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´╗┐Title: The Book
Author: Shaara, Michael
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 "The Book" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction November 1953.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


                               THE BOOK


                           [Illustration:]


     _A weird world--cut off from the Universe, it had universal
      wisdom; facing death at every moment, it had the secret of
      peace!_


                          By MICHAEL SHAARA


                      Illustrated by Mel Hunter

       *       *       *       *       *



Beauclaire was given his first ship at Sirius. He was called up before
the Commandant in the slow heat of the afternoon, and stood shuffling
with awkward delight upon the shaggy carpet. He was twenty-five years
old, and two months out of the Academy. It was a wonderful day.

The Commandant told Beauclaire to sit down, and sat looking at him for
a long while. The Commandant was an old man with a face of many lines.
He was old, was hot, was tired. He was also very irritated. He had
reached that point of oldness when talking to a young man is an
irritation because they are so bright and certain and don't know
anything and there is nothing you can do about it.

"All right," the Commandant said, "there are a few things I have to
tell you. Do you know where you are going?"

"No, sir," Beauclaire said cheerfully.

"All right," the Commandant said again, "I'll tell you. You are going
to the Hole in Cygnus. You've heard of it, I hope? Good. Then you know
that the Hole is a large dust cloud--estimated diameter, ten
light-years. We have never gone into the Hole, for a number of
reasons. It's too thick for light speeds, it's too big, and Mapping
Command ships are being spread thin. Also, until now, we never thought
there was anything in the Hole worth looking at. So we have never gone
into the Hole. Your ship will be the first."

"Yes, _sir_," Beauclaire said, eyes shining.

"A few weeks ago," the Commandant said, "one of our amateurs had a
lens on the Hole, just looking. He saw a glow. He reported to us; we
checked and saw the same thing. There is a faint light coming out of
the Hole--obviously, a sun, a star inside the cloud, just far enough
in to be almost invisible. God knows how long it's been there, but we
do know that there's never been a record of a light in the Hole.
Apparently this star orbited in some time ago, and is now on its way
out. It is just approaching the edge of the cloud. Do you follow me?"

"Yes, sir," Beauclaire said.

"Your job is this: You will investigate that sun for livable planets
and alien life. If you find anything--which is highly unlikely--you
are to decipher the language and come right back. A Psych team will go
out and determine the effects of a starless sky upon the alien
culture--obviously, these people will never have seen the stars."

       *       *       *       *       *

The Commandant leaned forward, intent now for the first time.

"Now, this is an important job. There were no other linguists
available, so we passed over a lot of good men to pick you. Make no
mistake about your qualifications. You are nothing spectacular. But
the ship will be yours from now on, permanently. Have you got that?"

The young man nodded, grinning from ear to ear.

"There is something else," the Commandant said, and abruptly he
paused.

He gazed silently at Beauclaire--at the crisp gray uniform, the
baby-slick cheek--and he thought fleetingly and bitterly of the Hole
in Cygnus which he, an old man, would never see. Then he told himself
sternly to leave off self-pity. The important thing was coming up, and
he would have to say it well.

"Listen," he said. The tone of his voice was very strong and
Beauclaire blinked. "You are replacing one of our oldest men. One of
our best men. His name is Billy Wyatt. He--he has been with us a long
time." The Commandant paused again, his fingers toying with the
blotter on his desk. "They have told you a lot of stuff at the
Academy, which is all very important. But I want you to understand
something else: This Mapping Command is a weary business--few men last
for any length of time, and those that do aren't much good in the end.
You know that. Well, I want you to be very careful when you talk to
Billy Wyatt; and I want you to listen to him, because he's been around
longer than anybody. We're relieving him, yes, because he is breaking
down. He's no good for us any more; he has no more nerve. He's lost
the feeling a man has to have to do his job right."

The Commandant got up slowly and walked around in front of Beauclaire,
looking into his eyes.

"When you relieve Wyatt, treat him with respect. He's been farther and
seen more than any man you will ever meet. I want no cracks and no
pity for that man. Because, listen, boy, sooner or later the same
thing will happen to you. Why? Because it's too big--" the Commandant
gestured helplessly with spread hands--"it's all just too damn big.
Space is never so big that it can't get bigger. If you fly long
enough, it will finally get too big to make any sense, and you'll
start thinking. You'll start thinking that it doesn't make sense. On
that day, we'll bring you back and put you into an office somewhere.
If we leave you alone, you lose ships and get good men killed--there's
nothing we can do when space gets too big. That is what happened to
Wyatt. That is what will happen, eventually, to you. Do you
understand?"

