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There was chaos on the face of the earth, but to the man in the Nothing Chamber it did not matter.
Ten billion people—or was it twelve billion by now?— fought for their place in the sun. Skyscrapers shot heavenward like sprouting beanstalks. The Martians mocked. The Venusians spat. Nut-cults flourished, and in a thousand cells the Vorsters bowed low to their devilish blue glow. All of this, at the moment, was of no significance to Reynolds Kirby. He was out of it He was the man in the Nothing Chamber.
The place of his repose was four thousand feet above the blue Caribbean, in his hundredth-story apartment on Tortola in the Virgin Islands. A man had to take his rest somewhere. Kirby, as a high official in the U.N., had the right to warmth and slumber, and a substantial chunk of his salary covered the overhead on this hideaway. The building was a tower of shining glass whose foundations drove deep into the heart of the island. One could not build a skyscraper like this on every Caribbean island; too many of them were flat disks of dead coral, lacking the substance to support half a million tons of deadweight. Tortola was different, a retired volcano, a submerged mountain. Here they could build, and here they had built.
Reynolds Kirby slept the good sleep.
Half an hour in a Nothing Chamber restored a man to vitality, draining the poisons of fatigue from his body and mind. Three hours in it left him limp, flaccid-willed. A twenty-four-hour stint could make any man a puppet. Kirby lay in a warm nutrient bath, ears plugged, eyes capped, feed-lines bringing air to Ids lungs. There was nothing like crawling back into the womb for a while when the world was too much with you.
The minutes ticked by. Kirby did not think of Vorsters. Kirby did not think of Nat Weiner, the Martian. Kirby did not think of the esper girl, writhing in her bed of torment, whom he had seen in Kyoto last week. Kirby did not think.
A voice purred, "Are you ready, Freeman Kirby?"
Kirby was not ready. Who ever was? A man had to be driven from his Nothing Chamber by an angel with a flaming sword. The nutrient bath began to bubble out of the tank. Rubber-cushioned metal fingers peeled the caps from his eyeballs. His ears were unplugged. Kirby lay shivering for a moment, expelled from the womb, resisting the return to reality. The chamber's cycle was complete; it could not be turned on again for twenty-four hours, and a good thing, too.
"Did you sleep well, Freeman Kirby?"
Kirby scowled rastily and clambered to his feet. He swayed, nearly lost his balance, but the robot servitor was there to steady him. Kirby caught a burnished arm and held it until the spasm passed.
"I slept marvelously well," he told the metal creature. "It's a pity to return."
"You don't mean that, Freeman. You know that the only true pleasure comes from an engagement with life. You said that to me yourself, Freeman Kirby."
"I suppose I did," Kirby admitted dryly. All of the robot's pious philosophy stemmed from things he had said. He accepted a robe from the squat, flat-faced thing and pulled it over his shoulders. He shivered again. Kirby was a lean man, too tall for his weight, with stringy, corded arms and legs, close-cropped gray hair, deep-set greenish eyes. He was forty, and looked fifty, and before climbing into the Nothing Chamber today he had felt about seventy.
"When does the Martian arrive?" he asked.
"Seventeen hours. He's at a banquet in San Juan right now, but he'll be along soon."
"I can't wait," Kirby said. Moodily he moved to the nearest window and depolarized it. He looked down, way down, at the tranquil water lapping at the beach. He could see the dark line of the coral reef, green water on the hither side, deep blue water beyond. The reef was dead, of course. The delicate creatures who had built it could stand only so much motor fuel in their systems, and the level of tolerance had been passed quite some time ago. The skittering hydrofoils buzzing from island to island left a trail of murderous slime in their wake.
The U.N. man closed his eyes. And opened them quickly, for when he lowered the lids there appeared on the screen of his brain the sight of that esper girl again, twisting, screaming, biting her knuckles, yellow skin flecked with gleaming beads of sweat. And the Vorster man standing by, waving that damned blue glow around, murmuring, "Peace, child, peace, you will soon be in harmony with the All."
That had been last Thursday. This was the following Wednesday. She was in harmony with the All by now, Kirby thought, and an irreplaceable pool of genes had been scattered to the four winds. Or the seven winds. He was having trouble keeping his cliches straight these days.
Seven seas, he thought. Four winds.
The shadow of a copter crossed his line of sight.
"Your guest is arriving," the robot declared.
"Magnificent," Kirby said sourly.
