The Project Gutenberg eBook of And miles to go before I sleep

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Title: And miles to go before I sleep

Author: William F. Nolan

Illustrator: Richard Kluga

Release date: November 4, 2023 [eBook #72030]

Language: English

Original publication: New York, NY: Royal Publications, Inc, 1958

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at




Illustrated by RICHARD KLUGA

He knew, to the exact minute, when he was
going to die. And Earth was too far away to reach....

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Infinity August 1958.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Alone within the humming ship, deep in its honeycombed metal chambers, Murdock waited for death. While the rocket moved inexorably toward Earth—an immense silver needle threading the dark fabric of space—he waited calmly through the final hours, knowing that the verdict was absolute, that hope no longer existed.

Electronically self-sufficient, the ship was doing its job perfectly, the job it had been built to do. After twenty years in space, the ship was taking Robert Murdock home.

Home. Earth. Thayerville, a small town in Kansas. Clean air, a shaded street, and a white, two-story house at the end of the block. Home—after two decades among the stars.

Sitting quietly before the round port, seeing and not seeing the endless darkness surrounding him, Murdock was remembering.

He remembered the worried face of his mother, her whispered prayers for his safety as he mounted the rocket ramp those twenty years ago; he could still feel the final, crushing handshake of his father moments before the outer airlock slid closed. His mother had been 55 then, his father 63. It was almost impossible to believe that they were now old and white-haired.

And what of himself?

He was now 41, and space had weathered him as the plains of Kansas had weathered his father. He, too, had labored as his father had labored—but on strange, alien worlds, under suns far hotter than Sol. Murdock's face was square and hard-featured, his eyes dark and deep under thrusting ledges of bone. He had changed as they had changed.

He was a stranger going home to strangers.

Carefully, Murdock unfolded his mother's last letter, written in her flowery, archaic hand, and received just before Earth take-off.

Dearest Bob,

Oh, we are so excited! Your father and I listened to your voice on the tape over and over, telling us that you are coming home to us at last. We are both so eager to see you, son. As you know, we have not been too well of late. Your father's heart does not allow him out much any more, and I have had a few fainting spells over the past month. But Doctor Thom says that we are all right, and you are not to worry. Just hurry home to us, Bob. We both pray God you will come back safely.

All our love,

Robert Murdock put the letter aside and clenched his fists. Only brief hours remained to him, and the small Kansas town of Thayerville was an impossible distance across space. He knew he would never reach it alive.

The lines of an ancient poem by Robert Frost whispered through his mind:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep

He had promised his parents that he would come home—and he meant to keep that promise.

The doctors had shown him that it was impossible. They had charted his death; they had told him when his heart would stop beating, when his breathing would cease. Death, for Robert Murdock, was a certainty. His alien disease was incurable.

But they had listened to his plan. They had listened, and agreed.

Now, with less than a half-hour of life remaining, Murdock was walking down one of the ship's long corridors, his boot-heels ringing on the narrow metal walkway.

He was ready, at last, to keep his promise.

Murdock paused before a wall storage locker, twisted a small dial. A door slid smoothly back. He looked up at the tall man standing motionless in the darkness. Reaching forward, Murdock made a quick adjustment.

The tall man stepped down into the corridor, and the light flashed in his deep-set eyes, almost hidden behind thrusting ledges of bone. The man's face was hard and square-featured.

"My name is Robert Murdock," said the tall figure in the neat patrol uniform. "I am 41 years of age, a rocket pilot going home to Earth." He paused. "And I am sound of mind and body."

Murdock nodded slowly. "Indeed you are," he said.

"How much longer do you have, sir?"

"Another ten minutes. Perhaps a few seconds beyond that," replied Murdock.

"I—I'm sorry," said the tall figure.

Murdock smiled. He knew that a machine, however perfect, could not experience the emotion of sorrow, but it eased him to hear the words.

You will be fine, he thought. You will serve well in my place and my parents will never suspect that their son has not come home to them.

"It must all be perfect," said Murdock.

"Of course," said the machine. "When the month I am to spend with them is over they'll see me board a rocket for space—and they'll understand that I cannot return to them for another twenty years. They will accept the fact that a spaceman must return to the stars, that he cannot leave the service before he is 60. Let me assure you, sir, it will all go well."

Yes, Murdock told himself, it will go well; every detail has been considered. My voice is his voice, my habits his own. The tapes I have pre-recorded will continue to reach them at specified intervals until their death. They will never know I'm gone.

"Are you ready now, sir?" the tall figure asked gently.

Murdock drew in his breath. "Yes," he said, "I'm ready now."

And they began to walk down the long corridor.

Murdock remembered how proud his parents had been when he was finally accepted for Space Training—the only boy in Thayerville to be chosen. But then, it was only right that he should have been the one. The other boys, those who failed, had not lived the dream as he had lived it. From the moment he'd watched the first moon rocket land he had known, beyond any possible doubt, that he would become a rocketman. He had stood there, in that cold December of 1980, a boy of 12, watching the great rocket fire down from space, watching it thaw and blacken the frozen earth. He had known that he would one day follow it back to the stars, to vast and alien horizons, to worlds past imagining.

He remembered his last night on Earth, twenty long years ago, when he had felt the pressing immensity of the vast and terrible universe surrounding him as he lay in his bed. He remembered the sleepless hours before dawn, when he could feel the tension building within the single room, within himself lying there in the heated stillness of the small, white house. He remembered the rain, near morning, drumming the roof, and the thunder roaring powerfully across the Kansas sky. And then, somehow, the thunder's roar blended into the deep atomic roar of a rocket, carrying him away from Earth, away to the burning stars ... away ...


The tall figure in the neat patrol uniform closed the outer airlock and watched the body drift into blackness. The ship and the android were one; two complex and perfect machines doing their job. For Robert Murdock, the journey was over, the long miles had come to an end.

Now he would sleep forever in space.

When the rocket landed, the crowds were there, waving and shouting out Murdock's name as he appeared on the silver ramp. He smiled and raised his hand in salute, standing there tall in the sun, his splendid dress uniform reflecting the light in a thousand glittering patterns.

At the far end of the ramp two figures waited. An old man, bowed and trembling over a cane, and a seamed and wrinkled woman, her hair blowing white, her eyes shining.

When the tall spaceman reached them they embraced him feverishly, clinging tight to his arms.

Their son had returned. Robert Murdock had come home from space.

"Well," said a man at the fringe of the crowd, "there they go."

His companion sighed and shook his head. "I still don't think it's right somehow. It just doesn't seem right to me."

"It's what they wanted, isn't it?" asked the other. "It's what they wrote in their wills. They vowed their son would never come home to death. In another month he'll be gone anyway. Back for another twenty years. Why ruin it all for him?" The man paused, shading his eyes against the sun. "And they are perfect, aren't they? He'll never know."

"I suppose you're right," nodded the second man. "He'll never know."

And he watched the old man and the old woman and the tall son until they were out of sight.