Author: Stephen Marlowe
Release date: September 17, 2021 [eBook #66324]
Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Harry spent three years in space waiting
to get home to Earth—and his family. They were
waiting for him too—that is, for his corpse....
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Captain Greene shook his shaggy head and studied Allerton with patient eyes. "You're making a mistake," he said. "You'll be back."
The inside of the spaceship was quiet now, not with the silence of the tomb, but with the silence of barely inaudible echoes as if Allerton might still be able to hear the crew clomping about the companionways on metal-shod feet if only he knew how to listen. He buried the notion under the sweet anticipation of homecoming and said, "I don't think so, Captain. This is what I want, right here." He tapped the comforting bulk of his wallet, bulging the metallic cloth of his tunic.
He was a gaunt, comical figure of a man, so long and lean that he stooped slightly at the waist and again at the shoulders, with a long, down-tipped nose which almost seemed to meet the thin-lipped mouth as he spoke. "What about you, Captain?" he said. He was still savoring the joy of his own return, letting it build up inside him like a slow fire fanned by barely enough air to keep it kindled. He hardly cared whether Captain Greene disembarked or not, but the captain's unexpected lack of enthusiasm was a splendid counter-point for his own emotions and he wanted to wring every last drop of joy from his homecoming. "All the men are gone," he went on. "This is Earth, Captain."
"I don't leave the ship much these days, Allerton. I've got to complete the log, you know, then do a little advance astronauting for the trip out. Anyway, none of the others are spacemen, Allerton. An old spacedog like me can smell 'em a mile away—the real ones. You've got the makings, all right."
"You won't see me aboard the Eros again, though. I grew up in the depression of the eighties, Captain. What I'm looking for is security. I've got it right here—enough to start a business of my own and give my kid the kind of education he needs these days. Three years is a long time, but I tried to be a good spaceman."
"You were the best."
"Those kids running around after adventure, they'll be back. They're made for this life. They're too young and having too much fun to start thinking much about security. But now, you take me...."
"You'll have to make the decision yourself," Captain Greene admitted, leaning back comfortably with a cigar and reaching for his leather-bound log, his stubby fingers almost caressing the leaves with a love nurtured on long familiarity. "We blast off in a week," he said. "Enough time for you to decide, I guess."
"But I've already decided, sir." Allerton turned to go, stooping forward even more than usual to fit through the low doorway which, like anything else in the tight confines of a spaceship, was not made to accommodate his gangling figure.
"Well, don't forget this. You're wrong about the others. They're not for space, not the way you are. It's a common misconception. Good luck, Allerton."
But Allerton was already on his way down the companionway with its ghost-noises which he no longer could hear. He wondered what it really took to make a man happy, truly happy over a sustained period. The flitting stolen moments of a spaceman's life, he knew, could never be for him. Yet outside the rain drummed down drearily on the gray apron of the landing pit and washed over Allerton with an ineffable sadness.
The reporters were waiting for him down below, huddled together under a bobbing sea of umbrellas. He failed to understand why anyone should be waiting in the rain like that.
"I'm from the Star-Herald," one of the umbrella-shrouded faces told him, the voice steady and without highlight, like the rain. "Have you heard the news yet?"
"News?" demanded Allerton as he went down the ramp to the apron and was soon swallowed up by the sea of umbrellas.
"You're Allerton, aren't you?"
An aisle was cleared as Allerton drew a slicker from his duffle and pulled it across his shoulders. Flash-cameras glared briefly against the dusky sky, making him blink his eyes uncomfortably.
"Yes, I'm Allerton, but I haven't heard any news."
It was a woman's voice this time, sharp and precise as a pencil point. "The Eros was gone for three years, Mr. Allerton, on a one year trip. Sixteen months ago you were presumed to be lost. You were legally dead a year ago."
"Here I am," said Allerton foolishly. "Here we are." He wished they would all go away so he could check in at the administration building. He thought that the copter-cabs might be grounded by the low ceiling and realized his homecoming, two years tardy, would be delayed still further because it would take him hours to get home to his wife and son. "We had some trouble in the Jovian Moons," he said unnecessarily, for the rest of the crew must have made that fact known by now. "Really, I'm no hero."
