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«Abel knew. Three months earlier, just after his sixteenth birthday, he had guessed, but had been too unsure of himself, too overwhelmed by the logic ...»

-- [ Page 1 ] --

THIRTEEN TO CENTAURUS

Abel knew.

Three months earlier, just after his sixteenth birthday, he had guessed,

but had been too unsure of himself, too overwhelmed by the logic of his

discovery, to mention it to his parents. At times, lying back half asleep

in his bunk while his mother crooned one of the old lays to herself,

he would deliberately repress the knowledge, but always it came back,

nagging at him insistently, forcing him to jettison most of what he had long regarded as the real world.

None of the other children at the Station could, help. They were immersed in their games in Playroom, or chewing pencils over their tests and homework.

'Abel, what's the matter?' Zenna Peters called after him as he: wan- dered off to the empty store-room on D-Deck. 'You're looking sad again.' _ Abel hesitated,, watching Zenria's warm, puzzled smile, then slipped his hands into his pockets and made off, springing down the metal stairway to make sure she didn't follow him. Once she sneaked into the store-room uninvited and he had pulled the light-bulb out of the ^socket, shattered about three weeks of conditioning. Dr Francis had been furious.

; As he hurried along the D-Deck corridor he listened carefully for the doctor, who had recently been keeping an eye on Abel, watching him shrewdly from behind the plastic models in Playroom. Perhaps Abel's mother had told him about the nightmare, when he would wake from a vice of sweating terror, an image of a dull burning disc fixed before his eyes.

If only Dr Francis could cure him of that, dream.

Every six yards down the corridor he stepped through a bulkhead, and idly touched the heavy control boxes on either side of the doorway.

Deliberately unfocusing his mind, Abel identified some of the letters above the switches M-T—RSC—N but they scrambled into a blur as soon as he tried to read the entire phrase.

Conditioning was too strong. After he trapped her in the store-room Zenna had been able to read a few of the notices, but Dr Francis whisked 321 322' THE COMPLETE S H 0 R T. S T O R I E S her away before she could repeat them. Hours later, when she came back, she remembered nothing.

As usual when he entered the store-room, he waited a few seconds before switching on the light, seeing in front of him the small disc of burning light that in his dreams expanded until it filled his brain like a thousand arc lights. It seemed endlessly distant, yet somehow mysteriously potent and magnetic, arousing dormant areas of his mind close to those which responded to his mother's presence.

As the disc began to expand he pressed the switch tab.

To his surprise, the room remained in darkness. He fumbled for., the switch, a short cry slipping involuntarily through his lips.

Abruptly, the light went on.

£Hello, Abel,', Dr Francis said easily, right hand pressing the bulb into its socket. 'Quite a shock, that one/ He leaned against a metal crate. 'I thought we'd have a talk together about your essay.' He took an exercise book out of his white plastic suit as Abel sat down stiffly. Despite his dry smile and warm eyes there was something about Dr Francis that always?

put Abel on his guard.

Perhaps Dr Francis knew too?

'The Closed Community,' Dr Francis read out. 'A strange subject for an essay, Abel.' Abel shrugged. 'It was a free choice. Aren't we really expected to choose something unusual?' Dr Francis grinned. £A good answer. But seriously, Abel, why pick a subject like that?'.

Abel fingered the seals on his suit. These served no useful purpose, but by blowing through them it was possible to inflate the suit. 'Well, it's a sort of study of life at the Station, how we all get on with each other. What else is there to write about? I don't see that it's so strange.' 'Perhaps not. No reason why you shouldn't write about the Station. All four of the others did too. But you called yours "The Closed Community".

The Station isn't closed, Abel, is it?' • 'It's closed in the sense, that we can't go outside,' Abel explained slowly.

'That's all I meant.' 'Outside,' Dr Francis repeated. 'It's an interesting concept. You must have given the whole subject a lot of thought. When did you first start thinking along these lines?' 'After the dream,' Abel said. Dr Francis had- deliberately sidestepped his use of the word 'outside' and he searched for some means of getting to the point. In his pocket he felt the small plumbline he carried around.