The young man nodded uncertainly.

"And that," the Commandant said sadly, "is the lesson for today. Take
your ship. Wyatt will go with you on this one trip, to break you in.
Pay attention to what he has to say--it will mean something. There's
one other crewman, a man named Cooper. You'll be flying with him now.
Keep your ears open and your mouth shut, except for questions. And
don't take any chances. That's all."

Beauclaire saluted and rose to go.

"When you see Wyatt," the Commandant said, "tell him I won't be able
to make it down before you leave. Too busy. Got papers to sign. Got
more damn papers than the chief has ulcers."

The young man waited.

"That, God help you, is all," said the Commandant.

       *       *       *       *       *

Wyatt saw the letter when the young man was still a long way off. The
white caught his eye, and he watched idly for a moment. And then he
saw the fresh green gear on the man's back and the look on his face as
he came up the ladder, and Wyatt stopped breathing.

He stood for a moment blinking in the sun. _Me?_ he thought ... _me?_

Beauclaire reached the platform and threw down his gear, thinking that
this was one hell of a way to begin a career.

Wyatt nodded to him, but didn't say anything. He accepted the letter,
opened it and read it. He was a short man, thick and dark and very
powerful. The lines of his face did not change as he read the letter.

"Well," he said when he was done, "thank you."

There was a long wait, and Wyatt said at last: "Is the Commandant
coming down?"

"No, sir. He said he was tied up. He said to give you his best."

"That's nice," Wyatt said.

After that, neither of them spoke. Wyatt showed the new man to his
room and wished him good luck. Then he went back to his cabin and sat
down to think.

After 28 years in the Mapping Command, he had become necessarily
immune to surprise; he could understand this at once, but it would be
some time before he would react. _Well, well_, he said to himself; but
he did not feel it.

Vaguely, flicking cigarettes onto the floor, he wondered _why_. The
letter had not given a reason. He had probably flunked a physical. Or
a mental. One or the other, each good enough reason. He was 47 years
old, and this was a rough business. Still, he felt strong and
cautious, and he knew he was not afraid. He felt good for a long while
yet ... but obviously he was not.

_Well, then_, he thought, _where now_?

He considered that with interest. There was no particular place for
him to go. Really no place. He had come into the business easily and
naturally, knowing what he wanted--which was simply to move and listen
and see. When he was young, it had been adventure alone that drew him;
now it was something else he could not define, but a thing he knew he
needed badly. He had to see, to watch ... and _understand_.

It was ending, the long time was ending. It didn't matter what was
wrong with him. The point was that he was through. The point was that
he was going home, to nowhere in particular.

When evening came, he was still in his room. Eventually he'd been able
to accept it all and examine it clearly, and had decided that there
was nothing to do. If there was anything out in space which he had not
yet found, he would not be likely to need it.

He left off sitting, and went up to the control room.

       *       *       *       *       *

Cooper was waiting for him. Cooper was a tall, bearded, scrawny man
with a great temper and a great heart and a small capacity for liquor.
He was sitting all alone in the room when Wyatt entered.

Except for the pearl-green glow of dashlights from the panel, the room
was dark. Cooper was lying far back in the pilot's seat, his feet
propped up on the panel. One shoe was off, and he was carefully
pressing buttons with his huge bare toes. The first thing Wyatt saw
when he entered was the foot glowing luridly in the green light of the
panel. Deep within the ship he could hear the hum of the dynamos
starting and stopping.

Wyatt grinned. From the play of Coop's toes, and the attitude, and the
limp, forgotten pole of an arm which hung down loosely from the chair,
it was obvious that Coop was drunk. In port, he was usually drunk. He
was a lean, likable man with very few cares and no manners at all,
which was typical of men in that Command.

"What say, Billy?" Coop mumbled from deep in the seat.

Wyatt sat down. "Where you been?"

"In the port. Been drinkin' in the goddam port. Hot!"

"Bring back any?"

Coop waved an arm floppily in no particular direction. "Look around."

The flasks lay in a heap by the door. Wyatt took one and sat down
again. The room was warm and green and silent. The two men had been
together long enough to be able to sit without speaking, and in the
green glow they waited, thinking. The first pull Wyatt took was long
and numbing; he closed his eyes.

Coop did not move at all. Not even his toes. When Wyatt had begun to
think he was asleep, he said suddenly:

"Heard about the replacement."

Wyatt looked at him.

"Found out this afternoon," Coop said, "from the goddam Commandant."

Wyatt closed his eyes again.

"Where you goin'?" Coop asked.

Wyatt shrugged. "Plush job."

"You got any plans?"

