By Frederik Pohl
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 Frederik Pohl
All rights reserved.
An Astronaut and His World
It is necessary to tell you about Roger Torraway. One human being does not seem particularly important, when there are eight billion alive. Not more important than, for example, a single microchip in a memory store. But a single chip can be decisive when it carries an essential bit, and Torraway was important in just that way.
He was a good-looking man, as people go. Famous, too. Or had been.
There had been a time when Roger Torraway hung in the sky for two months and three weeks, along with five other astronauts. They were all dirty, horny and mostly bored. That wasn't what made him famous. That was just "people in the news" stuff, fit for two sentences on the seven o'clock wrap-up on a dull night.
But he did get famous. In Bechuanaland and Baluchistan and Buffalo, people knew his name. Time gave him its cover. He didn't have it all to himself. He had to share it with the rest of his team in the orbiting lab, because they were the ones who got lucky and rescued the Soviet bunch that came back to Earth with no steering jets.
So they were all famous men overnight. Torraway was twenty-eight years old when that happened, and had just married a green-eyed, black-haired teacher of ceramic sculpture. Dorrie on Earth was what made him yearn, and Rog in orbit was what made Dorrie a celebrity herself, which she loved.
It took something special to make an astronaut's wife newsworthy. There were so many of them. They looked so much alike. The newspersons used to think that NASA picked the astronauts' wives out of the entries in Miss Georgia contests. They all had that look, as though as soon as they changed out of their bathing suits they would show you some baton-twirling or would recite "The Female of the Species." Dorrie Torraway was a little too intelligent-looking for that, although she was also definitely pretty enough for that. She was the only one of the astronaut wives to get major space in both Ladies' Home Journal ("Twelve Christmas Gifts You Can Bake in Your Kiln") and Ms. ("Children Would Spoil My Marriage").
Rog was all for the nonfamily. He was all for everything Dorrie wanted, because he was for Dorrie very much.
In that respect, he was a little less like his fellows, who had mostly discovered fine female fringe benefits from the space program. In other ways he was just like them. Bright, healthy, smart, personable, technically trained. The newspersons thought for a while that the astronauts themselves also came from an assembly line somewhere. They were available in a range of twenty centimeters in height and about a dozen years in age, and came in a choice of four shades of skin color, from milk chocolate to Viking. Their hobbies were chess, swimming, hunting, flying, skydiving, fishing and golf. They mingled easily with senators and ambassadors. When they retired from the space program, they found jobs with aerospace companies or with lost causes needing a new publicity image. These jobs paid very well. Astronauts were valuable products. They were not only prized by the publicity media and the Man in the Street. We valued them very highly too.
What the astronauts represented was a dream. The dream was priceless to the Man in the Street, especially if it was a dank, stinking Calcutta street where families slept on the sidewalk and roused themselves at dawn to queue for the one free bowl of food. It was a gritty, grimy world, and space gave it a little bit of beauty and excitement. Not much, but better than none at all.
The astronauts formed a tight little community, all around Tonka, Oklahoma, like baseball families. When each man flew his first mission he joined the major leagues. From then on they were rivals and teammates. They fought one another to get into the line-up, and coached one another from the baselines. It was the dichotomy of the professional athlete. No aging knuckle-baller sitting on the bench and staring at the latest rifle-armed kid felt more sick and angry envy than the back-up man to a planetary landing felt when he watched his Number One suit up.
Rog and Dorrie fit nicely into that community. They made friends easily. They were just oddball enough to be distinctive, not odd enough to worry anyone. If Dorrie didn't want to have children herself, she was nice to the children of the other wives. When Vic Samuelson was out of radio contact for five days on the far side of the sun and Verna Samuelson came taken down with early labor pains, Dorrie took Verna's three infants into her own home. None of them was over five years old. Two of them were still in diapers, and she changed them uncomplainingly while other wives took care of Verna's house and Verna took care of giving birth to her fourth in the NASA hospital. At the Christmas parties Rog and Dorrie never got the drunkest, nor were they ever the first to leave.
They were a nice couple.
They lived in a nice world.
In that they were, they knew, lucky. The rest of the world wasn't all that nice. The little wars chased themselves all over Asia and Africa and Latin America. Western Europe was sometimes strangled by strikes and often crippled by shortages, and when winter came it usually shivered. People were hungry, and a lot of them were angry, and there were very few cities a person would want to walk in alone at night. But Tonka kept itself unpermissive and pretty safe, and astronauts (and cosmonauts and sinonauts) visited Mercury and Mars as well as the moon, swam into the halos of comets and hung in orbit around gas giants.
Torraway himself had flown five major missions. First he flew in one of the shuttle flights to replenish Spacelab, back in the early days after the freeze, when the space program was just getting on its feet again.