It had been largely through Allerton's efforts, as noncommissioned officer in charge of maintenance and repair, that the Eros had been able to blast off from Io at all. It was a moment he had not considered, this hero's welcome. His picture and the story of his exploits might appear on the video newscasts even before he reached Nancy and the boy. But now that he had stooped low to be included in the protection of the umbrellas, he could see the faces of the reporters.
This was no hero's welcome. Allerton waited for what was to come with a growing sense of the ridiculous. He had been almost ready to sign autographs.
"Hasn't anyone told you your wife has re-married, Mr. Allerton?"
The rain marched across the umbrellas with incessantly scurrying feet. The space below them was heavy with cigarette smoke, like a small, poorly-ventilated room, and with the muted sound of many voices, keyed low—anxious but objective. Allerton could almost see the scores of pencils, ready to pounce upon the blank pages of the ruled pads and scribble his name across the hemisphere, the world.
"What are you telling me?" demanded Allerton. He had heard. Even now the words were etching themselves in his brain, stirring old memories, conjuring impossible visions. This was the sort of thing you saw on the video-casts and tch-tch'd about, then went upstairs with your wife and took her in your arms and thought, are the people that happens to real?
"Mrs. Allerton was married again ten months ago. In an interview this morning she said she was glad you were alive but loved her husband, her new husband I mean, that is, the man she married because she thought you were dead." It was the girl-reporter again, the brittle, pencil-point quality gone from her voice.
Allerton subdued a wild impulse to say something flippant. Suddenly, it was as if he had indeed died out there in space and now he was a ghost, coming home to haunt people who wanted only to forget. The reporters expected him to say something, though. Tell them that he had spent three years in space, hating every minute of it, to find security for his family? Tell them he had risked his life to repair the ship on Io because if he failed the government insurance would provide for his family? Tell them he was now dead, really dead as Nancy had thought, and they were wasting their time interviewing a ghost?
"Have you any plans, Mr. Allerton?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you." The rain had slackened. He heard his own heart, hammering in his throat and ears.
"What are your plans for the future, Mr. Allerton? Are you going to contest the marriage legally? Will you see your wife at all?"
"I don't know," said Allerton mechanically. "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know." He pushed his way through the crowd of reporters, a tall but stooped figure, averting his eyes from the umbrella ribs. He had been married to Nancy only six months before shipping out, had received word about the birth of their son at the last mail-station on Ceres. If she sought the same security he wanted, he could not find it in his heart to condemn her. He was dead. He had been waiting to live all his life, but now he was dead.
"All right, spacer. On your feet. We're closing."
His bleary eyes squinted. It was Johnny this and Johnny that and Johnny ... Kipling? Someone?
"We got nothing against spacers here, only when we close, we close. I'll make you something to eat if you want, but that's it."
"No. No, thank you."
"A bit too much to drink, eh?"
"I'll be O.K. I'm sorry if I—"
"Forget it. Here, let me help you to the door. Easy, now."
He was outside, the duffle balanced on his lean shoulder, the misty drizzle chilling him at once, the wet sidewalk casting his reflection and alternately swallowing and elongating his shadow as he made his way down the street past the spaced lamplights.
Sooner or later, he would see her. He had to see her and the child, who was now almost three years old. But what did you do, walk in the front door and say hello Mrs. (name of new husband), I'm the man you used to be married to? Perhaps, he thought, you wrote a letter instead, a dear-John in reverse. But that way you did not get to see the boy.
Certainly, you saw none of your old friends. Tough luck, old fellow. Something about more fish in the sea. Pat your back and introduce you to two or three one-tracked-minded bachelor girls as the conquering hero from Io and other faraway places. And you did not even venture into the old neighborhood until you were ready for the quick sally, the first visit to Nancy and the boy (and the new husband?) and departure.
