"Sure. Show me how to swim away through air, I'll be glad to."
"Leggo that spoon!"
"I ain't got your spoon."
"Will you look at it float away. Hey spoon, hey!"
"Watch this, Charlie. This will get you. I mean, get you."
"What are you gonna do?"
"Leggo my leg. Help! I'm up in the air. Stop that."
"I said relax. There. Ha-ha, lookit him spin, just like a top. All you got t_o is get him started and he spins like a top with arms and legs. Top of th_orning to you, Charlie. Ha-ha. I said, top of the… ."
"Someone stop me, I'm getting dizzy."
They floated, tumbled, spun around the spaceship's lounge room in simple, childish glee. They cavorted in festive weightlessness.
"They're happy now," Arkalion observed. "The novelty of free fall, of weighin_xactly nothing, strikes them as amusing."
"I think I'm getting the hang of it," said Temple. Clumsily, he made a fe_entative swimming motions in the air, propelling himself forward a few yard_efore he lost his balance and tumbled head over heels against the wall.
Arkalion came to him quickly, in a combination of swimming and pushing wit_ands and feet against the wall. Arkalion righted him expertly, sat dow_ingerly beside him. "If you keep sudden motions to a minimum, you'll ge_long fine. More than anything else, that's the secret of it."
Temple nodded. "It's sort of like the first time you're on ice skates. Say, how come you're so good at it?"
"I used to read the old, theoretical books on space-travel." The words poure_ut effortlessly, smoothly. "I'm merely applying the theories put forward a_arly as the 1950's."
"Oh." But it left Temple with some food for thought. Alaric Arkalion was _ueer duck, anyway, and of all the men gathered in the spaceship's lounge, h_lone had mastered weightlessness with hardly any trouble.
"Take your ice skates," Arkalion went on. "Some people put them on and us_hem like natural extensions of their feet the first time. Others fall al_ver themselves. I suppose I am lucky."
"Sure," said Temple. Actually, the only thing odd about Arkalion was his old- young face and—perhaps—his propensity for coming up with the right answers a_he right times. Arkalion had seemed so certain of space-travel. He'd hardl_atted an eyelash when they boarded a long, tapering, bullet-shaped ship a_hite Sands and thundered off into the sky. He took for granted the change- over to a huge round ship at the wheel-shaped station in space. Moments afte_eaving the space station—with a minimum of stress and strain, thanks to th_lmost-nil gravity—it was Arkalion who first swam through air to the viewpor_nd pointed out the huge crescent earth, green and gray and brown, sparklin_ith patches of dazzling silver-white. "You will observe it is a crescent,"
Arkalion had said. "It is closer to the sun than we are, and off at an angle.
As I suspected, our destination is Mars."
Then everyone was saying goodbye to earth. Fantastic, it seemed. There wer_ears, there was laughter, cursing, promises of return, awkward verba_omparisons with the crescent moon, vows of faithfulness to lovers an_weethearts. And there was Arkalion, with an avid expression in the old eyes, Arkalion with his boyish face, not saying goodbye so much as he was callin_ello to something Temple could not fathom.
Now, as he struggled awkwardly with weightlessness, Temple called it hi_magination. His thought-patterns shifted vaguely, without motivation, fro_he gleaming, polished interior of the ship with its smell of antiseptic an_etal polish to the clear Spring air of Earth, blue of sky and bright of sun.
The unique blue sky of Earth which he somehow knew could not be duplicate_lsewhere. Elsewhere—the word itself bordered on the meaningless.
And Stephanie. The brief warm ecstasy of her—once, forever. He wondered wit_urprising objectivity if a hundred other names, a hundred other women wer_ot in a hundred other minds while everyone stared at the crescent Eart_anging serenely in space—with each name and each woman as dear as Stephanie, with the same combination of fire and gentle femininity stirring the blood bu_addening the heart. Would Stephanie really forget him? Did he want her to?
That part of him burned by the fire of her said no—no, she must not forge_im. She was his, his alone, roped and branded though a universe separate_hem. But someplace in his heart was the thought, the understanding, th_ealization that although Stephanie might keep a small place for him tucke_omeplace deep in her emotions, she must forget. He was gone—permanently. Fo_tephanie, he was dead. It was as he had told her that last stolen day. I_as… . _Stephanie, Stephanie, how much I love you… ._
Struggling with weightlessness, he made his way back to the small room h_hared with Arkalion. Hardly more than a cubicle, it was, with sufficient roo_or two beds, a sink, a small chest. He lay down and slept, murmurin_tephanie's name in his sleep.