'Dr Francis, perhaps you can explain something to me. Why is the Station revolving?' 'Is it?' Dr Francis looked up with interest. 'How do you know?' Abel reached up and fastened the plumbline to the ceiling stanchion.

T H I R T E E N TO CENTAURUS 323.

'The interval between the ball and the wall is about an eighth of an inch greater at the bottom than at the top. Centrifugal forces are driving it outwards. I calculated that the Station is revolving at about two feet per, second;' Dr Francis nodded thoughtfully. 'That's just about right,' he said matter-of-factly. He stood up. 'Let's take a trip to my office. It looks as if it's time you and I had a serious talk.' The Station was on four levels. The lower two contained the crew's quarters, two circular decks of cabins which housed the 14 people on board the Station. The senior clan was the Peters, led by Captain Theodore, a big stern man of taciturn disposition who rarely strayed from Control. Abel had never been allowed there, but the Captain's son, Matthew, often described the hushed dome-like cabin filled with luminous dials and flickering lights, the strange humming music.





All the male members of the Peters clan worked in Control - grandfather Peters, a white-haired old man with humorous eyes, had been Captain before Abel was born— and with the Captain's wife and Zenna they constituted the elite of the Station.

However, the Grangers, the clan to which Abel belonged, was in many respects more important, as he had begun to realize. The day-to-day running of the Station, the; detailed programming of emergency drills, duty rosters and commissary menus, was the responsibility of AbeFs father, '.Matthias, and without his firm but flexible hand the Bakers, who cleaned the cabins and ran the commissary, would never have known what to do.

And it was only the deliberate intermingling in Recreation which his father devised that brought the Peters and Bakers together, or each family would ^have stayed indefinitely in its own cabins.

Lastly, there was Dr Francis. He didn't belong to any of the three clans.

Sometimes Abel asked himself where Dr Francis had come from, but his mind always fogged at a question like thati as the conditioning blocks fell like bulkheads across his-thought trains (logic was a dangerous tool at the Station). Dr Francis' energy and vitality, his relaxed good humour - in a way, he was the only person in the Station who'ever made any jokes were out of character with everyone else. Much as he sometimes disliked Dr Francis for snooping around and being a know-all, Abel realized how dreary life in the Station would seem without him.

Dr Francis closed the door of his cabin and gestured Abel into a seat. All the furniture in the Station was bolted to the floor, but Abel noticed that Dr Francis had unscrewed his chair so that he could tilt it backwards. The huge vacuum-proof cylinder of the doctor's sleeping tank jutted from the wall, its massive metal body able to withstand any accident the Station might suffer. Abel hated the thought of sleeping in the cylinder - luckily the entire crew quarters were accident-secure - and wondered why Dr Francis chose to live alone up on A-Deck.

324' THE COMPLETE S H 0 R T. S T O R I E S 'Tell me, Abel,' Dr Francis began, 'has it ever occurred to you to ask why the Station is here?5 Abel shrugged. -Well, it's designed to keep us alive, it's our home.' 'Yes, that's true, but obviously it has some other object than just our own survival. Who do you think built the Station in the first place?' 'Our fathers, I suppose, or grandfathers. Or their grandfathers.' 'Fair enough. And where were they before they built it?' Abel struggled with the reductio ad absurdum. 'I don't know, they must have been floating around in mid-air!' Dr Francis joined in the laughter. 'Wonderful thought. Actually it's not that far from the truth. But we can't accept that as it stands.' The doctor's self-contained office gave Abel an idea. 'Perhaps they came from another Station? An even bigger one?' Dr Francis nodded encouragingly; 'Brilliant, Abel. A first-class piece of deduction. All right, then, let's assume that. Somewhere away from us, a huge Station exists, perhaps a hundred times bigger than this one, maybe even a thousand. Why not?' 'It's possible,' Abel admitted, accepting the idea with surprising ease.