Then he spent eighty-one days in the second-generation space station. This was his big moment, the one that got him the cover of Time. The Russkis had fired off a manned mission to Mercury, and it had got there all right and landed all right and taken off for the return trip all right; but nothing after that was all right. The Russians had always had trouble with their stabilizing thrusters — several of the early cosmonauts had set themselves spinning, had not been able to stop, and had vomited helplessly all over the insides of their spacecrafts. This time they had trouble again and used up their attitude-correction reserves.
So they managed to get themselves into a wide-assed elliptical orbit around Earth, but they had no way to get out of it safely. Or to stay in it safely, either. Their control was only approximate by then, and the periterran point was low enough inside the ionosphere of Earth's atmosphere to heat them up pretty badly.
But Roger and the other five Americans were sitting there in a spacecraft designed for tug duty, with fuel hoarded for half a dozen more missions. That wasn't any too much, but they made it do: they matched course and velocity with the Avrora Dva, linked up and got the cosmonauts out. What a spectacle of free-fall bear hugs and bristly kisses! Back in the space tug with what the Russians had grabbed up to bring with them, they had a party — currant juice toasting Tang, pâté traded for cheeseburgers. And two orbits later the Avrora meteored in. "Like a bright exhalation in the evening," said Yuli Bronin, the cosmonaut who had gone to Oxford, and kissed his rescuers again.
When they got back down to Earth, belted in two to a hammock, closer than lovers, they were all heroes, and they were all adored, even Roger, even by Dorrie.
But that was long ago.
Since then Roger Torraway had done two circumlunar flights, tending ship while the radio-telescope crews conducted their orbital tests on the big new hundred-kilometer radio mirror on the farside. And finally he was on the aborted Mars lander, another time when they were lucky to get everyone back on Earth in one piece. But by then the glamour was gone once more. It had just been bad luck and mechanical failures, nothing dramatic.
So most of Roger's work since then had been, well, diplomatic. He played golf with senators on the space committee and commuted to the Eurospace installations in Zurich and Munich and Trieste. He had a modest sale with his memoirs. He served as back-up on an occasional mission. As the space program declined rapidly from national priority to contingency-planning exercises, he had less and less that mattered to do.
Still, he was backing up a mission now, although he didn't talk about it when he was wooing political support for the agency. He wasn't allowed to. This new manned mission, which looked as though it would actually be approved sooner or later, was the first one in the space program that had been classified Top Secret.
We expected a great deal from Roger Torraway, although he was not much different from any of the other astronauts: a little overtrained, a lot underemployed, a good deal discontented with what was happening in their jobs, but very much unwilling to trade them for any others as long as there was still a chance to be great again. They were all like that, even the one that was a monster.
What the President Wanted
The man who was a monster was on Torraway's mind a lot. Roger had a special interest.
He was sitting in the co-pilot's seat at twenty-four thousand meters over Kansas, watching a blip on the IDF radar slide smoothly off the screen. "Shit," said the pilot. The blip was a Soviet Concordski III; their CB-5 had been racing it ever since they had picked it up over the Garrison Dam Reservoir.
Torraway grinned and throttled back another tiny increment. With the boost in relative speed, the Concordski blip picked up a momentum. "We were losing him," the pilot said glumly. "Where do you reckon he's going? Venezuela, maybe?"
"He better be," said Torraway, "considering how much fuel the both of you were burning up."
"Yeah, well," said the pilot, not at all embarrassed at the fact that he had been well over the international treaty limit of 1.5 Mach, "what's happening at Tulsa? Usually they let us come straight in, with a V.I.P. like you."
"Probably some bigger V.I.P. landing now," said Roger. It wasn't a guess, because he knew who the V.I.P. was, and they didn't come any bigger than the President of the United States.
"You fly this thing pretty good," offered the pilot generously. "Want to land it — I mean, when they let us do that thing?"
"Thanks, no. I'd better go back and sort out my junk." But he stayed in the seat, looking down. They had begun the descent, and the patchy field of L-1 cumulus was just below them; they could feel the bumps from the updrafts over the clouds. Torraway took his hands off the controls as the pilot took over. They would be passing over Tonka pretty soon, off to the right. He wondered how the monster was getting along.
The pilot was still feeling generous. "You don't do much flying any more, do you?"
"Only when somebody like you lets me."
"No sweat. What do you do, anyway, if you don't mind my asking? I mean, besides V.I.P.ing it around."
Torraway had an answer all ready for that. "Administration," he said. He always said that, when people asked what he did. Sometimes the people who asked had proper security clearance, not only with the government but with the private radar in his own mind that told him to trust one person and not another. Then he said, "I make monsters." If what they said next indicated that they too were in the know, he might go a sentence or two farther.
