A few vague promises—
Procyon A with six times the luminosity of Sol swam in the darkness ahead. A yellow-white sun, it loomed larger and larger, brighter and brighter. In the blackness billions of miles to one side, Procyon B was a pale hush of a sun, clearly visible only in the telescopes.
Surprisingly, Procyon sported more planets than had the brilliant, the massively bright Sirius. Twenty-five huge worlds revealed themselves to the radaric eyes of the telescopes. The ship investigated the two with diameters of twenty-five thousand miles.
"Those other fellows had good ideas," said Captain Browne, "but they never gave these alien civilizations credit for good will. The thing we’ve got to remember is, not once have the inhabitants of these systems made any attempt to harm us. You may say, what about old Captain Lesbee ? Nonsense, I say. He looked at something that wasn’t for human eyes, and it wrecked his brain, and he died. The important thing is, that thing in the shell that looked in at him had the ship completely at its mercy, and it made no effort to do damage.
"O.K.!" Big, old Browne looked around the council room. "Where does that leave us? In the best position we’ve been in. Old man Lesbee didn’t dare to force issues at Centaurus, because he was dealing with the unknown. At Sirius we got scared and beat it, because the unknown showed itself to be absolutely and completely unhuman. But now we know. There are several big interstellar civilizations here, and they can tell us what we want to know. What do we want to know ? Why, which stars have Earth-sized planets with oxygen atmospheres.
"They don’t care if we find ’em. Why should they? Oxygen planets are forever beyond their reach, just as sulphur and chlorine planets are beyond ours.
"O.K., then, let’s tell ’em what we want to know. How?" He grinned triumphantly at his audience. "Just leave it to me," he said. "Just leave it to me. The first of their ships we can get near will find out."
Actually, it was the fourth ship that found out. The first three paid the Centaurus II no attention. The fourth one came to a full stop in the space of a score of miles. It came back to within a hundred yards of the Centaurus II, and remained quiet throughout the whole show that Browne put on.
The show was simple enough. He rigged a huge motion picture screen onto one of the lifeboats, then sent the lifeboat outside. The projector was mounted inside the bridge, and the series of pictures that followed showed the Centaurus II leaving Earth, arriving first at Alpha Centaurus, then at Sirius, and the discovery that the inhabited planets were based on chlorine and sulphur atmospheres respectively. This was shown by the simple method of projecting beside the planets pictures of the atomic structures of chlorine and sulphur. Earth was pictured with oxygen.
Then began the most important phase of the weird showing. A star map was flashed onto the screen. It pictured sixty-odd suns within twenty light-years of Sol. Onto this scene was imposed a triumvirate of atomic structures—chlorine, oxygen, sulphur. The trio was jerked in front of one sun, held for a moment, then moved on to another.
"Let’s see," said Browne, "how quick they catch on that we don’t know what kind of atmospheres the planets of those stars have."
They caught on as the camera was moving its three-headed question mark from the sixth to the seventh star. They acted by blotting out the moving trio. Onto the stationary map they imposed a solid rank of atomic structures, one beside each sun.
Browne counted four that were shown as having oxygen atmospheres. They were all on the other side of the sun from Sirius and Procyon. As he watched, another star map was synchronized with the Earth one, on a vaster scale. It showed thousands of suns, and beside each one was the revealing atomic symbol that indicated the nature of the atmospheres of the habitable planets.
It showed something else, a red triangle extending up from one of the stars about forty light-years from Sol and Procyon. The base of the triangle was an arc that joined the two suns. Along this arc a spaceship-like object was shown as moving from Procyon to Sol.
There was a curious by-play in connection with the movement. A small object moved three and a fraction times around Sol while the spaceship made the journey.
Planck gasped: "They’re trying to tell us that we can get to Earth in three and a half years if we get into the orbit of . . . of—"
He sat down heavily. Browne stared at him curiously. He was elated that the mission was accomplished, but he could not quite decide about the swift journey to Earth. The prospect of being shorn of his power in such a short time depressed him, particularly as the authorities might frown upon his possession of three young wives, and might even ask questions about his methods of remaining in power.
He saw that the alien ship was already a mile away, and its image on the screen moved off more and more swiftly. It was obviously time to go home.
"Get the lifeboat in," Browne said. "I guess we’d better get started."
