THE VOYAGE THAT LASTED 600 YEARS
Don WilcoxThirty generations would live and die before the Flashaway reached its destination. Could the one man who was to live on keep them to their purpose?
THEY gave us a gala send-off, the kind that keeps your heart bobbing up at your tonsils. “It’s a long, long way to the Milky Way!” the voices sang out. The band thundered the chorus over and over. The golden trumpaphones blasted our eardrums wide open. Thousands of people clapped their hands in time.
There were thirty-three of us—that is, there was supposed to be. As it turned out, there were thirty-five.
We were a dazzling parade of red, white and blue uniforms. We marched up the gangplank by couples, every couple a man and wife, every couple young and strong, for the selection had been rigid.
Captain Sperry and his wife and I—I being the odd man—brought up the rear. Reporters and cameramen swarmed at our heels. The microphones stopped us. The band and the crowd hushed.
“This is Captain Sperry telling you good-by,” the amplified voice boomed. “In behalf of the thirty-three, I thank you for your grand farewell. We’ll remember this hour as our last contact with our beloved Earth.”
The crowd held its breath. The mighty import of our mission struck through every heart.
“We go forth into space to live—and to die,” the captain said gravely. “But our children’s children, born in space and reared in the light of our vision, will carry on our great purpose. And in centuries to come, your children’s children may set forth for the Robinello planets, knowing that you will find an American colony already planted there.”
The captain gestured goodbye and the multitude responded with a thunderous cheer. Nothing so daring as a six-century nonstop flight had ever been undertaken before.
An announcer nabbed me by the sleeve and barked into the microphone, “And now one final word from Professor Gregory Grimstone, the one man who is supposed to live down through the six centuries of this historic flight and see the journey through to the end.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I choked, and the echo of my swallow blobbed back at me from distant walls, “as Keeper of the Traditions, I give you my word that the S. S. Flashaway shall carry your civilization through to the end, unsoiled and unblemished!”
A cheer stimulated me and I drew a deep breath for a burst of oratory. But Captain Sperry pulled at my other sleeve.
“That’s all. We’re set to slide out in two minutes.”
The reporters scurried down the gangplank and made a center rush through the crowd. The band struck up. Motors roared sullenly.
One lone reporter who had missed out on the interviews blitzkrieged up and caught me by the coattail.
“Hold it, Butch. Just a coupla words so I can whip up a column of froth for the Star— Well, I’ll be damned! If it ain’t ‘Crackdown’ Grimstone! “
I scowled. The reporter before me was none other than Bill Broscoe, one of my former pupils at college and a star athlete. At heart I knew that Bill was a right guy, but I’d be the last to tell him so.
“Broscoe!” I snarled. “Tardy as usual. You finally flunked my history course, didn’t you?”
“Now, Crackdown,” he whined, “don’t go hopping on me. I won that Thanksgiving game for you, remember?”
HE gazed at my red, white and blue uniform.
“So you’re off for Robinello,” he grinned.
“Son, this is my last minute on Earth, and you have to haunt me, of all people—”
“So you’re the one that’s taking the refrigerated sleeper, to wake up every hundred years—”
“And stir the fires of civilization among the crew—yes. Six hundred years from now when your bones have rotted, I’ll still be carrying on.”
“Still teaching ‘em history? God forbid!” Broscoe grinned.
“I hope I have better luck than I did with you.”
“Let ‘em off easy on dates, Crackdown. Give them 1066 for William the Conqueror and 2066 for the Flashaway take-off. That’s enough. Taking your wife, I suppose?”
At this impertinent question I gave Broscoe the cold eye.
“Pardon me,” he said, suppressing a sly grin—proof enough that he had heard the devastating story about how I missed my wedding and got the air. “Faulty alarm clock, wasn’t it? Too bad. Crackdown. And you always ragged me about being tardy!”
With this jibe Broscoe exploded into laughter. Some people have the damnedest notions about what constitutes humor. I backed into the entrance of the space ship uncomfortably. Broscoe followed.
The automatic door cut past me. I jerked Broscoe through barely in time to keep him from being bisected.
“Tardy as usual, my friend,” I hooted. “You’ve missed your gangplank! That makes you the first castaway in space.”
We took off like a shooting star, and the last I saw of Bill Broscoe, he stood at a rear window cursing as he watched the earth and the moon fall away into the velvety black heavens. And the more I laughed at him, the madder he got. No sense of humor.
