Authors: Poul Anderson
She looked small and fragile in her winter coat. Flesh
had melted from her, the fine bones stood out under the skin and her eyes were enormous. She had become so quiet lately, she sat and looked past him and now and then she trembled a little. The hands that lay in his were terribly thin.
“I shouldn’t be leaving you, honey,” he said, using all the words in the old manner and making his voice a caress.
“It won’t be for long,” she answered tonelessly. She wore no make-up, and her lips were paler than they should be. “I think I’m getting better.”
He nodded. The psychiatrist, Kearnes, was a good man, a plump fatherly sort with a brain like a razor. He admitted that his therapy was experimental, a groping into the unknown darknesses of the new human mind, but he had been getting results with some patients. Rejecting the barbarity of brain mutilation by surgery or shock, he felt that a period of isolation from familiarity gave the victim a chance to perform, under guidance, the re-evaluation that was necessary….
(“The change has been an unprecedented psychic shock to every organism possessed of a nervous system,” Dr. Kearnes had said. “The fortunate ones—the strong-willed, the resolute, those whose interests have been by choice or necessity directed outward rather than introspectively, those to whom hard thinking has always been a natural and pleasurable process—they seem to have made the adjustment without too much damage; though I suppose we will all carry the scars of that shock to our graves. But those less fortunate have been thrown into a neurosis which has in many cases become deep psychosis. Your wife, Dr. Corinth—let me be blunt—is dangerously close to insanity. Her past life, essentially unintellectual and sheltered, has given her no preparation for a sudden radical change in her own being; and the fact that she has no children to worry about, and no problem of bare survival to occupy her, enabled the whole force of realization to turn on her own character. The old adjustments, compensations, protective forgetfulness and self-deception, which we all had, are no longer of use, and she hasn’t been able to find new ones. Worry about the symptoms naturally increased them, a vicious circle. But I think I can help her;
in time, when the whole business is better understood, it should be possible to effect a complete cure…. How long? How should I know? But hardly more than a few years, at the rate science can expand now; and meanwhile Mrs. Corinth should be able to compensate enough for happiness and balance.”)
Sudden terror in her eyes: “Oh, Pete, darling, darling, be careful out there! Come back to me!”
“I will,” he said, and bit his lip.
(“Yes, it would be an excellent thing for her—I think—if you went on that expedition, Dr. Corinth. Worry about you is a healthier thing than brooding over the shadows her own runaway mind creates for her. It will help wrench her psychic orientation outward where it belongs. She’s not a natural introvert….”)
A flurry of snow wrapped them for a moment, hiding them from the world. He kissed her, and knew that in all the years before him he would remember how cool her lips were and how they trembled under his.
There was a deep hollow ringing in the ground, as if the planet itself shuddered with cold. Overhead flared the transatlantic rocket, bound for Europe on some mission of the new-born world order. Corinth’s eyes were on Sheila. He brushed the snow from her hair, feeling the softness of it and the childish inward curve of her nape under his fingers. A small sad laughter was in him.
With five words, and eyes and hands and lips, he said to her: “When I come home again—and what a homecoming that will be, honey!—I expect to find you well and inventing a robot housemaid so you’ll be free for me. I don’t want anything in all the universe to bother us then.”
And what he meant was:
O most beloved, be there for me as You have always been, You who are all my world. Let there be no more darkness between us, child of light, let us be together as once we were, or else all time is empty forever
“I’ll try, Pete,” she whispered. Her hand reached up to touch his face. “Pete,” she said wonderingly.
Lewis’ voice sounded harsh around the flank of the ship, distorted by the wind: “All aboard that’s going aboard!”
Corinth and Sheila took their time, and the others respected that need. When the physicist stood in the air lock waving good-by, he was well above ground, and Sheila’s form was a very small shape against the muddy snow.