He did not know until a few minutes later that Gourdy had timed the revolution to catch the officers and scientists on the bridge.
Gourdy was twenty-four when he led the revolt that overthrew the elected power group on the ship. He was a thick-built, small man with very black eyes, and his father had been a member of the fertilizer crew, attached to the garden squads. And his father before him. And his father.
To Gourdy the ship was an enormous vaulting shape, the walls and ceilings of which curved past sections of torn floors. He had been told that once the floors had stretched solidly from one wall of the ship to the other, but this seemed fantastic.
During his lifetime he had watched the lines of the floors withdraw to narrower and narrower confines, and he had even helped in the task of transporting the dismantled sections to the drive chambers. But even with that memory he could not build up inside himself a mental picture of what the ship had once been like.
He remembered sleeping in dormitories with ceilings hundreds of feet high, and the beds packed in rows. The suggestion that the original crew and officers had possessed a separate bedroom merely irritated him. It was “old man’s talk”. Nonsense. And besides it didn’t matter anyway. It didn’t matter anyway.
It was the present that counted.
He entered the captain’s cabin with wide, curious black eyes. And, because everything was devastatingly new, he took nothing for granted. What was visible to his wondering gaze merely served as an inducement to explore what was not visible.
Thus, in raising the metal floor, to see what was underneath, he discovered the detectaphone system, which had not been used since the days of Captain Lesbee I.
It did not require any particular astuteness to realize how valuable it would be in overhearing and keeping, a careful ear on the thoughts of his supporters.
That was really the simplest part of his newly assumed position. Slowly, as the days passed, the problem of running the ship loomed larger and larger. The rebels in their passion of hate had murdered every scientist and officer aboard. Just who was going to operate the ship: Lesbee IV?
Gourdy scowled over the difficulties involved in arriving at some method of working with Lesbee IV.
He had Lesbee brought to him in the captain’s cabin. (After the day of the killing, he had not dared to go alone up to the bridge.) He sat in his garden dungarees as Lesbee was brought in. He gazed at Lesbee with bleak eyes, his face unsmiling and hostile.
The conversation that followed was carried on in the spirit of "You-will-either-help-us-or-you will-be-killed." The crew—"of which I am a member"—would know soon enough whether Lesbee was doing things properly. The results would speak for themselves.
He assumed cowardice on the part of Lesbee. All his life, it seemed to Gourdy, he had watched the other man become more cautious, more abject in his outlook on life.
"He tried to put a good face on it," he said to his particular cronies after the interview, "but he’ll work—for the good of the ship. Not that I think he knows very much. That old scoundrel Browne saw to that. But he knows something."
Which was more than could be said for Gourdy, or anybody else aboard the Centaurus II.
The great ship ran the length of the Procyon system on its automatic steering gear, then was slowly, uncertainly, pointed in the direction of Sol by a young man who knew "something."
After about three weeks of actually operating the instruments, as distinct from having their operation blurrily explained to him when he was too tired to think, he began to edge the array of accelerators fractionally forward, making a rhythm out of the process, moving each lever of the series before starting again with lever number one, anxiously. That was at the beginning. As the days passed, and nothing disastrous happened, his confidence returned.
The realization came that the ship was indestructible. Nothing that men could do mattered to a machine that had been built to survive generations of human beings. He dreamed about the ship in his sleep hour. He had visions of it hurtling through blackness at thousands of miles a second now, and it seemed to him wonderful beyond all his previous emotions.
The first conviction that came to him finally was a commonplace enough revelation: The ship was more important than the human beings in it.
He began to resent the destruction of the interior of the ship for fuel.
He sought and found fuel materials the absence of which would he less noticeable.
His black eyes snapped at people who tossed food scraps on the floor after meals, and at the end of four months he issued his first decree:
"Carelessness and dirty habits will not be tolerated. The ship is the property of those aboard, and individuals who do not do their share of looking after it are insulting the group. Severe penalties will be invoked if this situation does not change immediately."
They were about a year out from Procyon, when Lesbee IV brought a strange fact to the attention of captain, the protector, Gourdy.
In a single twelve-month period the Centaurus II had covered more than one third of the distance to Sol. In one year the ship had gone more than three light-years, which would formerly have required twenty years.