Wyatt shook his head.

Coop swore moodily. "Never let you alone," he muttered. "Miserable
bastards." He rose up suddenly in the chair, pointing a long
matchstick finger into Wyatt's face. "Listen, Billy," he said with
determination, "you was a good man, you know that? You was one hell of
a good goddam man."

Wyatt took another long pull and nodded, smiling.

"You said it," he said.

"I sailed with some good men, some _good_ men," Coop insisted,
stabbing shakily but emphatically with his finger, "but you don't take
nothin' from nobody."

[Illustration]

"Here's to me, I'm true blue," Wyatt grinned.

       *       *       *       *       *

Coop sank back in the chair, satisfied. "I just wanted you should
know. You been a good man."

"Betcher sweet life," Wyatt said.

"So they throw you out. _Me_ they keep. _You_ they throw out. They got
no brains."

Wyatt lay back, letting the liquor take hold, receding without pain
into a quiet world. The ship was good to feel around him, dark and
throbbing like a living womb. _Just like a womb_, he thought. _It's a
lot like a womb._

"Listen," Coop said thickly, rising from his chair. "I think I'll quit
this racket. What the hell I wanna stay in this racket for?"

Wyatt looked up, startled. When Coop was drunk, he was never a little
drunk. He was always far gone, and he could be very mean. Wyatt saw
now that he was down deep and sinking; that the replacement was a big
thing to him, bigger than Wyatt had expected. In this team, Wyatt had
been the leader, and it had seldom occurred to him that Coop really
needed him. He had never really thought about it. But now he let
himself realize that, alone, Coop could be very bad. Unless this new
man was worth anything and learned quickly, Coop would very likely get
himself killed.

Now, more than ever, this replacement thing was ridiculous; but for
Coop's sake, Wyatt said quickly:

"Drop that, man. You'll be on this ship in the boneyard. You even look
like this ship--you got a bright red bow."

When the tall man was dark and silent, Wyatt said gently, "Coop. Easy.
We leave at midnight. Want me to take her up?"

"Naw." Coop turned away abruptly, shaking his head. "T'hell with you.
Go die." He sank back deeply in the seat, his gaunt face reflecting
the green glow from the panel. His next words were sad, and, to Wyatt,
very touching.

"Hell, Billy," Coop said wearily, "this ain' no fun."

Wyatt let him take the ship up alone. There was no reason to argue
about it. Coop was drunk; his mind was unreachable.

At midnight, the ship bucked and heaved and leaped up into the sky.
Wyatt hung tenuously to a stanchion by a port, watched the night
lights recede and the stars begin blooming. In a few moments the last
clouds were past, and they were out in the long night, and the million
million speckled points of glittering blue and red and silver burned
once more with the mighty light which was, to Wyatt, all that was real
or had ever meant living. In the great glare and the black he stood,
as always, waiting for something to happen, for the huge lonely beauty
to resolve itself to a pattern and descend and be understood.

It did not. It was just space, an area in which things existed, in
which mechanized substance moved. Wondering, waiting, Wyatt regarded
the Universe. The stars looked icily back.

At last, almost completely broken, Wyatt went to bed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Beauclaire's first days passed very quickly. He spent them in combing
the ship, seeking her out in her deepest layers, watching and touching
and loving. The ship was to him like a woman; the first few days were
his honeymoon. Because there is no lonelier job that a man can have,
it was nearly always this way with men in the Command.

Wyatt and Cooper left him pretty much alone. They did not come looking
for him, and the few times that he did see them he could not help but
feel their surprise and resentment. Wyatt was always polite. Cooper
was not. Neither seemed to have anything to say to Beauclaire, and he
was wise enough to stay by himself. Most of Beauclaire's life until
now had been spent among books and dust and dead, ancient languages.
He was by nature a solitary man, and therefore it was not difficult
for him to be alone.

On a morning some weeks after the trip began, Wyatt came looking for
him. His eyes twinkling, Wyatt fished him up, grease-coated and
embarrassed, out of a shaft between the main dynamos. Together they
went up toward the astrogation dome. And under the great dome, beneath
the massive crystal sheet on the other side of which there was nothing
for ever and ever, Beauclaire saw a beauty which he was to remember as
long as he lived.

They were nearing the Hole in Cygnus. On the side which faces the
center of the Galaxy the Hole is almost flat, from top to bottom, like
a wall. They were moving in on the flat side now, floating along some
distance from the wall, which was so huge and incredible that
Beauclaire was struck dumb.

