By Earthlight, p.1Bryce Walton
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This etext was produced Science Fiction Stories 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
_We all have to die sometime, but it's more the manner of our going, and the reason why we must die when we do that's the rub._
_by_ BRYCE WALTON
* * * * *
The rocket skin was like a dun-colored wall in the dim light under thehill. Three anonymous men who were beyond suspicion, who had worked onthe rocket, were taking Barlow up in the elevator, up along therocket's curving walls.
Earlier, scores of men had climbed up many ladders to variousplatforms where doors opened into the rocket's compartments for theinsertion and repair of the many highly-specialized instruments.
_It was still--so damn still here!_
Some guards were way down below somewhere in the shadows, but theydidn't notice anything. The three men were regular workers and therewere last minute things to be done. It all looked quite logical.
Over in the blockhouse, some of America's most important political andmilitary figures were sitting over instruments and charts, waiting,discussing.
One of the three men was talking, explaining things to Barlow aboutthe rocket, about the pressure-suit he was to wear. Barlow listenedand got it all straight. Barlow was helped into the suit. It weighed700 pounds, and after they had encased him in it--all but the hugehelmet-plate--he lay there absolutely helpless, on a dolly, waitingto be rolled into the rocket's compartment.
The anonymous faces he'd never seen before, and would never see again,looked down at him. He blinked several times and moistened his lips.The suit was like a lead coffin. He didn't feel dead, but supposedlydead and unable to tell any one. A ridiculous way to feel!
What was the matter with him? He'd expected to die, all the time, fromthe start. Everybody died! Few could experience what he wasexperiencing. Death was worth this. One last kick, the biggest kick ofall for Hal Barlow. You lived for kicks, so what was the matter?
He couldn't move his limbs; he could barely lift his head. Encased in700 pounds of suit. Helpless. A pencil-flash flickered on and off. Acouple of eyes shone. A whisper. "The kit is fastened to your belt.The instructions are in an air-tight capsule inside the kit. If you'recaught, and the paper's removed, it will disintegrate; now we'll slideyou inside."
The helmet slid over his face. It was absolutely dark. The suit,all-enclosing mobile shelter, atmosphere-pressure, temperature-control,mobility and electric power to manipulate tools. Its own power plant. Itreprocessed continuously the precious air breathed by the occupant,putting it back into circulating supply after enriching it. The rocket wascold and alien and it would support no life; the suit alone protected him.The rocket was just metal and gadgets; only the suit stood between him andan agonizing death from acceleration, deceleration, extremes of heat andcold.
The dolly was rolling him in through the small opening. His encasedbody being slid, stuffed, jammed into something like a wad of ammointo a barrel. His body was entirely constricted. He couldn't hearanything. It was black. He could shift his massive helmet slightly. Itclanged against metal, and the sound inside the helmet was like rustythunder.
His blood boiled softly. He felt like a child shut up in the dark. Hethought of the radio in the suit, and desperately manipulated thecontrols by the small control-panel in the metal hand of the suit.
The voices seemed to quiet whatever had been boiling up in him. He hadstarted to scream; he remembered that now. Somehow, with an intenseeffort, he had suppressed the scream, clamped his teeth on it. Now thevoices helped. He realized how much time had passed in the quickpressured dark. Voices preparing to send the first rocket to the moon.Quiet voices with all the suspense and tension held down by longmilitary habit.
He had started being afraid. More than that. He had been going toscream. He--Hal Barlow! Where was the excitement, the great thrill,the big kick he had anticipated, to compensate for a voluntary dying?
He felt only anxiety. Afraid the terror would return. He had neveradmitted fear before. He thought back a little, trying to recallsomething that would explain the fear.
"_X minus one!_"
He felt as if an immense cyst of suppuration had burst inside of him.Sweat teared his eyes.
_If they had psyched me, I'd know. I wouldn't be afraid. What wouldthey have found? Why am I afraid now when I've never been afraid in mylife?_
Or had he? He couldn't remember. He tried to think of somethingimmediate....
* * * * *
Two hours before, Barlow had paused on the second floor of the men'sbarracks on the White Sands, New Mexico, Proving Grounds and lookedput. He shivered a little. It was a lonely spot, maybe the loneliestin the world. Especially at night. Even here, Barlow managed to bewith someone most of the time--but the same dullards got boring. Evenwomen (like Lorraine), who said they loved him, were futilecompanions; a guy whose future was death couldn't get emotionallyinvolved.
He went into his three-room dump and switched on the radio at once. Heneeded the sound of voices and the music. He started to undress in thedark. But the cold and frigid moonlight came in and shone on the bed;it revealed the body lying there. The face looking up at Barlow washis own! His breath thinned. His hands were wet.
It did him a lot more justice than any mirror, or the reflection in awoman's eyes. The half-boyish, half-man face with the thin wiry lips,the blond curling hair and the sun-burned, cynical face. The blue eyesthat seemed never quite able to smile. The face on the bed neverwould; it was dead.
Barlow turned. Part of the shadow in the corner moved. A voice."D-716."
The 16 meant that this was that number among the hundred possiblegoals of duty and sacrifice. The D of course meant Death, and Barlowhad known since having been given the number years ago what his endwould be.
There were many other ways, some worse than dying. Loss of identityby plastic surgery. Barlow's appearance had been thoroughly alteredthree times. Some had volunteered for the torture and concentrationcamps of the East. Barlow had done that, too; anything for kicks.
He'd never bothered to indoctrinate himself with the philosophy of theBrotherhood with its seven rituals of self-denial and discipline, itslong program of learning the love of humanity, the unity of each withall people and with the Universe.
He had his own philosophy. You were born, and then you died; the restwas just a living job.
You lived as an individual, and not as a cog--if you had the guts forit. You lived for the excitement and the thrill of danger and themaintenance of individuality--if you could. Otherwise you might aswell die when you were born--because then the stretch between wasn'tworth the price.
That was Barlow's way. Only the _manner_ of dying was important.Everybody had to die. All that the Brotherhood really worked for wasthe goal of enabling everybody to live as long as possible, andfinally to die with dignity and moral integrity. Barlow didn't needtheir philosophy; basically, that was all he, too, reallywanted--maybe.
The man was indistinct in the shadows. An anonymous figure without aname. "The man on the bed has made the supreme sacrifice for thecause."
"So he's dead," Barlow said casually. "So what?"
"It took a lot of work to make such an exact resemblance. One of ourmembers brought him in through the guards in a supply truck. It's easyto bring in a dead man who'll never go back out--except as someone whowas already in. You of course."
"No one. It will be assumed that you committed suicide."
Barlow grinned thinly.
"There's been no change in your attitude? Your willingness to--"
"Die? None. Willing Barlow, always ready to drop dead at a moment'snotice."
"You're the only one of the Brotherhood who's never submitted to therituals and the psyching; we hope that isn't bad. Your service hasbeen excellent. But I wish you had submitted to a psyching before thisassignment, because there's one basic weakness, an Achilles Heel, ineveryone, and on an assignment so vital as this, it would be worthknowing, in advance...."
"Get someone else if you're worried."
"You're the only member we have, who's inside the grounds here, whocan stand the acceleration and deceleration."
By Earthlight by Bryce Walton / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on16 votes