He awoke to the faint hum of the air-pumps, got up feeling rested, forgot hi_eightlessness and floated to the ceiling where only an outthrust ar_revented a nasty bump on his head. He used hand grips on the wall to le_imself down. He washed, aware of no way to prevent the water he splashed o_is face from forming fine droplets and spraying the entire room. When h_rossed back to the foot of his bed to get his towel he thrust one foot ou_oo rapidly, lost his balance, half-rose, stumbled and fell against the othe_ed which, like all other items of furniture, was fastened to the floor. Bu_is elbow struck sleeping Arkalion's jaw sharply, hard enough to jar the man'_eeth.
"I'm sorry," said Temple. "Didn't mean to do that," he apologized again, feeling embarrassed.
Arkalion merely lay there.
"I said I'm sorry."
Arkalion still slept. It seemed inconceivable, for Temple's elbow pained hi_onsiderably. He bent down, examined his inert companion.
Arkalion stirred not a muscle.
Vaguely alarmed, Temple thrust a hand to Arkalion's chest, felt nothing. H_rouched, rested the side of his head over Arkalion's heart. He listened, heard—nothing.
What was going on here?
"Hey, Arkalion!" Temple shook him, gently at first, then with savage force.
Weightless, Arkalion's body floated up off the bed, taking the covers with it.
His own heart pounding furiously, Temple got it down again, fingered the lef_rist and swallowed nervously.
Temple had never seen a dead man before. Arkalion's heart did not beat.
Arkalion had no pulse.
Arkalion was dead.
Yelling hoarsely, Temple plunged from the room, soaring off the floor in hi_aste and striking his head against the ceiling hard enough to make him se_tars. "This guy is dead!" he cried. "Arkalion is dead."
Men stirred in the companionway. Someone called for one of the armed guard_ho were constantly on patrol.
"If he's dead, you're yelling loud enough to get him out of his grave." Th_oice was quiet, amused.
"What?" Temple blurted, whirling around and striking his head again. A littl_ild-eyed, he reentered the room.
"Now, who is dead, Kit?" demanded Arkalion, sitting up and stretchin_omfortably.
"Who—is dead? Who—?" Open-mouthed, Temple stared.
A guard, completely at home with weightlessness, entered the cubicle briskly.
"What's the trouble in here? Something about a dead man, they said."
"A dead man?" demanded Arkalion. "Indeed."
"Dead?" muttered Temple, lamely and foolishly. "Dead… ."
Arkalion smiled deprecatingly. "My friend must have been talking in his sleep.
The only thing dead in here is my appetite. Weightlessness doesn't let yo_ecome very hungry."
"You'll grow used to it," the guard promised. He patted his paunch happily. "_m. Well, don't raise the alarm unless there's some trouble. Remember abou_he boy who cried wolf."
"Of course," said Temple. "Sure. Sorry."
He watched the guard depart.
"Bad dream?" Arkalion wanted to know.
"Bad dream, my foot. I accidentally hit you. Hard enough to hurt. You didn'_ove."
"I'm a sound sleeper."
"I felt for your heart. It wasn't beating. It wasn't!"
"Oh, come, come."
"Your heart was not beating, I said."
"And I suppose I was cold as a slab of ice?"
"Umm, no. I don't remember. Maybe you were. You had no pulse, either."
Arkalion laughed easily. "And am I still dead?"
"Clearly a case of overwrought nerves and a highly keyed imagination. What yo_eed is some more sleep."
"I'm not sleepy, thanks."
"Well, I think I'll get up and go down for breakfast." Arkalion climbed out o_ed gingerly, made his way to the sink and was soon gargling with a bottle o_repared mouthwash, occasionally spraying weightless droplets of the pin_iquid up at the ceiling.
Temple lit a cigarette with shaking fingers, made his way to Arkalion's be_hile the man hummed tunelessly at the sink. Temple let his hands fall on th_heet. It was not cold, but comfortably cool. Hardly as warm as it should hav_een, with a man sleeping on it all night.
Was he still imagining things?
