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Title: Next Door, Next World
Author: Locke, Robert Donald
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Next Door, Next World" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



 NEXT
 DOOR,
 NEXT
 WORLD

     By ROBERT
     DONALD
     LOCKE


 _Almost any phenomenon can be
 used--or act--for good or ill.
 Mutation usually brings ill--but
 it also brings greatness. Change
 can go any direction._


           Illustrated by Douglas


Hungrily, the cradled vessel's great steel nose pointed up to the
distant stars. She was the _Cosmos XII_, newest and sleekest of the
Space Service's rapidly-expanding wing of interstellar scout ships, and
she was now ready for operational work.

Major Lance Cooper, a big man with space-tanned features, stood in the
shadow of the control bunker and watched the swarm of ground crewmen
working at last-minute speed atop the loading tower. Inside him burned a
hunger, too.

Hunger, and another emotion--pride.

The pride swelled Lance's open-collared khaki shirt, as he envisioned
himself at the ship's controls within a few minutes. Finally, after long
years of study, sweat and dedication, he'd made it to the Big League. No
more jockeying those tubby old rocket-pots to Luna! From here on, he was
going to see, taste, feel what the universe was like way, way out--in
Deep Space. The _Cosmos XII_, like her earlier sisters, was designed to
plow through that shuddery nowhere the cookbooks identified as
"hyperspace."

Lance's glance shifted upward, scanning the velvet backdrop of frosty
white points of light against which the slender, silverish, almost
wingless form stood framed. More stars than a man could visit in a
lifetime! And some already within grasp!

His exultant feeling grew, and Lance kept his head tilted backward.
Alpha Centauri, the most popular target, was not visible at this
latitude; and Barnard's star, besides being far too faint, lay on the
other side of the sun. But there shone Sirius, just as bright as it had
glittered for the Greeks, and frosty Procyon, a little to the north.
Both orbs twinkled and beckoned, evoking strange and demanding dreams!

One day, Man would be able to make landings. Teams of scientists
outfitted to the eyebrows and trained to cope with any environment or
emergency, would explore unknown jungles, _llanos_, steppes; tramp up
and down fertile vales and hills under blue-hot alien suns. Perhaps,
they might even contact native species boasting human intelligence:
mammalian hunters and fishers, city-building lizards, sky-probing
arachnids--who knew what?

But now, of course, all that Headquarters permitted of flights was the
most furtive of reconnoitering. You hoisted your scout ship aloft under
high-gee, cleared the ecliptic, then swung out of normal space and
_jumped_. When you materialized in the new sector, you set your cameras
clicking, toggled all the other instruments into recording radiation,
gravity pressures, spectroscopy, at slam-bang speed. The very instant
your magnetic tapes got crammed to capacity, you pressed six dozen panic
buttons and scooted like a scared jackrabbit for Home, Sweet Home.

Adventure? It wasn't even mentioned on the travel posters, yet.

But, adventure would follow.

Some day.

Meanwhile, at the taxpayers' expense, you--the guardian of the
Peace--had enjoyed the billion-dollar thrill of viewing our Solar System
from light-years and light-years of distance. Or so the manual said,
right here on Insert Page 30-Dash-11-Dash-6.

Lance thought about those veteran hype-pilots who'd already poked around
in the great black Cold out there. How was it they were always
compensating for their frustration?

Now, he remembered.

Having few tall tales to spellbind audiences with when they swooped back
down on Home Base after their missions, the hype-pilots got around it by
bragging up Terra itself, and how at least you could always depend upon
good old Earth to come up with something to relax this Warp-Weary
generation!

"Something, for example, such as we now hold in our hand, brothers!"
Lance could hear them now. "Namely, one of these superbly-programmed
cocktails, as only Casey can turn out."

(Casey was the Officers Club barkeep and much-beribboned mixologist.)

"A real 'Casey Special'--look at its pristine beauty! What better
consolation can a man ask, for not having gotten to land at the apogee
point of his orbit?"

"Besides"--this usually came out after two or three more
tongue-loosening toasts had been quaffed to the beasts of
Headquarters--"what's so blasted special about landing on some
God-forsaken rock _out there_?

"Hell's bells! Earth is a planet too, isn't it? And when you've been
cooped up in a parsec-gobbling pot for a very, very long two weeks, any
planet looming in your viewscope cries to be set down upon. Your own
prosaic hunk of mud is good as any!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Lance Cooper's rambling thoughts broke off their aimless tracking to
swing one hundred and eighty degrees in midspace and dart right back to
Earth.

Here at this very moment--and less than a hundred yards away--came
Terra's foremost attraction for him. His hammering heartbeat would have
placed him on the "grounded" list immediately, had there been a medico
with a stethoscope hanging about to detect it.

The attraction's name was Carolyn Sagen, and she was hurrying directly
across the concrete apron.

Even under the incandescent work-lamps of the crew scrambling up and
down the ladders, she looked as fetching as a video starlet making her
first personal-appearance tour of the nation. Only the fact she was
Colonel "Hard-Head" Sagen's family pride and joy kept the helmeted and
half-puckered up techs on the rungs from whistling themselves dry in
their enthusiasm.

Now, she had completely bypassed the work area. Here, the lighting did
not reach and the paler illumination of starshine took over. It seemed
to render the girl's soft blond hair and her full warm lips more
intimately something belonging to Lance Cooper alone--and he liked that.
He saw that she had turned up the collar of her tan coat against the
night wind.

While still a step or two distant from him, Carolyn halted. Her
worshiping eyes rested fully upon the big pilot. Lance thought he
detected a troubled expression.

Then, the girl managed a tight smile that conveyed her outward
resignment to all Man's absurd aspirations to own the galaxy:

"Don't worry about 'Security,' Lance. Dad wrote me out an O.K. to
skitter up this close to the Launching Area. You know"--she gestured
self-consciously--"big crucial moment ... lovers' farewell ... I pulled
all the stops, but it worked."

"Matter of fact," she added, in an obvious attempt at facetiousness,
"Dad opined he'd have walloped the daylights out of me, if I hadn't put
up a struggle to get near my man."

Then suddenly, she was not at all brave, anymore.

Suddenly, she had burrowed into his arms. "Oh Lance, had there been no
other way, I'd have clawed right through fence and revetments to get to
you! Men, men! Just because something's _out there_, as you say ... why
is it so important to build ships and go out and look at it?" Her
fingers dug into Lance's shoulders. "Women are saner ... but maybe
that's why men need us." The grip of her fingers shifted, tightened.
"Kiss me, you big baboon."

Lance kissed her. A tender kiss, yet gusty enough that he lifted her
from the ground and her high-heeled shoes kicked in free fall.

The pilot found his girl's breath warm, loving. Yet her cheeks seemed
colder than even the crisp air should account for. And her body was
trembling.

He planted a second kiss, then set her down.

"Hey! This is no way for a Space Service brat to carry on. Why, you're
just about to--"

"To cry, Lance? No, I wasn't. It's just that ... you'll be gone so
long."

