Authors: Frederik Pohl
Science Fiction Masterworks Volume 41
‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’
WHEN DANNY DALEHOUSE first went to Sofia he did not know it for the first stage in a much longer journey, nor that he would meet some of his future companions. He had never heard of that larger destination, which bore the unattractive name of N-OA Bes-bes Geminorum 8426, or for that matter of the people. Their names were Nan Dimitrova and Captain Marge Menninger. The occasion was the Tenth General Assembly of the World Conference on Exobiology, and the time was not in any way bad for any of them. It was a springtime season, and for a moment there all the world seemed to be budding into sweet and friendly life.
There were three thousand people in the Great Hall of Culture and Science for the opening session, so many of them political that the five or six hundred scientists who were actively involved had trouble finding seats. Even the translators were doubled up in their booths. Handsome, hoary old Carl Sagan delivered the opening invocation, looking like a spry octogenarian instead of whatever incredible age he really was.
He was already wheeling forward to the rostrum as Dan Dalehouse squeezed into a seat at the back of the hall. Dalehouse had never been in Bulgaria before. He had been drawn to the sunny parks, and he promised himself a look at the museum of centuries-old ikons under St. Stephan's Cathedral, a few-blocks away. But he didn't want to miss Sagan, and the first plenary session was a tutorial on tactran reports. Some of the stuff he had never heard before. That was probably Sagan's work, he thought. Even as honorary joint chairman, Sagan passed the whole program through his nonsense filter. What was left was sure to be worth hearing. Sagan spoke briefly and cheerfully, and rolled away to a standing ovation.
Because the keynote speaker had been an American, the chairman of the tachyon-transmitter tutorial had to be from one of the other blocs. That was international etiquette. He was an Englishman from Fred Hoyle's Cambridge group. A few of the dignitaries from the Fuel Bloc stayed to hear him out of group solidarity, but most of the other political people left as inconspicuously as they could, and Dalehouse was able to move up to a better seat on the center aisle. He settled himself to tolerate the chairman's opening remarks, lulled by the scent of flowers coming through the open windows— Bulgaria made even less use of air conditioning than the United States.
Since Food and Fuel had already been heard from, protocol required that the next space go to People. So it was a Pakistani who read the first paper, entitled "Vital Signatures Reported from Bodies Orbiting Alpha Draconis, Procyon, 17-Kappa Indi, and Kung's Semistellar Object."
Dalehouse had been half drowsing, but as the title came through his earphones he sat up. "I never heard of some of those stars," he remarked to his neighbor. "Who is this guy?"
She pointed to her program and the name: Dr. Ahmed Dulla, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto University, Hyderabad. As Dalehouse leaned over, he discovered that the flower scent was not coming from the windows but from her, and he took a closer look. Blond. A little plump, but with a solid, good-natured, pretty face. Hard to tell the age, but maybe about the same as his, which was mid-thirties. Since his divorce, Dalehouse had become more aware of the sexuality of women colleagues and chance-met females in general, but also more wary. He smiled thanks and sank back to listen.
The first part was not exciting. The reports on the probe to Alpha Draconis had already been published. He was not greatly interested in hearing again about the photometric measurements that established the presence of photosynthetic "plant" life in a reducing atmosphere. There were plenty of planets like that around that had been scanned and reported by the tachyon probes with their cargoes of instruments—the whole thing no bigger than a grapefruit, but miraculously capable of leaping interstellar distances in a week. The Pakistani seemed intent on repeating every word of every one of the reports, not failing to comment on the number of other reducing-atmosphere planets discovered and the apparent generally low level of evolved life on them. The Procyon probe had lost its lock, and the reports were at best ambiguous. Mercifully, Dulla did not dwell on the instrumentation. The data on 17-Kappa Indi sounded better— an oxygen atmosphere, at least, although the temperature range was bad and the signatures were sketchy—but the real prize was at the end.
Kung's Semistellar Object was not much larger than a planet itself. As stars went it was tiny, barely big enough to fuse nuclei and radiate heat, but it had a planet of its own that sounded like fun. Hot. Humid. Dense air, but about the right partial pressure of oxygen to be congenial to life—including the life of a human exploratory party, if anybody cared to spend the money to try it out. And the signatures were first-rate. Carbon dioxide. Traces of methane, but only traces. Good photometry. The only parameters missing were radio wavelengths; otherwise it sounded a lot like Miami Beach.