Sol was little more than the brightest star in their wake, almost lost in the thronging multitude of suns, out here as far as the orbit of Saturn. The constellations had not changed, for all the leagues that had fled behind them. The huge circle of the Milky Way and the far mysterious coils of the other galaxies glimmered as remotely as they had done for the first half-man who lifted his eyes skyward and wondered. There was no time, no distance, only a vastness transcending miles and years.
probed cautiously ahead at well under light velocity. On the fringes of the inhibitor field Lewis and Corinth were preparing the telemetered missiles which would be shot into the region of denser flux.
Lewis chuckled with amiable diablerie at the caged rats he meant to send on one of the torpedoes. Their beady eyes watched him steadily, as if they knew. “Poor little bums,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like a louse.” He added with a grin, “The rest of the time I do too, but it’s fun.”
Corinth didn’t answer. He was looking out at the stars.
“The trouble with you,” said Lewis, settling his bulk into the adjoining chair, “is that you take life too seriously. You’ve always done so, and haven’t broken the habit since the change. Now me—I am, of course, perfect by definition!—I always found things to swear about and cry over, but there was just as much which was outrageously funny. If there is a God of any kind—and since the change I’m beginning to think there may be, perhaps I’ve become more imaginative—then Chesterton was right in including a sense of humor among His attributes.” He clicked his tongue. “Poor old G.K.C.! It’s too bad he didn’t live to see the change. What paradoxes he would have dreamed up!”
The alarm bell broke off his monologue. Both men started, looking at the indicator light which blinked like a red eye, on and off, on and off. Simultaneously, a wave of dizziness swept through them. Corinth grabbed for the arms of his chair, retching.
“The field—we’re approaching the zone—” Lewis punched a key on the elaborate control panel. His voice was thick. “Got to get outta here—”
But it wasn’t that simple, not when you dealt with the potential field which modern science identified with ultimate reality. Corinth shook his head, fighting the nausea, and leaned over to help.
This switch—no, the other one—
He looked helplessly at the board. A needle crept over a red mark, they had passed light speed and were still accelerating, the last thing he had wished.
What to do?
Lewis shook his head. Sweat gleamed on the broad face. “Sidewide vector,” he gasped. “Go out tangentially—”
There were no constants for the psi-drive. Everything was a variable, a function of many components depending on the potential gradients and on each other. The setting for “ahead” could become that for “reverse” under new conditions, and there was the uncertainty principle to reckon with, the uncaused chaos of individual electrons, flattened probability curves, the unimaginable complexity which had generated stars and planets and thinking humans. A train of equations gibbered through Corinth’s brain.
The vertigo passed, and he looked at Lewis with a growing horror. “We were wrong,” he mumbled. “The field builds up quicker than we thought.”
“But—it took days for Earth to get out of it altogether, man, at a relative speed of—”
“We must have hit a different part of the cone, then, a more sharply defined one; or maybe the sharpness varies with time in some unsuspected manner—” Corinth grew aware that Lewis was staring at him, openmouthed.
“Huh?” said the other man—how slowly!
“I said—what did I say?” Corinth’s heart began thundering in his panic. He had spoken three or four words, made a few signs, but Lewis hadn’t understood him.
Of course he hadn’t!
They weren’t as bright as they had been, neither of them.
Corinth swallowed a tongue that seemed like a piece of wood. Slowly, in plain English, he repeated his meaning.
“Oh, yes, yes.” Lewis nodded, too frozen to say more.
Corinth’s brain felt gluey. There was no other word. He was spiraling down into darkness, he couldn’t think, with every fleeting second he tumbled back toward animal man.
The knowledge was like a blow. They had plunged unawares into the field Earth had left, it was slowing them down, they were returning to what they had been before the change. Deeper and deeper the ship raced, into an ever stronger flux, and they no longer had the intelligence to control her.
The next ship will be built to guard against this
, he thought in the chaos.
They’ll guess what’s happened—but what good will that do us?
He looked out again; the stars wavered in his vision.
, he thought wildly,
we don’t know its shape or extent. I think we’re going out tangentially, we may come out of the cone soon—or we may be trapped in here for the next hundred years
He bowed his head, too miserable with the physical torment of sudden cellular readjustment to think any more, and wept.
The ship went on into darkness.