Was that the last time I ever saw him? Well, no, to be strictly honest I had one more unhappy glimpse of him. It happened just before I packed myself away for my first one hundred years’ sleep.
I had checked over the “Who’s Who Aboard the Flashaway”—the official register—to make sure that I was thoroughly acquainted with everyone on board; for these sixteen couples were to be the great-grandparents of the next generation I would meet. Then I had promptly taken my leave of Captain Sperry and his wife, and gone directly to my refrigeration plant, where I was to suspend my life by instantaneous freezing.
I clicked the switches, and one of the two huge horizontal wheels—one in reserve, in the event of a breakdown—opened up for me like a door opening in the side of a gigantic doughnut, or better, a tubular merry go round. There was my nook waiting for me to crawl in.
Before I did so I took a backward glance toward the ballroom. The one-way glass partition, through which I could see but not be seen, gave me a clear view of the scene of merriment. The couples were dancing. The journey was off to a good start.
“A grand gang,” I said to myself. No one doubted that the ship was equal to the six-hundred-year journey. The success would depend upon the people. Living and dying in this closely circumscribed world would put them to a severe test. All credit, I reflected, was due the planning committee for choosing such a congenial group.
“They’re equal to it,” I said optimistically. If their children would only prove as sturdy and adaptable as their parents, my job as Keeper of the Traditions would be simple.
BUT how, I asked myself, as I stepped into my life-suspension merry-go-round, would Bill Broscoe fit into this picture? Not a half bad guy. Still—
My final glance through the one-way glass partition slew me. Out of the throng I saw Bill Broscoe dancing past with a beautiful girl in his arms. The girl was Louise—my Louise—the girl I had been engaged to marry!
In a flash it came to me—but not about Bill. I forgot him on the spot. About Louise.
Bless her heart, she’d come to find me. She must have heard that I had signed up for the Flashaway, and she bad come aboard, a stowaway, to forgive me for missing the wedding—to marry me! Now—
A warning click sounded, a lid closed over me, my refrigerator—merry go round whirled— Blackness!
Babies, Just Babies
IN a moment—or so it seemed—I was again gazing into the light of the refrigerating room. The lid stood open.
A stimulating warmth circulated through my limbs. Perhaps the machine, I half consciously concluded, had made no more than a preliminary revolution.
I bounded out with a single thought. I must find Louise. We could still be married. For the present I would postpone my entrance into the ice. And since the machine had been equipped with two merry-go-round freezers as an emergency safeguard — oh happy thought—perhaps Louise would be willing to undergo life suspension with me!
I stopped at the one-way glass partition, astonished to see no signs of dancing in the ballroom. I could scarcely see the ballroom, for it had been darkened.
Upon unlocking the door (the refrigerator room was my own private retreat) I was bewildered. An unaccountable change had come over everything. What it was, I couldn’t determine at the moment. But the very air of the ballroom was different.
A few dim green light bulbs burned along the walls—enough to show me that the dancers had vanished. Had time enough elapsed for night to come on? My thoughts spun dizzily. Night, I reflected, would consist simply of turning off the lights and going to bed. It had been agreed in our plan that our twenty-four hour Earth day would be maintained for the sake of regularity.
But there was something more intangible that struck me. The furniture had been changed about, and the very walls seemed older. Something more than minutes had passed since I left this room.
Strangest of all, the windows were darkened.
In a groggy state of mind I approached one of the windows in hopes of catching a glimpse of the solar system. I was still puzzling over how much time might have elapsed. Here, at least, was a sign of very recent activity.
“Wet Paint” read the sign pinned to the window. The paint was still sticky. What the devil—
The ship, of course, was fully equipped for blind flying. But aside from the problems of navigation, the crew had anticipated enjoying a wonderland of stellar beauty through the portholes. Now, for some strange reason, every window had been painted opaque.
I listened. Slow measured steps were pacing in an adjacent hallway. Nearing the entrance, I stopped, halted by a shrill sound from somewhere overhead. It came from one of the residential quarters that gave on the ballroom balcony.
It was the unmistakable wail of a baby.
Then another baby’s cry struck up; and a third, from somewhere across the balcony, joined the chorus. Time, indeed, must have passed since I left this roomful of dancers.
Now some irate voices of disturbed sleepers added rumbling basses to the symphony of wailings. Grumbles of “Shut that little devil up!” and poundings of fists on walls thundered through the empty ballroom. In a burst of inspiration I ran to the records room, where the ship’s “Who’s Who” was kept.
