The Project Gutenberg eBook of World of the Mad, by Poul Anderson
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Title: World of the Mad
Author: Poul Anderson
Release Date: April 14, 2021 [eBook #65086]
Language: English
Character set encoding: UTF-8
Produced by: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at


By Poul Anderson

Langdon had found immortality on the planet
Tanith. Naturally he wanted his wife to share it—if
he could prevent her from going insane first....

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
February 1951
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

He walked slowly through the curling purple mists, feeling the ground roll and quiver under his feet, hearing the deep-voiced rumble of shifting strata far underground. There were voices in the fog, singing in high unhuman tones, and no man had ever learned what it was that sang—for could the wind utter sounds so elfishly sweet, almost words that haunted you with half understanding of something you had forgotten and needed desperately to remember?

A face floated through the swirling mist. It was not human, but it was very beautiful, and it was blind. He looked away as it mouthed voiceless murmurs at him.

Somewhere a crystal tree was chiming, a delicate pizzicato of glass-like leaves vibrating against each other. The man listened to it and to the low muttering of the earth, for those at least were real and he was not at all sure whether the other things were there or not.

Even after two hundred years, he wasn't sure.

He went on through the mist. Flowers grew up around him, great fragile laceries of shining crystalline petals that budded and bloomed and died even as he walked by. Some of them reached hungrily for him, but he sidestepped their groping mouths with the unthinking ease of long habit.

Compasses didn't work on Tanith, and only a few men could even operate a radio direction finder, but Langdon knew his way and walked steadily ahead. His sense of direction kept rotating crazily; it insisted he was going the wrong way, no, now the house lay over to the right—no, the left, and a few paces straight up.... But by now he had compensated for that; he didn't need eyes or kinesthetic sense to find his way home.

There was a new singing in the violet air. Langdon checked his stride with a sudden eerie prickling along his spine. The mist eddied about him, thick and blinding, but now the city was growing out of it; he saw the towers and streets and thronging airways come raggedly into being.

Suddenly he stood in the middle of the city. It was complete this time, not the few fragmentary glimpses he ordinarily had. The mist flowed through the ghostly spires and pylons but somehow he could see anyway, the city lay for kilometers around.

It was not a human city. It lay under three hurtling moons, lit only by their brilliant silver. But it lived, it pulsed with life about him; the shining dwellers soared past and seemed to leave a trail of little sparks luminous against the night. They were not men, the old folk of Tanith, but they were beautiful.

There was no sound. Langdon stood in a well of silence while the city lay around him, and he thought that perhaps he was the ghost, alone and excommunicated on a world which lay beyond even the dreams of man.

But that was nonsense, he thought, angry with himself. It was simply that temporal mirages transmitted only light, not sound. He was here, now, alive, and the city was dust these many million years.

Two dwellers flew past him, male and female with arms linked, laughing soundlessly into each other's golden eyes. The male's great glowing wings brushed through Langdon's body. He stood briefly in a shower of whirling light-motes—and they didn't heed him, they didn't know he was there. They were only for each other, those two, and he was a ghost out of an unreal and unthinkably remote future.

The mirage faded. Slowly, in bits and patches, it dissolved back into the purple fog. He was alone again.

He shivered, and hastened his steps homeward.

The mist began to break, raggedly, as he came out of the forest. He went by a lake of life with only a passing glance at the strangeness of the new shapes that seethed and bubbled, rose out of its slime and took shifting form and sank back into chemical disintegration. There was always something new, grotesque and horrible and sometimes eerily lovely, to be seen at such a place, but spontaneous generation was an old story to Langdon by now. And Eileen was waiting.

He came out on the brow of a steep hill that slanted down into the little cuplike valley where he had his dwelling. The hills were blue around it, blue with grass that tomorrow might be gold or green or gray, and the sky was currently blood-red. A grove of feather-like trees hid the house, swaying where there was no wind and murmuring to each other in their own language, and a few winged things hovered darkly overhead. For a moment Langdon paused there, savoring the richness of it. This was his home.

His land. Back on Terra they had forgotten the fullness that came with belonging to the earth, but the men who colonized among the stars remembered. Looking back, Langdon thought that the real instability and alienness was in the Solar System. Men had no roots there, and it was a secret woe in them and made them feverish and restless, eager to taste from all cups but shuddering away from draining any one.

On Tanith, thought Langdon with a quiet sort of exultation, a man drank his cup to the bottom, and there were many cups—or, if only one, it was never the same and could never be emptied.

