After takeoff the ship routinely monitored the condition of the sixty people sleeping in its cryonic tanks. One malfunction showed, that of person nine. His EEG revealed brain activity.
Shit, the ship said to itself.
Complex homeostatic devices locked into circuit feed, and the ship contacted person nine.
“You are slightly awake,” the ship said, utilizing the psychotronic route; there was no point in rousing person nine to full consciousness—after all, the flight would last a decade.
Virtually unconscious, but unfortunately still able to think, person nine thought, Someone is addressing me. He said, “Where am I located? I don’t see anything.”
“You’re in faulty cryonic suspension.”
He said, “Then I shouldn’t be able to hear you.”
“‘Faulty,’ I said. That’s the point; you can hear me. Do you know your name?”
“Victor Kemmings. Bring me out of this.”
“We are in flight.”
“Then put me under.”
“Just a moment.” The ship examined the cryonic mechanisms; it scanned and surveyed and then it said, “I will try.”
Time passed. Victor Kemmings, unable to see anything, unaware of his body, found himself still conscious. “Lower my temperature,” he said. He could not hear his voice; perhaps he only imagined he spoke. Colors floated toward him and then rushed at him. He liked the colors; they reminded him of a child’s paint box, the semianimated kind, an artificial life-form. He had used them in school, two hundred years ago.
“I can’t put you under,” the voice of the ship sounded inside Kemming’s head. “The malfunction is too elaborate; I can’t correct it and I can’t repair it. You will be conscious for ten years.”
The semianimated colors rushed toward him, but now they possessed a sinister quality, supplied to them by his own fear. “Oh my God,” he said. Ten years! The colors darkened.
As Victor Kemmings lay paralyzed, surrounded by dismal flickerings of light, the ship explained to him its strategy. This strategy did not represent a decision on its part; the ship had been programmed to seek this solution in case of a malfunction of this sort.
“What I will do,” the voice of the ship came to him, “is feed you sensory stimulation. The peril to you is sensory deprivation. If you are conscious for ten years without sensory data, your mind will deteriorate. When we reach the LR4 System, you will be a vegetable.”
“Well, what do you intend to feed me?” Kemmings said in panic. “What do you have in your information storage banks? All the video soap operas of the last century? Wake me up and I’ll walk around.”
“There is no air in me,” the ship said. “Nothing for you to eat. No one to talk to, since everyone else is under.”
Kemmings said, “I can talk to you. We can play chess.”
“Not for ten years. Listen to me; I say, I have no food and no air. You must remain as you are … a bad compromise, but one forced on us. You are talking to me now. I have no particular information stored. Here is policy in these situations: I will feed you your own buried memories, emphasizing the pleasant ones. You possess two hundred and six years of memories and most of them have sunk down into your unconscious. This is a splendid source of sensory data for you to receive. Be of good cheer. This situation, which you are in, is not unique. It has never happened within my domain before, but I am programmed to deal with it. Relax and trust me. I will see that you are provided with a world.”
“They should have warned me,” Kemmings said, “before I agreed to emigrate.” “Relax,” the ship said.
He relaxed, but he was terribly frightened. Theoretically, he should have gone under, into the successful cryonic suspension, then awakened a moment later al his star of destination; or rather the planet, the colony planet, of that star. Everyone else aboard the ship lay in an unknowing state—he was the exception, as if bad karma had attacked him for obscure reasons. Worst of all, he had to depend totally on the goodwill of the ship. Suppose it elected to feed him monsters? The ship could terrorize him for ten years—ten objective years and undoubtedly more from a subjective standpoint. He was, in effect, totally in the ship’s power. Did interstellar ships enjoy such a situation? He knew little about interstellar ships; his field was microbiology. Let me think, he said to himself. My first wife, Martine; the lovely little French girl who wore jeans and a red shirt open at the waist and cooked delicious crepes. “I hear,” the ship said. “So be it.” The rushing colors resolved themselves into coherent, stable sh apes. A building: a little old yellow wooden house that he had owned when he was nineteen years old, in Wyoming. “Wait,” he said in panic. “The foundation was bad; it was on a mud sill. And the roof leaked.” But he saw the kitchen, with the table that he had built himself. And he felt glad.