THE door to the records room was locked, but the footsteps of some sleepless person I had heard now pounded down the dimly lighted hallway. I looked upon the aged man. I had never seen him before. He stopped at the sight of me; then snapping on a brighter light, came on confidently.
“Mr. Grimstone?” he said, extending his hand. “We’ve been expecting you. My name is William Broscoe—”
“William Broscoe, the second. You knew my father, I believe.”
I groaned and choked.
“And my mother,” the old man continued, “always spoke very highly of you. I’m proud to be the first to greet you.”
He politely overlooked the flush of purple that leaped into my face. For a moment nothing that I could say was intelligible.
He turned a key and we entered the records room. There I faced the inescapable fact. My full century had passed. The original crew of the Flashaway were long gone. A completely new generation was on the register.
Or, more accurately, three new generations: the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren of the generation I had known.
One hundred years had passed—and I had lain so completely suspended, owing to the freezing, that only a moment of my own life had been absorbed.
Eventually I was to get used to this; but on this first occasion I found it utterly shocking—even embarrassing. Only a few minutes ago, as my experience went, I was madly in love with Louise and had hopes of yet marrying her.
But now well, the leather-bound “Who’s Who” told all. Louise had been dead twenty years. Nearly thirty children now alive aboard the S. S. Flashaway could claim her as their great-grandmother. These carefully recorded pedigrees proved it.
And the patriarch of that fruitful tribe had been none other than Bill Broscoe, the fresh young athlete who had always been tardy for my history class. I gulped as if I were swallowing a baseball.
Broscoe—tardy! And I had missed my second chance to marry Louise—by a full century!
My fingers turned the pages of the register numbly. William Broscoe II misinterpreted my silence.
“I see you are quick to detect our trouble,” he said, and the same deep conscientious concern showed in his expression that I had remembered in the face of his mother, upon our grim meeting after my alarm clock had failed and I had missed my own wedding.
Trouble? Trouble aboard the S. S. Flashaway, after all the careful advance planning we had done, and after all our array of budgeting and scheduling and vowing to stamp our systematic ways upon the oncoming generations? This, we had agreed, would be the world’s most unique colonizing expedition; for every last trouble that might crop up on the six-hundred-year voyage had already been met and conquered by advance planning.
“They’ve tried to put off doing anything about it until your arrival,” Broscoe said, observing respectfully that the charter invested in me the authority of passing upon all important policies. “But this very week three new babies arrived, which brings the trouble to a crisis. So the captain ordered a blackout of the heavens as an emergency measure.”
“HEAVENS?” I grunted. “What have the heavens got to do with babies?”
“There’s a difference of opinion on that. Maybe it depends upon how susceptible you are.”
“The romantic malady.”
I looked at the old man, much puzzled. He took me by the arm and led me toward the pilots’ control room. Here were unpainted windows that revealed celestial glories beyond anything I had ever dreamed. Brilliant planets of varied hues gleamed through the blackness, while close at hand—almost close enough to touch—were numerous large moons, floating slowly past as we shot along our course.
“Some little show,” the pilot grinned, “and it keeps getting better.”
He proceeded to tell me just where we were and how few adjustments in the original time schedules he had had to make, and why this non-stop flight to Robinello would stand unequalled for centuries to come.
And I heard virtually nothing of what he said. I simply stood there, gazing at the unbelievable beauty of the skies. I was hypnotized, enthralled, shaken to the very roots. One emotion, one thought dominated me. I longed for Louise.
“The romantic malady, as I was saying,” William Broscoe resumed, “may or may not be a factor in producing our large population. Personally, I think it’s pure buncombe.”
“Pure buncombe,” I echoed, still thinking of Louise. If she and I had had moons like these—
“But nobody can tell Captain Dickinson anything...”
There was considerable clamor and wrangling that morning as the inhabitants awakened to find their heavens blacked out. Captain Dickinson was none too popular anyway. Fortunately for him, many of the people took their grouches out on the babies who had caused the disturbance in the night.
Families with babies were supposed to occupy the rear staterooms—but there weren’t enough rear staterooms. Or rather, there were too many babies.
Soon the word went the rounds that the Keeper of the Traditions had returned to life. I was duly banqueted and toasted and treated to lengthy accounts of the events of the past hundred years. And during the next few days many of the older men and women would take me aside for private conferences and spill their worries into my ears.
CONTINUE READING "THE VOYAGE THAT LASTED 600 YEARS" IN THE BEST OF AMAZING STORIES: THE 1940 ANTHOLOGY
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