For a man on Tanith did not grow old.

Suddenly he stiffened, and a psyche-feeder swooped low to absorb his furiously radiated nervous energy. The reaction of it eddied in his mind as a chilling fear. Angrily, without having to think about it, he drove the creature off with a jaggedly pulsed mental vibration and remained standing and listening.

Someone had screamed.

It came again, distorted by the wavering air, hardly recognizable to one who had not had time to adjust to Tanith, and it was Eileen's voice. "Joe, Joe, Joe—help—"

He ran, scrambling down the unstable hillside with his mist-wet cloak flapping behind him. A sword-plant slashed at him with its steely leaves. He swerved and went on down into the valley, running, leaping, a bounding black shadow against the burning sky.

Static electricity discharged in crackling blue sheets as he tore through the grove, hissing against his insulating clothes and stinging his face and hands. Something floated through the dark air, long and supple and dripping slime, grimacing at him with its horrible wet mouth. Another illusion or mirage, he thought somewhere in the back of his mind. They no longer bothered him—in fact, he'd have missed them if they never showed up again—but—Eileen—

The cottage nestled under the tall whispering trees, a peak-roofed stone building in the ancient style that Langdon had thought most appropriate to the enchanted planet. There was little of Terra about it after its century and a half of existence; it was covered with fire-vines over which danced the seeming of little flames; luminous flying creatures nestled against the doorway, and he had never found the cause of the dim sweet singing he could always hear around it.

The door stood ajar, and Eileen was sobbing inside. Langdon came in and found her huddled on a couch before the fireplace, trembling so that it seemed her body must be shaken apart, and crying, crying.

He sat down and put his arms about her and let her cry herself out. Then he remained for a while stroking her hair and saying nothing.

She bit her lip to keep it steady. Her voice was like a small child's, high and toneless and frightened. "It bit," she said.

"It was an illusion," he murmured.

"No. It bit at me. And its eyes were dead. It came out of the floor there, and it was all in rags."

"You had an illusion frighten you," he said. "A psyche-feeder flying nearby caught your increased nervous output, drew on it, and that of course frightened you still more ... they're easy to drive away, Eileen. They don't like certain pulse patterns—you just think at them the way I showed you—"

"It was real," she insisted, quietly, with something of a child's puzzlement that anything should have wanted to hurt her. "It was black, but there were grays and browns and red too, and it was ragged."

He went over to the cupboard and got out a darkly glowing bottle and poured two full glasses. "This'll help," he said, trying hard to smile at her. "Prosit."

"I shouldn't," said Eileen, still shakily but with some return of saneness. "Junior—"

"Junior won't take harm from a glass of wine," said Langdon. He sat down beside her again and they clinked goblets and drank. The fire wavered ruddily before them, filling the room with warm restless light and with dancing shadows from which Eileen looked away.

"I'll get an electronic range installed soon," said Langdon, trying to fill the silence with trivia. "It can't be convenient for you cooking on an ancient-style stove."

"I thought they didn't work on Tanith—electronics, I mean," she answered with the same effort of ordinariness.

"Not at first, with the different laws prevailing here. In the first few decades, we were forced back to the old chemical techniques like fires. That's one reason so few colonists ever came, or stayed long if they did come. But bit by bit, little by little, we're learning the scientific laws and applying them. They've had all the standard household equipment available here for a century, I guess, but by that time I'd already built this place and liked my own things, fires and stoves and all the rest, too well to change. But now that I've got a wife to do my housekeeping, I ought to provide her with conveniences. In fact, I should have done so right away."

"It isn't that, Joe," she said. "I'd have squawked long ago if those little things made any difference. I like handling things myself rather than turning them over to some robot. It's fun to cook and get wood, but Joe, it's no fun when a thing rises out of the steam and screams at you. It's no fun when electric sparks jump over the house and all of a sudden there's only fear, the whole place is choked with fear—" She shuddered closer against him.

"This planet is haunted," she whispered.

"The laws of nature are a little different," he answered as calmly as he could. "But they are still laws. Tanith seems like a chaos, governed by living spirits and most of them malignant, only because you don't see the regularity. Its pattern is too different from what you're used to. Terra herself must have seemed that way to primitive man, before he discovered order in nature.

"Our scientists here are slowly finding out the answers. Talk to old Chang sometime, he can tell you more about it than I. But I can see the order now, a little of it, and it's a richer and deeper thing than the rest of the universe.