The news that the Martian was on hand set Kirby jangling with tension. He had been selected as the guide, mentor, and watchdog for the visitor from the Martian colony. A great deal depended on maintaining friendly relations with the Martians, for they represented markets vital to Earth's economy. They also represented vigor and drive, commodities currently in short supply on Earth.
But they were also a headache to handle—touchy, mercurial, unpredictable. Kirby knew that he had a big job on his hands. He had to keep the Martian out of harm's way, coddle him and cosset him, all without ever seeming patronizing or oversolicitous. And if Kirby bungled it—well, it could be costly to Earth and fatal to Kirby's own career.
He opaqued the window again and hurried into his bedroom to change into robes of state. A clinging gray tunic, green foulard, boots of blue leather, gloves of gleaming golden mesh—he looked every inch the important Earthside official by the time the annunciator clanged to inform him that Nathaniel Weiner of Mars had come to call.
"Show him in," Kirby said.
The door irised open, and the Martian stepped nimbly through. He was a small, compact man in his early thirties, unnaturally wide-shouldered, with thin lips, jutting cheekbones, dark beady eyes. He looked physically powerful, as though he had spent his life struggling with the killing gravity of Jupiter, not romping in the airy effortlessness of Mars. He was deeply tanned, and a fine network of wrinkles radiated from the corners of his eyes. He looked aggressive, thought Kirby. He looked arrogant.
"Freeman Kirby, it's a pleasure to see you," the Martian said in a deep, rasping voice.
"The honor is mine, Freeman Weiner."
"Permit me," Weiner said. He drew his laser pistol. Kirby's robot scurried forward with the velvet cushion. The Martian placed the weapon carefully on the plush mound. The robot slid across the floor to bring the gun to Kirby.
"Call me Nat," the Martian said.
Kirby smiled thinly. He picked up the gun, resisted the insane temptation to ash the Martian on the spot, and briefly examined it. Then he replaced it on the cushion and flicked his hand at the robot, who carried it back to its owner.
"My friends call me Ron," Kirby said. "Reynolds is a lousy first name."
"Glad to know you, Ron. What's to drink?"
Kirby was jarred by the breach of etiquette, but he maintained an equable diplomatic mask. The Martian had been punctilious enough with his gun ritual, but you'd expect that with any frontiersman; it didn't mean that his manners extended beyond that. Smoothly Kirby said, "Whatever you like, Nat. Synthetics, realies—you name it and it's here. What about a filtered rum?"
"I've had so much rum I'm ready to puke it, Ron. Those gabogos in San Juan drink it like water. What about some decent whiskey?"
"You dial it," Kirby said with a grand sweep of his hand. The robot picked up the console of the bar and carried it to the Martian. Weiner eyed the buttons a moment and stabbed almost at random, twice.
"I'm ordering a double rye for you," Weiner announced. "And a double bourbon for me."
Kirby found that amusing. The rude colonial was not only selecting his own drink but one for his host. Double rye, indeed! Kirby hid his wince and took the drink. Weiner slipped comfortably into a webfoam cradle. Kirby sat also.
"How are you enjoying your visit to Earth?" Kirby asked.
"Not bad. Not bad. Sickening the way you people are crammed together here, though."
"It's the human condition."
"Not on Mars it isn't. Not on Venus, either."
"Give it time," Kirby said.
"I doubt it. We know how to regulate our population up there, Ron."
"So do we. It just took us a while to get the idea across to everybody, and by that time there were ten billion of us. We hope to keep the rate of increase down."
"You know what?" Weiner said. "You ought to take every tenth person and feed 'em to the converters. Get some good energy back out of all that meat. Cut your population by a billion overnight." He chuckled. "Not serious. Wouldn't be ethical. Just a passing joke."
Kirby smiled. "You aren't the first to suggest it, Nat. And some of the others were plenty serious."
"Discipline—that's the answer to every human problem. Discipline and more self-discipline. Denial. Planning. This whiskey is damned good, Ron. How about another round?"
Weiner did. Generously.
"Damned fine stuff," he murmured. "We don't get drinks like this on Mars. Got to admit it, Ron. Crowded and stinking as this planet is, it's got comforts. I wouldn't want to live here, mind you, but I'm glad I came. The women—mmmm! The drinks! The excitement!"
"You've been here two days?" Kirby asked.
"That's right. One night in New York—ceremonies, banquet, all that garbage, sponsored by the Colonial Association. Then down to Washington to see the President. Nice old chap. Soft belly, though. Could stand some exercise. Then this idiot thing in San Juan, a day of hospitality, meeting the Puerto Rican comrades, that kind of junk. And now here. What's to do here, Ron?"