He punched her playfully. "Two measly weeks out, two weeks to astrogate
her back home. And once I've got my feet wet at it, it'll be like
shooting ducks in an alley."

Carolyn reached out, brushed a windswept tuft of hair from above the
rock-steady eyes that looked at her.

"I know, Lance. I even realize that just ten years ago, women had to put
up with separations from their sweethearts or husbands that lasted
months. When the old pioneer ships used to limp back and forth to Mars
and Venus. But I'm different, I guess. Weak, maybe. Or just plain
scared--"

This didn't sound like the blithe-spirited girl he'd pursued for a year,
then wooed and subdued. Lance studied her, then said slowly: "You're
scared. About what? My first flight?"

Carolyn's head bobbed timidly.

Lance flashed a reassuring grin. "Everything has to be a brand-new
experience, at some time or other. Me, I prefer to look at hype-flight
from the point of view of the service. A routine thing. Just takes
training. Otherwise," and he shrugged, "it's no more a risk than hauling
groceries upstairs to some weather satellite."

"Is it, Lance? When one or two ships out of every ten never make it back
at all. Just disappear ... somewhere ... while the others--"

"One out of thirty or forty, you mean. So hyperspace is a little
tricky."

"And there's always pilot error to blame, too, I suppose?"

"Now that you mention it."

"Only my man is immune from everything?"

Lance smiled, a little wryly. "Any pilot can make boo-boos, Carolyn. I'm
determined to try awfully hard not to." He added a slight qualification
to his statement. "I've always been pretty lucky up to now, at not
getting lost."

"I thought the guidance systems and the autopilot computers took care of
all the astrogation corrections?"

"On a theoretically perfect flight, yes. It's equally true, however,
that hyperspace's geometry doesn't always resemble the sort of lines and
angles you find in our own universe--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Lance abruptly stopped, realizing he was quoting text; his mind groped
for a better way to explain. But Carolyn plunged in first:

"You see, there do sometimes develop special situations."

"Sure, sometimes." An exasperation crept into Lance Cooper's voice,
despite his effort to keep it out. Hell, he was just a pilot; not a
rated mathematician. He'd fly hyperspace by the seat of his pants, if he
had to.

"Lance," said Carolyn.

"Yes?"

"You feel it too, don't you?"

"Feel what?"

"That there is danger involved. That something dreadfully, dreadfully
wrong _can_ happen to you while you're out there. No matter what the
eggheads say about it." A paroxysm of sobs suddenly racked the girl's
slender body. "Oh, darling, don't go!"

"Honey, honey!" Lance patted her thin shoulders.

"I love you so much."

"Love you, too, Carolyn. You know that."

"We shouldn't have postponed the wedding. It was wrong to set the date
back."

Lance shook his head. "Sorry. I couldn't see it any other way."

He hugged the girl to him; she seemed more desperately frightened than
he had realized. And again, as always when it came to comforting
somebody, he felt as awkward and clumsy as some big lumbering repair-tug
out in space--say--trying to patch a small trim patrol craft.

But especially, he felt helpless in the presence of this frail,
clinging, lovely piece of femininity he wanted so dearly. Nevertheless
he could keep on trying--blundering though his words and gestures might
be.

"Carolyn, you think I wanted to chance making you a widow twenty-four
hours after you became a bride?" Lance took a deep breath. "So I did
maintain the percentage wasn't great. Still, it does exist. I'm aware of
that. I just don't let it concern me. But you, Carolyn--don't you see,
hon? Lance Cooper couldn't let anything bad happen to his best girl."

"I'm trying to understand," said Carolyn.

Lance's blunt, serious face peered into hers. "Tell you what I will
promise to do."

Hope cleared away some of the mistiness in Carolyn's eyes. She looked up
at him. "What, Lance?"

"Once I've knocked off my shell-back trip through the hype, we'll stage
the fanciest wedding this old space base ever goggled its eyes over.
I'll even see to it, the chaplain samples the spiked punch. And you
remember what a raconteur the padre proved to be when Light-Colonel
Galache got spliced?"

Carolyn Sagen managed a wan smile.

Lance revved his pep-talk up a few hundred r.p.m. "After all, think of
it this way. Suppose I hadn't beat my brains out to get into
hype-training? I'd never have wound up at this base. You and me would
never have met. I'd never have fallen for you like a ton of
space-ballast."

"Oh, I know you're right," said Carolyn, clinging more tightly than ever
to Lance's solid frame. "You're always right, just like the Space
Service is always right. But I have a woman's intuition. And I ... I
sense--"

Unable to finish, she released her grasp and once more withdrew into
herself.

       *       *       *       *       *

Lance's big muscular hand reached out, tilted the girl's chin upward.
Her face was tear-stained for sure, now.

"Honey, this won't ever do."

"I can't help it."

"You're torturing yourself with useless premonitions." Lance wiped the
briny shine from the girl's cheeks as he talked, his own voice getting
hoarser. "Carolyn, I love you so much that I ... well, you know I happen
to hunger for you more than I do that Christmas tree on my control deck.
But I just couldn't give up a chance to solo out to the stars. I
couldn't, baby. I'd probably be court-martialed, anyhow," he added.

"No, Lance. They wouldn't do that. Not unless you actually got into
space, then turned back. I asked Major Carmody."

"Carolyn! You didn't?"

The girl nodded, affirming the truth of what she said. "Lance, I had to.
T-there are some things I know about that you don't." A note of sudden
urgency now tinged her voice. "Strange unfathomable things. Many of the
other pilots who've come back have not been right. I think it has
something to do with their having been outside of normal space--"

He stared at her. "I just now realize you're trying to tell me
something."

"Lance, I happened to overhear Dad telling Mother something one night.
Apparently, he'd been rolling and tossing in bed, couldn't sleep. And
Mother's looked after him so long, she just had to know what was wrong.
They went downstairs and she poured him a stiff drink. Then in return,
Dad poured out his troubled soul to her. And Lance--"

"Yes, Carolyn?"

"The most probable reason why some hype-pilots never quite make it back
to our world is that the men involved--"

"The men? You mean, the pilots?"

"No, the brass. They haven't told the pilots about the fissioning of
anything that gets into hyperspace--"

Carolyn's breath gave out in a sudden gasp. Her eyes moved away alarmed,
and Lance's own glance turned simultaneously. He saw Colonel "Hard-Head"
Sagen and two other officers coming across the area.

[Illustration]

Time had run out on them.

"Carolyn," Lance said, hurriedly. "I've gabbed with quite a few vets of
hyperspace. At the Club and in my training, both. Sure, a man feels like
he's been crammed into a concrete mixer when he's burning up light-years
in a hyper ship. But after a while, I'm told, even your brains get used
to being bounced around." Lance took the girl's hands and squeezed them
between his. "So let's not worry, huh?"

Carolyn started to say something in rebuttal, but her father and his
aides were already upon them.

