It was rather as if a tourniquet had been relaxed, except that the renewed flux was far less tangible than blood, consisting as it did of an etheral slurry of associations, ideas and concepts. Am I getting my memory back? he wondered, returning to the spaceship control console. Have I ever flown a ship like this?
He sat down and examined the various panels more carefully, this time beginning to appreciate that there were a number of logical groupings. The rows of switches he had thrown in his first flash of perception had labels which identified them with transceiver warm-up and manual take-off, but there was a separate module, resembling a typewriter keyboard, at the top of which was a plate engraved with the letters A.D.S. Reasoning, prayerfully, that they stood for Automatic Destination Selector, he tapped out E-A-R-T-H and was rewarded by an immediate rotation of the star fields ahead, evidence that the ship was changing course. A red circle began to blink in the middle of the transparent wall. It was enclosing one of the few tiny areas of absolute blackness visible to him, and he realized he was so far from Earth that the light from its parent sun had been unable to make the journey. But even as he watched, a mote of light appeared at the centre of the circle and began to grow brighter.
Satisfied that things had begun to go better for him, he studied the other modules and found one labelled Autoland—which disposed of his worries about setting the ship down safely.
Emboldened by his success and growing sense of familiarity with the controls, he switched on some music. The first minitape he tried yielded an orchestral recording of a piece by Sibelius, the ponderous cadences of which might have been designed as mood music for stargazers.
He sighed approvingly and relaxed into the deep cushions, determined to make the most of a calm interlude. Now that he was assured of the partnership being purely temporary, he again permitted his soul to unite with the cosmos, and—to add a visual garnish to his meditations—flicked toggle switches which caused the remaining walls of the control room to become transparent. As is often the case with artistic final flourishes, the move proved to be a serious mistake as far as his peace of mind was concerned.
Only a few paces away to his left, the upper surfaces of their bodies reflecting red and green pulses from the ship’s marker lights, the two Oscars clung to the outside of the hull.
I’ve killed them, Peace thought, terrified. I’ve dragged them into interstellar space and killed them!
His fear abated, only to return tenfold, as he saw that—incredibly—the enigmatic beings were still moving.
Showing no signs of discomfort in the airless void, they were holding on to the ship with casual one-handed grips while pointing out celestial landmarks to each other, like tourists on a pleasure trip. Peace stared at them, petrified. Every now and then one of the Oscars would turn slitted ruby eyes in his direction—apparently without seeing him. He guessed the transparency of the hull was a one-way effect.
Peace’s brow furrowed as he got a new inkling of the forces arrayed against him. Life had been difficult enough before the Oscars had come on the scene to hound him through time and space— now he learned they were indestructible, apparently capable of surviving anywhere under any conditions. The impossibility of visualizing what he had done to deserve such relentless pursuit added to Peace’s misery. He lowered his face into his hands and thought seriously about ending the persecution by driving the ship into a sun. It would be a quick, clean solution to all his problems, but—a single crystal of resentment formed and began to grow in the cauldron of his mental turmoil—was he prepared to accept it at this eleventh hour? After all he had endured in the past month, was he going to allow two metallized morons to prevent him learning the truth about himself?
He raised his head, sat up straight and began to analyse his new predicament. The Oscars had obviously been within the field generated by the transceiver towers at each end of the ship, which was why they had been carried into space with it. Ryan had taught him that the vessel could be regarded as being at rest, in spite of possessing an effective velocity, which meant there was no inertia and made it easy for outside passengers to remain in place. He was positive, however, that the fierce accelerations of “normal” space flight would quickly dislodge any unwanted joyriders. The ship’s target sun, Sol, was already growing brilliant in the forward screen as he turned his attention back to the control console. He found a panel labelled AUX. NUC. PROP. MODE, and with growing assurance identified it as a set of controls for flying the ship on nuclear propulsion when the main system was inoperative. His fingers positioned themselves naturally on the altitude selectors and the miniature joystick, and he knew in the instant that he had flown spaceships at sometime in his previous life, and that he could make the one he was in perform any manoeuvre he wished.
