He felt no reluctance to kill, but no spark came. His life was gone. His loss was beyond all paying-back, and made all action pointless. He let himself be turned around and led away. He was very tired now. It would be good to get home at last and.
It sank in a little more. Alice was dead.
When he did get home, there was her silent note, still waiting for him on the table.
The Space Force looked after its own. Adam had scream-it-out grief therapy, and then for a while tranquilizers, and after that grief therapy again, this time that of a different school.
He went on with the motions of living, and then, one day, he began to go on again with living itself.
After a tour of duty as instructor in personal combat at the Academy, his revised orders finally came through for Antares.
The footsteps, those of one person hurrying, came to a halt just outside the messroom door. The door slid open, and the face of the courier ship’s captain appeared, wearing its usual expression of faint disapproval.
“Antares Base is on alert, gentlemen,” the captain informed his two passengers; and then without waiting for an answer or comment he was gone, perpetually hurried footsteps fading.
Adam Mann looked up and across the chessboard at his new boss, Chief Planeteer Colonel Boris Brazil, and asked: “Suppose it’s just practice?”
“I suppose.” Brazil slouched in his chair, a tall, lean, blond, bony-faced man, unmoved by the news. “Or maybe something scared ’em. Maybe they heard old spit-and-polish was coming.” He nodded after the courier’s captain, whose way of running his ship had not earned the Colonel’s respect during the days of voyaging. “Anyway, we’ll soon know. I concede a draw,” Brazil added, nodding cheerfully at his hopeless chess position.
One good thing about putting the whole base on alert, thought General Grodsky, was that it at least got him up into a ship again, even if it didn’t get him out from behind a desk. Nothing could do that, it seemed.
His logistics only grew more complex when an alert was on. He then had to hold most of his available fleet off-planet, while keeping the emergency repair facilities on the surface of Antares Six still ready to function at full capacity, as well as maintaining skeleton crews of people at the other Space Force installations around the system, all under his command. But none of this, somehow, ever cut down on what was still called paperwork. It seemed to the General that at least as much of the dataprocessing as before came shuffling its way inexorably after him, a many-tentacled monster of information; and Grodsky wound up still spending most of his time at a desk.
The door of his inner office aboard his flagship opened now, and his secretary came in, carrying more things that he was going to have to deal with.
The first item in his stack was something Grodsky had been looking for, and he pushed the rest aside. “Molly,” he told his secretary, “get Colonel Brazil in here to me as soon as he’s on board.” The courier with Brazil aboard had begun to transmit its routine, official messages from Earth as soon as it appeared in normal space within reasonable radio range of Antares Base. But Grodsky wanted to hear from the Colonel the unofficial news of attitudes and rumors at home; and he wanted even more urgently to get Chief Planeteer Brazil briefed quickly on this new Fakhuri thing.
Spaceman Adam Mann was kept waiting for several minutes in Grodsky’s outer office, but the young man remained standing during that time; the fact was that he felt too keyed up to sit down. Then the inner office door, through which Colonel Brazil had already passed, opened again and a young woman in uniform stepped out. “The Colonel asked me to lure you in,” she said with a tolerant smile. The impression she conveyed was that she had known the Colonel for some time, and was willing to make allowances.
Adam marched into the inner office, where General Grodsky was sitting appropriately behind a massive desk, while Colonel Brazil meanwhile perched quite inappropriately on a corner of the same piece of furniture. Brazil hardly appeared to notice Adam’s entrance; he was staring into space, as if at some new and fascinating vision that he had just been shown.
Adam marched straight to the desk. “Spaceman Mann reporting, sir.” He threw the General a sharp salute.
Grodsky returned the gesture carelessly, but gave Adam an intent look. “At ease, Mann. Colonel Brazil thinks you can fill a vacancy in the planeteering crew of this flagship.”
“Yes sir.” Adam was well aware of that, and it was exactly why he was keyed up. He hadn’t thought, still didn’t think, that his being given the job was really in doubt. But if the General himself was taking an interest in the matter. “I hope the Colonel’s right, sir.”
In the middle of the largest relatively clear area on the General’s desktop there was a personnel file; Adam recognized a permapaper copy of his own service record, which Colonel Brazil had been carrying around with him and had somehow managed to dogear slightly. Grodsky picked up the file now and began to study it. Almost immediately the General looked up with a frown. “You’ve had only two missions, Mann?” He turned to Brazil. “Boris, I don’t know.”
Brazil, paying attention now, was wearing one of the more subtle forms of what Adam had come to recognize as his I’m-one-up expression. “Read on a little farther, sir. One of those was the rescue job on Killcrazy.”
“Oho.” The General checked the record again, and looked back at Adam with new respect. “Were you with the party that went into the crater?”
Grodsky paged his way deeper into the record and read on. “Boris found you teaching hand-to-hand combat at the Academy. Well, that would fit the team’s needs. Krishnan-the man you’d be replacing-had a high combat rating. Hm, I see you’ve married a Space Force lady. Congrat-oh.” The general raised his eyes again. “I’m very sorry.”
“Sir, I was intending to stay in planeteering before that happened. I’m really eager to get back to it now.”
The General nodded, his eyes probing Adam’s as before. Then Grodsky gestured to a chair. “Sit down, Mann. I’ve already told Colonel Brazil the reason for this alert we’re on. Now I’m going to show both of you.”
Grodsky picked up a small control unit from his desk, and swiveled his chair. The lights dimmed in the office, and a holographic stage slid up in front of the large viewscreen that occupied most of one of the office walls. “This recording,” the General announced, “was made about two standard months ago, aboard theMarco Polo 7 .” Adam recognized the name of a deep-space exploration ship.
There were no titles or preliminary information at the start of the three-dimensional video recording, except the routine security classification label. Not so routine in this case-top secret. Adam hadn’t yet seen many of those.
The recording itself began with some solid-looking symbols on the stage, which he was able to recognize as representing the astrogational co-ordinates of some star system or other deep-space celestial object, no doubt those of some system that theMarco had been sent out to investigate.
More data about the system and its chief components followed, presented in a routine symbolic form. It contained one star, a sun remarkably like Sol, whose light had been blocked from Earth since before the beginning of recorded Earthly history, by a narrow, twisted cloud of opaque interstellar dust. This Sol-like sun and its planets, all of them as yet unnamed, lay on the advancing frontier of Earth-descended humanity, right on the edge of the thirty million cubic light year volume of space which that ambitious race had somehow managed to more or less explore, marking out a small enclave within the end of one arm of the Galaxy’s spiraled bulk.
“We’re skipping a lot of early details of the survey,” said Grodsky in a quiet voice. “Planet Four looked very good, from a distance. Fakhuri went in for a closer investigation, according to standard operating procedure, and-well, you’ll see.”
The stage now effectively placed the three men watching aboard the control bridge of theMargo 7 .
The three-dimensional picture, made in the course of routine recording of periods of key activity, was centered on a dark, intense-looking man who sat in the ship commander’s acceleration chair.
“That’s Fakhuri. A good man,” Grodsky commented firmly. The General paused, and then went on: “At this point, Planet Four still looked almost like a moonless twin of Earth. Which it continues to do in many ways, but. now they’re launching the scoutship. Remember, Fakhuri is following survey SOP and he hasn’t used any radar yet.”
Explorers going out from Earth and Earth’s advanced bases had yet to encounter any aliens technologically sophisticated enough to be able to detect a radar probe. But if any such existed-and it seemed inevitable that there must, somewhere in the Galaxy-there was thought to be no point in warning them prematurely that they were under surveillance.