Authors: Arthur C Clarke
But tonight I was after something else—something not so easy to find. I knew its approximate orbit, because our local astronomers' club had worked out the figures for me. So I set up the telescope as carefully as I could and slowly began to sweep across the stars to the south-west, checking against the map I'd already prepared.
The search took me about fifteen minutes. In the field of the telescope was a handful of stars—and something that was not a star. I could just make out a tiny oval shape, far too small to show any details. It shone brilliantly up there in the blazing sunlight outside the shadow of the Earth, and it was moving even as I watched. An astronomer of a century before would have been sorely puzzled by it, for it was something new in the sky. It was Met. Station Two, six thousand miles up and circling the Earth four times a day. The Inner Station was too far to the south for it to be visible from my latitude: you had to live near the Equator to see it shining in the sky, the brightest and most swiftly moving of all the stars.
I tried to imagine what it was like up there in that floating bubble, with the emptiness of space all around. At this very moment, the scientists aboard must be looking down at me just as I was looking up at them. I wondered what kind of life they led—and remembered that with any luck I'd soon know for myself.
The bright, tiny disc I had been watching suddenly turned orange, then red, and began to fade from sight like a dying ember. In a few seconds it had vanished completely, though the stars were still shining as brightly as ever in the field of the telescope. Met. Station Two had raced into the shadow of the Earth and would remain eclipsed until it emerged again, about an hour later, in the south-east. It was 'night' aboard the space-station, just as it was down here on Earth. I packed up the telescope and went to bed.
East of Kansas City—where I went aboard the Washington jet—the land is flat for five hundred miles until you reach the Appalachians. A century earlier I should have been flying over millions of acres of farm land, but that had all vanished when agriculture had moved out to sea at the end of the twentieth century. Now the ancient prairies were coming back, and with them the great buffalo herds that had roamed this land when the Indians were its only masters. The main industrial cities and mining centres hadn't changed much, but the smaller towns had vanished and in a few more years there would be no sign that they had ever existed.
I think I was a lot more nervous when I went up the wide marble steps of the Department of Space Medicine than when I entered the final round of the World Airways contest. If I'd failed that, I might have had another chance later—but if the doctors said 'No' then I'd never be able to go out into space.
There were two kinds of tests—the physical and the psychological. I had to do all sorts of silly things, like running on a treadmill while holding my breath, trying to hear very faint sounds in a noise-proof room, and identifying dim, coloured lights. At one point they amplified my heart-beat thousands of times: it was an eerie sound and gave me the creeps, but the doctors said it was O.K.
They seemed a very friendly crowd, and after a while I got the definite impression that they were on my side and doing their darndest to get me through. Of course that helped a lot and I began to think it was all good fun—almost a game, in fact.
I changed my mind after a test in which they sat me inside a box and spun it round in every possible direction. When I came out I was horribly sick and couldn't stand upright. That was the worst moment I had, because I was sure I'd failed. But it was really all right: if I
been sick there would have been something wrong with me!
After all this they let me rest for an hour before the psychological tests. I wasn't much worried about those, as I'd met them before. There were some simple jigsaw puzzles, a few sheets of questions to be answered ('Four of the following five words have something in common. Underline them' …) and some tests for quickness of the eye and hand. Finally they attached a lot of wires to my head and took me into a narrow, darkened corridor with a closed door ahead of me.
'Now listen carefully, Roy,' said the psychologist who'd been doing the tests. 'I'm going to leave you now and the lights will go out. Stand there until you receive further instructions, and then do exactly what you're told. Don't worry about these wires—they'll follow you when you move. O.K.?'
'Yes,' I said, wondering what was going to happen next.
The light dimmed, and for a minute I was in complete darkness. Then a very faint rectangle of red light appeared, and I knew that the door ahead of me was opening, though I couldn't hear a sound. I tried to see what was beyond the door, but the light was far too dim.
The wires that had been attached to my head were, I knew, recording my brain-impulses. So whatever happened, I should try to keep calm and collected.
A voice came out of the darkness from a hidden loudspeaker.
'Walk through the door you see ahead of you, and stop as soon as you have passed it.'
I obeyed the order, though it wasn't easy to walk straight in that faint light, with a tangle of wires trailing behind me.
I never heard the door shutting, but I knew, somehow, that it had closed, and when I reached back with my hand I found I was standing in front of a smooth sheet of plastic. It was completely dark now—even the dim red light had gone.
It seemed a long time before anything happened. I must have been standing there in the darkness for almost ten minutes, waiting for the next order. Once or twice I whistled softly, to see if there was any echo so that I could judge the size of the room. Though I couldn't be sure, I got the impression that it was quite a large place.
And then, without any warning, the lights came on—not in a sudden flash, which would have blinded me, but in a very quick build-up that took only two or three seconds. I was able to see my surroundings perfectly—and I'm not ashamed to say that I yelled.
Yet it was, apart from one thing, a perfectly normal room. There was a table with some papers lying on it, three armchairs, bookcases against one wall, a small desk, an ordinary TV set. The sun seemed to be shining through the window, and some curtains were waving slightly in the breeze. At the moment the lights came on, the door opened and a man walked in. He picked up a paper from the table, and flopped down in one of the chairs. He was just beginning to read when he looked up and saw me. And when I say 'up', I mean it. For that's what was wrong with the room. I wasn't standing on the floor, down there with the chairs and bookcases. I was fifteen feet up in the air, scared out of my wits and flattened against the
—with no means of support and nothing within reach to catch hold of. I clawed at the smooth surface behind me, but it was as flat as glass. There was no way to stop myself falling—and the floor looked very hard and a long way down.
