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Across a Billion Years
By Robert Silverberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1969 Robert Silverberg
All rights reserved.
August 11, 2375 Somewhere in Ultraspace
Lorie, I can't even guess when you'll get to hear this letter. If ever. I mean, I might just decide to blank the message cube when I finish talking into it. Or maybe I'll forget about giving it to you when I tome home from all this.
It isn't just that I'm an unstable sort of vidj, which of course I am. By the time I'm able to get any letters into your hands, though, a couple of years will have gone by, and what I have to tell you now may not seem very important or interesting. But I have these message cubes anyway. And right now it seems like a good idea to put it all down for you, to make a record of what I'm doing and what's happening to me out here.
I guess the proper thing to do tonight is to call you up on the galaxy-wide telepath hookup and wish us a happy birthday, we being twenty-two years of age this day. (Doesn't that sound ancient? We're turning into fossils!) A guy really ought to keep in touch with his twin sister on their birthday, even if she's home on Earth and he's bimpty-bump light-years away.
But it costs about a billion credits to make a live realtime skull-to-skull call. Well, maybe not that much; but whatever it costs, it's more stash than I've got in my thumb account. And I don't dare call collect, even though Our Lord And Master wouldn't suffer much from the charge. Considering the way things were between Dad and me when I took off on this jaunt, I just don't have the slice to try it. He'd split a wavelength when he saw the bill.
Will this do, then?—Happy Birthday, Sister Mine, from your unique and irreplaceable brother Tom, far, far away. I send you, via message cube and a couple of years after the fact, a chaste and brotherly kiss.
Exactly where I am now is anybody's guess. We are supposed to land on Higby V in three Earth-standard-time days, and Higby V is—what? sixty, eighty, ninety light-years from Earth?—but as you may know there isn't any one-to-one correlation between time spent in ultradrive travel and distance covered. On a journey of ten light-years, say, the ship can spend two months going a quarter of the distance, then cover the rest of the way in an hour and a half. It has something to do with the space-time manifold, and when they explained it to us laymen we were urged to visualize a needle plunging through a bunched-up sheet and sometimes going through a lot of layers at once. Higher physics of this sort has never been my pocket, exactly, and I'm not going to try to load my mind with it now. The more useless stuff from other sciences that I attempt to learn, the more archaeology I'm going to forget, and the archaeology is more important.
It's like Professor Steuben, the Assyriologist, used to say. All semester long he called me Mr. Barley, which I thought was his idea of a joke, until I found out he really believed that that was my name. So I said my name was Rice, and the next day he called me Mr. Oats. I said my name was Rice, again. He drew himself up to about three meters high and said, "Mr. Rice, do you realize that every time I memorize one student's name, I forget one irregular verb? One must establish priorities!" He went back to calling me Barley, but he gave me an A, so I won't crank about him too much.
Professor Steuben ought to see me now, about to dig in at the galaxy's top archaeological site. I feel like the curtain's going up for me at last. You remember how we used to talk about how growing up is a kind of overture, and then Act One starts when you're out on your own? So here I am standing in the wings, listening to the last chords of the overture, hoping I don't muff my lines when the big moment comes.
Not that I mean to boost my own heat. I know and you know and we all know that I'm a very minor part of this expedition, that I'm going to get out of it more than I can possibly give to it, that I'm lucky to be here and no great asset to the enterprise. Does that fulfill my Modesty Quota for the epoch? But I mean it. I am humble on this jog, because I know I have a great deal to be humble about.
I'll feed you the data on the voyage so far first, and then I'll scan you the cast of characters as I read it up to here.
Voyage so far: zero. I wish I could paint you a thrilling vivid picture of an ultradrive voyage, Lorie, to add to your collection of vicarious experiences. Blot that, but completely. The fact that you will never travel by ultradrive is absolutely no cause for regret. The ship has no windows, no scanner plates, no viewscreens, no access to the outside environment whatever. There is no sensation of motion. The temperature never varies, the lights don't flicker, it rains not in here, neither does it snow. What this trip is like is like spending a couple of months inside one very long and low hotel that is locked up tight in every way. Outside us, they tell me, is a gray, featureless murk that doesn't change at all, ever. Ultraspace is a universe having a foggy day as long as infinity. Therefore the ship designers don't risk structural weakness by putting in windows. The only excitement of the voyage came on the third day, when we were just outside the orbit of Mars and making the shift from ordinary space into ultraspace. For about thirty seconds I felt as if someone had stuck a hand down my gullet and pulled me inside out in one swift yank. This is not exactly a delightful sensation. But it's a measure of how boring things have been since then that I'm looking forward eagerly to feeling it again when we phase out of ultradrive tomorrow or the next day. I guess it'll be the reverse: like getting undisemboweled.