Colonel Sagen was a tall thin man of erect military carriage. His
features were crisscrossed with radiation scars and his voice boomed out
like a military drum. Yet when one got to know him, he wasn't so gruff.
On the base, he commanded two thousand military personnel and half that
many scientists and techs: a tough job, and one that he was giving his
best.

After returning Major Lance Cooper's brisk salute, the colonel unbent
and gave his prospective son-in-law a hardy handshake.

"Lance, I hope you'll be able to keep more of a rein on this little
space-filly of mine, than I've been able to. She was determined to see
you off."

"I was glad to see her, colonel."

The colonel smiled. "Can't think of a man on this base I'd rather turn
Carolyn over to."

"Thank you, sir," said Lance.

"Been counting the minutes to take-off, I suppose?"

"He's hardly had a chance to, Dad," Carolyn broke in. "What with me in
his hair!"

One of the colonel's aides glanced at his watch, then opened up a brief
case and took out a sealed envelope. The colonel relieved him of it and
handed it to Lance.

"Your flight orders, Lance. Got the preset tapes installed and checked?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, you should know your onions now, if you're ever going to. Best of
luck, son."

"Thank you, colonel."

Lance turned. "Good-by, Carolyn. Just four weeks now, like I said."

"I'll be waiting."

"First jump's always the hardest, I hear," spoke up the second aide,
cheerily. Like a great many other execs, the officer boasted no active
space rating, though he did wear the winged moons of an observer.

But Lance and Carolyn were again quite busy, and did not hear.

       *       *       *       *       *

Inside the shell of the _Cosmos XII_, Lance, sitting flat on his back
against gravity, looked up at the sweep hands on the control deck clocks
and hurried through his pre-jump check list. Tension mounted inside him.
He contacted the Operations people in the bunker over the radio net.
Colonel Sagen's voice came in clear: "Five minutes, Lance."

"I am receiving. Area cleared?"

Traffic broke into report: "Take-off will proceed on schedule."

The function lights on the "tree" in front of Lance shone green. Gyros
were caged; the tapes were set to roll. Lance's big hands hovered
lightly near the manual over-rides. He was ready to fly, and the
autopilot lights were already winking out in count-down. But you never
could be sure until the last moment.

What had Carolyn been trying to tell him?

Before he could pursue the thought, he felt the pressure of the rising
ship take hold; gently at first as she cleared the ground; then heavier
and heavier, until his face felt like a rubber mask under the
acceleration and his heart commenced pounding.

It didn't take long these days for any ship to build up a tremendous
velocity in space. Lance cleared the ecliptic by a hundred million
miles; then with the Solar System spread out flat below him, he opened
up his flight orders. His destination, he discovered, was Groombridge
34, a visual double star. Right ascension: zero hours, thirteen minutes.
Declination: forty-three and four-tenths degrees. Nearly twelve
light-years distant.

Since the star's apparent location was nearly halfway up the sky from
the celestial equator, Lance could begin the jump any time and not worry
on his way about skewing too near the gravitational field of any
large-massed body in his own immediate vicinity.

He permitted himself one brief glance at the blazing universe that hung
all about him: the bright fixed lights that were innumerable suns
against an eternal blackness, and the luminous dust in between that was
even farther-flung. Confusion and chaos seemed to dwell here; if a man
gazed too long, he could quietly go mad. But even more insane, he
anticipated, would be the thick, writhing nothingness of hyperspace.

Lance Cooper made one final check of all the ship's operating
components; then crossed his fingers and cut in the hype-drive.

Instantly, his teeth crashed together and clenched; his strapped-in body
was jerked back in its cushioned seat; sweat beaded his brow. A thousand
needles prickling his skin couldn't have been worse. He had been told
once that the switching-out from this known universe into an unknown one
would feel just like a ten-thousand volt jolt in an old-fashioned
electric chair; and now he could believe it. Every cell in his body had
begun tingling; his stomach pitched under a racking nausea; and an
involuntary trickle of saliva dripped from his mouth the moment he got
his jaws working again.

But Lance fought the nausea, fought the sickness, and gradually as his
flesh accommodated to the change, he felt better.

It was then that the most disturbing phenomenon of all took place. He
felt for a moment as if he had been split into two persons. No, four
persons, eight, sixteen, an infinity of other selves. They were all
beside him, in him and out of him. His eyes ached. He shut them.

When he opened them again, everything was almost back to normal. The
other selves had vanished. Only the constant throbbing vibration of the
ship remained; yet it was a discomfort that had to be endured for four
solid straight weeks now. There was no other means known, by which a
man-made vessel could travel faster than light.

Funny about that four weeks, too, thought Lance. All distances in
hyperspace were the same, no matter where you wished to go; it required
no more than fourteen days and no less, regardless of whether you jumped
one light-year or fifty. Lance had always understood there were
equations on file at HQ, which explained the paradox. But not being a
math expert, he had never missed not being allowed to see them.

He flicked a switch and opened up his viewports again. The starry
universe had vanished. The _Cosmos XII_ was riding through a gray void.
Alone and--

No, it wasn't alone!

Again, Lance's vision suffered a wrenching sickness. Out there in the
colorless vacuum, hundreds of replicas of the _Cosmos XII_ rode along
beside him, above him, below him, stretched out in all directions.

There had been nothing in the manuals about this.

Lance stared at the meaningless phenomenon for a long time despite the
fact it made his brain ill. At last, he decided it was harmless,
whatever was causing it. He shook his head slowly and closed the ports
down. He hoped Groombridge 34 would be less taxing.

       *       *       *       *       *

The system was.

After the ship reverted to normal space in the vicinity of Groombridge
34, Lance hovered about it exactly twelve hours, following all the
instructions in his manual to the letter. He started up the cameras and
other recording instruments. All went well, there were no incidents, no
vessels disturbed him; though had the two components of the binary been
at periastron, it would have simplified the work with the position
micrometer. If anything else of interest had been detected, it would
have to be deciphered from the film and tapes later. You can get as
close as four billion miles to an Earth-sized planet in space--and it'll
still show up fainter than a fourteenth magnitude star.

Somewhere in the galaxy, Lance supposed, there must be other races
building spaceships and guiding them from sun to sun. But thus far, the
scout ships from Terra--for all their magnified caution--had never run
into signs of any.

The old veteran hype-pilots had the best philosophy after all. Earth was
the choicest hunk of mud you were going to find. _Enjoy it, brethren._

Well, he would certainly live it up when he got back, Lance swore. He
would have his wedding; import Casey from the Club to spike the punch;
and, perhaps after he'd gotten in his required number of scout-missions,
he might even settle for a chair-borne exec's billet, himself.

Exactly twenty-eight days and twelve hours from the time of his
departure from Earth, Lance Cooper was back home again. The _Cosmos XII_
re-materialized out of hyperspace in the neighborhood of the Solar
System with its fuel tanks scarcely a third depleted, but its pilot a
drained man. Lance, truthfully, not only felt weary and torpid, but a
great deal disappointed.

He contacted Traffic, asked for and got a landing trajectory. A few
hours later, he had coasted home and the trip was over.

He scrambled down out of the ship, hungry for Carolyn.

