Authors: Alan Dean Foster
If anything could possibly go
wrong aboard the scoutship
, sooner or later it
would. Now in the 20th year
of their mission—destroying
unstable planets—the ship and its
crew were falling apart . . .
After 20 years in space,
isolation and lonliness have
left their mark. The four
surviving crew members are bored
beyond relief. Only an occasional
bomb run or another of the
inevtable malfunctions aboard
ship upsets the monotony.
Then, Bomb #20 is primed,
armed and set to detonate—
suddenly life on the
becomes frantic . . .
OTHER BOOKS BY
ALAN DEAN FOSTER
The Tar-Aiym Krang
Star Trek Log One
Star Trek Log Two
Copyright © 1974 by Jack H. Harris Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and
Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
First Printing: October, 1974
Third Printing: October, 1978
Cover art by Michael Herring
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
A Division of Random House, Inc.
201 East 50th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022
Simultaneously published by
Ballantine Books, Ltd., Toronto Canada
"Auprès de ma blonde,
qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon.
Auprès de ma blonde,
qu'il fait bon dormir . . .!"
ALBY WAS COUNTING
He didn't remember exactly when he'd lost count. Probably they were all noted down somewhere neat and official in the astronomer's records—or had he disconnected the tracker? It was hard to recall. There seemed to be something about uncoupling all the scientific instruments a while back, uncoupling them because it seemed blasphemous for such splendor to be reduced to a mere listing in a book.
Anyhow, the number didn't matter, did it? There were plenty of stars to go around, and if the muddlers back on Earth wanted records of them, let them come out here for themselves and do their own tracking. Talby didn't see how anyone could appreciate a star by using mere mathematical charts.
But he kept counting. It was easy. It was natural. It made a man free—one star, two stars, and baby makes three.
With only the naked eye, most navigators could distinguish only a few degrees, magnitude, but Talby had had more practice than most navigators. And he lived his work.
To get really good at it, you had to spend long stretches in practice, sharpening your perception and senses until eyes and mind operated instinctively. Ho could a man take the measure of a sun if he had to stop and think about it? Talby smiled.
He leaned back in the pneumatic astronomer's lounge, a pale bean in a pod of smooth maroon, and stared up through the dome. He'd buffed down the inside and outside so many times that the dome was almost impossible to see. Every imperfection had been scrubbed out of it, till now there seemed to be no dome. Only Talby and his seat, floating in a hole on the top of the ship.
Now and then the soft touch of a finger initiated a muted hum of precision machinery. The chair would, swivel 90, 180, 270 degrees, and another section of the cosmos would come under Talby-scrutiny.
Five, six, pick up sticks.
Talby could distinguish almost
order of magnitude now. Of course, when the stars were your best friends, you didn't have to work very hard to find out about them. You didn't even have to ask. They told you and were happy to, confessed all their secrets without prodding, without coercion, without being violated by clumsy, poking, grabby machines.
That was the trouble with man's first extended explorations of deep space. He'd gone at it as he had gone at everything else throughout his history—hacking and clubbing and chopping, an ax in one hand and a scythe in the other. Never a moment to listen, to look, to try to see and understand. It was sad.
And it was so easy not to make the same old mistakes over again! If only they would try it his way, if only he could make them see. Talby shook his head, though there were none but the stars to see it. Useless. They wouldn't listen. They
Better to do it this way. At least he offended no one. At least one man had succeeded in blending with the universe without inflicting himself on it. And the universe repaid him in kind.
The others looked on his special relationship rather differently, of course. Poor middling souls—his greatest regret was that he couldn't share his pleasure with them.
Of them all, Doolittle came the closest to understanding, and even he insisted that the astronomer spent too much time up here in the dome, too much time alone, too much time staring into naked, empty space.
Empty space—poor, sad Lieutenant Doolittle! It was only empty
the ship. They'd never understand that, either.
It had been only a few days, a few months, a few years. No doubt one day Doolittle might insist it had been too many centuries. It made no difference to Talby. He had accomplished the neat feat of dividing the universe into three parts: himself, the rest of the cosmos, and his fellow crewmembers. Doolittle, Pinback, Boiler and Commander Powell.
No—no, that didn't sound right. There was something—oh, yes. Commander Powell had died. It occurred to him, as it sometimes did, that he should be forcing himself to make more of a contribution to ship life, to be more of a friend to the others.
