Interplanetary flight having been perfected, the planets and moons of the Sol system having been colonized, Man turned his attention to the stars.
And ran into a stone wall.
After three decades of trying, scientists reluctantly concluded that a faster-than-light drive was an impossibility, at least within the realm of any known theory of the Universe. They gave up.
But a government does not give up so easily, especially a unified government which already controls the entire habitat of the human race. Most especially a psychologically and sociologically enlightened government which sees the handwriting on the wall, and has already noticed the first signs of racial claustrophobia—an objectless sense of frustrated rage, increases in senseless crimes, proliferation of perversions and vices of every kind. Like grape juice sealed in a bottle, the human race had begun to ferment.
Therefore, the Solar Government took a slightly different point of view towards interstellar travel—Man must go to the stars. Period. Therefore, Man will go to the stars.
If the speed of light could not be exceeded, then Man would go to the stars within that limit.
When a government with tens of billions of dollars to spend becomes monomaniacal, Great Things can be accomplished. Also, unfortunately, Unspeakable Horrors.
Stage One: A drive was developed which could propel a spaceship at half the speed of light. This was merely a matter of technological concentration, and several billion dollars.
Stage Two: A ship was built around the drive, and outfitted with every conceivable safety device. A laser-beam communication system was installed, so that Sol could keep in contact with the ship all the way to Centaurus. A crew of ten carefully screened, psyched and trained near-supermen was selected, and the ship was launched on a sixteen-year round-trip to Centaurus.
It never came back.
Two years out, the ten near-supermen became ten raving maniacs.
But the Solar Government did not give up. The next ship contained five near-supermen, and five near-superwomen.
They only lasted for a year and a half.
The Solar Government intensified the screening process. The next ship was manned by ten bona-fide supermen.
They stayed sane for nearly three years.
The Solar Government sent out a ship containing five supermen and five superwomen. In two years, they had ten super-lunatics.
The psychologists came to the unstartling conclusion that even the cream of humanity, in a sexually balanced crew, could not stand up psychologically to sixteen years in a small steel womb, surrounded by billions of cubic miles of nothing.
One would have expected reasonable men to have given up.
Not the Solar Government. Monomania had produced Great Things, in the form of a c/2 drive. It now proceeded to produce Unspeakable Horrors.
The cream of the race had failed, reasoned the Solar Government, therefore, we will give the dregs a chance.
The fifth ship was manned by homosexuals. They lasted only six months. A ship full of lesbians bettered that by only two weeks.
Number Seven was manned by schizophrenics. Since they were already mad, they did not go crazy. Nevertheless, they did not come back. Number Eight was catatonics. Nine was paranoids. Ten was sadists. Eleven was masochists. Twelve was a mixed crew of sadists and masochists. No luck.
Maybe it was because thirteen was still a mystic number, or maybe it was merely that the Solar Government was running out of ideas. At any rate, ship Number Thirteen was the longest shot of all.
Background: From the beginnings of Man, it had been known that certain plants—mushrooms, certain cacti—produced intense hallucinations. In the mid-twentieth century, scientists—and others less scientifically minded—had begun to extract those hallucinogenic compounds, chiefly mescaline and psilocybin. The next step was the synthesis of hallucinogens—L.S.D. 25 was the first, and it was far more powerful than the extracts.
In the next few centuries, more and more different hallucinogens were synthesized—L.S.D. 105, Johannic acid, huxleyon, baronite.
So by the time the Solar Government had decided that the crew of ship Number Thirteen would attempt to cope with the terrible reality of interstellar space by denying that reality, they had quite an assortment of hallucinogens to choose from.
The one they chose was a new, as-yet-untested (“Two experiments for the price of one,” explained economy-minded officials) and unbelievably complex compound tentatively called Omnidrene.
Omnidrene was what the name implied—a hallucinogen with all the properties of the others, some which had proven to be all its own, and some which were as yet unknown. As ten micrograms was one day’s dose for the average man, it was the ideal hallucinogen for a starship.
So they sealed five men and five women—they had given up on sexually unbalanced crews—in ship Number Thirteen, along with half a ton of Omnidrene and their fondest wishes, pointed the ship towards Centaurus, and prayed for a miracle.
In a way they could not possibly have foreseen, they got it.
As starship Thirteen passed the orbit of Pluto, a meeting was held, since this could be considered the beginning of interstellar space.