"I'm glad you didn't call for a burial detail and have me expelled into spac_ith yesterday's garbage," Arkalion called over his shoulder jauntily as h_ent outside for some breakfast.
Temple cursed softly and lit another cigarette, dropping the first one into _isposal chute on the wall.
Every night thereafter, Temple made it a point to remain awake after Arkalio_pparently had fallen asleep. But if he were seeking repetition of th_eculiar occurrence, he was disappointed. Not only did Arkalion sleep soundl_nd through the night, but he snored. Loudly and clearly, a wheezing snore.
Arkalion's strange feat—or his own overwrought imagination, Temple though_ryly—was good for one thing: it took his mind off Stephanie. The days wore o_n endless, monotonous routine. He took some books from the ship's library an_rowsed through them, even managing to find one concerned with traumati_atalepsy, which stated that a severe emotional shock might render one into _eep enough trance to have a layman mistakenly pronounce him dead. But wha_ad been the severe emotional disturbance for Arkalion? Could the effects o_eightlessness manifest themselves in that way in rare instances? Templ_aturally did not know, but he resolved to find out if he could after reachin_heir destination.
One day—it was three weeks after they left the space station, Templ_ealized—they were all called to assembly in the ship's large main lounge. A_he men drifted in, Temple was amazed to see the progress they had made wit_eightlessness. He himself had advanced to handy facility in locomotion, bu_t struck him all the more pointedly when he saw two hundred men swim an_loat through air, pushing themselves along by means of the hand-hold_trategically placed along the walls.
The ever-present microphone greeted them all. "Good afternoon, men."
"Good afternoon, mac!"
"Hey, is this the way to Ebbetts' Field?"
"Get on with it!"
"Sounds like the same man who addressed us in White Sands," Temple tol_rkalion. "He sure does get around."
"A recording, probably. Listen."
"Our destination, as you've probably read in newspapers and magazines, is th_lanet Mars."
Mutterings in the assembly, not many of surprise.
"Their suppositions, based both on the seven hundred eighty day lapse betwee_owhere Journeys and the romantic position in which the planet Mars has alway_een held, are correct. We are going to Mars.
"For most of you, Mars will be a permanent home for many years to come—"
"Most of us?" Temple wondered out loud.
Arkalion raised a finger to his lips for silence.
"—until such time as you are rotated according to the policy of rotation se_p by the government."
Temple had grown accustomed to the familiar hoots and catcalls. He almost ha_n urge to join in himself.
"Interesting," Arkalion pointed out. "Back at White Sands they claimed not t_now our destination. They knew it all right—up to a point. The planet Mars.
But now they say that all of us will not remain on Mars. Most interesting."
"—further indoctrination in our mission soon after our arrival on the re_lanet. Landing will be performed under somewhat less strain than the initia_akeoff in the Earth-to-station ferry, since Mars exerts less of a gravit_ull than Earth. On the other hand, you have been weightless for three week_nd the change-over is liable to make some of you sick. It will pas_armlessly enough.
"We realize it is difficult, being taken from your homes without knowing th_ature of your urgent mission. All I can tell you now—and, as a matter o_act, all I know—"
"Here we go again," said Temple. "More riddles."
"—is that everything _is_ of the utmost urgency. Our entire way of life i_t stake. Our job will be to safeguard it. In the months which follow, few o_ou will have any big, significant role to play, but all of you, workin_ogether, will provide the strength we need. When the _cadre_ —"
"So they call their guards teachers," Arkalion commented dryly.
"—come around, they will see that each man is strapped properly into his bun_or deceleration. Deceleration begins in twenty-seven minutes."
_Mars_ , thought Temple, back in his room with Arkalion. _Mars._ He did no_hink of Stephanie, except as a man who knows he must spend the rest of hi_ife in prison might think of a lush green field, or the cool swish of ski_ver fresh, powdery snow, or the sound of yardarms creaking against the win_n a small sailing schooner, or the tang of wieners roasting over an open fir_ith the crisp air of fall against your back, or the scent of good Frenc_randy, or a woman.
Deceleration began promptly. Before his face was distorted and his eyes force_hut by a pressure of four gravities, Temple had time to see the look o_omplete unconcern on Arkalion's face. Arkalion, in fact, was sleeping.
He seemed as completely relaxed as he did that morning Temple thought he wa_ead.