Ten miracles were arranged for the age-long flight. But they reckonedwithout——
By Stephen Marlowe
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, May 1952.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The seventh tub shook gently, stimulating the hypothalamic region ofEric's brain for the first time in almost two centuries. After a time,his limbs trembled and his body began to shiver. The liquid in which hefloated boiled off at a temperature still far below that which wouldpermit his body to function.
By the time all the liquid was gone he had uncurled and lay at thebottom of the tub. Now his heart pumped three hundred times a minute,generating warmth and activating his central nervous system. It tookmany hours for his heart to slow—not back to the one beat every twominutes it had known for a hundred-seventy-five years, but to thenormal rate of about seventy per minute. By then his body temperaturehad climbed from below freezing to 98° F.
Eric lay in stupor for a week, while fluids flowed into the tub andmassaged his muscles, while fatty tissue slowly turned into strength.Finally, he climbed from his tub.
He found the locker which bore his name, and opened it. Six otherlockers were open and empty, as were six tubs. He found that hard tobelieve. It had seemed only a night of deep and dreamless sleep, nomore. But each empty tub stood for twenty-five years, each open lockermeant a man had gone and lived his time with the new generations of theship, perhaps had sired children, had died with old age.
At intervals of twenty-five years, they would arise topolice the ship.
Eric found his clothing on a hook, took it down. Yesterday—helaughed mirthlessly when he realized that had been almost two hundredyears ago—Clair had told him something about a note. He found it inthe breast pocket of his jumper, stiff and yellow. He read:
Darling: I will be ashes in the void between the stars when you readthis. That sounds silly, but it's the truth—unless I can give oldMethuselah a run for his money; I sadden when I think that you will begone tomorrow, the same as dead. But if they need ten and if you areone who can withstand suspension—what can we do? Know that my lovegoes with you across the ages, Eric.
I just thought of something. You'll be the seventh of ten, withthe last one coming out at planet-fall. If you live to be a realgray-beard, you might even see the landing on the Centaurian planet. Ilove you.
If Clair had married, her great-grandchildren might be alive now. Hergreat-great-grandchildren would be Eric's age. Clair's progeny, notClair—because Clair was dust now, a light year back in space—
He found a package of cigarettes in his jumper, took one out and litit. He must not think of the past, not when it was only history nowalthough he still felt very much a part of it. Today mattered, todayand the new generations on the ship.
It crossed his mind that they might regard him almost as a god, a manwho had seen Earth, who had slept while generations lived and died,who came from his impossible sleep and would live with them now to seethat everything was going according to plan.
Three minutes after he started the mechanism, the door slid ponderouslyinto the wall. It would open more simply from the other side, he knew,but then only Eric and the three who still slept could turn its complextumblers. For a long while he stood there on the threshold and then hewatched the door slide back into place.
The corridor glowed with soft white light, which meant it was daytimeon the ship. Dimly in the distance, Eric heard voices, children atplay. Would they know of him? Would their parents know? Was he expected?
Eric came closer. Through a doorway he could see the children, three ofthem, although they had not yet seen him. A chubby, freckle-faced boysaid:
"Let's play Lazarus. I must be the Captain, and you, Janie, you can bethe crew. George, you be Lazarus."
George was a big ten-year-old with dark hair. "Like heck I will! It wasyour idea, you be Lazarus, smart guy."
Eric stepped through the doorway. "Hello," he said. "Can you take me toyour folks?"
"Who're you, Mister?"
"Hey, I don't know him! Where'd he come from?"
The girl, Janie, said, "Lookit his clothes. Lookit. They're different."
The children wore loose tunics, pastel-tinted, to their knees.Freckle-Face said: "You know what today is, doncha?"
George frowned. "Yeah, holiday. We're off from school."
"What holiday, stupid? Which one?"
"Lazzy-day!" Janie cried. "That's what it is. Then he's—he's—"
"Lazarus!" Freckle-Face told her, and, as if on one impulse, the threeof them bolted away from Eric, disappeared through another doorway.
He did not follow them. He stood there, waiting, and before longhe heard footsteps returning. A man entered the room, tall, thin,middle-aged.
"You are Eric Taine," he said, smiling. "I'm sorry no one was around togreet you, but the way we had it figured, you wouldn't come out tilllater this afternoon. History says that's how it worked with the sixbefore you, about four P.M. It's just noon now. Will you follow me,please?"
Then the man flushed faintly. "Excuse me, but it isn't often wemeet strangers. Everyone knows everyone else, of course. My name isLindquist, Mr. Taine. Roger Lindquist."
Eric shook hands with him, stiffly, and he thought for a moment the mandid not know the gesture. "Ah yes, handshaking," Lindquist laughed."We simply show empty palms now, you know. But then, you don't know. Irather imagine you'll have a lot to learn."
Eric nodded, asked Lindquist if he might be shown about the ship.There was a lot he had to see, to check, to change if change wereneeded.
"Relax, my friend," Lindquist told him. "I'd—ah, like to suggest thatwe postpone your tour until you've met with our Council this afternoon.I'd very much like to suggest that."
Eric shrugged, said: "You know more about this than I do, Mr.Lindquist. We'll wait for your Council meeting."