The base hadn't changed any in a month, that he could see. A couple of
new floodlights put in, perhaps. Some brass were emerging from the
control bunker. Colonel Sagen, several others. He recognized them all.
Two were SSP's--Space Service Police.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the colonel got close, Lance tossed off a salute and an insouciant
grin: "Well, the Prodigal made it back home, sir. Hope that pessimistic
daughter of yours is stashed around somewhere. Otherwise--"

"Otherwise, what?" returned the colonel, unsmiling.

"Why I'm liable to go busting right through that fence," said Lance.
"And say, if anybody's worrying about the _Cosmos XII_, she flew like a
dream, colonel. Matter of fact, she--"

Colonel Sagen's jaws snapped together. Wheeling, he barked at the two
SSP's: "Spacemen, arrest this officer! Immediately!"

Lance couldn't believe his ears.

"Hey, wait a minute!" he protested. "What have I done?"

Nobody answered. Not at first.

"Well?" Lance asked again, a little more uneasy this time.

"I have no daughter, major," Hard-Head Sagen growled, standing with his
legs braced apart and his ramrod shoulders looking businesslike. "I
never have had."

The space cops sprang forward. One drew a pistol, held it on the
returned pilot, while the other quickly moved behind Lance and pinioned
his arms back.

"Is this a joke, colonel?" Lance demanded, struggling. "If it is, I
don't appreciate it. You know you've got a daughter, and I'm going to
marry her!"

The colonel's jaws clamped tight; and he shook his head from side to
side, as if he were dealing with a person suddenly out of his mind. Then
he acted.

"Put this man under close confinement," he ordered Lance's guards.
"Allow no visitors of any kind." The colonel's tone was harsh and
worried. "I've got to buck this matter to HQ. We can't have it blow up
right now, God knows."

The space police nudged Lance. "All right, major. Let's go."

Lance's anger seethed to a boil. Hunching his shoulders, he rammed back
against the guard holding him, sending him tumbling. What was inside his
mind to do if he managed an escape, he couldn't have told. He only knew
he had to get away. The colonel had flipped.

And where, by the way, was Carolyn? It seemed impossible she could be in
on it, too.

He stood free for a moment, watching warily.

"Hold him!" shouted Colonel Sagen. "Don't let him run loose."

"We got gas pills, colonel," suggested the space cop Lance had bowled
over. The man was rising to his feet.

"Use them."

Lance started to run. Over his shoulder, he saw the guard reach inside a
small pocket in his webbed pistol belt. The man gestured to the others
to duck back out of harm's way. Then, his throwing arm reared back and
sent a pellet sailing in a high arc. It landed at Lance's feet and burst
instantly. Yellowish gas billowed out. Its acrid fumes penetrated
Lance's throat and nostrils. He began coughing. Then, all the fight
suddenly ebbed from him. His knees buckled. He was stumbling, falling.
The sky reeled.

And very indistinctly, from far away, came the colonel's voice, barking:
"Put him in the brig until he recovers. I repeat, let nobody see him.
And another thing--I declare everything that's happened here today
classified information. If a single word leaks out, I'll have every
man-jack among you placed in solitary and held for court-martial."

Then, Lance knew nothing more.

       *       *       *       *       *

When at last he recovered consciousness and was able to sit up in a kind
of groggy stupor, Lance found himself, for the first time in fifteen
service-devoted years, on the inside of a guardhouse looking out.

With sardonic melancholy, he recalled times on his O.D. and O.G. tours
when he had inspected various prison areas, peered into the cells, and
often felt mildly sorry for some poor spaceman doing time for some minor
infraction. There had never been very many offenders. Discipline on
space bases was not a pressing problem: the corps was an elite branch
and intransigent candidates were weeded out quick.

Well, now he was a prisoner, himself. He, Lance Cooper, Major, Space
Service, stood behind bars. And no matter how hard his face pressed
against those bars, he could only see as far as the corridor extended in
either direction.

It wasn't far enough.

Nor would anybody talk to him. He couldn't even get the time of day.

Not since his probation as a plebe, had he consorted with such a bunch
of "hush-mouths." Had he no rights as a commissioned officer and a world
citizen? He still didn't know why he was incarcerated, or what
regulation he had broken.

But that wasn't his most nagging worry.

What preyed on his mind most was Carolyn.

_Where was she?_

_Where? Where? WHERE?_

He could have lowered his head and pounded it to a pulp against the
wall, in his rage and frustration at being confined. But banging his
brains out wouldn't help. Besides, he was going to stand deeply in need
of his gray matter, if he hoped to get out of this one.

At evening time, a guardhouse trusty brought him his supper on a tray.
Also, the man tossed him half a pack of cigarettes when Lance sought to
bum just one. But when the pilot started pitching questions back, the
trusty looked scared and unhappy and quickly limped away.

The night dragged on, as unending seemingly as one of Luna's two-week
darkouts. Lance smoked, paced the cell from wall to wall, occasionally
plopped down on his cot and went over everything that had happened,
trying to find some pattern to it.

But there was no pattern.

Next morning, he splashed up and shaved beard away from a tired,
red-eyed face in the mirror. Then, he waited. No one came.

Finally, at noon a new officer checked in for duty at the guardhouse.
Lance recognized him as a young ordinance captain he'd met before. He
called out to the man. The officer, striding down the hallway, wheeled
at the sound of his name and came back to the cell. His eyes bugged
slightly, when he saw Lance: "Holy smoke, major! What've they got you in
for?"

"Search me." Lance was overjoyed to find someone, at last, who didn't
dummy up. "I thought maybe you might have a notion."

"I just came on duty. But if there's a charge sheet lying around, I
might dig up something from it."

"Would you try?"

The captain held up two fingers and grinned. "No sweat."

       *       *       *       *       *

Lance waited some more.

The captain did not come back, however, until several hours later. After
Lance's evening meal, in fact. His face bore a puzzled frown.

Lance stood at his cell door, gripping the bars. "Well?"

"I checked. Seems the brass are holding you for observation until some
headshrinker gets in from HQ. A specialist in hyperspace medicine."

"Then, how come I'm not in a regular hospital? Why the jailhouse?"

"Beats me, major. I can tell you this, though. You're not the first
hype-pilot who's been dragged in here screaming."

"But I wasn't screaming! I was perfectly calm and collected, when I
climbed down out of my ship. All I did was ask about Carolyn."

"About who?"

"Carolyn Sagen. Old Hard-Head's daughter." Lance felt a sinking feeling.
He stopped, cocked a wary eye at the other officer. "Don't look at me
that way, man."

The captain had been staring hard at Lance. Now, he began shaking his
head back and forth, slowly and sadly.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Lance asked.

"It means Colonel Sagen doesn't have a daughter."

Lance snorted. "Don't tell me that. I'm engaged to her."

"Sorry, major. I've been around the colonel and his wife since I was a
kid. He got me the appointment to the Academy. They've never had any
children of their own."

