- Author: Lester Del Rey
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He didn’t expect to be last—but neither did he anticipate the horror of being the first!
NEARLY TWO hundred years of habit carried the chairman of Exodus Corporation through the morning ritual of crossing the executive floor. Giles made the expected comments, smiled the proper smiles and greeted his staff by the right names, but it was purely automatic. Somehow, thinking had grown difficult in the mornings recently.
Inside his private office, he dropped all pretense and slumped into the padding of his chair, gasping for breath and feeling his heart hammering in his chest. He’d been a fool to come to work, he realized. But with the Procyon shuttle arriving yesterday, there was no telling what might turn up. Besides, that fool of a medicist had sworn the shot would cure any allergy or asthma.
Giles heard his secretary come in, but it wasn’t until the smell of the coffee reached his nose that he looked up. She handed him a filled cup and set the carafe down on the age-polished surface of the big desk. She watched solicitously as he drank.
“That bad, Arthur?” she asked.
“Just a little tired,” he told her, refilling the cup. She’d made the coffee stronger than usual and it seemed to cut through some of the thickness in his head. “I guess I’m getting old, Amanda.”
She smiled dutifully at the time-worn joke, but he knew she wasn’t fooled. She’d cycled to middle age four times in her job and she probably knew him better than he knew himself—which wouldn’t be hard, he thought. He’d hardly recognized the stranger in the mirror as he tried to shave. His normal thinness had looked almost gaunt and there were hollows in his face and circles under his eyes. Even his hair had seemed thinner, though that, of course, was impossible.
“Anything urgent on the Procyon shuttle?” he asked as she continue staring at him with worried eyes.
SHE JERKED her gaze away guiltily and turned to the incoming basket. “Mostly drugs for experimenting. A personal letter for you, relayed from some place I never heard of. And one of the super-light missiles! They found it drifting half a light-year out and captured it. Jordan’s got a report on it and he’s going crazy. But if you don’t feel well—”
“I’m all right!” he told her sharply. Then he steadied himself and managed to smile. “Thanks for the coffee, Amanda.”
She accepted dismissal reluctantly. When she was gone, he sat gazing at the report from Jordan at Research.
For eighty years now, they’d been sending out the little ships that vanished at greater than the speed of light, equipped with every conceivable device to make them return automatically after taking pictures of wherever they arrived. So far, none had ever returned or been located. This was the first hope they’d found that the century-long trips between stars in the ponderous shuttles might be ended and he should have been filled with excitement at Jordan’s hasty preliminary report.
He leafed through it. The little ship apparently had been picked up by accident when it almost collided with a Sirius-local ship. Scientists there had puzzled over it, reset it and sent it back. The two white rats on it had still been alive.
Giles dropped the report wearily and picked up the personal message that had come on the shuttle. He fingered the microstrip inside while he drank another coffee, and finally pulled out the microviewer. There were three frames to the message, he saw with some surprise.
He didn’t need to see the signature on the first projection. Only his youngest son would have sent an elaborate tercentenary greeting verse—one that would arrive ninety years too late! Harry had been born just before Earth passed the drastic birth limitation act and his mother had spoiled him. He’d even tried to avoid the compulsory emigration draft and stay on with his mother. It had been the bitter quarrels over that which had finally broken Giles’ fifth marriage.
Oddly enough, the message in the next frame showed none of that. Harry had nothing but praise for the solar system where he’d been sent. He barely mentioned being married on the way or his dozen children, but filled most of the frame with glowing description and a plea for his father to join him there!
GILES SNORTED and turned to the third frame, which showed a group picture of the family in some sort of vehicle, against the background of an alien but attractive world.
He had no desire to spend ninety years cooped up with a bunch of callow young emigrants, even in one of the improved Exodus shuttles. And even if Exodus ever got the super-light drive working, there was no reason he should give up his work. The discovery that men could live practically forever had put an end to most family ties; sentiment wore thin in half a century—which wasn’t much time now, though it had once seemed long enough.
Strange how the years seemed to get shorter as their number increased. There’d been a song once—something about the years dwindling down. He groped for the lines and couldn’t remember. Drat it! Now he’d probably lie awake most of the night again, trying to recall them.
The outside line buzzed musically, flashing Research’s number. Giles grunted in irritation. He wasn’t ready to face Jordan yet. But he shrugged and pressed the button.
The intense face that looked from the screen was frowning as Jordan’s eyes seemed to sweep around the room. He was still young—one of the few under a hundred who’d escaped deportation because of special ability—and patience was still foreign to him.
Then the frown vanished as an expression of shock replaced it, and Giles felt a sinking sensation. If he looked that bad—
But Jordan wasn’t looking at him; the man’s interest lay in the projected picture from Harry, across the desk from the communicator.
“Antigravity!” His voice was unbelieving as he turned his head to face the older man. “What world is that?”
Giles forced his attention on the picture again and this time he noticed the vehicle shown. It was enough like an old model Earth conveyance to pass casual inspection, but it floated wheellessly above the ground. Faint blur lines indicated it had been moving when the picture was taken.
“One of my sons—” Giles started to answer. “I could find the star’s designation....”
Jordan cursed harshly. “So we can send a message on the shuttle, begging for their secret in a couple of hundred years! While a hundred other worlds make a thousand major discoveries they don’t bother reporting! Can’t the Council see anything?”