Snorting with triumph, he shut down the transceiver drive and the ship—which had been travelling at millions of kilometres a second— immediately came to a halt. It did so without a tremor or jolt, the fact that it had no inertia making the abrupt change of condition unnoticeable.
A glance to his left confirmed that the two Oscars, quite unawares, were nonchalantly holding themselves in place by their fingertips. A look of gleeful malice spread over his face as he made ready to blast the ship forward under full normal acceleration. He touched the firing button—and his expression changed to one of dismay as he found himself unable to depress the concave disk. No matter how many commands he gave his fingers it refused to move.
“This is crazy,” he said aloud, staring accusingly at the dissident digit, trying to reason with it.
“Those things out there aren’t even human. I mean, they’re monsters.”
Lots of people say you’re a monster, he could imagine the finger replying, but you didn’t like the idea of being marooned in space, did you?
“Listen to me, knucklehead,” Peace argued, “those characters get their kicks by feeding helpless men to their pet throwrugs.”
You’ve only got Dinkle’s word for that-and, anyway, since when did two wrongs made a right?
You can’t do it. Warren. You can’t inflict that fate on anybody or anything.
“All right, all right!” Peace glowered helplessly at his finger for a moment, then revenged himself on it by poking it into his nose.
With his left hand he activated the transceiver drive and in less than a second the ship was again travelling Earthwards at a speed of several hundred light years an hour. The Oscars continued to float beside the hull in weightless relaxation, red and green highlights flowing like oil on their massive torsos.
Peace transferred his attention to the forward screen and noted that the point of searing brilliance which was Sol had grown into a disk. It began to drift to one side of the winking red circle—an indication that the ship was now homing in on Earth—and he knew he was running out of time in which to solve the problem posed by the Oscars. Unless he did something quickly he was going to find them hammering the spaceship’s door to pieces as soon as he touched down.
As if to illustrate the urgency of his plight, a blue-white orb appeared in the target circle and ballooned outwards until it was recognizably the planet Earth with the escorting Moon peeping over its shoulder. On the control console a sign lit up advising Peace to feed details of his chosen landing point or go over to manual control. He stared in perplexity at the broad blue curvatures of the mother world for several seconds before deriving inspiration from its predominant colour.
Taking control of the ship, he steered a course down through the atmosphere, pleased by the absence of re-entry effects, and slanted towards the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The descent was comparatively leisurely, giving him plenty of time to look for a suitable dumping ground. He found a group of small atolls, brought the ship to a halt in the air about a hundred metres above a lagoon, and— after taking a deep breath to steady his nerves— switched off the transceiver drive.
The ship fell like a lead weight.
Peace counted two seconds and fired the nuclear drive, with dramatic effect. As the thrusters came into play, the plummeting ship clanged as if it had struck an invisible barrier, and Peace—who had been perched on the edge of his seat—was forcibly driven down on to his knees, catching his chin on the edge of the console. Nursing his jaw, which felt as though it had been unhinged, he looked to the left and in spite of his pain was overjoyed to see that the Oscars had disappeared.
The ship’s structure was creaking and protesting as the thunderous nuclear jets bore it aloft again. Peace put the metal giant out of its misery by making a rapid switch back to the transeiver mode, and swung into a curve for a slow pass close to the atoll. Ripples were still spreading across its central lagoon, but he could see down into the clear water without difficulty. The Oscars were standing on the floor of the lagoon, unperturbed at being under several fathoms of water. Their faces tilted upwards as they watched the spaceship cruise by overhead, and it seemed to Peace that they were shaking their fists at him.
“Same to you, fellers,” he called. “Watch out for rust.”
Chuckling with satisfaction, he boosted the ship high into the afternoon sky and set a course for Porterburg, the city he presumed to be his home.
In an older type of craft the navigational problems would have been considerable, but Peace simply flew in a sharp climb until he had reached orbital height—a manoeuvre which took only ten seconds—and could see the entire western seaboard of the North American continent laid out beneath him. From there it was easy to pick out the estuary of the Columbia River, in the middle latitudes of the long narrow Republic of Califanada which stretched from Mexico to Alaska. He could also see the planetary terminator sweeping in from the east, and knew the short winter’s day was drawing to a close in Porterburg and Fort Eccles.