It began above him, light-years high. It came down in a black,
folding, rushing silence, fell away beneath him for millions upon
millions of miles, passed down beyond sight so far away, so
unbelievably far away and so vast, that there could be nothing as big
as this, and if he had not seen the stars still blazing on either side
he would have had to believe that the wall was just outside the glass,
so close he could touch it. From all over the wall a haze reflected
faintly, so that the wall stood out in ridges and folds from the great
black of space. Beauclaire looked up and then down, and then stood and
gazed.

After a while, Wyatt pointed silently down. Beauclaire looked in among
the folds and saw it, the tiny yellow gleam toward which they were
moving. It was so small against the massive cloud that he lost it
easily.

Each time he took his eyes away, he lost it, and had to search for it
again.

"It's not too far in," Wyatt said at last, breaking the silence.
"We'll move down the cloud to the nearest point, then we'll slow down
and move in. Should take a couple of days."

Beauclaire nodded.

"Thought you'd like to see," Wyatt said.

"Thanks." Beauclaire was sincerely grateful. And then, unable to
contain himself, he shook his head with wonder. "My God!" he said.

Wyatt smiled. "It's a big show."

Later, much later, Beauclaire began to remember what the Commandant
had said about Wyatt. But he could not understand it at all. Sure,
something like the Hole was incomprehensible. It did not make any
sense--but so what? A thing as beautiful as that, Beauclaire thought,
did not _have_ to make sense.

       *       *       *       *       *

They reached the sun slowly. The gas was not thick by any Earthly
standards--approximately one atom to every cubic mile of space--but
for a starship, any matter at all is too much. At normal speeds, the
ship would hit the gas like a wall. So they came in slowly, swung in
and around the large yellow sun.

They saw one planet almost immediately. While moving in toward that
one they scanned for others, found none at all.

Space around them was absolutely strange; there was nothing in the sky
but a faint haze. They were in the cloud now, and of course could see
no star. There was nothing but the huge sun and the green gleaming dot
of that one planet, and the endless haze.

From a good distance out, Wyatt and Cooper ran through the standard
tests while Beauclaire watched with grave delight. They checked for
radio signals, found none. The spectrum of the planet revealed strong
oxygen and water-vapor lines, surprisingly little nitrogen. The
temperature, while somewhat cool, was in the livable range.

It was a habitable planet.

"Jackpot!" Coop said cheerfully. "All that oxygen, bound to be some
kind of life."

Wyatt said nothing. He was sitting in the pilot chair, his huge hands
on the controls, nursing the ship around into the long slow spiral
which would take them down. He was thinking of many other things, many
other landings. He was remembering the acid ocean at Lupus and the
rotting disease of Altair, all the dark, vicious, unknowable things he
had approached, unsuspecting, down the years.

... So many years, that now he suddenly realized it was too long, too
long.

Cooper, grinning unconsciously as he scanned with the telescope, did
not notice Wyatt's sudden freeze.

It was over all at once. Wyatt's knuckles had gradually whitened as he
gripped the panel. Sweat had formed on his face and run down into his
eyes, and he blinked, and realized with a strange numbness that he was
soaking wet all over. In that moment, his hands froze and gripped the
panel, and he could not move them.

It was a hell of a thing to happen on a man's last trip, he thought.
He would like to have taken her down just this once. He sat looking at
his hands. Gradually, calmly, carefully, with a cold will and a
welling sadness, he broke his hands away from the panel.

"Coop," he said, "take over."

Coop glanced over and saw. Wyatt's face was white and glistening; his
hands in front of him were wooden and strange.

"Sure," Coop said, after a very long moment. "Sure."

Wyatt backed off, and Coop slid into the seat.

"They got me just in time," Wyatt said, looking at his stiff, still
fingers. He looked up and ran into Beauclaire's wide eyes, and turned
away from the open pity. Coop was bending over the panel, swallowing
heavily.

"Well," Wyatt said. He was beginning to cry. He walked slowly from the
room, his hands held before him like old gray things that had died.

       *       *       *       *       *

The ship circled automatically throughout the night, while its crew
slept or tried to. In the morning they were all forcefully cheerful
and began to work up an interest.

There were people on the planet. Because the people lived in villages,
and had no cities and no apparent science, Coop let the ship land.

It was unreal. For a long while, none of them could get over the
feeling of unreality, Wyatt least of all. He stayed in the ship and
got briefly drunk, and then came out as carefully efficient as ever.
Coop was gay and brittle. Only Beauclaire saw the planet with any
degree of clarity. And all the while the people looked back.

From the very beginning it was peculiar.