That long dumb silent place on the message cube is where I stopped talking for a while, Lorie, while I debated whether to go back and erase what I just said. I mean, the part about the voyage being so dull because we can't see anything or do anything or escape from captivity.
It's a bit cloddish for me to crank about that to you. It holds me up all spoiled and petulant, with my miserable few months stuck in the same place, compared with what you've had to put up with for practically your whole life. All right, so I'm a clod. I don't know how you manage it, Lorie, except maybe being a telepath helps to get your mind off things. I'd have gone crazy in your place long before I was housebroken.
Still, you are you and I am I, and please make allowances for my faults, which are maximum. I don't have your saintly patience, and I'm quietly going crazy in this ship, and feel free to scorn me for having such a low tolerance for boredom.
I'll leave all of this on the cube. I want to give you the whole picture, everything I'm feeling, and devil take trying to look like a noble soul. I couldn't fool you anyway.
Now for the cast of characters. And I do mean characters.
There are eleven archaeologists on this trip. Three of us are apprentices, newly outslipped from college, and archaeologists more by courtesy than by merit. On the other hand, our three bosses are utter tops in the line, each one of them deemed a major authority on the High Ones, and naturally they hate each other to a high-frequency zing. The remaining five are medium sorts, all pros but nothing special, the kind of hacks you find in any operation. They've been around, they know their stuff, they do what they're told. But they don't have much spark.
As you might expect we're a racially mixed outfit. The liberals must have their way. And so the quota system has been imposed on us: we include six Earthmen, counting one android, and five selected representatives of five of the other intelligent galactic races. Now, you know I'm no bigot, Lorie. I don't care how many eyes, tentacles, eating orifices, or antennae an organism happens to have, so long as it knows its stuff. What I object to is having someone who is professionally inferior jacked into an expedition simply for the sake of racial balance.
Take our android, for example. Her name is Kelly Watchman, and her specialty is vacuum-core excavation.
Kelly is probably about ninety years old, judging by her vat number, which is someplace around fifteen thousand. (They're up over a million now, aren't they?) But, being an android, she doesn't age at all, and so she looks about nineteen. A very sexy nineteen, naturally; if you're going to make artificial human beings, you might as well make good-looking ones, the android companies say, and I quite agree. Kelly is highly decorative, and goes around the ship wearing next to nothing at all, or sometimes less. Since an android doesn't have any more sex life than the Venus de Milo, Kelly doesn't stop to consider the effect that all those jiggles and curves might have on normal human males who keep bumping into her in corridors. Not me, incidentally: the first day Kelly stripped down I noticed that she doesn't have a navel, and that turned me off thinking of her as a real woman. I mean, there's no reason why an android ought to have a navel, but even so I can't help visualizing her as a kind of rubber doll that walks, and I don't have any romantic interest in walking rubber dolls no matter how lifelike and voluptuous they may be. Some of the others, though—
Well, I'm off the track, and maybe my prejudices are showing a little, since a lot of people do find androids desirable. The important thing is that Kelly Watchman is aboard this ship because she's a member of a downtrodden minority, not because she's an outstanding vacuum-corer operator.
She can't be an outstanding vacuum-corer operator. It's well known that the android nervous system, clever as it is, doesn't match up with that of a real human. The android just doesn't have that extra sense, that ability to know that if he digs another tenth of a millimeter he'll damage some valuable artifact. An android is always 100 percent efficient at any skill he learns; the trouble is that humans, unpredictable as we are, can come through with 105 percent efficiency when the situation demands it. Maybe we aren't as cool and mechanically perfect as androids, but when the protons are popping we can rise above ourselves for brief periods of superhuman performance, and androids simply aren't programmed to do that. By definition, there can't be any android geniuses. The vacuum-corer operator on an archaeological dig needs to be a genius. I admire Kelly for having won her emancipation and all that, and for picking up a difficult skill, and for devoting herself to something as abstract as archaeology. All the same, I wish we had a flesh-and-blood vacuum-corer man on this dig, and I don't think that's just my bigotry coming out.
Our other digger is also part of our racial quota, but I don't feel quite the same way about him. His name is Mirrik, which is a contraction of a label as long as my arm, and he's from Dinamon IX. He's our bulldozer.