Cool intangible fingers stroked his spine as he realized that his previous self was down there at that moment, preparing to carry his burden of remorse for one more night before making the fateful visit to the Legion’s recruiting station. It briefly occurred to Peace that he had no intention of joining the Legion and therefore no longer required a lever to get him out of a service contract. The wisest thing might be to steal away quietly and allow his past, with all its guilt, to remain a mystery. He flirted with the notion for a moment, then shook his head and put the ship into a steep descent. Unhampered by inertial and aerodynamic effects, the vessel reached the vicinity of Porterburg in some twenty seconds.
As the city appeared on the forward screen, an accretion of silvery cubes on a broad bend of the Columbia, he remembered he was now guilty of stealing a spaceship and was likely to be arrested if he put down at any civil or military landing field. Making a snap decision, he overflew Porterburg by about forty kilometres and selected a snow-covered pasture which was reasonably close to a small community, but screened from it by low hills. The ship settled with a jolt and the control room door slid aside to admit a gust of chill November air.
Peace stepped out into the silent twilight and took his bearings. Bordering the field was a second-class roadway which looked as though it ran straight to the community he had noticed from the air. There was nobody in the area who could have seen his arrival, and within a matter of minutes darkness would cloak both the spaceship and Peace’s subsequent movements. A comforting sense of being in command of the situation burgeoned within him as he realized that all he had to do was play it cool until the morning, avoid attracting any attention, and—above all—control his tendency to become involved in silly accidents.
Turning up his collar, he squared his shoulders and set off walking towards the road.
“Just a moment, young man,” a woman’s voice called imperiously. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Peace froze in his tracks, his eyes wide with disbelief, and turned around.
The door in the ship’s central passenger section had sprung open and, almost filling it, was a stout, middle-aged woman wearing a straw sun bonnet and a flowered dress. Other portly and middle-aged ladies, similarly attired, milled about behind her in the lighted interior, emitting bleats of consternation. Peace staggered like a man who had been sandbagged as he realized he had stolen a ship which was full of Aspatrian passengers.
“See that?” another woman said, joining the first in the doorway. “He’s drunk! I told you the pilot was drunk. Coffee all over me I’ve got, and it’s all his fault.”
“Where are we anyway?” a third chimed in. “This doesn’t look like the Sunnyside Weight-free Pleasure Asteroid to me.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Peace mumbled, backing away. Gradually gaining speed until he had reached the safe maximum for that form of perambulation, he turned and ran as fast as he could. The party of stout ladies watched until he had faded out of sight in the gathering dusk before turning to each other with looks of indignation. Silence reigned for several seconds, and then—by mutual consent—they produced subetheric whistles from their purses and blew a long and concerted blast of pure outrage.
Five thousand kilometres away to the south-east, where the afternoon sun was still shining on a Pacific atoll, two gold-gleaming supermen—who had been staring irresolutely at the sand—suddenly raised their heads. They remained in a listening posture for a time, red fire pulsing in their eyes, the hairless domes of their skulls reflecting the sun’s brilliance.
At last the giants turned to each other, nodded, and ran down a sloping shelf of coral into the sea. Too heavy and compacted for swimming, they continued to run along the ocean floor after the water had closed over their heads, and sea creatures prudently darted out of the way as the invaders of their domain struck a course for Califanada.
Panting loudly with exhaustion, Peace leaped over a boundary ditch and reached the verge of the deserted highway. Snow which had been cleared from the road itself formed a low moraine on each side. Slithering over this last barrier with some difficulty, Peace brushed snow and ice droplets from his clothing, shoved his hands in his pockets and began walking in the direction of the nearby settlement.
Everything is still all right, he assured himself. Those old trouts on the ship are bound to be a bit upset, but they don’t know how lucky they are I changed my mind about going far beyond the meagre confines of this galaxy and all the galaxies about it, and the suffering a C-change bit. That would have really given them something to complain about! Anyway, it will be hours before they can contact police, and in the meantime I’ve got plenty of money for transport, I’m correctly and inconspicuously dressed, I’m close to Porterburg, and I’m fit and healthy-except for a suspected fracture of the lower mandible, and perhaps some frostbite.