“You will not know, after a little while,” the ship said, “that I am feeding you your own buried memories.”
“I haven’t thought of that house in a century,” he said wonderingly; entranced, he made out his old electric drip coffee pot with the box of paper filters beside it. This is the house where Martine and I lived, he realized. “Martine!” he said aloud.
“I’m on the phone,” Martine said from the living room.
The ship said, “I will cut in only when there is an emergency. I will be monitoring you, however, to be sure you are in a satisfactory state. Don’t be afraid.”
“Turn down the right rear burner on the stove,” Martine called. He could hear her and yet not see her. He made his way from the kitchen through the dining room and into the living room. At the VF, Martine stood in rapt conversation with her brother; she wore shorts and she was barefoot. Through the front windows of the living room he could see the street; a commercial vehicle was trying to park, without success.
It’s a warm day, he thought. I should turn on the air conditioner.
He seated himself on the old sofa as Martine continued her VF conversation, and he found himself gazing at his most cherished possession, a framed poster on the wall above Martine: Gilbert Shelton’s “Fat Freddy Says” drawing in which Freddy Freak sits with his cat on his lap, and Fat Freddy is trying to say, “Speed kills,” but he is so wired on speed—he holds in his hand every kind of amphetamine tablet, pill, spansule, and capsule that exists—that he can’t say it, and the cat is gritting his teeth and wincing in a mixture of dismay and disgust. The poster is signed by Gilbert Shelton himself; Kemmings’s best friend Ray Torrance gave it to him and Martine as a wedding present. It is worth thousands. It was signed by the artist back in the 1980s. Long before either Victor Kemmings or Martine lived.
If we ever run out of money, Kemmings thought to himself, we could sell the poster. It was not a poster; it was the poster. Martine adored it. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers—from the golden age of a long-ago society. No wonder he loved Martine so; she herself loved back, loved the beauties of the world, and treasured and cherished them as she treasured and cherished him; it was a protective love that nourished but did not stifle. It had been her idea to frame the poster; he would have tacked it up on the wall, so stupid was he.
“Hi,” Martine said, off the VF now. “What are you thinking?”
“Just that you keep alive what you love,” he said.
“I think that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Martine said. “Are you ready for dinner? Open some red wine, a cabernet.”
“Will an ’07 do?” he said, standing up; he felt, then, like taking hold of his wife and hugging her.
“Either an ’07 or a ’12.” She trotted past him, through the dining room and into the kitchen.
Going down into the cellar, he began to search among the bottles, which, of course, lay flat. Musty air and dampness; he liked the smell of the cellar, but then he noticed the redwood planks lying half-buried in the dirt and he thought, I know I’ve got to get a concrete slab poured. He forgot about the wine and went over to the far corner, where the dirt was piled highest; bending down, he poked at a board… he poked with a trowel and then he thought, Where did I get this trowel? I didn’t have it a minute ago. The board crumbled against the trowel. This whole house is collapsing, he realized. Christ sake. I better tell Martine.
Going back upstairs, the wine forgotten, he started to say to her that the foundations of the house were dangerously decayed, but Martine was nowhere in sight. And nothing cooked on the stove—no pots, no pans. Amazed, he put his hand on the stove and found it cold. Wasn’t she just now cooking? he asked himself. “Martine!” he said loudly.
No response. Except for himself, the house was empty. Empty, he thought, and collapsing. Oh my God. He seated himself at the kitchen table and felt the chair give slightly under him; it did not give much, but he felt it; he felt the sagging.
I’m afraid, he thought. Where did she go?
He returned to the living room. Maybe she went next door to borrow some spices or butter or something, he reasoned. Nonetheless, panic now filled him.
He looked at the poster. It was unframed. And the edges had been torn.
I know she framed it, he thought; he ran across the room to it, to examine it closely. Faded . . . the artist’s signature had faded; he could scarcely make it out. She insisted on framing it and under glare-free, reflection-free glass. But it isn’t framed and it’s torn! The most precious thing we own!