"And you live forever." He gripped her shoulders and looked into her wide eyes. He had to expel the demons of terror from her. A woman five months pregnant couldn't go on this way. He was suddenly shocked by how thin she had grown, and she never stopped shivering under his hands.

"You won't grow old," he said slowly. "We'll be together forever, Eileen. And our children won't die either."

She looked away from him, and sudden bitterness twisted her mouth. "I wonder," she said thinly, "whether immortality is worth having—on this planet."

Suddenly she stiffened, and her lips opened to scream again. Langdon forgot the hurt of her words and looked wildly about the room. But there was only the furniture and the firelight and the weaving shadows. Inside the blood-red windows, the room was sane and real and human.

Eileen shrank against him. "It's over there," she gasped. "Over there in that corner, creeping closer—"

Langdon's face grew bleak, and there was a desolation rising in him. Illusions of one sort or another were part of daily life on Tanith, but they had reality in that they were produced by physical processes and more than one person could perceive them. But hallucinations were another story.

He thought back over two hundred years to the first attempts to colonize. Of an initial three hundred or so, over two-thirds had left within the first three years. And many of them had been insane when the ships took them home.

Men came to Tanith and stayed if they could endure it. But if they couldn't, and tried to stay anyway, they soon fled from the unendurable madness of its reality to a safer and more orderly madness of their own.

From what he had heard, few of them were cured again, even back on Terra.

"I've got to see Chang," he said.

The colonists on Tanith tended to live well apart from each other, and unless they owned the new televisors designed especially for the planet their only contact was physical. Once a month or so he would go to the planet's one town for supplies and a mild spree, and somewhat oftener he would spend a while at another house or have guests himself. But most of the time he had been alone.

And as a man grew older, without loss of physical and mental faculties, he found more and more within himself, an unfolding inward richness which none of the short-lived would ever appreciate or even comprehend. He had less need of other men to prop him up. Or perhaps it was simply that the wisdom, the fullness which came with immortality, made a little of the other colonists' company go a long ways.

There was no denying it, Eileen's twenty-three years of life could not compare with Langdon's two hundred or more. She was like a child, thoughtless, mentally and physically timid, ignorant, essentially shallow.

But I love her. And I can afford to wait. In fifty or a hundred years she'll begin to grow up. In two hundred or so we'll begin to understand each other. As our ages increase, the absolute difference between them will become proportionately insignificant.

An immortal learns patience. I can wait—and meanwhile I love her very dearly.

"What do you have to see him about?" asked Eileen.

"Us," he answered bluntly. "Our situation. It isn't good."

"No," she whispered.

"Can't you learn that there's nothing to fear on Tanith?" he asked. "Death itself, the greatest dread of all, is gone. We've eliminated all actually dangerous life in the neighborhood of our settlements. There are things that can be annoying—the sword-plants, the psyche-feeders, the static discharges—but it's no trick to learn how to avoid them. Nothing here can hurt you, Eileen."

"I know," she said hopelessly. "But I'm still afraid. Day and night, I'm afraid. There are worse things than death. Joe."

"But afraid of what?"

"I don't know. Fear itself, maybe. How do I know something won't suddenly be deadly? But I'm not afraid of death. Even with the baby, I wouldn't be afraid of wild beasts or plague or—anything that I could understand." She shook her shining head, slowly. "That's just it, Joe. I don't understand this planet. Nobody does. You don't.... You admit it yourself."

"Someday I'll know it."

"When? A thousand years from now? A thousand years of horror.... Joe, some of those things are so hideous I think I'll go mad when they appear."

"A deep-sea fish on Terra is hideous."

"Not this way. These things aren't right. They can't exist, but still there they are, and I can't forget them, and I never know when they'll appear next or what they'll be this time—" She checked herself, gulping.

"This is a very beautiful world," he said stubbornly. "The colors, the forms, the sounds—"

"None of them are right. Grass may look just as well when it's red or blue or yellow—but it shouldn't be all of them at different times. The sky is wrong, the trees are wrong. Those hideous lakes of life and the things in them, obscene—those voices singing out in the mists, nobody knows what they are—those images of things a hundred million years dead—and the faces, and the whisperings, and there's always something watching and waiting and moving just a little outside the corner of your eye.... Oh, Joe, Joe, this planet is haunted!"