There was no secret about the Exomedicine Project. Everyone knew that what they did in Tonka was prepare astronauts to live on Mars. What was secret was how they did it: the monster. If Torraway had said too much he would have jeopardized both his freedom and his job. And Roger liked his job. It supported his pretty wife in her pottery shop. It gave him the feeling of doing something that people would remember, and it took him to interesting places. Back when he was an active astronaut he had been to even more interesting places, but they were out in space and kind of lonely. He liked better the places he went to in private jets, with flattering diplomats and impressionable cocktail-party women to greet him when he got there. Of course, there was the monster to think about, but he didn't really worry about that. Much.
They came in over the Cimarron River, or the crooked red gully that would be the river when it rained again, bent the jet flow to almost straight down, cut back on the power and eased gently in.
"Thanks," Roger said to the pilot, and went back to collect his gear from the V.I.P. cabin.
This time it had been Beirut, Rome, Seville and Saskatoon before he got back to Oklahoma, each place hotter than the place before. Because they were expected at the ceremonial briefing for the President, Dorrie met him at the airport motel. He changed swiftly into the clothes she had brought him. He was glad to be home, glad to be getting back to making monsters and glad to be back with his wife. While he was getting out of the shower he had a swift and powerful erotic impulse. He had a clock inside his head that kept track of what pieces of time were available, so he did not need to check his watch: there was time. It would not matter if they were a few minutes late. But Dorrie wasn't in the chair where he had left her; the TV was going, her cigarette was burning out in the ashtray, but she was gone. Roger sat on the edge of the bed with a towel wrapped around him until the clock in his head said there was not enough time left to matter. Then he began to dress. He was tying his tie when Dorrie rapped on the door. "Sorry," she said when he opened for her. "I couldn't find the coke machine. One for you and one for me."
Dorrie was almost as tall as Roger, brunette by choice, green-eyed by nature. She took a brush from her bag and touched up the back and sleeves of his jacket, then touched coke cans with him and drank. "We'd better go," she said. "You look gorgeous."
"You look screwable," he said, putting his hand on her shoulder.
"I just put lipstick on," she said, turning her lips away and allowing him to kiss her cheek. "But I'm glad to see the señoritas didn't use you all up."
He chuckled good-humoredly; it was their joke that he slept with a different girl in every city. He liked the joke. It wasn't true. His couple of generally unsatisfactory experiments at adultery had been more shabby and troublesome than rewarding, but he liked thinking of himself as the sort of man whose wife had to worry about the attentions of other women. "Let's not keep the President waiting," he said. "I'll check out while you get the car."
* * *
They did not in fact keep the President waiting; they had more than two hours to get through before they even saw him.
Roger was familiar with the general process of being screened, since it had happened to him before. It wasn't just the President of the United States who was taking 200 percent overlap precautions against assassins these days. Roger had been a whole day getting to see the Pope, and even so there had been a Swiss guard holding a Biretta standing right behind him every minute he was in the papal chamber.
Half of the top brass of the lab was here for the briefing. The senior lounge had been cleaned and polished for the occasion and did not look like its familiar coffee-drinking self. Even the blackboards and the paper napkins that were used for scratch paper were tucked away out of sight. Folding screens had been set up in the corners and the shades of the nearest windows discreetly pulled down; that was for the physical search, Roger knew. After that, they would have their interviews with the psychiatrists. Then if everyone passed, if no lethal hypodermic turned up in a hatpin or murderous obsession turned up in a head, they would all go to the auditorium, and there the President would join them.
Four Secret Service men participated in the process of searching, frisking, magnetometering and identifying the male guests, though only two of the men physically took part. The other two just stood there, presumably ready to draw and fire at need. Female Secret Service personnel (they were called "secretaries," but Roger could see that they carried guns) searched the wives and Kathleen Doughty. The women were searched behind one of the shoulder-high screens, but Roger could read from the expressions on his wife's face the progress of the patting, probing hands. Dorrie did not like being touched by strangers. There were times when she did not like being touched at all, but above all not by strangers.
When Roger's own turn came, he understood some of the cold anger he had seen on his wife's face. They were being unusually thorough. His armpits were investigated. His belt was loosened and the cleft of his buttocks probed. His testicles were palpated. Everything in his pockets came out; the handkerchief at his breast was shaken open and swiftly refolded, neater than before. His belt buckle and watchband were studied through a loupe.
Everyone had the same treatment, even the director, who gazed around the room with good-natured resignation while fingers combed the kinky hair under his arms. The only exception was Don Kayman, who had worn his cassock in view of the formality of the occasion, and after some whispered discussion, was escorted into another room to take it off. "Sorry, Father," said the guard, "but you know how it is." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Man Plus by Frederik Pohl. Copyright © 2004 Frederik Pohl. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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