Nancy loved her husband, the girl-reporter said. Nancy had loved him. Simple logic: Nancy loved husbands, present tense. Security. What he sought. Safe in a circumscribed world, in comfortable, middle-class conformity, free and clear of all intrusions except the mortgage and the payments on the new copter and scraped knees for junior.
He wondered how many bars he had visited, starting with the spaceport administration building. There was a hazy recollection of copter-cabs and surface-cabs, of smiling, vapid faces and other smiling faces, not vapid, when the video-cast appeared on a television screen in one of the bars and there he was, squinting against the flash-camera glare, the rain seeping through the roof of umbrellas and rolling down his long, gaunt face and off the thin, long, drooping nose. And then someone recognized him or he recognized himself and drunkenly announced his identity, he wasn't sure which, and someone had bought drinks for everyone celebrating Allerton's return to blessed bachelorhood and they all had a fine old time except Allerton who had soon taken his leave and another cab and another bar.
Now the streets were familiar. There was the long, low bulk of the pie-wedge supermarket, big and wide in front and tapering in the rear, with great sweep of thermo-glass window staring at him and reflecting him in the lamplight so he could stare at himself.
And there was the schoolyard playground, deserted now, the swings wet and the teeter-totters dripping and the slicky-slide glistening. What does a man think about when he's out in space and knows he probably won't return? thought Allerton. About slicky-slides and a boy hollering in glee with an unknown voice out of an unknown face. And there were the apartment buildings, flanking their courtyard with the look of solid strength that only brick can give in this age of glass and plaster. He wondered if Nancy still had their old Republic family-copter parked on the roof near the television antenna, and then it suddenly occurred to him that Nancy might not be living here at all.
He wouldn't visit her, not yet. It was curiosity and not longing which made him enter the courtyard and the lobby of the second building on the left, past the dark, perfectly-cropped rows of California privet which in another few months would lose their glossy leaves to the coming of winter.
The illuminated dial of his wrist-watch told him it was 0230, hardly the time to go calling on a woman and her new husband and a child he had never seen. But there was the name, his name, opposite the apartment number on the call-phone. Allerton, with a hyphen after it, and the name Chambers. The widow Allerton lived here with her new husband, the legally declared widow Allerton who probably still received some mail and some callers under the old name but would one day soon be able to take Allerton and the hyphen out and leave Chambers alone. Nancy Chambers, his wife.
He pressed the buzzer and then drew back, startled. He was about to leave the lobby and run out between the rows of privet and keep on running when he heard his wife's voice, metallically, over the call-phone. "Yes? Who is it?"
He walked back and stared at the rows of names and buzzers. "Harry," he said.
There was a sob, a sucking in of breath. "I'll come right down."
"I'm coming up."
It was simple. It was as simple as waiting for the buzzer, opening the door, waiting for the elevator, pressing another button, waiting to be carried to the twelfth floor, waiting for the door to slide, walking across the hall to the apartment door, waiting for it to open, waiting, waiting, waiting....
"I hoped you would come, Harry. Really, I wanted to see you. You're looking well."
"You're looking well, too." She was. She wore a dressing gown of some gossamer material over her flannel pajamas. She'd never liked nightgowns.
"Nice trip back?"
"Weather bad? No, there's no weather up there."
"I can't complain."
"Did you have anything to eat?"
"Don't bother. I only wanted to say hello." Goodbye, he meant.
"Harry's asleep now."
"He goes to bed at eight o'clock."
He made the automatic adjustment. Twenty hundred hours. "Is he well?"
"Couldn't be better. Eats well and everything."
"Like his old man, huh?"
"You want to come in?" But she stood blocking the doorway.
"No, don't bother. Have you a solidio of him or something?"
"I'll get it."
He stood there in the hall, awkwardly, waiting.
She came back. "Here."
The other Harry was a dimple-cheeked boy with blond hair and a small nose like his mother's. He was wearing a junior spaceman's suit and pointed a ray gun straight at you.
"Sure you don't want anything to eat?" She wore a pleasant enough expression on her face, the same as she might use for a door to door solicitor or a visiting great-aunt from out of town.
"That's all right. I want to wish you good luck, Nancy."