"Why, you--" Lance reached through the bars and grabbed the captain by
his shirt collar, jerking him against the bars. "It's a lie! A
conspiracy! Maybe you think I'm nuts. But I'm not!" He commenced
pummeling the captain with his free fist. Then he thought of something
better. He snatched the captain's gun from his holster and leveled it.

[Illustration]

"I'm getting out of here," Lance announced. "Open up this door--or take
the consequences!"

The captain, his face ashy white, submitted and unlocked the cell door.
Lance stepped out, got behind the officer, and prodded him into the
cell. Tearing a sheet into strips, he tied the man to the cot and gagged
him. It took a very short time.

Then, he softly padded down the hallway. He caught the sergeant of the
guard napping in his chair. In a moment, the sergeant, too, was trussed
up, gagged, and whisked into a spare cell. Lance then tucked the
captain's pistol inside his shirt and ventured outside.

It was a moonlit night. A patrol jeep was parked on the drive, begging
to be commandeered. Lance hopped in. There was something he had to find
out for himself, and only one way to do it: Go to the place where they
kept the answers.

Wheeling the jeep along the military street fast as he dared, Lance
headed for the base housing area. Colonel Sagen's trim two-story brick
residence was where he hoped to pay a call. He knew the route by heart.
He'd been a guest there often enough.

The colonel's driveway was empty of cars, he was happy to notice, when
he reached the house. He parked, sprinted up to the porch, and knocked
on the door.

Presently, footsteps sounded inside and the door opened a few inches.
But it was not Carolyn whom Lance saw peeping out at him. It was another
woman, older. He recognized Mrs. Sagen.

Lance was blunt. "I've got to see Carolyn, and I haven't much time.
You'd better let me in."

An apprehensive, almost shocked expression briefly flitted across the
face of Carolyn's mother. It was as if she had never set eyes on Lance
Cooper before. Even the gold oak leaves on his shoulders seemed to
reassure her but slightly. She kept the door chain in place between
them.

"I'm sorry, major. I'm not sure that I understand you."

"Don't malarky me, please. You know who I am and who I want. Carolyn,
your daughter."

"Oh," said Mrs. Sagen. It was said in a way that revealed nothing.

"Look," said Lance, impatiently. "You do have a daughter. I've dated
her. So, all right," he waved his hands, "she's been spirited away for
some reason. I still think I've got a right to know why."

"Oh, my!" said Mrs. Sagen, and her hand flew to her face. "You must be
that scout-ship pilot who showed up yesterday. The one who--"

"Yeh, the one everybody figures for psycho. But I'm not, Mrs. Sagen. You
know I'm not." Lance took a deep breath. "Can I come in? I just want
some facts. After all, this crazy farce can't go on forever."

The colonel's wife still looked doubtful, but Lance Cooper had a way of
pressing a point hard when his interests were at stake. He began talking
rapidly and convincingly.

He got in.

       *       *       *       *       *

The light indoors was better. Lance's eyes squinted, as they adjusted
from the gloom of the porch. Somehow, Mrs. Sagen didn't look quite as he
remembered. Her hair was much darker now; he was sure of that. Maybe she
had dyed it. Yet her features were certainly harder and bonier. More
like a replica of her husband's. And her breath smelled alcoholic. Could
a mere month have made that much difference?

The house had been refurnished too, Lance noticed. The living-room decor
was more severe and functional. And the pictures on the wall were
garish. Not Mrs. Sagen's type, at all.

_Hey, wait a minute!_ he told himself; _speaking of pictures_--his
glance skipped to the far corner of the room. A triptych of photos of
Carolyn had always been on display on the mantelpiece. _They would prove
that--_

Lance's jaw dropped.

The photos had been removed.

"Can I get you anything?" Mrs. Sagen inquired. A little nervously, Lance
thought. "A cup of coffee?"

"No, thanks. I'd rather hear about Carolyn."

"Coffee won't take a minute. I was just making some fresh in the
kitchen."

Lance shrugged. "Well, O.K., if you've already got it ready."

Mrs. Sagen's mouth managed a fleeting smile; then she disappeared
through a swinging door. Lance sat down in a wrought-iron chair. Finding
it not comfortable, he sprang back to his feet and paced the floor.
There sure was something wrong about the colonel's house. Something very
oddly wrong. But he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Suddenly, his quickened hearing caught the faint murmur of a human
voice. Was it Carolyn? The talk seemed to be issuing from the
kitchen--where her mother had gone. Lance tiptoed across the room,
pushed the door slightly open.

Mrs. Sagen was on the phone. Her voice was excited; she was obviously
straining to keep it at a low level. "I'm telling you, he's here! Right
in our living room. And he insists I know somebody named Carolyn ...
Yes, that's right. But do hurry ... Please. He's acting much odder than
the others did."

Lance had eavesdropped enough. He turned away, glided rapidly out the
front door and into the night.

Where should he go next? The jeep would serve to hustle him around the
base for a while--but eventually he would be chased down and recaptured.
And as for crashing any of the exit gates and thus attaining to greater
freedom, he knew they would all be barricaded and heavily manned by now.

Lance was still burning over Mrs. Sagen's double-cross. Did he want
coffee? she had asked. _Coffee!_ his mind repeated, disgusted. What he
needed was something stronger. A good stiff drink.

That was it! The Officers Club. Casey would be on duty at this hour.
Lance would ask him to mix him a double for old times' sake. Then, he'd
meekly surrender and quietly go crazy in his cell, until the
headshrinker came and confirmed it for real.

       *       *       *       *       *

The pilot got back in the jeep and drove on. When he reached the Club,
he wheeled the vehicle around to a rear entrance where bushes made the
grounds shadier. Parking, he got out, strolled into the building as
sneakily as if he'd been an inspector-general paying a surprise call
from out of Space Service Headquarters.

Few officers lounged about. Most were at tables and engrossed in their
own imbibing. Lance strode up to the bar, perched himself on a high
stool. Casey, whose hair was red as a Martian desert, was rinsing
glasses. He stopped at his task and came over, wiping the counter with a
wet towel. "What'll it be, major?"

"One of your Specials, Casey, my friend."

"Beg pardon?"

"You know--one of your Casey Specials. Where you start off with half a
glass of Irish whisky, add a dash or two of absinthe, a drop of--"

"I don't stock no absinthe, major." Casey's freckled face was abruptly
hostile. "You know that. It's against regulations."

Lance fought down a tremor. Everybody was in on it. Everybody. He
compromised for a minute: "Give me a slug of Teacher's on the rocks,
then."

Casey measured out the drink for him.

Lance downed it. His hand gripped the edge of the bar. "Casey, do you
know me?"

He watched Casey study him. The thick reddish eyebrows knit. "It's a
pretty big base, major. Lots of faces. Sometimes, I kind of forget the
names."

Lance's blood pressure gave a spurt. "I'm Major Lance Cooper! Hell,
you've rung up my chits often enough!"

And his mind added: _How could you forget?_

"Major." Casey's eyes narrowed, while the uneasy suspicion in them grew.
"We don't have no chit system at this club."

