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Chapter 14
 "I'm cold," said Jeriann.
"Put on more clothes," said Docchi grimly.
"That's not a nice thing to say to a girl with a figure as pretty as hers," said Anti.
"She can go to hydroponics," suggested Jordan. "It's warmer there and we've had to allow lights."
"But it's a lot smaller than it was and too many have crowded in. I don't want to be crushed," said Jeriann. She wouldn't have left even if it hadn't been true.
"Have to cut down," said Anti. "Meanwhile, what do we eat? Synthetics." She snorted.
"Synthetics are pure," said Jordan. His enthusiasm was less than it had been. A steady diet had begun to alter his opinion.
"Pure what?" said Anti, but received no reply. She looked over the circle huddled around the scanner. Nona was curled near Cameron, sleeping peacefully. Docchi leaned forward with uncomfortable intensity. Jeriann was beside him but he didn't seem to notice her. "How long does this go on?" said Anti. "I'm getting tired of freezing in the dark." Actually she didn't mind it; cold that would kill others still bothered her hardly at all.
"Until we know," said Docchi. "All the way to Centauri if it takes that long."
"How can we know?"
"We'll find out as soon as we measure relative speeds," answered Docchi. "The scanner is similar to radar but it uses gravity, which makes things rather difficult. We can't send out an impulse and see how long it takes to get back because it travels instantaneously as far as we're concerned."
"Then there isn't any way? They seem to know how fast we're going."
"Better astronomical equipment," said Docchi. "We're a bigger object and they were able to measure our light shift, until we stopped illuminating the whole dome."
"And now they can't tell because they can seldom see us?"
"The contrary, if they're on their toes. They should guess that we're putting most of the power into the drive."
"Then how can we find out?" said Anti.
"Triangulation," said Docchi. "When we first saw them it was from the front. In past weeks they've crept up until they're nearly broadside. Now I hope they'll drop back. It may take weeks to tell, especially if our speeds are almost evenly matched."
"And if we don't gain?"
"With our power?" interrupted Jordan, ceasing to tune the scanner. "But, all right, we don't gain. We'll get there first because we're still a little ahead of them.
"If there are no aliens there's no question of interstellar law. They'll have to hunt us down over an entire planet and maybe blast us off. I don't think sentiment will let them actually harm us. If there are aliens, what are they going to do? We've told our story first."
The asteroid seemed to leap ahead as all but the most necessary functions were curtailed and additional power was channeled into the drive. There was no sense of motion, merely of tension as the unmistakable vibration increased. In the darkness through the darkness they hurtled. Sleeping or waking Docchi remained near the scanner, as if his presence would somehow cause the ship to recede. It didn't.
Across the silence the race went on intently. Weeks passed and Anti walked with increased assurance as her weight diminished and her strength grew greater. Maureen recovered and was released from the hospital. She disappeared frequently, mostly with Webber, and no one questioned where they went.
Jeriann came when she could get away from her hospital work. She came at night because it was usually night now though occasionally lights were turned on for short periods and warmth was allowed to filter through the dome. They couldn't risk killing the plants on which they depended for part of their oxygen supply.
"Good thing you're here," said Docchi once when she entered. "I want you to make some adjustments." She followed him to the next room where the former librarian was now the command unit presiding over their destiny.
"There," he said gloomily as she changed a number of settings slightly. "That's as good as I can do."
"How good is it?"
"Faster than we've gone before. I don't know the exact speed."
"Faster than with Nona?"
"I think so. Of course I don't know what she could have gotten out of it if she'd tried—but she always seemed to hold something back."
She would rather not have asked but the answer was on his face. "But it's not good enough?"
He sat down near the command unit. "They found out what we were doing and increased their own speed. It's slightly greater than ours."
"Well, why do we do it?" she said. "It takes more and more power to add another mile per second as we approach the speed of light. But that holds true for them too."
He tried to frown away the problem she posed. "Sure, but it doesn't matter to them as long as they can match anything we do."
"But they'd just as soon not. They're inconvenienced the same as we are when they have to divert too much power. They're better organized and it's not so bad, but still they have to do without their ordinary comforts. I don't see any point in tormenting ourselves. Let's turn on the lights and warm up the place. They'll do the same when they see it."
"Maybe they will," he said grudgingly. He was not going to accept her advice.
She tried again. "Will the scanner reach Earth?"
He shook his head. "Not quite. The range is limited. I can't give you figures but I estimate we're well over halfway to the Centauris." He got up and paced in front of the command unit. "I know what you're thinking—the appeal to the people of Earth. We tried it once. You know where it got us."
He had turned and didn't notice her. "I wasn't thinking of that at all. I was wondering how close we are. We might get in touch with the aliens."
He whirled around. "Say that again. Did you really say that?"