The people saw the ship passing overhead, yet curiously they did not
run. They gathered in groups and watched. When the ship landed, a
small band of them came out of the circling woods and hills and ringed
the ship, and a few came up and touched it calmly, ran fingers over
smooth steel sides.

The people were human.

There was not, so far as Beauclaire could tell, a single significant
difference. It was not really extraordinary--similar conditions will
generally breed similar races--but there was something about these men
and women which was hard and powerful, and in a way almost grand.

They were magnificently built, rounded and bronzed. Their women
especially were remarkably beautiful. They were wearing woven clothes
of various colors, in simple savage fashions; but there was nothing at
all savage about them. They did not shout or seem nervous or move
around very much, and nowhere among them was there any sign of a
weapon. Furthermore, they did not seem to be particularly curious. The
ring about the ship did not increase. Although several new people
wandered in from time to time, others were leaving, unconcerned. The
only ones among them who seemed at all excited were the children.

Beauclaire stood by the view-screen, watching. Eventually Coop joined
him, looking without interest until he saw the women. There was one
particular girl with shaded brown eyes and a body of gentle hills.
Coop grinned widely and turned up the magnification until the screen
showed nothing but the girl. He was gazing with appreciation and
making side comments to Beauclaire when Wyatt came in.

"Looka _that_, Billy," Coop roared with delight, pointing. "Man, we
have come home!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Wyatt smiled very tightly, changed the magnification quickly to cover
the whole throng around them.

"No trouble?"

"Nope," Coop said. "Air's good, too. Thin, but practically pure
oxygen. Who's first to go out?"

"Me," Wyatt said, for obvious reasons. He would not be missed.

No one argued with him. Coop was smiling as Wyatt armed himself. Then
he warned Wyatt to leave that cute little brown-eyed doll alone.

Wyatt went out.

The air was clear and cool. There was a faint breeze stirring the
leaves around him, and Wyatt listened momentarily to the far
bell-calls of birds. This would be the last time he would ever go out
like this, to walk upon an unknown world. He waited for some time by
the airlock before he went forward.

The ring of people did not move as he approached, his hand upraised in
what the Mapping Command had come to rely on as the universal gesture
of peace. He paused before a tall, monolithic old man in a single
sheath of green cloth.

"Hello," he said aloud, and bowed his head slowly.

From the ship, through the wide-angle sights of a gun, Beauclaire
watched breathlessly as Wyatt went through the pantomime of greeting.

None of the tall people moved, except the old man, who folded his arms
and looked openly amused. When the pantomime was done, Wyatt bowed
again. The old man broke into a broad grin, looked amiably around at
the circle of people, and then quite suddenly bowed to Wyatt. One by
one the people, grinning, bowed.

Wyatt turned and waved at the ship, and Beauclaire stood away from his
gun, smiling.

It was a very fine way to begin.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the morning Wyatt went out alone, to walk in the sun among the
trees, and he found the girl he had seen from the ship. She was
sitting alone by a stream, her feet cooling and splashing in the clear
water.

Wyatt sat down beside her. She looked up, unsurprised, out of eyes
that were rich and grained like small pieces of beautiful wood. Then
she bowed, from the waist. Wyatt grinned and bowed back.

Unceremoniously he took off his boots and let his feet plunk down into
the water. It was shockingly cold, and he whistled. The girl smiled at
him. To his surprise, she began to hum softly. It was a pretty tune
that he was able to follow, and after a moment he picked up the
harmony and hummed along with her. She laughed, and he laughed with
her, feeling very young.

_Me Billy_, he thought of saying, and laughed again. He was content
just to sit without saying anything. Even her body, which was
magnificent, did not move him to anything but a quiet admiration, and
he regarded himself with wonder.

The girl picked up one of his boots and examined it critically,
clucking with interest. Her lovely eyes widened as she played with the
buckle. Wyatt showed her how the snaps worked and she was delighted
and clapped her hands.

Wyatt brought other things out of his pockets and she examined them
all, one after the other. The picture of him on his ID card was the
only one which seemed to puzzle her. She handled it and looked at it,
and then at him, and shook her head. Eventually she frowned and gave
it definitely back to him. He got the impression that she thought it
was very bad art. He chuckled.

The afternoon passed quickly, and the sun began to go down. They
hummed some more and sang songs to each other which neither understood
and both enjoyed, and it did not occur to Wyatt until much later how
little curiosity they had felt. They did not speak at all. She had no
interest in his language or his name, and, strangely, he felt all
through the afternoon that talking was unnecessary. It was a very rare
day spent between two people who were not curious and did not want
anything from each other. The only words they said to each other were
goodbye.

