Voyage To EternityRobert Sheckley / Science Fiction
Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced from Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy July 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
VOYAGE TO ETERNITY
Temple faced leaving Earth--and the girl he loved--if his country drafted him. But the hard part was in knowing he'd never return!...
* * * * *
When the first strong sunlight of May covered the tree-arched avenuesof Center City with green, the riots started.
The people gathered in angry knots outside the city hall, met in thepark and littered its walks with newspapers and magazines as theygobbled up editorial comment at a furious rate, slipped with dark ofnight through back alleys and planned things with furious futility.Center City's finest knew when to make themselves scarce: theiruniforms stood for everything objectionable at this time and theymight be subjected to clubs, stones, taunts, threats, leers--andknives.
But Center City, like most communities in United North America, hadsurvived the Riots before and would survive them again. On pastperformances, the damage could be estimated, too. Two-hundredfifty-seven plate glass windows would be broken, three-hundred twelvelimbs fractured. Several thousand people would be treated for minorbruises and abrasions, Center City would receive half that many damagesuits. The list had been drawn clearly and accurately; it hardly everdeviated.
And Center City would meet its quota. With a demonstration ofreluctance, of course. The healthy approved way to get over socialtrauma once every seven-hundred eighty days.
Shut it off, Kit. Kit, please.
The telio blared in a cheaply feminine voice, Oh, it's a long way tonowhere, forever. And your honey's not coming back, never, never,never.... A wailing trumpet represented flight.
They'll exploit anything, Kit.
It's just a song.
Turn it off, please.
Christopher Temple turned off the telio, smiling. They'll announcethe names in ten minutes, he said, and felt the corners of his mouthdraw taut.
Tell me again, Kit, Stephanie pleaded. How old are you?
You know I'm twenty-six.
Twenty-six. Yes, twenty-six, so if they don't call you this time,you'll be safe. Safe, I can hardly believe it.
Nine minutes, said Temple in the darkness. Stephanie had drawn theblinds earlier, had dialed for sound-proofing. The screaming in thestreets came to them as not the faintest whisper. But the song whichbecame briefly, masochistically popular every two years and two monthshad spoiled their feeling of seclusion.
Tell me again, Kit.
You know what.
He let her come to him, let her hug him fiercely and whimper againsthis chest. He remained passive although it hurt, occasionally strokingher hair. He could not assert himself for another--he looked at hisstrap chrono--for another eight minutes. He might regret it, if hedid, for a lifetime.
Tell me, Kit.
I'll marry you, Steffy. In eight minutes, less than eight minutes,I'll go down and get the license. We'll marry as soon as it's legal.
This is the last time they have a chance for you. I mean, they won'tchange the law?
Temple shook his head. They don't have to. They meet their quota thisway.
You and everyone else in North America, Steffy.
She was trembling against him. It's cold for June.
It's warm in here. He kissed her moist eyes, her nose, her lips.
Oh God, Kit. Five minutes.
Five minutes to freedom, he said jauntily. He did not feel that wayat all. Apprehension clutched at his chest with tight, painfulfingers, almost making it difficult for him to breathe.
Turn it on, Kit.
* * * * *
He dialed the telio in time to see the announcer's insincere smile.Smile seventeen, Kit thought wryly. Patriotic sacrifice.
Every seven-hundred eighty days, said the announcer, two-hundred ofCenter City's young men are selected to serve their country for anindeterminate period regulated rigidly by a rotation system.
Liar! Stephanie cried. No one ever comes back. It's been thirtyyears since the first group and not one of them....
Shh, Temple raised a finger to his lips.
This is the thirteenth call since the inception of what is popularlyreferred to as the Nowhere Journey, said the announcer. Obviously,the two hundred young men from Center City and the thousands from allover this hemisphere do not in reality embark on a Journey to Nowhere.That is quite meaningless.
Hooray for him, Temple laughed.
I wish he'd get on with it.
No, ladies and gentlemen, we use the word Nowhere merely because weare not aware of the ultimate destination. Security reasons make itimpossible to....
Yes, yes, said Stephanie impatiently. Go on.
... therefore, the Nowhere Journey. With a maximum security lid onthe whole project, we don't even know why our men are sent, or by whatmeans. We know only that they go somewhere and not nowhere, bravelyand not fearfully, for a purpose vital to the security of this nationand not to slake the thirst of a chessman of regiments and divisions.
If Center City's contribution helps keep our country strong, CenterCity is naturally obligated....
No one ever said it isn't our duty, Stephanie argued, as if theannouncer could indeed hear her. We only wish we knew something aboutit--and we wish it weren't forever.