Lance's head felt like it would explode. He could take no more.

"You're lying!" he shouted. His big hands reached over the mahogany
counter and shook the bartender like a squawk-box that had refused to
function properly. "Tell me you're lying in your teeth. If you don't,
I'll push them down your throat--"

Suddenly, Lance sensed people behind him. A firm hand clamped down
heavily on his shoulder.

The pilot stretched his neck around. What now? His hands did not relax
their murderous grip on his victim.

The arresting party had entered the club quietly. Now, they were ganged
up around him: Colonel Sagen, his two aides, a fourth man Lance
recognized as Major Carmody, the base legal officer--and a fifth man
too, who wore the insignia of the Space Surgeon-General's Department. A
psychiatrist.

"Better come peacefully, major," rasped Colonel Sagen. "You've been
'cleared' for an explanation--and if you're smart, you'll listen to the
spiel and play ball."

The way it was said made Lance feel he could trust the Old Man for that
long. Anyhow, what choice did he have?

"It's about time," Lance sighed. He set Casey down, to the latter's
greatly exhaled relief. "Only how come all the suspense?"

"It was very necessary," broke in Major Carmody.

"Was it? Well, you had me about to crack--if that was your object. Now
then, would any of you mind easing my worries about Carolyn. She's O.K.,
isn't she?"

His glance shifted from one to the other.

"Isn't she?"

Nobody would reply--neither Colonel Sagen, nor any of the officers
bunched-up around him.

Sweat suddenly broke out on Lance's brow. The chilly feeling went
through him that if and when an answer was provided him, he wasn't
particularly going to like it.

Not in the slightest.

       *       *       *       *       *

Shortly afterwards, Lance was driven across the base by his captors and
escorted into his commanding officer's private office. The two aides
were dismissed, but the psychiatrist-officer, who also wore eagles on
his shoulders, and Major Carmody remained.

Colonel Sagen seated himself behind his desk.

"Major," he began, clearing his throat, "you imagine me to have a
daughter. You're positive of it. You even visualize her so well, that
you remember something about how you were going to marry her."

"You're not going to talk me out of anything on that score," Lance shot
back.

"Perhaps, we don't intend to. Colonel Nordsen, here," Sagen indicated
the psychiatrist, "has flown in from HQ to chat with you. He can explain
the technical aspects of the phenomenon that has thrown you better than
I can. I'd advise you to listen to him. He's just what you need."

"Just what I need? What else do you intend to do? Hypnotize me, so you
can erase all my past?"

The colonel scowled. "Look here, major. You co-operate and learn to keep
your mouth shut, we may be able to restore you to duty. But if not ...
well, what happens then will be entirely up to Nordsen. It could mean a
padded cell. The development of hyperspace exploration has to go on,
whatever happens to you."

"I'll tell you one thing to your face, colonel," Lance replied, hotly.
"I'm not off my rocker."

"No one has maintained you were," broke in Colonel Nordsen. "But Colonel
Sagen had to throw a curtain around you fast."

"Why?"

Neither officer answered.

Finally, Colonel Sagen said, "I think you'd better continue with him,
Colonel Nordsen."

Nordsen was a youthful-looking man for his rank, yet prematurely
balding. He wore thick-shelled glasses.

"Major Cooper," Nordsen began, "let's go back to when you put the
_Cosmos XII_ through its first jump through hyperspace. How well do you
recall your experience?"

"I'll never forget it. You Earthbound kiwis should try it sometime."

"Did you experience a feeling ... perhaps, rather uncanny ... that the
whole thing had happened to you before? What psychologists call the
sense of _déjà vu_?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Perhaps some other type of phenomenon was manifested? A feeling you'd
been split in half, maybe."

"That did happen."

"Describe it."

"It was more than just being split in half. I felt like I was suddenly
hundreds of selves. I could see other replicas of 'me' all around."

Nordsen nodded, thoughtfully. "That was what we call the 'Infinite
Fission' syndrome. All those other 'you's' were personality matrices of
yourself in alternate worlds. Did you notice anything else?"

Lance nodded, grudgingly.

       *       *       *       *       *

"What?"

"Look, colonel. If I answer your questions, will you answer mine?"

"Any reasonable ones, yes. That's what we're here for."

"Well, there was the disturbing thing about the _Cosmos XII_, itself. I
saw images of the ship riding along beside me, out there in the hype.
Where nothing material could possibly exist. Where not even light could
reflect back, or any other wave propagation." Lance shook his head,
recalling the experience. "What could have caused a hallucination like
that?"

"It was no hallucination, Lance. It was real and has happened before. We
can rest you easy on that point."

Colonel Nordsen removed tobacco from a pouch, stuffed his pipe, lit up.
Bluish smoke formed a halo about him.

"Lance, the Space Service has been sending ships through hyperspace for
nearly two years now. Only recently did anybody notice something was
seriously wrong with the pilots who came back. Up until then ... oh, a
pilot might act a little queer for a day or two. But who wouldn't,
cooped up alone in a steel projectile for four weeks? We thought very
little of it."

"Uh huh," was Lance Cooper's only comment.

Nordsen transferred his pipe to his hand. "But eventually, even the
Space Service gets around to putting two and two together on the
slipstick. The incidents kept piling up. A pilot comes back from Epsilon
Eridani, for example, and insists on giving everybody left-handed
salutes. Another has taken a scout ship to 61 Cygni. He insists at the
Officers Club that Colonel Sagen here has a nickname of 'Old Hard-Head'.
Nobody else on the base is aware of any such thing. Then, still another
pilot--"

"Wait a minute!" Lance interrupted. "Hasn't he?"

"Hasn't what? I don't follow you."

"Colonel Sagen. Hasn't he got that nickname? I mean, it was a term of
respect and liking, of course. But--"

"No," said Nordsen.

"No?" Lance echoed, disbelieving. "Since when?"

"Not since _ever_, major. Not on this particular track."

"Colonel Nordsen, you're losing me."

"Patience, please. I was about to tell you that still another pilot
lands on our base, and he wears a blue tie. Claims the Space Service has
always worn blue ties."

"I take it back," said Lance. "I'm a pilot and all pilots are slowly
going nuts." Then, it occurred to him to evince more interest or they
might ship him back to the brig sooner than expected. "A blue tie, huh?"

"And blue suede chukkas, to match," Colonel Sagen's hoarse voice broke
in. "Most unmilitary-looking uniform I ever saw on a space officer."

Colonel Nordsen, the psychiatrist, set his pipe aside. "Gradually, we
began building up a file of such weird discrepancies. Another pilot
landed wearing a handle-bar mustache. He couldn't possibly have grown so
much lip-hair in a month. Yet, the man claimed he'd sported the mustache
for years; and that every officer in his squadron was decked out with
one, too."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Tell me just one thing," Lance pleaded. His nerves were gradually
getting more on edge. "What has all this got to do with Carolyn Sagen?
Why is she being kept from me?"