He had trouble relating to them, though. Every day it grew harder. He tried comparing them to his real friends.
Let's see—Doolittle. Doolittle was an angry red giant, full of passion and fire and anger that blazed uncontrolled at unpredictable, unguarded moments. But he held the ship together, had done so ever since Powell had been eclipsed.
Boiler was a white dwarf, no reflection on his size. He was the largest of them, and the smallest. The most intense and the least demonstrative. The likeliest to collapse or go nova. His name fitted.
And there was Pinback—Pinback, the average, ordinary, down-home G-type lightbulb. Cheerfully pathetic Pinback, always joking, never laughing, barely noticed. And, like a sol-type star, he supported more life than the rest of them put together.
His mind shifted to muse on another G-type star, one he remembered fairly well, with a certain inconsequential world sputtering lazily around it.
He remembered that at one time he had lived on that world, that he probably (though it could not be verified without records) had been born on it.
A finger touched and made a hum—forty-five degrees more of infinity filled his gaze. This old man, he played seven, he played seven's and's gone to Heave—
There, in the upper quadrant of the Deeps—that looked like a binary. Of course, at this distance and using only the unaided eye it was quite impossible to tell a true double star from two stars that looked close together but were actually a thousand light-years apart.
Talby smiled slightly again. He
For a moment he considered notifying Doolittle and the others of his discovery. They liked binaries.
No, they wouldn't be pleased. The rest of the crew was only interested in planets. At least, Boiler and Doolittle were. Pinback was interested in everything without being interested in anything.
But the other two—they liked planets well enough. Habitable ones first of all and then unstable ones that might make the others uninhabitable at some unseen future time. Lately he felt that Doolittle in particular was growing more and more fond of the unstable ones, and that bothered Talby for reasons he couldn't pin down.
Insignificant, germ-ridden dust specks—planets. Inconsequential motes, fungi on the skin of the galaxy. He tilted the chair more steeply and stared smugly outward.
Let Doolittle and Boiler and Pinback have their moldy little worlds. He, Talby, existed in perfect oneness with the stars themselves. How could he bring himself to notice anything as minute as a mere planet?
Oh, there were other things big enough to interest him. Occasional nebulae—delicate, pretty, but insubstantial. The infrequent aberrations, like black holes, were unaesthetic.
Let Doolittle and the others think what they might about him; he wasn't troubled. He would stay civil no matter what dark thoughts they voiced. Let them think anything they liked so long as they kept the ship running efficiently for him.
For that was how the head astronomer of the
had come to think of it. He was no longer a component of the ship—rather, the ship existed to support him. He sighed in perfect contentment
As long as the others left him alone to commune with his friends, the stars, he was happy. The motionless myriad suns were companions enough for him. The suns, and perhaps, someday, the Phoenix.
Nine, ten . . . begin again.
Sergeant Steel held on to his guts in he stared at the approaching Goering Panzer. The ring of the grenade was clamped bitterly in his sweating teeth. He had one chance for the platoon. Get up and ram that egg down the Panzer's open hatch before her 88mm. and twin machine guns could spit death among his trapped men. He steeled himself for the leap—
The communicator buzzed for attention. Pinback reluctantly put down the tattered issue of
Real War Stories—Action Comics
and stared at the switch set in the wall. For a moment he thought the buzzing had stopped. He returned to the busy Sergeant Steel, but the nasty instrument interrupted again.
He was forced to acknowledge.
Doolittle's voice was mildly peeved. "Pinback, if you can tear yourself away from improving your mind, we could use you forward. We're getting close."
"Aw, I'm just getting to the good part, Doolittle."
"You've read every one of those comics at least thirty times, Pinback," responded the lieutenant tiredly. "Get your ass forward."
"Oh, all right!" Pinback snapped off the intercom and lovingly marked his place in the magazine.
Darn Doolittle anyhow, he muttered to himself as he ambled forward. So they had another sun to blow, so what? It wouldn't have hurt to let him finish the book. Sometimes Doolittle really got on his nerves.
As usual, no one said anything to him when he walked into the narrow bridge-control room. Slipping mutely into his seat between Doolittle and Boiler, he made a casual check of the readouts, nodded to himself.
Uh-huh, sure enough. They had lots of time before coming in drop range of the target luminary. Doolittle just wanted to irritate him by bringing him forward early. Well, he wasn't going to let it show.