The ship was reasonably large—ten small private cabins, a bridge that would only be used for planetfalls, large storage areas, and a big common room, where the crew had gathered.
They were sitting in All-Purpose Lounges, arranged in a circle. A few had their Lounges at full recline, but most preferred the upright position.
Oliver Brunei, the nominal captain, had just opened the first case of Omnidrene, and taken out a bottle of the tiny pills.
“This, fellow inmates,” he said, “is Omnidrene. The time has come for us to indulge. The automatics are all set, we won’t have to do a thing we don’t want to for the next eight years.”
He poured ten of the tiny blue pills into the palm of his right hand. “On Earth, they used to have some kind of traditional ceremony when a person crossed the equator for the first time. Since we are crossing a far more important equator, I thought we should have some kind of ceremony.”
The crew squirmed irritably.
I do tend to be verbose, Brunei thought.
“Well … anyway, I just thought we all oughta take the first pills together,” he said, somewhat defensively.
“So come on, Ollie,” said a skinny, sour-looking man of about thirty years.
“O.K., Lazar, O.K.” Marashovski’s gonna be trouble, Brunei thought. Why did they put him on the ship?
He handed the pills around. Lazar Marashovski was about to gulp his down.
“Wait a minute!” said Brunei. “Let’s all do it together.”
“One, two, three!”
They swallowed the pills. In about ten minutes, thought Brunei, we should be feeling it.
He looked at the crew. Ten of us, he thought, ten brilliant misfits. Lazar, who has spent half his life high on baronite; Vera Galindez, would-be medium, trying to make herself telepathic with mescaline; Jorge Donner…. Why is he here?
Me, at least with me it’s simple—this or jail.
What a crew! Drug addicts, occultists, sensationalists … and what else? What makes a person do a thing like this?
It’ll all come out, thought Brunei. In sixteen years, it’ll all come out.
“Feel anything yet, Ollie?” said Marsha Johnson. No doubt why she came along. Just an ugly old maid liking the idea of being cooped up with five men.
“Nothing yet,” said Brunei.
He looked around the room. Plain steel walls, lined with cabinets full of Omnidrene on two sides, viewscreen on the ceiling, bare floor, the other two walls decked out like an automat. Plain, gray steel walls….
Then why were the gray steel walls turning pink?
“Oh, oh …” said Joby Krail, rolling her pretty blond head, “oh, oh … here it comes. The walls are dancing….”
“The ceiling is a spiral,” muttered Vera, “a winding red spiral.”
“O.K., fellow inmates,” said Brunei, “it’s hitting.” Now the walls were red, bright fire-engine red, and they were melting. No, not melting, but evaporating….
“Like crystal it is,” said Lin Pey, waving his delicate oriental hands, “like jade as transparent as crystal.”
“There is a camel in the circle,” said Lazar, “a brown camel.”
“Let’s all try and see the camel together,” said Vera Galindez sharply. “Tell us what it looks like, Lazar.”
“It’s brown, it’s the two-humped kind, it has a two-foot tail.”
“And big feet,” said Lin Pey.
“A stupid face,” said Donner.
“Your camel is a great bore,” said the stocky, scowling Bram Daker.
“Let’s have something else,” said Joby.
“Okay,” replied Brunei, “now someone else tell what they see.”
“A lizard,” said Linda Tobias, a strange, somber girl, inclined to the morbid.
“A lizard?” squeaked Ingrid Solin.
“No,” said Lin Pey, “a dragon. A green dragon, with a forked red tongue….”
“He has little useless wings,” said Lazar.
“He is totally oblivious to us,” said Vera.
Brunei saw the dragon. It was five feet long, green and scaly. It was a conventional dragon, except for the most bovine expression in its eyes….
Yes, he thought, the dragon is here. But the greater part of him knew that it was an illusion.
How long would this go on?
“It’s good that we see the same things,” said Marsha. “Let’s always see the same things….”
“Now a mountain, a tall blue mountain.”
“With snow on the peak.”
“Yes, and clouds….”
One week out:
Oliver Brunei stepped into the common room. Lin Pey, Vera, and Lazar were sitting together, on what appeared to be a huge purple toadstool.
But that’s my hallucination, thought Brunei. At least, I think it is.
“Hello Ollie,” said Lazar.
“Hi. What’re you doing?”