"Of course there may not be any aliens," murmured Jeriann.
"Doesn't matter, or I don't think it does. I'll have to figure it out, but I'm sure it will figure." His face flashed once. "Get Jordan, will you? I'll be at the scanner."
Gravity center was virtually a shaft that extended underground toward the center of the asteroid. At the bottom, shielded and reshielded, sealed off and impregnable, was the nuclear pile. Nearly half way down a horizontal shaft branched off, leading to the gravity coils which were anchored to solid rock.
Much higher, near the surface, were the gravity computers. Physical access to them was equally difficult. There were connections so that electrical impulses could reach them, otherwise the command unit could not have directed them, have taken over the control. But in every other respect they were isolated and remote.
It narrowed Jeriann's search that there were places she didn't have to look. Nevertheless she passed him twice, going up and down, before she saw him curled up inconspicuously beside a machine whose function she didn't know.
"Now what does he want?" grumbled Jordan, rubbing his eyes. "He won't rest and he won't let anyone else get a few minutes sleep."
"He's hardest on you," she said. "You're his hands. He wants you to operate the scanner."
"Well, his hands are getting mighty tired," growled Jordan. But his sleepiness disappeared and he followed swiftly after her.
Docchi was standing at the scanner, his face furrowed as if thought alone would move dials. He inclined his head toward the image. "Take the ship off," he said impatiently. "I've hypnotized myself with it. We don't need to keep staring at it."
The ship vanished. "Now what?"
"They'll beat us to the stars. Let them. We don't have to be first. A planet of our own will do." Doubt and hope struggled for Docchi's face and Jeriann couldn't say which won. "Explore the Centauri system," he said.
"Both of them?"
"The nearest one first. After that we'll see."
A bright star slid to the center of the scanner. It flickered and then grew brighter, blazing out as they visually approached it. They were within a few million miles as the solar prominences lashed out blindingly. Jeriann could feel the heat. For the first time in weeks she was warm. "Cut the focus," called Docchi. "You'll burn out the scanner."
The sun softened and dimmed but remained where it was as the strength of the field was reduced. Jordan awaited instructions.
"Now that I'm sure we can reach it, we'll get the asteroid back to normal. Later we'll resume exploration," said Docchi. He started toward the command unit to make alterations and then saw that, though Jordan was following him, Jeriann wasn't. "Can't you stay?" he asked.
She indicated the empty belt. "I used my last absorption capsule."
She had no right to be happy merely because he was less brusque than usual. On her way home a facsimile of sunshine began blazing down from the dome. The grass was crisp and sere but it would revive.
The race didn't end because the ship and asteroid were no longer constantly accelerating. Whatever the general thought of it and however he modified his own plans, as far as the accidentals were concerned the emphasis had merely shifted. Exploration. It didn't matter who got to the system first—it was who found the inhabited or inhabitable planets.
The ship had slightly more speed even when, by mutual consent, both cut the strength of the drive. Slowly it pulled level and then began to creep ahead. But the scanner nullified the advantage. The astronomical equipment of the ship, superior though it was, was not adequate to observe the planets in detail from this distance. Before the ship could locate planets and catalogue the characteristics it would ultimately have to slow down and waste days or weeks searching the specks of light to decide which were worth closer investigation.
With the mass sensitive scanner there was no such problem. Six planets for Alpha and seven for Proxima with, for a while, the possibility that one or two more might be on the far side of the respective suns. Within weeks, relative to the asteroid, much longer for stationary objects, that possibility was eliminated. Six and seven planets there were and no more.
In one respect the scanner wasn't perfect. Nona was shown where it failed to perform satisfactorily and, after looking it over with mild curiosity, took it completely apart, altering a number of circuits. When she reassembled it again it had exactly the same limitations.
Jordan switched it on and brought the planet in focus. He changed the dial setting and the image blurred, scattering a coruscating rainbow of brilliant light. Once again he patiently adjusted the dials and the planet returned to normal. "That's as close as we can get," he said. "I'd estimate about fifty thousand miles out."
"Try the fourth planet, the Saturn type," suggested Docchi.
Minus rings but with several satellites a large planet replaced the smaller one they had been looking at. After vainly trying to get closer Jordan gave his opinion. "A hundred and fifty thousand miles from the surface. This thing's mass sensitive, that's all—proportional to the mass. It won't resolve an image close to the surface of a planet. Notice that we couldn't get nearer than a few million miles of the sun—but we could slide right into a little thing like a ship."
Reluctantly Docchi nodded. "We'll have to be satisfied with it as it is. Nevertheless I think it can be made to approach the surface of any mass, even the sun."
"Nona couldn't do it," said Jordan.
