“What could he be planning,” Kramer said, half to himself. “It doesn’t make sense. I don’t get it.”
As the ship sped back toward the moon base they sat around the table in the dining room, sipping hot coffee and thinking, not saying very much.
“Look here,” Gross said at last. “What kind of man was Professor Thomas? What do you remember about him?”
Kramer put his coffee mug down. “It was ten years ago. I don’t remember much. It’s vague.”
He let his mind run back over the years. He and Dolores had been at Hunt College together, in physics and the life sciences. The College was small and set back away from the momentum of modern life. He had gone there because it was his home town, and his father had gone there before him.
Professor Thomas had been at the College a long time, as long as anyone could remember. He was a strange old man, keeping to himself most of the time. There were many things that he disapproved of, but he seldom said what they were.
“Do you recall anything that might help us?” Gross asked. “Anything that would give us a clue as to what he might have in mind?”
Kramer nodded slowly. “I remember one thing. . .”
One day he and the Professor had been sitting together in the school chapel, talking leisurely.
“Well, you’ll be out of school, soon,” the Professor had said. “What are you going to do?”
“Do? Work at one of the Government Research Projects, I suppose.”
“And eventually? What’s your ultimate goal?”
Kramer had smiled. “The question is unscientific. It presupposes such things as ultimate ends.”
“Suppose instead along these lines, then: What if there were no war and no Government Research Projects? What would you do, then?”
“I don’t know. But how can I imagine a hypothetical situation like that? There’s been war as long as I can remember. We’re geared for war. I don’t know what I’d do. I suppose I’d adjust, get used to it.”
The Professor had stared at him. “Oh, you do think you’d get accustomed to it, eh? Well, I’m glad of that. And you think you could find something to do?”
Gross listened intently. “What do you infer from this, Kramer?”
“Not much. Except that he was against war.”
“We’re all against war,” Gross pointed out.
“True. But he was withdrawn, set apart. He lived very simply, cooking his own meals. His wife died many years ago. He was born in Europe, in Italy. He changed his name when he came to the United States. He used to read Dante and Milton. He even had a Bible.”
“Very anachronistic, don’t you think?”
“Yes, he lived quite a lot in the past. He found an old phonograph and records and he listened to the old music. You saw his house, how old-fashioned it was.”
“Did he have a file?” Winter asked Gross.
“With Security? No, none at all. As far as we could tell he never engaged in political work, never joined anything or even seemed to have strong political convictions.”
“No,” Kramer agreed. “About all he ever did was walk through the hills. He liked nature.”
“Nature can be of great use to a scientist,” Gross said. “There wouldn’t be any science without it.”
“Kramer, what do you think his plan is, taking control of the ship and disappearing?” Winter said.
“Maybe the transfer made him insane,” the Pilot said. “Maybe there’s no plan, nothing rational at all.”
“But he had the ship rewired, and he had made sure that he would retain consciousness and memory before he even agreed to the operation. He must have had something planned from the start. But what?”
“Perhaps he just wanted to stay alive longer,” Kramer said. “He was old and about to die. Or –”
“Nothing.” Kramer stood up. “I think as soon as we get to the moon base I’ll make a vidcall to earth. I want to talk to somebody about this.”
“Who’s that?” Gross asked.
“Dolores. Maybe she remembers something.”
“That’s a good idea,” Gross said.
“Where are you calling from?” Dolores asked, when he succeeded in reaching her.
“From a moon base.”
“All kinds of rumors are running around. Why didn’t the ship come back? What happened?”
“I’m afraid he ran off with it.”
“The Old Man. Professor Thomas.” Kramer explained what had happened.
Dolores listened intently. “How strange. And you think he planned it all in advance, from the start?”
“I’m certain. He asked for the plans of construction and the theoretical diagrams at once.”
“But why? What for?”
“I don’t know. Look, Dolores. What do you remember about him? Is there anything that might give a clue to all this?”
“I don’t know. That’s the trouble.”
On the vidscreen Dolores knitted her brow. “I remember he raised chickens in his back yard and once he had a goat.” She smiled. “Do you remember the day the goat got loose and wandered down the main street of town? Nobody could figure out where it came from.”
“No.” He watched her struggling, trying to remember. “He wanted to have a farm, sometime, I know.”
“All right. Thanks.” Kramer touched the switch. “When I get back to Terra maybe I’ll stop and see you.”
“Let me know how it works out.”
He cut the line and the picture dimmed and faded. He walked slowly back to where Gross and some officers of the Military were sitting at a chart table, talking.
“Any luck?” Gross said, looking up.
“No. All she remembers is that he kept a goat.”
“Come over and look at this detail chart.” Gross motioned him around to his side. “Watch!”
Kramer saw the record tabs moving furiously, the little white dots racing back and forth.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“A squadron outside the defense zone has finally managed to contact the ship. They’re maneuvering now, for position. Watch.”
The white counters were forming a barrel formation around a black dot that was moving steadily across the board, away from the central position. As they watched, the white dots constructed around it.
“They’re ready to open fire,” a technician at the board said. “Commander, what shall we tell them to do?”
Gross hesitated. “I hate to be the one who makes the decision. When it comes right down to it –”
“It’s not just a ship,” Kramer said. “It’s a man, a living person. A human being is up there, moving through space. I wish we knew what –”
“But the order has to be given. We can’t take any chances. Suppose he went over to them, to the yuks.”
Kramer’s jaw dropped. “My God, he wouldn’t do that.”
“Are you sure? Do you know what he’ll do?”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
Gross turned to the technician. “Tell them to go ahead.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but now the ship has gotten away. Look down at the board.”
Gross stared down, Kramer over his shoulder. The black dot had slipped through the white dots and had moved off at an abrupt angle. The white dots were broken up, dispersing in confusion.
“He’s an unusual strategist,” one of the officers said. He traced the line. “It’s an ancient maneuver, an old Prussian device, but it worked.”
The white dots were turning back. “Too many yuk ships out that far,” Gross said. “Well, that’s what you get when you don’t act quickly.” He looked up coldly at Kramer. “We should have done it when we had him. Look at him go!” He jabbed a finger at the rapidly moving black dot. The dot came to the edge of the board and stopped. It had reached the limit of the charted area. “See?”
Now what? Kramer thought, watching. So the Old Man had escaped the cruisers and gotten away. He was alert, all right; there was nothing wrong with his mind. Or with ability to control his new body.
Body — The ship was a new body for him. He had traded in the old dying body, withered and frail, for this hulking frame of metal and plastic, turbines and rocket jets. He was strong, now. Strong and big. The new body was more powerful than a thousand human bodies. But how long would it last him? The average life of a cruiser was only ten years. With careful handling he might get twenty out of it, before some essential part failed and there was no way to replace it.
And then, what then? What would he do, when something failed and there was no one to fix it for him? That would be the end. Someplace, far out in the cold darkness of space, the ship would slow down, silent and lifeless, to exhaust its last heat into the eternal timelessness of outer space. Or perhaps it would crash on some barren asteroid, burst into a million fragments.
It was only a question of time.
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