"Well, we could go downstairs for a swim first—"
"I can swim all I like on Mars. I want to see civilization, not water. Complexity." Weiner's eyes glowed. Kirby abruptly realized that the man had been drank when he walked in and that the two stiff jolts of bourbon had sent him into a fine glow of intoxication. "You know what I want to do, Kirby? I want to get out and grub in the dirt a little. I want to go to opium dens. I want to see espers have ecstasies. I want to take in a Vorster session. I want to live the life, Ron. I want to experience Earth—muck and all!"CHAPTER 2
The Vorster hall was in a shabby, almost intolerably seedy old building in central Manhattan, practically within spitting distance of the U.N. buildings. Kirby felt queasy about entering it; he had never really conquered his uneasiness about slumming, even now when most of the world was one vast teeming slum. But Nat Weiner had commanded it, and so it must be. Kirby had brought him here because it was the only Vorster place he had visited before, and so he didn't feel too sharply out of place among the worshipers.
The sign over the door said in glowing but splotchy letters:
BROTHERHOOD OF THE IMMANENT RADIANCE
HEAL YOUR HEARTS
HARMONIZE WITH THE ALL
Weiner snickered at the sign. "Look at that! Heal your hearts! How's your heart, Kirby?"
"Punctured in several places. Shall we go in?"
"You bet we shall," Weiner said.
The Martian was sloshingly drunk. He held his liquor well, Kirby had to admit. Through the long evening Kirby had not even tried to match the colonial envoy drink for drink, and yet he felt hazy and overheated. The tip of his nose prickled. He yearned to shake Weiner off and crawl back into the Nothing Chamber to get all this poison out of his system.
But Weiner wanted to kick over the traces, and it was hard to blame him for that. Mars was a rough place, where there was no time for self-indulgence. Terraforming a planet took a maximum effort. The job was nearly done now, after two generations of toil, and the air of Mars was sweet and clean, but no one was relaxing up there yet. Weiner was here to negotiate a trade agreement, but it was also his first chance to escape from the rigors of Martian life. The Sparta of space, they called it. And here he was in Athens.
They entered the Vorster hall.
It was long and narrow, an oblong box of a room. A dozen rows of unpainted wooden benches ran from wall to wall, with a narrow aisle down one side. At the rear was the altar, glowing with the inevitable blue radiance. Behind it stood a tall, skeleton-thin man, bald, bearded.
"Is that the priest?" Weiner whispered harshly.
"I don't think they're called priests," said Kirby. "But he's in charge."
"Do we take communion?"
"Let's just watch," Kirby suggested.
"Look at all these damned maniacs," the Martian said.
"This is a very popular religious movement."
"I don't get it."
"Down on their knees—groveling to that half-pint reactor—"
Heads were turning in their direction. Kirby sighed. He had no love for the Vorsters or their religion himself, but he was embarrassed at this boisterous desecration of their shrine. Most undiplomatically, he took Weiner's arm, guided the Martian into the nearest pew, and pulled him down into a kneeling position. Kirby knelt beside him. The Martian gave him an ugly glance. Colonists didn't like their bodies handled by strangers. A Venusian might have slashed at Kirby with his dagger for something like that. But, then, a Venusian wouldn't be here on Earth at all, let alone cutting capers in a Vorster hall.
Sullenly, Weiner grabbed the rail and leaned forward to watch the service. Kirby squinted through the near darkness at the man behind the altar.
The reactor was on and glowing—a cube of cobalt-60, shielded by water, the dangerous radiations gobbled up before they could sear through flesh. In the darkness Kirby saw a faint blue glow, rising slowly in brightness, growing more intense. Now the lattice of the tiny reactor was masked in whitish-blue light, and around it swirled a weird greenish-blue glow that seemed almost purple at its core. It was the Blue Fire, the eerie cold light of the Cerenkov radiation, spreading outward to envelop the entire room.
It was nothing mystical, Kirby knew. Electrons were surging through that tank of water, moving at a velocity greater than light in that medium, and as they moved they hurled forth a stream of photons. There were neat equations to explain the source of the Blue Fire. Give the Vorsters credit: they didn't say it was anything supernatural. But it made a useful symbolic instrument, a focus for religious emotions, more colorful than a crucifix, more dramatic than the Tables of the Law.
Excerpted from To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 1967 Robert Silverberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 16, 2014