- Author: Richard Wilson
Read book online «Traveling Companion Wanted by Richard Wilson (reading cloud ebooks txt) 📕». Author - Richard Wilson
By Richard Wilson
Illustrated by DILLON
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine June 1959.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
To share exps., relieve at wheel—must be
able drive under grt. pressure—in return
transp. doz. mi. or so under ocean bottom!
You remember Regan. He's the man who fell overboard in a spacesuit and found that there really is a passage to India. It winds down from the Champion Deep in the Atlantic and comes out somewhere off Bombay. It took Regan a week to pop in one end of that underworld river and emerge at the other. He was delirious when he bobbed to the surface and was picked up by the Chinese motorship. Starved, of course; had to spend a long time in the hospital after he'd been transferred to shore.
The newspapers and radio and television made quite a thing of it. Reporters managed to interview Regan while he was still weak and maybe talking a little crazy. They got together afterward and agreed among themselves on what parts to leave out. Then Regan sold the first-person rights to a syndicate. He insisted on writing the installments himself, but a lot was edited out while the staff writer was re-doing it.
I didn't hear Regan's unpublished story till I met him in the bar at the Palmer House in Chicago. He'd been attending a geophysical meeting that I'd had to cover and we'd both got bored with it about the same time. I thought I recognized him from his pictures and said so. Regan seemed glad to have a non-longhair to talk to, and he talked.
You know why Regan had been wearing a spacesuit in the first place; he'd become something of a hero on the return trip of one of the Earth-Mars hops after a meteor struck. Regan went out through the airlock to make repairs. It was his job as chief of maintenance. Patched up the hole and went back in. Routine, he said.
But the skipper messaged a report to Earth, and when the spaceship reached the way station to take on landing fuel, the press was waiting for it. The photographers were along and they wanted Regan to re-enact the repair scene. He didn't want to, but the skipper insisted because it would be good public relations. So Regan climbed into the spacesuit again and took along his mobile repair gear and tinkered away on the hull while the photogs snapped away from a patrol boat.
That was when the repair unit went out of whack.
Its mobility factor wasn't supposed to do anything more than move him around on the hull to wherever he had to go. He'd worked with it a hundred times in test sessions and once in reality and it'd always been a lamb. But this time it went all screwy and shoved him off the hull. In some way one of the conduits wrapped itself around his arms like an octopus, pinning them so he couldn't reach the controls. And in some other way the tiny rocket engine zipped over to full power and plunged him down toward Earth.
If it had headed him out toward space, it would have been all right. The patrol boat could have overtaken him in a few hours at most and hauled him aboard. But Regan was heading Earthward and soon he was down where the traffic's pretty congested. The patrol boat made some valiant efforts, but after a couple of near misses with transcontinental rockets, it gave up. Better to lose one person than a couple of hundred.
Radio messages were sent to low-flying craft and ships at sea. These didn't do any good, except that a trawler was able to spot the position where Regan, in his spacesuit, smacked the water and went under. The trawler didn't have a radio transmitter. It waited a while, and when nothing came up, it put about for land. A day later, the spot where Regan had gone down was alive with would-be rescue ships, submarines and diving equipment.
But Regan never came up—not in that ocean, at any rate.
I knew this story pretty well, so Regan didn't elaborate on it. He'd blacked out, anyway, soon after he hit the atmosphere and didn't come to till he was close to smacking the surface. That's when it began to get interesting.
You've seen enough undersea movies to know what the ocean is like, so we won't go into that. This is what happened when Regan got down to what should have been the bottom:
There was a big crater there, with the bottom stretching away in all directions from the cavity—but the hole itself kept going down. Funnel-shaped, Regan said. He could see it quite clearly because he was plunging into it head down. The tentacles of the conduit were still wrapped around his arms and the mobility gadget's rocket was naturally working almost as well under water as it had in space.
After a while, it got dark, with Regan still zipping along into the depths of the funnel. He'd long since passed the stage of being merely worried; now he was scared. By this time, it was entirely black, but Regan could sense that he was being carried along swiftly.
Not because he thought it would do any good, but because he had to do something, Regan experimented with his feet. He found that after some back-stretching calisthenics he was able to bring his right boot up near his waist. Maneuvering it with total disregard for his sacroiliac, Regan managed to hook the boot under one of the coils the conduit had made around him. Gradually he was able to loosen it enough to give his left arm some play and from there it was relatively simple. He switched off the rocket engine, switched on his headlamp and looked around.
Regan said it was quite a sight, in a reverse sort of way. Nothing anywhere. With the rocket turned off, he kind of floated around aimlessly, going nowhere in particular. He should have been going up, but that didn't happen. He swirled like a lazy eddy. A school of things that were caricatures of fish—big, white, revolting things—swished over and puckered blindly into his faceplate, then went away. Otherwise there was nothing.