She sobbed in his arms with a rising note of hysteria that she couldn't quite suppress. He looked grimly over her shoulder. A swirling, chiming mist of color formed on one corner of the room, amorphous stirrings within it, a sudden shining birth that laughed and jeered and slipped out through the wall.

He remembered that he had been frightened and repelled when he first came here. But not to this degree, and he soon got over it. Now, even while Eileen wept, he admired the shifting pulse of colors and his heart quickened to the elfin bells. Terran music sounded wrong to him after two hundred years of the sounds of Tanith.

He thought that all those voices and whisperings and singings, sliding up and down an inhuman scale, and the dreams and the visions, had a pattern, an overall immensity which some day he would grasp. And that would be a moment of revelation, he would see and know the wholeness of Tanith and there would be meaning in it. Not the chaotic jumble of random events which made up the rest of the universe—death-doomed universe tumbling blindly toward a wreck of level entropy and ashen suns—but a glimpse of that ultimate purposefulness which some men called God.

Briefly, a temporal mirage showed beyond the window, a fragmentary glimpse of a tower reaching for the sky. And it was no work of man, nor could it ever be, but it was of a heartbreaking loveliness.

He wondered about the ancient natives. Had they simply become extinct, reached a point of declining evolutionary efficiency such as seemed fated for all species and gone into limbo some millions of years previously? Or had they, perhaps, finally seen the allness of the world and gone—elsewhere? Privately, Langdon rather thought it was the latter. World without end

But Eileen was crying in his arms.

He kissed her, and tasted salt on her lips that trembled under his. Poor kid, poor kid, and with a baby on the way....

Something of the magic of their first days together came back to him. It was a disappointment in love which had sent him to Tanith in the first place, and for all his time here he had lived without that sort of affection. The women of the town served the casual needs of sex, which seemed to become less and less frequently manifest as his own undying personality grew in fullness and self-sufficiency, and that was all.

Still, a single man was incomplete. And a year ago one of the few colony ships landed, and Eileen had been aboard, and a forgotten springtime stirred within him.

Now ... well....

She released herself, smiling with unsteady lips. "I'll be all right now, dear," she said. "Let's go."

I have to talk this matter over privately with Chang. His wife can take care of Eileen. Certainly I can't leave her here alone.

But sooner or later he would have to. It wasn't only that he had to go out and oversee some of the fields on which grew the native plants whose secretions, needed by Terran chemistry, gave them their livelihood. Solitude and long walks through the misty forests and over the whispering hills had become virtual necessities to him. He had to get away and think, the mighty thoughts of an immortal which no Terran could ever comprehend in his pathetic lifetime were being gestated in his brain. Slowly, piece by piece, the coherent philosophy which is necessary for sanity was coalescing within him, and he was gathering into himself the essence of Tanith. Someday, perhaps a thousand years hence, he would know what it was that haunted him now.

He could not suppress a feeling of annoyance, however. Eileen had had over a year to adjust now, and she was getting worse instead of better. A brief sojourn in utter alienness might be merely pleasing and interesting, but over a longer time one either got used to it or—She'd have to learn, have to accept the sanity of Tanith and know it for a deeper and more real one than the sanity of Terra.

Others had done it, why couldn't she?

Chang Simon and his wife lived several hundred kilometers away, an hour's flight by airjet. Their spacious house lay amid lawns and trees sloping down to a broad river; it held a serenity and graciousness which Terra had forgotten. Langdon was always glad to be there, and even Eileen seemed to be soothed. She had screamed once on the flight over, when the sky had suddenly seethed with hell-blue flame, and she was still trembling when they arrived. Their hostess took her off for one of those mysterious private conferences between women which no merely male creature will ever understand, and Langdon and Chang sat out on the veranda and talked.

The Chinese had been in his fifties when he came, one of the first load of colonists, and Tanith could not restore lost youth. But a healthy middle age had its own advantages, it conferred a peace and depth of mind more rapidly than an endlessly young body would permit. In the Solar System, Chang had been a synthesist, taking all knowledge and its correlation as his field of work, and he had come to Tanith in some of Langdon's mood of abandonment—futile to attempt the knowing and understanding of all things, when life had flickered out in a hundred years. But as an immortal synthesist.