“We’re looking at the dragon again,” said Vera. “Join us?”
Brunei thought of the dragon for a moment. The toadstool disappeared, and the by-now-familiar bovine dragon took its place. In the last few days, they had discovered that if any two of them concentrated on something long enough to “materialize” it, anyone else who wanted to could see it in a moment.
“What’s so interesting about that silly dragon?” said Brunei.
“How about the camel?” said Lazar.
The dragon turned into the two-humped brown camel.
“Phooey!” said Lin Pey.
“O.K.,” said Vera, “so what do you want?”
Lin Pey thought for a moment.
“How about a meadow?” he said. “A soft lawn of green grass, the sky is blue, and there are a few white clouds….”
“Clover is blooming,” said Lazar. “Smell it.”
Brunei reclined on the soft green grass. The smell of the earth beneath him was warm and moist. “A few apple trees here and there,” he said, and there was shade.
“Look over the hill!” said Lazar. “There’s the dragon!”
“Will you please get rid of that dragon?” snapped Brunei.
“O.K., Ollie, O.K.”
One month out:
“Get out of the way!” yelled Brunei. He gave the dragon a kick. It mooed plaintively.
“That wasn’t very nice, Ollie,” said Lazar.
“That dragon is always underfoot,” said Brunei. “Why don’t you get rid of it?”
“I’ve taken a liking to it,” said Lazar. “Besides, what about your Saint Bernard?”
“This ship is getting too cluttered up with everyone’s hallucinations,” said Brunei. “Ever since … when was it, a week ago?… ever since we’ve been able to conjure ’em up by ourselves, and make everyone else see ’em.”
Daker dematerialised the woman on his lap. “Why don’t we get together?” he said.
“Yes. We could agree on an environment. Look at this common room for example. What a mess! Here, it’s a meadow, there it’s a beach, a palace, a boudoir.”
“You mean we should make it the same for all of us?” asked Lazar.
“Sure. We can have whatever we want in our cabins, but let’s make some sense out of the common room.”
“Good idea,” said Brunei. “I’ll call the others.”
Three months out:
Brunei stepped through the stuccoed portal, and into the central Spanish garden. He noticed that the sky was blue, with a few fleecy white clouds.
But then, the weather was always good. They had agreed on it.
Lazar, Ingrid, Lin Pey and Vera were sitting on the green lawn surrounding the fountain.
Daker, Joby, Linda and Donner preferred the shade, and lounged against the white arabesqued wall which enclosed the garden on four sides, broken only by four arched entrance portals.
The garden had been a good compromise, thought Brunei. Something for everyone. Fresh air and sun-shine, but also the mental security offered by the walls, which also provided shade for those who wanted it. A fountain, a few palm trees, grass, flowers, even the little formal Japanese rock garden that Lin Pey had insisted on.
“Hello, Ollie,” said Lazar. “Nice day.”
“Isn’t it always?” replied Brunei. “How about a little shower?”
“I notice a lot of sleeping people today,” said Brunei.
“Yes,” said Lin Pey. “By now, the garden seems to be able to maintain itself.”
“You think it has a separate existence?” asked Ingrid.
“Of course not,” said Vera. “Our subconscious minds are maintaining it. It’s probably here when we’re all asleep.”
“No way of telling that,” said Brunei. “Besides, how can it exist when we’re asleep, when it doesn’t really exist to begin with?”
“Semantics, Ollie, semantics.”
Brunei took a bottle of Omnidrene out of his pocket. “Time to charge up the old batteries again,” he said.
He passed out the pills.
“I notice Marsha is still in her cabin.”
“Yeah,” said Lazar, “she keeps to herself a lot. No great—”
Just then, Marsha burst into the garden, screaming: “Make it go away! Make it go away!”
Behind her slithered a gigantic black snake, with a head as big as a horse’s, and bulging red eyes.
“I thought we agreed to leave our private hallucinations in our cabins,” snapped Brunei.
“I tried! I tried! I don’t want it around, but it won’t go away! Do something!”
Ten feet of snake had already entered the garden. The thing seemed endless.
“Take it easy,” said Lazar. “Let’s all concentrate and think it away.”
They tried to erase the snake, but it just rolled its big red eyes.
“That won’t work,” said Vera. “Her subconscious is still fighting us. Part of her must want the snake here. We’ve all got to be together to erase it.”