Giles had heard it all before. Earth was becoming a backwater world; no real progress had been made in two centuries; the young men were sent out as soon as their first fifty years of education were finished, and the older men were too conservative for really new thinking. There was a measure of truth in it, unfortunately.
“They’ll slow up when their populations fill,” Giles repeated his old answers. “We’re still ahead in medicine and we’ll get the other discoveries eventually, without interrupting the work of making the Earth fit for our longevity. We can wait. We’ll have to.”
THE YOUNGER man stared at him with the strange puzzled look Giles had seen too often lately. “Damn it, haven’t you read my report? We know the super-light drive works! That missile reached Sirius in less than ten days. We can have the secret of this antigravity in less than a year! We—”
“Wait a minute.” Giles felt the thickness pushing back at his mind and tried to fight it off. He’d only skimmed the report, but this made no sense. “You mean you can calibrate your guiding devices accurately enough to get a missile where you want it and back?”
“What?” Jordan’s voice rattled the speaker. “Of course not! It took two accidents to get the thing back to us—and with a half-light-year miss that delayed it about twenty years before the Procyon shuttle heard its signal. Pre-setting a course may take centuries, if we can ever master it. Even with Sirius expecting the missiles and ready to cooperate. I mean the big ship. We’ve had it drafted for building long enough; now we can finish it in three months. We know the drive works. We know it’s fast enough to reach Procyon in two weeks. We even know life can stand the trip. The rats were unharmed.”
Giles shook his head at what the other was proposing, only partly believing it. “Rats don’t have minds that could show any real damage such as the loss of power to rejuvenate. We can’t put human pilots into a ship with our drive until we’ve tested it more thoroughly, Bill, even if they could correct for errors on arrival. Maybe if we put in stronger signaling transmitters....”
“Yeah. Maybe in two centuries we’d have a through route charted to Sirius. And we still wouldn’t have proved it safe for human pilots. Mr. Giles, we’ve got to have the big ship. All we need is one volunteer!”
It occurred to Giles then that the man had been too fired with the idea to think. He leaned back, shaking his head again wearily. “All right, Bill. Find me one volunteer. Or how about you? Do you really want to risk losing the rest of your life rather than waiting a couple more centuries until we know it’s safe? If you do, I’ll order the big ship.”
Jordan opened his mouth and for a second Giles’ heart caught in a flux of emotions as the man’s offer hovered on his lips. Then the engineer shut his mouth slowly. The belligerence ran out of him.
He looked sick, for he had no answer.
NO SANE man would risk a chance for near eternity against such a relatively short wait. Heroism had belonged to those who knew their days were numbered, anyhow.
“Forget it, Bill,” Giles advised. “It may take longer, but eventually we’ll find a way. With time enough, we’re bound to. And when we do, the ship will be ready.”
The engineer nodded miserably and clicked off. Giles turned from the blank screen to stare out of the windows, while his hand came up to twist at the lock of hair over his forehead. Eternity! They had to plan and build for it. They couldn’t risk that plan for short-term benefits. Usually it was too easy to realize that, and the sight of the solid, time-enduring buildings outside should have given him a sense of security.
Today, though, nothing seemed to help. He felt choked, imprisoned, somehow lost; the city beyond the window blurred as he studied it, and he swung the chair back so violently that his hand jerked painfully on the forelock he’d been twisting.
Then he was staring unbelievingly at the single white hair that was twisted with the dark ones between his fingers.
Like an automaton, he bent forward, his other hand groping for the mirror that should be in one of the drawers. The dull pain in his chest sharpened and his breath was hoarse in his throat, but he hardly noticed as he found the mirror and brought it up. His eyes focused reluctantly. There were other white strands in his dark hair.
The mirror crashed to the floor as he staggered out of the office.
It was only two blocks to Giles’ residence club, but he had to stop twice to catch his breath and fight against the pain that clawed at his chest. When he reached the wood-paneled lobby, he was barely able to stand.
Dubbins was at his side almost at once, with a hand under his arm to guide him toward his suite.
“Let me help you, sir,” Dubbins suggested, in the tones Giles hadn’t heard since the man had been his valet, back when it was still possible to find personal servants. Now he managed the club on a level of quasi-equality with the members. For the moment, though, he’d slipped back into the old ways.
GILES FOUND himself lying on his couch, partially undressed, with the pillows just right and a long drink in his hand. The alcohol combined with the reaction from his panic to leave him almost himself again. After all, there was nothing to worry about; Earth’s doctors could cure anything.
“I guess you’d better call Dr. Vincenti,” he decided. Vincenti was a member and would probably be the quickest to get.
Dubbins shook his head. “Dr. Vincenti isn’t with us, sir. He left a year ago to visit a son in the Centauri system. There’s a Dr. Cobb whose reputation is very good, sir.”
Giles puzzled over it doubtfully. Vincenti had been an oddly morose man the last few times he’d seen him, but that could hardly explain his taking a twenty-year shuttle trip for such a slim reason. It was no concern of his, though. “Dr. Cobb, then,” he said.
Giles heard the other man’s voice on the study phone, too low for the words to be distinguishable. He finished the drink, feeling still better, and was sitting up when Dubbins came back.
“Dr. Cobb wants you to come to his office at once, sir,” he said, dropping to his knee to help Giles with his shoes. “I’d be pleased to drive you there.”
Giles frowned. He’d expected Cobb to come to him. Then he grimaced at his own thoughts. Dubbins’ manners must have carried him back into the past; doctors didn’t go in for home visits now—they preferred to see their patients