Nordsen's eyebrows met, evincing a little displeasure. "Don't you get
the drift, major? I've been trying to accomplish two things at the same
time. Cushion a shock for you--and explain why what has happened has
happened. There is no Carolyn Sagen. The colonel and his wife have
always been childless."

Lance got belligerent. "Say that again!"

"There is no Carolyn Sagen here."

"What d'you mean, when you say 'here'?"

Nordsen took off his shell-rimmed glasses, wiped them, restored them to
his boyish face. "I would advise you to brace yourself. By 'here,' I
mean on this particular time-track."

Lance stared at him.

"Doesn't the word have any significance for you?" Nordsen asked.

"Time-track? Sure, I've heard of the concept before. It's a theory that
parallel worlds branch off when ... hey!" Lance's tone rose to a shout.
"You're not trying to imply that ... that I'm on a diff--?"

"That's right. We're trying to tell you that you have obviously landed
in another time-track. One that is parallel to--but just a slight bit
different from the one you formerly knew. To you, we seem to be the
same officers as in that world; but of course, we're not. It isn't the
same universe. Hyperspace is tricky stuff, as our men are finding out.
You've just got bounced around by one of the trickiest things connected
with it."

Lance groaned. "Now, I'm told!"

"I'm sorry. It's nothing new, only the information is classified
top-secret in our world; and evidently in yours, too. It has to be
withheld from hype-trainees, otherwise they might deliberately flunk
their course. We're running pilot classes here on our track, too. We
have to keep them filled."

Lance was stunned. He hardly knew what he should say or do next.

Finally, he put forth a faltering question: "Is there any way I can get
back to Home Base? _My_ home base?"

All three officers in the room shook their heads in unison.

"You might as well look for a pebble in the beach," said Nordsen. He
elucidated: "As a matter of fact, this _is_ Home Base for you. The
differences between one track and another are not usually too great; the
resemblances are many. Sometimes even, the returned pilot accommodates
himself to the new time-track without suspecting in the slightest what's
happened to him."

"And in those cases, you seldom bother to enlighten him, I suppose."

"Naturally not. Security frowns on it."

"But in my case, you couldn't cover up."

"Your case manifests a much more serious slippage. Your path,
evidently, warped to a track several million or billion worlds further
over than anybody from your world had previously experienced.
Consequently, your luck has really been unfortunate. You've materialized
out of hyperspace into a universe where someone you apparently knew
quite closely simply was never born."

[Illustration]

"But Carolyn did exist before ... where I was? I'm not dreaming."

"No. Both our worlds are equally real."

       *       *       *       *       *

Lance, though he felt the truth slowly and inexorably sink in, still
could not quite grasp all its implications. He turned his numbed face to
the other two officers in the room. Colonel Sagen and Major Carmody
inclined their heads.

For one despairing moment, Lance felt almost like hurling himself
through the window. Then, he straightened up. His mouth compressed into
a thin line. "If I must face the facts, I must. But," his tone edged off
into irony, "it sure isn't easy. You'll have to give me time."

Colonel Nordsen stood up, held out his hand. "I'm sorry, major, believe
me. This is a hard blow to take and I wouldn't care to be on the
receiving end, myself. But you'll adjust. If you like, I'll recommend
you for convalescent leave. You understand, of course," the psychiatrist
went on, "that we expect you to keep tight-lipped. Our hype-classes are
still too small. We need a lot of sharp men, and they have to be
volunteers. Right, Colonel Sagen?"

"Right."

Lance dropped the proffered hand. "I get it. Let the word get around how
hyperspace messes you up, all your bright young jets will bug out on it.
That's your main worry, isn't it? Not what happens to me."

"Frankly, yes," Nordsen acknowledged, without blinking. "But the Space
Service is also concerned about individuals. Don't worry now, major.
We'll look after you."

"Don't bother!" An uncontrolled bitterness crept into Lance's reply.
"Far as I'm concerned, the Space Service can go to hell. What reason
have I got to stay in it? You've conned me out of all that meant
anything in my life."

Nobody said a word.

Lance rose to his feet, unsteadily. His sardonic glance swept over them.
"I suppose it's back to the guardhouse for me now, huh? Well, I won't be
sorry to go. I'll find better company. And I refuse your bribe of
special leave-time."

Colonel Nordsen seemed unaffected. "You're making a mistake," he said,
calmly.

"Am I?"

"Major, we're offering you a chance to get adjusted and assimilated.
Take it or leave it. We can hold you in the brig until you see reason.
But you're a good man. We need you."

"For what? More flights through that hyperspace muck?"

"If you can pass our mental stability tests, yes."

"And if not?"

"You'll be grounded."

Lance made a sudden decision.

"I want to go up right now."

"What?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"You heard me. I want to go up in the _Cosmos XII_ right now, tests or
no tests. Ground me--and I'll never have a chance again. Don't you think
I'm hep to that?"

"We'll see that you're not grounded," broke in Colonel Sagen, from
behind his desk.

But Lance didn't believe him.

"Don't try to kid me, colonel," he snapped out. "You write me out flight
orders for the _Cosmos XII_, or I'll blab everything I know. You can't
hang me, you can't tear my tongue out--and I know I'll bust out of your
guardhouse one way or another! You'll see! And then, how will you fill
up your precious training classes? Then, how will you get new chumps to
pilot your ships to the stars? The stars! Ha, ha! That's the biggest
joke of all!"

Colonel Sagen began to splutter. Lance, watching him carefully, decided
there wasn't much resemblance between the old boy and the fine Colonel
Sagen he'd known in his own world. Maybe it'd been having the softening
influence of normal family life and a growing daughter that had made old
Hard-Head human.

"You'll never get away with this," Sagen warned. "We're three against
one."

"Won't I?" Lance's hand darted inside his shirt. "Maybe this'll equalize
us." He brought out the pistol he'd taken off the captain in the
guardhouse. Sagen, Nordsen, and Carmody backed off from it.

"The _Cosmos XII_ is still two-thirds fueled," Lance said. "And
well-stocked on provisions. Besides, I'm a light eater in hyperspace--as
who isn't? I intend to take that ship out again, and you're going to
help me, gentlemen."

Lance flicked off the safety and waved the gun back and forth, to
demonstrate what he meant.

       *       *       *       *       *

It worked.

Lance got his ship, using Colonel Sagen as both shield and go-between
after he had first tied up the other two officers in a closet. He kept a
close watch, of course, for the SSP's and their gas pellets; but
apparently an alarm was not raised soon enough for the base police to
hurl into action.

After having the colonel authorize a space clearance for him by
contacting Traffic directly over the ship's mike, Lance finally released
him.

The colonel scooted down the ladder. Lance gave him time to clear the
pad, but little more; then he went to work pushing buttons on the manual
desk. The _Cosmos XII_ blasted loose from her moorings and soared aloft
into space.

At five thousand miles above Earth's surface, Lance re-checked his
tapes. Groombridge 34 was the only possible destination the autopilot
could take him to. Somehow, he didn't mind taking one more look at the
double-star system. He cut into hyperspace as quickly as he dared; then
sat back and relaxed. That is, as much as any man could in hype.