The Pakistani then went on to explain how Kung's Star had been discovered by the big fixed radio dish at Nagchhu Dzong, in the Thanglha hills, and that the discovery had come about as a direct result of the wisdom and example of the late Chairman Mao. That was not in itself very interesting except to the other members of the People Bloc, who were nodding grave concurrence, but the planet seemed pretty strange. The translation had trouble keeping up with the Pakistani, and it wasn't Dalehouse's area of special interest anyhow, but he made out that only a part of one hemisphere was covered in the biotic study. Funny! Nor was he the only one fascinated. He looked up at the bank of translators, each in their individual glass cages, like nail clippers and pocket combs behind the windows of a vending machine. Each booth had its draped scarlet curtains tied back with a gold sash, very Slavic and incongruous, and behind them the translators looked like astronauts in their solid-state communications helmets. One of them was a young girl with a sweet, plain face, leaning forward to stare at the speaker with an expression of either incredulity or rapture. Her lips weren't moving; she seemed to be too entranced to function.
Dalehouse borrowed a pencil from the woman next to him and made a note in the margin of his program:
Invstgt Kung's Star, posbl survey grant.
He didn't name the planet. It didn't have a name yet, though he had heard some of the Peeps refer to it half reverently as Son of Kung. It would be called other things, and worse.
What can be said of someone like Danny Dalehouse? Grammar school, high school, college, graduate school; he got his Pretty Heavy Diploma at twenty-six, and jobs were scarce. He managed to teach freshman biology for a year, then a year on a grant in Tbilisi and more than a year of post-doctoral studies, so that he was past thirty before he caught on at Michigan State's new exobiology department. The marriage that had survived a year of living on cheese and white wine in Soviet Georgia began to dissolve in East Lansing. He was medium height, viewed charitably—about one seventy centimeters in his shoes—and slim. He wasn't particularly handsome, either. What he was was smart. He was smart enough so that in three years at Michigan State he had made himself one of the Food Bloc's top experts in reading the telemetry from a tachyon-transmitter probe and translating it into a good guess at how much life the signatures represented—even what kinds of life. Then he was smart enough to figure out that a telemetry interpreter who got to be nationally known for his skill was going to look too valuable where he was to be risked on a manned expedition to one of those fascinating, remote worlds. So he tapered off on the interpretation and resharpened his skills at mountain climbing, sailplaning, and longdistance running. You never knew what kind of athletic qualities you might need if you were lucky enough to be one of the fewscore people each year who got tossed to another star.
Being divorced was probably a plus quality. A man without much home life would be judged better able to concentrate on the job than someone mooning over wife and kids fifty light-years away. Dalehouse hadn't wanted Polly to leave. But when she did pack up and go, he was quick to see that the divorce wasn't all bad.
That night in the Aperitif Bar he ran into the blond woman again. He had gone to listen in on the headliners' news conference, but the crowd at that end of the bar was pretty thick, and most of them seemed to be actual reporters he didn't feel justified in shoving aside. Between their heads and cameras he caught glimpses of Sagan and Iosif Shklovskii sitting together in their life-support chairs at one end of the narrow room, having their picture taken, and passing smiling comments and an oxygen mask back and forth to each other. They rolled away toward the elevators, and most of the crowd followed them. Dalehouse opted for a drink and looked around the bar.
The blond was drinking Scotch with two small, dark, smiling men—no, he realized, she was drinking Scotch; they were drinking orange juice. The men got up and said good night while he was looking for a place to sit down, and he perceived the opportunity.
"Mind if I join you? I'm Danny Dalehouse, Michigan State,"
"Marge Menninger," she said, and she didn't mind his joining her at all. She didn't mind letting him buy her another Scotch, and she didn't mind buying him one back, and she didn't mind going out for a stroll under the fat Bulgarian spring moon, and she didn't mind going to his room to open his bottle of Bulgarian wine; and, altogether, the day when Danny Dalehouse first heard of Kung's Star was a very successful and pleasurable one.