by Isaac Asimov
It poised gingerly in space, surrounded by suns and suns and suns, each centering a gravitational field that wrenched at the little bubble of metal. But the ship’s computers had done well and it had pin-pricked squarely into position. It was within a day’s journey—ordinary space-drive journey—of the Lagrange System.
This fact had varying significance to the different men aboard ship. To the crew it was another day’s work and another day’s flight pay and then shore rest. The planet for which they were aiming was uninhabited but shore rest could be a pleasant interlude even on an asteroid. They did not trouble themselves concerning a possible difference of opinion among the passengers.
The crew, in fact, were rather contemptuous of the passengers, and avoided them.
And so they were, every one of them but one. Scientists, in politer terms—and a heterogeneous lot. Their nearest approach to a common emotion at that moment was a final anxiety for their instruments, a vague desire for a last check.
And perhaps just a small increase of tension and anxiety. It
As for the one unusual man on board ship—not a crewman and not really a scientist—his strongest feeling was one of bone-weariness. He stirred to his feet weakly and fought off the last dregs of spacesickness. He was Mark Annuncio, and he had been in bed now for four days, feeding on almost nothing, while the ship wove in and out of the Universe, jumping its light-years of space.
But now he felt less certain of imminent death and he had to answer the summons of the captain. In his inarticulate way, Mark resented that summons. He was used to having his own way, seeing what he felt like seeing. Who was the captain to—
The impulse kept returning to tell Dr. Sheffield about this and let it rest there.
But Mark was curious, so he knew he would have to go.
It was his one great vice. Curiosity!
It also happened to be his profession, and his mission in life.
Captain Follenbee of the
This run, of course, was a little different.
It wasn’t so much the particular gang of passengers he had taken aboard. (He had expected temperament, tantrums and unbearable foolishness but it turned out that eggheads were much like normal people.) It wasn’t that half his ship had been torn down and rebuilt into what the contract called a “universal central-access laboratory.”
Actually, and he hated the thought, it was “Junior”—the planet that lay ahead of them.
The crew didn’t know, of course, but he, himself, hard-head and all, was beginning to find the matter unpleasant.
But only beginning—
At the moment, he told himself, it was this Mark Annuncio, if that was the name, who was annoying him. He slapped the back of one hand against the palm of the other and thought angrily about it. His large, round face was ruddy with annoyance.
A boy of not more than twenty, with no position that he knew of among the passengers, to make a request like that.
What was behind it?
In his present mood, he would like to straighten it out by means of a jacket collar twisted in a fist and a rattle of teeth, but better not—
After all, this was a curious kind of light for the Confederacy of Worlds to sponsor, and a twenty-year-old, over-curious rubberneck might be an integral part of the strangeness. What was he on board
He had been spacesick for the entire trick, or was that just a device to keep to his cabin—
There was a light burning as the door-signal sounded.
It would be the boy.
Mark Annuncio entered the captain’s cabin and licked his lips in a futile attempt to get rid of the bitter taste in his mouth. He felt lightheaded and heavy-hearted.
At the moment he would have given up his Service status to be back on Earth.
He thought wishfully of his own familiar quarters; small but private; alone with his own kind. It was just a bed, desk, chair, and closet, but he had all of Central Library on free call. Here there was nothing. He had thought there would be a lot to learn on board ship. He had never been on board ship before. But he hadn’t expected days and days of spacesickness.
He was so homesick he could cry, and he hated himself because he knew that his eyes were red and moist and that the captain would see it. He hated himself because he wasn’t large and wide; because he looked like a mouse.
In a word, that was it. He had mouse-brown hair with nothing but silken straightness to it; a narrow, receding chin, a small mouth and a pointed nose. All he needed were five or six delicate vibrissae on each side of the nose to make the illusion complete. And he was below average in height.
And then he saw the star-field in the captain’s observation port and the breath went out of him.
Stars as he had never seen them.
Mark had never left the planet Earth before. (Dr. Sheffield told him that was why he was spacesick. Mark didn’t believe him. He had read in fifty different books that spacesickness was psychogenic. Even Dr. Sheffield tried to fool him sometimes.)
He had never left Earth before, and he was used to Earth’s sky. He was accustomed to viewing two thousand stars spread over half a celestial sphere with only ten of the first magnitude.
But here they crowded madly. There were ten times the number in Earth’s sky in that small square alone. And
He fixed the star-pattern greedily in his mind. It overwhelmed him. He knew the figures on the Hercules cluster, of course. It contained between one million and ten million stars—no exact census had been taken as yet—but figures are one thing and stars are another.
He wanted to count them. It was a sudden overwhelming desire. He was curious about the number. He wondered if they all had names; if there were astronomic data on all of them. Let’s see—
He counted them in groups of hundreds. Two—three—He might have used the mental pattern alone, but he liked to watch the actual physical objects when they were so startlingly beautiful. Six—seven—
The captain’s hearty voice splattered over him and brought him back to ship’s interior.
“Mr. Annuncio. Glad to meet you.”
Mark looked up, startled, resentful. Why was his count being interrupted.
He said, irritably, “The stars!” and pointed.
The captain turned to stare. “What about them? What’s wrong?”
Mark looked at the captain’s wide back and his overdeveloped posterior. He looked at the gray stubble that covered the captain’s head, at the two large hands with thick fingers that clasped one another in the small of the captain’s back and flapped rhythmically against the shiny plastex of his jacket.
His lower lip trembled. The captain was just one of the noncompos. Everyone on ship was a noncompos. That’s what they called them back in the Service. Noncompos. All of them. Couldn’t cube fifteen without a computer.
Mark felt very lonely.
He let it go—no use trying to explain—and said, “The stars get so thick here. Like pea soup.”
“All appearance, Mr. Annuncio.” (The captain pronounced the “c” in Mark’s name like an “s” rather than a “is” and the sound grated on Mark’s ear.) “Average distance between stars in the thickest cluster is over a light-year. Plenty of room, eh? Looks thick, though. Grant you that. If the lights were out, they’d shine like a trillion Chisholm points in an oscillating force-field.”
But he didn’t offer to put the lights out and Mark wasn’t going to ask him to.
The captain said, “Sit down, Mr. Annuncio. No use standing, eh? You smoke? Mind if I do? Sorry you couldn’t be here this mornins. Had an excellent view of Lagrange I and II at six space-hours. Red and green. Like traffic lights, eh? Missed you all trip. Space-legs need strengthening, eh?”
He barked out his “eh’s” in a high-pitched voice that Mark found devilishly irritating.
Mark said in a low voice, “I’m all right now.”
The captain seemed to find that unsatisfactory. He puffed at his cigar and stared down at Mark with eyebrows hunched down over his eyes. He said, slowly, “Glad to see you now, anyway. Get acquainted ...