The fall never came, and my moment of panic passed swiftly. The whole thing was an illusion of some kind, for the floor felt firm beneath my feet whatever my eyes told me. I stopped clutching at the door through which I had entered—the door which my eyes kept trying to convince me was really part of the ceiling.
Of course—it was absurdly simple! The room I seemed to be looking
at was really seen reflected in a large mirror immediately in front of me—a mirror set at an angle of forty-five degrees to the vertical. I was actually standing in the upper part of a tall room that was 'bent' horizontally through a right angle, but because of the mirror there was no way of telling this.
I went down on my hands and knees and cautiously edged my way forward. It took a lot of will-power to do this, as my eyes still told me that I was crawling head-first down the side of a vertical wall. After a few feet, I came to a sudden drop and peered over the edge. There below me—
below me this time!—was the room into which I had been looking. The man in the armchair was grinning up at me as if to say, 'We gave you quite a shock, didn't we?' I could see him equally well, of course, by looking at his reflection in the mirror straight ahead of me.
The door behind me opened and the psychologist came in. He was carrying a long strip of paper in his hand and he chuckled as he waved it at me.
'We've got all your reactions on the tape, Roy,' he said. 'Do you know what this test was for?'
'I think I can guess,' I said a little ruefully. 'Is it to discover how I behave when gravity is wrong?'
'That's the idea. It's what we call an orientation test. In space you won't have any gravity at all, and some people are never able to get used to it. The test eliminates most of them.'
I hoped it wouldn't eliminate me, and I spent a very uncomfortable half-hour waiting for the doctors to make up their minds. But I needn't have worried. As I said before, they were on my side and were just as determined to get me through as I was myself…
The New Guinea mountains, just south of the Equator and rising in places more than three miles above sea level, must once have been about the wildest and most inaccessible spots on Earth. Although the helicopter had made them as easy to reach as anywhere else, it was not until the twenty-first century that they became important as the world's main springboard to space.
There are three good reasons for this. First of all, the fact that they are so near the Equator means that, because of the Earth's spin, they're moving from west to east at a thousand miles an hour. That's quite a useful start for a ship on its way out to space. Their height means that all the denser layers of the atmosphere are below them, so that air resistance is reduced and the rockets can work more efficiently. And—perhaps most important of all—there's ten thousand miles of open Pacific stretching away from them to the east. You can't launch spaceships from inhabited areas: apart from the danger if anything goes wrong, the unbelievable noise of an ascending ship would deafen everyone for miles around.
Port Goddard is on a great plateau, levelled by atomic blasting, almost two and a half miles up. There is no way to reach it by land—everything comes in by air. It is the meeting place for ships of the atmosphere and ships of space.
When I first saw it from our approaching jet, it looked a tiny white rectangle among the mountains. Great valleys packed with tropical forests stretched as far as one could see. In some of those valleys, I was told, there are still savage tribes that no one has ever contacted. I wonder what they think of the monsters that fly above their heads and fill the sky with their roaring…
The small amount of luggage I had been allowed to take had been sent on ahead of me, and I wouldn't see it again until I reached the Inner Station. When I stepped out of the jet into the cold, clear air of Port Goddard I already felt so far above sea level that I automatically looked up into the sky to see if I could find my destination. But I wasn't allowed time for the search: the reporters were waiting for me and I had to go in front of the cameras again.
I haven't any idea what I said, and fortunately one of the Port officials soon rescued me. There were the inevitable forms to be filled up, I was weighed very carefully and given some pills to swallow (they made sure that I did, too) and then we climbed aboard a little truck that would take us out to the launching site. I was the only passenger on this trip, as the rocket on which I was travelling was really a freighter.
Most spaceships, naturally enough, have astronomical names. I was flying in the
, and though she was one of the smaller ships, she looked impressive enough as we came up to her. She had already been raised in her supporting cradle so that her prow pointed vertically at the sky, and she seemed to be balanced on the great triangles of her wings. These would only come into action when she glided back into the atmosphere on her return to Earth: at the moment they served merely as supports for the four huge fuel tanks, like giant bombs, which would be jettisoned as soon as the motors had drained them dry. These streamlined tanks were nearly as large as the ship's hull itself.
The servicing gantry was still in position, and as I stepped into the elevator I realized for the first time that I had now cut myself off from Earth. A motor began to whine, and the metal walls of the
slid swiftly past. My view of Port Goddard widened: now I could see all the administrative buildings clustering at the edge of the plateau, the great fuel storage tanks, the strange machinery of the liquid ozone plant, the airfield with its everyday jets and helicopters. And beyond all these, quite unchanged by everything that man had done, the eternal mountains and forests.
The elevator came gently to a halt, and the gates opened on to a short gangway leading into the
. I walked across it, through the open seals of the airlock, and the brilliant tropical sunlight gave way to the cold electric glare of the ship's control room.
The pilot was already in his seat, going through the routine checks. He swivelled round as I entered and gave me a cheerful grin.
'So you're the famous Roy Malcolm, are you? I'll try and get you to the Station in one piece. Have you flown in a rocket before?'
'No,' I replied.
Then don't worry. It's not as bad as some people pretend. Make yourself comfortable in that seat, fasten the straps, and just relax. We've still got twenty minutes before take-off.'