Wyatt, lost inside himself, plodding, went back to the ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the first week, Beauclaire spent his every waking hour learning the
language of the planet. From the very beginning he had felt an
unsettling, peculiar manner about these people. Their behavior was
decidedly unusual. Although they did not differ in any appreciable way
from human beings, they did not act very much like human beings in
that they were almost wholly lacking a sense of awe, a sense of
wonder. Only the children seemed surprised that the ship had landed,
and only the children hung around and inspected it. Almost all the
others went off about their regular business--which seemed to be
farming--and when Beauclaire tried learning the language, he found
very few of the people willing to spend time enough to teach him.

But they were always more or less polite, and by making a pest of
himself he began to succeed. On another day when Wyatt came back from
the brown-eyed girl, Beauclaire reported some progress.

"It's a beautiful language," he said as Wyatt came in. "Amazingly
well-developed. It's something like our Latin--same type of
construction, but much softer and more flexible. I've been trying to
read their book."

Wyatt sat down thoughtfully and lit a cigarette.

"Book?" he said.

"Yes. They have a lot of books, but _everybody_ has this one
particular book--they keep it in a place of honor in their houses.
I've tried to ask them what it is--I think it's a bible of some
kind--but they just won't bother to tell me."

Wyatt shrugged, his mind drifting away.

"I just don't understand them," Beauclaire said plaintively, glad to
have someone to talk to. "I don't get them at all. They're quick,
they're bright, but they haven't the damnedest bit of curiosity about
_anything_, not even each other. My God, they don't even gossip!"

Wyatt, contented, puffed quietly. "Do you think not seeing the stars
has something to do with it? Ought to have slowed down the development
of physics and math."

Beauclaire shook his head. "No. It's very strange. There's something
else. Have you noticed the way the ground seems to be sharp and jagged
almost everywhere you look, sort of chewed up as if there was a war?
Yet these people swear that they've never had a war within living
memory, and they don't keep any history so a man could really find
out."

When Wyatt didn't say anything, he went on:

"And I can't see the connection about no stars. Not with these people.
I don't care if you can't see the roof of the house you live in, you
still have to have a certain amount of curiosity in order to stay
alive. But these people just don't give a damn. The ship landed. You
remember that? Out of the sky come Gods like thunder--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Wyatt smiled. At another time, at any time in the past, he would have
been very much interested in this sort of thing. But now he was not.
He felt himself--remote, sort of--and he, like these people, did not
particularly give a damn.

But the problem bothered Beauclaire, who was new and fresh and looking
for reasons, and it also bothered Cooper.

"Damn!" Coop grumbled as he came stalking into the room. "Here you
are, Billy. I'm bored stiff. Been all over this whole crummy place
lookin for you. Where you been?" He folded himself into a chair,
scratched his black hair broodingly with long, sharp fingers. "Game o'
cards?"

"Not just now, Coop," Wyatt said, lying back and resting.

Coop grunted. "Nothin to do, nothin to do," he swiveled his eyes to
Beauclaire. "How you comin, son? How soon we leave this place? Like
Sunday afternoon all the time."

Beauclaire was always ready to talk about the problem. He outlined it
now to Cooper again, and Wyatt, listening, grew very tired. There is
just this one continent, Beauclaire said, and just one nation, and
everyone spoke the same tongue. There was no government, no police, no
law that he could find. There was not even, as far as he could tell, a
system of marriage. You couldn't even call it a society, really, but
dammit, it existed--and Beauclaire could not find a single trace of
rape or murder or violence of any kind. The people here, he said, just
didn't give a damn.

[Illustration]

"You said it," Coop boomed. "I think they're all whacky."

"But happy," Wyatt said suddenly. "You can see that they're happy."

"Sure, they're happy," Coop chortled. "They're nuts. They got funny
looks in their eyes. Happiest guys I know are screwy as--"

The sound which cut him off, which grew and blossomed and eventually
explained everything, had begun a few seconds ago, too softly to be
heard. Now suddenly, from a slight rushing noise, it burst into an
enormous, thundering scream.

They leaped up together, horrified, and an overwhelming, gigantic
blast threw them to the floor.

       *       *       *       *       *

The ground rocked, the ship fluttered and settled crazily. In that one
long second, the monstrous noise of a world collapsing grew in the air
and filled the room, filled the men and everything with one
incredible, crushing, grinding shock.

When it was over there was another rushing sound, farther away, and
another, and two more tremendous explosions; and though all in all the
noise lasted for perhaps five seconds, it was the greatest any of them
had ever heard, and the world beneath them continued to flutter,
wounded and trembling, for several minutes.

