Godspeed

Godspeed

by Charles Sheffield

To

Robert Louis Stevenson

and Robert Anson Heinlein

Chapter 1

“Tell it all,” Doctor Eileen said. “Just as it happened, before you have time to forget anything.”

“Why?” I didn’t want to. For one thing, I didn’t know how.

“Because people will want to read about this, a hundred years from now.”

“But it’s…” I paused. Boring? It wasn’t boring to me, but maybe to other people… “Who will want to read it?”

“Everyone. It’s danger and deception, and daring and death. There isn’t a man or woman born who wouldn’t want to read it.”

“But why me? I don’t know how to describe things. You would do a lot better job.”

Doctor Eileen put her hand on the top of my head and ruffled my hair. I hated it when she did that. If I hadn’t been sitting down she couldn’t have. “If you mean I could do a smoother, more experienced job, you’re right. I could do it better in that way. But you’re a lot younger than me, and your memory ought to be ten times as good. Most important, a lot of what I said would be what they call hearsay. That means I heard about it, but I wasn’t in the thick of it from start to finish, the way that you were—and only you were. You are the right one, Jay. You have to tell it.”

She left, abandoning me to the recording unit.

* * *

A quarter of an hour later she was back. I had got as far as, “My name is Jay Hara.” And there I had stuck. My head spun with thoughts of Paddy’s Fortune, and Dan and Stan the two-half-man, and Muldoon Spaceport, and the Maze, and Mel Fury, and the Godspeed Drive and Slowdrive. But I couldn’t talk about them.

Doctor Eileen sat down next to me. “Problems?”

“I don’t know how to tell it.”

“Sure you do. Just start anyplace. You see, Jay, you’re not building a house, where the foundation needs to go in before the walls, and the walls before the roof. You can start anywhere you want, and go back and fill in where you like, or change whatever sounds wrong. And if there’s any place that needs smoothing, I can help with that. But the main thing is to get going. No more excuses. Do it.”

She made it sound easy. To Doctor Eileen, it probably was easy. But I hated the idea that she might come in after I was done, and change what I said, and leave my name on it. So I made her promise that she wouldn’t do that, only add here and there if I left out some fact needed to make things clear. And then I began, at the only place that I could imagine beginning.

* * *

My name is Jay Hara. I am sixteen years old. My earliest memories are of my mother and Lake Sheelin. Mother would lead me onto the porch of the house, facing out across the lake, and we would watch the winter sun glint off the windblown water, or laugh at the clumsy flying fish skimming across the surface. Some of them finished on the shore, and then in the frying pan. But there were always plenty more.

The lake was wide and, when I was little, I thought it reached to the edge of the world, but now and then, when the air was calm and unusually clear, there would be a hint of domes and steeples across on a distant shore. And most magical of all, when the sky was darkening towards night and the winds had died to nothing, Mother would sometimes take me outside and say, “Look, Jay. Look there.”

She would point, to where there was nothing to see. After a few minutes a bar of glowing purple would start to rise across the lake and grow taller until it split the sky.

“You can’t see it,” Mother would say, as I stared at the topless column. “But there’s a ship sitting on top of that.” And then she would laugh, and add, “Up, up, and away, to the Forty Worlds. When you grow up, Jay, that’s the place for you. You’ll be an explorer, the best there ever was.”

By the time that I was nine I had learned a good deal more about exploration, and it seemed to me that it was not nearly as wonderful as Mother painted it. For one thing, I had met some of the explorers. Every month or two, strangers would visit us, wandering in along the dusty road that led from the town of Toltoona, half an hour’s walk away along the lake shore. They were always men, all different, and yet in some ways all very similar. I came to recognize the trembling, muscle-weak limbs, or the red, veined faces, or the horrible throat-tearing coughs.

And these were the famous explorers of the Forty Worlds! I could see how sick they looked, but it seemed that Mother could not. When they arrived, she became a different person. There was nothing like the appearance of one of those wheezing strangers to change her from a strong, self-sufficient woman to someone apparently too delicate to breathe.