The two men sat in the long twilight, saying little at first. It was good just to sit, thought Langdon, to let a glass of wine and a cigar relax tensed muscles while the dusk deepened toward night. At such times he felt more than ever drawn into the secret whole which was Tanith—almost, it seemed, he was on the verge of that revelation, of seeing the manifold aspects of reality gather themselves into one overwhelming entity of which he would be an integral part. The philosophers and mystics of Terra had sought such identification, and the scientists were still striving to build a unified picture of the cosmic whole. Here, in this environment and with all the ages before him, a man had a chance to reach that ancient goal, intellectual understanding and emotional integration—someday, someday.

The twilight was deep and blue and full of flitting ghostly lights. The feathery trees murmured to each other in a language of their own, and down under the long slope of dew-shining grass the river gleamed with shifting phosphorescence. Something was singing in the night, an eerie wavering scale that woke faint longings and dreads in men and set them straining after something they had once known and forgotten.

Overhead the million thronging stars of Galactic center winked and blazed through the flickering aurora. One of the moons rose, trailing golden light through the sky. A wind blew through drifting clouds, and it seemed as if the wind had language too and spoke to the men, if they could but understand it.

Chang said at last, slowly and heavily: "I don't know how she got past the psychologists on Terra."

"Eileen?" asked Langdon unnecessarily.

"Of course." The older man was a shadow in the dusk, but the red tip of his cigar waxed and waned as he drew on it for comfort. "Somebody blundered. Or—wait—perhaps it was only that, while she was fundamentally stable, the otherness of Tanith touched some deep-seated psychological flaw in her, something that would never appear under any other environment."

"I don't quite know the system," said Langdon. "What do they do, back at Sol?"

"The first attempts at colonization showed that only the most stable personalities could adapt to—or even survive—the apparent instability of this planet. There aren't many who want to come here at all, of course, but our planetary government maintains a psychological staff in the more important worlds of the Galaxy to check those who do apply. They're supposed to weed out all who couldn't take the strangeness, and so far it's been very successful. Eileen is the first failure I know of."

Something cold seemed to close around Langdon. And then, he realized wryly, he was skirting the main issue—afraid to face it.

"I wonder if we really have the right to keep secret the fact that there is no death here," he said.

"It was a hard decision to make," answered Chang, "but leaving the morals of it aside, it was the only practicable way. Suppose it were generally known that this one place, in all the known universe, has no age. Imagine all who would want to come here! The planet couldn't hold a fraction of them. Even as it is, we have to space births very carefully lest in a few centuries we crowd ourselves off the world. Furthermore, the unstable social environment produced by such an influx of colonists, most of whom couldn't stand the place anyway, would delay, perhaps ruin, the research by which we hope to find out why life does not grow old here. When we have that answer, and can apply it outside this region of space, all the Galaxy will have immortality. But until then, we must wait." He shrugged, a dim movement in the shining night. "And immortals know how to wait."

"So instead, we simply accept colonists who agree to stay here for life—and then once they get here they're told how long that life will be."

"Yes. Actually, the miracle is that the first colonists stayed at all, after most had fled or gone insane. After all, it was ten or twenty years before we even suspected the truth. A world as alien as this was settled only because planets habitable to man and without aborigines are hard to find. Since then, many more such worlds—normal ones—have been discovered, and few people care to risk madness by coming here. Tanith is an obscure dominion of the Galactic Union, having a certain scientific interest because of its unique natural laws—but not too great even there, when science has so many other things to investigate just now. And we're quite content to remain in the shadow."

"Of course." Langdon looked up to the swarming stars. A sheet of blue auroral flame covered them for a moment.

He asked presently: "How much further have our scientists gotten in explaining the phenomenon?"

"We've come quite a ways, but progress has been mostly in highly technical fields of mathematical physics. You'll have to take a decade or two off soon, Joseph, and learn that subject. Briefly, we do know that this is a region of warped space, similar to those in the neighborhood of massive bodies but of a different character. As you know, natural constants are different in such regions from free space, phenomena such as gravitation and the bending of light appear. This is another sort of geometric distortion, but basically the same. It produces differences in—well, in optics, in thermodynamics, in psi functions, in almost everything. The very laws of probabilities are different here. As a result, the curious phenomena we know appear. Many of them, of course, are simply illusions produced by complex refractions of light and sound waves: others are very real. The time axis itself is subject to certain transformations which produce the temporal mirages. And so it goes."

"Yes, yes, I know all that. But what causes the warp itself?"

"We're not sure yet, but we think it's an effect of our being near the Galactic center of mass, together with—no, it would take me a week to write out the equations, let alone explain them."

There was a comfort in impersonal discourse, but it was a retreat from more immediate problems. Langdon fairly rapped out the question: "How close are you to understanding why we are immortal?"