"Thank you. Are you sure you don't want...." And then the pleasant look melted before tears, not slowly but all at once, so that this was a different person standing in the doorway and Harry Allerton wanted either to take her in his arms and comfort her or flee for the elevator but nothing in between. "Harry ... Harry ... I didn't know ... I couldn't ... we never...."
"That's all right," he said, settling for the in between and abruptly hating himself not for what was within him but for what was outside, for the world and its conventions and the things he had wanted to do but never could and the security he had wanted to earn but which now had eluded him.
"I'm sorry I carried on so," said Nancy, the conventional smile returning, the tears kleenex'd away.
"If there is something little Harry needs...?"
"Oh, no, thank you. His father, I mean my husband—Mr. Chambers is an engineer over at Grumman and everything is fine."
"I guess I'll be going."
"I'm glad you could come."
"Does the boy know about me?"
"No. I thought it would be better."
"Of course, Nancy. You did the right thing."
"I was hoping you would think so."
"You couldn't do anything else."
"Where will you go now? Are you going to make a career of space?"
"I haven't thought about it. There's no hurry."
"I hope you get whatever you want, Harry."
He wanted to say it no longer was available. "A man doesn't know what he wants, until he has it."
The door shut. He fled with his picture.
"Come in, Allerton. Nice vacation?" Captain Greene peered at him through a blue haze of cigar smoke.
"Not particularly. There are too many people. Too many complications. A man can't think straight out there, with all that confusion. I don't know...."
"I said you were for space. When you've been around as long as I have, you'll be able to smell 'em, too. You think I'm kidding?"
"Probably not, sir."
"There is security and security, Allerton. It can't be explained to a man. He's got to find out for himself. Alone in space, with the ship and a frontier vaster than all the frontiers before it in history, a certain type of man can be secure. He's the man who's lost in a crowd. Confused and muddled by convention, he's not a hero. Basically, he's a lonesome man. Strangely, the psychologists tell you he's happy then—when he's lonesome. You see what I mean, Allerton?"
"No, sir. Not entirely."
"Forget that formal stuff. Well, you'll learn. The important thing is this: there aren't enough real spacemen to go around. A normal man doesn't give up life for dedication. A spaceman does. You belong to a strange breed, Allerton. Want to talk about your vacation?"
"Absolutely not," Allerton said curtly, then apologized. The thought of it, the thought of stepping off the Eros again and feeling the ground of Earth underfoot, wet ground sometimes, or dry and dusty, or covered with a white mantle of snow, always unpredictable, was distasteful.
"You're one of the breed now," the Captain repeated.
"You may close the Allerton file," said the government psychologist to his secretary.
"We paid his wife a visit yesterday. They're the hardest ones to deal with. The man never knows, but the woman does. How can you convince a woman her husband will be happiest away from her—how can you convince her when you're not even sure yourself?"
"I feel sorry for Allerton. You can't help feeling sorry for him."
"But psychological tests indicate he'll be happier this way. Besides—"
"—besides," the secretary finished for him, "it's for the good of the nation. But never mind those psychological tests. Don't have to tell me which came first, the chicken or the egg."
"Have it your way. But Mrs. Allerton understood."
"After we worked on her night and day for three years!"
"Nevertheless, she understood. Allerton is a special breed, a spaceman. Well, isn't he?"
"And Mrs. Allerton playing along with us like that, pretending she had re-married—"
"It was the best way. She knew that."
"We convinced her of that. But forget it, chief. I'd rather not talk about it. Still, Allerton wasn't a born spaceman, and you know it. There's no such thing, except for extreme introverts, who aren't such good workers, anyway."
"We need spacemen. We need dedicated men who don't want to see their native planet. Either we control space or our enemy does."
"Then why don't you say it that way?"
"Because you're afraid to admit it even to yourself, that's why. Spacemen aren't born, chief. They are made. They are not particularly heroic or well-adjusted people. They are ordinary men with induced traumas and they don't want to go near Earth again, and we call them spacemen."
"It's for the security of the nation," said the government psychologist as he opened a new file....