Suddenly he found himself crying. It amazed him, his tears. Martine is gone; the poster is deteriorated; the house is crumbling away; nothing is cooking on the stove. This is terrible, he thought. And I don’t understand it.
The ship understood it. The ship had been carefully monitoring Victor Kemmings’s brain wave patterns, and the ship knew that something had gone wrong. The wave-forms showed agitation and pain. I must get him out of this feed-circuit or I will kill him, the ship decided. Where does the flaw lie? it asked itself. Worry dormant in the man; underlying anxieties. Perhaps if I intensify the signal. I will use the same source, but amp up the charge. What has happened is that massive subliminal insecurities have taken possession of him; the fault is not mine, but lies, instead, in his psychological makeup.
I will try an earlier period in his life, the ship decided. Before the neurotic anxieties got laid down.
In the backyard, Victor scrutinized a bee that had gotten itself trapped in a spider’s web. The spider wound up the bee with great care. That’s wrong, Victor thought. I’ll let the bee loose. Reaching up, he took hold of the encapsulated bee, drew it from the web, and, scrutinizing it carefully, began to unwrap it.
The bee stung him; it felt like a little patch of flame.
Why did it sting me? he wondered. I was letting it go. He went indoors to his mother and told her, but she did not listen; she was watching television. His finger hurt where the bee had stung up, but, more important, he did not understand why the bee would attack its rescuer. I won’t do that again, he said to himself.
“Put some Bactine on it,” his mother said at last, roused from watching the TV.
He had begun to cry. It was unfair. It made no sense. He was perplexed and dismayed and he felt a hatred toward small living things, because they were dumb. They didn’t have any sense.
He left the house, played for a time on his swings, his slide, in his sandbox, and then he went into the garage because he heard a strange flapping, whirring sound, like a kind of fan. Inside the gloomy garage, he found that a bird was fluttering against the cobwebbed rear window, trying to get out. Below it, the cat, Dorky, leaped and leaped, trying to reach the bird.
He picked up the cat; the cat extended its body and its front legs, it extended its jaws and bit into the bird. At once the cat scrambled down and ran off with the still-fluttering bird.
Victor ran into the house. “Dorky caught a bird!” he told his mother.
“That goddam cat.” His mother took the broom from the closet in the kitchen and ran outside, trying to find Dorky. The cat had concealed itself under the bramble bushes; she could not reach it with the broom. “I’m going to get rid of that cat,” his mother said.
Victor did not tell her that he had arranged for the cat to catch the bird; he watched in silence as his mother tried and tried to pry Dorky out from her hiding place; Dorky was crunching up the bird; he could hear the sound of breaking bones, small bones. He felt a strange feeling, as if he should tell his mother what he had done, and yet if he told her she would punish him. I won’t do that again, he said to himself. His face, he realized, had turned red. What if his mother figured it out? What if she had some secret way of knowing? Dorky couldn’t tell her and the bird was dead. No one would ever know. He was safe.
But he felt bad. That night he could not eat his dinner. Both his parents noticed. They thought he was sick; they took his temperature. He said nothing about what he had done. His mother told his father about Dorky and they decided to get rid of Dorky. Seated at the table, listening, Victor began to cry.
“All right,” his father said gently. “We won’t get rid of her. It’s natural for a cat to catch a bird.”
The next day he sat playing in his sandbox. Some plants grew up through the sand. He broke them off. Later his mother told him that had been a wrong thing to do.
Alone in the backyard, in his sandbox, he sat with a pail of water, forming a small mound of wet sand. The sky, which had been blue and clear, became by degrees overcast. A shadow passed over him and he looked up. He sensed a presence around him, something vast that could think.
You are responsible for the death of the bird, the presence thought; he could understand its thoughts.
“I know,” he said. He wished, then, that he could die. That he could replace the bird and die for it, leaving it as it had been, fluttering against the cob-webbed window of the garage.
The bird wanted to fly and eat and live, the presence thought.
“Yes,” he said miserably. “You must never do that again,” the presence told him. “I’m sorry,” he said, and wept.