"Not at all close in detail," said Chang. "We think that it's due to the difference in thermodynamic properties of matter I mentioned just now, producing a balance of colloidal entropy. Well, elsewhere life is metastable and can only endure so long. Here it is the natural tendency of things, so much so indeed that life is generated spontaneously from the proper chemical mixtures such as occur in many of the lakes and pools hereabouts. In our own bodies, there is none of that tendency toward chemical and colloidal degradation which I think lies at the root of aging and death.

"But that's just my guess, you know, and biological phenomena are so extraordinarily complex that it will probably take us centuries to work it out. After all, we haven't even settled all the laws of Tanith's physics yet!"

"Several centuries.... And there is no other planet where this might also happen?"

"None have been found, and on the basis of our theory I'm inclined to believe that Tanith is unique in the Galaxy—perhaps in the universe." Langdon was aware of Chang's speculative gaze on him. "And if there were others, they'd be just as foreign to Terra."

"I see—" Langdon looked away, down to the streaming silver gleam of the river. There was a ring of little lights dancing on the lawn; he could hear the tinkle of elfland bells and he thought he could see glowing wings and lithe light forms that were not human—but very lovely.

"You were thinking of moving away?" asked the synthesist at last.

"Yes. I hated the thought, but Eileen—well—you saw her. And you remember those first colonists."

"I do. She is exhibiting all their symptoms. She can't stand the unpredictability of her environment, and she can't adjust her scale of values enough to see the beauty in what to her is wrong and horrible." In the vague golden light, Langdon thought he glimpsed a grim smile on the other man's face. "Perhaps she is right, Joseph. Perhaps it takes someone not quite sane by the rest of the Galaxy's standards to adjust to Tanith."

"But—can't she see—I've told her—"

"Intellectual understanding of a problem never solves it, though it may help. Eileen takes your word for these being purely natural phenomena. She's not superstitious. It might help if she were! Because explaining the horror doesn't lessen it to her. Man is not a rational animal, Joseph, though he likes to pretend he is."

"Can't she be helped? Psychology?"

"No." The old voice held pity, but it did not waver. "I've studied such cases. If you keep her here much longer, she'll have a miscarriage and go insane. The insanity might be curable, back at Sol, or it might not, but as soon as she returned it would come again. Not that she could ever stand to come back.

"She is inherently unable to adapt herself to an utterly foreign environment. You'll have to send her home, Joseph. Soon."

"But—she's my wife...."

Chang said nothing. A shining golden head swooped past in the darkness, laughing at them, and the laughter was visible as red pulses in the night.

There came a step on the veranda. Langdon turned and saw Chang's wife coming out with Eileen. The girl walked more steadily now. In the dim radiance from the window, her face was calmer than it had been for some time, and for an instant there was a flood of love and joy and relief within Langdon.

Chang was wrong. Eileen would learn. She was already starting to learn. Tonight was the turning point. Tanith would take her to itself and they would be together forever.

"Eileen," he said, very softly, and got up and walked toward her. "Eileen, darling."

The atmosphere trembled between them. She saw the flesh run from his bones, it was a skull that grinned at her, shining evilly green against the dark, and the sounds that rasped from it were the mouthings of nightmare.

Somewhere, far back in the depths of her mind, a little cool voice told her that there was nothing to be afraid of, that it was a brief variation in optical and sonic constants which would pass away and then Joe would be there. But the voice was drowned in her own screaming, she was screaming for her mother to come and get her, it was a nightmare and she couldn't wake up

Langdon ran toward her, with the rags of flesh hanging from his phosphorescent bones, until Chang grabbed him back with a violence he had never known to be possible in the old man.

There was a storm outside; the cottage shook to a fury of wind and was filled with its noise and power. They had a fire going, and its restless glow played over the room and beat against the calm white light of fluorotubes, but it could not drive out the luminousness beyond the window.

"Pull the shades," asked Eileen. "Please, Joe."

He looked away from the window where he stood staring out at the storm. Fire sleeted across the landscape, whirling heatless flames that hissed and crackled around the wind-tossed trees, red and blue and yellow and icy white. The wind roared and boomed, with a hollow voice that seemed to shout words in some unknown tongue, and from behind the curtain of flaming rain there was the crimson glow of an open furnace. As if, thought Langdon, as if the gates of Hell stood open just beyond the hills.