Marsha began to cry. The snake advanced another two feet.
“Oh, quiet!” rasped Lazar. “Ollie, do I have your permission to bring my dragon into the garden? He’ll make short work of the snake.”
Brunei scowled. “You and your dragon…. Oh, maybe it’ll work.”
Instantly, the green dragon was in the garden. But it was no longer five feet long and bovine.
It was a good twelve feet long, with cold reptilian eyes and big yellow fangs.
It took one look at the snake, opened its powerful jaws, and belched a huge tongue of orange flame.
The serpent was incinerated. It disappeared.
Brunei was trembling. “What happened, Lazar?” he said. “That’s not the same stupid little dragon.”
“Hah … hah….” squeaked Lazar. “He’s … uh … grown….”
Brunei suddenly noticed that Lazar was ashen. He also noticed that the dragon was turning in their direction.
“Get it out of here, Lazar! Get it out of here!”
Lazar nodded. The dragon flickered and went pale, but it was over a minute before it disappeared entirely.
Six months out:
Things wandered the passageways and haunted the cabins. Marsha’s snake was back. There was Lazar’s dragon, which seemed to grow larger every day. There was also a basilisk, a pterodactyl, a vampire bat with a five-foot wingspread, an old-fashioned red spade-tailed demon and other assorted horrors.
Even Oliver Brunei’s friendly Saint Bernard had grown to monstrous size, turned pale green, and grown large yellow fangs.
Only the Spanish garden in the common room was free of the monstrosities. Here, the combined conscious minds of the ten crew members were still strong enough to banish the rampaging hallucinations.
The ten of them sat around the fountain, which seemed a shade less sparkling.
There were even rainclouds in the sky.
“I don’t like it,” said Bram Daker. “It’s getting completely out of control.”
“So we just have to stay in the garden, that’s all,” said Brunei. “The food’s all here, and so is the Omnidrene. And they can’t come here.”
“Not yet,” said Marsha.
They all shuddered.
“What went wrong?” asked Ingrid.
“Nothing,” said Donner. “They didn’t know what would happen when they sent us out, so we can’t say they were wrong.”
“Very comforting,” croaked Lazar. “But can someone tell me why we can’t control them any more?”
“Who knows?” said Brunei. “At least we can keep them out of here. That’s—”
There was a snuffling at the wall. The head of something like a Tyrannosaurus Rex peered over the wall at them.
“Ugh!” said Lin Pey. “I think that’s a new one.”
The dragon’s head appeared alongside the Tyrannosaur’s.
“Well, at least there’s a familiar face,” tittered Linda.
Marsha screamed. The huge black snake thrust its head through a portal.
And the flap of leathery wings could be heard. And the smell of sulphur.
“Come on! Come on!” shouted Brunei. “Let’s get these things out of here!”
After five minutes of intense group concentration, the last of the horrors was banished.
“It was a lot harder this time,” said Daker.
“There were more of them,” said Donner.
“They’re getting stronger and bolder.”
“Maybe some day they’ll break through, and….” Lin Pey let the sentence hang. Everyone supplied his own ending.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” snapped Brunei. “They’re not real. They can’t kill us!”
“Maybe we should stop taking the Omnidrene?” suggested Vera, without very much conviction.
“At this point?” said Brunei. He shuddered. “If the garden disappeared, and we had nothing but the bare ship for the next fifteen and a half years, and we knew it, and at the same time knew that we had the Omnidrene to bring it back…. How long do you think we’d hold off?”
“You’re right,” said Vera.
“We just have to stick it out,” said Brunei. “Just remember: They can’t kill us. They aren’t real.”
“Yes,” the crew whispered in a tiny, frail voice, “they aren’t real….”
Seven months out:
The garden was covered with a gloomy gray cloud layer. Even the “weather” was getting harder and harder to control.
The crew of starship Number Thirteen huddled around the fountain, staring into the water, trying desperately to ignore the snufflings, flappings, wheezes and growls coming from outside the walls. But occasionally, a scaly head would raise itself above the wall, or a pterodactyl or bat would flap overhead, and there would be violent shudders.
“I still think we should stop taking the Omnidrene,” said Vera Galindez.
“If we stopped taking it,” asked Brunei, “which would disappear first, them … or the garden?”