THE house stood on Long Island, above a wide strand sloping to the sea. It had once belonged to an estate, and there were trees and a high wall to screen it off from the world.
Roger Kearnes brought his car to a halt under the portico and stepped out. He shivered a little and jammed his hands into his pockets as the raw wet cold fell over him. There was no wind, no shadow, only the late fall of snow, thick sad snow that tumbled quietly from a low sky and clung to the windowpanes and melted on the ground like
tears. He wondered despairingly if there would ever again be a springtime.
Well—He braced himself and rang the doorbell. There was work to do. He had to check up on his patient.
Sheila Corinth opened the door for him. She was still thin, her eyes dark and huge in the pale childlike face; but she wasn’t trembling any more, and she had taken the trouble to comb her hair and put on a dress.
“Hello, there,” he said, smiling. “How are you today?”
“Oh—all right.” She didn’t meet his eyes. “Won’t you come in?”
She led the way down a corridor whose recent repainting had not quite succeeded in creating the cheerful atmosphere Kearnes wanted. But you couldn’t have everything. Sheila could consider herself lucky to have an entire house and a pleasant elderly woman—a moron—for help and companionship. Even nowadays, it meant a lot if your husband was an important man.
They entered the living room. A fire crackled on the hearth, and there was a view of beach and restless ocean. “Sit down,” invited Sheila listlessly. She threw herself into an armchair and sat unmoving, her eyes fixed on the window.
Kearnes’ gaze followed hers. How heavily the sea rolled! Even indoors, he could hear it grinding against the shore, tumbling rocks, grinding away the world like the teeth of time. It was gray and white to the edge of the world, white-maned horses stamping and galloping, how terribly loud they neighed!
Pulling his mind loose, he opened his briefcase. “I have some more books for you,” he said. “Psychological texts. You said you were interested.”
“I am. Thank you.” There was no tone in her voice.
“Hopelessly outdated now, of course,” he went on. “But they may give you an insight into the basic principles. You have to see for yourself what your trouble is.”
“I think I do,” she said. “I can think more clearly now. I can see how cold the universe is and how little we are—” She looked at him with fright on her lips. “I wish I didn’t think so well!”
“Once you’ve mastered your thoughts, you’ll be glad of this power,” he said gently.
“I wish they would bring back the old world,” she said.
“It was a cruel world,” he answered. “We’re well off without it.”
She nodded. He could barely hear her whisper: “O soldier, lying hollow on the rime, there is frost in your hair and darkness behind your eyes. Let there be darkness.” Before he had time for a worried frown, she continued aloud, “But we loved and hoped then. There were the little cafes, do you remember, and people laughing in twilight, there were music and dancing, beer and cheese sandwiches at midnight, sailboats, leftover pies, worrying about income taxes, our own jokes, there were the two of us. Where is Pete now?”
“He’ll be back soon,” said Kearnes hastily. No use reminding her that the star ship was already two weeks overdue. “He’s all right. It’s you we have to think about.”
“Yes.” She knotted her brows together, earnestly. “They still come to me. The shadows, I mean. Words out of nowhere. Sometimes they almost make sense.”
“Can you say them to me?” he asked.
“I don’t know. This house is on Long Island, long island, longing island, island of longing, where is Pete?”
He relaxed a trifle. That was a more obvious association than she had sprung on him last time. What had it been?
But when the uttermost hollow-frozen and time so dark that lightlessness is a weight is, then tell me, what lies beneath it…
. Maybe she was healing herself in the quiet of her aloneness.
He couldn’t be sure. Things had changed too much. A schizophrenic’s mind went into lands where he could not follow, the new patterns had simply not been mapped yet. But he thought Sheila was acting a little more healthily.
“I shouldn’t play with them, I know,” she said abruptly. “That’s dangerous. If you take them by the hand they’ll let you guide them for a while, but they won’t let go of your hand again.”
“I’m glad you realize that,” he said. “What you want to do is exercise your mind. Think of it as a tool or a
muscle. Go through those drills I gave you on logical processes and general semantics.”