"Of course," said Lesbee IV, "1 may be wrong, but just look at the star maps of a year ago and of today."
Gourdy looked. The blur of lights interested him, and he listened with an air of thoughtfulness as the other man explained the shift of the stars, and pointed out how great the shift had been. The distance on the maps looked infinitesimally small to Gourdy, but he only smiled and nodded, when Lesbee had finished; and it was not until several days later that he said :
"But, of course, your little scheme will not succeed."
"Eh?" Lesbee was startled.
"I suppose you thought you could frighten me into handing over the captaincy to you, for fear of what might happen to me once we got back to Earth."
Lesbee flushed, and not only because he was startled by the other’s reaction. The thought had occurred to him that these fools would be wise to give back the command to the rightful commander, now that Earth was so much nearer.
Until this moment he hadn’t actually thought of the fact of their speed being doubted. The potentialities of such disbelief stunned him.
"But I’m not trying to fool you !" he gasped.
Gourdy was chuckling, his eyes bleak. "So you thought I was an idiot, who would fall for a simple story like that." He was almost beside himself with fury, but his voice remained cold. "My friend," he said, "since you were smart enough to, uh, discover this discrepancy, will you explain to me how it happens that we are now travelling at three times the speed of light ?"
Lesbee hesitated. At such moments as this, his shame that he, the son, grandson and great-grandson of a captain had sunk so low was almost unbearable. He shrank a little from the look in the black, glaring eyes of Gourdy. He said uneasily :
"I’ve looked through the books on astronomy, and there is one thing—it is possible we have accelerated ourselves into the planetary orbit of some remote and huge sun; Arcturus is my guess. The fact that there are other suns much nearer doesn’t matter. It has been established that, once a body in space attains an orbital relationship with a sun, it requires very powerful forces to upset the relationship."
He shrugged. "We’re travelling at the speed that might be expected at the outer rim of a wheel thirty-four light-years in radius."
He broke off : "You can’t escape facts—captain. In another year we’ll have to start giving serious thought to slowing down the ship. Or else we’ll shoot right past the Sun."
Gourdy dreamed of the tremendous machine darting through the Earth system and out into the infinite distances beyond, and again and again woke up perspiring with fear and with a terrible excitement. He began to visit the astronomical room secretly, and operate the shadow telescopes. For hours, he would gaze at the image of the Sun, and it seemed to his imagination that it was growing larger and brighter by the minute.
Except for brief visits to the bridge to spy on Lesbee, and the unobtrusive trips to the telescopes, he seldom left the captain’s cabin. He lay on the great blue and silver bed half a day at a time, the earphones of the detectaphone clamped over his ears, tuning into different parts of the ship. And, always, he hoped there would be no talk against him.
But there was, more and more. The gossip of the women, the plain talk of the men. Even his two cronies, who, for what seemed to Gourdy obvious reasons, he had forbidden access to the captain’s cabin, ranted against him.
The words of Lesbee IV fell on ears that listened eagerly, but fearfully. Was it possible, people asked themselves doubtfully, if Earth was really only two years away?
"We’ll have to kill that madman!"
Madman, wondered Gourdy. Why, they must mean me. He felt furious. The fools! Couldn’t they see the game that Lesbee was playing—trying to re-establish rule of the ship by divine right.
What right had he to rule the ship? After four generations, the regulations of the Space Board meant nothing—But they’ll hang me! Gourdy thought in agony. And I was only working for the good of the ship.
They had no right, Browne and those others, no right to make four generations of Gourdys handle fertilizer.
I’d rather see the ship go on forever than have that kind of injustice triumph.
He would have to kill Lesbee. He saw that with a sudden simple clarity. Lesbee was the nub of the problem. That was obvious. Kill Lesbee, and the opposition would die of itself. It seemed a reasonable hypothesis, he told himself with a smiling thoughtfulness.
The idea of death danger from Gourdy was not new to Lesbee. The quality of caution that was in him created such fears before they existed, and fed on a thousand incidents that were without meaning as well as a thousand incidents that showed the true character of the other.
Unlike the groups in the dormitories, he did not think of Gourdy as insane. There was too much of himself in the man; and, besides, during those first ten years of his childhood he had acquired some of his father’s outlook on life. It was not conscious; he was not aware of its origin. And for years and years it was hidden under a frustration of easy alarms. But, gradually, as the first year under Captain Gourdy left him freer than at any previous period in his life, he began to think braver thoughts.