'Right. Now you remember your course in advanced mechanics - the imaginary planetary system, with the orbiting bodies held together by mutual gravitational attraction? Let's assume further that such a system actually exists. Okay?' " 'Here?' Abel said quickly. 'In your cabin?' Then he added 'In your sleeping cylinder?' Dr Francis sat back. 'Abel, you do come up with some amazing things. An interesting association of ideas. No, it would be too big for that. Try to imagine a planetary system orbiting around a central body of absolutely enormous size, each of the planets a million times larger than the Station.' When Abel nodded, he went on. 'And suppose that the big Station, the one a thousand times larger than this, were attached to one.of the planets, and that the people in it decided to go to another planet. So they build a smaller Station, about the size of this one, and send it off through the air. Make sense?' 'In a way.' Strangely, the completely

Abstract

concepts were less remote than he would have expected. Deep in his mind dim memories stirred, interlocking with what he had already guessed about the Station. He gazed steadily at Dr Francis. 'You're saying that's what the Station is doing? That the planetary system exists?' Dr Francis nodded. 'You'd more or less guessed before I told you.

Unconsciously, you've known all about it for several years. A few minutes from now I'm going to remove some of the conditioning blocks, and when you wake up in a couple of hours you'll understand everything;

You'll know then that in fact the Station is a space ship, flying from our home planet, Earth, where our grandfathers were born, to another planet millions of miles away, in a distant orbiting system. Our grandfathers T H I R T E E N TO CENTAURUS 325.

always lived on Earth, and we are the first people ever to undertake such a journey. You can be proud that you're here. Your grandfather, who volunteered to come, was a great man, and we've got to do everything to make sure that the Station keeps running.' Abel nodded quickly. 'When do we get there - the planet we're flying to?' Dr Francis looked down at his hands, his face growing sombre.

'We'll never get there, Abel. The journey takes too long. This is a multi-generation space vehicle, only our children will land and they'll be old by the time they do. But don't worry, you'll go on thinking of the Station as your only home, and that's deliberate, so that you and your children will be happy here.' He went over to the TV monitor screen by which he kept in touch with Captain Peters, his fingers playing across the control tabs. Suddenly the screen lit up, a blaze of fierce points of light flared into the cabin, throwing a brilliant phosphorescent glitter across the walls, dappling Abel's hands and suit. He gaped at the huge balls of fire, apparently frozen in the middle of a giant explosion, hanging in vast patterns.

'This is the celestial sphere,' Dr Francis explained. 'The starfield into which the Station is moving.' He touched a bright speck of light in the lower half of the screen. 'Alpha Gentauri, the star around which revolves the planet the Station will one day land upon.' He turned to Abel. 'You remember all these terms I'm using, don't you, Abel? None of them seems strange.' Abel nodded, the wells of his unconscious memory flooding into his mind as Dr Francis spoke. The TV screen blanked and then revealed a new picture. They appeared to be looking down at an enormous top-like. structure, the flanks of a metal pylonsloping towards its centre. In ; the / background the starfield rotated slowly in a clockwise direction. 'This is the Station,' Dr Francis explained, 'seen from a camera mounted in the nose boom. All visual checks have to be made indirectly, as the stellar radiation^ would blind us. Just below the ship you can see a single star, the Sun, from which we set out 50 years ago. It's now almost too distant to be visible, but a deep inherited memory of it is the burning disc you see in your dreams. We've done what we can to erase it, but unconsciously all of us see it too.' He switched off the set and the brilliant pattern of light swayed and fell back. 'The social engineering built into the ship is far more intricate than the mechanical, Abel. It's three generations since the Station set off, and birth, marriage and birth again have followed exactly as they were designed to. As your father's heir great demands are going to be made on your patience and understanding. Any disunity here would bring disaster.

The conditioning programmes are not equipped to give you more than a general outline of the course to follow. Most of it will be left to you.' 'Will you always be here?' Dr Francis stood up. 'No, Abel, I won't. No one here lives forever. Your

THE COMPLETE S H 0 R T. S T O R I E S

326' father will die, and Captain Peters and myself. ' He moved to the door.

'We'll go now to Conditioning. In three hours' time, when you wake up, you'll find yourself a new man.' Letting himself back into his cabin, Francis leaned wearily against the bulkhead, feeling the heavy rivets with his fingers, here and there flaking away as the metal slowly rusted. When he switched on the TV set. he looked tired and dispirited, and gazed absently at the last scene he had shown Abel, the boom camera's view of the ship. He was just about to • select another frame when he noticed a dark shadow swing across the surface of the hull.



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