Docchi smiled. "I think she's more interested in her husband at the moment. Besides, what did she have to work with? Odds and ends of parts that really aren't suited for what they have to do. It would be different if she had an unlimited supply of gravity generating parts, or could get what she needs made to order."
"What you want is a whole new science," said Jordan.
"Why not? We've got the beginning of it," said Docchi.
Meanwhile the search went on. Each planet was scrutinized as closely as the scanner would allow. The images were photographed, enlarged and studied, pored over by everyone who could show some experience in topographical work. Two inhabitable planets were discovered, one in each star system.
It was somewhat disappointing that there was no trace of an alien civilization on either world or on any of the planets.
Jeriann looked up from the photograph. "I can't see anything. Clouds. Nothing but clouds."
Jordan shrugged. "Methane probably. It was the best I could get. What do you want to see?"
"I think we should get a good look at the surface before we rule out aliens."
"Still after the aliens." Docchi smiled tolerantly. "You'll have to wait till the next system, or the next."
"I think she wants to find them because it's one of the reasons normals didn't want us to go."
"A little," confessed Jeriann. "They refused us because of what aliens might think when they saw us."
"Ever reflect it's exactly what they might think?"
Jeriann was startled and before she could reply Jordan produced another argument. "We're better off without them. Where would we be if those two planets were settled, spilling over with strange creatures that could outthink us without untwining their tails?"
Jeriann flushed. "You're teasing me because I don't know much about astronomy. You're not very good inside a medical lab." She stared hard at the photograph. "I still think you're wrong to conclude there aren't any aliens just because they don't show up on planets we can live on."
Jordan rested his huge hand on the disc of the planet she was studying. "Ever hear of Jupiter, Saturn, or Uranus?"
"I'm not that ignorant."
"I didn't mean you were," said Jordan. "But man's actually landed on two of those planets and though we haven't got to Jupiter we have sent down a little remote controlled ship. There's nothing on all three of the big planets, not even microscopic life. The latest theory is that there's some kind of life over most of the universe but that intelligence will have to show up under conditions similar to those that evolved us. Of course we're willing to be convinced, but——"
He crumpled the photograph. "Nevertheless I'll try to get a better picture of the Alpha Centauri version of Saturn."
"Stop quarreling," said Anti. "I think it's nice that there are two planets, neither of which has anyone to lay prior claim to it. Which one shall we take?"
"I'll take the Proxima planet," said Jordan as he went back to the scanner.
"Do we have to choose now?" asked Jeriann.
"We should," said Docchi. "The advantage we have is very small; we have to exploit it. Ideally we ought not to decelerate until the last minute and at the end of that period we should find ourselves in a perfect thousand mile orbit around the planet." He glanced at the model of the system they'd constructed. "Myself, I'm for the second Alpha planet."
Anti snorted. "That thing? It's nothing but a hotter edition of Mars."
"Mars isn't bad, Anti. People live on it. Besides, it isn't Mars. It's hotter, warmer than Earth in fact. Dry, but there are two small oceans and several mountain chains and on the shady side of the hills there seem to be trees. We can live comfortably there."
"I thought of something else," said Jeriann. "They'll head straight for the planet that will support the biggest population. Let them have the prize—we don't need it."
"I had that in mind," said Docchi. "It will give us more time to get safely established. Once we're on, there's nothing much they can do."
The deceleration began soon and went off smoothly. In less than a subjective year since they left Earth they entered the Alpha system. But they were not the first humans to arrive. The official expedition in the Star Victory preceded them by several days. The difference was that the accidentals knew exactly where they were going and actually arrived at the planet while the other ship was still cautiously investigating the outer orbits.
"It doesn't matter," said Anti as they gathered by the scanner, discussing it. "In principle we're responsible for what they've done. They can have the glory. What we came for was a place to live in peace."
"And we'll get it," said Docchi. In the last few weeks his uneasiness, never very deep, had come to the surface. The knowledge of how narrow a margin they had was frightening.
Outside the planet filled the dome. It was actually quite small but it was close and covered most of the sky. Now that they were near they could see that only superficially did it resemble Mars. There were mountains and several large streams and it wasn't as barren as at first they had thought.
"I wish I could land, or we could go closer," said Anti.
There was no answer for that. Anti's personal null gravity field would function only so long as it was in contact with the gravity computer, which in effect it was an extension of. She wasn't yet strong enough to stand on the surface of their new home. As for the other, the asteroid was quite large and it wasn't advisable to risk a nearer approach.
Webber came in, grinning hugely and rattling his arm and leg more than necessary. "The first load's on. When do we peel off?"
"Whenever you're ready. The rocket dome is on automatic. Take off and it'll open for you."
"It's safe to leave?"
"If you're the rocket pilot you say you are. It's an ordinary landing. The scouts the general left us are in fair condition."