“If you could just help me with this basket,” she would say, her hand laid gently on a man’s arm. “If you would carry it for me into the house…” And she would laugh, mocking her own weakness.

The man always carried it, although the chore was often far harder work for him than it was for her (or even for me). And once he was in our little living room, Mother blossomed. Her pale face took on a blush of color, her red hair floated free like a glowing crown, and her walk became an easy rolling of hips. In the evening she would go down to the cellar and reappear with a selection of wines, to accompany foods far more elaborate than usual, and Duncan West, Uncle Duncan, who was normally at the house almost every evening, mysteriously vanished.

Look, I don’t want to sound like an idiot, even if no one is ever going to read this. I know now, very well, what that was all about. But I didn’t know it then. To me, Uncle Duncan had been a fixture in our house since my earliest days. He was a big, easygoing man, always smiling, and known to me as “Unkadunka,” because when I was only a couple of years old I could not pronounce his name. And if, when a stranger appeared, Duncan West disappeared, and came back a few days later when the man was gone… well, those were separate facts. I never related them inside my head.

Stupid? Maybe. But I think most nine-year-olds would have done no better.

As for me, I just loved it when the strange men came to stay at the house. It was not just the different and exciting food. Part of it was also the change in Mother. She became a laughing girl, full of fun and charm, all flashing eyes and tossing curls. And part of it was the excitement caused by the men, too, for no matter who they were they came to our house filled with tales from beyond the edge of the universe.

In fact, it was a tall, gaunt man with fiery-red burns all the way from his lower neck, where his shirt ended, to the top of his thinly haired head, who first told me about the Maze.

“They call the planets the Forty Worlds,” he said. We were at the end of a long, leisurely dinner, and between them he and Mother were finishing a second bottle of wine. The newcomer’s name was Jimmy Grogan, and although he talked mostly to Mother I suspect that I was his real audience, for I’m sure she had heard it all before. “But that’s true only if you count the Maze as one world,” he went on. “If you count the Maze at its true numbers, then our system is more like the Four Thousand Worlds, or maybe the Four Million.”

The Maze. Mother’s hand was on Grogan’s bare upper arm, stroking it where new baby skin was still growing to replace the old scar tissue, but his face stayed worlds away. “There’s untold treasure out there,” he said, “if only we knew how to find it. I think that’s what keeps a man going out, time and again.” He sighed, and took a final big swallow of red wine. Suddenly he stared directly at me. “Imagine it, Jay. A great jumble of little worlds, more worldlets than you can count, all with nearly the same orbit, so that a ship has to skim and hop and scamper in the cloud of them, never sure from one hour to the next if there’s a collision on the way. But if you dare to stay there in the Maze, and if you are lucky enough to hit the right worldlet, you come home to Erin the richest man in the Forty Worlds system. And you never have to work again.”

At that time I was still sorting out in my head the difference between sun and stars and planets and worldlets, so I did not really follow his discussion of the Maze. But one word of his spoke to me loud and clear.

“Treasure,” I said. “You mean—gold?”

He hardly gave me a glance, before he was turning to mother and laughing that creaking, wheezy laugh. “Gold!” he said. “Now, Molly Hara, you’ve been filling the boy’s head with the old fairy tales. Next it will be leprechauns, and the Pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow.”

He turned back to me. “Rarer than gold, Jay, and a damn sight more precious. There’s gold aplenty to be had right here on Erin, but out in the Maze there’s every light element in creation, including the ones that we never find here. I know men who’ve struck lucky on lithium and magnesium and aluminum. And that’s only the start of it. There’s the treasure of old times, too—some say it’s out in the Maze we’ll find the Godspeed Drive, the—”

“Godspeed Drive!” Mother broke in. “Now, Jimmy, and you accuse me of filling his head ...

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