Alone on the bridge, he gazed into infinity; and the vastness of the firmament, and something of his own smallness, grew upon him.
It was impossible for such thoughts to dim his sense of caution.
He rigged up a warning device, whereby a light would blink on when somebody started to climb the stairway that led to the bridge. He always, very carefully, switched it off when he went off duty.
A similar electronic device connected to an alarm buzzer protected him when he slept.
There was never a moment when he did not have a blaster on his person. Gourdy, climbing up to the bridge to murder him, died literally without knowing that his purpose was suspected.
It was about a week after Gourdy’s body was consumed by the drive converters that the first woman came to Lesbee, complaining of a swelling in her neck.
Lesbee touched the flesh gingerly, then gazed at the pale face of the woman, a garden worker named Keena. It was something of a shock to realize that he was now guardian of the ship in all its aspects.
"Does it hurt ?" he asked.
There was a vague stinging sensation, it seemed. The swelling tingled steadily.
When she had gone, Lesbee pored through medical books on space sickness. It did not take long to discover what related to apparent glandular or other swelling: ". . It is not actually a swelling in any normal sense. The presence of cosmic rays causes a meson ’pile’ swelling in the affected areas. —The swelling is a source of atomic energy on a very tiny scale, and there is a continuous sensation of heat— Death usually occurs within twenty-four hours. . ."
Lesbee read the account, his face as white as a sheet.
". . . The presence of cosmic rays, if discovered aboard a spaceship, is usually due to some leak in the defences of the ship. This should be rectified without delay. Once set in motion, a meson pile chain reaction can consume a spaceship . . ."
Lesbee stumbled to his feet, staggered into a protective suit, and rushed to the instrument room, snatched up a detector. He had no doubt as to where he must look. For months Gourdy had been tearing down obscure inner walling for the drive converters. He found a dozen areas where the vital insulation had been removed.
He marked them off, then, still vague as to his next move, he headed down to the machine shops.
The place had been stripped, loose materials, including shielding, removed.
Lesbee raced back to the captain’s library, and found a book describing the ship itself. It was a fifteen-hundred-page volume, and it had endless maps and drawings of the structure of the Centaurus II. There were five chapters on the shielding, and, finally, what he wanted, a subheading titled "EMERGENCY DISASTER MEASURES."
". . Set out screens to power level five. Note: Such a screen is dangerous to the ship in that the screen itself releases gamma and beta rays sufficient to penetrate the outer walls ..."
Down in the engine room, Lesbee studied the instrument board controlling the screens. Fortunately, his flimsy knowledge was sufficient. Everything was clearly marked. He shoved the levers over to the figure five, then settled down in a chair to read the next paragraph.
. . ..If the temperatures in the affected areas continue to rise after screens or other shielding have been interposed, then it must be assumed that the meson pile has established itself. The affected areas must then be shielded off, and the ship should head for the nearest emergency port. If the ship is far from port, those aboard should set their automatic warning broad-casters to full power, and in the final issue put the ship under automatic control. Suicide is suggested in preference to death as a living meson pile . . ."
REPORT ON CENTAURUS II
. . . the ship was found drifting near the Sun. . . . The last survivor Captain Lesbee IV . . . was found wearing all available protective suits, but the meson pile that was his body had reduced it to a shapeless mass.
Captain Lesbee apparently lived long enough to reverse the engines, and so he succeeded in breaking the ship out of its high-speed orbit. He also left behind him a fairly detailed account of his period as captain.
He took it for granted that the mission of the Centaurus II was accomplished. He refers to extensive film records .. . unfortunately, the film room and the adjoining records department had been transformed into a meson pile.
No other clue or record of the mission was found aboard.
It can only he conjectured what precautions can be taken on future expeditions, to prevent the conflicts which destroyed the ship. Apparently, every type of "government" failed once the connection with Earth grew too vague. The relentless environment of space prevented the kind of recovery from error that would have occurred in the milder climates of Earth.
As a result of man’s inability to rule himself, nearly two hundred years after the invention of the interstellar drive, he still has no knowledge of his nearest neighbors in space.
This knowledge has become vital for the expansion of civilization.