"It won't hurt us," he said. "It's only a matter of phosphorescence and static discharges."

"Please, Joe." Her voice was very small in the racket of wind.

He shrugged, and covered the wild scene. He used to like to go out in fire-storms, he remembered, their blinding berserk fury woke something elemental in him and he would go striding through them like a god shouting back at the wind.

Well, it wouldn't be long now. The Betelgeuse Queen was due in a couple of days on the intragalactic orbit that would take her back to Sol. Eileen didn't have long to wait.

He took a moody turn about the room. His wife had been very quiet since her collapse of a week ago. Too quiet. He didn't like it.

She looked wistfully up at his tall form. He thought that she looked pathetically small and alone, curled up—almost crouched—in the big armchair. Like a very beautiful child, too thin and hollow-eyed now but beautiful.

A child.

She has to go. She can't live here. And I—well—if she goes, it will be like a death within me. I love her.

"I remember winter storms on Terra," said Eileen softly. "It would be cold and dark, with a big wind driving snow against the house. We'd come inside, cold but warm underneath with being out in it, and we'd sit in front of a fire and have hot cocoa and cheese sandwiches. If it was around Christmas time, we'd be singing the old songs—"

The wind yammered, banging on the door. A stealthy shape of light and shadow wavered halfway between existence and nonexistence over in a corner of the room. Eileen's voice trailed off and her eyes widened and there was a small dry rattle in her throat. She gripped the arms of her chair with an unnatural tension.

Langdon saw it and came over to sit beside her on one arm of the chair. Her hand closed tightly around his and she looked away from the weaving shape in the corner.

"You were always good to me, Joe," she murmured.

"How could I be anything else?" he asked tonelessly. There was a new voice in the storm now, a great belling organ was crying to him to come out, Tanith was dancing in a sleet of fire just beyond the door.

"I'll miss you," she said. "I'll miss you very much."

"Why should you? I'll be along."

"Will you. Joe? I wonder. I can't ask it of you. I can't ask you to trade a thousand years of life, or ten thousand or a million, for the little sixty or seventy you'll have left out there. I can't ask you to leave your world for mine. You'll never be at home on Terra."

He smiled, without much mirth. "It's a trite phrase," he said, "but you know I'd die for you."

"I don't doubt that. Joe. But would you—live for me?"

He kissed her to avoid answering. I don't know. I honestly don't know.

It isn't so much a question of losing immortality, though God knows that means a lot. It means more than any mortal will ever know. It's that I'd be losing—Tanith.

He thought of Sol, Sirius, Antares, the great suns and planets of the Galaxy, and could not keep from shuddering. Drabness, deadness, colorlessness, meaninglessness! Life was a brief blind spasm of accident and catastrophe, walled in by its own shortness and the barren environment of a death-doomed cosmos. Too small to achieve any purpose, too limited even to imagine a goal, it flickered and went out into an utter dark.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty place from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death....

The storm sang outside, and he heard music and lure and enchantment. It was not a discord, after two centuries he could hear some of the tremendous harmony—after another while, he might begin to understand the song.

If he stayed, if he stayed.


His face twisted. She saw it, and pain bit at her, but there was nothing she could say.

He began pacing, and his mind took up the weary track of the past week. Logic—think it out like a rational being.

Eileen had to go. But he could stay, and she would understand insofar as any mortal could. Somewhere else, back in the Solar system or on some other of man's many planets, she would find another husband who could give her all his heart. Which I could never do, because I love Tanith. She would come to think of me as dead, she would hold him dear for the brief span of their lives. She'd be happy. And maybe someday she'd send the child back to me.

As for himself—well, the initial pain of separation would be hard to take, but he had an immortal's endurance. Sooner or later, the longing would die. And there would be another woman someday on one of the colony ships whom he could love and take to wife forever. He could wait, he had all time before him....

And he would be on Tanith....

And there would be his friends. He thought of the utter loneliness that waited for him in the Galaxy. Two hundred years was a sizeable draft of eternity; he had acquired enough of the immortal's viewpoint and personality to find the short-lived completely alien. He could never know more than the most superficial comradeship with even the oldest of those who were younger than he. He could never be close to his wife; she would occupy only the smallest part of the emptiness within him. Because before she had grown enough to match him, they would both be dead.

We'll die, go down in the futility of the universe, and Tanith will go on. I might have been a god, but I'll go down in dust and nothingness. No one will have gotten any good of me. Unless I stay.

The wind called and called.