It isn't forever, Temple reminded her. Not officially.
Officially, my foot. If they never return, they never return. Ifthere's a rotation system on paper, but it's never used, that's not arotation system at all. Kit, it's forever.
... to thank the following sponsors for relinquishing their time....
No one would want to sponsor _that_, Temple whispered cheerfully.
Kit, said Stephanie, I--I suddenly have a hunch we have nothing toworry about. They missed you all along and they'll miss you this time,too. The last time, and then you'll be too old. That's funny, too oldat twenty-six. But we'll be free, Kit. Free.
He's starting, Temple told her.
A large drum filled the entire telio screen. It rotated slowly, frombottom to top. In twenty seconds, the letter A appeared, followed byabout a dozen names. Abercrombie, Harold. Abner, Eugene. Adams,Gerald. Sorrow in the Abercrombie household. Despair for the Abners.Black horror for Adams.
The drum rotated.
They're up to F, Kit.
Fabian, Gregory G....
Names circled the drum slowly, like viscous alphabet soup.Meaningless, unless you happened to know them.
Kit, I knew Thomas Mulvany.
N, O, P....
It's hot in here.
I thought you were cold.
I'm suffocating now.
T! Stephanie shrieked as the names began to float slowly up from thebottom of the drum.
Tabor, Tebbets, Teddley....
Temple's mouth felt dry as a ball of cotton. Stephanie laughednervously. Now--or never. Never?
Stephanie whimpered despairingly.
* * * * *
Sorry I'm late, Mr. Jones.
Hardly, Mr. Smith. Hardly. Three minutes late.
I've come in response to your ad.
I know. You look old.
I am over twenty-six. Do you mind?
Not if you don't, Mr. Smith. Let me look at you. Umm, you seem theright height, the right build.
I meet the specifications exactly.
Good, Mr. Smith. And your price.
No haggling, said Smith. I have a price which must be met.
Your price, Mr. Smith?
Ten million dollars.
The man called Jones coughed nervously. That's high.
Very. Take it or leave it.
Definitely. Small unmarked bills.
You'd need a moving van!
Then I'll get one.
Ten million dollars, said Jones, is quite a price. Admittedly, Ihaven't dealt in this sort of traffic before, but--
But nothing. Were your name Jones, really and truly Jones, I mightask less.
You are Jones exactly as much as I am Smith.
Sir? Jones gasped again.
Smith coughed discreetly. But I have one advantage. I know you. Youdon't know me, Mr. Arkalion.
Arkalion. The North American Carpet King. Right?
How did you know? the man whose name was not Jones but Arkalionasked the man whose name was not Smith but might as well have been.
When I saw your ad, said not-Smith, I said to myself, 'now heremust be a very rich, influential man.' It only remained for me tostudy a series of photographs readily obtainable--I have a fine memoryfor that, Mr. Arkalion--and here you are; here is Arkalion the CarpetKing.
What will you do with the ten million dollars? demanded Arkalion,not minding the loss nearly so much as the ultimate disposition of hisfortune.
Why, what does anyone do with ten million dollars? Treasure it.Invest it. Spend it.
I mean, what will you do with it if you are going in place of my--Arkalion bit his tongue.
Your son, were you saying, Mr. Arkalion? Alaric Arkalion the Third.Did you know that I was able to boil my list of men down to thirtywhen I studied their family ties?
Brilliant, Mr. Smith. Alaric is so young--
Aren't they all? Twenty-one to twenty-six. Who was it who once saidsomething about the flower of our young manhood?
Shakespeare? said Mr. Arkalion realizing that most quotes of lastingimportance came from the bard.
Sophocles, said Smith. But, no matter. I will take young Alaric'splace for ten million dollars.
Motives always troubled Mr. Arkalion, and thus he pursued what mighthave been a dangerous conversation. You'll never get a chance tospend it on the Nowhere Journey.
Let me worry about that.
No one ever returns.
My worry, not yours.
It is forever--as if you dropped out of existence. Alaric is soyoung.
I have always gambled, Mr. Arkalion. If I do not return in fiveyears, you are to put the money in a trust fund for certain designatedindividuals, said fund to be terminated the moment I return. If I comeback within the five years, you are merely to give the money over tome. Is that clear?
I'll want it in writing, of course.
Of course. A plastic surgeon is due here in about ten minutes, Mr.Smith, and we can get on with.... But if I don't know your name, howcan I put it in writing?
Smith smiled. I changed my name to Smith for the occasion. Perfectlylegal. My name is John X. Smith--now.
That's where you're wrong, said Mr. Arkalion as the plastic surgeonentered. Your name is Alaric Arkalion III--_now_.