Vera grimaced. “But we’ve got to do something,” she said. “We can’t even make them disappear at all, any more. And it’s becoming a full time job just to keep them outside the walls.”
“And sooner or later,” interjected Lazar, “we’re not going to be strong enough to keep them out….”
“The snake! The snake!” screamed Marsha. “It’s coming in again!”
The huge black head was already through a portal.
“Stop the snake, everyone!” yelled Brunei. Eyes were riveted on the ugly serpent, in intense concentration.
After five minutes, it was obviously a stalemate. The snake had not been able to advance, nor could the humans force it to retreat.
Then smoke began to rise behind the far wall.
“The dragon’s burning down the wall!” shrieked Lazar. “Stop him!”
They concentrated on the dragon. The smoke disappeared.
But the snake began to advance again.
“They’re too strong!” moaned Brunei. “We can’t hold them back.”
They stopped the snake for a few moments, but the smoke began to billow again.
“They’re gonna break through!” screamed Donner. “We can’t stop ’em!”
“What are we gonna do?”
Creakings, cracklings, groanings, as the walls began to crack and blister and shake.
Suddenly Bram Daker stood up, his dark eyes aflame.
“Only one thing’s strong enough!” he bellowed. “Earth! Earth! EARTH! Think of Earth! All of you! We’re back on Earth. Visualize it, make it real, and the monsters’ll have to disappear.”
“But where on Earth?” said Vera, bewildered.
“The Spaceport!” shouted Brunei. “The Spaceport! We all remember the Spaceport.”
“We’re back on Earth! The Spaceport!”
The garden was beginning to flicker. It became red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, invisible; then back again through the spectrum the other way—violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, invisible.
Back and forth, like a pendulum through the spectrum….
Oliver Brunei’s head hurt unbearably, he could see the pain on the other faces, but he allowed only one thought to fill his being—Earth! The Spaceport! EARTH!
More and more, faster and faster, the garden flickered, and now it was the old common room again, and that was flickering.
Light was flickering, mind was flickering, time, too, seemed to flicker….
Only Earth! thought Brunei. Earth doesn’t flicker, the Spaceport doesn’t flicker.
Now all the flickerings, of color, time, mind and dimensions, were coalescing into one gigantic vortex, that was a thing neither of time, nor space, nor mind, but all three somehow fused into one….
They’re screaming! Brunei thought. Listen to the horrible screams! Suddenly he noticed that he, too, was screaming.
The vortex was growing, swirling, undulating, and it, too, began to flicker….
There was an unbearable, impossible pain, and….
The sight of starship Number Thirteen suddenly appearing out of nowhere, and sitting itself calmly down in the middle of the Spaceport was somewhat disconcerting to the Spaceport officials. Especially since at the very moment it appeared, and even afterward, they continued to have visual and laser contact with its image, over three light-months from Earth.
However, the Solar Government itself was much more pragmatic. One instant, starship Thirteen had been light-months from Earth, the next it was sitting in the Spaceport. Therefore, starship Thirteen had exceeded the speed of light somehow. Therefore, it was possible to exceed the speed of light, and a thorough examination of the ship and its contents would show how.
Therefore…. You idiots, throw a security cordon around that ship!
In such matters, the long-conditioned reflexes of the Solar Government worked marvelously. Before the air-waves had cooled, two hundred heavily armed soldiers had surrounded the ship.
Two hours later, the Solar co-ordinator was on the scene, with ten Orders of Sol to present to the returning heroes, and a large well-armored vehicle to convey them to laboratories, where they would be gone over with the proverbial fine-tooth comb.
An honor guard of two hundred men standing at attention made a pathway from the ship’s main hatch to the armored carrier, in front of which stood the Solar Co-ordinator, with his ten medals.
They opened the hatch.
One, two, five, seven, ten dazed and bewildered “heroes” staggered past the honor guard, to face the Co-ordinator.
He opened his mouth to begin his welcoming speech, and start the five years of questioning and experiments which would eventually kill five of the crew and give Man the secret of faster-than-light drive.
But instead of speaking, he screamed.
So did two hundred heavily armed soldiers.
Because, out of starship Thirteen’s main hatch sauntered a twelve-foot green dragon, followed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a pterodactyl, a vampire bat with a five-foot wingspan, an old-fashioned red, spade-tailed demon, and finally, big as a horse’s, the pop-eyed head of an enormous black serpent….