Wyatt was first out of the ship, shaking his head as he ran to get
back his hearing. To the west, over a long slight rise of green and
yellow trees, a vast black cloud of smoke, several miles long and very
high, was rising and boiling. As he stared and tried to steady his
feet upon the shaking ground, he was able to gather himself enough to
realize what this was.

Meteors.

He had heard meteors before, long before, on a world of Aldebaran. Now
he could smell the same sharp burning disaster, and feel the wind
rushing wildly back to the west, where the meteors had struck and
hurled the air away.

In that moment Wyatt thought of the girl, and although she meant
nothing to him at all--none of these people meant anything in the
least to him--he began running as fast as he could toward the west.

Behind him, white-faced and bewildered, came Beauclaire and Cooper.

When Wyatt reached the top of the rise, the great cloud covered the
whole valley before him. Fires were burning in the crushed forest to
his right, and from the lay of the cloud he could tell that the
village of the people was not there any more.

He ran down into the smoke, circling toward the woods and the stream
where he had passed an afternoon with the girl. For a while he lost
himself in the smoke, stumbling over rocks and fallen trees.

Gradually the smoke lifted, and he began running into some of the
people. Now he wished that he could speak the language.

They were all wandering quietly away from the site of their village,
none of them looking back. Wyatt could see a great many dead as he
moved, but he had no time to stop, no time to wonder. It was twilight
now, and the sun was gone. He thanked God that he had a flashlight
with him; long after night came, he was searching in the raw gash
where the first meteor had fallen.

He found the girl, dazed and bleeding, in a cleft between two rocks.
He knelt and took her in his arms. Gently, gratefully, through the
night and the fires and past the broken and the dead, he carried her
back to the ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

It had all become frighteningly clear to Beauclaire. He talked with
the people and began to understand.

The meteors had been falling since the beginning of time, so the
people said. Perhaps it was the fault of the great dust-cloud through
which this planet was moving; perhaps it was that this had not always
been a one-planet system--a number of other planets, broken and
shredded by unknown gravitational forces, would provide enough meteors
for a very long time. And the air of this planet being thin, there was
no real protection as there was on Earth. So year after year the
meteors fell. In unpredictable places, at unknowable times, the
meteors fell, like stones from the sling of God. They had been falling
since the beginning of time. So the people, the unconcerned people,
said.

And here was Beauclaire's clue. Terrified and shaken as he was,
Beauclaire was the kind of man who saw reason in everything. He
followed this one to the end.

In the meantime, Wyatt nursed the girl. She had not been badly hurt,
and recovered quickly. But her family and friends were mostly dead
now, and so she had no reason to leave the ship.

Gradually Wyatt learned the language. The girl's name was ridiculous
when spoken in English, so he called her Donna, which was something
like her real name. She was, like all her people, unconcerned about
the meteors and her dead. She was extraordinarily cheerful. Her
features were classic, her cheeks slim and smiling, her teeth perfect.
In the joy and whiteness of her, Wyatt saw each day what he had seen
and known in his mind on the day the meteors fell. Love to him was
something new. He was not sure whether or not he was in love, and he
did not care. He realized that he needed this girl and was at home
with her, could rest with her and talk with her, and watch her walk
and understand what beauty was; and in the ship in those days a great
peace began to settle over him.

When the girl was well again, Beauclaire was in the middle of
translating the book--the bible-like book which all the people seemed
to treasure so much. As his work progressed, a striking change began
to come over him. He spent much time alone under the sky, watching the
soft haze through which, very soon, the stars would begin to shine.

He tried to explain what he felt to Wyatt, but Wyatt had no time.

"But, Billy," Beauclaire said fervently, "do you see what these people
go through? Do you see how they live?"

Wyatt nodded, but his eyes were on the girl as she sat listening
dreamily to a recording of ancient music.

"They live every day waiting," Beauclaire said. "They have no idea
what the meteors are. They don't know that there is anything else in
the Universe but their planet and their sun. They think that's all
there is. They don't know why they're here--but when the meteors keep
falling like that, they have only one conclusion."

       *       *       *       *       *

Wyatt turned from the girl smiling absently. None of this could touch
him. He had seen the order and beauty of space, the incredible
perfection of the Universe, so often and so deeply that, like
Beauclaire, he could not help but believe in a Purpose, a grand final
meaning. When his father had died of an insect bite at Oberon he had
believed in a purpose for that, and had looked for it. When his first
crewmate fell into the acid ocean of Alcestis and the second died of a
horrible rot, Wyatt had seen purpose, purpose; and each time another
man died, for no apparent reason, on windless, evil useless worlds,
the meaning of things had become clearer and clearer, and now in the
end Wyatt was approaching the truth, which was perhaps that none of it
mattered at all.