"Thus, Mr. Taine," said Captain Larkin, hours later, "tradition has itthat you become a king. King Lazarus Seven—with six Lazaruses beforeyou. The first one, the histories say, was a joke. But it's stuckever since. The people like this idea of a king who comes to themevery twenty five years—and they've dubbed him with the name Lazarus,well, because if he didn't come back from the dead, he came back fromsomething a lot like it."
Eric nodded. "What happened to Alan Bridges?"
"Who?" This was Lindquist.
"Alan Bridges, the man before me—your Lazarus Six."
Captain Larkin cleared his throat. "He's dead, Mr. Taine."
"Dead? He'd only be in his fifties now—"
"I know. Sad. It was disease, hit him soon after he came to us. LazarusSix had a very short reign. Didn't he, Mr. Lindquist?"
"He certainly did," Lindquist agreed. "Let's hope that Lazarus Seven ishere to step down for Eight—and to watch Nine come in, fifty yearsfrom now!"
Cheers filled the room and Eric smiled briefly. That reminded him ofClair's note. Clair—
"So," said Captain Larkin, "you'll be crowned tomorrow. After that,your people will see you, King Lazarus Seven on his throne. Don'tdisappoint us, Mr. Taine. Their tradition means a lot to them."
"It should," Eric said. "The planners made it that way. With nothingbut space outside, and the confining walls of the ship, they neededsomething to bind them together."
"Yes, that's true. But the people, as you'll see, have come up withsome of their own traditions over the years." Captain Larkin ran a handthrough his graying hair. "Like your kinghood, for example. You'll see,Mr. Taine—or should it be Lazarus now, eh?" He laughed.
"If you'd like," Eric said. He did not relish the idea particularly,but then, it was their show. Still, he had everything to check—fromastrogation to ethics—and he would not want to be delayed by pompand ceremony. Well, there was time enough for that. Now he feltweary—and that made him chuckle, because he had just concluded ahundred-seventy-five year nap.
They took him to his quarters, where the six before him had lived.There he ate in silence, food from the hydroponic gardens on a lowerlevel of the ship. The line of light under his door had turned fromwhite to a soft blue. It was night on the ship.
Eric showered and got into bed, but although he was tired he could notfall asleep. He had expected to be an efficiency expert of sorts;that was his job; but they told him, matter-of-factly, that he wouldbe a king. Well, you could expect change in nearly two hundred years,radical change. And if indeed their tradition were deep-rooted, hewould not try to change it. The planners had counted on that to keepthem going, because there could be no environmental challenge to goadthem. Just an unreal past and an unreal Earth which Eric and theirgreat-great-grandparents had seen, and an even more unreal future when,someday far far off, the ship reached the Centaurian System.
Softly, someone knocked at his door. The sound had been there formany moments, a gentle tapping, but it had not registered on hisconsciousness. Now, when it did, he padded across the bare floor andopened the door.
A girl stepped in from the corridor, pushing him before her with onehand, motioning him to silence with the other. She closed the doorsoftly behind her, soundlessly almost, and turned to face him.
She wore the knee-length tunic popular with this generation, and itcovered a graceful feminine figure.
"Please," the girl said. "Please listen to me, Eric Taine. I may haveonly a few moments—listen!"
"Sure," he smiled. "But why all the mystery?"
"Shh! Let me talk. Have you a weapon?"
"Yes, I carry a pistol. I don't fancy I'll need it, though."
"Well, take it with you and go back where you came. If anyone tries tostop you, use your weapon. They have nothing like it. Then, when youget there—" Her voice came breathlessly, and it made Eric laugh.
"Hold on, Miss. Why should I do that? Don't tell me there's a plot andsomeone wants to usurp the new king before he's crowned? No? What then?"
"Stop making fun of me, Eric Taine. I'm trying to save your life." Shesaid it so seriously, her eyes so big and round, that Eric half wantedto believe her. But that was fantastic. From what could she possibly besaving him?
The words came out in a rush as the girl spoke again. "The ship isnot on course. For twenty five years it has been off, heading back toEarth—"
"To Earth! That's crazy."
"Listen, please. They killed Lazarus Six. He was a scapegoat. Theywatched the old films of Earth and felt they had been cheated out oftheir birthright. Why should they live here, alone in space? theysaid. Why should their children's children face the hardships of a newworld? They didn't ask for it. It was thrust upon them by the planners,by your generation. If they knew how to get into your room of tubs,they would have killed you. Now there is a mock ceremony, everythingis blamed on the new Lazarus, and the people feel better when he iskilled. I know, my mother told me. You can ask her——"
The girl was about twenty, Eric thought. A wild-eyed thing now, who sowanted him to believe her impossible story. Her breath came quickly,in little gasps, and Eric tried to hide the smile on his face.
"You're laughing at me! Stupid, stupid—please—And when you get backto your room of tubs, awaken your friends, the three who remain.You four can control the ship, put it back on course, teach thepeople—Ooo, stop laughing!" She pouted prettily. "All of us, we're notall like that. We who are not can help you."
Eric chuckled softly. "You try to picture it," he told her. "I'm sorry,but everything's been sweetness and light, and you come in here with awild notion—"
"It isn't wild, it's the truth. Why don't you ask to check our coursebefore they make you king?"
He could do that, all right. But they'd be wondering what mad neurosiscompelled his actions, and he did not want that, not when he might haveso much to do.