When he reached Groombridge 34, all Lance did was pop out into normal
space long enough to assure himself he had reached the proper checkpoint
for turning back. The tapes were in good order, and there had been no
hitches. Grunting, he threw in the switch-over and once more found
himself plowing through hyperspace. Only this time, he was homeward
bound.

If he were lucky, just real lucky, he told himself, there might be a
Carolyn Sagen alive and waiting for him in whatever time-track he wound
up in this time.

At last, he materialized again in the Solar System. Or _some_ Solar
System, anyhow. As far as he could tell, all the planets looked
unchanged. It was just four weeks to the day, since his escape from
World Two. This would be World Three. He had been gone eight weeks and
two days from World One.

Lance cut the ecliptic at a different angle than before, and Terra was
farther along in her journey around Sol. He needed a new landing
trajectory. His eye swept his panel, to see if anything had been preset.
There was no green flashing on the deck, where there should have been
green.

Oh, well. There could have been cruisers waiting in space, too, to pot
him with ship-to-ship missiles. He'd taken one chance, he could take
another.

Lance opened a switch and called Base Traffic's frequency. "This is the
_Cosmos XII_, Major Lance Cooper piloting. Just broke out of hype. Can
you read me?"

He repeated the message for several minutes.

Finally, he got an answer. A startled voice whipped back at him through
crackling static: "_Cosmos XII_, this is Traffic. Who did you say you
were up there?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Lance hardly knew whether he felt more like laughing or crying. He was
fairly close to home, anyhow. They did have space traffic here. And
being pretty much of an optimist, he also decided that it was a
time-track where he had been known. Only being so long overdue, he had
probably been given up for lost.

On this premise, he could visualize all the consternation and excitement
now in progress downstairs; the personnel were likely falling all over
each other in the stampede to pass the word around.

"I'm Major Lance Cooper," he announced over the mike.

There was a long pause.

"Repeat that, please."

"This is Lance Cooper, Major, Space Service. I'm up here in the _Cosmos
XII_."

"B-b-but you can't be."

"Who says I can't. Say, what's the matter with you monkeys? I want to
come in."

Another voice took over on the channel. "The lieutenant's right. You
actually do sound like Cooper, whoever you are!"

Lance laughed openly. "I've lived with him all my life, why shouldn't I?
You think I'm a ghost?"

"Well ... no. We know you're real. We're getting a blip from you. Only
thing is--"

"Let's talk about it when I get down," Lance interrupted. "I need a
program fast. Get those G.S. computers working and read me an orbit."

"W-will do."

"And one more thing: Is Colonel Sagen around?"

"Not today, major. He had to fly to Luna."

"How about his daughter?"

"Who?"

_Oh, no!_ Lance felt his heart almost stop. Had the big try been for
nothing? He chanced a repeat.

"His daughter. Carolyn Sagen."

This time, he got results.

"Oh! You mean Hard-Head's daughter. The one who ... say, wasn't she all
set to marry you?"

"You bet your last commendation ribbon she was. And she's going to!
Hey!" Lance shouted. "Anything wrong with her? She's not sick or--"

The voice of the first operator at Traffic came back on. "The captain
had to take off. No sir, major. She's not sick. We just don't know how
she's gonna take this, is all."

"With bells on, Junior. Wedding bells! Get her out to meet me when I
land, will you? And snap it up on that trajectory."

Again, the traffic crackled in Lance's ear. There seemed to be a great
deal of excitement going on down there. And then the great night rim of
Earth swung under him, blocking out further radio communication.

Presently, a relayed beam from Luna came in. The Luna spaceport read him
a series of figures to punch into his autopilot. The new orbit would
edge him in close enough to Terra, that he could pick up an assist from
the G.A. system of his home base.

Lance rubbed his hands together in his joy. He was cooking on all
burners, now. At last.

       *       *       *       *       *

Six hours later, the _Cosmos XII_ settled down in her landing cradle.
Major Lance Cooper kicked open the air-lock door and began climbing down
to solid ground.

It was just barely twilight. Ordinarily, there would have been long
purplish shadows at the far ends of the field; but now the entire space
base was flooded with lights. Were the beacons sweeping back and forth
just to welcome him? It hardly seemed possible. Yet, the apron itself,
was swarming with people. Here they came now! A whole mob racing towards
him, and the noise of their swelling shouts preceded them, rolling
forward like the breakers upon a shore.

_Oh, oh! What was that in the far corner of the field?_ A big pile of
crumpled metal, already rusted and ready for the bulldozers. Some poor
devil had crashed his hype-ship. Lance wondered vaguely which of his
buddies it had been. Then he shut it out of his mind.

A jeep swung out ahead of the advancing crowd and came speeding down
the concrete. Brakes squealed; rubber tires bit in hard, and the vehicle
plunged to a halt near him. Lance recognized Major Carmody in the
driver's seat. Or another Major Carmody. What difference did it make?
None, now that he was able to identify so very well the other figure in
the jeep--a slight blond figure in a trench coat seated next to Carmody.

Carolyn!

He saw her get out. He saw her commence walking towards him. But too
slowly, he thought. And he was too paralyzed to move.

"Lance?" she called to him. "Is it you? Is it really you, darling?"

The girl's step almost faltered. Major Carmody's hand reached out,
steadied her.

Something was wrong again. But what? He could not guess.

Lance came out of his paralysis. He began running towards her.

And in a moment, they were in each other's arms without caring why or
how: Lance Cooper and the girl he loved. Kissing, hugging, unable to
believe for a moment in each other's reality.

Then, Carolyn had to have breath and she drew apart for a moment. Then,
she kissed him again. And Lance, for the first time, listened and made
sense out of the welter of hysterical sobbing words that were pouring
forth:

"Darling, darling, darling Lance! I cried so much, and now it's all
over. I don't care if you're not real. I love you, I love you! I don't
care if you are somebody from another time-track like Major Carmody
says! You're my Lance and you belong to me. It's you I love and want
now; no matter how shameless I sound!... Yes, darling, it's you I want,
not that poor broken thing we buried two months ago. Not the--"

Lance's feeling of impending horror was great, but not so great that he
shrank from the question that now rose and beat and beat at his brain.
The overwhelming question that had to be asked.

"Carolyn!" He held her so tight he thought for a moment he'd cracked her
ribs. His half-shook gaze penetrated her retreating eyes, forcing her to
meet him.

"Carolyn! What do you mean--it's _me_ you want now, not that poor broken
thing you buried? Tell me. TELL ME!"

"Don't you know, darling Lance? When you took off that night eight weeks
ago, that night I kissed you good-by, your ship ... oh don't you
comprehend?... Your ship, it--"

"Tell me, Carolyn!"

"Your ship, Lance, that's it over there--the wreckage of it! The _Cosmos
XII_ crashed on take-off that night, Lance. You were killed out-right.
We buried you two days later."


THE END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Analog Science Fact and Science
    Fiction_ April 1961. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
    that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor
    spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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