It especially did not matter now. So many things had happened that he
had lost the capacity to pay attention. He was not young any more; he
wanted to rest, and upon the bosom of this girl he had all the reason
for anything and everything he needed.

But Beauclaire was incoherent. It seemed to him that here on this
planet a great wrong was being done, and the more he thought of it the
more angry and confused he became. He went off by himself and looked
at the terrible wound on the face of the planet, at all the sweet,
lovely, fragrant things which would never be again, and he ended by
cursing the nature of things, as Wyatt had done so many years before.
And then he went on with the translation of the book. He came upon the
final passage, still cursing inwardly, and reread it again and again.
When the sun was rising on a brilliant new morning, he went back to
the ship.

"They had a man here once," he said to Wyatt, "who was as good a
writer as there ever was. He wrote a book which these people use as
their Bible. It's like our Bible sometimes, but mostly it's just the
opposite. It preaches that a man shouldn't worship anything. Would you
like to hear some of it?"

Wyatt had been pinned down and he had to listen, feeling sorry for
Beauclaire, who had such a long way to go. His thoughts were on Donna,
who had gone out alone to walk in the woods and say goodbye to her
world. Soon he would go out and bring her back to the ship, and she
would probably cry a little, but she would come. She would come with
him always, wherever he went.

"I have translated this the best way I could," Beauclaire said
thickly, "but remember this. This man could write. He was Shakespeare
and Voltaire and all the rest all at once. He could make you _feel_. I
couldn't do a decent translation if I tried forever, but please listen
and try to get what he means. I've put it in the style of Ecclesiastes
because it's something like that."

"All right," Wyatt said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Beauclaire waited for a long moment, feeling this deeply. When he
read, his voice was warm and strong, and something of his emotion came
through. As Wyatt listened, he found his attention attracted, and then
he felt the last traces of his sadness and weariness fall away.

He nodded, smiling.

These are the words Beauclaire had gathered from the Book:

     Rise up smiling, and walk with me. Rise up in the armor of
     thy body and what shall pass shall make thee unafraid. Walk
     among the yellow hills, for they belong to thee. Walk upon
     grass and let thy feet descend into soft soil; in the end
     when all has failed thee the soil shall comfort thee, the
     soil shall receive thee and in thy dark bed thou shalt find
     such peace as is thy portion.

     In thine armor, hear my voice. In thine armor, hear.
     Whatsoever thou doest, thy friend and thy brother and thy
     woman shall betray thee. Whatsoever thou dost plant, the
     weeds and the seasons shall spite thee. Wheresoever thou
     goest, the heavens shall fall upon thee. Though the nations
     shall come unto thee in friendship thou art curst. Know that
     the Gods ignore thee. Know that thou art Life, and that pain
     shall forever come into thee, though thy years be without
     end and thy days without sleep, even and forever. And
     knowing this, in thine armor, thou shalt rise up.

     Red and full and glowing is thy heart; a steel is forging
     within thy breast. And what can hurt thee now? In thy
     granite mansion, what can hurt thee ever? Thou shalt only
     die. Therefore seek not redemption nor forgiveness for thy
     sins, for know that thou hast never sinned.

     Let the Gods come unto _thee_.

When it was finished, Wyatt sat very still.

Beauclaire was looking at him intently.

Wyatt nodded. "I see," he said.

"They don't ask for anything," Beauclaire said. "No immortality, no
forgiveness, no happiness. They take what comes and don't--wonder."

Wyatt smiled, rising. He looked at Beauclaire for a long while, trying
to think of something to say. But there was nothing to say. If the
young man could believe this, here and now, he would save himself a
long, long, painful journey. But Wyatt could not talk about it--not
just yet.

He reached out and clapped Beauclaire gently upon the shoulder. Then
he left the ship and walked out toward the yellow hills, toward the
girl and the love that was waiting.

       *       *       *       *       *

_What will they do_, Beauclaire asked himself, _when the stars come
out_? _When there are other places to go, will these people, too,
begin to seek?_

They would. With sadness, he knew that they would. For there is a
chord in Man which is plucked by the stars, which will rise upward and
outward into infinity, as long as there is one man anywhere and one
lonely place to which he has not been. And therefore what does the
meaning matter? We are built in this way, and so shall we live.

Beauclaire looked up into the sky.

Dimly, faintly, like God's eye peeking through the silvery haze, a
single star had begun to shine.

                                                       --MICHAEL SHAARA

       *       *       *       *       *





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