This is a very neurotic person, the ship realized. I am having an awful lot of trouble finding happy memories. There is too much fear in him and too much guilt. He has buried it all, and yet it is still there, worrying him like a dog worrying a rag. Where can I go in his memories to find him solace? I must come up with ten years of memories, or his mind will be lost.
Perhaps, the ship thought, the error that I am making is in the area of choice on my part; I should allow him to select his own memories. However, the ship realized, this will allow an element of fantasy to enter. And that is not usually good. Still I will try the segment dealing with his first marriage once again, the ship decided. He really loved Marline.
Perhaps this time if I keep the intensity of the memories at a greater level the entropic factor can be abolished. What happened was a subtle vitiation of the remembered world, a decay of structure. I will try to compensate for that. So be it.
“Do you suppose Gilbert Shelton really signed this?” Marline said pensively; she stood before the poster, her arms folded; she rocked back and forth slighlly, as if seeking a better perspective on the brightly colored drawing hanging on their living room wall. “I mean, it could have been forged. By a dealer somewhere along Ihe line. During Shellon’s lifetime or after.”
“The letter of authentication,” Victor Kemmings reminded her.
“Oh, thal’s righl!” She smiled her warm smile. “Ray gave us Ihe letter lhal goes wilh it. But suppose the letter is a forgery? Whal we need is another letter certifying that the first letter is authentic.” Laughing, she walked away from the poster.
“Ultimately,” Kemmings said, “we would have lo have Gilbert Shellon here lo personally testify lhal he signed it.”
“Maybe he wouldn’t know. There’s lhal slory aboul Ihe man bringing Ihe Picasso piclure lo Picasso and asking him if il was authentic, and Picasso immediately signed it and said, ‘Now it’s authentic.'” She put her arm around Kemmings and, standing on tiploe, kissed him on Ihe cheek. “It’s genuine. Ray wouldn’t have given us a forgery. He’s the leading expert on countercullure art of Ihe Iwenlieth century. Do you know lhat he owns an aclual lid of dope? It’s preserved under—”
“Ray is dead,” Victor said.
“Whal?” She gazed al him in astonishment “Do you mean somelhing happened lo him since we last—”
“He’s been dead two years,” Kemmings said. “I was responsible. I was driving the buzzcar. I wasn’t cited by the police, bul il was my fault.”
“Ray is living on Mars!” She stared al him.
“I know I was responsible. I never lold you. I never lold anyone. I’m sorry. I didn’l mean lo do it. I saw it flapping againsl Ihe window, and Dorky was Irying lo reach it, and I lifted Dorky up, and I don’t know why but Dorky grabbed it—”
“Sit down, Victor.” Marline led him lo Ihe over-sluffed chair and made him seal himself. “Somelhing’s wrong,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “Somelhing terrible is wrong. I’m responsible for Ihe laking of a life, a precious life lhat can never be replaced. I’m sorry. I wish I could make it okay, bul I can’t”
After a pause, Marline said, “Call Ray.”
“The cat—” he said.
“There.” He pointed. “In the poster. On Fal Freddy’s lap. Thai’s Dorky. Dorky killed Ray.”
“The presence lold me,” Kemmings said. “It was God. I didn’t realize il al Ihe lime, bul God saw me commil Ihe crime. The murder. And he will never forgive me.”
His wife slared al him numbly.
“God sees everylhing you do,” Kemmings said. “He sees even the falling sparrow. Only in this case il didn’l fall; il was grabbed. Grabbed oul of the air and torn down. God is tearing Ihis house down which is my body, lo pay me back for whal I’ve done. We should have had a building contractor look this house over before we bought it. It’s jusl falling goddam lo pieces.
In a year there won’t be anything left of it. Don’t you believe me?”
Martine faltered, “I—”
“Watch.” Kemmings reached up his arms toward the ceiling; he stood; he reached; he could not touch the ceiling. He walked to the wall and then, after a pause, put his hand through the wall.
The ship aborted the memory retrieval instantly. But the harm had been done.