Eileen was right. I'm not afraid to die. But I am afraid to live, in the way she must. Horribly afraid.

But I love her.

Fifty years hence there'll be another woman.

But I love Eileen now!

Round and round, a crazy roaring whirlpool swinging and crashing toward madness. His thoughts were running in a meaningless circle, the familiar landmarks flickered by with ghastly speed in that devil's race, the room wavered before him.

He snarled with sudden inarticulate rage and grabbed his insulating cloak and rushed out the door.

Eileen shrank back in her chair. He was gone. She was alone now and all the powers of Tanith were rising up against her. The wind hooted and whistled, piping down the chimney and skirling under the eaves. The blind lifted to an invisible force and she saw the red flames of Hell blazing outside. The fluoroglobes flickered toward extinction, darkness closed down; but it was full of dancing light and glimmering shapes that gibed and jeered and spun closer to her. The room began to whirl, faster and faster, a tipping tilting saraband on the edge of madness.

All the old forgotten powers of night and dark and Hell were abroad, whirling on the wind and slamming against the door and banging their heels on the roof. They rose out of the floor and seeped from the walls and the air. Fire danced around them, and they neared her, crying something that she knew would drive her mad when she understood it.

Joe, Joe, Joe—Mother—God—Joe was gone out into the storm. Mother was dead these many years, God had forgotten. And the powers closed in laughing at her and mocking and whispering what she could not stand to hear and there and around and around and around and around and around down, down, down, down, down into darkness—

Langdon did not hear her scream the first time. He stood in the living torrent of light. Fire streamed about him and dripped from his hands; his hair crackled with static electricity and the wind sang to him. It filled him, the song of the wind, the song of Tanith. He was lost in it, whirled up in a great singing joyous laughter. He knew—in another moment he would know, he would be part of the allness and have peace within him.

Fire, wind, the slender graceful trees laughing as the flames leaped around them, a great exultant chant from the living forests and the dancing hills, a glimpse of an ancient Tanithian across many million years, flying in the storm with the red and gold and blue and bronze rushing off his wings, Tanith, Tanith, Tanith.

Tanith, I love you, I am part of you. I can never go. This is the thing other men do not know. More than immortality, more than all the mighty dreams you give us, there is yourself. A day on Tanith is more than a lifetime on Terra, but they will never know that because they have never felt it. The strong love of a man for his home—but this is passion, it is the whole of life, and Tanith gives it back. Here, and here alone, is meaning and beauty and an unending splendid horizon. Here alone a man can belong.

See, see that bird with wings like molten silver!

The second scream was wordless and crazy and horrible, but the dying fragment of his own name went through him like a knife. For the barest instant he stood there while the storm roared about him and the fire rushed over the world. Then, quite simply, he ran back into the house.

The blood and pain and screeching horror of the abortion left him physically ill, but he managed to get her to bed and even, after a long while, to sleep. Then he walked over to the window and drew the blind. His shoulders sagged with the defeat and death and ruin that was here....

The captain of the Betelgeuse Queen did not like Tanith and said as much to his mate as they relaxed on the promenade deck.

"The place gives you the blue willies," he declared. "Everything's wrong there. Praise the powers it's so backward and obscure we only have to stop there once a year or so."

"The colonists seem to like it," said the mate.

"They would," snorted the captain. "Worst bunch of clannish provincials I ever saw. Why, they hardly ever leave the planet, except maybe for a year or so at a time on essential business, and they won't be friendly with anybody. Takes a crazy man to stand that world in the first place."

He pointed to a tall man who was half leading, half supporting a young woman along the deck. She would have been beautiful had she not been badly underweight. She smiled at the man, but her eyes were haunted, and his answering smile was far-away. It went no deeper than his lips.

"That fellow Langdon is the only long-time colonist I ever heard of who left Tanith for good," said the captain. "He must have been there for years. Maybe he was born there, but he's coming back to Sol now. His wife couldn't take the place."

"I think I remember her from a year or so ago," nodded the mate. "Didn't we carry her out with a few other colonists? Pretty as a picture then, and full of life and fun—now look at her. Tanith did that to her."

"Uh-huh," agreed the captain. "I heard a little of the story down by the spaceport. She nearly went crazy—finally had a miscarriage. It was all they could do to save her life and sanity. Only then would that Langdon take her back. He let her go on that way for months." The captain's mouth twisted with contempt. "Holy sun-spots, what a cold-blooded devil!"

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