"Don't worry about me. I meant, will the expedition interfere?"
"Last time we checked the ship was nosing around the outer planets."
"Good stupid old Judd. It's nice that we can depend on him to proceed with the utmost of military caution—and arrive at his goal too late."
It was not quite fair to the general, who was shrewd enough when it came to things he had been trained to deal with. From the military standpoint he had to check every possibility before going on to the next. He was the official representative of the entire solar system and he did not dare act as hastily as the accidentals could. His responsibilities held him back. But there were other times in which unimaginative obedience to higher authority would carry the day.
"Be careful," warned Docchi. "Don't let anyone go out until the air and soil and water have been tested and retested and approved."
"The doctor thinks we can handle any virus, bacteria, parasite, or anything else you can name that shows up. It's not the first strange world man has landed on."
"This is not the solar system," said Docchi. "You may have to restrain Cameron if he's overly anxious to show Nona what the new world is like."
"For that reason you——" Webber stopped, glancing away from Docchi's face. "It's too bad you can't go. You ought to have some first to your name."
"Don't concern yourself. I'll get there one of these days. Somebody's got to be up here at this end."
"And I'll make certain nothing goes wrong down there." Webber shifted uncomfortably but the mood didn't last. "I'll be back in a week for the next load. Once we get settled things will speed up."
"We'll be waiting," called Jordan as Webber left.
There was tension before the rocket lifted and sluiced through the dome locks. It didn't abate as the swatch of light flared across the darkness and faded against the bright illumination of the planetary disc. It was only when they were able to observe the successful landing on the selected site and the radio response came in. "All clear. A bit shaken up on the way down but no damage except to my ego. I think I got all the rusty rocketry out of my system. We're waiting while tests come in. We'll let you know before we go out."
"Now I can breathe," said Anti. "A place of our own. Just let the general come and try to take us off."
"Why not? He has weapons, which we don't. There's nothing to stop him from landing down there and capturing them. I won't feel safe until we have a real settlement going and can defend it. And then I'm not sure."
"Now, Jeriann," admonished Anti.
"They'll obey their own laws," said Docchi. "Planets outside the solar system that aren't claimed by others belong to those who first settle them. They passed that long ago as an incentive to interstellar travel. The moment we landed we became independent. To molest us now would be a clear violation of everything they believe in."
"I hope you're right," said Jeriann. "I hope you are."
Anti was gazing out the window at the arch of the dome, through which she could see the edge of the planet, ruddy, with a small sparkling green and gold ocean turned toward them. She got to her feet. "I'm going outside and see the world before it slips away. I was wrong. It's not like Mars. Much prettier."
Docchi was busy for a moment as Anti and Jordan left and when the work was finished and he turned around he saw that Jeriann had remained with him. Without realizing what she was doing she was fingering the empty spaces on her belt. It wasn't conspicuous but like him she wore her infirmity on the outside where everyone could see.
"I'm sorry you couldn't go first," she said, touching the one remaining capsule.
"First or later isn't important. But why not be sorry you weren't first?"
"Well, there are things to be done and oh, I don't know."
She was disturbed for some reason he could not guess. The sight of their world seemed to upset her as much as it did him, but with different effects. "It's the same with me. But now the worst is over." Docchi sat motionless. "Jeriann."
"Once I said I'd come to see you when I could."
"You promised, but you never came."
"The promise was to myself. I can come to see you now. Am I still invited?"
"Why do you ask a question like that?" said Jeriann. "You know, don't you? You know what I'll say."
First they registered and then they left the Hall of Records, walking slowly, watching the planet roll over the dome, disappearing by degrees. It was out of sight, the last patch vanishing as they reached her dwelling. And inside, where time was waiting everywhere, the remainder of it on the floor, peering down from the ceiling and ticking with soft persistence in the walls, they quite forgot time for a while.
They slept dreamlessly. It was nearly morning before he became restless and awakened. It was not the rhythmical noises that were intended to keep her informed of the schedule that bothered him.
He lay there and tried to determine where the sound came from. He could feel her body next to his, warm and wonderful. He couldn't get back to sleep and he couldn't ignore what was happening.
He moved and touched her. She was quivering. "Are you laughing or crying?" he whispered.
"I can't cry so I've got to be laughing," she answered. "It's funny. I was lying here thinking about it. I suppose I can cook. I don't know. It's been a long time."
"Is that all?" He chuckled. "Don't give it another thought. I understand how you feel about it."
"Do you? I don't think so." She squirmed closer and put her arms around him "That's what's so funny. There's no food here and nothing to cook it on. Not only that, there never will be. You've got yourself a prize woman."
"I think so too. I'm satisfied," he said. "Can't you feel my arms around you?"
She would never be able to convince him that she could.


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