Regan was pretty discouraged. By this time, he'd been in a slow spin for so long that he had no idea which way was up. He had the equipment for getting up—there were about two hundred hours of fuel in the rocket engine strapped to his back—but no way seemed any better than another.
He remembered that the funnel had steadily narrowed and so he tried experimental bursts from the engine to see if he could reach one of the sides. Eventually he got to something that wasn't water. It was a sort of mud. Regan studied the markings on it for a possible clue. No go. Regan was a spaceman, not an oceanographer.
So, since it was better than doing nothing, Regan got himself into a drift parallel with the mud side and switched on his rocket.
He whizzed along at a good rate, staying close to the mud wall, but not knowing whether he was going down, up or around in circles at the same depth. After what he judged to be some hours of this, the mud began to be streaked with a gray substance and, still farther along, it appeared to become rock. Regan didn't know whether this was good or bad.
More hours went by, apparently. Regan was wearing a watch, but it was hidden under the heavy sleeve of his spacesuit. He dozed off, he said, and when he snapped back into consciousness he noticed that there was another wall, far off, opposite the one he was rocketing along.
It was gray, too, as far as he could make out in the light of his headlamp, which was weak over distances. What woke him up fully was something that went skimming past him at a much greater rate than his own. It was a cask, its wood brown as if from long submersion and its hoops rusted into redness. The cask was turning lazily end over end, but it outdistanced him and disappeared ahead as he watched. It had been traveling out in the middle of the passage.
Regan pondered this for a while and then reasoned that there was a swift current, swifter in the middle even than his rocket propulsion at the side of the channel. He worked himself out toward the center, then switched off his rocket, experimentally. By watching the rock side of the passage, he was able to gauge that he was moving much faster.
The watching, however, had a hypnotic effect on him and Regan felt himself dozing off. He tried to fight it but reasoned finally that there wasn't much point. So he turned off his headlamp and let himself go to sleep.
He felt weird when he woke up. He was hot and sweating. He remembered instantly where he was. It was no comfort to him. He felt entirely hopeless, even more so than if he'd been marooned in space. At least there was traffic out there. Here there was just himself, with a wooden cask up ahead and nightmarish fish somewhere behind.
He also felt weak. Spacesuits come equipped with water, of course, if they're the repair variety, and Regan drank sparingly through the tube at the base of his faceplate. But his suit carried no rations, so he tried to ignore his hunger.
He drowsed again and switched off his headlamp. This became a pattern for him—a semi-conscious nightmare of smooth, eerie motion, punctuated with sips at his water supply and hopeless watching through the faceplate, blinking away the sweat. Regan talked to himself, he said, and sometimes sang, to keep himself sane in the silence and loneliness. It probably helped, although some of his talk was pretty idiotic.
It was after one of his dozes—whose duration he had no way of measuring even by his thirst and hunger, which were constant—that he awoke to something new. Automatically he switched on his headlamp, then switched it off again, realizing what the newness was.
The passage he was being washed through was no longer dark; there was a radiance in the water now.
Regan twisted himself around to see what the light came from. Up ahead, apparently. As it got stronger, his eyes began to ache. It was a gorgeous ache, Regan said, and he stared ahead almost hypnotized. He made an effort and focused on the walls of the passageway he was being thrust along. They were white with streaks of black in them—like marble, but without marble's glossy hardness. He could see all parts of the tunnel now; it was roughly circular and had narrowed to a diameter of about two hundred feet.
Regan could only suppose that he was nearing the surface—that he'd been sweeping through some U-shaped fissure—and he adjusted himself kinesthetically to the theory that he was now traveling up instead of down. This took a lot of doing and occupied his mind.
His spirits soared with his imagined ascent and he could visualize himself traveling faster and faster until, with a pop, he would be thrust into the air and fall back to float on the surface. Regan wanted most desperately to be able to look at the sky again. It would be kind to see land, too, but a ship or a plane would do temporarily.
He was half lost in this reverie when he had to make a second adjustment. Remember, he thought he was going up, as from the bottom of a well. Therefore he was puzzled, as the radiance increased to daylight strength, to see one wall of his tubular, water-filled prison darken to deep green while the other turned a sort of blue-white-pink.
He was moving in the same swift rush of current, his body positioned so that he was facing the green half. He twisted as if to face the opposite way in an elevator and then became giddy when the entire concept of his surroundings did a ninety-degree flop.
In that split second, Regan realized that he wasn't traveling vertically, but horizontally.
The well he had pictured himself in now took on the aspect of a river, with the bright blend of colors the sky, and the deep green the river bed. The banks of the river were above him. Regan gave himself a tiny rocket assist to rise.
He wasn't at all prepared for what he saw. Far away beyond the green plain through which the river was racing was a city.