The plastic surgeon skittered around Smith, examining him minutelywith the casual expertness that comes with experience.
Have to shorten the cheek bones.
For ten million dollars, said Smith, you can take the damned thingsout altogether and hang them on your wall.
* * * * *
Sophia Androvna Petrovitch made her way downtown through the bustle oftired workers and the occasional sprinkling of Comrades. She crushedher _ersatz_ cigarette underfoot at number 616 Stalin Avenue, pausedfor the space of five heartbeats at the door, went inside.
What do you want? The man at the desk was myopic but bull-necked.
Sophia showed her party card.
Oh, Comrade. Still, you are a woman.
You're terribly observant, Comrade, said Sophia coldly. I am hereto volunteer.
But a woman.
There is nothing in the law which says a woman cannot volunteer.
We don't make women volunteer.
I mean really volunteer, of her own free will.
Her--own--free will? The bull-necked man removed his spectacles,scratched his balding head with the ear-pieces. You mean volunteerwithout--
Without coercion. I want to volunteer. I am here to volunteer. I wantto sign on for the next Stalintrek.
Stalintrek, a woman?
That is what I said.
We don't force women to volunteer. The man scratched some more.
Oh, really, said Sophia. This is 1992, not mid-century, Comrade.Did not Premier Stalin say, 'Woman was created to share the gloriousdestiny of Mother Russia with her mate?' Sophia created the quoterandomly.
Yes, if Stalin said--
Still, I do not recall--
What? Sophia cried. Stalin dead these thirty-nine years and youdon't recall his speeches? What is your name, Comrade?
Please, Comrade. Now that you remind me, I remember.
What is your name.
Here, I will give you the volunteer papers to sign. If you pass theexams, you will embark on the next Stalintrek, though why a beautifulyoung woman like you--
Shut your mouth and hand me those papers.
There, sitting behind that desk, was precisely why. Why should she,Sophia Androvna Petrovitch, wish to volunteer for the Stalintrek?Better to ask why a bird flies south in the winter, one day ahead ofthe first icy gale. Or why a lemming plunges recklessly into the seawith his multitudes of fellows, if, indeed, the venture were to turnout grimly.
But there, behind that desk, was part of the reason. The Comrade. Thebright sharp Comrade, with his depth of reasoning, his fountain ofgushing emotions, his worldliness. _Pfooey!_
It was as if she had been in a cocoon all her life, stifled, starved,the cottony inner lining choking her whenever she opened her mouth,the leathery outer covering restricting her when she tried to move. Noone had ever returned from the Stalintrek. She then had to assume noone would. Including Sophia Androvna Petrovitch. But then, there wasnothing she would miss, nothing to which she particularly wanted toreturn. Not the stark, foul streets of Stalingrad, not the workerswith their vapid faces or the Comrades with their cautious, sweating,trembling, fearful non-decisions, not the higher echelon of Comrades,more frightened but showing it less, who would love the beauty of herbreasts and loins but not herself for you never love anything but theStalinimage and Mother Russia herself, not those terrifiedmartinet-marionettes who would love the parts of her if she permittedbut not her or any other person for that matter.
Wrong with the Stalintrek was its name alone, a name one associatedwith everything else in Russia for an obvious, post-Stalin reason. Buteverything else about the Stalintrek shrieked mystery and adventure.Where did you go? How did you get there? What did you do? Why?
A million questions which had kept her awake at night and, if she thoughtabout them hard enough, satisfied her deep longing for somethingdifferent. And then one day when stolid Mrs. Ivanovna-Rasnikov had said,It is a joke, a terrible, terrible joke they are taking my husband Fyodoron the Stalintrek when he lacks sufficient imagination to go from here toLeningrad or even Tula. Can you picture Fyodor on the Stalintrek? Betterthey should have taken me. Better they should have taken his wife. Thatday Sophia could hardly contain herself.
As a party member she had access to the law and she read it threetimes from start to finish (in her dingy flat by the light of asmoking, foul-smelling, soft-wax candle) but could find nothingbarring women from the Stalintrek.
Had Fyodor Rasnikov volunteered? Naturally. Everyone volunteered,although when your name was called you had no choice. There had beenno draft in Russia since the days of the Second War of the People'sLiberation. Volunteer? What, precisely, did the word mean?
She, Sophia Androvna Petrovitch would volunteer, without being told.Thus it was she found herself at 616 Stalin Avenue, and thus thebalding, myopic, bull-necked Comrade thrust the papers across his deskat her.
She signed her name with such vehemence and ferocity that she almosttore through the paper.