He has integrated his early fears and guilt into one interwoven grid, the ship said to itself. There is no way I can serve up a pleasant memory to him because he instantly contaminates it. However pleasant the original experience in itself was. This is a serious situation, the ship decided. The man is already showing signs of psychosis. And we are hardly into the trip; years lie ahead of him.
After allowing itself time to think the situation through, the ship decided to contact Victor Kemmings once more.
“Mr. Kemmings,” the ship said.
“I’m sorry,” Kemmings said. “I didn’t mean to foul up those retrievals. You did a good job, but I—”
“Just a moment,” the ship said. “I am not equipped to do psychiatric reconstruction of you; I am a simple mechanism, that’s all. What is it you want? Where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing?”
“I want to arrive at our destination,” Kemmings said. “I want this trip to be over.” Ah, the ship thought. That is the solution.
One by one the cryonic systems shut down. One by one the people returned to life, among them Victor Kemmings. What amazed him was the lack of a sense of the passage of time. He had entered the chamber, lain down, had felt the membrane cover him and the temperature begin to drop—
And now he stood on the ship’s external platform, the unloading platform, gazing down at a verdant planetary landscape. This, he realized, is LR4-6, the colony world to which I have come in order to begin a new life.
“Looks good,” a heavyset woman beside him said.
“Yes,” he said, and felt the newness of the landscape rush up at him, its promise of a beginning. Something better than he had known the past two hundred years. I am a fresh person in a fresh world, he thought. And he felt glad.
Colors raced at him, like those of a child’s semianimate kit. Saint Elmo’s fire, he realized. That’s right; there is a great deal of ionization in this planet’s atmosphere. A free light show, such as they had back in the twentieth century.
“Mr. Kemmings,” a voice said. An elderly man had come up beside him, to speak to him. “Did you dream?”
“During the suspension?” Kemmings said. “No, not that I can remember.”
“I think I dreamed,” the elderly man said. “Would you take my arm on the descent ramp? I feel unsteady. The air seems thin. Do you find it thin?”
“Don’t be afraid,” Kemmings said to him. He took the elderly man’s arm. “I’ll help you down the ramp. Look; there’s a guide coming this way. He’ll arrange our processing for us; it’s part of the package. We’ll be taken to a resort hotel and given first-class accommodations. Read your brochure.” He smiled at the uneasy older man to reassure him.
“You’d think our muscles would be nothing but flab after ten years in suspension,” the elderly man said.
“It’s just like freezing peas,” Kemmings said. Holding on to the timid older man, he descended the ramp to the ground. “You can store them forever if you get |them cold enough.”
“My name’s Shelton,” the elderly man said.
“What?” Kemmings said, halting. A strange feeling moved through him.
“Don Shelton.” The elderly man extended his hand; reflexively, Kemmings accepted it and they shook. “What’s the matter, Mr. Kemmings? Are you all right?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’m fine. But hungry. I’d like to get something to eat. I’d like to get to our hotel, where I can take a shower and change my clothes.” He wondered where their baggage could be found. Probably it would take the ship an hour to unload it. The ship was not particularly intelligent.
In an intimate, confidential tone, elderly Mr. Shelton said, “You know what I brought with me? A bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon. The finest bourbon on Earth. I’ll bring it over to your hotel room and we’ll share it.” He nudged Kemmings.
“I don’t drink,” Kemmings said. “Only wine.” He wondered if there were any good wines here on this distant colony world. Not distant now, he reflected. It is Earth that’s distant. I should have done like Mr. Shelton and brought a few bottles with me.
Shelton. What did the name remind him of? Something in his far past, in his early years. Something precious, along with good wine and a pretty, gentle young woman making crepes in an old-fashioned kitchen. Aching memories; memories that hurt.
Presently he stood by the bed in his hotel room, his suitcase open; he had begun to hang up his clothes. In the corner of the room, a TV hologram showed a newscaster; he ignored it, but, liking the sound of a human voice, he kept it on.
Did I have any dreams? he asked himself. During these past ten years?
His hand hurt. Gazing down, he saw a red welt, as if he had been stung. A bee stung me, he realized. But when? How? While I lay in cryonic suspension? Impossible. Yet he could see the welt and he could feel the pain. I better get something to put on it, he realized. There’s undoubtedly a robot doctor in the hotel; it’s a first-rate hotel.