Mirrik's kind come big. Have you ever seen pictures of the extinct Earthly mammal called the rhinoceros? It was about the size of a big pickup truck—I'm sure you've seen trucks in your hookups with other telepaths—and twice as heavy. Mirrik is almost as big as a rhinoceros. He's higher at the shoulders than I am tall, and a lot longer than he is high, and he weighs and eats as much as the rest of us put together. He also smells rather ripe. His skin is blue and wrinkled, his eyes are small, and he has long flat tusks in his lower jaw. But he's intelligent, sophisticated, speaks Anglic with no accent at all, can name the American presidents or the Sumerian kings or anybody else out of Earthside history, and recites love poetry in a kind of throbbing, cooing voice. He's a pretty fantastic sort of vidj, and on top of all this he knows archaeological technique like a star, and he can lift loads that would rupture a tractor. He's going to do our heavy digging, before Kelly gets in there with her vacuum-corer, and I think it's terrific to be able to combine an archaeologist and a heavy-duty machine in the same body. He digs with his tusks, mostly, but he's got a pair of extra limbs to help out, aside from the four pillars he stands on. I like him. You have to watch out around him, though. Most of the time he's awfully gentle, but he goes on flower-eating jags and gets drunk and wild. A dozen geraniums tank him up like a liter of rum. We have this hydroponic garden on top deck, and once a week or so Mirrik gets homesick and goes up there and nibbles blossoms, and then he starts carousing through the ship. Last Tuesday he almost smeared Dr. Horkkk into a puddle on the wall.
Dr. Horkkk is one of our three bosses. He comes from Thhh, which is a planet in the Rigel system, and he's the galaxy's leading expert on the language of the High Ones. That isn't saying much, considering we can't understand a syllable of their language, but Dr. Horkkk knows more than anyone else.
I like to think of him as a German. He reminds me of the nutty therapist who used to commute from Düsseldorf every Wednesday to try to teach you to walk. Dr. Schatz, remember? Dr. Horkkk is just like him in an alien way. He's very small, very fussy, very precise, very solemn, and very sure of himself. Also he seems to spit when he talks. Underneath it all I think he's kind-hearted, but you can't really tell, because he works so hard at being ferocious on the outside. He comes up to just about hip-high on me, and when he stands sideways you can hardly see him, he's so skinny. He's got three big bulging eyes on top of his head, and two mouths under that, one for talking and one for eating, and his brain is where his belly ought to be, and where he keeps his digestive tract I wouldn't even like to guess. He has four arms and four legs, all of them about two fingers thick, so he looks sort of spidery. When Mirrik came blundering along and almost squashed him the other day, Dr. Horkkk went straight up the wall, which was pretty scary to behold. Afterward he cranked Mirrik over in a dozen different languages, or maybe three dozen, calling him "drunken ox" in all three dozen. But Mirrik apologized and they're good friends again.
No matter what his race was, Dr. Horkkk would belong on this trip. But Steen Steen is here purely on the minority thing. I hardly need to tell you: Steen's a Calamorian, a real militant one, as if there's any other kind. He/she is one of the other apprentices, slipped last year from a Calamorian university, which must be even more of a diploma mill than rumor has it. This one doesn't know a thing. Casual discussion reveals that Steen's knowledge of the theory of archaeology is about as deep as my knowledge of the theory of neutrinics, and I don't know anything about neutrinics. But I don't pretend I do; and Steen is supposed to be a graduate student in archaeology. You know how he/she got here, of course. Calamorians are forever yelling about status, and threatening to make war on everybody in sight if their intellectual attainments aren't universally recognized and admired. So we're stuck with Steen by way of keeping his/her people cool.
At least Steen's good-looking: sleek and graceful, with shiny emerald skin and long twining tentacles. Every movement is like something out of a ballet. Nobody admires Steen more than Steen, but I guess that's forgivable, considering that Calamorians have both sexes in the same body and would go crazy if they didn't love themselves. But Steen is dumb, and Steen is excess baggage here, and I resent his/her presence.
The third apprentice isn't up to much either. She's a blonde named Jan Mortenson, with a B.S. from Stockholm University, with a cute figure and lots of big white teeth. She seems friendly but not very bright. Her father's somebody big at Galaxy Central, which is probably how she got into the expedition—these diplomats are always pulling rank on deals like this. I haven't had a whole lot to do with her, though: she's got her eye on our chronology man, Saul Shahmoon.
Saul doesn't have his eye on her, but that's her problem. I don't think he's very interested in girls. He's about forty, comes from Beirut, has been working for the last five or six years at Fentnor U. on Venus. Small, dark, intense, single, reputation for good but uninspired work. His big passion in life is collecting stamps. He brought his collection along and it fills up his whole cabin, album after album, going right back to the nineteenth century. He's had us all in there to look at it. Remember when we were saving stamps? Saul's got the things we just used to daydream about, the Marsport five-credit with the ultraviolet overprint, the Luna City souvenir sheet perforate and imperforate, the Henry XII coronation set—everything. And all the galactic stamps, stuff from fifty or a hundred planets. Jan's with him half the time, listening to his lectures on the postal system of Betelgeuse V, or wherever, or helping him get Denebian stamps off their envelopes with acid, and Saul goes on and on and on and never catches a hint. Poor Jan!
Excerpted from Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 1969 Robert Silverberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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