When the robot doctor had arrived and was treating the bee sting, Kemmings said, “I got this as punishment for killing the bird.” “Really?” the robot doctor said. “Everything that ever meant anything to me has been taken away from me,” Kemmings said. “Marline, the poster—my little old house with the wine cellar. We had everything and now it’s gone. Martine left me because of the bird.”
“The bird you killed,” the robot doctor said. “God punished me. He took away all that was precious to me because of my sin. It wasn’t Dorky’s sin; it was my sin.”
“But you were just a little boy,” the robot doctor said.
“How did you know that?” Kemmings said. He pulled his hand away from the robot doctor’s grasp. “Something’s wrong. You shouldn’t have known that.”
“Your mother told me,” the robot doctor said. “My mother didn’t know!”
The robot doctor said, “She figured it out. There was | no way the cat could have reached the bird without ; your help.”
“So all the time that I was growing up she knew. But |she never said anything.”
“You can forget about it,” the robot doctor said. _ Kemmings said, “I don’t think you exist. There is no I possible way that you could know these things. I’m still I in cryonic suspension and the ship is still feeding me my own buried memories. So I won’t become psychotic from sensory deprivation.”
“You could hardly have a memory of completing the trip.”
“Wish fulfillment, then. It’s the same thing. I’ll prove I it to you. Do you have a screwdriver?”
Kemmings said, “I’ll remove the back of the TV set and you’ll see; there’s nothing inside it; no components, no parts, no chassis—nothing.”
“I don’t have a screwdriver.”
“A small knife, then. I can see one in your surgical supply bag.” Bending, Kemmings lifted up a small scalpel. “This will do. If I show you, will you believe me?”
“If there’s nothing inside the TV cabinet—”
Squatting down, Kemmings removed the screws holding the back panel of the TV set in place. The panel came loose and he set it down on the floor.
There was nothing inside the TV cabinet. And yet the color hologram continued to fill a quarter of the hotel room, and the voice of the newscaster issued forth from his three-dimensional image.
“Admit you’re the ship,” Kemmings said to the robot doctor.
“Oh dear,” the robot doctor said.
Oh dear, the ship said to itself. And I’ve got almost ten years of this lying ahead of me. He is hopelessly contaminating his experiences with childhood guilt; he imagines that his wife left him because, when he was four years old, he helped a cat catch a bird. The only solution would be for Martine to return to him, but how am I going to arrange that? She may not still be alive. On the other hand, the ship reflected, maybe she is alive. Maybe she could be induced to do something to save her former husband’s sanity. People by and large have very positive traits. And ten years from now it will take a lot to save—or rather restore—his sanity; it will take something drastic, something I myself cannot do alone.
Meanwhile, there was nothing to be done but recycle the wish fulfillment arrival of the ship at its destination. I will run him through the arrival, the ship decided, then wipe his conscious memory clean and run him through it again. The only positive aspect of this, it reflected, is that it will give me something to do, which may help preserve my sanity.
Lying in cryonic suspension—faulty cryonic suspension—Victor Kemmings imagined, once again, that the ship was touching down and he was being brought back to consciousness.
“Did you dream?” a heavyset woman asked him as the group of passengers gathered on the outer platform. “I have the impression that I dreamed. Early scenes from my life . . . over a century ago.”
“None that I can remember,” Kemmings said. He was eager to reach his hotel; a shower and a change of clothes would do wonders for his morale. He felt slightly depressed and wondered why.
“There’s our guide,” an elderly lady said. “They’re going to escort us to our accommodations.”
“It’s in the package,” Kemmings said. His depression remained. The others seemed so spirited, so full of life, but over him only a weariness lay, a weighing-down sensation, as if the gravity of this colony planet were too much for him. Maybe that’s it, he said to himself. But, according to the brochure, the gravity here matched Earth’s; that was one of the attractions.
Puzzled, he made his way slowly down the ramp, step by step, holding on to the rail. I don’t really deserve a new chance at life anyhow, he realized. I’m just going through the motions … I am not like these other people. There is something wrong with me; I cannot remember what it is, but nonetheless it is there. In me. A bitter sense of pain. Of lack of worth.
An insect landed on the back of Kemmings’s right hand, an old insect, weary with flight. He halted, watched it crawl across his knuckles. I could crush it, he thought. It’s so obviously infirm; it won’t live much longer anyhow.
He crushed it—and felt great inner horror. What have I done? he asked himself. My first moment here and I have wiped out a little life. Is this my new beginning?
Turning, he gazed back up at the ship. Maybe I ought to go back, he thought. Have them freeze me forever. I am a man of guilt, a man who destroys. Tears filled his eyes.
And, within its sentient works, the interstellar ship moaned.
During the ten long years remaining in the trip to the LR4 System, the ship had plenty of time to track down Martine Kemmings. It explained the situation to her. She had emigrated to a vast orbiting dome in the Sirius System, found her situation unsatisfactory, and was en route back to Earth. Roused from her own cryonic suspension, she listened intently and then agreed to be at the colony world LR4-6 when her ex-husband arrived—if it was at all possible.
Fortunately, it was possible.
“I don’t think he’ll recognize me,” Martine said to the ship. “I’ve allowed myself to age. I don’t really approve of entirely halting the aging process.”
He’ll be lucky if he recognizes anything, the ship thought.
At the intersystem spaceport on the colony world of LR4-6, Martine stood waiting for the people aboard the ship to appear on the outer platform. She wondered if she would recognize her former husband. She was a little afraid, but she was glad that she had gotten to LR4-6 in time. It had been close. Another week and his ship would have arrived before hers. Luck is on my side, she said to herself, and scrutinized the newly landed interstellar ship.
People appeared on the platform. She saw him. Victor had changed very little.
As he came down the ramp, holding onto the railing as if weary and hesitant, she came up to him, her hands thrust deep in the pockets of her coat; she felt shy and when she spoke she could hardly hear her own voice.
“Hi, Victor,” she managed to say.
He halted, gazed at her. “I know you,” he said.
“It’s Martine,” she said.
Holding out his hand, he said, smiling, “You heard about the trouble on the ship?”
“The ship contacted me.” She took his hand and held it. “What an ordeal.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Recirculating memories forever. Did I ever tell you about a bee that I was trying to extricate from a spider’s web when I was four years old? The idiotic bee stung me.” He bent down and kissed her. “It’s good to see you,” he said.
“Did the ship—”
“It said it would try to have you here. But it wasn’t sure if you could make it.”
As they walked toward the terminal building, Mar-tine said, “I was lucky; I managed to get a transfer to a military vehicle, a high-velocity-drive ship that just shot along like a mad thing. A new propulsion system entirely.”
Victor Kemmings said, “I have spent more time in my own unconscious mind than any other human in history. Worse than early-twentieth-century psychoanalysis. And the same material over and over again. Did you know I was scared of my mother?”
“I was scared of your mother,” Martine said. They stood at the baggage depot, waiting for his luggage to appear. “This looks like a really nice little planet. Much better than where I was … I haven’t been happy at all.”
“So maybe there’s a cosmic plan,” he said, grinning. “You look great.”
“It was my decision. I like older people.” She surveyed him. He has been hurt a lot by the cryonic malfunction, she said to herself. I can see it in his eyes. They look broken. Broken eyes. Torn down into pieces by fatigue and—defeat. As if his buried early memories swam up and destroyed him. But it’s over, she thought. And I did get here in time.
At the bar in the terminal building, they sat having a drink.
“This old man got me to try Wild Turkey bourbon,” Victor said. “It’s amazing bourbon. He says it’s the best on Earth. He brought a bottle with him from . . .” His voice died into silence.
“One of your fellow passengers,” Marline finished.
“I guess so,” he said.
“Well, you can stop thinking of the birds and the bees,” Martine said.
“Sex?” he said, and laughed.
“Being stung by a bee, helping a cat catch a bird. That’s all past.”
“That cat,” Victor said, “has been dead one hundred and eighty-two years. I figured it out while they were bringing us out of suspension. Probably just as well. Dorky. Dorky, the killer cat. Nothing like Fat Freddy’s cat.”
“I had to sell the poster,” Martine said. “Finally.”
“Remember?” she said. “You let me have it when we split up. Which I always thought was really good of you.”
“How much did you get for it?”
“A lot. I should pay you something like—” She calculated. “Taking inflation into account, I should pay you about two million dollars.”
“Would you consider,” he said, “instead, in place of the money, my share of the sale of the poster, spending some time with me? Until I get used to this planet?”
“Yes,” she said. And she meant it. Very much.
They finished their drinks and then, with his luggage transported by robot spacecap, made their way to his hotel room.
“This is a nice room,” Martine said, perched on the edge of the bed. “And it has a hologram TV. Turn it on.”
“There’s no use turning it on,” Victor Kemmings said. He stood by the open closet, hanging up his shirts.
Kemmings said, “There’s nothing in it.”
Going over to the TV set, Martine turned it on. A hockey game materialized, projected out into the room, in full color, and the sound of the game assailed her ears.
“It works fine,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “I can prove it to you. If you have a nail file or something, I’ll unscrew the back plate and show you.”
“But I can—”
“Look at this.” He paused in his work of hanging up his clothes. “Watch me put my hand through the wall.” He placed the palm of his right hand against the wall. “See?”
His hand did not go through the wall because hands do not go through walls; his hand remained pressed against the wall, unmoving.
“And the foundation,” he said, “is rotting away.”
“Come and sit down by me,” Martine said.
“I’ve lived this often enough to know,” he said. “I’ve lived this over and over again. I come out of suspension; I walk down the ramp; I get my luggage; sometimes I have a drink at the bar and sometimes I come directly to my room. Usually I turn on the TV and then—” He came over and held his hand toward her. “See where the bee stung me?”
She saw no mark on his hand; she took his hand and held it.
“There is no bee sting there,” she said. “And when the robot doctor comes, I borrow a tool from him and take off the back plate of the TV set. To prove to him that it has no chassis, no components in it. And then the ship starts me over again.” “Victor,” she said. “Look at your hand.” “This is the first time you’ve been here, though,” he said.
“Sit down,” she said.
“Okay.” He seated himself on the bed, beside her, but not too close to her.
“Won’t you sit closer to me?” she said.
“It makes me too sad,” he said. “Remembering you. I really loved you. I wish this was real.”
Marline said, “I will sit with you until it is real for you.”
“I’m going to try reliving the part with the cat,” he said, “and this time not pick up the cat and not let it get the bird. If I do that, maybe my life will change so that it turns into something happy. Something that is real. My real mistake was separating from you. Here; I’ll put my hand through you.” He placed his hand against her arm. The pressure of his muscles was vigorous; she felt the weight, the physical presence of him, against her. “See?” he said. “It goes right through you.”
“And all this,” she said, “because you killed a bird when you were a little boy.”
“No,” he said. “All this because of a failure in the temperature-regulating assembly aboard the ship. Fm not down to the proper temperature. There’s just enough warmth left in my brain cells to permit cerebral activity.” He stood up then, stretched, smiled at her. “Shall we go get some dinner?” he asked.
She said, “I’m sorry. I’m not hungry.”
“I am. I’m going to have some of the local seafood. The brochure says it’s terrific. Come along anyhow; maybe when you see the food and smell it you’ll change your mind.”
Gathering up her coat and purse, she came with him.
“This is a beautiful little planet,” he said. “I’ve explored it dozens of times. I know it thoroughly. We should stop downstairs at the pharmacy for some Bactine, though. For my hand. It’s beginning to swell and it hurts like hell.” He showed her his hand. “It hurts more this time than ever before.”
“Do you want me to come back to you?” Martine said.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll stay with you as long as you want. I agree; we should never have been separated.”
Victor Kemmings said, “The poster is torn.”
“What?” she said.
“We should have framed it,” he said. “We didn’t have sense enough to take care of it. Now it’s torn. And the artist is dead.”